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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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.

Yesenia was the same age as my daughter and this tiny link is enough and I remember long ago riding on a bus that collided with a car and killed four of its passengers, the bodies on the highway, and I can put myself inside that SUV, racing north to avoid the law, the driver distracted by the crush of the crowd around him, the lights of the truck in the dimness of dawn, the moment of physical panic, the blinding flash, the dark.

This is the grace of tragedy: you are able to imagine yourself into it, comedy is only a show. The SUV is smashed and we all go flying, and that is me and my daughter lying on the pavement, a sheriff looking down at us, red lights flashing, and she wipes the blood from my face and sees that I am dead, a horrible moment (for her, not me) that I contemplate for long enough to feel dread in her behalf and know in my gut that I matter in this world, I am not inconsequential, and then she walks into the kitchen and sits down opposite me and says, “Make me laugh” as she does every morning and I tell her the limerick about the barber of Stamford, Connecticut, who thought, for each client whose head he cut, he’d take his sharp shears and cut off their ears, a grave violation of etiquette.

I remember the Sunday morning I was on my way to church in New York and got caught up in a crowd going into a Catholic church on Amsterdam Avenue and rather than get loose I went with them into a Spanish Mass, crowded into a pew, kneeling next to a weeping woman with a bright blue and silver scarf over her head and I remember that as I think of the SUV and Yesenia.

I’m not Catholic, not even close. I come from fundamentalists and we were all doctrine, no mystery, and on the basis of solid doctrine explained to us by J.N. Darby, we held the world at arm’s length and refused to love it, and here I was in a mystery, worshipping with the handymen and cleaning ladies, and it was powerfully moving. I wept with my neighbor. For all that I couldn’t understand, I felt deeply. God help us. Give these good people some comfort and happiness in my country and keep them close to their smart kids at City College and NYU. God lift the burden of regret and remorse on the back of this old Anglo. The woman weeping next to me leaned my way, and I prayed for her prayers to be answered.

Afterward I walked out into America and here we are. Yesenia Melendrez Cardona was drawn to us by hope and died on the highway and this tragedy places us securely in the Almighty’s hands. We each have work to do. And now we go do it.

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.

When spring is here, the city opens its doors and spills out onto the sidewalks, diners sit under awnings on the sunny side of the street, greenmarkets set their goods out on wooden pallets, elders perch on the brownstone steps and gaze on you and me with a judicious eye but they see little kids come trotting along and their hard hearts melt. On Sunday, I walked to 83rd Street to mail some letters and passed a little Victorian firehouse, one truck wide, wedged in the row of brownstones holding off the invasion of high-rise condos. A papa stood on the corner, embracing one tall daughter, then the other. Skateboarders swooped along the bike lane, helmeted kids on scooters. Brisk walkers passing us amblers, people walking their shaggy dogs who watch for other shaggy dogs to talk to. The sun was out and there was good feeling everywhere you looked.

There are prosperous writers in this neighborhood who are busy writing angsty memoirs or nonfiction about heinous acts by cruel men, so it’s up to me, a tourist of long standing, to pay witness to public happiness, the old couple feasting on fettucine in the sunshine, the proud papa, the gallant skateboarders.

No alleys here so everything happens out on the street, goods are trucked in, garbage is trucked away, you’re walking along a busy loading dock with flower boxes.

At 81st, I went down into the subway and the downtown train rolled in just as I reached the platform, one of those transformative moments — every little thing you’ve done all day up to that moment feels perfectly timed — and squeezed into the car without actually touching anyone. I hung on to the overhead bar, feet nicely spread, as we rumbled south, six complete strangers within a few inches of me, everyone in his or her own space, avoiding eye contact, thinking their own thoughts.

I once saw John Updike on a downtown C train, the good gray man of letters grinning at the life around him, and once on the same train I saw the master trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Nobody bothered either one of them and they rode along with us commoners. Both times, I tried not to stare. “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” said E.B. White. “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And that was the gift I found in Central Park, approaching the reservoir on Sunday. Thanks to my mask, my glasses fogged up but I could see the cherry tree blooming in the park and bystanders holding up their cellphones in case the tree decided to say something.

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.

I was touched on Wednesday when my love said to me, quietly, “I am so excited about my new salad spinner.” In the past, we’ve been excited by various things that I needn’t describe here, and now a salad spinner. Scrabble excites us. She won last night with the word “strainer,” scoring 82 points. If the shutdown continues, we may be thrilled by a bowl of mixed nuts.

To the gospel preachers of my youth, New York was a hotbed of licentiousness, but the COVID virus has brought about a life of rectitude that centuries of preaching never could and here I am at home with a woman excited by a salad spinner. I’m happy. My calendar is clear. I’m free to write a sonnet for her so I did.

