The Writer’s Almanac for March 28, 2019


The Right Words
by Geraldine Connolly

I need to find them,
certain words,
particular syllables.
But everywhere I look,
in yellowed newspapers

and the blue-black dictionary,
under the glossy magazine photos
and tattered envelopes,
they evade me.
I peek under my old stove
and inside my new gloves.

I want to twirl them, swallow them,
send them on errands.
I want to get as close
as I can to the right words,

I want to gulp their wisdom
and eat their sadness,
want to forget the thorny bushes
and dreary blizzards,
to escape
from the mute times.

“The Right Words” by Geraldine Connolly from Aileron. © Terrapin Books, 2018. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It’s the birthday of novelist and poet Russell Banks (books by this author), born to a working-class family in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1940. His father, a plumber and an abusive alcoholic, left when Russell was 12. He was the first of his family to go to college, and won a full scholarship to Colgate University, but he dropped out after a couple of months, actually snuck out in the middle of the night, with the intention to fight with Castro’s army in Cuba. He made it as far south as Lakeland, Florida, where he worked in a department store for a while. Eventually, he went back to college, this time at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he co-founded Lillabulero, a literary magazine and small press.

In 1967, while he was still in Chapel Hill, a friend called him from a bar to tell him that Jack Kerouac was passing through town and wanted to throw a party. Since Banks was the only one of their circle with a house, he offered it as a venue. Kerouac and his companions stayed for the weekend, and, as Banks told The Paris Review: “He brought with him a disruptiveness and wild disorder, and moments of brilliance too … It was a very strange and strenuous weekend. And very moving. It was the first time I had seen one of my literary heroes seem fragile and vulnerable.”

True to his roots, much of Russell’s work focuses on the harsh realities of the working-class experience, and his books feature struggles of race, class, religion, economic hardship, and violence. He also finds the school bus a powerful image, and he has returned to it again and again in much the same way a poet would: The Sweet Hereafter tells the story of a school bus accident that devastates a town, and the same bus, now abandoned, turns up in Rule of the Bone to provide shelter for the main character, a homeless teenaged boy. Banks has a collection of toy school buses from around the world, and explains his obsession: “It is associated, at least for me, with the first time you give your children over to the state. From the child’s point of view, it is the first time he leaves home and goes out into the larger world. It is the connecting cord between the family and the outside world and has both positive and negative implications.” 


It’s the birthday of journalist Iris Chang, (books by this author) born in Princeton, New Jersey (1968), to a physicist father and a microbiologist mother, and raised in the Midwest. She’s best known for her second nonfiction book, The Rape of Nanking, published when she was 29, which spent 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and has sold half a million copies. It’s subtitled “The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” and it documents the murder, rape, and torture of Chinese civilians during the second Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s, when Japanese troops invaded the city of Nanking (now Nanjing). Her account was the first full-length book in English on the Nanking Massacre.

She first got the idea for the book after attending a conference in Cupertino, California, which talked about the Nanking Massacre. It struck a chord, especially because her grandparents had fled that part of China during this time and would not speak of what they left behind. In the course of two months there, 300,000 civilians were murdered and 80,000 women were raped. Chang said that after the conference, she was “suddenly in a panic that this terrifying disrespect for death and dying … would be reduced to a footnote of history, treated like a harmless glitch in a computer program that might or might not again cause a problem, unless someone forced the world to remember it.” She began to research the massacre, traveled to China to interview survivors, and insisted that the U.S. government declassify documents about the event.

The book she wrote about it, published in 1997, received widespread critical acclaim and sold 125,000 copies within a few months of its publication. Iris Chang became a celebrity, called “the best young historian we’ve got” by Steven Ambrose, and featured on the cover of Reader’s Digest magazine and on television shows like Good Morning AmericaThe NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Nightline. Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House to talk about human rights. At the same time, she received hate mail from Japanese ultranationalists and anonymous violent threats.

