The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, August 11, 2022

TWA from Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Dragonfly” by Louise Bogan, from The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.

ORIGINAL TEXT AND AUDIO – 2011

It’s the birthday of fiction writer Andre Dubus II, born in Lake Charles, Louisiana (1936). He grew up in a Cajun-Irish-Catholic family, went to Catholic schools, studied English and journalism, and then joined the military. While he was in the military, he married a woman named Patricia, a Louisiana homecoming queen. He served for six years, and became a captain. He and Patricia had four children.

Dubus left the military to pursue his real passion: writing fiction. He was accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and moved his whole family to Iowa City. They had a happy few years there, surrounded by friends, attending parties and discussing literature. He published his first novel, The Lieutenant (1967), and he got a job teaching in New England. The family moved to New Hampshire, then Massachusetts. Dubus was a popular professor, and his books of fiction were well-regarded by other writers like John Updike, Richard Yates, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Even as his professional life took off, his family fell apart — and that is the story that his son, the novelist Andre Dubus III, told in a recent memoir, Townie (2011). Andre Dubus II left his wife and four children for a beautiful young student, and in some ways he never looked back. He remained a dutiful father — he picked up his kids once a week and took them out to eat somewhere, and he showed up for family holidays. But he was teaching at Bradford College, living a much different life than his ex-wife and children. The life of the elder Dubus consisted of working on stories, jogging, drinking, having affairs with students, attending parties and giving readings. Meanwhile, the rest of his family was struggling to make ends meet, living in poverty in a series of Massachusetts mill towns. The young Andre Dubus and his siblings were bullied until Andre spent a year and a half obsessively lifting weights and conditioning himself to be a fighter so that he could stand up for all of them. He began to thrive on violence. His mother worked long hours and was constantly exhausted; the house was disgusting, and there were always drugs around but never enough food. But his mother did her best — Dubus said: “My mother was making $135 a week. But she had resilience and imagination. She might take frozen vegetables, cook them with garlic, onion and Spam, and it would taste like a four-star dinner.” Through it all, the elder Andre Dubus would show up to take his kids out to eat, but he seemed oblivious to how different his own life was from that of his children.

Late on a summer night in 1986, Andre Dubus II was driving back to campus from Boston, where he had been gathering material for a story. He saw a couple of young people on the side of the highway who had gotten in an accident — they had hit an abandoned motorcycle. Their names were Luis and Luz Santiago, a brother and sister. Dubus pulled over to help them and had just gotten out of his car when another vehicle swerved off the road straight for the three of them. Luis was killed, and Luz survived only because Dubus pushed her out of the way. Dubus was seriously injured, and doctors thought he might not survive. He did, but one leg was amputated and the other never recovered, so he was confined to a wheelchair. His third wife, Peggy, left him within a year of the accident. He lived alone in a rural house built on a steep hill.

By this time, Andre Dubus III was in his 20s. He had started publishing stories, and he and his father had found some things in common — they talked about writing, or about fighting — as an ex-Marine, Andre the Elder was proud of his son’s skills. Now, after the accident, with the elder Andre seeming vulnerable for the first time, the father and son were able to truly reconnect. The younger Andre and his brother Jeb built ramps all around their father’s house, and Andre taught his father how to lift weights. They traveled and did readings together. In 1999, Andre III said goodbye to his father and headed to the West Coast for a book tour promoting his new novel, the best-selling House of Sand and Fog (1999). Soon after, Andre II died of a heart attack.

Andre Dubus II’s books include Adultery and Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), The Times are Never So Bad (1983), The Last Worthless Evening (1986), and Dancing After Hours (1996). His story “Killings” was adapted into the film In the Bedroom (2001).

Dubus said: “A first book is a treasure, and all these truths and quasi-truths I have written about publishing are finally ephemeral. An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them which becomes a sentence. When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer’s own blood, and with the occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes or longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk; and when a writer does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk. If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger, and, more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work was not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word, and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer’s soul. If the work is not published, or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains a spiritual, mental, and physical achievement; and if, in public, it is the widow’s mite, it is also, like the widow, more blessed.”


