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.

Young Peter

PETER OSTROUSHKO: Living in Wonderful Memories and Forever in his Music

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by and could they get together sometime and play. So they did. He played some with Rudy’s band, the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, and then with Dakota Dave Hull, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band, the New Prairie Ramblers, the Mando Boys, Robin and Linda Williams. He had the chops and he had the heart. He could sight-read at tempo. He was always focused on the tune and his instrument, never seemed to be out to impress anyone. He was a composer and an improviser. Once, in Ashland, he walked onstage with the Spunks and stumbled and fell, carrying a borrowed Gibson mandolin, tucked it into his body, curled up, did a somersault, got to his feet, mandolin unharmed. He grew up on Ukrainian cooking and came to love barbecue, and looked for BBQ joints near the venues he played — “No pig, no gig,” said Peter. He liked fried egg and pickle sandwiches. He met Marge and they lived in a house on Nicollet Island, upstairs from guitarist Tim Hennessy, who called him “Mr. Buddy,” and they played swing, Irish fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and Peter’s compositions. ...

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Available now: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

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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Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

Where would we be without Google? We’d be at the library, wasting our lives searching through reference books in the basement, looking up odd facts. I googled, “Where would we be without Google?” the other day and in 39/100ths of a second Google located 4,530,000,000 results. If I spent one minute examining each result, it would take me thousands of years. So there’s your answer. Thanks to Google, we get enough information to kill us many times over. In the old days, we experienced the world directly through sight, sound, touch, and personal memory, and now we look for it in a computer.

I worry about memory loss now after my cousin told me about a family reunion I had forgotten I put on years ago where there were bagpipers and her little daughter Maggie sat on my lap and said my eyebrows looked like caterpillars. I don’t think I’m demented, but how would I know? Thank goodness, my sister found pictures of the party on her computer.

I was a writer back then, and now the young writers I know are working as Uber drivers because the publishing business is going the way of carriage-making and nobody I know is making a living from it. The Internet killed it, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And so I write sonnets for lefties to amuse people who consider me to be one.

When I think of you, Christina, my eyes get misty,
If any sensible man wished to be kissed he
Would want it to be your sweet lips.
You were a beautiful radical left-winger,
Marcher, protester, and folksinger,
With forty pins on your bosom for all your memberships.
I see you holding a sign on campus long ago,
The big letters: CAPITALISM HAS TO GO
Oh my darling Chris, if you kissed
Me I would gladly be a communist.
Your kisses would set off bright sparks
That turn this man toward Karl Marx.
We’d find a cabin to get warm and spoony in
And there would be a Soviet union.

Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

Remember when Kamala Harris introduced him to come out and speak and the man jogged out to the lectern? Big stage, long jog — he was trying to counter Republican talk of him being doddery and frail, and now I pray to God he doesn’t take up running. Please. Remember when Jimmy Carter ran in a marathon and collapsed and the Secret Service had to scoop him up? He looked like death on toast. It was the end of the Carter presidency right then and there. A president should avoid all sports that might lead to physical collapse. It’s terrible for the stock market.

Golf, it goes without saying, is off the list. Too many optical memories. And the sight of the presidential posterior as he bends for a putt is off-putting. And what it costs the Secret Service to secure a golf course for two hours is absurd and obscene.

Ronald Reagan looked terrific on horseback, thanks to his years at Warner Brothers. Same with John Kennedy at the helm of a sailboat, rudder in hand. But those aren’t Joe’s scenes. Seeing his fondness for his big dogs won over a lot of people who feared he might harbor communistic tendencies. Dog-lovers are not pinkos; commies have always preferred cats. Those dogs are working dogs, not show dogs, rescue dogs, and they can be retrained as retrievers and go pheasant hunting. Of course it would irritate the vegan caucus of the Democratic Party but the pluses outweigh the minuses — Joe tramping through tall grass in South Dakota, his faithful dogs by his side, and suddenly there’s a frantic flutter of wings in the tall grass and he raises the shotgun to his shoulder and shoots and the dogs retrieve the deadsters and in the act of shooting, he becomes iconic, Man the Bringer of Provisions. He could do this by raising carrots and onions, of course, but hoeing lacks the impact of shooting. Just ask the pheasant.

