You Have to Start Out Low — 2013

The Lord said to George Beverly Shea
“You are a child of grace.
I’ll send you out on the gospel trail
And there you will sing bass.”
Mr. Shea said to the Lord,
“I’m a baritone through and through.”
And the Good Lord said, “If I can raise the dead,
I can make a bass of you.”

      You must begin at the bottom,
      If His mercy you would know.
      He’ll raise you high on the day you die,
      But you have to start out low.
      You have to start out low.

The Good Lord said to Jonah,
“You are a child of grace.
I’ll send you down to Ninevah,
And there you will sing bass.”
Jonah said to the Good Lord,
I’m afraid that I would fail.”
But he got real deep in about a week
In the belly of that whale.

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My mother told me and now I'll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,
Down in my warm rabbit hole.
In a pillowy bed
From toes to head
I keep myself under control.

Christmas is gone and the illusion that childhood innocence can be recovered (it can’t) and we’re free of obligatory joyfulness and able to savor sadness again and relish our loneliness in this uncaring world, and the meals are penitential meals because my pants got too tight and my shirt wouldn’t button at the neck, so it’s time for celery and Ry-Krisp and herbal tea, which give a sweet sense of righteousness, which is good for vanity, feeling that the jowl is shrinking and lard that hangs over the belt is gradually coming under control and this — dare I mention it? — leads to inclinations of an erotic nature, something that disgusts you children, the thought that an old coot and his lady would commingle skin to skin and whisper and sigh and moan and even shriek for joy, but this is why we’re grateful when the Christmas guests go home and we needn’t stifle our pleasures.

February’s in view,
Two valentines, me and you,
Lie down for a nap
And whisper and wrap
Ourselves in each other
And kiss and O brother,
It’s thrilling and utterly new.

Winter is the most beautiful time of year, if it’s beauty you want, trees and bushes on the morning after a blizzard, the entire world brilliant with snow, and if the sun shines, it is a transformative experience, if that’s what you wish, but of course if you want parking lots and taco joints and concrete condos and boredom, then Florida is for you.

The world is lightening up but these long dark evenings are a lovely time of day, especially for those of us who had industriousness baked into us in childhood, but when the sun sets at five p.m., the old drudge sets the manuscript aside and lights a candle and the lady pours a glass of wine and it’s time for conversation, which is at the heart of a good marriage and a kid brought up evangelical, believing that God is paying close attention to every word that comes out of your mouth, writing it down, giving you D-minuses, carries a terrible disability, but I am trying, I am trying.

I stay indoors in January out of fear I’ll forget what my mother told me as a small child — Do not, under any circumstance, even if someone dares you, do not, do not, do not put your tongue on an iron pump handle or railing.

If you do, your tongue will freeze to the metal and you will be trapped and you may spend the night there, tongue frozen to iron, and they will find your body in the morning, and your grieving family will ask, “Why? Why us?” to which there is no answer.

And now I regret mentioning this. For having warned you of the danger, I’ve planted the idea of handle-tonguing in your mind and you may reject my advice and say (1) it’s my tongue and I’ll do what I want with it, or (2) it’s no worse than having a cold, or (3) if it’s God’s will that I lick a pump handle, then I will, or (4) I read on Twitter that some doctors say that handle-licking may be beneficial, and tomorrow when you go out and see a pump handle or iron railing you’ll be unable to stop yourself from walking up to it and — so forget what I said. Erase it from your mind. Stop reading. Find something else to do. Snort some methamphetamine, toss back a pint of bourbon, smoke reefer — there are treatment programs for those bad habits, but there is no AA program for Arctic Adherence. No. The answer is to stay indoors. But if you must leave the house, be sure to wear a mask over your nose and mouth, but not a paper or cloth mask, you need an iron mask, one with a lock. Your breath will warm it and keep you safe. Leave the key at home.

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart 

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

Performing arts companies all over are striving to be politically proper these days, and practice inclusivity and diversity, and here’s a comedy with servants in it and romantic shenanigans and all is resolved in the end with a sweet chorus along the lines of “Let’s forgive each other and all be happy,” especially sweet since in 1786 when Mozart wrote it diseases were raging for which there were no vaccines and people languished in debtors’ prisons and small children worked in factories and people felt lucky to live to be 40. Mozart died at 35 from an infection treated today by antibiotics. And the piece is gorgeous and funny as can be. I sat next to my wife who once played violin on an opera tour of forty consecutive Figaros and she laughed through it all.