It’s the birthday of poet Louise Bogan, born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). Her father worked in mills, and the family moved often, to what she called “the incredibly ugly mill towns of my childhood, barely dissociated from the empty, haphazardly cultivated, half-wild, half-deserted countryside around them. Rough stony pastures, rugged woodlots, lit up and darkened by the clearly defined, pale, lonely light and shadow of weather.”

Her parents fought constantly; her mother had affairs with other men and sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time. When Louise was 10 years old, she was sent off to boarding school in New Hampshire, where she was a star student but extremely lonely. A few years later, her family moved to Boston, and Louise joined them and was accepted to a good school, Girls’ Latin School. She was still lonely, so she turned to poetry. She said: “I began to write verse from about 14 on. The life-saving process then began. By the age of 18 I had a thick pile of manuscript, in a drawer in the dining room — and had learned every essential of my trade.”

She was offered a scholarship to attend Radcliffe College, but she left after a year to get married. She had a daughter, but after two years she separated from her husband, and he died two years later, in 1920. She moved to Vienna, where she kept a journal, and then moved back to New York City and published her first book of poems, Body of This Death (1923), and then another, Dark Summer (1929). She was feeling increasingly depressed, and lonely despite a second marriage, and she decided that maybe she hadn’t learned every essential of her trade when she was 18. She became critical of her own style of writing; she wrote: “The diary kept in Vienna in 1922 was without any real descriptive power. Then, I could only describe through a set of symbols — poetically, lyrically. Straight rendering completely baffled me; I remember this. So inner, so baffled, so battered even at 24 — that I noticed practically nothing; or if I did notice it, I could not put it down (in prose) with any directness.” Bogan tried to teach herself to write all over again. She wrote: “I saw the clear afternoon, casting the shadows of chairs one way in the room, so that the season was as clear within a house as out of doors. The shadows had the time of day written into them, as well as the look of autumn.”

She did learn to write directly, and she used that talent as a poetry critic for The New Yorker. She reviewed poetry for The New Yorker for 38 years, from 1931 to 1969. When she decided to quit, she wrote to her friend and editor Ruth Limmer: “After 38 years; and seven years beyond normal retirement age. — I know that you are against such a move; but really, Ruth, I’ve had it. No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be a square.” She died four months later.

She said, “I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy!”

 

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

The most elegant gentleman to come out of Minnesota, Mr. Butch Thompson, died yesterday in St. Paul. He picked up the New Orleans spirit listening to Jelly Roll Morton 78s and carried it through the 20th into the 21st century. He was a pianist and a clarinetist, the piano for the bounce, the clarinet for the blues, and if he could've he would've played both at the same time. We worked together for years, a quiet man, and I never knew him except through his music. God bless the memory, God preserve the music.

–GK

Born and raised in Marine-on-St. Croix, a small Minnesota river town, Butch Thompson was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three, and began formal lessons at six. He picked up the clarinet in high school and led his first jazz group, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves,” as a senior.

After high school, he joined the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, and at 18 made his first visit to New Orleans, where he became one of the few non-New Orleanians to perform at Preservation Hall during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1974, he joined the staff as the house pianist of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. By 1980, the show was nationally syndicated, and the Butch Thompson Trio was the house band, a position the group held for the next six years.

From the early days on APHC, Butch remembers, “It was pretty casual back then. Margaret or somebody would call me and ask if I was busy on Saturday. More than once I remember saying I couldn’t get there by showtime, and being told to show up as soon as I could. Sometimes I’d go onstage without remembering what key something was in. If Garrison was going to sing, I usually couldn’t go wrong with E major.”

By the late ’90s, Thompson was known as a leading authority on early jazz. He served as a development consultant on the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam, which starred Gregory Hines. He also joined the touring company of the off-Broadway hit Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man, playing several runs with that show in New York and other cities through 1997.

