The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

“The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key. Public domain.

Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh, thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand,
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!


Today is Flag Day here in the United States. On this day in 1777, the government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag. No one knows for sure, but it was most likely designed by Congressman Francis Hopkinson and sewn by a seamstress in Philadelphia named Betsy Ross.


It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons — and counterculture icons — of the past half century: Che Guevara (books by this author), born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928), to parents of Irish and Spanish descent. His family was affluent and believed strongly in socialist ideals. He swam competitively, played rugby, and learned to speak French fluently before heading off to medical school. At 23, he took a year off from medical school and set out on a motorcycle ride with a friend of his. For nine months, he traveled around, traversing 8,000 miles by motorcycle, steamship, horseback, hitchhiking, river raft, and cargo plane. The journey became the basis for his New York Times best-selling book The Motorcycle Diaries.

He finished medical school, traveled to Guatemala to promote his ideas of land reform and peasant revolt, and went on to Mexico, where he became friends with Raúl Castro. Raúl decided that Che had a lot of ideas in common with his older brother Fidel Castro, who was living in exile in Mexico after leading a failed uprising in Cuba. In 1955, Che and Fidel had a series of meetings in a house in Mexico City in which they planned to invade Cuba and overthrow the corrupt Batista regime. They gathered other Cuban exiles into their ranks, and Fidel put Che in charge of training the soldiers for combat.

Guerilla fighters set out from Mexico on a wobbly old yacht, called the Granma, and landed on Cuba’s east coast, where they began inciting revolt. In late December 1958, Che led a crucial victory in the town of Santa Clara, boarding and overtaking a railroad train full of Batista’s soldiers and weapons. And a few days later, on January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro marched victoriously into Havana, where he began setting up the new revolutionary government — the one that still rules Cuba today. Che held various internal ministry posts in the new government, including director of the national bank. He also oversaw the execution of war criminals, and he served as ambassador to a number of nations around the world. It was Che Guevara who orchestrated the close ties between revolutionary Cuba and the Soviet Union. He set up massive trade agreements — in one deal, the USSR would buy 3 million tons of sugar from Cuba — and arranged for the Soviets to provide military support if Cuba should be threatened by hostile neighbors.

Che was captured in Bolivia in October 1967, while training guerilla fighters for an uprising. He was executed at a schoolhouse the next day. His famous last words: “Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.” He was 39. 


 It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (books by this author). Harriet Elizabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1811. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Congregationalist minister, and he was a great proponent of education. The family moved to Cincinnati in 1832, and Harriet married Calvin Ellis Stowe in 1836; he was a clergyman and scholar, and he encouraged her to continue writing, which she had already enjoyed doing for several years.

Although Ohio was a free state, Cincinnati was separated from Kentucky slave-owners only by the Ohio River, and Stowe was very aware of conditions through her encounters with fugitive slaves. She also read a great deal of abolitionist literature, and when her husband took a teaching position in Maine, she began writing a long tale of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly (1852), which caused a national sensation. When she later met President Lincoln in 1863, he reportedly remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this great war.”

In 1996, novelist Jane Smiley wrote in Harper’s: “Ernest Hemingway, thinking of himself, as always, once said that all American literature grew out of Huck Finn. It undoubtedly would have been better for American literature, and American culture, if our literature had grown out of one of the best-selling novels of all time, another American work of the nineteenth century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Smiley explained that by making the racism and slavery a personal matter between two individuals, rather than a political and institutional evil, Huck Finn fails even where it succeeds, by allowing white people to feel good about getting over their racism without ever actually doing anything about it. Smiley wrote, “Personal relationships do not mitigate the evils of slavery.” In Huck Finn, she writes, “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity.” She concludes: “I would rather my children read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though it is far more vivid in its depiction of cruelty than Huck Finn, and this is because Stowe’s novel is clearly and unmistakably a tragedy. No whitewash, no secrets, but evil, suffering, imagination, endurance, and redemption — just like life.”


Today is the birthday of screenwriter and blogger Diablo Cody (books by this author), born Brooke Busey in Lemont, Illinois, in 1978. She majored in media studies at the University of Iowa, and her first few jobs in and around Chicago were secretarial. She moved to Minneapolis to join her boyfriend Jonny, whom she met on the Internet, and took a job with an ad agency, though she didn’t particularly care for the work. She wrote a couple of blogs — one, called “Red Secretary,” was a quasi-fictional account of an Eastern bloc office worker that she used to complain about her job. After she went to an amateur night at a strip club, the Skyway Lounge, she quit to become a full-time stripper, and she blogged about that experience as well. In 2002, when she was 24, she wrote a memoir: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.

She came up with her pen name after listening to the Arcadia song “El Diablo” while driving through Cody, Wyoming. It may have been a spur-of-the-moment choice, but she’s stuck with it now: “The name fuse followed me from the book to the screenplay, and now I have to live with the name, which I chose in 30 seconds with no thought about how it might sound or what it might imply. It was just a funny thing.”

