National Geographic: Civilized Denmark

Original Publish Date: July 1998

Originally published in National Geographic

Denmark is a little land of five and a quarter million souls, most of them Andersens, Hansens, Jensens, or Petersens, with a few Madsens Jacobsens, and Mortensens and Rasmussens thrown in for variety, who live on a pleasant green peninsula and two large islands and many tiny ones north of Germany, between the North Sea and the Baltic, a major supplier of ham and cheese and ceramics, a nation of irreligious Lutherans, a democratic society prickly to wealth and privilege and the home of a royal line that goes back to A.D. 935. The peninsula is Jutland; the two islands are Zealand, which includes Copenhagen, and Fyn. A handsome and civilized country, its only wilderness the sea.

The entire country is a little smaller than Lake Michigan, and if it were slipped in there, between Wisconsin and Michigan, it would not be such a bad fit culturally. The same dark humor prevails as in the Midwest, the same stoicism and gentility. It would be a shock to land in a Great Lake, but the Danes would study the situation and work out the best deal they could, keeping their queen and flag, their chirpy language, their generous health and unemployment benefits, their 37-hour work-week, their five weeks of annual vacation plus assorted holidays, their nine political parties (Social Democrats on the left, Radikale in the center, Venstre, or Left, on the right). They might ban the so-called Danish pastry too gooey). They would make fun of everything American and lambaste our foreign policy. They would see themselves, in every way, as the beautiful swan trapped in the realm of ducks.

Life in Denmark is divided into two parts, the Golden Summer and the Great Murk, which extends from late fall to mid-spring. The months of youth and beauty, when the sky is light until almost 11 p.m. and Danes take to the beaches, eat in their gardens, soak up the sun, feel sleek and smart, and the other months, when they go to and from work in the dark and the rain and just try to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not get too glum.

I used to spend Christmases in Denmark, back when I had connections there, and I remember the night flight over the Atlantic, the sun rising to reveal the solid cloud bank below, the descent through cloud to Copenhagen Airport, like coal miners going down into the hole, the pilot putting the wheels down and the ground still not visible, and then, suddenly, red-tile roofs of houses in the mist below, deep green meadows, tree lines, rain trickling across the window, and the wheels bump on the runway, and you’re in Denmark, in a gloom so dense you feel it in your skull.

You disembark onto a shopping concourse, and past the mink coats and crystal a sign points you to customs. You parade through, a little surprised at how casually the Danish police glance at your passport. (The man who waves you in may be the last uniform you’ll see for a while, Danes being a self-policing people who prefer that authority be inconspicuous.) You collect your bags, and off to the cabstand, the air gray, drizzly, with a tang of salt and smoke.

The cab races off through Amager, past the soccer fields and into the streets of the city, the identical brown-brick apartment buildings, the mustard stucco houses, passing a stream of bicyclists pedaling solemnly to work in their bright red or yellow slickers. Danish jumps out at you from signs, lots of cognates here: A drugstore is an apotek (remember apothecary), and a merchant is a handler—a boghandler sells books, a vinhandler wine—a restaurant is a restaurant, and you realize that you won’t starve here or get lost.

Sober-faced Danes queue at the bus stop in the rain, which they do not flinch at, and it dawns on you that a daylong rain is not unusual, this is a North Atlantic winter. The sun won’t shine tomorrow, maybe not the next day. You have arrived in a land where Christmas means more than in, say, Barbados; it is the last outpost on the long grim trek toward spring. Dark gray sky at noon, dull brown brick all around, dead trees, broken glass in the gutter, and you, sorry you, your head like a sponge full of mud. At first you think it’s jet lag, and then you realize that everyone else feels this way too.

Welcome to the birthplace of existentialism.

The taxi brings you over the canal and into the heart of Copenhagen, the grand old city that has resisted freeway and high-rise in defense of its narrow, twisting brick streets from medieval times, its skyline of green church steeples, its pretty squares and fountains. Past the Christiansborg Castle where parliament sits, past the big department store, Magasin, and the Royal Theater hulking on Kongens Nytorv, a plaza faced by stately old piles, and up a narrow street called Bredgade (Broad Street), past the queen’s palace at Amalienborg, and up to Østerbro, where I once lived, in a big echoey belle epoque apartment on Trondhjemsgade. The dining room had a 14-foot ceiling with plaster moldings, and when I sat in it, writing, it felt as if I were drafting the Treaty of Ghent.