The Village Voice described Butch’s music as “beguiling piano Americana from an interpreter who knows that Bix was more than an impressionist and Fats was more than a buffoon.”

 


 

 

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Tempted to give up politics for Parcheesi

My mom admired FDR and Eleanor because they cared about the poor. My dad felt there was no such thing as a Depression, that anyone who wanted work could find it, that the WPA was relief for the lazy, We Poke Along. He maintained this view even after we pointed out that his first real job came from his uncle Lew who owned the Pure Oil station in town. Their difference of opinion never got in the way of their love for each other. Politics was far away; real life was up close and was all about family. Sometimes I’d find her sitting in his lap, the parents of six kissing. He was a little sheepish, she was not.

Sometimes I envy my parents’ close-up life. I sit every morning, a hard-hearted man scanning my email inbox, fending off the pitiful pleas of political candidates in tight races, falling behind with the fate of democracy itself in the balance, the future of the planet, but we’re losing (unthinkable!) to a weird opponent who believes COVID is a covert conspiracy of drug companies and is financed by tycoons who plan to relocate on Mars, the good candidate is only asking for a $10 contribution, he pleads, and I snip them off one by one, along with the fabulous 50% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY offers, and an African orphanage asking me to buy a $500 Apple gift certificate and forward it to this address to save kids from starvation. Out they go.

What was so remarkable about Monday

Nobody does royal funerals so beautifully as the Brits and an American watches with awe the long procession toward the chapel at Windsor Castle, the precision left/right stroll of the Grenadiers alongside the hearse, the horsemen behind, the bemedaled notaries and royal descendants and then, having come through narrow arches into the courtyard, the hearse stops, the rear door opens, and the eight uniformed pallbearers do a side-shuffle march to take hold of the coffin and lift it to their shoulders and take it up the steps. No simple task but they do it precisely and a stately silence prevails except on TV where American reporters venture speculation about a woman whose job was to be a mystery and who did it very well.

We sat and watched the committal service, we who threw all this away in the 18th century, all the costumery, ribbonry, and titlery and iconic disciplines and endless dignity, in favor of the mess we know all too well. The mind goes back to the funeral of George H.W. Bush in 2018 at Washington Cathedral, four exes present, Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and, keeping his distance, avoiding eye contact, not concealing his wish to be elsewhere, anywhere, our then head of state stood and refused to say the Lord’s Prayer, didn’t sing, didn’t amen, scowling as he shook a few hands. A sovereign head of state would’ve been appropriate in the ways a real-estate mogul finds difficult.

We are Americans, we can’t help it. When one courtier lifts the silver orb from the casket and hands it carefully to another courtier, I want him to drop it and a great byoingyoingyoing fill the great chapel and let us see the Brits stifle their laughter and refuse to admit hearing any byoing. Same when the lone bagpiper fired up his drone and walked the long hallway playing a tune, I wanted to hear him squawk like a wounded ostrich, but he did not.

My mother, whose father came from Glasgow, was a great admirer of the Queen who was a few years younger, and she visited London and stood at the Buckingham gate looking in, as if she might be invited in for tea and scones. My London friends are ferocious republicans and we never mention monarchy in their presence, except if discussing butterflies, because it will lead to a length and learned lecture on the evils of aristocracy. The Queen met Mr. Trump and though his love of pageantry was clear and he lusted after a carriage and platoon of horsemen for himself, we shall never know what she thought of the fool, only that she was polite. She didn’t leave a memoir in which she revealed her inner qualms and anxieties: I doubt that she allowed herself the luxury of qualms. She accepted her role.

And then it was over. The coffin was lowered into the royal vault below St. George’s Chapel and people departed in an orderly fashion, each knowing whom they should follow and what they should do. As the Dean said, “The life of man is as dust,” but dusty as we are, we are capable of putting on a good pageant. By “we,” I mean “they.”

