National Geographic: Civilized Denmark

Original Publish Date: July 1998

Originally published in National Geographic

Denmark is a little land of five and a quarter million souls, most of them Andersens, Hansens, Jensens, or Petersens, with a few Madsens Jacobsens, and Mortensens and Rasmussens thrown in for variety, who live on a pleasant green peninsula and two large islands and many tiny ones north of Germany, between the North Sea and the Baltic, a major supplier of ham and cheese and ceramics, a nation of irreligious Lutherans, a democratic society prickly to wealth and privilege and the home of a royal line that goes back to A.D. 935. The peninsula is Jutland; the two islands are Zealand, which includes Copenhagen, and Fyn. A handsome and civilized country, its only wilderness the sea.

The entire country is a little smaller than Lake Michigan, and if it were slipped in there, between Wisconsin and Michigan, it would not be such a bad fit culturally. The same dark humor prevails as in the Midwest, the same stoicism and gentility. It would be a shock to land in a Great Lake, but the Danes would study the situation and work out the best deal they could, keeping their queen and flag, their chirpy language, their generous health and unemployment benefits, their 37-hour work-week, their five weeks of annual vacation plus assorted holidays, their nine political parties (Social Democrats on the left, Radikale in the center, Venstre, or Left, on the right). They might ban the so-called Danish pastry too gooey). They would make fun of everything American and lambaste our foreign policy. They would see themselves, in every way, as the beautiful swan trapped in the realm of ducks.

Life in Denmark is divided into two parts, the Golden Summer and the Great Murk, which extends from late fall to mid-spring. The months of youth and beauty, when the sky is light until almost 11 p.m. and Danes take to the beaches, eat in their gardens, soak up the sun, feel sleek and smart, and the other months, when they go to and from work in the dark and the rain and just try to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not get too glum.

I used to spend Christmases in Denmark, back when I had connections there, and I remember the night flight over the Atlantic, the sun rising to reveal the solid cloud bank below, the descent through cloud to Copenhagen Airport, like coal miners going down into the hole, the pilot putting the wheels down and the ground still not visible, and then, suddenly, red-tile roofs of houses in the mist below, deep green meadows, tree lines, rain trickling across the window, and the wheels bump on the runway, and you’re in Denmark, in a gloom so dense you feel it in your skull.

You disembark onto a shopping concourse, and past the mink coats and crystal a sign points you to customs. You parade through, a little surprised at how casually the Danish police glance at your passport. (The man who waves you in may be the last uniform you’ll see for a while, Danes being a self-policing people who prefer that authority be inconspicuous.) You collect your bags, and off to the cabstand, the air gray, drizzly, with a tang of salt and smoke.

The cab races off through Amager, past the soccer fields and into the streets of the city, the identical brown-brick apartment buildings, the mustard stucco houses, passing a stream of bicyclists pedaling solemnly to work in their bright red or yellow slickers. Danish jumps out at you from signs, lots of cognates here: A drugstore is an apotek (remember apothecary), and a merchant is a handler—a boghandler sells books, a vinhandler wine—a restaurant is a restaurant, and you realize that you won’t starve here or get lost.

Sober-faced Danes queue at the bus stop in the rain, which they do not flinch at, and it dawns on you that a daylong rain is not unusual, this is a North Atlantic winter. The sun won’t shine tomorrow, maybe not the next day. You have arrived in a land where Christmas means more than in, say, Barbados; it is the last outpost on the long grim trek toward spring. Dark gray sky at noon, dull brown brick all around, dead trees, broken glass in the gutter, and you, sorry you, your head like a sponge full of mud. At first you think it’s jet lag, and then you realize that everyone else feels this way too.

Welcome to the birthplace of existentialism.

The taxi brings you over the canal and into the heart of Copenhagen, the grand old city that has resisted freeway and high-rise in defense of its narrow, twisting brick streets from medieval times, its skyline of green church steeples, its pretty squares and fountains. Past the Christiansborg Castle where parliament sits, past the big department store, Magasin, and the Royal Theater hulking on Kongens Nytorv, a plaza faced by stately old piles, and up a narrow street called Bredgade (Broad Street), past the queen’s palace at Amalienborg, and up to Østerbro, where I once lived, in a big echoey belle epoque apartment on Trondhjemsgade. The dining room had a 14-foot ceiling with plaster moldings, and when I sat in it, writing, it felt as if I were drafting the Treaty of Ghent.

We celebrated Juleaften there every December 24. My stepchildren and I trudged through the late afternoon mists to Trinitatis Kirke, where little Soren Kierkegaard attended confirmation class, the church the Round Tower is attached to. It was packed to the rafters Christmas Eve with shiny children and their mors and fars and mormors and morfars and farmors and farfars. We sang the old Danish carols and heard a sermon about our obligations to the Third World and hiked home to our pork roast and caramelized potatoes, and the oldest boy lit the candles on the tree in the dining room and threw the doors open, and we looked at it and gasped—every year the same gasp—and ran hand in hand through the dark rooms singing, “Nu er det jul igen,” and opened our gifts.

