National Geographic: In Search of Lake Wobegon

Original Publish Date: December 2000

Originally published in National Geographic, with photographs by Richard Olsenius from the book In Search of Lake Wobegon

Twenty-five years ago, for amusement, I invented a small town where the women are strong and the men good-looking and all the children above average and started telling stories about it on the radio, and ever since then people have asked me if it’s a real town, and if it is, then where is it exactly? I used to say it’s fiction. “Oh,” they said. “Sure.” But they were disappointed. People want stories to be true. They don’t care so much about your gifts of invention as the fact that your story reminded them of people they knew when growing up. They want you to say, “The character of Darlene is based about 95 percent on my cousin Charlotte in Dubuque. I only changed the hair from auburn to blonde and made her more chesty.” So I started telling people that the town is in central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of the truth, I guess.

Thirty years ago I lived in Stearns County with my wife and little boy in a rented brick farmhouse south of Freeport, an area full of nose-to-the-grindstone German Catholics devoted to their Holy Mother the Church and proud of their redneck reputation. We moved there for the cheap rent—$80 a month for a house and half-acre vegetable garden, a great boon to a struggling writer. Beyond the windbreak was a couple hundred acres of corn, Cows stood in the pasture and studied us. The Sauk River was nearby to canoe on, and Watab Lake to swim in. It was a land of rolling, well-tended hog and dairy farms punctuated by tidy little towns, each with a ballpark, two or three taverns, and an imposing Catholic church with a cemetery behind it where people named Schrupp, Wendelschafer, Frauendienst, Schoppenhorst, and Stuedernann lay shoulder to shoulder. There were no Smiths to speak of.

When I invented Lake Wobegon, I stuck it in central Minnesota for the simple reason that I knew a little bit about it, and most people, if they know Minnesota at all, know the scenic parts—the North Shore, the Boundary Waters, the Mississippi Valley—and nothing about Stearns County. This gave
me a fairly free hand.

I said that Lake Wobegon (pop. 942) took its name from the Ojibwa word that means “the place where we waited all day for you in the rain,” and if anyone asked why the town appeared on no maps, I explained that when the state map was drawn after the Civil War, teams of surveyors worked their way in from the four outer corners and, arriving at the center, found they had surveyed more of Minnesota than there was room for between Wisconsin and the Dakotas, and so the corners had to be overlapped in the middle, and Lake Wobegon wound up on the bottom flap. (In fact, the geographic center of the state is north of there, in Crow Wing County, but never mind.)

To the German Catholics I added, for dramatic interest, an equal number of Norwegian Lutherans. The Norwegians, ever status conscious, vote Republican, and the Germans vote Democratic because the Norwegians don’t. The Catholics worship at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility and the Lutherans at Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church (David Ingqvist, pastor), home of the National Lutheran Ushering Champions, the Herdsmen.

“Gateway to Central Minnesota” is the town slogan. And through the gateway over the years came a procession of characters. The three boys who drive to Iowa one February morning when they hear of Buddy Holly’s plane crash and discover his blue guitar in the snowy field. The stolid Father Emil who says, in regard to abortion (and much else), “If you didn’t want to go to Minneapolis, why did you get on the train?” and the town handyman Carl Krebsbach who repairs the repairs of the amateurs, and Bruno the fishing dog, and the irascible Art of Art’s Bait & Night O’Rest Motel, its premises studded with warnings (“Don’t clean fish here. Use your brains. This means you!!!”), and Dorothy of the Chatterbox Cafe and her softball-size caramel rolls (“Coffee 25¢, All Morning 85¢, All Day $1.25, Ask About Our Weekly Rates”), and Wally of the Sidetrack Tap, where old men sit and self-medicate. It was Wally’s pontoon boat, the Agnes D., on which 22 Lutheran pastors once crowded for a twilight cruise and weenie roast, and when the grill fell over and the crowd bolted and Agnes D. pitched to starboard, they were plunged into five feet of water and stood quietly, heads uplifted, waiting for help to arrive. It’s a town where the Lutherans all drive Fords bought from Clarence at Bunsen Motors and the Catholics all drive Chevies from Florian at Krebsbach Chevrolet. Florian is the guy who once forgot his wife at a truck stop. Her name is Myrtle. She is a hoot.

