The Writer’s Almanac for August 1, 2019


iPoem
by George Bilgere

Someone’s taken a bite
from my laptop’s glowing apple,
the damaged fruit of our disobedience,
of which we must constantly be reminded.

There’s the fatal crescent, the dark smile
of Eve, who never dreamed of a laptop,
who, in fact, didn’t even have clothes,
or anything else for that matter,

which was probably the nicest thing
about the Garden, I’m thinking,

as I sit here in the cafe
with my expensive computer,
afraid to get up even for a minute
in order to go to the bathroom
because someone might steal it

in this fallen world she invented
with a single bite
of an apple nobody, and I mean
nobody,
was going to tell her not to eat.

 

“iPoem” by George Bilgere from Imperial. © University of Pittsburgh, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Today is the birthday of Maria Mitchell (books by this author), the first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. Although the American essayist Hannah Crocker explained that same year in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women that it was then a woman’s “province to soothe the turbulent passions of men … to shine in the domestic circle” and that “it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men,” Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents believed that girls should have the same access to education and the same chance to aspire to high goals as boys, and they raised all 10 of their children as equals.

Maria’s early interest in science and the stars came from her father, a dedicated amateur astronomer who shared with all his children what he saw as physical evidence of God in the natural world, although Maria was the only child interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. She would later say, in a quote recorded in NASA’s profile of her, that we should “not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe,” because “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”

By age 12, Maria was assisting her father with his astronomical observations and data, and just five years later opened and ran her own school for girls, training them in the sciences and math. In 1838, she became the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum and began spending her evenings in an observatory her father had built atop the town’s bank.

On October 1, 1848, a crisp, clear autumn evening, Maria focused her father’s telescope on a distant star. The light was faint and blurry, and Maria suddenly realized she was looking not at a star, but a comet; she recorded its coordinates, and when she saw the next night that the fuzzy light had moved, she was sure. Maria shared her discovery with her father, who wrote to the Harvard Observatory, who in turn passed her name on to the king of Denmark, who had pledged a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet so distant that it could only be seen through a telescope. Maria was awarded the medal the following year, and the comet became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Mitchell’s list of firsts is impressive: She’d made the first American comet sighting; in 1848, she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1853, she became the first woman to earn an advanced degree; and in 1865, she became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Vassar Female College as their astronomy professor and the head of their observatory, making her the first female astronomy professor in American history.

Mitchell also became a devoted anti-slavery activist and suffragette, with friends such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women.


Herman Melville was born (books by this author) on this day in 1819 in New York City. The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman’s time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense.

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he’d likely expected: The cruelties he experience on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor’s yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville’s first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn’t possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville’s younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels — which he probably shared with his wife — a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville’s power of language “unparalleled,” while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville’s fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville’s career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he’d experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville’s masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.


Today is the birthday of the man who composed the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born on the family plantation in what is now Carroll County, Maryland (1779). During the War of 1812, he was aboard a British ship off the coast of Baltimore negotiating a prisoner exchange and became aware of an impending British attack on the nearby Fort McHenry. He was held captive and for two days forced to watch the bombardment of the unsuspecting American troops. And after being released, he wrote a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” in which he recounted the sight of the flag still waving through the debris of battle. The poem was fitted to a popular English tune of the day and soon became widely known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916, and Congress followed with a resolution in 1931, signed by President Hoover. Key later authored a book on religion and literature and had a career as a lawyer.


It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.” James Dennis “Jim” Carroll (books by this author), born in Manhattan, New York (1949.) He grew up on the Lower East Side, a talented student and basketball player.

He published The Basketball Diaries (1978), excerpts of which had been picked up by The Paris Review.

His books of poems include Living at the Movies, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 22.

At the prodding of his friend Patti Smith, he launched The Jim Carroll Band in the ’80s. His albums include Catholic Boy (1980), Dry Dreams (1982), and I Write Your Name (1983).

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Mr. Socialist confesses a love of opera

Free enterprise is fascinating, especially for us socialist communists who want to make the world into a dormitory with a cafeteria where on Mondays everyone has mac and cheese and on Tuesdays franks and beans, and so forth, but with free enterprise you get to see old empires crash and bold upstarts take over the town, such as Uber and Lyft have done to the taxi trade. I’m a taxi fan, especially in New York, a great old taxi town where sometimes you run into a growly old cabbie right out of the movies who says, “Where to, bud?” and all the way through town he denounces the rich and famous, but nostalgia is no competition against smart technology.