The last Democratic president to win South Dakota was LBJ in 1964. Biden hunting pheasants could change that and maybe win Wyoming and Montana. It needs to be changed. The country is in crisis when one of the major parties turns its back on rural America and forces them to vote psychotic. We Democrats do well among fencers and archery enthusiasts but we’ve crossed gun owners off our list. Guns have been around since the 14th century. In rural America, guns are normal; it’s not like L.A. that way. Get over it.

Be a hunter, sir. Head for South Dakota with the dogs and spend the night in a cabin by a roaring fire and feast on pheasant, have a whiskey or two, enjoy immature jokes. Face it, we’ve let the Left go gentle, trapping us in the caregiver role, making us susceptible to defeat by tough-talking autocrats. Half of America sees us Democrats as the Party of Croquet, Crochet, and Croissants. You can change this, Joe, by simply picking up a shotgun. You’ve come a long way in one year. The Republicans tried to label you as Biden, a stranger with weird friends and lots of odd baggage, but you’ve become Joe. Trump was a verb but you’re a noun, a real person, an uncle, a brother, and when you take the dogs to the cabin in the Black Hills, your country cousins will be enormously pleased. Do not go golfing. If you have clubs, throw them away. Air Force One lands in Rapid City and you and the dogs come down the ramp and you’re grinning as you get in the pickup and head for the hills and I’m seeing a 75% approval rating, maybe 80, 85 if you bag your limit.

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.

The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

I was not asked for a credit card at any point, or a Medicare card, so evidently the country is slipping into socialism, as Republicans predicted, but I am too old to argue, I obey. Young people wearing badges told me which line to get in and I did. A young woman who said she was a nurse gave the shot and I didn’t ask to see her license. Nor did I ask for assurance that the vaccine did not contain a hallucinogen that would make me accept the Fake News: I already accept that Joe Biden was elected president and that Trump supporters invaded the Capitol on January 6. It’s too laborious to believe otherwise. This is Occam’s Razor, the principle they taught in high school science: the simpler theory tends to be true. You’d have to devote weeks to working up a new theory of massive electoral fraud by Venezuelans and Antifans buying thousands of MAGA hats to storm the Capitol, and at 78 I don’t have the time for that. The vaccine may extend my lifetime but there are no guarantees.

This is the problem with getting old: you’re forced to face up to mortality and so you cut back on your commitments. I probably could be a decent tennis player again but I’d have to devote twenty hours a week to the effort. Ditto soap carving, stamp collecting, and the study of coelacanths. It’d take too much time so these must be left to younger people, along with dread and dismay. Too time-consuming.

More and more people around me are dying and it’s never the ones I wish would expire. I have four people on my wish list whom, as a Christian, I should forgive but I don’t because (1) they haven’t asked and (2) forgiveness will not change their loathsomeness, so instead I wish for them to go live in Alabama or Mississippi and perhaps secede, and meanwhile I dread the phone ringing, for fear that one of the righteous has fallen instead.

I keep in close touch with several octogenarians whom I think of as an advance party, just as Custer had a band of Crow scouts at the Little Big Horn who knew the territory, and when I ring up my scouts and ask, “How are you?” I want to know what 83 and 85 and 87 feel like from day to day. My cousin Stan is my oldest scout at 89 and still walks and exercises and has all his marbles — when I spoke to him last week, he twice corrected his own grammar — so I hope for eleven more years, fully marbled, which makes me cheerful and cheerfulness is the key to the kingdom. I avoid dark topics such as global warming and the demise of democracy — and leave those to the young who will have to deal with them.

