The News from Manhattan: Sunday, June 21, 2020

Father’s Day, what shall I do?
A burnt-out bulb to unscrew?
Does the A/C compressor
Need repair? Yes, sir,
Soon as I find super glue.
Shall I explain
The cause of migraine
Or the origins of World War II?
I have seniority
As an authority,
So salute before speaking. Thank you.

Father’s Day was a bigger deal back when I was a kid because fathers knew more then and fixed the family car, did carpentry and painting and plumbing repairs around the house, could install A/C or put up a TV aerial, handled the finances, drove the car on vacation trips and packed the trunk as well. He was an expert packer. And my father had built our house from the basement up. He was the Master of the House. So of course we honored him every June.

Compared to him, I am a large pathetic person who spills a good deal and needs wiping up afterward. Plumbing problems, my wife calls a plumber, of course. I ask my daughter to show me how to install an app. I am still called on to dispose of dead bodies and to put away baking dishes that go on a very high shelf. I say table grace. I hold a chair steady so my wife can climb up on it and change a lightbulb.

I am a liberal and so is everyone I know and therefore my freedom of expression is severely restricted and I am constantly editing myself as I speak to make sure I haven’t marginalized anyone — such as Marge or Ina or Liza — and because I grew up fundamentalist I’m not able to curse fluently either and because I’m old I don’t know the current slang like “teeter” and “gouchy” and “25” — it’s a miracle that I can manage to squeeze out a whole sentence. I sit here silently in the kitchen, hoping someone will ask me to unscrew a lid. And hoping I can, when they do.

Available November 17th: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

If you pre-order a copy now, on publication date (Nov 17) you will receive the book plus an exclusive link to a video made by Garrison about the memoir. Plus, pre-orders will enjoy $5.00 off in our store (pay $25.00 for the hardcover instead of $30.00).

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

Preorder an autographed copy from our store >>>

Read more about the book >>>

Wobegon Virus

Available September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are available now wherever you get your books. The audiobook is available for download/streaming from Audible and wherever else you get your audiobooks. A book-on-CD collection will also be available from our shop beginning September 29 (you can preorder now).

In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

Read the first chapter and order your copy >>>


A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

I’m fond of fall, the beauty and brevity of it. Soon the iron gates will clank shut and we descend into the dark trenches of winter. A person always imagines there will be more warm evenings and suppers outdoors, but fall teaches otherwise. And that is what makes life beautiful, the knowledge of approaching November. Last week the world was drenched with the beauty Van Gogh was crazy for and that is why we send our kids off to school, so they don’t become obsessed with beauty and goldenness and can pay attention to algorithms and multiplicity and divisiveness. I was a mediocre student, but every fall I appeared in the classroom door, struggled through college and humanities courses of which I remember nothing at all — I should’ve studied auto mechanics — and then when I was 27, I was hired by a radio station to work the 6 a.m. shift and the same fall, a magazine bought a story of mine for $500. My monthly rent was $80. I was off to the races.

We want what we cannot have. The heart wants life to go on and on. So the old writer goes on writing stories, still hopeful, though there’s plenty of evidence that you hit your peak at forty. You sit doing something you’ve done steadily since childhood and it’s still of keen interest. And Sunday night I dreamed about writing. I’d written a book about the Soviet Union and was invited to talk about it up in the Berkshires and drove on winding roads through little hill towns to a house where I walked up a strange steep staircase with tiny steps to the attic where a dozen people sat around a table to hear my talk. I joked about who should leave first if there were a fire and nobody laughed. They were all communists and took sharp issue with my book and shouted at me in Russian, which I understood but could not speak. The quiet domestic pandemic life has been bringing me a wild dream life.

