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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In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

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A Wednesday drive in the old neighborhood

Another perfect summer and despite all there is to be forlorn about, I feel the same mindless happiness I remember from when I was 20 and running around Minneapolis in a red Mustang with a girl named Maggie and listening to the Cleftones and Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters singing, “Out of the sun, we’ll be havin’ some fun. People walking above, we’ll be making love under the boardwalk.” We had no boardwalk at Lake Calhoun but there were dim places where we sat and necked. She had no plans for me nor did I for her, which was part of the mindlessness. Two young mammals keeping company, enjoying warm weather.

It all came back to me, riding around south Minneapolis Wednesday with my family, looking for the Dairy Queen on 38th Street, two blocks from the Grace & Truth Gospel Hall I attended as a boy in a small separatist sect where I enjoyed the feeling of complete comprehension of absolute truth, from Genesis to Revelation, right up to the age of twelve or thirteen.

Thanks to this upbringing, I have a good ear for the humorless self-righteous and when I got an email from an old friend asking for a donation to a collaborative storytelling collective to create a safe space and healing life-affirming environment for an inclusive group of young people focused on the intentional use of language to deepen self-awareness in the face of stress and trauma, I knew where he was coming from. I don’t object to this, I’m just a harmless old guy cruising around and looking forward to a Dairy Queen.

I did, however, note that in his list of minorities he’d serve, he listed “Dakhota” with a right-leaning accent mark over the o. I’d never seen the word spelled that way and I don’t know how to create that diacritical mark on my computer keyboard. But clearly, though he is white with no Dakhota corpuscles in him that he’s ever mentioned, he was demonstrating his moral superiority as one sensitive to indigenous nuance compared to a bigoted peasant such as myself.

Maggie and I were not inclusive, we were content to be two, both wanting to be writers, and we did tell stories, hers were about bad boyfriends who were too grabby, so I avoided grabbiness and simply held hands and eventually she kissed me and I kissed her back and was careful to make my kisses approximately equal in passion but not try to outdo her. Our safe space was the Mustang and the healing environment was July. In Minnesota you have to suffer a good deal to get to summer and when the perfect days arrive, you owe it to yourself to experience them fully. At the DQ I ordered a medium Butterfinger Blizzard and it was life-affirming.

Lake Calhoun was renamed Bde Maka Ska in honor of the Dakhota and surely it made no sense for Minneapolis to honor John Calhoun, the South Carolinian proponent of slavery and a man with bad hair, but for Maggie and me in the Mustang, the lake had no political significance, it was only a large body of water we looked at as we laid hands on each other. But I’m fine with the name change. Woody Allen was Allan Konigsberg and decided not to be; Allen Ginsberg’s first name was Irwin and a guy named Irwin could not have written “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” he would’ve become an insurance salesman. If Bob Dylan had remained Bob Zimmerman, Columbia Records never would’ve seen him as a poet and visionary and he’d be a cabdriver today. Maybe Maggie has become Starflower Moonbright and is conducting collaborative life-affirming workshops in Fargaux, North Dakhota. I wish her well.

As for me, I am enjoying a mindless summer day in the back seat behind my wife and daughter as we drive through my old neighborhood, eating our Dairy Queens. Some things we know for certain and that’s one. Another is that the two states west of here will never put the h in their names and the right-leaning accent mark over the o. There are good people there but they won’t let Minnesotans tell them how to spell their name. The originalists on the Supreme Court could find that Thomas Jefferson spelled the name with the h and the accent but I say, Live and let live. Enjoy the day. It’s summer.

 

Talking on the phone to Joyce and rejoicing

We sat in the sun and played Scrabble Monday and a few minutes later a vulgar four-letter profanity appeared on my letter rack that I could’ve played for 47 points and did not. I just wasn’t in the mood. I’d spoken on the phone that day with Joyce, a preacher and a favorite cousin of mine. Our grandfathers were brothers, and a long-ago rift between them separated our families for decades and I didn’t meet Joyce until I was an old man. This strange story of two stubborn Scots keeping their distance draws me even closer to her. She’s a student of family history and when we talk Jesus comes easily into the conversation with no change of tone of voice, same as you’d mention your brother or father. He is not in a separate universe.

