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.

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

We spent lives heavily in Vietnam and lost the war and now we wonder, “What in God’s name was it for?” Vietnam is a major trading partner, cruise ships stop in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. My nephew lives in Hanoi and works in a bank there. I could call him and FaceTime if I could figure out the time difference.

I can imagine that FaceTime, YouTube, Instagram, Google, by making the world smaller, might lead to an epoch of relative international peace, and Memorial Day might become a museum piece, and if so, we might consider a Marital Memorial Day, when we honor our divorced and bring some peace to our personal lives. The current divorce rate is around 40% and that is a sorrowful thing, and just as the VFW honors the war dead, knowing how easily the living and the dead might have traded places, so we should acknowledge that marriages crash and burn for reasons not understood and blame should be withheld and peace restored.

To live all the days of your life with your best-informed critic is a heroic venture and it’s worth honoring. Respect your failures and you will more fully enjoy your success.

The MMD should be held in the spring and there should be a lighthearted lunch with exes and their families. You sit next to your ex and toast each other’s health and catch up on the latest and recognize that you launched a romance out of hopeful idealism and though it crashed, the impulse was admirable.

You’re done with the yelling, the door slamming, the lawyers. Sit down and be decent, look each other in the eye, forgive. This would be more valuable in the real life of our country than the patriotic speech and Taps and the rifle salute.

The pandemic has brought husbands and wives closer together than ever and in some states, angry men have stormed state capitols demanding that the bonds be loosened, even at the risk of death. In quarantine, men quickly realize that they married women who possess powerful corrective impulses — who rush to clean up things even before they’re spilled, who straighten and adjust and set things right that men have left askew. Women will edit your sentences as you speak, and if you pause, she will finish the sentence for you. Men are grateful for women’s corrections but it can be exhausting to be held to high standards 24/7 and so, in order to escape supervision, men take up fishing. Fishing makes no sense whatsoever, to go to great trouble and expense to catch inferior game fish when for a fraction of the dough, you can buy salmon or tuna and broil it briefly and have something fabulous. That’s why so few women fish. Men fish because women don’t. For the same reason, they go hunting, go to blues clubs, sit in crowded sports bars and play video games. These things have been shut down by the pandemic. That is why armed men have threatened the woman governor of Michigan.

A Marital Memorial Day would be a small step toward civility in this anger-riven country. The country needs to calm down and learn to speak gently. Once we do MMD, then perhaps Democrats and Republicans will be able to talk to each other. If you can make peace with a well-informed critic, what’s the harm in talking to an ignorant one?

Some self-isolating thoughts about hair

Jenny cut my hair yesterday out on the balcony in the sun and she kept laughing as she did, which doesn’t instill confidence to hear your haircutter laugh, but at least the hair stays out of my eyes and the worst part (she says) is in back, and we’re in isolation so who cares, and at my age I’m not applying for a job, so it’s rather immaterial. If I wanted to do something wild with my hair, dye it deep purple with bright green stripes, now would be the time to do it, but I lack the motivation to be colorful. I’m a writer and an observer and you can’t see the world clearly if other people are staring at you: it’s see or be seen.

Hair was crucial in the 10th grade, 1958, when you had greasers like Trump and jocks with crewcuts and farmboys had shaggy hair and we cool guys aimed for an Ivy League look. My dad cut his sons’ hair and he was a carpenter and not so keen about fashion. I told him, “Short on top but with a part, a little longer in back.” Coolness was the point of it, blue button-down shirts, khaki pants, loafers, white socks, but now I have no clue about what’s cool, if anything is, and coolness is no longer a factor in my life. I’m old. The first section of the paper I turn to is the obituary section. People I know keep showing up there.

I went away to the U aiming to be a writer so I majored in English, not knowing how much I’d come to hate it. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and my teachers were his mortician. The English Department was across the street from the Institute of Technology and we writers loved to look down on the engineers. They wore the wrong color shirts with plastic pocket protectors and high-water pants with belts hitched way up under their rib cage and half-rim horn-rimmed glasses and short nerdy hair whereas we had long majestic hair and we wrote dark incomprehensible poetry. If I ever felt miserable about having to write a paper about Dryden or Coleridge or Milton, I just crossed the street and mingled with engineers, their slide rules in a holster on their belt, a race of dullards without a single amazing and original thought, and it gave me the arrogance I was looking for.

I think of this now as I consider what engineers have given the world, such as this little gizmo the size of half a sandwich that is always near me, a telephone that is also a camera, encyclopedia, newspaper, calendar, compass, weather monitor, phone book, and twenty other things I’m not aware of. Quiet studious men from the world of numbers changed the world in some wonderful ways. Bill Gates does not appear to spend a great deal of time worrying about his hair. Mark Zuckerberg has hair like a skullcap. Facebook is my link to family and friends. The nerds who invented Google gave a great gift us old people who forgot what “postmodern” means and can’t remember the year Rod Carew set a record for stealing home base and Google will find it for you: he stole home seventeen times. Seven times in 1969 alone.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an enormous year in my life. I was 27 and had a baby boy and needed to get serious and instead of finishing a novel that nobody would want, I got a job in radio doing the early morning shift and I shifted from tragic self-awareness to humor because that’s what people needed on a dark winter morning and that was when I started to feel useful and that’s when you find your vocation. And hair has nothing to do with it.

