The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, April 28, 2021


Kindness to Animals
by Anonymous

Little children, never give
Pain to things that feel and live:
Let the gentle robin come
For the crumbs you save at home,—
As his meat you throw along
He’ll repay you with a song;
Never hurt the timid hare
Peeping from her green grass lair,
Let her come and sport and play
On the lawn at close of day;
The little lark goes soaring high.
To the bright windows of the sky,
Singing as if ’twere always spring,
And fluttering on an untired wing,—
Oh! let him sing his happy song,
Nor do these gentle creatures wrong.

 

“Kindness to Animals” by Anonymous.


It’s the birthday of novelist Harper Lee (books by this author), born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama (1926). Childhood friends described Lee as the “Queen of the Tomboys,” unafraid to get in playground fights with boys. Sometimes she beat up the boys who were bullying Truman Capote, who spent summers with relatives in Monroeville, and became one of Lee’s closest friends. Capote’s aunt later wrote, “A dress on the young Nelle would have been as out of place as a silk hat on a hog.”

At Monroe County High School Lee had a wonderful English teacher named Miss Gladys Watson. Miss Watson demanded that her students abide by the “three Cs” in their writing: clarity, coherence, and cadence. To emphasize these three points she asked them to read all their work aloud to the class; and they were expected to rewrite their essays to her complete satisfaction. Miss Watson introduced her students to 19th-century British literature, which Lee loved — she especially adored Jane Austen. Years later she told an interviewer, “All I want to be is the Jane Austen of south Alabama.” She went on to the University of Alabama but felt like a misfit. She began a law program, encouraged by her father, a successful lawyer. But she didn’t like law and quit after a year. Instead, in 1949, 23-year-old Lee followed her old friend Truman Capote to New York City, where she hoped to become a writer.

She got a job as an airline reservations agent. She rented a small, cold-water-only apartment on the Upper East Side where she wrote every night at a makeshift desk made from a door set across sawhorses. When she moved to New York Capote asked his friend Michael Brown, a composer, if he would look after Lee, whom he described as “a shy friend from Alabama.” Lee became close friends with Brown and his wife, Joy, and they helped her find an agent, Maurice Crain.

In November of 1956, Lee brought her agent five short stories. They liked one of them, called “Snow-on-the-Mountain,” but dismissed the other four. They thought she had potential, though, and suggested that she try writing a novel, which would have more commercial promise. After meeting her one of the agents wrote in an office memo, “The author is a nice little Suth’n gal — from Alabama — who says ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am.’”

A few weeks later, for Christmas of 1956, Michael and Joy Brown gave Lee a huge gift: enough money to quit her job and spend the year writing. She wrote to a friend, “Aside from the et ceteras of gratefulness and astonishment I feel about this proposition, I have a horrible feeling that this will be the making of me, that it will be goodbye to the joys of messing about.” In mid-January she delivered her agent the first 50 pages of a novel called Go Set a Watchman. She delivered another 50 pages each week until the first draft was finished. Her editors helped Lee focus the novel more on the character of the lawyer father, retitled the manuscript Atticus, then sent it off to an interested publisher, the J.B. Lippincott publishing house. Lippincott published mostly textbooks, but their one female editor saw potential in Lee’s novel. That editor encouraged Lee to rewrite the novel to focus on the childhood of the main character, Scout. Lee spent two years rewriting the book under her editor’s scrutiny, and finally produced a final version, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). She did not publish another piece of writing until 2015 when she published the novel Go Set a Watchman . Lee passed away in 2016 at the age 89.


Today is the birthday of geologist and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker, born in Los Angeles in 1928. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology at the age of 19, and he earned his master’s degree a year later. He went to work for the United States Geological Survey, and studying the Earth sparked in him an interest in the moon. He tried to convince the USGS that he should do a geological map of its surface, and would have loved to go there himself, but he was diagnosed with Addison’s disease in 1963, which put an end to his astronaut aspirations.