I’ve tried to say the four-letter word several times and I can’t get it to sound natural, not like my two friends who use it often to bold-face what they’re saying. I don’t object. They’re neighbors and Jesus said to love them so I do, mostly, though the word sounds alarming to me like breaking glass. There’s no kindness about it.

Joyce’s grandfather was in the Navy and mine worked for the railroad and they must’ve heard plenty of profanity but never took up the habit. My grandpa, however, was capable of silent anger of an enduring nature, which his children knew and dreaded. My mother as a girl once sat down in the kitchen window and didn’t notice the fresh blueberry pie on the sill and knocked it out on the lawn and she was terrified her dad would berate her for it. He once got angry at her for being too friendly with boys at school and sent her to transfer to a school where she knew nobody. She forgave him and a few years later she had to confess to him that she was pregnant by the boy who would become my father though they hadn’t said their vows yet.

It was 1936, he was still needed on the farm, his father having died three years before, and she was in nurse’s training. They’d been in love for five years and had no money and one day, driving a double team of horses, he almost broke his neck when the horses bolted and the wagon crashed in the ditch, and he was so elated by his survival he wrote her a long letter describing the mishap — the only sustained narrative I ever knew to come out of my father — and he borrowed his brother’s Model A and drove to the city and a few months later she was pregnant. They lied to Grandpa, said they had eloped, and both families were upset but the storm passed. Grandpa’s anger might have exiled her to a home for unwed mothers and my brother Philip would’ve been adopted and I would not have come into existence. But they were forgiven and the story was kept secret by my 21 aunts and uncles and I never found out until my parents were gone and I was an 70-year-old orphan.

Righteous indignation is the easy part of the Christian faith and the hard part is forgiveness. Our country is caught up in ferocious indignation but there is a more merciful culture among us. We know that our country is a haven for the hopeful. We grieve for the migrant workers who died of the heat in the semitrailer that hauled them up from Mexico. We grieve for the pregnant women trapped in an impossible dilemma. The children in room 112 are still on our minds.

What Grandpa never told my mother was that her mother was pregnant for three months before he married her and the indignation of his family was one thing that drove him to leave Scotland and come to America. This is why Joyce and I are keen about family history. Each of us owes our life to a marvelous combination of circumstances, and mercy and kindness and forgiveness are entwined with it.

The righteously indignant are missing out on comedy, which is at the heart of America and which is about forgiveness. Jews don’t recognize Jesus as Messiah, Protestants don’t recognize the pope, and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store. I heard that joke from a Baptist when I was a kid and I still love it. Jesus broke bread with sinners and Republicans and we should do likewise.

Here're your orders: make something beautiful

I woke up this morning and my good woman wasn’t gone, she was asleep beside me, I didn’t feel an aching in my head, no blues around my bed. I made coffee, it tasted fine, not like turpentine. I could put gin in the coffee and make it taste like turpentine but why would I? And that’s how I feel about the Six Supremes who’re trying to take us back to the 19th century. No need to grieve over it, November is coming, and the simple solution is to throw the bums out. Elect a Congress with a two-thirds majority in favor of enlarging the Court to fifteen, which will reverse the reversals. Ninety million eligible voters sat out the 2016 election and that’s how we wound up where we are with this ambitious minority in power. So you’re depressed by this turn of events. Think of the Six, staying home with the shades pulled, their spouses and children going to the hair salon accompanied by plainclothesmen with a bulge under the jacket. They know that they are widely despised. They avoid eye contact with passersby. I doubt they’re ordering takeout: some worker at Domino’s sees Alito’s name on the order, she is likely to tamper with the pizza. The Six are not attending concerts. No picnics for them. No long car trips except to Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. Clarence and Ginni surely have close friends but after he announced that the Supremes should take a hard look at gay relationships and contraceptives, he must be thinking about the children and grandchildren of the friends, the boy with his hair in a bun, the girl with the tattoos, and what about the paperboy and the waiters at the country club? And what if he takes a wrong turn and runs into the Pride Parade? They might put him on a rainbow blanket and march down the street tossing him in the air, waving his arms and legs, a ridiculous fate for the Leader of the Pack. You and I, my dears, can walk freely through town with a clear conscience, enjoy the breeze in the trees and say hi to the cop on the corner. The Six cannot. The cop is not so friendly, imagining everybody carrying a loaded .45 and if he sees one of the six enablers, he might give them the finger, which so far is protected by the First Amendment. Don’t be disheartened. Deal with the problem. If you’re troubled by inflation, cut back on expenses. Don’t buy sparkling water. Fill up the glass with tap water and if you want bubbles, stick a straw in the water and blow. If you’re depressed by the state of things, skip the news and take a walk beside a large body of water and look at the stars and the moon. The newscaster will say, “Good evening” and then give you fifty-seven reasons why it’s not. Give yourself a break. The Gang of Six is heading for 1845 and I doubt they’ll get to Prohibition before they fade into the sunset and go down in the WWTT chapter of history (What Were They Thinking). The Six couldn’t find abortion mentioned in the Constitution so they dumped Roe but maybe when they go to their physician to deal with their gloominess, they’ll find a medical originalist with a bucket of leeches who’ll bleed them white and administer powerful purgatives until they’re considerably lighter, and thus they will regain their senses and so will we. Meanwhile, remind yourself that other people have thrived under wretched governors so don’t be discouraged. The Duke of Saxe-Weimar threw Bach in jail for daring to think he had individual rights. Dante was sent into exile and he wrote the Inferno so he could put the politician Argenti into the Fifth Circle of Hell. Dostoevsky joined a liberal study group for which, in 1849, he was thrown into prison and sentenced to death by firing squad, and was third in line to be executed when a pardon arrived. He lit out for Paris, London, Berlin, and figured out how to survive, writing Crime and Punishment in serial installments for magazines, avoiding politics. While cruelty is in power, do what Mozart did. Exercise your gifts. Create beautiful things. Wolfgang stayed clear of emperors and did his work and he lives on today and the emperors are just moldy names on marble slabs covered with pigeon droppings. If you can’t write The Marriage of Figaro, write your own marriage and make it a work of art.  