The 25th is an afterthought, a quiet day for recuperation; Christmas Eve is the great night of the year. And on Nytarsaften, the 31st, you sit down at 6 p.m., along with everyone else in Denmark, and watch Queen Margrethe deliver her annual homily to the people. It lasts about 12 minutes and ends with her greetings to the people of Greenland and the Faroe Islands and to the people who work on the sea. “Heartfelt greetings from the prince and me,” she says, beaming. “God bless Denmark.” And then everybody proceeds to get a little drunk, or maybe a lot. At midnight Danish television plays the romantic national anthem, and you stand, champagne in hand, and sing it, reading the words off the screen. At 2 a.m., to clear your head, you go for a walk. Blocks and blocks of five-story brick houses; gray, white, cream, blue, gold candles flickering in the casement windows; the steep red- or black-tile roofs, the forest of chimneys, dormers in the garrets; and you feel the romance of Copenhagen, as if walking into an old painting, the enchantment of darkness and rain and the warm hearth that you eventually will walk back to.

I had seen enough Danish Decembers to hold me for a while, so I flew over last year in June for a week of summer. I looked around Århus, the handsome harbor city with a forest next to its downtown, and had dinner with Brian, a poet friend and iconoclast who loves to drink whiskey and disparage the monarchy and the church. “Brian is one of those English names—Tommy, Johnny, Brian—that working-class parents favored after the war,” he said. “It’s a ruffian’s name. If there was a Brian in a class, the teacher would smack him on the first day and get it out of the way.”

I drove up to Skagen, where the turn-of-the-century artists Michael and Anna Ancher add P. S. Krøyer painted fishermen and garden parties and ladies in white strolling along a beach under the midnight sun. I took the train to Fyn for Midsummer Eve. I visited Gilleleje, the vacation village on the north coast of Zealand from which, to escape the Germans in October 1943, Danish Jews were smuggled by fishing boat over the sound to Sweden. I swam in the sea there with friends, which I wasn’t going to do, being skittish about nudity and knowing how cold the water is, until my friends said, “Of course, you don’t have to if you’d rather not,” and then, of course, I had to.

And I hiked around Copenhagen, along earthworks and remains of moats and along the pier where cruise ships tie up, to the statue of the Little Mermaid, sitting on her rock, looking small and forlorn, and beyond her to the magnificent fountain of Gefion, the goddess at the plow, lashing her oxen, water spraying from their nostrils, and great plumes arching up from the plowshare. I sat at outdoor cafés in Grabrodretory and Kultorvet and spoke my pitiful rusty Danish to waiters and ate my herring and studied the passersby. Danes are good to watch. They keep a stolid public expression, like Buster Keaton, and are masters of the raised eyebrow. Let a waiter drop a tray of dishes and looks of deadpan amusement flicker on every face, including the waiter’s. I step into a bakery, and when the girl behind the counter says, “Goddag,” I say, “Goddag, jeg vii Berne ha’ to line stykke boiler,” and her left brow lifts and she says, “Oh, you want two of these buns?” “Ja, tak,” I say. “You speak Danish well,” she says. “Where in America are you from?”

I am stopped by a young woman in jeans and a cutoff top who asks where to catch the train to Deer Park. A major thrill for me, to be asked for directions by a Dane, in Danish, and I tell her in Danish where the S-train station is, and add, “And thank you for your navel.” It is a very handsome navel. She covers it in mock modesty and murmurs, “It was a gift from my mother.”

In a cafe near Kultorvet, I used to sit every week and drink coffee with Fradley Garner, an emigre who speaks Danish with a New York accent to his grandchildren. “No matter how much you like Denmark, it’s good to get together with someone who knows who Joe DiMaggio is,” he told me once.

In another café I would have lunch with my friend Elly Petersen, a tall, aristocratic lady of 74 when I met her on my first trip there in 1985 and she told me about her flaming youth, dancing to American jazz in the clubs of Norrebro. We sometimes had oysters and champagne, what she called “the Karen Blixen lunch,” but usually we ordered the classic: herring on rye bread with a shot of aquavit, and then another shot, followed by a fish fillet with a glass of beer, and then a slice of roast pork with the rind on, and a slab of blue cheese for dessert, and coffee.

Elly had met Victor Borge, she said, in 1937 in a dance hall called Zigeunerhallen on Jagtvej in Nørrebro when he was still Borge Rosenbaum and played piano in a jazz trio. Once she had danced with him. “Really,” she said. “I did.” Rosenbaum was a Jew and wrote satiric songs about the Nazis and, on the verge of arrest in 1940, he caught a boat to Sweden, Elly told me. And a few months later he snuck back home to visit his mother, who was dying. He sat by her bed and told her a sweet lie; he said, “Mama, I’m going to Hollywood and get into the movies, and when I do, I’ll send for you, and we’ll live in California in a big house with a swimming pool.” And she said, “Borge, don’t let it go to your head.”

