The Writer’s Almanac for September 7, 2018

L’Envoi by Willa Cather. Public domain. (buy now)

Where are the loves that we have loved before
When once we are alone, and shut the door ?
No matter whose the arms that held me fast,
The arms of Darkness hold me at the last.
No matter down what primrose path I tend,
I kiss the lips of Silence in the end.
No matter on what heart I found delight,
I come again unto the breast of Night.
No matter when or how love did befall,
‘Tis Loneliness that loves me best of all,
And in the end she claims me, and I know
That she will stay, though all the rest may go.
No matter whose the eyes that I would keep
Near in the dark, ’tis in the eyes of Sleep
That I must look and look forever more,
When once I am alone, and shut the door.


It was on this day that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was thrown into jail in Paris for stealing the Mona Lisa, which had gone missing from the Louvre two and a half weeks earlier.

Only Apollinaire was not the thief. Parisian authorities were at a loss for leads, and Apollinaire was an easy scapegoat: He was a foreigner, born in Rome to a Polish mother, and he was a radical who ran with a bunch of Bohemians. Besides, he was a brazen art critic, and he professed contempt for traditional art. He even once said that the entire Louvre should be burned to the ground.

So on this day in 1911, Parisian police arrested the poet for theft of the Mona Lisa and they threw him in jail. They held him there under interrogation for a week. He said that maybe his friend Pablo Picasso was the thief. The authorities arrested Picasso and brought him in for interrogation. Both men were soon released, with no evidence against them.

The Mona Lisa remained missing for more than two years, and then the an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia called an art dealer in Italy and offered to sell him da Vinci’s lost painting. When arranging the meeting, Peruggia told the art dealer that he only wanted to bring the Mona Lisa back to Italy, where it rightfully belonged. That, and he wanted $100,000.

The art dealer notified authorities, Peruggia was arrested, and the Mona Lisa made its way back to the Louvre in Paris.


It’s the birthday of Modernist poet Edith Sitwell (books by this author), born in Scarborough, England (1887). Her parents, Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell, were baffled by their daughter. While Lady Ida was a beauty, Edith was not. She was extremely tall and thin, with a curved spine and a hooked nose. Her parents forced her to wear an iron brace on her back and a contraption on her nose in an attempt to make her more conventionally attractive. Edith was a bright and curious child, but her father decided that formal education made women less womanly, so he refused to let her go to school. When she was a teenager and it came time for her to make her debut in society, she engaged a man in a debate over his classical music preferences, and her parents were horrified and pulled her back out of social gatherings. She left her family on such bad terms that she didn’t even attend her mother’s funeral.

Instead, she made her own life as a Modernist poet and a notable public personality. She published many books of poems, including Rustic Elegies (1927), The Song of the Cold (1948), Gardeners and Astronomers (1953), and The Outcasts (1962). Her poetry has generally been overshadowed by her colorful personality. To accentuate her dramatic features, she wore enormous rings, turbans, and old-fashioned gowns. She said, “I can’t wear fashionable clothes. If I walked round in coats and skirts, people would doubt the existence of the Almighty.” She befriended T.S. Eliot and Graham Greene, and later in her life, championed Dylan Thomas. She considered Marilyn Monroe a soulmate, and the two women read poetry aloud together.

Sitwell’s best-known work is Façade, a series of poems that she set to music — each poem was meant to be read in a specific rhythm. The composer William Walton wrote the music and conducted a live orchestra during the performance. All the audience could see was a curtain painted like a huge face, with a hole in the center for a mouth. Sitwell sat behind the hole, reciting her words through a megaphone. Apparently the first London performance of Façade went so badly that an old woman in the audience waited outside the curtain afterward to hit Sitwell with an umbrella; Noel Coward walked out; and even Virginia Woolf didn’t understand the poetry. Woolf wrote: “So I judged yesterday in the Aeolian Hall, listening, in a dazed way, to Edith Sitwell vociferating through the megaphone. […] I should be describing Edith Sitwell’s poems, but I kept saying to myself ‘I don’t really understand … I don’t really admire.’ The only view, presentable view that I framed, was to the effect that she was monotonous. She has one tune only on her merry go round.” When Sitwell performed Façade in New York more than 20 years later, it was extremely popular.