When I consider how my life is spent
Searching the apartment, high and low,
Trying to find out where my glasses went,
Where I set them down a minute ago.
From room to room I search in drawers and shelves
While others compose and paint and write
Books and bring great honor to themselves,
I struggle to regain my sight.
The irony of one with such poor vision
Searching for glasses is a symbol, rather clear,
Of the fragility of the human condition,
And then, my love, I look and see you here.
“I lost my glasses,” I say, “can you find them, please?”
And you do and clean them and the blind man sees.

Notice it doesn’t pledge undying love, it only thanks her for finding my lost glasses. They were on the table near my computer and I couldn’t see them. I put them on and saw my reflection in the window and decided to stay home, so go ahead and order pizza and don’t worry you may be responsible for my demise. It isn’t a great sonnet, not as exciting as a salad spinner, but anyway we already have one of those.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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Pardon me if I talk about back where I’m from

I spent the pandemic in New York where I don’t know anybody except my wife so quarantine was no problem and after I got vaccinated I went home to Minnesota and had dinner with five people I’ve known forever or more, and it was a pleasure that’s worth getting old for. With old friends, conversation is simple: you open your mouth and there’s a big balloon full of words. With new people, it’s like a job interview. So I love Minnesota where those old friends are. And it’s a state that needs to be loved.

Minnesota is flyover land and no matter what greatness we produce — Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Hubert, Jessica Lange, Prince, Al Franken, Bob Zimmerman — all that people know about us is that it gets cold there.

I was in Paris one January years ago on a bitterly cold day, sitting in a bistro, La Ponpon, packed with gaunt young people all dressed in black and elderly communists with enormous eyebrows and embittered poets writing in tiny black notebooks, everybody chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking vials of acidic black coffee and tumblers of absinthe, and a skinny woman across the table from me, reading Albert Camus in French, stared at me and finally asked, “Where are you from?” and I said, “Je viens du Minnesota” and she said, “So this cold weather must be nothing to you.”

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What it’s like to be old, if you want to know

I was back home in Minnesota last week, throwing away boxes of old manuscripts to spare my darling from having to deal with them after she plants me in the Home for the Happily Medicated. I saved the stuff thinking it might ferment, like wine, but it hasn’t, so out it goes. I look out the window at Loring Park where I used to walk when I was 17, on a break from my dishwashing job at the Evangeline Hotel, my first job out of high school. I was practicing smoking Pall Malls to prepare for a literary career. I’m 78 now and last week I had dinner with the man who hired me to do a radio show when I was in my 20s.  Diligence and discipline are all well and good, but thank God for wild good luck.

It was a music show on Saturday nights. I grew up fundamentalist and we avoided rhythm for fear it would lead to dancing and copulation so we praised God in slow mournful voices, like a fishing village whose men had been lost in a storm. We never learned to play a musical instrument for fear we might have talent and this would lead to employment in places where people drink liquor. When the radio show started, my lack of musical ability determined that I’d be the emcee. My musician friends didn’t want to do it: they were proud of their ability to play tunes with intricate fingering at impossible tempos. So I became the guy who walks downstage and says hello to the audience and tells the joke about the man and his wife who die in a car crash and they go to heaven and it’s stunningly beautiful and he says, “If you hadn’t made me stop smoking we could’ve gotten here when we were young enough to enjoy it.” And so, for lack of talent, I was made boss and had job security for 40 years. My bio, in less than 25 words.

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I’m not hoping for normal, no thank you

I think of the chicken when I crack the two eggs into the fry pan for breakfast but when I put in the sausage patty, I don’t think of the pig. The egg is a work of art; the sausage is a product. As a young man I tried to make art but I didn’t want to work in a factory (teach) to support my art, so I chose to do radio, which is a form of sausage. I admire the egg but I enjoy the sausage more. And it makes me feel good about my life, a good thing at 5 a.m.

It’s dark out. I’m alone in Minnesota, so the coffee is my own, not my wife’s good coffee but a bitter, accusatory brew. It’s Lent, but I don’t notice it because we’ve had Lent since a year ago when we and a bunch of friends were about to go on a Caribbean cruise and then the word “pandemic” was uttered and I hung my white linen suit up in the closet and Jenny and I, who had only been husband and wife before, set out to become best friends, boon companions, cellmates. When you are locked down, it’s a choice between best friendship and putting rat poison on your pancakes. Rat poison is not a good death.

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Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

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Peter Ostroushko: Living in Wonderful Memories and in his Music Forever

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by […]

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

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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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