Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 preview

PROLOGUE

The year passes and the old man with the scythe
Is mowing closer. He hasn’t been subtle, has he.
Every day a few more people say goodbye,
Which makes me want to be light-hearted, jazzy,
Put out the hors d’oeuvres and the champagne,
Sing God Bless America, You Are My Sunshine,
In My Life, Amazing Grace, Purple Rain,
I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, and Auld Lang Syne.
We’ve mourned for our dead and been sorry a
Long enough time. Now I take your hand, your
Eyes alight, and let us sing an aria
To love and beauty and youth and grandeur.
May the new year bring us before it has flown
What we would have wished for had we only known.
—G.K.

 

PREFACE

My life is so good at 79 I wonder why I waited this long to get here, so much of what I know would’ve been useful in my forties. Yes, there’s loneliness and pain, despair, guilt, a sense of meaninglessness, the feeling of Why am I here? What did I come in the kitchen for? A fork? A glass of water? A Pearson’s Salted Nut Roll?—welcome to the club—but on the other hand I’m not on a tight schedule or under close supervision so I have freedom to look around and think for myself. I look at the front page of the paper and think, “Not My Problem.” The world belongs to the young, I am only a tourist, and I love being a foreigner in America. I wake up early and plant my bare feet on the floor and slip away quietly so as not to awaken the gentle sleeper next to me. I turn the coffeemaker on and do a few neck flexes and get in the shower and recite the Doxology or the 87 counties of Minnesota in alphabetical order (Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami, Benton, Big Stone, Blue Earth, Brown, Carlton, Carver, Cass, Chippewa, Chisago, Clay, Clearwater, Cook, Cottonwood, Crow Wing, etc.) to rev up the brain and put on a black T, jeans, red sneakers, walk to the kitchen, pretending I’m on a tightrope, and take the medications that promise to thin the blood and stifle brain seizures and I drink a cup of coffee and sit down at the table and feel grateful for the day to come. Life is good as your future diminishes; the scarcity makes your days more delicious. Instead of nostalgia, I feel the love of right now, this minute, 6:15 a.m. on my cellphone, so it’s precisely that, except in saying so I’ve made it 6:16.

Either I’m in Minneapolis, looking out at St. Mark’s and Loring Park where I walked at 18, on break from my job in a scullery, practicing smoking Pall Malls, intending to go to the U and become a writer, or I’m in Manhattan, looking at rooftops of brownstones on the West Side, three blocks from the restaurant where I met my wife in 1992, the younger sister of my younger sister’s classmate Elsa, a three-hour lunch. Some mornings are bleary but nothing like back in my drinking days, 20 years ago. At 79, there is no time for a big grievous slump like when I was striving to be brilliant. Life is passing. Get to work. You’ve been doing this all your life, you know the drill. Shut the computer, get out paper and pen. You write and as you do, you cut, you scratch and replace, the garden grows by pruning. You hear the solid phrase as you write, and if you make four pages of scratches and scribble and get eight solid lines, it’s a good start. Three hours later, Jenny appears. She sits on my lap, silently, my hand on her back. We are perfectly still for a minute. She pours a cup of coffee, lightens it with milk, looks at me. She says, “Good morning. How are you?” and I say, “Never better” and it’s the honest truth, now that she’s here.

I was a big shot once and journalists wanted to interview me which was fun but nobody is that interesting for long and it’s a comfort to become a tourist in old age, a sort of weightlessness, and enjoy my irrelevance. People resist vaccination mandates as the rate of infection increases: Not My Problem. Freighters wait to unload at ports, docks are piled with containers, supplies are running low, building projects are delayed: NMP. The local opera company, while doing Don Giovanni and Carmen this season pledges to challenge patterns of discrimination and privilege and exercise its moral imperative in behalf of inclusivity and diversity and bring about a sense of authentic belonging in opposition to systems of oppression and colonialism and suspicion of otherness, to which I say, “Goody goody gumdrops” though it is NMP. I’m no longer from here.