You go on your app and it knows your location and you punch in “Where to” and in less than a minute it tells you that Muhamed will pick you up in three minutes and the charge will be $26.78 and three minutes later Muhamed rolls up. The cost goes to your credit card on file along with your designated tip. Muhamed is from Libya and doesn’t know the city like the old cabbie does but the lady in the dashboard gives him precise directions and he does very well. What’s not to like?

Free enterprise can be brutal. In New York, a couple years ago, owners of taxi medallions, the city-issued license to own a cab, conspired to drive the prices up, and corrupt lenders offered loans at high interest rates, and thousands of drivers got taken to the cleaners, just as the pandemic hit and Uber and Lyft were growing, and the Times reported nearly a thousand bankruptcies and eight driver suicides in one year.

So when I’m in New York, sometimes I hail a cab, out of socialist sympathy, but Uber and Lyft have come up with a better light bulb.

Capitalists say that you have to drown a few puppies in order to achieve progress, but I come from Minnesota, which is a socialist state in the sense that we identify with victims and feel guilty about whatever success we’ve achieved. In New York, success is admired and people love to go see Broadway stars on stage and world-famous sopranos at the Met and we expect the Philharmonic to be up to international standards. In Minnesota, we feel sorry for the sopranos who failed the audition, especially if they come from a dysfunctional family of modest means that couldn’t afford to hire a first-rate music teacher. We would support an opera company devoted to hiring disadvantaged singers rather than the shining stars and why not have them perform operas that have been rejected by other companies? Enough with the Puccini and Mozart, those guys have had their chance, let’s do the work of Tiffany Tufford and DuWayne DeVore. This strikes us as a Christian thing to do.

If you search through the homeless encampments and the treatment programs for substance abuse, you will find folks who used to play musical instruments, and why not hire them for your orchestra rather than privileged children from middle-class homes who took lessons from pros and majored in music at Juilliard?

Elitism is suspect in Minnesota, and this new opera company — let’s call it The Progressive Opera — would find a good deal of support. People would donate money to democratize opera who likely would not attend performances. This is where the idea of socialist art falls down. Art is visceral, it lifts you up or it lets you down, you can’t talk yourself into loving it. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is so great that even if performed by the Grand Forks Opera Company by Lutheran singers, it will move you, and when you hear “Un bel dì” you will feel the tragedy, even if it’s Allison Nelson and not Anna Netrebko. But when they dump Puccini in favor of a justly neglected composer, the ship sinks. Nobody wants to sit in an auditorium and watch crappy shows except the relatives of people on stage and they’re only good for one performance.

So you’d need to give away sets of glassware or sell lottery tickets and the winner gets a trip to New York to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. People pay hundreds of bucks for those tickets who wouldn’t pay much to see my nephew Bruce Butler, the garage door tycoon in South Carolina. I just talked to him on the phone for an hour and he’s a good man, genuine and funny, but garage doors (unless you know something that I don’t) are not great art.

The darkness descends and I talk to friends

“Omicron” sounds like a pharmaceutical, an omnipotent drug against deadly microbes of a chronic nature, but it’s a flu variant just setting foot in America, whose ingenuity is not yet known, so we have one more excuse to stay home and not go to big fundraising dinners or games where unmasked people stand close together and sing the school fight song, emitting clouds of droplets in the air with every “Fight, fight, fight” and “Rah, rah, rah.” I am scheduled to do some Christmas shows hither and yon and am debating whether I should, as I normally would, invite the audience to sing the song about all being calm and bright. I’ll certainly scratch the song about the figgy pudding but “Silent Night”? All of Christmas is in this lullaby. You could skip the stockings, the cranberries, the tree with the tiny lightbulbs, and if you and your loved ones only sang about the quaking shepherds, you’d have Christmas in your heart, which is where it belongs.

Some of my Danish relatives are crossing the Atlantic to join me for Christmas and we’ve made a solemn compact that it will be modest, and not the gaudy jamboree that the Danes put on. They call it Yule, which they spell “j-u-l,” and thereby leave Jesus out of it, and they cook a goose and hang real candles on the tree and light them and dance around it, singing, and polish off a good deal of mulled wine and by sunset on the 25th, the nation is fairly unconscious. A boatload of Swedes could cross the Storebælt and take over the country, but then they’d need to learn the language, and why bother? There are vowels in Danish that are pronounced low in the throat and can induce gagging.