But after a couple hours of admiring tradition and ceremony and everyone knowing which foot to put where, it dawns on me that this elevation of bureaucracy to an art form is what America fortunately escaped and thus was better able to give the world the phenomenal techno advances of my lifetime, the laptop, cellphone, GPS, AI, drones, radical reductions in the cost of solar panels and wind energy, new vaccines. These things were not created by platoons of people marching in place but by brilliant gamblers and entrepreneurs, nerds of many stripes. (We also gave the world the blues and rock ’n’ roll, but that’s another story.)

An English major in college, I looked down on IT students because they all dressed alike and carried plastic pocket protectors for their ballpoint pens. I saw them as dullards. As it turns out they were at work on data technology that led to the internet, which changed my life and yours too. Meanwhile, the English department and other humanities march along beside the hearse and the horsemen.

I wanted to be eccentric and got my wish but the engineers in my family are more engaged with the real world. Thank God our president is committed to technological advance rather than cultural combat. He’s never spoken in defense of the 2020 election results. Either you can count or you can’t.

October is coming, prepare to be bold

She told me out of the blue that she adores me. I was there, in a chair, listening; she was standing by the grandfather clock. She didn’t sing it but she said it clearly. This should answer any remaining questions. But Mister Malaise and Madam Miasma are ever on our trail, skulking in woodlands and meadows, waylaying the vulnerable, requiring us to drink discouragement and despair, and they got me a few days ago, two weeks after mitral valve replacement, walking tall in Transitional Care, transitioning back to normal life when I was hit (in the time it takes to tell it) by abject weakness, dizziness, nausea, and had to be locked up in hospital and tubes put in my arms for blood and antibiotics, and then released in a weakened semi-invalid state. It’s a lousy feeling. I look out at Minneapolis and imagine it’s Odessa, which it is not. I worry the Swiss banks will fail. Water mains will burst. Bacon will be banned, leaving us with vegan substitute.

The body wants to heal and it has felicitous intuitions how to go about doing it but meanwhile I ache and shuffle around like an old grampa and hike the hallways and work at maintaining a cheerful outlook (false). My wife is a worrier and when we promised to love and honor each other 27 years ago, diarrhea and vomiting weren’t mentioned in detail, so I walk carefully.

Life throws a beanball at your head and you dig in at the plate and swing at the slider. Look at Columbus, whom we honor in October, the month he landed in the New World. Some dishonor him because he came uninvited but there was plenty of uninvited migrating and mooching around in the 15th century. You took your chances. And it was a bold venture to sail out on the ocean blue with no idea of where you’re going. No wonder he was paranoid. He stood at the helm — it hurt to sit because he had horrible hemorrhoids — and guessed he was near India whereas he was closer to Indiana. Still, some of us admire his courage.

October is a month that encourages courage. The languors of summer are finally dispersed and the chill of reality in the air tells you to get to business.

No wonder Brother Martin Luther on that October day in 1517 roused himself to nail his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Pounding nails into a door of any kind goes against a good German’s nature, but he did it, announcing that salvation is a gift of God’s grace, not available for purchase, for which he was outlawed but went on to lend his name to a major bunch of Prots. Whereas Pope Leo X is known for his diet of worms.

It was in October 1781, that Washington and Lafayette whipped Cornwallis’s ass at Yorktown and brought the American Revolution to a successful end. It had gone on long enough, Washington decided. Time to dispose of the foe and get down to the real problem, which was figuring out what sort of government would take the place of the Crown. So Washington pretended to be laying siege to British-occupied New York City but in fact was rushing his troops south where he caught the redcoats by surprise and made short work of them.

And Cornwallis surrendered. He didn’t claim the battle was fraudulent and that he was the true winner, nor did he slip out of Yorktown a day early to avoid having to hand over his sword. He handed it over.

Washington did this despite his terrible dental problems. False teeth made of wood and ivory that chewed his gums as he chewed his beans and mutton. We do not know for a fact that the Father of Our Country did not assign one of his slaves to chew his food for him. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But his bold move on Cornwallis did more to secure our independence than the Declaration of 1776 did. Anybody with a pen can declare independence; somebody has to get the job done.