America is missing a holiday maybe

It’s over and gone, but every Midsummer Day I remember the dinner at Hanne and Ole’s farm in Denmark back in 1989 when fifty of us sat in a meadow at long tables with white cloths and good china for a feast of cold soup and salad and white wine, platters of lamb and potatoes, and dessert and coffee, and the Danish lady next to me speaking perfect schoolgirl English, and around ten p.m., as the sky turned dark, we traipsed down to the ocean shore and lit a bonfire and burned a straw witch and all the Danes sang from memory songs they’d known from childhood and we could see far away up the shore, other bonfires, other parties, other witches being burned.

We have no celebration like it in America. There’s no commercial motive behind Midsummer’s Day, no political rationale or religious, it’s about the glory of summer and friendship and the casting out of evil spirits. I was there as an outsider, and in celebration of the day they went out of their way to make me feel welcome. The Danish lady had heard that I was an American author and she read a book of mine and talked about it, which, my being a self-effacing Midwesterner, made me uncomfortable but it was a kind gesture.

Maybe the Fourth could become that sort of celebration. We need some community parties that have a good feeling without a big message. The boomers went in for big music festivals, Woodstock and then the Grateful Dead concerts, thirty thousand people in tribal clothing, seriously stoned, listening to a stoned band on a distorted sound system vamping for twenty-five minutes on a song that was better at four and a half. The Dead concert was not about community, it was about who was not welcome, your parents, teachers, people over thirty.

I attended a strawberry fest once and that was a fine celebration. You pop a big ripe red strawberry in your mouth and you feel your meanness dissipate. That’s why strawberry-rhubarb pie is such a great innovation, combining sweetness and irony. It is a beautiful marriage and marriage, as we know, is the basis of community and the true test of character. The Deadheads were under the drug-induced illusion that they were lonely geniuses, but when old friends and neighbors gather to celebrate, it’s a triumph of hope over experience.

Denmark is a nation of a dozen political parties so you knew there was plenty of stiff disagreement under the surface and, as in any group of people who know each other all too well, various old feuds and misunderstandings and interesting gossip, but they set it aside when the witch is carried in on her pole and consigned to the flames. Let go of the past, summer is here, live these brilliant days one by one, put regret and recrimination behind.

Marriage is a great test and some of us were allowed to retake it until we got it right. To make a life with your most knowledgeable critic is heroic, and the reward is a spacious happiness, no doubt about it. I have no objection to same-sex marriage but it strikes me as a compromise, whereas marrying someone from the other team is a bold move. My parents eloped and married in secret over the opposition of both families and this was a bond between them, they were in love to the very end, though they were as different as could be, a farm boy and a city girl, a stoic and a romantic. My mother loved comedians and laughed at Jack Benny and Lucille Ball and my dad didn’t understand comedy, it struck him as contrary to Scripture. She adored Christmas, he thought it was a pagan aberration, but they worked it out.