So we shall light a candle at midnight and sing the song, and I’ll make turkey sandwiches on the Day and we’ll pick up a couple pine boughs from the corner Christmas tree stand, and we’ll sit and converse.

This is one benefit of the pandemic, the rediscovery of conversation. My interest in adding COVID to my list of life experiences is minimal and so we’ve seen few people this year, other than passersby, and we’ve rediscovered Mr. Bell’s telephone, a wondrous gift, especially now that the curly cord is gone and you can carry it everywhere. I was once in the radio business and so telephone conversation comes naturally to me.

I’m a writer and my best work is done before noon, which leaves plenty of time for palaver, and I have a dozen regulars on my list, and another couple dozen occasionals, and this dispels loneliness very nicely. I don’t do FaceTime because I have a forbidding face as a result of growing up fundamentalist. I walk down the street and small children look at me and cling to their mothers. I look like Cotton Mather with a migraine. But on the phone, I can be actually sort of charming.

So I am at home with my love who orders food to be delivered by a masked man and she reads hygienic e-books from the public library while I write a screenplay and we play Scrabble on a board cleaned with antiseptic wipes, same as our phones and our pillowcases. We go for walks but we avoid runners who are breathing hard. We do not talk to unvaccinated persons on the phone. When we receive mail from states with high COVID rates, we boil it for seven minutes.

I notice in my phone conversations that I seldom hear people say, “When we get back to normal” or “When this is all over.” People don’t talk about plans for next year, they talk about next weekend. I worry about our kids and grandkids who have decades ahead of them, on whom uncertainty must weigh heavily. I worry about Minneapolis, my mother’s beloved hometown, where, in her old neighborhood, shootings and stickups are commonplace. I worry about how the Supreme Court might rule if asked to defend the right of high school students to carry a loaded weapon to class. And what is the constitutional basis for compulsory school attendance? Why shouldn’t six-year-olds be free to take factory jobs? Their little hands would be perfect for assembling small parts.

I think about these things but it’s not what we talk about on the phone. I believe in cheerfulness. If the subject of death comes up, I sing: “Ole lay on his deathbed, he knew he was going to die. And then he got a little whiff of Lena’s rhubarb pie. He crept down to the kitchen; there it was, he let out a moan. Lena whacked him upside the head, she said, ‘That’s for the funeral, leave it alone.’” Thank you for your attention and goodbye.

December is here, it is perfectly clear

Minnesota beat Wisconsin Saturday so hope is restored, the heart is lightened, and I am ready to enter the darkness of December unafraid. I got up early Sunday morning, grateful for the sensor in the bathroom that switches on the light when my physical form breaks an invisible beam. “Let there be light,” as the Creator once said, though He Himself has excellent night vision, and it felt good to be recognized as I stepped, half-asleep, over the threshold and all was made clear, the sink and mirror, the shower, the towel rack, and my target below, and I thought of Wisconsin and let fly.

Six a.m. and the city is only faintly enlightened. My early jobs as a dishwasher and parking lot attendant began at 6 a.m. and I remember this dimness well. It changed my life. I stayed home at night and went to bed early and postponed debauchery to my mid-twenties and then, at the age of 27, I got a job on the 5 a.m. shift and postponed it again. A dear friend of mine, whose parents subsidized her fully, went out late one night and fell in with some fascinating strangers who introduced her to hashish and some other substance and she fell into a psychotic state and had to be hospitalized and spent some time in a drug program where she met more fascinating troubled people and it changed her life. She never found a vocation. Instead, she became fascinated by her own disability and made a career of being troubled, married a troubled man who abused her, and today she’s in a nursing home somewhere, a faint replica of the witty woman she once was, and I am waiting for the coffee to brew so I can get back to work on a novel. Early to bed and early to rise makes for a life that, if not wealthy and wise, is at least pleasant and sensible.

The kitchen is dark because our friend Terry is sleeping in the guest room, which is just off the kitchen. She’s in town to play in The Nutcracker ballet, a difficult part that she’s played a thousand times so she has it down cold and can enjoy the comedy of the orchestra pit, the squawks and squeaks of the reeds, the smirks of the strings when the smart-aleck violinist screws up, the grimaces and snickers at the conductor who can’t conduct his way out of a paper sack, and she comes home and gives us a hilarious close-up account. To the audience, it may be pure magic, the Sugar Plum Fairy and all, but in the pit, it’s a human comedy.