He was particularly interested in the formation of meteor impact craters and so, with the help of his wife, Carolyn, he studied asteroids that had the potential to crash into planets or moons. He discovered 32 comets, which now bear his name, and was thrilled when, in 1994, one of those comets, Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into Jupiter — the first collision of two solar system bodies ever observed.

Shoemaker was killed in a car accident in 1997 and, at the suggestion of one of his students, his cremated remains were placed aboard the Lunar Prospector, an orbiter on a mission to map the moon. When its battery ran out at the end of its mission, the orbiter crashed onto the surface of the moon, and there his ashes remain in a capsule engraved with a quote from Romeo and Juliet:

And, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.


 It’s the birthday of Lois Duncan (1934) (books by this author), an author known chiefly for her suspense novels for teen readers. She was born in Philadelphia, grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and submitted her first story to a magazine at the age of 10. By 13 she had made her first sale, and she wrote magazine articles for publications like Seventeen throughout high school. She’s best known for the books that were made into movies: Hotel for Dogs (1971) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973).

In 1992, she wrote a true crime book about the unsolved murder of her youngest child, 18-year-old Kaitlyn Arquette, in Albuquerque. Police called it a random shooting, but Kaitlyn’s boyfriend was involved in organized crime and Duncan believes the gang killed her daughter to keep her quiet. She told an interviewer, “My dream is to write a sequel to Who Killed My Daughter? to give our family’s true-life horror story a closure. Of course, for that to be possible, Kait’s case must be solved.”

Lois Duncan died in 2016.


And today is the birthday of poet Carolyn Forché (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1950. A human rights activist as well as a poet, she’s committed to what she calls “the poetry of witness” and this has opened her up to criticism, especially in the United States, from those who believe poetry and politics should be separate concerns. She says that, in other countries:

“The poets are more expected to be intellectuals and to have an active interest in history and politics and everything going on. They’re not expected to be sequestered in a literary culture. They’re not expected to have no opinions about events in the world. They’re expected to have more seriously considered opinions because they’re poets — and not necessarily predictable opinions.”

Her anthology, Against Forgetting (1993), collects the work of international poets who had suffered imprisonment, torture, and exile.

Her most recent book is In The Lateness of The World: Poems (2020).

 

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Sad story:  lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

For years I have put myself to sleep at night by standing at the rail of the Queen Mary 2 as she slips across New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and inches under the Verrazano Bridge and out to sea toward England. We sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate my 70th birthday years ago and my wife was wary of the extravagance but it has more than paid for itself by giving me thousands of nights of sleep. My sweetie lies in bed worrying about COVID variants and about all of her loved ones in turn and I stand at the rail with a glass of champagne but there you have it: life is unfair.

We have led a penurious life during the pandemic. “There is no point in wasting money,” she keeps telling me. So our refrigerator is full of tiny plastic bowls holding small portions of leftovers such as would sustain a Chihuahua and she has accused me of wasting laundry soap and I have to hide the books I buy: she only reads e-books she borrows from the library. She sleeps with two windows open so it’s cold when I wake up and I crank up the thermostat and she turns it back down. I ask if the stock market crashed during the night. No, she says, but you can put on a sweater if you’re cold. She says I use too much coffee. We are liberals so the coffee is a locally ground free-trade organic coffee, not made by child slave labor, so I don’t feel bad about generous portions, but I follow her instructions.

Last week she flew to Connecticut to visit family and I went to the store and bought half-and-half for my coffee and a New York strip steak for breakfast. I turned up the heat and closed the windows. I made the coffee strong. A man needs what he needs.

I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the roar of big dragster engines revving on I-94 nearby, drivers who love the bottleneck tunnel for the sheer reverberation. It sounds like a B-52 landing on the lawn. Pure adolescence of the Nobody-can-tell-me-what-to-do approach to life. There’s a lot of it around these days. Four hundred adolescents are likely to pay a price for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, encouraged by members of Congress who then fled from the mob. It was all about noisemaking.