Her manager asked her to write a sample screenplay that he could take around to producers in an attempt to sell the screen rights to her memoir. The sample she produced was Juno, a story about a quippy but tenderhearted pregnant teenager. Plans to adapt her memoir were scrapped in favor of producing Juno, and the movie won several awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2007. She’s since written a few more screenplays, an original series for Showtime (The United States of Tara), and is set to adapt the popular young adult series Sweet Valley High into a movie. She has also been a contributing writer to Jane magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and the alternative weekly City Pages in Minneapolis, and she hosts a YouTube-based series called Red Band Trailer. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Dan Maurio, and their son, Marcello. “I’ve been told that I’m incompetent, socially retarded, maladjusted,” she said. “I still know that I couldn’t function in reality. Los Angeles is a good place for me.”

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"92nd St Y Talk"

Garrison addresses a crowd at 92nd St Y, a community center on the Upper East Side of New York. He discusses his long career in writing and in radio and celebrates modern revolutions such as the GPS lady, soft butter, and artisan bread.

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"Summer in Lake Wobegon"

Garrison talks about summer in Lake Wobegon and a few of the town's guiding principles. From Mr. Keillor's Sunday Night Service.

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"June 19, 1999"

Live from Reno, Nevada, with special guests Kirkmount, Geoff Muldaur, and Fritz Richmond.

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"Prairie Home Merchandise"

Stock up on duet CDs, The News from Lake Wobegon collections, and Powdermilk Biscuit T-shirts for the whole family!

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Aboard the Queen Mary 2

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.

We eased away from the dock in Brooklyn and sailed past the towers of capitalism and Miss Liberty and under the Verrazano Bridge and around Sandy Hook out onto the vast inhospitable ocean, sitting on deck chairs with blankets over our legs. My wife looks as if she were born to this way of life; you’d never guess she’s from Minnesota.

The cruise business is booming as a way to see the world while sleeping in one bed and not having to pack your clothes every day. What QM2 offers is something more. It’s the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, a slender ship, and its selling point is a style of life. An enormous dance floor with a first-rate dance band playing foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and cha-chas, and the floor crowded with dancers in tuxedos and gowns, expressing their inner elegance. The songs are not about rebellion and being true to yourself, but about the nearness of you, being unable to take my eyes off of you, fascination, walking hand in hand, side by side.

Ballroom dancing is a vanishing culture. If someone came to Minnesota and asked me where they could foxtrot to a live band, I wouldn’t have a clue. There are music clubs where people in their twenties can jump around in the dark to hip-hop and punk, but ballroom dancing is not about self-expression, it’s about two people making each other feel graceful. It’s a conversation. The tango has parameters. So does the mambo. But within each dance is a whole stylistic vocabulary of dips and turns and spins, kicks and bows, hands outstretched, a shimmy shimmy shake. The handsome crooner sings: “Music and passion are always in fashion at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana,” a song out of the deep archive, but the dancers take to it like fish to water, old coots and grandes dames, the limber, the arthritic, the expansive, the conservative, all dancing to the same rhythm but in variant styles.

Everyone has had a life — captain of industry, civil engineer, investment banker, p.r. exec, trial lawyer — but none of that matters now, as the band swings into “I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, but I get a kick out of you” — the dancers are all united in courtship, the men in black-tie uniformity, the women individual, in a gala performance that seems to be vanishing from the world.

The textbook pattern of the dance is only the entry point, and within each form is a whole vocabulary of variations, a bounce, a twist, a kick, a spin. To find freedom of expression within a form is one of the chief pleasures of life.

My wife loves all this and I love to be her consort. We hike around the promenade deck, one-third mile, the Atlantic sliding by, we dress for dinner, we go dancing. A man needs to extend himself when called upon.

I chatted with the singer between sets. Michael Burke. He’s Irish, young, rock ’n’ roll is his natural style, but he is very convincing as a crooner. He has seven sisters in Ireland and so he needs no home of his own, he sings on ships and when he needs a month off, he picks which sister to lodge with. This man knows about family.

As for me, a week on the ocean dancing with Madame has changed my view of things. Self-expression is fine for other people, but not for me. Freedom is much overrated as an experience. Harmony, love, closeness, adoration are to be preferred.

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I walk around New York City on these perfect summer nights, sirens passing, helicopters chunking above, subway rumbling below, diners in sidewalk cafes, dogs walking their owners, and after a little while, I look for an excuse to sit down. I’m walking because I’m a sedentary guy who is scheduled to fly to Prague with my ambulatory wife who will want to see castles and parks and museums and who will be gratified if I can keep up with her. I don’t care about castles; I am a democrat. My favorite museum is in Cooperstown. But I shall be her consort, walking three steps behind, my head up, fulfilling my role.