And now Jenny walks into the room and asks what I’m writing and she’s going to want me to read it to her and when I do, she’s going to tell me to take out the part about same-sex marriage, that it’ll hurt people’s feelings, but I’m not going to do it. Some of my best friends, et cetera, et cetera, and if you can’t kid your friends, then we have a problem. She and I have been together thirty years and she still mystifies me. We could make Columbus Day into Couples Day: marriage is a voyage into the unknown and when you get there you find out it’s not where you thought you were going, thank goodness.

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

July 10, 2022

Sunday incl LIVESTREAM

7:30 p.m.

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN

A Prairie Home Companion American Revival comes to Ryman Auditorium on July 10, 2022 with Aoife O’Donovan, Joe Newberry, Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Sam Bush, Pat Donohue, Fred Newman, Tim Russell and others. LIVE STREAM AVAILABLE

July 25, 2022

Monday

7:30 p.m.

Brown County Playhouse, Nashville, IN

Nashville, IN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Nashville, IN for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

July 27, 22

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

RESCHEDULED Midland Theatre, Newark OH

Newark, 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

July 28, 2022

Thursday

8:00 p.m.

Rescheduled 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

July 30, 2022

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Door County Auditorium, Fish Creek, WI

Fish Creek, WI

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fish Creek, Wisconsin for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

October 9, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Paramount Hudson Valley, Peekskill, NY

Peekskill, NY

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Peekskill NY. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unite us.

October 13, 2022

Thursday

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

November 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

The Bend Theatre, West Bend, WI

West Bend, WI

Garrison Keillor brings his show to West Bend, WI for a performance of sing-a-longs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

Broward Center for Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fort Lauderdale, FL for 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 Friday, July 1, 2022

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Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jean Stafford was born on this day in 1915. Author of “Boston Adventure,” “The Mountain Lion,” and “The Catherine Wheel.”

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It’s the birthday of the man who wrote, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva in 1712.

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A Wednesday drive in the old neighborhood

Another perfect summer and despite all there is to be forlorn about, I feel the same mindless happiness I remember from when I was 20 and running around Minneapolis in a red Mustang with a girl named Maggie and listening to the Cleftones and Cadillacs, the Coasters, the Drifters singing, “Out of the sun, we’ll be havin’ some fun. People walking above, we’ll be making love under the boardwalk.” We had no boardwalk at Lake Calhoun but there were dim places where we sat and necked. She had no plans for me nor did I for her, which was part of the mindlessness. Two young mammals keeping company, enjoying warm weather.

It all came back to me, riding around south Minneapolis Wednesday with my family, looking for the Dairy Queen on 38th Street, two blocks from the Grace & Truth Gospel Hall I attended as a boy in a small separatist sect where I enjoyed the feeling of complete comprehension of absolute truth, from Genesis to Revelation, right up to the age of twelve or thirteen.

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Talking on the phone to Joyce and rejoicing

We sat in the sun and played Scrabble Monday and a few minutes later a vulgar four-letter profanity appeared on my letter rack that I could’ve played for 47 points and did not. I just wasn’t in the mood. I’d spoken on the phone that day with Joyce, a preacher and a favorite cousin of mine. Our grandfathers were brothers, and a long-ago rift between them separated our families for decades and I didn’t meet Joyce until I was an old man. This strange story of two stubborn Scots keeping their distance draws me even closer to her. She’s a student of family history and when we talk Jesus comes easily into the conversation with no change of tone of voice, same as you’d mention your brother or father. He is not in a separate universe.

I’ve tried to say the four-letter word several times and I can’t get it to sound natural, not like my two friends who use it often to bold-face what they’re saying. I don’t object. They’re neighbors and Jesus said to love them so I do, mostly, though the word sounds alarming to me like breaking glass. There’s no kindness about it.