I don’t turn the light on. I can hear the coffee dripping. I deliberate whether I shall go to church at 10 a.m. and it seems that I shall not; I am not in a proper frame of mind, being still exultant over beating Wisconsin. We were down 10-3 at halftime but the defense held and we won 23-13. Wisconsin has been kicking us around for years, thanks to their Teutonic culture, so this victory means a lot, sort of like D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. I shouldn’t walk into church with this baggage. My sins are selfishness and ingratitude and animosity, and in the early morning, I’m very aware of my loved ones asleep in other rooms and am thankful for the cardiologist who implanted the defibrillator in my upper left chest, but I’m not ready to give up animosity.

I have two enemies, one in Fargo and one in Minneapolis, and I intend to forgive them someday but the defibrillator is postponing that day, and so I hope for them to have wagered their homes and retirement accounts on the Badgers of Wisconsin, a sure bet, and watched Minnesota march to victory, and heard the debt collectors pull up in the driveway, and hours later found themselves sleeping off a bad drunk in the bus depot with no place to go but their great aunt Flossie’s in Wausau, the one with the German shepherd Rolf and the picture of Joe McCarthy on the bedroom wall and the Victrola with the 78 of Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries.

And then I pour my coffee and turn on a light and pick up a pen and write, “Minnesota beat Wisconsin Saturday so hope is restored, the heart is lightened, and I am ready to enter the darkness of December unafraid.” And the rest is easy as pumpkin pie.

Where I was last night and what I saw

Midnight and one a.m. and two, and the mind is racing around the track with lights flashing, me at the wheel but the wheel doesn’t respond, it’s a whirl of thoughts in chain reaction and I know I should turn on a light and read for a while, maybe a math book or Egyptian history, but I lie in the dark and excavate old episodes of my life, and not the happy ones. Playground bullies emerge who, if they’re alive, are ancient old men like me, but in my mind they’re fresh and eager, tormenting sensitive me, daring me to respond. I ignore them, as I tend to do still. Then Hitler appears. The war isn’t over. The Third Reich is in London, my Danish daughter is in danger, the Nazis have the A-bomb, so I drag myself back to the torments of the playground, a sweet slender boy with nicely combed hair and wire-rimmed glasses. And the thought leaps out at me: I was so nice, am I gay? Gay men are terribly nice, you know. By the age of 79, a man should know the answer, but my mind rolls it around. I decide I’m not, having had many girlfriends and no boyfriends. Also, I spill and I have no fashion sense. I could pass for a homeless person.

Now it’s three a.m. I had evacuated the marital bed out of simple courtesy, lest Hitler awaken my wife, and now I return, silently, like a thief, and the silence awakens her. “Can I go back to sleep?” she says. She is the designated worrier in the family. She listens to the radio at night, to drive worry away, but it’s the BBC so she lies awake worrying about codfishermen and Lebanon and Prince Harry and Meghan. I’ve always been a good sleeper but am quite awake at three and so is she, I can tell by the way she sighs. I wonder if insomnia is contagious. I wonder if in her mind it’s 1992 and she’s walking into that restaurant to meet me for the first time and spots me, tall, unkempt and yet pretentious, and thinks, “Oh no. Get me out of here. Not this.”

It’s a wild night, like the bumper cars at the state fair, memories crashing around, I walk down the Mall of the U of M campus and I skip my Milton class and decide to major in folk music instead, the CEO who fired me and was himself dismissed is hitchhiking in the rain and my right front wheel hits the mud puddle exactly right and turns him dark brown from toes to crown, I am offered the Nobel Prize, which I decline with a very noble speech about equality in the arts.

I guess I slept some. I awoke at nine. It’s ten-thirty now. I’ve had breakfast with my wife who is extremely funny describing her niece’s two children, a smart boy and a popular girl, fighting a guerilla war, and then she leaves for Boston where I’ll join her tomorrow. On her way out, she gives me detailed instructions, which I should write down but do not, choosing to live dangerously. And it dawns on me that since nine o’clock, I have been deliriously happy. Insomnia is supposed to leave you exhausted and depressed. I hear my mother saying, “You work too hard, you need your sleep.” She lay awake many a night, worrying about us six kids, she told me so when she was old. Then added, “But you were worth it.”

