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.

Available December 1st: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

If you pre-order a copy now, sometime before the official publication date (Dec 1) you will receive the book plus an exclusive link to a video made by Garrison about the memoir. Plus, pre-orders will enjoy $5.00 off in our store (pay $25.00 for the hardcover instead of $30.00).

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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Wobegon Virus

Available September 8th: It's a new Lake Wobegon novel from Garrison Keillor. Hardcover, eBook, and audiobooks (both CD and streaming options) are available now wherever you get your books.

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

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What is normality and do we want it?

So here we are, locked down in our tiny village since March, winter on the way, chilly winds over the tundra, we’re waiting for men on a dogsled to bring the sacred COVID vaccine, meanwhile we hunker in our dark hut and while away the hours telling tales of old conquests. I try to while but whiling is not my strong suit and I’ve had no conquests, only a series of lucky breaks. I married well. I was born late enough so that medicine had figured out how to repair my congenital heart defect, which enabled me to enjoy the marriage a good deal longer. I took up writing as a profession, which is advantageous for a man with a long face and no social skills. I could list others.

When I hear people talk about life getting back to normal after the vaccine, frankly I have qualms. I’ve lived a long time and seen a number of normals and don’t think normality is what we should settle for. Some of us have come to appreciate this simpler contemplative time. I don’t long to be in crowds again. I don’t miss going to restaurants, the shouted conversations, the strangers at your elbow. I prefer Netflix to movie theaters, the popcorn is better. And dinner parties — do we have to? I remember that awful point in the evening when you try to think of a nice way to say, “I wish you people would all go home now.”

I’m a Scot on my mother’s side and so I expect the worst and for us pessimists, staying home is an excellent idea and the pandemic gives me a good excuse. I can imagine walking down the street and a 500-pound anvil falls out of a tree and crushes me and someone gets it on video and it goes viral, a tall scholarly man suddenly obliterated and it’s horrible but also weirdly humorous — he’s a white male and then suddenly he’s a pile of clothing — and though you ask, “Why was a 500-pound anvil parked in a tree on Columbus Avenue?” it’s too late for Nowhere Man — he’s being carried in a coffin the size of a fruit basket and his death video has gotten 57 million hits. I refuse to be him; I am the man happy to be eating waffles in his own kitchen.

They say it’ll be another year before a reliable vaccine is found and it’ll take a while to distribute it, so there’s time for us to plan the New Normal before it begins. I want there to be more walking, less talking. I want to bring back cribbage and backgammon. I want to bring back the classics, Dickens and Trollope and Turgenev. I want to reduce the forty-hour week to thirty. The American people are in desperate need of getting more fun out of life. Let’s elongate the lunch hour and eliminate the big dinner. Let’s continue the Work From Home movement. And let’s do away with the Republican and Democratic Parties. Outlaw them. POOF: gone.

We’re sick of them, the posturing and pandering, the flood of money, the cant, the tired rhetoric. Take a look at the GOP marching lockstep to isolationism and the biggest deficit in history — if that’s conservatism, I’m Grace Kelly. The Democratic Party is dreaming of Denmark: get over it. I propose we drop them both and create a Guys’ Party and a Women’s, meaning (1) each Party holds a broad spectrum of views from left to right and forces opposites to reason with each other, (2) the Women’s Party will naturally be dominant since women are inclined toward Order and Reasonableness, not so obsessed with Gamesmanship, and (4) it will be an enormous relief for guys to be relieved of leadership. We are comedians at heart, not commissioners. When I skipped (3), women noticed it and guys didn’t. Hillary lost in 2016 because a debater vs. a flamethrower is no contest. When Uncle Joe says, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” he is talking guy talk, saying something Hillary wanted to say and couldn’t.

Let’s put the bitterest, most divisive issues into quarantine for two years and focus on what we all agree is right: eliminate hunger, make good schools, pay impoverished parents to raise their children, create dignified work for young people. Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds is around 20%. This is not acceptable. Set the cultural wars aside for a while, give self-righteousness a rest, and let’s take care of our people.

Enough of the news, onward with friendship

Someday we shall look back at these golden October days with wonder and amazement, how good life was even in a pandemic during a lunatic time. Here in New York City, everyone wears a mask, there is a high level of civility, and though riding down Columbus Avenue feels like we’re driving across a freshly plowed field, life is good. I sat in a sidewalk café with a friend on Sunday, unmasked, telling old stories, enjoying freedom of speech. She complained about the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I wrote poems like hers when I was in the ninth grade. ‘The leaves are turning brown, the leaves are falling, death is near.’ Who put the Swedes in charge of literature?”

