Boom Town preview

Boom Town: A Lake Wobegon Novel

Chapter 1: A New World

 

I flew back home to Minnesota for my best friend’s funeral last spring over the objections of my wife who was leery of COVID, which was raging in Minnesota thanks to anti-vaxxers, many of them devout Christians like my cousins who put up “Prepare to meet thy God” signs along the road and who believed the virus meant a quicker trip to glory but Norm went down from cardiac arrest in his driveway, an easy death. He wanted to go in his sleep, but anyway it was quick. He was a big person in my life and so was his sister Arlene and to skip the funeral out of fear of infection seemed to me unworthy and a denial of reality even worse than the evangelicals’ resistance to medical science so I boarded Delta at Terminal D at LaGuardia and returned to my origins. He died on May Day and it was a shock but not a surprise: Norm always said, when asked how he was, “Never better,” but in March he switched to “Okay” and a few weeks later to “Not bad,” a rather steep decline.

I rented a car at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and drove north to Lake Wobegon and noticed, nearing town, that the “Prepare to meet thy God” sign was gone. I stopped and got out of the car. It lay in tall weeds by a barbed-wire fence. Someone had shot it with a shotgun and the Pre was gone and the stake was busted. I left it lying there but the phrase “Pare to meet thy God” stuck with me. Cut back on excess, trim the nonessential. A good motto for a man nearing 80. Set aside ego and the craving for widespread approval, ditch your bag of stupid regrets, abandon pleasures no longer pleasurable, love your neighbor, and you will find yourself in God’s presence. My cousin Rose, who was named not for the flower but for the Resurrection, sends me a birthday card every year: God is moving the waters. He is bringing this dispensation to a close. We may not be here tomorrow. I pray you are waiting on Him. It’s sweet. To think of someone waiting decades for Rapturization. I do appreciate her interest in me.

I called Giselle in New York and left a message that I love her and drove into town and noticed the ruins of the EZFreeze. Not much happened in the town of my youth and when something did, my dad would say, “It was the biggest thing since they got the bug zapper at the EZFreeze.” The zapper was a big neon ring under the eave that electro- cuted mosquitos. Now it’s gone, the symbol of progress.

So is the Lake Wobegon Maternity Hospital, the big white house where I was born in the summer of 1942, which caused no stir at the time nor does the fact that I’m still living. I am here as a result of good luck. As a kid, I stood on the front seat of the car, no seat belt, as Dad drove 80 mph on a two-lane road to get to Bible camp in the Badlands of South Dakota, driving at top speed so we wouldn’t need to stop at a motel. I survived it and also the preaching, which was all about imminent death, ships sinking, car crashes, furnaces blowing up, storms with lightning. We fundamentalists were grim, like people living in a coal mine, but if I looked grim, my cheerful mother would say, “What’s the matter? Did the dog pee on your cinnamon toast?” and that made me smile, and it still does, imagining a dog going to the trouble of getting up on the table to do that. Wobegonians were cheerful stoics and if you asked “How are you?” they said “Fine” unless they were lying on the ground and there was external bleeding. Lighten up. Life is good. It could be worse. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Winter is not a personal experience: everybody else is just as cold as you are. Take it one day at a time. Make something of yourself. Don’t be a ten-dollar haircut on a 59-cent head. Find out what you’re good at and do it. That was our way.

Growing up in the coal mine, your people warn you against ascending to the surface, but eventually you do and WOW you see trees, the sky, you feel rain and wind, you get to know Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, you go to movies. I left when I was 18 to make my way in the world and I married a girl from New York who was not a coal miner and we moved there to make her happy and now I go back home mainly for funerals, which these days are for people my age, which gets my attention, an obituary with my number in it. Old rocknrollers, ballplayers, movie stars, cousins, class- mates, I pay attention, I read the story closely and guess at the omissions.

***

So I came back to pay my respects to my old pal Norm who’d stayed a good friend though I was a writer and he took over his dad’s trash route, and we confided in each other, he was the only one I told about my cruelty and disloyalty, my vanity, my miserable sins, dumb things I did, dumber than you’d think a grown man capable of, dumber than a boxful of hammers, and I walked into Lundberg’s Mortuary and there he was, freshly laundered lying in a box with floral arrangements around him, and I felt a sort of relief. The man knew all my sins, which would now go to the grave with him. I hated to think it but it felt like I’d been given a fresh start in life.

A woman spoke to me and I jumped. She was looking over my shoulder at the corpse. “They got the wrong tie on him,” she said. It was Pastor Liz from the Lutheran church. “Nancy gave them a blue tie. Norm never wore a red tie in his life. Lundberg is such a fuckup.” She laughed: “Did I just say ‘fuckup’?”

As it happened, I was wearing a blue tie so I took it off and got Norm’s red tie off and looped mine around his neck, which was rather wooden, and stood up at the head of the casket so I could figure out how to tie it, and it came out pretty good.

“It’s good of you to come all this way,” she said. “Hnnhh,” I said.

I’ve come back for the funerals of teachers, Mr. Faust, Mr. Bradley, Miss Story, LaVona Person. I meant to come back in 2020 for the funeral of Julie Christensen who was a year older than I, a seventh-grader, who watched me walk by her yard on my way to shoot baskets and she said, “Do you want to wrestle?” and I stopped. She was a long-legged girl in green shorts and a white T-shirt. I walked over to talk to her and she grabbed me and threw me down on the grass and sat on me, her hot mint-scented breath in my face, her legs scissored around me. She said, “Try to get up” but I didn’t want to. She was strong. She said, “Have you ever been kissed?” and then she kissed me and stuck her tongue in my mouth. I’d never seen that done before, never imagined it. She said, “I’ll bet you want to see my tits, don’t you.” I shook my head no, and she lifted her shirt, and I closed my eyes. It was a big moment. I shook my head because a Brethren boy should, but I did want to see, and I didn’t close my eyes, I squinted, and it was very interesting. She said, “If you tell anybody, I’ll beat the crap out of you. I mean it.” When she died at 79 from myeloma, the funeral was on a Saturday and I had to do a show in New York, but I grieved for her, my liberator. So was Norm’s sister Arlene but that’s a whole other story.

Norm and I each grew up in homes where pennies were pinched, our mothers darned socks and mended clothes until they wore out and then cut them into strips and wove them into rag rugs. We were brought up to use bars of soap until they were thin slivers in our hands and then wash with the slivers. We each experienced shame early: his dad was a terrible speller and liked to write letters to the editor, which the printers at the paper, both of them drunks, never corrected and so his dad was often in print with hideous errors that our fellow third-graders were highly amused by such as “hangkerchiff” and “judgmint” and “without acception.” In addition to my Brethrenness, I was the first boy in the class to get glasses, which made me a lousy ballplayer in grade school and got me the nickname “Perfessor.” So Norm knew where I came from and I confessed most of my sins to him except the sin of feeling superior to him, which anyway faded out after 65. There is not much superiority in old age, just good luck. He and I grew old together and became relics, the last in our circle of pals to have driven a Model T Ford, the very last to have participated in the prank of privy tipping, which we did at the age of twelve, along with older boys, all of them dead now, at the lake cabin of Harold Starr the publisher of the town paper, sitting in his outhouse one evening, on the throne with his trousers around his ankles, as we crept through the underbrush and heaved the privy over onto its door as the gentleman cursed us, trapped within, left with only one exit. We were the last ones to have used the Sons of Knute’s Big Boy fiberglass duck decoys, eighteen feet long: the hunter lay on his back inside the duck and pedaled the driveshaft that turned the propeller as he looked out through a periscope in the duck’s neck, scanning the skies for incoming ducks. The Knutes had six of them and they were too tippy and four decoys sank and Norm and I found the two survivors and paddled them around, with concrete blocks for ballast. Nobody else remembers this.

In recent years, I’m sure, we looked at each other and wondered which of us would be standing and looking down at the other one in the box. So it’s me, and I miss him. There is nobody left for me to talk about Julie Christensen with or our teachers LaVona Person or Helen Story or reminisce about the county fair back when it had a dirt racetrack and the older brothers of boys we knew went tearing around it in souped-up cars and dared death in order to impress girls. And now here was Norm waiting for the right moment to spring up from the coffin and say, “It was only a joke!” but death has disabled him, there’s no spring left in him, he’s become ornamental. The line has gone dead.

