That Time of Year: Chapter One

THAT TIME OF YEAR: A MINNESOTA LIFE

Prologue

I grew up in a northern town

Ground was flat for miles around

We were fundamentalist

Underwear was in a twist

Aloof, avoiding those in sin

Expecting Jesus to drop in

I was staunch and rather pure

Riding on the Brethren bus

And then I read great literature

Lusty, longing, humorous

Telling us to seize the day

Before the flowers fade away

We were taught obedience

To the Word, God’s Holy Book

But Mother loved comedians

And that was the road I took

And so I bent and smelled the roses

Which God intended, one supposes

And now as life slips away

Just as Scripture said it would

I write this little book to say

Thank you. So far, so good.

Chapter 1: My Life

It’s been an easy life and when I think back, I wish it were a summer morning after a rain and I were loading my bags into the luggage hold of the bus and climbing aboard past Al, the driver, and the bench seats up front to the bunks in back and claiming a low bunk in the rear for myself. We’re about to set off on a twenty-eight-city tour of one-­nighters, two buses, the staff bus and the talent bus (though actually the tech guys, Sam and Thomas and Albert and Tony, have most of the talent and the rest of us just do the best we can). I kiss Jenny goodbye and she envies me, having been on opera and orchestra bus tours herself and loved them. The show band guys sit in front, Rich Dworsky, Chris, Pat and Pete, Andy, Gary or Larry, Richard, Joe, Arnie the drummer, Heather the duet partner on “Under African Skies” and “In My Life” and Greg Brown’s “Early.” Fred Newman is here, Mr. Sound Effects, and we’ll do the Bebopareebop commercial about the meteorite flying into Earth’s atmosphere about to wipe out an entire city when a beluga in heat sings a note that sets off a nuclear missile that deflects the meteorite to the Mojave Desert where it cracks the earth’s crust and hatches prehistoric eggs of pterodactyls, which rise screeching and galumphing toward a tiny town and a Boy Scout camp where a lone bagpiper plays the Lost Chord that pulverizes the pterodactyls’ tiny brains and sends them crashing and gibbering into an arroyo, and I say, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for a piece of rhubarb pie?” and we sing, One little thing can revive a guy, and that is a piece of rhubarb pie. Serve it up nice and hot, maybe things aren’t as bad as you thought.

At the table sits Janis or Jennifer, who has the cellphone that Sam or Kate or Deb will call if there is a crisis. If they called me about a crisis, then they’d have two crises. I sit at a table so I can write on a laptop, but the show is written, the Guy Noir sketch, the commercials, the news from Lake Wobegon about the pontoon boat with the twenty-four Lutheran pastors, the canceled wedding of the veterinary aromatherapist, the boy on the parasail who intends to drop Aunt Evelyn’s ashes in the lake when the boat towing him swerves to avoid the giant duck decoy and he is towed at high speed underwater, which tears his swim trunks off, then naked he rises on a collision course with a hot-air balloon.

The bus is home; everyone has a space. You can sit up front and listen to musicians reminisce and rag on each other or you can lie in your bunk and think your thoughts. The first show is the hardest, a long drive to Appleton, then sound check and show, breakdown, drive to Grand Rapids and arrive at 4 a.m., a long day, and then we get into rhythm, Cedar Rapids, Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Denver, Aspen, Spokane, Seattle, Portland, and on. The bus pulls into a town around 4 or 5 a.m. and you stumble out of your bunk and into a hotel room and sleep and have lunch and head to the venue midafternoon, and each show is mostly the same as the night before, you walk out and sing “Tishomingo Blues”—

O hear that old piano from down the avenue.
I smell the roses, I look around for you.
My sweet old someone coming through that door:
Another day ’n’ the band is playin’. Honey, could we ask for more?

And the show ends with the crowd singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and “Auld Lang Syne” and “Good Night, Ladies” and whatever else comes to mind, and they go home happy, and the bus is sociable, and there is beer and tacos and ice cream bars. You belong to a family engaged in a daring enterprise and you’re on the road and all your troubles are behind you. Sometimes late at night, I imagine climbing on the bus at Tanglewood, past the band guys noodling and jamming and the game of Hearts, and I lie in the back bottom bunk and we pull away, headed for Chautauqua, near Jamestown, New York, and I fall asleep and wake up in Minneapolis and it’s years later.

I was not meant to ride around on a bus and do shows, I grew up Plymouth Brethren who shunned entertainment, Jesus being all-­sufficient for our needs and the Rapture imminent. (The Brethren originated in Plymouth, England, it had nothing to do with the automobile—we were Ford people.) God knew where to find us, on the upper Mississippi River smack dab in the middle of North America, in Minnesota, the icebox state, so narcissism was not available, I was a flatlander like everyone else. We bathed once a week, accepting that we were mammals and didn’t need to smell like vegetation. By the age of three I could spell M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i—one hard word I’ll always get right—and that started me down the road to writing. I had eighteen aunts who praised what I wrote, and they prayed for me, and I have floated along on their prayers. I recited my verse in Sunday School and they praised me for speaking nice and loud and clear, which eventually led to radio. My parents didn’t hug me but my aunts did, Elsie and Jean and Margaret—I stood next to Ruby’s wheelchair and she clung to me, Ruth held me to her great bosom and pressed her wire-rimmed glasses to my head, Eleanor and Bessie hugged, Brethren men didn’t deal in affection but I was rich with aunts and never lacked for love. I was born in 1942, early enough to see the last Union Army veteran, Albert Woolson, in his blue forage cap riding in a parade, and in time to be moved by Jerry Lee Lewis who shook my nerves and rattled my brain. Gettysburg on one side, “Great Balls of Fire” on the other, half of American history in one swoop. I felt destined for good things, thanks to my aunts and because I was 1 person, the son of 2 parents, their 3rd child, born 4 years after my sister and 5 years after my brother, in ’42 (four and two equals 6), on the 7th day of the 8th month in 19—nine, ten—42. I never revealed this magical numerology to anyone; I held it close to my heart. It was a green light on the horizon.