The stories I tell on the radio always start with the line, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon,” and then a glimpse of the weather. It’s a fall day, geese flying south across a high blue sky, the air sweet and smoky, the woods in gorgeous van Gogh colors, or it’s winter, snowflakes falling like little jewels from heaven, trees glittering, the bare limbs of trees penciled in gray against the sky, or it’s spring, the tomato plants sprouting in trays of dirt on the kitchen counter, tulips and crocuses poking out of the ground, yellow goldfinches arriving from Mexico, or it’s summer, the gardens booming along, the corn knee-high, and a mountain range of black thunderclouds piling up in the western sky. And then I go on to talk about Norwegian bachelor farmers sitting on the bench in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery or the Chatterbox, where large phlegmatic people sit at the counter talking in their singsong accent. So how you been then? Oh, you know, not so bad, how’s yourself, you keeping busy then? Oh yeah, no rest for the wicked. You been fishing at all? I was meaning to but I got too busy. How about yourself? Nope. The wife’s got me busy around the house, you know. Yeah, I know how that goes—and so forth. And I slip into the story, and take it around the turns and bring it to a point of rest, and say, “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon,” and that’s all there is to it.
Two years ago, after my telling people for years that Lake Wobegon was near Stearns County, the county made a section of Great Northern railbed into a bike trail and named it the Lake Wobegon Trail, thus putting my imaginary town on the map, and last spring I decided I had better spend a few days driving around the area, to see if it was there or not.

Minnesota is a state of decent hardworking rural people, most of whom live in cities and don’t care for them much and prefer the outskirts where you can own two or three or five or ten acres—what real estate agents call a hobby farm, with room for a garden, an immense yard, a dog kennel, a shed, a snowmobile, and a satellite dish, and so Minneapolis and St. Paul sprawl far out into farm country, the outer citizens commuting an hour or more each way so as to enjoy the illusion of rural life. There are trace elements of hobby farms almost all the way to St. Cloud, the Stearns County seat.

The eastern approach to Lake Wobegon is Division Street, St. Cloud, a four-mile strip of free enterprise in full riot, the fast-food discount multiplex warehouse cosmos adrift in its asphalt sea, the no-man’s-land of 24-hour gas stations that sell groceries and photocopies, and the shiny plastic restaurants where, if you ate lunch there for the rest of your life, you would never meet anybody you know or get to know anybody you meet, a tumult of architecture so cheap and gaudy and chaotic you wonder how many motorists in search of a drugstore and a bottle of aspirin wound up piling into a light pole, disoriented by flashing lights and signage and access road signs. And then the cosmos peters out and you emerge from hell and come into paradise, rural Minnesota.

You drive past the rolling fields, the valleys of little rivers, and every farmstead is different, some more formal, with white painted fences and all the buildings at right angles; others seem to have grown without much supervision and are strewn with old vehicles and historical artifacts of an appliance nature. Some are exposed, nearly treeless, and others are barely visible from the road, deep in their woodlots. Some have a limber and attentive dog who will take a run at you if you slow down.

There are major poultry operations in the county, vast prison tamps of chickens, and a big mail-order outfit, and some big granite quarries near Rockville, blasting out millions of cubic feet of rock every year. (West of St. Cloud is a sign, “Buy Direct/ Monuments,” and an outdoor display of dozens of gravestones arranged as if in a cemetery, but the faces are blank.) At the Rockville quarry stand stacks of 24-ton blocks of granite with striated grooves down the sides, including Rockville Beige and Diamond Pink, two local granites, and also Mesabi Black, and Lake Superior Green, and black granite from Africa. There never was a Minnesota Granite Rush back when the rock was first discovered; it’s too much work getting the stuff out of the ground. And I never mention quarrying in the Wobegon saga because I don’t know the first thing about it. I only talk about abandoned quarries where teenagers go to swim and drink beer and neck.

The county appears to be prospering: population up 35 percent since 1970, new prefab industrial buildings cropping up along the main routes, trucks at the loading docks, forests of billboards as you approach Freeport and Avon and Albany. Avon (pop. 1,144) even has what looks to be a suburb on the east side of town, with suburban street names like Angelfish Avenue, Barracuda, Char. The dairy farms are as trim as ever: new silos in evidence, the big hip-roof barns well kept, the cows themselves look professional, courteous, goal oriented. Corn prices are low, but farmers here raise corn only to feed cows, and milk prices are still good enough, barely, to live on.

(One farmer told me that barns start falling apart if the cattle are evacuated; cows keep the temperature and humidity up, and if they are sold off, the barn goes to pieces fairly quickly. A symbiotic relationship.)