We reach old age through sheer good luck. We have the benefit of drugs unavailable to our grandparents and things surgeons do to your heart or hip or knee, we avoided drowning, close calls on the highway turned out in our favor, we didn’t fall in with people whose hobby was opiates, we had mothers who told us to look both ways and we did. My cousin Roger drowned at 17 and dear friend Corinne at 43 and I think of them often, the tall kid with the flattop and the crooked grin, the serious economist who could be jollied into sitting at the piano and walloping out “On The Road To Mandalay,” and I pick up my feet and march forward. The first step to a good old age is gratitude.

As little kids, we all did hilarious imitations of elderly dither, the shaky hand, the quavery creaky voice (“Where is my Geritol?”), the stooped back and hesitant step, the forgetfulness and spooky dementia, and now here we are, the butt of our own joke. Perfect justice. What happened? We lost a stride, our vision blurred slightly, we hesitated at the stairway, someone asked, “Are you okay?” We said, “What? Sorry?” and an invisible sign ELDERLY was hung around our neck and people start going out of their way to be kind to us who never had bothered to before. I used to hold the door for women and now they hold the door for me and point out a treacherous curb and incline. I resent this. They are nice Christian women doing as Our Lord commanded, assisting the pitiful, but I’m not pitiful (yet) so please take your helping hand and help someone else. People say, “You’re certainly looking natty,” and I have to google the word, I never heard it before, it means, “decrepit but nonetheless presentable.”

Matters go downhill fast. A stranger looks at you and speaks RATHER LOUDLY AND OVER-ENUNCIATES and you want to poke him in the snoot. You board the bus and a woman gets up and offers her seat. You don’t want her goddamn seat, you’re quite capable of standing on your own two feet, but to your surprise, you say “Thank you” and sit down. And that’s when you turn the corner. I’m old. My wife says, “It’s a nice walk, about six miles, what do you say?” and just then I see a taxi and wave and he pulls over and we get in. No more need be said.

I realized I was old when I no longer knew who famous people are anymore—the celebs at the Tonys and Emmys and Grammys and Timmys and Ronnies—Ann Bleecker and Christopher Delaney and Eldridge Fulton and Leonard Mercer—who are these smarmy narcissists with hair piled on their heads and weird eyeglasses? My famous people had mostly died and gone to Halls of Fame. This made me sad and then I realized how liberating it was to know that Madison Mercer’s drug troubles and Prince Rector’s arrest for DWI and Warren York’s wife Sheridan Vandam’s allegations of abuse are no concern of mine whatsoever. I’m free to stop reading about them.

Once I knew about stuff and took a cool ironic view of pop culture and celebrity and now I’m completely out of touch. I’m off the grid, like the Amish, and I feel lighter for it. I’ve put away the clock and now I enjoy the time.

When John Updike and Philip Roth, the deans of American fiction, died, it dawned on me that my time was past. The tables at the bookstore were full of novels by other people’s children—“captivating, heartbreaking, and a tour de force,” said the blurbs, but the missing words were “sniveling witless drivel” and “self-important and tone-deaf” and “the sensibility of a concrete slab.” I read through the first five pages and wonder why the author bothered. The Humor shelf is shorter than the selection of anchovies at the grocery—nobody under 50 wants to be labeled a “humorist,” they want their whimpering to be taken seriously. I don’t want to know these writers; I’ve been avoiding people like them all my life, I hear their voices from across the room and I go outdoors.

And I realized there are ten times more people off the grid than on it. The mainstream is a narrow creek. Getting off the grid is a good move, you gain freedom. Except for baseball and some comedy, I haven’t watched TV since I was forty and I used all that free time to make a life for myself.

And so you become an old fart. Flatulence happens. The muscles of the digestive tract degenerate and metabolism slows and the production of stomach enzymes lightens and your lazier lifestyle allows food to sit in the gut longer, and so I sometimes walk into a room, attempting to hold the gas in, but the tightening of the anal embouchure only produces more articulated farts and a whole string of them sound like a sentence, like “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” or “If ifs and ands were pots and pans there’d be no trade for tinkers,” and this makes my wife collapse in hysteria. (Does she fart? No. She talks more than I do and so the pressure never builds up down below.)

