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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Mr. Cool is writing his novel under pressure

The astonishing Collin Morikawa was in the news this week, kissing the British Open trophy, something a man would rather not do with the Delta variant around, not knowing how many hundred folks had touched the thing, but he was excited, having won the Open on Sunday with a four-under-par 66, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad joking with his caddy, cool under pressure. Last year, the PGA, now the British, on to Augusta.

Some people have that coolness under pressure, such as the engineer who was sent to the guillotine but the blade wouldn’t drop even after several attempts so they decided to reduce his sentence to imprisonment but he looked up and said, “I think I see your problem.” Other people get into a tight squeeze and prepare themselves so well for defeat that even if they come through a winner, they can’t enjoy it.

Mr. Morikawa putted beautifully as a crowd of 32,000 watched from surrounding hills. He made a birdie putt on the 7th while the 38-year-old tournament leader chipped into a bunker and chipped from that bunker into the opposite bunker. The kid stood strong.

This, as all of us old coots, know, is the future. Some 24-year-old is waiting in the weeds who will snatch the prize from our tremorous hands and we’ll be forced to grin like good sports and congratulate the little twit when we’d rather strangle him with his bike chain.

I love young people, don’t get me wrong. We hung out with the nephew and his wife this week who are totally cool. My generation never used the word “totally,” we didn’t dare think in terms of entireness. We were “sort of happy,” or “kind of interested,” but we couldn’t commit 100% because we had no reliable authorities on style. I know people who’ve never shown their wedding pictures to the children because the sight of the pastel polyester would make them collapse screaming. The nephew and wife are totally into what they’re into and it’s awesome. We never achieved awesomeness. Awe was what you’d feel if Jesus appeared to you in person and touched your head and made you intelligent, you’d be awestruck, so you couldn’t use the same word for, say, the way someone’s hair looks. But now they do. My young people think it’s “awesome” that I’m writing a novel. I hope so but am not always sure.

I was working on my new novel as I watched the British Open and I could sense a strong field of 24-year-old novelists on the scoreboard as I worked on page 110 of my book and was filling the right margin with a handwritten addition — a popular radio minister is caught in a motel in Omaha studying photographs of young women in thong bikinis and though you can see this sort of thing on any beach in the country, underpants with less cotton than you find in an aspirin bottle, his great secrecy and sense of shame make the deed seem perverse, and he’s kicked out of the church and takes a job at a SuperAmerica pumping gas for elderly customers who can’t figure out how to insert their credit cards — and I sensed that my description of firm ovoid female cheeks had jumped me ahead of a lot of young Berkeley novelists who are dealing in anguish and alienation — and then on 113 I wrote a few paragraphs in which a 24-year-old guy is hitting golf balls on a football field and one strikes a lady’s cockapoo in the flank and this gentle dog, enraged, leaps at the golfer and bites him and its right front claw catches the earring in the golfer’s left ear and rips the earlobe and he falls to the ground screaming and incurs traumatic injury that necessitates the hiring of a life coach named Mallory who teaches remedial life skills such as (1) change underwear daily, (2) make bed, (3) brush teeth. It sounds weird but it’s very believable.

I’m calm but I’m fairly certain I’ve got the National Book Award nailed for 2022 and I’m happy about that but when photographers ask me to kiss the golden bookend trophy, I’m going to say, “Kiss my foot.” Old vets like me don’t do that. I’ll hold the trophy down at my side, very cool-like, like you’d carry a six-pack. “When did you know you had it?” a reporter yells. “I never imagined I didn’t have it,” I’ll say. “When you got it, you know it and it’s awesome.”

My mystification on the Connecticut coast

A quiet week at my wife’s family’s summer house on the Connecticut River, which sounds fancy but is a cottage full of furniture bought at yard sales. And there, this week, I make a big discovery: even after twenty-six years of marriage, I hadn’t realized the depth of her love of gardening. It was hot and she spent hours weeding a flower bed, three wheelbarrows’ worth, and came back to the porch happy and dripping with sweat.