I tried to imagine myself aboard the Queen Mary 2 but it was gone to sea and I was wide awake. The apartment was still. I turned on the bedside lamp. My sweetie, who handles all the anxiety for the both of us, leaving me free to write a comic novel, an adolescent enterprise if the truth be told, was gone. I thought about Connecticut, I thought about Lyme disease.

I tried reading Henry James who’s put me to sleep many times over the years. No luck. I turned on the radio, a call-in festival of people in agreement that the U.S. government had covered up the landing of aliens in New Mexico in 1947 — alien beings who have spread a virus that causes people to think collectively instead of individually, and the COVID vaccine is actually boosting that virus.

I went to the kitchen and put the coffee on. I looked out the window and saw other lighted windows nearby. The insomniac brigade, sentries of the sleeping world, thinking our 4 a.m. thoughts. I opened up the Times and read that Verizon is selling AOL to an equity firm and I remembered the love letters I wrote to my sweetie on AOL. We were both traveling back then, she with an orchestra in Asia, I with a radio show in the Midwest, and our love was urgent since I was fifty at the time. She wrote me about a steep hike to a Buddhist temple in Burma, the strange tourists, the wild monkeys in the trees, her exhilaration at being alone in a foreign land, and I wrote: “When your happiness makes me happy, even at a distance, independent of me, that means I’m the right man for you.” A profound thought and I turned off the coffee, opened two windows, crawled into bed in the chill, and the Queen was on course on the open Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down but there wasn’t an iceberg in sight and I am still here to tell the story.

Spring: we're going where we need to go

It is springtime in Minnesota and viva sweet spring, the tulips are opening and people are thinking about setting their tomato plants outside though of course we’re aware that it’s Minnesota and we’ve gotten snow as late as early June. But everyone we know is immunized so we’ve gone to people’s houses for dinner who aren’t in our bubble. We go outdoors without masks and can recognize other people even if we don’t know for sure what pronouns they use. I’ve been to two ball games. We visited relatives and did an exciting reenactment of a fairy tale with a five-year-old girl as Cinderella, her grandpa as the prince, and her grandma and my wife as the evil sisters. It’s a start.

I’ve been happier since I started to accept being uninformed. I read the newspaper headlines upside down as my wife sits across the table reading right side up and it’s too much trouble to follow Florida’s attempts to discourage voting and the romantic life of Matt Gaetz. But I do feel bad about Rudy Giuliani, the federal investigators banging on his door at 6 a.m. and executing a search warrant for his computer and phones. He was probably still in his pajamas, hadn’t even had coffee, couldn’t find his glasses, and he’s looking at the warrant, thinking, “Why me, of all people?”

It was a steep drop for the former mayor hailed as a hero after 9/11 who turned it into a lucrative career, giving speeches for a hundred grand per pop, and then hooked up with a New York tycoon with elaborate hair and became his mouthpiece, claiming election fraud where none existed, losing every claim in court, and in January his client refused to pay Rudy’s $20,000 per day fee. His big feral smile, like a shark with no gills, became the stuff of cartoons. He was photographed with hair dye running down his right cheek. The man is now a joke.

New York goes for big operatic dramas like his. It’s a town of big ambitions. I live some of the time there and walk in Central Park where the dogs are designer dogs, well-bred, coifed at a spa, accessorized, and the roads are packed with serious runners, lean women MBA vice presidents out to take over corporations and get a $3 million book deal, visionary thinkers conceiving new technologies that will turn our culture upside down, novelists writing 600-page books critics will describe as “penetrating, nuanced, mordant, cool,” and each of them uses plural pronouns (we, our) because each contains a multitude. In my little Minneapolis park, the dogs are normal scruffy dogs, as God intended dogs to be, and the people stroll or amble, they don’t race, and they’re simply feeling gratitude. I know I do. I think of the poet Roethke (A lively understandable spirit once entertained you. It will come again. Be still. Wait.) who died at 55 for lack of a drug I take twice daily. Thank you, God, for science.