I write this on a laptop hooked up to a printer with an instruction manual written by engineers for other engineers, people who whizzed through college courses that to me were a solid brick wall, so it’s unreadable for me. Imagine if all your cookbooks were in French and you had to call one of your few Francophones in order to make pancakes. But never mind. Thank you, Nerdland, for the laptop and the phone. I could live without them but it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I apologize for looking down on you for your bad hair.

A few words while I wait for her to come in

I married a perfectionist and am glad for it especially during this pandemonium or pandora or veranda or whatever it is we’re going through these days, even my dream life is clearer, more detailed than in normal times, which now are only a memory, those evenings when we ate dinner in a crowded restaurant and sat in the tenth row of a theater and packed into a crowded train to go home.

She is a violinist, dedicated since her teen years to perfection, practicing many hours a day so that she could play in a string section and not stand out as an individual. I am a struggling writer for whom individual identity is crucial. She sat in an orchestra wearing black like all the others, suppressing the urge to wear a tiara with flashing red and green pulsating lights. I sat in a café, in a red T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans, boots, smoking a Gauloise, a Panama hat on the table, writing on a yellow legal pad, something original. It was a café (actually a cafeteria) patronized by engineering students and I was the only Gauloise/Panama person there. The others lived in a world of correct answers and I lived in a forest of wild surmise.

Had I not married the violinist, I’d be in a hospital, trying to breathe, having refused to self-isolate because I hate the term, I prefer the term “drift.” But thanks to her attention to detail, we live with our daughter in a clean apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and haven’t ventured outdoors, except to step out on the balcony, for two months. She is more sociable than I — most musicians are, having a common exclusive language — and so she misses the street life more than I do, but she studied up on the situation — a strange and dangerous contagion, an elderly and careless husband — and saw what needed to be done. And so I find myself in a quiet room with an empty schedule, an ideal life for a writer.

If I taught Creative Writing now, I wouldn’t be encouraging wild originality, I’d be teaching people to keep an orderly house and a spotless kitchen, hang up your clothes, and defend against interruption. A cluttered desk is a prison cell; a life of confusion is a dungeon.

The argument these days between Opening the Doors and Maintaining Quarantine is the argument between ignorance and knowledge and ordinarily I’d go with ignorance but I have a manager who is in for the long haul. She misses her work, playing in a pit, two feet away from two other players, a soprano and a tenor onstage singing Puccini passionately and projecting thousands of saliva droplets with every fricative, but she knows that people shouldn’t die from opera, only in it, so life is rearranged.

And so, when she wakes up in the morning and appears in the doorway of my quiet room, I hold out my arms and she sits on my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. We live day by day. All the big bets are off. The calendar is empty. The canvas chairs on the balcony that I was always too busy to sit in now have occupants. I look at the planter with the herbs my violinist has planted, an orchestra of mint and marjoram, cilantro, basil and rosemary, who will wind up in a stir-fry or what we in Minnesota used to call “hotdish” before we went to college. It’s the middle of May, a chilly spring, you can count the warm days on your left hand. But if the sun shines, even the low 50s are good enough.

Old man in a black winter coat looking out on the rooftops of New York, and a slim blond with violin scars on her jaw, and we talk about the boxes of useless unused stuff in closets that should be dealt with, and it brings to mind a fit of shelf-clearing years ago, an old unread book I opened and found, pressed between the leaves, a piece of yellowed handstitching: “Elizabeth Crandall is my name And America is my nation. Providence is my home And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, if this you see, remember me, when I am quite forgotten. 1845.” A fellow writer, long gone, and the thought isn’t original but the stitching is perfect. The perfection is stunning.

A simple lunch outdoors, a major occasion

Spring is here at last in our northern latitude and that is the news that transcends all other news. It arrived Sunday and we observed it by enjoying our first outdoor meal on our New York balcony, sitting in the shade of a potted tree, with two vegan-leaning friends and in their honor there were no 32-ounce prime ribs, but rather a green salad and a bean salad, both excellent, and oatmeal cookies. The sun shone down and we heard a finch singing nearby who apparently is thinking of moving in with us and raising a family so we must now buy some thistle seeds, which finches like and pigeons do not. We prefer finches, they sing, and they’re beautiful in the morning light. Pigeons are just rats with wings.

Spring, glorious spring. It is the Resurrection of Our Lord, a time of transcendence, and tomorrow I shall have my hair cut by my wife, beauty parlors being closed here still, not that beauty is what I’m after, just respectability. Sunshine is the cure for a good deal of what ails us — we know this now after six weeks of lockdown. I sit in the kitchen and agonize about the economy, politics, the demise of the performing arts, and then around noon I step outside and sit in the sun and suddenly I am not a citizen or a consumer or a performer, I am a mammal, along the lines of a muskrat or raccoon, a mammal who owns an apartment with a balcony where I am safe from predators and food is delivered to me regularly — in other words, a zoo mammal.

