The Writer’s Almanac for September 13, 2018

Why You Travel by Gail Mazur from Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems. © The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

You don’t want the children to know how afraid
you are. You want to be sure their hold on life

is steady, sturdy. Were mothers and fathers
always this anxious, holding the ringing

receiver close to the ear: Why don’t they answer
where could they be? There’s a conspiracy

to protect the young, so they’ll be fearless,
it’s why you travel—it’s a way of trying

to let go, of lying. You don’t sit
in a stiff chair and worry, you keep moving.

Postcards from the Alamo, the Alhambra.
Photos of you in Barcelona, Gaudi’s park

swirling behind you. There you are in the Garden
of the Master of the Fishing Nets, one red

tree against a white wall, koi swarming
over each other in the thick demoralized pond.

You, fainting at the Buddhist caves.
Climbing with thousands on the Great Wall,

wearing a straw cap, a backpack, a year
before the students at Tiananmen Square.

Having the time of your life, blistered and smiling.
The acid of your fear could eat the world.


It’s the birthday of Roald Dahl, (books by this author) born in Llandaff, South Wales (1916). One of the few things he enjoyed about his childhood was that the Cadbury chocolate company had chosen his school as a focus group for new candies they were developing. Every so often, a plain gray cardboard box was issued to each child, filled with 11 chocolate bars. It was the children’s task to rate the candy, and Dahl took his job very seriously. About one of the sample candy bars, he wrote, “Too subtle for the common palate.” He later said that the experience got him imagining what a candy factory might be like, and from it wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964).


It’s the birthday of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck in Leipzig, Germany, in 1819. Both of her parents were musicians, and after her parents divorced when she was four, Clara was raised by her father, who taught her to play the piano. When she was eight years old, she performed at the home of some family friends, and 17-year-old Robert Schumann was so impressed by her playing that he dropped out of law school to study piano with Clara’s father.

Clara made her formal debut at age 11, and she was considered a great pianist for the rest of her life. Her concerts sold out, she won all sorts of awards, and the critics loved her, comparing her to Beethoven. By the time she was a teenager, she was a much better piano player than Schumann, but he fell in love with Clara and proposed to her, and her father did everything he could to stop the marriage. Clara and Robert finally had to take him to court, and they were married on the eve of Clara’s 21st birthday.

Clara raised seven children and continued to tour, compose, and perform, and it was largely because of her popularity and because people respected her so much that they gave Robert Schumann’s work a chance, although many people still didn’t like it. When her husband died in 1856, Clara continued touring, and played her last concert in 1891, 61 years after her performance career had begun. She died five years later, at the age of 77.

She said, “My imagination can picture no fairer happiness than to continue living for art.”


Today is the birthday of author Sherwood Anderson (1876) (books by this author), born in Camden, Ohio. He became a writer in 1912, after suffering a nervous breakdown and wandering around Cleveland for four days. His prose style was direct and unpretentious, and he was one of the first authors to incorporate the modern psychological theories of Freud into his work. He was a major influence on the generation of American writers that followed him, including Hemingway and Faulkner, although they both eventually turned against him. Anderson encouraged Faulkner in his writing aspirations, and he who wrote young Hemingway a letter of introduction to take with him to Paris, helping put him in touch with Stein and other American ex-pats. For her part, Stein called Anderson “a much more original writer than Hemingway.” Anderson is best known for his short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a portrait of life in a small Midwestern town. He also wrote a best-selling novel, Dark Laughter (1925).


It’s the birthday of British novelist, playwright, and essayist John Boynton — known as J.B. — Priestley (1894) (books by this author), born in Bradford, Yorkshire. He served in the infantry during World War I, and most of his friends were killed in combat. He didn’t write about the war, and remained nostalgic for the pre-war years, saying, “I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country.” After studying English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a journalist, and then a novelist, and then a dramatist. He was also a popular and talented radio speaker, and produced a series of patriotic broadcasts during World War II. He wrote more than 120 books, most notably the novels The Good Companions (1929), Bright Day (1946), and Lost Empires (1965).