I’m a Scot on my mother’s side, so I come from people who anticipate the worst. Rain is comforting to us, driven by a strong wind. My Grandpa Denham came from Glasgow and never drove a car lest he die in a flaming crash. Mother warned me as a child never to touch my tongue to a clothes pole in winter because I would freeze to it and nobody would hear my pitiful cries because the windows are all shut and I would die, hanging by my tongue. So I imagined I’d die young, which prodded me to make something of myself until now I’m too old to die young and can accept myself as I am, a tall clean-shaven man of 78 who escaped alcoholism, depression, the US Army, a life in academia, and death by hypothermia while hanging by my tongue. My people were Old Testament Christians who believed that God smites people when they’re having too good a time and so, doing shows, I was the stiffest person you ever saw on a stage, I looked intense, solemn, like a street evangelist or a pest exterminator. Laughter doesn’t come easily to me; it’s like bouncing a meatball. Strangers walk up to me and ask, “Is something wrong?” No, I’m a happy man but I come in a thick husk, like sweet corn.

From the age of nine or ten, I was determined to be a writer and didn’t waver from it. This is due to having grown up in a tiny utopian sect that due to its separatist tendencies kept getting smaller. Whatever the opposite of “ecumenical” is, we Brethren were that. We considered Lutherans to be loose. I grew up believing that the Creator of the universe, the solar system, the Milky Way and the Way beyond it had confided in a handful of us, the Faithful Remnant. The whole of Christendom had slid into a slough of error and our little flock of twenty-five or thirty in this room on 14th Avenue South in Minneapolis was in on the Secret. When you believe that, it is no problem to imagine you’ll grow up to write books and be on the radio. Most Brethren preaching sailed over my head but I loved the stories: Noah and his boatload of critters, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, Bathsheba, the drunken Herod who is seduced by the young dancer who asks the head of a holy man as a favor, Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier. To all appearances, we were normal Midwestern Americans, we wore clean clothes, spoke proper English, took small bites and chewed with our mouths shut, mowed our lawn, played softball and Monopoly and shot baskets, read the paper, were polite to strangers, but in our hearts we anticipated the end of the world. Meanwhile supper was sloppy joes on Monday, spaghetti on Tuesday, chow mein on Wednesday, tuna casserole on Thursday, hamburgers on Friday, fish sticks on Saturday, pot roast on Sunday. We sat down to meals under a wall plaque, JESUS CHRIST IS THE HEAD OF THIS HOUSE, THE UNSEEN GUEST AT EVERY MEAL, THE SILENT LISTENER TO EVERY CONVERSATION. This didn’t encourage loose talk at meals, so we didn’t: conversation was sparse. Philip, Dad, and I sat on one side, Judy, Mother, and the twins on the other, and baby Linda in a high chair at the end. I spooned oatmeal into her and she ate applesauce with her fingers off a plate. Please pass the potatoes and What’s for dessert? was about the extent of conversation. We certainly didn’t talk about bodily functions: diarrhea was “the trots.” We didn’t pee or poop, we “went to the bathroom.” We avoided the expression of personal preference, such as I want to watch TV tonight, and anyway we didn’t have a TV. We had a radio, a big Zenith floor model with stately columns in front and vacuum tubes that gave off heat and a tuning knob the size of a grapefruit. I lay on the floor and listened to Fred Allen and Jack Benny, and sometimes when nobody was around I stood in the hall closet among the winter coats and pretended I was on the radio, using the handle of the Hoover upright vacuum cleaner for a microphone. One day I took the Hoover behind the drapes in the picture window and imagined I was onstage, about to come through the curtain and say, “Hello, everybody, welcome to the Gary Keillor show,” and my older sister knocked on the window. She was outside, weeding the flower bed, laughing at my white Fruit of the Loom underwear. I was so excited about doing the show, I forgot to put on my pants.

My folks were Depression survivors, so they squeezed the toothpaste hard to get the last molecules out of the tube. Mother darned the holes in our socks. Dad was a farm boy and grew up with a big garden and loved fresh strawberries, tomatoes, and sweet corn and couldn’t imagine living on store-bought, and so he purchased an acre of farmland north of Minneapolis and built a house on it and kept a half-acre garden. Mother would’ve preferred a bungalow in south Minneapolis, but Dad got his way and so I grew up a country kid. I was a middle child and was left to my own devices and became secretive, devious, never confided in anyone. As a city kid, I would’ve adopted a gang and become socialized, but instead I was a loner, had very little adult supervision. Mother was busy with the little kids. I could leave the house unnoticed, sit by the river or ride my bike among the cornfields and potato farms, ride for miles into the city past warehouses and factories, penny arcades and cocktail lounges, independent at the age of ten. Nobody told me the city was too dangerous for a kid to ride around on a bike, so thanks to ignorance, I was fearless. I learned to smoke by the age of twelve.