Holdingford (pop. 638) is the town that looks most Wobegonic to me. It has a fine little downtown of elderly brick buildings and a big thriving grocery and a classic four-legged, cone-topped water tower (torn down after my visit, I was sorry to hear), a graveyard full of big stones, and down by the river the Holdingford Mill, a jewel-like assembly of galvanized-metal cylinders and boxes and sloped roofs, and a faded old red boxcar on an abandoned siding that would have been headquarters for a gang of boys except it is smack in town, too close to enemy lines.

I dropped into Mary’s Family Restaurant, formerly the Rainbow Cafe, for coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies and eavesdropped on a fellow reminiscing about the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940. He was 14 at the time, and it made a big impression on him. He and his brothers walked out of a second-story window onto the snow and dug a tunnel to the barn. He talked about logging up north and picking potatoes in North Dakota and earning a buck twenty-five a day. “Today everybody wants to make 20 bucks an hour and not do any work,” he said. There were four of us at the counter, and none of us disagreed with him. I myself would prefer to not do any work for much more than twenty bucks an hour but didn’t wish to discuss it.

New Munich is the town closest to the farm my family and I lived on. You drive past the sign (“Welcome to New Munich, Home of Munichfest,” which shows a dancing couple smiling, holding beers in their free hands), past Spinners Bar and Grill, New Munich Meats, the Munich Hofbrau, and come to the church, a big dramatic brick church trimmed in carved sandstone, with a bell tower, clock-faces on all four sides, and magnificent heavy doors with big black hinges, a veritable cathedral in a town of only 335. Nothing about this modest village prepares you for the grandeur within—the inlaid tile floor and the high columns with figured capitals, the rose windows in the transepts, the lovely statues with the compassionate faces. I thought I had based Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility on this church, but I could see that I didn’t get the baroque feel at all. Such a huge sanctuary, leaping arches, big organ and choir loft in the back, organ pipes, all illuminated by tall stained-glass windows: If I’d put it in Lake Wobegon, nobody would’ve believed it.

It’s a county of many grand churches: St. Benedict’s in Avon, with its red roof and bell tower, and St. Rose of Lima at the end of two rows of tall cedars in St. Rosa, and Seven Dolors in Albany, an orange-brick beauty that glows in the setting sun, and Sacred Heart in Freeport, a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof. But the church in New Munich stands out as a mighty architectural shout, an exuberant brick crescendo meant to astonish farmers and shopkeepers for all time and bring doubters to their knees.

Freeport calls itself the Dairy Center of the World, and in Charlie’s Cafe the cook does not stint on dairy products: The banana cream pies are big enough to be bowling trophies. I had a grilled-cheese sandwich, a bowl of chili, and a slab of pie, and felt my belt and collar tightening. I got up and walked along the main drag. I saw an old man walk out of the post office who reminded me of Florian Krebsbach, a man in a brown porkpie hat and pale blue polyester suit and green plaid shirt with a string tie with an agate on the clasp and wearing white shoes. When I lived here 30 years ago, Freeport was my post office, my supply station, and once I went into the bank and asked a loan officer if I could borrow money, offering my fiction as collateral as a farmer might borrow against his corn crop. The officer said he didn’t think so.

Freeport was a railroad town, and the tracks ran along the south side of Main Street, and now the tracks are gone, and the one-sided Main Street remains, like an architect’s rendering. Down the street is the Pioneer Inn. The Sidetrack Tap in Lake Wobegon was modeled after it, a gloomy smoke-filled sour-smelling tavern, cluttered with neon beer signs and deer heads and mottoes (“Don’t Sleep In Our Bar, We Don’t Drink in Your Bed”), except the Pioneer Inn has been cleaned up and remodeled, the sourness expunged. A few guys at the bar were talking about fishing and the lottery, neither of which was paying off for them lately. One of them said that Big Watab Lake, southeast of there, is 120 feet deep and home to some mighty pugnacious fish, none of which he had caught lately.

The Central Minnesota Arts Board lists two dozen theater companies and music groups in the county, but it doesn’t mention the dozens of taverns and cafés that are the actual centers of culture here. Like Fisher’s, an old screen porch of a supper club in Avon, open only in the summer, where you bring your own whiskey and they supply the glass, the ice, the baked walleye dinner with salad. Places with names like the Corner Bar, Sportsman’s Bar, Tip Top, or the Buckhorn, where gentlemen congregate for the purpose of enjoying a cold one and solving the problems of the world. They plant themselves in a booth, or lean against the bar, and they enact a classic four-character play: There’s the Reader, who has come across an interesting item in the paper (“I read that within five years they’ll have figured out how to throw a bunch of genetically engineered enzymes into a steel tank full of wet silage and turn it into milk”), and there’s the Grouch, who maintains a dark view of human nature (“the big corporations are behind it because they want to clear out the little guys and put in 10,000-acre farms”), the Worrier, always a little nervous about something (“genetic engineering or not, I just can’t see things getting better anytime in the foreseeable future, I’ll tell you that”), and the Big Fella, the guy who holds back until the topic is exhausted and then gives the final word (“people are not going to buy artificial milk. That’s been proven. You can bet on it”). They sit and hold forth on politics (corrupt, on both sides, always has been), global warming (hogwash), golf (a huge waste of time), the Internet (ditto), education (not what it used to be), women (creatures of superstition and pointless ritual), the benefits of physical exercise (when it’s your time to die, you die, whether you walk two miles a day or not), and they take turns buying rounds, and if you happen to believe that mankind is on the verge of a new age of enlightenment and progress, these gentlemen will have a fine time pulling your chain.