Walking around the big city, whenever I see a lighted ballfield, I turn in that direction and find a spot by the backstop and sit. Manhattan is an island, short on space, and so the Parks Department likes to lay out four ballfields in one rectangle, the four home plates in the corners, the diamonds aiming in toward the middle, so that the outfielders are intermingled with each other. A center fielder may backpedal for a long fly ball and make the catch next to someone else’s second base. It’s a whole new ballgame. Interdependence is the key, which is an amazing thing in a country as divided as ours is. I know New Yorkers who’ve never been to Kansas. Hard for me to accept that as normal.

It’s sort of like the great Rose Reading Room at the Public Library on 42nd Street, that hushed chapel where a couple hundred people sit silently at long tables, reading or tapping on laptops, each in his or her separate bubble, bubbles that may be fragile and so a severe decorum is observed. The little skritch of an iPhone camera would violate it. So people don’t. It’s basic cooperation, same as a shortstop saying, “You’re good, you’re good, you’re good” to reassure a backpedaling right fielder from next door to keep his eye on the fly ball, that his path is clear.

New York is a big sports town because a goodly percentage of the population is close enough to the poverty line to be aware of it and pro sports stardom is the fairy tale of poor kids growing up to be rich. I know Midwestern kids who have zero interest in athletics, whose passion is playing video games. There are not many multimillionaire video gamers and they don’t care.

Writing a best-selling novel was my fairy tale, and I’m completely over it now, but in the reading room, I like to imagine that the young African-American woman and the young Vietnamese guy at my table are entertaining that dream. American literature is leaning toward minority authors because that dream is powerfully attractive. A coming-of-age novel about an immigrant family with an abusive father and overwhelmed mother and a nerdy kid with a terrible stutter who, by Chapter 3, you realize is the author of the book. I know Midwestern writers who have zero interest in the novel, whose passion is poetry. There is one millionaire poet in America, Billy Collins, and all the others are earning less than $50K/year teaching creative writing.

My game these days is the memoir and, at 75, I am one of the oldest memoirists around. Most of them are in their 40s. I waited for some sort heartbreak that would make my memoir interesting, but nothing happened, and then I realized that I had married so well that life was likely to go on pleasantly into dementia and beyond, so I’m now almost finished with the first draft. It’s all about luck. People are going to resent it.

I think of the poets vs. the novelists on one diamond, and we memoirists, Shirts vs. Skins, on the adjacent one. I’m a Shirt, a writer who does not tell all. If I start to talk about my impoverished youth when I was sent to walk along the railroad track to pick up coal to heat our house and then I remember that there was no track near our house and anyway the trains were diesel, I realize I have wandered into the novelists field, and I yell, “Sorry!” and I come back. Same if I get too engrossed in describing the woods. The truth is, I was lucky. It could’ve been worse. I married blindly and well. None of us will make it to Cooperstown but it’s okay. A summer night in New York. Be grateful.

 

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. In 1964 on this day, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

On this date in 1940, Winston Churchill gave his famous “finest hour” speech. He had only been prime minister for about a month.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey, who wrote the nonfiction piece “Hiroshima” for the New Yorker about the obliteration of the city. It is also the birthday of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

Today is Bloomsday, which commemorates the day on which the events of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses take place. Joyce chose June 16th, 1904, for the setting because it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons of the past half century: Che Guevara, born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928).

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

Today is the birthday of W.B. Yeats, born in Dublin in 1865. In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, an actress & activist who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

It was on this day in 1942 that Anne Frank was given a small red and white diary as a gift for her 13th birthday. About a week after her birthday, on June 20th, she wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me … because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”

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Aspen Institute – Limericks

Aspen Institute – Limericks

Garrison was invited to the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Words Summer Soirée, on the premise that he would talk about storytelling. Instead, he decided to tell some limericks.

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Letterman appearance (1983)

In this clip from the archives, Garrison talks to David Letterman about his first bestselling book, Happy to Be Here. Explaining his past difficulty writing a novel, Garrison jokes, “I tried to write a novel, David, but I had a basic problem, which was that I was able to move people into a scene, but I was never able to get them out again.”

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Writing

Aboard the Queen Mary 2

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.

Read More

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

Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

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Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a corporate speechwriter and a copywriter. I am 55.5 and would like to meet the right man who enjoys words. I placed a personal ad but got a response from a man in Federal Prison. It seemed intrusive to ask how he landed himself there, so I didn’t respond. I’ve got many friends and I’m perfectly okay-looking. What should I be doing? Taking trips? Moving to another country with a shortage of middle-aged women? Making a systematic request to my entire list of acquaintances to ask them to produce one person? What would you do? I am about to give up.  

-Exhausted by Love

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What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

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Forgot password? Try “LIFEISGOOD42J75#REAL”

It’s spring in Minnesota finally. My lawn is greenish, birds sing in the morning, we go walking in a sweater, no gloves. There is still ice on the lakes, but if you don’t look at them, you don’t notice. Life is good. This is not pointed out often enough, the goodness of life, because journalists know that Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for exposing corruption and sending the mayor to jail for skimming money off the School Milk Fund so the kiddos get 2% rather than whole milk, it’s not given for writing about a walk in the park on a sunny day. Nonetheless, we do have parks and the sun does shine.

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