My parents loved each other and stayed in the background as we children worked out our identities. There was no alcohol, no dark silences, no shouting, no slamming doors. I was never struck, though sometimes Mother said she wanted to. Once in a while she said, “You kids are driving me to a nervous breakdown.” And let it go at that. I don’t recall Mother or Dad praising me ever—that was left to Grandma and the aunts. I was a quiet, bookish kid who liked to stand off to the side and observe, which back then people took to mean I was gifted. Today they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum,” but autism hadn’t been thought up yet so I was free to imagine I was gifted. I was crazy about girls, they were all fascinating, the way they talked, their boldness. Once, when I was eleven, I walked past Julie Christensen’s house and she said, “Do you want to wrestle?” and so we did. She took hold of me and threw me down and pulled my shirt up over my head and sat on me. It was thrilling. She said, “Let’s see you try to get up.” I didn’t want to get up. She kissed me on the lips and said, “If you tell, I will beat the crap out of you.” She was a freethinker. She taught me to sing the Doxology to the tune of “Hernando’s Hideaway.” (Sometimes I look at my wife and think of Julie. I never was in therapy—you are the first person I’ve told this to.)

I was an indifferent student in high school and college, which served to limit my career possibilities, which were further limited by having no social skills thanks to growing up Plymouth Brethren, who taught us to avoid defilement by standing apart from those in Error, i.e., everyone on Earth. But I had good jobs—I washed dishes and I was a parking lot attendant and then a classical music announcer, which is like parking cars except you don’t yell at anybody. For a few weeks one summer I ran a manure spreader and did it about as well as a person could. The next summer I was a camp counselor and led three canoeloads of thirteen-year-olds across an enormous wilderness lake, a black sky above, lightning on the horizon, and I instilled confidence in them even as I was shitting in my shorts. Back then, a state university education was dirt cheap, and I incurred no debt so I could entertain the notion of becoming a writer. I wrote dark stories, Salingeristic, Kafkaesque, Orwellian, O’Connorly (Flannery, not Frank), exhaled cigarette smoke with authorly elegance and looked down upon engineers in their polyester plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors who were busy designing the digital world we live in today. I was in the humanities, where existentialism was very big back then though nobody knew what it was exactly nor even approximately, which made it possible for even an ignorant twerp to expound upon it. At the U, I identified as a liberal Democrat for protective coloring but I had conservative leanings, was scornful of bureaucracies, unions, popular movements, and venerated the past and intended to make my own way and create work that would earn money on the free market, preferably satire that goes against the prevailing tide. I am still a Brethren boy. A little profanity I can tolerate but obscenity turns me away. I have agnostic friends but I don’t tolerate intolerance of religious faith. Scripture is clear about how to treat strangers and foreigners, any race or creed or gender, they are brothers and sisters. Life is a gift and we need be wise in the knowledge of death.

My true education was the deaths of four of my heroes, all four not much older than I, earthshaking deaths. My cousin Roger drowned at seventeen, a week before his high school graduation, diving into Lake Minnetonka to impress Susan whom he wanted to be his girlfriend, although surely he knew he couldn’t swim. I admired him, a sharp dresser, a cool guy, his slightly lopsided grin, his disregard for sports, his fondness for girls. Two years later, Buddy Holly crashed in a small plane in Iowa. I heard the news on the radio. It turned out that the young pilot was not qualified to fly by instrument at night, but, unable to say no to a rock ’n’ roll star, he took off into the dark and flew the plane into the ground and killed everyone in it. Two years later, Barry Halper, who hired me for my first radio job and became my good friend, who was smart, stylish, Jewish, had been to Las Vegas and met famous comedians, drove one afternoon east of St. Paul and crashed his convertible into the rear of a school bus and died at the age of twenty. And a year later, my classmate Leeds Cutter from Anoka, a year older than I, the smartest guy at our table in the lunchroom, who talked about why he loved Beethoven, how he’d go to law school but make a life as a farmer and raise a family, who was in love with my friend Corinne, who said, “I never do easy things right and I hardly ever do hard things wrong,” was killed by a drunk driver while riding home from the U. He was nineteen.

I felt the wrongness of their deaths, the goodness lost, the damage done to the world, and felt responsible to live my life on their behalf and embrace what they were denied, the chance to rise and shine and find a vocation. They didn’t know each other, but I see them as a foursome, Barry, Buddy, Leeds, and Roger. They were my elders and now they’re my grandsons. They each died in swift seconds of violence and the thought of them gives me peace. I promise to love this life I was given and do my best to deserve it. I carry you boys forever in my heart. You keep getting younger and I am still looking up to you. Life without end. Amen.