He stayed in Lake Wobegon and I went out into the world and had a career, and he remained my trusty friend and faithful informant. He told me a few years ago, “It’s a whole different town. You wouldn’t recognize it. The guys you and I grew up with are old coots sitting in the corner and grousing. We used to play hockey on rinks we flooded ourselves and we built goals out of packing crates and we used magazines for shin guards, now they drive the kids into Willmar to an indoor rink. Now they close the schools if more than two inches of snow is forecast because falling snow can trigger anxiety for some kids who may need counseling or medication.” (Back in our day, school was never canceled unless the building was no longer visible. There was no windchill index or misery index, we didn’t think in those terms. In a blizzard, your dad tied a clothesline to your belt so he could reel you in if he had to and the clothesline was a hundred feet long, the distance from the house out to the county road, and when the line went taut you knew you were there and you waited for the headlights to appear in the whiteness and if it was windy, you might have to dig a cave in the snow and if the bus didn’t come for a couple hours, you reeled yourself back home. Snow was not a mental health issue.)

It troubled Norm that the Christmas program at the high school was now called the Happy Holiday program, and the word “Savior” was changed to “Teacher” and Vacation Bible School was now called Spiritual Awareness and was about showing respect for others and not about the rough stuff, Noah and the Flood, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac. And the old songbooks have been banned with old faves like “Frankie and Johnny” (“The first time she shot him, he staggered. The second time she shot him he fell. The third time there was a southwest wind from the northeast corner of hell.”) and “The E-ri-e was a-rising and the gin was getting low and I scarcely think we’ll get a drink till we come to Buffalo.”—songs that we sang in the third grade, they’ve been replaced by songs about brotherhood, meanwhile, thanks to the internet, words considered obscene by truckers are being used freely by small children.

“Me and you were the end of an era, mister,” he said. “The last of the free and the brave. Our neighbor lady has three kids and has an app so she can track them around town by their cellphones. Turn on the computer and there’s a blue and a red and a yellow dot to show where Mason, Logan, and Salem are. Surveillance of children. It wouldn’t surprise me if she taps their phones too.

“You and me were lucky to live when we did. It wasn’t all Zoom and Facebook. People got together in person to chew the fat. The men sat in the living room and watched football and talked about crops and hunting and the women in the kitchen talked about births and surgeries and now they just post pictures on Instagram and no secrets are told for fear of who might be reading. It’s a damn shame.”

Liz left to go looking for Norm’s wife, Nancy, and the moment she left, Lundberg came in, not George Lundberg, whom I knew, but his son George Jr., who took over the business when the old man developed dementia from inhaling preservatives and one day he dumped Mrs. Soderberg’s ashes into the toilet. She had wanted them to be scattered on the river and the old man figured flushing them amounted to the same thing, so he had to go to the loony bin and the son, who wanted to be a painter, not an undertaker, stepped in, a sour man with a woofy voice who never developed the warm avuncular unctuosity of a funeral director. He glared at me and said, “Huh. So you came after all. They said you were coming but I figured a big shot like you’s got better things to do with his time. Guess I was wrong. Anyways, two more of your classmates died over the weekend, Ronnie Hansen from a car crash and Peter Flanagan from what he thought was cancer but it was COVID. So I guess your timing is perfect. How’re you doing? I don’t suppose you’ll have your funeral back here. Have it in some big cathedral in New York City so all your famous pals can attend. Right? Well, good luck with that. The problem with being famous is that when you die they can’t wait to say bad things about you. Any scandal, no matter how small, it goes into the second paragraph of your obituary. All your so-called admirers, they love to dish out the gossip. But I’m sure you know that.”

I didn’t bother correcting him. What I love about New York isn’t famous friends but Giselle, eating lunch with her down on Grove Street in the Village, oysters on the half shell, meatballs, an iceberg wedge, driving up to our summerhouse on the Connecticut River, and Giselle has my permission to put my ashes in her flower bed by the garage where they likely won’t bother whatever man takes my place in her life, and meanwhile I’m glad to return home in honor of my ghosts.

***

I got out of Lundberg’s and headed down the street and there, fifty feet away where there used to be a driveway next to Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery, was a little sidewalk café called Laura’s Lunch and there, sitting around a table under an umbrella, were my old classmates Clint and Dave and Billy and Daryl, and Clint looked at me and said, “Well, look what the wind blew in,” which was exactly the sort of thing I’d expect to hear and Dave pulled in an extra chair and said, “Good of you to get out of the fast lane and come join us common folks” and I sat down and suddenly it wasn’t 2021 anymore, it was a moment of timelessness.

Billy: “You look a little lost. Can we help you find something?”

Dave: “You look a lot like someone I used to know. The class oddball.”

Daryl: “Sit down and take a load off. We just ordered lunch.”

And I sat down and I was back home.

Clint: “So do we call you Garrison or can we call you Gary?”

I said that my name is Gary and that Garrison was only to make it sound like I went to an Ivy League school instead of a land-grant university.

Clint: My wife went to New York last year.

Me: Is that right?

Clint: I don’t know if it was right but she did it anyway. Said she had a wonderful time.

Me: What did she do?

Clint: I don’t know and I don’t want to know.

They were all dressed like retired guys, which they are, and I was in a suit and tie, but it didn’t matter. A kid came out with a menu and Daryl said, “The egg salad sandwich is really good,” so I ordered that.

Daryl: “Good of you to come all this way but I knew you would. The class of 1960 is fading away fast. Pretty soon there won’t be any of us left.”

Dave: “So you finally figured that out, huh?”

Daryl: “What?”

Dave: “Death. It’s a definite trend. I read today that more than a billion people who lived on this planet are now dead. Including our parents, all gone.”

Daryl: “Well, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Makes no difference. My brother’s brother-in-law was a marathoner, cross-country skier, lifted weights, worked out, one morning he had a stroke, died the next day. My uncle Danny had two shots of bourbon for breakfast and maintained his alcohol level all day and lived to be ninety-five and was killed by somebody throwing a sofa out of a sixth-floor window. You just can’t tell.”

Billy: “Marilyn just texted me that Bob Anderson died.”

Clint looked at me and said, “You and I need to find us some younger friends so we don’t sit around on a beautiful day and talk about death.” Darlene passed by and he said, “Who do I have to sleep with to get my coffee warmed up?” She said, “Coffee is supposed to keep you from sleeping.”

Daryl said, “He’s Norwegian, sweetheart. They only think about sex when they’re too drunk to go fishing. A Norwegian likes to go to bed with two women so when he falls asleep right away they can keep each other company. If he wants sex, he goes downtown with a pocketful of cash and goes looking for a warehouse. They’re not only lousy lovers, they’re bad spellers.”

I was the only one who laughed at these old jokes; the others just smiled.

The front of Ralph’s was now a yoga studio and the back half where Ralph did his butchering and baking was the Laura’s Lunch kitchen. On the table was a brochure advertising a solar plunger that fits over your solar plexus, creating harmonic vibrations in the pelvic enclosure that cause the body’s own meridian powers to drive invasive toxins from the lymph system to create positive energy and expectations. I thought about asking, “Whose is this?” but didn’t. If it belonged to one of my pals, I didn’t want to know.

Next to the outdoor café, in what had been Halvorson Hardware, was a grocery, The Common Good. Up the street I could see the signs of the Sidetrack Tap and the Chatterbox Café but across the street where Bunsen Motors, the Ford dealership, had been was a carved wooden sign, AuntMildred’s.com. There was Clint Bunsen sitting next to me and I wanted to ask, “Why?” but it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. He’s 78, almost 79, just like me, and his brother Clarence is 81. You get to be 78, maybe you don’t feel like sticking your head under the hood and working on the carburetor. And maybe the carburetor isn’t a carburetor anymore but an app and the old mechanic has to reprogram himself to deal with it.

Dave was talking about Ronnie Hansen. “Died in a car crash chasing ass down in Florida. And Pete Flanagan had colon cancer he was treating with Clorox.”

Billy: “I heard it was Lysol.”

Dave: “Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Either way, death by stupidity. Doesn’t speak well for our class, I must say.”

Lunch arrived and my egg salad sandwich. Which, according to the menu, was made from eggs laid by local free-range chickens raised on wholesome grains, no GMO or GOP or SUV. Anyway, it was a perfectly good sandwich.