Being there, drinking a beer, looking down the bar toward the others standing 15 feet away brought back a sudden clear memory of 1970 and sitting in the very same spot near the door and overhearing men talk and wishing I knew how to join in that conversation. A sudden jolting memory I had put away for 30 years.

Nobody ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. No minister visited to encourage us to worship on Sunday, no neighbor dropped in with a plate of brownies. Several times I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until finally I went away. In town the shopkeepers and the man at the garage were cordial, of course, but if I said hello to someone on the street, he glanced down at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town. I didn’t have long hair or a beard, didn’t dress oddly or do wild things, and it troubled me. I felt like a criminal.
This fear of outsiders was explained to me years later by a Stearns exile who said that the German population was so traumatized, first by the anti-Teutonic fevers of World War I that forbade the use of their language in schools, then by Prohibition that made outlaws of decent upstanding beer drinkers, that they never could trust auslanders again. A strange face is, to them, a cruel face. My German neighbors were a closed community, and I wasn’t in it and had no part of it. Proximity does not bestow membership.

I accepted this because I come from similar people. Mine were Protestant fundamentalists, who lived by the Word and not by the opinion of others, and were wary of strangers, and didn’t go in for small talk, period. We were taciturn people to start with who could sit in silence for long stretches and not feel uncomfortable. If strangers came to the door, they were dealt with and sent on their way. They were not people of the Word, and their friendship meant nothing to us.

As I sat in the Pioneer Inn and recalled the years I spent in Stearns County, it dawned on me where Lake Wobegon had come from. All those omniscient narrator stories about small-town people came from a guy sitting alone at the end of a bar, drinking a beer, who didn’t know anything about anything going on around him. Stories about prodigals welcomed home, outcasts brought into the circle, rebels forgiven: all from the guy at the end of the bar. In three years only one man ever walked the 15 feet to find out who I was—he walked over and said, “You live out on the Hoppe place, don’t you:’ I said that I did, and he nodded, satisfied that now he had me placed, and turned and moseyed back to the herd. There was nothing more to say. So I invented a town with a bar in which, if a stranger enters, he is, by God, without fail, intriguing to the regulars, and conversation ensues and he turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin. In order to be accepted, I had to invent a town like the imaginary friend I had in second grade, David, who walked to school with me. The loner nursing his beer at the end of
the bar is starved for company. He and his wife have little to say to each other these days, and in the long shadows of a winter night, in extreme need of society, he drives to town and sits at the bar, where his pride and social ineptitude get in the way. He has no idea how to traverse those 15 feet without feeling like a beggar, so he goes back home to his typewriter and invents characters who look like the guys in the bar but who talk a blue streak, whose inner life he is privy to, and soon he
has replaced the entire town of Freeport with an invented town of which he is the mayor, the fire chief, the priest, the physician, and the Creator himself, and he gets a radio show, and through perseverance and dumb luck and a certain facility the fictional town becomes more famous than the real town, and now when he goes to Freeport, some people come up and say, “You’re Garrison Keillor, aren’t you.” A person could write a story about this.

I respect Stearns County for its egalitarianism. It may look down on strangers, but it looks down on all of them equally, and it doesn’t look down on people because they have less money or do dirty work. And it has a real culture. It doesn’t draw its identity from the media, it draws it up out of the past, like well water. The media world is a small town of its own, and information is the currency—who’s up, who’s down, what’s new, what’s newer—but here the currency is character, as expressed in stories. So I made up stories about its character, morphing some of my old fundamentalist relatives into German Catholics.

