Lonesome Shorty
(Written for The New Yorker, this story inspired the radio serial “Lives of the Cowboys” on A Prairie Home Companon, with Dusty and Lefty, Lefty’s lost love Evelyn Beebalo, and the villain Big Messer, which takes place in and around Yellow Gulch, Wyoming. It’s Samuel Beckett for 14-year-olds. The cowboys suffer extreme loneliness which drives them to visit town where, in a short time, they are disgusted by society and return to the godforsaken plains where, in due course, they suffer extreme loneliness and return to Yellow Gulch, only to be disgusted. That’s how life seemed to me when I was 14.)

The summer before last, I was headed for Billings on my horse Old Dan, driving two hundred head of the ripest-smelling longhorns you ever rode downwind of, when suddenly here come some tumbleweeds tumbling along with a newspaper stuck inside—I had been without news for weeks so I leaned down and snatched it up and read it trotting along, though the front page was missing and all there was was columnists and the Lifestyle section, so bouncing along in a cloud of manure I read an article entitled “43 Fabulous Salads to Freshen Up Your Summertime Table” which made me wonder if my extreme lonesomeness might not be the result of diet. Maybe I’m plumb loco, but a cowboy doesn’t get much fiber and he eats way too much beef.

You herd cattle all day, you come to despise them, and pretty soon, by jingo, you have gone and shot one, and then you must eat it, whilst all those cattle tromping around on the greens takes away your taste for salads, just like when you arrive at a creek and see that cattle have tromped in the water and drunk from it and crapped in it, it seems to turn a man toward whiskey. I thought to myself, Shorty, you’ve got to get out of this cowboy life. I mentioned this to my partner, old Eugene, and he squinted at me and said, “Eeyup.”

“Eugene,” I said, “I’ve been cowboyin for nigh onto two decades now. I know every water hole between Kansas and the Sierra Nevada, but consarn it, I miss the company of my fellow man. Scenery ain’t enough for me, Eugene, nor freedom. I’m sceneried out, pardner, and freedom is vastly overrated as an experience, if you ask me. I got to be with people. I’m a people cowboy, not a cow cowboy.”

A few miles of purple sagebrush drifted by and a hawk circled high in the sky.

“Do you hear what I’m sayin?” I inquired.

He said, “Eeyessir.”

I said, “Give me a home where the buffalo roam? It don’t follow, Eugene. Buffalo have nothing to do with home, nothing at all. And I’m sick o’deer and antelope, Eugene. I’m sorry if this sounds like a discouraging word, but animals do not make for a home, Eugene. Not on the range nor anywhere else.”

I continued, “And whoever wrote The air is so pure and the breezes so free, the zephyrs so balmy and light never spent time driving cattle, I can tell you that.”

He grunted.

A few miles later, I said, “You ever think of just calling yourself Gene, Eugene? Gene is more of a cowboy name. Eugene is sort of a bookkeeper’s name. How about I call you Gene, Gene?”

He thought this over for a few miles as we jangled along, eating dust. Then he said, “You do that and I’ll lay for you and jump you and gouge your eyes out and bite off your ear.”

“You’d rather be Eugene, then?”

“Eeyup.”

We rode along for a ways. “Is there some topic you have a desire to talk about, Eugene?” I inquired.

“Nope.”

A taciturn sidekick is like buying a ticket to see the sun set. Who needs it? You go humping along the trail, you would like some conversation, but no, Eugene could no more think up things to say than he could sing La Traviata.

That night, I was feeling low. The wood was wet and the campfire smoked, the beans were cold and the pork half raw, the mosquitoes descended in a cloud, and then it took hours to get the cattle bedded down, and as I was fetching a camp stool from the saddlebags, Old Dan accidentally stepped on my foot and about broke it. I hopped around on the good one and swore a blue streak, but none of it woke up Eugene. He was wrapped in his blankets, dead to the world. I sat down and listened to Dusty Joe on night watch, slowly circling the herd and singing “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” but all he knew was the chorus, and he sang that over and over.

I approached him where he sat on his horse on a little rise and asked him if he could not vary his performance.

“The cows like it,” he said.

