Your Book Saved My Life, Mister

ALL OF MY BOOKS, including Wagons Westward!!! Hiiiii-YAW and Ck-ck Giddup Beauty! C’mon Big Girl, Awaaaaayy! and Pa! Look Out! It’s—Aiiiiieee!, have been difficult for my readers, I guess, judging from their reactions when they see me shopping at Val-Mar or sitting in the Quad County Library & Media Center. After a rough morning at the keyboard, I sort of like to slip into my black leather vest, big white hat, and red kerchief, same as in the book-jacket photos, and saunter up and down the aisle by the fruit and other perishable items and let my fans have the thrill of running into me, and if nobody does I park myself at a table dead smack in front of the Western-adventure shelf in Quad County’s fiction department, lean back, plant my big boots on the table, and prepare to endure the terrible price of celebrity, but it’s not uncommon for a reader to come by, glance down, and say, “Aren’t you Dusty Pages, the author of Ck-ck Giddup Beauty! C’mon Big Girl, Awaaaaayy!” and when I look down and blush and say, “Well, yes, ma’am, I reckon I am him,” she says, “I thought so. You look just like him.” Then an awful silence while she studies the shelf and selects Ray A. James, Jr., or Chuck Young or another of my rivals. It’s a painful moment for an author, the reader two feet away and moments passing during which she does not say, “Your books have meant so much to me,” or “I can’t tell you how much I admire your work.” She just reaches past the author like he was a sack of potatoes and chooses a book by somebody else. Same thing happens with men. They say, “You’re an author, aren’tcha? I read a book of yours once, what was the name of it?”

I try to be helpful. “Could it have been Wagons Westward!!! Hiiiii- YAW!

“No, it had someone’s name in the title.”

“Well, I wrote a book entitled Pa! Look Out! It’ s—Aiiiiieee!

“No, I think it had the name of a horse.”

“Could it have been Ck-ck Giddup Beauty! C’mon Big Girl, Awaaaaayy!

“That’s the one. Did you write that?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“Huh. I thought so.”

And right there you brace yourself for him to say, “Y’know, I never was one for books and then my brother gave me yours for Christmas and I said, ‘Naw, I don’t read books, Craig, you know that,’ and he said, ‘But this is different, Jim Earl, read this, this isn’t the girls’ literature they stuffed down our throats in high school, this is the real potatoes,’ so I read it and by George I couldn’t put the sucker down, I ran out and did the chores and tore out and back in the pickup to check on those dogies and I read for two days and two nights without a minute of shuteye. Your book changed my life, mister. I’m glad I got a chance to tell you that. You cleared up a bunch of stuff that has bothered me for years—you took something that had been inside me and you put it into words so I could feel, I donno, not so weird, feel sorta like understood, y’might say. That was me you put in that book of yours, mister. That was my life you wrote about there, and I want to say thanks. Just remember, anytime you’re ever in Big Junction, Wyoming, you got a friend there name o’ Jim Earl Wilcox”—but instead he says, “You wouldn’t know where the little boys’ room is, wouldja?,” as if I were a library employee and not a book author. So it’s clear to me that when people read my books they like me a little less at the end than at the beginning. My fourth book, Company A, Chaaaaaaarge!, is evidently the worst. Nobody bought it at all.

I know what it’s like to be disappointed by a hero. You think I don’t know? Believe me, I know. I met my idol, Smokey W. Kaiser, when I was twelve. I’d read everyone of his books twice—the Curly Bob and Lefty Slim series, the Lazy A Gang series, the Powder River Hank series—and I had waited outside the YMCA in Des Moines for three hours while he regaled the Rotary with humorous anecdotes, and when he emerged at the side door, a fat man in tight green pants tucked into silver-studded boots, he looked down and growled, “I don’t sign pieces of paper, kid. I sign books. No paper. You want my autograph, you can buy a book. That’s a rule of mine. Don’t waste my time and I won’t waste yours.”

Smokey’s problem was that he was a jerk, but mine is that I get halfway through a story and everything goes to pieces. In Wagons Westward!!! Hiiiii-YAW! the pioneers reach Council Bluffs, having endured two hundred solid pages of Indian attacks, smallpox, cattle stampedes, thirst, terror, bitter backbiting, scattered atheism, and adulterous inclinations, and then they sit on the bluffs and have a meeting to decide whether they really want to forge onward to Oregon or whether maybe they should head east toward Oak Park or Evanston instead. Buck Bradley, the tall, taciturn, sandy-haired, God-fearing man who led them through the rough stuff, stands up and says, “Well, it’s up to the rest of you. Makes no nevermind to yours truly, I could go either way and be happy—west, south, you name it. I don’t need to go west or anything. You choose. I’ll go along with whatever.”