After the raid, Rudy claimed political persecution, a weak defense in what may turn out to be a criminal case. The man is not getting good advice. He should come to Minneapolis and get an apartment near my park and write a book, admitting the hoax of the Stolen Election. Come out with the truth. Go on talk shows and say it loud and clear: “I was wrong. I was a fool. I was blinded by greed and I can’t believe I sank so low. I am a former D.A. who took on a crook for a client and believed him.” Accept that the days of the twenty-grand daily fee are over. You don’t need that kind of dough to be content in Minneapolis. That’s New York dough.

There is no redemption for Rudy in New York but he could find it here. Put aside the suits and ties and take up red flannel shirts, jeans, a denim jacket, and a Twins cap. Maybe take the last name Johnson. Shed the feral grin and the street fighter persona and take up fishing. Get a dog. Set about finding Ms. Right and marry her. Sit across the breakfast table from her and read the headlines upside down, stories about a man named Pmurt who is on trial for tax duarf or something. Don’t bother with it. It’s an old old story. You’ll learn more from Roethke: “God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, and learn by going where I have to go.”

 

The privilege of happiness: one man's story

The first One Hundred Days of Uncle Joe have gone by in a whoosh and we’ve mostly forgotten the guy with the Art Deco hair. Time rushes on. I look at the unread novels on my bookshelf and wonder what crime I need to commit to get sentenced to prison long enough to read them all. Probably handing over nuclear secrets to the Russians but I assume they already have them.

Crime, however, seems unlikely due to the fear of virus transmission which has locked us in our homes and brought me under close supervision by my wife. Thanks to her, my consumption of double cheeseburgers is at an all-time low; my intake of greens is now close to that of an adult giraffe. I am in her hands even when I’m not in her arms. She keeps telling me, “There is no point in wasting money,” and so we live like tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl, we save tiny portions of leftover salad in little plastic containers and we use bars of soap until they are the size of a potato chip. I grew up with Frugal Monetary Theory, but I’ve been corrupted by the ATM: stick in a card and it blows money at you like bubbles from a pipe. She finds a wad of cash in my jeans pocket and says, “What do you need all this money for?” Good question.

I’m a happy man. I had a happy frugal childhood, riding my bike around the countryside back before cellphones and apps that parents could track you with on a laptop, but I avoid talking about happiness because I have young leftist friends who, if I admit to being happy, say, “Well, that’s very nice for you but not everyone is as privileged as you were.”

Privilege was not what made me happy. Dad worked for the post office, we were six kids, so though we weren’t impoverished, we could see it from there. No, it was the bike and freedom and the truck farmers who’d pay a kid to hoe corn and pick strawberries and I’d take my dough to the corner store and buy a couple Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and take them down to the Mississippi and eat them and skip stones. It wasn’t about privilege. Why can’t a man talk about happiness without getting a poke in the eye from someone who’s just read a book about systemic inequity and wants you to know it?

The great privilege of my childhood was hoeing and weeding, which is denied to kids now whose moms go to Whole Foods to purchase raspberries from New Zealand and a bag of baby arugula hand-raised in the coastal foothills of Northern California by liberal arts graduates, instead of growing food in a garden and affording their children a useful education.

Weeding is editing and editing is a basic skill desperately needed now that the computer has led to floods, downpours, typhoons of verbiage. Everything is ten times too long. (I had a couple thousand words here about my old editor William Shawn, which I’ve taken out, as you can see.) I read a memoir now and then and I think, “This person never mowed a lawn or weeded a flower bed.” Their book has, in a manner of speaking, a lot of old rusted cars and busted appliances sitting in tall weeds that need to be thrown down in a coulee and the grass mowed.

