The Writer’s Almanac for November 25, 2018


Sentimental Education
by Tony Hoagland

And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knife

pried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in a time of war.

“The ones who will survive,” he told us,
looking at us hard,
“are the ones who are willing to do anything.”
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.

And that was Lesson Number 4
in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.

I looked at my pale, scrawny, knock-kneed, bug-eyed brother,
who was identical to me,
and saw that, in a world that ate the weak,
we didn’t have a prayer,

and next thing I remember, I’m working for a living
at a boring job
that I’m afraid of losing,

with a wife whose lack of love for me
is like a lack of oxygen,
and this dead thing in my chest
that used to be my heart.

Oh, if he were alive, I would tell him, “Dad,
you were right! I ate a lot of stuff
far worse than bugs.”

And I was eaten, I was eaten,
I was picked up
and chewed
and swallowed

down into the belly of the world.

 

“Sentimental Education” by Tony Hoagland, from Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. © Graywolf Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission of the estate. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1864 that a group of rebels failed in their attempt to burn down the city of New York.

By 1864, things weren’t going well for the Confederate Army, and it seemed unlikely that they could gain enough military ground fighting in the South to win the war. So Jefferson Davis turned to political maneuvering. There was a group in the North known as the Copperheads, or Peace Democrats, who strongly opposed Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. They wanted peace, but they wanted it for complex reasons — they didn’t exactly support slavery, but many of them sympathized with Southern slaveholders; and they didn’t want Lincoln to free the slaves, partly out of racism and partly out of fear that freed slaves would move North and compete for jobs. The Copperhead movement was most popular in rural areas of Ohio, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, where they were wary of the North’s quick industrialization. They called for a return to America’s core values. And they were especially harsh in their criticism of Lincoln, calling him a “fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism,” a “tyrant,” and a “butcher.” They circulated material about Lincoln’s pact with the devil, and portrayed him as a black man, “Abraham Africanus.”

Davis was hopeful that he could join forces with these Northern sympathizers. He had received coded letters claiming that there were 490,000 Copperheads ready to organize and act against Lincoln and the government. Davis sent Jacob Thompson, a former senator and Secretary of the Interior, to Toronto, to head up a Confederate Secret Service. Thompson set up a plot for Confederate agents to sneak down to Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention would be in September. Their plan was to free almost 20,000 Confederate soldiers who were locked up in Illinois, and those soldiers would unite with the Copperheads into a huge army that would materialize right in the North and force Lincoln to divert troops to the Midwest. At the same time, one of the Copperheads would be endorsed by the party and win the election away from Lincoln, and the Civil War could end in a way that the Confederacy and the Copperheads liked.

But the plot didn’t materialize. No one is sure how many Copperheads there really were in the Midwest, but the numbers are probably exaggerated, and in any case there was a big gap between hating the President and being prepared to join a rebel army. So nothing came of that idea.

Instead, a new plot was hatched, this time to burn down New York City just before the presidential election. Eight young Confederate officers, all under the age of 30, went to Toronto to plan the mission. Unfortunately for them — and fortunately for Lincoln, the North, and the city of New York — the men had been distinguished soldiers but they weren’t very good secret operatives. Their plan involved burning several targets each, using a substance called “Greek fire,” a combination of phosphorous and turpentine that ignited as soon as it had contact with air. But they weren’t going to get the Greek fire until they arrived in New York, so none of them practiced using it before they got to the city, at which point they spent a few minutes playing around in Central Park. But the police had been tipped off, and right before the elections, thousands of Union troops arrived in New York to maintain the peace. Sherman’s recent victory in Atlanta had refueled Lincoln’s popularity, and he won easily. The group decided to postpone their arson. Instead of choosing the sites most likely to spread a fire, like lumber yards and the gas works, they chose mostly hotels. They decided to make piles of furniture and bed linens and at a certain time, all light them on fire.

And on this day in 1864, they gave it a try. They set fire to 13 hotels, a pier, a barge, and Barnum’s Museum. But the fires failed. Only one hotel was seriously damaged, and no one was badly hurt. It turns out that the men hadn’t known to open the doors and windows — with them shut, the phosphorous didn’t have enough oxygen and just smoldered and went out. The remaining fires were quickly discovered by staff at the hotels and put out by the fire department. What could have been total devastation is now an almost forgotten event.


On this day in 1947, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America announced an official blacklist of the Hollywood Ten, a group of nine screenwriters and one director. Often conflated with the Senate subcommittee headed by Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, the blacklist was in fact a concession to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, whose investigation of Communism in the movies began a month before McCarthy even took office, and three years before he came to any kind of national attention. Although government officials like McCarthy would eventually accuse everyone from clergymen to public school teachers of harboring Communists, the hunt began in Hollywood, centered on writers, and was helped along by the movie executives who on this day agreed to punish anyone the HUAC saw fit.