I don’t know. I wrote that scene the way I heard it in my head but now I see it in print, it looks dumb. I can certainly see why it would throw a reader, same as in Giddup Beauty! C’mon Big Girl, Awaaaaayy!, when Buck rides two thousand miles across blazing deserts searching for Julie Ann and finally, after killing twenty men and wearing out three mounts and surviving two avalanches, a prairie fire, a blizzard, and a passel of varmints, he finds her held captive by the bloodthirsty Arapaho. “So, how are you doing?” he asks her. “Oh, all right, I guess,” she says, gazing up at him, wiping the sweat from her brow. “You want to come in for a cup of coffee?” “Naw, I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You look okay.” “Yeah, I lost some weight, about twenty pounds.” “Oh, really. How?” “Eating toads and grasshoppers.” “Uh-huh. Well, now that I look at you, you do look lighter.” “Sure you won’t have coffee?” “Naw, I gotta ride. Be seein’ ya, now.” “Okay, bye!” To me it seemed more realistic that way, but maybe to the guy reader it sounded sort of unfocused or something. I don’t know. Guys have always been a tough audience for me. The other day a guy grabbed my arm in the Quad County and said, “Hey, Dusty! Dusty Pages! That right? Am I right or am I right?”

“Both,” I said.

“Mister,” he said, “your book saved my life. My brother gave it to me and said, ‘Buck, read this sometime when you’re sober,’ and I put it in my pocket and didn’t think about it until, October, I was elk hunting up in the Big Coulee country, other side of the Little Crazy River, and suddenly wham it felt like somebody swung a bat and hit me in the left nipple. I fell over and lay there and, doggone it, I felt around and didn’t find blood—I go ‘Huh???????’ Well, it was your book in my jacket pocket saved my life—bullet tore through the first half of it, stopping at page 143. So, by Jim, I thought, ‘This is too crazy, I got to read this,’ and I started to read and I couldn’t believe it. That was me in the book—my life, my thoughts, it was weird. Names, dates, places—it was my life down to the last detail, except for the beer. I don’t drink Coors. The rest you got right. Here.” And he slipped an envelope into my hand. “This is for you,” he said.

It was a subpoena to appear in U.S. District Court the 27th of November to defend myself in a civil suit for wrongful misuse of the life of another for literary gain. I appeared and I tried to defend, but I lost. My attorney, a very, very nice man named Howard Furst, was simply outgunned by three tall ferret-faced bushwhackers in black pinstripes who flew in from Houston and tore him limb from limb in two and a half hours in that cold windy courtroom. They and their client, Buck Bradley, toted away three saddlebags full of my bank account, leaving me with nothing except this latest book. It’s the first in a new series, the Lonesome Bud series, called The Case of the Black Mesa, and it begins with a snake biting Bud in the wrist as he hangs from a cliff while Navajo shoot flaming arrows at him from below and a torrent of sharp gravel showers down on his old bald head. From there to the end, it never lets up, except maybe in Chapter 4, where he and the boys shop for bunk beds. I don’t know what I had in mind there at all.

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Here in Minnesota, we have two more big snowstorms to endure, the DST storm and then the State High School Basketball Tournament blizzard at the end of the month, and then we’re in the clear. I see younger people out walking even now, but they have headphones on and I worry that they won’t hear the car approaching and will step boldly into the crosswalk while listening to a wealthy pop star screaming that nobody understands her, which would be a wretched way to die, run over by a geezer confused by the stoplight while you are tuned in to the complaints of a multi-multi-millionaire.

It’s been a hard winter, though it was late arriving, and in March I look around my shrinking circle of friends for signs of marital discord. Being cooped up in close quarters can lead to questions — how was I attracted to this (dolt/shrew) and how should I proceed to shed myself of (him/her)? You sit over your organic artisanal oatmeal and your spouse asks if you were aware that the world’s population is 7.6 billion, which you weren’t, and it seems that he or she has read a book about demography and would like to give you the highlights. The combination of demography and oatmeal leads you down into a dark psychological cellar, but how can you say “Shut up” to your mate and not offend her/him? So you stifle yourself and resentment builds and that night, while drying dishes, you drop a precious plate that belonged to your spouse’s grandmother and the spouse stalks out of the room and goes online and Googles “divorce.”

