The Babe
(Back when I was 24, I pitched up at Time-Life Inc. in its 48-story box headquarters on Sixth Avenue & 50th Street, one more desperate job applicant, and was directed to Sports Illustrated where a kindly woman named Honor Fitzpatrick looked at my writing samples and gently discouraged me. “Your talent is for fiction,” she said. “The only opening I have is for a fact-checker. I don’t think you’d be happy doing that.” Discouraging at the time, but in retrospect one is grateful. Profoundly grateful. A job in that box might’ve sent me down a path that turns into a deep trench, only to awaken at age 48, divorced, in a junk-ridden studio apartment on West 23rd where I sit night after night beating up on a clunky novel about the Midwest. Twenty years later, an editor at S.I. asked me to write something for them and of course I said yes — I took it as corporate capitulation — and wrote a piece of fiction.)

OUR LAKE WOBEGON TEAMS DID not do well last year, the Whippets with no pitching finishing dead last, the Leonards pitiful and helpless in the fall even with a 230-pounder to center the offensive line, and now it’s basketball season again and already the boys are getting accustomed to defeat. When they ran out on the floor for the opener versus Bowlus (who won 58-21), they looked pale and cold in their blue and gold silks, and Buddy had the custodian turn up the heat, but it was too late. These boys looked like they were on death row, they trembled as their names were announced.

It’s not defeat per se that hurts so much, we’re used to that; it’s the sense of doom and submission to fate that is awful. When the 230-pounder centered the ball and it stuck between his tremendous thighs and he toppled forward to be plundered by the Bisons, it was, I’m sure, with a terrible knowledge in his heart that he had this debacle coming to him and it was useless to resist. Two of the basketball players are sons of players on the fabled 1958 squad that was supposed to win the state championship and put our town on the map, but while we looked forward to that glorious weekend our team was eliminated in the first round by St. Klaus. None of us ever recovered from that disappointment. But do our children have to suffer from it, too?

As Harry (Can O’Corn) Knudsen wrote: “In the game of life we’re playing, people now are saying that the aim of it is friendship and trust. I wish that it were true but it seems, for me and you that someone always loses and it’s us.”

Can O’s inspiration came from playing eleven years for the Whippets, a humbling experience for anyone. The team is getting trounced, pummeled, whipped, and Dutch says, “Come on, guys, you’re too tense out there, it’s a game, go out there and have fun,” and you think, This is fun? If this is fun, then sic your dogs on me, let them chew me for a while, that’d be pure pleasure. But out you trot to right field feeling heavyhearted and not even sure you’re trotting correctly so you adjust the trot and your left foot grabs your right, you trip on your own feet, and down you go like a sack of potatoes and the fans in the stands are doubled up gasping and choking, and you have dirt in your mouth that you’ll taste for years—is this experience good for a person?

Some fans have been led to wonder if maybe our Lake Wobegon athletes are suffering from a Christian upbringing that stresses the unworthiness angle and is light on the aspect of grace. How else would boys of sixteen and seventeen get the feeling that they were born to lose, if not in Bible class? And the uneasiness our boys have felt about winning—a fan can recall dozens of nights when the locals had a good first half, opened a nice lead, began to feel the opponents’ pain, and sympathized and lightened up and wound up giving away their lunch. Does this come from misreading the Gospels?

Little Jimmy Wahlberg used to sit in the dugout and preach to the Whippets between innings, using the score of the ball game to quote Scripture; e.g., John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That was fine except when he was pitching. God had never granted Little Jimmy’s prayer request for a good curveball, so this fine Christian boy got shelled like a peanut whenever he took the mound, and one day Ronnie Decker came back to the bench after an eternal inning in centerfield and said, “First Revelations 13:0: Keep the ball down and throw at their heads.”

Ronnie is Catholic, and they have more taste for blood, it seems. (Was there ever a Methodist bullfighter?) In St. Klaus, the ladies chant, “Make ’em sing and make ’em dance / Kick ’em in the nuts and step on their hands.” The boys are ugly brutes with raw sores on their arms and legs and with little ball-bearing eyes who will try to hurt you. A gang of men stands by the backstop, drinking beer and talking to the umpire, a clean-cut Lutheran boy named Fred. Fred knows that, the week before, Carlson called a third strike on a Klausie, dashed to his car, the men rocked it and let the air out of the tires but couldn’t pry the hood open and disconnect the spark plugs before he started up and rode away on the rims. Fred hopes to keep the fans happy.

For a Golden Age of Lake Wobegon Sports, you’d have to go back to the forties. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder. Nine big strapping boys with identical mops of black hair, big beaks, little chins, and so shy they couldn’t look you in the eye, and E.J. was the manager, though the boys were such fine ballplayers, he only sat in the shade on a white kitchen chair and grumbled at them, they didn’t require management.

E.J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He’d spit and curse and rail at him, and then R.J.’d go up and pound one out of the park (making the score 11-zip) and circle the bases and the old man’d say, “Boy, he put the old apple right down the middle, didn’t he? Blind man coulda hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit. When the Schroeders were winning every game, E.J. bitched about how they won.

