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.


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

The most elegant gentleman to come out of Minnesota, Mr. Butch Thompson, died yesterday in St. Paul. He picked up the New Orleans spirit listening to Jelly Roll Morton 78s and carried it through the 20th into the 21st century. He was a pianist and a clarinetist, the piano for the bounce, the clarinet for the blues, and if he could've he would've played both at the same time. We worked together for years, a quiet man, and I never knew him except through his music. God bless the memory, God preserve the music.

–GK

Born and raised in Marine-on-St. Croix, a small Minnesota river town, Butch Thompson was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three, and began formal lessons at six. He picked up the clarinet in high school and led his first jazz group, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves,” as a senior.

After high school, he joined the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, and at 18 made his first visit to New Orleans, where he became one of the few non-New Orleanians to perform at Preservation Hall during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1974, he joined the staff as the house pianist of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. By 1980, the show was nationally syndicated, and the Butch Thompson Trio was the house band, a position the group held for the next six years.

From the early days on APHC, Butch remembers, “It was pretty casual back then. Margaret or somebody would call me and ask if I was busy on Saturday. More than once I remember saying I couldn’t get there by showtime, and being told to show up as soon as I could. Sometimes I’d go onstage without remembering what key something was in. If Garrison was going to sing, I usually couldn’t go wrong with E major.”

By the late ’90s, Thompson was known as a leading authority on early jazz. He served as a development consultant on the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam, which starred Gregory Hines. He also joined the touring company of the off-Broadway hit Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man, playing several runs with that show in New York and other cities through 1997.

The Village Voice described Butch’s music as “beguiling piano Americana from an interpreter who knows that Bix was more than an impressionist and Fats was more than a buffoon.”

 


 

 

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

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

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

sign up for Garrison's newsletter here

Sick in a hotel, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about. I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury. I was scheduled to do a show Sunday night and I wanted to do it though I felt wretchedly ill. I was sure that hearing the audience laugh would make me feel better, but the venue has a No-Co policy in place, and I wouldn’t want others to catch my virus, so suddenly I was unemployed and far from home. I was planning to tell the audience about winter in my childhood, when I rode a sleigh through blinding snow to get to school and the driver avoided the swamp where gangsters hung out hoping to kidnap children and hold them for ransom but nobody paid ransom because families back then were so large, ten or fifteen kids, because there was nothing else to do for six months so they bred for amusement. I was born an Olson but one day the sleigh was attacked by masked men and the driver whipped the horses and they bolted and they wouldn’t stop and I was dropped off at the Keillors instead, many miles away, and they already had eleven kids and I slipped into the family unnoticed because I was a very polite child and no trouble to anybody, and I was glad to become one of them. The Olsons were a shifty lot who talked nonsense and the Keillors were honest as the day is long. This would’ve been a good story for the college kids to hear but of course they have no interest in listening to an old man talk about the 20th. To them, 1964 is next door to 1864 and the Civil War whereas to me it’s the year the Beatles arrived and after the bitterness of the assassination of President Kennedy the previous November and the rise of the old hack LBJ, the utter cheerfulness of the Liverpool skiffle band was so delightful, it caused euphoria among teenage girls, songs that said I want to hold your hand ’cause when you touch me I feel happy inside, it’s such a feeling that my love can’t hide, which I still feel about my sweet woman. In my shows, if I sing “There are places I remember,” the audience joins in and sings all of “In My Life,” word perfect, and the same with “Who knows how long I’ve loved you” and “Well, she was just seventeen if you know what I mean,” the whole songs, with great pleasure, and though I don’t fancy myself a singer, I do it because it makes the crowd so happy. Amid the violence and political dysfunction and eco-crises of the 21st, the whole wretched legacy we leave to the grandkids, we recall a moment of light-heartedness before Vietnam descended on us. I’ve had dark times in my life, mostly of my own making but I don’t recall them with any clarity, unlike the moment in 1997 I stood in the delivery room of the hospital and held a naked infant daughter in my hands and all the times I sang duets with my friend Heather, a tall woman, and we stood eye to eye, and she made me briefly sound almost like a singer, and the day in August I spent with my wife Jenny, just the two of us on the front porch of a little house on the bank of the Connecticut river, observing my 80th birthday. We drank our coffee, watching a family of foxes playing tag in the yard, talking a little, we held hands and so forth, but it was a beautiful day. I wish you kids the same.

Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

I’m an old man and so the airport of today is fascinating to me. Believe it or not, I remember when we’d walk into the terminal and go straight to the gate to welcome Uncle Bud and Aunt Betty when they flew in on a propeller aircraft for Christmas. There were no metal detectors, no uniformed security searching your bags and yelling at you to remove your shoes; back then, TSA stood for Talk Softly Always, and now I come through a scanning machine and a government agent says, “I need to pat down your inner thighs.”

Ordinarily if a man said that to me, I’d report him to authorities, but he happened to be the authority and I didn’t want to take the Greyhound to New York so I succumbed to being patted down. He did it briskly, without any intimations of affection, and I picked up my stuff and put my belt on and headed for the gate to board and unboard and wait for clearance.

It was a very congenial wait. A fiftyish woman in a heavy parka spoke to me and asked me what she should do in New York. Minnesota women don’t speak to strange men and so this was a surprise and what was sort of amazing was that she took me for a New Yorker. I told her to avoid Times Square, to walk around Central Park and if she likes tap-dancing to see “Some Like It Hot” and hang the expense. She said she’d never been to the city before.

“Why now?” I said. She said she was going there to see her brother whom she hadn’t seen for eight years and try to reconcile with him.

It was a sweet encounter, one person telling a story to another, and somehow the snowfall and the travel delay played a role in it. There is nothing like the unexpected to bring out the best in people. I’m not the friendliest person you ever met but I smiled at people, said hi to people who said hi to me, and though I heard some grammatical errors, a plural pronoun where singular was appropriate, “lay” used when “lie” was meant, I didn’t correct them. If someone’s hair had caught fire, I would’ve used my cup of latte to extinguish it and not asked for compensation.

I sat by Gate C1 and considered maybe starting up a sing-along, maybe “Leaving on a Jet Plane” but then thought no, some women might resent singing “So kiss me and smile for me” with men they don’t even know, so I didn’t, and then we reboarded in a festive mood, ready for whatever New York throws at us. I feel sorry for Florida, which is devoid of snowstorms that promote fellowship.

Our snowbirds sit in a wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls and conversation dies for lack of anything to talk about. I feel terrible whenever I read about a Minnesotan eaten by an alligator that slipped out of the water hazard at the country club and attacked the guy in the sand trap and devoured him, yellow pants and all. A golf club is no defense against these beasts. There are 1.3 million gators in Florida and they’re attracted to aged Northerners because we use older brands of cologne that make us smell fruity. I’m heading for Fort Lauderdale tomorrow. Kiss me before I go.

There's money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

I met a guy in the subway not long ago whose headphones I could hear twenty feet away. We were waiting for a downtown train at West 86th Street. He was about fifty, balding on top but with an ambitious ponytail. He wore a Metallica T-shirt, the one with a skeleton performing a brain operation with a fork and knife, eating the patient’s brains. I’d recently had a heart operation to replace a mitral valve with one from a pig and I thought he might like to hear about it but it was hard to make contact. We boarded the train and he turned the music off and I asked him, politely, what he enjoyed about Metallica. He didn’t hear me; I had to speak loudly and clearly. He said, “It’s very beautiful, no matter what people think.” I got off at 42nd to go to the library. He continued on, perhaps to an auto-crushing plant or a crematorium. Someday he’ll achieve deafness, and then perhaps he’ll become a reader and maybe he’ll google Metallica and find this column.

 

Hello, sir.

A person has a right to enjoy music about hopelessness, but when I look at some lyrics, suddenly the serial killings start to make sense.

Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free.

The kid who shot up the school in Texas, the night manager at the Walmart store who shot up his coworkers in the break room — it was about suicide and wanting the suicide to get attention. It’s sort of cheesy for millionaire musicians to crank out anthems to hopelessness — this isn’t the blues, it’s angry morbidity. But there it is.

I trust that you, sir, find some serenity in your silence. Perhaps you’ve taken up birdwatching. It’s a long way from thrash metal to thrushes and meadowlarks but the human imagination is capable of great leaps. I hope you’ve found someone to put his/her/their arms around you.

 

I went to the library that day and sat in the reading room, and I was the oldest in the room by far. Intense young scholars who I imagine may do the work needed to save this planet so that future generations can enjoy fantasies of violence if they wish. If the sea rises faster as the planet heats up, survival will take precedence over amusement. People will lose the liberty to be weird.

