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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She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

New Yorkers exercise freedom of speech; I don’t. The other night, at a French restaurant, I ordered cassoulet and paid $24 for a bowl of beans with chunks of pork, rather inferior to the casserole Mabel served to the kids in the grade school cafeteria for which I paid 35 cents at the time. My dinner companions asked, “How is it?” and I said, “Excellent,” because I was brought up not to complain. Maybe in another ten years I’ll call the waiter over and say, “Take this back to the kitchen and take it off my bill.” I will be 89, an age at which one should be able to speak one’s mind.

But I’m okay being out of place. My dad once said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to live in New York,” and as a postal clerk, he was probably right about that, but love makes the difference.

I admire New Yorkers. I went to the Bronx to see the Minnesota Twins get crushed by the Yanks and on the D train up to the ballpark, packed in tight with people avoiding contact despite being less than six inches apart, the train sways and a Black woman’s elbow bumps my chest and I observe the tattoos on her neck and feel a sense of solidarity: not a word is spoken. A Minnesotan would hesitate to mention her race for fear of being considered racist but I did and it is what it is and if you don’t like it, sue me.

It’s astonishing that the city works as well as it does. We hail a cab and go to the Met and for less than we’d pay for a flight to Des Moines, we see a great performance of “Rigoletto,” which, for me, is more memorable than a night in Des Moines could be, and Rigoletto is a great baritone role, and as a baritone I appreciate that, and the assassin is played by a basso who sings the longest lowest note in opera and the audience goes wild, very rare that subterranean singing evokes such enthusiasm. It’s a great evening and we exit, thrilled, into the chilly night and wave down a cab and are transported jiggety-jig back home. COVID is raging around us, but we wore our masks through the show, and we’re feeling fine.

There’s a crisis in New York every day, sometimes three or four. Some water mains go back to Victorian times and a pipe bursts or lightning strikes and the power goes out or giant rats come up out of a toilet, but New Yorkers learn to endure. You lose power and you light candles, a water main bursts and your faucet goes dry so you get along on gin for a day or two. A good dog should be able to occupy an attacking rat until you can grab a hair dryer and scare the rodent away, unless the power is out in which case you whack it with a leaf from the dining room table, but if there’s no water, even more rats may come up out of the toilet, and you’ll have to reach for the acetylene torch you keep under the bed and take on the whole herd. New Yorkers live with the anticipation of crisis, and when a day goes by without one, it feels luxurious.

And that’s how I feel at this very moment. No rats, water comes out of the tap, lights are on, my love lies in bed beside me. She reaches over and takes my hand. This is a very good day.

 

My mother told me and now I'll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,
Down in my warm rabbit hole.
In a pillowy bed
From toes to head
I keep myself under control.

Christmas is gone and the illusion that childhood innocence can be recovered (it can’t) and we’re free of obligatory joyfulness and able to savor sadness again and relish our loneliness in this uncaring world, and the meals are penitential meals because my pants got too tight and my shirt wouldn’t button at the neck, so it’s time for celery and Ry-Krisp and herbal tea, which give a sweet sense of righteousness, which is good for vanity, feeling that the jowl is shrinking and lard that hangs over the belt is gradually coming under control and this — dare I mention it? — leads to inclinations of an erotic nature, something that disgusts you children, the thought that an old coot and his lady would commingle skin to skin and whisper and sigh and moan and even shriek for joy, but this is why we’re grateful when the Christmas guests go home and we needn’t stifle our pleasures.

February’s in view,
Two valentines, me and you,
Lie down for a nap
And whisper and wrap
Ourselves in each other
And kiss and O brother,
It’s thrilling and utterly new.

Winter is the most beautiful time of year, if it’s beauty you want, trees and bushes on the morning after a blizzard, the entire world brilliant with snow, and if the sun shines, it is a transformative experience, if that’s what you wish, but of course if you want parking lots and taco joints and concrete condos and boredom, then Florida is for you.

The world is lightening up but these long dark evenings are a lovely time of day, especially for those of us who had industriousness baked into us in childhood, but when the sun sets at five p.m., the old drudge sets the manuscript aside and lights a candle and the lady pours a glass of wine and it’s time for conversation, which is at the heart of a good marriage and a kid brought up evangelical, believing that God is paying close attention to every word that comes out of your mouth, writing it down, giving you D-minuses, carries a terrible disability, but I am trying, I am trying.

I stay indoors in January out of fear I’ll forget what my mother told me as a small child — Do not, under any circumstance, even if someone dares you, do not, do not, do not put your tongue on an iron pump handle or railing.