“That may be so,” I replied, “but you are drivin me crazy. Why’n blazes can’t you sing somethin else? Sing ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie’ for Pete’s sake or The Night Herding Song.’ Lay off the tenting tonight—it ain’t even a cowboy song, for cryin out loud.”

He said it was the only song he knew.

I remarked that it was a poor cowboy indeed who couldn’t make up some songs of his own. “Just sing I ride an old paint, I lead an old Dan, I’m goin’ to Montan to throw the hoolihan, and then keep making up new verses.”

But of course he was stubborn and wouldn’t do it. I got back to camp and I hear the damn tent song start
up again, and of course the wind carried it right back to us.

To distract myself, I sat down and drew up a list of pros and cons on the back of a picture of my mother.

Reasons to Be or Not to Be a Cowboy
      Freedom to be your own man. The awful loneliness of doing so.
      Most beautiful country on God’s green earth to look at. No home, nowhere to sleep but on the cold ground You get a bad back, pretty soon you’re too bent over to look at scenery.
      Good old Dan—what else can he do but ride the trail? You can’t live for your horse, especially not one who steps on you.
      Love to be with my pals. Those cheating lying gin-soaked idiots? They all moved to town a long time ago.
      The West must be won for the White Man. I done my part.
      The chance to be a True Cowboy, who stands up for what’s Right and Fair. Fine, but its time to settle down and start building up equity. You have got nothing to show for your hard life, nothing.

So it was an even draw, six of one, half a dozen of the other, but my foot hurt me so bad, I couldn’t sleep. I dosed it with a few slugs of whiskey and only managed to give myself a sour stomach, and I kept hearing, “Tenting tonight, tenting tonight, tenting on the old campground,” and when morning came I announced to Eugene and the other boys that I was packing it in.

I said, “The problem is I don’t drink enough water and I don’t eat right. That pork last night was full of fat, for example. And riding a horse, you never get the cardiovascular exercise you need. I’ve got to think about my health.” Well, you’d a thought I’da put on a dress and high heels the way they laughed and carried on. I said: “I quit. I’m a cowboy no longer. It’s a rotten lonely life and I’m done with it.” And I jumped on Old Dan, who luckily was right there, and I rode away.

I headed into a friendly town named Pleasant Gulch, having read in the paper that it offered a healthy climate, good soil and water, good schools and churches, a literary society, and “all the adornments of advanced civilization.” That’s for me, I thought. I became deputy to Sheriff Dibble, a full-time job with a decent pension plan, and bought a condo over the saloon. The realtor, Lefty Slim, had a four-bedroom ranch house with great views for cheap—”Must sell, owner is wanted for murder,” he said—but I had seen all I wanted of ranches, so I bought the condo. Partly furnished with a nice walnut bedroom set and dining-room table and carpet, and I could move in right away because the previous owner had been shot.

I bought sheets and towels and hung up blue dotted-swiss curtains. You miss curtains so much on the trail; there’s really no way to hang them. (I know. I’ve tried.) And I bought myself a set of china. A cowboy gets sick of the sound of his fork scraping a tin plate, and this was the first good china I ever owned: four place settings with salad bowl, soup bowl, cup and saucer, dinner plate, and dessert plate, plus two platters, two serving bowls, gravy boat, teapot, and soup tureen, in the Amaryllis pattern.

The truth was, I didn’t know three other people in Pleasant Gulch well enough to invite to dinner, but I felt confident I soon would because the town was perfect, its lawns and porches and street lamps so welcoming and warm compared to rocks and buttes. I hiked around town twice that first evening, just to absorb the beauty of it, and then returned home and fixed pork and beans, but they looked like cassoulet on my Amaryllis.

I had eaten exactly two bites when shots rang out and some cowboys whooped and bullets tore through my curtains and one busted two teacups, and another one hit my good serving platter and blasted it to smithereens. I was so pissed off, I stalked downstairs and out into the street, which was deserted except for a cowboy lying face down in the dirt.

“What in the Sam Hill is going on around here?” I yelled.

He said he had been shot clean through the heart and was done for.

I knelt down by him and yelled, “You busted my Amaryllis china, you dink! I came in off the trail to get away from your ilk and here you are messing around in town. Well, not for long.”

He asked me to take a letter to his mother in Pittsburgh.

