The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, April 26, 2021


THE END REWARD
by Jonathan Greene

What passes in this world
for clever

amusing sleight of hand
or child’s play

or a magic trick that has
made all disappear

in the end does not fill
the requisite gravitas

and solace of Quiet
one has worked all of a life

to be gifted.

 

Jonathan Greene, “The End Reward” from Ebb & Flow. Published by Broadstone Books. ©2021 Jonathan Greene. Used with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of the man who said, “The truth springs from arguments among friends,” and “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” That’s Scottish philosopher David Hume (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1711. While working as a librarian he wrote the six-volume History of England (1762), which became a bestseller and gave him the financial independence to write and revise his philosophical treatises. He wrote A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). He was a strict skeptic and questioned all knowledge derived from the senses.

David Hume said, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty,” and “Reading and sauntering and lounging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme happiness,” and “He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to any circumstances.”


Today is the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1888). Loos published her novella, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in 1926. The story was based on Loos’s observations of her good friend, the journalist, writer, and scholar H.L. Mencken. She began writing a series of sketches to pass the time on a train from New York to L.A. after she noticed that Mencken and the other men in her party were falling all over themselves to pay attention to a young and attractive blonde passenger. “There was some mystifying difference between us,” she later wrote. “Why did she so far outdistance me in feminine allure? Could her power, like that of Samson, have something to do with her hair?” According to Loos she never really intended to publish the story; she claimed, “My only purpose was to make Henry Mencken laugh, which it did.” But she ended up publishing the sketches of her blonde protagonist, Lorelei Lee, in Harper’s Bazaar in 1925, and they were so popular that she made them into a book. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes inspired two movies, a play, and a musical, and it was translated into 14 languages. The philosopher George Santayana called it “the best philosophical work by an American.”


The civilian Basque town of Guernica (pop. 7,000) was bombed on this day in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. The attack was carried out by allied Nazi and Italian planes at the request of Spanish nationalist leader Francisco Franco. Between 170 and 300 civilians were killed in the massacre which later became the subject of Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting. On May 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that, after sixty-one years, in a declaration adopted on April 24, 1999, the German Parliament formally apologized to the citizens of Guernica for the role its forces played in bombing the town.


It’s the birthday of American comedienne Carol Burnett, born in San Antonio, Texas (1933), whose long-running television show, The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978), introduced audiences to such characters as “Chiquita,” a parody of Spanish singer Charo, the pneumatic, dimwitted secretary Mrs. Wiggins, and “The Charwoman,” a beleaguered cleaning woman with a penchant for breaking into song. The Carol Burnett Show was so popular that Hollywood stars lined up to appear; the show boasted luminaries like Lana Turner, Betty Grable, and Gloria Swanson.

Her parents were performers, but also alcoholics, so Burnett’s childhood was rough. When her parents moved to Hollywood, Burnett’s mother installed her in a one-room apartment with her grandmother, Mabel, who raised Burnett from then on, while her mother lived down the hall, drank, and tried to make it in show business. Mabel wore long johns with a drop-seat, was a notorious hypochondriac and took Burnett to the movies all the time, sometimes twice a day. Back then, movies were always double features, and only cost 11 cents for Burnett and a quarter for her grandmother, so they ended up seeing four movies a day several times a week.

Burnett thought she might be a playwright so she enrolled at UCLA, where students in the playwriting program were required to take an acting class. Burnett’s life changed. She had a small role in a production and decided to make the most of it, drawing out her single line to try and get a reaction from the audience. She says:

“They laughed and it felt great. All of a sudden, after so much coldness and emptiness in my life, I knew the sensation of all that warmth wrapping around me. I had always been a quiet, shy, sad sort of girl and then everything changed for me. You spend the rest of your life hoping you’ll hear a laugh that great again.”

After a class performance at a party in Hollywood, Burnett was stuffing cookies in her purse when a man approached her and asked if she wanted to be an actress. When she said yes, he offered her a thousand dollars to go to New York City if she promised to pay it back in a year and then do something nice for someone else if she got famous. Burnett was skeptical, but the man’s wife said he was sincere, and the next day he drew up a contract, and off Burnett went.