The Count is arranging a tryst with Susanna and the Countess sings the gorgeous lament of the betrayed wife, “Dove sono i bei momenti” (Where have those beautiful moments gone of sweetness and pleasure and why, despite his lying tongue, do the happy memories not fade?), a moment of sheer transcendent heartbreaking beauty and then you’re back to the slapstick, the baritone’s lust for the soprano, people hiding behind curtains, the seductive note, the wife plotting revenge.

With COVID going on, the Met is working like crazy to stay in business. A singer tests positive and a sub has to be ready in the wings and new rehearsals scheduled to work him or her into the complexity of the staging, and this happens over and over, and the sub cannot be Peggy Sue from Waterloo, the sub must be a pro and a principal who is up to par, and so singers have been brought in to cover the crucial roles, and a soprano might cover the Countess in Figaro and Musetta in La Bohème, two major roles and she must be prepared — in the event the lead tests positive for COVID — to go onstage tonight in one opera or tomorrow night in the other, two demanding roles in her head and a sheaf of stage directions, and maybe she’s living out of a suitcase in lockdown, and staying away from unmasked strangers, meanwhile the Met is playing to half-empty houses due to fears of the virus, and this is not a small matter. The Metropolitan Opera is the standard-bearer of the art form in America. If it goes under, something fabulous and thrilling is lost in our country. There is a battle going on; it’s a story you could write an opera about.

If you consider opera elitist, then I guess passionate feeling is elitist and we should all be content to be cool and lead a life of Whatever. Pop music is cool, but opera is out to break your heart. I saw William Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge a couple years ago and I’m still a mess. Renée Fleming did the same to me in Der Rosenkavalier.

I am no student of opera, only a tourist, and I’m from the Midwest, the home of emotional withdrawal, where I grew up among serious Bible scholars for whom the result of scholarship was schism and bitterness, and now I go to a church where I am often overwhelmed by the hymns, the prayers for healing, the exchange of peace, a church full of Piskers but sometimes the sanctuary is so joyful and we stand for the benediction and, as Mozart wrote, let us forgive each other and go and be happy, and let us also, for God’s sake, get vaccinated. Do it for the sake of the soprano’s children so she can come out and break your heart.

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

A beautiful snow fell in Manhattan on Epiphany, the feast of light, and the city was cheerful that morning and my cabdriver said out of the blue, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re here and that’s what matters,” which is extraordinary coming from a cabdriver, an epiphany. I worry about cabdrivers in the Uber age. I hear him talking top-speed in a Slavic tongue and wonder how much he’s invested in this cab and can he earn it back by picking up people hailing him on street corners. I doubt it.

I am an American, born and bred, and as such am romantic about the little entrepreneur, the corner grocer, the stationery store around the corner, the independent druggist, but Amazon is ever at your fingertips and if you type a word beginning with the letters A-M its central computer the size of Detroit trembles with amatory anticipation or if someone in the room says, “I wonder where we could find —” it is picked up by the company’s satellites circling the globe that send out transactional vibrations and before long the website is on your screen and it reads your unconscious and without your checking a single box, $1345.34 worth of merchandise is due to arrive on your doorstep tomorrow by 8 a.m.

That’s what made me love it years ago, the sheer ease of shopping there, no need for a password — Amazon knows me!! — it knows my weakness for Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and ginger tea and medical romance novels and it makes shopping so easy that I cannot not do it — but now I look around the neighborhood and see For Rent signs on storefronts and I read about the death toll caused by lack of exercise due to online shopping and hear about the working conditions in the slave labor camps and realize that in a few years, Jeff Bezos will hold enough U.S. federal bonds to have a voice in naming the next Secretary of the Treasury and why should the Federalist Society own the Supreme Court? Why shouldn’t Amazon have a seat?