After college, I was hired by a rural radio station to do the 6 a.m. shift Monday to Friday, because nobody else wanted to get up so early. I worked alone in the dark and learned to be useful and clearly imagine the audience and do my best to amuse them. In my twenties I sent a story by US mail to a famous magazine in New York, as did every other writer in America, and mine was fished out of the soup by a kind soul named Mary D. Kierstead, who sent it up to the editors and they paid me $500 at a time when my rent was $80 a month and that was the clincher, that and the radio gig, my course in life was set, everything else is a footnote.

A few years later I went to see the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show in Nashville and decided to start something like it of my own. My boss, Bill Kling, against all common sense, approved of this. I had lost a short story about a town called Lake Wobegon in the men’s room of the Portland, Oregon, train station, and the loss of it made the story ever more beautiful in my mind, and, thinking I might recall it, I told stories about the town on the radio and also wrote books, including one, Pontoon, about which the New York Times said, “a tough-minded book . . . full of wistfulness and futility yet somehow spangled with hope,” which is no easy thing for an ex–Plymouth Brethrenist, to get the wistful futility and also spangle it, but evidently I did.

My great accomplishment was to gain competence at work for which I had no aptitude, a solitary guy with low affect who learned to stand in front of four million people and talk and enjoy it. I did this because the work I had aptitude for—lawn mowing, dishwashing, parking cars—I didn’t want to get old doing that. I preferred to tell stories. My first book, Happy to Be Here, published when I was forty, earned the money to buy a big green frame house on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul. People noticed this. A renter for twenty years, I wrote a book and bought a house. In warm weather, I sat on the front porch and people walked by and looked. That era is over. Now you can get an unlimited Kindle subscription for pocket change and a successful book will buy you an umbrella tent. I am lucky I lived when I did.

I also became the founder and host and writer of a radio variety show of a sort that died when I was a child, for which I stood onstage every Saturday, no paper in hand, and talked about an imaginary town for twenty minutes. It was the easiest thing I ever did, easier than ­fatherhood, ­citizenship, home maintenance, vacationing in Florida, everything. I wrote five pages of story on Friday, looked it over on Saturday morning, went out onstage and remembered what was memorable and forgot the fancy stuff, the metaphors, the subjunctive, the irony, most of it at least.

Lake Wobegon was all about the ordinary, about birds and dogs, the unexpected appearance of a porcupine or a bear, the crankiness of old men, the heartache of parenthood, communal events, big holidays, the café and the tavern, ritual and ceremony, the mystery of God’s perfection watching over so much human cluelessness. The tragedy of success: you raise your kids to be ambitious strivers and succeed and they wind up independent, far away, hardly recognizable, your grandkids are strangers with new fashionable names. The small town is strict, authoritarian, and your children prefer urban laxity and anonymity. There was no overarching story, few relationships to keep track of; it was mostly impressionistic. The ordinariness of a Minnesota small town gave me freedom from political correctness, no need to check the right boxes. In Lake Wobegon society, ethnicity was mostly for amusement, and Catholic v. Lutheran was the rivalry of neighbors.

I did Lake Wobegon pretty well, as I could tell from the number of people who asked me, “Was that true?” The Tomato Butt story was true and the homecoming talent show. The stories about winter were true. The story about being French was not true. Or the orphanage story. But I did have an Uncle Jim who farmed with horses and I rode on Prince’s back to go help him with the haying as Grandma baked bread in a woodstove oven.

I never was a deckhand on an ore boat in a storm on the Great Lakes, the Old Man at the wheel, water crashing over the bow and smashing into the wheelhouse, running empty in thirty-foot seas, navigation equipment lost, and the Old Man said to me, “Get on the radio and stay on the radio so the Coast Guard can give us a location,” and I went on the radio and sang and told jokes for two hours and the ship made it safely to port, and that was how I got into radio. That was my invention, to demonstrate my facility. Hailstones the size of softballs smashed into my radio shack on the rear deck as I told Ole and Lena jokes. A story about a lonely guy in marital anguish wouldn’t have served the purpose.

One true story I never told was about Corinne Guntzel, whom I met when we were six years old and rode a toboggan down a steep hill and onto the frozen Mississippi River. It was thrilling. Later, she got the same excitement from beating up on me about politics. She was a college socialist and smarter and better-read and I argued innocently that art is what changes the world, which she scoffed at, of course. I loved her and thought about marrying her but feared rejection, so I married her cousin instead and then her best friend, after which Corinne killed herself. It’s not a story to be told at parties.

But the best story is about the day in New York I had lunch with a woman from my hometown of Anoka and had the good sense to fall in love with her. I was fifty, she was thirty-five. I am a Calvinist, she’s a violinist. We talked and talked, we laughed, we walked, we went to the opera, we married at St. Michael’s on 99th and Amsterdam, we begat a daughter. Now, twenty-five years later, she and I live in Minneapolis, near Loring Park, across from the old Eitel Hospital where my mother was a nurse, near the hotel where I worked as a dishwasher the summer after high school and learned to smoke Lucky Strikes, a block from Walker Art Center, where Suzanne Weil produced the first Prairie Home Companion shows. My old apartments are nearby and fancy neighborhoods I walked in back in my stringency days. I like having history around to help keep my head on straight and ward off delusion.