She got her first big break in television, acting in a sitcom with Buddy Hackett and on The Garry Moore Show (1959), but it was her appearance as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress — the 1959 Broadway musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” — that really got her noticed.

Burnett wrote about her childhood in the memoir One More Time (1986). Explaining her determination to succeed as an actress, she said, “There is something about being poor and having alcoholic parents that either poisons you or toughens you for life. I realized it was either sink or swim — get out, or be pulled down.”

At the end of every episode of The Carol Burnett Show Burnett would tug on her left ear. That was a special sign to her grandmother Mabel that she loved her.

In 2005, she was recognized as “one of America’s most cherished entertainers” and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom “for enhancing the lives of millions of Americans and for her extraordinary contributions to American entertainment” by President George W. Bush.


Today is the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 in the USSR. A flawed reactor design and lax safety standards led to one of the largest nuclear disasters in history, resulting in the evacuation of over 100,000 residents living in and around Chernobyl. Only 300 people refused to move from the area surrounding the plant, now officially known as the “zone of alienation.” Twenty-eight people were killed within a week of the accident by acute radiation poisoning. Experts predict that the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 as cancer cases and other radiation-related illnesses come to light. Today scientists study the effects of radiation on the local flora and fauna. In 2011 Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist attraction.

 

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I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

 

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

 

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

 

“What’s your point?” you say. “Get to the point.” I was just about to when you interrupted me. The point is that the country needs to honor competence over attitude. I say this, having come through a small but interesting medical encounter during which competence — knowing how to analyze the problem, arrive at a reasoned plan to deal with the problem, and how to describe the process to the patient — is front and center. The neurologist comes to my little ER alcove and tells me what the high-tech tests have shown and for fifteen minutes I am the focus of high-grade science and am reassured that life will go on. I admire this more than I care about his hair.

 

The country is in love with attitude and self-expression. I grew up when children were shushed and our parents were self-effacing, reticent to a fault, and it’s rather sweet to see the self-expression available to people today. Never mind Twitter and Instagram, think about the sheer variety of coffee cups in your cupboard today. Back in my day, we had identical beige cups we got as premiums at the gas station and now we have cups with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sayings by Thoreau, Monet’s water lilies, cartoons, nasty retorts, come-ons. A nice young woman talks to me at a party, wearing a black T-shirt that says, “I look like I’m listening but I’m waiting for someone else” and she is holding a coffee cup that says “Bad girl. Is that a problem?” Her grandmother is a friend of mine and sent her a book I wrote and she is telling me, in a vague way, that she liked it. The T-shirt and the coffee cup are only attitude accent pieces, so she won’t be taken for granted, which is fine by me, but what I really want to know is: what do you do that you care about? Seriously. What is your calling these days?

 

When I was Bad Girl’s age, I wore a beard, a tweed jacket, jeans, and smoked unfiltered smokes to create an intellectual air about me, but I was a fake. I used CliffsNotes to write a term paper about Moby-Dick, which I’d only read up to page 37, six pages of fake critical intelligence for which I received a B-minus, pure humbug and monkeytalk. My real education was working as a parking lot attendant at 6 a.m. winter mornings on a huge gravel lot on a bluff over the Mississippi, waving cars to park in straight lines, chasing down the freelancers and bullying them back to where they belonged. I believed in creativity but in a parking lot it creates chaos so I embraced authoritarian measures. Enlightening. I was lazy in class but discovered I was a hard worker at heart, menial jobs were up my alley, and that leads to this, writing a short essay about being real. Don’t be a Pekingese. Bring the vaccine. Find lost children.

O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

My family was circumspect and didn’t talk about love and romance. My parents were crazy about each other but it was the Depression and the courtship went on for years, Grandma needed Dad on the farm after Grandpa died, and one day, driving a double team of horses that spooked and galloped out of control, Dad almost broke his neck when the wagon crashed, and felt his own mortality and the romance became urgent and four months later she was pregnant and they ran off and got married. This wonderful story was kept secret all their lives. Nonetheless, I knew I came from people who loved each other, a profound blessing. I live in the shade of a romance made urgent by wild horses. It’s lovely to be with these young relatives who love each other, their young children deep in their books, my daughter with the dog’s head in her lap. We will ourselves to be happy. So many times my wife has approached her glum husband and put her arms around his neck and kissed the top of his head and thus she wills him to lighten up. And she does it so beautifully that I do. So many times bad feelings have been dispelled, not by talk but by this simple gesture.

