The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 17, 2021


Spelling Bee
by Faith Shearin

In the spelling bee my daughter wore a good
brown dress and kept her hands folded.
There were twelve children speaking

into a microphone that was taller than
they were. Each time it was her turn
I could barely look. It wasn’t that I wanted

her to win but I hoped she would be
happy with herself. The words were too hard
for me; I would have missed chemical,

thermos, and dessert. Each time she spelled
one correctly my heart became a bird.
She once fluttered so restlessly beneath

my skin and, on the morning of her arrival,
her little red hands held nothing.
Her life since has been a surprise: she can

sew; she can draw; she can read. She hates
raisins but loves science. All the parents
must feel this, watching from the cheap

folding chairs. Somewhere inside them
love took shape and now
it stands at the microphone, spelling.

 

“Spelling Bee” by Faith Shearin from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1901 that the first standardized tests were administered by the College Board. Before standardized tests many universities had their own college entrance exams, and prospective students were required to come to campus for a week or more to take exams. Since each college’s exam demanded a different set of knowledge, high schools offered separate instruction for students based on which colleges they hoped to attend. Some colleges accepted applicants based on how well previous graduates of the same high school were doing at the college. Other colleges sent faculty to visit high schools and, if the high school met their criteria, then they would admit any graduate of that school. It was a confusing system and, as more Americans began to attend college, it was no longer practical. Between 1890 and 1924 the number of college students grew five times faster than the growth of the general population. In 1885 the principal of a prestigious boarding school wrote to the National Education Association asking them to reform the system. It took 15 years of discussion, committees, and arguments, but the College Board was finally formed in 1900. Its founders hoped to simplify curricula at the high schools, and make a college education accessible to a wider pool of applicants.

Beginning today and throughout this week in 1901 the first standardized college entrance exams were given to 973 students at 67 locations (plus two more in Europe). More than a third of the students were from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Students were tested in English, French, German, Latin, Greek, history, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. The tests were essays, not multiple choice, read by a team of experts in each subject. The experts met at tables in the library of Columbia University, and the essays were graded as Excellent, Good, Doubtful, Poor, or Very Poor. Columbia was one of the main forces behind the conversion to standardized testing — of the 973 applicants, 758 were applying to either Columbia or its affiliate Barnard.

For the next couple of decades the tests were in use but were not widely accepted. Only a small fraction of incoming freshmen took standardized tests and there were only 10 colleges that admitted all of their students based on the test — some colleges looked at the test but also provided their own entrance exams and happily admitted students of any qualifications if their parents were donors.

The early tests were considered “achievement” tests because they tested for students’ proficiency in certain subjects. A couple of decades later the College Board switched to “aptitude” tests, intended to measure intelligence. There were mixed motives for this change. On the surface it made college admittance more fair and accessible to students whose high schools didn’t teach ancient Greek or prepare students specifically for college. But the biggest proponents of intelligence testing were college officials who were concerned about the rapid influx of immigrants — especially Eastern European Jews — to their student body. A Columbia University dean worried that the high numbers of recent immigrants and their children would make the school “socially uninviting to students who come from homes of refinement,” and its president described the 1917 freshman class as “depressing in the extreme,” lamenting the absence of “boys of old American stock.” These college officials believed that immigrants had less innate intelligence than old-blooded Americans and hoped that they would score lower on aptitude tests, which would give the schools an excuse to admit fewer of them.

In 1925 the College Board began to use a new, multiple-choice test designed by a Princeton psychology professor named Carl Brigham who had modeled it on his work with Army intelligence tests. This new test was known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The first SAT was taken in 1926. These days more than 1.6 million students take the SAT each year.


It’s the birthday of poet Ron Padgett (books by this author), born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1942). When he was growing up, Oklahoma was a dry state and his father made a living as a bootlegger. Padgett read voraciously as a child and began jotting down poems in spiral notebooks when he was 13. He went to Columbia University and studied at the Sorbonne in France on a Fulbright scholarship.

His poetry collections include Tulsa Kid (1979), Poems I Guess I Wrote (2001),  How Long (2011), Collected Poems (2013) and most recently, Alone and Not Alone (2015).


It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey (books by this author), born to American missionaries in Tientsin, China (1914), who spoke Chinese before he spoke English, moved to the States when he was 10, and graduated from Yale. After college he spent a summer as a secretary for writer Sinclair Lewis, then he went to work for Time magazine, reporting on World War II from all over Europe and Asia.