We celebrated Juleaften there every December 24. My stepchildren and I trudged through the late afternoon mists to Trinitatis Kirke, where little Soren Kierkegaard attended confirmation class, the church the Round Tower is attached to. It was packed to the rafters Christmas Eve with shiny children and their mors and fars and mormors and morfars and farmors and farfars. We sang the old Danish carols and heard a sermon about our obligations to the Third World and hiked home to our pork roast and caramelized potatoes, and the oldest boy lit the candles on the tree in the dining room and threw the doors open, and we looked at it and gasped—every year the same gasp—and ran hand in hand through the dark rooms singing, “Nu er det jul igen,” and opened our gifts.

The 25th is an afterthought, a quiet day for recuperation; Christmas Eve is the great night of the year. And on Nytarsaften, the 31st, you sit down at 6 p.m., along with everyone else in Denmark, and watch Queen Margrethe deliver her annual homily to the people. It lasts about 12 minutes and ends with her greetings to the people of Greenland and the Faroe Islands and to the people who work on the sea. “Heartfelt greetings from the prince and me,” she says, beaming. “God bless Denmark.” And then everybody proceeds to get a little drunk, or maybe a lot. At midnight Danish television plays the romantic national anthem, and you stand, champagne in hand, and sing it, reading the words off the screen. At 2 a.m., to clear your head, you go for a walk. Blocks and blocks of five-story brick houses; gray, white, cream, blue, gold candles flickering in the casement windows; the steep red- or black-tile roofs, the forest of chimneys, dormers in the garrets; and you feel the romance of Copenhagen, as if walking into an old painting, the enchantment of darkness and rain and the warm hearth that you eventually will walk back to.

I had seen enough Danish Decembers to hold me for a while, so I flew over last year in June for a week of summer. I looked around Århus, the handsome harbor city with a forest next to its downtown, and had dinner with Brian, a poet friend and iconoclast who loves to drink whiskey and disparage the monarchy and the church. “Brian is one of those English names—Tommy, Johnny, Brian—that working-class parents favored after the war,” he said. “It’s a ruffian’s name. If there was a Brian in a class, the teacher would smack him on the first day and get it out of the way.”

I drove up to Skagen, where the turn-of-the-century artists Michael and Anna Ancher add P. S. Krøyer painted fishermen and garden parties and ladies in white strolling along a beach under the midnight sun. I took the train to Fyn for Midsummer Eve. I visited Gilleleje, the vacation village on the north coast of Zealand from which, to escape the Germans in October 1943, Danish Jews were smuggled by fishing boat over the sound to Sweden. I swam in the sea there with friends, which I wasn’t going to do, being skittish about nudity and knowing how cold the water is, until my friends said, “Of course, you don’t have to if you’d rather not,” and then, of course, I had to.

And I hiked around Copenhagen, along earthworks and remains of moats and along the pier where cruise ships tie up, to the statue of the Little Mermaid, sitting on her rock, looking small and forlorn, and beyond her to the magnificent fountain of Gefion, the goddess at the plow, lashing her oxen, water spraying from their nostrils, and great plumes arching up from the plowshare. I sat at outdoor cafés in Grabrodretory and Kultorvet and spoke my pitiful rusty Danish to waiters and ate my herring and studied the passersby. Danes are good to watch. They keep a stolid public expression, like Buster Keaton, and are masters of the raised eyebrow. Let a waiter drop a tray of dishes and looks of deadpan amusement flicker on every face, including the waiter’s. I step into a bakery, and when the girl behind the counter says, “Goddag,” I say, “Goddag, jeg vii Berne ha’ to line stykke boiler,” and her left brow lifts and she says, “Oh, you want two of these buns?” “Ja, tak,” I say. “You speak Danish well,” she says. “Where in America are you from?”

