The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, October 9, 2021


Another Life
by Deborah Cummins

My mother, 18, the summer before she married,
lounges belly-down in the sun,
books and grass all around, her head on her hands
propped at a jaunty angle.
She smiles in a way I’ve never seen
at something beyond the camera.
This photograph I come back to again and again
invites me to re-write her life.
I keep resisting, certain
I’d have no part in it, her first born
though not exactly. A boy first,
two months premature, my brother
who lived three days, was buried in a coffin
my father carried. “The size of a shoe box,”
he said, the one time he spoke of it.
And my mother, too, offered only once
that she was pregnant and so they married.
Drawn to this saw-edged snapshot,
I’m almost convinced to put her in art school.
Single, she’d have a job in the city,
wouldn’t marry. There’d be no children
if that would make her this happy.
But I’m not that unselfish, or stupid.
And what then, too, of my beloved sister,
her son I adore?
So let me just move her honeymoon
from the Wisconsin Dells to the Caribbean.
Let the occasional vacation in a Saugatuck cabin
be exactly what she wanted. The house
she so loved she won’t have to sell.
Winters, there’s enough money to pay the bills.
There are no cigarettes, no stroke, no paralysis.
Her right hand lifts a spoon from a bowl
as easily as if it were a sable-hair brush
to an empty canvas.
And the grass that summer day
on the cusp of another life
is thick, newly mown, fragrant.

 

“Another Life” by Deborah Cummins from Counting the Waves. © Word Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)


Today is the birthday of Belva Plain (1915) (books by this author), born Belva Offenberg in New York City. She graduated from Barnard College in 1939 with a degree in history. She wrote multigenerational family sagas of Jewish immigrants, and though critics were not always kind — one called her books “easy, consoling works of generous spirit, fat with plot and sentiment, thin in nearly every other way and almost invisible in character development” — readers loved them and they were all best-sellers. Her first book, Evergreen, was published in 1978 by which time she was a grandmother in her 60s. It spent a total of 61 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was made into a miniseries in 1985. She wrote longhand in spiral notebooks and produced a novel about every year or so.


It’s the birthday of John Lennon. He was born in Liverpool, England, in 1940, during a German air raid, or so the legend goes. The nurses put him under his mother’s hospital bed to protect him. John’s mother, Julia Stanley, was one of five sisters, all of them fierce in their own way; she was the free spirit, and married Freddy Lennon on a whim in 1938. Freddy was away with the Merchant Marine when his son was born and, not really ready for family life, managed to find a ship to be away on for most of the boy’s first five years. Julia, with an absent husband, decided she might as well live the single life so she gave John to her sister Mimi to raise. In 1945 Freddy returned and invited the five-year-old boy on an outing to the seaside, intending take him to New Zealand, but Julia found them and the parents decided to make their son choose between them. Since Freddy had been more like a playmate than a parent, John chose him at first, but when Julia walked away, crying, John ran sobbing after her. Their reunion was short-lived, however, because Julia brought him back to Aunt Mimi’s and that’s where he grew up.

He didn’t show any musical inclination as a child but he did love drawing and reading, especially Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and the Just William stories by Richard Crompton. He had a knack for puns and wordplay at an early age as well as a fondness for absurd humor. He was bright but often in trouble in school; he had an angry streak that expressed itself through insolence, petty crimes, and tough talk. When Elvis Presley came on the scene in 1956 with his single Heartbreak Hotel, Lennon had a new focus: rock and roll. “Nothing really affected me until Elvis,” he later said. Liverpool kids were among the first in Britain to hear the records coming over from America; they got them from American sailors who docked in the port city. Soon Lennon was listening to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. A year later, he’d formed his own band, the Quarrymen, with some school friends, and soon after that, Paul McCartney and George Harrison joined the band. By 1960 they were calling themselves the Beatles.

Even when caught up in the riptide of Beatlemania Lennon never lost his love of wordplay. In 1964 he published a slim volume of line drawings and nonsensical short stories called In His Own WriteA Spaniard in the Works (1965) followed a year later. Critics believed he had been influenced by James Joyce, though in a 1968 interview on BBC-2 Lennon said he’d never read Joyce.