Back when I knew Elly, I aspired in a modest way to dress, smell, walk, and speak Danish, and she corrected my pronunciation, so I would sound more like the queen, less like a yahoo. I remember exactly when my Danish reached its high-water mark: It was late one night after a one-month total-immersion course at Askov Folk High School, in the corn belt of Jutland, when a fellow student and I sat in a tavern jabbering away, and after 15 minutes or so he suddenly stopped and said, “Hvor kommer du fra?” and I said, “Minnesota, naturligvis,” and he laughed and said, “leg er en Texan.” Born and bred in Dallas, but he had a good accent. We continued, in Danish, talking about what we loved about Denmark—the white stone churches, the golden barley fields, the shadowy beech forests, the good humor of daily life, the calmness of the people, their social grace, their eternal, untiring tolerance.

It is—let’s be frank here—almost everyone’s idea of the World’s Most Nearly Perfect Nation: a clean, peaceful, well-regulated society populated by prosperous (but not greedy or rapacious), tolerant (but principled), law-abiding (but humorous), computer-literate, bi- or trilingual people who all vote in elections and are as witty as Victor Borge and have no hang-ups about sex and reside in sunny, energy-efficient homes, the decor running toward light woods and primary colors, who can discuss (in excellent English) the infrastructure needs of developing countries or the Danishness of Woody Allen while serving perfectly poached salmon off handsome earthenware, copies of which are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Despite Denmark’s manifest virtues, Danes never talk about how proud they are to be Danes. This would sound weird in Danish and violate their pride of modesty. When Danes talk to foreigners about Denmark, they always begin by commenting on its tininess, its unimportance, the difficulty of its language, the general small-mindedness and narcissism and self-indulgence of their countrymen, the high taxes—52 percent is the average income tax rate, and there’s a 25 percent sales tax. No Dane would look you in the eye and say, “Denmark is a great country.” You are supposed to figure this out for yourself.

It is the land of the silk safety net, where almost half the national budget goes toward smoothing out life’s inequalities, and there is plenty of money for schools, day care, retraining programs, job seminars—Danes love seminars: Three days at a study center hearing about waste management is almost as good as a ski trip. It is a culture bombarded by English, in advertising, pop music, movies, the Internet, all the chic media, and despite all the English that Danish absorbs—there is no Danish Academy to defend against it—old dialects persist in Jutland that can barely be understood by Copenhageners. It is the land where, as the saying goes, “Few have too much and fewer have too little,” and an American is struck by the sweet egalitarianism that prevails, where the lowliest clerk gives you a level gaze, where Sir and Madame have disappeared from common usage, even Mr. and Mrs., and children address teachers by their first names. It’s a nation of recyclers—about 55 percent of Danish garbage gets made into something new—and no nuclear power plants: The Danes prefer windmills. It’s a nation of tireless planners. Trains run on time. Things operate well in general. Only 2 percent of the national budget goes to police and prisons and courts, and 3 percent to defense. It is a famously peace-loving country, whose troops, part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, engaged Serbian militia in a firefight in April 1994, the first official Danish act of war since 1864.

Such a nation of overachievers—a brochure from the Ministry of Business and Industry says, “Denmark is one of the world’s cleanest and most organized countries, with virtually no pollution, crime, or poverty. Denmark is the most corruption-free society in the Northern Hemisphere.” So, of course, my heart lifts at any sighting of Danish sleaze: skinhead graffiti on buildings (“Foreigners Out of Denmark!”), busted beer bottles in the gutters, drunken teenagers slumped in the park.

Last summer in Odense, two blocks from the Hans Christian Andersen birthplace museum, my car was broken into and a billfold stolen; around the corner from the crime scene was a wooded area littered with garbage, where gaunt figures sat shooting up heroin. I enjoyed telling Danish friends about this for days afterward. When they expressed chagrin, I said, “Hey. No problem. We have crime in America too.”

Nonetheless, it is an orderly land. You drive through a Danish town, it comes to an end in a stone wall, and on the other side is a field of barley, a nice clean line: town here, country there. The stores close at six, even earlier on Saturday, and on Sunday you window-shop; an American has to learn that sometimes you just plain can’t have it. It is not a nation of jaywalkers. People stand on the curb and wait for the red light to change, even if it’s 2 a.m, and there’s not a car in sight. The red light is part of the system: You cross against it, and you are showing disdain for your countrymen. (I feel sheepish waiting for the red light, so I cross, and several times I discovered that Danish drivers don’t slow down for jaywalkers. They don’t see you in the crosswalk because you’re not supposed to be there.) Danes don’t think of themselves as a waiting-at-2-a.m.-for-the-green-light people—that’s how they see Swedes and Germans. Danes see themselves as a jazzy people, improvisers, more free spirited than Swedes, but the truth is (though one should not say it) that Danes are very much like Germans and Swedes. Orderliness is a main selling point.

