College Days

College is a time in your life when you can be gloriously ridiculously full of yourself and get away with it, a luxury once reserved for the aristocracy but, in America, extended to the child of a carpenter and postal worker, namely me. I was a middle-class kid from the West River Road where late at night fireflies sparkled in the field behind the dark houses and I sat on our rich green lawn and stared at the blinking red light on a distant water tower and tried to imagine a larger life though it seemed presumptuous and that fall I found it, ten miles south of us, at the University of Minnesota. I had been a B student at Anoka High School but I was encouraged by some tireless encouragers, my teachers Helen Story, Lois Melby, Helen Fleischman, Katherine Hattendorf, children of the Depression who grew up in farm families and for them teaching was a shining ideal and also the path out of a hard life they knew too well, the life of serfs. Miss Hattendorf grew up on a farm in Iowa; her German parents sent her and her sisters to board with a family in town so they could attend high school. When she was about to leave for the University of Chicago and it came time to say goodbye and get in the car and go to the train, she looked at her mother standing at the kitchen sink—“I wanted to hug her, but I couldn’t do it. She was a stranger to me. They wanted me and my sisters to get a good education and they made big sacrifices and that was one of them: they didn’t know us anymore and we didn’t know them.” She was sure I could be a writer and to show her faith in me, she paid me $20 to write her obituary, though she was in pretty good health.

I secretly imagined getting published in The New Yorker though of course I couldn’t tell anybody that. I had imagined it since junior high school. I still have the first copy I bought, 35 cents, with E.B. White in it, John Cheever, and A.J. Liebling, my hero. A.J. Liebling knocked me out, and he still does. He used to sit up in his office at the magazine and look down 43rd and see the Hotel Dixie and the Paramount Building, home of the Paramount Theater. To the Paramount, he had gone as a young reporter to interview the Hollywood femme fatale Pola Negri, whom he had fallen in love with when he saw her in a German silent film, “Passion,” in Hanover, New Hampshire, when he was about to be kicked out of Dartmouth for cutting chapel. Liebling interviewed her as she lay in a white peignoir on a white chaise longue like a crumpled gardenia petal and said, of Rudolph Valentino, “He was the only man I evair luffed. But I am fated always to be unhappy in luff. Because I expect so mawch.” And the Hotel Dixie was the home of Liebling’s friend, Colonel John R. Stingo, the horseracing columnist for the National Enquirer. Colonel Stingo said, “I sit up there in my room at the Dixie, working away on my column. I finish, and it is perhaps one o’clock. Up there in my retreat, I feel the city calling to me. It winks at me with its myriad eyes, and I go out and get stiff as a board. I seek out companionship, and if I do not find friends, I make them. A wonderful, grand old Babylon.”That summer after high school, I worked as a dishwasher at the Evangeline Hotel for Women in downtown Minneapolis, a skinny kid with glasses in a white apron, lugging the racks of steaming hot plates off the conveyer, chipping the black crusts of food off the bottoms of the cooking pots. Dishwashing can bring out the romantic in a man. On a hot summer day, you come out of the steam and heat of the scullery and the beauty of the world overwhelms you and you feel cool and comfortable for the rest of the day. I walked onto campus for the first day of classes and strolled up the mall to Northrop Auditorium and gazed up at its great pillars and the Jeffersonian inscription on the facade above, founded in the faith that men are ennobled by understanding, dedicated to the advancement of learning and the search for truth, devoted to the instruction of youth and the welfare of the state. Along the mall, a stately parade of utilitarian brick buildings with pillars pasted to their fronts, a river of youth flowing under the canopy of majestic elms, lost freshmen lolling on the steps studying campus maps and planning their route from one class to the next, and Africans and Indians and Pakistanis and Koreans come to study plant agronomy and engineering, Africans blacker than midnight who spoke with British accents like John Gielgud’s, black Africans speaking beautiful French (I turned and followed them, eavesdropping, so astonishing this was to hear), bearded Sikhs in turbans, women in saris with red dots painted on their foreheads, Korean War vets in fatigues and GI sunglasses, old bearded lefties in turtlenecks clutching their I. F. Stone Weekly and The Realist, cigarette-smoking women playing the role of beat princess or troubled intellect or Audrey Hepburn heroine, cool people who might possibly have been poets, anxious bookish people en route to serious encounters with history and literature. Ambition everywhere you looked, electrical currents jazzing the air. I walked over to Dinkytown to buy my books at Perrine’s, down the street from Al’s Breakfast Nook, near Vescio’s Italian restaurant and a rats’ nest of a bookstore called Heddon’s whose snowy-haired proprietor, after pondering a moment, could reach into the third orange crate from the bottom and pull out the very book you asked for, and Virg ‘N’ Don’s Grocery and a coin laundry called The Tub, and McCosh’s Bookstore with the sweet-faced bearded anarchist and bibliomaniac McCosh, Gray’s Drugstore lunch counter (a grilled cheese sandwich, chili, and a vanilla shake, please) and a fine little coffeehouse called the Ten O’Clock Scholar where a beaky kid with brushy hair played a battered guitar and sang “O Fair and Tender Ladies” and It’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew, Where the dangers are many and the pleasures are few. The stage was in front, before the big double plate-glass window, and sometimes a passerby stopped on the sidewalk, peered in the window, into the dark room, and then realized he was part of a show and fled.