I had relatives who used outhouses and now I walk into a men’s room and pee in a urinal and step back and it automatically flushes. I walk around with a device in my pocket the size of a half-slice of bread and I can call my daughter in London or read the Times or do a search for “Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed. To comprehend a nectar requires sorest need.” It’s a world of progress.

When I go live in the Home for the Confused, I’ll sit in a sunny corner and tell stories to myself. When my time is up, they’ll wrap me in a sheet and truck me back to Anoka and the Keillor cemetery fifteen minutes north of where I was born and plant me with my aunts and uncles on whom the stories of Lake Wobegon were based. I got a lot of pleasure out of writing them up, and so it’s right I should lie down there in a cemetery where Aunt Jo used to send me over to mow the grass and trim around the gravestones. Dad’s cousin Joe Loucks is here, who drowned in the Rum River in 1927: a dozen boys formed a human chain into the river to rescue him and he slipped from their grasp. Now they are here too. Old farmers are here, also an astrophysicist, a banker, a few salesmen, a cousin who died of a botched abortion by a doctor in town. Some had more than their share of suffering. My cousins Shannon, Philip, William, and Alec are here, all younger than I. When I was young, I was eager to escape the family, but death is inescapable and I’ll be collected into their midst at last. A brief ceremony, no eulogy, no need to mourn a man who had an easy life. Lower him down and everybody grab a shovel. Either there will be a hereafter or I will be unaware that there is not. I believe there will be. I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, nor our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen and amen.

 

© Garrison Keillor, 2020


That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life is out December 1, 2020 via Arcade Publishing.

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Young Peter

PETER OSTROUSHKO: Living in Wonderful Memories and Forever in his Music

Peter picked up his dad’s mandolin when he was a child and that was the start. Soon he could play fiddle or guitar, too. He was a teenager in high school when he knocked on Rudy Darling’s door and said he lived a few houses away and heard Rudy playing as he was walking by and could they get together sometime and play. So they did. He played some with Rudy’s band, the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, and then with Dakota Dave Hull, the Powdermilk Biscuit Band, the New Prairie Ramblers, the Mando Boys, Robin and Linda Williams. He had the chops and he had the heart. He could sight-read at tempo. He was always focused on the tune and his instrument, never seemed to be out to impress anyone. He was a composer and an improviser. Once, in Ashland, he walked onstage with the Spunks and stumbled and fell, carrying a borrowed Gibson mandolin, tucked it into his body, curled up, did a somersault, got to his feet, mandolin unharmed. He grew up on Ukrainian cooking and came to love barbecue, and looked for BBQ joints near the venues he played — “No pig, no gig,” said Peter. He liked fried egg and pickle sandwiches. He met Marge and they lived in a house on Nicollet Island, upstairs from guitarist Tim Hennessy, who called him “Mr. Buddy,” and they played swing, Irish fiddle tunes, bluegrass, and Peter’s compositions. ...

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Available now: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

In That Time of Year, Garrison Keillor looks back on his life and recounts how a Brethren boy with writerly ambitions grew up in a small town on the Mississippi in the 1950s and, seeing three good friends die young, turned to comedy and radio. Through a series of unreasonable lucky breaks, he founded A Prairie Home Companion and put himself in line for a good life, including mistakes, regrets, and a few medical adventures. PHC lasted forty years, 750 shows, and enjoyed the freedom to do as it pleased for three or four million listeners every Saturday at 5 p.m. Central. He got to sing with Emmylou Harris and Renee Fleming and once sang two songs to the U.S. Supreme Court. He played a private eye and a cowboy, gave the news from his hometown, Lake Wobegon, and met Somali cabdrivers who’d learned English from listening to the show. He wrote bestselling novels, won a Grammy and a National Humanities Medal, and made a movie with Robert Altman with an alarming amount of improvisation.

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Blame it on the internet, why not?

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

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

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

Where would we be without Google? We’d be at the library, wasting our lives searching through reference books in the basement, looking up odd facts. I googled, “Where would we be without Google?” the other day and in 39/100ths of a second Google located 4,530,000,000 results. If I spent one minute examining each result, it would take me thousands of years. So there’s your answer. Thanks to Google, we get enough information to kill us many times over. In the old days, we experienced the world directly through sight, sound, touch, and personal memory, and now we look for it in a computer.

I worry about memory loss now after my cousin told me about a family reunion I had forgotten I put on years ago where there were bagpipers and her little daughter Maggie sat on my lap and said my eyebrows looked like caterpillars. I don’t think I’m demented, but how would I know? Thank goodness, my sister found pictures of the party on her computer.

I was a writer back then, and now the young writers I know are working as Uber drivers because the publishing business is going the way of carriage-making and nobody I know is making a living from it. The Internet killed it, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And so I write sonnets for lefties to amuse people who consider me to be one.

When I think of you, Christina, my eyes get misty,
If any sensible man wished to be kissed he
Would want it to be your sweet lips.
You were a beautiful radical left-winger,
Marcher, protester, and folksinger,
With forty pins on your bosom for all your memberships.
I see you holding a sign on campus long ago,
The big letters: CAPITALISM HAS TO GO
Oh my darling Chris, if you kissed
Me I would gladly be a communist.
Your kisses would set off bright sparks
That turn this man toward Karl Marx.
We’d find a cabin to get warm and spoony in
And there would be a Soviet union.

Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

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

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

Remember when Kamala Harris introduced him to come out and speak and the man jogged out to the lectern? Big stage, long jog — he was trying to counter Republican talk of him being doddery and frail, and now I pray to God he doesn’t take up running. Please. Remember when Jimmy Carter ran in a marathon and collapsed and the Secret Service had to scoop him up? He looked like death on toast. It was the end of the Carter presidency right then and there. A president should avoid all sports that might lead to physical collapse. It’s terrible for the stock market.

Golf, it goes without saying, is off the list. Too many optical memories. And the sight of the presidential posterior as he bends for a putt is off-putting. And what it costs the Secret Service to secure a golf course for two hours is absurd and obscene.

Ronald Reagan looked terrific on horseback, thanks to his years at Warner Brothers. Same with John Kennedy at the helm of a sailboat, rudder in hand. But those aren’t Joe’s scenes. Seeing his fondness for his big dogs won over a lot of people who feared he might harbor communistic tendencies. Dog-lovers are not pinkos; commies have always preferred cats. Those dogs are working dogs, not show dogs, rescue dogs, and they can be retrained as retrievers and go pheasant hunting. Of course it would irritate the vegan caucus of the Democratic Party but the pluses outweigh the minuses — Joe tramping through tall grass in South Dakota, his faithful dogs by his side, and suddenly there’s a frantic flutter of wings in the tall grass and he raises the shotgun to his shoulder and shoots and the dogs retrieve the deadsters and in the act of shooting, he becomes iconic, Man the Bringer of Provisions. He could do this by raising carrots and onions, of course, but hoeing lacks the impact of shooting. Just ask the pheasant.

The last Democratic president to win South Dakota was LBJ in 1964. Biden hunting pheasants could change that and maybe win Wyoming and Montana. It needs to be changed. The country is in crisis when one of the major parties turns its back on rural America and forces them to vote psychotic. We Democrats do well among fencers and archery enthusiasts but we’ve crossed gun owners off our list. Guns have been around since the 14th century. In rural America, guns are normal; it’s not like L.A. that way. Get over it.

Be a hunter, sir. Head for South Dakota with the dogs and spend the night in a cabin by a roaring fire and feast on pheasant, have a whiskey or two, enjoy immature jokes. Face it, we’ve let the Left go gentle, trapping us in the caregiver role, making us susceptible to defeat by tough-talking autocrats. Half of America sees us Democrats as the Party of Croquet, Crochet, and Croissants. You can change this, Joe, by simply picking up a shotgun. You’ve come a long way in one year. The Republicans tried to label you as Biden, a stranger with weird friends and lots of odd baggage, but you’ve become Joe. Trump was a verb but you’re a noun, a real person, an uncle, a brother, and when you take the dogs to the cabin in the Black Hills, your country cousins will be enormously pleased. Do not go golfing. If you have clubs, throw them away. Air Force One lands in Rapid City and you and the dogs come down the ramp and you’re grinning as you get in the pickup and head for the hills and I’m seeing a 75% approval rating, maybe 80, 85 if you bag your limit.

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.

The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

I was not asked for a credit card at any point, or a Medicare card, so evidently the country is slipping into socialism, as Republicans predicted, but I am too old to argue, I obey. Young people wearing badges told me which line to get in and I did. A young woman who said she was a nurse gave the shot and I didn’t ask to see her license. Nor did I ask for assurance that the vaccine did not contain a hallucinogen that would make me accept the Fake News: I already accept that Joe Biden was elected president and that Trump supporters invaded the Capitol on January 6. It’s too laborious to believe otherwise. This is Occam’s Razor, the principle they taught in high school science: the simpler theory tends to be true. You’d have to devote weeks to working up a new theory of massive electoral fraud by Venezuelans and Antifans buying thousands of MAGA hats to storm the Capitol, and at 78 I don’t have the time for that. The vaccine may extend my lifetime but there are no guarantees.

This is the problem with getting old: you’re forced to face up to mortality and so you cut back on your commitments. I probably could be a decent tennis player again but I’d have to devote twenty hours a week to the effort. Ditto soap carving, stamp collecting, and the study of coelacanths. It’d take too much time so these must be left to younger people, along with dread and dismay. Too time-consuming.

More and more people around me are dying and it’s never the ones I wish would expire. I have four people on my wish list whom, as a Christian, I should forgive but I don’t because (1) they haven’t asked and (2) forgiveness will not change their loathsomeness, so instead I wish for them to go live in Alabama or Mississippi and perhaps secede, and meanwhile I dread the phone ringing, for fear that one of the righteous has fallen instead.

I keep in close touch with several octogenarians whom I think of as an advance party, just as Custer had a band of Crow scouts at the Little Big Horn who knew the territory, and when I ring up my scouts and ask, “How are you?” I want to know what 83 and 85 and 87 feel like from day to day. My cousin Stan is my oldest scout at 89 and still walks and exercises and has all his marbles — when I spoke to him last week, he twice corrected his own grammar — so I hope for eleven more years, fully marbled, which makes me cheerful and cheerfulness is the key to the kingdom. I avoid dark topics such as global warming and the demise of democracy — and leave those to the young who will have to deal with them.