Norm had told me about the start-up companies that had taken over the town, like Universal Fire, which made artisanal twenty-year-old white oak and ash firewood, non-GMC, upper-altitude, seasoned with sea salt. It was getting into the field of artisanal ice as well, made from Lake Superior water, and was bottling virgin oxygen from the northern wilderness. The founder, Rob McCarter, had an MFA in creative writing and the artisanal firewood business was right up his alley. He was the one who wrote the fan mail from customers: “Our petty troubles disappear in the twilight when we light Universal in our fireplace. And now your bottled Boundary Waters air has cleansed our spirits.”

A woman named Willow owned a dozen horses and started a manure works to make an organic sun-dried ethical/sustainable manure, Wholly Shit, $15/lb., nicely wrapped (Each creature is full of beauty. Spread it around.), a crisp well-balanced manure with a warm nose, smooth texture, and a complex structure. She said, “It’s all about continuity, waste is a nutrient, the end is the beginning. Manure is universal, it’s part of who we are.”

Norm said, “I’ve come across crappy products but I never knew you could sell absolute shit. Not at that price.” The old men groused about it but the stock kept going up, up, up.

A company, Tomorrow Tomato, made an inclusive tomato sauce from diverse varieties raised on family farms in a variety of eco-societies. Norm and Nancy’s granddaughter Normandy invented a very soft facial tissue with 8 percent lamb’s wool and 5 percent spiderweb woven into the paper. Her husband, Max, created a nameless ginger ale aged in oak barrels: very successful. People asked him, “Why no name? You need a name.” And he said, “Whatever,” and so that became the name and he put out a Whatever mug, an earthy clay mug that became a Thing and went viral for a while, like Totality Tote Bags, which became wildly popular after the price was doubled. “These kids understand the New Economy,” said Norm. “Plenty of people have way too much money and that’s your market. Don’t bother selling stuff to paupers.” Normandy married Max when they were eighteen. He had hair down to his shoulders and it was an alternative ceremony, with an epic Walt Whitman poem (“O comrade and aficionado, come, take my hand, you are comely and possessed of secret longings, come travel the open road under a banner of affection, shameless, glistening with wordless desires.”) and the soloist sang “Purple Rain,” which is odd for a wedding—“I never wanted to be your lover, I only wanted to be your friend” and Nancy’s mouth was bleeding from biting her tongue. Norm said, “We thought it’d last six months but it’s been a year and a half.” He admired their enterprise. Normandy was 20 and drove a green Jaguar and had Zoom meetings with executives at Chanel and Dior and Pankake. Elon Musk called her once. She knew Sandy Frazier. She was hot stuff.

Lake Wobegon had been a farm town of two thousand, an exporter of its young people, and now it was booming. Two brothers, Jake and John, created Woke alarm clocks that sound like crickets and a woman says, “Rise and shine, renew your spirit, resume the struggle, resist the system” and a carillon plays “We Are Strong Together” and you hear marching feet, a bass drum, and a gong. They were made in a factory in Mumbai for $1.75 apiece and retailed for $68. Jake’s girlfriend Ashley came up with a dance video that teaches math, Let’s All Go Rithm. Nobody learned from it but the concept was fantastic. Her business partner, Hailey, created a detoxifying spread made from honey and locusts and then developed an app called Constant Companion that traces your daily routine and if you forget why you’ve walked into the kitchen, a voice in your earpiece says, “You probably came to warm up your coffee.” Then it lists other options.

Clearly, this was no longer the town I told stories about on my award-nominated radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. Nothing like that town. I walked around and saw notices on bulletin boards for personal trainers, dog walkers, yoga instructors, a veterinary aromatherapist, jobs that never existed here before. The Central Building, now renamed Main Street Lofts, has two social media consultants, an accountability coach, two content writers, an ergonomicist, a data analyst, a fitness advisor, and three massage therapists, shiatsu, hydroponic, and audiovibratory. Snazzy new cars are parked up and down Main Street. A woman named Nona Loso runs a lucrative business leading grief seminars and an annual grief cruise to Greece. She does a podcast for pet-loss grief, “Puff & Spot Are Gone,” and a monthlong summer camp—Norm called it a “death camp”—at which people divide up into grief pods and are assigned hugging partners. He said, “Promise me you won’t let Nancy organize a grief pod for me,” and I promised and she didn’t, probably because she wasn’t all that grief-stricken.

Norm lived in Lake Wobegon his whole life. He was in the trash- hauling business but was very spruce and well-informed and instead of a trashman, he might’ve been taken for an envelope salesman or an economist. He was astonished when Death caught up with him. He’d been to a doctor only twice, once for a bum hip that he managed to hobble along with and once for random appendicitis but it went away. He got too old to lift trash barrels so he sold the business to a young guy, Tom Paradise, who turned it into Paradise Recycling, which, thanks to the righteous name, he built into a multimillion-dollar business. Norm hated retirement. I was busy doing my show and offered him a job driving the tour bus, and he said he couldn’t leave Nancy alone for weeks at a time, she being a major worrier, and also (he added) he wasn’t that fond of the show personally, being more of a jazz guy, not so interested in people playing dulcimers and singing about the death of small children. We were close so he could be honest with me.

***

The last time I talked to him was in February. He called me, ecstatic that he’d tried to kill himself and had failed to. A month before, he said, he was in a bad way, had a pain in his side, couldn’t stand up straight, saw double, felt dizzy and nauseated, hung onto walls as he walked through the house. The doctor said it might be cancer and wanted to send Norm down to the Cities for tests. “They might need to poke a hole in your side and put in a tube,” the doctor said. It sounded to Norm like a bad idea and he kept putting it off because if it was bad he preferred not to postpone death with radiation or chemo because he was already deeply depressed about losing his girlfriend Elaine.

“Elaine who was married to Steve?” I said. He said, “After Steve died, she and I jumped into the sack—we got together twice a month out at my cabin. Every other Friday. She was a teacher, she liked having a schedule. You remember that cabin. You spent a summer there after high school. Nancy knew about me and Elaine, and she wasn’t thrilled about it, but she’d lost interest in sex years ago so it was no skin off her nose. Nancy’s life was all about gardening, grandkids, Jeopardy, and jigsaw puzzles. For her, mutual nakedness was as alien as pole vaulting. I had two years with Elaine and it was a happy two years and then one day she called and said she couldn’t see me anymore. She said, ‘I don’t want to be the object of gossip and walk into the hair salon and see people stop talking and I know they were talking about me.’ I pleaded with her and remembered the great times we’d had, but she had made up her mind and that was that. Well, if she was embarrassed to be my lover, shacking up with the trashman, it depressed the hell out of me. I went in the hospital for an X-ray or MRI or something and I was in pain from an umbilical hernia, my belly button was the size of a golf ball, and Nan was down in the Cities and the ER was full of COVID people and the dying and demented, people wailing and weeping, screaming, ‘Somebody come and help me! Please!’ and I freaked out and left the ER and came back to town and drove out to the lake cabin and decided to pull the plug. I’m an old fart who gets in everybody’s way, no use to anybody and I didn’t want to put Nan through all the trouble, and I’ve lived long enough. So I downed half a pint of bourbon and took a couple tranquilizers and sat in the car with the motor off and waited to freeze to death. It was twenty below. An easy exit. No sickness, no long decline hobbling around the Good Shepherd Home looking spooky and cadaverous and dribbling coffee down myself, peeing my pants, rocking back and forth like a caged animal in the zoo, my mind turned to sawdust, one hip shooting with pain at every step. To hell with that. A person has only so much time and that’s all the time there is. A quick exit, like Elvis after a concert. Norm Gunderson has left the building. I had made a list of several jerks I didn’t want invited to my funeral and some instructions to Nan: No eulogies, nothing, just the 23rd Psalm and one hymn, ‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,’ And I cut my son out of the will, the little prick, because he refused to say hello to Elaine at a Whippets game. I wrote a note to Nan saying thank you and I sat there thinking about Elaine and the good times we’d had com- mitting adultery and then I remembered the picture of Elaine naked in her bathtub, her phone in hand, and it was in the drawer of the bedside table, and I don’t want Nan to have to see that picture. Jesus. I could see the story in the paper: he died of hypothermia outside the cabin where he canoodled with his tootsie. Well, I had no feeling in my arms or legs but I managed to open the car door and fall out into the snow and my legs were like two wooden logs but I crawled fifty feet to the cabin and somehow I got inside and I crawled into bed and woke up on the morning, and looked in the drawer and there was no naked picture of Elaine and I remembered, I had burned it a week before at her request. Memory loss saved my life. I tell you, when you almost die and then you don’t, life is incredibly beautiful. Just dazzling. I looked and I felt like a new man. I cried, I was so happy. I have never been so happy as that day of my death and resurrection. I felt like the luckiest man on God’s green earth. I went ice fishing a day later and caught a two-pound walleye and roasted him on an open fire: best meal I ever ate. There’s nothing like almost dying and then coming back to the world. Take my word for it.”

