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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A walk in the park on a historic day

Saturday morning, walking around south Minneapolis, a neighborhood where, back in my youth, when your elders start neglecting their lawn, you might move them out of the bungalow and plant them here in a one-BR apt. until they can no longer climb stairs and then there’d be a family meeting — shoot them? Or plunk them in the nursing home? — and off to Happy Acres they go, worn out since elliptical machines didn’t exist back then and there were no trainers except animal trainers.

And now it’s a neighborhood of 21-year-olds as you can see from the corner grocery, which is all bags of snacks and soda pop and frozen pizzas. Youth can survive on silage, if necessary. Young women walk their dogs at 8 a.m. and a man sleeps on a bus stop bench, a suitcase beside him. The apartment buildings all post For Rent signs, some offer deals, some have roommates waiting.

I walk around, awestruck at the courage of the young. You come to the city from Aitkin or Brainerd or Cottonwood and either you get a job waiting on table and maybe salt away some dough or you go to school and rack up piles of debt, or maybe you do both and work 15-hour days and all in hopes of making a good life, whatever that might mean in your case.

I worked in a scullery near here when I was 18, the summer before college, working the dishwasher at a hotel, and since I planned to be a writer, I walked around Loring Park on my break, thinking profound thoughts, practicing smoking Pall Malls, exhaling in an artistic manner. I was raised fundamentalist and left home to go to the U in September where I made Jewish friends and saw ballet and smoked in class and listened to long-haired radicals orate on the Mall and wrote incomprehensible poetry and had a big time.

A young woman approached and I wish I could ask her what it’s like to be her in 2021 but she has a large dog on a leash who probably is trained to fend off the curious, so I pass by, averting my eyes, but I wish her well. I wish them all well, even as I worry they’ll trip on the same old pitfalls I did and become social climbers and show-offs or time-wasters and drifters. I also worry they’ll get stuck in a dead-end job with a dope for a boss and be disincentivized to break free.

It was a historic day, Saturday. It was September 11, though maybe the kids in the neighborhood don’t recall it so clearly as we elders do, a day on which the towers fell and the country suddenly was united, conservative and liberal and indifferent, old and young, city and small town and rural, when the city of New York showed heroic kindness and courage among strangers and a day later people gathered with lit candles outside their buildings and sang “America” and “God Bless America” and meant every word. Then, unaccountably, our leaders set out to make the Middle East into an American democracy and instead we became more like Afghanistan, a tribal culture, warlords vying for power, but that chapter is now at an end. Let angry old men fight over the wreckage for another year or two, but eventually the young will prevail.

The young woman walking her dog passed and I wondered what her thoughts about the day might be and I almost asked, but she was wearing a COVID mask and the dog looked at me warily, so I didn’t. When we were, briefly, twenty years ago, a united people, you could feel the spirit in the streets and people spoke easily to each other. The terrorists didn’t terrorize us, they emboldened us to love each other and to worry about the young who will inherit what we’ve badly botched up. Signs and portents abound, if only we will look up from our feet. The young are passionate about the environment and climate change. There are millions of people who cannot imagine modifying their sumptuous lifestyle in the interest of conservation in behalf of future generations and the habitability of the earth — they would rather die than do that and as soon as they do die, the world will take a step forward.

The story of my life, in 750 words

I was having a hard time falling asleep the other night because I’d thought of something that I was afraid of forgetting if I fell asleep, which was keeping me awake, not that it was the sort of timeless thing you see printed on coffee cups sold in bookstores, like “Hope is the thing with feathers” or the one Thoreau said about confidently pursuing your dreams, which now I forget the rest of.

Sleep is the great blessing of retirement, especially for someone like me — or is it “someone like myself”? I used to know this — someone who in his working years (so-called, in my case, because my work was talking and telling stories, no heavy lifting involved) — and I was crisscrossing time zones and going from EST to PST I’d be awake at 1 and 2 with a plane to catch at 7 so I could make it to a benefit in New York for Rich People Who Wish To Help Poor People Without Having To Be In Physical Contact With Them and I couldn’t sleep on planes because of a fear of dying in a plane crash and, having been brought up evangelical, I wanted to be awake for my death so I could quickly repent for any unforgiven sins and make sure I’d go to heaven and meet Grandma and Grandpa and not go to hell and spend eternity with Stalin and Hitler.

