The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, September 20, 2019


Adage
by Billy Collins

When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped
stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

 

“Adage” by Billy Collins from Ballistics. Random House, © 2010 Billy Collins. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


It was on this day in 1848 that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, known as AAAS, was created. It was founded by 78 scientists, all members of the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists. They wanted to increase the scope of their group to include all the sciences, and they modeled themselves on the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Despite their British model, American science in the 1840s had a different focus than European science. In Europe, scientists were more interested in theoretical work — there were big breakthroughs in chemistry, physics, evolution, and electromagnetism.

In 1845, Alexander van Humboldt published the first part of his five-volume work Cosmos, an attempt to bring together all the fields of science into one book. Humboldt was an international celebrity, adored in America — scientists sought his endorsement, journalists declared that he was “without rival in all the branches of human knowledge,” and everyone from politicians to inventors tried to link their names to his. The media were constantly comparing American scientists to Humboldt, usually unfavorably.

There were some American scientists working in this mold, many of them founders of AAAS. In 1846, Joseph Henry, a scientist who worked on electromagnetism, was elected the first secretary of the Smithsonian. In 1848, zoologist and geologist Louis Agassiz started work on a museum of natural history at Harvard. Benjamin Peirce was a mathematician and astronomer; in the 1840s, he was hard at work researching and publishing An Elementary Treatise on Plane and Spherical Trigonometry (1840) and two volumes of An Elementary Treatise on Curves, Functions, and Forces (1841 and 1846).

But in general, while Europeans were focusing on more theoretical scientific pursuits, Americans were engaged in a very practical side of science: technology. The word scientist did not even exist until the 1830s, and the line between scientist and inventor was a blurry one. There were plenty of important American inventions in the 1840s. Samuel Morse sent the first successful telegraph. Robert McCormick sold his first McCormick reaper, a machine that cut grain much more efficiently than a farmer with a scythe. Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, which finally made rubber stable (before that, it would melt in the heat and freeze in the cold). John Rand invented the metal paint tube, which revolutionized the art world — before that, painters used pig bladders; they were hard to use outside because they frequently burst, and painters could only use one color at a time.

Americans were also focused on geology and botany, which went hand in hand with America’s westward expansion — there was plenty of uncharted territory to explore and catalog. One well-known paleontologist and geologist was Edward Hitchcock, the man who came up with the idea for the Association of American Geologists and Naturalists, the parent organization of AAAS. He conducted geological surveys of New England, and studied fossils from the Connecticut Valley. Hitchcock spent the 1840s working on his greatest passion: natural theology, an attempt to explain the Bible through the lens of a contemporary understanding of geology. To the end, Hitchcock — like many of his contemporaries, including Louis Agassiz — strongly opposed Darwin’s theories of evolution.

After the American Association for the Advancement of Science was officially created on this day in 1848, the scientists adjourned. They met again at 4 p.m. the same day to talk science instead of organizational details, and they spent the next few days doing exactly that. One of the most warmly received presentations at the first meeting was a paper by oceanographer and naval officer Matthew Fontaine Maury, “Wind and Current Chart.” He explained that hundreds of ship navigators were sending data to the naval center for recording, and he declared: “Never before was such a corps of observers known.” The attendees were enthusiastic about this early citizen science.

During these early years, every AAAS meeting was a major event for the city in which it was held, the focus of media coverage and speculation. AAAS members became small-time celebrities and were even given discount tickets to ride the railroads. More than 2,000 people joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science during its first 12 years. It was suspended during the Civil War, but resumed in 1866 and is still going strong today. They have been publishing the journal Science since 1880.


It’s the birthday of poet, editor, and literary critic Donald Hall (1928), born in Hamden, Connecticut (books by this author). He met fellow poet Jane Kenyon while teaching at the University of Michigan and in 1972 they married. Hall and Kenyon wrote often about each other and their life together. They lived and worked together on his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire.