Nancy asked me to say a few words at the service, and it was hard to think of what to say about a man who died happy, but I wrote a poem on the plane and stood up to read it. I’d never written a love poem about another man. I wrote a formal sonnet, as a way to avoid gush, and it was okay.

Time passing and the old man with the scythe
Is mowing. He hasn’t been merciful, has he.
My best friend, a good and generous guy,
Is gone, leaving the world less jazzy,
He awoke one fine day, felt ill,
Lay down for a nap and never arose
And now we carry him up the hill

Seventy-nine years old, in his Sunday clothes.
But Norm wouldn’t want us to be sorry a
Long time. Weep, say your prayers and your
Eulogies and then resume the beautiful aria
Of life in all its generous grandeur.
Each day is borrowed but let us own it
And find beauty in our coffee and doughnut

And love this world before we have flown it
And find what we would’ve wished for, had we only known it.

Nancy smiled and whispered, “Thank you,” and Norm’s grand- daughter Normandy came to the piano, wiping away tears, and sat down and played a few rolling chords and sang:

May you have eternal happiness
In the land you’re going to,
May everyone be loving
And always kind to you.

May you play a round of golf each day
And have a perfect score
May you live forevermore.
May you have a double cheeseburger

Along with double fries
May you play Bingo every night
And always win the prize
And be reunited with your dog

And walk the golden shore.

There was more. I looked at Pastor Liz who managed to keep a solemn face though I could see twitches at the corners of her mouth.

Her funeral homily was based on the passage in 2nd Corinthians, about we mortals being jars of clay containing the light of God. We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed but not in despair, persecuted but not forsaken, cast down but not destroyed. Norm was no more perplexed than most and certainly not persecuted. He survived his suicide attempt and the colon cancer turned out to be a Grade A case of consti- pation and a nurse gave him a nuclear enema that cleaned him out and he got five bonus months of life. He told me he never felt so happy as the day he went home twenty pounds lighter and told Nancy he loved her and meant it. He was able to enter the Sons of Knute Guess The Ice Melt contest and guess the Pontiac would go through the ice on March 8th (the 14th was the winner) and he got to witness the first week of April, which was springlike and buds emerged and a week later came a snowfall of elegant crystalline grandeur, every twig of every bush and tree glazed with frost, every photographer in town out snapping pictures, and the next day it melted, and then there was fall in the air and the next day a high of 72, four seasons in one month, and he put out tomato plants and sweet corn and he sat with Nancy in the backyard and drank half a bottle of Pinot Noir I had sent him two years before, which he postponed drinking because he didn’t think he knew enough about wine to appreciate it, but he loved it, Nancy said, and he sang her a song, “Till There Was You,” which she’d never heard him sing, and the very next day he died.

The heart attack struck on May 1 at two in the afternoon at home and he took a couple Alka-Seltzers, while Nancy called 911 over his objec- tions and the EMTs loaded him, protesting, on the cart and headed out the door and he died in his own driveway. The shock of being rescued was probably what killed him, the man had never asked for help in his entire life, being carried bodily on a gurney to a van with flashing red lights made him think, “I’m dying,” so he died. The EMTs got out the paddles but he was gone, no struggle, he simply ceased to exist.

***

Clarence Bunsen gave a eulogy, Norm being his brother-in-law, and it was about Norm being such a good listener and a friend to all, from the working stiff to the well-to-do, and he glanced at me and for a moment I was stricken with the thought that my secrets were about to spill, and when he sat down I noticed Arlene in a wheelchair beside him. I’d heard from Clint that she was ill and that Clarence had shut down Bunsen Motors on account of it but the wheelchair was hard to look at. I looked away as Norm’s neighbor Bud gave a talk about Norm encouraging him (Bud) to pursue his hobby of painting and how this changed Bud’s life and then the Four Norskmen stood up and sang:

Life is not land we own.
O no, it is only lent.
In the end we are left alone

When the last light is spent.
So live that you may say,
Lord, I have no regret.
Thank you for these sunny days

And for the last sunset.

As they sang, Bud set out several of his paintings—for sale, the proceeds to go to a Norm Gunderson scholarship fund—and what this showed all too clearly was (1) abstract painting is not easy but requires talent and technique, and (2) tastelessness has arrived in my hometown and people are helpless to ward it off.

Arlene slipped up behind me, wheeled by her niece Normandy who’d sung the awful song, and said, “Hey, stranger,” and I turned as she stood up. “Hello, stranger. I hope you don’t mind if I give you a hug.” And she put her arms around me from behind. I know you don’t come from hugging people,” she said. “I hope I’m not embarrassing you.” She turned to her niece: “Am I making a scene here? Actually, I don’t mind if I do. The world could do with more scenes.”

“I heard you were in the hospital,” I said.

“Ehhh. Pffft. In and out. It was a lot of nothing.”

“So what’s the wheelchair about?”

She let go of me. “Laziness. Got tired of walking. And it’s a great way of getting attention. You get in a wheelchair and suddenly people are twice as nice as they ever used to be. But you’re looking pretty good for a guy almost my age. She turned to her niece: “Believe it or not, I used to go skinny-dipping with this guy. Don’t tell my husband. We were teenagers. Children. Stripped naked and jumped in the lake.”

Normandy was impressed. Very. “She was your girlfriend? Really? What happened?“

Arlene said, “Go ahead, tell her. She’s twenty, she’s been around, she knows what’s what.”

“Norm was my best friend and she was his sister. We were like family,” I said.

“So it was incest then?” Arlene said, a little too loudly. People around us stopped talking. Heads turned. I heard whispers: What’d she say? Incest?

Arlene was delighted. “Look! I made his face turn red. A big-shot writer from New York and I’ve made him blush. Wow. This is the high point of my week. I’ve embarrassed a New Yorker.”

Normandy said, “Did you go all the way?”

Arlene laughed. “Honey, we went around the block and came back and went around again. But don’t take my word for it, ask him.”

I was walking away to look at the paintings, which seemed like the polite thing to do and I managed to avoid eye contact with Bud and then smelled geraniums and a woman threw her arms around me; it was Ronnie Hansen’s wife, Shirlee. “Oh my god,” she said. “That was the most beautiful poem and you read it so perfectly. Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re here. We loved your radio show so much. I suppose you heard”—and she wept—“we lost Ronnie. Friday. In Florida.” She seemed to be about to collapse and I put an arm around her—she said, “Could you read a poem for my husband? It would mean so much. Or say a few words. You were so important to him. He was so proud of your friendship. It’d mean so much.”

And I heard myself say, “Of course.” I may have said, “It’s my pleasure,” I’m not sure. And she was so grateful, it was hard to remove myself from her grasp. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re the greatest. I love everything you’ve written. Oh my god.”

So I agreed to eulogize a shithead. The problem was distraction.

During the service I had discovered a small hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth that I couldn’t remember having felt there before. I felt it with my finger and my tongue, and though it didn’t hurt, it bothered me, what with death on my mind and Norm in the box and people around me who might well attend my funeral, given the opportunity. God has a plan and maybe it’s that, after the trashman’s demise, his friend the radio show host will be struck by mouth cancer, the mellifluous baritone silenced, the democracy of death demonstrated for all to see. And then, walking to the cemetery, I heard a shout and a bicycle whizzed past, inches away, I smelled pizza, he yelled Sorry! And I realized I was in a bike lane. We never had bike lanes in Lake Wobegon back in the day or pizza delivery but here it was. The obituary would say, “He was struck by a pizza deliveryman only two blocks from the house where he was born. Police said he died instantly. According to onlookers, it was a sausage pizza, extra large, which may have obstructed the deliveryman’s view.” It won’t mention my classy memoir, my radio monologues, no link to a video of me singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with Heather Masse. In people’s minds, I will be forever linked to sausage pizza.