I had a train pull up on a sidetrack in 1938 and an aging Babe Ruth step down and wave to the crowd. He was with the Sorbasol barnstorming team that played the local nine that afternoon, and the Babe hit one so far it was never found again. The ballpark is still there. The Whippets play there, and in the spring middle-aged men who have smelled the April air come with a glove and toss a ball around. Here beside the tracks is the foundation of an old grain elevator that, one Saturday night in the summer of 1942, as various couples sat and smoked and drank beer and necked in their cars along the train tracks, went up in a pillar of flame 500 feet high, and people leaped from those cars and tore for cover and the churches were full the following Sunday. Most of those couples married soon afterward, and most of the marriages lasted. Not a true story, but when the thing blew up, it seemed real enough. The cemetery in Freeport is behind the church, but in Lake Wobegon I put it on a hill, which Freeport doesn’t have. It was there that Clarence Bunsen gave his famous Memorial Day address.

The VFW honor guard stood at parade rest in front of the monument to the Grand Army of the Republic. Their feet hurt, their jackets pinched, they needed a drink. The crowd stood waiting on the grass. A boy recited:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
“This is my own, my native land!”
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?

There was a tremendous long silence, and then Pastor Ingqvist gave a nod and Clarence stepped forward and said, “If there were one time when words truly seemed inadequate, one occasion when silence seemed so appropriate, it would be here and now. It would be more fitting if we were silent for two minutes and looked around us and thought of our people here and their gifts to this country.” He stepped back. Everyone looked around at the markers and the little flags fluttering and listened to the breeze in the leaves. An oriole sang. And then someone blew his nose. The whole honor guard was crying. Old men with rifles to their shoulders dug down in their pockets and got out their big red hankies and blew.
And afterward they pressed around Clarence and shook his hand and said it was perfect, they’d be grateful to him for the rest of their lives. He didn’t tell them that when Pastor Ingqvist nodded to him, he suddenly remembered that he was supposed to speak, and a wave of guilt washed over him that he had forgotten Memorial Day, the day of remembrance, and he wanted to cry out, “I am not worthy!” And then he felt steady again. “It’s not about you,” he thought. “You’re not the reason they’re here.” And he stepped forward and said his piece.

I feel the same way about Stearns County and Lake Wobegon. It isn’t up to me. I can’t re-create it. I find that if I leave out enough details in my stories, the listener will fill in the blanks with her own hometown, and if a Freeport girl exiled in Manhattan hears the story about Memorial Day, she’ll put it right smack there in that cemetery with those names on the stones, and she may think of her uncle Alcuin who went to France and didn’t return, and get out her hanky and blow. I’m not the reason she’s moved, he is. All I do is say the words: cornfield and Mother and algebra and Chevy pickup and cold beer and Sunday morning and rhubarb and loneliness, and other people put pictures to them.

Young Peter

PETER OSTROUSHKO: Living in Wonderful Memories and Forever in his Music

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by and could they get together sometime and play. So they did. He played some with Rudy’s band, the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, and then with Dakota Dave Hull, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band, the New Prairie Ramblers, the Mando Boys, Robin and Linda Williams. He had the chops and he had the heart. He could sight-read at tempo. He was always focused on the tune and his instrument, never seemed to be out to impress anyone. He was a composer and an improviser. Once, in Ashland, he walked onstage with the Spunks and stumbled and fell, carrying a borrowed Gibson mandolin, tucked it into his body, curled up, did a somersault, got to his feet, mandolin unharmed. He grew up on Ukrainian cooking and came to love barbecue, and looked for BBQ joints near the venues he played — “No pig, no gig,” said Peter. He liked fried egg and pickle sandwiches. He met Marge and they lived in a house on Nicollet Island, upstairs from guitarist Tim Hennessy, who called him “Mr. Buddy,” and they played swing, Irish fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and Peter’s compositions. ...

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Available now: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

Where would we be without Google? We’d be at the library, wasting our lives searching through reference books in the basement, looking up odd facts. I googled, “Where would we be without Google?” the other day and in 39/100ths of a second Google located 4,530,000,000 results. If I spent one minute examining each result, it would take me thousands of years. So there’s your answer. Thanks to Google, we get enough information to kill us many times over. In the old days, we experienced the world directly through sight, sound, touch, and personal memory, and now we look for it in a computer.

I worry about memory loss now after my cousin told me about a family reunion I had forgotten I put on years ago where there were bagpipers and her little daughter Maggie sat on my lap and said my eyebrows looked like caterpillars. I don’t think I’m demented, but how would I know? Thank goodness, my sister found pictures of the party on her computer.

I was a writer back then, and now the young writers I know are working as Uber drivers because the publishing business is going the way of carriage-making and nobody I know is making a living from it. The Internet killed it, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And so I write sonnets for lefties to amuse people who consider me to be one.