“Your mother has no interest in hearing from you, so don’t even think of it. You’re nothing but a filthy savage and death is too good for you,” I said. And then he died, presumably. At any rate, he didn’t have any more to say.

Next day, I went back to the General Store to replace that serving platter, and they were plumb out of Amaryllis. And that night, the old couple next door banged on my door and said, “You’re gargling too loud in there, Mr. Shorty, it’s driving us nuts, and you twirl your rope and jingle your spurs, and your yodeling is a pain in the neck. No more yodeladihoo or whoopitiyiyo, okay?”

I told them that it was my home and I would yodel in it as I pleased.

So they called the sheriff and he said, “Sorry, Shorty, but they’re right. We have a yodeling ordinance here and also one against gargling after ten p.m.”

I got so dagnabbed mad, I stomped home, put my Amaryllis into saddlebags, climbed on Old Dan, and left town at sundown. I was burned up. I yelled at them, “Okay, I’ll show you! You can take your damn piddling laws and ordinances and regulations and stuff em in your ear!” And back out on the range I went. Frankly, I’d left so many towns by then that I was used to it and didn’t get nearly as mad as in the past. Leaving town is what cowboyin is all about.

You find a nice place and it’s wonderful and then suddenly you can’t stand it. So you drift off down the trail and get wet and miserable and lonesome till you can’t bear it for another minute, so you gallop into the nearest town and are overwhelmed by the beauty of society—cheap floozies, old coots, preachers, lunatics, hoboes, schoolteachers, old scouts with their sunburned faces and their voices raised in song, the jokes and gibes and yarns, the barn dances, the woman who invites you to stay the night—people are great when you haven’t seen any for a few months!

So you find a job and an apartment, settle down, get comfortable, think “This time it’s for real”—and two minutes later you are brokenhearted, mad, miserable, and back in the saddle again. This is the basic cowboy pattern.

From Pleasant Gulch me and Old Dan headed for Dodge, with all the china, and ten miles beyond the Little Crazy River, a rattler sprang at us and Dan shied away and I slid off and we busted a gravy boat! And one morning a grizzly came into camp and I reached for something to throw at him and I tossed my teapot—it was the worst trip, and the next night, two cougars snuck in and stole my pants as I slept and it was snowing and I headed for a little town called Pit City. Rode along in my underwear, cold and soaked to the skin, and a woman waved from a porch, people smiled at me, and a nice lady cried out from a white frame house: “My brother Dusty is just your same size, mister—if you need a pair of pants, you can have one of his. And if you haven’t eaten I’ll rustle you up a plate of grub. And if you care to set and talk a spell, why, that’d be just hunky-dory.”

The Andersons. Euphonia and Bill Anderson. Kindest people you’d ever meet.

I sat in their toasty warm kitchen by the coal stove and gabbed for three hours and told them everything about myself, personal stuff, and it was satisfying.

“Your problem is that you never found the woman you loved enough to make you want to come in off the range and settle down,” said Euphonia. She introduced me to their daughter Leonora, a beautiful redhead who worked at the Lazy Dollar Saloon—”as a bookkeeper,” Euphonia emphasized.

Leonora treated me like the lover she never had. She and I went for long walks out across the prairie to the ridge above the town. I sang to her, “Mi amor, mi corazón,” and she liked that pretty well. We got close. She did my laundry and saw the name tags on my shirts and started calling me Leonard, which nobody had done since I was a child.

“You’re a gentle person, Leonard. Not like other cowboys. You like nice things. You ought to live in town,” she said, lying with her head in my lap in a bower of prairie grass.

I told her, “Leonora, I have tried to live in town, because the cowboy life is a hard, wet, miserable, lonesome life, so town is wonderful, but doggone it, you go there and two days later, somebody kicks you in the shins and it’s back in the saddle again. A guy can’t live with people and he can’t live without them. And besides, I am a cowboy and have got to be on the range.” I spat on the ground to emphasize this.

“When you fixin to go?” she inquired.

“Tomorrow. Mebbe Tuesday.”

“For long?”

“Six months. Mebbe longer. Depends.”

“Six months is a long stretch of time to be away from a relationship,” she said.

“Sometimes it is,” I said. “And sometimes it’s just long enough.”