I got to the cemetery and phoned Giselle in New York and mentioned the protuberance to her and she told me to send a picture. I hid behind a tree while they got Norm set up among the Gundersons and I opened my mouth as wide as I could and took some cellphone pictures and texted them to Giselle and she said, “Oh my god, that is horrible, you have to see a doctor. Today.” She grew up in Greenwich Village and her dad was a doctor who took care of E.E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and a lot of dedicated carousers and scapegraces, so she knows a thing or two about human foolishness and I obey her in all medical matters.

I walked around the cemetery, over by my parents’ graves and they looked up and said, “What is he doing here and what’s wrong with his mouth?” The protuberance felt larger. Life is all about brevity and how easily the world can get along without us: nobody fills our shoes, they’re simply thrown into the old shoe bin and all the books we wrote are made into roadbed, you drive the interstate, you’re driving on literature, I read that somewhere. People were busy conversing and I didn’t see anyone of a doctoral demeanor present. I saw the former Diane Magendanz, now Mrs. Dan Durand, whom ages ago I danced with at the SnoBall and experienced carnal desire as the band played “Vaya con Dios” and pulled her close to me as we bumped around trying to cha-cha-cha and my hand was on the zipper of her dress and she sneezed directly into my face and apologized and I drove her home. I remember it clearly, lust followed by nasal precipitation. I felt no desire for her now. None. My mind was on death.

Then I saw Elaine, standing alone at the back of the crowd, Norm’s great love. She taught health in high school, and I figured, “Why not ask?” So I walked over while Liz was sprinkling holy water and consecrating the grave, and I whispered hello to Elaine. She was weeping. I said, “I’m sorry for your loss, I know he loved you a great deal.” She said, “It’s not that. It’s my son Bailey, the one who lives with me. He’s forty-two and ever since he had that traffic accident he’s been obsessed with sweet corn and craves it, but he’s also allergic to it, except for white corn, which is okay, but he prefers yellow even though when he eats it, he hears voices that tell him to jump off the roof or run naked around the yard, and I do what I can for him, I got him a therapist who got him on an anti-obsession medication but it also dulls his taste buds so he loses his appetite and now he’s down to a hundred and forty pounds, he’s a scarecrow, and it’s all I can do to help keep him halfway sane and not in a loony bin, so I have no time for myself, I haven’t read a book in ten or twelve years, and now I got a call from a neighbor saying that my son is knocking on their door, he’s naked, and he’s singing ‘Unchained Melody’ and I’m sorry to throw this all on you and babble on about my problems when I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your own, but honestly I don’t know what to do.”

I tried to think of something encouraging to say, and then she said, “How are you?” so I opened my mouth wide and pointed to the protuberance and said, “Do you know what that is?”

She said, “I can’t understand you with your finger in your mouth.” I asked again. She looked. “I have no idea,” she said. She asked if Giselle and I still live in New York. I said, “Yes, we do.” The gravedigger was lowering Norm into the ground. Then, walking away from the grave, I saw Dorothy who owns the Chatterbox Café and I asked her if there is a doctor in town and she said, “No, Dr. DeHaven died, and all we have now is a holistic healer and an aromatherapist. What’s wrong?” I said, “It’s some sort of swelling on the roof of my mouth.”

She said, “Open wide.” We were walking back to the church for the coffee hour, we were on Main Street, across from Mark’s Meats and what used to be Dr. Nordquist’s office, the dentist who hated to give novocaine, feeling that suffering would motivate better dental hygiene, which now was the This N That Shop run by a lady in a green suit and big golden specs that made her look like an angry grasshopper, across the street from Krebsbach Chev, which was gone, disappeared. “It’s a long story,” she said, “open your mouth.” I did. “Wider,” she said. She stuck her finger in and felt the protuberance. She said, “It’s nothing, I have one of those too. It’s called a torus palatinus. It’s just part of your hard palate. Nothing to worry about.” I noticed a young woman in what used to be Bunsen Motors, now AuntMildred’s.com, staring at us as if she’d never seen a palate exam in public before. I smiled and waved. She ducked down.

***

After coffee hour, I called Giselle and lied and told her I’d seen an otolaryngologist and he’d said it was an ordinary torus palatinus and nothing to worry about. She said, “I still think you should have someone look at it when you’re back in New York.” As if a Minnesota otolaryngologist might only have a two-year degree from a vo-tech and not be fully aware of bony growths. “I’m fine,” I said. I told her that I’d decided to stick around town for a few days and help Nancy get rid of stuff and also talk to people and fill in some gaps in my past, and she said okay. “There’s so much I still want to know and there aren’t many people left to ask,” I said. “Fine,” she said, “you do that. Just don’t put yourself in the path of old girlfriends.”

“My old girlfriends have other things on their minds. They’re not interested in me,” I said.

“I was joking,” she explained. “I know,” I said.

“I’ll miss you,” she said. She and her cousins Russ and Kerry had been talking about hiking a stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, she said. She’d bought a great pair of hiking boots. “You’d be welcome to come, but I know you’d hate it, being with hikers. You’re a stroller,” she said. “So I’ll see you when I see you.”

So there it was: I was sort of hoping she’d rush out to Minnesota to see to me after my protuberance experience but she is an independent New York woman and makes her own plans and she loves to hike, not sit and reminisce.

Twenty-five years we’ve been married—no, twenty-six—and I adore Giselle but we’re quite different people. She grew up in the narrow streets of the Village among brilliant screwed-up people who keep walking into lampposts, and urban canyons make her restless and she needs brisk walks and broad vistas of mountains and seashore. A day of hiking clears her head of confusion. I’m from the prairie, where, if it’s not the end of the world, you can see it from there, and I love narrowness, it comforts me, which is the appeal of narrative prose so I am a writer and par- odist, not a big thinker, I don’t want to stand on the summit, I need to wend my way into the arroyos of subordinate clauses, through groves of metaphor, following the streambed of anecdote toward the river of genre that leads to the ocean of literature, but I don’t expect to get to literature, I’m content to be an imitator. She accepts our differences. She plays a variation of Scrabble in which sounds are permissible like feh and ta and pssst so we argue over meow and miaow, argh or arrgh, and she is crazy about Broadway shows so long as they have a big dance number with arms in the air and high kicks. Like the Act One finale of Gravy Boat! with the chorus singing You’ve got stature/You’re on the dais/ With Margaret Thatcher/And General Petraeus./You’re an apple pie with a satisfying belch./You’re David Bowie, Gabby Pahinui, you’re Gillian Welch. And she stood up and sang with them: You’re Neil Young and I love you heartily/As an aria sung by Cecilia Bartoli./I’m a fraud, a fake, a big mistake, a creep./I’m over a barrel and you are Meryl Streep. She’s seen the show ten times, she knows it by heart. She loves Italian opera and she doesn’t eat lamb nor can she tolerate the misuse of pronouns (Her and me went to France last year is enough to make her lie down with an ice pack on her forehead). She can only drink fresh-ground, dark-roast coffee, one of three brands ground in New York, and she is very fond of Portuguese olive oil but not Spanish and she is intolerant of wool. She is extremely fussy about her pillow. She has hours of BBC talk shows on her phone, men talking about cod fishing and wickets and Ibsen and Finnish fiction, which she needs to put herself to sleep at night. I adore her and I have never doubted her love for me though I’ve taken her on a dozen or so disastrous vacations, which she can recite in a very funny monologue. The New Year’s flight to Norway to see the aurora and instead we got the flu. My seizure in London and the rainy week in Florida and the time in Paris when I sat in the hotel and worked. She has stories about me and that’s why I wrote a memoir, to get my version out first.

***

I told her I loved her with all my heart and went to the Chatterbox to talk to Dorothy who was behind the counter, the only familiar face in the place, all the others were new to me, younger faces, some with hairstyles that didn’t exist back in my day, some with hair colors not found in nature. Stylish dressers who looked like they’d never weeded a strawberry bed in their life and wouldn’t know which end of the hoe to hold. Very strange. I looked at the menu and noticed that tuna casserole was gone, a classic. “What gives?” I said. She said tuna casserole is offered at the Lutheran church’s Saturday lunch for seniors: nobody comes to the café for it.

