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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I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

 

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

 

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

 

“What’s your point?” you say. “Get to the point.” I was just about to when you interrupted me. The point is that the country needs to honor competence over attitude. I say this, having come through a small but interesting medical encounter during which competence — knowing how to analyze the problem, arrive at a reasoned plan to deal with the problem, and how to describe the process to the patient — is front and center. The neurologist comes to my little ER alcove and tells me what the high-tech tests have shown and for fifteen minutes I am the focus of high-grade science and am reassured that life will go on. I admire this more than I care about his hair.

 

The country is in love with attitude and self-expression. I grew up when children were shushed and our parents were self-effacing, reticent to a fault, and it’s rather sweet to see the self-expression available to people today. Never mind Twitter and Instagram, think about the sheer variety of coffee cups in your cupboard today. Back in my day, we had identical beige cups we got as premiums at the gas station and now we have cups with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sayings by Thoreau, Monet’s water lilies, cartoons, nasty retorts, come-ons. A nice young woman talks to me at a party, wearing a black T-shirt that says, “I look like I’m listening but I’m waiting for someone else” and she is holding a coffee cup that says “Bad girl. Is that a problem?” Her grandmother is a friend of mine and sent her a book I wrote and she is telling me, in a vague way, that she liked it. The T-shirt and the coffee cup are only attitude accent pieces, so she won’t be taken for granted, which is fine by me, but what I really want to know is: what do you do that you care about? Seriously. What is your calling these days?

 

When I was Bad Girl’s age, I wore a beard, a tweed jacket, jeans, and smoked unfiltered smokes to create an intellectual air about me, but I was a fake. I used CliffsNotes to write a term paper about Moby-Dick, which I’d only read up to page 37, six pages of fake critical intelligence for which I received a B-minus, pure humbug and monkeytalk. My real education was working as a parking lot attendant at 6 a.m. winter mornings on a huge gravel lot on a bluff over the Mississippi, waving cars to park in straight lines, chasing down the freelancers and bullying them back to where they belonged. I believed in creativity but in a parking lot it creates chaos so I embraced authoritarian measures. Enlightening. I was lazy in class but discovered I was a hard worker at heart, menial jobs were up my alley, and that leads to this, writing a short essay about being real. Don’t be a Pekingese. Bring the vaccine. Find lost children.

O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

My family was circumspect and didn’t talk about love and romance. My parents were crazy about each other but it was the Depression and the courtship went on for years, Grandma needed Dad on the farm after Grandpa died, and one day, driving a double team of horses that spooked and galloped out of control, Dad almost broke his neck when the wagon crashed, and felt his own mortality and the romance became urgent and four months later she was pregnant and they ran off and got married. This wonderful story was kept secret all their lives. Nonetheless, I knew I came from people who loved each other, a profound blessing. I live in the shade of a romance made urgent by wild horses. It’s lovely to be with these young relatives who love each other, their young children deep in their books, my daughter with the dog’s head in her lap. We will ourselves to be happy. So many times my wife has approached her glum husband and put her arms around his neck and kissed the top of his head and thus she wills him to lighten up. And she does it so beautifully that I do. So many times bad feelings have been dispelled, not by talk but by this simple gesture.

This porch is a tiny island and we are aware that a fourth of America’s children are living in poverty, essential workers are abused, the burden of college debt is obscene. The list of injustices goes on and on. Changes need to be made and I believe they’ll come through the efforts of people who know the goodness of life, not from rage and fury. This gentle cadence of conversation, like water lapping on the shore. Life is good. Somebody should stand up on the Fourth of July and say so. We come from fallible human beings but they gave us this beautiful opening to happiness and let us take hold of it and celebrate America. We’re maybe not great at government but we excel at happiness and we produced baseball, the blues, barbecued ribs and the banana split, and when we feel down we can go look at the Badlands or the Grand Canyon. We’ve produced great poets and standup comedians and when the fat lady sings “land of the free,” let’s feel free to put an arm around each other.

Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

My photographer friends are a happy gang. It’s a collegial world, unlike the factionalism of fiction, the pitiless competition of poetry, the assassins of the essay. Poor focus and off-kilter framing are considered creative choices. But in my course, “The Art of Aging,” I shall guide my students toward a late literary career. You begin by writing comedy, the hardest field of all, and you write a devastating satire of whatever you did for a living, medicine, academia, the ministry, public radio, sanitation, and rip it to shreds, infuriating your colleagues who vote to take away your plaques. Then you turn out a heroic memoir, then write scandalous fiction.

The point is to stay busy. You rise in the morning with stuff to do. Work is a necessity of life. Serious work, not standing in a group of slim silent people with binoculars staring at a whippoorwill, which contributes nothing to society. Crimes occur daily that if birders had devoted themselves to watching the street rather than the sky, suffering would’ve been averted. Electric scooters go racing along the streets, ignoring red lights that if the Audubon-bons served as crossing guards instead, they could save lives rather than impressing each other with their knowledge of wrens.

I am a journalist and our role is to stir up trouble. Television is a deadly sedative: hundreds of channels are streaming thousands of shows and a person glued to it loses cranial sensation. TV is a big blur, like a day spent driving across North Dakota. Rachel Maddow helps, Tucker Carlson, Morning Joe, they try to raise the blood pressure and so does the newspaper. You glance at the front page and find three famous people to despise and your day is thereby given purpose and meaning.

Meanwhile, the disciples of Roger Tory Peterson disperse into the parks and ravines, looking up at the flyways, competing to be the first to distinguish the Canada goose from the Quebec condor and the Vermont vulture, and they feel ignored, having no natural enemies. That is my role. And so I come into their bird blind and scatter seed soaked in hallucinogens that condors and vultures snarf up and minutes later Mildred and Gladys and Marvin and Gordon are under attack by sharp-beaked fowl, waving their parasols in defense, shrieking shrieks the attackers recognize as mating cries and they spread their wings and attempt inappropriate things.

You do not fully appreciate a creature until you are attacked by it. This is what I do for the ornithology gang. I go for the throat, I make them feel like part of the natural order. Birds are real, they’re not a cartoon, and when a drug-crazed bluebird flies up in your face and pecks at your eyes, it’s something you never forget.

Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

I expected to be grumpy in old age and of course there’s still time, but instead I’m awestruck. As Emily says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” No, Emily, but I’ve realized life for about 245 minutes since a week ago, and it’s delicious. I was released on Saturday and went to church on Sunday and the choir was glorious and I wrote in the bulletin:

The words come in with a whistle
Like the sound of an incoming missile.
It’s so good to hear it,
“Let us live in the Spirit,”
From Romans, St. Paul’s epistle.

When you’re in the Spirit, it’s a sort of weight loss. I became 165 pounds, walking down Amsterdam Avenue to lunch with a friend whose granddaughter got married recently, the wedding dress refitted to accommodate the little boy in the bride’s belly, and in her great happiness, the grandma is setting out to write a memoir. I told her to avoid modesty. “No problem,” she said. She is 88, a decade ahead of me, and she is funny and sassy and when she goes after the high and the mighty, she can be devastating. She’s a scout riding ahead on the trail and the report is inspiring.

As for raccoons, I take this seriously. My dad grew up on a farm and he loved fresh strawberries, sweet corn, and tomatoes, and that’s why we were landowners, not apartment dwellers. He knew the difference between fresh strawberries and store-bought and fresh was a pleasure he cherished. He didn’t drink whiskey or chew tobacco or dance the tango, but he loved stuff from his garden. I had artistic ambitions and felt superior to gardeners; I was a songwriter and my best song was the one with the verse in the middle:

I love you, darling,
Waiting alone.
Waiting for you to show,
Wishing you’d call me though
I don’t have a phone.

But now I don’t see it as superior to strawberries. The wonders of the world all join in praise of the Creator. Minneapolis made a political decision to require dogs to be leashed because loose dogs can be frightening to children. Dogs running loose also defend the garden against raccoons. And so, Rocky Raccoon devours the good strawberries and people have to buy a pint at the grocery for $6, unfresh from California, and so a growing minority believes that a conspiracy of Satanists is running the country.