Back in Minneapolis, where I’m from, you couldn’t say that. Too many Swedes around and too much PC and self- righteousness. Back there, among young lefties, I am a Privileged White Male, not a person but a type, but in my New York neighborhood, which tends Jewish, an old WASP is sort of a novelty. I walk around amid all colors and ethnicities and interesting accents and hairstyles, and I’m just a guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. This is a big relief. One big pleasure of urban life is looking at other people and it’s hard to do that if they are glaring at you as a symbol of all that is wrong. New Yorkers don’t.

Of course, life is easier for me now that I’ve quit reading the news. There’s nothing new in it, nothing to be learned, and hasn’t been since March. Once you cut out the news, the lives of friends and family become preeminent, their voices on the telephone, their emails. The brother-in-law, bedridden in Boston, who is on his third pass through Shakespeare’s plays, keeping his mind active while living in an inert body. The psychologist cousin in Detroit, a shrewd judge of my character, every visit is illuminating. The friend who, at 85, claims to be dying but still enjoys his evening martini and laughs hard at old jokes. The musician friends, unemployed since the pandemic began, making interesting domestic lives for themselves. The writer friends, writing away.

I am working on a letter to an old editor of mine, now 100 years old, hale and hearty, who bought a story of mine back in 1969 for a prestigious magazine. That publication earned me a slot in status-conscious public radio; it was my ticket. Looking back, I see that had he sent a rejection letter, I’d be retired from a career as a parking lot attendant, living in a small green trailer at the end of a dirt road, a big hand-painted Trespassers Will Be Attacked By Large Dogs sign beside it. Instead, I’m publishing a memoir soon and grateful for having had a life worth memoirizing.

The book won’t sell well because it is short on trauma. I didn’t struggle with drink, or suffer from syndromes that I was aware of. My only trauma this week was shopping in a drugstore where half the goods are in locked compartments so, shopping for deodorant, shampoo, razor blades, and artificial tears, I had to ask a staff person to unlock four separate compartments, and she was overworked and rather irked and tried to avoid me. This is a manageable trauma, along with the restaurant deliverymen on bicycles who go whizzing through red lights. It is nothing, really, compared to the pleasure of telephone friendship.

I talked to a couple friends about getting together to sing duets. I miss the old maudlin songs like the one in which Benny dies in Mother’s arms while Papa is drunk in the barroom and “let your teardrops kiss the flowers on my grave,” songs that have always cheered me up. I don’t sing them ironically, I sing them with sincere feeling. To stand next to a friend and sing in two-part harmony about death is to hold powerful opposing ideas simultaneously and life is enlarged by it.

The news is noise. I’ll remember October for the pleasure of long phone conversations and for the sweetness of marital confinement. She is one of the two people in the world I’m permitted to embrace and I enjoy doing it, over and over. I could arise and walk across the room and do it right now and I shall, as soon as I come to the end of this sentence.

A word from an old WASP, awaiting winter

The gorgeous October days go parading by and you know they will end and then there’s one more, warm and golden, the Van Gogh trees, the Renoir sky: it’s beautiful but I’m an old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the demographic responsible for the mess we’re in and all the messes before it. So I prefer to stay indoors. I wear a mask, the largest one I can find. Social distancing comes naturally to me — I’ve been emotionally distant since childhood. My parents weren’t huggers, they patted the dog and I guess we were supposed to extrapolate from that.

I’m 78. I’m heading into the Why Am I Here years, when you walk into a room and try to remember what you came for.

It’s a strange world. I remember when only carnival workers had tattoos and now I see nice young people with spiderwebs on their necks, or faces on their forearms. I grew up with four channels of TV, and now there are hundreds. You could watch twenty-four hours a day and barely scrape the surface. And what sort of life would it be? So I don’t watch anything and thus I don’t know who celebrities are anymore. Pop music is childish, standup is vulgar, movies are about explosives. Any recent teenage immigrant is more in tune with the culture than I am.

I don’t read books. The fiction is all by young people, heavily introspective, and if there’s an old white guy in a novel, he is sleazy but not smart enough to be a threat. The memoirs are by people under 40 who grew up dyslexic, anorexic, trisexual, and Missouri Synod in Texas. Once we produced great presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, and now the current guy is crowding Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan at the bottom of the pile. He is no more Protestant than Jujubes are Jewish, but he’s old and white and so I feel people hold me responsible for him. Everywhere I go, he comes up in the conversation: why? Why can’t we talk about something else?

The world belongs to the young and they gather in big crowds, unmasked, arms draped around each other, as the vodka is passed around along with the virus, which is just plain wrong, but then so is a great deal else. Like drive-thru liquor stores. When you buy a gallon of hooch, you ought to show you can walk in a straight line. But young people prefer the drive-thru, so there you are.

