The Writer’s Almanac for July 6, 2018

“The Crocodile” by Lewis Carroll. Public domain. (buy now)

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!


On this day in 1535Sir Thomas More (books by this author) was executed in London. More was a lawyer, philosopher, humanist, and statesman, and since 1935, he’s also a Catholic saint. He is the author of Utopia (1516) and the unfinished History of King Richard III (1513-1518), which has been called the first masterpiece of English historiography and provided the source material for Shakespeare’s play Richard III (1591).

More attracted the attention of Henry VIII in 1515 when he successfully resolved a trade dispute with Flanders, and again when he helped quell a London uprising against foreigners in 1517. Henry appointed him to his Privy Council in 1518 and knighted him in 1521; one of More’s early services to the king was to assist him in writing his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, a rebuttal of Martin Luther. Henry named him Speaker of the House of Commons, where More advocated free speech in Parliament. Even though he was not in favor of Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon, he still remained the king’s trusted advisor, confidant, and friend; he succeeded Thomas Wolsey as Lord Chancellor in 1529, when Wolsey fell from favor.

He was a devout Catholic who had at one time considered becoming a monk, and he grew uncomfortable with Henry’s increasing opposition to the pope. When More resigned in 1532, citing ill health, it was probably due as much or more to his unease over the split with Rome. He refused to attend the coronation of the king’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, and though he acknowledged that she was the rightful queen, he refused to take an oath that named Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England. He was arrested for treason and imprisoned in the Tower of London on April 17, 1534. He wasn’t tried until more than a year later, but imprisonment suited his ascetic tastes; he said to his daughter Margaret that he would have chosen “as strait a room, and straiter too,” had he been given a choice. He was tried on July 1, 1535, and the judges — among them Anne Boleyn’s brother, father, and uncle — unanimously found him guilty. Traitors were customarily hanged, drawn, and quartered, and that was his sentence, but Henry commuted it to beheading. More spent the five days before his execution writing a prayer and several letters of farewell, and when he mounted Tower Hill to the scaffold, he told his escort, “See me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” His last words were, “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

More is the subject of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960). The play’s title comes from something that Robert Whittington, an English grammarian and contemporary of More’s, wrote about him in 1520: “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of a sad gravity. A man for all seasons.”


On this date in 1785, the dollar was chosen as the monetary unit of the United States. The word “dollar” actually predates this event by more than 250 years; it’s an Anglicized form of “thaler” [TAH-ler], a silver coin that was first minted in Bohemia in 1519. “Dollar” came to be used as a sort of generic term for any large silver coin, like the Spanish eight-real piece, also known as “pieces of eight.” There was a shortage of British currency in the American colonies, and Spanish dollars were widely circulated in their place — as were Indian wampum and certificates for tobacco held in Virginia warehouses. During the Revolutionary War, colonists printed their own paper bills, called Continentals, in a variety of denominations; some were in British pounds, others were in dollars. When we won our independence, we rejected the British units in favor of the dollar.


Louis Pasteur successfully tested his rabies vaccine on this day in 1885. Pasteur had begun work on a vaccine in 1882, using a weakened form of the virus taken from the spinal cords of infected animals. The research was time-consuming, because it took several weeks for the virus to reach his test animals’ brains after they were infected, but Pasteur soon realized that people didn’t need to have the vaccine on board before they were bitten, as with other diseases. The delay between the rabid animal’s bite and the outbreak of the disease meant the vaccine could be given only when needed, and it would have plenty of time to work.

In 1885, a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Pasteur, and though Pasteur didn’t feel his vaccine was sufficiently tested yet, he knew the boy would certainly die otherwise, so he took a chance. It was a tense few weeks waiting to see if Meister would come down with the disease, but the boy recovered, and three months later was pronounced in good health. Pasteur’s fame spread quickly, and the era of preventative medicine had begun.


Ludwig van Beethoven wrote a passionate letter to an unknown woman on this date in 1812. Beethoven had gone to the Czech resort town of Teplitz, which his physician had recommended for his health. And over the course of two days, he wrote a letter, in three installments, to a mysterious woman who has come to be known as “the Immortal Beloved.” He begins the letter: “July 6, in the morning. My angel, my all, my very self […] My heart is full of so many things to say to you […] there are moments when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all — Cheer up — remain my true, my only treasure, my all as I am yours. The gods must send us the rest, what for us must and shall be —Your faithful LUDWIG.”

For 200 years, scholars have been arguing over the identity of the Immortal Beloved. One candidate is Bettina von Arnim, a writer, singer, composer, and a friend of the poet Goethe. There is Josephine von Brunswick: Beethoven was very much in love with her at one point, and wrote her several passionate letters. And there is Antonie Brentano, who was unhappily married and met Beethoven in Vienna — she became ill there, and Beethoven played piano for her while she was sick. He wrote the letters shortly before she moved away, and he never saw her again.


It was on this date in 1957 that Paul McCartney and John Lennon met for the first time, at the Woolton Village Fete in Liverpool, England. John Lennon was almost 17, and Paul McCartney had just turned 15. Lennon had formed a band called the Quarrymen, although he had trouble remembering lyrics and didn’t know proper guitar chords, because he’d learned how to play on a banjo. Paul met the band when they played a gig at St. Peter’s Church. He told them that he could tune and play a guitar, and since no one in the band could tune their own guitars, they were impressed. Paul then knocked the socks off Lennon when he performed “Twenty Flight Rock,” by Eddie Cochran, and didn’t forget a single word of the lyrics. Lennon asked McCartney to join the band a week later.


The first official convention of the Republican Party was held in Jackson, Michigan, on this date in 1854. Nearly 10,000 people turned out for a meeting in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had provided for the expansion of slavery into the new western territories. It was a hot day, and none of the halls could accommodate such a large crowd, so the meeting was held outside, in an oak grove on the outskirts of town. The party’s name was formally adopted at this meeting, and was a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. New York magazine magnate Horace Greeley wrote in an editorial: “We think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion […] of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”

The newly minted Republicans also settled on a slate of candidates for the upcoming Congressional elections. The party did well in its first election, winning almost 50 races, and by the following year, the party had a majority in the House.


On this date in 1892, striking steelworkers clashed with Pinkerton security agents in Homestead, Pennsylvania, resulting in 12 deaths. The Homestead Strike had begun on June 30.

The steel mill’s general manager was Henry Clay Frick had locked workers out of the plant after he cut wages and told the union he would no longer negotiate with them. The union responded by erecting 24-hour picket lines and set up a lookout for any suspected replacement workers.

Frick’s plan was to reopen the plant on July 6 with replacements from as far away as Boston. He brought in 300 agents from the Pinkerton National Detective Agency the night before, armed them with Winchester rifles, and towed them up the Monongahela River to enter the plant from the water’s edge. But the union was ready for them and the barges were met by union boats, and by workers on the shore. Shots were fired, and the plant’s whistle sounded, bringing townspeople to the mill by the thousands.

Fighting went on until 5 o’clock p.m., when the Pinkertons surrendered. They were led out through a gauntlet of townspeople, who threw sand and rocks, jeered, spit at, and beat them. The strike itself didn’t end until the following November; and during the intervening months, the state militia was called in, and the strike’s leaders were charged with murder and treason, although later acquitted. In the end, the striking workers ran out of money and had to return to the plant.

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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

Radio
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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