I am a lucky man and before that, I was a lucky child. Luck is not the same as privilege. Privilege is having a chauffeur and luck is when the train comes just as you go through the turnstile and walk across the subway platform just as the train stops and the doors open, which makes your entire day up to that point feel fortuitous, perfectly timed, and you feel blessedness. Having a chauffeur makes you sheepish. In the eighth grade, I was working a power saw in shop class, which was where they stuck boys who couldn’t do higher algebra, and I was joking around with a pal, the rotary blade screaming through a 2×6, and Mr. Orville Buehler was horrified by my heedlessness—he could see a prosthetic device in my future—and he ran up and turned off the saw and said, “All you do is talk in class so I’m sending you up to Speech where you can get credit for it” and up from the basement I went to Miss LaVona Person’s classroom, a major turning point in my life, where I discovered the sublime pleasure of making people laugh, something my fundamentalist parents had neglected to teach me. In the course of two weeks, thanks to Mr. Buehler, I got set on a path to show business. For most people, education and diligence and discipline are the keys to success, but what opened the door for me was ineptitude at the power saw.

I was lucky to have parents who were crazy about each other, a romance made urgent by wild horses. John met Grace in 1931, the dark Depression, and the courtship went on for five years, Grandma needed Dad on the farm after Grandpa died, and one day, driving a manure wagon towed by a double team of horses that spooked and galloped out of control, Dad almost broke his neck when the wagon crashed, and felt his own mortality and the romance became urgent and four months later she was pregnant and they ran off and got married. This wonderful story was kept secret all their lives, but we could see the tenderness between them.

We were Sanctified Brethren. We didn’t go in for jokes and we avoided rhythmic movement for fear it would lead to dancing, which could lead to fornication and we didn’t play musical instruments for fear we might display talent, which then might lead to employment in places where liquor is consumed and when we sang hymns it was in slow mournful tones like a fishing village keening for its men lost in a storm, but we worshipped the Book, studied it word for word, and we were storytellers, the one art form Jesus embraced in the parables. And my mother, unlike other Brethren, loved comedians, especially Lucille Ball and Jonathan Winters and Burns & Allen, and laughed hard at jokes, and I inherited this love from her.

I was a bookish boy and decided to be a writer out of admiration for H.L. Mencken (“A historian is an unsuccessful novelist. A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it. A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”), which seemed like a cool thing to be. I had 20 aunts, some of whom thought I was very bright and said so. I wrote poems that impressed them.

I was 14 when I made the transition from one-armed carpenter to performing humorist and now I am almost 80, which in itself is remarkable. I chain-smoked for 20 years and drove with careless abandon, no seat belt, sometimes after a couple martinis and a snootful of red wine, and my main exercise was walking fast in airports and lifting the roller bag into the overhead so by rights I should be in the Pulmonary Unit with an oxygen tube up my nose and instead here I am, a free man smelling the coffee as it brews, and remembering a song I used to sing on the radio.

Smells so lovely when you pour it,
You will want to drink a quart
Of coffee.
It’s delicious all alone, it’s
Also good with doughnuts,
Fresh coffee.
Coffee helps you do your duty
In pursuit of truth and beauty.
On the prairie or the canyon
It’s your favorite companion.
Tea is overrated,
You do better caffeinated with coffee.

Coffee stimulates your urges,
It is served in Lutheran churches,
Keeps the Swedes and the Germans
Awake through the sermons.
Have a pot of it today,
I’m sure you’ll say, “That’s awfully good coffee.”

I went to college when it was dirt cheap and so did not graduate with my feet in concrete blocks of debt, but was free to imagine a big future. I quit an easy and secure job in Academia that I hated and so was free to get a job offer from a brash young radio station where I wound up spending 40 happy years.

In college, I aspired to be a phenomenal intellectual so I wrote hallucinatory verse and dark stories about a lonely inarticulate hitchhiker with a guitar on his back, leaving one busted romance and heading for another, singing,

I did not go to Harvard, I couldn’t make the grade.
All that I have learned I learned by riding freights.
Sorrow was my major and tuition was low cost,
Louise was my professor and she told me to get lost.
I tried to be a writer but everything went wrong.
Once I had a woman, now she’s just a song.