When I think of you, Christina, my eyes get misty,
If any sensible man wished to be kissed he
Would want it to be your sweet lips.
You were a beautiful radical left-winger,
Marcher, protester, and folksinger,
With forty pins on your bosom for all your memberships.
I see you holding a sign on campus long ago,
The big letters: CAPITALISM HAS TO GO
Oh my darling Chris, if you kissed
Me I would gladly be a communist.
Your kisses would set off bright sparks
That turn this man toward Karl Marx.
We’d find a cabin to get warm and spoony in
And there would be a Soviet union.

Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

Remember when Kamala Harris introduced him to come out and speak and the man jogged out to the lectern? Big stage, long jog — he was trying to counter Republican talk of him being doddery and frail, and now I pray to God he doesn’t take up running. Please. Remember when Jimmy Carter ran in a marathon and collapsed and the Secret Service had to scoop him up? He looked like death on toast. It was the end of the Carter presidency right then and there. A president should avoid all sports that might lead to physical collapse. It’s terrible for the stock market.

Golf, it goes without saying, is off the list. Too many optical memories. And the sight of the presidential posterior as he bends for a putt is off-putting. And what it costs the Secret Service to secure a golf course for two hours is absurd and obscene.

Ronald Reagan looked terrific on horseback, thanks to his years at Warner Brothers. Same with John Kennedy at the helm of a sailboat, rudder in hand. But those aren’t Joe’s scenes. Seeing his fondness for his big dogs won over a lot of people who feared he might harbor communistic tendencies. Dog-lovers are not pinkos; commies have always preferred cats. Those dogs are working dogs, not show dogs, rescue dogs, and they can be retrained as retrievers and go pheasant hunting. Of course it would irritate the vegan caucus of the Democratic Party but the pluses outweigh the minuses — Joe tramping through tall grass in South Dakota, his faithful dogs by his side, and suddenly there’s a frantic flutter of wings in the tall grass and he raises the shotgun to his shoulder and shoots and the dogs retrieve the deadsters and in the act of shooting, he becomes iconic, Man the Bringer of Provisions. He could do this by raising carrots and onions, of course, but hoeing lacks the impact of shooting. Just ask the pheasant.

The last Democratic president to win South Dakota was LBJ in 1964. Biden hunting pheasants could change that and maybe win Wyoming and Montana. It needs to be changed. The country is in crisis when one of the major parties turns its back on rural America and forces them to vote psychotic. We Democrats do well among fencers and archery enthusiasts but we’ve crossed gun owners off our list. Guns have been around since the 14th century. In rural America, guns are normal; it’s not like L.A. that way. Get over it.

Be a hunter, sir. Head for South Dakota with the dogs and spend the night in a cabin by a roaring fire and feast on pheasant, have a whiskey or two, enjoy immature jokes. Face it, we’ve let the Left go gentle, trapping us in the caregiver role, making us susceptible to defeat by tough-talking autocrats. Half of America sees us Democrats as the Party of Croquet, Crochet, and Croissants. You can change this, Joe, by simply picking up a shotgun. You’ve come a long way in one year. The Republicans tried to label you as Biden, a stranger with weird friends and lots of odd baggage, but you’ve become Joe. Trump was a verb but you’re a noun, a real person, an uncle, a brother, and when you take the dogs to the cabin in the Black Hills, your country cousins will be enormously pleased. Do not go golfing. If you have clubs, throw them away. Air Force One lands in Rapid City and you and the dogs come down the ramp and you’re grinning as you get in the pickup and head for the hills and I’m seeing a 75% approval rating, maybe 80, 85 if you bag your limit.

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.

The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

I was not asked for a credit card at any point, or a Medicare card, so evidently the country is slipping into socialism, as Republicans predicted, but I am too old to argue, I obey. Young people wearing badges told me which line to get in and I did. A young woman who said she was a nurse gave the shot and I didn’t ask to see her license. Nor did I ask for assurance that the vaccine did not contain a hallucinogen that would make me accept the Fake News: I already accept that Joe Biden was elected president and that Trump supporters invaded the Capitol on January 6. It’s too laborious to believe otherwise. This is Occam’s Razor, the principle they taught in high school science: the simpler theory tends to be true. You’d have to devote weeks to working up a new theory of massive electoral fraud by Venezuelans and Antifans buying thousands of MAGA hats to storm the Capitol, and at 78 I don’t have the time for that. The vaccine may extend my lifetime but there are no guarantees.