“Well, Shorty, you just go and do whatever you’re going to do, because that’s what you’re going to do anyway, makes no matter what I say. I know cowboys,” she said.

I cried, “Well, if I don’t cowboy, tell me—what would I do for a living in town?”

“You could write a western,” she said.

So I started in writing a western novel with lots of hot lead flying and poetic descriptions of western scenes—”The setting sun blazed in the western sky as if a master painter had taken his brush to the clouds, creating a multihued fantasy of color reflecting brightly off the buttes and mesas.” That night I showed it to Leonora. “Not what you’d call a grabber,” she said.

I sat there with my face hanging out and wished she’d say Well, it ain’t all bad, actually some is rather good, Shorty, and I loved where the dude cuts down the tree and the bear bites him in the throat, but of course a sweetheart isn’t going to tell you that, their critical ability is not what attracts them to us in the first place.

She was the prettiest woman I ever knew in my life, the sweetest, the kindest. I discovered that Amaryllis was Leonora’s china pattern too. She had four place settings, as I did. Together, we’d have eight. It was tempting to consider marriage. And yet she had a way of keeping me on a short rope—she’d look at me and say, “What are you thinkin?” Nuthin, I’d say, nuthin in particular. “What is it?” she’d ask. I don’t care to talk about it, I’d say. “Silence is a form of anger,” she said. “A person can be just as aggressive with silence as they can be with a gun.”

Oh for crying out loud, dear God of mercy, I cried, and jumped up and went straight to the barroom, not the Lazy Dollar but the Dirty Dog Saloon, and sat in a dim corner and had a stiff drink and then another to keep the first one company, and by and by, who should mosey in but Mr. Higley, author of numerous western songs, including “Goin Back to Colorado” and “How I Miss the Old Missouri,” so I bought him a drink and me one too and said, “Tell me how it is that you love it so out here on the plains. You write poems about the beauty of the land and the goodness of the folks—what am I missing, pardner?”

He said, “I have not set foot in Colorado in forty years, nor seen the Missouri for thirty-seven. Does that answer your question, L.S.?”

We hoisted a number of drinks then, and I staggered back home about midnight and slept on the porch swing, the door being locked, and the next morning Leonora and I had a tiff. She said, “How come you go do a dumb thing like that, Leonard? Can you imagine how it makes me feel? Or do you think I don’t notice that you got drunk and were walkin around this town singin and whoopin and ropin street lamps and laughin like an idiot at two in the morning? Do you think that decent people don’t talk about this and wonder why you’re not home here with me? Don’t you see that it makes me look like a fool?”

I said, “If I have got to ask permission to take a drink, then let me out of it. I quit.”

She said, “Don’t you see there’s a pattern in your life, Leonard? You’re someone who avoids conflict. It’s what makes you a cowboy.” “You’re mad at me, aintcha,” I said. She was mad.

“I’m not mad. Only concerned. We have a dysfunctional relationship, that’s all.”

“You’re mad and you’re always going to be mad,” I said.

She said she had read an article in the Emporia Gazette that said male restlessness may result from a hormone imbalance caused by an eating disorder.

“That’s the westward impulse you’re talking about, Leonora! That’s what brought us here!” I cried. She said it wasn’t an impulse, it was an imbalance. She said, “Maybe you should get help. The schoolmarm is a therapist part-time, you know.”

Okay, I said.

Doggone it, I did everything I could to please that woman.

Twice a week for eight weeks, I lay down on Mary Ellen Henry’s parlor sofa and told her everything about myself. She used cats as a medium. (She explained why, but I forget.) A cat lies on your chest and you talk to it, and she listens, e.g.:

ME: Boy, I sure feel confused, Puff. I’m so sad and mixed up I could go get drunk and jump off the roof. But with my luck I’d probably miss the ground.

HER: Puff, you tell that nice man to tell you more about when his mama left him at the train depot and went off with the drygoods salesman.

It felt dumb but I did it. Lay on the couch, cat stretched out on my chest, Mary Ellen sat in the rocker, I talked about Mama to the cat—”My mother was the saintliest woman who ever trod this earth, Puff, and my daddy was the meanest sumbitch ever drew breath”—and Mary Ellen said to the cat, “Puff, I want you to tell Lonesome Shorty that some people might say that riding the open range is a cowboy’s only way of keeping that powerful mama at a distance. You tell him that, Puff, and see what he says.”