We bought a new TV in August to liven up our days and somehow cannot figure out how to tune in news programs — which platforms are they on — so we don’t watch them, which is a relief. I’m tired of hearing the name in the news, don’t care to hear words that rhyme with it such as “dump,” “hump,” “lump,” “chump,” “rump,” “slump,” look at the news online and avert my eyes from the smug New York playboy face with the fruitcake hair. It’s time for the election now though it’s September. The election should’ve been held a year ago. The man is a bad dream. I’m an American, I love hamburgers, country music, baseball, small towns on the prairie, the American September, Levi jeans, the poetry of Jim Harrison and Maxine Kumin, and this guy is a Russian who learned his English at the movies. He isn’t one of us, not even slightly.

Nonetheless, life is good. Our happiness never depended on foreign con men. I’m here because my parents loved each other and even though Hitler had overrun much of Europe and was bombing England and people could see what was coming, nonetheless those two nestled in each other’s arms and took their pleasure and I appeared in 1942, on the day of the American assault on Guadalcanal. We got through the Forties and we’ll get through the Twenties. Water is coming out of the tap, the mail is left at the doorstep, the buses are running, and the grocery store is open, we’re in business. The election approaches. Let’s get it done.

Some great music is played on old fiddles

It’s great to see an old, old magazine in headline news for something other than its obit and bravo to The Atlantic and Jeffrey Goldberg for the “losers” and “suckers” story on Trump and his contempt for military service or anything else nonprofitable. It’s been hot news for several days, it got Joe Biden highly impassioned and powerfully articulate, and if any of Trump’s entourage who heard him say what he said would step up and tell the truth, we could get this election over with in a hurry and get on with our lives.

As an old man, I’m pleased by the success of old institutions. The New York Times and the Washington Post have never been so day-to-day excellent as they’ve been in covering the Twitter presidency. The big story isn’t about actions he’s taken or not, it’s about his flagrant contempt for the office, the law, science, knowledge of all sorts, American history and tradition, his laziness and short attention span, his small world of wealthy advisors, his weird sycophants, his whole reality show, a phenomenon never before seen in our time, government by social media based on something he heard on Fox. Journalists at the big papers were trained to take government seriously, and how do they cover a president who doesn’t give a rip?

One old institution that’s been flummoxed by Trump is public radio, the industry where I spent forty happy years creating fiction. At news, which is its primary business, public radio has been lost in the wilderness. Its big marquee shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, have never laid a hand on Trump so he’s never bothered to insult them. Part of their problem is gentility: a deep fear of vulgarity, which rules public radio from the top down. Back where I’m from, Minnesota, public radio assiduously avoids the darkness in favor of covering the arts, education, civic uplift, small children, pets, colorful hobbies. It doesn’t try to cover business — much too complicated — or sports, though it loves meteorology: every snowfall is thoroughly examined. The real journalism is practiced by citizens with cellphones who upload video of the forest fires dancing around the houses in the California hills, who caught the cop with his knee on George Floyd’s neck in south Minneapolis back in May. Public radio is capable of inviting a sociologist and a social psychologist to discuss the history of racism for forty-five minutes, but it’s the video by passersby that unleashed a powerful popular agitation for social change.

Radio was Rush’s medium, it lent itself to incantatory hallucinations about the Apocalypse, and he opened the doors to a parade of wild wackos, one of whom is about to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota. I did a different style of radio, a goulash of old jazz and antique oddities, wishing people a happy birthday, offering joke contests, taking phone calls from the irate. Rush’s style thrives, my sort of show is deader than downtown Detroit. We’ve moved into Podcastville and the production of small clever idiosyncratic audio that gives the listener the sensation of belonging to an exclusive club. Live radio shows are dead because they’re available to everyone. You want to subscribe to “What’s In, What’s Up,” where you can feel united with your tribe of superior intellects.

This is Trump’s bond with his believers. They adhere to him no matter what because all the people they loathe also loathe him. Foreigners, city people, English majors, Times readers, the latte crowd. Loathing is not a prime Christian value but it binds his evangelical base to him even though the man is a stranger to the Word and has never knelt in church except at his three weddings. I feel bad for my evangelical friends; they know what they’re doing, they’ve made a deal with the dark side and so far haven’t seen any benefits, except for the pleasure of making Anglicans and Methodists writhe in misery.