He played for drinks in bars along the way and died with no ID so was buried under a cardboard tombstone with MAN written on it and his guitar was given to the bartender’s wife who used it for a planter, to grow hydrangeas in. I showed this story to several women who said, “It’s so sad” and they set out to cheer me up. So it served a purpose. But eventually I had to earn a living and landed a job in radio working the early morning shift, which I got by virtue of being willing to get up at 4 a.m. M–F. I was the lone applicant. Eventually I learned how to do a radio show—I went back to comedy, which had worked for me in Miss Person’s class—people do not want to be made to feel bad first thing in the morning, that’s their children’s job—so I wrote humorous songs:

The engineer was sentenced to death
And he went to the guillotine
But they couldn’t get the blade to drop,
Something wrong with the machine.
They decided he’d suffered enough,
Decided to send him to jail.
But he said, “Hey get me some pliers,
I see where the blade got stuck on the rail.”

And heading down the comedy road I stayed in business until I was 75 though I have no actual definable talent: I have the personality of a barber and fans of my show are shocked to meet me and find a tall silent expressionless man and realize that all those years they had been listening to a Listener.

My life is full of mistakes: When you’re almost 80, what’s the point of denial? An old man is free from other people’s opinion of him. My wife loves me dearly, my daughter thinks I can do no wrong. I also have a number of friends. Maybe 20 or 24. It’s enough. I never trusted compliments and now I trust them even less. Prizes are a hoax, every single last one, and people who flash their awards are only advertising their insecurity.

Major historic mistakes, I look back now and see, occurred with the appearance of the 17-year-cicada. In 1953, at age 11, I first saw New York City on a trip with my dad, which made a deep impression—it made me status-conscious since I was the only kid in the sixth grade at Sunnyvale School who’d been to Manhattan and gone to the top of the Empire State and stood in the crown of Miss Liberty and this exclusivity thrilled me and it was part of my wanting to be a writer, writing being a major industry in New York, and then wanting to write for The New Yorker and I devoted 24 years of my life to this fool’s errand of trying to sound like the sophisticated We of Talk of the Town, which was amusing and somewhat remunerative but utterly misbegotten. As stupidities go, it was like claiming to have a degree from Oxford or be Katharine Hepburn’s cousin.

Seventeen years later, in 1970, I went into radio and spent most of my adulthood trying to do shows that were beyond my reach. I loved radio, having grown up listening to it, and tried to re-create what I had loved, and in the process I met some wonderful people, some of whom are friends to this day, but I never did a show that was good enough for me to want to listen to it afterward.

In 1987, I moved to Denmark (dumb) and attempted to be a Dane and speak childish Danish even to people with shelves of English novels and histories and discovered how American I am, finding it unpleasant to live among people who didn’t know the hymns of my childhood or who Emerson was or Rod Carew. In 2004, I wrote a book about my left-wing views and thereby alienated half of my audience and most of my family and what good did it accomplish? Nada. And now, in 2021, I write a book about the beauty of getting old. Who am I trying to convince? Myself. No, cicadas have been a trigger for me and I am worrying about 2038, me at age 96, my wife 81, how shall I care for her, can I still amuse her, will climate change force us to live in Sweden, how will we do the daily crossword, is it possible to get major league baseball on Swedish cable?

I never got involved with Lyme disease or hashish or fentanyl and I escaped from the University of Minnesota after a year of grad school and so didn’t wind up an unemployed English instructor working temporarily as a dog walker. I successfully dodged the draft and simply didn’t report for induction when ordered to and the feds never came after me. You do what you need to do. I switched to comedy, and I had a little success, then a little more, talking about my small town of coffee drinkers, and then Will Jones, the Minneapolis Tribune entertainment columnist, wrote a big warm embrace of a story, and Suzanne Weil gave it the Walker Art Center seal of approval and that was the beginning of many good things. This string of good luck persuaded me that God loves me, which is not how it’s supposed to work—adversity and suffering are what draw you close to the Lord, not comfort and pleasure, but the lonely hitchhiker got a job in radio and he liked it and felt useful. Years later, I heard that some young Buddhist monks in Nepal were fans of the show and loved my song “Slow Days of Summer,” according to their ESL teacher Jennifer who stopped me on Amsterdam Avenue to tell me, in particular, the verse:

 I love you, darling,
Waiting alone.
Waiting for you to show,
Wishing you’d call me though
I don’t have a phone.