“So the first thing I do is buy Finnegans Wake and read a chapter. And it’s great, you know, and I dug it, and I felt as though he’s an old friend. But I couldn’t make it right through the book, and so I read a chapter of Finnegans Wake and that was the end of it. So now I know what they’re talking about. But I mean, he just went … he just didn’t stop, you know.”

In the psychedelic era his childhood favorite, Lewis Carroll, inspired his surreal lyrics at least as much as LSD did. His song “I am the Walrus” (1967) was inspired by Carroll’s poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” “To me, it was a beautiful poem,” Lennon later said. “It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy in the story and the carpenter was the good guy.”

One of his most poetic songs, Across the Universe, was written in response to an argument with his first wife, Cynthia. He went downstairs after she fell asleep and wrote the lyrics, which include, “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup …” and “thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox.” In a 1970 interview he said, “It’s one of the best lyrics I’ve written … the ones I like are the ones that stand as words, without melody.” In 2008 NASA transmitted the song as part of an interstellar message to the star Polaris, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the song’s release, the 45th anniversary of the Deep Space Network, and the 50th anniversary of NASA itself. It was the first time a song was deliberately transmitted to deep space.

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

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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Drama is life trying to get our attention

When an old man prepares for open-heart surgery, he maintains a confident demeanor and so does his good wife. He has an excellent surgeon and the procedure has been around since he was a teenager, pioneered by Dr. Walt Lillehei of Minneapolis. All is well. Stay calm and pull your socks up.

The old man is me and Dr. Lillehei attended the University of Minnesota, as I did, but he did not major in English as I did nor did he write surreal poetry and doomsday fiction that took a stab at cynicism. I come from fundamentalist Scots who would’ve looked on heart surgery as a waste of money. The heart is sinful and heart disease is caused by rich living and can be remedied by physical labor, thinner dinners, and prayer. Dr. Lillehei came from progressive Norwegians and he had more curiosity.

I’ve been down this road before, July 2001, under Dr. Orszulak at Mayo, and I rolled into the OR feeling quite chipper, prepared to joke around, and then the anesthesiologist did something and I disappeared. I awoke with an angelic being in blue scrubs whispering to me. I went home for a pleasant couple of weeks lounging in the backyard and resumed life.

Of course I am twenty years older now and things could be different. So the patient tries to gain a clear look at his own life.

It was wildly lucky. I switched from surreal and cynical to light comedy as easily as you’d junk a rusty VW and accept the gift of a Jaguar. I found comedy quite amiable. I worked hard because it offered an escape from a hopeless marriage. I survived some rocky times to earn a pile of money, which I flung in many directions. I bought a mansion that looked like a train station and felt like one too. There was a high wall around the backyard that gave it a penal quality. I bought 80 acres in Wisconsin and put a log cabin on it and discovered that peace and quiet make me uneasy. I took expensive vacations I didn’t enjoy.

What I enjoyed was work. Then I met and married Jenny, who has a forgiving soul and is very funny on top of it. I tell her how much I adore her and she makes a sound like “Hnnh” that always cracks me up. She is a violinist, well-traveled, a New Yorker at heart though she grew up in my hometown so she knows what she’s dealing with. She is a keeper. I feel well-kept.

I am not a forgiving person. I have not yet forgiven two former employees who got me in a shakedown scheme and I made the mistake of settling with them before I had cleared my name. I know I should forgive them before I go under the knife but I don’t know how. The man who cooked up the scheme I sincerely wish would rot in hell but I need to cleanse my heart and have only a short time in which to accomplish this.

Carrying anger in your heart is misery in a bottle and my rector Kate suggested I read Fred Luskin, a psychologist who leads a forgiveness training program at Stanford, if you can imagine such a thing. He put out a book giving nine steps toward forgiveness and No. 3 says that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation, which is an enormous relief. I envisioned having to put my arms around the traitor and feeling his white beard against my cheek and whispering words of endearment. This would not be within my powers. Mr. Luskin says that forgiveness is for one’s own sake, to restore peace in one’s heart, and is not play-acting. He says, “Forgiveness is for you.” He says, “Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.” I like that. And he is a psychologist so I believe him.