I couldn’t tell anybody about my sleep disorder because my radio show was famous for its soporific benefits. I did a 15-minute monologue in the middle that had an amazing calming effect on people. Millions of CDs of the monologues were sold to people who never actually heard them and I won several Grammy Awards though the judges could not later recall what the monologues were about. I did the show in a theater and we closed off the balcony for fear someone might sleepwalk and fall over the railing and often the entire audience got caught up in slow rhythmic breathing, every eye closed, it was like a religious experience. My best monologue was a reminiscence of a drive across North Dakota, Dad at the wheel, we six kids in back, nobody talking, all of us watching for the mountains Mother said were just ahead. My blissful recollection of the drive had a powerful effect, so much so that I gave the monologue every Saturday for three months in a row and nobody noticed, not even the stagehands or the sound engineer. It is still used in sleep clinics around the country. I donate the royalties to the Apnea Foundation.

In retirement, as I say, my nocturnal life has blossomed into extensive dreams, pastoral epics in which I am a great sailor, an artist, a standup comic, a race car driver, a ballet dancer — dreams of competence and authority — and the other night (I am now getting back to what I started to say in the first paragraph) I dreamed that I had written a perfect limerick and in my dream I was afraid that if I fell asleep I’d forget it, but in my dream I was arguing with myself and thinking, “You’re awake” and the conflict, knowing that my sleep self was wrong, that I was sleeping, woke me up, and I sat down and wrote the limerick, about the famous podcaster Phoebe Judge, host of “Criminal,” which everyone except me (I?) has heard, but I refuse to hear podcasts because earbuds look funny on me, and the challenge was to not use the rhyme “heebie-jeebie.”

A girl who loves radio, Phoebe,
Has AM and FM and CB,
And plays them proudly,
Constantly, loudly,
At 370 dB,
And when she was caught
She fired a shot
At the cops with her personal BB,
And when she turned deaf
She shouted the F-
Word that’s not found in Mister White, E.B.

It is a perfect limerick, not that this is the solution to our national dilemmas, but the limerick is one enterprise in which perfection is possible, and that is why I keep returning to it. I look back at my life and I see a series of sinking ships and gunshot wounds in my feet, but “A girl who loves radio, Phoebe” is right up there with the five or six perfect ones I’ve written. This column is not perfect. It strikes me as somewhat disorganized and scattered, but, as I say so often, it is what it is. Someday I’ll write about that.

In defense of feeling good in perilous times  

I am thinking about moving to Texas so that I can be in open disagreement with the powers that be and express this freely, instead of living in colonies of liberal progressives where I must put tape over my mouth except when among close personal friends. Freedom of speech is watched closely where I live and we all know it. “What exactly is it you want to say that you can’t?” you wonder. It is something that, were I to say it, I’d be kicked out of the Democratic Party and my library card would be confiscated and I’d be barred from Amazon and Starbucks and the Episcopal church would make me sit in the Penitents’ Corner. So I’ll keep it to myself.

I grew up fundamentalist so I’m familiar with the drill. We couldn’t join marching band because we believed that rhythmic movement would lead to dancing, which then led to fornication. We never sang uptempo hymns, only dirges. Women kept silent in church because the sound of their voices would lead men to think impure thoughts. So the rigidity of progressive righteousness is familiar to me. I can live with it. I know which friends can be trusted and which cannot.

Anyway, it’s been lovely weather and my family is enjoying robust health and my novel is finished and we escaped from the nightmare of Ikea, a vast warehouse of a store designed by psychologists to disorient the shopper. It’s popular among liberals who wish they were Swedish, everything is tasteful, there is a great deal of whiteness, everything is white or natural wood, and I suppose if you live with Swedish furniture and tableware you feel less complicit in our shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and our corruption of the planet, but the place makes me insane, wandering lost through the puzzle of aisles, and, handsome though some of the furniture is, it requires self-assembly, which would drive me straight to the brink. A list of directions makes me look for a gin bottle.