And so it comes down to you and me, friend, as to what needs doing in October. Leaves must be raked, storm windows hung, and we must listen to candidates and distinguish hogwash from common sense. And I must climb up from my clobbering and be ready when the bell rings for the next round.

What if it does and they do?

Sea levels are rising as the polar ice caps melt and now it’s clear why Republicans are in favor of global warming, it’s a form of gerrymandering. It destroys the Democratic coasts and drives disheartened Manhattanites westward to wander lost and confused in Ohio, their sophistication shredded, their street smarts useless. The Obamas will lose their place on Cape Cod and move to Omaha. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez will wind up in Topeka and go back to bartending. The fashion industry will move to Des Moines and polyester plaids will make a big comeback. Broadway will, of course, settle in Oklahoma –– where else? My love and I live on the 12th floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which won’t be so upper much longer and so we’re thinking of buying a kayak so we can still make it to Zabar’s when the streets are flooded. We’ll paddle around the little islands that used to be Central Park and the Belvedere Castle to look in the Guggenheim, which will be turned into a water slide, and when Zabar’s closes with its fabulous cheese section where a shopper gains weight simply by inhaling, then we’ll order a chopper to lift us off the roof and wave goodbye to the old life and be flown to Pittsburgh to fly back to Minnesota. One chapter ends, another begins. As you can see (to your horror) I am rather benign about the Union of Righteous Republican States (URRS) that the rising seas will create. I face the prospect with equanimity, same as I face the prospect of a monsoon or a ban on Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls or my laptop computer being crushed under the wheels of a truck, because I am newly out of the OR with a beautiful scar on my chest, I’m walking with a cane, and to me everything is miraculous, walking, conversation, meatloaf, oatmeal, sunshine, prune juice, my daughter’s voice on the phone, even the voice of Tri my physical therapist telling me to stand on one foot with my eyes closed for fifteen seconds. It’s all good. It helps to be eighty, with a treasury of interesting regrets I can examine if I choose. It also helps to know that a pig saved my life, the donor of a mitral valve, mine having sprung a leak. I dreamed of her last night, singing to me from hog heaven: I gave you a new lease on life Gave you a brand-new start Other people are on your mind But I am there in your heart I gave you a piece of my heart, baby Enjoy the sweet sunshine Roll in the mud, it’s there in your blood, The part of your heart that’s mine. This mitral valve is working very well, according to the Mayo Clinic, and when a pig part is what keeps you going, it is an everyday miracle you never forget. It also helps to be married to my wife. I’m not a New Yorker, she is, though she was born in the same dinky hospital in Minnesota that I emerged from, but I grew up in a basement, which I took to mean abasement, and she grew up in a home with classics on the shelves and she played violin and listened to Sibelius and Brahms, all of which turned her head eastward. I only went there for the money: The New Yorker was a magazine that paid real dough. In 1974 they paid me $6,000 for a piece about the Grand Ole Opry and I took up a life of self-amusement. Meanwhile, she, a true artist, lived in poverty in tiny fifth-floor walk-ups with three roommates and two cats and heroin addicts sleeping in the entry so that she could play great music. She went for Bach, I went for the bucks. We are opposites who pair up well. And now, thinking of the life of Elizabeth II, a life of devotion to inherited duty, we see the merits of fidelity and soldiering on. The British Commonwealth shrank severely during her long reign and she remained the same gracious lady, riding in the carriage, waving. Brits of fiercely opposing views could look on her with affection and respect. And so if the oceans rise and mountains fall and we have mandatory prayer in schools and election of the president by state legislatures and there is a life-size portrait of Himself in every post office, I shall still pledge allegiance to the flag and to the Republicans for whom it stands.  
A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 9, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Paramount Hudson Valley, Peekskill, NY

Peekskill, NY

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Peekskill NY. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unite us.

October 21, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Anthem, Washington D.C.

The Anthem, Washington D.C.

