The Babe
(Back when I was 24, I pitched up at Time-Life Inc. in its 48-story box headquarters on Sixth Avenue & 50th Street, one more desperate job applicant, and was directed to Sports Illustrated where a kindly woman named Honor Fitzpatrick looked at my writing samples and gently discouraged me. “Your talent is for fiction,” she said. “The only opening I have is for a fact-checker. I don’t think you’d be happy doing that.” Discouraging at the time, but in retrospect one is grateful. Profoundly grateful. A job in that box might’ve sent me down a path that turns into a deep trench, only to awaken at age 48, divorced, in a junk-ridden studio apartment on West 23rd where I sit night after night beating up on a clunky novel about the Midwest. Twenty years later, an editor at S.I. asked me to write something for them and of course I said yes — I took it as corporate capitulation — and wrote a piece of fiction.)

OUR LAKE WOBEGON TEAMS DID not do well last year, the Whippets with no pitching finishing dead last, the Leonards pitiful and helpless in the fall even with a 230-pounder to center the offensive line, and now it’s basketball season again and already the boys are getting accustomed to defeat. When they ran out on the floor for the opener versus Bowlus (who won 58-21), they looked pale and cold in their blue and gold silks, and Buddy had the custodian turn up the heat, but it was too late. These boys looked like they were on death row, they trembled as their names were announced.

It’s not defeat per se that hurts so much, we’re used to that; it’s the sense of doom and submission to fate that is awful. When the 230-pounder centered the ball and it stuck between his tremendous thighs and he toppled forward to be plundered by the Bisons, it was, I’m sure, with a terrible knowledge in his heart that he had this debacle coming to him and it was useless to resist. Two of the basketball players are sons of players on the fabled 1958 squad that was supposed to win the state championship and put our town on the map, but while we looked forward to that glorious weekend our team was eliminated in the first round by St. Klaus. None of us ever recovered from that disappointment. But do our children have to suffer from it, too?

As Harry (Can O’Corn) Knudsen wrote: “In the game of life we’re playing, people now are saying that the aim of it is friendship and trust. I wish that it were true but it seems, for me and you that someone always loses and it’s us.”

Can O’s inspiration came from playing eleven years for the Whippets, a humbling experience for anyone. The team is getting trounced, pummeled, whipped, and Dutch says, “Come on, guys, you’re too tense out there, it’s a game, go out there and have fun,” and you think, This is fun? If this is fun, then sic your dogs on me, let them chew me for a while, that’d be pure pleasure. But out you trot to right field feeling heavyhearted and not even sure you’re trotting correctly so you adjust the trot and your left foot grabs your right, you trip on your own feet, and down you go like a sack of potatoes and the fans in the stands are doubled up gasping and choking, and you have dirt in your mouth that you’ll taste for years—is this experience good for a person?

Some fans have been led to wonder if maybe our Lake Wobegon athletes are suffering from a Christian upbringing that stresses the unworthiness angle and is light on the aspect of grace. How else would boys of sixteen and seventeen get the feeling that they were born to lose, if not in Bible class? And the uneasiness our boys have felt about winning—a fan can recall dozens of nights when the locals had a good first half, opened a nice lead, began to feel the opponents’ pain, and sympathized and lightened up and wound up giving away their lunch. Does this come from misreading the Gospels?

Little Jimmy Wahlberg used to sit in the dugout and preach to the Whippets between innings, using the score of the ball game to quote Scripture; e.g., John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That was fine except when he was pitching. God had never granted Little Jimmy’s prayer request for a good curveball, so this fine Christian boy got shelled like a peanut whenever he took the mound, and one day Ronnie Decker came back to the bench after an eternal inning in centerfield and said, “First Revelations 13:0: Keep the ball down and throw at their heads.”

Ronnie is Catholic, and they have more taste for blood, it seems. (Was there ever a Methodist bullfighter?) In St. Klaus, the ladies chant, “Make ’em sing and make ’em dance / Kick ’em in the nuts and step on their hands.” The boys are ugly brutes with raw sores on their arms and legs and with little ball-bearing eyes who will try to hurt you. A gang of men stands by the backstop, drinking beer and talking to the umpire, a clean-cut Lutheran boy named Fred. Fred knows that, the week before, Carlson called a third strike on a Klausie, dashed to his car, the men rocked it and let the air out of the tires but couldn’t pry the hood open and disconnect the spark plugs before he started up and rode away on the rims. Fred hopes to keep the fans happy.