I think the mind needs now and then to be released from a lifetime of harness and who needs LSD when hallucinations come to you naturally? It was a wild night and as I write it down I’m aware that I’m remembering only a few slivers of it. It makes me wonder about the little defibrillator that the cardiologist installed in my chest a couple weeks ago: is there a secret feature of it that twice a month like clockwork stimulates the brain to take free flight in the universe. If so, I guess I am in favor, though I’d rather the brain did this of its own accord.

It’s good to get off the racetrack and resume normal life. Hitler was defeated. Life is good. The sun shines and we rise from our tangled beds and resume our purposes in the world. The blessed America will survive the festivals of dismay and rise to the challenge of the century, which is to save the planet from ourselves. Thank you, Irving Berlin, for writing that great song.

Garrison Keillor © 11.26.21

https://www.garrisonkeillor.com/where-i-was-last-night-and-what-i-saw

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

December 10, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Bridge View Center, Ottumwa, IA

Ottumwa, IA

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

December 11, 2021

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Rialto Square Theatre, Joliet, IL

Joliet, IL

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

December 12, 2021

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Holland Civic Center, Holland, MI

Holland, MI

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

January 21, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Reynolds Hall, The Smith Center

Las Vegas, NV

Garrison Keillor brings his show: “Stories from Lake Wobegon” to the Smith Center in Las Vegas, NV

January 27, 2022

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. 12:00 PM

January 28, 2022

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. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 4, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to the High Point Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 5, 2022

Saturday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to The Wayne Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:00PM

buy tickets

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

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

March 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

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

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Writing

Mr. Socialist confesses a love of opera

Free enterprise is fascinating, especially for us socialist communists who want to make the world into a dormitory with a cafeteria where on Mondays everyone has mac and cheese and on Tuesdays franks and beans, and so forth, but with free enterprise you get to see old empires crash and bold upstarts take over the town, such as Uber and Lyft have done to the taxi trade. I’m a taxi fan, especially in New York, a great old taxi town where sometimes you run into a growly old cabbie right out of the movies who says, “Where to, bud?” and all the way through town he denounces the rich and famous, but nostalgia is no competition against smart technology.

You go on your app and it knows your location and you punch in “Where to” and in less than a minute it tells you that Muhamed will pick you up in three minutes and the charge will be $26.78 and three minutes later Muhamed rolls up. The cost goes to your credit card on file along with your designated tip. Muhamed is from Libya and doesn’t know the city like the old cabbie does but the lady in the dashboard gives him precise directions and he does very well. What’s not to like?

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The darkness descends and I talk to friends

“Omicron” sounds like a pharmaceutical, an omnipotent drug against deadly microbes of a chronic nature, but it’s a flu variant just setting foot in America, whose ingenuity is not yet known, so we have one more excuse to stay home and not go to big fundraising dinners or games where unmasked people stand close together and sing the school fight song, emitting clouds of droplets in the air with every “Fight, fight, fight” and “Rah, rah, rah.” I am scheduled to do some Christmas shows hither and yon and am debating whether I should, as I normally would, invite the audience to sing the song about all being calm and bright. I’ll certainly scratch the song about the figgy pudding but “Silent Night”? All of Christmas is in this lullaby. You could skip the stockings, the cranberries, the tree with the tiny lightbulbs, and if you and your loved ones only sang about the quaking shepherds, you’d have Christmas in your heart, which is where it belongs.

Some of my Danish relatives are crossing the Atlantic to join me for Christmas and we’ve made a solemn compact that it will be modest, and not the gaudy jamboree that the Danes put on. They call it Yule, which they spell “j-u-l,” and thereby leave Jesus out of it, and they cook a goose and hang real candles on the tree and light them and dance around it, singing, and polish off a good deal of mulled wine and by sunset on the 25th, the nation is fairly unconscious. A boatload of Swedes could cross the Storebælt and take over the country, but then they’d need to learn the language, and why bother? There are vowels in Danish that are pronounced low in the throat and can induce gagging.

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December is here, it is perfectly clear

 Minnesota beat Wisconsin Saturday so hope is restored, the heart is lightened, and I am ready to enter the darkness of December unafraid. I got up early Sunday morning, grateful for the sensor in the bathroom that switches on the light when my physical form breaks an invisible beam. “Let there be light,” as the Creator once said, though He Himself has excellent night vision, and it felt good to be recognized as I stepped, half-asleep, over the threshold and all was made clear, the sink and mirror, the shower, the towel rack, and my target below, and I thought of Wisconsin and let fly.