Amazon is its own nation within the U.S. and is making ours a retail economy and soon American manufacturing will be limited to frozen pizza, plastics, and personal memoirs, and one day Premier Xi Jinping will FaceTime Joe from Beijing and say, “Ahem. You want to tell us how to run Hong Kong, fine, but we embargo clothing.” And the prospect of Americans huddled in blankets is not a happy one. Our lust for Chinese-made clothing, cellphones, computers, and cars will settle the matter. We cannot live without them and they can very well live without Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and personal memoirs by pitiful persons in Pittsburgh, Paterson, and Petaluma. End of story.

I walked around looking at the snow and noticed people flocking to the hardware store to buy plastic sliders and tiny toboggans. Amazon sells this stuff but not instantly and a snowstorm is urgently exciting because snow doesn’t last long in New York, it turns to slush in a day or two, and little kids on their way home from school are trembling to get out in the park and slide. Little kids growing up in tiny apartments where a parent or two are working from home, consultants working by Zoom, novelists, psychiatrists doing phone therapy, unemployed theater critics, theologians on sabbatical, copywriters, content providers, whatever, and no whooping or shrieking is allowed, the poor children’s spirits are stifled by TV and Twitter, but then it snows and they dash into the great outdoors, a slider in hand, and in their excitement they forget their cellphones at home, and now they are reliving my Minnesota childhood on the slopes of Central Park, whooping, crashing around, throwing snowballs, deliriously free as children need to discover how to be.

We’re in the midst of a revolt by superstition against science, which is dragging the pandemic on for a while, and the cynical fiction of the stolen election is another downer, but those lunacies seem more feverish in the tepid states. A good hard winter is a restorative. You entertain paranoid delusions but then you realize that if you slip and fall and bang your head and lie helpless in the cold, someone will come to rescue you and won’t ask your political leaning. A good snowfall for Epiphany is a big boost. Speak the truth and the truth shall set you free. In the other direction is a place you do not want to go.

 

Why Washington needs more snowstorms

It’s always satisfying to see our nation’s capital hit by a good hard snowstorm and imagine powerful men trying to shovel their way out of a snowbank. It’s a parable right out of Scripture, Let the powerful have a sense of humor for each in turn shall be made helpless.

It was front-page in the papers and the subhead said that a U.S. senator had been stranded overnight on the interstate. The blockage of an interstate is the true measure of a serious storm and the headline writer tossed in the senator as further evidence, but it only made me wish there had been numerous senators — say, those from Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the five states least accomplished at snow motorism, and if the Senate had come to session the next morning, our nation would get moving again, one blockage breaking a logjam. But it was only a Democrat from Virginia, giving Mitch McConnell a one-vote edge, and there is no vacancy on the Supreme Court, so he didn’t need it.

But I have no right to be smug about Washington, you’re right. My wife took away my car keys a couple years ago when I mentioned casually while driving that I have double vision and so my old Minnesota highway skills have atrophied. I sit in the shotgun seat and am astonished at her adeptness in traffic, her unhesitant merging, her acceleration upon seeing the light turn yellow, her masterful (or mistressful) parallel parking. When I met her, she was 35, living in Manhattan, hadn’t ever owned a car, and maybe she married me for transportation and now I admire her driving. She is a whiz: her training as a violinist, paying close attention to the score while also watching an untrustworthy conductor and listening to your section, has served her well as a motorist. Plus, she swears better than I ever could. Growing up evangelical, I swear like a kindergarten teacher. And “gosh” is not useful in reacting to treacherous stupidity, not in the Senate, not on the road.

We’ve spent the pandemic mostly in New York where a car is not the necessity it was back on the farm in Freeport, Minnesota, where I had a long narrow driveway to navigate at 5 a.m. when I left for work at the radio station, and after a heavy snowfall, I felt like Admiral Peary in search of the North Pole. Now, in New York, retired, snow rarely encountered, nothing to do but make coffee and glance at the paper, I’ve been reduced from admiral to a deckhand, and I’m okay with that. I feel no diminution of my manhood whatsoever.

On second thought, I do miss the sense of superiority, cruising through a blizzard along Highway 12, seeing a car in the ditch, and the absolute superiority when I stopped to help a ditched driver with his thumb out. Jesus left that out of the Good Samaritan story, the unseemly pleasure of assisting the helpless. The poor shivering man climbed into my big warm car and — remember, this was before cellphones — I drove him to the next town where he could call for a tow truck, and the gratitude of the poor wretch was satisfying to me, the Man Who Knows How To Drive On Snow, and once a wretch offered me cash, he was a city fellow, unaccustomed to Christian charity, and I said, “No, no, no. My pleasure.” Which it was. A rather smug pleasure.