When I met her in 1992, she was a freelance violinist in Manhattan, a Minnesotan trapped in semi-poverty by her love of classical music. We had a three-hour lunch, I fell in love. Nothing was said about yardwork. But here she was, in 2021, giddy after hours of weeding in the hot sun, the very thing I hated most growing up and so became a writer in order to avoid. I edit; I don’t weed.

The misery of weeding was what led to slavery. In the South, they couldn’t bear to work in the fields in that heat so they bought people in chains and beat them up. Slaveholders were people just like us who liked to be comfortable and that meant making other people hoe the cotton. You realize this on a hot day. The difference between us and the South is that it didn’t stay hot long enough in Minnesota for us to think of hauling people in in chains, but we would’ve done it, given time. But the beauty of love is that it leads you down a long path of discovery whereby you come to understand another person, and here was my love, sweat pouring off her, feeling exhilarated about weeding.

She felt like going to the theater that evening so we drove to Old Saybrook and went to a show at The Kate, a little theater named for Katharine Hepburn who had lived nearby. It was a comedy by the Ephron sisters, “Love, Loss & What I Wore,” and I noted, sitting down, that I was one of a handful of men in the room, fewer than a jury, and the thing got underway, and I sat silent, surrounded by laughing women. A lot of jokes about the emotional ties of various outfits. I met Nora Ephron once, walking along Broadway at 79th Street, and we stood and talked and I was struck by what a kind soul this famous funny woman was. So I’m disposed in her favor. But I didn’t laugh.

About halfway in, the play gets onto the subject of bras and boobs and here the real hysteria set in. Women screeching and shrieking at jokes that, had a man said one at a dinner table, he would’ve been shamed and maybe sent to his room. My wife, who is my judge and jury when it comes to comedy, was laughing. Boobs, the problem of flat-chestedness, the search for the perfect bra: all hilarious to the women around me, material for which a man would be heartily condemned as juvenile.

I got in deep manure once with a limerick I recited on the radio, which I still think is one of my best.

There was an old lady named Jude
Who, imagining her solitude,
In warm weather chose
To take off her clothes
And walk around town in the nude
And old men and rubes
Would stare at her boobs
And think thoughts licentious and lewd
She was eighty, Miss Judy,
And not a great beauty
But O how she lightened the mood.

The emails were brutal, I was accused of “objectification” and a childish fascination with breasts that’s been linked to sexual violence, but here was a roomful of Connecticut matrons laughing their heads off.

I think it was the hot weather that affected them. We are all sinners in extreme heat. You lie awake at night listening to mosquitoes and in the morning there’s no milk for your coffee and something snaps and you put on your mask and go to the store and — Sacré bleu! there’s a pistol in your hand! — and you tell the lady to open up the cash drawer. But this is a small town, and she says, “Oh go home and soak your head, Keillor. You don’t impress me with that little peashooter. Go back to bed and get out on the other side.” An old writer on the brink of felony is saved by the kindness of a neighbor. I’m sure it happens all the time.

What we crave, above all, is what's real

The books about No. 45 are coming out and one says he was deranged and another says that his own people feared for the country, neither of which I doubt for a minute, but I’m not up for reliving those years for the same reason I don’t plan to spend January in Norway: been there, done it, life is short, no need for reruns.

The January in Norway is a story my wife tells so much better than I can. I was sick with the flu in a hotel room in the town of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle; she was the one who went dogsledding and ice fishing in the arctic twilight in a cold rain and the sun never shone and the food was gruesome and everyone worked hard to be upbeat and detached from reality, and now when she recites the miseries of that week, people laugh like crazy, whereas I was in bed, mostly sleeping. The trip was my brilliant idea and I missed out on it and her telling of the story is brilliant, epic but brisk.

We have no plans to return to Tromsø. It has served its usefulness as an example of how unfounded enthusiasm combined with loose cash can lead to a dark place.

