The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, April 4, 2020


In A Cafe
by Gary Johnson

When Love is lost, the laughter’s good and gone,
The sun sinks down, the heavy fog rolls in,
Nothing is left to say and you know that no good
Will ever come of this,
Life will never again be miraculous.
Tall dark woman in the café, I see
How the tears glitter in your blue eyes.
You drink black coffee for bravery
And weep onto the front page of the Times.
I had a love once too who now is gone, is
gone, she’s gone. The waves roll along
The coast, the sweet summer rain blows in.
If I knew you, I’d sit by your side and sing:
This world is not our home, we’re only passing through.

 

“In A Cafe” by Gary Johnson. Used with permission of the author.


It was on this day in 1968 that Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this authorwas assassinated standing on the balcony of his room on the second floor of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis at 6:01 in the evening. He’d gone to Memphis to support a strike by 1,300 black sanitation workers, and the night before he’d given a speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis in which he said:

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I just want to do God’s will … I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”


It’s the birthday of poet Maya Angelou (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1928). When she was three years old, her parents’ marriage ended, and her father put Angelou and her brother on a train and sent them to a tiny town in Arkansas to live with their grandparents. She wrote: “Stamps, Arkansas, with its dust and hate and narrowness was as South as it was possible to get.” Occasionally she went back to live with her mother, and during one of these periods, her mother’s boyfriend raped seven-year-old Angelou. She told her family, and the man was murdered, possibly by her uncles. Angelou felt responsible, and she stopped speaking for five years. She said: “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

Angelou and her brother went back to live with their grandmother in Stamps. One day she met Bertha Flowers, a stylish, educated black woman who wore voile dresses and flowered hats and had a library of great books. Flowers took the girl under her wing; she had a beautiful voice, and she read aloud from her favorite novels and poems — from Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, and many more. She was insistent that language was the most important thing that separated people from all other species, and not just written words, but also spoken word. When Angelou was 12, Flowers took her to the library and suggested that she read everything, beginning with books whose titles began with the letter “A”; Angelou eventually read every book in the library. Flowers encouraged Angelou to memorize and recite literature, especially poems, and slowly, by reciting other peoples’ words, the girl began to speak again.

When Angelou was 14, she moved to Oakland to live with her mother, and soon dropped out of school to become the first black streetcar driver in the city of San Francisco. She gave birth to a son at age 17. She found steady work as a calypso dancer and singer, and toured Europe as a dancer with a production of Porgy and Bess. She moved to New York City, then lived for a while in Egypt and Ghana, working as a journalist. She met with Malcolm X in Ghana and decided to return to America to help establish his Organization of African-American Unity, but he was killed days after she returned. A few years later, she had just agreed to help Martin Luther King Jr. when he, too, was killed — on her 40th birthday.

She sank into depression, but she received lots of support from her friend James Baldwin, a novelist. One night he took her to dinner with some friends, the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and his wife, Judy. All three were magnificent storytellers, and Angelou had to fight to get a word in edgewise, but she said a few things. Apparently, they were impressed, because Judy Feiffer called up Bob Loomis, an editor at Random House, and told him that he should convince the dancer Maya Angelou to write an autobiography. Loomis called her up, but she refused. He called several more times, and she continued to turn him down. Finally, Loomis asked Baldwin for help, and Baldwin suggested a strategy. So Loomis called Angelou one more time and said he would stop bothering her, and that it was probably a good thing she wasn’t attempting it, because it was very difficult to write an autobiography that was also good literature. Immediately Angelou agreed to give it a try. She said, “Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass — the slave narrative — speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying meaning we.”

She went to work, and her first autobiography became I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). She went on to write many more books of poetry and autobiography, including Gather Together in My Name (1974), Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well (1975), And Still I Rise (1978), All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986), and Mom & Me & Mom (2013). She died in 2014.


It’s the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras (books by this author), born in a small village near Saigon in what was then French Indochina (1914). After her father died of dysentery, her mother struggled to support the family, and she was so distracted that she forgot to enroll her children in school. Duras said: “For two years I ran wild; it was probably the time in my life I came closest to complete happiness. At eight, I still couldn’t read or write.” Her mother bought some land, hoping to farm it, but it turned out to be worthless. Still, the family was able to scrape enough money together to send Duras to school in Saigon.