I walked over to Folwell Hall, home of the English Department and the divine Miss Sarah Youngblood and craggy old Huntington Brown and Samuel Monk the 18th Century man and Toni McNaron who propounded Milton and Archibald Leyasmeyer the Chaucerian and other noble and learned friends of literature, and I felt grateful that this institution had opened its doors to a dreamer like me who had no clear vocation whatsoever. I was operating on a wistful urge to sit in libraries and be a writer and that was all. I wasn’t like the anxious bookish people who seemed to be proceeding on a well-plotted course, boys climbing the slopes toward law school, smart girls in chemistry lab who would march on to distinction developing polymers. Myself, I just hoped to be lucky.

I paid $71 for a quarter’s tuition and another $10 or so for my books, a political science text, a volume of Horace and a Latin dictionary, and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style for my composition course—and notebooks with the university seal on the cover (Omnibus Artibus, Commune Vinculum) and I took a seat in the long reading room in Walter Library among men and women bent to the hard work of scholarship, folks for whom attending college was not an assumed privilege. The vets on the GI Bill and the African and Asian exchange students and the ones who were the first in their family to attend college, whose parents’ own hopes had been deferred by the Depression and the War—these students approached the U with a great chins-up pencils-sharpened sense of purpose. They sat at the long oak library tables, heads bowed, rows and rows of them, reading, reading, reading—sons of garage mechanics on their way to medical school, daughters of dairy farmers out to become professors of Romance languages—a great American migration as inspiring as anything that took place on the Oregon Trail. These pioneers craved a life in which beauty and delight and intellectual challenge are staples; they wanted to travel to farflung places, read novels, go to the theater, be smart about the world and not reflexively pessimistic like their parents. The craving for experience was powerful. Love and adventure and interesting work—a great many of us, fearing the regimentation of corporate life, would head for the burgeoning non-profit world. Such a purposeful bunch—who looked like me, were dressed like me, and like me had very little money—who plowed through the texts and took notes and shushed up the goofballs in their midst. Boys and girls who came to the library to sit and giggle were glared at and told to be still—this never happened in high school! These were people with a sense of vocation. It was a Thomas Hart Benton mural come to life—”The Children of the Great Plains Claiming Their Birthright At Last.” Their once-in-a-lifetime chance to realize their God-given talent, as scholars of medieval painting or operas or the breeding rituals of the Arctic ptarmigan. No guarantee of success, or even of gainful employment. Pure free enterprise.

