The Writer’s Almanac for February 11, 2019


Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes
by Kenneth Ronkowitz

Aries: You woke up again today.

Taurus: Nothing bad can happen to you as you read this.

Gemini: Even if you can’t see them, the Sun and Moon are watching over you.

Cancer: In a parallel universe, you are laughing.

Leo: Someone loves you. Perhaps, they will tell you tomorrow.

Virgo: You didn’t notice, but someone noticed you yesterday, and just thought about you again.

Libra:  When you are reading this poem, you look quite beautiful.

Scorpio: The stars are aligning for you right now. Concentrate. Can you feel it?

Sagittarius: Like you, the seasons change. But they never end.

Capricorn: Once you were stardust, and some of that is still shining inside of you.

Aquarius:  You are a water baby. The rain and the waves are yours. But not yours alone.

Pisces: The rest of today is all the future you need to be truly happy.

 

“Somewhat Optimistic Horoscopes” by Kenneth Ronkowitz. Used with permission of the poet.


It’s the birthday of Lydia Maria Child (books by this author), born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802.

Child shot to fame in 1824 with her historical novel, Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times. It’s the story of Mary Conant, a woman from colonial Salem, who breaks societal norms by marrying a Native American.

Interracial marriage didn’t often occur in early 19th century America. And it wasn’t written about when it did take place. But the controversial topic helped sell the book and launch Child’s literary career.

In 1826, Child launched America’s first children’s magazine, The Juvenile Miscellany. She edited and contributed to the bimonthly publication. It held steady readership through the early 1830s.

Child, an abolitionist, then published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. The book came out in 1833. In it, Child denounced slavery and the unequal treatment of blacks in the United States. Though the book helped win others to the abolitionist cause, it also attracted criticism to Child and her magazine. So, in 1834, Child resigned as editor of The Juvenile Miscellany.

Child spent the rest of her life fighting against slavery and poor treatment of blacks and Native Americans. And she continued writing, publishing her last book in 1878.


It’s the birthday of Thomas Alva Edison, born in Milan, Ohio (1847). He eventually amassed 1,093 patents, the most patents ever issued to a single person in American history. His most important inventions were the phonograph, the light bulb, and the movie camera.


On this day in 1905, James Blackstone of Seattle, Washington received a score of 299.5 in a game of bowling. The unlikely incident occurred when on the last ball of a perfect game, one pin split in half. The bottom half of the pin stood in its position while the top half flew off. Judges at the bowling lane credited the bowler for half a pin, ruining his perfect game but leaving a score that has never been achieved in any other recorded game in history.


It’s the birthday of novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Joy Williams, (books by this author) born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts (1944).

She did an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was enthralled with Flannery O’Connor. Then she moved to Florida, did research for a U.S. Navy marine laboratory on a barrier island off the central western coast of Florida, and lived alone in a trailer, surrounded by swamps and alligators and snakes. She said: “I was miserable, of course. But it was all very good for my writing. It’s good to be miserable and a little off-balance.”

It was there that she wrote her first novel, State of Grace (1973), which was published when she was age 29. She also wrote a guidebook to the Florida Keys, and many essays about the environment, some of which are collected in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals (2001).

She said, “Good writing never soothes or comforts. It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.”


It’s the birthday of novelist and travel writer Pico Iyer, (books by this author) born to Indian parents in Oxford, England (1957). He once described himself as “a global village on two legs.”

He went to graduate school at Harvard, and during the summers he got a job writing for a budget travel guidebook. He traveled around England, France, Italy and Greece, living on almost no money and sleeping in the gutters and under bridges. He covered a different town each day, walking its streets and taking notes in the morning and afternoon and writing it up in the evening.

After graduating, he got a job working for Time magazine. He sat in a cubicle all day and wrote articles about places like the Philippine jungles and the Andes Mountains, from reports he got from other writers. He finally got fed up with office work and took a vacation to Southeast Asia, and wrote Video Nights in Katmandu (1988). He’s since published several more books, including the novel Abandon: A Romance (2003) and The Art of Stillness : Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), the latter of which expands upon a very popular TED Talk given by Iyer in 2013 .

Pico Iyer said: “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing. And though reading is the best school of writing, school is the worst place for reading.”


It was on this day in 1778 that Voltaire (books by this author) returned to Paris after living in exile for 28 years in protest against France’s religious fanaticism. He was a crusader for human rights and one of the most respected people in Europe.

When he was allowed to return home, more than 300 people came to visit him his first day in the city. One of those visitors was Benjamin Franklin, fresh from helping to lead the revolution in the United States of America.

When Voltaire rode in his carriage to the theater to see the premiere of his last play, his carriage could barely move through the streets packed with crowds of his admirers. When he got to the theater, the audience cheered him and an actor placed a crown of laurel on his head. Voltaire died two months later.


It was on this day in 1990 that Nelson Mandela (books by this author) was released from Victor Verster Prison, outside Cape Town, South Africa. He had been imprisoned for 27 years because of his involvement with the African National Congress. The ANC was the main group resisting the apartheid government, and after decades of nonviolence, some members of the group — including Mandela — had begun advocating violence as the only way to deal with the brutal and violent tactics of the government.

When Mandela was released he was 71 years old, and South Africans were shocked to realize that he no longer looked the same as he did in 1964, the last time he was seen publicly. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters hadn’t even been born when he was imprisoned. When he emerged from prison, he was slender and slightly stooped, with a narrow face and white hair. His eyesight and lungs had been damaged by working in limestone quarries.

Mandela was released by South Africa’s new president, F.W. de Klerk, who had spent his whole career as a right-wing conservative. But he saw that times were changing and that South Africa’s economy would collapse if he didn’t end apartheid. He began freeing prisoners, and on February 2nd, 1990, he gave a speech to parliament. He hadn’t told anyone what he was going to say, not even his wife. He announced that he was unbanning the African National Congress and the South African Communist party, and freeing Nelson Mandela. The parliament was shocked, and his fellow conservatives booed. On February 10th, de Klerk met with Mandela to tell him the news that he would be freed the next day. Mandela said he would prefer to be given a full week’s notice. De Klerk said later: “That is when I realized that long hours of negotiation lay ahead with this man.” But in this one thing de Klerk got his way, and at the end of the meeting, he and Mandela shared a glass of whiskey.

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Sad story:  lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring: we're going where we need to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The privilege of happiness: one man's story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

aha

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

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

A modest proposal for saving the republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sad story: lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

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

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

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

Read More

Spring: we’re going where we need to go

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

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

Read More

The privilege of happiness: one man’s story

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

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

Read More

A modest proposal for saving the republic

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

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

Read More

My plan for the future, whenever it happens

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

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

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A walk around the Central Park Reservoir

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

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

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Still thinking of Yesenia weeks later

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

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

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

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Spring arrives in time to forgive us our debts

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

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

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Portrait of the columnist as an older man

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

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

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

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Still thinking of George, wishing I’d known him

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

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

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

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

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

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