“What about the Commercial Hot Beef Sandwich?” Missing. I loved the Commercial. Two slices white bread with big dollops of mashed potato and three slabs of pot roast in a gravy lake. She said, “Three of the regulars had heart attacks, one had quadruple bypass, two died, all of them good eaters, and it put the fear of cholesterol in their pals and they switched to vegetable pad thai. Men who’d avoided vegetables for fifty years but death changed their minds. Have some. It’s okay.” I ordered a cup of coffee, black. The waitress looked familiar and her name tag said “Darlene” and I thought I knew her but wasn’t sure because her hair was a dramatic crimson, so I asked Dorothy, “Is that Darlene?” She said, “Of course. She got tired of being a brunette and she had a jowlectomy.” Darlene is my cousin Alex’s daughter, married to the son of my classmate Carol. I said hi to her and she said, “I figured you were just being aloof.”

I couldn’t believe it. Me, being aloof? I have less aloofness in me than your average graduate student. I was brought up humble and I’ve been going downhill ever since. Give me a break.

She said, “My brother-in-law in Waco, Texas, send me your book Lake Wobegon Days for Christmas. His name was written on the title page. He’d tried to erase it but I could see the indentation. Anyway I started to read it and I got about twenty pages in and I was waiting for something to happen, somebody to leave town and go to California, something, anything, and I put it down and I haven’t picked it up again. It’s been a busy winter.”

Meanwhile Dorothy was saying it’s hard to attract a physician when so many of the new people believe in alternative medicine and think that regular exercise and hydration are the answers to everything. “Alice, our mayor, and the town council are offering to finance a new clinic, because they’re all over sixty, but one of these days the newcomers, who pay most of the taxes, will vote them out of office, and we’ll get a Chinese acupuncturist. Which is okay by me. Dr. DeHaven was the worst doctor ever, right out of the nineteenth century. No matter what the problem, he always said, ‘Let’s wait and see what develops,’ which isn’t medicine, it’s malpractice, but we lived with it because we were brought up not to complain. People came to see him who were suffering from stage four colon cancer and went home to take a couple aspirin.”

“As long as I’ve got you here, Mister Big Shot—” She poked me in the chest with a sharp fingernail. “While you’ve been busy weaving your little tales about sleepy Lake Wobegon, Mister Big Shot Writer Man, the town has boomed, and you can make fun of it to your heart’s content but it’s a boom that we desperately needed. Everyone was moving away, tax revenue was down to a trickle, the birth rate was about what you’d expect when the median age is fifty-five, so we were about to board up the schools and consolidate with Millet’s and have our kids go to class with those dummies. What a horrible thought. No Milletite has finished college in years. Nobody there has Wi-Fi. The newest encyclopedia in their town library is a 1978 Collier’s. So LifeCycle and Universal Fire were a goddam godsend. Now our kids graduate from Lake Wobegon High, they don’t have to move to Minneapolis to find a job putting price stickers on cans of creamed corn, there are jobs here, good jobs, and they can look around and see entrepreneurs a few years older than they who are prospering mightily. You’ve got teenagers talking about starting companies and turning into tycoons.

“Like Jordan who bought fifty acres of Daryl Tollerud’s farm and planted sassafras trees and sarsaparilla vines and he makes the first genuine organic root beer in America, American Roots, which sells for $10 a bottle, it’s a gold mine. He’s twenty-one. He sent his parents to Europe on the Queen Mary 2 in an Executive Suite. His wife, Jamie, and her sister Kaylee raise cockapoo dogs that are trained to provide child care, including bottle-feeding and diaper changing. Some of the dogs can even push a stroller. The root beer grossed three million last year, its first year, and the cockapoo caregivers are going to be in an article in Vogue.” Kaylee, she said, had won the National Gift-Wrapping Tournament once, wrapping a motorcycle, unboxed, with only two tiny rips, and she worked as a gift-wrap consultant to catalog companies. But training caregiver cockapoos was her true calling and seemed to be the cockapoos’ too.

Dorothy said, “I love you like a brother but frankly you’re a little past your expiration date. You ought to meet Pastor Liz’s sister Alyssa. She was in Silicon Valley for three years, got stressed out working for Google, cashed in her stock options, and came to live on her great-aunt Mildred’s farm two miles west of town, the farm with the goats and gardenias. Did you ever meet Mildred? She’s a widow, eighty-five, suffering from dementia, but it’s good dementia. She was a lifelong Lutheran, rather tightly wired, but dementia loosened her up and made her funny. She can’t tell you what she ate for breakfast, but she remembers a dozen Cole Porter songs and she’s led the Women’s Bible Study down some interesting paths and now at eighty-five she loves to dance and twirl around and tell scandalous stories about men taking liberties and she adores Alyssa and Alyssa’s girlfriend, Prairie, and treats them like sisters.

“They were two nerds, humanities dropouts, who couldn’t so much as boil an egg and she taught them the basics of cooking and in her kitchen they formed AuntMildred’s.com and created Aunt Mildred’s Gourmet Meatloaf and Mashed Potato frozen dinners, using ground sirloin and lamb to make the only gourmet meatloaf on the market. The top frozen meatloaf dinner, Hillcrest, was produced for penal institutions and retailed for $2.29. Aunt Mildred’s retailed for $18 and was worth every penny.”

I held up a hand to ask a question but Dorothy was on a roll.

“It was the first American meatloaf to win the coveted Grand Prix du Carne Baguette in the Entrée Exotique category of the Académie Délicatesse Culinaire Française and Oprah mentioned it on her show and sales went through the roof. And then came Aunt Mildred’s Hometown Brownies with lavender honey, brown eggs, dark caramel, unbleached artisan flour, and Costa Rican chocolate. And Pumpkin Bread with Nicaraguan Nutmeg. And Fifteen-Minute Pomme de Terre Tot Hotdish with Mushroom Cream Sauce. It was Grandma cuisine but made for well-to-do connoisseurs of historic cookery, and it all happened here in Lake Wobegon and now the dishes come out of a factory in Kansas City and six months ago Consolidated Foods offered them fifty-five million for AuntMildred’s.com and they turned it down.”

She poked me again. “Fifty-five million dollars. Anybody offer you fifty-five million for something? How about five million? I don’t think so. Sweetheart—” She pinched my cheek. “It’s a new world. It’s a whole new town. There is overachievement in the air. Multimillionaires riding their bicycles around town, and our kids trying to emulate them. And real estate is booming. Old people are getting three times what they expected to get for their little crackerbox houses. What’s not to like about that? I realize it doesn’t make as good a novel as bachelor farmers and the Sons of Knute and an overturned pontoon boat, but we are happy campers up here, so watch your step. If you came here to write another novel about us, show some respect.”

And then Dorothy looked up and waved to someone. “I want you to meet her,” she said. A tall woman with black wiry finger-in-the-outlet hair approached and Dorothy stood up and they hugged. I stood, unhugged, my hand unshaken. “This is Alyssa,” said Dorothy. She said, “Garrison’s a writer. He writes books. Or used to.” The woman said, “What sort of books? Mysteries? Thrillers?” Her gaze went over my right shoulder, watching for the next person to come through the door, a friend perhaps, maybe a celebrity. “Not mysterious to me,” I said. Dorothy said I had done a radio show and Alyssa asked if it was a podcast. “No,” I said. I enjoyed the fact that there was a little bit of creamy soup on her upper lip and she seemed not to know about this. Dorothy said, “He’s written some books about this town.”

“You come from here?” said Alyssa. I nodded. “Hnnhh,” she said. Dorothy said that I lived in New York with my wife, Giselle. “I lived in Brooklyn for six months,” Alyssa said, “and paid two thousand a month for a fifth-floor walk-up and everywhere I looked, I saw highly intelligent people working full-time to impress each other who had no idea of the world except that New York was the center of it and they slaved at lousy jobs in tiny cubicles out of fear that leaving New York meant sudden death, and one day I got on a bus to San Francisco and took charge of my own life.” She looked over my shoulder again and still didn’t see whoever she was hoping for. She told Dorothy, “I’ve got to scoot” and said, “Nice meeting you” to me and was gone. I was perfectly okay with her lack of interest in me. I’m a Minnesotan, from the Gopher State, our state bird the loon, so I don’t expect strangers to be impressed by me. My wife the hiker loves me dearly, and I have friends—five or six, maybe more, and that’s good enough. Adulation would only go to my head and lead to expensive spas and a winter home and Percocet addiction. Who needs it?