Denmark has few natural resources, limited manufacturing capability; its future in Europe will be as a broker, banker, and distributor of goods. You send your widgets by container ship to Copenhagen, and these bright, young, English-speaking, utterly honest, highly disciplined people will get your widgets around to Scandinavia, the Baltic States, and Russia. Airports, seaports, highways, and rail lines are ultramodern and well-maintained. There is a presumption of punctuality here. An American train leaves the station if all the members of the Departure Committee can find no reason for it to wait; the Danish train leaves the station unless someone throws himself across the track and he happens to be someone they like.

Daily life turns on predictability. If the timetable says that the train leaves Klampenborg at 7:06 and arrives at Østerport Station at 7:27, those times are reliable, and if you invite Jens and Camilla for dinner at 7:30, that’s exactly when they’ll knock on your door, not two minutes later. And when you open the door, they will expect that you too have managed your time and are not racing around snatching up dirty socks, that dinner is under control, the candles lit, the wine chilling, the hosts prepared to be congenial.

To Danes this is a sensible way of life, and to an American it seems marvelous at first, and then it strikes you as stifling. Weird, even. You meet Danes who have their lives planned in quite some detail for years in advance and derive comfort from this. You see how stability is cherished. You meet an old married couple, both teachers, who keep their finances separate, and the wife says, “I would love to visit America next summer. Ole is going, but I can’t afford it.” To an American, this is perverse. They love each other. Why can’t Ole just pay her way? Because that is not how those two do things, that’s why.

A few years ago, walking along Store Kongensgade in Copenhagen before Christmas, I passed a building gutted for renovation and looked in the cellar window, and there, on a dirt floor, surrounded by piles of lumber, were three long tables covered with white cloths and set for a meal, a Christmas centerpiece on each table, with candles and little Danish flags, and at each place setting, silverware, a glass for aquavit, a glass for beer, a china plate, a napkin. The construction workers were about to enjoy their traditional Christmas lunch, with proper china and silver, with the herring and aquavit, the requisite toasts and speeches, and by the time the apple fritters were served, they’d be in a mood to sing Christmas songs, and you knew exactly which ones they’d sing.

I told a Danish friend, “If American workers held a Christmas party, they would go to a restaurant.” And she said, “Why should they be ashamed of where they work?”

The orderliness of the society doesn’t mean that Danish lives are less messy or lonely or angst-ridden than yours or mine, and no Dane would tell you so. You can hear plenty about bitter family feuds and the sorrows of alcoholism and about aimless, overindulged young people working the system to make a cushy life for themselves and perfectly sensible people who went off one day and killed themselves. An orderly society can’t exempt its members from the hazards of life.

But there is a sense of entitlement and security that Danes grow up with and Americans don’t. Certain things are yours by virtue of citizenship, and everyone knows what they are, they’re the same for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel bad for taking what you’re entitled to, you’re as good as anyone else. A woman in Florsholm, who had lived in California as a child, told me: “I miss people I knew in America, how open and friendly they were, but it’s better to have a safety net under you. You might not have a chance to do big things, but nothing so bad will happen to you.” The rules of the welfare system are clear to everyone, the benefits you get if you lose your job, the steps you take to get a new one; and the orderliness of the system makes it possible for the country to weather high unemployment and social unrest without a sense of crisis.

There is social unrest in the World’s Cleanest and Most Organized Country—which is, to an American, certainly interesting, considering how Danes once lectured us about racial intolerance, but never mind that. Now you hear them discuss the country’s troubles with its Yugoslavian and Turkish guest workers, who came 30 years ago when the country needed cheap labor, and today the guest workers’ children, Danish-born, Danish-speaking, Muslim, are discriminated against because they have the wrong last names. Protest demonstrations flare up in the Muslim ghettos of Ishøj, and right-wing politicians have seized on the issue. But I never heard the problem described as intractable: Everybody seemed to think it would get worked out eventually.

Denmark is the stable society it is because it is productive and prosperous, and because Danes get a similar start in life, whether you grow up in the mansions of Hellerup or the tenements of Norrebro. At birth you become a member of the Lutheran Church. (You can petition to get out, but it’s no simple matter.) You go to similar day care centers, toddle off to the same kindergartens, then to a folkeskole for grades one to nine, where, in the fourth grade, you begin the serious study of English (in seventh, German or French). There isn’t Public School 10 for the poor and St. Cuthbert’s-on-the-Hill for the mill owner’s children; everybody goes down the same road. In the spring of ninth grade you reach the great divide and find out if you go to gymnasium or a technical school or a business school for late bloomers. Gymnasium is for the serious student, no troublemakers, no slackers, no goofballs. About 40 percent wind up there. At the same time the state starts paying you a stipend of up to 1,800 kroner a month ($260), depending on your parents’ income. It’s meant to even up the odds a little more.