I do not. A man who goes into the ER amid the dying and distressed and comes out and goes to church is like Emily, a ghost walking among the living, telling them to love this life and all the ordinary things in it, clocks ticking and coffee and the walnut baklava with gelato and the couples walking along Amsterdam and the long-legged woman in denim shorts and the cops having a smoke and the smile on the waiter’s face as she sets down the bill, which moves me to tip her 40%, that smile that says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful,” and I say goodbye to my friend and come home. I have ten more years. What a gift. Life is good and one visit to the ER confirms it so let us drive upstate, darling, and look for a sign, “Pick Your Own Strawberries,” and be ecstatic.

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

June 29, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Just Added: Stillwater, MN 6-29

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JUST ADDED   June 29, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, […]

June 30, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Stillwater, MN 6-30

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   June 30, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, AND SHOW […]

July 2, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI

Bayfield, WI

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   July 2, 2021, 7:30 PM  BIG TOP CHAUTAUQUA, BAYFIELD, WI Reserved $60/$52/$42 The Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua is a 900-seat music venue and performing arts center, located near […]

July 4, 2021

Sunday

4:00 p.m.

Summerfield Amphitheater, St. Michael, MN

St. Michael, MN

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JULY 4, 2021, 4:00 PM  SUMMERFIELD AMPHITHEATER 4300 O’Day Ave. NE, St. Michael, MN 55376 $42/$15 Outside concert FAQs In 2021 we are going bigger, better, bolder, and in the […]

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 19, 2021

Today is Juneteenth, also known as “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.” It’s a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 18, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 18, 2021

On this day in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 17, 2021

“99 percent of every beautiful thing you ever knew escaped and went back out into the world where you vaguely remembered it.”― Ron Padgett, born this day in 1942.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Today is “Bloomsday,” the annual celebration of that 1904 day featured in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Named after protagonist Leopold Bloom, the book follows him during an ordinary day in Dublin

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, June 15, 2021

It’s the birthday of one of the masters of the Japanese form of poetry called haiku, Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1736).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 14, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 14, 2021

It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811), abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: June 19, 2010

A Prairie Home Companion: June 19, 2010

Our broadcast comes from a performance at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. With special guest, Bluegrass sensation Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Also with us, Kent, Ohio’s very own Jessica Lea Mayfield, vocalist Andra Suchy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, June 13, 2021

“Readers are plentiful; thinkers are rare.” A quote by sociologist and writer Harriet Martineau, born this day in England, 1802.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 12, 2021

“Readers are plentiful; thinkers are rare.” A quote by sociologist and writer Harriet Martineau, born this day in England, 1802.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 11, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 11, 2021

Ben Jonson, author, playwright, friend of William Shakespeare, was born on this day in London, probably in 1572.

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Writing

I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

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O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

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Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

Read More

Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

Read More

A man in a back pew, thinking to himself

I’ve been avoiding the news for a while, but it was hard to ignore the recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that showed about 15 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood and that patriots will need to depose them by violent revolution. This represents as many people as belong to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in America. It is sort of dizzying to contemplate, even for an Episcopalian like me.

The study found that 55 percent of Republicans “mostly disagreed” with those ideas but not entirely. One-fourth of Republicans disagreed entirely, compared to 58 percent of Democrats, which still leaves a good many ambivalent Democrats.

It makes me wonder about the purity of drinking water in the middle of the country. These are not ideas taught in public school civics courses. I’ve never overheard anyone discussing Satanist pedophiles at a table near me at lunch. But PRRI now classifies QAnon, which holds these views, as a major religion. So there you are. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Out of the bubble, into the hullabaloo

Spent twenty-four hours in an emergency ward and am still giddy from it and from having gotten off light when it could’ve been otherwise, which someday it will but not yet. I lay in a little alcove, off a busy core of staff at computers, gurneys coming and going, beepers beeping, but vast professional courtesy prevailing. It was a big hospital on 68th and York in Manhattan, so it was an international staff, Asia, Africa, all over. My neighbor was a woman with cancer who often yelled, “Somebody come and help me! I just want to die! Help me!” and my other neighbor was a drunk who was mentally ill and also a jerk, a terrible combination. He had checked himself in and was now calling 911 to come get him out. Four cops arrived. It may have been the highlight of their day.