The American Communist Party had swelled in ranks during the height of the Great Depression, when its campaigns for the rights of the poor attracted members who hadn’t yet heard of the atrocities committed by Stalin’s Communist regime. It was especially popular among young artists and within Hollywood’s progressive climate. By the end of World War II, however, reports of brutal repression in Soviet-controlled states began to reach America, where the increasingly conservative political atmosphere considered Communism a threat. HUAC, the committee charged by the House of Representatives to investigate anyone having Communist or Fascist ties, announced that they would look into allegations that Communists were secretly planting propaganda in U.S. films. They released a list of 43 witnesses they intended to subpoena. Nineteen of those named announced that they would not testify if called.

The hearings began in October of 1947, when several movie professionals, including Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, testified that indeed, the Communist influence was real and dangerous. Of the 19 people who’d promised to refuse participation, only 11 were actually summoned. One of them, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht who’d written a single Hollywood screenplay, worried that withholding his cooperation could detain him in the States. He answered the Committee’s questions — truthfully stating that he’d never been a member of the Communist Party, and carefully skirting other questions about his political beliefs — and left for Europe the very next day.

The remaining 10, now known as the Hollywood Ten, made good on their promise. Although being affiliated with the Communist Party was perfectly legal — and they had all been at one time, or still were — they resented the implication that this made them “un-American.” Fearing persecution and standing on the principle that such an investigation was itself un-American, each declined to answer the Committee’s questions, citing their First Amendment rights and some protesting the committee’s activities as unconstitutional. On November 24, the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. All would serve time in prison.

That same day, a convention of almost 50 high-level film executives met in one of the most luxuriously appointed suites of the Waldorf-Astoria, many of them having rushed from the West Coast to attend the meeting. The following day, on November 25, the group publicly announced their intention to blacklist the Hollywood Ten, vowing to refuse them work until they had declared under oath that they were not Communists, and declaring that they would likewise refuse work — or fire — anyone else who was known to be a Communist.

The fact that this announcement came after a two-day session suggested that there may have been some original dissenters within a group that included the head of every major studio, but ultimately they presented a united front. They worried about their writers generating so much bad publicity, and they didn’t appreciate the suggestion that — in an almost assembly-line studio system that relied heavily on them to approve every script and every casting choice — a writer could have the power to subvert their authority and sneak in hidden messages. Their press release, forever after called The Waldorf Statement, did acknowledge the inherent problems with their policy, saying, “There is the danger of hurting innocent people. There is the risk of creating an atmosphere of fear. Creative work at its best cannot be carried on in an atmosphere of fear. We will guard against this danger, this risk, this fear.” They did not suggest how they would guard against it, however.

Indeed, although HUAC had failed to find any evidence of Communist messages in the movies or coercion within the industry, the prospect of being associated with anything or anyone tainted by Communism inspired a growing hysteria, and a growing blacklist. When the committee began another round of hearings in 1951 — urging everyone called in to “name names” of suspected Party members — hundreds of screenwriters, actors, directors, producers, composers, musicians, animators, and scene designers ceased to get work even if they weren’t officially blacklisted or even accused of anything. The mere mention of their name in the HUAC proceedings was enough to scare off film execs.

Although screenwriters were originally the primary target of HUAC’s investigation and comprised a majority of the blacklist, they fared perhaps better than other artists. Unlike actors and directors, many screenwriters were able to change their name, or write under the name of a friend who wasn’t on the list. In fact, Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten, won the Best Screenplay Oscar for the 1956 film The Brave One under the name “Robert Rich.” Trumbo had served a year in a Kentucky prison, moved to Mexico with his family for two years, and then quietly returned to Los Angeles to resume working under a pseudonym. When the press couldn’t find “Robert Rich” after his Oscar win and discovered the real writer was on the blacklist, the resulting scandal helped to finally soften the stranglehold of the list. In 1960, Trumbo received credits for both Exodus and Spartacus, the first time his name had appeared on-screen in more than a decade.


It’s the birthday of children’s author and illustrator P.D. Eastman (books by this author), born Philip Dey “Phil” Eastman in Amherst (1909). Eastman is best known by children and parents for his books within the Dr. Seuss imprint “Beginning Books,” like Go, Dog. Go! (1961) and Are You My Mother? (1960). These books came toward the end of a long career in animation that included helping create and write for the character Mr. Magoo. But it was the work he did while serving in World War II that most influenced the eventual course of his writing.

Eastman was inducted into the Army in 1943, where, because of his work experience at Walt Disney and Warner Brothers Studios, he was assigned to the Signal Corp’s First Motion Picture Unit, headed by the legendary film director Frank Capra. Eastman served in an animation unit with Munro Leaf, whose children’s book The Story of Ferdinand(1936) about a bull who preferred smelling flowers to bullfighting, had been made into an Oscar-winning Disney film. They were led by Ted Geisel, an advertising cartoonist whose contract had allowed him little leeway in other creative pursuits. He’d turned, like Leaf, to writing kids’ books. And before joining the war effort, he’d published four volumes to modest success.