We discussed this over Sunday lunch, whether we will, when the All-Clear sounds, return to our busy lives, fly hither and yon, attend meetings, eat at restaurants, and we all thought, “Maybe not. Maybe the raccoon life is what we wanted all along.” Thoreau built him a cabin in the woods and raised beans and wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I think he could’ve done better in an apartment building with a doorman. In his cabin by Walden Pond, Henry was pestered by curious townspeople who wanted to know what he was out there for. A doorman guards against interruptions. Henry said, “Life is frittered away by details.” A pandemic reduces those details to the basics.

What we’re missing is a lawn and as a Minnesotan I miss that. Mowing was my first useful occupation and it organized my mind: you could think dreamy thoughts but still you kept to the lines. Going back and forth, back and forth, on a rectangular lot was what led me to be a writer: it’s really the same thing, except at the end, instead of a bag of clippings, you have an essay.

I went away to college to escape from lawn mowing and to become a writer, and then I fell in love with a girl whose parents owned a house with an extensive corner lot, and I courted her father by mowing it. I was twenty, my writerly pretensions competed with the pretensions of others, and lawn mowing brought me down to earth, and rather than launch a novel that struggles with man’s fate and maybe woman’s too, I set out to do what I’m doing now, writing in gratitude for a spring day.

We spent three hours at lunch Sunday and not once did we talk about the guy with the hairdo. We talked about children, about the goodness of our lives, about the odd beauty of a prayer healing in the Episcopal church. You associate prayer healing with men in cheap suits who handle snakes and whoop and yell, but in the Church of the Wing Tips it’s a simple moment when you go forward and a deacon hears your concern and lays hands on you and prays. It is sweet and mysterious. We attend church online now and pray for the sick and those in need, of whom we all know many. It is a deliberate and essential part of life, prayer.

Meanwhile, we sat in the spring sunshine and were healed of humorlessness and narcissism and anxiety about the Dow Jones. And now I pray for you in Arizona and Texas and Florida, languishing in 100-degree heat. Come north. Life is good.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 1, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 1, 2020

It’s the birthday of Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), who said, “I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 31, 2020

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It’s the birthday of poet Walt Whitman (1819), who was once fired from a job at the Department of the Interior for being a “very bad man” and a “free lover.”

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Featuring pianist and essayist Jeremy Denk, singer Heather Masse (pictured), and The DiGiallonardo Sisters in a show in Canandaigua, New York.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, May 30, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, May 30, 2020

It was on this day in 1431 that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France at the age of 19. About 500 years later, she was canonized as a Catholic saint.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, May 29, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, May 29, 2020

It was on this day in 1913 that the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du printemps” caused a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, May 28, 2020

“When you meet somebody who is more important to you than yourself, that has to be the most important thing in life, really.” –Maeve Binchy, born this day in 1940

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, May 27, 2020

On this day in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge opened. The idea of the bridge was first broached in 1869 by a man who called himself the “Emperor of the United States.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, May 26, 2020

It’s the birthday of photographer and author Dorothea Lange (1895), whose iconic work for the Farm Security Administration gave human faces to the Great Depression.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, May 25, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, May 25, 2020

“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole…” –Ralph Waldo Emerson, born this day in 1803

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 24, 2020

“Writing is about getting your work done and getting your work done every day.” –author Michael Chabon, born this day in 1963

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, May 29, 2020

The city I love is burning, people living in dread, as the result of having tolerated a police force that has its own code and doesn’t live by our ideals.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, May 28, 2020

So much is strange in this lockdown but the overriding fact, to a Minnesotan, is that it’s summer at last, we’re eating outdoors, and we’re all in this together.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A blissful day in isolation, part of it on the terrace snoozing in the sun, mostly indoors working on the novel.

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A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

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The News from Manhattan: Monday, May 25, 2020

I draw no conclusions except that in isolation, one still needs social life and here it is in a dream. I haven’t been shopping since January and last night I enjoyed looking for pens in a drugstore in Dublin.

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The News from Manhattan: Sunday, May 24, 2020

For the first time in a long time, I have a great deal of time, and I am truly grateful. Up at 6 a.m. and the day stretches ahead. The pandemic has given me something new — the 45-minute phone call.

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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, May 23, 2020

Taciturnity is a privilege and I cling to it, as a writer. I need to think. For me, thinking and talking don’t go well together.

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The News from Manhattan: Friday, May 22, 2020

I used to fly around the country doing shows and staying in nice hotels and now, thanks to the plague, I get to observe my true love close up.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, May 21, 2020

We have dinner and hold hands and say table grace, something we never did regularly before but quarantine needs rituals and prayer is a good one.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Something about my Calvinist demeanor makes people think I know what I’m doing, but every writer needs an editor.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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