While Duras was going to high school in Saigon, she began an affair with an older, wealthy Chinese man, which ended when she graduated from high school and went to college in France. She kept the affair secret for the next 50 years, while writing short, experimental novels such as The Sea Wall (1953) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and screenplays for films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966).

Then at the age of 70, after struggling with alcoholism for much of her life, Duras decided to write a novel based on her adolescent affair with the Chinese man. That novel was The Lover (1984), and it was her first major literary success, becoming an international best-seller and winning France’s top literary prize.

The Lover begins: “One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you that I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.’”


It’s the birthday of blues singer Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915). He said that his grandmother nicknamed him Muddy Waters because as a boy he liked to play in the muddy creek near his house. He learned to play the blues in the Mississippi Delta style by listening performers like Son House and Robert Johnson. He worked as a farmhand during the week, but he began to perform at juke joints, fish fries, and parties on the weekends.

In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax came through Mississippi, recording folk singers for the Library of Congress, and he made several recordings of Muddy Waters. Waters was blown away by the experience of hearing these recordings. He said, “Man, you don’t know how I felt that afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice.” He was so impressed that he decided to try to make it as a professional recording artist. He was making 22 cents an hour as a farmhand, and he’d recently gotten into a fight with his boss about a pay raise. He later said, “I wanted to leave Mississippi in the worst way.”

So in May of 1943, Waters took a train from Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago, Illinois. His only luggage was a suit of clothes and an acoustic guitar. He was joining the migration of thousands of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities to find better jobs and to get away from racist Jim Crow laws. Waters got a job at a paper factory, moved in with some cousins on the South Side, and started performing at house parties for whiskey and tips.

At the time, the most popular music in the nightclubs in Chicago was big band music. Waters tried to break through with his Mississippi blues, but he had a hard time playing loud enough for anyone to hear him on his acoustic guitar at the noisy parties and bars where he played. So in 1944, he bought a cheap electric guitar from his uncle, which helped increase his sound level.

It was the first time anyone had played Mississippi blues on an electric guitar, which revolutionized the sound of the blues. Waters didn’t make it big until the night he was backing a singer named Sonny Boy, and Sonny Boy got too drunk to sing. That night, Waters said, “I pulled the mike to me, opened this big mouth up, boy, and the house went crazy.”

To get time off for his first recording session at Chess Records, Waters told his boss he had to go to a funeral. That first session didn’t pan out, but the following year, in 1948, Waters recorded his first hit, “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” The song was released on a Friday afternoon in April of 1948, and the initial pressing of 3,000 copies had sold out by Saturday evening. Waters said: “All of a sudden, I became Muddy Waters, you know? People started to speakin’, hollerin’ across streets at me.”

Waters went on to record many more songs, including “Standing Around Crying” (1952) and “Hoochie Coochie Man” (1953), and he became one of the most influential blues musicians of the 20th century.

 

 

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How we live in these troubled times

The world is falling apart but my niece has sent me pictures of her, her friends, people from her church, cleaning up along Lake Street in Minneapolis, something that distinguishes a Minneapolis riot from one in Chicago or Philadelphia: when the arsonists leave, the brigades of nice people come in to tidy up.

Say what you will, but this is our neighborhood and we don’t accept trashiness, we believe that clean streets, nice lawns, well-kept houses, bring out the goodness inherent in humanity. My aunts believed that, my mother, my grandma. Men with incendiary devices come through and torch businesses, a library, a police station, but the women will have the last word, count on it.

I have learned this during the almost three months of quarantine: woman rules the roost and man is a detriment to be tolerated. We’ve been isolating in a two-bedroom apartment and she has gotten very strict about squalor. She holds up a pair of black underwear she found on the couch. It is a large pair with a slit in front. I weigh 220 pounds, she weighs half of that. “Whose is this?” she asks, rhetorically.

She knows that I, like other men, have strong latent bachelor farmer tendencies. I set something down where it doesn’t belong — a magazine on the floor by the toilet — and minutes later, you’ve got papers strewn on the dining room table, a sinkful of dirty dishes, bedsprings in the front yard and an old rusted-out Chevy up on blocks, a refrigerator and two rusty sinks in tall weeds. It starts with one magazine on the floor and your life descends into chaos. Without a woman to hold up the underwear and say, “Is this yours?” it’s all over, goodbye Information Age, we’re back to Bronze.