Capra had created the concept for an animated series aimed at educating young — and sometimes illiterate — enlisted men; Eastman, Leaf, and Geisel wrote episodes for the short films that were then by produced by Warner Brothers. The series was called “Private Snafu,” and centered on a dimwitted soldier whose name was an acronym for a military phrase familiar — and amusing — to the audience, which the opening narrator announced as “Situation Normal: All … All Fouled Up!” Snafu taught by negative example, leaking secrets that allow the enemy to torpedo him in one film, failing to properly camouflage himself and getting bombed in another. The cartoons — complete with scantily clad women and minor cursing — were often soldiers’ favorite offering of the biweekly newsreel.

After the war, Eastman continued to work as a writer and storyboard artist for animated productions and TV commercials. More than a decade had passed when Ted Geisel, now internationally famous as Dr. Seuss, asked his former subordinate Eastman to write a children’s book for his brand-new children’s imprint, Beginner Books. The books were all modeled after the recent and massive success of Cat in the Hat (1957), with a limited vocabulary but an entertaining subject matter to hold children’s interest. They were, minus the risqué content, not unlike their wartime collaboration.


It’s the birthday of American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835), the son of a weaver and political radical. His father instilled in young Andrew the values of political and economic equality, but his family’s poverty taught Carnegie a different lesson. At the age of 12, the boy worked as a milkhand for $1.20 per week. When the Carnegies immigrated to America in 1848, Carnegie was determined to find prosperity. One of the pioneers of industry of 19th-century America, Andrew Carnegie helped build the American steel industry, which turned him into one of the richest entrepreneurs of his age.

In 1868, at age 33, Carnegie wrote himself a memo in which he questioned his chosen career, a life of business. He kept the letter for his entire life, carefully preserving it in his files. In the memo, he vowed to retire from business within two years, believing that the further pursuit of wealth would degrade him. Carnegie eventually sold his steel business and gave his fortune away to cultural, educational, and scientific institutions for the improvement of mankind.

Over the course of his life, Andrew Carnegie endowed 2,811 libraries and many charitable foundations as well as the internationally famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also bought 7,689 organs for churches. The purpose of the latter gift was, in Carnegie’s words, “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist Helen Hooven Santmyer (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1895). When she was five years old, she moved with her family to the small town of Xenia, Ohio, where she grew up. As a young girl, she was inspired by the Xenia Women’s Club — an early feminist intellectual organization — to go off to New York and get a job as a secretary for Scribner’s Magazine, where she met many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But after a few years of living in New York City, and then studying at Oxford, she moved back to Xenia where she was elected to the membership of the Xenia Women’s Club that she had so much admired as a little girl.

She was writing all the time and even published a few novels, but they had little success. It was only after her retirement that Santmyer began to delve into the history of her hometown, eventually writing a collection of essays called Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia (1862). Then she began an epic novel about a small-town women’s group based on her own Women’s Club of Xenia. The finished product …And Ladies of the Club (1982) was more than 1,300 pages long. It was published by the Ohio State Press and sold about 300 copies.

The book sat on a few library shelves around Ohio, unread for the most part, until the mother of a Hollywood executive happened to read it and she passed it on to her son. He thought the book would make a good mini-series, so he bought the television and movie rights to the novel. It was reissued in a paperback and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 1985. Helen Hooven Santmyer had become a best-selling novelist and literary celebrity at the age of 88.


It’s the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas (books by this author), born in Flushing, New York (1913). He’s the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), and Late Night Thoughts on Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1984).

When Thomas entered Princeton in 1929, his interest was biological research with the hope of increasing the effectiveness of treatment. His other great interest was the poetry of Pound and Eliot.

During World War II, Thomas did field research on typhus and encephalitis for the U.S. Navy. He landed with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa carrying a special case full of laboratory white mice. After the war, he built up his academic credentials at various medical schools and eventually, in 1973, became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City, one of the world’s largest facilities devoted to cancer research.

Now at the top of his profession, Thomas attained popular recognition for work of an entirely different sort. He had written or co-written more than 200 scientific articles, but it was his series of short essays that was receiving attention. His essays were loosely modeled on the essays of Montaigne. The series had been appearing on the back pages of The New England Journal of Medicine since 1971 as informal essays.

Thomas wrote late at night, quickly and without an outline, usually shortly after the deadline. He addressed his readers as friends in a conversation, not as scientific colleagues, and he included no reference notes at the end. His essays mix facts about the human body with personal meditation and thoughts about the connectedness of man and the universe.

In 1974, Viking Press collected 29 of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell, which was awarded the National Book Award in 1975, nominated in both the arts and the sciences categories but finally selected for arts and letters. Within five years, it had been translated into 11 languages and sold more than 250,000 copies.

Lewis Thomas said: “The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.”

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Got the autumn blues, put on my walking shoes

I love October and I hate to see it pass so quickly. My love and I ate dinner outdoors last Friday and it felt like the Last Time and as an old man I find Lasts rather painful. I rode the Amtrak into New York from Boston, with that delicious flight in Queens as the train descends toward the tunnel to Manhattan and we’re skimming the housetops like Clark Kent in pursuit of evil gangsters, and I thought, “When will I get to do this again?” and it pained me.