Chang began work on another book where she investigated brutal atrocities that no one else seemed to speak of, this time about the Bataan Death March during World War II, where U.S. soldiers were starved and tortured by their Japanese captors in the Philippines. She interviewed elderly American veterans who’d been prisoners of war there. Many of them had not spoken about their horrific experiences during the Bataan Death March for decades or at all, and the interviews were intense and painful.

The research, the grisly details and photographs, and the interviews with survivors made her increasingly depressed. Friends said that she became unable to “filter” out the brutal atrocities that she was learning about and writing about, that these historical events shadowed her own daily life. She became paranoid and suffered from psychosis. She quit sleeping, had a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalized in the summer of 2004; doctors thought she was bipolar. Later that year, at age 36, she committed suicide near her home in California.


It’s the birthday of novelist Lauren Weisberger, (books by this author) born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1977. Weisberger majored in English, spent a summer backpacking around Europe and Asia after graduation, then moved back to the U.S. and landed a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. After she left Vogue, she worked as an assistant editor at Departures magazine, then took some writing classes and started to work on a book. It became The Devil Wears Prada, which contains a pretty straightforward autobiographical narrative about Weisberger’s experiences as a personal assistant at Vogue magazine: The main character Andy Sachs aspires to be a writer, moves to New York City, and gets a job at a fashion magazine working as the personal assistant to the despotic and domineering editor. The Devil Wears Prada spent six months on the New York Times best-seller list when it came out in 2003.

Her advice to young unpublished writers is this: “It’s all about setting aside just a little time to write each week. … Figure out what works and make it completely non-negotiable.”

She has since published more novels, including Everyone Worth Knowing (2005), Chasing Harry Winston (2008), Revenge Wears Prada (2013), and When Life Gives You Lululemons (2018).

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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A night outside, eating with friends

I admit that when I hear the word “impeachment” I think of fruit, and “censure” makes me think of dentures, which is a sign that I’ve been watching too much news: time for a break. How often can you look at the man with the tattooed pectorals and the horned helmet and what understanding do you gain from it? So you make the screen go dark and do other things.

The lady and I went to dinner with friends the other night and the four of us spent more than an hour making no reference to the riot at the Capitol, an entirely trumpless hour, which felt like a triumph. We ate outdoors under heat lamps on Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center, which is very very dark, and we didn’t talk about the virus either.

We talked about a baby named Charlie born in Atlanta a few days before and showed pictures of him, tightly swaddled. His mother is a mathematician married to a landscape architect. The fact that young people still want to bring children into this world is an encouraging sign, a gesture of faith.

So is Lincoln Center. In the Fifties, they tore down sixteen acres of tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller brothers they built a symphony hall, an opera house, a theater, and a dance theater around a plaza with a fountain. Republicans were behind it and Lincoln’s name is on it and when you attend events here, you brush elbows with a good many moguls and grande dames who probably miss Ronald Reagan keenly and you go in to watch performers, 95 percent of them Democrats, some to the left of Bernie Sanders, but the conflicting views between the stage and the box seats are forgotten in the glory of “Der Rosenkavalier” or Beethoven or “Les Sylphides.” If your heart is open to the gifts of genius, you will walk across the plaza afterward, past the fountain, and feel transformed.

I once saw Ellie Dehn of my hometown, Anoka, Minnesota, in a lead role in “Don Giovanni” at the Metropolitan Opera, and in that glorious moment, I felt that we are truly one country, one people. Anoka is an old milling town on the Mississippi, a football town, but this fabulous soprano had found her way to Manhattan, and I was there to see it. So I’m provincial — what of it? My wife, also an Anokan, had been taken to see the Met’s touring company perform “Carmen” in Minneapolis, Grace Bumbry in the title role. My wife was twelve and stood through the entire performance and has been enthralled by opera ever since and made a career playing viola in the pit. So many things are possible. Dream on. Practice, practice, practice.