I experienced vast self-confidence in my twenties, which may have been a necessity for an aspiring writer. I hung out with other young writers, hoping to absorb talent by proximity, same as you’d catch the flu. We met at the Mixers bar near campus and I drank Scotch because that seemed like the right liquor for the writer I wanted to be. And I smoked unfiltered Luckies. What we knew about writers was that they were prodigious drinkers. Eight or ten of us crammed into a big booth and drank while disparaging any and all successful living writers from Bellow, Updike, and Roth on down. The combination of alcohol and disdain boosted our confidence. I imagine there are bands of writers doing the very same thing today. I don’t want to join them, any more than I long for Tromsø in January or want to read a book about Mr. Yesterday.

What I long for is to go back to last Sunday when I had planned to read to my daughter a long passage I wrote about her birth and childhood and how she developed into a big personality, loving, jokey, reading other people’s feelings, keen about details, but events intervened, and then Monday was furiously busy, moving her into a new apartment in a distant city, and then suddenly it was time to go and we hugged and she burst into tears and so did I. I’m not a weepy person. There have been many farewell moments when I should’ve wept and did not. What moved me was the depth of her love for her mother and me, the emptiness of the apartment, the strangeness of the city. “You’ll be fine,” her mother said. My daughter hugged me and wiped her nose on my black T-shirt, which amused her and so she did it again. I said, “Is it snot? No, it’s not.” She laughed. I walked to the door and on the way I passed gas and she laughed harder and then resumed weeping. I went out the door, tears running down my cheeks.

We drove away in grievous silence, my wife at the wheel. I searched the map on my phone for a Dairy Queen, thinking that I deserved a Butterfinger Blizzard but there were none nearby. Since Monday we’ve gotten reassuring texts from her that she’s doing well but I’m still miserable. This is an experience I share with millions of other parents. Who ever realized that simple concupiscence could lead to so many interesting stories and such deep feeling? I think of her on a swing, swinging as high as she could, laughing in the moment of weightlessness on the upswing. I think of her tonsillectomy where I gently, over her protests, placed the gas mask on her and held it until she sagged and closed her eyes, and afterward, seeing me in the hall, she stuck out her tongue. I think of how hard she laughed on the raft ride when a wave sloshed me and it looked like I’d wet my pants. I miss her. She’s entitled to independence, we being mortal and all, but I cherish the moment, our arms around each other, weeping. Did I say I miss her? I do.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, July 26, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, July 26, 2021

“The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: That’s the essence of inhumanity.” –George Bernard Shaw, born 1856

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A Prairie Home Companion: June 8, 1996

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Coming to you from the Alberta Blair Theater in Billings, Montana, with author Ian Frazier, poet Wallace McRae, and the Jo Miller/Laura Love Connection.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, July 25, 2021

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It was on this day in 1972 that Jean Heller of the Associated Press broke the news that the federal government had let hundreds of Black men in rural Alabama go untreated for syphilis for 40 years in the now infamous Tuskegee study.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, July 24, 2021

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Poet Robert Graves was born on this day in 1895. He is well known as well for his historical novels, but always preferred poetry

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, July 23, 2021

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“Each one of you can change the world, for you are made of star stuff, and you are connected to the universe.” – Vera Rubin, American Astronomer. Born 1928.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, July 22, 2021

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Author of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Jitterbug Perfume,” Tom Robbins celebrates his 89th birthday today.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, July 21, 2021

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“’Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know” – Ernest Hemingway, born 1899.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, July 20, 2021

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The first Special Olympics were held in Chicago on this day in 1968. Organized by Eunice Kennedy Shriver and inspired by her love for her sister Rosemary, who was intellectually disabled.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, July 19, 2021

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On this date in 1799 French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone. Containing the same message in Ancient Greek, demotic, and hieroglyphics, it enabled deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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A Prairie Home Companion: June 15, 1996

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Our featured broadcast comes from the Laurie Auditorium in San Antonio, Texas, with Johnny Gimble and Texas Swing, Flaco Jimenez y su Conjunto, and the Oddest Laugh in Texas Contest.