It pains me to see the wave of puritanism in the arts, arts organizations competing to see who can write the most militant mission statements declaring their dedication to Equality and Inclusivity and Anti-Elitism, which tells me clearly that the end is near. Art is elitist because some people are better singers than almost anyone else and some plays astonish and others only fill the time, and if equality is now the goal, then where do we go to experience the extraordinary? Art then becomes ideology, and for astonishment we must wait for the next blizzard or thunderstorm. A Manhattan thunderstorm is worth waiting for, but still.

We have a long haul ahead of us, people. Children dressed up as malevolent beings for Halloween: is this a good thing? I doubt it. November is a miserable month, with elections at which old people will outvote the young and timid school boards will be elected who’ll cut out any remaining art or music education and require history teachers to offer opposing points of view as to the legitimacy of the 2020 election. November ushers us into a season of colorlessness and Thanksgiving, an awkward day when people who don’t like each other anymore sit down and practice politeness, a day that reminds us why “turkey” is a synonym for Flop. Anything you do to turkey is an improvement: stuff it with jellybeans, pour brandy on it and light it on fire — better yet, put some cherry bombs in it and blow it up.

November is a hard month, and then comes the typhoon of commercial Christmas joy that makes the day itself such a letdown, after all the ecstatic families in Best Buy commercials you have to face your own grumpy brood. And then New Year’s Eve and the champagne doesn’t sparkle as it used to, and everyone’s older and the talk at the party is all about health insurance, and then a flood of football games, after which everyone feels concussed, then it’s January and February comes along, which is more or less like moving to Nebraska.

This is why we need to enjoy what little is left of this gorgeous month of October. The cure for the blues, as we all know, is to get outdoors and walk around and pay attention to the world. I prefer city scenes since I flunked biology and don’t know the names of trees or birds or rock formations, but I can read signs and sense the stories of people passing by. I walk along a busy street through the surge of pedestrianism and if a bus pulls up to a bus stop as I approach, I board it, no matter where it’s going, and it feels like destiny — everything I did today was perfectly timed so I’d be there when the bus stopped — and this makes everything magical when I get off — everything was meant to be seen by me — the street preacher shouting something from First Corinthians — the boys weaving around in skateboards — the string quartet playing Mozart on the corner by the coffeeshop — and a dog runs barking and a flock of pigeons rises up, the whooshing of wings.

And one day, unintentionally, simply because it was there, I walked up the steps into a library and a room of long tables with green study lamps and young people studying math and writing term papers on their laptops, no chatter, no video games, all business, the children of cabdrivers and cleaning ladies and the ladies at the nail salon. It was a sacred place, the children redeeming the loving sacrifices of the saints, climbing the steep slope to be lawyers and doctors, and in that room, I felt I’d come to the very heart of the city, what it’s all about. Look no further. The future is in this room, studying. There is hope, plenty of it.

Don't know what's wrong, but it's okay

I am enjoying being an old man and I wonder why I didn’t get here sooner. There are benefits to being 79 that I would’ve appreciated in my late thirties. I look at the stories on the front page of the paper and I think, “Not My Problem” and the latest NMP is the shortage of goods due to shipping backlogs, freighters lined up for miles waiting to unload, docks piled high with containers, factory production slowed due to lack of parts coming from China, building projects halted, dire situations, workers idle, confusion, dismay — and here we sit, Madame and I, with the opposite problem, too much stuff, need to give it away.

We have about twenty big dinner plates and twenty small plates and when was the last time we sat eighteen guests down to dinner in this little apartment? Not since Jesus was in the third grade. I have eight suits in my closet: when did I last get dressed up? The number of unread books on our shelves would sink a pontoon boat. And why the whiskey glasses? Nobody in this household drinks whiskey. Neither do our guests, they’re all left-wing liberals and whiskey, in case you didn’t know it, has become politicized and is now reserved for patriots who are out to Stop The Steal. I wish they’d steal our whiskey glasses.

Two trillionaires, Bezos and Musk, are trying to fly into outer space but you can get away from Earth quite cheaply simply by heading for 80 and 85 when a person starts to feel himself floating in the clouds, unconcerned with so much of what’s going on, such as those hundreds of cars moving at 5 mph down the distant freeway at 7:30 a.m., honking, angry — what is going on with those people? What’s all the fuss about?

The controversy in Nashville over the need for country music to create spaces of healing and equity for people of all identities and to fight oppression of minority points of view, which sprang up after the first nonbinary musicians were featured on the Grand Ole Opry, was interesting but Not My Problem. I love the songs I love and for me country music hit a peak with Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin On Your Mind),” which was Loretta’s statement of empowerment and anti-oppression in hopes of changing lives and challenging patterns of discrimination so as to bring about evolution of behavior and clearly stating a moral imperative in order to liberate herself from systems of oppression to bring about a sense of authentic belonging and promoting values of mutual respect as an effective tool for social justice rather than perpetuate a structure of male privilege in daily life and mitigate its effects.