After three years of gymnasium you take the test that pretty much decides your career, the studenter exam. Admission to various colleges and professional schools is by bidding, high studenter scores get first dibs. It takes a very high score to get into the humanities, medicine, dentistry, or psychology—a lesser score to major in math or physics or chemistry or theology. On the other hand, to become a midwife (in Danish, “earth mother”) takes a very high score, it being a popular career. So the woman in blue scrubs who tells your wife to take a deep breath and push hard may be a good deal brighter than the guy in the pulpit who explains the parable of the vineyard.

My last day in Denmark I took the Inter-City Express from Copenhagen to the island of Fyn for Midsummer Eve at the house of old friends, a teacher and his wife, a writer. The train no longer switches onto a ferry for the trip across the Great Belt; it slips into a tunnel and races under the sea and up to an island and over a bridge, the longest rail-auto bridge in Europe, 6.6 kilometers long, one of a series of bridge and tunnel links that will knit Denmark together and tie the country to Sweden. My friends, Britt and Torben, met me at the station, and we drove south to their house. I said I missed the train-ferry, and they said they had mixed feelings about it. “But then we Danes love to hold two opposing views at the same time,” said Britt. “That’s probably why there was no referendum on the bridges, because the people might have voted against them, out of sentiment, even though everyone knows they’re necessary. We can’t think of ourselves as an island anymore. But we still do.”

The car wheeled south, through the rolling paradise of Fyn, and we talked about the Danish love of paradox—the tendency to strive to get ahead and to deny that you are doing any such thing. To belong to the Lutheran Church and yet never attend except at Christmas. (“Actually,” said Britt, “attendance is up a little. You see 14-year-olds coming in to be baptized, sometimes over their parents’ objections. Anyway, there are more coming in than going out.”) The paradox of a highly secular society—no Dane running for office need make any public show of religious faith whatsoever, in fact it would be taken as bad taste—and yet Danes take Easter as a holiday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Monday, plus three days for Christmas, and Whit Monday, and something called Great Prayer Day in April. “Well, that’s just us,” said Britt.

Danes have belonged to the European Union since 1973 and still, down deep, feel opposed to it, she said. “We are terribly offended by our bureaucrats who go to Brussels to work for the EU and earn more than their counterparts here, fly first-class, live in luxury apartments—at least, we think they’re luxurious. We’re funny that way. If 90 Danes were living the high life in Brussels, or if we thought they were, we might very well vote Denmark out of it.”

Britt and Torben’s house is an 18th-century stone house on the outside, modern on the inside, old casement windows with thermal panes, an antique ship captain’s table with a computer on it, by which Torben exchanges e-mail with me. Shelves full of books, dozens of American novels, Cheever, Updike, Hemingway, Paul Auster. The house looks down a long slope of meadow toward the sea, the island of Langeland in the distance, and the island of Ærø, the name of which I am one of the few living Americans to pronounce almost correctly, they told me. I was so proud, I tried to work Ærø into the conversation all evening. Even if I barely understood what the conversation was about, I said, “Would this also be true on Ærø?”

There were 30 guests milling around in the backyard when I arrived, and a few minutes later we took our seats at two long tables in the backyard. Torben raised his glass and welcomed everyone and said, “Skål. Velkommen.” And we sat down to shrimp salad and poached salmon and lamb and red wine and very good bread.

The dinner included long toasts, to the queen and to America and to one another, and there were songs about the beauty of the Danish landscape and Hans Christian Andersen’s hymn that begins, “In Denmark was I born, there I have a home; there is my root, from there my world begins. O you Danish tongue, you are my mother’s voice, how sweetly you bless my heart.” Every time I looked around, I saw people smiling.

The sky was still aglow at eleven, when we hiked down to the shore where Torben had laid a ten-foot-high tepee of lumber and kindling for the bonfire. His sons trooped down from the house, bearing a life-size straw witch on a pole. She was decked out in a dress and hat and shoes and stockings and riding a broom. “Those are my and your mother’s clothes!” cried Torben in mock dismay. They propped up the pole in the lumber and put a match to the wood, and we sang hymns to Denmark and summer as the blaze licked at the witch’s skirt and she went up in flames.

You could see, up and down the shore, bonfires for miles. Everyone in Denmark seemed to be outdoors, busy banishing evil spirits from the land. When the fire burned down, the boys and men took turns leaping over the embers. We went up to the house for coffee and cake, and I climbed the stairs to bed about the time the sky was turning light again. It was a wonderful party, one of the best. It is hard not to love a country that brings up its people to do this.

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Weekly column

Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19thcentury, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

This is science, people. This isn’t fake news. These conclusions are based on actual facts established through observation by people who can count. What I learn from this is that it brightens your day to skip the front-page stuff about Washington and focus on science. Someday I expect to find a study showing that 75-year-old men who rode school buses as children have a longer life expectancy. That’s me.