In a 1978 interview with the International Herald Tribune, he said, “Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be,” and, “Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries.”


It’s the birthday of Samuel Wilson, the original “Uncle Sam,” born in Arlington, Massachusetts (1766). During the War of 1812, Wilson was a successful meatpacker in Troy, New York. He had obtained a contract to supply beef to the Army, and he shipped it in barrels stamped with the initials “U.S.” to show it was the property of the United States government. However, his workers — and, later, the soldiers — joked that it stood for “Uncle Sam,” Wilson’s nickname. Over time, the association grew and soon the nickname became widely linked to the United States. The association was made official by an act of Congress in 1961.

The first personification of “Uncle Sam” was developed by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, beginning in the late 1860s. Nast is also responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus, as well as the donkey and elephant of our political parties. He gradually developed the character of Uncle Sam over the next decade, eventually putting him in a suit decorated with the stars and stripes and giving him a white beard. But for most people, it’s the World War I recruitment poster — designed by James Montgomery Flagg — that first comes to mind when they hear “Uncle Sam.” It’s the image of Sam, pointing directly at the viewer, above the words “I Want You For The U.S. Army.” It first appeared in 1916.


On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. He was a 25-year-old foreman on a crew cutting a railroad bed near Cavendish, Vermont. He was using a tamping iron to pack explosives into a hole in a boulder when the explosive powder detonated. It drove the 43-inch iron through his left cheek, up behind his left eye, and out the top of his head, where it landed some 30 yards away. He lost the vision in his left eye, but he may not even have lost consciousness; in any case, he was able to walk to an oxcart within a few minutes of the accident. Workers took him to his boarding house, where he quipped to the doctor, John Harlow, “Here is business enough for you.”

By the following January, Gage had apparently completely recovered, although the large exit wound never fully healed. And while he was living a seemingly normal life, his friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality in the months after the incident. Dr. Harlow faithfully recorded them and published them 20 years later in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society: “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity … In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.'” He lost his job with the railway company and took work in stables, driving coaches, until he died 12 years later after a series of seizures.

Gage inspired new areas of brain research and became one of the most famous patients in neuroscience. Even though there wasn’t much hard data recorded about his case, scientists began researching a connection between brain injury and personality change. They also became interested in “mapping” the brain, noticing a link in Gage’s case between the frontal cortex and social inhibitions, and began to discuss whether different areas of the brain may control different functions. Two-thirds of psychology textbooks mention him. His skull and the tamping iron are on display at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard’s School of Medicine.

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no more.

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio
The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 22, 2018

Happy Thanksgiving! We are thankful for Marjane Satrapi, André Gide, George Eliot, and all the other writers born this day.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 21, 2018

It’s the birthday of Voltaire (1694), who wrote, “To succeed in the world it is not enough to be stupid, you must also be well-mannered.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 20, 2018

On this date in 1820, a sperm whale attacked a whaling ship off the coast of South America, an event that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 24, 2007

Live from the Town Hall Theater in New York, it’s The McCoury boys, Madeleine Peyroux, and everybody’s favorite former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 19, 2018

On this date in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, which was only ten sentences long and which lasted about 2 minutes.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 18, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, now a hugely popular online television series.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 17, 2018

It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne, and then reigned for 45 years.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” (1958), which was one of the first novels ever written about European colonization from the point of view of the colonized native people.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for November 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Marianne Moore, who once said, “I never knew anyone with a passion for words who had as much difficulty in saying things as I do.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: November 17, 2007

Live from the State Theater with Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, The Brothers Frantzich, and The Royal Academy of Radio Acting: Tim Russell & Sue Scott.

Read More
Writing

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

Read More

The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

Read More

One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

Read More

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

Read More

Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

Read More

Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

Read More

Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message