I see no signs of this among the people I know and I’m glad. Divorce is a disaster, even when it is necessary. It is dreadful for children, don’t kid yourself. I am thinking of starting a movement against it, #UsTwo. I may write a book in which I say that forgiveness is the crucial thing in marriage, not justice, not commonality, and that a couple must — not should, but must — go through the ceremonies of affection, the morning embrace, the saying of “I love you” at least fifteen times daily, the touching of the loved one’s shoulders and arm and back whenever within reach, the wholehearted acceptance of the spouse’s irrational whims and impulses. Silence is the enemy. Chitchat is your friend. Small talk is at the center of every long-lived love. Avoid big ideas. Never discuss demography. Now and then put away the oatmeal and have steak and eggs.

My wife is cheerful and I am dour and when people see us on the street, they think, “How good of that young woman to get her uncle out of the Home and into the fresh air.” But we get along very well thanks to our observance of the formalities. The touch on the shoulder, the sudden turning to the other and saying, “I’m in love with you,” and meaning it. If she looks at me over the oatmeal tomorrow and says that Bernie Sanders has won her heart, it honestly won’t matter to me one bit. If she is lured into some exotic cult that wears pointy hats and worships cats and never walks in threes, I’m OK. We are solid.

The world is not as it once was and we know that. The homegrown tomato has almost disappeared from America in favor of species bred for long shelf life so they can be trucked up from Ecuador in the winter, tomatoes that bounce if you drop them because they are bred with genes of tennis balls, and so you no longer bite into a tomato and feel euphoria, but if you are loved and if spring comes soon, you’re going to be OK. It’s just ahead. We’ll sit outdoors and drink coffee and the sun will shine on us, I promise.

I'm only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Twelve hats are in, more on the way, some serious, most delusional. Hotel business in Iowa and New Hampshire will be steady all year and then on Super Tuesday, March 3, the truth will dawn. The stumblers and pretenders, the gasbags and long-shot gamblers, will quietly disappear, and two or three contenders will head into the spring and summer.

It is presumed they’ll be running against the weak incumbent but after the Cohen hearing, one doubts that. D.T. is accepted by everyone over the age of ten, even those who love him, as a dishonest sleazeball with ADD issues, and with Democrats conducting hearings from now till the election, he is going to be in the news more or less nonstop as a national embarrassment. Republicans at last week’s hearing could only heckle Cohen; none of them stood up for his boss and said what a great American he is. His best hope is that Bernie Sanders be the Democrats’ nominee: that’s a race D.T. can win in a walk. America doesn’t want an angry president; wacko is bad enough.

If Joe Biden enters the lists and emerges next March as the front-runner, D.T. will issue a brief statement that, having made the country great again and now wishing to spend quality time with his family, he will retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his short game. Maybe Sean Hannity will accept the nomination in his place. America is not ready for a man who parts his hair that high on his head. Biden will win and restore normalcy.

The remarkable thing about the Cohen hearing was how unremarkable it was, the whole wretched epic of corruption and dishonesty and egomania. And the remarkable thing about D.T. is how little real damage the grifter has accomplished. We all imagined that the Presidency was a superhuman responsibility, the light burning late in the Oval Office, the great man bearing the world on his shoulders, and now it turns out that a clown with a hair fetish who doesn’t know schist from Shinola can occupy the chair and life goes on much as before. Electricity is flowing, there is milk and butter in the stores. If Justice Ginsburg resigns soon, we will have a Supreme Court straight out of 1857. But your Wi-Fi will still work.

There is a general awareness that we cannot continue trashing the planet as we’ve done, but the crisis grows slowly and AOC can’t promote it to emergency simply by saying so. We don’t want to ride the bus and turn off lawn sprinklers until God sends a prophet in a pillar of fire to scare us, not just a bunch of Ph.Ds. So the Green New Deal, though insightful, is not a winner.

The Mueller report will not usher D.T. out of office. He is a crook and a liar but we’ve known that for two years. Mueller will only add details. The Republican Party is not going to usher him out; he owns them.