I make myself feel better by thinking about the times I’ve stood in front of a paying audience and hummed a note and sang, “My country, ’tis” and they all joined in and it was so beautiful, people got teary-eyed. It was intermission but instead of heading for the lobby they stood and sang. And maybe Dinah in the kitchen and “She was just seventeen if you know what I mean” and “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder” and it was awesome. It wasn’t what they paid to see, they gave it to themselves. We all sang and found forgiveness in it. When I think of those times, it is well with my soul.

I'm very old, as God knows, and he's watching

I turn 80 in a few days, as I’ve been saying for about six months now and it’s a good age. I don’t think about my health, I am living proof that bad habits don’t matter so long as you give them up soon enough. I am quite happy, a BuddhEpiscopalian who doesn’t care about material things though I do fart a lot. I don’t sit around dreaming of what I might do someday. Someday is now, and what I shall do is enjoy it fully. Nobody expects more of me; if I walk into a room and don’t trip on the doorsill, I’m admired for it. My wife starts talking about air conditioning and then she sees me and says, “But why am I talking to you about it?” I’m from the time when we cooled off by driving around with the windows open. It was a good time, my time. Back in the country I grew up in, namely this one, men didn’t go into schools and shoot little kids, we never imagined such a thing, and what’s the reason? Fewer psychiatric medications? Fewer therapists? No. If drugstores sold licorice-flavored cyanide in drinking glasses, we’d see more of that. I plan to expire before the Supremes decide the Second Amendment guarantees the right to carry knapsacks of dynamite aboard airliners. Why should we give up our rights on the Jetway? On the other hand, I do admit there have been improvements: I was in the Detroit airport, Concourse A, the other day and a man sat at a real piano on a low platform and played music, a very graceful jazzer, nothing about man’s downfall, very danceable, and I put a ten in his jar. It was worth it. It made me feel all cheery in the midst of a merch carnival to hear genuine individual talent. It reminded me of that country I grew up in, when more musicians worked the streets. I wish hitchhiking would make a comeback. In my youth, I was picked up by various men, some of them drunk, and in return for the ride, I listened to whatever they wanted to tell me, which sometimes was a lot. A fair trade. It was an exercise in mutual trust. Then the Seventies came along when young men affected the derelict look and when you look like an outlaw there are no free rides to be had, even if you’re very nice down deep. With age comes a degree of wisdom. You learn to choose your battles carefully and not expend anger on hopeless causes such as fairness and equality and getting your home nice and neat. My battle is against the words “monetize” and “monetization.” What tiresome phony weirdo words they are. Just say “sell” or “cash in” or “earn a truckload of bucks from”! Even “exploit” is better. “Monetize” is an attempt to dignify with pseudo-techno-lingo the common ordinary money grubbing that we all do. Stick “monetize” up your Levis. I am going to the mat on this. I refuse to be friends with or share a cab with or sit on a plane next to a monetizer. “Flight Attendant, take me back to Tourist, a middle seat next to weeping children would be preferable to listening to this idiot vocalize.” And now that I have demonetized you, dear hearts, let me move on to the next battle, which is to establish kindness and amiability among friends and strangers alike. I admit I’m still happy about that cashier at Trader Joe’s who said, “How are you today, my dear?” It reminded me of a bygone time. She was, I believe, a woman and I am, to my way of thinking at least, a man though of course there is fluidity involved, and as we all know, the rules of social exchange between W and M have tightened, so I didn’t ogle, I looked at my shoes and said simply, “Never better.” Which is inoffensive, though untrue. I wanted to hug her and did not. My people weren’t huggers. We were Bible-believing Christians who avoided physical contact lest we contract the religious doubts of the embracee and who knows but what it could be true? My brother was a Bible believer who married a girl who then catholicized him. I could say more but I don’t want to cause trouble. I’m a harmless old man, nattering in the corner. I’ll stop now.  

A big event and then a major announcement

I maintain there is always hope if you look around for it. I read the first few paragraphs of a story in the Times about fungi and how they absorb carbon that might otherwise be airborne and aggravate global warming and they enable plants to survive drought and serve as fertilizers. The headline was Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus and right there was my source of happiness for the day and I read no farther lest I come across the inevitable Buts and Howevers. My podiatrist says I have fungus under my toenails. This tells me that I shall be able to dance again and maybe run the low hurdles.