The two nonbinary singers, Morgan Newton and Oliver Penn, are demanding that Nashville issue a mission statement pledging to engage in anti-oppressive and inclusivistic musical storytelling that fights intolerance and cultural appropriation, but the way to change the world isn’t to demand change, it’s to write a terrific song as Loretta did. They say that Waylon Jennings’s “Rainy Day Woman” tolerates a structure of male privilege, and maybe it does, but it’s a great song. You disagree, then go write a better one. The Beatles’ first big hit, “Please Please Me,” was exclusionary and disempowering and built on a structure of exploitation, but their harmonies on the line “Come on, come on, come on, come on” made the song irresistible. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” never considered whether the hand, which presumably belonged to a woman, wanted to be held and the line “And when I touch you I feel happy inside” doesn’t consider whether she (or them or it) feels happy inside. You might be offended by the male privilege that’s made all too clear but the song kept running through your head, including the falsetto “OOOOO” and that’s the power of it.

Anyway, it’s an unjust and inequal and often oppressive world out there, and mission statements come flying like autumn leaves, and nonbinary and non-triplicate and quasi-quadrennials struggle for their share of the sunlight, and in Norway people are killing each other with bow and arrow, and the anger of those drivers on the freeway is almost palpable, and I feel some sympathy for all of the troubled, but only some, not a vast amount. I’m 79 and it’s Not My Problem, people. My problem is this computer, which has a bad habit of suddenly going blank and I’ve taken it to be fixed and they told me confiden

If you love your work, be sure not to finish it

The life of a writer is a wild adventure you wouldn’t imagine simply by looking at the lonely figure in the black cloak sitting hunched in her/his niche in the cloister, scratching corrections onto the parchment with a feathered quill pen, but it’s true and someone really ought to write about this. At the moment, I am looking at a galley of a new book of mine as sent by a graphic designer named David and I am stunned by the elegance of it, which makes my own words seem almost of classical quality, which makes me want to revise the work to bring it up to the quality of the design, meanwhile my crew of overseers is firing off memos insisting the book be finished by Friday. This is what I’m up against: David’s graphic artistry has shown me how wonderful my work almost is while editors are banging on the door of my cell, threatening to withhold food until I turn the work over to them. It’s ugly.

The book is set in a small town in Minnesota and I feel that a good street fight, an insurrection of farmers versus townsfolk, with a lot of hacking and clubbing and shouting and cursing, would add some interest and maybe also a good gas explosion. I’ve written many novels and never put a major explosion in one and it’s appealing to me now, the chance to have people I dislike file into a building and then blow it up. Terrorists do this all the time, so why not novelists?

It occurs to me, too, that my previous graphic designers were named Butch, Buddy, and Misty, and their surnames ended with -sen or -quist, and David’s name ends with a vowel, same as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, and my literary reputation has been hampered by poor page design and bad taste in fonts. I think that with the addition of an insurrection and a gas explosion I could break out of my reputation for Midwestern nostalgia and be taken seriously by critics for the Times and Post who majored in women’s studies at Bryn Mawr and Smith, especially if the old white reactionaries who stage the insurrection are the ones who file into the building that minutes later goes up in a cloud of flame and smoke, but meanwhile I’m in the hands of deadline enforcement officers who want me to stop and hand over the goods.

Did Dostoevsky work under these conditions? James Joyce? Toni Morrison?

The real problem, however, is not only artistic but also my fear of finishing the book and dreading the onset of leisure time, which, in old age, only leads in one direction, brooding, mental deterioration, half-pound cheeseburgers, and watching MSNBC and Rachel Maddow, which leads to despair for the republic. I’ve spent the past year ensconced in fiction and was very happy most of the time. (I’ve never heard Rachel Maddow use the word “ensconced,” by the way. She might say “hopelessly trapped” or “barricaded” but “ensconced” is too comfy for her and she is not a creature of comfort.)

When the enforcers take possession of my hard drive and publish the novel, minus the clubbing and hacking and the gas explosion, I plan to take charge of my life and announce to my wife, who formerly was in charge of it, “My darling, I’m done with Manhattan. We’ve owned this apartment for twenty years and real estate values are skyrocketing and let’s clean up and move to Portugal.”

We spent a week in Portugal a couple years ago for her nephew’s wedding and we loved it. They are a sensible people, fishermen, farmers, sailors, explorers. When I told the nephew how I admired his wife’s ability to adapt to American culture and make friends and find her way around, he said, “Well, she’s Portuguese. She passes for Parisian but she’s her parents’ daughter.” Her father Antonio is an olive rancher and all-around handyman who stayed up all night dancing at the wedding and then drove us around the olive plantation showing off his trees and talking a blue streak in Portuguese. He is a happy man and keeps busy managing twenty or so unfinished projects. He’s a few years younger than I but he’s my model. I want to settle in his village and go to work writing unfinished novels.

A writer doesn’t need literary prizes to be happy, happiness lies in the work itself, sitting down in the niche with the quill pen and adding a few more curlicues. I am ensconced in my work. I don’t want to lose it and that means postponing publication as long as possible. They don’t teach this to MFA students but they should.

