The Writer’s Almanac for July 9, 2018

“The Only News I Know…” by Emily Dickinson. Public domain. (buy now)

The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality.

The Only Shows I see—
Tomorrow and Today—
Perchance Eternity—

The Only One I meet
Is God-The Only Street—
Existence—This traversed

If Other News there be—
Or Admirabler Show—
I’ll tell it You—


It’s the birthday of blockbuster best-selling author Dean Koontz, (books by this author) born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He grew up in an impoverished, drunken, and violent home, and after he went away to college he converted to Catholicism, he said, because it helped him make sense of the chaos of his childhood and to appreciate mysteries in life.

He sold the first short story he ever wrote and then got 75 rejections before selling his next story. Now, he’s one of the most highly paid authors in the world. Koontz’s books have sold 400 million copies. Eleven hardcovers and more than a dozen paperbacks have been No. 1 New York Times best-sellers.

He works 10 or 11 hours a day, usually five days a week. He says that on good days, he winds up with five or six pages of finished work. But on bad days, he ends up with only a third of a page. Rather than writing a quick first draft and coming back to it later, he revises each page of the novel, however long it takes — 20 or 30 times is normal — before he feels good moving on to write the next page. He said, “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt, as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

He said: “I have more self-doubt than any writer I’ve ever known. … The positive aspect of self-doubt — if you can channel it into useful activity instead of being paralyzed by it — is that by the time you reach the end of a novel, you know precisely why you made every decision in the narrative, the multiple purposes of every metaphor and image.”

His novels are often set in Newport Beach, California. They often feature intelligent Labrador retrievers, bougainvillea flowers, unethical scientists, and references to T.S. Eliot and Alice in Wonderland.

Dean Koontz said, “Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. [And] sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.”


On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting full citizenship to African-Americans and due process to all citizens. It’s one of the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth, and Section I reads: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Of course, states still found ways around the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly a hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Jim Crow laws, Southern black codes, and the “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the early and unforeseen complications of the amendment, which we are still grappling with today, is the extent to which corporations may be viewed as “persons” in the eyes of the law.


It’s the birthday of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (books by this author), born Ann Ward in London in 1764. She married a journalist, William Radcliffe, when she was 23, and he encouraged her to write. Write she did: Her first two books were published anonymously, but her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), made her famous; her fourth, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), made her the most popular writer in England and set the standard for the Gothic romance. She published one more novel in her lifetime, The Italian (1797). Her last two books made a good deal of money, and she may have quit writing novels because there was no financial need to do so. She did keep writing poetry, though, and published a volume in 1816. Neither the poems nor her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondville (1826), approached the success of her earlier works. She was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti, to say nothing of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, who fancies herself in the middle of a Gothic romance herself. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft praised her for having “a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery [sic] touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey.” Radcliffe kept out of the public eye when possible, so she was frequently rumored to be dead, or mad; in reality, she was happily married and shy.

“Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!” (From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794)


It’s the birthday of another English Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis (1775) (books by this author), born in London. Inspired by the work of Ann Radcliffe, he wrote his first book, The Monk (1796), when he was just 19 years old, and it was an overnight sensation. “I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published,” he wrote to his mother. The Monk was violent and erotic and full of horrors, and no one wanted to admit to reading it, but of course they all did, and it made him so famous that he was called “Monk” Lewis from then on. He followed The Monk with The Castle Spectre (1797), a musical drama with many of the same Gothic elements. His last book was published posthumously; it was Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834). In 1812, Lewis inherited a Jamaica plantation, and on a trip to the West Indies to check on the welfare of his slaves, he contracted yellow fever and died at sea in 1818.

“To a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue.” (From The Monk, 1796)


It’s the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of several hundred books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, when she was 25, and from the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year.

Cartland left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.


Today is the birthday of Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London (1933) to a large extended family of doctors, scientists, and religious Zionists. He became a neurologist and then turned case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives before his death in 2015.

In 2001, he wrote a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. In it, he talks about his childhood in England during World War II; his Uncle Dave, who made light bulbs; and the scientists whom Sacks never knew, but who were, he says, “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.” Sacks and his older brother, Michael, were sent to a boarding school during the war, where they were routinely whipped and bullied. In 1943, at the age of 15, Michael began exhibiting symptoms of psychosis. “My brother saw ‘messages’ everywhere, felt his thoughts were being read or broadcast, had explosions of strange giggling, and felt he had been translocated to another ‘realm,'” Sacks wrote.

To cope with the trauma of the boarding school and his brother’s illness, Sacks sought refuge in the neat, orderly periodic table of elements. He sometimes dreamed of a career as a chemist, and though he went into medicine instead, he still liked to give elements as birthday gifts: “Tin is element 50 and since ten people have turned 50 lately, I’m out of tin. A good friend of mine was 80 recently and I said to him, ‘I wish you were 79, because then I could have given you something made of gold, but since you’re 80, I have to enclose a bottle of mercury.'” For his own birthday, Sacks filled balloons with xenon, a gas that’s much denser than air. Instead of floating, the balloons all dropped to the floor.


It was on this date in 1958 that Alaska’s Lituya Bay was hit with the largest mega-tsunami ever recorded. Lituya Bay, which lies on the Alaska panhandle, is a T-shaped fjord about seven miles long and two miles wide; two inlets form the crossbar of the ‘T.’ The Fairweather Fault Trench runs perpendicular to the fjord; it’s filled with water and glaciers. Because of its shape and its proximity to the fault line, Lituya Bay has seen at least four mega-tsunamis in the last 150 years.

At about nine p.m. on July 9, there was an 8.0-magnitude earthquake along the Fairweather Fault, with the epicenter about 13 miles from the bay. The quake triggered a rockslide from one of the cliffs: Forty million cubic yards of rock and ice dropped from a height of 3,000 feet, and splashed down into the Gilbert Inlet, causing the mammoth wave. An eyewitness reported: “The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. […] Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. […] They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck.”

There were three boats in the bay at the time of the quake and rockslide. One boat was engulfed by the resulting mega-tsunami, but the other two survived. Because the area was uninhabited, the two men on the small boat were the wave’s only casualties.

The mega-tsunami reduced the forest to a collection of stumps and bedrock, hundreds of feet up the shore, as it swept out to the Gulf of Alaska. Spruce trees with trunks six feet wide were splintered. Later, scientists were able to calculate the height of the wave based on how far inland the damage extended; they estimate the mega-tsunami was 1,720 feet high. That’s almost 300 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

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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.

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