Sitwell said: “I am not an eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel in a pool of catfish.”

And, “It is as unseeing to ask what is the use of poetry as it would be to ask what is the use of religion.”


It’s the birthday of journalist and novelist Joe Klein (books by this author), born in Queens in 1946. He was a respected political reporter when he decided to write a novel based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. Although it was fiction, the characters were very thinly disguised. Clinton became Jack Stanton, and Hillary became Susan. Klein called the novel Primary Colors (1996), but he published it under the name “Anonymous,” generating fevered speculation over the identity of the author. Washington insiders and experts pointed to Klein as the author, but he denied it over and over. Finally, when The Washington Post published a forensic handwriting analysis that linked Klein to the manuscript, Klein — wearing Groucho Marx glasses — held a press conference and admitted that he had written the novel and then lied about it. His fellow journalists were furious, but Primary Colors was a best-seller and made Klein a multimillionaire.


It’s the birthday of writer Margaret Landon (books by this author), born in Somers, Wisconsin (1903). When she was 23, she and her husband signed up to be missionaries in Thailand, which was known as the Kingdom of Siam. For 10 years, Landon lived in Thailand, ran a school, and raised her three children. While she was living there, she came across a book by a woman named Anna Leonowens, a Welsh governess who had tutored the King of Siam’s many wives and children during the 1860s. Landon was intrigued by her story, and she fictionalized it in a novel she titled Anna and the King of Siam (1944). Landon’s book became a best-seller in 20 languages, selling more than a million copies. The story became even more famous when it was even more fictionalized into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (1956). Margaret Landon wrote one other novel, called Never Dies the Dream (1949), a fictionalized account of her own experiences in Thailand — but her own story was never as popular as Anna’s.


It was on this day in 1927 that the first successful television image was demonstrated, by the inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. Farnsworth was a Mormon farm boy from Utah, and he grew up in a log cabin. When the family moved to a house in Idaho, Farnsworth was amazed that the house had electricity — he had never seen it before.

Farnsworth was a star science student. At the age of 13, he won a national competition for inventing a thief-proof lock. He was particularly fascinated by something called television. The basic premise of television existed, but the only technology used rotating discs, and it was basically a failure. Farnsworth was convinced that there was a better way. One day, when he was 14, he was plowing the family potato field with a team of horses. He looked back at his parallel lines of soil and was struck with an inspiration: What if he could scan an image in a similar way, with parallel lines of electrons, and reproduce it electronically? He approached his high school chemistry teacher with a set of complex drawings, his blueprint for electronic television. The teacher encouraged Farnsworth to pursue his idea, and filed away his student’s drawings.

Farnsworth finished high school in a couple of years, then started college at Brigham Young University. But after his father died, he dropped out to support his family. He couldn’t shake his television idea, so a few years later, the 19-year-old inventor approached two California businessmen and convinced them to lend him money to build a model. He moved to California, submitted a patent in January of 1927, and began building that summer.

On this day in 1927, he transmitted the first electronic television image: a straight line. When the line appeared on a separate receiver, his assistants just stared at it, speechless. Finally, Farnsworth announced: “There you are — electronic television!”

He continued to refine his technology. But he was not the only inventor who had been working on electronic television, and the powerful RCA (Radio Corp of America) tried to claim that its own chief engineer, a Russian-born scientist with a Ph.D., had invented it. The patent battle lasted many years, and the key piece of evidence to determine who had invented the television first turned out to be the teenaged Farnsworth’s old sketches, which had been kept all that time by his high school chemistry teacher. The court sided with Farnsworth, but even though he had legally won, RCA’s publicity totally overshadowed his, and he never made much money on his patents. He was actually ambivalent about television in general, which he thought was generally a waste of time.