I rode a school bus for six years, 12 miles each way morning and afternoon, on a highway in Minnesota, cornfields to the west, the Mississippi to the east. I stood at the end of a gravel road, a gawky kid with wire-rim glasses, wearing second-hand clothes, knowing there would not be an empty seat because mine was the last stop. The bus pulled up, the door opened, I climbed aboard, and the driver waited until I sat down before he started the bus. Nobody squeezed together to make room so I had to pick out a seat with skinny girls in it and hurl myself at them and hold on for dear life as they tried to shove me out when the bus went around a sharp curve. This is a fact.

I had emotional problems in my youth — who didn’t? — and a religious crisis and a search for identity, all of that — but the struggle for seating on the bus was my No. 1 problem. My mother had five other children so I didn’t bother her with this. The school had no grief counselors that I could discuss it with. I had to pull up my socks and fight for a few inches of seat, enough for one cheek, and hang on with all my might.

Now you know why I avoid public transportation. And when I fly, if I’m upgraded to First Class, my heart sings.

Six years of classmates resisting my physical presence had a big effect on me. I learned to not be put off by rejection, that all you need is one acceptance. Somewhere on the school bus of life is one beautiful person who will move over and make room for you. That is all you need.

The fellow passenger who has made room for me all these years happens to be a professional musician, trained to read tiny insect tracks on a page and perform as indicated while a man with wild hair waves a stick in the air. She is no slacker, in other words. She has run a marathon, given birth to a child, hiked alone through foreign landscapes, lived close to the poverty line in New York City, and recently read Anna Karenina. She tends the plants in the yard and knows their names. She is well-versed on social convention and has sound opinions about music, books, and design. She is more than capable.

It’s a comedy routine when she’s around and a lovely system of checks and balances. I say, “Let’s put a ping-pong table in the living room” and she says, “I’d rather we didn’t” and so we don’t.

She says, “You’re not wearing that tie with that shirt, are you?” “Not anymore,” I say. She points discreetly at her left nostril and hands me a tissue. She reminds me of the name of that woman with the glasses (Liz) whom I ought to know — I told my wife, “Her and me went to school together” so that she’d have the satisfaction of saying, “She and I went to school together.” “No,” I said, “You’re 15 years younger; you didn’t go to school with Liz and me.”

The loner with the guitar is the American hero, but I love a member of the orchestra, and try to submerge my individuality into a good marriage. The secret of civility is synchronicity. The gorillas and whales know that and now I think I do too.

Last week's column

What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

I was looking out a rain-spattered window, thinking long thoughts, when a wild turkey strolled into our backyard and onto the terrace as if he owned the place. My love and I live in the middle of a big city, but on the steep wooded slope behind us, raccoons live, and a fox, and wild turkeys who roost in the trees and grow very large because we’re all liberals around here and nobody has a shotgun to shoot them with.

The turkey stood preening himself ten feet away from me, unconcerned about trespassing, and it made me think about freedom, which I experienced for a few years in my childhood. We lived in the country where a boy could disappear into the woods and run around without adult supervision for most of the day. Believe it or not, we had no pagers or cellphones on us to allow our parents to keep close tabs. Kidnappers could’ve descended and taken us away, bound and gagged, in souped-up roadsters and demanded a ransom of a million in nonconsecutive bills. They didn’t because our parents didn’t have the dough. And my parents had other children. Spares. So we were safe, tearing around shooting cap pistols, waving our cowboy hats, and re-enacting white racist violence against native peoples in a way children would not be allowed to do today. When I see a pickup truck with NRA and Confederate flag bumper stickers on it, I see myself when I was eight. Been there.

And in this moment of reverie, my true love said to me, “You really need to do something about your desk.”

I don’t run a perfectionist desk. Like our president, I believe in the creative power of chaos. I thrive on confusion. And my wife is sort of the Washington Post in my life. I come out with a big pronouncement and she says, “But yesterday you told me —” etc.

Marriage to a perfectionist offers many benefits, don’t get me wrong. The kitchen is tidy, the rugs harmonize with the furniture, tools and other necessities are well organized so you don’t run around looking for toilet paper and find it stashed in the china closet.

On the other hand, there are moments when I realize I’m being observed as I perform some simple task such as pouring water out of a boot — she is watching to make sure I do it correctly. She goes through my wastebasket and extracts tiny recyclable things and shows them to me. She has carried on a long-running campaign to get me to take a daily walk at a brisk pace and thereby live longer so she can go on perfecting me into my eighties and nineties.

What I need at this point is a big burst of self-esteem and so I imagined the phone ringing and a Swede announcing that I — me — yours truly — not Philip Roth, not some unknown Lithuanian poet — had won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And I would walk into the kitchen where the love of my life is standing by the refrigerator, and she’d say, “You left a full carton of milk sitting out on the counter and I don’t know how long it’s been sitting here, do you?” And I’d say, “We’re going to Stockholm this fall. We’ll fly first class. We need to buy some dress-up clothes. I won the Nobel Prize in Literature, Babe.”