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Here’re your orders: make something beautiful

I woke up this morning and my good woman wasn’t gone, she was asleep beside me, I didn’t feel an aching in my head, no blues around my bed. I made coffee, it tasted fine, not like turpentine. I could put gin in the coffee and make it taste like turpentine but why would I? And that’s how I feel about the Six Supremes who’re trying to take us back to the 19th century. No need to grieve over it, November is coming, and the simple solution is to throw the bums out. Elect a Congress with a two-thirds majority in favor of enlarging the Court to fifteen, which will reverse the reversals. Ninety million eligible voters sat out the 2016 election and that’s how we wound up where we are with this ambitious minority in power.

So you’re depressed by this turn of events. Think of the Six, staying home with the shades pulled, their spouses and children going to the hair salon accompanied by plainclothesmen with a bulge under the jacket. They know that they are widely despised. They avoid eye contact with passersby. I doubt they’re ordering takeout: some worker at Domino’s sees Alito’s name on the order, she is likely to tamper with the pizza. The Six are not attending concerts. No picnics for them. No long car trips except to Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. Clarence and Ginni surely have close friends but after he announced that the Supremes should take a hard look at gay relationships and contraceptives, he must be thinking about the children and grandchildren of the friends, the boy with his hair in a bun, the girl with the tattoos, and what about the paperboy and the waiters at the country club? And what if he takes a wrong turn and runs into the Pride Parade? They might put him on a rainbow blanket and march down the street tossing him in the air, waving his arms and legs, a ridiculous fate for the Leader of the Pack.

Read More

A weekend in the wilds of Connecticut

I have seen some of the future lately and I must admit it’s very appealing to me. My wife drives through Connecticut, a woman’s voice in the dashboard directing her along a twisting route through small towns laid out in the 18th century, a street plan designed to frustrate intruders, and my daughter in the back seat FaceTimes her roommate Saamiya who is in India, visiting relatives. My daughter is drawn to people, loves to be in a group, and the phone is her instrument of choice, and soon Marisa joins from London, and Erin in New Jersey, Hindu, Orthodox, and Jewish, joined in small talk. Remarkable to me, not to her.

“Can you feel how smooth the car runs?” my wife says. She took it to a garage for an oil change two days ago and the garage texted her videos of two very worn tires and an engine that needed retuning and she texted back her consent. The cost was steep but the advance info lessened the shock. I wish I’d been at the marketing meeting that came up with that idea.

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Just a word about Sunday, then I shut up

Father’s Day is a wonderful joke, a day on which you sit with your brood and someone turns to you and says, “When is Father’s Day? Isn’t it in June?” and you, the father, say, “I have no idea whatsoever.” And that’s the end of it. Mother’s Day is the big deal when tanker ships full of French perfume dock at the bottling plants and four-star restaurants hire extra staff and Father’s Day is the Sunday when someone gives you a bottle of cologne that smells like disinfectant. The price tag is still on it, $1.89.

Women, as we know unless we’re in Texas or in the memory unit, run this world. There was never a single object that a man set down that a woman didn’t reach over and move it. Never a sentence came out of a man’s mouth that a woman didn’t correct. Women decide what we shall eat and what we shall sit on or sleep on, and a man’s opinion is of no more use than that of the family cat. This is a major factor in the popularity of gay marriage: two men decide they want to be free and sleep on cotton sheets and not polyester and have dark brown towels and wear festive colors rather than the prison uniforms women buy for us. The sex is an add-on, mainly it’s about exercising personal taste.

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Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit a shirt

As a Midwesterner, I was brought up to be self-effacing and make no demands of anybody. I don’t honk, I don’t wave at the waiter who’s ignoring me, I don’t want to be a problem. Offer me ranch or blue cheese dressing, I say, “Whatever is easier for you, whichever you have more of, whatever nobody else wants.” “Just choose, damn it,” the host says, and I’m tempted to ask for blue cheese but I don’t want to if it deprives someone else of blue cheese who is on the edge of the cliff already and, denied his dressing, might harm himself. “We have plenty of both,” the host says. But now I’m wondering, “What do I have against ranch? Is it my antipathy to cowboy mythology and the fetishization of guns?” And the host screams, “CHOOSE!” And I ask him, “Which one has less impact on the environment?” And he shows me to the door and locks it after me.

Self-effacement is rare in New York where I live. People don’t go around meeking each other as they do back in Minnesota, because here, the Christian faith is an oddball item, as it was in Jesus’s time. It’s a city of Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and a million people who moved here to escape from fundamentalist families, plus other minorities, Sodomites and Gomorrhians, and the people who designed the Tower of Babel and went into the practice of law.