I grew up mowing lawns, parallel lines, back and forth, it was deeply instilled in me and that’s why I write prose today and not

Butterflies go tipitipitipitipi
toward the blue
crocus and focus
looking for nectar
and stick out their
connector like a straw
and cry,

aha

Notice how the irregularity makes it seem sort of artistic. So what? Sew buttons on your underwear. I am happy going back and forth, back and forth, putting subject and predicate together. It’s therapeutic. When I was your age, kiddo, I had artistic ambition, which was the privilege of ignorance — to look down the road and imagine being honored by the U.S. Essay Association, but in the pandemic, it’s all about today. A walk in the park, a skinny sandwich for lunch, a brief nap, a poem.

A virus called COVID-19
Can be sneaky, mysterious, mean,
But once immunized
I have been surprised
By days that are calm and serene
And limericks that are pleasant though clean.

A modest proposal for saving the republic

I am a simple man leading a simple life, thanks to my wife who reads the pandemic news and the dark dreadful visions of pessimistic epidemiologists and instills caution in me, otherwise I’d be hanging out in saloons singing sea shanties with unmasked ne’er-do-wells, passing a bottle of whiskey around and sharing bacteria. Instead, she and I lead a monastic life, staying home, reading books, eating salads, playing Scrabble.

A year of quarantine with your spouse is something we didn’t anticipate when we said our vows. I promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, but by “sickness,” I was thinking of a bad cold, maybe a sprained ankle, not a year of incarceration. But by God, quarantine is an excellent test of a marriage, and either you go to a hotel and call your lawyer or you discover that you married the exact right person, which, as I contemplate it day after day, seems to me to be the greatest good luck, right up there with being an all-star third baseman or winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

I had twenty aunts and uncles, all of them married, and I witnessed no yelling, no door-slamming, no sobbing in locked rooms, so I figured the odds were in my favor. But I walked into a couple of troubled marriages before luck struck, and now I think that quarantine should be a prerequisite for marriage. Six months locked in a one-bedroom apartment before the license can be issued. You will quickly find out whether you have anything to say to each other or not. You’ll find out about housekeeping habits, personal hygiene, sense of humor (if any), dietary preferences. I am a liberal and know what is good for people and premarital quarantine is right at the top of the list.

She loves foreign TV shows with subtitles and long brisk walks and Zoom chats with friends. I love to sit and write notes with a pen on paper and put them in envelopes with a U.S. postage stamp. She walks by me and puts a hand on my shoulder and I touch her hand and every night, sometimes more often, we say, “I love you.”

If we wished, we could dive headfirst into the internet and find a turgid churn of people who see the vaccines as a “deep state” conspiracy to inject woke thought-control chemicals, or born-again anti-vaxxers who accept COVID as God’s Will and as the doorway to heaven; I worry about those people.

What with right-wing resistance to immunization, I worry that a big new wave of COVID could wipe out the Republican Party and suddenly we’d find ourselves in a nation of public-radio listeners, old folkies, organic sustainable people who are spiritual but not religious, and all the cranky uncles and crackpot cousins will disappear, and Terry Gross will be elected president. She does a show, “Fresh Air,” on which she interviews only people she admires because they agree with her. This is the problem with public radio. They can’t bear dissent. They are about unity and communal goodness, and their illusions is what led to the birth of Fox News.

I am an old liberal Democrat but I grew up among Republicans. My uncles were (their wives were undercover liberals), many of my teachers, my first employers. I do not want to live in a woke America with no street-corner preachers, no angry callers to call-in shows, no malefactors of great wealth who in their twilight years seek to redeem themselves through philanthropy to ballet companies and orchestras, no crazed individualists.

We cannot afford to lose the right wing through their self-imposed ignorance of communicable disease and that is why the National Guard needs to round them up and take them in trucks to internment camps for a month to get their shots. The Supreme Court may try to interfere with this and so they may need to be taken into custody too. The Jim Jordans and Lindsey Grahams and Ted Cruzes have a role to play in our country and we need to protect them from themselves. Lock them up and jab them and who knows, some of them may fall in love with the vaccinators and find true happiness. For their own good, we need to be the totalitarians they already believe we are. I don’t want to live in an entire nation of Vermonters. We need Texas and Mississippi too. Even Oklahoma.