This is the problem with getting old: you’re forced to face up to mortality and so you cut back on your commitments. I probably could be a decent tennis player again but I’d have to devote twenty hours a week to the effort. Ditto soap carving, stamp collecting, and the study of coelacanths. It’d take too much time so these must be left to younger people, along with dread and dismay. Too time-consuming.

More and more people around me are dying and it’s never the ones I wish would expire. I have four people on my wish list whom, as a Christian, I should forgive but I don’t because (1) they haven’t asked and (2) forgiveness will not change their loathsomeness, so instead I wish for them to go live in Alabama or Mississippi and perhaps secede, and meanwhile I dread the phone ringing, for fear that one of the righteous has fallen instead.

I keep in close touch with several octogenarians whom I think of as an advance party, just as Custer had a band of Crow scouts at the Little Big Horn who knew the territory, and when I ring up my scouts and ask, “How are you?” I want to know what 83 and 85 and 87 feel like from day to day. My cousin Stan is my oldest scout at 89 and still walks and exercises and has all his marbles — when I spoke to him last week, he twice corrected his own grammar — so I hope for eleven more years, fully marbled, which makes me cheerful and cheerfulness is the key to the kingdom. I avoid dark topics such as global warming and the demise of democracy — and leave those to the young who will have to deal with them.

I watched some of the Senate trial and I worry for my country, that we’re deciding finally who we are but I’m a back issue. I was 21 when President Kennedy was shot and a great deal died in Dealey Plaza, and then the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. My grandson, who just graduated with honors from college, came long after all that and is fascinated by politics and is ambitious to dig in and more power to him. I’m living in the liberal tribal reservation of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and so I know nothing. My mission is to live gracefully and be amused at mortality and keep in touch with the people in their 50s and 60s looking to me for guidance. No complaining. Be useful. Every day you make your partner laugh is a good day.

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

This featured show comes from the west side of the Mississippi River, from the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with special guests, bluegrass sensation Becky Schlegel, country singer Kim Parent, and girls’ quartet GQ, and men’s septet The Limestones.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 7, 2021

“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep./But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” By Robert Frost. Published on this day 1923.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 6, 2021

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” How do we love poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Born in Durham, England, 215 years ago today.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 5, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 5, 2021

“The law has nothing to do with justice, and injustice can’t be left unchallenged. So I decided to be a writer” – Leslie Marmon Silko, born this day in 1948

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 4, 2021

Today is the birthday of author Khaled Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His breakout novel “The Kite Runner” sold over 1 million copies in 2 years.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 3, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 3, 2021

On this day in 1931 Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem of the United States.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

“I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” – Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904)

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 1, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 1, 2021

On this date in 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park in the world. American author Wallace Stegner wrote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

Live from RTE studios in Dublin, Ireland, A Prairie Home Companion welcomes traditional Irish singer Niamh Parsons with Graham Dunne; Cathal McConnell along with Big John and Valerie McManus; and the tenor Frank Harte.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, February 28, 2021

On this date in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA after stealing the work of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin who had xray photographed the DNA molecule.

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Writing

Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

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Peter Ostroushko: Living in Wonderful Memories and in his Music Forever

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by […]

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

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The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.
The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

Read More

The pandemic: one man’s appreciation

I am sitting here watching over and over a video my wife took with her phone in Central Park after the 18-inch snowfall last week, looking through the trees at a snowy hill and listening to the shouts and shrieks of joy from New York children as they slide down the hill on saucers and sleds and cardboard. Shrieks of joy are a rare and beautiful thing and I keep replaying this 60-second drama, recalling my own sliding days back in Minnesota. the steep hill that we slid down and out onto the frozen Mississippi.

I remember feeling joyful on a toboggan with Corinne. We were 10 years old. She stood, her hands fluttering at her side, and I climbed on behind her and we slid at tremendous speed and I’m sure we shrieked. On the Central Park video, some parents are sliding with their kids, but this was unknown back in my day. Parents stayed indoors; the snow belonged to children. I do note that the New York parents do not shriek. Joy fades with age, though I did once see a gang of old men in Virginia dancing to jigs and hornpipes, and joy shone clear in their faces. I was brought up by evangelicals who forbade dancing on the grounds that it was licentious but here were old men grinning as their feet kept up with fast fiddlers. No shrieks but some whoops and yells.

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An old Democrat in a chorus in the Orkneys

I missed out on the GameStop frenzy on Wall Street last week and didn’t earn a bundle of money, but for me, it was enough that the temperature got up to forty, a slight thaw that made me think of spring, I being the registered optimist that I am. After all, I am a Democrat, the party that seeks to legislate against ignorance and cruelty. I believe in the goodness of people I pass on the street and I think that by July, we’ll be crowding into comedy clubs and laughing at pandemic jokes.

