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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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

I go to the church where my wife and I were married twenty-three years ago in New York City. She was raised Episcopalian so I became a Piskie too, out of pure gratitude. Had she been Quaker, I would’ve quaked; had she been Jewish, hand me the Torah, Laura. My evangelical family liked Jeremiah and Ezekiel a lot more than “Blessed are the meek” and if there had been a First Pharisee church in our town, we’d have been there.

Piskies are a mixed lot, lifelongs and newcomers, believers and tourists, and this church has African and Asian elements along with us Anglos in our wingtips and herringbones. After we confess our sins and are absolved, people ramble around the sanctuary shaking hands and hugging, a cheerful and democratic moment, like recess in school. We’ve all been forgiven for our arrogance and carelessness and put that behind us and now have a chance to do better. This is enormously uplifting and then the ushers come along with the collection plates. I scribble:

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

I trust that after I die
I will fly to my home in the sky,
But if it’s not so,
I’ll never know.
I could worry about it, but why?

And onward we go to Communion. The church is practically full and Communion takes awhile and I turn to the Communion hymn and it’s not one of the high Anglican hymns that we’re often obliged to attempt, hymns meant for a choir in white robes with cinctures and ruffled collars, with singers named Alastair, Barnaby, Cecil, and Dorian, after which there will be tea and cakes in the refectory and someone will ask about our summer in Cornwall and we’ll say, “Brilliant. Smashing.”

No, it’s not one of those hymns, it’s Low Church, so low that I associate it with Pentecostals singing in a storefront, or a revival service under a tent. It’s “Give Me Jesus.” It’s a spiritual that’s made its way into bluegrass and Christian rock, and Southern quartets have recorded it and so has Kathleen Battle and it goes:

In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
In the morning when I rise,
Give me Jesus.

And “When I am alone” and “When I lay me down to die” — and we Episcopalians of Manhattan are seized by the power of this simple song and sing it with feeling. The music takes hold of you and no matter what was on your mind a moment ago, you give yourself to this song, and then the organ drops out on the third verse and we’re acappella and tears come to your eyes because suddenly you are not a New Yorker anymore, not a white college graduate, but are maybe out in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma or North Carolina, surrounded by farmers and truck drivers and their wives, most of whom voted for the real-estate developer, and you’re singing, “You can have all this world, give me Jesus.” My aunts and uncles and cousins are there who didn’t come to the wedding because it was my third marriage, and we’re all singing, “Give me Jesus.” We’re together with people who disapprove of us almost as much as we do of them and we are all singing.

It’s why a man goes to church, to be shaken, and I walked out onto the street and past the deli, the Thai restaurant, the Korean grocery, and headed home to my wife. She was looking at photographs of people stranded in their homes in North Carolina, waiting for help to arrive. Brown floodwater up to the floorboards, woman in a chair, man in the doorway, waiting.

Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

Bayfield is an old fishing and lumbering town whose main industry now is tourism. The town has tried to kill off tourism by raising the price of rooms to a Manhattan level but people still come from near and far to look at the lake. I myself would rather look at Lutherans, so I did that instead.

Bethesda is a handsome classic wooden church, high-pitched roof and steeple. You’d find it in Grant Wood and in New England landscape paintings. The sanctuary seats about 100 skinny people, or about eighty Lutherans, and it was full for the 8:30 a.m. service. The good people had put my favorite hymns in the service, “Sweet Hour of Prayer” and “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” and “Shall We Gather at the River,” and they sang them beautifully, as Lutherans do. Harmony is fundamental to their faith. You may disagree with them on doctrine but if you can sing alto or tenor, you’re okay.

They assigned me to read the Epistle at the service, and I noted that they’d chosen a passage from 1 Peter: “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” thereby paying me back for forty years of satire on the radio. I took it to heart, as one should. Envy and insincerity I’m certainly guilty of, malice and slander not so much, and guile — I don’t think so. “Guile” infers craftiness and smarts, and I plead innocent there.

They did give me a chance to speak in my own defense, which was only right, since I’d flown out from New York for the service. I began by correcting them: a pastor had said they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of “Christian worship and witness in Bayfield” and I reminded them that French Catholic missionaries such as Father Jacques Marquette, S.J., had preceded them by 200 years. They took this in good grace.

And then I said what I had come to say, which was that I love them, sincerely. They believe in kindness as a prime virtue and they believe in service to others, doing their part, chipping in, pulling their oar. Bethesda is a small church, only forty-five members, and a lady told me after the service, “We could merge with other churches, but the beauty of a small church is that everyone has to do their part, you can’t leave it to the others.”

They are a warm, accepting people. A note on the bulletin said, “We acknowledge that we worship on the traditional grounds of the Anishinaabe and we honor their elders both past and present.” And the service began with the lighting of sacred tobacco by an Ojibwe elder who played a solo on his wooden flute. He was welcomed and so was I.

I told them they remind me of my aunts who were the important people in my upbringing. I had eighteen of them. We were staunch fundamentalists, not Lutherans, and it was a time when women took a back seat, but my aunts were loving people, merciful, given to kindness, and lovingkindness triumphs over power.

There was coffee and ice cream afterward and extensive commingling, a beautiful Sunday on the shore. I talked with a couple who spend their summers taking wheelchair kids on canoe trips into the Boundary Waters and with a sailor who’d sailed from Bayfield to Norway and said, “When the weather’s rough, you depend on your boat to take care of you,” and I met old people my age who are caring for incapacitated spouses. I was glad I’d made the trip. They feel like family. I could’ve stayed all day but I had a plane to catch. So I stood in their midst and sang, “Wise men say, only fools rush in” and they all joined in and now they know. I can’t help falling in love with Lutherans.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 14, 2018

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Burlington, VT

Burlington, VT

October 14, 2018

Garrison makes a special appearance at the Burlington Book Festival, giving advice to writers.

7:00 p.m.

November 3, 2018

Saturday

5:00 pm and 8:00 pm

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

November 3, 2018

Garrison Keillor performs with duet partner Lynne Peterson and longtime collaborator & pianist Richard Dworsky.

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2018

Thursday

5:30 p.m.

Bremerton, WA

Bremerton, WA

November 15, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Admiral Theatre.

Doors at 5:30 p.m.

November 17, 2018

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Manchester, NH

Manchester, NH

November 17, 2018

A solo performance with Garrison Keillor at the Palace Theatre.

7:30 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for September 21, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 20, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 19, 2018

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On this day in 1982, computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested on an online bulletin board that the users type a colon, a hyphen, and a closing parenthesis when their post was intended as a joke. 🙂

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

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It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent.

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A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: September 22, 2007

With special guests, mixologists of soul, folk and jazz, Lake Street Dive, blues bombshell Hilary Thavis, vocalist Molly Dean, and sound effects man Steve Kramer.

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 17, 2018

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Today is the birthday of Ken Kesey (1935), author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 16, 2018

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It’s the birthday of Curious George creator H. A. Rey, who escaped Paris on a pair of bicycles with wife and collaborator Margret Rey just before the Nazi invasion in June 1940.

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 15, 2018

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It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands.

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 14, 2018

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George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. It was originally written for the Easter season, but became a Christmastime favorite.

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The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

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On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. His friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality, and Gage became a famous patient in neuroscience.

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Writing

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

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Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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