For a Golden Age of Lake Wobegon Sports, you’d have to go back to the forties. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder. Nine big strapping boys with identical mops of black hair, big beaks, little chins, and so shy they couldn’t look you in the eye, and E.J. was the manager, though the boys were such fine ballplayers, he only sat in the shade on a white kitchen chair and grumbled at them, they didn’t require management.

E.J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He’d spit and curse and rail at him, and then R.J.’d go up and pound one out of the park (making the score 11-zip) and circle the bases and the old man’d say, “Boy, he put the old apple right down the middle, didn’t he? Blind man coulda hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit. When the Schroeders were winning every game, E.J. bitched about how they won.

“Why’dja throw to first for, ya dummy?”

“But it’s the third out, Dad. We won the game.”

“I know that. You don’t have to point that out to me. Why’ntcha get the guy at third?”

“It was easier to go to first.”

“Easier! Easier??!!”

The tenth son, Paul, had a gimpy right leg but still tried to please his dad and sat in the dugout and kept statistics (1.29, for example, and .452 and .992), but E.J. never looked at them. “That’s history,” he said, spitting, “I am interested in the here and now.”

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it. Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfe1d fence for a long long long fly ball and threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and glove and turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, and E.J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes. The batter was called out, the third out. Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad. E.J. sat chewing in silence and fnally he said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago but he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”

What made this old man so mean? Some said it happened in 1924, when he played for the town team that went to Fort Snelling for the state championship and in the ninth inning, in the deepening dusk on Campbell’s Bluff, Lake Wobegon down by one run, bases loaded and himself the tying run on third, when the Minneapolis pitcher suddenly collapsed and writhed around on the mound with his eyes bulging and face purple and vomiting and foaming and clawing and screeching, everyone ran to help him, including E.J., and he jumped up and tagged them all out. A triple play, unassisted. What a rotten trick, but there they stood, a bunch of rubes, and all the slickers howling and whooping their heads off, so he became mean, is one theory.

And he was mean. He could hit foul balls with deadly accuracy at an opponent or a fan who’d been riding him, or a member of the fan’s immediate family, and once he fouled twenty-eight consecutive pitches off the home-plate umpire, for which he was thrown out of the Old Sod Shanty League.

“Go! Hence!” cried the ump.

“For foul balls?”

The umpire and the sinner were face to face. “Forever!” cried the ump. “Never again, so long as ball is thrown, shall thy face be seen in this park.”

“Foul balls ain’t against any rule that I know of!”

The umpire said, “Thou hast displeased me.” And he pointed outerward and E.J. slouched away.

So he coached his boys. He never said a kind word to them, and they worked like dogs in hopes of hearing one, and thus they became great, mowing down the opposition for a hundred miles around. In 1946 they reached their peak. That was the year they disposed easily of fifteen crack teams in the Father Powers Charity Tournament, some by massacre, and at the closing ceremony, surrounded by sad little crippled children sitting dazed in the hot sun and holding pitiful flags they had made themselves, when E.J. was supposed to hand back the winner’s check for $100 to Father Powers to help with the work among the poor, E.J. said, “Fat chance!” and shoved away the kindly priest’s outstretched hand. That was also the year Babe Ruth came to town with the Sorbasol All-Star barnstorming team.

The Babe had retired in 1935 and was dying of cancer, but even a dying man has bills to pay, and so he took to the road for Sorbasol, and Lake Wobegon was the twenty-fourth stop on the trip, a day game on November 12. The All-Star train of two sleepers and a private car for the Babe backed up the sixteen-mile spur into Lake Wobegon, arriving at 10:00 A.M. with a blast of whistle and a burst of steam, but hundreds already were on hand to watch it arrive.

The Babe was a legend then, much like God is today. He didn’t give interviews, in other words. He rode around on his train and appeared only when necessary. It was said that he drank Canadian rye whiskey, ate hot dogs, won thousands at poker, and kept beautiful women in his private car, Excelsior, but that was only talk.