She is tough. Man is a hunter: give me a rock and I’ll go out and bring home my kill and skin it and roast it over a fire. She leans toward veganism. So my meat ration has been cut to a tenth of what it once was. I used to travel for business and wake up in a hotel, having hung my breakfast order on the doorknob the night before, and in comes the waiter with coffee, an 8 oz. top sirloin, two eggs fried over easy, a breakfast that prepares a man to go out and vanquish the Visigoths. No more. In my vegan prison, it’s wheat cereal with some blueberries. She loves lentils, quinoa, green leafy things, stuff that cattle eat.

“It’s good for you,” she says and of course she’s right and that’s the irritating part. She wants me to do sit-ups and jumping jacks and stretching, she encourages me to join her in yoga with her YouTube instructor Adriene. I don’t do yoga, I’m a guy. Some male persons may do it but guys don’t. What’s His Name doesn’t do yoga with Melania and neither does Joe Biden with Jill, and if either one were to be photographed in black tights doing Ardha Chandrasana, he would no longer be eligible to become Leader of the Free World. The LOFW plays golf. He doesn’t kneel or squat, he swings a club and sends a missile flying with deadly accuracy.

Before the lockdown I went to an office and was consulted by employees who offered their suggestions, which, wisely, I took, with minor revisions. I wore a suit, sometimes a tie. I had a role. Now my usefulness is limited to reaching the copper boiler on the top shelf and bringing it down and then, later, putting it back up. Height is my main asset, not experience. Sometimes I unload the dishwasher. Once in a while, if the sky turns black and bolts of lightning appear to the south and the wind moans in the weatherstripping and she becomes anxious, she turns to me for manly reassurance, though I know less about meteorology than the average medieval peasant did, but I put my hand on her shoulder and say, “It’s okay. Only a storm.”

And that is what makes quarantine bearable, putting my hand on her shoulder. We’ve been locked up together for a long time and whenever I walk into a room and see her, I put my hand on her shoulder, her back, I kiss her hair, I know this woman by heart. For her sake, I eat lentils and quinoa instead of muskrat or wild boar. She runs the house and I get to put my hand on her shoulder. It’s not a bad deal.

A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

Memorial Day gives us a long weekend and marks the beginning of summer, but I remember back in my Boy Scout youth attending a service at a military cemetery and listening to a chaplain talk about men who willingly gave their lives for their country, and heard Taps played by a bugler in the distance. It was moving. Since then, however, we became aware of men who didn’t give their lives — their lives were taken from them by their country fighting a misbegotten war it didn’t know how to stop.

Even in the Good War, WWII, in 1945, preparing for the invasion of Japan, men had no enthusiasm for giving their lives. A friend of mine was in the invasion force, stationed on Okinawa, and was glad when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “We were cannon fodder and we knew it,” he told me. “The death toll in an American invasion would’ve been in the millions. It took a nuclear horror to break their will. What a relief not to have to do it by hand-to-hand combat.”

We spent lives heavily in Vietnam and lost the war and now we wonder, “What in God’s name was it for?” Vietnam is a major trading partner, cruise ships stop in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City. My nephew lives in Hanoi and works in a bank there. I could call him and FaceTime if I could figure out the time difference.

I can imagine that FaceTime, YouTube, Instagram, Google, by making the world smaller, might lead to an epoch of relative international peace, and Memorial Day might become a museum piece, and if so, we might consider a Marital Memorial Day, when we honor our divorced and bring some peace to our personal lives. The current divorce rate is around 40% and that is a sorrowful thing, and just as the VFW honors the war dead, knowing how easily the living and the dead might have traded places, so we should acknowledge that marriages crash and burn for reasons not understood and blame should be withheld and peace restored.

To live all the days of your life with your best-informed critic is a heroic venture and it’s worth honoring. Respect your failures and you will more fully enjoy your success.

The MMD should be held in the spring and there should be a lighthearted lunch with exes and their families. You sit next to your ex and toast each other’s health and catch up on the latest and recognize that you launched a romance out of hopeful idealism and though it crashed, the impulse was admirable.

You’re done with the yelling, the door slamming, the lawyers. Sit down and be decent, look each other in the eye, forgive. This would be more valuable in the real life of our country than the patriotic speech and Taps and the rifle salute.