It’s good of the Times to offer hope. Usually it’s a downer. You read it and learn that the seas are full of plastic, a carbon cloud is making the glaciers melt, whole species are dying out, and half of our Republican friends believe that Joe and Jill are occupying the White House illegally, so we’re not the United States, we’re the banana republic of Ameragua and bands of revolutionaries will come down from the Sierras to overthrow the tyrants. I’d rather believe in the power of fungus.

I must say I feel terrific and here I am, turning 80, waking up cheerful in the morning. When I was 17, I had uncles who sincerely believed I’d wind up friendless and threadbare, living in a shack with raccoons, feeding on boiled acorns, but it didn’t happen, and thanks to a love of moldy old jokes and my mother’s cream of mushroom soup, I am in pretty good shape. In a couple weeks, a professional anesthesiologist will suppress my faculties and a gentleman with a scalpel will open my chest, exposing my heart, and will excise the leaky mitral valve and replace it with one from an American hog.

I feel I should go to Iowa this week and meet the donor and express my gratitude. Surely this was not the fate the creature had in mind for himself. I’d like to pat his belly and scratch the top of his head and show him some love.

But why do I assume the valve comes from a male pig? I have no objection to receiving a female mitral and if this requires some transitioning on my part and identifying as a more sensitive and caring person and learning to wear pearls, then so be it. Male or female, boar or sow, pigs are known to burrow for provisions and eat a good deal of fungi that you and I pass up, so I am getting a new valve imbued with superpowers. This is my hope, as encouraged by the Times. Not some small-town Times but the New Flashing Lights York Times and my hopes are pinned on the prospect of pig power. I am going to emerge from that procedure more coherent, more considerate, more connected than ever before.

I’m thinking I may announce my candidacy for the presidency before November.

Joe’s problem isn’t his age, it’s his experience. He spent his adult life in the U.S. Senate, which is less educational than working in a restaurant or teaching third grade. It’s like being a professional Shriner or Odd Fellow. You spend hours being amiable with people you feel superior to and then you stand up and give a speech written by someone else to a chamber that’s empty except for some clerks and a bunch of grade school kids up in the balcony. This is a poor excuse of a career, compared to serving on a town zoning commission where real passions are aroused whereas in the Senate you’re simply showing off for people who agree with you. After all those years, it’s a wonder Joe speaks as well as he does.

My background, on the other hand, is fiction. I invented a town and populated it and told stories about the people in it and this, I maintain, is excellent preparation for the White House. Fiction is only persuasive if it’s based on truth. Politicians obscure, storytellers clarify. If elected, I am going to cut way back on fossil fuel and invest in fungi and hit the tycoons hard who are sponging off the rest of us. The nation cries out for a man with a piece of a beast in his heart and that man is me. I will not bore, I will sow harmony, I will be ferocious.

Let's talk about gender, but only for a moment

On summer vacation, I get my news from my wife, which is a great convenience and helps brighten the mood and she’s just read me the story about sharks sighted off the coast and beaches on Cape Cod and Long Island posting warnings to swimmers, which only reaffirms my lifelong aversion to beaches. Lying sunburnt on the sand, looking out at ocean vastness in the company of people who have no business wearing loincloths in public never appealed to me, especially not the vastness part. I am a domestic creature, I love enclosed spaces. I went to Alaska once, checked into a hotel in Homer, ordered room service, sat in my room with the shades drawn, and was quite content.

Now that I know about shark-infested beaches, I have one more reason to stay inland. I don’t want some poor reporter to have to write the second paragraph of my obituary, “Mr. Keillor was eaten by a shark off Jones Beach on Tuesday while wading in a raspberry-colored swimsuit and wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat fringed with straw fronds. A memorial service will be held at a time to be announced later.”

“Memorial service” suggests that there was not enough of me left to put into a burial plot. The shark took the meaty parts and other sharks got some and turtles finished the job. What was left could be put in a tunafish can. I was a productive author for fifty years but in the future, if my name comes up in conversation, someone will say, “Wasn’t he the guy who was eaten by sharks?” So I renew my vow to avoid beaches.