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Writing

Mr. Cool is writing his novel under pressure

The astonishing Collin Morikawa was in the news this week, kissing the British Open trophy, something a man would rather not do with the Delta variant around, not knowing how many hundred folks had touched the thing, but he was excited, having won the Open on Sunday with a four-under-par 66, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad joking with his caddy, cool under pressure. Last year, the PGA, now the British, on to Augusta.

Some people have that coolness under pressure, such as the engineer who was sent to the guillotine but the blade wouldn’t drop even after several attempts so they decided to reduce his sentence to imprisonment but he looked up and said, “I think I see your problem.” Other people get into a tight squeeze and prepare themselves so well for defeat that even if they come through a winner, they can’t enjoy it.

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My mystification on the Connecticut coast

A quiet week at my wife’s family’s summer house on the Connecticut River, which sounds fancy but is a cottage full of furniture bought at yard sales. And there, this week, I make a big discovery: even after twenty-six years of marriage, I hadn’t realized the depth of her love of gardening. It was hot and she spent hours weeding a flower bed, three wheelbarrows’ worth, and came back to the porch happy and dripping with sweat.

When I met her in 1992, she was a freelance violinist in Manhattan, a Minnesotan trapped in semi-poverty by her love of classical music. We had a three-hour lunch, I fell in love. Nothing was said about yardwork. But here she was, in 2021, giddy after hours of weeding in the hot sun, the very thing I hated most growing up and so became a writer in order to avoid. I edit; I don’t weed.

The misery of weeding was what led to slavery. In the South, they couldn’t bear to work in the fields in that heat so they bought people in chains and beat them up. Slaveholders were people just like us who liked to be comfortable and that meant making other people hoe the cotton. You realize this on a hot day. The difference between us and the South is that it didn’t stay hot long enough in Minnesota for us to think of hauling people in in chains, but we would’ve done it, given time. But the beauty of love is that it leads you down a long path of discovery whereby you come to understand another person, and here was my love, sweat pouring off her, feeling exhilarated about weeding.

Read More

What we crave, above all, is what’s real

The books about No. 45 are coming out and one says he was deranged and another says that his own people feared for the country, neither of which I doubt for a minute, but I’m not up for reliving those years for the same reason I don’t plan to spend January in Norway: been there, done it, life is short, no need for reruns.

The January in Norway is a story my wife tells so much better than I can. I was sick with the flu in a hotel room in the town of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle; she was the one who went dogsledding and ice fishing in the arctic twilight in a cold rain and the sun never shone and the food was gruesome and everyone worked hard to be upbeat and detached from reality, and now when she recites the miseries of that week, people laugh like crazy, whereas I was in bed, mostly sleeping. The trip was my brilliant idea and I missed out on it and her telling of the story is brilliant, epic but brisk.

We have no plans to return to Tromsø. It has served its usefulness as an example of how unfounded enthusiasm combined with loose cash can lead to a dark place.

Read More

Flying through clouds and coming home

The class of 2021 has now matriculated into our midst, those lean exuberant people with lead weights of debt around their ankles, and they’ve set aside the commencement speaker’s advice to take this imperfect world and make it better and instead are trying to make car payments and avoid parental curiosity and enjoy some wild Saturday nights dancing in an amphitheater to a cover band and drinking buckets of beer.

But while they do, their elders are working assiduously to screw up the imperfect world further, such as the Texas legislature, which is passing a bill to allow anyone to sue anybody without having to show that harm was suffered. Their target is abortion clinics, but this revolutionary principle will mean people can sue you for looking at them cross-eyed and we will simply lock our doors and lead our lives on Instagram.

I have given up trying to make a better world and instead I’m working on my sock drawer and maintaining a small circle of friendships, starting with my wife. It’s a large project.