Young monks felt embrothered to the singer waiting for his love to come and I felt honored. Everyone needs to be useful.

I prospered. For a few years I owned a brick manse with a walled backyard you could’ve held fêtes and galas and formal embassy receptions in, had there been embassies in St. Paul. I bought a palatial flat in Copenhagen suitable for the queen had she been free for lunch. I had four credit cards in my wallet and was fond of Scotch, the Scottish kind made by Scots, and earthy beers and gin made from Icelandic glaciers, and I never met a wine I thought was overpriced, and then I took the plunge into sobriety and didn’t look back. But that’s all in the past, those buses left a long time ago. I came through the straits of privilege unharmed. Cleansed, in fact.

In 2003, I met a guy at a party who knew the guy who was Robert Altman’s lawyer and so one day I went to Mr. Altman’s office and pitched a movie and the great director (M*A*S*H, Nashville, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player), unbeknownst to me was seriously ill at 78 and big studios were leery of investing in him but he intended to keep working until he dropped and I had an important advantage, some motivated investors, so we made the movie in 2005, the year before he died, and Meryl Streep had never worked with him and jumped at the chance, and the movie came out and got decent reviews—the guy in Rolling Stone said it was better than he’d expected it to be—and months later I was eating lunch with friends at the Café Luxembourg on 70th and Broadway when, as I brought a forkful of salad to my mouth, a woman rushed up and bent down and kissed me on the cheek and the whole café took a deep breath. It was Ms. Streep, who’d been eating lunch 30 feet away. Nobody in the café knew me from a bale of hay except the two friends and they were astonished beyond words and still are, 15 years later. Ms. Streep generates light, and when she gives you a smacker, you feel electricity pass through your body. I forget the plot of the movie but I remember the lunch.

Life is good. I can agonize with the best of them about the puritanical progressives and the Ayn Rand majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republican embrace of unreality but I still love doing shows at 79 and during intermission the audience stands and we sing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord” and the sopranos take over and I switch to bass and we look over Jordan and see the angels and we ride an old paint and lead an old dan and you are my sunshine and I’ll be your baby tonight and all I want is see you laughing in the purple rain, and this makes me deeply happy, and so does writing a book about the joyfulness of aging. It’s nothing you look forward to and when you’re in it, you know there’s only one way out and it may be a rough ride, so love today with your whole heart and leave next week to the actuaries and next month to the economists, and next year to the geologists.

Well-to-do, middle-class, broke,
Whether you doze or are woke,
If you’re still alive
At age 65,
Remember this, Jack,
There’s no turning back,
You’ve joined us elderly folk
And you won’t get out till you croak
So take sheer delight
In today and tonight
Though you are early baroque.
Delight in the days,
Let each one amaze.
Life is a pig in a poke.
The music, the talk,
The afternoon walk,
Every ding of the clock at the stroke.
Thank God for each breath
And remember that death
Is the punchline of the whole joke.

My freshman poli-sci teacher, Asher Christensen, gave a learned lecture on the separation of powers, went to the Faculty Club for lunch, lay down on a couch and died of a heart attack at 57. My best friend Barry Halper took his eye off the road for a minute and crashed into the rear of a stopped school bus and died at 21. I think of the poet Roethke who died at 55 for lack of a drug I take twice daily. (A lively understandable spirit once entertained you. It will come again. Be still. Wait.) He grew up in Saginaw, Michigan, a factory town where men like to slide into the bars at 9 a.m. and enjoy a few hours of oblivion. Roethke was a drunk and he also wrote I knew a woman lovely in her bones, when small birds sighed she would sigh back at them. I gave a speech in Saginaw once and afterward the chairman of the speech committee said, “It’s so hard to get first-rate speakers to come to Saginaw.” I didn’t ask what he meant; he sounded like he needed a drink. I quoted Roethke in the speech, the lines God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, and learn by going where I have to go. Death at 55 is much too soon, so thank you, God, for science.