This porch is a tiny island and we are aware that a fourth of America’s children are living in poverty, essential workers are abused, the burden of college debt is obscene. The list of injustices goes on and on. Changes need to be made and I believe they’ll come through the efforts of people who know the goodness of life, not from rage and fury. This gentle cadence of conversation, like water lapping on the shore. Life is good. Somebody should stand up on the Fourth of July and say so. We come from fallible human beings but they gave us this beautiful opening to happiness and let us take hold of it and celebrate America. We’re maybe not great at government but we excel at happiness and we produced baseball, the blues, barbecued ribs and the banana split, and when we feel down we can go look at the Badlands or the Grand Canyon. We’ve produced great poets and standup comedians and when the fat lady sings “land of the free,” let’s feel free to put an arm around each other.

Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

My photographer friends are a happy gang. It’s a collegial world, unlike the factionalism of fiction, the pitiless competition of poetry, the assassins of the essay. Poor focus and off-kilter framing are considered creative choices. But in my course, “The Art of Aging,” I shall guide my students toward a late literary career. You begin by writing comedy, the hardest field of all, and you write a devastating satire of whatever you did for a living, medicine, academia, the ministry, public radio, sanitation, and rip it to shreds, infuriating your colleagues who vote to take away your plaques. Then you turn out a heroic memoir, then write scandalous fiction.

The point is to stay busy. You rise in the morning with stuff to do. Work is a necessity of life. Serious work, not standing in a group of slim silent people with binoculars staring at a whippoorwill, which contributes nothing to society. Crimes occur daily that if birders had devoted themselves to watching the street rather than the sky, suffering would’ve been averted. Electric scooters go racing along the streets, ignoring red lights that if the Audubon-bons served as crossing guards instead, they could save lives rather than impressing each other with their knowledge of wrens.

I am a journalist and our role is to stir up trouble. Television is a deadly sedative: hundreds of channels are streaming thousands of shows and a person glued to it loses cranial sensation. TV is a big blur, like a day spent driving across North Dakota. Rachel Maddow helps, Tucker Carlson, Morning Joe, they try to raise the blood pressure and so does the newspaper. You glance at the front page and find three famous people to despise and your day is thereby given purpose and meaning.

Meanwhile, the disciples of Roger Tory Peterson disperse into the parks and ravines, looking up at the flyways, competing to be the first to distinguish the Canada goose from the Quebec condor and the Vermont vulture, and they feel ignored, having no natural enemies. That is my role. And so I come into their bird blind and scatter seed soaked in hallucinogens that condors and vultures snarf up and minutes later Mildred and Gladys and Marvin and Gordon are under attack by sharp-beaked fowl, waving their parasols in defense, shrieking shrieks the attackers recognize as mating cries and they spread their wings and attempt inappropriate things.

You do not fully appreciate a creature until you are attacked by it. This is what I do for the ornithology gang. I go for the throat, I make them feel like part of the natural order. Birds are real, they’re not a cartoon, and when a drug-crazed bluebird flies up in your face and pecks at your eyes, it’s something you never forget.

Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

I expected to be grumpy in old age and of course there’s still time, but instead I’m awestruck. As Emily says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” No, Emily, but I’ve realized life for about 245 minutes since a week ago, and it’s delicious. I was released on Saturday and went to church on Sunday and the choir was glorious and I wrote in the bulletin:

The words come in with a whistle
Like the sound of an incoming missile.
It’s so good to hear it,
“Let us live in the Spirit,”
From Romans, St. Paul’s epistle.

When you’re in the Spirit, it’s a sort of weight loss. I became 165 pounds, walking down Amsterdam Avenue to lunch with a friend whose granddaughter got married recently, the wedding dress refitted to accommodate the little boy in the bride’s belly, and in her great happiness, the grandma is setting out to write a memoir. I told her to avoid modesty. “No problem,” she said. She is 88, a decade ahead of me, and she is funny and sassy and when she goes after the high and the mighty, she can be devastating. She’s a scout riding ahead on the trail and the report is inspiring.