Hall was always a fierce revisionist, often putting a single poem through more than 600 hundred drafts. He said: “When I was 25, a poem took six months or a year. Typically, now, it takes two years to five.”

He said, “You should stare at a poem long enough so that you have one hundred reasons for using every comma, one hundred reasons for every line break, one hundred reasons for every and or or.”

Before his death, in June 2018, Donald Hall had published over 50 books across numerous genres, was awarded numerous literary honors and was named the 14th poet laureate of the United States in 2006. His books include Kicking the Leaves (1978), The One Day (1988), The Back Chamber (2011) and Essays After Eighty (2011).


It’s the birthday of poet and novelist Stevie Smith (books by this author), born Florence Margaret Smith in Hull, Yorkshire, England (1902). She lived in the same house from the time she was three years old until her death in 1971. She approached a publisher with her first book of poems when she was in her 30s. He told her to go away and write a novel instead. So that’s what she did. Her first novel was Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), and she went on to write other novels and short stories, but her greatest love was always poetry. She actually wrote one of her short stories in meter, and later published it as a poem.

She was known for writing light verse about dark subjects. Her most famous collection of poems is Not Waving but Drowning (1957). In the title poem, she wrote: “Nobody heard him, the dead man, / But still he lay moaning; / I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.”


It’s the birthday of muckraking pioneer Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14, which he paid for himself since his father’s alcoholism had left his family in dire straits. He funded his education by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment, as well as send his destitute parents a regular income. Before long, though, Sinclair married, had a son, and found that he could not support his family.

Sinclair’s extended family was as rich as his immediate one was poor, and a loan from his uncle bankrolled his first, self-published novel when he was 21. But the disparity between this great poverty and wealth within his own family troubled Sinclair. He became a member of the Socialist Party and committed himself to writing fiction about injustice. When the editor of a Socialist journal commissioned him to write about the plight of immigrants working in Chicago meatpacking houses — and the publishing house Macmillan gave him an advance for the book rights — Sinclair moved to the stockyards district for seven weeks. He took copious notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction.

The Jungle was serialized in the journal, as planned, but Macmillan wanted nothing to do with the book, urging Sinclair to lose the “blood and guts,” which he declined. Four other publishers followed suit, rejecting the book for its graphic imagery. Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday swooped in at the last minute and agreed to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the miserable state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers in the meatpacking industry, readers reacted instead to his descriptions of the mistreatment of the animals — that is to say, the readers’ food. The outcry over the unsanitary preparation of meat helped pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act.

 

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

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Still thinking of Yesenia weeks later 

When I read in the paper last month about impoverished children playing in a park and finding used hypodermics and thereby contracting HIV, the tragedy stuck with me. I had a young child once, two of them, twenty years apart, and can envision this happening and how the heart would break absolutely. And this story puts all the other lesser stories into line: this is a prime function of journalism, to show us the difference between hokum and hogwash and bean counting and true tragedy.

The scrimmage in the Senate over the filibuster is a contest of mastodons. And the discovery of the subatomic particle, the muon, that physicists say may change our understanding of the cosmos is a cloud of mist. You read and turn the page. And then comes a story that brings you to full attention.

The early morning crash in the California desert on March 2nd of the Peterbilt truck and the Ford SUV packed with 25 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants was a tragedy to be grieved over by any reader. The first officers on the scene found bodies scattered on the highway, some moving, a woman crying out in Spanish, brushing the blood from her daughter’s beautiful face, Yesenia Melendrez Cardona, 23, dead. They had traveled 2,500 miles to Mexicali on the U.S. border and paid thousands of dollars apiece to be smuggled across and a few miles north the SUV ran a stop sign and was crushed by the truck and 13 persons died.

Yesenia was the same age as my daughter and this tiny link is enough and I remember long ago riding on a bus that collided with a car and killed four of its passengers, the bodies on the highway, and I can put myself inside that SUV, racing north to avoid the law, the driver distracted by the crush of the crowd around him, the lights of the truck in the dimness of dawn, the moment of physical panic, the blinding flash, the dark.