My colleague Tom Keith who was in radio with me for 30 years doing sound effects and various voices, especially teenagers and talking dogs and monosyllabic husbands, died at 64 of a pulmonary embolism on a Sunday evening at his home in Woodbury, just felt sick and fell down and died in the ambulance racing to the hospital along a street he had always driven on to Lunds to buy groceries and that was six days after a party after A Prairie Home Companion, where someone asked if he had tapes of our early shows together, and he said, “We are buying them up off eBay and destroying them one by one.” Then he was dead. This happens more and more. I went to visit Paul Yandell at his home in Nashville, sitting in a wheelchair, tubes in him, and reminisced about our days on tour with his boss Chet Atkins, and I told him to be sure to come see my show at the Ryman in April, and he leaned forward, out of earshot of his wife, and whispered, “The doctor says I won’t make it past January.” Then he died a few days before Thanksgiving, a fine second guitarist who stuck with Chet like a shadow, gone, taking wonderful stories with him.

Once on a small jet heading west in rough weather over the Rockies, Paul leaned forward and said, “I can see the headline, ‘Chet Atkins and Garrison Keillor and Six Others Die in Plane Crash,’ and I’d be one of the Others.” I said, “Paul, when we die, we’re all Others.” A little bit of truth.

In 2001, feeling breathless, I found myself a good doctor, my cousin Dan, who listened to my heart and shipped me off to Mayo for open-heart surgery. I was 59. Two uncles died at 59 of the same heart problem—a mitral valve prolapse—that Dr. Orszulak repaired, a procedure that wasn’t available for Uncle Bob or Uncle Jim. When my dad lay in a hospital in 1999, the man in the next room was Dr. C. Walton Lillehei, the father of open-heart surgery, also the papa of the pacemaker, which I have too. He died of cancer. Two years later, the operation he pioneered saved my life.

Maybe I have 10 more years. What a gift. A whole decade to enjoy clocks ticking, fresh coffee, a walk in the park, deep-fried cheese curds and chili dogs, singing “Under African Skies” with a tall woman, the pictures on my phone of my wife and our daughter grinning, and the video of the audience singing “It Is Well With My Soul” and the pleasure of writing a twisty sentence that will be the beginning of a column. I sit in a café on Amsterdam Avenue, couples walk past and a long-legged runner in denim shorts who, three feet from me, lets out a burst of methane like the honk of a goose, a feature of New York, beautiful women who express themselves freely and without apology. All along the avenue, people kibitz, chew the fat, schmooze, shoot the breeze, conducting multiple centripetal contrapuntal conversations, and the cops stop for a smoke, the waiter grins as she sets down the bill, which moves me to tip her 40 percent, that smile that says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful,” which I couldn’t say when I was young and cool and now that I’m not, I can and do. Happiness is a close marriage and having work to be done. Others have known this same happiness. Fascinated by the naked female form, Botticelli, Gauguin, and Goya kept knocking out the nudes, despite syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that their death would wildly inflate the market value of their work, creating fortunes for the Duke of Earl and other arrogant schlumps and nothing for the artist’s heirs. Posthumous prosperity: a rotten deal. But onward they went, spritzing the paint, washing the brushes.

I want to write a novel about an old man who takes a drug that makes him 26 and he is horrified by youth and being swamped by lustful ambition and hanging out with stupid people and in a suicidal panic he throws himself into the river but is rescued by an old woman in a canoe and her kindness renews his faith in the goodness of humanity and the drug wears off and the next day he’s old again and they sit down to a pleasant lunch in the park and a glass of wine and he tells her about his amazing experience and she has him committed to a mental hospital where, oddly, he feels more at home. But first I need to write this book about the glory of getting old. The world needs this book and I seem to be the one to write it. My wife has read parts of it that come later and she says it’s good.