Farnsworth died of pneumonia in 1971. His final years had been marred by alcohol abuse and debt, and he died virtually unknown. The average television set sold that same year included about 100 items that had been first patented by Farnsworth.

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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.

Thomas Keillor sailed over from Yorkshire in 1774, before the can was invented, a five-week voyage to Halifax, and Lord knows what the family ate: ships in those days assumed, in stocking provisions, that a good number of the passengers would perish at sea, but the Keillors persisted, hardy country folk, Christians, and we persist to this day.

When we took a long car trip out west, we carried a box of gospel tracts titled “The Wages Of Sin Is Death,” which we rolled up and wrapped in gold cellophane and threw out the window at rural mailboxes for people to read and be converted to Christianity but Dad drove very fast through North Dakota and Montana so as to avoid the expense of an extra night in a motel for six kids and two adults and this made accurate bombing impossible and it dawned on me that Christianity is the prevalent belief in that part of the country, the Buddhist population of North Dakota is rather slight, and so I gave up evangelism though other Keillors persist.

On Saturday I went to a Lutheran funeral in St. Peter for a dear childhood friend and we stood around the grave and sang a cappella “How Great Thou Art” and “Till We Meet Again” in Mary Lee’s memory, and I remembered the last time I saw her in St. Peter when she told me a story she’d heard me tell on the radio about a hundred-pound stone plaque that fell off the façade of a building almost hitting Bud Mueller, who had just stopped and turned because Mrs. Burkert mistook him for her daughter Donna’s boyfriend Merle. Mistaken identity saved his life. So when Merle was killed in a car crash, Bud married Donna and did his best to make her happy. I had forgotten the story and Mary Lee remembered it.

I once saw an MRI of my brain and the damage a couple strokes did to it but I still remember her and her sister Margie singing duets and I remember my boyhood home, the big garden out back, the old dog who guarded it against raccoons. We had hundreds of jars of canned food from the garden in shelves in the laundry room so we seldom needed a can opener, you just pried the Kerr lid off the Ball jar and there was the corn and green beans. And Saturday night I could hear the two of them singing, “By his counsels, guide, uphold you, with his sheep securely fold you,” and their mother, Leila, at the piano. A good memory to go to sleep on.

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 —

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention …
how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Paying attention is what Oliver does in her poetry, it’s what her poems are about, walking out in the natural world and seeing what’s there. Unlike most poets working today, she doesn’t write about her own troubles. She writes:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on …
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination.

I came across an Oliveresque passage in a journal of mine from when I was 12, standing one September evening after dishes were done, behind our house, under my dad’s apple trees, and my mother at the piano playing “Abide with me” and I wrote:

Abide with me, another autumn day.
Night falls, the sky fills with the Milky Way.
An old piano, golden apples and
Dishes are done, my dog’s nose in my hand.

It’s a sweet little souvenir of a September evening in 1954, north of Minneapolis, and a boy wanting to preserve the wonder of concurrence, the hymn, the stars, the apples, the dog’s cold wet nose. He declined to draw any conclusion or to bring himself into the poem. Below the poem he notes that the word “racecar” is the same forward or backward.

Years later, I’m sitting in a steakhouse, hearing about brushing dogs’ teeth and thinking about Mary Oliver’s grasshopper while ten feet away eight drunks in their twenties sit around a table, having a wonderful time being stupid and very loud.

I don’t think I’ve been loud often in my life, but I’ve certainly been stupid. Once I got myself a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin with a separate workroom, 10x15, on stilts, with a stove and a big window looking into the trees, no house or road in sight. I sat at a table looking out the window and it was startling, when a deer walked out of the underbrush or a bird flew by. Shocking once, when a porcupine stopped and looked up at me.

I am not Mary Oliver, however, and don’t have the patience to think about a porcupine and design a poem around him (or her, I also don’t recognize gender except for deer), and I am not a birdwatcher. I was working on a book, The Book of Guys, and none of the guys was a hunter or hermit or forest ranger. And after a year I concluded that peace and quiet made me uneasy. A porcupine is interesting for a few minutes and maybe if I were looking up at the stars and smelling apples as someone played the piano and a porcupine put his nose in my hand, I could get a poem out of it, but poetry isn’t my line. Sorry, I’m a money writer.