This is the grace of tragedy: you are able to imagine yourself into it, comedy is only a show. The SUV is smashed and we all go flying, and that is me and my daughter lying on the pavement, a sheriff looking down at us, red lights flashing, and she wipes the blood from my face and sees that I am dead, a horrible moment (for her, not me) that I contemplate for long enough to feel dread in her behalf and know in my gut that I matter in this world, I am not inconsequential, and then she walks into the kitchen and sits down opposite me and says, “Make me laugh” as she does every morning and I tell her the limerick about the barber of Stamford, Connecticut, who thought, for each client whose head he cut, he’d take his sharp shears and cut off their ears, a grave violation of etiquette.

I remember the Sunday morning I was on my way to church in New York and got caught up in a crowd going into a Catholic church on Amsterdam Avenue and rather than get loose I went with them into a Spanish Mass, crowded into a pew, kneeling next to a weeping woman with a bright blue and silver scarf over her head and I remember that as I think of the SUV and Yesenia.

I’m not Catholic, not even close. I come from fundamentalists and we were all doctrine, no mystery, and on the basis of solid doctrine explained to us by J.N. Darby, we held the world at arm’s length and refused to love it, and here I was in a mystery, worshipping with the handymen and cleaning ladies, and it was powerfully moving. I wept with my neighbor. For all that I couldn’t understand, I felt deeply. God help us. Give these good people some comfort and happiness in my country and keep them close to their smart kids at City College and NYU. God lift the burden of regret and remorse on the back of this old Anglo. The woman weeping next to me leaned my way, and I prayed for her prayers to be answered.

Afterward I walked out into America and here we are. Yesenia Melendrez Cardona was drawn to us by hope and died on the highway and this tragedy places us securely in the Almighty’s hands. We each have work to do. And now we go do it.

Spring arrives in time to forgive us our debts

It’s spring, the air is brisk, the forsythia is blooming, there’s widespread amiability afoot, and walking through Central Park you feel you could pull twenty pedestrians out of the flow and rehearse them in “New York, New York, it’s a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground.” Winter tried to hang on, like a loud drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva, sweet love.”

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest. You wend your way from the Trinity churchyard where Mr. Hamilton lies who got not one thin dime from the musical he inspired, through the Village where brilliant and bewildered people once lived, and visit Grand Central with its starry ceiling and the Rose Reading Room of the Public Library, hike past the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — and did I mention the schist outcroppings? My family forbade dirty talk and so the word “schist” is a favorite of mine.

When spring is here, the city opens its doors and spills out onto the sidewalks, diners sit under awnings on the sunny side of the street, greenmarkets set their goods out on wooden pallets, elders perch on the brownstone steps and gaze on you and me with a judicious eye but they see little kids come trotting along and their hard hearts melt. On Sunday, I walked to 83rd Street to mail some letters and passed a little Victorian firehouse, one truck wide, wedged in the row of brownstones holding off the invasion of high-rise condos. A papa stood on the corner, embracing one tall daughter, then the other. Skateboarders swooped along the bike lane, helmeted kids on scooters. Brisk walkers passing us amblers, people walking their shaggy dogs who watch for other shaggy dogs to talk to. The sun was out and there was good feeling everywhere you looked.

There are prosperous writers in this neighborhood who are busy writing angsty memoirs or nonfiction about heinous acts by cruel men, so it’s up to me, a tourist of long standing, to pay witness to public happiness, the old couple feasting on fettucine in the sunshine, the proud papa, the gallant skateboarders.

No alleys here so everything happens out on the street, goods are trucked in, garbage is trucked away, you’re walking along a busy loading dock with flower boxes.

At 81st, I went down into the subway and the downtown train rolled in just as I reached the platform, one of those transformative moments — every little thing you’ve done all day up to that moment feels perfectly timed — and squeezed into the car without actually touching anyone. I hung on to the overhead bar, feet nicely spread, as we rumbled south, six complete strangers within a few inches of me, everyone in his or her own space, avoiding eye contact, thinking their own thoughts.

