The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, February 18, 2021


Mid February
by Ann Campanella

The day is warm and dank as early summer.
Crows scream and pitch in the woods
like the ruckus of old women fighting
for the shreds of their lives.

A sudden silence — then the hum
of a black-winged cloud oozing
through the naked sky —
the ruckus begins again.

Under the layers of winter grey,
the farm is pale and muted, the barn doors
shut tight. The only animals in sight
an earth-brown squirrel and these harbinger birds.

I am waiting for the sun to shine again,
to learn how to unfurl my heart in its warmth.
These days, neither long nor short, bright nor dark,
wet nor dry, fill me with a sadness I cannot name.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, a day of love
and chocolate. My father, born eighty-one years ago,
always bought red cardboard hearts full of truffles
for my mother, my sister and me. Now he is gone.

This morning, the doctor taps his pencil
against the screen. A six-week ultrasound.
There, that’s the heartbeat.
A tiny flutter outlined by grey.

 

Ann Campanella, “Mid February” from What Flies Away from Main Street Rag Publishing Company © Ann Campanella. Used by permission of the author. (buy now)


Today is the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (books by this author), born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). When she was in her late 20s she returned to teach at her alma mater, Howard University, and she joined a local writers’ group. Members were only allowed to come to the meetings if they had writing to share, and she appreciated the group of people — plus, she said, she really liked the food. She needed a piece of writing for one of her meetings, so she wrote a story about a young black girl who desperately wanted to have blue eyes. Everyone liked it, but she soon put the story aside. Morrison got divorced and moved with her two young sons to Syracuse, New York. She found a job editing textbooks, and then as an editor at Random House. She moved to Queens, where she lived in a small house so close to the jet-landing lane at JFK airport that everything rattled every time a plane landed.

She wanted to read a good novel about the effects of racism on the most vulnerable people, but she couldn’t find the book she wanted to read, so she finally decided to write it herself. She got out her old story from the writing group and began to expand it. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to write, go to work, come home and make dinner and take care of her boys, and return to writing once they were asleep. She said of those days:

“That was a liberation. There were two areas of total freedom for me. One has to do with my children, because they were the only ones who I knew who were not making insane demands on me […] But the writing was the real freedom, because nobody told me what to do there. That was my world and my imagination. And all my life it’s been that way.”

Eventually, she decided to send out her manuscript and received a lot of formulaic rejection postcards. One of her former students, Claude Brown, had recently published Manchild in the Promised Land, and he introduced her to his editor, who immediately recommended Morrison’s book for publication. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, when Morrison was 39 years old.

She continued working for Random House, raising her sons, and writing. She published three more novels, and then in 1983 she decided to take the leap and quit her publishing job to make her living as a writer. After she quit, she went and sat on her porch, watching the Hudson River. She didn’t feel calm, like she expected, but anxious — she wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She said, “Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty.” High on this new feeling, she immediately went to work on a new novel. Ten years earlier she had helped compile and publish The Black Book (1974), an anthology of archival materials about the African-American experience. While she was working on The Black Book, she had found a short article about Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her two-year-old daughter rather than see the girl returned to slavery. Morrison said, “I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could possibly mean to women.” She drew on Margaret Garner’s story for her new novel, which was published as Beloved (1987) and won the Pulitzer Prize. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. On August 5, 2019 Toni Morrison died from complications of pneumonia, aged 88.

Her novels include Song of Solomon (1977), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and her final novel, God Help the Child (2015).


It’s the birthday of poet Jack Gilbert (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh in 1925. He flunked out of high school, worked as a door-to-door salesman and in the steel mill. A clerical error got him admitted to college, and he started writing poetry. He went to Europe and then back to San Francisco, where he hung out with the Beat poets. His first book of poems, Views of Jeopardy (1962), was a hit. It won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and he won a Guggenheim fellowship. He was all over magazines, and even had photo shoots in Vogue and Glamour. He was talented, he was handsome, and everyone expected great things.

And then, just as suddenly as he had appeared, he dropped out of the limelight, moving to Europe with the money from his fellowship. Finally, in 1982, he published Monolithos, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His most recent book of poems is The Dance Most of All (2009). He died in 2012 at the age of 87.


It’s the birthday of Nikos Kazantzakis (books by this author), born in Heraklion in what is now Greece (1883). He is most famous as the author of Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation (1953).


It’s the birthday of writer Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). Wallace’s father had what Wallace called “the pioneering itch in his bones,” and he moved his family around hoping to strike it rich in a Western boomtown. They moved from North Dakota to Washington state, then Montana, California, Saskatchewan, and finally settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner got into the University of Utah when he was just 16. He was finishing his dissertation when his brother died suddenly of pneumonia. Not long after, his mother died of cancer, and, finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire family.

Stegner wanted to write about the American West, but instead of a novel about cowboys and heroic pioneers, he wrote a novel “about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities are all used up.” His first big success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family. Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1972 and died in 1993.

 

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

Young Peter

PETER OSTROUSHKO: Living in Wonderful Memories and Forever in his Music

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 and could they get together sometime and play. So they did. He played some with Rudy’s band, the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, and then with Dakota Dave Hull, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band, the New Prairie Ramblers, the Mando Boys, Robin and Linda Williams. He had the chops and he had the heart. He could sight-read at tempo. He was always focused on the tune and his instrument, never seemed to be out to impress anyone. He was a composer and an improviser. Once, in Ashland, he walked onstage with the Spunks and stumbled and fell, carrying a borrowed Gibson mandolin, tucked it into his body, curled up, did a somersault, got to his feet, mandolin unharmed. He grew up on Ukrainian cooking and came to love barbecue, and looked for BBQ joints near the venues he played — “No pig, no gig,” said Peter. He liked fried egg and pickle sandwiches. He met Marge and they lived in a house on Nicollet Island, upstairs from guitarist Tim Hennessy, who called him “Mr. Buddy,” and they played swing, Irish fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and Peter’s compositions. ...

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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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           Lake Wobegon virus cover.

 

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