A Prairie Home Companion American Revival comes to The Anthem in Washington D.C. with Ellie Dehn, Billy Collins, Heather Masse, Rob Fisher, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Fred Newman, Tim Russell and the Friendly String Quartet.

November 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

The Bend Theatre, West Bend, WI

West Bend, WI

Garrison Keillor brings his show to West Bend, WI for a performance of sing-a-longs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

November 12, 2022

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

The Tabernacle, Mount Tabor, NJ

Mount Tabor, NJ

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Mount Tabor, NJ. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

November 19, 2022

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, Clinton Township, MI

Clinton Township, MI

Garrison Keillor and Robin & Linda Williams come to the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township, MI for an evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

November 26, 2022

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Town Hall, New York City

Town Hall, New York City

A Prairie Home Companion American Revival comes to Town Hall in New York City with Christine DiGiallonardo, Heather Masse, Rob Fisher and the Demitasse Orchestra, Rich Dworsky, Walter Bobbie, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell.

November 28, 2022

Monday

8:00 p.m.

McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA

Palm Desert, CA

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Palm Desert, CA for a performance of holiday songs, humor and The News from Lake Wobegon.

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

Broward Center for Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fort Lauderdale, FL for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Torrance, CA. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Iola, KS for 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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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, September 18, 2022

Samuel Johnston, the English essayist, poet, biographer, and lexicographer, was born on this day in 1709. His life was documented by his friend James Boswell, who wrote his biography “Life of Samuel Johnson” which is considered the finest biography in all of literature.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, September 17, 2022

It’s the birthday of American poet and critic Brian Henry (1972). He has advice for aspiring poets: “”Create your own community, and forget about pedigrees and prizes. If the mainstream shifts to accommodate you — as it has done to accommodate so many non-mainstream communities of writers — then you at least arrived there on your own terms.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 16, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 16, 2022

On this date in 1620, the Mayflower set sail for America. It is also the birthday of H.H. Rey (Germany, 1898), Nancy Huston (Canada, 1953), and Justin Haythe (London, 1973).

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Writing

Tempted to give up politics for Parcheesi

My mom admired FDR and Eleanor because they cared about the poor. My dad felt there was no such thing as a Depression, that anyone who wanted work could find it, that the WPA was relief for the lazy, We Poke Along. He maintained this view even after we pointed out that his first real job came from his uncle Lew who owned the Pure Oil station in town. Their difference of opinion never got in the way of their love for each other. Politics was far away; real life was up close and was all about family. Sometimes I’d find her sitting in his lap, the parents of six kissing. He was a little sheepish, she was not.

Sometimes I envy my parents’ close-up life. I sit every morning, a hard-hearted man scanning my email inbox, fending off the pitiful pleas of political candidates in tight races, falling behind with the fate of democracy itself in the balance, the future of the planet, but we’re losing (unthinkable!) to a weird opponent who believes COVID is a covert conspiracy of drug companies and is financed by tycoons who plan to relocate on Mars, the good candidate is only asking for a $10 contribution, he pleads, and I snip them off one by one, along with the fabulous 50% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY offers, and an African orphanage asking me to buy a $500 Apple gift certificate and forward it to this address to save kids from starvation. Out they go.

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What was so remarkable about Monday

Nobody does royal funerals so beautifully as the Brits and an American watches with awe the long procession toward the chapel at Windsor Castle, the precision left/right stroll of the Grenadiers alongside the hearse, the horsemen behind, the bemedaled notaries and royal descendants and then, having come through narrow arches into the courtyard, the hearse stops, the rear door opens, and the eight uniformed pallbearers do a side-shuffle march to take hold of the coffin and lift it to their shoulders and take it up the steps. No simple task but they do it precisely and a stately silence prevails except on TV where American reporters venture speculation about a woman whose job was to be a mystery and who did it very well.