I once saw John Updike on a downtown C train, the good gray man of letters grinning at the life around him, and once on the same train I saw the master trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Nobody bothered either one of them and they rode along with us commoners. Both times, I tried not to stare. “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” said E.B. White. “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.” And that was the gift I found in Central Park, approaching the reservoir on Sunday. Thanks to my mask, my glasses fogged up but I could see the cherry tree blooming in the park and bystanders holding up their cellphones in case the tree decided to say something.

Portrait of the columnist as an older man

I respect the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick in New York, at which millions of us commoners have stopped and felt chastened by that noble 17th-century gaze that says, “What have you done great lately?” Not much. I look in the mirror and see a grim-faced old fundamentalist staring back and now I understand why, when I went to parties back when there were parties, people social-distanced around me before there was such a thing. I wandered alone around people’s living rooms looking at photographs of their friends on the walls, wishing I had friends too. So I’m thinking about seeing a dermatologist about getting Botox to give me a beautiful smile but my wife says, “Do not go down that road. No matter what, Botox never looks right. I don’t want a husband who looks laminated.” And so I’ve come to accept that being loved by one person is an amazement, especially when I know she looks at me and sees Boris Karloff.

We live in New York because she loves music and shows and has friends here who can talk for three hours nonstop. I’m more at home in Minnesota among friends who are comfortable with silence. I feel uneasy in New York because it has bike lanes and I’m certain that one day I’ll be struck down and killed by a deliveryman on a bicycle. They go whizzing by at top speed and do not slow down for red lights or pedestrians. A shout and a quick whiff of sausage pizza with extra onions and that’ll be the end of me. The obituary will say, “He was struck by a pizza deliveryman and died instantly.” It won’t mention the distinguished limericks I wrote, or my classy memoir, my radio reminiscences. There won’t be a link to a video of me singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with Heather Masse. In people’s minds, I will be forever linked to pizza and they will wonder, “What size and did the family who ordered it get a refund?”

But life is good, especially if you had an unhappy childhood among fundamentalists thinking about the imminent end of the world. After a hellfire childhood, everything is easy. People who complain about pandemic life grew up with unrealistic expectations based on watching Mister Fred Rogers who led kids to imagine the world as a friendly neighborhood in which you are well-liked just the way you are and don’t need Botox. So they find it hard to cope with endless days of isolation.

I was touched on Wednesday when my love said to me, quietly, “I am so excited about my new salad spinner.” In the past, we’ve been excited by various things that I needn’t describe here, and now a salad spinner. Scrabble excites us. She won last night with the word “strainer,” scoring 82 points. If the shutdown continues, we may be thrilled by a bowl of mixed nuts.

To the gospel preachers of my youth, New York was a hotbed of licentiousness, but the COVID virus has brought about a life of rectitude that centuries of preaching never could and here I am at home with a woman excited by a salad spinner. I’m happy. My calendar is clear. I’m free to write a sonnet for her so I did.

When I consider how my life is spent
Searching the apartment, high and low,
Trying to find out where my glasses went,
Where I set them down a minute ago.
From room to room I search in drawers and shelves
While others compose and paint and write
Books and bring great honor to themselves,
I struggle to regain my sight.
The irony of one with such poor vision
Searching for glasses is a symbol, rather clear,
Of the fragility of the human condition,
And then, my love, I look and see you here.
“I lost my glasses,” I say, “can you find them, please?”
And you do and clean them and the blind man sees.

Notice it doesn’t pledge undying love, it only thanks her for finding my lost glasses. They were on the table near my computer and I couldn’t see them. I put them on and saw my reflection in the window and decided to stay home, so go ahead and order pizza and don’t worry you may be responsible for my demise. It isn’t a great sonnet, not as exciting as a salad spinner, but anyway we already have one of those.