Dorothy was right. The new people were no dummies. While old coots like me are mourning the passing of the hour of splendor in the grass and glory in the flower, Alyssa and Prairie started a beauty line, NutriSoft nontoxic face cream and beeswax eyebrow balm. The nontoxicity was writ large right on the label and for emphasis, below it, the line “Guaranteed to contain no sulfates, phthalates, nor anything from form- aldehyde. Not ever tested on cats or dogs.” Maybe ordinary lotions don’t contain toxic phthalates either, but if so, why don’t they say so on the bottle? NutriSoft does. And it contains oatmeal and lavender, a big step up from formaldehyde. The nontoxic guarantee propelled NutriSoft to No. 5 on the Top Twenty lotion list, two slots ahead of a lotion from the same factory in Akron that makes NutriSoft. The lavender and oatmeal are blended in at a bottling plant in Pittsburgh. Nontoxic lotion and gourmet meatloaf—I thought, “The quicker they get rid of us geezers, the jazzier the world will be.” An unspeakable thought but there it is, I thought it. They can’t be stopped, once we’ve dropped. When we’re dead, they’ll get ahead, their profits increase when we decease.


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Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

The most elegant gentleman to come out of Minnesota, Mr. Butch Thompson, died yesterday in St. Paul. He picked up the New Orleans spirit listening to Jelly Roll Morton 78s and carried it through the 20th into the 21st century. He was a pianist and a clarinetist, the piano for the bounce, the clarinet for the blues, and if he could've he would've played both at the same time. We worked together for years, a quiet man, and I never knew him except through his music. God bless the memory, God preserve the music.

–GK

Born and raised in Marine-on-St. Croix, a small Minnesota river town, Butch Thompson was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three, and began formal lessons at six. He picked up the clarinet in high school and led his first jazz group, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves,” as a senior.

After high school, he joined the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, and at 18 made his first visit to New Orleans, where he became one of the few non-New Orleanians to perform at Preservation Hall during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1974, he joined the staff as the house pianist of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. By 1980, the show was nationally syndicated, and the Butch Thompson Trio was the house band, a position the group held for the next six years.

From the early days on APHC, Butch remembers, “It was pretty casual back then. Margaret or somebody would call me and ask if I was busy on Saturday. More than once I remember saying I couldn’t get there by showtime, and being told to show up as soon as I could. Sometimes I’d go onstage without remembering what key something was in. If Garrison was going to sing, I usually couldn’t go wrong with E major.”

By the late ’90s, Thompson was known as a leading authority on early jazz. He served as a development consultant on the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam, which starred Gregory Hines. He also joined the touring company of the off-Broadway hit Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man, playing several runs with that show in New York and other cities through 1997.

The Village Voice described Butch’s music as “beguiling piano Americana from an interpreter who knows that Bix was more than an impressionist and Fats was more than a buffoon.”

 


 

 

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

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Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

I’m an old man and so the airport of today is fascinating to me. Believe it or not, I remember when we’d walk into the terminal and go straight to the gate to welcome Uncle Bud and Aunt Betty when they flew in on a propeller aircraft for Christmas. There were no metal detectors, no uniformed security searching your bags and yelling at you to remove your shoes; back then, TSA stood for Talk Softly Always, and now I come through a scanning machine and a government agent says, “I need to pat down your inner thighs.”

Ordinarily if a man said that to me, I’d report him to authorities, but he happened to be the authority and I didn’t want to take the Greyhound to New York so I succumbed to being patted down. He did it briskly, without any intimations of affection, and I picked up my stuff and put my belt on and headed for the gate to board and unboard and wait for clearance.

It was a very congenial wait. A fiftyish woman in a heavy parka spoke to me and asked me what she should do in New York. Minnesota women don’t speak to strange men and so this was a surprise and what was sort of amazing was that she took me for a New Yorker. I told her to avoid Times Square, to walk around Central Park and if she likes tap-dancing to see “Some Like It Hot” and hang the expense. She said she’d never been to the city before.

“Why now?” I said. She said she was going there to see her brother whom she hadn’t seen for eight years and try to reconcile with him.

It was a sweet encounter, one person telling a story to another, and somehow the snowfall and the travel delay played a role in it. There is nothing like the unexpected to bring out the best in people. I’m not the friendliest person you ever met but I smiled at people, said hi to people who said hi to me, and though I heard some grammatical errors, a plural pronoun where singular was appropriate, “lay” used when “lie” was meant, I didn’t correct them. If someone’s hair had caught fire, I would’ve used my cup of latte to extinguish it and not asked for compensation.

I sat by Gate C1 and considered maybe starting up a sing-along, maybe “Leaving on a Jet Plane” but then thought no, some women might resent singing “So kiss me and smile for me” with men they don’t even know, so I didn’t, and then we reboarded in a festive mood, ready for whatever New York throws at us. I feel sorry for Florida, which is devoid of snowstorms that promote fellowship.

Our snowbirds sit in a wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls and conversation dies for lack of anything to talk about. I feel terrible whenever I read about a Minnesotan eaten by an alligator that slipped out of the water hazard at the country club and attacked the guy in the sand trap and devoured him, yellow pants and all. A golf club is no defense against these beasts. There are 1.3 million gators in Florida and they’re attracted to aged Northerners because we use older brands of cologne that make us smell fruity. I’m heading for Fort Lauderdale tomorrow. Kiss me before I go.

There's money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

I met a guy in the subway not long ago whose headphones I could hear twenty feet away. We were waiting for a downtown train at West 86th Street. He was about fifty, balding on top but with an ambitious ponytail. He wore a Metallica T-shirt, the one with a skeleton performing a brain operation with a fork and knife, eating the patient’s brains. I’d recently had a heart operation to replace a mitral valve with one from a pig and I thought he might like to hear about it but it was hard to make contact. We boarded the train and he turned the music off and I asked him, politely, what he enjoyed about Metallica. He didn’t hear me; I had to speak loudly and clearly. He said, “It’s very beautiful, no matter what people think.” I got off at 42nd to go to the library. He continued on, perhaps to an auto-crushing plant or a crematorium. Someday he’ll achieve deafness, and then perhaps he’ll become a reader and maybe he’ll google Metallica and find this column.

 

Hello, sir.

A person has a right to enjoy music about hopelessness, but when I look at some lyrics, suddenly the serial killings start to make sense.

Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free.

The kid who shot up the school in Texas, the night manager at the Walmart store who shot up his coworkers in the break room — it was about suicide and wanting the suicide to get attention. It’s sort of cheesy for millionaire musicians to crank out anthems to hopelessness — this isn’t the blues, it’s angry morbidity. But there it is.

I trust that you, sir, find some serenity in your silence. Perhaps you’ve taken up birdwatching. It’s a long way from thrash metal to thrushes and meadowlarks but the human imagination is capable of great leaps. I hope you’ve found someone to put his/her/their arms around you.

 

I went to the library that day and sat in the reading room, and I was the oldest in the room by far. Intense young scholars who I imagine may do the work needed to save this planet so that future generations can enjoy fantasies of violence if they wish. If the sea rises faster as the planet heats up, survival will take precedence over amusement. People will lose the liberty to be weird.

Two nights before, I had been in Palm Springs to give a speech and was reminiscing about the past and on an impulse I sang the words, “There are places I remember” and the audience sang the whole song with me. A thousand people knew the words to Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” including the repeated last line with the high notes, “In my life, I love you more.” And then we sang “Silent Night,” all three verses. It brought me to tears, people united with strangers in beautiful works of art.

I wonder if, years from now, a crowd will sing Metallica songs for the pleasure of it.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in Macedonia, to fix their minds on what is true and beautiful and I suppose they tried to do that, and eventually their city was destroyed by the Ottoman Empire and now, centuries later, the ottoman is just a footstool. The world changes and takes us with it. But the true and beautiful remains, more compelling than ever. Dystopia and mental distress are very much in fashion now and there seem to be no memoirs about a happy childhood, only trauma and displacement and broken hearts, and so be it. But comedy, which is a charitable deed, lasts longer. Knock knock. Who’s there? Metallica. Metallica who? Metallica doesn’t have a last name, it’s not a human, it’s abandoned.