My Latin teacher, Margaret Forbes, was an auntly woman, cheery and kind, who ran us through daily translations and sniped at us with questions about the anticipatory subjunctive—subjunctive denotes an act that is expected—Expectabum dum frater redirect—I was waiting for my brother to return—and we responded to her aequo animo—without anxiety, as she lay open the folded language—patefacio, patefacere, patefeci, patefactumO pace in perpetuum, Margareta, felicitas aeternas! Richard Cody taught composition, a slender Englishman sitting at a table on a raised platform, lecturing drily on the art of the essay, which he described as a 440-yard dash through natural obstacles, over rough terrain, an intellectual exercise also meant to be esthetically elegant. We were Minnesota kids striving to imitate William Hazlitt, Joseph Addison, George Orwell, E. B. White, and Norman Mailer. Once Mr. Cody called on me to come forward and read the first page of my essay on manure spreading, one of my jobs on Uncle Jim’s farm—a humorous essay, supposedly—and I jumped up to do it and fainted dead away—fell across a row of empty chairs and crashed to the floor and lay there. “Are you all right?” a girl asked under her breath. I got up and Mr. Cody called on someone else. We were all pretty cool back then. Asher Christiansen taught American Government, an elegant little man in dark slacks and gray blazer, bushy eyebrows, moustache, smoking his pipe—half the class smoked too, and I came to associate intellectual seriousness with bad air—propounding his grand theme, that the Constitution was a natural force for civilization, its checks and balances serving to dampen the fires of inner-directed ideologues and bring them into a respectful relationship to their antagonists and attend to the serious business of government. After class, some students formed another smaller class that followed Professor Christiansen out the door and stood in the alley behind Nicholson Hall for a few minutes, a gaggle of fifteen or twenty that dwindled as he headed down the Mall to his office in Ford Hall, arriving there with four or five of us still hanging on. I was a student in the last class he taught. In January I saw the front-page story in the Daily: Professor Christiansen had felt ill during lunch at the faculty club and went to a quiet room to lie down and died there of a heart attack. The story said he grew up in Little Falls, graduated from the U, where he taught from 1936 on, with guest stints in Wales, Germany, and Argentina, where he lectured in Spanish. He was 57 years old, married, no children. Just us students.

Dad had made it clear that he couldn’t contribute to pay for my education, which I hadn’t asked him to and I was relieved not to have to consider an offer. A nice clean break. I got a job working the 6 to 10 a.m. shift in the big parking lot on the river flats for $1.48 an hour. Nine hundred cars, and it filled up by 7:30 so there you were with a couple hours of paid study time. You learned to ignore your fellow attendant who liked to tell about students he had seen having sex in parked cars and you applied yourself to the U.S. Constitution and the separation of powers.

I got a job at the student radio station, WMMR, in October and a tall good-looking guy named Barry Halper showed me how to piece together a newscast from the Associated Press teletype. They needed someone to do the 12:15 newscast. “Today?” I said. “Today,” he said. He showed me how to switch on the microphone, read the VU meter, adjust the headphone volume, showed me the cough switch, and an hour later I sat down in a tiny room with green acoustic-tile walls at a table covered with green felt and switched on the mike and a red bulb lit up and I read the news under a gooseneck lamp, one eye on the big clock on the wall in front of my face. I was nervous of course, but it was a delicious nervousness. I felt sequestered, safe in the studio, a little fortress. I did the newscast and said, “That’s the news, reported by Garrison Keillor. This is WMMR, from studios in Coffman Memorial Union, broadcasting at 730 kilocycles.” And pressed a Play button and the tape deck clunked and a recorded voice talked about Campus Pizza and I got up and the next announcer slipped in and played something by Johnny Mathis and I walked out to the hall and Barry Halper nodded at me. “That was not bad,” he said.

An egalitarian spirit prevailed at the U that truly was noble. There was no rank, no hazing, no freshman beanies, we were all in the same boat. You were Mr. Keillor to your professor and he was Mr. Brown to you. You looked him in the eye. You said, “I don’t get this” and he explained it to you. That was his job. Yours was to pay attention. Money was no social asset whatsoever and if you went around in expensive clothes you were regarded with pity or scorn. A few goofball freshmen showed up in brand new suits for fall classes and they stood out in the crowd as if they wore red rubber noses and fright wigs. Everybody from the President to the deans and the faculty had their home addresses and phone numbers listed in the University directory, and if you were brave enough, you could ring up Dean McDiarmid or Vice President Willey and tell him your troubles. I did not but the phone numbers were there and I suppose somebody did. On my slender parking lot wages I was able to buy a season ticket to the concerts in Northrup and I saw Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, Andrés Segovia, the Royal Danish Ballet doing a Balanchine program, the great Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling, the Cleveland Orchestra, Glenn Gould—you could get a balcony seat for $1.50, about an hour’s wage. I couldn’t afford to see the Metropolitan Opera on their annual tour but one evening I did look up at a window on the side of Northrup and see a tall slender dark-haired woman standing naked in front of a full-length mirror for a whole minute, studying herself. A wardrobe lady sat nearby, smoking, reading a newspaper. The dark-haired woman turned, facing me, her hands on hips, one leg extended, looking over her shoulder at her rump, her delicate bush and maroon nipples, like a painting, nude dancer studying herself.