It’s hard to combat smugness, you just have to grow out of it. I’m at a point in life when people my age are going into assisted living, memory units, the nuthouse, loony bin, call it what you like. As for me, I’m fine. I have a very close relationship with my cardiologist. When you’ve gotten a defibrillator installed in your chest by another man, it’s more than a casual friendship. The other day, he called in a medical technician to make an adjustment to the device and a tall child who appeared to be about fifteen walked in with an iPad and started tapping on the Pad. It is a sobering experience to have a teenager tinkering with your heart on an iPad as if I were a video game. One mistake and the defibrillator might defunctionalize me. What made it worse was his black T-shirt. I assumed health care people wear white or pale blue.

A boy with a plaything held my life in his hands. There is no smugness after this. I’m living on the edge. It’s not the end of the world but I can see it from here. Another three hundred serious snowstorms and the Senate might discuss climate matters.

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

January 21, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Reynolds Hall, The Smith Center

Las Vegas, NV

Garrison Keillor brings his show: “Stories from Lake Wobegon” to the Smith Center in Las Vegas, NV

January 27, 2022

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

Garrison Keillor will join guests for a casual Luncheon in the Lobby of the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, where he will talk about how it all began and where he thinks he is going. 12:00 PM

January 28, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopefuls (Robin and Linda Williams) comes to the Carrollton Cultural Arts Center for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 4, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to the High Point Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:30 PM

buy tickets

February 5, 2022

Saturday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet come to The Wayne Theatre for an Evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. 7:00PM

buy tickets

February 6, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

The Avalon Theatre

Easton, MD

Garrison Keillor comes to The Avalon Theatre in Easton, MD for an Evening of poetry, Sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon. Tickets $60

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH 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

March 6, 2022

Sunday

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

Radio

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My mother told me and now I’ll tell you

January is a peaceful month, too cold to go anywhere so I sit in my spacious chair with a quilt around me, still in my pajamas at two in the afternoon, eating guacamole with tortilla chips and contributing nothing whatsoever to civilization or to the GNP, except for the occasional limerick.

January is good for the soul,/Down in my warm rabbit hole./In a pillowy bed/From toes to head/I keep myself under control.

Read More

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart

Dire warnings of crowded ERs in New York, a fresh plague of COVID is raging in the streets, but a person can’t live in a closet and on Saturday we went to the opera against our better judgment and it was an excellent thing to do. The Met is back in business and a lady walked out on stage to remind us to keep our masks on and people applauded — we feared she’d announce the show was canceled, but no, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro went on with a heroic cast, Italian, Czech, English, American, some singers who maybe hadn’t been on a stage for a year or more, and all told it was pretty fabulous. Mozart wrote it two years before our Constitution was ratified and people are still laughing at the jokes. The Constitution is a work in progress but Figaro is a masterpiece.

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A man walking through a big city snowstorm

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Why Washington needs more snowstorms

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It was front-page in the papers and the subhead said that a U.S. senator had been stranded overnight on the interstate. The blockage of an interstate is the true measure of a serious storm and the headline writer tossed in the senator as further evidence, but it only made me wish there had been numerous senators — say, those from Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, the five states least accomplished at snow motorism, and if the Senate had come to session the next morning, our nation would get moving again, one blockage breaking a logjam. But it was only a Democrat from Virginia, giving Mitch McConnell a one-vote edge, and there is no vacancy on the Supreme Court, so he didn’t need it.

Read More

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I was in Clearwater Beach, Florida, the morning of the 31st, listening to coffee drip, looking out the picture window at a parking lot, and saw a squirrel sitting on top of a telephone pole at eye level fifteen feet away, looking at me. On the beach, men with metal detectors searched for lost diamond rings and gold ingots. The squirrel had no good reason to be on top of a pole and I had no reason to be in Florida and the men on the beach kept moving along and not finding anything, we were all just spending time, and eventually the squirrel went racing along a cable to a nearby roof and I flew back home and I assume the men found something else to do, maybe watch football and drink Harvey Wallbangers.

