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.

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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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.

So is Lincoln Center. In the Fifties, they tore down sixteen acres of tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller brothers they built a symphony hall, an opera house, a theater, and a dance theater around a plaza with a fountain. Republicans were behind it and Lincoln’s name is on it and when you attend events here, you brush elbows with a good many moguls and grande dames who probably miss Ronald Reagan keenly and you go in to watch performers, 95 percent of them Democrats, some to the left of Bernie Sanders, but the conflicting views between the stage and the box seats are forgotten in the glory of “Der Rosenkavalier” or Beethoven or “Les Sylphides.” If your heart is open to the gifts of genius, you will walk across the plaza afterward, past the fountain, and feel transformed.

I once saw Ellie Dehn of my hometown, Anoka, Minnesota, in a lead role in “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera, and in that glorious moment, I felt that we are truly one country, one people. Anoka is an old milling town on the Mississippi, a football town, but this fabulous soprano had found her way to Manhattan, and I was there to see it. So I’m provincial — what of it? My wife, also an Anokan, had been taken to see the Met’s touring company perform “Carmen” in Minneapolis, Grace Bumbry in the title role. My wife was twelve and stood through the entire performance and has been enthralled by opera ever since and made a career playing viola in the pit. So many things are possible. Dream on. Practice, practice, practice.

I first saw the U.S. Capitol in 1962, heading for Baltimore to attend a wedding, got lost, saw a lighted dome and realized I was in Washington. I parked and walked up the steps and in the door, past one policeman sitting on a folding chair in the foyer, and walked in under the great dome and looked at the statues and murals, and saw only a couple of cops relaxing in a hallway, not paying much attention to anybody.

When I tell people about that night, it feels like ancient history. Those days will never return. Even at the opera, security men wand you as you come through the turnstile. After the Capitol insurrection of January 6, security will be iron-tight forever to come, metal detectors will beep at every steel zipper, uniformed men with assault weapons will watch your every move. Walking into the Capitol of 1962, the openness of it told you that we are a civilized society with a high level of mutual trust. I don’t care to ever visit Washington again and see our government on wartime alert for attacks by our fellow Americans. Too painful.

I’ve seen what I needed to see of Washington. I sat in the Senate gallery once and watched the proceedings and it was dominated by the sort of self-important people I avoided in high school. I went to a ceremony at the White House once and sat where I could see Barack Obama’s teleprompter and saw how beautifully he improvised something much better than the script. So I’ve seen the good and the not so good. America will never be what it once was but still it is good enough. And if Hawley and Cruz get tossed out on the street, we will be better for it.

 

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.

In those debates during the Republican primaries of 2016, old pols like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio stared at him in astonishment — the man made no sense but he could feel the audience’s fascination and he fed on it. There had never been a presidential candidate like him. He was the 300-pound man who won the pole vault. He was an auctioneer with nothing to sell but he could talk faster than anybody else.

The dunces who occupied the Capitol for a few hours got a similar pleasure from their adventure. They got to cross the NO ADMITTANCE line and sit in the Speaker’s chair and put their feet up on her desk, and get photographs of themselves doing it.

When order was reestablished, the suits came back and were full of pious baloney about how the confederacy of lulus had “desecrated” the place by their failed “insurrection” and I’m sorry but they gave the mob too much credit. The halls of Congress are not sacred — the idea of democracy is, but there have been plenty of fools elected to that Congress who desecrate it on a regular basis without any help from the outside. The mob was a band of anarchists with nothing in mind except to cross the red line and take selfies while doing it. As the man said, “Be there, will be wild!”

That’s the whole idea of Trumpism. To call him “authoritarian” is to give him way too much credit. To be a real dictator, you need to have ideas, a goal, something going on upstairs. The man is simply an anarchist. After eight years of the overachiever Obama, people were amused by the idea of a president who was bored with meetings, ignored briefings, liked to play golf, watch TV, and perform for large crowds of people who loved him.

I talked to my friend George on Wednesday as the American Stoopnagle Society took over the Capitol, and he was so downcast, he said, “I feel sad for my country.” I tried to cheer him up, but he’s 85 and a liberal Democrat so he is often slow to get the joke. I told him that the crowd was only out for a good time. And a poll of Republicans later showed that almost half supported the assault on the Capitol. It’s a Good-Time Party now.