If you do, your tongue will freeze to the metal and you will be trapped and you may spend the night there, tongue frozen to iron, and they will find your body in the morning, and your grieving family will ask, “Why? Why us?” to which there is no answer.

And now I regret mentioning this. For having warned you of the danger, I’ve planted the idea of handle-tonguing in your mind and you may reject my advice and say (1) it’s my tongue and I’ll do what I want with it, or (2) it’s no worse than having a cold, or (3) if it’s God’s will that I lick a pump handle, then I will, or (4) I read on Twitter that some doctors say that handle-licking may be beneficial, and tomorrow when you go out and see a pump handle or iron railing you’ll be unable to stop yourself from walking up to it and — so forget what I said. Erase it from your mind. Stop reading. Find something else to do. Snort some methamphetamine, toss back a pint of bourbon, smoke reefer — there are treatment programs for those bad habits, but there is no AA program for Arctic Adherence. No. The answer is to stay indoors. But if you must leave the house, be sure to wear a mask over your nose and mouth, but not a paper or cloth mask, you need an iron mask, one with a lock. Your breath will warm it and keep you safe. Leave the key at home.

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart 

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

Performing arts companies all over are striving to be politically proper these days, and practice inclusivity and diversity, and here’s a comedy with servants in it and romantic shenanigans and all is resolved in the end with a sweet chorus along the lines of “Let’s forgive each other and all be happy,” especially sweet since in 1786 when Mozart wrote it diseases were raging for which there were no vaccines and people languished in debtors’ prisons and small children worked in factories and people felt lucky to live to be 40. Mozart died at 35 from an infection treated today by antibiotics. And the piece is gorgeous and funny as can be. I sat next to my wife who once played violin on an opera tour of forty consecutive Figaros and she laughed through it all.

The Count is arranging a tryst with Susanna and the Countess sings the gorgeous lament of the betrayed wife, “Dove sono i bei momenti” (Where have those beautiful moments gone of sweetness and pleasure and why, despite his lying tongue, do the happy memories not fade?), a moment of sheer transcendent heartbreaking beauty and then you’re back to the slapstick, the baritone’s lust for the soprano, people hiding behind curtains, the seductive note, the wife plotting revenge.

With COVID going on, the Met is working like crazy to stay in business. A singer tests positive and a sub has to be ready in the wings and new rehearsals scheduled to work him or her into the complexity of the staging, and this happens over and over, and the sub cannot be Peggy Sue from Waterloo, the sub must be a pro and a principal who is up to par, and so singers have been brought in to cover the crucial roles, and a soprano might cover the Countess in Figaro and Musetta in La Bohème, two major roles and she must be prepared — in the event the lead tests positive for COVID — to go onstage tonight in one opera or tomorrow night in the other, two demanding roles in her head and a sheaf of stage directions, and maybe she’s living out of a suitcase in lockdown, and staying away from unmasked strangers, meanwhile the Met is playing to half-empty houses due to fears of the virus, and this is not a small matter. The Metropolitan Opera is the standard-bearer of the art form in America. If it goes under, something fabulous and thrilling is lost in our country. There is a battle going on; it’s a story you could write an opera about.

If you consider opera elitist, then I guess passionate feeling is elitist and we should all be content to be cool and lead a life of Whatever. Pop music is cool, but opera is out to break your heart. I saw William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge a couple years ago and I’m still a mess. Renée Fleming did the same to me in Der Rosenkavalier.

I am no student of opera, only a tourist, and I’m from the Midwest, the home of emotional withdrawal, where I grew up among serious Bible scholars for whom the result of scholarship was schism and bitterness, and now I go to a church where I am often overwhelmed by the hymns, the prayers for healing, the exchange of peace, a church full of Piskers but sometimes the sanctuary is so joyful and we stand for the benediction and, as Mozart wrote, let us forgive each other and go and be happy, and let us also, for God’s sake, get vaccinated. Do it for the sake of the soprano’s children so she can come out and break your heart.

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

A beautiful snow fell in Manhattan on Epiphany, the feast of light, and the city was cheerful that morning and my cabdriver said out of the blue, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re here and that’s what matters,” which is extraordinary coming from a cabdriver, an epiphany. I worry about cabdrivers in the Uber age. I hear him talking top-speed in a Slavic tongue and wonder how much he’s invested in this cab and can he earn it back by picking up people hailing him on street corners. I doubt it.