The pandemic has brought husbands and wives closer together than ever and in some states, angry men have stormed state capitols demanding that the bonds be loosened, even at the risk of death. In quarantine, men quickly realize that they married women who possess powerful corrective impulses — who rush to clean up things even before they’re spilled, who straighten and adjust and set things right that men have left askew. Women will edit your sentences as you speak, and if you pause, she will finish the sentence for you. Men are grateful for women’s corrections but it can be exhausting to be held to high standards 24/7 and so, in order to escape supervision, men take up fishing. Fishing makes no sense whatsoever, to go to great trouble and expense to catch inferior game fish when for a fraction of the dough, you can buy salmon or tuna and broil it briefly and have something fabulous. That’s why so few women fish. Men fish because women don’t. For the same reason, they go hunting, go to blues clubs, sit in crowded sports bars and play video games. These things have been shut down by the pandemic. That is why armed men have threatened the woman governor of Michigan.

A Marital Memorial Day would be a small step toward civility in this anger-riven country. The country needs to calm down and learn to speak gently. Once we do MMD, then perhaps Democrats and Republicans will be able to talk to each other. If you can make peace with a well-informed critic, what’s the harm in talking to an ignorant one?

Some self-isolating thoughts about hair

Jenny cut my hair yesterday out on the balcony in the sun and she kept laughing as she did, which doesn’t instill confidence to hear your haircutter laugh, but at least the hair stays out of my eyes and the worst part (she says) is in back, and we’re in isolation so who cares, and at my age I’m not applying for a job, so it’s rather immaterial. If I wanted to do something wild with my hair, dye it deep purple with bright green stripes, now would be the time to do it, but I lack the motivation to be colorful. I’m a writer and an observer and you can’t see the world clearly if other people are staring at you: it’s see or be seen.

Hair was crucial in the 10th grade, 1958, when you had greasers like Trump and jocks with crewcuts and farmboys had shaggy hair and we cool guys aimed for an Ivy League look. My dad cut his sons’ hair and he was a carpenter and not so keen about fashion. I told him, “Short on top but with a part, a little longer in back.” Coolness was the point of it, blue button-down shirts, khaki pants, loafers, white socks, but now I have no clue about what’s cool, if anything is, and coolness is no longer a factor in my life. I’m old. The first section of the paper I turn to is the obituary section. People I know keep showing up there.

I went away to the U aiming to be a writer so I majored in English, not knowing how much I’d come to hate it. I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald and my teachers were his mortician. The English Department was across the street from the Institute of Technology and we writers loved to look down on the engineers. They wore the wrong color shirts with plastic pocket protectors and high-water pants with belts hitched way up under their rib cage and half-rim horn-rimmed glasses and short nerdy hair whereas we had long majestic hair and we wrote dark incomprehensible poetry. If I ever felt miserable about having to write a paper about Dryden or Coleridge or Milton, I just crossed the street and mingled with engineers, their slide rules in a holster on their belt, a race of dullards without a single amazing and original thought, and it gave me the arrogance I was looking for.

I think of this now as I consider what engineers have given the world, such as this little gizmo the size of half a sandwich that is always near me, a telephone that is also a camera, encyclopedia, newspaper, calendar, compass, weather monitor, phone book, and twenty other things I’m not aware of. Quiet studious men from the world of numbers changed the world in some wonderful ways. Bill Gates does not appear to spend a great deal of time worrying about his hair. Mark Zuckerberg has hair like a skullcap. Facebook is my link to family and friends. The nerds who invented Google gave a great gift us old people who forgot what “postmodern” means and can’t remember the year Rod Carew set a record for stealing home base and Google will find it for you: he stole home seventeen times. Seven times in 1969 alone.

Nineteen sixty-nine was an enormous year in my life. I was 27 and had a baby boy and needed to get serious and instead of finishing a novel that nobody would want, I got a job in radio doing the early morning shift and I shifted from tragic self-awareness to humor because that’s what people needed on a dark winter morning and that was when I started to feel useful and that’s when you find your vocation. And hair has nothing to do with it.

I write this on a laptop hooked up to a printer with an instruction manual written by engineers for other engineers, people who whizzed through college courses that to me were a solid brick wall, so it’s unreadable for me. Imagine if all your cookbooks were in French and you had to call one of your few Francophones in order to make pancakes. But never mind. Thank you, Nerdland, for the laptop and the phone. I could live without them but it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I apologize for looking down on you for your bad hair.