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A ball game, a book, and a brat: happiness

Being a 78-year-old unemployed orphan does not qualify me as a tragic victim and that is just a fact, plus the fact I am married to a woman who has a big heart, loves a good time, is fond of me in particular, and she is also able to read instruction manuals, which is something you don’t notice during courtship, your mind is on other things, but now in the twilight years when one is tempted to throw the new printer over the parapet and hear it crash on the pavement below, it is good to have a rationalist in my life.

So I don’t need to discuss my fear and loathing of washers, dryers, coffee makers, and air conditioners, their mysterious manuals, because that’s her department so instead I’ll tell about Amazon and their purchase of MGM this summer, which earned a bundle for my family so that people now assume we’re going to leave Minnesota and move to an island in the Caribbean. No way.

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Happiness comes to those who don’t give a rip

I am a happy man now that I know what the secret of happiness is, which, according to Buddha and Jesus both, is to give up wanting things. It’s just that simple. I’ve bought houses in hopes of happiness, taken vacation trips to Hawaii and Norway and Barbados, bought three-piece suits and shirts with French cuffs, and spent as much as $28 on a haircut, and felt vaguely dissatisfied after, but now I am 78, an age at which I expected to be cranky and of course there’s still time but now I discover I can’t get what I want because I’ve forgotten what it is. So there you are. Time solves another problem.

Happiness is rare for a writer, an occupation with a failure rate somewhere around 85 or 92 percent. If doctors had our failure rate, America would be a country of about 15 million, most of them not feeling well. The westward migration would’ve ended at the Mississippi. Why cross a big river when you’re already nauseated and feverish?

Luckily, we writers get to discard our mistakes, unlike doctors. In this line of work, there are no autopsies. I threw away two versions of the first paragraph, each one dumber than the other, and nobody will ever see them, just the one that begins “I am a happy man.” Two sheets of paper, crumpled, in the wastebasket, made me happy.

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Sticking my neck out, talking to myself

American culture took a sharp turn when the guitar took supremacy over the keyboard. I was a teenager, I remember it. Little Richard sat down at the piano in 1955 and tore the joint apart with “Tutti Frutti” (A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!) and Jerry Lee Lewis did the same with “Great Balls of Fire” but Elvis, who could play piano, picked up a guitar as a prop, and a nice Jewish kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, decided to be an alienated loner cowboy poet and a whole generation of loner heroes with Stratocasters blew in on the wind and there went the ball game.

The piano is not a loner instrument. It requires a piano tuner and piano movers. It is a piece of furniture. Playing piano implies home ownership. You can’t put it on the back of your motorcycle. The piano has social standing; it belongs in church or school or a barroom. It is an instrument around which people gather. Whereas the guitar became an ax, a weapon. Your parents wanted you to take piano lessons with Mrs. Lindquist but you went to a junk shop and bought a Sears Silvertone used for $7 and got a Mel Bay chord book and sat in your bedroom and taught yourself to play a G chord and a D7 and then started writing your own songs, about being misunderstood and mistreated and hoping to find a woman to leave this town with and head down the highway.

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The truth of the Fourth: a minority report

Nobody gives Fourth of July speeches that I’m aware of because what can you say about beer and barbecue except (1) take small helpings and (2) stay out of the sun and (3) watch what you say and whom you say it to. This is not a united country and the divisions may well extend into your own family, a beloved uncle may cling to cherished ideas that qualify him for full-time supervision lest he spread them to your children. Any speech you’d give about American democracy would consist of four vague generalities wrapped in platitudes and frosted with mythology.

In our country today, a considerable minority of our fellow citizens believe that the 2020 election was stolen in plain sight by left-wing mathematicians in Venezuela who devised algorithms to rig voting machines to overturn a landslide Republican victory and elect a senile Democrat and his communistic base to run the government who want to confiscate your guns and make everyone ride bicycles and live on tofu and kale and who invented a fake Chinese influenza so they could force immunization with a vaccine that makes people passive and accepting of state control, which allows vampires to move freely and drink the blood of small children, but in August, when the rightful president is reinstated and our borders are secure, we can breathe freely again and make America great.

