The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, February 28, 2021


Bored
by Margaret Atwood

All those times I was bored
out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it. Holding
the string while he measured, boards,
distances between things, or pounded
stakes into the ground for rows and rows
of lettuces and beets, which I then (bored)
weeded. Or sat in the back
of the car, or sat still in boats,
sat, sat, while at the prow, stern, wheel
he drove, steered, paddled. It
wasn’t even boredom, it was looking,
looking hard and up close at the small
details. Myopia. The worn gunwales,
the intricate twill of the seat
cover. The acid crumbs of loam, the granular
pink rock, its igneous veins, the sea-fans
of dry moss, the blackish and then the greying
bristles on the back of his neck.
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows. He pointed
such things out, and I would look
at the whorled texture of his square finger, earth under
the nail. Why do I remember it as sunnier
all the time then, although it more often
rained, and more birdsong?
I could hardly wait to get
the hell out of there to
anywhere else. Perhaps though
boredom is happier. It is for dogs or
groundhogs. Now I wouldn’t be bored.
Now I would know too much.
Now I would know.

 

“Bored” by Margaret Atwood, from Morning in the Burned House. © Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Today is the birthday of Ben Hecht (books by this author), born in New York City (1894). He wrote many books, including the novels Erik Dorn (1921) and Fantazius Mallare (1922), but made his fame as a writer for stage and screen. He ran away from home at 16 to Chicago, where he became a reporter. He later recalled his early days in Chicago, “I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fit belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me.”

He used his inside knowledge of the newspaper business as fodder for his play The Front Page (1928), which he co-wrote with Charles MacArthur. The play was later made into a movie by the same name (1931), and adapted again for the screen in His Girl Friday (1940). He was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. He wrote or co-wrote a number of box office hits that went on to become cinema classics, including Nothing Sacred (1931), Wuthering Heights (1939), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946). He earned a reputation as a talented screenwriter who could turn out a script quickly — he claimed in his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954), that he never spent more than eight weeks on a screenplay. He would divide his time between coasts, working in Hollywood for a month or two and making enough money to live on for a year, then returning to New York to do his “serious” writing. Producers sometimes hired him as a script doctor, which meant he would take a few days or weeks to fix the problems in someone else’s screenplay. Hecht was hired to doctor the script for Gone With the Wind, which was much too long. He rewrote the whole thing in five days, was paid $10,000 and didn’t receive screen credit. The script went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, beating out Wuthering Heights — which Hecht also wrote, and received credit for.


It’s the birthday of essayist Michel de Montaigne (books by this author), born in Périgord, in Bordeaux, France (1533). He is considered by many to be the creator of the personal essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general. Writers up to the present time have imitated his informal, conversational style. He said, “The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene.”


It’s the birthday of Colum McCann (books by this author). He was born in Dublin (1965) into a middle-class home full of books. His father was features editor at The Irish Press. He went to journalism school at 17, then went to work at The Irish Press himself.

When he was 19 he spent a summer in New York City. He loved it and vowed to return to America, which he did when he was 21. He went up to Cape Cod, bought a typewriter, and spent a summer trying to write profound things. But at the end of the summer, he had not written an entire single page, and he couldn’t even comprehend the few sentences that he’d tried to write. He decided he needed to go out and explore America, to add a different set of experiences to his young life.

So he hopped on a bicycle and pedaled across the country for a year and a half, winding through 40 states and traversing 12,000 miles on two wheels. In Texas, he went to college and he met Allison Hawke, who would become his wife.

In 2009 he published Let the Great World Spin, and it was a huge success. The book is set in the 1970s and weaves together the stories of a dozen New York protagonists, including prostitutes, a young radical Irish monk, and a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her son killed in Vietnam. It also won the National Book Award for fiction in 2009.


On this date in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA. They were working in a lab at Cambridge University, but they didn’t even have the right equipment to examine DNA. They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to figure it out before he did. Meanwhile, Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist working at Kings College in London, had taken some X-ray pictures of a DNA molecule. She gave a lecture on her findings in 1951. Watson attended the lecture and thought he had a vague idea of what she was talking about, but when he and Crick tried to build a model based on what he remembered, it was a failure. The head of their department told them to stop their research.

But Rosalind Franklin kept working, and she was pretty sure she had figured out DNA’s helical structure. She didn’t want to announce it until she was sure, and wanted to gather more evidence. Maurice Wilkins, one of Franklin’s colleagues at Kings College, was frustrated with her cautious attitude. He showed Crick and Watson one of Franklin’s X-ray photographs without her knowledge, and Watson copied the structure on a bit of newspaper. Crick later admitted that they didn’t show much respect to Franklin, criticizing her appearance and her lecture style: “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say — a patronizing attitude toward her.”

Watson and Crick worked for several days building models based on the X-rays. They finally hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Crick and Watson — along with Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins — would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery; Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.

 

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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Available now: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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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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