He wrote more than a dozen books, but he’s best known for his 31,000-word nonfiction piece “Hiroshima,” which appeared in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. The cover of the late-summer magazine issue featured a cheerful picnic with people sunbathing, strumming mandolins, dancing, playing croquet and tennis. Then, readers opened to the “Talk of the Town” page to find the beginning of Hersey’s voluminous essay and this note from The Editors:

“TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city […]”

John Hersey’s Hiroshima begins:

“At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”

 

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


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

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

–GK

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

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A new day dawns and we rise cheerfully to meet it

There is a magnificent Presbyterian church in New York being hassled by its neighbors who’re tired of the scaffolding that’s been standing for fifteen years. The scaffolding is there because the building is falling apart, and the little congregation is dwindling and can’t afford the repairs. They’d like to sell the property and let the buyers demolish the church and put up a 19-story condo tower. But the Landmark Commission doesn’t want this building, a landmarked 1890 Romanesque Revival masterpiece, to be replaced by a filing cabinet. Meanwhile attendance is fading because who wants to go to church and be struck by a fifty-pound chunk of sandstone?

I favor demolition. There is nothing holy about a building, the Holy Spirit moves freely in and out of buildings, people can feel God’s grace wherever they happen to be. If the building were preserved and sold to Pizza Hut and ovens placed where the altar used to be and the organ automated to play Metallica and Black Sabbath, how does this serve the common good?

Tear it down before it kills somebody. Time moves on, so move with it.

I say this as a very old man who is not landmarked but doing my best to avoid demolition. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, said the apostle Paul, and so far, the temple is intact. Some days I feel like sixty and sometimes I’m closer to fifteen. I have no idea what eighty would feel like. I use a cane only as an affectation: it makes me feel European.

I know I’m on the last stretch, but I intend it to be a cheerful stretch. I am married to the woman I love and after three years of pandemic isolation with her, I adore her. This desert island suits me. But she is more sociable, so we need to ease back into normal life and have people over for lunch, maybe take up cribbage, go bowling, attend lectures where you break up into discussion groups, those sorts of things. I sense her restlessness. Sometimes she goes into the back bedroom, and I hear peals of girlish laughter, shrieks of delight, as she talks to friends on the phone — does it make me jealous? Yes, of course.

We need to befriend younger people. I’ve gone to birthday parties for octos and heard all about someone’s prostate problems or kidney stones and hip replacements and of course colonoscopies. I’ve been colonoscopied and it was no big deal. Yes, the liquid you drink the day before tastes like used motor oil. But so what? I choose to be cheerful. Let’s talk about happy memories such as the narrow pews in my church, which, when I twist to kneel on the kneeler, reminds me of the girl I used to neck with in the back seat of her VW.

Sometimes I regret my old age but then I think of my dear friend who died when he and I were 17. He rented a boat and went out on a lake with a girl he was in love with and when she dove into the water, he dove after her, forgetting that he could not swim, and he drowned. He got only a slice of life, he missed out on sex and fatherhood and the pleasure of vocation, and I got the whole helping and await seconds.

So many heroes of my generation died young, Buddy Holly, James Dean, Jim Morrison, Janis, Jerry, Elvis. They were done in by celebrity and delusion and you and I outlived them to come to this point where we delight in the ordinary. I lie in bed and am awakened by the light and rise up to the new day and do my business and drink coffee and my wife tells me what’s in the morning paper and I go for a walk and people ask me how I’m doing, and I say, “Never better.” I sit in the evening drinking ginger tea and watching baseball with the sound off, two teams I don’t care about, and I edit whatever I wrote today while admiring the pitcher’s windup, the reflexive agility of infielders, the occasional long loping leaping outfield catch that steals a triple and kills the rally and the fielder casually tosses the ball into the stands and trots to the dugout.

Tear down the stone pile. Sell the lots for millions and give it to the poor. Let the faithful meet in someone’s home, as the disciples did. A new day dawns. Don’t look back.

 

I am an orphan and an officeless man

I miss having an office to go to. I had friendly colleagues and employees, and we were in the entertainment biz so we got to work with a lot of lulus and lunatics and we kept flexible hours and laughed a lot. I liked that we were in the business of making serious people split a gut. I also liked getting dressed up for work in a suit and tie, which you need to do when you’re involved with frivolity. Now I go to work in my pajamas at the dining room table. I don’t know if “clothes make the man” but I know that pajamas do not make the man. They make me feel like going back to bed.

I loved walking in the front door in the morning at 9 a.m., the way the receptionist straightened up and smiled, the electric anticipation among the minions that the captain was on deck, the ship was about to sail. I don’t sense that same excitement in my wife when I walk into the kitchen in my pajamas. She says, “Your hair is standing up like a rooster’s and I think you should check your left nostril.”