The sleepers were ordinary deluxe Pullmans; the Excelsior was royal green with gold-and-silver trim and crimson velvet curtains tied shut—not that anyone tried to look in; these were proud country people, not a bunch of gawkers. Men stood by the train, their backs to it, talking purposefully about various things, looking out across the lake, and when other men straggled across the feld in twos and threes, stared at the train, and asked, “Is he really in there?” the firstcomers said, “Who? Oh! You mean the Babe? Oh, yes, I reckon he’s here all right—this is his train, you know. I doubt that his train would go running around without the Babe in it, now, would it?” and resumed their job of standing by the train, gazing out across the lake. A proud moment for them.

At noon the Babe came out in white linen knickers. He looked lost. A tiny black man held his left arm. Babe tried to smile at the people and the look on his face made them glance away. He stumbled on a loose plank on the platform and men reached to steady him and noticed he was hot to the touch. He signed an autograph. It was illegible. A young woman was carried to him who’d been mysteriously ill for months, and he laid his big hand on her forehead and she said she felt something. (Next day she was a little better. Not recovered but improved.)

However, the Babe looked shaky, like a man who ate a bushel of peaches whole and now was worried about the pits. He’s drunk, some said, and a man did dump a basket of empty beer bottles off the train, and boys dove in to get one for a souvenir—but others who came close to his breath said no, he wasn’t drunk, only dying. So it was that an immense crowd turned out at the Wally (Old Hard Hands) Bunsen Memorial Ballpark: twenty cents per seat, two bits to stand along the foul line, and a dollar to be behind a rope by the dugout, where the Babe would shake hands with each person in that section.

He and the All-Stars changed into their red Sorbasol uniforms in the dugout, there being no place else, and people looked away as they did it (nowadays people would look, but then they didn’t), and the Babe and his teammates tossed the ball around, then sat down, and out came the Schroeders. They ran around and warmed up and you could see by their nonchalance how nervous they were. E.J. batted grounders to them and hit one grounder zinging into the visitors’ dugout, missing the Babe by six inches. He was too sick to move. The All-Stars ran out and griped to the ump but the Babe sat like he didn’t know where he was. The ump was scared. The Babe hobbled out to home plate for the ceremonial handshakes and photographs, and E.J. put his arm around him as the crowd stood cheering and grinned and whispered, “We’re going to kill ya, ya big mutt. First pitch goes in your ear. This is your last game. Bye, Babe.” And the game got under way.

It was a good game, it’s been said, though nobody remembers much about it specifically, such as the score, for example. The All-Stars were nobodies, only the Babe mattered to the crowd, and the big question was Would he play? He looked too shaky to take the field, so some said, “Suspend the rules! Why not let him just go up and bat! He can bat for the pitcher! Why not? It wouldn’t hurt anything!” And nowadays they might do it, but back then you didn’t pick up the bat unless you picked up your glove and played a position, and others said that maybe it wouldn’t hurt anything but once you start changing the rules of the game for convenience, then what happens to our principles? Or do we change those, too?

So the game went along, a good game except that the Babe sat sprawled in the dugout, the little black man dipping cloths in a bucket of ice and laying them on the great man’s head—a cool fall day but he was hot—and between innings he climbed out and waved to the fans and they stood and cheered and wondered would he come to bat. E.J. said to Bernie, “He’ll bat all right, and when he comes, remember the first pitch: hard and high and inside.”

“He looks too weak to get the bat off his shoulder, Dad. He looks like a breeze would blow him over. I can’t throw at Babe Ruth.”

“He’s not sick, he’s pretending so he don’t have to play like the rest of us. Look at him: big fat rich New York son of a bitch, I bet he’s getting five hundred dollars just to sit there and have a pickaninny put ice on him. Boy, I’d put some ice on him you-know-where, boy, he’d get up quick then, he’d be ready to play then. He comes up, I want you to give him something to think about so he knows we’re not all a bunch of dumb hicks out here happy just to have him show up. I want him to know that some of us mean it. You do what I say. I’m serious.”