This is why I’m proud of The Atlantic, which now, having recently subscribed to, I can report is a great read. I’m an old man, I don’t have time to waste reading or listening to crap. The Atlantic has been around since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day and he would be proud of its renaissance. Emerson said, “There is a tendency for things to right themselves.” This November, I hope he’s right.

Destroying (not) the American way of life

As a Democrat accused by Republicans of trying to take away people’s hamburgers, I have to speak in my own defense. I am second to none in my fondness for the beef patty in a bun, a thin slice of onion, and mustard. I do not eat hamburger in a croissant; I am not that type of person. Ketchup is for French fries, mustard for burgers. No mayo, please. The Democrat who’s trying to take away hamburgers is my wife but it’s only my hamburger she’s after, not yours. She thinks they’re unhealthy. I enjoy them even more for her opposition.

As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

For me, America means the love of spaciousness, driving west from Minnesota over the open prairie, preferably on two-lane roads, looking at farms, farming being the hardest work there is and unpredictable and dangerous. And also walking through Lower Manhattan and sensing the human history around you in the five-story brick buildings, the people who escaped an emperor or kaiser or czar to come here, no English to speak of, in behalf of their children. They believed that in a free society they would be judged by their character and their competence, not by their social connections. They worked terribly hard at whatever work came their way, in order to secure the right to be American. Certainly, the country produced its share of con men and card sharps, windbags, hustlers, but hard work and competence was honored here, more than family dynasties. We don’t bow to the grand pooh-bahs, we put a whoopee cushion on the throne.

When it comes to patriotism, it’s the American way to play it cool and not walk around jingling your medals. My high school biology teacher was a combat pilot in the Korean War, my phy-ed teacher was a Navy lieutenant on a forward observation boat at Normandy on D-Day, and neither of them went around talking about it, for the simple reason that they had survived and friends of theirs had died and self-aggrandizement dishonors the sacrifice of others. I asked the movie director Bob Altman about his wartime experience and he told me he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and become a B-17 pilot at the age of nineteen and the plane was loud and hard to handle and it was freezing cold at high altitudes. That was all he cared to say. It wasn’t for him to play the hero.

I know people who will likely vote for the man with his arms wrapped around the flag and I don’t try to talk them out of it but the business about hamburgers and destroying the American Way of Life is garbage of a low order and if you buy into it, you’re heading down a lonely road. Unreality is not a good strategy. It’s a beautiful country and we’re meant to enjoy it and to care about one another. I’ve been watching baseball on TV, a great sport for immigrants, and there seem to be more Latino names than ever, more players of color, but it’s the same beautiful game. This past week, I saw two perfect bunts, a rarity, the batter places his bat to tap the 90 mph pitch into the sweet spot in the infield, left or right, to advance the runners and also arrive safely at first. It doesn’t matter who does it, it’s astonishing. If the umpire were to call a bunt foul that clearly was fair, and if the opposing team were willing to accept this blatant lie, that would violate the American Way, and that is exactly what we’re seeing today. And that is a shame.

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Writing

A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, September 10, 2020

I spoke with the humorist Calvin Trillin tonight who was enjoying his nightly whiskey. He said the Village is like Paris with all the outdoor dining, but no tourists.

Read More

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I was in radio for years and now my voice is thin and creaky, all the baritone notes are gone from disuse.

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The doctor looked way down my throat / And told me to sing a high note

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The Lake Wobegon Virus: Chapter One

“Well, it has been a quiet year in Lake Wobegon…”

Read the first chapter of Garrison’s new novel here

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Destroying (not) the American way of life

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As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

Read More

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This is the test: who would you want to spend the whole day with for an entire week? Don’t marry until you know the answer.

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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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