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Still thinking of Yesenia weeks later

When I read in the paper last month about impoverished children playing in a park and finding used hypodermics and thereby contracting HIV, the tragedy stuck with me. I had a young child once, two of them, twenty years apart, and can envision this happening and how the heart would break absolutely. And this story puts all the other lesser stories into line: this is a prime function of journalism, to show us the difference between hokum and hogwash and bean counting and true tragedy.

The scrimmage in the Senate over the filibuster is a contest of mastodons. And the discovery of the subatomic particle, the muon, that physicists say may change our understanding of the cosmos is a cloud of mist. You read and turn the page. And then comes a story that brings you to full attention.

The early morning crash in the California desert on March 2nd of the Peterbilt truck and the Ford SUV packed with 25 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants was a tragedy to be grieved over by any reader. The first officers on the scene found bodies scattered on the highway, some moving, a woman crying out in Spanish, brushing the blood from her daughter’s beautiful face, Yesenia Melendrez Cardona, 23, dead. They had traveled 2,500 miles to Mexicali on the U.S. border and paid thousands of dollars apiece to be smuggled across and a few miles north the SUV ran a stop sign and was crushed by the truck and 13 persons died.

Read More

Spring arrives in time to forgive us our debts

It’s spring, the air is brisk, the forsythia is blooming, there’s widespread amiability afoot, and walking through Central Park you feel you could pull twenty pedestrians out of the flow and rehearse them in “New York, New York, it’s a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground.” Winter tried to hang on, like a loud drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva, sweet love.”

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest. You wend your way from the Trinity churchyard where Mr. Hamilton lies who got not one thin dime from the musical he inspired, through the Village where brilliant and bewildered people once lived, and visit Grand Central with its starry ceiling and the Rose Reading Room of the Public Library, hike past the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — and did I mention the schist outcroppings? My family forbade dirty talk and so the word “schist” is a favorite of mine.

Read More

Portrait of the columnist as an older man

I respect the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick in New York, at which millions of us commoners have stopped and felt chastened by that noble 17th-century gaze that says, “What have you done great lately?” Not much. I look in the mirror and see a grim-faced old fundamentalist staring back and now I understand why, when I went to parties back when there were parties, people social-distanced around me before there was such a thing. I wandered alone around people’s living rooms looking at photographs of their friends on the walls, wishing I had friends too. So I’m thinking about seeing a dermatologist about getting Botox to give me a beautiful smile but my wife says, “Do not go down that road. No matter what, Botox never looks right. I don’t want a husband who looks laminated.” And so I’ve come to accept that being loved by one person is an amazement, especially when I know she looks at me and sees Boris Karloff.

We live in New York because she loves music and shows and has friends here who can talk for three hours nonstop. I’m more at home in Minnesota among friends who are comfortable with silence. I feel uneasy in New York because it has bike lanes and I’m certain that one day I’ll be struck down and killed by a deliveryman on a bicycle. They go whizzing by at top speed and do not slow down for red lights or pedestrians. A shout and a quick whiff of sausage pizza with extra onions and that’ll be the end of me. The obituary will say, “He was struck by a pizza deliveryman and died instantly.” It won’t mention the distinguished limericks I wrote, or my classy memoir, my radio reminiscences. There won’t be a link to a video of me singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with Heather Masse. In people’s minds, I will be forever linked to pizza and they will wonder, “What size and did the family who ordered it get a refund?”

But life is good, especially if you had an unhappy childhood among fundamentalists thinking about the imminent end of the world. After a hellfire childhood, everything is easy. People who complain about pandemic life grew up with unrealistic expectations based on watching Mister Fred Rogers who led kids to imagine the world as a friendly neighborhood in which you are well-liked just the way you are and don’t need Botox. So they find it hard to cope with endless days of isolation.

