The Writer’s Almanac for August 7, 2018

“Riding the Red Line” by Eric Nixon. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On the subway
On a hot summer night
Riding the Red Line
Outbound to Alewife
So is everyone else
Standing in the packed car
Staring blankly at the
Reflections in the window
Stealing looks every so often
At the pretty mid-20-something
Sitting on the seat near me
Noticing that she is
Glancing sideways
At the paper the person
Next to her is reading
Well not so much reading
Since he’s got his eyes
Looking to the side at
Someone else behind me
Everyone is pretending
To look somewhere neutral
Everyone is experiencing
Ulterior motives checking out
Everyone else around them
Trying to be all sneaky about it
With each stop
The people change
The dynamics change
Keeps the subway car
Fresh and interesting
Just as long as she doesn’t leave
I’ll be happy standing here
Packed among strangers
With wandering eyes
And stealing glances
Alongside them
On this hot, hot night


Today is the birthday of the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (1876). She attended a teachers college and then married an army officer, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in 1895. They lived in Java and Sumatra for a few years, and that’s where she picked up her eventual byname. “Mata Hari” is a Malay term for the sunrise, and means “the eye of the day.” The MacLeod marriage was marked by infidelity on both sides. He gave her syphilis, which was in turn inherited by their two children. After their son died, the parents began to hate each other. They returned to Holland and divorced, and MacLeod took out an ad in the local paper telling shopkeepers not to give his ex-wife any credit, because he would not be supporting her any longer. In order to make some money, she began dancing professionally in Paris in 1905, and occasionally worked in a high-class brothel.

The exact nature of her spy activities is not clear, but she probably didn’t engage in much actual espionage. She was well known by sight all over Europe. She had apparently sold some outdated information about France to the Germans in 1916, and then later made a deal with the head of French intelligence to spy on the Germans in exchange for a pass to visit her Russian lover in the eastern war zone. The French became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she never was able to provide much useful information, so she was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917. One of her prosecutors later admitted, “There wasn’t enough evidence [against her] to flog a cat.”


On this date in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef in French Polynesia (books by this author). The Norwegian ethnologist had set out from Peru the previous April, determined to prove that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl and his five-man crew did carry some modern technology, like a radio, navigational equipment, and watches, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The body was made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes, and had gaps between the logs for the water to drain out. The cabin was built of bamboo and had a thatched roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it after a legendary Incan sun god who was believed to have walked off across the Pacific.

In three and a half months, the raft traveled 4,300 nautical miles, weathered two major storms, and proved that Peruvian Incans could have made the voyage themselves. Heyerdahl wrote a book about the adventure, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1948), and made a documentary film of the same name.


Today is the birthday of author and editor Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). Her father was the critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman, and she grew up in a literary household, making castles out of the books in her father’s library. She was working as a reporter when she got an assignment to write for The New Yorker about a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents’ difficulty dealing with the American medical system. The New Yorker decided not to print the article, so Fadiman turned it into her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). It took her eight years to finish the book.

She’s also written two collections of essays. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs. And in her other collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007), she writes about her many obsessions, from her childhood butterfly collection, to the lost art of letter writing, to English essayist Charles Lamb.  


At 7:15 in the morning on this day in 1974, a slight figure dressed in black stepped off of the edge the World Trade Center’s north tower and onto a wire he’d secretly strung across to the south tower. For the next 45 minutes, Philippe Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers a total of eight times as crowds gathered below to watch him span the void. Suspended a quarter of a mile in the air, Petit knelt and lay down on the wire, once even looking down to the courtyard below as he reveled in the culmination of six years of planning what he called “le coup.” Told that police planned to send a helicopter to pluck him from his perch, Petit finally surrendered himself to the waiting NYPD, later claiming that their rough treatment of him was the most dangerous part of his stunt.

Petit’s astonishing high-wire act made him an instant celebrity and garnered affection for the brand-new buildings, which had been criticized for a lack of character. A number of writers count Petit’s performance as an inspiration, including Paul Auster, who translated Petit’s book On the High Wire from French and helped him find a publisher. Recently, Petit served as muse to Colum McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award, took as its central, driving image that of a man balancing between two towers, seeming to walk on air.