Back home, I sit peaceably at a table under a painting of prairie skyscape, flat foreground, power lines, and a vast expanse of cloudy sky. I bought it at a gallery in St. Paul and it’s more and more appealing to me for reasons I can’t describe, which is true of great music, it is inexplicable and expands with time. Such as the Chopin piano études. I didn’t grow up on them, my mother played hymns on the piano, and back in my rocknroll days I looked on Chopin as music for social climbers, upper-class wallpaper, and now it speaks directly to me and not only the popular ones like “Tristesse” but all that I hear, which, thanks to YouTube, are at my fingertips. In its inimitable way, YouTube is likely to stick a commercial for weight-loss pills in the middle of an étude, but it matters not, this sickly Polish romantic offers an emotional bond that I seldom feel with songs of my own generation. They are souvenirs of a time past and I don’t need them.

I listen to Chopin and look at the woman sitting across the room and the music speaks of our years together, grievous times and strange episodes and endearment and harmony and all of it wrapped in love and kindness. The music passes between us without my having to say a word. If I were to write about our romance, it would be pale and self-serving compared to how Chopin treats it. The world rages around us and some people berate us for not being as angry as they are, but I sit here under the painted prairie while Chopin pours out his story, which is all the more powerful for having endured almost two centuries.

Great art endures and the souvenirs fade. Mary Oliver’s poem about the grasshopper who lies eating sugar in her hand, its jaws working back and forth, its enormous complicated eye gazing at her, and then spreads its wings and floats away: she writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And James Wright’s poem about meeting the two Indian ponies in the meadow near Rochester, touching the long ear of one who has nuzzled his hand: he says, “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom.”

If you look at the painted prairie, imagine the grasshopper in one hand and the pony’s ear brushing the other, while listening to Chopin, it makes for the launch of a beautiful day.

A modest proposal sure to be rejected

The sheer ferocity of Ida, high winds, buckets of rain, flash flooding in New York City Wednesday night, rivers and waterfalls in the subway, made millions of New Yorkers think about the advantages of settling in rural Minnesota, especially as more hurricanes, even more brutal than Ida, are forming over the climate-warmed water of the Atlantic. There is a limit to how much punishment people are willing to accept before they look around and consider greener pastures and meanwhile, in St. Paul, people thronged to the State Fair, devouring cheese curds and bratwursts, admiring the livestock and enjoying powerful centrifugal experiences. Facts are facts. If what it means to live in New York is to ride the subway into a waterfall, maybe it’s best to be less stressed in the Upper Midwest and instead of flooded tunnels and tornado funnels, take sanctuary on the prairie.

We have some snow here but it is not catastrophic. I speak from experience. Snow falls gently and does not harm anyone. When the Weather Service says, “Minnesota was hit by a blizzard,” the verb “hit” is fanciful, like being “struck” by a bluebird feather or being “attacked” by ants. When snow falls, we don’t hide under the bed, we don’t need powerful pumps, there are no dikes to prevent snowdrifts. We enjoy a blizzard, standing in the kitchen, drinking coffee, and we feel grateful for having teenagers in the family who will shovel the sidewalks. Bob Dylan shoveled snow, Amy Klobuchar, Jessica Lange, Prince, Jesse Ventura. It is a life-shaping experience.

When a city is flooded by tourists over a long period of time, as New York has been, they turn the place into a cartoon, and the last time I walked down to Little Italy, it was no more Italian than Domino’s Pizza or Venetian blinds or your aunt Florence. Nobody in Brooklyn speaks Brooklynese, it’s all gentrified. The press came down hard on Mets fans booing their team, one more sign that New York is turning into Seattle.

Americans enjoy having some foreignness around for variety and color and that’s what makes Texas appealing to so many people. You can freely enjoy peculiarities there that would make you an outcast elsewhere. For some reason, our Southern states tend to encourage the outlandish, which is why Mr. T moved to Palm Beach: he fits right in. New Orleans puts on Mardi Gras for guys who like to wear wigs and feathers and high heels. A country needs to maintain places where standards of normality are fairly loose. Sturgis, S.D., for example. Cambridge, Mass.

