The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, September 26, 2022

TWA from Monday, September 26, 2016

The Undeniable Pressure of Existence” by Patricia Fargnoli from Duties of the Spirit. © Tupelo Press, 2005. 

ORIGINAL TEXT AND AUDIO – 2016

Today is the birthday of the composer George Gershwin, born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was the middle child in a tight-knit family of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. When his father bought a piano for his brother Ira, George sat right down on the bench and started to play. At 15, he left school to work on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger, a sort of house musician for the music companies. Gershwin had an ear for arrangement, and before long, he was writing his own songs. His first one earned him just $5, but soon he was turning out hits such as “Swanee,” which sold in the millions.

Encouraged by this early success, Gershwin partnered with his brother Ira and began composing full Broadway operas. The two produced popular musicals, including Funny Face (1927) and Strike Up the Band! (1930). At the age of 25, Gershwin premiered his “Rhapsody in Blue,” and later “An American in Paris,” which featured accompaniment written for taxi horns. These compositions became orchestral standards. In 1935, he composed his folk-opera, Porgy and Bess, which features such classic songs as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In 1936, at the end of its original run in Washington, D.C., the cast successfully protested segregation at the National Theatre, leading to the venue’s first-ever integrated performance.


It’s the birthday of Thomas Stearns Eliot, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1888). At the age of 27, he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), and at 34, wrote “The Waste Land” (1922). At the height of his career, when he was writing poetry, plays, and literary criticism, and serving as director of the British publisher Faber & Faber, he was the 20th century’s single most influential writer. He was dry and enigmatic, and he spoke very, very slowly. Yet, he loved the Marx Brothers and was said to harbor a weakness for squirting buttonholes and exploding cigars. Somebody once said to Eliot that most editors are failed writers. Eliot said: “Yes. So are most writers.”


On this day in 1957, 20 years after George Gershwin died, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. It was not immediately successful. It only became famous when it was turned into a film in 1961 and won 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, but it is set in the gang-ridden streets of New York.

During the weeks leading up to the opening of West Side Story, the news was full of stories of gang violence and racial confrontations. At the end of August, Strom Thurmond filibustered for more than 24 hours to try to prevent passage of the Voting Rights Act. The day before the show’s opening, federal troops forcibly integrated Little Rock High School.

In general, critics responded favorably to West Side Story, but all the major Tony Awards went instead to The Music Man, a bubbly, nostalgic musical about a small town in Iowa.


It’s the birthday of American novelist Jane Smiley (1948), who has been called “The Balzac of the American Midwest” for her explorations of farm life, family strife, and financial upheaval in novels like At Paradise Gate (1981), A Thousand Acres (1996), and Some Luck (2014).

Smiley was born in Los Angeles, California, but was raised in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced when she was two, and her mother worked as a journalist. She calls herself a “bit of an out-to-lunch child” and says, “I was always pretty good at school, but all I ever wanted was a horse.” Smiley rode horses regularly, and even fancied becoming a jockey, but when she reached 6-foot-2, she realized she was too tall to be a jockey and set her sights on writing instead.

Smiley went to Vassar College to appease her mother. She says: “She wanted me to be an intellectual. I was her eldest child, and she thought that being a writer was the best thing you could be.” After college, she lived on a Maoist commune in Connecticut and backpacked through Europe for a year. Her boyfriend carried her typewriter. When she came home, she worked in a teddy-bear factory in Iowa before being accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was her fellow student, novelist Leonard Michaels, who suggested her pen name. Smiley had married and was using the name Jane Whiston. Michaels said nobody would remember that name and asked what her maiden name was. When she said, “Smiley,” he answered, “That’s the one. People will remember that.”

She describes her first three novels, Barn Blind (1980), At Paradise Gate (1981), and Duplicate Keys (1984), as “practice.” She went on to write a murder mystery, a medieval epic (The Greenlanders, 1988), and a college satire (Moo, 1995). She’s been compared to Charles Dickens, but considers herself mainly a comic writer, saying “Somehow, after Moo, I lost my investment in sobriety as a literary tone. And I became lively and satiric.”

Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres (1991), in which she transplants Shakespeare’s play King Lear to a 1,000-acre Iowa farm headed by patriarch Larry (Lear in the play). The book was an international best-seller and was made into a film (1997) starring Jason Robards. Smiley was four months pregnant when she got the call from the Pulitzer committee. She says her reaction was, “‘Oh, isn’t that nice,’ enjoyed the flowers and the attention, and then kept on going with Moo.”

 

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


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

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

–GK

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

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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.

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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.