This column is a mess and I know it. Very poorly organized. But if I were a Nobel laureate, you’d think it were a work of genius. You wouldn’t think, “Should that be ‘were’ or should it be ‘was?’” You’d think, “He won the Nobel, it must be ‘were.’” And so it is.

A series of poems read by Garrison

News
TWA & APHC Archives Open to Public

TWA & APHC Archives Open to Public

Archives for the Writer’s Almanac have returned to the web. 

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New Garrison Keillor Online Shop!

New Garrison Keillor Online Shop!

Pretty Good Goods junkies rejoice: there is a new one-stop merchandise shop for all your needs related to Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, and The Writer’s Alamanac. Products include the complete final performance of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” live at the Hollywood Bowl on July 1, 2016 and collected on a set […]

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The Forum at Grace Cathedral, September 2017

The Forum at Grace Cathedral, September 2017

The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young of the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, CA, sits down with Garrison Keillor for an in-depth conversation as part of the Cathedral’s program The Forum on September 17, 2017.

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Minnesota Public Radio, Garrison Keillor Settle All Outstanding Issues

Minnesota Public Radio, Garrison Keillor Settle All Outstanding Issues

St. Paul, MN – Garrison Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio have reached an agreement reopening public access to thousands of past shows of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac.

“MPR wants fans of A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac to have free access to the thousands of wonderful performers and artists, musicians and poets whose work is included in those archives, and we want your fans to have free access to the decades of terrific material you created,” MPR President Jon McTaggart wrote in a letter to Keillor on April 5. A full copy of the letter is available at www.garrisonkeillor.com.

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Letter from Jon McTaggart to Garrison Keillor

Letter from Jon McTaggart to Garrison Keillor

Dear Garrison,

I could never have imagined the surprising circumstances you and I’ve been in for the past few months. But here we are, and I’m hoping this personal appeal can help to move us forward.

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A Prairie Home Companion 40th Anniversary: Let’s Have a Party

A Prairie Home Companion returns to the Macalester campus for an anniversary celebration with three days of music, comedy, food, and festivities, July 4-6th.

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The Daily Circuit — O, What a Luxury

Garrison talks poetry and O, What a Luxury with MPR’s Kerri Miller

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Poems of Gratitude: The Fourth Annual Common Good Books Poetry Contest

Garrison and Common Good Books are sponsoring a poetry contest! Pour your love onto the page, shape it well, and mail your love letter to Common Good Books before April 15 — fame and fortune could be yours.

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AP: Keillor to celebrate 40 years on Lake Wobegon

AP: Keillor to celebrate 40 years on Lake Wobegon

Garrison discusses the 40th anniversary of A Prairie Home Companion in an interview with the Associated Press

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CBS Sunday Morning — Garrison Keillor signs off — June 26, 2016

CBS Sunday Morning — Garrison Keillor signs off — June 26, 2016

A profile of Garrison as he prepares to retire from A Prairie Home Companion

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Writing

Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

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May 15, 2004

May 15, 2004

Live from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN: jazz singer Inga Swearingen and gospel vocalist Jearlyn Steele perform, and the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band welcomes Peter Ostroushko, Cindy Cashdollar, and Andy Stein. All this, plus the return of alternative-country band BR549.

 

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Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a corporate speechwriter and a copywriter. I am 55.5 and would like to meet the right man who enjoys words. I placed a personal ad but got a response from a man in Federal Prison. It seemed intrusive to ask how he landed himself there, so I didn’t respond. I’ve got many friends and I’m perfectly okay-looking. What should I be doing? Taking trips? Moving to another country with a shortage of middle-aged women? Making a systematic request to my entire list of acquaintances to ask them to produce one person? What would you do? I am about to give up.  

-Exhausted by Love

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What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

Read More

Forgot password? Try “LIFEISGOOD42J75#REAL”

It’s spring in Minnesota finally. My lawn is greenish, birds sing in the morning, we go walking in a sweater, no gloves. There is still ice on the lakes, but if you don’t look at them, you don’t notice. Life is good. This is not pointed out often enough, the goodness of life, because journalists know that Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for exposing corruption and sending the mayor to jail for skimming money off the School Milk Fund so the kiddos get 2% rather than whole milk, it’s not given for writing about a walk in the park on a sunny day. Nonetheless, we do have parks and the sun does shine.

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A runaway lover, text problems, and dinner duties

A runaway lover, text problems, and dinner duties

Dear Mr. Blue,

I’m a single 51-year-old who’s been enjoying the outdoorsy life in Denver for the past fifteen years. I have a nice condo, good friends, a great job in the tech industry. Up until a month ago I thought I had the ideal life—and then my lover of eight years left me for another woman. He said he’d met her through friends and that they’d “clicked” in some magical way he’d never felt before. After he told me, he still slept at my condo that night (albeit in the guest room), and then he was gone the next morning.