And then I met my friend who became my lover and she was a New Yorker and I abandoned the cabin and workroom and we married in 1995. She is a daily walker but prefers Central Park with its great variety of humanity. Out of mistakes comes happiness. We gain good judgment by exercising bad. Had I made the enormous mistake of buying myself a dog, I might’ve been comfortable in isolation and I’d still be there today, a cranky bachelor, unvaccinated, not brushing its teeth or my own, listening to Fox, with twenty “Keep Out” signs posted, a pile of hundreds of empty Jack Daniels bottles, and a couple of loaded AK-47s by the door. I much prefer talking to you than listening for intruders. Thank you for that.

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.

Last weekend my wife and I were visited by Lytton and Libby and Libby’s cousin Donna and the three women went off in a burst of happy chatter and had a fabulous day together seeing art galleries and a botanical garden and historical sites and we two men spent the day in separate rooms working silently on our laptops. This seems to be the pattern of things.

Men read the wrong books and get educated in the wrong subjects.

Graphs show clearly the dramatic increases in the percentage of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — the cheerful, hopeful, rational, progressive realms of knowledge — and women have now achieved equity in law school enrollment, the study of troublemaking, but too many men are enrolled in the humanities, which is the study of man’s inhumanity, and this is our problem. We’re reading too much history and literature and taking depressing courses in the social sciences. Too many men go into the arts, hoping to meet nice women, but the failure rate in the arts generally is about 95 percent, a dismal fact.

This idea, that higher education has been bad for men, occurred to me last week when I arrived in Minneapolis and met two very happy men, one was a cabdriver who was following the instructions of the GPS lady and the other was working in a Dairy Queen, making Blizzards, and I ordered a medium Butterfinger Blizzard and I heard him singing to himself as he whipped the candy chips into the ice milk, something I never hear men do who have a Ph.D. in history. History is a terrible field for men and should be avoided at all costs.

History is the study of slimeballs and what good does this do a young man, to realize that for centuries our gender has been a blight upon the world? I majored in English, which is almost as useless as history: you read the novels of Thomas Hardy and you’ll want to live alone in a cabin in the woods and take up beekeeping and never talk to another human being. My brother was an engineer, a cheerful field of rational problem-solving, and I was an English major, which gives you no useful knowledge, only a superior attitude. If English Departments were shut down and their students given jobs driving cabs and given the classics to read while they wait for fares, this would be a step forward.

My grandson is enrolled in architecture, and is very happy about it, and I’ve told him that if he switches to Humanities, I will disown him. I made a career writing fiction but if I had it to do over again, I’d get a job in the field of desserts. I still could. My cousin Ben, a retired car salesman, bakes cherry pies and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. I talk to him regularly, always about people we know, never ideology, and he is the cream of the Keillor crop.

A walk in the park on a historic day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2021

Saturday

2:00 p.m.

Sellersville Theater, Sellersville, PA

Sellersville, PA

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

October 3, 2021

Sunday

5:00 p.m.

Mauch Chunk Opera House, Jim Thorpe, PA

Jim Thorpe, PA

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

October 12, 2021

Tuesday

8:00 p.m.

City Winery Boston

Boston, MA

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

October 13, 2021

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

City Winery New York City

New York, NY

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

October 20, 2021

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA

Alexandria, VA

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

November 4, 2021

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

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

November 5, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

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

buy tickets

November 11, 2021

Thursday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

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

buy tickets

November 12, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

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

buy tickets
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Writing

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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The story of my life, in 750 words

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

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

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In defense of feeling good in perilous times

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

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

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

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A modest proposal sure to be rejected

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

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

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The road to contentment is sitting right here

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

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

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

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A fresh start is a beautiful thing

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

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

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September, the finest month, is on its way

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

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

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

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

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