I am stopped by a young woman in jeans and a cutoff top who asks where to catch the train to Deer Park. A major thrill for me, to be asked for directions by a Dane, in Danish, and I tell her in Danish where the S-train station is, and add, “And thank you for your navel.” It is a very handsome navel. She covers it in mock modesty and murmurs, “It was a gift from my mother.”

In a cafe near Kultorvet, I used to sit every week and drink coffee with Fradley Garner, an emigre who speaks Danish with a New York accent to his grandchildren. “No matter how much you like Denmark, it’s good to get together with someone who knows who Joe DiMaggio is,” he told me once.

In another café I would have lunch with my friend Elly Petersen, a tall, aristocratic lady of 74 when I met her on my first trip there in 1985 and she told me about her flaming youth, dancing to American jazz in the clubs of Norrebro. We sometimes had oysters and champagne, what she called “the Karen Blixen lunch,” but usually we ordered the classic: herring on rye bread with a shot of aquavit, and then another shot, followed by a fish fillet with a glass of beer, and then a slice of roast pork with the rind on, and a slab of blue cheese for dessert, and coffee.

Elly had met Victor Borge, she said, in 1937 in a dance hall called Zigeunerhallen on Jagtvej in Nørrebro when he was still Borge Rosenbaum and played piano in a jazz trio. Once she had danced with him. “Really,” she said. “I did.” Rosenbaum was a Jew and wrote satiric songs about the Nazis and, on the verge of arrest in 1940, he caught a boat to Sweden, Elly told me. And a few months later he snuck back home to visit his mother, who was dying. He sat by her bed and told her a sweet lie; he said, “Mama, I’m going to Hollywood and get into the movies, and when I do, I’ll send for you, and we’ll live in California in a big house with a swimming pool.” And she said, “Borge, don’t let it go to your head.”

Back when I knew Elly, I aspired in a modest way to dress, smell, walk, and speak Danish, and she corrected my pronunciation, so I would sound more like the queen, less like a yahoo. I remember exactly when my Danish reached its high-water mark: It was late one night after a one-month total-immersion course at Askov Folk High School, in the corn belt of Jutland, when a fellow student and I sat in a tavern jabbering away, and after 15 minutes or so he suddenly stopped and said, “Hvor kommer du fra?” and I said, “Minnesota, naturligvis,” and he laughed and said, “leg er en Texan.” Born and bred in Dallas, but he had a good accent. We continued, in Danish, talking about what we loved about Denmark—the white stone churches, the golden barley fields, the shadowy beech forests, the good humor of daily life, the calmness of the people, their social grace, their eternal, untiring tolerance.

It is—let’s be frank here—almost everyone’s idea of the World’s Most Nearly Perfect Nation: a clean, peaceful, well-regulated society populated by prosperous (but not greedy or rapacious), tolerant (but principled), law-abiding (but humorous), computer-literate, bi- or trilingual people who all vote in elections and are as witty as Victor Borge and have no hang-ups about sex and reside in sunny, energy-efficient homes, the decor running toward light woods and primary colors, who can discuss (in excellent English) the infrastructure needs of developing countries or the Danishness of Woody Allen while serving perfectly poached salmon off handsome earthenware, copies of which are on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Despite Denmark’s manifest virtues, Danes never talk about how proud they are to be Danes. This would sound weird in Danish and violate their pride of modesty. When Danes talk to foreigners about Denmark, they always begin by commenting on its tininess, its unimportance, the difficulty of its language, the general small-mindedness and narcissism and self-indulgence of their countrymen, the high taxes—52 percent is the average income tax rate, and there’s a 25 percent sales tax. No Dane would look you in the eye and say, “Denmark is a great country.” You are supposed to figure this out for yourself.