It was a good game and people enjoyed it, the day cool and bright, delicious, smelling of apples and leather and woodsmoke and horses, blazed with majestic colors as if in a country where kings and queens ride through the cornfields into the triumphant reds and oranges of the woods, and men in November playing the last game of summer, waiting for the Babe, everyone waiting for the Babe as runs scored, hours passed, the sky turned red and hazy. It was about time to quit and go home, and then he marched out, bat in hand, and three thousand people threw back their heads and yelled as loud as they could. They yelled for one solid minute and then it was still.

The Babe stood looking toward the woods until everything was silent, then stepped to the plate and waved the bat, and Bernie looked at him. It was so quiet you could hear coughing in the crowd. Way to the rear a man said, “Merle, you get your hands off her and shut up now,” and hundreds turned and shushed him. Then Bernie wound up. He bent way down and reached way back and kicked up high and the world turned and the ball flew and the umpire said, “BALL ONE!” and the catcher turned and said, “Be quiet, this doesn’t concern you,” and the umpire blushed. He knew immediately that he was in the wrong. Babe Ruth was not going to walk, he would sooner strike out and would do it himself, with no help from an umpire. So the umpire turned and walked away.

The Babe turned and spat and picked up a little dirt and rubbed his hands with it (people thought, Look, that’s our dirt and he’s putting it on his hands, as if the Babe might bring his own) and then stood in and waved the bat and Bernie bent way down and reached way back and kicked high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and missed; he said huhhhnnnn and staggered. And the next pitch. He swung and cried in pain and the big slow curve slapped into the catcher’s mitt.

It was so still, they heard the Babe clear his throat, like a board sliding across dirt. They heard Bernie breathing hard through his nose.

The people were quiet, wanting to see, hear, and smell everything and remember it forever: the wet fall dirt, the pale-white bat, the pink cotton candy and the gentlemen’s hats, the smell of wool and the glimmer of a star in the twilight, the touch of your dad’s big hand and your little hand in it. Even E.J. was quiet, chewing, watching his son. The sun had set beyond right field, darkness was settling, you had to look close to see—Bernie took three steps toward home and pointed at the high outside corner of the plate, calling his pitch, and the Babe threw back his head and laughed four laughs. (People were glad to hear he was feeling better, but it was scary to hear a man laugh at home plate; everyone knew it was bad luck.) He touched the corner with his bat. Bernie climbed back on the mound, he paused, he bent down low and reached way back and kicked real high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and it cracked and the ball became a tiny white star in the sky. It hung there as the Babe went around the bases in his famous Babe Ruth stride, the big graceful man trotting on slim little feet, his head down until the roar of the crowd rose like an ocean wave on the prairie and he looked up as he turned at third, he smiled, lifted his cap, strode soundlessly across home plate looking like the greatest ballplayer in the history of the world. The star was still in the sky, straight out due northwest of the centerfield fence, where he hit it. The ball was never found, though they searched for it for years.

“Did you see that?” your dad says, taking your hand.

You say, “Yes, I did.”

Even E.J. saw it and stood with the rest and he was changed after that, as were the others. A true hero has some power to make us a gift of a larger life. The Schroeders broke up, the boys went their own ways, and once they were out of earshot, E.J. sat in the Sidetrack Tap and bragged them up, the winners he produced and how they had shown Babe Ruth a pretty good game. He was tolerated but Babe Ruth was revered. He did something on that one day in our town that made us feel we were on the map of the universe, connected somehow to the stars, part of the mind of God. The full effect of his mighty blow diminished over time, of course, and now our teams languish, our coaches despair. Defeat comes to seem the natural course of things. Lake Wobegon dresses for a game, they put on their jock-straps, pull on the socks, get into the colors, they start to lose heart and turn pale—fear shrivels them.

Boys, this game may be your only chance to be good, he might tell them. You might screw up everything else in your life and poison the ones who love you, create misery, create such pain and devastation it will be repeated by generations of descendants. Boys, there’s plenty of room for tragedy in life, so if you go bad, don’t have it be said that you never did anything right. Win this game.

Wobegon Virus

Coming September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover and eBook are both available for preorder now, and an audiobook will be available for presale in the coming months.

In The Lake Wobegon Virus, a mysterious virus has infiltrated the good people of Lake Wobegon, transmitted via unpasteurized cheese made by a Norwegian bachelor farmer, the effect of which is episodic loss of social inhibition. Says Keillor, "The people of Lake Wobegon were waiting for the chance to go wild and so the book wrote itself."