Thus journalism performs the useful function of confirming us in our prejudices. I read stories about Texas to confirm my decision to never set foot in the state. I read about celebrities to confirm my feeling that there are no really huge ones out there, nobody on the level of Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe or Groucho Marx, just a hundred dozen minor ones who get into little snits about the media invading their privacy.

WELL, EXCUSE ME ALL TO PIECES — but that’s the role of the press, to peer in the window and see Mister Big Pants caught naked. Imagine seeing a secret video of Orange Man taking a mindfulness class at Mar-a-Lago, listening to sitar music while sitting in the lotus position, with lotuses around his neck.

People go to beaches to look at vastness and to temporarily forget their humdrum inland lives in enclosed quarters in the urban grid, going to an office and staring at a square screen. The occupations have nifty titles like Integral Technology or Investment Encompassment, but basically they’re all farmers, cultivating the cornfield, harvesting the eggs, butchering the pig.

After ten years or so, about the time they get the hang of the job and are truly productive, they start to feel trapped, and this is when men are tempted to purchase a boat. They want to smell the salt air and head into the waves and learn to tie interesting knots. Women scorn this. So the urge to buy a boat and go to sea is a manly urge to escape from women. This is a dangerous course for a man to take: women are the ones who can say, “What in God’s name are you doing?” and save a man from climbing a ladder to get up on a limb and take a chainsaw to cut the limb off while standing on it. Women won’t tolerate this sort of thing.

But a man on a boat is free to head out into deep waters aboard Pequod II with a bottle of brandy and a pair of binoculars and he enjoys the pitch and roll of the ship and decides to tie a half hitch in the rope on deck to secure it and accidentally gets it wound around his ankle and it’s the rope attached to the anchor and the roll of the boat loosens the anchor and it falls in the water and the man is yanked overboard and eaten by sharks. His life preserver is no protection against sharks, they chew right through it.

I promised my wife that I won’t be eaten by sharks. I’m planning to go quietly, at home, while cheering up the mourners, but I am only 80 so there’s no rush.

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 1, 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.

October 9, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Paramount Hudson Valley, Peekskill, NY

Peekskill, NY

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Peekskill NY. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unite us.

October 11, 2022

Tuesday

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

October 13, 2022

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

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 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

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Maryville, TN 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

Drama is life trying to get our attention

When an old man prepares for open-heart surgery, he maintains a confident demeanor and so does his good wife. He has an excellent surgeon and the procedure has been around since he was a teenager, pioneered by Dr. Walt Lillehei of Minneapolis. All is well. Stay calm and pull your socks up.

The old man is me and Dr. Lillehei attended the University of Minnesota, as I did, but he did not major in English as I did nor did he write surreal poetry and doomsday fiction that took a stab at cynicism. I come from fundamentalist Scots who would’ve looked on heart surgery as a waste of money. The heart is sinful and heart disease is caused by rich living and can be remedied by physical labor, thinner dinners, and prayer. Dr. Lillehei came from progressive Norwegians and he had more curiosity.

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I’m very old, as God knows, and he’s watching

I maintain there is always hope if you look around for it. I read the first few paragraphs of a story in the Times about fungi and how they absorb carbon that might otherwise be airborne and aggravate global warming and they enable plants to survive drought and serve as fertilizers. The headline was Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus and right there was my source of happiness for the day and I read no farther lest I come across the inevitable Buts and Howevers. My podiatrist says I have fungus under my toenails. This tells me that I shall be able to dance again and maybe run the low hurdles.

It’s good of the Times to offer hope. Usually it’s a downer. You read it and learn that the seas are full of plastic, a carbon cloud is making the glaciers melt, whole species are dying out, and half of our Republican friends believe that Joe and Jill are occupying the White House illegally, so we’re not the United States, we’re the banana republic of Ameragua and bands of revolutionaries will come down from the Sierras to overthrow the tyrants. I’d rather believe in the power of fungus.