I first saw the U.S. Capitol in 1962, heading for Baltimore to attend a wedding, got lost, saw a lighted dome and realized I was in Washington. I parked and walked up the steps and in the door, past one policeman sitting on a folding chair in the foyer, and walked in under the great dome and looked at the statues and murals, and saw only a couple of cops relaxing in a hallway, not paying much attention to anybody.

When I tell people about that night, it feels like ancient history. Those days will never return. Even at the opera, security men wand you as you come through the turnstile. After the Capitol insurrection of January 6, security will be iron-tight forever to come, metal detectors will beep at every steel zipper, uniformed men with assault weapons will watch your every move. Walking into the Capitol of 1962, the openness of it told you that we are a civilized society with a high level of mutual trust. I don’t care to ever visit Washington again and see our government on wartime alert for attacks by our fellow Americans. Too painful.

I’ve seen what I needed to see of Washington. I sat in the Senate gallery once and watched the proceedings and it was dominated by the sort of self-important people I avoided in high school. I went to a ceremony at the White House once and sat where I could see Barack Obama’s teleprompter and saw how beautifully he improvised something much better than the script. So I’ve seen the good and the not so good. America will never be what it once was but still it is good enough. And if Hawley and Cruz get tossed out on the street, we will be better for it.

 

Dolts are dolts: don’t give them too much credit

The pictures of Wednesday stick with you — the mob rushing up the steps when the line of cops broke, the bozo smashing the window with a pole, the gangs of Trumpers running wild in the marble halls and the cops in confusion, the lout lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s chair — it was an assault of a few thousand of the densest people in America, a congregation of barflies and dropouts and people you’d never hire to look after your children, who were so thrilled to triumph over authority they could hardly stand it. That was the whole point of it. To roam around where you weren’t supposed to go, to sit in the Speaker’s office, and to take selfies while they did it. It was the high point of their lives.

It thrilled them that Congress fled and hid in the basement and they got to parade around and wave their Trump banners and yell and own the place, which is pretty much how their man feels about the White House. He had little interest in policy but he loved the security entourage, the chopper on the lawn, Air Force One, being saluted. He was ill-informed and had the attention span of a housecat but he was Boss and smart people had to kowtow to him. It was glorious. What fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

In those debates during the Republican primaries of 2016, old pols like Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio stared at him in astonishment — the man made no sense but he could feel the audience’s fascination and he fed on it. There had never been a presidential candidate like him. He was the 300-pound man who won the pole vault. He was an auctioneer with nothing to sell but he could talk faster than anybody else.

The dunces who occupied the Capitol for a few hours got a similar pleasure from their adventure. They got to cross the NO ADMITTANCE line and sit in the Speaker’s chair and put their feet up on her desk, and get photographs of themselves doing it.

When order was reestablished, the suits came back and were full of pious baloney about how the confederacy of lulus had “desecrated” the place by their failed “insurrection” and I’m sorry but they gave the mob too much credit. The halls of Congress are not sacred — the idea of democracy is, but there have been plenty of fools elected to that Congress who desecrate it on a regular basis without any help from the outside. The mob was a band of anarchists with nothing in mind except to cross the red line and take selfies while doing it. As the man said, “Be there, will be wild!”

That’s the whole idea of Trumpism. To call him “authoritarian” is to give him way too much credit. To be a real dictator, you need to have ideas, a goal, something going on upstairs. The man is simply an anarchist. After eight years of the overachiever Obama, people were amused by the idea of a president who was bored with meetings, ignored briefings, liked to play golf, watch TV, and perform for large crowds of people who loved him.

I talked to my friend George on Wednesday as the American Stoopnagle Society took over the Capitol, and he was so downcast, he said, “I feel sad for my country.” I tried to cheer him up, but he’s 85 and a liberal Democrat so he is often slow to get the joke. I told him that the crowd was only out for a good time. And a poll of Republicans later showed that almost half supported the assault on the Capitol. It’s a Good-Time Party now.