I watched some of the Senate trial and I worry for my country, that we’re deciding finally who we are but I’m a back issue. I was 21 when President Kennedy was shot and a great deal died in Dealey Plaza, and then the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. My grandson, who just graduated with honors from college, came long after all that and is fascinated by politics and is ambitious to dig in and more power to him. I’m living in the liberal tribal reservation of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and so I know nothing. My mission is to live gracefully and be amused at mortality and keep in touch with the people in their 50s and 60s looking to me for guidance. No complaining. Be useful. Every day you make your partner laugh is a good day.

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

This featured show comes from the west side of the Mississippi River, from the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with special guests, bluegrass sensation Becky Schlegel, country singer Kim Parent, and girls’ quartet GQ, and men’s septet The Limestones.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 7, 2021

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep./But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” By Robert Frost. Published on this day 1923.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 6, 2021

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“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” How do we love poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Born in Durham, England, 215 years ago today.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 5, 2021

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“The law has nothing to do with justice, and injustice can’t be left unchallenged. So I decided to be a writer” – Leslie Marmon Silko, born this day in 1948

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 4, 2021

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Today is the birthday of author Khaled Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His breakout novel “The Kite Runner” sold over 1 million copies in 2 years.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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On this day in 1931 Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem of the United States.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

“I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” – Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904)

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 1, 2021

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On this date in 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park in the world. American author Wallace Stegner wrote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

Live from RTE studios in Dublin, Ireland, A Prairie Home Companion welcomes traditional Irish singer Niamh Parsons with Graham Dunne; Cathal McConnell along with Big John and Valerie McManus; and the tenor Frank Harte.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, February 28, 2021

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On this date in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA after stealing the work of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin who had xray photographed the DNA molecule.

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Writing

Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

Read More

Peter Ostroushko: Living in Wonderful Memories and in his Music Forever

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by […]

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

Read More

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.
The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

Read More

The pandemic: one man’s appreciation

I am sitting here watching over and over a video my wife took with her phone in Central Park after the 18-inch snowfall last week, looking through the trees at a snowy hill and listening to the shouts and shrieks of joy from New York children as they slide down the hill on saucers and sleds and cardboard. Shrieks of joy are a rare and beautiful thing and I keep replaying this 60-second drama, recalling my own sliding days back in Minnesota. the steep hill that we slid down and out onto the frozen Mississippi.

I remember feeling joyful on a toboggan with Corinne. We were 10 years old. She stood, her hands fluttering at her side, and I climbed on behind her and we slid at tremendous speed and I’m sure we shrieked. On the Central Park video, some parents are sliding with their kids, but this was unknown back in my day. Parents stayed indoors; the snow belonged to children. I do note that the New York parents do not shriek. Joy fades with age, though I did once see a gang of old men in Virginia dancing to jigs and hornpipes, and joy shone clear in their faces. I was brought up by evangelicals who forbade dancing on the grounds that it was licentious but here were old men grinning as their feet kept up with fast fiddlers. No shrieks but some whoops and yells.

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An old Democrat in a chorus in the Orkneys

I missed out on the GameStop frenzy on Wall Street last week and didn’t earn a bundle of money, but for me, it was enough that the temperature got up to forty, a slight thaw that made me think of spring, I being the registered optimist that I am. After all, I am a Democrat, the party that seeks to legislate against ignorance and cruelty. I believe in the goodness of people I pass on the street and I think that by July, we’ll be crowding into comedy clubs and laughing at pandemic jokes.

Other people imagine that the thaw means snow melting on the roof and leaking down the walls and dripping asphalt onto our scrambled eggs, causing incurable cancer. I do not imagine toxic snowmelt. I imagine baseball.

Ice is our friend. The ice melt on Earth is now twice what it was in the Nineties, 1.3 trillion tons a year, due to global warming, and this melt leads to the rise of oceans and more warming. Our grandchildren will have to deal with the problem and they will look back at the early 21st century as the Era of Stupidification. I regret that. But one must be hopeful. When you’re tied to the railroad track and the headlight of the Midnight Special is getting brighter and brighter, hope is what you have.