It is the land of the silk safety net, where almost half the national budget goes toward smoothing out life’s inequalities, and there is plenty of money for schools, day care, retraining programs, job seminars—Danes love seminars: Three days at a study center hearing about waste management is almost as good as a ski trip. It is a culture bombarded by English, in advertising, pop music, movies, the Internet, all the chic media, and despite all the English that Danish absorbs—there is no Danish Academy to defend against it—old dialects persist in Jutland that can barely be understood by Copenhageners. It is the land where, as the saying goes, “Few have too much and fewer have too little,” and an American is struck by the sweet egalitarianism that prevails, where the lowliest clerk gives you a level gaze, where Sir and Madame have disappeared from common usage, even Mr. and Mrs., and children address teachers by their first names. It’s a nation of recyclers—about 55 percent of Danish garbage gets made into something new—and no nuclear power plants: The Danes prefer windmills. It’s a nation of tireless planners. Trains run on time. Things operate well in general. Only 2 percent of the national budget goes to police and prisons and courts, and 3 percent to defense. It is a famously peace-loving country, whose troops, part of the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, engaged Serbian militia in a firefight in April 1994, the first official Danish act of war since 1864.

Such a nation of overachievers—a brochure from the Ministry of Business and Industry says, “Denmark is one of the world’s cleanest and most organized countries, with virtually no pollution, crime, or poverty. Denmark is the most corruption-free society in the Northern Hemisphere.” So, of course, my heart lifts at any sighting of Danish sleaze: skinhead graffiti on buildings (“Foreigners Out of Denmark!”), busted beer bottles in the gutters, drunken teenagers slumped in the park.

Last summer in Odense, two blocks from the Hans Christian Andersen birthplace museum, my car was broken into and a billfold stolen; around the corner from the crime scene was a wooded area littered with garbage, where gaunt figures sat shooting up heroin. I enjoyed telling Danish friends about this for days afterward. When they expressed chagrin, I said, “Hey. No problem. We have crime in America too.”

Nonetheless, it is an orderly land. You drive through a Danish town, it comes to an end in a stone wall, and on the other side is a field of barley, a nice clean line: town here, country there. The stores close at six, even earlier on Saturday, and on Sunday you window-shop; an American has to learn that sometimes you just plain can’t have it. It is not a nation of jaywalkers. People stand on the curb and wait for the red light to change, even if it’s 2 a.m, and there’s not a car in sight. The red light is part of the system: You cross against it, and you are showing disdain for your countrymen. (I feel sheepish waiting for the red light, so I cross, and several times I discovered that Danish drivers don’t slow down for jaywalkers. They don’t see you in the crosswalk because you’re not supposed to be there.) Danes don’t think of themselves as a waiting-at-2-a.m.-for-the-green-light people—that’s how they see Swedes and Germans. Danes see themselves as a jazzy people, improvisers, more free spirited than Swedes, but the truth is (though one should not say it) that Danes are very much like Germans and Swedes. Orderliness is a main selling point.

Denmark has few natural resources, limited manufacturing capability; its future in Europe will be as a broker, banker, and distributor of goods. You send your widgets by container ship to Copenhagen, and these bright, young, English-speaking, utterly honest, highly disciplined people will get your widgets around to Scandinavia, the Baltic States, and Russia. Airports, seaports, highways, and rail lines are ultramodern and well-maintained. There is a presumption of punctuality here. An American train leaves the station if all the members of the Departure Committee can find no reason for it to wait; the Danish train leaves the station unless someone throws himself across the track and he happens to be someone they like.

Daily life turns on predictability. If the timetable says that the train leaves Klampenborg at 7:06 and arrives at Østerport Station at 7:27, those times are reliable, and if you invite Jens and Camilla for dinner at 7:30, that’s exactly when they’ll knock on your door, not two minutes later. And when you open the door, they will expect that you too have managed your time and are not racing around snatching up dirty socks, that dinner is under control, the candles lit, the wine chilling, the hosts prepared to be congenial.

To Danes this is a sensible way of life, and to an American it seems marvelous at first, and then it strikes you as stifling. Weird, even. You meet Danes who have their lives planned in quite some detail for years in advance and derive comfort from this. You see how stability is cherished. You meet an old married couple, both teachers, who keep their finances separate, and the wife says, “I would love to visit America next summer. Ole is going, but I can’t afford it.” To an American, this is perverse. They love each other. Why can’t Ole just pay her way? Because that is not how those two do things, that’s why.