As for raccoons, I take this seriously. My dad grew up on a farm and he loved fresh strawberries, sweet corn, and tomatoes, and that’s why we were landowners, not apartment dwellers. He knew the difference between fresh strawberries and store-bought and fresh was a pleasure he cherished. He didn’t drink whiskey or chew tobacco or dance the tango, but he loved stuff from his garden. I had artistic ambitions and felt superior to gardeners; I was a songwriter and my best song was the one with the verse in the middle:

I love you, darling,
Waiting alone.
Waiting for you to show,
Wishing you’d call me though
I don’t have a phone.

But now I don’t see it as superior to strawberries. The wonders of the world all join in praise of the Creator. Minneapolis made a political decision to require dogs to be leashed because loose dogs can be frightening to children. Dogs running loose also defend the garden against raccoons. And so, Rocky Raccoon devours the good strawberries and people have to buy a pint at the grocery for $6, unfresh from California, and so a growing minority believes that a conspiracy of Satanists is running the country.

I do not. A man who goes into the ER amid the dying and distressed and comes out and goes to church is like Emily, a ghost walking among the living, telling them to love this life and all the ordinary things in it, clocks ticking and coffee and the walnut baklava with gelato and the couples walking along Amsterdam and the long-legged woman in denim shorts and the cops having a smoke and the smile on the waiter’s face as she sets down the bill, which moves me to tip her 40%, that smile that says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful,” and I say goodbye to my friend and come home. I have ten more years. What a gift. Life is good and one visit to the ER confirms it so let us drive upstate, darling, and look for a sign, “Pick Your Own Strawberries,” and be ecstatic.

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

June 29, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Just Added: Stillwater, MN 6-29

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JUST ADDED   June 29, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, […]

June 30, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Stillwater, MN 6-30

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   June 30, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, AND SHOW […]

July 2, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI

Bayfield, WI

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   July 2, 2021, 7:30 PM  BIG TOP CHAUTAUQUA, BAYFIELD, WI Reserved $60/$52/$42 The Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua is a 900-seat music venue and performing arts center, located near […]

July 4, 2021

Sunday

4:00 p.m.

Summerfield Amphitheater, St. Michael, MN

St. Michael, MN

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JULY 4, 2021, 4:00 PM  SUMMERFIELD AMPHITHEATER 4300 O’Day Ave. NE, St. Michael, MN 55376 $42/$15 Outside concert FAQs In 2021 we are going bigger, better, bolder, and in the […]

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Writing

I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

Read More

O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

Read More

Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

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Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

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A man in a back pew, thinking to himself

I’ve been avoiding the news for a while, but it was hard to ignore the recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that showed about 15 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood and that patriots will need to depose them by violent revolution. This represents as many people as belong to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in America. It is sort of dizzying to contemplate, even for an Episcopalian like me.

The study found that 55 percent of Republicans “mostly disagreed” with those ideas but not entirely. One-fourth of Republicans disagreed entirely, compared to 58 percent of Democrats, which still leaves a good many ambivalent Democrats.

It makes me wonder about the purity of drinking water in the middle of the country. These are not ideas taught in public school civics courses. I’ve never overheard anyone discussing Satanist pedophiles at a table near me at lunch. But PRRI now classifies QAnon, which holds these views, as a major religion. So there you are. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Out of the bubble, into the hullabaloo

Spent twenty-four hours in an emergency ward and am still giddy from it and from having gotten off light when it could’ve been otherwise, which someday it will but not yet. I lay in a little alcove, off a busy core of staff at computers, gurneys coming and going, beepers beeping, but vast professional courtesy prevailing. It was a big hospital on 68th and York in Manhattan, so it was an international staff, Asia, Africa, all over. My neighbor was a woman with cancer who often yelled, “Somebody come and help me! I just want to die! Help me!” and my other neighbor was a drunk who was mentally ill and also a jerk, a terrible combination. He had checked himself in and was now calling 911 to come get him out. Four cops arrived. It may have been the highlight of their day.