Minnesota never had a French Quarter and the French persons I know who’ve come to visit didn’t seem interested in starting one, but we’re in need of diversity and when the State Fair ends in a few days, I propose turning the Fair’s grounds into a Persian Quarter and resettling some of our Afghan allies there who are floating around, looking for a home. The grounds are unused except for ten days a year, a neighborhood with streets, barns, arenas, shops, parking lots, all it needs are houses. In the Persian Quarter, the refugees could re-create what they love of their culture, and Americans weary of the Walmarts and work cubicles could travel abroad in St. Paul and find exotic style and fabulous cooking. Resettlement could be redemptive, showing that the bearded bullies with ammo belts don’t represent the best of a people. Art and learning do, and folk tradition, and the bonds of language, the food, the music and poetry. Leave religion to personal preference and enjoy the rest.

New Yorkers saw horrendous scenes of subway tunnels turned into raging rivers, trains pulling into the 28th Street station under a Niagara of water, passengers dashing to safety. We don’t have that in Minnesota. Summers are quite pleasant here except for an occasional tornado. The culture is predominantly northern European, white, judgmental, and we’re eager to escape that and New Yorkers would be welcomed here. We tend to be soft-spoken, self-deprecating, compulsively passive, and I know of numerous New Yorkers who’ve found happiness here. Their honk and brassiness are admired here. Back home they were nogoodniks and here they’re heroes. It’s a big country. Check it out.

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

October 2, 2021

Saturday

2:00 p.m.

Sellersville Theater, Sellersville, PA

Sellersville, PA

Garrison Keillor comes to the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, PA for a performance of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $45-65

October 3, 2021

Sunday

5:00 p.m.

Mauch Chunk Opera House, Jim Thorpe, PA

Jim Thorpe, PA

Garrison Keillor comes to the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $35-$50

October 12, 2021

Tuesday

8:00 p.m.

City Winery Boston

Boston, MA

Garrison Keillor with opener Debi Smith come to The City Winery Boston for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $32 – $45

October 13, 2021

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

City Winery New York City

New York, NY

Garrison Keillor with opener Debi Smith come to The City Winery New York City for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $35 – $48

October 20, 2021

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, VA

Garrison Keillor Tonight with opener Debi Smith comes to The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $45.00.

November 4, 2021

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

Garrison Keillor will join guests for a casual Luncheon in the Lobby of the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, where he will talk about how it all began and where he thinks he is going. Tickets: $45

November 5, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $30 reserved/ $10 children

buy tickets

November 11, 2021

Thursday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (Robin & Linda Williams, Prudence Johnson with Dan Chouinard) comes to the Waynes Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:00PM $55 reserved

buy tickets

November 12, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (Robin & Linda Williams, Prudence Johnson with Dan Chouinard) comes to the High Point Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $60-$40

buy tickets
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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 16, 2021

Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on this day in New York City (1924). She met Humphrey Bogart in the 1944 movie “To Have and Have Not” and later married him.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 15, 2021

It’s the birthday of Agatha Christie (1890). In the World Wars she worked at a hospital dispensary; this gave her a knowledge of drugs that she later used in her murder mysteries.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, September 14, 2021

“No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” – Margaret Sanger, born this day in 1879. Founder of Planned Parenthood.

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A Prairie Home Companion: September 21, 2013

A Prairie Home Companion: September 21, 2013

Our featured show was broadcast in 2013 from the Fitzgerald Theater with guests Vasen, Chic Gamine and Chris Thile.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 13, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 13, 2021

“My imagination can picture no fairer happiness than to continue living for art.”– Clara Schumann, pianist and composer. Born Clara Wieck on this day in 1819.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 12, 2021

Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, was born in Paris on this day 1897. Like her mother, she won a Nobel Prize for her work with radioactive elements, and like her mother, she died of leukemia as a result of that work.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 11, 2021

Twenty years ago 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes intending to crash them into New York’s World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and The White House. Three out of four-hit their targets and nearly 3000 people lost their lives.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 10, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 10, 2021

Poet Mary Oliver was born on this day 1935. “One thing I do know is that poetry, to be understood, must be clear. It mustn’t be fancy.” She must have been right, as her poetry was consistently on the Best Sellers lists.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, September 9, 2021

Today is the birthday of singer songwriter Otis Redding (1941), known for soulful songs like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “Try a Little Tenderness.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, September 8, 2021

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway published “The Old Man and the Sea,” the last book published during his lifetime.

