The Writer’s Almanac for July 3, 2018

“The Schoolboy” by William Blake, from Songs of Experience, 1794. Public domain. (buy now)

I love to rise in a summer morn,
When the birds sing on every tree;
The distant huntsman winds his horn,
And the skylark sings with me:
Oh, what sweet company!

But to go to school in a summer morn, —
O it drives all joy away;
Under a cruel eye outworn,
The little ones spend the day
In sighing and dismay.

Ah then at times I drooping sit,
And spend many an anxious hour;
Nor in my book can I take delight,
Nor sit in learning’s bower,
Worn through with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing,
And forget his youthful spring?

O father and mother, if buds are nipped,
And blossoms blown away;
And if the tender plants are stripped
Of their joy in the springing day,
By sorrow and care’s dismay, —

How shall the summer arise in joy,
Or the summer fruits appear?
Or how shall we gather what griefs destroy,
Or bless the mellowing year,
When the blasts of winter appear?


Today is the beginning of the dog days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. The name came from the ancient Greeks. They believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun’s heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the dog days. For the Egyptians, the arrival of dog days marked the beginning of the Nile’s flooding season, as well as their New Year celebrations.

“Dog days” has been adopted by the stock market because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish; it’s also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.


It’s the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher(1908) (books by this author), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan. She’s the mother of the “food essay” and always viewed cuisine as a metaphor for culture. She grew up in Whittier, California, and met her future husband, Alfred Young Fisher, at the University of Southern California in 1929. They spent the first three years of their marriage in Dijon, France, and she referred to that period as the “shaking and making years in [her] life.”

She found an Elizabethan cookbook at her public library, and was inspired to try her hand at food writing. Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), was full of sensual, evocative prose and some critics assumed a man had written it. Her 1941 book, How to Cook a Wolf, was addressed to Americans and Europeans dealing with rationing and food shortages during World War II. In it, she wrote, “When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner.” It has a few recipes, but it mostly contains meditations on the role of meals in relationships, and on sharing limited resources with spiritual abundance. Her chapter titles include, “How to Distribute Your Virtue,” “How to Greet the Spring,” “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving,” and “How to Have a Sleek Pelt.”

Author Anne Lamott wrote the introduction to an edition of Fisher’s letters. “Hers was a face anyone would naturally want in the kitchen, a combination of fresh peach and aged potato,” Lamott wrote. “You could see the weight and warmth and softness of her cheeks — the tender part a mother would cup in her hands — now grown so old.”


On this date in 1863the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The battle, which began as a small skirmish but ended up involving 160,000 Americans, was a Northern victory, and though the war would continue for almost two more years, Gettysburg marked a turning point as the last major strategic offensive led by the South.

The last Confederate charge of the battle was led by Major General George Pickett, who led 12,500 troops up Cemetery Hill to their obliteration. Half of his forces didn’t survive the charge. Over the three-day battle, casualties — including dead, wounded, and captured — were between 46,000 and 51,000. Nearly 8,000 men and 3,000 horses were killed outright, and they had to be buried or burned quickly. There was only one civilian casualty: Jennie Wade, who was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen wall and killed her while she was baking bread.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, survivors reunited at Gettysburg. Fifty thousand veterans traveled to the reunion; the youngest was reported to be 61, and the oldest was 112. The reunion culminated with Confederate survivors walking the path of Pickett’s charge, to be met by the handshakes and embraces of their former Union adversaries over the dividing stone wall. President Woodrow Wilson, whose father had been a Confederate chaplain, spoke to the reunion on July 4, saying: “These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they have established. Their work is handed to us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over; it is upon us in full tide.”

And on this day in 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the battle, almost 2,000 veterans — with an average age of 94 — attended another reunion. President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, which commemorates the 1913 reunion and reconciliation, and he said: “Lincoln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon its wounds. Men who wore the Blue and men who wore the Gray are here together, a fragment spared by time. They are brought here by the memories of old divided loyalties, but they meet here in united loyalty to a united cause which the unfolding years have made it easier to see.” On the front of the memorial, these words are carved: “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.” The flame can be seen from a distance of 20 miles.


Today is the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlín, Czechoslovakia (1937). His first professional ambition was to be a journalist, and so he got a job with The Western Daily Press and, later, The Bristol Evening World, and wrote about a variety of things, from features to a humor column. He passed about six years this way, until he started working as a drama critic and fell in love with the theater. He began writing plays himself in 1960, producing a couple of one-act plays and writing for television and radio.

He had his first major theatrical success in 1966, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s the story of Hamlet, but told through the eyes of two very minor characters whose lives only achieve significance through their involvement with the story of the Danish prince. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and was staged by the National Theatre in 1967; Stoppard, at 29, was the youngest playwright to have a play at the National Theatre. Rosencrantz went to Broadway that same year, and when he was asked what the play was about, he said, “It’s about to make me rich.” Stoppard won his first Tony Award for Rosencrantz. He’s won four more since then, and many other awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Shakespeare in Love (1998).  


It’s the birthday of the writer Franz Kafka, (books by this author) born in Prague (1883). A writer associated with doom and gloom, the word “Kafkaesque” has come to mean absurd, dreamlike, and even sinister. In a letter to his fiancée, Kafka wrote: “The life that awaits you is not that of the happy couples you see strolling along before you in Westerland, no lighthearted chatter arm in arm, but a monastic life at the side of a man who is peevish, miserable, silent, discontented, and sickly.” He had sexual anxiety, and felt inferior to his father. And it is easy to summarize his life as tragic: He only published a few short stories during his life and never finished any novels (besides his novella Metamorphosis); he had a few love affairs, but was never married; and then he died at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

But there are some cheerful elements to Kafka’s life story. For one, he was a competent and dedicated employee of an insurance agency, the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute. He started there in 1908 and worked there steadily for 14 years, compensating injured workers. He had a good salary, worked six-hour work days, from 8:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. and worked his way up over the years. He kept records, wrote letters and articles, dealt with statistics, assessed his own business and others, processed claims, and represented the organization as a lawyer. Kafka himself tended to dismiss his work when he talked or wrote about it. But he showed up every day, and he wrote up the official annual reports, and was apparently proud of them because he sent copies to his family and friends. His friend the writer Max Brod wrote a biography of Kafka, and he wrote: “I spoke to one of the head officials who once worked with Kafka. Franz Kafka, so the gentleman told me, was popular with everyone; he hadn’t a single enemy.”

Kafka also had a great, even obsessive, respect for health and physicality. There is much made of Kafka’s time in coffee houses, but no evidence that he ever drank coffee himself, and he did not drink alcohol at all. He slept with his window open all the year round, always in fresh air, did calisthenics every evening at exactly 7:30 p.m., and he liked all sorts of exercise. He wrote in his diary in 1910: “I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby.”

And Kafka’s last love affair, with a 25-year-old woman named Dora Diamant, seems to have been a happy one. They met at a Baltic resort, where she was working in the kitchen. He entertained her by performing shadow puppets on the wall, and he read aloud to her. They played together and teased each other. He wanted to marry her, but her father refused, on the grounds that Kafka was not an Orthodox Jew. They were only together for a year before he died of tuberculosis. Dora said later, “Everything was done with laughter,” and, “Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play; he was a born playmate, always ready for some fun.”

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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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