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Looking down the road, seeing the future

It would appear that five of the Supremes are favoring an absolute right to possess any weaponry whatsoever by whoever has the cash, and to bear arms without restriction in schools, churches, shopping centers, aboard airliners, in the courtroom itself, that a right is a right, period. And when the Executive Quintet opens those doors, we’ll see dramatic changes here in the land of the free and home of the brazen, such as the man police apprehended carrying a gun near Justice Kavanaugh’s home last week, with intent to do harm.

We have 400 million guns now and when we get up to a billion, there will be more men with guns than police can apprehend, and it’s safe to say that no parent will send children to school, even one with armed guards. Law enforcement has been overwhelmed in many cities, including Minneapolis, where police have begun to privatize themselves and hire out as freelance security. Education, I suppose, will move online. Millions of people will become consultants and work out of their homes; manufacturing will all go to China. The closing of schools will likely mean the end of interscholastic sports except fencing, sharpshooting, and bowling, which may be useful for self-defense.

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The meaning of life as it dawned on me the other night

I enjoy writing this column every week but how would you know that, me being from Minnesota, from stoical people, brought up to bite our tongue and persevere through suffering, and if pleasure occurs, be patient, it will soon pass. In other parts of the country, our stoicism would be diagnosed as depression. Sedatives are pretty much wasted on us. Joy is a word on Christmas cards, not used in conversation. At games, the cheerleaders only try to keep the crowd awake, and if our team wins, we think, “Well, I guess it could’ve been worse and next time it probably will be.”

We’re people of few words and that’s why we’ve produced very few writers. Fitzgerald was an Easterner born in St. Paul by mistake and he left as soon as he could and never returned. The poet Robert Bly’s big book was Silence in the Snowy Fields, which pretty much says it all, and then he wrote Iron John about plumbing. As for Louise Erdrich, she grew up in North Dakota.

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Recovering from disaster, thanks to my heroes

I’ve been writing nagging hectoring columns about malfeasance in high places lately, and now it’s time to admit I left the water running in the shower three weeks ago and it leaked down to two apartments below us and caused water damage and now insurance adjustors are working out a settlement and I am required to wear a hazard-orange vest with IN THE EVENT OF ERRATIC BEHAVIOR, CALL — and my wife’s phone number written on the back. I distinctly remember turning the water off, but plaster damage below us says otherwise. So I’m not going to write about the federal judge who threw out the mask mandate that led to the steep rise in COVID cases. I have my own problems.

My wife is a forgiving person. She has not filed for guardianship. She kicks my butt at Scrabble but she’s gracious about it. She rations my bacon cheeseburgers. She tells me if I look bedraggled so I don’t walk down the street and people hand me spare change. And she turns out the light at night and rolls over and puts her arms around me. This is better than a Pulitzer Prize. So I don’t wake up in the morning with an aching in my head and the blues all around my bed and the water tastes like turpentine because my good gal left me here cryin’. She didn’t. She has made coffee and she has read the morning paper so that I don’t need to. When you skip the news, life is a lot more like Anne of Green Gables or The House at Pooh Corner.

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Some news, as we know, is realer than others

Uvalde stays in the mind despite all distractions, a pleasant day at a little summer house in Connecticut and Scrabble on the porch and the drive back to Manhattan on the Merritt Parkway with its arched stone bridges dating back to the days when families went for a “drive” for pleasure — it stays because it is so real. I don’t understand economics, Ukraine is far away, climate change is an abstraction, but the terrified parents across the street from their kids’ school hearing gunshots, they are real, and I have a great-niece who is the same age as the kids in room 112 and I imagine her as the girl who lay on the floor among dead classmates and called 911 and said, “Send the police now, please.” That is my niece, a lively independent spirited girl who loves reading and bonds with her grandma and eats like a trucker but is thin as a rail thanks to the intensity of her life. That girl has a name, like the kids in Texas.

The teachers Eva and Irma are real. They are my fourth-grade teachers, Miss Carroll and Mrs. Moehlenbrock. The Border Patrol trooper in the hallway who said to his two colleagues, “Let’s get this done,” and the three of them burst into 112, I know men who would’ve done that. The shooter is completely unreal, a blank shadow.

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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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