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Writing

Sad story: lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

For years I have put myself to sleep at night by standing at the rail of the Queen Mary 2 as she slips across New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and inches under the Verrazano Bridge and out to sea toward England. We sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate my 70th birthday years ago and my wife was wary of the extravagance but it has more than paid for itself by giving me thousands of nights of sleep. My sweetie lies in bed worrying about COVID variants and about all of her loved ones in turn and I stand at the rail with a glass of champagne but there you have it: life is unfair.

We have led a penurious life during the pandemic. “There is no point in wasting money,” she keeps telling me. So our refrigerator is full of tiny plastic bowls holding small portions of leftovers such as would sustain a Chihuahua and she has accused me of wasting laundry soap and I have to hide the books I buy: she only reads e-books she borrows from the library. She sleeps with two windows open so it’s cold when I wake up and I crank up the thermostat and she turns it back down. I ask if the stock market crashed during the night. No, she says, but you can put on a sweater if you’re cold. She says I use too much coffee. We are liberals so the coffee is a locally ground free-trade organic coffee, not made by child slave labor, so I don’t feel bad about generous portions, but I follow her instructions.

Last week she flew to Connecticut to visit family and I went to the store and bought half-and-half for my coffee and a New York strip steak for breakfast. I turned up the heat and closed the windows. I made the coffee strong. A man needs what he needs.

Read More

Spring: we’re going where we need to go

It is springtime in Minnesota and viva sweet spring, the tulips are opening and people are thinking about setting their tomato plants outside though of course we’re aware that it’s Minnesota and we’ve gotten snow as late as early June. But everyone we know is immunized so we’ve gone to people’s houses for dinner who aren’t in our bubble. We go outdoors without masks and can recognize other people even if we don’t know for sure what pronouns they use. I’ve been to two ball games. We visited relatives and did an exciting reenactment of a fairy tale with a five-year-old girl as Cinderella, her grandpa as the prince, and her grandma and my wife as the evil sisters. It’s a start.

I’ve been happier since I started to accept being uninformed. I read the newspaper headlines upside down as my wife sits across the table reading right side up and it’s too much trouble to follow Florida’s attempts to discourage voting and the romantic life of Matt Gaetz. But I do feel bad about Rudy Giuliani, the federal investigators banging on his door at 6 a.m. and executing a search warrant for his computer and phones. He was probably still in his pajamas, hadn’t even had coffee, couldn’t find his glasses, and he’s looking at the warrant, thinking, “Why me, of all people?”

Read More

The privilege of happiness: one man’s story

The first One Hundred Days of Uncle Joe have gone by in a whoosh and we’ve mostly forgotten the guy with the Art Deco hair. Time rushes on. I look at the unread novels on my bookshelf and wonder what crime I need to commit to get sentenced to prison long enough to read them all. Probably handing over nuclear secrets to the Russians but I assume they already have them.

Crime, however, seems unlikely due to the fear of virus transmission which has locked us in our homes and brought me under close supervision by my wife. Thanks to her, my consumption of double cheeseburgers is at an all-time low; my intake of greens is now close to that of an adult giraffe. I am in her hands even when I’m not in her arms. She keeps telling me, “There is no point in wasting money,” and so we live like tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl, we save tiny portions of leftover salad in little plastic containers and we use bars of soap until they are the size of a potato chip. I grew up with Frugal Monetary Theory, but I’ve been corrupted by the ATM: stick in a card and it blows money at you like bubbles from a pipe. She finds a wad of cash in my jeans pocket and says, “What do you need all this money for?” Good question.

Read More

A modest proposal for saving the republic

I am a simple man leading a simple life, thanks to my wife who reads the pandemic news and the dark dreadful visions of pessimistic epidemiologists and instills caution in me, otherwise I’d be hanging out in saloons singing sea shanties with unmasked ne’er-do-wells, passing a bottle of whiskey around and sharing bacteria. Instead, she and I lead a monastic life, staying home, reading books, eating salads, playing Scrabble.