Robert Frost came to campus soon after Kennedy’s speech and drew a capacity crowd of 5,000 at Northrup Auditorium, the great stooped white-maned old bear reciting by heart “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and the crowd hushed in the cathedral of poetry—“For Once, Then, Something” and “The Oven Bird” and “Fire and Ice” and the one about the lover’s quarrel with the world—that soft lyrical cranky uncle voice beloved since junior high, a godlike presence in our midst, and afterward a hundred of us acolytes gathered at the back door to view the great man up close. I was proud of him for drawing that huge crowd and performing so well. He eased his old body down the stairs, our grand paterfamilias, and mingled with us, chatted, answered a few questions—I remember clearly, nobody asked for his autograph—and then he climbed into a black Chrysler and was taken off to lunch with the faculty. But we students were as important as anybody else and weren’t held behind ropes or shushed. That was how it was at the U. The field was wide open. At the Minnesota Daily and its literary arm, The Ivory Tower, you submitted your stuff and back came a polite note, “Sorry,” and that week they printed George Amabile’s poems instead of yours, but you sent more and of that second batch the editor accepted two and the next month they appeared, big glutinous symbolist things about owls on moonless nights flying to Arabia, all in lowercase, and you snatched ten copies out of a paper box and took them home to save to show your grandchildren you once were a writer. The publications weren’t in the grip of a gang, they were open to walk-ons.

I hung around the Daily offices, free of the petty miseries of high school, that small fixed universe. The University was freedom. A friend of mine dropped out sophomore year and married his girlfriend and they bought a little yellow rambler in Coon Rapids, the down payment a gift from her parents. He was a warehouse clerk and his wife got pregnant and woke up in a foul mood every morning and he went off to eight hours of an automaton job. What a waste of a perfectly good life. Women were the great tamers; they took you in hand and trained you to accept the leaden social life and waxen solemnity of marriage and instead of bumming around Europe you’d be spending two weeks with her parents at the lake. Women put their arms around you and cried that they loved you and wanted to make you happy and bwanngggg a trapdoor popped open and you dropped down the chute into a job you despised and a frazzled marriage in a crackerjack house with a mortgage as big as Montana—I intended to escape that. I longed for my flesh to touch someone else’s flesh but I remained chaste. I sat in clouds of cigarette smoke in a classroom smelling of linseed-oiled floors and listened to James Wright lecture on Dickens and gazed at the lovely girls in horn-rim glasses. I liked strolling around campus at night with Gail who wrote for the paper or my classmate Mary, put my arm around her waist and hooked my little finger in her belt loop and she with her arm around the back of me, hooked together, talking about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Eliot, arms riding across each other’s butts, our hips moving in meter, which, we two being different heights, came out in 9/7 time, like an old Swedish step dance, and I would maybe recite Housman’s poem about being 20—“And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow”—and wind up back at Murphy Hall and the Daily office.

For winter quarter, I got the 5 a.m. shift at a ten-acre gravel parking lot on the West Bank, overlooking the Mississippi. I was turning into a night owl, always up past midnight, and the alarm clock went off at 4 and I lay in the warm trench of my bed, reviewing my options, preferring sleep, longed for it, nodded off, which shocked me into wakefulness and I rolled out and drove to town through the snowy world and parked beside the parking lot shack and hiked to the far end of the lot, flashlight in hand, like a sheep shearer waiting for the herd to come piling through the gate. The lot sloped down to the edge of the bluff and I looked down on Bohemian Flats, a ragtag village on the riverbank. Old frame houses that got flooded out every spring, where old Swedes and Bohunks lived a subsistence life in the middle of the Twin Cities. Smoke rose from their chimneys. One of the other parking attendants said there was a whorehouse down there. “Ten bucks a shot,” he said. “Indian women.“ I got good at parking. The cars came in a rush, starting at 6:30. Three ticket sellers stood in the street, and the flagman stood at the top of the lot and directed the flow to where I was conducting them into their spots, straight lines, double rows. No painted lines on the gravel, I did it all by eye.