I take no position on that. Strange things happen every day. I am only an observer; I don’t make the rules. As I have said on so many occasions, “You kids work it out among yourselves.”

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What made last Tuesday better than average

Back in Minnesota briefly and in the euphoria of returning home to the land of slow talkers, I called up some friends to invite them to supper at a steakhouse. As the submissive husband of a quasi-vegan, my steak opportunities are few and far between, and she happened to still be in New York, giving me a couple days of freedom to hunker down with other cavemen by a blazing fire and hack at the half-raw hunk of animal flesh and speak Middle English. But several friends declined. Invented excuses. An errand to help a son, a school assignment. As a longtime fictioneer myself, I can detect made-up excuses. The real reason, I’m guessing, was a lingering fear of contagion. My friends are worriers and if you google COVID you will be offered 1,437,893 things to worry about. Arriving from New York, I was unclean in their eyes.

You know me, I’m not a worrier. We have a division of labor in our household and worrying is her department. My job is to be a bringer of joyful enthusiasm. My family was evangelical and expected the world to end and in college I wrote dystopian stories, thinking it was the thing for a serious intellectual to do. For the same reason, I also chain-smoked and drank heavily. Around the time I quit that, it dawned on me that the Creator of the cosmos loves humanity and this includes me. It wasn’t a dramatic event like Heracles slaying the dragon and getting the golden apple, it was more like waking up one day and deciding to stop kicking the wall with your bare feet.

If I were a professional wrestler, the pandemic would’ve been rough on me, being a 300-lb. guy with big tattoos and weird hair and nothing to do but walk his Pekingese, but for a writer, isolation is an opportunity. And I found a young couple to join me for dinner. Two musicians pursuing nonmusical careers that engage them, both of them cheerful and looking ahead, and I ordered oysters and a salad and they ordered a humongous chunk of meat, which might’ve been a flank of antelope or the left cheek of a cougar, which they split, and, just in case their mothers inquired, a serving of broccolini.

Read More

Sitting with friends at an outdoor cafe on Amsterdam Ave.

It’s a gorgeous June in New York and I feel sorry for the people who can’t be here because they’re in federal custody or have children in soccer programs. I walked in Central Park and admired the dogwood and magnolias and was passed by a tall stunning beauty in running clothes who was dripping with sweat and who, three feet from me, let out a burst of methane like the honk of a goose and did not say “Sorry.” It’s a feature of New York, beautiful women who express themselves freely and without apology. Hurray for outspokenness.

I was brought up to be penitent. I am not a New Yorker. But I feel lucky to be here in a city of great talkers. Words everywhere you look. Wherever people are, they take time to sit with a cup of coffee and consult, confabulate, kibitz, chew the fat, schmooze, shoot the breeze, spill the beans, spread the word, spit it out.

The New Yorkers I know don’t go for alternating dialogue, they like multiple centripetal contrapuntal talk, three people talking at once because when the talk flies the topic shifts and you don’t want to lose your chance to comment on that scoundrel Putin because we’re now on to the Catholic bishops who might deny Communion to a devout Catholic president after four years of playing up to a guy who wouldn’t know Holy Sacraments from a sack of potato chips and then it’s poor Lin Miranda accused of casting people of color who weren’t dark-skinned enough and the dang electric scooters that race through the streets delivering food and terrifying people and the Supreme Court allowing Catholic agencies to deny adoption to gay couples and I’m trying to mention the fact that some Buddhist monks in Tibet are fans of a song I did on the radio meanwhile others mention the candidate for mayor who apparently lives in Jersey whereupon a guy at the end of the table recalls having met the Dalai Lama in New Jersey once, a huge name-drop that blows my Buddhist anecdote to bits, and my wife says something about perfection and this leads the Dalai Lama guy to mention having met Don Larsen who pitched that perfect game for the Yanks.

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

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

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