 

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“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

 

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An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Back in my leather fringed vest days, I assumed I would die young and become immortal like Buddy Holly or James Dean, but I was too poor to afford a fast sports car or a chartered airplane, and soon I was too old to die young. I survived absurd self-consciousness, cold winters, hard labor for no money, a fondness for whiskey — and now on Sunday mornings when I’m in town, I go to church, a traditional one that offers extensive moments of silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” it says in Scripture, and we do. God often speaks in the stillness. We confess to ourselves that we are not in charge of our lives and we believe that a Greater Power is in charge who loves us and we shake hands with the people around us and walk home.

Back in the day, I went to public schools and so did everyone else and we sat in a classroom with all sorts of kids, there were no special tracks for the gifted and brilliant, they had to sit next to us dummies. We all sang out of the same songbook, we loved the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies and the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack. People my age know these songs by heart. I spoke at a college convocation once for Parents’ Weekend and realized when I got there that the speech I’d written was crappy, a Dare-To-Be-Different message they’d heard often enough, so I said, “Let’s just sing some songs that we all know,” and I led them in those old songs and I saw kids holding up cellphones, googling “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because they’d been assigned to the Gifted Track back in fourth grade, which encouraged creativity and Daring To Be Different. The parents in the audience sang about Dinah and the land where my fathers died and “His truth is marching on” and roses love sunshine, violets love dew, and apparently enjoyed a sense of commonality that was denied to the gifted.

It’s a beautiful aspect of old age that you become more like other people than you wanted to be back when you were uniquely gifted. There is something about physical decrepitude and loss of acuity and a long memory and a sense of history that draws you together with kindred spirits. I often think of Leeds, Barry, Frankie, Corinne, my friends who died young, and wish they could’ve enjoyed old age. It’s worth the trouble.

I was the oldest person at our Thanksgiving table and I didn’t say much because the kids were so lively and funny and why bring them down with a lecture about the wonders of old age, including the fact that every morning is an occasion of gratitude. I’ll let them discover that for themselves, Lord willing.

Walking a crowded street in gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows? The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal. I know nothing about software. I use a laptop but nine-tenths of its capability is foreign to me; I use it as an educated typewriter. I love that it makes a squiggly blue line under misspelled words, even exotic ones. I imagined Twitter was run by robotechnicians, no need for a company cafeteria, just a lube station, but apparently not so. There are human beings there and they have feelings, which is what the rich guy is inexperienced at dealing with. He knows about circuitry but he’s bought a circus and now hundreds of acrobats have quit. You come to appreciate humanity, living in New York as I do. I walk down upper Broadway and it’s very amiable, like the Minnesota State Fair, throngs of people, the smell of pizza and hot pretzels in the air, bursts of music in passing, a general civility, all that’s missing are the farm implements and barns of giant swine. I’m a Midwesterner, wary of strangers, but walking in New York inspires a feeling that people are good at heart. Of course we’re all Democrats in this neighborhood. That’s all we have. You couldn’t find a Republican if your life depended on it. Thank goodness, the need for one has seldom arisen. Last week I flew to Detroit and spent a couple days in a suburban landscape of strip malls, a church next to a used-car lot next to a Walmart and hotel overlooking a cemetery, vast acreage of asphalt parking, a landscape that if I hiked a few miles along the main road, I’d feel isolated, threatened, and after dark, it’d be terrifying. I descend into the New York subway, an institution that is often grieved over but still packed with people taking great care not to bump each other or maintain eye contact for more than a few seconds. I’d rather be on the subway than drive my car through suburbia trying to find a shopping center; I’d slow down to try to get my bearings and the car behind me would honk with real fury. I’ve never encountered fury in the subway. It’d be too scary so people avoid it. We’ve all experienced a strong centrifugal urge to find loneliness in the woods, a cabin, a beach house, a tent on an island, and I’ve been there and done that and found that silence makes me uneasy and that the presence of birds and small mammals does not constitute company. Hermitude was not appealing and in the fall I heard gunfire and imagined a headline: Writer Slain in Cabin, Sheriff Asks Public for Clues. So now I am pleased to be in a subway car jammed with people. There’s no other city where you can see so much of America at once as here. The sheer variety is fascinating. The woman with the three small children opposite me: the sight of them speaks to my heart. The tall young woman in the black leggings whose stone-faced expression says she’s tired of people admiring her classic beauty, which, face it, is stunning, but I respect her need to be ignored, I look away, but the image of her is memorable. New Yorkers feign indifference, but if you should fall down, people will come to your assistance. If Mr. Musk tripped on a curb, people would stop and bend over and ask, “Are you okay?” They wouldn’t say, “I closed my Twitter account you idiot and you know something? I don’t miss it!” He’s human and if he’s injured himself, we’d help him up and call 911, same as we would for you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

And then there’s the GPS lady in the dashboard who leads us through mazes of 18th-century streets in New England towns and there are no more of those “I told you to turn left” arguments. And Google, which lets you type in “Now thank we all our God” and it gives you “With heart and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices; Who from our mothers’ arms” and so forth. And YouTube, where “Going to the Chapel” and “Under the Boardwalk” and “Sugar Sugar” and all the hits of my youth are instantly available when needed, no need to rummage through the 45s. And my WordPerfect software that makes a squiggly blue line under “Leviteracetem” until I correct the spelling to “Levetiracetam.” (My old Underwood typewriter didn’t care one way or another.)