Read more about the book and pre-order your copy >>>


Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

It’s waiting for my wife to return from visiting relatives in Connecticut. She’s the one who Puts Things Together in this family. She has smaller fingers and finer digital skills, being a violinist, and unlike me, she reads directions. She assembles parts into a coherent whole. I am a writer and the problem of assembly puts me into a subjunctive mood and I might have solved it had I taken my time but what I assemble is a non sequitur and somewhere a child is weeping bitterly. So I wait for her to come home.

A couple weeks ago, a workman came to our apartment backdoor and asked me (I think) something about air conditioning. I believe he is Polish and some of his English sounded Polish to me so I notified my wife and he spoke to her and she pointed to a panel in the ceiling over the washer and dryer, and there it was, a condenser or whatever it’s called. I come from simple rural people; we worked in the sun and after a day of that, the shade was good enough, we didn’t require AC.

I used to resent competent people and now I am married to one. I was an English major in college and looked down on the engineering students in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors, and now we live in a digital world they designed and I can’t figure out how to make my iPhone deZoom after it has enlarged itself. I need to ask my wife, the one who reads directions.

A couple years ago, I couldn’t start my car one morning and had to call a tow truck. Back in the 20th century, you’d see a neighbor pull out of his driveway and wave to him and he’d get out jumper cables and start you up, but these days your neighbor is very likely an English major who wanted to be a writer but instead became an Executive Vice President for Branding and Inclusivity, which is a different branch of fiction, and if I wave at him, he’ll pretend not to see me. My dad, up to the mid-Sixties or so, was able to take his cars apart and do repairs. The neighbor guy and I are of a generation that Does Not Understand How Engines Work. So the tow truck started me up and I drove to a shop where the mechanic discovered that a malfunctioning lock on the trunk was draining my battery. Amazing. It’s like a boil on your rear end is the cause of your migraine. But he fixed it. This sort of competence is inspiring to me. And we are surrounded by it. If ever you should call the EMTs at 911, you’ll be swarmed by great competence.

Meanwhile, there is a cultural movement among us that argues that our world is systemically oppressive and corrupt, the institutions and laws, epistemology, mindsets, literature, politics, religion, cheeseburgers, cole slaw, rotted through and through by elitist masculine Western Eurocentric misogynistic homicidal hierarchical colonialist biases, and there is no such thing as commonality, community, competence, comedy, all of which are intrinsically unequal and tools of oppression, and I, as an oppressor, have internalized my dominance, accepting it as something earned, not inherited.

One could call this movement fascistic but it doesn’t really matter because I am 78 and the movement won’t take over the country until after I am gone, and meanwhile, in the time it took me to write this, my love has assembled the chair and I sit in it and I feel so good, I write an elitist limerick, my favorite tool of oppression:

Classic, romantic, baroque,
Whether you sleep or are woke,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back
From the fact that you know you’re a joke.

One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

But thanks to the recumbent, the man in the large golf pants, we live in the Golden Age of delicious vicious columnry, the best of them being conservatives such as Jennifer Rubin and George Will whose outrage rises to great literary heights whereas old liberals like me sit and play “Honolulu Baby” on the ukulele and toss in a little tap dance. For Mr. Will, Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is like Mother poisoning Dad and marrying a Mafia hitman. I turn to Mr. Will in the Washington Post and feast on lines like “this weak person’s idea of a strong person, this chest-pounding advertisement of his own gnawing insecurities, this low-rent Lear raging on his Twitter-heath has proven that the phrase malignant buffoon is not an oxymoron.”

It’s a great line and I have nothing to add to it. Mr. Will is a lifelong Republican conservative and he knows in his heart that the recumbent is no more a Republican than Nancy Pelosi is a pole-vaulter and the recumbent is no more a believing Christian than he is the Dalai Lama-rama-ding-dong. It is an insane moment in the history of the Republic and it drives Mr. Will wild, but to me, it’s just a TV show and I turn it off and go sit on the shady terrace and feast on these giant blueberries grown in Peru and feel content. I toss a few of them toward the mockingbirds’ nest, hoping to lure them back, but no such luck.