Read More

Still thinking of George, wishing I’d known him

I am still thinking about George Floyd almost a year after he died with the cop’s knee on his neck because it was in south Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Brethren Meeting Hall I attended as a kid, near where my aunts Margaret and Ruby lived. I wish I had met him but I didn’t patronize the Conga Latin Bistro where he worked security and I didn’t eat at the Trinidadian café he liked. He’d come here from his hometown of Houston where he grew up in the projects in Beyoncé’s old neighborhood. He was a high school basketball star, went to college but it didn’t take, did some hip-hop and rap, did drugs, did prison time, and got religion. He attended a charismatic church that met on a basketball court and he was the guy who hauled a horse-watering trough out on the floor for the pastor to baptize people in. He came north to get in a drug rehab program and change his life.

He’d been unusually tall since middle school and knew that this made him appear threatening and to avoid trouble, he adopted a friendly demeanor all his life. He grew to 6’7” and 225 lbs. He made himself meek and blessed are the meek. He was easygoing, even sort of shy. Shaking hands, he used two hands. He was a hugger. He could lift up a troublemaker and carry him out of the Club. He tried to dance but was too tall, and people laughed at him, and he didn’t mind. He kept a Bible by his bed and in his struggles with addiction, he and his girlfriend Courtney made a practice of standing together, hand in hand, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. A tall Black man far from his family, dealing with demons, stood close to his girlfriend and they both said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” and declared their faith in goodness and mercy.

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Pardon me if I talk about back where I’m from

I spent the pandemic in New York where I don’t know anybody except my wife so quarantine was no problem and after I got vaccinated I went home to Minnesota and had dinner with five people I’ve known forever or more, and it was a pleasure that’s worth getting old for. With old friends, conversation is simple: you open your mouth and there’s a big balloon full of words. With new people, it’s like a job interview. So I love Minnesota where those old friends are. And it’s a state that needs to be loved.

Minnesota is flyover land and no matter what greatness we produce — Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, Hubert, Jessica Lange, Prince, Al Franken, Bob Zimmerman — all that people know about us is that it gets cold there.

I was in Paris one January years ago on a bitterly cold day, sitting in a bistro, La Ponpon, packed with gaunt young people all dressed in black and elderly communists with enormous eyebrows and embittered poets writing in tiny black notebooks, everybody chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking vials of acidic black coffee and tumblers of absinthe, and a skinny woman across the table from me, reading Albert Camus in French, stared at me and finally asked, “Where are you from?” and I said, “Je viens du Minnesota” and she said, “So this cold weather must be nothing to you.”

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What it’s like to be old, if you want to know

I was back home in Minnesota last week, throwing away boxes of old manuscripts to spare my darling from having to deal with them after she plants me in the Home for the Happily Medicated. I saved the stuff thinking it might ferment, like wine, but it hasn’t, so out it goes. I look out the window at Loring Park where I used to walk when I was 17, on a break from my dishwashing job at the Evangeline Hotel, my first job out of high school. I was practicing smoking Pall Malls to prepare for a literary career. I’m 78 now and last week I had dinner with the man who hired me to do a radio show when I was in my 20s.  Diligence and discipline are all well and good, but thank God for wild good luck.

It was a music show on Saturday nights. I grew up fundamentalist and we avoided rhythm for fear it would lead to dancing and copulation so we praised God in slow mournful voices, like a fishing village whose men had been lost in a storm. We never learned to play a musical instrument for fear we might have talent and this would lead to employment in places where people drink liquor. When the radio show started, my lack of musical ability determined that I’d be the emcee. My musician friends didn’t want to do it: they were proud of their ability to play tunes with intricate fingering at impossible tempos. So I became the guy who walks downstage and says hello to the audience and tells the joke about the man and his wife who die in a car crash and they go to heaven and it’s stunningly beautiful and he says, “If you hadn’t made me stop smoking we could’ve gotten here when we were young enough to enjoy it.” And so, for lack of talent, I was made boss and had job security for 40 years. My bio, in less than 25 words.

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I’m not hoping for normal, no thank you

I think of the chicken when I crack the two eggs into the fry pan for breakfast but when I put in the sausage patty, I don’t think of the pig. The egg is a work of art; the sausage is a product. As a young man I tried to make art but I didn’t want to work in a factory (teach) to support my art, so I chose to do radio, which is a form of sausage. I admire the egg but I enjoy the sausage more. And it makes me feel good about my life, a good thing at 5 a.m.