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Writing

A walk in the park on a historic day

Saturday morning, walking around south Minneapolis, a neighborhood where, back in my youth, when your elders start neglecting their lawn, you might move them out of the bungalow and plant them here in a one-BR apt. until they can no longer climb stairs and then there’d be a family meeting — shoot them? Or plunk them in the nursing home? — and off to Happy Acres they go, worn out since elliptical machines didn’t exist back then and there were no trainers except animal trainers.

And now it’s a neighborhood of 21-year-olds as you can see from the corner grocery, which is all bags of snacks and soda pop and frozen pizzas. Youth can survive on silage, if necessary. Young women walk their dogs at 8 a.m. and a man sleeps on a bus stop bench, a suitcase beside him. The apartment buildings all post For Rent signs, some offer deals, some have roommates waiting.

I walk around, awestruck at the courage of the young. You come to the city from Aitkin or Brainerd or Cottonwood and either you get a job waiting on table and maybe salt away some dough or you go to school and rack up piles of debt, or maybe you do both and work 15-hour days and all in hopes of making a good life, whatever that might mean in your case.

Read More

The story of my life, in 750 words

I was having a hard time falling asleep the other night because I’d thought of something that I was afraid of forgetting if I fell asleep, which was keeping me awake, not that it was the sort of timeless thing you see printed on coffee cups sold in bookstores, like “Hope is the thing with feathers” or the one Thoreau said about confidently pursuing your dreams, which now I forget the rest of.

Sleep is the great blessing of retirement, especially for someone like me — or is it “someone like myself”? I used to know this — someone who in his working years (so-called, in my case, because my work was talking and telling stories, no heavy lifting involved) — and I was crisscrossing time zones and going from EST to PST I’d be awake at 1 and 2 with a plane to catch at 7 so I could make it to a benefit in New York for Rich People Who Wish To Help Poor People Without Having To Be In Physical Contact With Them and I couldn’t sleep on planes because of a fear of dying in a plane crash and, having been brought up evangelical, I wanted to be awake for my death so I could quickly repent for any unforgiven sins and make sure I’d go to heaven and meet Grandma and Grandpa and not go to hell and spend eternity with Stalin and Hitler.

Read More

In defense of feeling good in perilous times

I am thinking about moving to Texas so that I can be in open disagreement with the powers that be and express this freely, instead of living in colonies of liberal progressives where I must put tape over my mouth except when among close personal friends. Freedom of speech is watched closely where I live and we all know it. “What exactly is it you want to say that you can’t?” you wonder. It is something that, were I to say it, I’d be kicked out of the Democratic Party and my library card would be confiscated and I’d be barred from Amazon and Starbucks and the Episcopal church would make me sit in the Penitents’ Corner. So I’ll keep it to myself.

I grew up fundamentalist so I’m familiar with the drill. We couldn’t join marching band because we believed that rhythmic movement would lead to dancing, which then led to fornication. We never sang uptempo hymns, only dirges. Women kept silent in church because the sound of their voices would lead men to think impure thoughts. So the rigidity of progressive righteousness is familiar to me. I can live with it. I know which friends can be trusted and which cannot.

Anyway, it’s been lovely weather and my family is enjoying robust health and my novel is finished and we escaped from the nightmare of Ikea, a vast warehouse of a store designed by psychologists to disorient the shopper. It’s popular among liberals who wish they were Swedish, everything is tasteful, there is a great deal of whiteness, everything is white or natural wood, and I suppose if you live with Swedish furniture and tableware you feel less complicit in our shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and our corruption of the planet, but the place makes me insane, wandering lost through the puzzle of aisles, and, handsome though some of the furniture is, it requires self-assembly, which would drive me straight to the brink. A list of directions makes me look for a gin bottle.