The man was an anarchist, out to prove that it doesn’t matter who is president, a potted plant will do just fine. Joe Biden is an honest and decent man. More people prefer that to a potted plant and prefer thoughtful honest people in Congress to old bikers and bozos. So let’s have four years of thoughtfulness and then let the Republicans nominate a springer spaniel in 2024. It could be a close race.

Democracy wasn’t affected by Wednesday. Georgia showed on Tuesday that democracy is quite vital. More than 2 million came out to vote for two thoughtful senators over a springer spaniel and a stoopnagle. It was close, but close only counts in horseshoes.

A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE. Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone. I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise. “Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

I would be stoical, of course. I’m from Minnesota and stoicism is our preferred mode, living in an icebox state among emotionally repressed Andersons and Olsons, but I decided that on this world cruise, I’d write the erotic novel I’ve been eager to write ever since I read Henry Miller in high school, a novel with gasping and thrusting and throbbing and the woman crying out, “Oh my God” over and over and over, and the shudder of ecstasy and two bodies locked together in a chain of climaxes making your ears pop and your teeth chatter.

And then the doctor came in and looked in my mouth and said, “That’s a common growth on the hard palate known as the torus palatinus, and if it doesn’t hurt, we tend to leave it alone. In any case, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. You could see an otolaryngologist but it’s apparently not infected and not cancerous.”

He put his hand on my shoulder and patted my back, and I took a cab home where the birthday party was winding up and people were still laughing about the Mad Libs and the barfing and pooping and all. I was stoical for their benefit, didn’t mention Dr. Carson’s advice about the Queen’s suite with the balcony and the burial at sea. I was quiet at supper. My wife asked if I was okay. “Of course,” I said. I realized that if I had googled “hard lump on roof of mouth” I could’ve learned about the torus palatinus and skipped the anxiety and the cab ride but on the other hand, it was fear of mortality that inspired the idea of two bodies interlocked, her skin against mine, various protuberances hard or soft, lips and roaming hands and her crying “Oh my God” and a person doesn’t need to book passage on a steamship for that, it’s available in the next room, especially now that she has imagined my demise and I notice her standing behind me, her hands on my shoulders, kissing the side of my neck, her beloved face next to mine, and I reach back and find her leg and now I am putting paper and pen away, I shall save the rest for the novel.

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A night outside, eating with friends

I admit that when I hear the word “impeachment” I think of fruit, and “censure” makes me think of dentures, which is a sign that I’ve been watching too much news: time for a break. How often can you look at the man with the tattooed pectorals and the horned helmet and what understanding do you gain from it? So you make the screen go dark and do other things.

The lady and I went to dinner with friends the other night and the four of us spent more than an hour making no reference to the riot at the Capitol, an entirely trumpless hour, which felt like a triumph. We ate outdoors under heat lamps on Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center, which is very very dark, and we didn’t talk about the virus either.

We talked about a baby named Charlie born in Atlanta a few days before and showed pictures of him, tightly swaddled. His mother is a mathematician married to a landscape architect. The fact that young people still want to bring children into this world is an encouraging sign, a gesture of faith.

Read More

Dolts are dolts: don’t give them too much credit

The pictures of Wednesday stick with you — the mob rushing up the steps when the line of cops broke, the bozo smashing the window with a pole, the gangs of Trumpers running wild in the marble halls and the cops in confusion, the lout lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s chair — it was an assault of a few thousand of the densest people in America, a congregation of barflies and dropouts and people you’d never hire to look after your children, who were so thrilled to triumph over authority they could hardly stand it. That was the whole point of it. To roam around where you weren’t supposed to go, to sit in the Speaker’s office, and to take selfies while they did it. It was the high point of their lives.