And then I think of the phone call I made in 1992 to the sister of my sister’s classmate. I had called her, at the classmate’s suggestion, six months before to invite her to lunch and she said she couldn’t, she was going on tour with an orchestra in Asia. She was excited about going to Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia, which she hadn’t seen before, and I was impressed and wrote her number on the wall and six months later called back. We had a long lunch at a seafood joint on Broadway at 90th and so at the age of 49 and three-fourths I found a partner for life.

She was a freelance violinist in New York, living in a walk-up apartment on 102nd, a woman who loved her work and endured the vicissitudes of freelance, namely the occasional poverty, and never asked help from family. I was a successful writer. I lived in a little bubble, isolated, chained to a computer, a veteran of two unhappy marriages to women I made even unhappier. She was an inveterate walker who on her tour of Asia had ventured alone into strange cities, climbed hills to see temples, braved the language barrier. In New York, she kept her spirits up through penurious periods by walking six, eight, ten miles a day around Manhattan, Central Park, museums, living on crackers, cheese, and coffee.

I tried to impress her, bought box seats at the opera, took her to classy restaurants, and of course she enjoyed that, but what she liked most was good conversation. She was endlessly curious. I told stories about my evangelical upbringing, about the writing life. She is very honest. She is a hugger and my friends and family like her better than me (I’m a shoulder patter). She loves people. She’s adorable. I’m lost without her.

There is an old man in New York
Who is cheerfully popping the cork
In sheer thanksgiving
For the pleasure of living,
Thanks to Jenny and a small piece of pork.

What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

The rest of the crowd was working hard to appreciate the play because, though dull, it was rather dark and so people around me watched intensely as if this were Drama 101 and afterward we’d divide up into discussion groups and they wanted to think up intelligent things to say about the threat of fascism in our own time, and not just “I didn’t care for it” but I felt no need to be the smartest person in the audience, failure holds no fear for me, I’ve been there repeatedly, so I checked out of the play and thought about Mozart.

The night before the play, I’d gone to a concert with a Mozart violin concerto in it and found it astounding, the lightness and gaiety, the brilliance of the playing, the sheer beauty Mozart put in the hands of the soloist, and all this in the 18th century when a cruel aristocracy sat on thrones, abysmal poverty was the rule, men were hanged for thievery, and people perished miserably from the ignorance of infection and antiseptics.

Mozart was sick for a great deal of his life, suffering smallpox, pneumonia, rheumatism, typhoid fever, his wife Constanze agonizing over him, and died at 35 but it was his gift to create beauty and to entertain. People are still laughing at the jokes in The Marriage of Figaro. The violin concerto I heard was joyful and the violinist made it clear that he loved it too. He was finding expressive freedom within a strict form, the best of the 18th century brought to the 21st.

Fall is all about mortality. The leaves are falling, the sky is gray, winter is coming. Fall has inspired countless men to suffer a fatal attraction and quit their jobs, leave their families, and run away with Rhonda Rainbow and enjoy an ecstatic week in a Best Western and be dumped and die of an overdose of toilet bowl cleanser. I know good men who were teenage football heroes and sacrificed themselves for the glory of Central High on autumn afternoons and now, thanks to numerous concussions, sit in a locked ward and watch golf tournaments on TV.

I was saved by physical cowardice. I never went in for shoving, never threw my body against someone else’s except in the case of a few women and then very gently after asking permission.

The play ended and the audience gave it a standing ovation of course and I put on my coat. The usher stood by the door, thanking people for coming, wishing them a pleasant day, and also pointing out a treacherous step and preventing them from falling and crashing headfirst into the brick wall and suffering a hematoma and winding up in the ER with drunks and lunatics. I don’t remember much of the play but I remember his kindness. I wonder if he’s maybe an unemployed actor who’s thrown himself into the ushering role and found his true calling.

Mozart had a right to share his suffering with us by writing music that makes us sick but instead he was an usher, directing us into a joyful realm of playfulness in which we become happier than we had intended to be. And he gave that violinist the chance to be so brilliant, we brought him back for three bows. Then we got a cab and resumed the struggle. I went home and worked on my stand-up act for New Jersey Saturday night and did 90 minutes and everyone left happy. Me, too.