Read More

A modest proposal sure to be rejected

The sheer ferocity of Ida, high winds, buckets of rain, flash flooding in New York City Wednesday night, rivers and waterfalls in the subway, made millions of New Yorkers think about the advantages of settling in rural Minnesota, especially as more hurricanes, even more brutal than Ida, are forming over the climate-warmed water of the Atlantic. There is a limit to how much punishment people are willing to accept before they look around and consider greener pastures and meanwhile, in St. Paul, people thronged to the State Fair, devouring cheese curds and bratwursts, admiring the livestock and enjoying powerful centrifugal experiences. Facts are facts. If what it means to live in New York is to ride the subway into a waterfall, maybe it’s best to be less stressed in the Upper Midwest and instead of flooded tunnels and tornado funnels, take sanctuary on the prairie.

We have some snow here but it is not catastrophic. I speak from experience. Snow falls gently and does not harm anyone. When the Weather Service says, “Minnesota was hit by a blizzard,” the verb “hit” is fanciful, like being “struck” by a bluebird feather or being “attacked” by ants. When snow falls, we don’t hide under the bed, we don’t need powerful pumps, there are no dikes to prevent snowdrifts. We enjoy a blizzard, standing in the kitchen, drinking coffee, and we feel grateful for having teenagers in the family who will shovel the sidewalks. Bob Dylan shoveled snow, Amy Klobuchar, Jessica Lange, Prince, Jesse Ventura. It is a life-shaping experience.

Read More

The road to contentment is sitting right here

An old pal is locked up with COVID this week and another pal is dealing with QAnon relatives who think liberals are vampires and another pal is suffering anxiety about having ringworm infestation, which his doctor says he does not have but he lies awake at night worrying and has been put on antianxiety medication, which doesn’t help all that much.

I’ve never suffered from anxiety, I don’t know any QAnon people and I don’t have COVID, so I am going to skip complaining today. I’m old and out of touch, and, as the old gospel song says, “This world is not my home, I’m only passing through” so what is the point of complaining, it’d be like going to Vladivostok and asking people to please speak English, or going to church and when the usher comes by with the collection plate, putting in a twenty and asking for a whiskey sour. Wrong time, wrong place.

I am a lucky man and these are wonderful times and we are all fortunate to be living now, in September of 2021, and of course there is poverty and disease and suffering and ignorance and cruelty and crabby people and inferior food and lousy service and poor Wi-Fi and unruly children and robocalls trying to sell you aluminum siding and this cursed printer that says there’s a paper jam though there is not, but there are beautiful advantages that our elders didn’t enjoy, and let me be grateful for the anti-seizure medication and blood thinner that keep me chugging along and YouTube, which has just now, for my benefit, played Don and Phil Everly singing “Let It Be Me,” and all it took was googling a few words and there it is, tender brotherly harmony.

Read More

A fresh start is a beautiful thing

Kathy Hochul took over as governor of New York on Tuesday and so far as I can see nobody said a single bad thing about her all week. In fact, the advance press was entirely favorable, about her extensive experience in local government, her good work habits, her love of getting out and meeting constituents and hearing their complaints. And, it must be added, nobody complained that she had laid a hand on them in a way that made them uncomfortable. It was extraordinary, a politician nobody is furious at. This is big news, people.

She’s from upstate and so to New York City residents, she is a complete mystery, as a Martian would be or a Mennonite, and this seems like a chance for everyone to get a fresh start and focus on the environment, health care, education, public safety, rather than the inappropriateness of commenting on a woman’s outfit. For years Governor Hochul served as an anonymous lieutenant governor to a man who hogged the stage, sang, danced, conducted the band, a man for whom public attention was oxygen. And then in short order he became a man whom people were thoroughly tired of reading about, or reading about anything that sounded like him, such as glaucoma, homogeneity, or combovers. When she took over, it was a huge relief.

Read More

September, the finest month, is on its way

We got good weather in August, good for a city guy with no lawn, and then a typhoon came to town and a torrent fell last Saturday during a star-studded concert in Central Park where my wife sent me a video of Barry Manilow on stage, whose facelift had destroyed his voice, singing his brains out as lightning flashed to the south which shut down the show, but now the rain has ended and the world feels like September with the smell of apples and possibility in the air and I feel young and indomitable, crossing the street in front of eight beefcakes on Harleys and I feel like saying, “Which one of you cream puffs wants to take on a retired radio announcer?”