On this day in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals officially and finally lifted the ban on the book Ulysses by James Joyce (books by this author). A serialized excerpt in an American literary journal had been declared obscene by the courts in 1921; when the novel was published a year later in Paris, it became a hot item on the black market. It remained outlawed until 1933, when Random House arranged to have a smuggled copy discovered by immigration officers, allowing the publisher to challenge the ban. The seized copy had been carefully doctored to include the rave reviews of important literary figures, since it would be the one submitted as evidence. The judge agreed that the book was not obscene or pornographic and struck down the ban, and an appeal a year later upheld that decision.


On this day in 1846, Gustave Flaubert (books by this author) wrote a stunning letter to his lover, poet Louise Colet.

The two writers met at a sculptor’s studio in Paris. Colet was married when she and Flaubert began their wild love affair. She’d gotten married young, to a Parisian professor of music, in order to escape a life in the French countryside. Once in Paris, she became a famous poet. During the eight years of his affair with Colet, Flaubert wrote his masterpiece Madam Bovary, about a woman who seeks out adulterous affairs in order to escape from provincial life.

On this day in 1846 — 164 years ago today — Flaubert wrote to Colet:

“Separated, destined to see one another but rarely, it is frightful … and yet what is to be done? I cannot conceive how I managed to leave you … your image will remain for me suffused with poetry and tenderness, as was last night’s sky in the milky vapours of its silvery mist. This month I will come to see you, I will be with you one big whole day […]

“You are certainly the only woman that I have loved. You are the only woman that I have ventured to wish to please. Thank you, thank you […]”

The following day, Flaubert began another long intense letter to Colet. In it, he wrote:
“I’ll arrive some evening about six. We’ll set the night ablaze! I’ll be your desire, you’ll be mine, and we’ll gorge ourselves on each other to see whether we can be satiated. Never! No, never! Your heart is an inexhaustible spring, you let me drink deep, it floods me, penetrates me, I drown. Oh! The beauty of your face, all pale and quivering under my kisses!”

**Translation Note**

The first letter (Aug. 7, here beginning “Separated, destined” is translated by John Charles Tarver and appears in his Gustave Flaubert as seen in his works and correspondence, published in 1895.

The second letter (Aug. 8, beginning with “My Deplorable mania”) is translated by Francis Steegmuller and appears in The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1830-1857, published in 1979.

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Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Other people imagine that if they exercise regularly and eat more fiber, they’ll live to be 98. I don’t. I believe that an exemplary healthful lifestyle makes it more likely I’ll be struck by a marble plinth falling off a building as I walk to the health club. I’m not even sure what a plinth is but it’s likely that one will kill me.

My grandma used to sing me to sleep with a song about two little children lost in a blizzard — “they sobbed and they sighed and they bitterly cried, and the poor little things, they lay down and died” — which is nothing Mister Rogers ever sang, but Grandma saw no reason to hide harsh reality from us. She did not tell us to look the other way when she chopped the head off a chicken. Death was a part of our lives. How many children today have observed a beloved relative swing an axe and decapitate a bird? Not many.

My fellow Democrats have been assuming for two years that our corrupt King would be brought to his knees by a keen investigator — and they are now sadly disappointed and wandering in confusion. Everyone knows he is corrupt — he himself boasted about it — he grew up admiring men who shrewdly worked the system to their own benefit, cutting corners left and right, stiffing the little guys, paying off the big honkers. Public service was never his thing, not then, not now.

Democrats are horrified by the King, of course, as most people are. He is compulsively cruel, resolute in his ignorance, proudly illiterate, and on the one occasion he was seen in church, he did not bother to recite the Nicene Creed, unlike the four ex-presidents in the church with him. He doesn’t believe in a Holy Trinity but rather a Fearsome Foursome, Himself included.

So Democrats have launched a couple dozen campaigns against him. Every Democrat with better than 5 percent name recognition is out on the trail speaking to crowds of librarians, yoga instructors, poets, birdwatchers, and organic farmers and talking about climate change, health care, and the need for civility in public life. Next spring, Democrats will nominate a beautiful person in a white robe and sandals who holds out his or her arms and birds come and perch on them.

We assume that this wonderful person will win. That is what should happen, just as we ought to have daffodils blooming in April. As a Minnesotan, I see danger in the act of leaping to logical assumptions.

I awake sometimes in the middle of the night, seeing the headline KING COASTS TO 2ND TERM. Political scientists are astonished — and historians. But bikers, Baptists, and lovers of horror novels are not. The King is a living parable, a bad dream become real. We are not an enlightened people. It is 1856 all over again, except now with social media. Nobody wants to hear this. When I say these things to my fellow Democrats, they excuse themselves and go to the kitchen and brew a pot of chamomile tea with touches of rosemary and warm up a plate of artisanal corn muffins.