Two nights before, I had been in Palm Springs to give a speech and was reminiscing about the past and on an impulse I sang the words, “There are places I remember” and the audience sang the whole song with me. A thousand people knew the words to Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” including the repeated last line with the high notes, “In my life, I love you more.” And then we sang “Silent Night,” all three verses. It brought me to tears, people united with strangers in beautiful works of art.

I wonder if, years from now, a crowd will sing Metallica songs for the pleasure of it.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in Macedonia, to fix their minds on what is true and beautiful and I suppose they tried to do that, and eventually their city was destroyed by the Ottoman Empire and now, centuries later, the ottoman is just a footstool. The world changes and takes us with it. But the true and beautiful remains, more compelling than ever. Dystopia and mental distress are very much in fashion now and there seem to be no memoirs about a happy childhood, only trauma and displacement and broken hearts, and so be it. But comedy, which is a charitable deed, lasts longer. Knock knock. Who’s there? Metallica. Metallica who? Metallica doesn’t have a last name, it’s not a human, it’s abandoned.

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Back in my leather fringed vest days, I assumed I would die young and become immortal like Buddy Holly or James Dean, but I was too poor to afford a fast sports car or a chartered airplane, and soon I was too old to die young. I survived absurd self-consciousness, cold winters, hard labor for no money, a fondness for whiskey — and now on Sunday mornings when I’m in town, I go to church, a traditional one that offers extensive moments of silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” it says in Scripture, and we do. God often speaks in the stillness. We confess to ourselves that we are not in charge of our lives and we believe that a Greater Power is in charge who loves us and we shake hands with the people around us and walk home.

Back in the day, I went to public schools and so did everyone else and we sat in a classroom with all sorts of kids, there were no special tracks for the gifted and brilliant, they had to sit next to us dummies. We all sang out of the same songbook, we loved the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies and the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack. People my age know these songs by heart. I spoke at a college convocation once for Parents’ Weekend and realized when I got there that the speech I’d written was crappy, a Dare-To-Be-Different message they’d heard often enough, so I said, “Let’s just sing some songs that we all know,” and I led them in those old songs and I saw kids holding up cellphones, googling “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because they’d been assigned to the Gifted Track back in fourth grade, which encouraged creativity and Daring To Be Different. The parents in the audience sang about Dinah and the land where my fathers died and “His truth is marching on” and roses love sunshine, violets love dew, and apparently enjoyed a sense of commonality that was denied to the gifted.

It’s a beautiful aspect of old age that you become more like other people than you wanted to be back when you were uniquely gifted. There is something about physical decrepitude and loss of acuity and a long memory and a sense of history that draws you together with kindred spirits. I often think of Leeds, Barry, Frankie, Corinne, my friends who died young, and wish they could’ve enjoyed old age. It’s worth the trouble.

I was the oldest person at our Thanksgiving table and I didn’t say much because the kids were so lively and funny and why bring them down with a lecture about the wonders of old age, including the fact that every morning is an occasion of gratitude. I’ll let them discover that for themselves, Lord willing.

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show comes to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, MO with Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Dean Magraw, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell. (Theater Event and Livestream available)

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00P (CT)/ 8:00P (ET)

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

Livestream available for our “A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show” Dec 15 show in St. Louis

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Torrance, CA. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

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

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

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

February 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

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

February 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

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

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

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

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

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

February 24, 2023

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Grand Theatre, Frankfort, KY

Frankfort, KY

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Frankfort, KY 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

To sign up for the daily Writer’s Almanac e-newsletter, which includes unedited versions of previously aired TWA episodes, please click here.

To make a donation to support this archival project, please click here. You can also support us by buying a paid Substack subscription or mailing a check to Prairie Home Productions  PO Box 2090  Minneapolis, MN 55402

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 8, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 8, 2022

“The Roman poet Horace is said to have been born on this day in 65 B.C.E.. He is most famous for his Odes, which take up a diverse set of topics, including springtime, Virgil, a friend’s farm, Cleopatra’s defeat, old age, and the Roman Empire.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, December 7, 2022

It’s the birthday of American writer Willa Cather (1873). Cather’s novels, like “O Pioneers!” and “My Ántonia” examined frontier life on the Nebraska plains. Willa Cather’s headstone reads, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Today is the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, in the year 1896. With his brother George he wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows, including the memorable songs “I Got Rhythm”, “The Man I Love”, and “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, December 5, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, December 5, 2022

“In the bleak midwinter/Frosty wind made moan,/Earth stood hard as iron,/Water like a stone;/Snow had fallen, snow on snow,/Snow on snow,/In the bleak midwinter/Long ago. — poet Christina Rossetti, born on this day in London in the year 1830.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: December 12, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: December 12, 2015

A December Town Hall classic from 2015 with Keb’ Mo’, The DiGiallonardo Sisters and Heather Masse. 

