Destroying (not) the American way of life

As a Democrat accused by Republicans of trying to take away people’s hamburgers, I have to speak in my own defense. I am second to none in my fondness for the beef patty in a bun, a thin slice of onion, and mustard. I do not eat hamburger in a croissant; I am not that type of person. Ketchup is for French fries, mustard for burgers. No mayo, please. The Democrat who’s trying to take away hamburgers is my wife but it’s only my hamburger she’s after, not yours. She thinks they’re unhealthy. I enjoy them even more for her opposition.

As for our wanting to destroy the American Way of Life, I wouldn’t know how to go about that since there are so many Ways of Life involved. Love of human variety is part of it: we’re not a race or breed, we’re an amalgam of strangers and the fact that we can make space for each other is remarkable. Walk down the street and you pass people with headphones tuned to Beyoncé, Brahms, a preacher proclaiming the gospel, a Scientologist, Sean Hannity, poetry plain, poetry strange, Gershwin, George Strait, a podcast about strategic planning. Yes, the country is at war on social media, but in everyday life, Americans show each other enormous tolerance. We look, we smile, we move on.

For me, America means the love of spaciousness, driving west from Minnesota over the open prairie, preferably on two-lane roads, looking at farms, farming being the hardest work there is and unpredictable and dangerous. And also walking through Lower Manhattan and sensing the human history around you in the five-story brick buildings, the people who escaped an emperor or kaiser or czar to come here, no English to speak of, in behalf of their children. They believed that in a free society they would be judged by their character and their competence, not by their social connections. They worked terribly hard at whatever work came their way, in order to secure the right to be American. Certainly, the country produced its share of con men and card sharps, windbags, hustlers, but hard work and competence was honored here, more than family dynasties. We don’t bow to the grand pooh-bahs, we put a whoopee cushion on the throne.

When it comes to patriotism, it’s the American way to play it cool and not walk around jingling your medals. My high school biology teacher was a combat pilot in the Korean War, my phy-ed teacher was a Navy lieutenant on a forward observation boat at Normandy on D-Day, and neither of them went around talking about it, for the simple reason that they had survived and friends of theirs had died and self-aggrandizement dishonors the sacrifice of others. I asked the movie director Bob Altman about his wartime experience and he told me he lied about his age to enlist in the Army Air Forces in 1942 and become a B-17 pilot at the age of nineteen and the plane was loud and hard to handle and it was freezing cold at high altitudes. That was all he cared to say. It wasn’t for him to play the hero.

I know people who will likely vote for the man with his arms wrapped around the flag and I don’t try to talk them out of it but the business about hamburgers and destroying the American Way of Life is garbage of a low order and if you buy into it, you’re heading down a lonely road. Unreality is not a good strategy. It’s a beautiful country and we’re meant to enjoy it and to care about one another. I’ve been watching baseball on TV, a great sport for immigrants, and there seem to be more Latino names than ever, more players of color, but it’s the same beautiful game. This past week, I saw two perfect bunts, a rarity, the batter places his bat to tap the 90 mph pitch into the sweet spot in the infield, left or right, to advance the runners and also arrive safely at first. It doesn’t matter who does it, it’s astonishing. If the umpire were to call a bunt foul that clearly was fair, and if the opposing team were willing to accept this blatant lie, that would violate the American Way, and that is exactly what we’re seeing today. And that is a shame.

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

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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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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Back in the sixth grade some boys campaigned for a dog to be class president. We were just discovering our sense of irony and wanted to exercise it. And then in 2016, it actually happened and there he was on the inaugural platform, a big woofer who didn’t know the NSA from the NIH from the end of a broom handle, and the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens were all shaking hands with the goofus and he was counting the crowd and wondering why he wasn’t getting a bigger cut of souvenir sales.

Now, as he tools around his golf course while red states are inundated with COVID patients and his lawyers litter the courts with motions to coronate him, we need to figure out how to defend the country against the next tyrant who is likely to be more competent than he. The problem is us Democrats: half of the voting public is repelled by us and no wonder. We lack discipline and we have no sense of humor. At a time of real suffering and meanness, we listen respectfully to people who feel that their personal identity is a political issue. Height-challenged people, for example, who feel overlooked. We put them on a pedestal. This strikes most people as odd.

Face it. The American people don’t enjoy democracy. Italians do, the French mostly do, and Danes are devoted to it. They have ten political parties in the Danish parliament, plus some independent members who couldn’t find any of the ten to agree with. The idea of a two-party system is abhorrent to Danes; to them, an election is an exercise of individuality.

Americans want a Moses. Trump is more psychosis than Moses but the next one is likely to be worse unless we unite behind Kamala and cancel the 2024 Democratic primaries.