I had to direct each car with strong hand signals into its correct space, the Leonard Bernstein of the automobile, and discourage the tendency to freelance and veer off toward a more convenient place. Every morning there were three or four pioneers who wanted to start their own rows. You had to yell to the flagman to hold the traffic and then you ran over toward the miscreant’s car and yelled “Your car will be towed in ten minutes.” The mention of towing got their attention, but you had to make it sound real. “That’s a twenty-five-dollar fine.” Usually that was enough to get them to move the car. If they hesitated, I said, “Plus twenty-five for the impound lot. It’s up to you.” I had no idea who to call to come tow a car or what they would say, I just did what other attendants said to do, and it worked. Creative parking couldn’t be allowed, chaos would result, cars skewed everywhere, blocking other cars, holding up traffic, people late, angry, honking—it was my responsibility to make the grid system work. For the common good. To be direct. Exercise authority. No, sir. Not there. Over here. Right here. Yes. Here. Your individualists and comedians would test the limits and if you gave them an inch, anarchy would ensue, cars going every which way like confused buffalo. Be firm. Make that bozo back up six inches. Straighten that line. Thank you. If you accept that variance, the line will buckle. If you do your job right, the lot fills to capacity in half an hour, you put up the full sign and huddle in the shack, the electric heater blazing away, and you take up with Natasha and Prince Andrei and War and Peace for Mr. Milgrom’s humanities class until 9 a.m. when the shift ends and you leg it over the Washington Avenue bridge to the East Bank. A cup of vending machine coffee and a cheese danish and off to class.

In the winter, we packed into Williams Arena to cheer the hockey team against our deadly rival, the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. Blood lust in the air. Our Gophers were all Minnesota boys and the Sioux were all Canucks, paid thugs, big bruisers, mercenaries, and when a Sioux got ridden into the boards, we cheered from the bottom of our hearts. I dated a quiet girl, a church organist, and at hockey games she screeched and booed like a true peasant. I wrote a poem about hockey and took it to a writers’ club meeting at Professor Hage’s house and the poet James Wright said something encouraging about it and my face burned with pleasure. I can still picture it in my mind, where I was sitting, where he sat, and I still feel my face getting warm.

That spring the Mississippi River rose and there were urgent flood warnings on the radio. One afternoon I put on warm clothes and took the bus to St. Paul and crossed the Wabasha Bridge to the West Side where people were at work filling sandbags to bolster the dikes to save the low-lying houses. It was foggy, and then it began to rain. An army of hundreds of volunteers hard at work, men and women, drawn up in assembly lines, holding the sacks and filling them and passing them in a chain to the dike. It got dark. Nobody left. The Red Cross brought around sandwiches and coffee. We rested and went back to work. Trucks brought in more sand and bags. A couple of front loaders worked at anchoring the dikes with earthen banks. I worked until after midnight and lay down in the back of a truck under a tarp and slept until daybreak and got up stiff and cold and they brought us more sandwiches and coffee and I got back in the gang and worked until noon. I stayed because everyone else stayed. I sort of collapsed in the afternoon and was going to go home but slept a couple hours on a tarp in somebody’s front yard and when I woke up, there was water in the street, people wading through it, some men with muddy overalls, pitched emotion in the air, though nobody said much. We had put so much into beating back the flood, and we kept working—shovel, fill, tie, and pass, shovel, fill, tie, and pass—and felt privileged to be there doing it. I could hear the river boiling by and slabs of ice heaved up on the dike and National Guardsmen patrolling and when people couldn’t stand up any longer, they sat down and ate baloney sandwiches and drank coffee. And got back up.

I went home in the morning. I sat on the bed and cried. For the relief of getting out of those mud-crusted clothes and standing under a hot shower, but also for what I’d seen, the spirit of all those workers caught up in the job of saving their neighbors’ houses. Forget all the jabber and gossip, all the theoretical balderdash and horsefeathers, here is reality: the river rises up in its power and majesty, and the people rise up in theirs, and while one can do only so much, you must do that much, and we did. We saved several blocks of homes. Nobody thanked us. It didn’t matter. It was an experience.