A few beams of light on our current situation

“Goodness gracious” was about as close as my mother came to actual profanity, that and “Oh fudge,” and now that our daily life is showered with profanity and obscenity, it is no more shocking than dog barks, whereas the words “Goodness gracious” still have (for me) a bite to them, and I can feel my mother’s dismay, which now I feel, hearing about the tidal wave of political narcissism opposed to the idea of social responsibility — Senator Graham was booed and harassed the other day by constituents when he suggested they consider getting vaccinated against COVID — people who deny that the state has a right to mandate vaccination or mask-wearing as a public health measure or enforce speed limits or restrain the sale of weapons meant for combat or the responsibility of parents to send their kids to school, and weird ideas that are being preached from pulpits by ministers who don’t realize that their own people are dying of COVID and in marginal states the plague may be delivering the 2022 elections to us socialists. To raging narcissism, I say, “Oh fudge.”

Nonetheless, I am happy. October has that effect on me and it’s heightened by sunny days and the fact that the suffering of us Minnesota Twins fans is at an end as we go into the postseason and last week we had the pleasure of seeing the plutocrat Yanks squashed by Boston, players who are up in Mark Zuckerberg’s pay bracket and who couldn’t buy a hit or even draw a walk. I am not proud of taking pleasure in the suffering of multimillionaires but it’s a long-standing American tradition. The Yankees’ star right fielder Aaron Judge said, “To me, it’s black and white. Either you win or lose. We lost.” Which, for a guy who could afford to hire a writer, or content provider, is not a memorable line, not even in the ballpark. Casey Stengel who earned a tiny fraction of Judge’s salary said, while managing the Mets, “You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself, ‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’” A great line and I’ve thought of it often in my life.

I thought of it a few hours before the game when I tried to sign up for ESPN so I could watch it and I had to use the round clicker on the remote to write. I am a guy from the Three Network era back just after the Civil War when ABC, CBS, or NBC would’ve carried the game and all I had to do was open a bottle of beer, but now I have to manipulate this weird device and after three failed attempts I called my wife on FaceTime and we struggled to get it done and there was some yelling but the marriage survived and I got to see the pinstripe guys slump off the field while the Red Sox danced and whooped and the fans were delirious in the Fenway stands, though surely they knew that this team will likely break their hearts as it has so often in the past.

“Can’t anybody here play this game?” comes to mind when I read about Congress and the debt ceiling hassle and the Republicans’ aversion to talking about climate change even as the reality of it is rather clear and auto manufacturers are planning for electric car production, but Republicans are satisfied with a policy of denial. This is not intelligent but they believe it’s a winning strategy. Goodness gracious. Who are these people? What game are we playing?

With my team packed up and gone home, I’m free to spend October with a light heart. This is the advantage of defeat: the dreadful anticipation of it is over, you got skunked, and you discover defeat is a sort of liberation. But Washington is another matter. The South lost the Civil War but went on to win the 20th century and today we’re living in a confederacy. We have a Confederate Supreme Court and soon will likely have a Confederate Congress. My mother was of a Depression generation that didn’t tolerate narcissism but here we are. But as Casey almost said, “The Democrats have shown me more ways to lose than I ever knew existed. They say there’s always hope, but sometimes that doesn’t always work. But never make bad predictions especially about the future.”

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 20, 2021

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, VA

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

November 4, 2021

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

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

November 5, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

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

buy tickets

November 11, 2021

Thursday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

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

buy tickets

November 12, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

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

buy tickets

December 10, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Bridge View Center, Ottumwa, IA

Ottumwa, IA

Dec 10 in Ottumwa Iowa Keillor & Company: A PRAIRIE HOME HOLIDAY. Let’s come together for a Christmas sing-along, some Poetry, the News from Lake Wobegon and some holiday cheer with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard.

December 11, 2021

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet, IL

Joliet, IL

Dec 11 in Joliet, IL Keillor & Company: A PRAIRIE HOME HOLIDAY. Let’s come together for a Christmas sing-along, some Poetry, the News from Lake Wobegon and some holiday cheer with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard.

December 12, 2021

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Holland Civic Center, Holland, MI

Holland, MI

Keillor & Company: A PRAIRIE HOME HOLIDAY. Let’s come together for a Christmas sing-along, some Poetry, the News from Lake Wobegon and some holiday cheer with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard.

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

March 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

Radio

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

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

“Reading a poem silently instead of saying a poem is like the difference between staring at sheet music and actually humming or playing the music on an instrument.” –Robert Pinsky (1940)

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

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

“I have always written what I wanted to write. I have never considered the audience for one second. … Before publication, I am a despot.”—Philip Pullman (1946)

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 26, 1996

A Prairie Home Companion: October 26, 1996

This week’s featured broadcast 1996 at the Fitzgerald with special guests Marcia Ball and Cephas and Wiggins.

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

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

Today is the birthday of Chuck Berry (1926). The singer-songwriter broke into the charts in 1955 with “Maybellene,” and in 1958 “Johnny B. Goode.”