As for me, I’d been sent by my doctor for tests after I’d twice blanked out and had memory lapses (including the name of my doctor), which alarmed my wife. I called the doctor and his secretary asked for my phone number and when I couldn’t recall it, she put me right through. I took a cab over and Dr. Nash quizzed me. I’ve suffered a couple of strokes in the past, light ones, and he is a good explainer, and I canceled everything and went over to ER. My wife kissed me goodbye and said, “You remember that Maia was born here, right?” I did, then.

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Why we are staying home tonight, not going out

We sat out on our terrace in New York the other night, she and I, and cherished the feel of summer, a great blessing to us stoical northerners unaccustomed to paradise, so we contemplate all that is to come, the first rhubarb and strawberries, strawberry-rhubarb pie, sweet corn, fireflies flashing each other, the light produced by the oxidation of luciferin — one of those insignificant facts you carry around, waiting for a chance to dazzle someone with. If I were a firefly, I’d say to a female, That’s the oxidization of luciferin there, you know, and she’d be impressed and we’d mate and then I’d die.

I look forward to the next big storm, purple sky, lightning ripping the sky, volleys of thunder, so I can be calm and reassuring, a manly role, though I’m the last person you’d want in a real emergency. If I tried to give artificial respiration, I’d probably suffocate the patient.

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Going to Newport with Mrs. Dashboard

We went to Newport for three days last week, two Minnesotans long married, to rediscover the fact that ocean air is delicious and invigorating and can even make you happy. That surely is why the Vanderbilts built their monstrous mansion on the shore: sinking into decadence in a fake palace with more marble than Arlington Cemetery, nonetheless they could take a deep breath and feel childlike pleasure. So could their servants. So did we, crossing the beautiful bridges over the bays to Aquidneck Island, seeing the Atlantic, thinking “Oh wow” and “Oh my god.” The world is in turmoil, but walking along the shore and inhaling salt air lets you remember how good it felt to be twelve years old.

It’s a fine old town. You come and eat oysters and cod, text videos of the surf to your inland friends, and drive around and get your fill of colonial homes in dark greens and browns, many of them turned into boutique hotels. It’s here that I appreciate having a car with an electronic lady in the dashboard to give us directions. You simply press a button and say, “Cliff Walk,” and she says, “In six hundred feet, turn left on Narragansett Avenue and drive one-half mile.” Her vocal inflexion is very good; she sounds like an educated American woman in her mid-forties who knows her way around. And you drive down Narragansett and there, past Salve Regina College, is the ocean with Cliff Walk above it and you walk along the cliff and you can look across the vast green lawn to the marble pile where the Vanderbilts sank their ill-gotten gains, which is open for tourists to wander through and see how grim boughten grandeur can be.

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An adventure in my own home on Tuesday

The life of an honest satirist is a hard life and so there are few of them. We cherish our delusions — I am very fond of mine, especially the belief that I am master of my house and captain of my ship, but on Tuesday, sitting on the throne, I saw that the toilet paper dispenser was empty, no extra rolls of Scott tissue in sight, and the Chief Provisioner was off on her daily walk, and so I had to hike around the apartment, pants at half-mast, looking for the goods.

A man who doesn’t know where the toilet paper is kept in an apartment he’s lived in for many years is in a ridiculous position. He knows this as he wanders from room to room, opening cupboards, looking in drawers, hoping she does not walk in and see her husband the noted author in this delicate moment. He has lived with his head in the clouds and lost touch with the essentials of life.

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The impending crisis of exploding cicada data

My grandpa left Glasgow in 1905 and sailed to America and brought his thirteen children up as Americans and so I haven’t yet taken a position on Scottish independence but with the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party in elections last week, I suppose I’ll have to. I like to involve myself in other people’s problems where I myself have nothing at all at stake. Someone asked me about Ukraine the other day and though I haven’t heard anything from there in a long time, I gave a good answer, reasonable, balanced, on the one hand this, on the other hand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been focused on the crisis of the seventeen-year cicada, trillions of which will soon crawl out of the ground from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, from Georgia to New England, their incessant skritching filling the air for weeks, as they breed and the males drop dead and the females lay eggs to hatch into larvae to tunnel down into the ground to spend seventeen years and then resurrect.

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Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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