At the office, I was the Decider. I sat at the end of the table and I told the staff: “No more singing dogs on the show and the one tuba player who played ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is enough: no more. I think we need a midget shot from a cannon and an acrobatic couple who work with two Percherons. And I say you can never have too many cat jugglers. The guy we booked who could keep six in the air simultaneously was a genius. Pay him whatever he asks.”

My staff was a bunch of college grads who thought in terms of jazz, folk, poetry, the arts, and didn’t understand the entertainment biz. They didn’t know raison d’être from a box of raisins. Art is art. You see a woman in a tutu swanning around, you think, “Everyone is so quiet, this must be good, I should be deeply moved.” You hear a folksinger do a traditional labor ballad, you feel like there’s going to be a quiz afterward. But you hear a man recite Allen Ginsberg backward while balancing a banana on his nose, and he finishes with “generation my of minds best the seen I’ve” and his pants fall down, you are stunned and delighted. And that’s entertainment. Now the biz has been taken over by angry millennials who’re out to use entertainment to make people feel wretched about themselves for the social injustices they failed to prevent. That’s why I left.

One of my favorite acts was a full-blooded Arapaho named Joe who danced and sang and twirled ropes and for a finale, he stood looking in a hand mirror at the stooge sitting fifty feet behind and he threw a tomahawk over his left shoulder and knocked the toupee off the stooge’s head without drawing blood. People protested this as stereotyping and we had to cancel the act. How could it be stereotyping when Joe was the only guy who could do it without mishap?

I produced the show every week, sitting in a little office, no credenza, a photograph on the wall of me and Marcel Marceau, the famous French mime, except he wasn’t French, he didn’t know a word of French, that’s why he was a mime, he was from Pittsburgh and he did great jokes about Unitarians but they attacked him as insensitive so he turned to mime, which was very sensitive to the deaf.

I could feel the biz changing when my staff booked a stand-up who walked out and said, “You came here to laugh and be entertained, right? Well, guess again. I’m going to talk about the plastics you people use that are making this world uninhabitable.” He spoke for twenty minutes, no laughs, and got a standing ovation at the end. I resigned the next week.

So now I sit at my kitchen table, still in pajamas at noon, and the other day I found my talent as a musical flatulenteur. I ate an onion, grabbed my ankles, and farted “Malagueña” with enough left over for a few bars of “Chopsticks,” which you could never do today because it’d be insensitive to Hispanics and Chinese, but still, it’s a gift and I’m grateful for it.

 

Suddenly it's clear why I wanted to be old

I look at the Great Milky Way While inhaling the autumn bouquet At eventide And am mystified And simply don’t know what to say. I love this September chill in the air. I love sweaters. They hide the age wrinkles on my inner upper arms. A stocking cap means I don’t have to comb my hair. Delicate souls are yearning for Florida and maybe catch a temp job as a consumer influence consultant, enough to pay for a condo with a pool, but not me, I’m not into influence and Florida brings out the bad taste in people and nobody wants to see an old man in a thong bikini. So here I am. I like the coffee here. I’ve figured out how the shower works and no longer stand under scalding water because I turned the wrong knob; I don’t want to go to Florida and stay in a motel with a crank for a shower knob and be burned alive while naked. So I’ll stay up North. Here I take a shower, wrap a towel around me, walk into the bedroom and sing, “O my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch.” In Florida, I’d go to the ER. The air is golden, smelling of wine and apples and woodsmoke. It takes me back to when I was 15, sitting in the press box and covering the football games for the Anoka Herald, my first paid writing job. And when I was 18 and a girl and I lay in a pile of leaves and made free with each other. Now I’m 80, the sky so clear I can see vast constellations, standing in the yard, aware of the universe and also smelling the rich spongy earth below my feet. An eternity of stars above, including stars that no longer exist but their light still comes to us, and I stand here in mystification, having unlearned so much of what I thought I knew about life, achieving this plain peasant life. It’s a second childhood. Someone told me the other day that “racecar” spelled backward is “racecar.” Amazing. This is why I quit drinking and got my mitral valve replaced, so I could see beyond the average life expectancy and it’s quite worth the wait, to live in a state of wonder. Writing prose is a form of gardening, which my dad was good at, especially strawberries and asparagus and tomatoes. Store-bought tomatoes tasted like cardboard to him. (Now they taste the same to me.) My aunts Josephine and Eleanor were passionate gardeners. If my essays were as good as their cucumbers and lettuce, I’d be a major success, but frankly I like being a struggling octogenarian up-and-comer. People show me deference because I walk with a cane, and that’s okay, but I live in a very small world. My heroes are dead, my ambition is quite awake, I don’t believe in tragedy anymore, I believe in mystery. I am mystified by my grandson and what an excellent human being he has become. He is a bulwark and an inspiration. I had two grandsons but the other one took his own life one afternoon after school. He was a lively inquisitive boy in love with all of nature, especially animals, and had the ability to retain practically everything he ever read, and he’s been gone for five years and I haven’t accepted his death. I will always be mystified by it, as I am by my childhood friend Corinne who paddled a canoe out onto Lake Cayuga one moonlit night in 1986, her pockets full of rocks, and overturned it and drowned. It was thirty-six years ago but still vivid to me, especially tonight. Memory is tied to smell and on a September night chapters of life return to mind, unbidden. I’ve forgotten most of the books I ever read. Theology is of no use to me. I’m a child; I believe “All things work together for good to them that love God.” As a boy I used outhouses and now I walk into a men’s toilet and pee in a urinal and step back and it automatically flushes. I walk around with a device in my pocket the size of a half-slice of bread and I can call my grandson for a report on Gen Z or read the Times or do a search for “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed. To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need.” It’s a sweet world. My beloved sent me out for a walk and here I am, going nowhere, looking at everything all at once.