“Why, Puff, I believe that is the biggest crock of horse poop I’ve heard yet,” I replied.

“Puff,” she said, “remind Shorty of how his mama ran his daddy off so she could control her boy better.” “Lies, Puff. You’re lying, ya miserable cat.”

And on it went. I gave it my best shot but was no good at therapy, and one morning I said, “I’ve decided that you’ve probably done as much for me as you possibly can, Puff, so this will be my last visit. Thank you.”

Mary Ellen was stunned, as if I had slapped her. Her eyes welled up with tears. “How can you do this to me?” she cried. “Don’t you realize that you’re my only client? You’re important to me, Shorty! How can you walk away from me like I was just your hitching rail?”

This was much too complicated for me. So I saddled up and without a word to Leonora I rode off down the trail toward the Bitterroot, feeling dumber than dirt. Couldn’t bear to be alone, couldn’t bear the company. Thought it might be due to a lack of fluoride. Or it could be genetic—it’s hard to tell. My daddy left home when I was two. If we had any fluoride, he took it with him.

Rode seven days through Arapaho country and was full of loneliness and misery, thinking only of Leonora, her touch and smell, until finally I began to sing “Mi amor, mi corazon,” and burst into tears and turned around and rode back to Pit City. A bitterly cold day, windy, snow flurries, and me without shoes—I’d forgotten them at a campsite—and I was a sorry sight but when Euphonia saw me she said, “Welcome back, honey, and come in and let me get you a pair of Bill’s shoes.”

I took a shower, and the towels were soft and smelled lemony. You miss that softness, that cleanliness, on the trail. Had split-pea soup and Leonora came home and hugged me and cried, and the next day I got a job at the stagecoach office as assistant director of customer service and group sales, and the next few days went along like a song. Euphonia made my breakfast and Leonora made my bed and I bought six new place settings of Amaryllis, and we made plans to marry.

Then the Chautauqua put on a play called The Secret Forest of the Heart that Leonora had a big part in, so I went and I hated it, it was the dumbest sheepdip show you ever saw, about good women who nurture and heal and men who rob and control, and Leonora held out a magical garland of flowers and vines and herbs and celery and sang, “Know the quiet place within your heart and touch the rainbow of possibility; be alive to the gentle breeze of communication, and please stop being such a jerk.” People with big wet eyes stood and clapped and a stagecoach driver named Gabby turned to me and said, “I could sure use a big hug right now.” I got out of there as fast as I could.

I told Leonora, “You hate me ’cause I walked out on yer dagnabbed play and you’re going to give me my walkin papers, aintcha?” and she said, no, she wasn’t, she didn’t expect me to like the play, she knew me well enough to know that, and I said, “Oh there you go again, just like always, you never stop finding fault with me, so I might as well go be bad, there’s no percentage in being good,” and she said I was crazy. “Well, to hell with you,” I said, and I got so mad, I went in and robbed the bank. Pulled my hat down low and went in with six-guns in hand and yelled, “Everybody face down on the floor! Nice and easy, now, and nobody gets hurt.”

They said, “Why are you doing this, Shorty? You’re a wonderful guy and have a good job and you’re blessed with the love of a wonderful woman.”

“If that’s what you call blessed, then I’d like to try damned to hell for a while.”

“What do you have to be mad about?” asked the lady teller.

“Doggone it, I can be mad if I want to be. If I say I’m mad, I mean I’m mad.”

“You’ll never get away with it,” someone yelled as I rode away with thirty-four thousand dollars on me, and as it turned out, they were right, but I didn’t know it yet.

I headed off across the sandy flats on Old Dan toward the big mesas, rode hard for a week, then lay back. I was rich, and lonesome as an old galoot. Wanted to hook up with a partner but then thought of the trouble involved and decided against it. Made up a song as I rode along, “Livin inside/I’m dissatisfied/Guess I’m qualified to ride.” Rode to Big Gap. No family took me in, no woman offered me comfort, and I sought no solace in the church. I paid with cash. A man in a saloon said he knew my old partner Eugene. “He got bit by his horse and was laid up with gelding fever and had fits and hallucinations and talked a blue streak for a month before he died, mostly about economics,” he told me. I was sorry I had not been there to see it.