What will win for Democrats is a candidate who is presidential. Even people who expect to vote for D.T. are embarrassed by him. Nobody imagines that he represents anything admirable about America. Obama was a good orator. W. was likable. Clinton loved politics. Bush was a war hero. Reagan was genuine. Carter was a man of faith. Ford was a true patriot. Nixon was a master of his craft. Ike was Ike. Each man had biographers who found things to admire. D.T. is as transparent as cellophane, one of the most unloved presidents in our history.

The American electorate wants this man to disappear into the back pages and the Democrats owe it to us to make that happen. This is no time for a great leap forward. It is time for him to go so that journalists can go back to writing nonfiction and Congress can get back into business. Let’s put a woman in charge in 2024. First, let’s have an old white guy with thin hair throw the rascal out.

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Schedule

March 28, 2019

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Owatonna, MN

Owatonna, MN

March 28, 2019

Garrison Keillor heads to Steele County for a solo performance to benefit the Historical Society. 7:30 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for March 25, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for March 25, 2019

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”
––Gloria Steinem, born this day in 1934

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 24, 2019

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Today is the birthday of Fanny Crosby (1820), who wrote between 3,000 and 8,000 hymns during her lifetime, including “Blessed Assurance.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 23, 2019

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 22, 2019

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 21, 2019

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It’s the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685), who, as a teenage organist, criticized the choir, took prolonged absences, and got in fights with bassoonists.

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 20, 2019

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The vernal equinox occurs today for the northern hemisphere, the time when the earth’s axis is aligned with the center of the sun.

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 19, 2019

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Sixteen years ago on this day, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the Iraq War.

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 18, 2019

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The “Gardner Heist” took place this day in 1990, carried out by a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers with fake mustaches.

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 22, 2008

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A Spring Break compilation episode tailored to kids’ tastes! Featuring Randy Newman singing a song from “Toy Story.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for March 17, 2019

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It’s St. Patrick’s Day, a feast day honoring the patron saint of Ireland, who actually was born in England and was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a child.

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Writing

It’s coming and will find you in due course

I landed in San Francisco last Wednesday just as the rainy season ended and so the city was fresh and green, the Presidio blooming and the meadow in Golden Gate Park where the man with green suspenders walked with his wife who tossed grapes to the squirrels and they came to a quiet spot that seemed to have been waiting for them — that’s from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti — and if it weren’t for the fact that I have other plans, I could’ve talked my wife into settling down there. It was downright paradisaical. Everywhere I looked, I saw righteous souls who’d spent their lives as Lutheran farmers in North Dakota and now, in the next life, were riding bikes around town and going to yoga and drinking excellent coffee. A young man on a skateboard stopped to talk to me and I thought of asking him if I could take it for a spin.

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Yes, we have now turned the corner

Last week my wife asked me four separate times if I was depressed about something, which I was not, and now, ever since early Sunday morning, I’ve felt mysteriously happy, and I guess that Daylight Saving Time must be the reason. For us in the flat snowy northern tundra regions, turning our clocks forward is the first step toward spring and how can one not rejoice? We await the day when sidewalks are not treacherous and we can escape our squalid hovels and get out and ambulate, and the day in April or May when we can sit outdoors and eat lunch at a plaza and observe the humanity around us. That is where the good life begins, when we escape from Wi-Fi and meet face to face in bright light in our sneakers and T-shirts.

Read More

I’m only going to say this once

One by one, Democrats are stepping into the arena for the 2020 campaign, and their appeals for donations flutter into my inbox, and I do not envy the young staffers assigned to write importuning letters. To project noble ideals and crisis and chumminess in 250 words is a tough assignment, especially when you know that the first two sentences are all I’ll read.

Read More

Why you didn’t see me at the Oscars

I did not host the Academy Awards on Sunday for which I would like to thank the snowstorm that blew across Minnesota early on Sunday morning, high winds, blowing and drifting snow that began around 1 a.m. and got worse and worse. I was in Fergus Falls the night before and of course wanted to be available in case the Academy decided to book a host at the last minute and we saw the forecast of blizzard conditions to the south and decided to hit the road so we could catch a morning flight to LAX if the call came and my little troupe piled into the van with our tour manager Katharine at the wheel and we headed down I-94 toward Minneapolis at 70 mph with our phones at the ready.

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

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A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

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Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

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The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

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Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

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News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

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