The Writer’s Almanac for July 10, 2018

“Psalm 23” from The Bay Psalm Book. Public domain. (buy now)

The Lord to me a shepherd is,
want therefore shall not I:
He in the folds of tender grass,
doth cause me down to lie:
To waters calm me gently leads
restore my soul doth he:
He doth in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake lead me.
Yea, though in valley of death’s shade
I walk, none ill I’ll fear:
Because thou art with me, thy rod,
and staff my comfort are.
For me a table thou hast spread,
in presence of my foes:
Thou dost anoint my head with oil;
my cup it overflows.
Goodness and mercy surely shall
all my days follow me:
And in the Lord’s house I shall dwell
so long as days shall be.


Today is the birthday of the city of Dublin, founded in 988. The area had been occupied, more or less, since before the Roman invasion of Britain, and it appeared in Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography in the year 140, but the first verifiable settlement came with the Vikings in about 831. They called it “Dyflin,” which came in turn from the Irish Dubh Linn, which means “black pool.” The reason it’s considered to be founded in 988 rather than 831 is because that’s the year the Irish king Mael Sechnaill reclaimed the city for Ireland. It’s also the year he first forced people to pay him taxes, so Dublin’s belonged to the Irish ever since, bought and paid for.

Dublin’s contribution to literature alone has been remarkable. Ireland was one of the first countries to produce writing in the vernacular, and it’s long had a tradition as a nation of scholars. A partial list of writers who are from Dublin, or who adopted it as their home, includes Jonathan Swift, Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Bram Stoker, Patrick Kavanagh, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan, John Millington Synge, and Seamus Heaney.

“Dublin University contains the cream of Ireland: Rich and thick.” — Samuel Beckett

“When I came back to Dublin I was court-martialed in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.” — Brendan Behan

“When I die Dublin will be written in my heart.” — James Joyce

“When I die I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin.” — J.P. Donleavy


On this date in 1553Lady Jane Grey was crowned Queen of England. Her cousin, Edward VI, was the only son of Henry VIII, who died when Edward was nine years old. Henry had provided for a council of regency to rule until Henry reached adulthood, and the end result was that the unscrupulous Duke of Northumberland controlled the government. When it became apparent that Edward was going to die of tuberculosis at age 15, without leaving an heir, Northumberland convinced him to exclude his sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, and designate his 15-year-old cousin, Jane Grey — who also happened to be Northumberland’s daughter-in-law — as his heir instead.

She wasn’t necessarily a bad choice, from Edward’s point of view — she was beautiful, educated, and most importantly, a staunch Protestant, as he was — but she didn’t really want the crown. She fainted when she was given the news. She ruled for only nine days before being deposed by Edward’s half-sister Mary Tudor, who was the designated heir by act of Parliament and by Henry VIII’s will. Mary had Jane Grey imprisoned in the Tower and she was later executed for treason.


It’s the birthday of Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro (1931) (books by this author), born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario. Her father was a farmer who built the family house and raised foxes and mink for their pelts. She married young and had her first child when she was 21. She took writing time wherever she could find it: During her children’s naptimes, and, later, when they were at school. “I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six,” she told The Paris Review. “And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about 39 or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don’t have that kind of energy now.”

She often sets her stories in provincial Ontario towns. She says: “The physical setting is perhaps ‘real’ to me, in a way no other is. I love the landscape, not as ‘scenery’ but as something intimately known. Also the weather, the villages and towns, not in their picturesque aspects but in all phases. Human experience though doesn’t seem to me to differ, except in fairly superficial ways, no matter what the customs and surroundings.”


It’s the birthday of Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and, more recently, as In Search of Lost Time) (1913-27). It’s Proust’s own life story, told as an allegorical search for truth. The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? […] And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a much humbler and less poetic piece of a rusk — a twice-baked, dry biscuit or cracker — rather than a madeleine that triggered the memories.

He had started the book as early as 1905, but he kept setting it aside. Finally, he realized that he had to do two things first: He needed to purge his writing of all his literary influences, which he did by writing a series of parodies for Le Figaro in the styles of Balzac, Flaubert, and others; and he needed to clarify what the novel’s philosophy would be. He accomplished this by writing an essay stating that the artist’s task is to access and revive long-buried memories. He experienced his “rusk epiphany” in January 1909, and he began the novel the following June. He produced the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it; the book begins, “For a long time, I went to bed early.” Proust spent the next decade working on the rest. He was proofreading and copyediting the final three unfinished volumes on his deathbed in 1922.