A year of quarantine with your spouse is something we didn’t anticipate when we said our vows. I promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, but by “sickness,” I was thinking of a bad cold, maybe a sprained ankle, not a year of incarceration. But by God, quarantine is an excellent test of a marriage, and either you go to a hotel and call your lawyer or you discover that you married the exact right person, which, as I contemplate it day after day, seems to me to be the greatest good luck, right up there with being an all-star third baseman or winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read More

My plan for the future, whenever it happens

Spring is here, the park is gloriously in bloom, and I sit on a sunny bench watching the young on the running path, working hard out of their fear of mortality, and I feel the great privilege of being in my late seventies, all my ambition gone, enjoying life itself, not aiming for distinguishment. All those decades I tried to be intelligent, to be in the know and to maintain a cool sense if irony, an elegant detachment from the mundane, and now that rock-climb is over: it takes no effort whatsoever to be an old man. You sit in the park and savor your happiness and let the young do the suffering.

I enjoy writing more now than I ever used to. I have writer friends my age who’ve been stuck for decades because they once published a book that was greeted by heavyweight critics as “provocative and profound,” “unflinching,” “bold and riveting,” “dense and dazzling,” “lushly layered,” “exceptional,” and “exquisitely crafted,” so now they look at a first draft and there’s nothing exquisite and it makes them flinch — you get put on a high pedestal and it’s a long way down. But nobody ever accused me of exquisiteness, the most I ever got was “amusing yet often poignant.” That’s not a pedestal, it’s a low curb. So I write freely, happily, no looking back.

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A walk around the Central Park Reservoir

With the birth rate falling and America getting old and cranky, it’s wonderful to walk in Central Park on a sunny day and see all the little families rollicking around, all the little kiddos. It’s brave to raise boisterous kids in a small apartment in a bumpy economy and good for Joe Biden that he put some child support in his Recovery Act. We need more of these kids, otherwise we’ll become a national historical reenactment.

I don’t want that. I want the past to fade into the sunset, except for the classics, like Central Park. I walk in the park as April comes in and it’s a genteel world like what Renoir painted in Paris with the ladies carrying parasols and Dvořák walked in Prague whistling a tune that became the Humoresque that generations of kids would learn for spring recitals and Shakespeare sat in and scribbled notes for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” –– it is a permanent pleasure, to be cherished for all time, but I want life to move on so the kids grow up and think of Vietnam as a cuisine and trump as part of card games and “pandemic” will come to mean a college prof who gets negative reviews.

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Still thinking of Yesenia weeks later

When I read in the paper last month about impoverished children playing in a park and finding used hypodermics and thereby contracting HIV, the tragedy stuck with me. I had a young child once, two of them, twenty years apart, and can envision this happening and how the heart would break absolutely. And this story puts all the other lesser stories into line: this is a prime function of journalism, to show us the difference between hokum and hogwash and bean counting and true tragedy.

The scrimmage in the Senate over the filibuster is a contest of mastodons. And the discovery of the subatomic particle, the muon, that physicists say may change our understanding of the cosmos is a cloud of mist. You read and turn the page. And then comes a story that brings you to full attention.

The early morning crash in the California desert on March 2nd of the Peterbilt truck and the Ford SUV packed with 25 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants was a tragedy to be grieved over by any reader. The first officers on the scene found bodies scattered on the highway, some moving, a woman crying out in Spanish, brushing the blood from her daughter’s beautiful face, Yesenia Melendrez Cardona, 23, dead. They had traveled 2,500 miles to Mexicali on the U.S. border and paid thousands of dollars apiece to be smuggled across and a few miles north the SUV ran a stop sign and was crushed by the truck and 13 persons died.