I am an American, born and bred, and as such am romantic about the little entrepreneur, the corner grocer, the stationery store around the corner, the independent druggist, but Amazon is ever at your fingertips and if you type a word beginning with the letters A-M its central computer the size of Detroit trembles with amatory anticipation or if someone in the room says, “I wonder where we could find —” it is picked up by the company’s satellites circling the globe that send out transactional vibrations and before long the website is on your screen and it reads your unconscious and without your checking a single box, $1345.34 worth of merchandise is due to arrive on your doorstep tomorrow by 8 a.m.

That’s what made me love it years ago, the sheer ease of shopping there, no need for a password — Amazon knows me!! — it knows my weakness for Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and ginger tea and medical romance novels and it makes shopping so easy that I cannot not do it — but now I look around the neighborhood and see For Rent signs on storefronts and I read about the death toll caused by lack of exercise due to online shopping and hear about the working conditions in the slave labor camps and realize that in a few years, Jeff Bezos will hold enough U.S. federal bonds to have a voice in naming the next Secretary of the Treasury and why should the Federalist Society own the Supreme Court? Why shouldn’t Amazon have a seat?

Amazon is its own nation within the U.S. and is making ours a retail economy and soon American manufacturing will be limited to frozen pizza, plastics, and personal memoirs, and one day Premier Xi Jinping will FaceTime Joe from Beijing and say, “Ahem. You want to tell us how to run Hong Kong, fine, but we embargo clothing.” And the prospect of Americans huddled in blankets is not a happy one. Our lust for Chinese-made clothing, cellphones, computers, and cars will settle the matter. We cannot live without them and they can very well live without Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and personal memoirs by pitiful persons in Pittsburgh, Paterson, and Petaluma. End of story.

I walked around looking at the snow and noticed people flocking to the hardware store to buy plastic sliders and tiny toboggans. Amazon sells this stuff but not instantly and a snowstorm is urgently exciting because snow doesn’t last long in New York, it turns to slush in a day or two, and little kids on their way home from school are trembling to get out in the park and slide. Little kids growing up in tiny apartments where a parent or two are working from home, consultants working by Zoom, novelists, psychiatrists doing phone therapy, unemployed theater critics, theologians on sabbatical, copywriters, content providers, whatever, and no whooping or shrieking is allowed, the poor children’s spirits are stifled by TV and Twitter, but then it snows and they dash into the great outdoors, a slider in hand, and in their excitement they forget their cellphones at home, and now they are reliving my Minnesota childhood on the slopes of Central Park, whooping, crashing around, throwing snowballs, deliriously free as children need to discover how to be.

We’re in the midst of a revolt by superstition against science, which is dragging the pandemic on for a while, and the cynical fiction of the stolen election is another downer, but those lunacies seem more feverish in the tepid states. A good hard winter is a restorative. You entertain paranoid delusions but then you realize that if you slip and fall and bang your head and lie helpless in the cold, someone will come to rescue you and won’t ask your political leaning. A good snowfall for Epiphany is a big boost. Speak the truth and the truth shall set you free. In the other direction is a place you do not want to go.

 

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

January 27, 2022

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

Garrison Keillor will join guests for a casual Luncheon in the Lobby of the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, where he will talk about how it all began and where he thinks he is going. 12:00 PM

January 28, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 4, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to the High Point Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 5, 2022

Saturday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to The Wayne Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:00PM

buy tickets

February 6, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

The Avalon Theatre

Easton, MD

Garrison Keillor comes to The Avalon Theatre in Easton, MD for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $60

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

March 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

Radio

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 22, 2022

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Writing

She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

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My mother told me and now I’ll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,/Down in my warm rabbit hole./In a pillowy bed/From toes to head/I keep myself under control.

Read More

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

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A man walking through a big city snowstorm

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Why Washington needs more snowstorms

It’s always satisfying to see our nation’s capital hit by a good hard snowstorm and imagine powerful men trying to shovel their way out of a snowbank. It’s a parable right out of Scripture, Let the powerful have a sense of humor for each in turn shall be made helpless.

It was front-page in the papers and the subhead said that a U.S. senator had been stranded overnight on the interstate. The blockage of an interstate is the true measure of a serious storm and the headline writer tossed in the senator as further evidence, but it only made me wish there had been numerous senators — say, those from Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the five states least accomplished at snow motorism, and if the Senate had come to session the next morning, our nation would get moving again, one blockage breaking a logjam. But it was only a Democrat from Virginia, giving Mitch McConnell a one-vote edge, and there is no vacancy on the Supreme Court, so he didn’t need it.