Today is the birthday of John Calvin (books by this author), born in Noyon, Picardy, France (1509). He experienced a religious epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533, in his early twenties, when, he said, “God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion.” Calvin embraced Protestantism at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do; in 1534, two dozen Protestants were burned at as heretics in France. He took up a nomadic lifestyle for the next several years, traveling throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva.

In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion; it was intended for a general readership and laid out the foundations came to be known as Calvinism, or five principles that spell out the word TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Word got around, and he made a name for himself among religious reformers; when he passed through Geneva, the pastor of the city prevailed on him to stay around a while and help with the new church. William Farel, the pastor, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and even swore a curse on Calvin if he refused. Calvin stayed for a year and a half, and although Geneva was ripe for religious reform, there was still conflict between Calvin, who wanted to install a theocracy, and those who wanted less drastic reform. Calvin was driven out of the city and went to Strasbourg. He returned three years later, and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He wasn’t popular with everyone — some people set their dogs on him, or sent him death threats, or disrupted his sermons — but he persisted in spite of failing health, saying, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”

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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.

I read the newspapers, and there was our man in London hobnobbing with the queen at Windsor Castle and exulting in it — “We had a great feeling. I liked her a lot. She is an incredible woman, she is so sharp, she is so beautiful, inside and out.” — which echoed what he’d said about U.K. manufacturing: “They have product that we like. I mean they have a lot of great product. They make phenomenal things, you know, and you have different names — you can say ‘England,’ you can say ‘U.K.,’ you can say ‘United Kingdom’ … the fact is you make great product, you make great things.” And they have a great queen and she and he had a wonderful tea together and the tea was tremendous and so were the scones, inside and out.

That’s how I feel this summer, very happy, though I’m a Democrat and know I should be troubled.

One reason for my cheerfulness is that I’ve stayed indoors except for walking to and from the car. I’ve preferred the indoors since I was a child but was shamed into taking long hikes in the woods because, as devout Christians, we should look upon nature as God’s handiwork, the trees, the birds, the firmament, the whole thing, but now that I’m 75 I just do as I wish. Indoors is where the coffeemaker is and my laptop computer. It’s where one finds a nice clean toilet rather than a public restroom that looks like Paleolithic people have been using it to eviscerate their goats.

A second reason is that I’m in the midst of writing a book. Work is a necessity of life. Retirement can be fatal.

Another reason for my cheery demeanor is that my wife is the critic in the family; she has better taste and discernment, she talks out loud to other drivers on the road (“If you’re going to turn, turn, bozo.”), she casts a critical eye on architecture (“That’s not a church, that’s a warehouse”) and the clothing of passersby (“Look at that man and promise me you’ll never wear a bright orange shirt with a blue tie and white polyester slacks”), and she is absolutely right on the mark. This leaves me free to coast along in easygoing contentment.

This weekend we were in Greenville, S.C., where I enjoyed phenomenal shrimp and grits, great iced tea, incredible company, and a beautiful hotel, beautiful inside and out. We attended a birthday party. There were other people in attendance who may not have been liberal Democrats, just as in any large group you may find people who don’t love grand opera or haven’t read Proust, but in my current live-and-let-live mood, I didn’t bring up the subject. And at the end of the day, my wife and I saw an ice cream stand and walked up and stood in line at the counter. An enormous pickup truck went by, tailpipes roaring, bumper stickers proclaiming the driver’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Fine by me. The war ended a hundred and fifty years ago, but if it’s that important to you, bless your heart. We ordered our ice cream, vanilla and Moroccan mint for her, caramel with hazelnuts for me.

It was only ice cream, but it took my mind off whatever may be happening between Putin and our man in Helsinki, whether Putin has our man’s credit cards and car keys, or just his Twitter password — that ice cream gave me a good feeling. The product was phenomenal, so good I thought maybe the cows were English or British or from the U.K. or all three.

I ate my ice cream slowly. Scripture says, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” which is an extremely high standard of behavior, but I did my best. My wife sat next to me, her thigh against mine. I thank Him for her, for the firmament, and also for caramel ice cream. If it be His will, I intend to have a hot fudge sundae tomorrow.

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

It makes a person appreciate summer more when you’ve had a miserable winter, so I’ve got that going for me. Dismal dark cold days for which there are no useful pharmaceuticals, depressed Democrats around you, and then a day of freezing rain, which, thanks to the ice in the downspouts, drains through your dining room ceiling while you are at yoga and you come home from two hours of humiliation in the company of slender millennials to find your antique table covered with wet plaster. That is what you need in order to fully appreciate July.