I am almost 78 and America’s problems are my grandchildren’s problems, not mine, and I have been married for 25 years to a woman who thrills me and to avoid the plague we’ve spent four months in close proximity and it’s been good. I am capable of bitter sarcasm — I had a column all set to go about the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., dropping the word “colony” from its name because it suggested exclusivity and hierarchy. But I don’t care about artists’ colonies, have no interest in spending time in one, am grateful to be excluded. The higher the ark the better; I don’t want to get on board. The street carnival in Portland is not my concern, except to hope that nobody gets hurt. The Bullying that is going on over Capitalization of certain words is — how shall I say it? — Remarkable. As for racism, there is no room for it in the Christian faith where it continues to thrive.

I come from a generation that spent 57,000 American lives in a war that had no point then and has no defenders now and American cruise ships now dock at Hue and Da Nang and Saigon and folks from Omaha and Seattle eat in sidewalk cafes whose owners may have been among the guerillas who defeated us and who cares?

Madame and I have our own colony, and beyond that, each of us has a circle of pals, which the pandemic lockdown makes all the more enjoyable. Theaters are dark and concert halls, but the telephone still works and now that people are sticking close to home, the phone calls get longer and more fulfilling and launch into stories, and we don’t bother talking politics, we talk family history, which is more interesting. And if asked what we’re up to, we will talk about mockingbirds.

The birds are worried and I feel just fine

Thirty-eight percent of Americans surveyed believe the Prez is doing a good job with the pandemic, which is good news for folks offering Florida timeshares for August and telemarketers who’ll turn your songs into No. 1 hits if you give them your credit card number. Thirty-eight percent approval means that there is a big market for agates as an investment.

It’s a dangerous world out there, don’t kid yourself. I feel for the mockingbird parents on our terrace who screech at us, warning us not to grab their fledglings. We can see them in the nest, beaks wide open, squeaking for food, just like our own daughter years ago. The parents are in high anxiety. My wife and I are liberals, we eat beef and pork, have no interest whatsoever in eating mockingbird — and I feel their pain.

Violence is part of life. Every day you get dinner or you are dinner. Fish are beautiful, like fashion models parading back and forth, and then a killer dashes in and eats one: that is a fish’s way of life. The mouse is in the cornfield, shopping for his family, and he hears a rush of wings and feels sharp back pain and suddenly he is very high in the air. Our football teams are named for killers, lions, wolverines, eagles, gators. Only two for religious figures (saints, cardinals) and one for temp workers (gophers). Will the Washington NFL team now change its name to the Sergeants and the Minnesota Vikings become the Viruses? Go to Oslo and you’ll see that the Norwegians are not the marauding warriors they were back in the ninth century when they raided and pillaged widely. They’re more into tillage now.

We liberals tried to create a safe world for our fledglings. I grew up before there were seat belts so I rode standing up in the front seat as my dad drove 75 mph across North Dakota, but my children rode in podlike car seats belted in like test pilots. They rode tricycles, wearing helmets. We banned smoking. There were warnings on everything, like kitchen knives (“Sharp: may cut skin if pressure is applied.”) and ovens (“Do not insert head when gas is on.”).

No wonder we are kerfluxxed, reading about a man with no conscience, no empathy, no principles, not a shred of honesty, who presides with great indifference over a plague. As any New Yorker can tell you, the problem with the Trumps is that the 90% who are corrupt give the others a bad name. In Manhattan, where he spent his adult life, he got 10% of the vote. And now 38% of our fellow Americans think he’s doing okay when the disaster is out in the open for all to see. The body count is staggering. Vietnam does well, Japan, Italy, but America is a pitiful giant.

I’m locked up and don’t worry about catching the virus but at 78, I’m aware of mortality and can imagine going to the doctor and finding out I have a rare case of desiccated angiofibrosis of the fantods, four months to live, maybe six. I’d thank him and stop at the drugstore for a carton of Luckies and come home and get out the gin bottle.