It’s dark out. I’m alone in Minnesota, so the coffee is my own, not my wife’s good coffee but a bitter, accusatory brew. It’s Lent, but I don’t notice it because we’ve had Lent since a year ago when we and a bunch of friends were about to go on a Caribbean cruise and then the word “pandemic” was uttered and I hung my white linen suit up in the closet and Jenny and I, who had only been husband and wife before, set out to become best friends, boon companions, cellmates. When you are locked down, it’s a choice between best friendship and putting rat poison on your pancakes. Rat poison is not a good death.

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Blame it on the internet, why not?

Every time I mention Joe in my column, I get ferocious mail from a few readers describing him as a criminal and a moron who is out to destroy America, which I forgive them for, but Scripture says that’s not enough: “Bless them that curse you, pray for them which despitefully use you,” which is easy with email, you just say, “God bless you, sir” and press Delete, but Scripture is not geared for digital, it’s about the up close and personal, and what if someone in a red cap walked up to me and started yelling this stuff? People, I just plain don’t have time for that. I’m busy writing sonnets, I want to talk with my wife, baseball season starts soon, I don’t have time to hear about the landslide reelection that was stolen by Venezuelans.

The Christian faith sets some very high standards: “Ye cannot be my disciples unless you give up all you possess,” Jesus said, which is disturbing to me as a homeowner with an IRA and a closet full of clothes. The guys sleeping on cardboard in the bus depot — are they former Episcopalians who gave up their apartments for discipleship? Did they used to go out to French restaurants and then to a musical with a big dance number, actors with hands over their heads, singing about a beautiful tomorrow, and one Sunday morning the verse from the Gospel of St. Luke hit them on the head and they gave up materialism? And what did their wives say? Renouncing materialism is not an individual decision: others are involved. Was St. Luke married?

My wife and I enjoy materialism all the more in this pandemic. The coffeepot is basic to our life, and the laptop computer. We sit drinking coffee and talking and questions arise — did Nichols & May once do a sketch in which he kisses her passionately and while locked in the kiss she opens the corner of her mouth and exhales cigarette smoke Yes, and it’s on YouTube. The laptop holds the answers to all questions. Was Luke one of the twelve apostles? Nope. He came later, a disciple of Paul, a physician and a Gentile. How popular is the name “Gary”? Not so much. In 2020, only a few dozen American infant boys became Garyed, making it 774th on the list. (Liam is at the top. When I was born, in 1942, there were no Liams around. You could’ve aimed a fire hose down a crowded street and never dampened a Liam.)

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Peter Ostroushko: Living in Wonderful Memories and in his Music Forever

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by […]

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

Now that Joe and Jill are moved in and their stuff unpacked and shoes lined up in the closet, the country is getting used to the idea of a slender president who owns dogs and has a working wife who is openly affectionate, and what remains to discover is what recreational activity will the man take up? People need to see their president having fun: a sense of humor is at the heart of democracy, so let’s regain it.

So far he’s been hunkered down at his desk, doing his job, which is good to see. Leader of the Free World is a full-time job and other than Sundays at church, he’s stuck close to home. But the man needs to enjoy himself, too.

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

Garrison Keillor did “A Prairie Home Companion” for forty years, wrote fiction and comedy, invented a town called Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average, even though he himself grew up evangelical in a small separatist flock where all the children expected the imminent end of the world. He’s busy in retirement, having written a memoir and a book of limericks and is at work on a musical and a Lake Wobegon screenplay, and he continues to do “The Writers Almanac” sent out daily to Internet subscribers (free). 

He and his wife Jenny Lind Nilsson live in Minneapolis, not far from the YMCA where he was sent for swimming lessons at age 12 after his cousin drowned, and he skipped the lessons and went to the public library instead and to a radio studio to watch a noontime show with singers and a band. Thus, our course in life is set. 

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