Did you see Kamala and Pence on the split screen? It was the Homecoming Queen/Valedictorian versus the Lunchroom Monitor. America prefers a charming intelligent woman to an angry dullard, hands down. Let Joe do the hard stuff that makes you unpopular, and meanwhile Kamala’s approval ratings soar into the seventies. There are people who know how to accomplish this.

In three years, Snoozin’ Cruz and Two-Cents Pence and Rotten Cotton will be raging in Iowa and New Hampshire, doing eye pokes and carrying on urination contests, and the Democratic Party will be quiet, all of our fools staying in their rooms, our socialists socializing among themselves, the police defunders zipping their lips, there will be Kamala on the ballot, no communists, just a goddess of goodness and light supported by 100% of Democrats. Discipline.

Americans tend to be loose and so we admire discipline and that’s the appeal of authoritarianism. We Democrats need to learn from this. The woofer got elected because he knew nothing and was proud of his ignorance and never once admitted it: that is discipline. You and I have apologized hundreds of times. He, never.

Life can be hard. Deer hunting season is here, which is also the mating season for deer, a nasty coincidence: you’re with a beautiful female with big brown eyes and you paw the ground and snort and wave your antlers and then you smell beer and see a fat man with a red cap pointing a stick at you and there is a burst of flame and she gallops away and he walks over and slits your throat. It’s tragic. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it. But we can defeat the next Trump by closing ranks behind Kamala now and stop the nit-picking. Shut up, fellow Democrats, and form straight lines.

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain --- and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Joe Biden is my same age so that naturally makes me wonder about him. Seventy-eight is the age when you feel a strong urge to lie down and turn off the phone and put your favorite Emmylou Harris album on the turntable. But Joe didn’t look sleepy, he came jogging out to the lectern Saturday night in Wilmington and he gave a very amiable old-guy speech about our great country and healing and working together, and he didn’t refer to his opponent as Humpty Trumpty. He didn’t mention him at all.

It was the sort of hopeful speech you’d hear at commencement and it wasn’t terribly long. And it was preceded by Kamala Harris who, as the talking heads told us several times, is the First Woman VP and the First Woman of Color VP, and the First Child of Immigrants VP, a whole string of Firsts, but what really struck me is that she is the First Vice President With A Personality since 2016. She was delighted. She flashed a big grin. She showed a lot of spirit and her speech sounded like it might’ve been written by her and not a committee of Baptist coroners.

Neither she nor Joe complained about the incumbent as a “total loser” nor did they refer to their victory as “a historic landslide” (it wasn’t). It felt like a decent way to begin a new decade. Their families came out on stage at the end and you felt that probably they wouldn’t play a major role in the new administration. I don’t know if Joe owns a hotel chain but if he does, I assume he’ll divest himself of it and not travel around at government expense and stay in the Biden Caravelle or the Biden Majestic or the Biden Monte Carlo. I imagine we’ll get to see his income tax returns.

My evangelical relatives are in grief, of course, and I am sorry about that. They believe the 2016 election was an Act of God and even after his Bible photo op where he looked as if he’d never seen one before, they voted for the incumbent in obedience to God’s Will. By this same logic, if you contract colon cancer, don’t call the oncologist, simply light a candle and read a psalm.

They voted against socialism but we already have that in the form of Medicare and Social Security and free public education and public libraries. At least in Minnesota they are and so are our freeways.

My people are so discouraged by the advent of Biden-Harris, they believe the world is about to end and the Second Coming is at hand and they will soon be rapturized into heaven, which should make them happy but they don’t seem to be. The imminence of the Second Coming means that they can forget about lawn care, car payments, school assignments — just stay home and wait for the whisper of angels’ wings.

Meanwhile, I am happy that, as of January 20, a great calm will settle over Washington. We won’t see the name Biden in six front-page headlines every morning. Government, when you come right down to it, is fairly boring. It’s not a fireworks show, it’s people working in offices.

I don’t count on government to make my life worthwhile. I made a lucky marriage to a humorous woman who is never at a loss for words, I found work I enjoy, I look forward to April and another baseball season, and meanwhile I have the Franklin World Classics to occupy me over the winter. Twenty masterpieces for $15 is incredible. Capitalism would’ve charged me three or four hundred dollars. Dostoevsky for less than a dollar is communism, pure and simple. I am all for it.

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Walter O’Malley moved his team to Los Angeles because it was 1957 and not the Forties, cross-country air travel was an accepted convenience, and in Brooklyn he had to wrangle with contentious boards and councils and grassroots resentment of owners and moguls, and in LA he found a city that desperately wanted him. It was like leaving a jealous old girlfriend and going with an eager new one. Anyway, I’m not from Brooklyn. I’m from Minnesota and we have Wisconsin to begrudge and if we weary of scorning cheeseheads, there’s always South Dakota, the state where men on giant Harleys congregate to give each other the coronavirus.