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Back in my leather fringed vest days, I assumed I would die young and become immortal like Buddy Holly or James Dean, but I was too poor to afford a fast sports car or a chartered airplane, and soon I was too old to die young. I survived absurd self-consciousness, cold winters, hard labor for no money, a fondness for whiskey — and now on Sunday mornings when I’m in town, I go to church, a traditional one that offers extensive moments of silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” it says in Scripture, and we do. God often speaks in the stillness. We confess to ourselves that we are not in charge of our lives and we believe that a Greater Power is in charge who loves us and we shake hands with the people around us and walk home.

Back in the day, I went to public schools and so did everyone else and we sat in a classroom with all sorts of kids, there were no special tracks for the gifted and brilliant, they had to sit next to us dummies. We all sang out of the same songbook, we loved the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies and the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack. People my age know these songs by heart. I spoke at a college convocation once for Parents’ Weekend and realized when I got there that the speech I’d written was crappy, a Dare-To-Be-Different message they’d heard often enough, so I said, “Let’s just sing some songs that we all know,” and I led them in those old songs and I saw kids holding up cellphones, googling “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because they’d been assigned to the Gifted Track back in fourth grade, which encouraged creativity and Daring To Be Different. The parents in the audience sang about Dinah and the land where my fathers died and “His truth is marching on” and roses love sunshine, violets love dew, and apparently enjoyed a sense of commonality that was denied to the gifted.

It’s a beautiful aspect of old age that you become more like other people than you wanted to be back when you were uniquely gifted. There is something about physical decrepitude and loss of acuity and a long memory and a sense of history that draws you together with kindred spirits. I often think of Leeds, Barry, Frankie, Corinne, my friends who died young, and wish they could’ve enjoyed old age. It’s worth the trouble.

I was the oldest person at our Thanksgiving table and I didn’t say much because the kids were so lively and funny and why bring them down with a lecture about the wonders of old age, including the fact that every morning is an occasion of gratitude. I’ll let them discover that for themselves, Lord willing.

Walking a crowded street in gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows? The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal. I know nothing about software. I use a laptop but nine-tenths of its capability is foreign to me; I use it as an educated typewriter. I love that it makes a squiggly blue line under misspelled words, even exotic ones. I imagined Twitter was run by robotechnicians, no need for a company cafeteria, just a lube station, but apparently not so. There are human beings there and they have feelings, which is what the rich guy is inexperienced at dealing with. He knows about circuitry but he’s bought a circus and now hundreds of acrobats have quit. You come to appreciate humanity, living in New York as I do. I walk down upper Broadway and it’s very amiable, like the Minnesota State Fair, throngs of people, the smell of pizza and hot pretzels in the air, bursts of music in passing, a general civility, all that’s missing are the farm implements and barns of giant swine. I’m a Midwesterner, wary of strangers, but walking in New York inspires a feeling that people are good at heart. Of course we’re all Democrats in this neighborhood. That’s all we have. You couldn’t find a Republican if your life depended on it. Thank goodness, the need for one has seldom arisen. Last week I flew to Detroit and spent a couple days in a suburban landscape of strip malls, a church next to a used-car lot next to a Walmart and hotel overlooking a cemetery, vast acreage of asphalt parking, a landscape that if I hiked a few miles along the main road, I’d feel isolated, threatened, and after dark, it’d be terrifying. I descend into the New York subway, an institution that is often grieved over but still packed with people taking great care not to bump each other or maintain eye contact for more than a few seconds. I’d rather be on the subway than drive my car through suburbia trying to find a shopping center; I’d slow down to try to get my bearings and the car behind me would honk with real fury. I’ve never encountered fury in the subway. It’d be too scary so people avoid it. We’ve all experienced a strong centrifugal urge to find loneliness in the woods, a cabin, a beach house, a tent on an island, and I’ve been there and done that and found that silence makes me uneasy and that the presence of birds and small mammals does not constitute company. Hermitude was not appealing and in the fall I heard gunfire and imagined a headline: Writer Slain in Cabin, Sheriff Asks Public for Clues. So now I am pleased to be in a subway car jammed with people. There’s no other city where you can see so much of America at once as here. The sheer variety is fascinating. The woman with the three small children opposite me: the sight of them speaks to my heart. The tall young woman in the black leggings whose stone-faced expression says she’s tired of people admiring her classic beauty, which, face it, is stunning, but I respect her need to be ignored, I look away, but the image of her is memorable. New Yorkers feign indifference, but if you should fall down, people will come to your assistance. If Mr. Musk tripped on a curb, people would stop and bend over and ask, “Are you okay?” They wouldn’t say, “I closed my Twitter account you idiot and you know something? I don’t miss it!” He’s human and if he’s injured himself, we’d help him up and call 911, same as we would for you.
A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

The Parker, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fort Lauderdale, FL for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show comes to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, MO with Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Dean Magraw, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell. (Theater Event and Livestream available)

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00P (CT)/ 8:00P (ET)

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

Livestream available for our “A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show” Dec 15 show in St. Louis

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Torrance, CA. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Bellefontaine, OH for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Kansas City, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Springfield, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Wichita, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Iola, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Maryville, TN for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

Radio

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world’s first auto show.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Today is the birthday of British novelist, scholar, and poet C.S. Lewis (1898), best known for the Chronicles of Narnia series, seven volumes of stories about young children who find entry to another world through an old wardrobe. They meet a magisterial lion named Aslan who asks for their help in battling evil. Aslan says, “I never tell anyone any story except his own.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 28, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 28, 2022

Today is the birthday of Jon Stewart, born in 1962. He made a name for himself as the host of The Daily Show. He said: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values — they’re hobbies. You know, one of the genius moves of The Founders was not writing The Bill of Rights on the back window of a dusty van.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 3, 2011

A Prairie Home Companion: December 3, 2011

A 2011 December classic from New York City with special guests Nellie McKay and Heather Masse. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh. He had recently published “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” to raise money to travel to Jamaica. It was an astonishing success and he eventually became one of the most famous poets in the world.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

Author Marilynne Robinson celebrates her 79th birthday today. Robinson is author of the novels “Housekeeping,” “Gilead,” and “Home.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born on this day in Scotland in the year 1835. He used his wealth to endow 2811 libraries and charitable foundations, and in purchasing organs for churches “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”

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Writing

Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

Read More

There’s money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

Read More

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Read More

Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows?

The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal.

Read More

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

Read More

What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

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Once again, Violetta does the right thing

We went to the Met to see La Traviata on Election Night and so did many other people and the Violetta was delicate and pure and commanded the stage right up to when she died and Verdi’s choruses were glorious and moving and he gives Violetta some heartbreaking unaccompanied passages, a lone soprano singing in the extensive acreage of the Met, it takes your breath away. Of course some people won’t recognize great art even if it tap-dances in the nude while handing out Eskimo bars but I tell you the truth, Act 3 was so stunning it took your mind completely off Herschel and Dr. Oz and Kari Lake and the doctor running for governor of Minnesota who doesn’t believe in immunization.

For months I’d been getting pleas for money from candidates besieged by evil and now I wanted to see the courtesan Violetta living in sin with Alfredo whose father begs her to leave him so Alfredo’s sister will not suffer shame and can marry, and the courtesan agrees, a sinner performing an act of charity, sung by soprano Nadine Sierra who is also a Lucia, Zerlina, Susanna, Gilda, and for all I know may be a D.A. in Atlanta.

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An idea, probably wrong, but it’s an idea

I’m thinking I should get to work on a museum of the era before the internet and cellphones and streaming music so that people under 40 know what it was like to talk on a phone with a cord on the kitchen wall and gossip without your mother understanding what it was about. People wrote on stationery with a pen back then, not a stationary bike but paper, wrote letters in a cursive hand to their grandmas and Grandma told you what fine handwriting you had. Now Grandma is happy if you stick with your birth gender and don’t get tangled up with fentanyl.

I’m not nostalgic for those days, I simply feel that you young people need to know some history. When I was 20, 60 years ago, I walked into the Capitol in Washington one evening and there was one cop sitting at a table inside the door, reading a book. There was no metal detector. Nowadays, they put up metal detectors at the doors to elementary schools. I’m not kidding.

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My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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A true story about last Tuesday

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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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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