The University was a monument to the Jeffersonian faith in the power of learning and in the ability of all people to recognize and embrace excellence, a grand old American notion. To offer Jussi Bjoerling and Arthur Rubinstein to 18-year-old kids at prices they can afford is an astonishment. Utterly. To witness such grandeur can change a person’s life. But that was the spirit of the Morrill Act of 1862 that granted to the states a tract of land in proportion to their population for the endowment of a state university to teach the classic curriculum as well as courses relating to agriculture and industry, open to qualified students regardless of financial means. I stuck around at WMMR and did the noon newscast for six months, five days a week, and then in May was told that the station had been off the air for at least that long. Doggone it. Our engineer, a brilliant young man, had been busy building a state-of-the-art control room and hadn’t had time to do maintenance on the transmitter and it had burned out. I was in some anguish over having spent six months editing a newscast so I could sit in a room and read it to myself, but as Barry Halper said, “It was good experience.” And had I ever, in those six months, thought about the listeners and wondered why the cards and letters weren’t pouring in, or trickling in, or even dripping in? No. I was having too much fun. “You sound terrific,” said Barry. “You could get a job on any station in town.” He was a pal and a real positive guy. He was 20, he drove a big white convertible, he was Jewish and smart, he’d been to LA and Las Vegas and met Jack Benny and Shelley Berman. If he’d asked me to, I would’ve shined his shoes.

I was a serious young man and did not go to parties at the U except one in the spring of my sophomore year at somebody’s parents’ house in Kenwood, a tony neighborhood in Minneapolis, where a mob of students was drinking something called Purple Death out of a washtub in the kitchen. Fortified with this, people started spouting off their big opinions about Kennedy and Hemingway and Ornette Coleman and some of us got into a contest to see who knew more dirty limericks. There was the one about the young man from Buckingham and the young man from St. Paul whose cock was exceedingly small and the Bishop of Chichester and the sailor named Tex who avoided premarital sex and the young woman of Edina and her vagina.

The base of Purple Death was grape Kool-Aid, plus whatever the guests had brought. It was a potluck cocktail: Old Buzzard Breath bourbon, crème de banana, licorice schnapps, vodka, anything would do, and after drinking for a while and telling dirty jokes, some of us headed over to Cedar Lake to go skinny-dipping, and we stripped off our clothes, but it wasn’t the erotic thrill it should’ve been, not for me anyway: I could feel the hangover mounting up behind my forehead, a truly monumental one, with shades of surrealism—I remember naked women and I also remember the dark angel of projectile vomiting—and in the morning I awoke with a taste of what mental illness might be like, a sort of vacancy with dark shadows. And I was glad to be alone.

As U of M students we walked around with a fine chip on our shoulder toward eastern finishing schools like Yale and Harvard where children of privilege slept until noon after a night of inebriation, were brought cucumber sandwiches by a porter, sashayed off to their 3 p.m. music appreciation class, and then played squash until dinner. Oxford and Cambridge were held in even greater contempt: dandruffy men quivering with borrowed sensibility drinking sherry and propounding fabulous foolishness with great certainty. You walk around with a brown bag lunch and a few bucks in your pocket, trying to scrape together next quarter’s tuition, and a little class resentment is good for you, a balm and a prod both. I envied cool people, good tennis players, opera singers, sandy-haired rich guys who looked princely even in ratty old clothes, all Frenchmen, men with lovely girlfriends, guitarists, but the U was the antidote to envy. So many cool people seem on closer examination to be trapped in a set of mannerisms that are not so interesting and lead nowhere, whereas the U appealed to your curiosity and drew you into scholarship, which took you through doors you hadn’t known existed. In one smoky classroom after another, sitting elbow to elbow at little arm desks, you felt illuminated, there was a quickening almost like drunkenness, a feeling that you and the professor were conspiring in a noble enterprise that would last you to the end of your days. I learned how to plant myself in a library chair and open the books and take notes in a yellow legal pad. Having a good ear for multiple-choice tests had gotten me through high school (the correct answer, two-thirds of the time, was C) but now I needed to actually do the work. I soldiered through and learned how to write profoundly at great speed late at night about books I barely understood.