A few years ago, walking along Store Kongensgade in Copenhagen before Christmas, I passed a building gutted for renovation and looked in the cellar window, and there, on a dirt floor, surrounded by piles of lumber, were three long tables covered with white cloths and set for a meal, a Christmas centerpiece on each table, with candles and little Danish flags, and at each place setting, silverware, a glass for aquavit, a glass for beer, a china plate, a napkin. The construction workers were about to enjoy their traditional Christmas lunch, with proper china and silver, with the herring and aquavit, the requisite toasts and speeches, and by the time the apple fritters were served, they’d be in a mood to sing Christmas songs, and you knew exactly which ones they’d sing.

I told a Danish friend, “If American workers held a Christmas party, they would go to a restaurant.” And she said, “Why should they be ashamed of where they work?”

The orderliness of the society doesn’t mean that Danish lives are less messy or lonely or angst-ridden than yours or mine, and no Dane would tell you so. You can hear plenty about bitter family feuds and the sorrows of alcoholism and about aimless, overindulged young people working the system to make a cushy life for themselves and perfectly sensible people who went off one day and killed themselves. An orderly society can’t exempt its members from the hazards of life.

But there is a sense of entitlement and security that Danes grow up with and Americans don’t. Certain things are yours by virtue of citizenship, and everyone knows what they are, they’re the same for everyone, and you shouldn’t feel bad for taking what you’re entitled to, you’re as good as anyone else. A woman in Florsholm, who had lived in California as a child, told me: “I miss people I knew in America, how open and friendly they were, but it’s better to have a safety net under you. You might not have a chance to do big things, but nothing so bad will happen to you.” The rules of the welfare system are clear to everyone, the benefits you get if you lose your job, the steps you take to get a new one; and the orderliness of the system makes it possible for the country to weather high unemployment and social unrest without a sense of crisis.

There is social unrest in the World’s Cleanest and Most Organized Country—which is, to an American, certainly interesting, considering how Danes once lectured us about racial intolerance, but never mind that. Now you hear them discuss the country’s troubles with its Yugoslavian and Turkish guest workers, who came 30 years ago when the country needed cheap labor, and today the guest workers’ children, Danish-born, Danish-speaking, Muslim, are discriminated against because they have the wrong last names. Protest demonstrations flare up in the Muslim ghettos of Ishøj, and right-wing politicians have seized on the issue. But I never heard the problem described as intractable: Everybody seemed to think it would get worked out eventually.

Denmark is the stable society it is because it is productive and prosperous, and because Danes get a similar start in life, whether you grow up in the mansions of Hellerup or the tenements of Norrebro. At birth you become a member of the Lutheran Church. (You can petition to get out, but it’s no simple matter.) You go to similar day care centers, toddle off to the same kindergartens, then to a folkeskole for grades one to nine, where, in the fourth grade, you begin the serious study of English (in seventh, German or French). There isn’t Public School 10 for the poor and St. Cuthbert’s-on-the-Hill for the mill owner’s children; everybody goes down the same road. In the spring of ninth grade you reach the great divide and find out if you go to gymnasium or a technical school or a business school for late bloomers. Gymnasium is for the serious student, no troublemakers, no slackers, no goofballs. About 40 percent wind up there. At the same time the state starts paying you a stipend of up to 1,800 kroner a month ($260), depending on your parents’ income. It’s meant to even up the odds a little more.

After three years of gymnasium you take the test that pretty much decides your career, the studenter exam. Admission to various colleges and professional schools is by bidding, high studenter scores get first dibs. It takes a very high score to get into the humanities, medicine, dentistry, or psychology—a lesser score to major in math or physics or chemistry or theology. On the other hand, to become a midwife (in Danish, “earth mother”) takes a very high score, it being a popular career. So the woman in blue scrubs who tells your wife to take a deep breath and push hard may be a good deal brighter than the guy in the pulpit who explains the parable of the vineyard.