Of course it helps to be married to the right person. Early in the courtship stage, the subject of camping, canoeing, rock climbing, needs to be brought up, right after sexual preference and before religious beliefs, if any. I met my wife in New York at a restaurant. She was not wearing hiking boots, she didn’t smell of insect repellant. We’ve been mostly quite happy ever since. She is a runner but I can deal with that. She runs, she comes back, she doesn’t need me to run with her. I stay home and read great American novels.

There are not many great novels about camping, except for Grapes of Wrath and Red Badge of Courage, and in neither book is camping done for pleasure. The campers were fleeing the Dust Bowl or they were pitching their tents at Chancellorsville, preparing to die. Nothing recreational about it.

Why have practically no great works of art come out of the camping experience? Name one Beethoven symphony, one Van Gogh painting, one Shakespearean sonnet inspired by a week cooking over an open fire and sleeping on stony ground. You can’t name one.

Answer: because camping is about boredom. The campers I know are your usual left-wing environmentalists who are in a daily fury reading the newspaper and seeing those names in the headlines, Pruitt, Giuliani, McConnell, Pompeo, Pence, Ryan, Stormy Daniels, Cohen, Manafort, and the one that rhymes with “hump,” and they decide that two weeks’ backpacking on the Appalachian Trail will clear their minds and when they return, they are very subdued. Ask them about the hike, they’ll e-mail you photos, many of the rear end of the hiker ahead of them. A week on the trail is a refugee experience and most hikers decide that having a coffeemaker and innerspring mattress is more important than ideology. It’s the truth. Offered the choice between a two-week canoe trip and becoming a Republican, I’d choose door number two. A liberal Republican, but still.

I’m sorry you asked me how I feel about camping. I would’ve written about the trade war with China instead, something of real import in our lives, but instead you get this harangue. I apologize. But I was a camp counselor once, in charge of a dozen teenage boys, taking them on canoe trips, all of them suffering the fear of snakes, severe constipation, hearing tall trees falling in the night, one of which might have your name on it. Those boys would be in their early sixties now and I’ll bet not one of them has occupied a sleeping bag since then.

As I write this, I am sitting in a cabin by a lake. It is surrounded by woods but there is a screened porch, a refrigerator, a flush toilet and toilet paper. On that canoe trip with the boys, we ran out of toilet paper and one boy used leaves instead. There is a particular brand of leaves that does not make good toilet paper. I hope he is all right. Thank you for listening. Have a nice day. Stay home. Be happy.

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 21, 2018

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people to walk on the moon. It was actually July 20 in the United States, nearly 11 o’clock p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but according to Greenwich Mean Time, it was already almost 3 a.m. on the 21st.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch. Of the 366 poems in his collection Il Canzoniere, 316 were in sonnet form–and today we call that type of sonnet “Italian” or “Petrarchan.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 19, 2018

On this date in 1848, the first Convention for Women’s Rights opened in Seneca Falls, New York. Reporting on the event, the Oneida Whig wrote: “This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for her memoir Eat Pray Love. She said: “The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you…Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 17, 2018

On this date in 1867, Harvard Dental School, the first university-based dental school in the United States was founded. Prior to the 19th century, dental treatment options were extremely limited: If you had a toothache, you went to the barber-surgeon — or even the blacksmith — to have the tooth pulled, with no anesthesia.

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TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

TWA 25th Anniversary Shirts

For 25 years, Garrison Keillor has been highlighting poetry and the written word as well as pertinent literary and historical dates in a 5-minute radio segment and podcast. This brand new T-shirt commemorates that history, with The Writer’s Almanac logo emblazoned across the front chest along and “25th Anniversary” on the sleeve. This lightweight, fitted poly/cotton blend is available in sizes S – XXL.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 16, 2018

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was published on this date in 1951. The book took Salinger 10 years to write, and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in the country.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who founded the literary analysis technique known as deconstruction and who famously proclaimed that “there is nothing outside the text.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 14, 2018

Today is the birthday of Woody Guthrie (born 1912), who once wrote a song about Billy the Kid. Coincidentally, today is the anniversary of the day Billy the Kid was shot and killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 in New Mexico Territory.

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The Writer’s Almanac for July 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for July 13, 2018

Today is the 41st anniversary of the 1977 blackout in New York City. It is also the birthday of poet John Clare, whose poem “The Sweetest Woman There” is featured in today’s episode. In 1840, Clare was committed to the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he wrote some of his best poetry.

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Writing

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.

Read More

Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

Read More

What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

Read More

Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

Read More

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