© Garrison Keillor, 2021


Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80: Why you should keep on getting older was published November 15, 2021. The author has also recorded an audiobook, available below.

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She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

New Yorkers exercise freedom of speech; I don’t. The other night, at a French restaurant, I ordered cassoulet and paid $24 for a bowl of beans with chunks of pork, rather inferior to the casserole Mabel served to the kids in the grade school cafeteria for which I paid 35 cents at the time. My dinner companions asked, “How is it?” and I said, “Excellent,” because I was brought up not to complain. Maybe in another ten years I’ll call the waiter over and say, “Take this back to the kitchen and take it off my bill.” I will be 89, an age at which one should be able to speak one’s mind.

But I’m okay being out of place. My dad once said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to live in New York,” and as a postal clerk, he was probably right about that, but love makes the difference.

I admire New Yorkers. I went to the Bronx to see the Minnesota Twins get crushed by the Yanks and on the D train up to the ballpark, packed in tight with people avoiding contact despite being less than six inches apart, the train sways and a Black woman’s elbow bumps my chest and I observe the tattoos on her neck and feel a sense of solidarity: not a word is spoken. A Minnesotan would hesitate to mention her race for fear of being considered racist but I did and it is what it is and if you don’t like it, sue me.

It’s astonishing that the city works as well as it does. We hail a cab and go to the Met and for less than we’d pay for a flight to Des Moines, we see a great performance of “Rigoletto,” which, for me, is more memorable than a night in Des Moines could be, and Rigoletto is a great baritone role, and as a baritone I appreciate that, and the assassin is played by a basso who sings the longest lowest note in opera and the audience goes wild, very rare that subterranean singing evokes such enthusiasm. It’s a great evening and we exit, thrilled, into the chilly night and wave down a cab and are transported jiggety-jig back home. COVID is raging around us, but we wore our masks through the show, and we’re feeling fine.

There’s a crisis in New York every day, sometimes three or four. Some water mains go back to Victorian times and a pipe bursts or lightning strikes and the power goes out or giant rats come up out of a toilet, but New Yorkers learn to endure. You lose power and you light candles, a water main bursts and your faucet goes dry so you get along on gin for a day or two. A good dog should be able to occupy an attacking rat until you can grab a hair dryer and scare the rodent away, unless the power is out in which case you whack it with a leaf from the dining room table, but if there’s no water, even more rats may come up out of the toilet, and you’ll have to reach for the acetylene torch you keep under the bed and take on the whole herd. New Yorkers live with the anticipation of crisis, and when a day goes by without one, it feels luxurious.

And that’s how I feel at this very moment. No rats, water comes out of the tap, lights are on, my love lies in bed beside me. She reaches over and takes my hand. This is a very good day.

 

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.

 

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 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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She loves me enough so I live in New York

I’m a Minnesotan and I live in New York because my wife is in love with me and she loves New York. It is exactly that simple. She loves opera and fine art and interesting foods and observing human eccentricity and you don’t find much of that out in the Corn Belt.

I don’t belong here. People hear me talk and can tell I’m an outsider because I pronounce it “tock” whereas they say “towalk” and also because I say, “After you, please, go right ahead, I’m in no hurry” and New Yorkers say, “Watcher back!” and at a dinner party New Yorkers all talk over each other, conversations are multilayered, and I, who was brought up to wait my turn, sit silently for three hours and the other guests go home wondering, “Who was the weird guy? Obviously a non-English speaker.”

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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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Read More

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

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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.

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Meditation while waiting for coffee to brew

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

New Year’s Day is an occasion nobody knows what to do with and so is the Eve that precedes it. I used to go to parties where we gathered around someone with a guitar and sang about broken romance and drank until the liquor was gone and the next day I awoke in a fog to watch football with other inert men but I gave all that up long ago. Gradually, a person edits out stuff that makes no sense and I scratched football, Florida vacations, artichokes, science fiction, pocket billiards, and broadcast journalism, and thus life became more and more interesting. It’s been forty years since I watched a football game. Twenty since I put the bottle away. These changes make one hopeful for the future. And here we are, looking around at 2022.

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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Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 preview

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Read the preface here

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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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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