As for me, I’d been sent by my doctor for tests after I’d twice blanked out and had memory lapses (including the name of my doctor), which alarmed my wife. I called the doctor and his secretary asked for my phone number and when I couldn’t recall it, she put me right through. I took a cab over and Dr. Nash quizzed me. I’ve suffered a couple of strokes in the past, light ones, and he is a good explainer, and I canceled everything and went over to ER. My wife kissed me goodbye and said, “You remember that Maia was born here, right?” I did, then.

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Why we are staying home tonight, not going out

We sat out on our terrace in New York the other night, she and I, and cherished the feel of summer, a great blessing to us stoical northerners unaccustomed to paradise, so we contemplate all that is to come, the first rhubarb and strawberries, strawberry-rhubarb pie, sweet corn, fireflies flashing each other, the light produced by the oxidation of luciferin — one of those insignificant facts you carry around, waiting for a chance to dazzle someone with. If I were a firefly, I’d say to a female, That’s the oxidization of luciferin there, you know, and she’d be impressed and we’d mate and then I’d die.

I look forward to the next big storm, purple sky, lightning ripping the sky, volleys of thunder, so I can be calm and reassuring, a manly role, though I’m the last person you’d want in a real emergency. If I tried to give artificial respiration, I’d probably suffocate the patient.

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Going to Newport with Mrs. Dashboard

We went to Newport for three days last week, two Minnesotans long married, to rediscover the fact that ocean air is delicious and invigorating and can even make you happy. That surely is why the Vanderbilts built their monstrous mansion on the shore: sinking into decadence in a fake palace with more marble than Arlington Cemetery, nonetheless they could take a deep breath and feel childlike pleasure. So could their servants. So did we, crossing the beautiful bridges over the bays to Aquidneck Island, seeing the Atlantic, thinking “Oh wow” and “Oh my god.” The world is in turmoil, but walking along the shore and inhaling salt air lets you remember how good it felt to be twelve years old.

It’s a fine old town. You come and eat oysters and cod, text videos of the surf to your inland friends, and drive around and get your fill of colonial homes in dark greens and browns, many of them turned into boutique hotels. It’s here that I appreciate having a car with an electronic lady in the dashboard to give us directions. You simply press a button and say, “Cliff Walk,” and she says, “In six hundred feet, turn left on Narragansett Avenue and drive one-half mile.” Her vocal inflexion is very good; she sounds like an educated American woman in her mid-forties who knows her way around. And you drive down Narragansett and there, past Salve Regina College, is the ocean with Cliff Walk above it and you walk along the cliff and you can look across the vast green lawn to the marble pile where the Vanderbilts sank their ill-gotten gains, which is open for tourists to wander through and see how grim boughten grandeur can be.

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An adventure in my own home on Tuesday

The life of an honest satirist is a hard life and so there are few of them. We cherish our delusions — I am very fond of mine, especially the belief that I am master of my house and captain of my ship, but on Tuesday, sitting on the throne, I saw that the toilet paper dispenser was empty, no extra rolls of Scott tissue in sight, and the Chief Provisioner was off on her daily walk, and so I had to hike around the apartment, pants at half-mast, looking for the goods.

A man who doesn’t know where the toilet paper is kept in an apartment he’s lived in for many years is in a ridiculous position. He knows this as he wanders from room to room, opening cupboards, looking in drawers, hoping she does not walk in and see her husband the noted author in this delicate moment. He has lived with his head in the clouds and lost touch with the essentials of life.

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The impending crisis of exploding cicada data

My grandpa left Glasgow in 1905 and sailed to America and brought his thirteen children up as Americans and so I haven’t yet taken a position on Scottish independence but with the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party in elections last week, I suppose I’ll have to. I like to involve myself in other people’s problems where I myself have nothing at all at stake. Someone asked me about Ukraine the other day and though I haven’t heard anything from there in a long time, I gave a good answer, reasonable, balanced, on the one hand this, on the other hand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been focused on the crisis of the seventeen-year cicada, trillions of which will soon crawl out of the ground from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, from Georgia to New England, their incessant skritching filling the air for weeks, as they breed and the males drop dead and the females lay eggs to hatch into larvae to tunnel down into the ground to spend seventeen years and then resurrect.

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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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