Other people imagine that the thaw means snow melting on the roof and leaking down the walls and dripping asphalt onto our scrambled eggs, causing incurable cancer. I do not imagine toxic snowmelt. I imagine baseball.

Ice is our friend. The ice melt on Earth is now twice what it was in the Nineties, 1.3 trillion tons a year, due to global warming, and this melt leads to the rise of oceans and more warming. Our grandchildren will have to deal with the problem and they will look back at the early 21st century as the Era of Stupidification. I regret that. But one must be hopeful. When you’re tied to the railroad track and the headlight of the Midnight Special is getting brighter and brighter, hope is what you have.

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The world turns, days get longer

The days are definitely longer. I got a COVID shot last week and a guy in Georgia invited me to come do a show in the fall and one morning I asked my wife, “What’s in the news?” and she said, “Not much.” Things change, we move on, “lizard brain” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary and so is “amenitize” and “back-sass,” “bohunkus,” “code speak” (deliberately ambiguous), “cooked-up,” “jinx” (when two people say the same thing simultaneously), “pitchy” (meaning off-key), and “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” and this is not the Omaha English Dictionary, this is O-X-F-O-R-D, this is men in medieval gowns and hoods with letters after their names such as DCL, DM, and DLitt and where “color” is spelled with a U.

The decapitated chicken was a common phrase in my childhood, and one we saw firsthand in the backyard when we killed chickens. Nobody in my family ever got frantic, there was no shouting, no hysteria. Once in a blue moon my mom might say, “You kids are driving me to a nervous breakdown,” but no breakdown followed. We were a quiet family; I don’t claim that this is virtuous but it certainly saves time.

I came to imagine that an impassioned temperament was a sign of artistic talent so I accepted being an ordinary workman, which suits me just fine. And I accept being a white male though I don’t consider it definitive, any more than “size-12 shoe” or “Minnesotan” or “man on blood thinner” is. I am not simply white, I’m of Scots-Yorkshire ancestry, a mournful people who thrive on cold and cloudiness. Precipitation cheers us up. In bright sunlight we shrivel up, put us in a cold fog and we bloom. We are comfortable with silence. We wave away compliments. We are good at suppressing feeling, our own and other people’s. Nonetheless, when the woman I love sits on my lap and puts her head against mine and says, “I need you,” I am moved, deeply. I don’t hurl brushfuls of paint at a canvas or compose a crashing sonata or write a long poem, unpunctuated, all lowercase, in poetic code speak and revolutionary syntax, but I am very moved. I wouldn’t say so if it weren’t true.

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A night outside, eating with friends

I admit that when I hear the word “impeachment” I think of fruit, and “censure” makes me think of dentures, which is a sign that I’ve been watching too much news: time for a break. How often can you look at the man with the tattooed pectorals and the horned helmet and what understanding do you gain from it? So you make the screen go dark and do other things.

The lady and I went to dinner with friends the other night and the four of us spent more than an hour making no reference to the riot at the Capitol, an entirely trumpless hour, which felt like a triumph. We ate outdoors under heat lamps on Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center, which is very very dark, and we didn’t talk about the virus either.

We talked about a baby named Charlie born in Atlanta a few days before and showed pictures of him, tightly swaddled. His mother is a mathematician married to a landscape architect. The fact that young people still want to bring children into this world is an encouraging sign, a gesture of faith.

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Dolts are dolts: don’t give them too much credit

The pictures of Wednesday stick with you — the mob rushing up the steps when the line of cops broke, the bozo smashing the window with a pole, the gangs of Trumpers running wild in the marble halls and the cops in confusion, the lout lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s chair — it was an assault of a few thousand of the densest people in America, a congregation of barflies and dropouts and people you’d never hire to look after your children, who were so thrilled to triumph over authority they could hardly stand it. That was the whole point of it. To roam around where you weren’t supposed to go, to sit in the Speaker’s office, and to take selfies while they did it. It was the high point of their lives.

It thrilled them that Congress fled and hid in the basement and they got to parade around and wave their Trump banners and yell and own the place, which is pretty much how their man feels about the White House. He had little interest in policy but he loved the security entourage, the chopper on the lawn, Air Force One, being saluted. He was ill-informed and had the attention span of a housecat but he was Boss and smart people had to kowtow to him. It was glorious. What fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

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A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE. Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone. I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise. “Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

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

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

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