I rode on. I tried not to think about Leonora but I missed her terribly.

I wished I knew how to patch things up but there’s no way. The love between two people is fragile and one false move can break it like fine china, and when it breaks, it’s broken. I rode on, but I rode slower, and after a while I felt sick. I was so lonely. I lay down in the dirt and wrapped myself in a blanket and lay shivering all night and woke up in the morning and—I was about thirty feet from the Colorado Trail! All these wagon trains were going by and now and then a pioneer or a gold prospector’d call over to me—”Howdy! How are you doing over there yonder? You headin west too?”

And I’d answer: “I feel like I’m coming down with something. I don’t know, I got a headache and chills and I feel weak and listless. You got a thermometer with you? Is saltpeter supposed to be good for this? You think maybe I should bleed myself?”

And they’d lope over near me and ask if I had a fever. “You’re supposed to starve a fever,” they said. “Just lie there and rest and don’t eat anything and pretty soon you’ll feel better.”

And I did that, and three days later I died. The vultures came and feasted off me and the dogs fought over my bones and some old bum came and took the thirty-four thousand dollars in twenty-dollar bills out of my saddlebags and stomped on my china set and pretty soon what was left of me lay bleached and white on the lone prairie, but I didn’t care because I was in heaven. I assume it was heaven. It was like Brown’s Hotel in Denver, a suite, with a bathtub eight feet long, and a canopied bed, and an angel to bring me my breakfast.

It’s a good breakfast: fresh biscuits and butter and two strips of thick crisp bacon and two eggs soft poached and fried potatoes and all of it on a beautiful pale-blue Amaryllis plate. But it does not vary from day to day, and neither does the angel, who sings beautifully but always the same song.

It is perfect here and a person should be grateful, I reckon, but I am about fed up with it and ready to move on to the other place, if only I could think of something bad enough to say that would get me sent there, and, being a cowboy, I suppose, that won’t be a problem. Something will come to mind.

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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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 24, 2020

On this date in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act went into effect, establishing the 40-hour work week and a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 23, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 23, 2020

100 years ago today, Sinclair Lewis’s novel “Main Street” was published. It nearly won the Pulitzer prize, but the award went to Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 22, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 22, 2020

On this day in 1962, President Kennedy announced that Cuba would be placed under a naval “quarantine” until the Soviets removed missiles from the island.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 21, 2020

It’s the birthday of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), who said, “if…lack of motivation is a constant problem, perhaps writing is not your forte.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, October 20, 2020

It’s the birthday of Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941), considered the first true jazz composer because he was the first to write down his jazz tunes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, October 19, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, October 19, 2020

Today is the anniversary of the surrender that ended the American Revolutionary War, in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 22, 2011

A Prairie Home Companion: October 22, 2011

With special guests, author, distinguished Broadway actor and Academy Award-nominee John Lithgow. Plus, acoustic duo Storyhill and Nashville guitar man Steve Wariner. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, October 18, 2020

It’s the birthday of bestselling author Terry McMillan (1951), whose novels include “Waiting to Exhale” (1992) and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” (1996).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 17, 2020

On this day in 1933, Albert Einstein officially moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University after renouncing his German citizenship.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 16, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 16, 2020

It’s the birthday of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), a devoted aesthete and one of the most quotable authors in the English language.

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Writing

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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The News from Manhattan: Friday, September 18, 2020

New York seems to be returning to life, more lights, more traffic, more taxis. Meanwhile the pandemic has given us a greater appreciation of what we have.

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The News from Manhattan: Thursday, September 17, 2020

The audiobook business is booming, thanks to people with long commutes, people on Stairmasters, people who like to fall asleep while listening to a book.

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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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The News from Manhattan: Saturday, September 12, 2020

Our girl left for school this morning. I miss her. I woke her up at 7 this morning, singing “What A Wonderful World,” with the line “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow, they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.”

Read More

The News from Manhattan: Friday, September 11, 2020

Thinking about San Francisco today and that beautiful drive up Highway One across the Golden Gate Bridge and through the tunnel with the rainbow painted over it.

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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