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

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

Today is the birthday of Shinichi Suzuki (1898). He taught children to play violin by listening and imitating, the way they learn to speak. A method that now bears his name, Suzuki Violin Method.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 16, 2021

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” — Oscar Wilde, born on this day in 1854.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 15, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, October 15, 2021

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” — Oscar Wilde, born on this day in 1854.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, October 14, 2021

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1884), and for his birthday we feature the poem “All in green went my love riding.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Singer and songwriter Paul Simon celebrates his 80th birthday today. His first hit, with partner Art Garfunkel, was “The Sounds of Silence.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, October 12, 2021

It was on this day in 1892 that the Pledge of Allegiance was recited en masse for the first time, by more than 2 million students.

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Writing

Got the autumn blues, put on my walking shoes

 I love October and I hate to see it pass so quickly. My love and I ate dinner outdoors last Friday and it felt like the Last Time and as an old man I find Lasts rather painful. I rode the Amtrak into New York from Boston, with that delicious flight in Queens as the train descends toward the tunnel to Manhattan and we’re skimming the housetops like Clark Kent in pursuit of evil gangsters, and I thought, “When will I get to do this again?” and it pained me.

It pains me to see the wave of puritanism in the arts, arts organizations competing to see who can write the most militant mission statements declaring their dedication to Equality and Inclusivity and Anti-Elitism, which tells me clearly that the end is near. Art is elitist because some people are better singers than almost anyone else and some plays astonish and others only fill the time, and if equality is now the goal, then where do we go to experience the extraordinary? Art then becomes ideology, and for astonishment we must wait for the next blizzard or thunderstorm. A Manhattan thunderstorm is worth waiting for, but still.

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Don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s okay

I am enjoying being an old man and I wonder why I didn’t get here sooner. There are benefits to being 79 that I would’ve appreciated in my late thirties. I look at the stories on the front page of the paper and I think, “Not My Problem” and the latest NMP is the shortage of goods due to shipping backlogs, freighters lined up for miles waiting to unload, docks piled high with containers, factory production slowed due to lack of parts coming from China, building projects halted, dire situations, workers idle, confusion, dismay — and here we sit, Madame and I, with the opposite problem, too much stuff, need to give it away.

We have about twenty big dinner plates and twenty small plates and when was the last time we sat eighteen guests down to dinner in this little apartment? Not since Jesus was in the third grade. I have eight suits in my closet: when did I last get dressed up? The number of unread books on our shelves would sink a pontoon boat. And why the whiskey glasses? Nobody in this household drinks whiskey. Neither do our guests, they’re all left-wing liberals and whiskey, in case you didn’t know it, has become politicized and is now reserved for patriots who are out to Stop The Steal. I wish they’d steal our whiskey glasses.

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If you love your work, be sure not to finish it

 The life of a writer is a wild adventure you wouldn’t imagine simply by looking at the lonely figure in the black cloak sitting hunched in her/his niche in the cloister, scratching corrections onto the parchment with a feathered quill pen, but it’s true and someone really ought to write about this. At the moment, I am looking at a galley of a new book of mine as sent by a graphic designer named David and I am stunned by the elegance of it, which makes my own words seem almost of classical quality, which makes me want to revise the work to bring it up to the quality of the design, meanwhile my crew of overseers is firing off memos insisting the book be finished by Friday. This is what I’m up against: David’s graphic artistry has shown me how wonderful my work almost is while editors are banging on the door of my cell, threatening to withhold food until I turn the work over to them. It’s ugly.

The book is set in a small town in Minnesota and I feel that a good street fight, an insurrection of farmers versus townsfolk, with a lot of hacking and clubbing and shouting and cursing, would add some interest and maybe also a good gas explosion. I’ve written many novels and never put a major explosion in one and it’s appealing to me now, the chance to have people I dislike file into a building and then blow it up. Terrorists do this all the time, so why not novelists?

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A few beams of light on our current situation

“Goodness gracious” was about as close as my mother came to actual profanity, that and “Oh fudge,” and now that our daily life is showered with profanity and obscenity, it is no more shocking than dog barks, whereas the words “Goodness gracious” still have (for me) a bite to them, and I can feel my mother’s dismay, which now I feel, hearing about the tidal wave of political narcissism opposed to the idea of social responsibility — Senator Graham was booed and harassed the other day by constituents when he suggested they consider getting vaccinated against COVID — people who deny that the state has a right to mandate vaccination or mask-wearing as a public health measure or enforce speed limits or restrain the sale of weapons meant for combat or the responsibility of parents to send their kids to school, and weird ideas that are being preached from pulpits by ministers who don’t realize that their own people are dying of COVID and in marginal states the plague may be delivering the 2022 elections to us socialists. To raging narcissism, I say, “Oh fudge.”

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Lonely guy seeks old café and three buddies

I am an orphan, which is not so unusual for a man of 79, and like everyone else I know, I work out of my own home and at the moment I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of Cheerios beside the laptop and a cup of coffee (black). I have no office anymore. I’ve had offices, not cubicles but offices with doors and a window, sometimes a credenza, since I was 22 years old. I miss them.