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The world turns, days get longer

The days are definitely longer. I got a COVID shot last week and a guy in Georgia invited me to come do a show in the fall and one morning I asked my wife, “What’s in the news?” and she said, “Not much.” Things change, we move on, “lizard brain” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary and so is “amenitize” and “back-sass,” “bohunkus,” “code speak” (deliberately ambiguous), “cooked-up,” “jinx” (when two people say the same thing simultaneously), “pitchy” (meaning off-key), and “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” and this is not the Omaha English Dictionary, this is O-X-F-O-R-D, this is men in medieval gowns and hoods with letters after their names such as DCL, DM, and DLitt and where “color” is spelled with a U.

The decapitated chicken was a common phrase in my childhood, and one we saw firsthand in the backyard when we killed chickens. Nobody in my family ever got frantic, there was no shouting, no hysteria. Once in a blue moon my mom might say, “You kids are driving me to a nervous breakdown,” but no breakdown followed. We were a quiet family; I don’t claim that this is virtuous but it certainly saves time.

I came to imagine that an impassioned temperament was a sign of artistic talent so I accepted being an ordinary workman, which suits me just fine. And I accept being a white male though I don’t consider it definitive, any more than “size-12 shoe” or “Minnesotan” or “man on blood thinner” is. I am not simply white, I’m of Scots-Yorkshire ancestry, a mournful people who thrive on cold and cloudiness. Precipitation cheers us up. In bright sunlight we shrivel up, put us in a cold fog and we bloom. We are comfortable with silence. We wave away compliments. We are good at suppressing feeling, our own and other people’s. Nonetheless, when the woman I love sits on my lap and puts her head against mine and says, “I need you,” I am moved, deeply. I don’t hurl brushfuls of paint at a canvas or compose a crashing sonata or write a long poem, unpunctuated, all lowercase, in poetic code speak and revolutionary syntax, but I am very moved. I wouldn’t say so if it weren’t true.

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A night outside, eating with friends

I admit that when I hear the word “impeachment” I think of fruit, and “censure” makes me think of dentures, which is a sign that I’ve been watching too much news: time for a break. How often can you look at the man with the tattooed pectorals and the horned helmet and what understanding do you gain from it? So you make the screen go dark and do other things.

The lady and I went to dinner with friends the other night and the four of us spent more than an hour making no reference to the riot at the Capitol, an entirely trumpless hour, which felt like a triumph. We ate outdoors under heat lamps on Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center, which is very very dark, and we didn’t talk about the virus either.

We talked about a baby named Charlie born in Atlanta a few days before and showed pictures of him, tightly swaddled. His mother is a mathematician married to a landscape architect. The fact that young people still want to bring children into this world is an encouraging sign, a gesture of faith.

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Dolts are dolts: don’t give them too much credit

The pictures of Wednesday stick with you — the mob rushing up the steps when the line of cops broke, the bozo smashing the window with a pole, the gangs of Trumpers running wild in the marble halls and the cops in confusion, the lout lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s chair — it was an assault of a few thousand of the densest people in America, a congregation of barflies and dropouts and people you’d never hire to look after your children, who were so thrilled to triumph over authority they could hardly stand it. That was the whole point of it. To roam around where you weren’t supposed to go, to sit in the Speaker’s office, and to take selfies while they did it. It was the high point of their lives.

It thrilled them that Congress fled and hid in the basement and they got to parade around and wave their Trump banners and yell and own the place, which is pretty much how their man feels about the White House. He had little interest in policy but he loved the security entourage, the chopper on the lawn, Air Force One, being saluted. He was ill-informed and had the attention span of a housecat but he was Boss and smart people had to kowtow to him. It was glorious. What fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

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A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE. Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone. I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise. “Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

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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). 

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