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October is coming, prepare to be bold

She told me out of the blue that she adores me. I was there, in a chair, listening; she was standing by the grandfather clock. She didn’t sing it but she said it clearly. This should answer any remaining questions. But Mister Malaise and Madam Miasma are ever on our trail, skulking in woodlands and meadows, waylaying the vulnerable, requiring us to drink discouragement and despair, and they got me a few days ago, two weeks after mitral valve replacement, walking tall in Transitional Care, transitioning back to normal life when I was hit (in the time it takes to tell it) by abject weakness, dizziness, nausea, and had to be locked up in hospital and tubes put in my arms for blood and antibiotics, and then released in a weakened semi-invalid state. It’s a lousy feeling. I look out at Minneapolis and imagine it’s Odessa, which it is not. I worry the Swiss banks will fail. Water mains will burst. Bacon will be banned, leaving us with vegan substitute.

The body wants to heal and it has felicitous intuitions how to go about doing it but meanwhile I ache and shuffle around like an old grampa and hike the hallways and work at maintaining a cheerful outlook (false). My wife is a worrier and when we promised to love and honor each other 27 years ago, diarrhea and vomiting weren’t mentioned in detail, so I walk carefully.

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What if it does and they do?

Sea levels are rising as the polar ice caps melt and now it’s clear why Republicans are in favor of global warming, it’s a form of gerrymandering. It destroys the Democratic coasts and drives disheartened Manhattanites westward to wander lost and confused in Ohio, their sophistication shredded, their street smarts useless. The Obamas will lose their place on Cape Cod and move to Omaha. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez will wind up in Topeka and go back to bartending. The fashion industry will move to Des Moines and polyester plaids will make a big comeback. Broadway will, of course, settle in Oklahoma –– where else?

My love and I live on the 12th floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which won’t be so upper much longer and so we’re thinking of buying a kayak so we can still make it to Zabar’s when the streets are flooded. We’ll paddle around the little islands that used to be Central Park and the Belvedere Castle to look in the Guggenheim, which will be turned into a water slide, and when Zabar’s closes with its fabulous cheese section where a shopper gains weight simply by inhaling, then we’ll order a chopper to lift us off the roof and wave goodbye to the old life and be flown to Pittsburgh to fly back to Minnesota. One chapter ends, another begins.

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Never been such times as these before, I swear

It’s good for your breathing, the deep breaths you must draw at the systemic shamelessness of Mar-il-Legal, the casual heist of government stuff, the FBI arriving to take away the top-secret documents and all, the refusal by the Former to acknowledge error, his wholesale abuse of the FBI, and then the weaselish dictum by the Trump judge to hold the DOJ at bay, it was breathtaking, like watching a hippo climb a tree.

The sorting of material, separating articles of clothing from top-secret documents into their own piles, seems to be a problem for DJT, according to the FBI. Surely the man’s valet puts the socks in the sock drawer and not with the golf balls and cheeseburgers, but in his official dealings DJT seems prone to chaos.

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Lying in bed, grateful for it all

A week in hospital has brought me back to an appreciation of Jell-O, scrambled eggs, mac and cheese, the banana, food that is beyond criticism. There is no such thing as a deluxe banana. The best mac and cheese you ever had was not significantly better than the worst. My beloved disagrees. She is somehow repelled by Jell-O, perhaps she thinks if you eat it you’ll wind up living in a trailer park. To me, Jell-O is what it is, Jell-O. My dad lived in a trailer park and loved it; I think it gave him a sense of imminent mobility. Hitch up the tow, let’s go to Orlando.

My beloved has some Swedish ruminants in her ancestry whereas I have coyotes in mine. The ruminants had a taste for savory weeds and the coyotes only ate weeds to get the taste of chicken feather out of their mouths. Somehow we’ve made a happy marriage out of this.