It thrilled them that Congress fled and hid in the basement and they got to parade around and wave their Trump banners and yell and own the place, which is pretty much how their man feels about the White House. He had little interest in policy but he loved the security entourage, the chopper on the lawn, Air Force One, being saluted. He was ill-informed and had the attention span of a housecat but he was Boss and smart people had to kowtow to him. It was glorious. What fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

Read More

A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE. Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone. I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise. “Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

Read More

The end of the worst, bring on the better

It was a small Christmas, stockings full of candy and also toothpaste and soap, and Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and mashed potatoes and creamy gravy. The wind whistled outside, the tree sparkled, and though we weren’t what you’d call “joyful,” we were in good humor and sweet to each other, and admired each other’s presents, the electric footbath, the brilliant scarf, the woolen shoes, the earbuds, and peeled our Christmas oranges.

In the late morning lull, we attempted to watch the Netflix “California Christmas,” which was a lull even duller than the one it was meant to fill. It topped the TV charts and was as bad as a movie can possibly be. It died quietly before our eyes and I imagined its enormous viewing audience was mostly made up of the bedridden and the imprisoned. My daughter said that girls she knew liked to watch movies with their friends on smartphones, each person watching a different movie, a scene I could not imagine.

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When snow falls, can spring be far behind?

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As a Minnesotan, I’ve known people who felt oppressed by snow and cold and escaped, as people once escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, so they could sit outdoors in January and barbecue steaks and drink mai tais. I never longed for the patio lifestyle. People sit on patios in the sunshine and they yell at their kids and complain about schools and taxes and their neighbor’s lawn ornaments. People who sit in a cozy living room on a cold day experience gratitude. They pull a quilt over their lap and feel comforted. They look out the window at snow falling and feel joyful.

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Let the light of heaven shine on me

I’m ashamed that I imagined the Supreme Court might overturn the election. It goes to show how far down the river of unreality a man can go, even a man who has authored books. (Okay, fiction, but still.) I imagined they might go on to overturn Newton’s first law of motion but instead they turned the president upside down and held him by his ankles until, despite powerful spray-on adhesives, his hair hung down.

I confessed my self-deception in church Sunday, which now I attend in my pajamas, sitting in the kitchen, watching on a screen as clergy in vestments process around the sanctuary and ascend into the pulpit. It makes me feel more like a penitent than when I dressed up as a bank vice president to attend in person — here I sit, O Lord, unwashed, uncombed, undeodorized, in a T-shirt and sackcloth pants, cup of black coffee in hand. I live in a prosperous and civilized land and I thought that four men and one woman in black robes might bring democracy to a shuddering halt. Forgive my cynicism.

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Good times ahead, the old man said

I bent down to pick up a popcorn kernel from the kitchen floor the other day and straightened up and whacked my head against an open cupboard door, which hurt and also reminded me of the time I did the very same exact thing back in my early forties, a harder whacking that in an instant decided me that God is not the angry God of my evangelical youth, the author of plagues and disasters, but loves us dearly and grieves with us when we despair. You can find sacred text supporting either Angry or Loving, but that sharp blow to the head like the vorpal blade hitting the Jabberwock settled it for me.

So when people say, “Don’t beat your head against the wall,” I say, “Why not, if it can help?”

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The little guy in the shop around the corner

Amazon has hired a half-million new workers during the pandemic to bring its work force to 1.2 million, so I read in the New York Times, the newspaper that has elected Joe Biden president despite his losing Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, but on the odd chance they may be right, I am now going to walk a few blocks to Gold Leaf Stationers to buy my pens and paper rather than go online.

It’s a romantic notion, I know. Gold Leaf is a small store run by an Ethiopian immigrant, Fasil Yilma, and so there is a story behind it, whereas Jeff Bezos’s story is sort of beyond me. What do you do with your weekend when you’re worth $189 billion? Fasil works at his shop; that’s what he does. He carries the writing materials I need and he also will print stationery with my name across the top. In the age of texting and email, it’s a sweet gesture to write cursive with a pen on an 8-by-5 sheet with your name at the top. A graceful touch of the past, just as small shops are.

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

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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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