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Spring arrives in time to forgive us our debts

It’s spring, the air is brisk, the forsythia is blooming, there’s widespread amiability afoot, and walking through Central Park you feel you could pull twenty pedestrians out of the flow and rehearse them in “New York, New York, it’s a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground.” Winter tried to hang on, like a loud drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva, sweet love.”

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest. You wend your way from the Trinity churchyard where Mr. Hamilton lies who got not one thin dime from the musical he inspired, through the Village where brilliant and bewildered people once lived, and visit Grand Central with its starry ceiling and the Rose Reading Room of the Public Library, hike past the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — and did I mention the schist outcroppings? My family forbade dirty talk and so the word “schist” is a favorite of mine.

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Portrait of the columnist as an older man

I respect the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick in New York, at which millions of us commoners have stopped and felt chastened by that noble 17th-century gaze that says, “What have you done great lately?” Not much. I look in the mirror and see a grim-faced old fundamentalist staring back and now I understand why, when I went to parties back when there were parties, people social-distanced around me before there was such a thing. I wandered alone around people’s living rooms looking at photographs of their friends on the walls, wishing I had friends too. So I’m thinking about seeing a dermatologist about getting Botox to give me a beautiful smile but my wife says, “Do not go down that road. No matter what, Botox never looks right. I don’t want a husband who looks laminated.” And so I’ve come to accept that being loved by one person is an amazement, especially when I know she looks at me and sees Boris Karloff.

We live in New York because she loves music and shows and has friends here who can talk for three hours nonstop. I’m more at home in Minnesota among friends who are comfortable with silence. I feel uneasy in New York because it has bike lanes and I’m certain that one day I’ll be struck down and killed by a deliveryman on a bicycle. They go whizzing by at top speed and do not slow down for red lights or pedestrians. A shout and a quick whiff of sausage pizza with extra onions and that’ll be the end of me. The obituary will say, “He was struck by a pizza deliveryman and died instantly.” It won’t mention the distinguished limericks I wrote, or my classy memoir, my radio reminiscences. There won’t be a link to a video of me singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with Heather Masse. In people’s minds, I will be forever linked to pizza and they will wonder, “What size and did the family who ordered it get a refund?”

But life is good, especially if you had an unhappy childhood among fundamentalists thinking about the imminent end of the world. After a hellfire childhood, everything is easy. People who complain about pandemic life grew up with unrealistic expectations based on watching Mister Fred Rogers who led kids to imagine the world as a friendly neighborhood in which you are well-liked just the way you are and don’t need Botox. So they find it hard to cope with endless days of isolation.

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Still thinking of George, wishing I’d known him

I am still thinking about George Floyd almost a year after he died with the cop’s knee on his neck because it was in south Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Brethren Meeting Hall I attended as a kid, near where my aunts Margaret and Ruby lived. I wish I had met him but I didn’t patronize the Conga Latin Bistro where he worked security and I didn’t eat at the Trinidadian café he liked. He’d come here from his hometown of Houston where he grew up in the projects in Beyoncé’s old neighborhood. He was a high school basketball star, went to college but it didn’t take, did some hip-hop and rap, did drugs, did prison time, and got religion. He attended a charismatic church that met on a basketball court and he was the guy who hauled a horse-watering trough out on the floor for the pastor to baptize people in. He came north to get in a drug rehab program and change his life.

He’d been unusually tall since middle school and knew that this made him appear threatening and to avoid trouble, he adopted a friendly demeanor all his life. He grew to 6’7” and 225 lbs. He made himself meek and blessed are the meek. He was easygoing, even sort of shy. Shaking hands, he used two hands. He was a hugger. He could lift up a troublemaker and carry him out of the Club. He tried to dance but was too tall, and people laughed at him, and he didn’t mind. He kept a Bible by his bed and in his struggles with addiction, he and his girlfriend Courtney made a practice of standing together, hand in hand, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. A tall Black man far from his family, dealing with demons, stood close to his girlfriend and they both said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” and declared their faith in goodness and mercy.

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

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

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

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