They have contempt for the King, his bad grammar, his cruel stare, his love of the garish, his pettiness, his devotion to his hair, and their contempt will lead them to nominate a holy progressive who will have his or her lunch eaten. This is a Minnesotan’s view. I am looking out the window at snowy fields as I write.

Having said that, I am going for a walk. I’ll stick close to the curb, to avoid any falling plinths. Have a good day.

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

I don’t come from a huggy family. My wife does. I don’t. In my family, a pat on the back is considered sufficient, but when my wife walks into a room full of Keillors, she goes from one to another, throwing her arms out and clutching them to her, and they have to stand there and accept it or else look like soreheads.

People like us — white, Anglo, Midwestern, formal, reluctant to make eye contact, uptight, stiff, boring — are ridiculed, by comedians of color and also colorless comedians, and we have learned not to object. “Where’s your sense of humor?” people would say, so we laugh at the stereotype even though we don’t find it funny.

I don’t go around smiling. It doesn’t mean I’m unhappy; it’s simply the culture I was born in. The photographs of my ancestors that we kept on the piano showed solemn bearded men and severe women and their gloomy children, no incisors visible whatsoever. My dad and uncles didn’t smile a lot. They associated smileyness with salesmen trying to charm you into buying a ten-year-old Dodge with a loose clutch and rust around the bumpers. I went off to college and, in order to be hip, read existential writers about the indifference of the universe to human suffering, while chain-smoking Luckies and drinking espresso, which tends to solemnize a person as well.

On account of my seriousness, people are always asking, “What’s wrong? Is something the matter?” I call this demeanorism, judging people by their facial expression. Inside, I’m pretty lighthearted but on the outside, I look as if I’ve been struck by a baseball bat and am trying to remember my name.

The squeeze that I experienced was ten years ago and I’m not saying it was traumatic but I do wish she would take ownership of it and express some regret at having ignored my feelings, and then I have a sudden sensation in my rear end, a suspicious flatness, and I reach back and there is no wallet there, and suddenly I’m up and running from room to room, checking pockets, looking under tables, calling up cafes I’ve patronized the past couple days.

This is the bright red wallet my wife bought me after I left a black wallet on the seat of a taxicab late one night and it occurs to me that this wallet loss, coming a month after the previous, may be what convinces her I need help. Tomorrow there’ll be a power-of-attorney form to sign and consultation with a series of people in white uniforms who take notes as I’m put through a battery of tests involving matching shapes on little wooden cubes, and my wife, who loves me dearly, will break the news gently. There is a care center that specializes in elderly men with cognitive issues. It’s called Sunnyvale and it has a triple-A rating from the AARP and there is shuffleboard and checkers and color TV in every room and a sing-along on Saturday nights where the elderly gather to sing Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones hits.

For a moment, it occurs to me that maybe Michelle Obama reached around me to lift my wallet out of my back pocket.

And then I find it. It’s in the freezer. I set it down when I was getting out the frozen waffles this morning.

Ignore whatever I was saying before. I am okay. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. This is all a man needs. Wallet, cellphone, house keys. It’s spring. We’re going to be okay.

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

This church is in Manhattan where temptations to pleasure line Amsterdam Avenue and I walk to church while smelling fresh croissants, rich dark coffee from Kenya, Japanese noodles, chrysanthemums, soft cheeses, and much more, most of which God is involved in producing. The hymn seemed to suggest that I sacrifice fresh pumpernickel and espresso for Wonder Bread and Sanka.

In the hymn, we also came out against “heedless word and deed” and, because it rhymes, “ambitions to succeed,” which I’m not giving up either. You give up heedlessness and pretty soon you’d never dare eat a peach or wade in a brook or ask a woman to dance. And ambition is what gets me moving in the morning. I’m 76 and writing a musical called “Dusty & Lefty” and already I’m envisioning the review in the Times — “gorgeous … lyrical … makes ‘Hamilton’ seem like a tabletop appliance that blends milkshakes.”

It’s a cruel hymn. It says, “Teach us to know our faults, O God,” which is fine, but then, for the rhyme, it says, “Train us with thy rod.” This is rhyme without reason. Why not “May we with thy truth be shod” or “Let us bloom as goldenrod”? The Psalmist said, “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me” but “Train us with thy rod” has definite sadomasochistic overtones in Manhattan.