I’d have a martini on the terrace, my first drink in eighteen years, and toss the lemon twist away and the mockingbirds would pick it up and immediately they’d calm down. With the screeching stopped, the fledglings would fly. My neighbors would smell the gin and knock on my door. I’d get out the shaker and martini glasses, and we’d have a party. They’re all liberals; they’ve lived on a fixed schedule of their children’s social, educational, recreational, and therapeutic engagements, and the gin would make us good and silly and we’d say things that don’t appear on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Things like “That which has been is that which shall be, there is nothing new under the sun” — these are Roman times, Nero is in power and he won’t relinquish it so long as the generals are loyal. He is half naked, and 38% of our people like him in just his underwear. Let the fledgling millennials talk about justice and equality, let the old man enjoy his gin and vermouth. These desiccated fantods are not going away. Nero is your problem, not mine. Hand me down another bag of pork rinds, darling, and I’ll put a porterhouse on the grill.

At a certain age, the blues comes naturally

I am a writing man, I got the sedentary blues. I need to take a walk soon as I find my shoes. I got a good woman and she gave me a talk. She said, “You’re going to need a walker if you don’t get out and walk.” I came to New York City to try to make my mark. Now I am an old man and I walk in Central Park. My heart was weary and my steps were getting slow. She said, “You’ve gone two blocks, you’ve got another mile to go.”

The pandemic had me shut up in our New York apartment since early March because the more I read about the virus, the less I cared to experience it personally so I stayed home and occupied myself with writing a novel and the main exercise I got was walking into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator door.

I came to enjoy the cloistered life, the morning coffee on the terrace, talking with friends on the phone, recycling, the afternoon nap, the evening meal, the game of cards, the sunset, and what’s more, I enjoyed living with my keeper. Quarantine is a good test of marriage, such a good test that it could be made a requirement for obtaining a license, seclude the couple for thirty (30) days in a small apartment and see how they feel about each other afterward. Four months with my wife made me appreciate her beautiful heart and good humor even more. And a week ago, at her urging, I set foot outside the building for the first time and we hiked into the park.

After a long period of sitting, your legs feel like badly designed prosthetic devices made from tree stumps, and you feel unbalanced, and Jenny sensed that, of course, and took my hand, which was sweet, as if we were on our second date rather than in the 25th year of marriage. It’s endearing that she is completely focused on me, which you would be too if walking with a large person who might trip on a curb and collapse on top of you. Meanwhile, the young and beautiful lope effortlessly past us; I seem to have the distinction of being the Slowest Walker In Central Park, which reminds me of the Bob & Ray “Slow Talkers of America” sketch, in which Bob. Spoke. Very. Deliberately. So. As. To. Make. Each. Word. Perfectly. Clear. AndRayblewupinfuryandwantedtostranglehim.

New York is a strange city with show business, restaurants, the hospitality industry pretty much shut down. Few yellow cabs on the street, unemployment is at Depression level, and I suppose that plenty of those bicyclists whizzing past at 11 a.m. are waiters and stagehands and ticket agents, maybe dancers and musicians, and I feel for them. You’re in your twenties, you come to the big city with a big idea, maybe one so grandiose you don’t dare say it aloud, and suddenly a viral outbreak complicated by federal stupidity brings your life to a stop. Do you wait it out, expecting life to resume? Or do you sense that a Dark Age is on the way, that the face masks are permanent, that the Amazoning of America will go on, and the little mom-and-pops never reopen, the office towers remain half-empty as people go on working from home, and there will be no more concerts, no baseball, no handshakes except with life partners, we’ll live in communities of anonymity, and dystopia become the norm.

An old man thinks long thoughts while taking a long hike at a geezerish pace, but there is no sign of despair anywhere I look, only the happiness of dogs and little kids, the geese on the reservoir, the individual styles of runners, the grim determination of old lady joggers, and the saintliness of the slender woman holding my hand. “You’re doing great,” she says. “In a year, you’ll be running.” I think that unlikely but why rain on my own parade? Keep going.