The man was an anarchist, out to prove that it doesn’t matter who is president, a potted plant will do just fine. Joe Biden is an honest and decent man. More people prefer that to a potted plant and prefer thoughtful honest people in Congress to old bikers and bozos. So let’s have four years of thoughtfulness and then let the Republicans nominate a springer spaniel in 2024. It could be a close race.

Democracy wasn’t affected by Wednesday. Georgia showed on Tuesday that democracy is quite vital. More than 2 million came out to vote for two thoughtful senators over a springer spaniel and a stoopnagle. It was close, but close only counts in horseshoes.

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.”

I would be stoical, of course. I’m from Minnesota and stoicism is our preferred mode, living in an icebox state among emotionally repressed Andersons and Olsons, but I decided that on this world cruise, I’d write the erotic novel I’ve been eager to write ever since I read Henry Miller in high school, a novel with gasping and thrusting and throbbing and the woman crying out, “Oh my God” over and over and over, and the shudder of ecstasy and two bodies locked together in a chain of climaxes making your ears pop and your teeth chatter.

And then the doctor came in and looked in my mouth and said, “That’s a common growth on the hard palate known as the torus palatinus, and if it doesn’t hurt, we tend to leave it alone. In any case, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. You could see an otolaryngologist but it’s apparently not infected and not cancerous.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and patted my back, and I took a cab home where the birthday party was winding up and people were still laughing about the Mad Libs and the barfing and pooping and all. I was stoical for their benefit, didn’t mention Dr. Carson’s advice about the Queen’s suite with the balcony and the burial at sea. I was quiet at supper. My wife asked if I was okay. “Of course,” I said. I realized that if I had googled “hard lump on roof of mouth” I could’ve learned about the torus palatinus and skipped the anxiety and the cab ride but on the other hand, it was fear of mortality that inspired the idea of two bodies interlocked, her skin against mine, various protuberances hard or soft, lips and roaming hands and her crying “Oh my God” and a person doesn’t need to book passage on a steamship for that, it’s available in the next room, especially now that she has imagined my demise and I notice her standing behind me, her hands on my shoulders, kissing the side of my neck, her beloved face next to mine, and I reach back and find her leg and now I am putting paper and pen away, I shall save the rest for the novel.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 25, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 25, 2021

It’s the birthday of the woman who sang “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” and “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.” Blues singer Etta James (1938).

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A Prairie Home Companion: January 30, 1999

A Prairie Home Companion: January 30, 1999

Live from The Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, MN with Poet Naomi Shihab-Nye, cajun band BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, and The Hopeful Gospel Quartet.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 24, 2021

“Half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any.” ― Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth – Born this day 1862

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 23, 2021

It’s the birthday of biochemist and pharmacologist Gertrude B. Elion (1918), who developed drugs to treat leukemia, malaria, herpes, and AIDS.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, January 22, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, January 22, 2021

It’s the birthday of fiction writer Aryn Kyle (1978) who said “I try to remind myself that Emily Dickinson lived in an attic, which makes me feel well adjusted by comparison.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, January 21, 2021

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.” –Vita Sackville West in a letter written to her lover Virginia Wolf from a train in Italy on this day in 1926.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Today is the birthday of author Susan Vreeland (1946), whose novels merge her love of art and history with fiction.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Today is the 100th birthday of Patricia Highsmith, who is best known for her trilogy about the charming psychopath, Tom Ripley, and is also the author of “Strangers on a Train”, and “The Price of Salt”.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 18, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, January 18, 2021

A.A. Milne was born this day in London, 1882. A successful playwright in his life, his invention of Winnie the Pooh overtook his legacy and that of his son Christopher Robin.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, January 17, 2021

“Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.” Michelle Obama, born this day 1964, from her memoir “Becoming.”

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Writing

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.

Read More

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.”

Read More

The end of the worst, bring on the better

It was a small Christmas, stockings full of candy and also toothpaste and soap, and Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and mashed potatoes and creamy gravy. The wind whistled outside, the tree sparkled, and though we weren’t what you’d call “joyful,” we were in good humor and sweet to each other, and admired each other’s presents, the electric footbath, the brilliant scarf, the woolen shoes, the earbuds, and peeled our Christmas oranges.