The pleasures that I love include walking, riding the train, and sitting at a window seat as the airliner comes in low over the Sound and catches the deck of the carrier LaGuardia and hits the brakes. They include what I’m doing right now, tapping away on a laptop, not sure where this is going. They include monogamy, a good idea that puts the parents in the background. We are the stagehands. We have each other and are not searching for self-fulfillment. That’s for the children. I used to seek self-fulfillment in spirituous beverages and stopped fifteen years ago. It’s a pleasure to not do it anymore.

I enjoy the proximity of my wife who as I write is sitting fifteen feet away and, moments ago, when I stood on the sofa to pull the shade so the sun wouldn’t blind me, jumped up from her Sunday crossword and held me by the hips lest I fall. I’ve always wanted her to do that and never knew how to ask. It felt like we were about to dance the tango. The sun poured in like a spotlight at the Roxy and I waited for the drum roll. I hope she will grab me again and next time hold a red gardenia between her teeth and another behind her ear. I like a grabby woman. She womansplained that she was afraid I’d fall and crack my skull. It was very sweet.

Life is good. I can order a cab and then watch its progress on a map on my phone so I don’t need to stand at the curb, I can go into the drugstore and stroll amidst acres of emollients and salves and lubricants. Back in the day we only had Jergens which softened the skin but today’s products hydrate, rejuvenate, regenerate, perhaps emancipate and elucidate, they contain aloe and collagens and vitamin E from Egypt and seaweed oil and fluorides that promote fluency and efflorescence. I could buy socks with odor-eating chemicals. Paste that makes my teeth brilliant.

Instead, I buy a carton of dandelion tea. We used to consider dandelions an enemy and now it’s a comfort. Progress is made. I can text a photograph of us to our daughter at her school and she texts back, “Awwww. Sweet.” Pharmaceuticals that didn’t exist for my uncles enabled me to reach 76, an age when if I jump up on the couch, the woman I love will grab me. I can give up crankiness for Lent and bad grammar — I will not ask her to lay beside me but to LIE beside me — but I won’t give up heedless pleasure. It has been my ambition for many years.

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April 27, 2019

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April 27, 2019

Garrison Keillor celebrates National Poetry Month with poems & song at a benefit for Performing Arts of Woodstock.

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Writing

Old man cautions against faith in probability

I flew back to Minneapolis for the mid-April snowstorm, as a true Minnesotan would do. Eight inches of snow instead of palms for Palm Sunday, God speaking to us: not to be missed. What caused it, of course, was over-enthusiasm at a 70-degree day, people setting out petunias, putting away snow shovels.

Do not assume. This was drilled into us as little kiddoes. At Anoka High School in 1958, we had a great basketball team headed for State and in the first round of district tournaments it got beaten by a gaggle of farmboys from tiny St. Francis. Unlikelihood lends disaster a sort of inevitability: thus, as I board a plane, I think, “This is the end of my life. Goodbye, my darlings.” This acceptance of disaster is what keeps the plane aloft.

Read More

So much can happen in an ordinary afternoon

I have been struggling this week, looking deep within myself, questioning my own values, asking myself: should I go public with the incident in 2009 when Michelle Obama put her arm around me at a luncheon in Washington? She was posing for photographs with the attendees and I had been the guest speaker and I was told to stand next to her and I did and she put her left arm around my back and pulled me toward her and squeezed. It was a perceptible squeeze. I didn’t say anything at the time but I remember feeling that this was her idea, not mine, that I probably would’ve preferred to shake her hand, but what are you going to say to the First Lady? “Get your arm off me”?

She didn’t place her forehead against mine or kiss the back of my head, nothing like that, but the squeeze was unmistakable and intimated familiarity.

Read More

The old man manages a Manhattan Lenten meditation

In church on Sunday, we sang a hymn unfamiliar to me in which we asked the Lord to deliver us from “love of pleasure,” which, as I sang it, I realized I have no intention of giving up. None. Okay, it’s Lent but I was raised fundamentalist and it took me a long time to enjoy pleasure, let alone love it. This was on the windy wintry northern plains where, frankly, Lent seems redundant.

Read More

So that’s over, and what’s next?

Finally it’s coming to an end, two years of speculation, more than what’s been written about the future of American higher education, the American novel, and the planet Earth combined, thanks to that long angular face with the sharp Puritan nose and the stone jaw, a man famous for his silence, and why is the name pronounced MULL-er and not MYOO-ler like all the Muellers I know — what’s going on here? Why the secrecy?

Read More

It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

Read More

Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Read More

I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

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Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

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A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

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