Tempted to give up politics for Parcheesi

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

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

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

October 21, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Anthem, Washington D.C.

The Anthem, Washington D.C.

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

November 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

The Bend Theatre, West Bend, WI

West Bend, WI

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

November 12, 2022

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

The Tabernacle, Mount Tabor, NJ

Mount Tabor, NJ

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

November 19, 2022

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, Clinton Township, MI

Clinton Township, MI

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

buy tickets

November 26, 2022

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Town Hall, New York City

Town Hall, New York City

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

November 28, 2022

Monday

8:00 p.m.

McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert, CA

Palm Desert, CA

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

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

Broward Center for Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show comes to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, MO with Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Dean Magraw, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell.

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

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

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

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

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Writing

A new day dawns and we rise cheerfully to meet it

There is a magnificent Presbyterian church in New York being hassled by its neighbors who’re tired of the scaffolding that’s been standing for fifteen years. The scaffolding is there because the building is falling apart, and the little congregation is dwindling and can’t afford the repairs. They’d like to sell the property and let the buyers demolish the church and put up a 19-story condo tower. But the Landmark Commission doesn’t want this building, a landmarked 1890 Romanesque Revival masterpiece, to be replaced by a filing cabinet. Meanwhile attendance is fading because who wants to go to church and be struck by a fifty-pound chunk of sandstone?

I favor demolition. There is nothing holy about a building, the Holy Spirit moves freely in and out of buildings, people can feel God’s grace wherever they happen to be. If the building were preserved and sold to Pizza Hut and ovens placed where the altar used to be and the organ automated to play Metallica and Black Sabbath, how does this serve the common good?

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I am an orphan and an officeless man

I miss having an office to go to. I had friendly colleagues and employees, and we were in the entertainment biz so we got to work with a lot of lulus and lunatics and we kept flexible hours and laughed a lot. I liked that we were in the business of making serious people split a gut. I also liked getting dressed up for work in a suit and tie, which you need to do when you’re involved with frivolity. Now I go to work in my pajamas at the dining room table. I don’t know if “clothes make the man” but I know that pajamas do not make the man. They make me feel like going back to bed.

I loved walking in the front door in the morning at 9 a.m., the way the receptionist straightened up and smiled, the electric anticipation among the minions that the captain was on deck, the ship was about to sail. I don’t sense that same excitement in my wife when I walk into the kitchen in my pajamas. She says, “Your hair is standing up like a rooster’s and I think you should check your left nostril.”

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Suddenly it’s clear why I wanted to be old

I love this September chill in the air. I love sweaters. They hide the age wrinkles on my inner upper arms. A stocking cap means I don’t have to comb my hair. Delicate souls are yearning for Florida and maybe catch a temp job as a consumer influence consultant, enough to pay for a condo with a pool, but not me, I’m not into influence and Florida brings out the bad taste in people and nobody wants to see an old man in a thong bikini. So here I am. I like the coffee here. I’ve figured out how the shower works and no longer stand under scalding water because I turned the wrong knob; I don’t want to go to Florida and stay in a motel with a crank for a shower knob and be burned alive while naked. So I’ll stay up North. Here I take a shower, wrap a towel around me, walk into the bedroom and sing, “O my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch.” In Florida, I’d go to the ER.

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Tempted to give up politics for Parcheesi

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

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

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What was so remarkable about Monday

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

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October is coming, prepare to be bold

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

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

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What if it does and they do?

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

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

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Never been such times as these before, I swear

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

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

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Lying in bed, grateful for it all

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

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

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What was done for me back in Minnesota

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

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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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