I feel a slight wrench in my left knee and that upcoming park bench looks very good to me but I resist the urge to take a rest, aware a breather can become a siesta, so on I go with determination to stimulate my circulation. I do not run for love or glory but simply to be ambulatory and to enjoy these moving views and hope to lose the sedentary blues.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 9, 2020

It’s the birthday of author P.L. Travers (1899-1996), who described her popular Mary Poppins series as “both a joy and a curse.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: August 15, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion: August 15, 2009

A poetry compilation show featuring Poets Laureate past and present: Billy Collins (U.S.), Robert Bly (Minnesota) and Maxine Kumin (U.S./New Hampshire).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, August 8, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, August 8, 2020

The first refrigerator was patented in the United States on this date in 1899. The company Frigidaire was founded 19 years later.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, August 7, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, August 7, 2020

Today’s episode features a poem by Galway Kinnell, called “Wait,” promising that “Personal events will become interesting again.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, August 6, 2020

75 years ago today, in 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people on impact.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, August 5, 2020

The comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” on this day in 1924. Creator Harold Gray was staunchly anti-FDR, but the musical version intentionally subverted his politics.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, August 4, 2020

It’s the birthday of pioneering jazz musician Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), who said, “Seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad but what we’re doing to it.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, August 3, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, August 3, 2020

It’s the birthday of British crime novelist P.D. James (1920-2014), who had a seat in the House of Lords and also worked as a local magistrate.

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A Prairie Home Companion: August 8, 2009

A Prairie Home Companion: August 8, 2009

A mix of two Oklahoma shows. In the Lives of the Cowboys, a smooth-talking southern preacher talks Lefty into sitting on a “whoopee cushion of faith.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 2, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, August 2, 2020

It’s the 78th birthday of Isabel Allende (1942), who once got fired for translating romance novels too liberally, adding depth and independence to the women characters.

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Writing

The News from Manhattan: Thursday, August 6, 2020

Today I shall write to my cousin Patti who says she learned “Tell Me Why” from me and now she and her two-year-old sing it to each other. That is enough legacy for me.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, August 5, 2020

don’t think I know many authors by sight anymore. What’s worse, I doubt that others do. I think the era of Famous Writers is over.

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Gradually a man comes to accept his limitations probably

I ordered a nice office chair online last week because I’m a writer — this is me, writing this — and I’ve written a truckload of stuff on an assortment of cranky kitchen chairs, some designed by federal agents to torture confessions out of suspects, and my lumbar region feels delicate, and while I’m at it, I may as well confess that I bought this chair from Jeff Bezos, the Nebuchadnezzar of American retail, because it’s easier than walking over to Acme Office Supply, and Bezos’s minions bring it to my door in a matter of days, and here it is.

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The News from Manhattan: Tuesday, August 4, 2020

This is the week I turn 78, a fitting age for one born on the 7th day of the 8th month, and then my next stop is 87.

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The News from Manhattan: Sunday, August 2, 2020

One day runs into another, one project after another but not much progress is felt, a book is opened and soon shut, and the future remains as murky as ever.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, July 30, 2020

I sang a song to my dear wife last night and now it’s echoing in the canyons of the cerebellum. I need to know more people in their 80s and 90s to serve as my scouts.

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The News from Manhattan: Wednesday, July 29, 2020

After two days of silence in an apartment, the return of the lover is triumphant, bands play, she rides in on an elephant accompanied by men waving scimitars.

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One man’s pandemic is another man’s picnic

I love reading columns that snap and crackle and poke powerful people in the kisser and I am bored by columns like this one, which is about the goodness and generosity of life, but what can I say? When you’re busy doing things you love and you skip the news for a while, life can be beautiful. My love and I have been absorbed in the lives of the mockingbird family in our backyard, the parents ratcheting at us when we set foot out back, the little beaks upraised, the relays of food, the first hesitant hops from the nest, the high anxiety, the chirps of the teenagers, and then one morning, nobody’s home. Gone. No word since.

Instead of studying Joe Biden’s 13-point lead in national polls, we were absorbed in the lives of birds. We’ve never run for public office, but we have been parents and we have empathy for them, even birds. It’s odd to me, at 77, to see two men my age running for the White House. I remember the excitement when Kennedy, 43, succeeded Eisenhower, 70. We needed that this year and it didn’t happen.

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The News from Manhattan: Sunday, July 26, 2020

A perfect summer evening with neighbors on the terrace, a little breeze, a few choppers in the sky, the city peaceful under a half moon, light conversation about this and that, nothing about him.

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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, July 25, 2020

So good to have baseball back. I liked it without fans, all the focus on the game, no closeups of couples kissing.

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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. 

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