In the late morning lull, we attempted to watch the Netflix “California Christmas,” which was a lull even duller than the one it was meant to fill. It topped the TV charts and was as bad as a movie can possibly be. It died quietly before our eyes and I imagined its enormous viewing audience was mostly made up of the bedridden and the imprisoned. My daughter said that girls she knew liked to watch movies with their friends on smartphones, each person watching a different movie, a scene I could not imagine.

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When snow falls, can spring be far behind?

It snowed big-time in New York last week and overnight the city was transformed from gritty realism to a TV Christmas special, the city hushed and magical, skaters skating in Central Park and every sled or saucer, garbage can lid, flattened cardboard, employed in sliding. For the old man, walking flat-footed in tiny steps on an icy sidewalk, sliding feels treacherous but still the snow brings back memories of Minnesota and homemade hockey rinks, using magazines for shin pads and lawn chairs for goals. We had no laptops or video games then. Indoors belonged to grown-ups so we went outside for independence. It was joyful. I still look at snow and feel joyful.

As a Minnesotan, I’ve known people who felt oppressed by snow and cold and escaped, as people once escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, so they could sit outdoors in January and barbecue steaks and drink mai tais. I never longed for the patio lifestyle. People sit on patios in the sunshine and they yell at their kids and complain about schools and taxes and their neighbor’s lawn ornaments. People who sit in a cozy living room on a cold day experience gratitude. They pull a quilt over their lap and feel comforted. They look out the window at snow falling and feel joyful.

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Let the light of heaven shine on me

I’m ashamed that I imagined the Supreme Court might overturn the election. It goes to show how far down the river of unreality a man can go, even a man who has authored books. (Okay, fiction, but still.) I imagined they might go on to overturn Newton’s first law of motion but instead they turned the president upside down and held him by his ankles until, despite powerful spray-on adhesives, his hair hung down.

I confessed my self-deception in church Sunday, which now I attend in my pajamas, sitting in the kitchen, watching on a screen as clergy in vestments process around the sanctuary and ascend into the pulpit. It makes me feel more like a penitent than when I dressed up as a bank vice president to attend in person — here I sit, O Lord, unwashed, uncombed, undeodorized, in a T-shirt and sackcloth pants, cup of black coffee in hand. I live in a prosperous and civilized land and I thought that four men and one woman in black robes might bring democracy to a shuddering halt. Forgive my cynicism.

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Good times ahead, the old man said

I bent down to pick up a popcorn kernel from the kitchen floor the other day and straightened up and whacked my head against an open cupboard door, which hurt and also reminded me of the time I did the very same exact thing back in my early forties, a harder whacking that in an instant decided me that God is not the angry God of my evangelical youth, the author of plagues and disasters, but loves us dearly and grieves with us when we despair. You can find sacred text supporting either Angry or Loving, but that sharp blow to the head like the vorpal blade hitting the Jabberwock settled it for me.

So when people say, “Don’t beat your head against the wall,” I say, “Why not, if it can help?”

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That Time of Year: Chapter One

The story of how a shy Minnesota farm boy invented A Prairie Home Companion.

Read the first chapter of Garrison’s memoir here

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The little guy in the shop around the corner

Amazon has hired a half-million new workers during the pandemic to bring its work force to 1.2 million, so I read in the New York Times, the newspaper that has elected Joe Biden president despite his losing Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, but on the odd chance they may be right, I am now going to walk a few blocks to Gold Leaf Stationers to buy my pens and paper rather than go online.

It’s a romantic notion, I know. Gold Leaf is a small store run by an Ethiopian immigrant, Fasil Yilma, and so there is a story behind it, whereas Jeff Bezos’s story is sort of beyond me. What do you do with your weekend when you’re worth $189 billion? Fasil works at his shop; that’s what he does. He carries the writing materials I need and he also will print stationery with my name across the top. In the age of texting and email, it’s a sweet gesture to write cursive with a pen on an 8-by-5 sheet with your name at the top. A graceful touch of the past, just as small shops are.

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

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

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

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