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A big event and then a major announcement

I maintain there is always hope if you look around for it. I read the first few paragraphs of a story in the Times about fungi and how they absorb carbon that might otherwise be airborne and aggravate global warming and they enable plants to survive drought and serve as fertilizers. The headline was Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus and right there was my source of happiness for the day and I read no farther lest I come across the inevitable Buts and Howevers. My podiatrist says I have fungus under my toenails. This tells me that I shall be able to dance again and maybe run the low hurdles.

It’s good of the Times to offer hope. Usually it’s a downer. You read it and learn that the seas are full of plastic, a carbon cloud is making the glaciers melt, whole species are dying out, and half of our Republican friends believe that Joe and Jill are occupying the White House illegally, so we’re not the United States, we’re the banana republic of Ameragua and bands of revolutionaries will come down from the Sierras to overthrow the tyrants. I’d rather believe in the power of fungus.

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Let’s talk about gender, but only for a moment

On summer vacation, I get my news from my wife, which is a great convenience and helps brighten the mood and she’s just read me the story about sharks sighted off the coast and beaches on Cape Cod and Long Island posting warnings to swimmers, which only reaffirms my lifelong aversion to beaches. Lying sunburnt on the sand, looking out at ocean vastness in the company of people who have no business wearing loincloths in public never appealed to me, especially not the vastness part. I am a domestic creature, I love enclosed spaces. I went to Alaska once, checked into a hotel in Homer, ordered room service, sat in my room with the shades drawn, and was quite content.

Now that I know about shark-infested beaches, I have one more reason to stay inland. I don’t want some poor reporter to have to write the second paragraph of my obituary, “Mr. Keillor was eaten by a shark off Jones Beach on Tuesday while wading in a raspberry-colored swimsuit and wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat fringed with straw fronds. A memorial service will be held at a time to be announced later.”

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Listening to that lonesome whistle blow, etc.

I am in the process of packing up and leaving Minnesota where I’ve lived for most of eighty years, which seems dramatic but isn’t since most of my classmates left long ago and Bob Dylan, who overlapped with me at the University of Minnesota, heard the lonesome whistle blow and matriculated his way to New York and if Bob ever wrote a song about hating to leave home, I’m not aware of it. The itinerant life was what he was all about.

I am fond of Minnesota, the home of Hazelden and the recovery industry and America’s front line of defense against the flood of illegals from Canada, which has led to the boom in hockey, the season now extending into summer. It’s the home of Robert Bly, author of Iron John, which was big back when there was a men’s movement but it disappeared due to gender fluidity when masculinity liquified and men were no longer required to be solid granite. I tried to be Agnes for a while but it was too late, I was in my late sixties, stoicism was baked into me, voice-raising drugs had no effect, my eyebrows are bushy, and I hate hockey, which real Minnesota women are very good at.

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Some days are perfect: why not say so?

A summer evening on the porch overlooking the Connecticut River and Her Healthness has relaxed the rules and we’re having beef hamburgers off the grill and corn on the cob slathered in actual butter, not a vegan imitation, and the Parisian niece has baked custard tarts so delicious I decline a second knowing it would push me over the edge into decadence, a gent in capri pants and caftan, smoking a Gauloises in a cigarette holder, listening to the Gypsy Kings on my earbuds, aloof to those around me.

I’ve avoided decadence so far except for a mild addiction to Dairy Queen Blizzards, which so far is under control. I’ve avoided COVID and knee replacement and wood ticks that carry a virus that makes you talk endlessly in run-on sentences about a former president, and so it’s a pleasant evening, and we hear the happy cries of children at an old children’s camp nearby that teaches traditional values of friendship, sharing, good manners, daily chores, curiosity, and creativity. Children are not allowed electronic devices and “social justice” and “healing” are not in the mission statement, presumably “friendship” and “sharing” cover that. The boys and girls wash their faces in the morning in cold water at an outdoor trough. It’s not a church camp so they miss out on Ecclesiastes, but there is an evening campfire and I’m sure I’ve heard “Kumbaya.”