Six a.m. and the city is only faintly enlightened. My early jobs as a dishwasher and parking lot attendant began at 6 a.m. and I remember this dimness well. It changed my life. I stayed home at night and went to bed early and postponed debauchery to my mid-twenties and then, at the age of 27, I got a job on the 5 a.m. shift and postponed it again. A dear friend of mine, whose parents subsidized her fully, went out late one night and fell in with some fascinating strangers who introduced her to hashish and some other substance and she fell into a psychotic state and had to be hospitalized and spent some time in a drug program where she met more fascinating troubled people and it changed her life. She never found a vocation. Instead, she became fascinated by her own disability and made a career of being troubled, married a troubled man who abused her, and today she’s in a nursing home somewhere, a faint replica of the witty woman she once was, and I am waiting for the coffee to brew so I can get back to work on a novel. Early to bed and early to rise makes for a life that, if not wealthy and wise, is at least pleasant and sensible.

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Where I was last night and what I saw

Midnight and one a.m. and two, and the mind is racing around the track with lights flashing, me at the wheel but the wheel doesn’t respond, it’s a whirl of thoughts in chain reaction and I know I should turn on a light and read for a while, maybe a math book or Egyptian history, but I lie in the dark and excavate old episodes of my life, and not the happy ones. Playground bullies emerge who, if they’re alive, are ancient old men like me, but in my mind they’re fresh and eager, tormenting sensitive me, daring me to respond. I ignore them, as I tend to do still. Then Hitler appears. The war isn’t over. The Third Reich is in London, my Danish daughter is in danger, the Nazis have the A-bomb, so I drag myself back to the torments of the playground, a sweet slender boy with nicely combed hair and wire-rimmed glasses. And the thought leaps out at me: I was so nice, am I gay? Gay men are terribly nice, you know. By the age of 79, a man should know the answer, but my mind rolls it around. I decide I’m not, having had many girlfriends and no boyfriends. Also, I spill and I have no fashion sense. I could pass for a homeless person.

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A call to action: ignorant persons, unite

Personally I like the statue of Theodore Roosevelt on a horse standing majestically in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York, which I often pass on walks and so I’ve followed the controversy about the statue, along with the debate about the statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle.

The statue removalists argue that Roosevelt and Columbus were guilty of inappropriate treatment of indigenous people and so don’t deserve this prominence. The removalists, I’m sure, have done their homework and especially in the case of Columbus could cite cruel and outrageous deeds and I respect their seriousness. There’s an avenue named for Columbus and a university, plus the Circle, and you could change them all to Smith and it’s no problem for me. The statue in the Circle stands on a very high pedestal so as to make it harder for pigeons to defecate on him, so high that his gender is not clear, and I seldom bother to look up.

The mounted Roosevelt statue, it was announced last week, will be removed to Medora, North Dakota, where he spent some pleasant time living the life of a cowboy out west and refashioned himself as a man on horseback, which made it possible for him to be elected president. Medora is a town of 129 people, and I imagine they’ll be thrilled to get this work of art, which may attract people who’ll then stop in a café, have lunch, buy postcards, a souvenir blanket, coffee mugs, teddy bears, and so on. In New York, the statue is no big deal, just a guy on a horse.

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An old liberal repents and comes out for order

I used to make fun of law and order as “lawn order” but I don’t anymore. I was a motorist then and now I’m a pedestrian, and when you get down off your horse, you feel the value of civil order, it isn’t just an idea anymore. This happened when we took up residence in New York where having a car is mainly a hindrance, like owning a camel. Parking regulations alone can drive you nuts: Parking On Odd-Numbered Days Except Between 4 and 6 a.m. And During Snowstorms Of More Than Two Inches. And then there are times when traffic slows to 2 mph. So you walk.

I like New York because my wife loves it for the museums, theater, friends, and Central Park. If it were up to me, I’d go back to the log cabin in the woods where I lived when I met her, but here I am and it’s okay. But whenever I hear that awful song (“Start spreading the news”) I have to leave the room. New York life is not about being “king of the hill, top of the heap,” it’s about appreciating civil order.