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, December 4, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, December 4, 2022

Today is the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague (1875). He made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world’s first auto show.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
Writing

Sick in a hotel room, thinking back

I spent the weekend in Fort Lauderdale in a low-rent hotel with many families with small children and numerous college kids who seemed confused, even alarmed, when I got on an elevator and said, “Good morning” to them, as I was brought up to do but that was back in the 20th century. Every time I crossed through the lobby I heard Christmas songs like “it’s lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you,” which strikes a Minnesotan as peculiar and then on Sunday I tested positive for COVID so I had other things to think about.

I have the good fortune to be related to a doctor. His father, my uncle, was a doctor, and ordinarily you’d expect a doctor’s son to pursue a radical new course, perhaps as a thrash-metal guitarist, but his upbringing was not traumatic enough to drive him in that direction and instead he devoted himself to caring for the unwell, of which, Sunday, I was one. I called, he answered, he phoned in an order for Paxlovid to a Fort Lauderdale pharmacy, and spared me a long miserable wait in an ER while doctors attend to serious injury.

Read More

Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

Read More

There’s money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

Read More

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Read More

Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows?

The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal.

Read More

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

Read More

What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

Read More

Once again, Violetta does the right thing

We went to the Met to see La Traviata on Election Night and so did many other people and the Violetta was delicate and pure and commanded the stage right up to when she died and Verdi’s choruses were glorious and moving and he gives Violetta some heartbreaking unaccompanied passages, a lone soprano singing in the extensive acreage of the Met, it takes your breath away. Of course some people won’t recognize great art even if it tap-dances in the nude while handing out Eskimo bars but I tell you the truth, Act 3 was so stunning it took your mind completely off Herschel and Dr. Oz and Kari Lake and the doctor running for governor of Minnesota who doesn’t believe in immunization.

For months I’d been getting pleas for money from candidates besieged by evil and now I wanted to see the courtesan Violetta living in sin with Alfredo whose father begs her to leave him so Alfredo’s sister will not suffer shame and can marry, and the courtesan agrees, a sinner performing an act of charity, sung by soprano Nadine Sierra who is also a Lucia, Zerlina, Susanna, Gilda, and for all I know may be a D.A. in Atlanta.

Read More

An idea, probably wrong, but it’s an idea

I’m thinking I should get to work on a museum of the era before the internet and cellphones and streaming music so that people under 40 know what it was like to talk on a phone with a cord on the kitchen wall and gossip without your mother understanding what it was about. People wrote on stationery with a pen back then, not a stationary bike but paper, wrote letters in a cursive hand to their grandmas and Grandma told you what fine handwriting you had. Now Grandma is happy if you stick with your birth gender and don’t get tangled up with fentanyl.

I’m not nostalgic for those days, I simply feel that you young people need to know some history. When I was 20, 60 years ago, I walked into the Capitol in Washington one evening and there was one cop sitting at a table inside the door, reading a book. There was no metal detector. Nowadays, they put up metal detectors at the doors to elementary schools. I’m not kidding.

Read More

My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

Read More

Email sign-up:

Sign up for the Garrison Keillor & Friends email newsletter here >>>

Sign up for the weekly A Prairie Home Companion email newsletter here >>>

Sign up for the daily The Writer’s Almanac email newsletter here >>>


Submit to The Writer’s Almanac:

We are not accepting new poetry at this time. For questions, please contact twa @ garrisonkeillor.com


ShopGarrisonKeillor.com Questions 

For questions related to items you have ordered from our store, please contact orders @ garrisonkeillor.com


Get In Touch
Send Message

Press Kit

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. 

Recent reviews:

“Fans laughed, applauded and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show” -Jeff Baenen, AP News

“His shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve” -Chris Barton, LA Times

“[Keillor is] an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.” -Betsie Freeman, Omaha-World Herald

To shop merchandise related to Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, and The Writer’s Almanac, visit our new online store >>>

To make a donation to The Writer’s Almanac,            click here >>>