I watched some of the Senate trial and I worry for my country, that we’re deciding finally who we are but I’m a back issue. I was 21 when President Kennedy was shot and a great deal died in Dealey Plaza, and then the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. My grandson, who just graduated with honors from college, came long after all that and is fascinated by politics and is ambitious to dig in and more power to him. I’m living in the liberal tribal reservation of Manhattan’s Upper West Side and so I know nothing. My mission is to live gracefully and be amused at mortality and keep in touch with the people in their 50s and 60s looking to me for guidance. No complaining. Be useful. Every day you make your partner laugh is a good day.

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

This featured show comes from the west side of the Mississippi River, from the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with special guests, bluegrass sensation Becky Schlegel, country singer Kim Parent, and girls’ quartet GQ, and men’s septet The Limestones.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 7, 2021

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“The woods are lovely, dark, and deep./But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep,/And miles to go before I sleep.” By Robert Frost. Published on this day 1923.

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“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” How do we love poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Born in Durham, England, 215 years ago today.

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“The law has nothing to do with justice, and injustice can’t be left unchallenged. So I decided to be a writer” – Leslie Marmon Silko, born this day in 1948

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Today is the birthday of author Khaled Hosseini, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His breakout novel “The Kite Runner” sold over 1 million copies in 2 years.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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On this day in 1931 Francis Scott Key’s poem “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the official national anthem of the United States.

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“I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.” – Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904)

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 1, 2021

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On this date in 1872 Yellowstone became the first national park in the world. American author Wallace Stegner wrote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

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Live from RTE studios in Dublin, Ireland, A Prairie Home Companion welcomes traditional Irish singer Niamh Parsons with Graham Dunne; Cathal McConnell along with Big John and Valerie McManus; and the tenor Frank Harte.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, February 28, 2021

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On this date in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA after stealing the work of biophysicist Rosalind Franklin who had xray photographed the DNA molecule.

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Writing

Blame it on the internet, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

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

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

Read More

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

I married a pro-vaxxer, which is good to know after all these years — we never discussed vaccines during courtship — and in addition to her respect for science, she has the patience to track down clinics online and spend time on Hold and so now I am vaccinated. I sat for fifteen minutes so the nurse could see that I didn’t faint or show distress and I wrote a poem.
The clinic that offers vaccine
Resembles a well-run machine,
I got my shot,
Sat down, was not
Dizzy or hot or pale green,
No aftereffects,
Loss of reflex,
Skin wasn’t waxy
So I hopped in a taxi,
Went home to my wife,
Resuming my life,
Which still is, thank God, quite routine.
Isolated, as monks, but serene,
Trying to keep my hands clean.

Read More

The pandemic: one man’s appreciation

I am sitting here watching over and over a video my wife took with her phone in Central Park after the 18-inch snowfall last week, looking through the trees at a snowy hill and listening to the shouts and shrieks of joy from New York children as they slide down the hill on saucers and sleds and cardboard. Shrieks of joy are a rare and beautiful thing and I keep replaying this 60-second drama, recalling my own sliding days back in Minnesota. the steep hill that we slid down and out onto the frozen Mississippi.

I remember feeling joyful on a toboggan with Corinne. We were 10 years old. She stood, her hands fluttering at her side, and I climbed on behind her and we slid at tremendous speed and I’m sure we shrieked. On the Central Park video, some parents are sliding with their kids, but this was unknown back in my day. Parents stayed indoors; the snow belonged to children. I do note that the New York parents do not shriek. Joy fades with age, though I did once see a gang of old men in Virginia dancing to jigs and hornpipes, and joy shone clear in their faces. I was brought up by evangelicals who forbade dancing on the grounds that it was licentious but here were old men grinning as their feet kept up with fast fiddlers. No shrieks but some whoops and yells.

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An old Democrat in a chorus in the Orkneys

I missed out on the GameStop frenzy on Wall Street last week and didn’t earn a bundle of money, but for me, it was enough that the temperature got up to forty, a slight thaw that made me think of spring, I being the registered optimist that I am. After all, I am a Democrat, the party that seeks to legislate against ignorance and cruelty. I believe in the goodness of people I pass on the street and I think that by July, we’ll be crowding into comedy clubs and laughing at pandemic jokes.

Other people imagine that the thaw means snow melting on the roof and leaking down the walls and dripping asphalt onto our scrambled eggs, causing incurable cancer. I do not imagine toxic snowmelt. I imagine baseball.

Ice is our friend. The ice melt on Earth is now twice what it was in the Nineties, 1.3 trillion tons a year, due to global warming, and this melt leads to the rise of oceans and more warming. Our grandchildren will have to deal with the problem and they will look back at the early 21st century as the Era of Stupidification. I regret that. But one must be hopeful. When you’re tied to the railroad track and the headlight of the Midnight Special is getting brighter and brighter, hope is what you have.