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Meditation while waiting for coffee to brew

I was in Clearwater Beach, Florida, the morning of the 31st, listening to coffee drip, looking out the picture window at a parking lot, and saw a squirrel sitting on top of a telephone pole at eye level fifteen feet away, looking at me. On the beach, men with metal detectors searched for lost diamond rings and gold ingots. The squirrel had no good reason to be on top of a pole and I had no reason to be in Florida and the men on the beach kept moving along and not finding anything, we were all just spending time, and eventually the squirrel went racing along a cable to a nearby roof and I flew back home and I assume the men found something else to do, maybe watch football and drink Harvey Wallbangers.

Time flies by, the planet is spinning faster, it’s 11 a.m. and then suddenly it’s 3:30, so I try to eliminate wasted time such as the hours I spend rustling around for postage stamps and meanwhile getting engrossed in a stack of rejection letters from editors, time that if I saved it I could spend it on nobler things, such as writing less about myself and more about social responsibility. But first I have to clean out my email box, which is laden every morning with notes like “The reason I’m running for county attorney in Rome, Georgia is …” and I, who don’t live anywhere near Georgia nor do I wish to, must unsubscribe from that mailing list, which requires four separate steps and in the time it takes to do it, I see that four more fundraising emails have appeared, all written by programmers and sent to hundreds of thousands on mailing lists bought by campaigns and it’s like being attacked by a cloud of deerflies.

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Forget auld acquaintance, forge onward

New Year’s Day is an occasion nobody knows what to do with and so is the Eve that precedes it. I used to go to parties where we gathered around someone with a guitar and sang about broken romance and drank until the liquor was gone and the next day I awoke in a fog to watch football with other inert men but I gave all that up long ago. Gradually, a person edits out stuff that makes no sense and I scratched football, Florida vacations, artichokes, science fiction, pocket billiards, and broadcast journalism, and thus life became more and more interesting. It’s been forty years since I watched a football game. Twenty since I put the bottle away. These changes make one hopeful for the future. And here we are, looking around at 2022.

Call me naïve but I’ve been around for three score and ten plus nine years and I believe in progress. I was impressed when science found a way to put shampoo and conditioner into one bottle and when the cranberry and raisin married to form the craisin. I still rejoice at the ease of long-distance phone calls — we don’t even use the term “long distance” anymore — I’m astonished when my daughter FaceTimes me from London as I sit in a café in New York, and in our capitalist society, why does this not cost $35.75 a minute? A miracle.

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Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 preview

Garrison’s newest book on the unexpected pleasures of aging. A perfect gift book for Keillor fans and those approaching their older years!

Read the preface here

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You make me happy when skies are gray

I’m happy to wear a COVID mask, having gone through life with a grim mug due to my childhood spent listening to sermons about the End Times, and the mask lets people imagine I’m smiling, and so everyone is friendlier. I’ve tried to smile into a mirror and it looks like the leer on a landlord’s face as he throws the penniless tenant out into the snow. My mother hoped I’d be a teacher but I would’ve terrified the children so I went into radio. A good move.

I went to the dentist’s office last week and was astonished by the photos of smiling faces on the wall — how do people manage to do this? A grin that shows upper teeth, even gums! So the mask makes me normal. I may get a flesh-colored one with a smiling mouth on it and wear it after COVID is history.

Read More

I am dreaming of a light Christmas

I love Christmas because my mother did and she fought for it against her fundamentalist husband who felt it was worldly and unscriptural, but Grace loved the stockings and tree, the wrappings, the songs, the dinner, and all the more for the fact that her mother died when my mother was seven. Twelve children racked with grief, a grim household in south Minneapolis, which made the festivity all the more precious.

It was interesting to hear this annual argument between two people who loved each other dearly. I knew that, doctrinally, Dad was correct but Mother’s position was one of love, and love prevailed, and we had Christmas year after year.

I’ve had some dismal Christmases. The Christmas of the goose, when I took the goose out of the oven and hot grease spilled on my wrist and I dropped it and the glass baking dish broke and the goose skidded across the kitchen floor collecting cat hair and glass fragments. One year we did a Dickensian Christmas, had a tree with candles, did a group reading of A Christmas Carol and discovered that Scrooge has all the good lines, and nobody wants to be a Cratchit, they are such wimps. The reading was interrupted by screams — the tree was on fire. Candles make sense if you have a freshly cut tree and ours had been harvested in September in Quebec. But the fire rescued us from Dickens so all was well.

Read More

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

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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