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The author disembarks almost

A beautiful summer day, sitting on a porch in Connecticut, looking at boats anchored in the cove, grateful that I don’t own one. It’s one foolishness I’ve avoided in my life: most of the other numbskull boxes I have checked and as I sit here enjoying the breeze off the water, I torture myself with memories of dumbness, mistaken romances, real estate stupidity, as vivid as the incident on Wednesday when, stepping out of a New York subway car, I paused to make sure it was 42nd, and the subway doors closed on my neck.

Yes, you read that right. I had bags in my hands, and I dropped them to try to pry the doors open, my head poking out, and couldn’t, and then a man pulled them open and I got out, turned and said thank you. He was a construction guy in an orange vest. He looked concerned. Then I remembered that Penn Station is at 34th so I had to catch the next train for one stop. I got on that train and got off without incident. So I’m a man whose head is caught in the doors while getting off at the wrong stop. There are worse things. The guillotine, for one.

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Good manners are a sign of trust, no?

I was in Nashville last weekend and saw an old man wearing a shirt with eagles and red and blue stripes on it and also the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. I did a show there in front of an audience wearing more brightly colored clothes than you’d find up north, including pastels I thought had been outlawed long ago. During the show the audience (at my invitation) sang “How Great Thou Art” and other hymns with such evangelical power I was tempted to come to the Lord then and there except I’d done that already years before. And after the show I drove past two blocks of bars with garish neon signs where everyone in sight was very young and very drunk. So the South is still the South. In New York, the audience would’ve worn a lot of black or tan, the hymn would’ve been sung reluctantly but tolerantly, and you’d have to look far and wide to find universal intoxication. And in all Manhattan you wouldn’t find a shirt like that. Only on Staten Island.

I enjoy living in this country with the rest of you who are not much like me, I truly do, but I do have my limits. I come across nice young women whose arms are covered with tattoos like a child’s doodling and big dark serious ones on their legs, and I wonder why a perfectly nice woman is trying to look like a convicted felon.

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She and I and you and us, all watching TV

I have it on good authority that we now have 26 sets of personal pronouns available in English, including the gender-neutral zie, zim, zer, zis, zieself, and I expect there will be more to come since the spectrum of personal differences is endless. My wife, for example, who is adored by me, I can no longer think of as she or her, lumped in with other women including harridans, hags, harpies and shrews, and so my wife is jen and jer and jenself and several individuals whom I despise are scheiss and scheissen and scheissenself. My fellow tall persons have the pronouns hi and hiya. Height is every bit as crucial an identifier as gender and so is intelligence. I don’t know any people I’d refer to as dem or dose but surely dey’re out there somewhere.

Personal identity is a complex matter and if a pronoun is all you need to validate you, fine. It’d help if you pasted your pronoun on your forehead, but if you feel that would marginalize you or stereotype you, I understand. And now that the Supremes have made it a basic constitutional right to carry a concealed loaded weapon, I predict that we’re going to respect gender identity more than ever. A guy with a .45 under the jacket thereby becomes plural and they is going to be more numerous and you might want to become plural too.

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Thanks in advance for reading this letter

It’s the age of gratitude, the decade I’m in. Gratitude for bromides: you wake up to find that your excellent hamburger of the evening before has made you gassy and you fizz two tablets in a glass of water and feel quick relief. It was a man named Hub Beardsley who got the idea for Alka-Seltzer back in 1928, according to Google, and it was Larry Page and Sergey Brin who invented Google, and if you’d been around Palo Alto in 1998 and befriended two nerds and bought them hamburgers, you might be fabulously wealthy today and be weird and miserable, a problem that bromides cannot touch.

A physicist, Dr. Ivan Getting, and an engineer, Col. Bradford Parkinson, are credited as the creators of GPS though it was the U.S. Navy and Dr. Roger Easton at the Naval Research Laboratory who pushed it to completion with a network of satellites with accurate atomic clocks that will guide your car through Tangletown and make it possible for newly arrived immigrants to work as Uber drivers. And so my wife drives and I don’t correct her — I’m not in the business of correcting atomic clocks on satellites — I tell her about the husband and wife driving along and they hit a bridge abutment and in the next moment they’re in heaven and he’s at a heavenly golf course and he hits a hole in one and turns to her and says, “You know, if you hadn’t made me quit smoking, I could’ve been here years ago.”

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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). 

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