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The world turns, days get longer

The days are definitely longer. I got a COVID shot last week and a guy in Georgia invited me to come do a show in the fall and one morning I asked my wife, “What’s in the news?” and she said, “Not much.” Things change, we move on, “lizard brain” is now in the Oxford English Dictionary and so is “amenitize” and “back-sass,” “bohunkus,” “code speak” (deliberately ambiguous), “cooked-up,” “jinx” (when two people say the same thing simultaneously), “pitchy” (meaning off-key), and “running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” and this is not the Omaha English Dictionary, this is O-X-F-O-R-D, this is men in medieval gowns and hoods with letters after their names such as DCL, DM, and DLitt and where “color” is spelled with a U.

The decapitated chicken was a common phrase in my childhood, and one we saw firsthand in the backyard when we killed chickens. Nobody in my family ever got frantic, there was no shouting, no hysteria. Once in a blue moon my mom might say, “You kids are driving me to a nervous breakdown,” but no breakdown followed. We were a quiet family; I don’t claim that this is virtuous but it certainly saves time.

I came to imagine that an impassioned temperament was a sign of artistic talent so I accepted being an ordinary workman, which suits me just fine. And I accept being a white male though I don’t consider it definitive, any more than “size-12 shoe” or “Minnesotan” or “man on blood thinner” is. I am not simply white, I’m of Scots-Yorkshire ancestry, a mournful people who thrive on cold and cloudiness. Precipitation cheers us up. In bright sunlight we shrivel up, put us in a cold fog and we bloom. We are comfortable with silence. We wave away compliments. We are good at suppressing feeling, our own and other people’s. Nonetheless, when the woman I love sits on my lap and puts her head against mine and says, “I need you,” I am moved, deeply. I don’t hurl brushfuls of paint at a canvas or compose a crashing sonata or write a long poem, unpunctuated, all lowercase, in poetic code speak and revolutionary syntax, but I am very moved. I wouldn’t say so if it weren’t true.

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A night outside, eating with friends

I admit that when I hear the word “impeachment” I think of fruit, and “censure” makes me think of dentures, which is a sign that I’ve been watching too much news: time for a break. How often can you look at the man with the tattooed pectorals and the horned helmet and what understanding do you gain from it? So you make the screen go dark and do other things.

The lady and I went to dinner with friends the other night and the four of us spent more than an hour making no reference to the riot at the Capitol, an entirely trumpless hour, which felt like a triumph. We ate outdoors under heat lamps on Broadway, opposite Lincoln Center, which is very very dark, and we didn’t talk about the virus either.

We talked about a baby named Charlie born in Atlanta a few days before and showed pictures of him, tightly swaddled. His mother is a mathematician married to a landscape architect. The fact that young people still want to bring children into this world is an encouraging sign, a gesture of faith.

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Dolts are dolts: don’t give them too much credit

The pictures of Wednesday stick with you — the mob rushing up the steps when the line of cops broke, the bozo smashing the window with a pole, the gangs of Trumpers running wild in the marble halls and the cops in confusion, the lout lounging in Speaker Pelosi’s chair — it was an assault of a few thousand of the densest people in America, a congregation of barflies and dropouts and people you’d never hire to look after your children, who were so thrilled to triumph over authority they could hardly stand it. That was the whole point of it. To roam around where you weren’t supposed to go, to sit in the Speaker’s office, and to take selfies while they did it. It was the high point of their lives.

It thrilled them that Congress fled and hid in the basement and they got to parade around and wave their Trump banners and yell and own the place, which is pretty much how their man feels about the White House. He had little interest in policy but he loved the security entourage, the chopper on the lawn, Air Force One, being saluted. He was ill-informed and had the attention span of a housecat but he was Boss and smart people had to kowtow to him. It was glorious. What fool wouldn’t enjoy it.

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A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

I had cancer for about five hours last Tuesday, from about noon when I noticed a hard protuberance on the roof of my mouth to about five p.m. when I went to see my doctor. I asked my wife to look at it and she shone a light into my mouth and was alarmed at the size of the thing, and made me call the doctor. It looked like a giant dice and of course I remembered that the singular of dice is DIE. Tuesday was our daughter’s birthday and for the ZOOM party I was creating a Mad Libs fill-in-the-blanks story for her friends to do, knowing they’d be eager to include barfing and farting and poop and pee, meanwhile I was brooding about diseases such as congenital pertussis, systemic fatigue, traumatic trachomatis, and deep down figured it had to be a deadly fast-spreading malignancy.

There’s not been much cancer in my family. Coronary malfunction is what kills us, but my blood pressure has been of championship quality so the odds would seem to favor cancer, and when I called a cab to go see the doctor, I put a razor and toothbrush in my briefcase and also my laptop and phone. I was sort of planning to go straight from the doctor’s to the hospital where a surgeon would remove the protuberance and the report would come up from the lab, malignant, and a kindly carcinogeneticist named Jenny Carson would come in and explain that chemo isn’t recommended for this type of cancer, it only prolongs the suffering, and radiation might lead to dementia, so she would recommend that I go home and sell the apartment and take my wife on a world cruise. “Get a Queen suite with a balcony. I gather from your questionnaire that you quit drinking fifteen years ago. Start up again. Have a gin martini. And start smoking cigarettes again. Sit on the balcony and enjoy a nicotine rush and get good and sloshed. Why not? And instruct your wife that when you die, off in the Indian Ocean or maybe the Pacific off Australia, she should throw you over the rail to the sharks and skip the funeral stuff and use the money to spend a month at a spa.”

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

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