The world is changing. I’m basically okay with that. People of color, Black people, Latinos, dominate baseball now, not because of affirmative action but because they’re better ballplayers. Many of them have tattoos. Guys who grew up in South America had a much longer season. There are no great Canadian shortstops because it’s still winter in April. My team, the Minnesota Twins, has one player I can personally identify with: Max Kepler in right field. A slim white guy with a Germanic name. I don’t need nine white guys, just one. A token white male.

I was planning to be a comfy old grandpa who tells little kids stories about the olden days, but little kids today all have wires in their ears so storytelling is pointless. And my stories are about waiting for a school bus on a 50-below morning in the dark with feral coyotes watching from the ditch, a bus on which several bullies were waiting to beat me up, but global warming has ameliorated those Minnesota winters. It used to be, people asked where were you from, you said Minnesota, they said, “Oh. It gets cold there.” Now they say, “That’s in the Midwest, right?” Knowledge of geography is sketchy now; thanks to Google, nobody looks at maps.

I come from a bygone era when we all belonged to a culture, respected the president, knew the same songs. I stood in front of a crowd a year ago and sang those songs, about working on the railroad and Dinah in the kitchen, the E-ri-e a-rising and the gin a-getting low, the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack, and a few old codgers sang along and everyone else was looking for the lyrics on their smartphones. When you need Google to tell you this is the land of the pilgrims’ pride where your fathers died, freedom ringing from the mountainside, then I have to wonder, Where am I and why am I here?

In a troubled time, it’s time to make a perfect day

It is a true accomplishment to give a perfect birthday to a beloved person and a whole gang of us managed to do this for my sweetie on Saturday, a day of perfection, beginning to end. She arose at 10 a.m. and went to bed at midnight and in those fourteen hours there were no harsh words, no snarls or snippy comments, no big spills, no spam messages, no knocks on the door by downstairs neighbors complaining about our shower leaking onto their bed. Instead there were phone calls from numerous people she loves, there were numerous small thoughtful gifts, there was a very long entertaining supper outdoors on a warm September evening with good food (but not too much) and lighthearted talk and some good stories and nothing about a possible constitutional crisis in November with the election being thrown aside by a 6-3 vote of the Supreme Court, none of that. She was happy the entire time.

Her day began with coffee outdoors with her husband and two poems by him, a sonnet and a limerick, he being a professional writer — were he a plumber or a podiatrist, he might’ve given her a bouquet of petunias, but no — and a cheerful conversation about small things, and some phone calls and text messages, and it ended with a FaceTime call from her brother and his wife in Minnesota with plenty of laughter and then she aced the Sunday Times crossword and got “the last of the Marx brothers” (Zeppo) and then a last phone call, from our daughter who’s away at school and in a good mood, who said, “Make me laugh” and we did, by whispering the word “diarrhea.”

I’ve never paid much attention to birthdays and I keep forgetting them and I have always pooh-poohed making a big deal of my own. I thought of birthdays as something you do for children. And I’m from Minnesota where we’re brought up to be self-disparaging. “Don’t go to any trouble for me,” I’ve said about a thousand times in my life.

Birthdays are an expression of love, nothing more, nothing less. Tyrants do not get beautiful birthdays like the one on Saturday: to be surrounded by sycophants and security men, with loyal followers cheering from the plaza below as you stand on your balcony — it’s not the same thing. Al Capone didn’t get a perfect birthday party; he was always aware of the snub-nose .38 in his shoulder holster. Lenin didn’t enjoy his because Trotsky was there, giving him strange looks. No. 45 isn’t happy because he’s afraid Obama’s was bigger.

My sweetie is dearly loved by a great many people who take time to let her know she is loved and that’s almost all you need. You don’t need excess. Look at what we Christians do to Christmas. So the supper Saturday was antipasti, no platters of prime rib, and some wine, and an opera cake for dessert, and coffee. No rants, no lectures. People told stories. A story about a son who celebrated his 30th birthday by going for a thirty-mile run and about a violinist having to learn to play viola in three weeks and about a woman interviewed on TV who had thirteen children — she said, “I love my husband” — and the host said, “I love my cigar but I take it out now and then.”

I must say, it helps to be in a pandemic, having been self-isolating for many months and anticipating more of the same — it makes supper with friends around a table feel like a great luxury. Life feels more precious, knowing that danger is in the air. Creating one perfectly beautiful day is a heroic achievement, all the more so for occurring in the midst of an ugly presidency and a savage disease.

And now we go on. What else can we do? Every day, these days, my email box is full of scores of pleading letters from candidates and they all say, “We are so close to victory but we’re being outspent by dark money and your contribution, no matter how modest, will make the difference and carry us to victory” and it’s nice to imagine that we can check the $10 box and help save the world, but meanwhile the great challenge is to love the ones we love and give them pleasure. It’s all about love and friendship. That’s what it’s always been about.

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What is normality and do we want it?