If someone opens a Museum of the American Office, I volunteer to be a docent and I’ll show them around the office of fifty years ago with the mimeograph machine, the manual typewriter, and the big telephone with the long curly cord that went into the wall. There was no copier, we used carbon paper. Someone knocked on the door and I hid my copy of Portnoy’s Complaint in the top drawer and a woman poked her head in and said, “The meeting is about to begin.”

That’s what I miss, the meeting. They were like little morality plays, in which people assumed allegorical roles, Dreamers, Realists, Satirists and Strategists, and the outcome was usually to maintain inertia but they were entertaining. I was a satirist in my early years and then suddenly I became the boss and I was surrounded by realists, and at the end of my office career, I became a dreamer and the two women employees listened and took turns being the assassin who points out the deadly reality so not much happened but I was okay with that. The pleasure was in the meeting itself.

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On Tuesday it all came down at once

The world is turning wondrous again, maples and ash and goldenrod turning golden Van Gogh colors and I got into a weepy mood on Tuesday, which is unusual for me, a man with dry eyes, but I was overwhelmed by everything happening at once, thinking of an old friend and sweet singer who’d died, and on Tuesday a reunion of my Anoka high school class (1960), feeling kinship to old rivals and antagonists but now we’re all in the same boat, a sinking ship. The names of some of our dead were mentioned, including Henry Hill Jr., a star athlete and a good guy who enlisted in the Army and made first lieutenant and was killed in action in Quang Ngai province in 1968, leading his unit of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division.

The woman who spoke of Henry remembered a few lines of a song I wrote about him, “His picture’s on the piano in a silver frame and his family weeps if you speak his name. In ’68 he went off to the war and now he’s forever 24.”

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Last night I went to sleep by my girl

My friend Lynn, a personal trainer, has given me a list of twelve useful exercises to strengthen the core muscles and improve the sense of balance and I’ve been thinking about doing them, meanwhile I’ve been concerned with other matters, such as which came first, the can or the can opener. This question has no relevance to my life or yours and yet — what is the relevance of relevance at this point in my life? I need questions to answer, otherwise I lie in bed at night with a song repeating in my head, such as “Please Please Me” or “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” both of them infectious. So the question of can openers is how I spare myself from thinking “Last night I said these words to my girl.”

The answers to all of life’s questions are on the internet and this is why I don’t get out and walk. Things I might’ve had to walk to the library to find out are in my computer on my desk. So here I am. An English merchant named Peter Durand invented the can around 1800, which made it possible to preserve food aboard ships for long voyages. People used knives or other sharp instruments to open them until 1858 when the can opener was patented. This probably saved a great many sailors from stabbing themselves in the hand, which, in those primitive times, probably meant serious infections from bacteria on knives also used to gut fish and shuck oysters. Some galley crew, opening cans, probably lost a hand to a fish-borne disease and replaced it with a hook and thereby became pirates and wound up being hanged. Mothers grieved for them back in Yorkshire and Liverpool. Then the can opener came along and piracy went into decline, shiploads of immigrants sailed unmolested to our shores, the Industrial Age began, slaves were emancipated, the automobile was invented, radio came along, and the 20th century, without people having to jab holes in cylindrical containers.

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The story of my life: revised version

I’ve bought many copies of Mary Oliver’s poems, Devotions, and on Friday I gave away the last so now I’m ordering more. I gave it to a friend whose description of brushing his dogs’ teeth reminded me of Oliver’s description of a grasshopper sitting in her hand and eating sugar, the jaws moving side to side, not up and down.

He said he uses a finger pad with bristles and a beef-flavored toothpaste and the dogs tolerate it well and the brushing spares them dental miseries so it made sense. Oliver carefully describes the grasshopper chewing and washing its face and flying away and then —

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Women: don’t read this, for men only

Maybe it’s just me but I have a nagging feeling that my gender, which once was fairly successful — Jonas Salk, Saul Bellow, Lowell Thomas, Tom Jones, the list goes on — is sagging and sinking, uncertain about changing norms of behavior, and we don’t whoop and holler the way we used to, and what this predicts for our species is not good. Geneticists are talking about the need to establish testosterone banks so that future males will be able to produce sperm and deliver it where needed, never mind earning a living or playing ice hockey.

Women, who have always been in charge of social life, are now openly wielding power, outlining goals and purposes, establishing spending limits, deciding what color the sheets and tablecloths should be. Men’s clubs like the Masons and Elk and Moose are a faint shadow of themselves except perhaps in parts of South Dakota while women are reforming the culture to their liking, and in my men’s group, the WBA (Wounded Buffalo Assn.), we discuss how, when we’re in a mixed group, women do most of the talking and men toss in the occasional nod or shrug or “I suppose so.” Back in olden times, women occupied the kitchen and talked about children, neighbors, ancestors, people at church, and men occupied the living room and talked about ideology. Now the two have merged and people are vastly more interesting than ideology, so men sit silent, dehorsed.

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A walk in the park on a historic day

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

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

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

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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. 

Recent reviews:

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

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

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           Lake Wobegon virus cover.

 

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