American universities have seen plenty of radicals and revolutionaries come and go over the years, and all of them put together were not nearly so revolutionary as a land-grant university itself on an ordinary weekday. To give people with little money a chance to get the best education there is—that is true revolution. When I graduated from Anoka High School, I believed that my chances would be as good as anybody else’s, and the good people of Minnesota did not let me down. I got my chance and right there is where a Democrat is made—a kid from Anoka sits in a parking lot shack on Fourth Street SE where, earning $1.48 an hour, he translates Horace for Mrs. Forbes—whose standards are high—as birds sit scritching on the telephone wire and a fly buzzes at the window. A bright fall day and he has no money to speak of and no clear plan for the future but he has teachers who engage him with gravity and fervor and that’s enough. That was the true spirit of the University, the spirit of professors who loved their work. That was the heart and soul of the place, not the athletic teams, not the architecture. The University was Mary Malcolm, a native of Worthington, who studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and came back to teach music theory for forty-three years. She had perfect pitch and could write down on paper anything you could hum or plunk on the piano. It was Izaak M. Kolthoff, a Dutch chemist who guided Jewish scientists out of Germany in the Thirties and worked on the crucial war project of creating synthetic rubber and became a peacenik in the Fifties. It was Marcia Edwards, a chain-smoking authority on adolescent psychology and a fanatical Gopher sports fan who went to angelic lengths to help her students, even lending them money, and who turned down the offer to become dean of the College of Education because she didn’t want the hassle, especially the foofaraw of being the first woman dean. It was Bill Marchand who taught Shakespeare to kids majoring in animal husbandry and horticulture. It was Nils Hasselmo who came from Sweden to study the Swedish emigrants and got his doctorate and became chair of the Scandinavian Languages Department and eventually President of the U. And it was Margaret Forbes who could make you feel that a few lines of Horace held the key to everything noble. And if you start to feel ennobled, you lose interest in how you are perceived by other people. You walk into the library and that Niagara of scholarship holds you in its sway, the deluge and glory of learning, and you begin to see where work and play become one. And imagine working at something you love. And that was how the University of Minnesota gave me my life.


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

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

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Sick in a hotel, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about. I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury. I was scheduled to do a show Sunday night and I wanted to do it though I felt wretchedly ill. I was sure that hearing the audience laugh would make me feel better, but the venue has a No-Co policy in place, and I wouldn’t want others to catch my virus, so suddenly I was unemployed and far from home. I was planning to tell the audience about winter in my childhood, when I rode a sleigh through blinding snow to get to school and the driver avoided the swamp where gangsters hung out hoping to kidnap children and hold them for ransom but nobody paid ransom because families back then were so large, ten or fifteen kids, because there was nothing else to do for six months so they bred for amusement. I was born an Olson but one day the sleigh was attacked by masked men and the driver whipped the horses and they bolted and they wouldn’t stop and I was dropped off at the Keillors instead, many miles away, and they already had eleven kids and I slipped into the family unnoticed because I was a very polite child and no trouble to anybody, and I was glad to become one of them. The Olsons were a shifty lot who talked nonsense and the Keillors were honest as the day is long. This would’ve been a good story for the college kids to hear but of course they have no interest in listening to an old man talk about the 20th. To them, 1964 is next door to 1864 and the Civil War whereas to me it’s the year the Beatles arrived and after the bitterness of the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November and the rise of the old hack LBJ, the utter cheerfulness of the Liverpool skiffle band was so delightful, it caused euphoria among teenage girls, songs that said I want to hold your hand ’cause when you touch me I feel happy inside, it’s such a feeling that my love can’t hide, which I still feel about my sweet woman. In my shows, if I sing “There are places I remember,” the audience joins in and sings all of “In My Life,” word perfect, and the same with “Who knows how long I’ve loved you” and “Well, she was just seventeen if you know what I mean,” the whole songs, with great pleasure, and though I don’t fancy myself a singer, I do it because it makes the crowd so happy. Amid the violence and political dysfunction and eco-crises of the 21st, the whole wretched legacy we leave to the grandkids, we recall a moment of light-heartedness before Vietnam descended on us. I’ve had dark times in my life, mostly of my own making but I don’t recall them with any clarity, unlike the moment in 1997 I stood in the delivery room of the hospital and held a naked infant daughter in my hands and all the times I sang duets with my friend Heather, a tall woman, and we stood eye to eye, and she made me briefly sound almost like a singer, and the day in August I spent with my wife Jenny, just the two of us on the front porch of a little house on the bank of the Connecticut river, observing my 80th birthday. We drank our coffee, watching a family of foxes playing tag in the yard, talking a little, we held hands and so forth, but it was a beautiful day. I wish you kids the same.

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.

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 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

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)

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

February 24, 2023

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Grand Theatre, Frankfort, KY

Frankfort, KY

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Frankfort, KY 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 Thursday, December 8, 2022

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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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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.”

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

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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

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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.”

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Writing

Sick in a hotel room, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about.

I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury.

Read More

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.

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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.

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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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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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