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A winning candidate for 2020

Finally we see some spring in Minnesota, temperatures edging into the 50s, maybe 60s, snow gone except in the crevices, green grass, the miracle of going outdoors in shirtsleeves. It’s like the Rapture except that everyone gets to enjoy it, not just the select few. We who were brought up not to complain have been moaning for a month, and we feel bad about that and intend to atone for it by being good to people who have not been nice to us, if we can think of any.

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Exes, etiquette, and losing a spark

Exes, etiquette, and losing a spark

Dear Mr. Blue,

I can’t get over my ex. We dated a few years ago and when we broke up, even though it was mutual, I was devastated. At 22 years old, it was my first time being in love, and my first time being heartbroken. The relationship itself had been turbulent: he was a night owl and an alcoholic while I found solace in routine and generally healthy habits—except for the part where I would drop everything to be with him, at any time. Still, we found common ground in our worldviews, artistic sensibilities, and appreciation for the finer things in life, such as good food and luxurious hours spent in bed. He was very sweet and attentive when he wasn’t arguing with me about how long to stay at the bar. We started dating again about a year later, magnetically drawn to one another once again despite my better instincts, but I eventually dumped him over our conflicting lifestyles.

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The true story of last weekend’s blizzard

A yuge blizzard descended on Minnesota over the weekend and all of our people who went south for the winter got back home in time to experience it. It was truly yuge, a fabulous blizzard and the snow was up to the housetops and the highway patrol said, “Stay in your homes. Do not drive on account of rabid wolves and jackals running loose.” But some of us went out anyway because that’s how we are. America was not settled by the timid.

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A walk down the aisle

There is a long aisle at our grocery store with soda pop at one end and tea and coffee at the other, which my love and I get to after the butter and eggs and 2% milk. We come to the beverage aisle and she selects the coffee, dark ground, with names like Swan Lake and Machiavelli. I notice the can of Maxwell House percolator grind and think of Mother and Dad. And there between the coffee and the soda pop is an extensive collection of waters.

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Radio

Cinecast Oh Glory How Happy I Am

An all-star cast performs “Oh Glory How Happy I Am,” written by the Reverend Gary Davis. Featuring Pat Donohue, Robin & Linda Williams, Garrison Keillor, Heather Masse, Jearlyn Steele, Jevetta Steele, and the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band as led by Richard Dworsky. This was the last song on the February 4, 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, and doubles as a credits reel for the DVD.

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Cinecast Calling My Children Home

Garrison Keillor, Heather Masse, Robin and Linda Williams perform the traditional song “Calling My Children Home,” accompanied by Richard Dworsky on piano. From the February 4, 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and broadcast live into movie theaters.

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Cinecast Too Gone

“It’s too late, and it’s too bad, she’s too gone.” Mr. Pat Donohue plays a tune of his called “Too Gone,” with accompaniment by the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band, Heather Masse, Garrison Keillor. From the February 4, 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and broadcast live into movie theaters.

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Cinecast Lives of the Cowboys

“Brought to you by Buffalo Bill’s skin moisturizer. It smells just like whiskey, so nobody will ever know!” From the 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and broadcast live into movie theaters. This Dusty & Lefty script features our cast actors, Fred Newman and Tom Keith on SFX, Erica Rhodes, Heather Masse, Elvis Costello, and Garrison Keillor as the cowboy hero Jack Trueblood, a lonely man with a mysterious past.

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Cinecast Back in the Day

“Back in the day, my little daughter, we didn’t pay for a bottle of water.” From the 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and broadcast live into movie theaters. Backed by the Guy’s All-Star Show Band, Garrison sings a song for his little girl about what life was like back in the day.

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Cinecast Coffee Script

“Civilization is a thin veneer when the supply of coffee gets low.” From the 2010 cinecast episode of A Prairie Home Companion, which was recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN, and broadcast live into movie theaters. This coffee script features Jearlyn Steele on vocals, Fred Newman on SFX, Tim Russell and Sue Scott in their acting roles, and Elvis Costello as a coffeeshop villain.

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John Clare – The Sweetest Woman There (excerpt)

I loved her lip her cheek her eye She cheered my midnight gloom
A bonny rose ‘neath God’s own sky In one perrenial bloom
She lives ‘mid pastures evergreen And meadows ever fair
Each winter spring and summer scene The sweetest woman there

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Walt Whitman – I Heard You Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ

I heard you solemn-sweet pipes of the organ as last Sunday morn
     I pass’d the church,
Winds of autumn, as I walk’d the woods at dusk I heard your
     long-stretch’d sighs up above so mournful,
I heard the perfect Italian tenor singing at the opera, I heard the
     soprano in the midst of the quartet singing;
Heart of my love! you too I heard murmuring low through one
     of the wrists around my head,
Heard the pulse of you when all was still ringing little bells last
     night under my ear.

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Lewis Carroll – The Crocodile

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

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I Think of You – 7/2/2016

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) sing Utah Phillips’ “I Think of You” during our July 2, 2016 broadcast from the Hollywood Bowl.

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