So here we are, locked down in our tiny village since March, winter on the way, chilly winds over the tundra, we’re waiting for men on a dogsled to bring the sacred COVID vaccine, meanwhile we hunker in our dark hut and while away the hours telling tales of old conquests. I try to while but whiling is not my strong suit and I’ve had no conquests, only a series of lucky breaks. I married well. I was born late enough so that medicine had figured out how to repair my congenital heart defect, which enabled me to enjoy the marriage a good deal longer. I took up writing as a profession, which is advantageous for a man with a long face and no social skills. I could list others.

Read More

Enough of the news, onward with friendship

Someday we shall look back at these golden October days with wonder and amazement, how good life was even in a pandemic during a lunatic. Here in New York City, everyone wears a mask, there is a high level of civility, and though riding down Columbus Avenue feels like we’re driving across a freshly plowed field, life is good. I sat in a sidewalk café with a friend on Sunday, unmasked, telling old stories, enjoying freedom of speech. She complained about the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I wrote poems like hers when I was in the ninth grade. ‘The leaves are turning brown, the leaves are falling, death is near.’ Who put the Swedes in charge of literature?”

Back in Minneapolis, where I’m from, you couldn’t say that. Too many Swedes around and too much PC and self- righteousness. Back there, among young lefties, I am a Privileged White Male, not a person but a type, but in my New York neighborhood, which tends Jewish, an old WASP is sort of a novelty. I walk around amid all colors and ethnicities and interesting accents and hairstyles, and I’m just a guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. This is a big relief. One big pleasure of urban life is looking at other people and it’s hard to do that if they are glaring at you as a symbol of all that is wrong. New Yorkers don’t.

Read More

A word from an old WASP, awaiting winter

The gorgeous October days go parading by and you know they will end and then there’s one more, warm and golden, the Van Gogh trees, the Renoir sky: it’s beautiful but I’m an old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the demographic responsible for the mess we’re in and all the messes before it. So I prefer to stay indoors. I wear a mask, the largest one I can find. Social distancing comes naturally to me — I’ve been emotionally distant since childhood. My parents weren’t huggers, they patted the dog and I guess we were supposed to extrapolate from that.

I’m 78. I’m heading into the Why Am I Here years, when you walk into a room and try to remember what you came for.

Read More

In a troubled time, it’s time to make a perfect day

It is a true accomplishment to give a perfect birthday to a beloved person and a whole gang of us managed to do this for my sweetie on Saturday, a day of perfection, beginning to end. She arose at 10 a.m. and went to bed at midnight and in those fourteen hours there were no harsh words, no snarls or snippy comments, no big spills, no spam messages, no knocks on the door by downstairs neighbors complaining about our shower leaking onto their bed. Instead there were phone calls from numerous people she loves, there were numerous small thoughtful gifts, there was a very long entertaining supper outdoors on a warm September evening with good food (but not too much) and lighthearted talk and some good stories and nothing about a possible constitutional crisis in November with the election being thrown aside by a 6-3 vote of the Supreme Court, none of that. She was happy the entire time.

Read More

A former outlaw appreciating the Republican life

In the spring, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds and now, I’m told, there is a shortage of canning jar lids. This doesn’t affect me, locked down in Manhattan, but it brings back memories of my childhood home, the half-acre garden, the big tomato, corn and cucumber crops, the steamy kitchen with the pressure cooker going full tilt.

As a child, I worried that we might be poor and maybe canning was a sign that we were. Our neighbors were not canners. The dread of the stigma of poverty stuck with me until I was 18 and went to college and actually was poor and took it as a point of pride. I was a poet specializing in unintelligible poetry, and poverty was a mark of authenticity. Geniuses were, of necessity, poor. My girlfriend, however, came from a suburban Republican family and over time, against my principles, I came to love them, especially her mother, Marjorie. She had grown up in North Dakota in the Depression, when dust blew through the windows, her father and brother drunk in the barn, and she set out to make a graceful life of her own and maintain a cheerful atmosphere, avoiding the sort of dark brooding that filled my poetry, and I stepped into the role of boyfriend and enjoyed their company, and gradually they corrupted me and instilled strong bourgeois leanings that an outlaw poet should shun.

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A late dispatch from the New York correspondent

A chilly night in New York, fall in the air, geese winging along a flyway over West 91st, a lively crowd watching a playground basketball game. Unusual in these pandemic days, to hear a cheering crowd. We’ve been isolating here since March, avoiding the dread virus, leading a life more like that of a lighthouse keeper than a New Yorker, no plays, no Fauré or Bizet or cabaret, though Sunday we sat in a sidewalk café and had a cassoulet, a small soirée, just three of us, me and the Missus and our friend Suzanne whom I like to hang out with because she’s older than I and very lively. She is proof that aging, though likely to be fatal, need not be dull. Gusts of talk, none of it touching on the Unmentionable.

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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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