We’ve been living small for two years now and the simple pandemic life has been good for us. We switched from Perrier to New York tap water and when we want bubbles, we blow through a straw. We’re done with loud restaurants and the social whirl. I gave my fancy clothes to the Salvation Army and now I’m seeing homeless men in Armani tuxes. But now I need a break and I’m thinking we should rent a house on the coast and do what Emerson said, “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air …” Forget about memory loss and do some serious self-care. But do I dare suggest this to the boss?

Read More

The world is not my home but here I am

My favorite word today is “unsubscribe” and I’ve been online clicking it on dozens of emails asking for my cash contributions to their battle in behalf of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which one wants to support, but once you do, your name is transmitted to other righteous causes and now I’m getting appeals from folks running for city council in Omaha and a group petitioning Congress to outlaw the internal combustion engine, the chance of which is less than slight, so I unsubscribe and instead I gave to a soup kitchen raising money for school supplies for indigent kids: how could I say no? A nice red book bag, notebooks, pencils, a sharpener, a ruler, the same stuff I treasured when I started school.

I loved school. I come from fundamentalist people and every year they asked that I be excused from square-dancing in gym class so that I would not be tempted by carnal pleasure, but still they didn’t object to my reading secular literature such as Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. They were gentle people, not like the bearded men with machine guns riding through the streets of Kabul, or the American mujahideen sacking the Capitol in January or Mr. Roseberry in his black pickup parked in front of the Library of Congress Thursday, claiming to have explosives enough to destroy whole city blocks. Finally he had to pee and he surrendered.

Read More

A suddenly older man scans life’s romance

I turned 79 a week ago and I’m quite satisfied with the promotion. I celebrated with lunch with five friends at an outdoor restaurant under a canopy on a perfect summer afternoon and in memory of my frugal parents I ordered the most expensive wines, and the Lord, who prepares a table in the presence of my enemies, prepared an even better one for my friends, and we feasted ourselves silly. My wife was away, tending to the settlement of the estate of a crazy bachelor uncle, and texted me, “I miss you too much,” a very nice touch. I can’t remember a better birthday.

The best gift I got was the word “disarray,” spoken on the phone by a niece in L.A. Somehow I had misplaced that word in favor of “chaos,” “mess,” “clutter,” “shambles,” but “disarray” is so elegant, it sounds French, like the name Desirée, an improvement over “clutter,” which makes confusion sound trashy. My niece agreed. “It’s what I do,” she said, “I bring glamor to confusion.”

At the age of 79, Less is More. Had someone given me a book, nicely wrapped, it would’ve been a burden, but the word “disarray” was perfect. It implies that once we were in array and soon will be again, as soon as the problem is solved. I was in disarray myself, having forgotten to wear a hearing aid, so I didn’t understand most of what was said and had to pantomime comprehension, which I am good at, having been an English major and sat through lectures about books I hadn’t read. The gentleman on my left, however, was a Lutheran minister — and still is, so far as I know — and he spoke loud and clear, so I was not without company. He is a Dane and in Denmark the Lutheran church has debated whether belief in a Supreme Being should be required for ordination. Richard Dawkins argued against God’s existence, saying that omniscience and omnipotence are contradictory. I believe God will clear this up when we meet Him, meanwhile we live with disarray and pray for forgiveness. In my remaining years, I hope to forgive myself. I feel I’m making progress.

Read More

Though interrupted, the writer persists in pleasure

The word from back home is that the sweet corn is not as good as hoped for due to the lack of rain at crucial junctures but I’m guessing the truth is that we expect too much of sweet corn, those of us who grew up with big gardens expect it to be redemptive whereas it is only a grain trying to be a vegetable. My father was a postal worker, a federal employee, not easily moved to rapture, but our sweet corn, which was 30 seconds from stalk to boiling pot, husked en route, made him very happy.

This was why God created suburbs, for the gardening, so that good country people with high standards wouldn’t suffer the indignity of packaged vegetables. My dad would’ve happily planted sweet corn right up to the foundation of the house, no need for grass (we had no cows), but Mother was a city girl so we kept a yard. Dad never bragged about his children but he was proud of his corn: it was the best in the neighborhood. And now, the garden suburb where I grew up is tending toward cellblocks of condos, the very prison life my father sought to escape. Standards are falling all around.

Read More

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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

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           Lake Wobegon virus cover.

 

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