My last day in Denmark I took the Inter-City Express from Copenhagen to the island of Fyn for Midsummer Eve at the house of old friends, a teacher and his wife, a writer. The train no longer switches onto a ferry for the trip across the Great Belt; it slips into a tunnel and races under the sea and up to an island and over a bridge, the longest rail-auto bridge in Europe, 6.6 kilometers long, one of a series of bridge and tunnel links that will knit Denmark together and tie the country to Sweden. My friends, Britt and Torben, met me at the station, and we drove south to their house. I said I missed the train-ferry, and they said they had mixed feelings about it. “But then we Danes love to hold two opposing views at the same time,” said Britt. “That’s probably why there was no referendum on the bridges, because the people might have voted against them, out of sentiment, even though everyone knows they’re necessary. We can’t think of ourselves as an island anymore. But we still do.”

The car wheeled south, through the rolling paradise of Fyn, and we talked about the Danish love of paradox—the tendency to strive to get ahead and to deny that you are doing any such thing. To belong to the Lutheran Church and yet never attend except at Christmas. (“Actually,” said Britt, “attendance is up a little. You see 14-year-olds coming in to be baptized, sometimes over their parents’ objections. Anyway, there are more coming in than going out.”) The paradox of a highly secular society—no Dane running for office need make any public show of religious faith whatsoever, in fact it would be taken as bad taste—and yet Danes take Easter as a holiday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Easter Monday, plus three days for Christmas, and Whit Monday, and something called Great Prayer Day in April. “Well, that’s just us,” said Britt.

Danes have belonged to the European Union since 1973 and still, down deep, feel opposed to it, she said. “We are terribly offended by our bureaucrats who go to Brussels to work for the EU and earn more than their counterparts here, fly first-class, live in luxury apartments—at least, we think they’re luxurious. We’re funny that way. If 90 Danes were living the high life in Brussels, or if we thought they were, we might very well vote Denmark out of it.”

Britt and Torben’s house is an 18th-century stone house on the outside, modern on the inside, old casement windows with thermal panes, an antique ship captain’s table with a computer on it, by which Torben exchanges e-mail with me. Shelves full of books, dozens of American novels, Cheever, Updike, Hemingway, Paul Auster. The house looks down a long slope of meadow toward the sea, the island of Langeland in the distance, and the island of Ærø, the name of which I am one of the few living Americans to pronounce almost correctly, they told me. I was so proud, I tried to work Ærø into the conversation all evening. Even if I barely understood what the conversation was about, I said, “Would this also be true on Ærø?”

There were 30 guests milling around in the backyard when I arrived, and a few minutes later we took our seats at two long tables in the backyard. Torben raised his glass and welcomed everyone and said, “Skål. Velkommen.” And we sat down to shrimp salad and poached salmon and lamb and red wine and very good bread.

The dinner included long toasts, to the queen and to America and to one another, and there were songs about the beauty of the Danish landscape and Hans Christian Andersen’s hymn that begins, “In Denmark was I born, there I have a home; there is my root, from there my world begins. O you Danish tongue, you are my mother’s voice, how sweetly you bless my heart.” Every time I looked around, I saw people smiling.

The sky was still aglow at eleven, when we hiked down to the shore where Torben had laid a ten-foot-high tepee of lumber and kindling for the bonfire. His sons trooped down from the house, bearing a life-size straw witch on a pole. She was decked out in a dress and hat and shoes and stockings and riding a broom. “Those are my and your mother’s clothes!” cried Torben in mock dismay. They propped up the pole in the lumber and put a match to the wood, and we sang hymns to Denmark and summer as the blaze licked at the witch’s skirt and she went up in flames.

You could see, up and down the shore, bonfires for miles. Everyone in Denmark seemed to be outdoors, busy banishing evil spirits from the land. When the fire burned down, the boys and men took turns leaping over the embers. We went up to the house for coffee and cake, and I climbed the stairs to bed about the time the sky was turning light again. It was a wonderful party, one of the best. It is hard not to love a country that brings up its people to do this.

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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 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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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 15, 2020

It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 14, 2020

It’s the birthday of poet and playwright e e cummings (1894-1962), about whom a critic once asked, “What is wrong with a man who writes like this?”

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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.”

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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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