I was brought up by evangelicals to hold a grudge against the Established Church, i.e., Anglicans: we met in storefronts; they gathered in cathedrals. I was brought up by Ford people to resent people driving Cadillacs and Buicks. My parents came out of the Depression and we had sensitive antennae to detect wealth and privilege: we shopped at Sears; they patronized clothiers. We drove to visit distant relatives and slept on our relatives’ floors; the privileged traveled to see exotic sights and stayed in hotels. (Nonetheless, we went to their houses on Halloween because they gave out full-size Hershey bars, not the miniatures.)

We’re a land of immigrants — even you Ojibwe and Iroquois moved around a good deal to escape from tribal quarrels and feuds — millions came from Europe who were weary of being despised by strangers and wanted to make a fresh start. My grandpa came from Glasgow to escape the disapproving eye of his stepmother. The Rosenbergs came over from czarist Russia and made the big decision at Ellis Island to become the Ross family. Goodbye history, be your own person.

I maintained my anti-Anglican grudge until I fell in love with one and married her in St. Michael’s Church, statuary looking down at me, stained glass, a priest in his robes, and now for thirty years I’ve tried to fit in and genuflect left, right, chin, belly button, and kneel for confession. My other grudges — against people with tattoos and unnatural hair colors, men with tasseled shoes, people who go around with wires in their ears — have faded over the years, especially as I spend more time in New York, a city where diversity comes with the territory. I board the subway in Midtown and I do not see one maroon U of M Golden Gophers T-shirt, not one. I doubt that anyone in this car would enjoy discussing sanctification by grace with me.

The past few years have seen a tremendous increase in grudgery in our country — need I point this out? We the righteous and civic-minded and tolerant cross the street to avoid having to talk to you yahoos and yo-yos. And this will do us no good in the years ahead. So we need to relax our loathing of each other. Especially our enormous grudge against Republicans. Yes, bug-eyed chinless Mitch has stiffed the country at every turn, trying to maintain minority rule, and yes, Lucky Lindsey gave us a 6-3 Supreme Federalist Court that is prepared to reaffirm the Dred Scott decision, but it’s time to forgive and put aside our enmity for large men in golf pants who comb their hair into ducktails using pomade that keeps the wings nicely feathered even in a stiff headwind. As a sign of reconciliation, I am going to bleach my hair and start following the Bible. It is a tremendous tremendously good book, a fantastic book. It’s the greatest ever. The greatest ever. And guess what. It’s in English so any true American can read it and that is a beautiful beautiful thing.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

With Michael Feinstein (pictured), Metropolitan Opera Tenor Raul Melo, and Inga Swearingen. Scripts include English Majors, Guy Noir, and a sound effects sketch.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 29, 2020

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It’s the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), who founded a commune called Fruitlands and became a vegan before the term even existed.

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Today is Thanksgiving, a day for being grateful and eating lots of food. With a poem by Jane Hirshfield about cooking.

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It’s the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), who said, “The great secret of doctors…is that most things get better by themselves.”

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“We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.” –Joy Harjo

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 29, 1997

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A ’90s November show from Chicago, Illinois, featuring a handful of legends: including gospel singer & activist Mavis Staples and broadcaster & historian Studs Terkel.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 22, 2020

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It’s the birthday of novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), who said, “My only desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error.”

Read More
Writing

A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Read More

Looking forward to Uncle Joe

A guy my age is going to be president in a few weeks, a cheerful guy, not a scowly one, and I think it’s going to be an instructive four years for the nation. Growing old is, along with marriage and religious faith and hiking the Grand Canyon, one of life’s fascinating experiences, one to look forward to. It is the reason your mother told you to look both ways before crossing the street and to chew your food thirty times before swallowing. It’s the reason I stopped smoking: after twenty years of cigarettes, you’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities, time to move on. And now here I am, floating along at 78, an age at which the obituaries are becoming more and more interesting.

Read More

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain — and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Read More

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Read More

A column that doesn’t mention his name? Yes, indeed.

New York is a city of fast women, as I know from my morning walk — one after another, they say, “On your left,” and they stride past, grandes dames and leggy lasses in a hurry to get somewhere, and meanwhile I shuffle along, a slow-moving obstruction, no schedule, nobody’s waiting in a coffee shop for me to come talk shop. This is the freest I’ve felt since I was a kid. I could hop on the A train and ride out to Far Rockaway and watch the Atlantic waves roll in on the shore and observe planes landing at JFK and I wouldn’t even need to invent a reason.

Instead I walk into Central Park and sit down on a bench by the dog run, an acre of grass where people let their dogs off the leash so they can tear around in a circle chasing each other (the dogs, that is), yapping and woofing happily. Apartment dogs enjoying a brief period of wildness as their owners stand in a group and converse. It’s a sociable scene, the dog run. Dogs in euphoria and people socializing who ordinarily would pass each other with eyes averted. An urban phenomenon.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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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