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

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

Broward Center for Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00P (CT)/ 8:00P (ET)

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

Livestream available for our “A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show” Dec 15 show in St. Louis

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

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

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

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

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Kansas City, MO 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 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Springfield, MO 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 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Wichita, KS 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 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Iola, KS 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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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh. He had recently published “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” to raise money to travel to Jamaica. It was an astonishing success and he eventually became one of the most famous poets in the world.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

Author Marilynne Robinson celebrates her 79th birthday today. Robinson is author of the novels “Housekeeping,” “Gilead,” and “Home.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born on this day in Scotland in the year 1835. He used his wealth to endow 2811 libraries and charitable foundations, and in purchasing organs for churches “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 24, 2022

Today is Thanksgiving day, for which we celebrate words of gratitude from Ralph Waldo Emmerson, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Safrain Foer.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Today is the 57th birthday of poet, historian, and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht. Author of “The Happiness Myth,” “Doubt,” and “Who Said.”

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Writing

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

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Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows?

The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

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What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

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Once again, Violetta does the right thing

We went to the Met to see La Traviata on Election Night and so did many other people and the Violetta was delicate and pure and commanded the stage right up to when she died and Verdi’s choruses were glorious and moving and he gives Violetta some heartbreaking unaccompanied passages, a lone soprano singing in the extensive acreage of the Met, it takes your breath away. Of course some people won’t recognize great art even if it tap-dances in the nude while handing out Eskimo bars but I tell you the truth, Act 3 was so stunning it took your mind completely off Herschel and Dr. Oz and Kari Lake and the doctor running for governor of Minnesota who doesn’t believe in immunization.

For months I’d been getting pleas for money from candidates besieged by evil and now I wanted to see the courtesan Violetta living in sin with Alfredo whose father begs her to leave him so Alfredo’s sister will not suffer shame and can marry, and the courtesan agrees, a sinner performing an act of charity, sung by soprano Nadine Sierra who is also a Lucia, Zerlina, Susanna, Gilda, and for all I know may be a D.A. in Atlanta.

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An idea, probably wrong, but it’s an idea

I’m thinking I should get to work on a museum of the era before the internet and cellphones and streaming music so that people under 40 know what it was like to talk on a phone with a cord on the kitchen wall and gossip without your mother understanding what it was about. People wrote on stationery with a pen back then, not a stationary bike but paper, wrote letters in a cursive hand to their grandmas and Grandma told you what fine handwriting you had. Now Grandma is happy if you stick with your birth gender and don’t get tangled up with fentanyl.

I’m not nostalgic for those days, I simply feel that you young people need to know some history. When I was 20, 60 years ago, I walked into the Capitol in Washington one evening and there was one cop sitting at a table inside the door, reading a book. There was no metal detector. Nowadays, they put up metal detectors at the doors to elementary schools. I’m not kidding.

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My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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A true story about last Tuesday

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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Sitting in the sixth pew, brooding on things

My grandpa Denham grew up in the tenements of Glasgow back when the residents leaned out the window and shouted, “Comin’ oot!” and threw the contents of the chamber pot into the street. Grandpa got sick of being dumped on and brought his brood to Minneapolis and he never looked back. He wasn’t nostalgic about his origins. He was happy to be here.

I thought of him when I took the train to Washington last week, a city he wanted to see and never did. I go to Washington to remind myself what a beautiful city it is despite the contempt brought upon it by so many elected officials, many of whom are emptying their chamber pots in the form of campaign advertising. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are stunning but you look at the dome of the Capitol and remember the mob that stormed it in the name of a miserable lie that is being repeated this election year and how do you explain this? The mob went to the same schools we did, learned about Jefferson and Lincoln, and yet they are fascinated by fascism and long for a dictator.

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Less is more: repeat ten times daily

I am noticing a good many books and articles about masculinity in crisis these days, and am faithfully avoiding reading them, since I’m not in crisis myself and I’m on a campaign of clearing out clutter in my life. I have just cleared off the top of my desk and am feeling good about myself, even though some of the flotsam got stuffed into the desk. I am now going to rid myself of books I’ll never read and clothes I never wear.

Sometimes I sit in the evening drinking ginger tea and watching baseball on TV with the sound off, two teams I don’t care about and so it’s not about winning, it’s about the art of baseball, the sharp reflexes of infielders and the unique windup of each pitcher, the occasional incredible full-tilt leaping outfield catch that kills the rally and the fielder casually tosses the ball into the stands. It’s such a cool move. Home runs mean nothing to me but that beautiful high-speed intersection of outstretched glove and ball and there’s no victory dance, just cool disdain. Tough luck. The fielder heads for the dugout, the ball goes to a kid in the grandstand. The commentary of the announcers is worthless; it’s all about the beauty of youth and agility and discipline. In another ten years, that fielder will be a civilian like you and me.

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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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