A few words while I wait for her to come in

I married a perfectionist and am glad for it especially during this pandemonium or pandora or veranda or whatever it is we’re going through these days, even my dream life is clearer, more detailed than in normal times, which now are only a memory, those evenings when we ate dinner in a crowded restaurant and sat in the tenth row of a theater and packed into a crowded train to go home.

She is a violinist, dedicated since her teen years to perfection, practicing many hours a day so that she could play in a string section and not stand out as an individual. I am a struggling writer for whom individual identity is crucial. She sat in an orchestra wearing black like all the others, suppressing the urge to wear a tiara with flashing red and green pulsating lights. I sat in a café, in a red T-shirt, corduroy jacket, jeans, boots, smoking a Gauloise, a Panama hat on the table, writing on a yellow legal pad, something original. It was a café (actually a cafeteria) patronized by engineering students and I was the only Gauloise/Panama person there. The others lived in a world of correct answers and I lived in a forest of wild surmise.

Had I not married the violinist, I’d be in a hospital, trying to breathe, having refused to self-isolate because I hate the term, I prefer the term “drift.” But thanks to her attention to detail, we live with our daughter in a clean apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and haven’t ventured outdoors, except to step out on the balcony, for two months. She is more sociable than I — most musicians are, having a common exclusive language — and so she misses the street life more than I do, but she studied up on the situation — a strange and dangerous contagion, an elderly and careless husband — and saw what needed to be done. And so I find myself in a quiet room with an empty schedule, an ideal life for a writer.

If I taught Creative Writing now, I wouldn’t be encouraging wild originality, I’d be teaching people to keep an orderly house and a spotless kitchen, hang up your clothes, and defend against interruption. A cluttered desk is a prison cell; a life of confusion is a dungeon.

The argument these days between Opening the Doors and Maintaining Quarantine is the argument between ignorance and knowledge and ordinarily I’d go with ignorance but I have a manager who is in for the long haul. She misses her work, playing in a pit, two feet away from two other players, a soprano and a tenor onstage singing Puccini passionately and projecting thousands of saliva droplets with every fricative, but she knows that people shouldn’t die from opera, only in it, so life is rearranged.

And so, when she wakes up in the morning and appears in the doorway of my quiet room, I hold out my arms and she sits on my lap and puts her head on my shoulder. We live day by day. All the big bets are off. The calendar is empty. The canvas chairs on the balcony that I was always too busy to sit in now have occupants. I look at the planter with the herbs my violinist has planted, an orchestra of mint and marjoram, cilantro, basil and rosemary, who will wind up in a stir-fry or what we in Minnesota used to call “hotdish” before we went to college. It’s the middle of May, a chilly spring, you can count the warm days on your left hand. But if the sun shines, even the low 50s are good enough.

Old man in a black winter coat looking out on the rooftops of New York, and a slim blond with violin scars on her jaw, and we talk about the boxes of useless unused stuff in closets that should be dealt with, and it brings to mind a fit of shelf-clearing years ago, an old unread book I opened and found, pressed between the leaves, a piece of yellowed handstitching: “Elizabeth Crandall is my name And America is my nation. Providence is my home And Christ is my salvation When I am dead and in my grave and all my bones are rotten, if this you see, remember me, when I am quite forgotten. 1845.” A fellow writer, long gone, and the thought isn’t original but the stitching is perfect. The perfection is stunning.

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How we live in these troubled times

The world is falling apart but my niece has sent me pictures of her, her friends, people from her church, cleaning up along Lake Street in Minneapolis, something that distinguishes a Minneapolis riot from one in Chicago or Philadelphia: when the arsonists leave, the brigades of nice people come in to tidy up.

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The city I love is burning, people living in dread, as the result of having tolerated a police force that has its own code and doesn’t live by our ideals.

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So much is strange in this lockdown but the overriding fact, to a Minnesotan, is that it’s summer at last, we’re eating outdoors, and we’re all in this together.

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A blissful day in isolation, part of it on the terrace snoozing in the sun, mostly indoors working on the novel.

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A modest proposal for a day of forgiveness

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Press Kit

If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

Recent reviews:

“Fans laughed, applauded and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show” -Jeff Baenen, AP News

“His shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve” -Chris Barton, LA Times

“[Keillor is] an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.” -Betsie Freeman, Omaha-World Herald

To shop merchandise related to Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, and The Writer’s Almanac, visit our new online store >>>