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What was done for me back in Minnesota

There is vast kindness in this world and right now I am resting in it, astonished by it, a man who in the space of 48 hours went through an ablation procedure to calm wild heart arrhythmia and then a heart valve replacement and a valve repair. I climbed aboard the gurney for the first procedure, an adult male of 80, and was borne away from the second in an infantile state, helpless, somewhat hallucinatory, a disastrous life change for a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and through it all I was aware of the young women and men in blue scrubs who were at my side, making friendly small talk while checking tubes and adjusting pillows. They asked me to squeeze their hands, wiggle my fingers, look into a bright light, push up against their hand pulling my foot down, smile, raise my eyebrows, follow their finger with my eyes, and when I did they said, “Awesome,” “Fantastic,” “Excellent.” I said, “A person doesn’t have to do much to win praise around here” and they laughed. It was the only useful thing I could do, make them laugh, so I became a lie-down comedian, interpreting literally what they said: “Oh, we are going to have a bowel movement now? Fine, you go first and I’ll watch and see how it’s done.”

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It’s an age of innovation, praise the Lord

 One of the problems of living a long life is that you lose track of who is famous now. I, for example, have no idea who Adele is. I could mention other unknown celebs but I forget their names. Most of the famous people I know are dead, such as Abraham Lincoln, Al Kaline, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Graham Bell, just to mention a few on the A list, and Adele is a complete blank. So is the famous singer-songwriter Taylor Speed. She is huge among young people with beautiful hair and I don’t know her from a waitress at White Castle. She could walk up to me on the street and say, “Hi, Garrison, it’s me, Taylor” and I’d have to stand there and feign familiarity and sneak out my phone and snap a picture of her and use my facial recognition app to give me the name. Swift. Not Speed. Swift.

On the other hand, growing old, you’re stunned by the beautiful innovations all around us — FaceTime and Shazam and MeTube and Google, the Dairy Queen Blizzard, the Unsubscribe function on junk email, and the defibrillator embedded in my chest, upper left, that makes me imagine I have a pack of Luckies in my pocket: these more than make up for being out of the celebrity loop.

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Into the tunnel, thinking in the dark

Spending some time at Mayo, much of it ordinary, waiting, listening, doing as told, but some of it primal, such as the CAT scan in which I lay on a narrow platform, hands over my head, and was conveyed into a narrow tunnel in the dark and lay there, which made me imagine the vaginal tunnel that I descended from. Two siblings preceded me, three followed, and this descent bound us to our mother — we came out of her body — whereas our father, though contributing his fluid, was an onlooker. One could grow closer to him over time (I did not) but Mother was Mother. I hear about fabulous fathers in the two generations following mine and I believe what I hear, but Mother retains that physical sensation of us. In that tunnel, we experienced the trauma of leaving the uterus and thereafter found the delight of independence. I watched my mother closely and when I saw her delight reading Cedric Adams’s column in the evening Star, I set out on a course I’m still following seventy-some years later.

I had a phone consultation with a Mayo pharmacist and after I’d gone over my long list of medications and dosages, I heard a child’s voice and realized he was working from his home. It was his tiny daughter Airi. We talked and his joy in this child was clear as could be. For me, growing up in the Fifties, my father’s approval meant nothing, it simply wasn’t available, whereas my mother’s was. I did comedy on the radio because she loved comedy. When she was very old, I did sketches about her on the radio, in which she was a circus star, a sharpshooter like Annie Oakley, riding a galloping horse and shooting a cigarette out of my mouth as she passed. (Mother was horrified by my smoking habit.) She enjoyed that.

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Life comes in focus as the day approaches

It’s odd how a man facing heart surgery hears from friends who seem to have more on their minds than they’re willing to say — “How are you?” they say and “Thinking about you” in a way that suggests maybe they asked me months ago for a blurb for their new novel (“Recklessly absurd but lyrically sensitive”) or I promised to talk to their creative writing class — and I want to say, “Get to the point,” but these are Minnesotans and we are point-avoiders.

The elephant in the room is mortality, of course, and if they’re calling to wish me well, okay, but the novel is unimpressive (“Where confusion collides with revulsion at over-writing”) and my advice to young writers is “Get a life, then think about writing” and that’s enough about that.

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

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

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