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Forget politics, let’s talk about something fun

I woke up this morning realizing that “woke” is now gone from the political vocabulary. It’s only used as an insult by people who never knew what it was about. The Democrats lost the Virginia election because they nominated an old hack; wokeness had nothing to do with it. “Woke” was an arrogant term never used by mature people except ironically. The fact is, we all have our weird biases and prejudices, I do, you do, it does, they do, and the point is to get a grip and be sweet. Or at least be civil.

Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about sex. We know each other well enough by now. I’ve read other columnists beating up on Democrats for being in disarray and I’ve thought, “I wonder if Mr. Grumpy just needs someone to put their arm around him and lead him upstairs to bed.” And Thanksgiving is coming and I am thankful for what that girl inspired in me who sat ahead of me in Sunday night gospel meeting in her short-sleeved blouse through one sleeve of which I could see a slight crescent of underwear. I was eleven or twelve and the preacher was talking about eternity in the smoking cauldrons of perdition as if it were scheduled for later in the evening and somehow this only intensified my interest in underwear. I’m sorry if this offends you, I am only making a clean breast of my loss of innocence.

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Our house is on fire: let’s talk

 My generation, the pre-Boomers, now known as the Humors, had it pretty easy, coming of age in the afterglow of World War II, believing in perpetual prosperity and progress, much of which came true, even as rock ’n’ roll provided the pleasure of rebellion without any consequence. Great medical advances came along just as we needed them, and Medicare to pay for them. We are lucky to have been born when we were.

I see the thousands of young protesters in the streets of Glasgow bearing signs such as “I Have To Clean Up My Mess, Why Don’t You Clean Up Yours?” and “The Dinosaurs Thought They Had Time Too” and “Stop Climate Crime” and “If Not Now, When?” at the UN Climate Change Conference, where the United States and China have issued vague promises of eliminating carbon someday but without a timetable. So much for American leadership; I guess we’re waiting for Iceland or Ecuador to show the way.

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Man contemplates miracle and is amazed

We white hetero males have taken a steep dive and likely will be phased out in a few years, replaced by manufactured semen that is free of defects, and the gender balance will be adjusted to 90–10, women to men, making for a more peaceful and sensible world, with a few million WHMs kept around for heavy chores, a militia, basically a class of serfs with no legal rights, and women will look back at our era of WHM dominance as an absurd extension of the Middle Ages, though one hopes they’ll remember a few of us such as Michelangelo, Mozart, Abe Lincoln, Babe Ruth, that whole gang, and meanwhile, I myself, thanks to a cardiac procedure called ablation that didn’t exist when I was your age, have had my life extended by who knows how long, which goes against the trend of white hetero obsolescence, and how can I justify this miracle? I feel resurrected, but what to do with it? Did I win this privilege unfairly? Did I jump the line? I was dragging my feet, ready to enter retirement, dementia, and the nap in the dirt, but now apparently I am supposed to do something worthy of this amazing blessing. But what?

Maybe writing these dinky essays about the buzzing of the bees in the cigarette trees is no longer good enough. By rights I should master electrocardiology and do for other people what was done for me but I struggle to deal with a waffle iron let alone a defibrillator and I didn’t even get to witness the brilliance and proficiency of the cardiologist and physiologist who did the job, I being deeply anesthetized at the time so as to keep me from trying to amuse them while they were performing the transformation.

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A man of the north speaks out

Now that the warm days have petered out and gray November has descended, I look forward to the arrival of winter when Minnesota becomes silent and shimmering and magical just as in a children’s story. It’s like Robert Frost said in his poem, you stop to look at the woods full of snow that belong to a guy in the village and your horse thinks it’s nuts to stop but you do and the woods are lovely, dark and deep but I have a dental appointment to keep and I want to buy a sheepskin jacket, and sheepskin ain’t cheap.

Thirty years ago, winter arrived on Halloween and Duluth got 37 inches of snow and the next day men were out shoveling their sidewalks. It was a beautiful day. And a few months later I met my wife to whom I am still married and vice versa. To me, the blizzard and the romance are closely connected: having faced death, I was ready for love and she took me in her arms and there was a powerful mammalian attraction. She gave off heat, I loved her conversation, I could imagine spending winter with her. The subject of Florida has arisen recently, now that she has family down there, and I have reminded her of the Florida condo building that collapsed. Buildings don’t collapse in Minnesota, they freeze solid.

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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). 

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