Time flies by, the planet is spinning faster, it’s 11 a.m. and then suddenly it’s 3:30, so I try to eliminate wasted time such as the hours I spend rustling around for postage stamps and meanwhile getting engrossed in a stack of rejection letters from editors, time that if I saved it I could spend it on nobler things, such as writing less about myself and more about social responsibility. But first I have to clean out my email box, which is laden every morning with notes like “The reason I’m running for county attorney in Rome, Georgia is …” and I, who don’t live anywhere near Georgia nor do I wish to, must unsubscribe from that mailing list, which requires four separate steps and in the time it takes to do it, I see that four more fundraising emails have appeared, all written by programmers and sent to hundreds of thousands on mailing lists bought by campaigns and it’s like being attacked by a cloud of deerflies.

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Forget auld acquaintance, forge onward

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Call me naïve but I’ve been around for three score and ten plus nine years and I believe in progress. I was impressed when science found a way to put shampoo and conditioner into one bottle and when the cranberry and raisin married to form the craisin. I still rejoice at the ease of long-distance phone calls — we don’t even use the term “long distance” anymore — I’m astonished when my daughter FaceTimes me from London as I sit in a café in New York, and in our capitalist society, why does this not cost $35.75 a minute? A miracle.

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You make me happy when skies are gray

I’m happy to wear a COVID mask, having gone through life with a grim mug due to my childhood spent listening to sermons about the End Times, and the mask lets people imagine I’m smiling, and so everyone is friendlier. I’ve tried to smile into a mirror and it looks like the leer on a landlord’s face as he throws the penniless tenant out into the snow. My mother hoped I’d be a teacher but I would’ve terrified the children so I went into radio. A good move.

I went to the dentist’s office last week and was astonished by the photos of smiling faces on the wall — how do people manage to do this? A grin that shows upper teeth, even gums! So the mask makes me normal. I may get a flesh-colored one with a smiling mouth on it and wear it after COVID is history.

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I am dreaming of a light Christmas

I love Christmas because my mother did and she fought for it against her fundamentalist husband who felt it was worldly and unscriptural, but Grace loved the stockings and tree, the wrappings, the songs, the dinner, and all the more for the fact that her mother died when my mother was seven. Twelve children racked with grief, a grim household in south Minneapolis, which made the festivity all the more precious.

It was interesting to hear this annual argument between two people who loved each other dearly. I knew that, doctrinally, Dad was correct but Mother’s position was one of love, and love prevailed, and we had Christmas year after year.

I’ve had some dismal Christmases. The Christmas of the goose, when I took the goose out of the oven and hot grease spilled on my wrist and I dropped it and the glass baking dish broke and the goose skidded across the kitchen floor collecting cat hair and glass fragments. One year we did a Dickensian Christmas, had a tree with candles, did a group reading of A Christmas Carol and discovered that Scrooge has all the good lines, and nobody wants to be a Cratchit, they are such wimps. The reading was interrupted by screams — the tree was on fire. Candles make sense if you have a freshly cut tree and ours had been harvested in September in Quebec. But the fire rescued us from Dickens so all was well.

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The emergence of blues billionaires

Bruce Springsteen selling his music to Sony for a half-billion dollars has gotten me thinking about my music and what I might get for the songs I wrote when my radio show was touring the country, such as my song for Milwaukee (“Where men still wear hats they look rather sporty in/And children still take lessons on the accordion”) and one in Idaho (“People move here from New York and New Joisy/To get away from the frantic, the noisy,/For the simple pleasures of Boise”) or: “I love Washington, D.C./In summer it is the place to be./Girls run across the lawn playing catch with a red plastic disc/By the Washington Monument obelisk.”

Bruce wrote about being on the run and down and out, but so have thousands of other songwriters, and I believe I’m one of the few who wrote a song about the beauty of our nation’s capital. Or Harvard (“The campus throbs with the fevers/Of serious overachievers”) or Hollywood:

Past Sunset & Gower, and the old Columbia studio,
Home of Frank Capra, and Curly, Larry and Moe,
And here is the gate they used to walk through:
Nyuk nyuk nyuk. Woo woo woo.

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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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