“Why’dja throw to first for, ya dummy?”

“But it’s the third out, Dad. We won the game.”

“I know that. You don’t have to point that out to me. Why’ntcha get the guy at third?”

“It was easier to go to first.”

“Easier! Easier??!!”

The tenth son, Paul, had a gimpy right leg but still tried to please his dad and sat in the dugout and kept statistics (1.29, for example, and .452 and .992), but E.J. never looked at them. “That’s history,” he said, spitting, “I am interested in the here and now.”

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it. Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfe1d fence for a long long long fly ball and threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and glove and turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, and E.J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes. The batter was called out, the third out. Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad. E.J. sat chewing in silence and fnally he said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago but he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”

What made this old man so mean? Some said it happened in 1924, when he played for the town team that went to Fort Snelling for the state championship and in the ninth inning, in the deepening dusk on Campbell’s Bluff, Lake Wobegon down by one run, bases loaded and himself the tying run on third, when the Minneapolis pitcher suddenly collapsed and writhed around on the mound with his eyes bulging and face purple and vomiting and foaming and clawing and screeching, everyone ran to help him, including E.J., and he jumped up and tagged them all out. A triple play, unassisted. What a rotten trick, but there they stood, a bunch of rubes, and all the slickers howling and whooping their heads off, so he became mean, is one theory.

And he was mean. He could hit foul balls with deadly accuracy at an opponent or a fan who’d been riding him, or a member of the fan’s immediate family, and once he fouled twenty-eight consecutive pitches off the home-plate umpire, for which he was thrown out of the Old Sod Shanty League.

“Go! Hence!” cried the ump.

“For foul balls?”

The umpire and the sinner were face to face. “Forever!” cried the ump. “Never again, so long as ball is thrown, shall thy face be seen in this park.”

“Foul balls ain’t against any rule that I know of!”

The umpire said, “Thou hast displeased me.” And he pointed outerward and E.J. slouched away.

So he coached his boys. He never said a kind word to them, and they worked like dogs in hopes of hearing one, and thus they became great, mowing down the opposition for a hundred miles around. In 1946 they reached their peak. That was the year they disposed easily of fifteen crack teams in the Father Powers Charity Tournament, some by massacre, and at the closing ceremony, surrounded by sad little crippled children sitting dazed in the hot sun and holding pitiful flags they had made themselves, when E.J. was supposed to hand back the winner’s check for $100 to Father Powers to help with the work among the poor, E.J. said, “Fat chance!” and shoved away the kindly priest’s outstretched hand. That was also the year Babe Ruth came to town with the Sorbasol All-Star barnstorming team.

The Babe had retired in 1935 and was dying of cancer, but even a dying man has bills to pay, and so he took to the road for Sorbasol, and Lake Wobegon was the twenty-fourth stop on the trip, a day game on November 12. The All-Star train of two sleepers and a private car for the Babe backed up the sixteen-mile spur into Lake Wobegon, arriving at 10:00 A.M. with a blast of whistle and a burst of steam, but hundreds already were on hand to watch it arrive.

The Babe was a legend then, much like God is today. He didn’t give interviews, in other words. He rode around on his train and appeared only when necessary. It was said that he drank Canadian rye whiskey, ate hot dogs, won thousands at poker, and kept beautiful women in his private car, Excelsior, but that was only talk.

The sleepers were ordinary deluxe Pullmans; the Excelsior was royal green with gold-and-silver trim and crimson velvet curtains tied shut—not that anyone tried to look in; these were proud country people, not a bunch of gawkers. Men stood by the train, their backs to it, talking purposefully about various things, looking out across the lake, and when other men straggled across the feld in twos and threes, stared at the train, and asked, “Is he really in there?” the firstcomers said, “Who? Oh! You mean the Babe? Oh, yes, I reckon he’s here all right—this is his train, you know. I doubt that his train would go running around without the Babe in it, now, would it?” and resumed their job of standing by the train, gazing out across the lake. A proud moment for them.

At noon the Babe came out in white linen knickers. He looked lost. A tiny black man held his left arm. Babe tried to smile at the people and the look on his face made them glance away. He stumbled on a loose plank on the platform and men reached to steady him and noticed he was hot to the touch. He signed an autograph. It was illegible. A young woman was carried to him who’d been mysteriously ill for months, and he laid his big hand on her forehead and she said she felt something. (Next day she was a little better. Not recovered but improved.)

However, the Babe looked shaky, like a man who ate a bushel of peaches whole and now was worried about the pits. He’s drunk, some said, and a man did dump a basket of empty beer bottles off the train, and boys dove in to get one for a souvenir—but others who came close to his breath said no, he wasn’t drunk, only dying. So it was that an immense crowd turned out at the Wally (Old Hard Hands) Bunsen Memorial Ballpark: twenty cents per seat, two bits to stand along the foul line, and a dollar to be behind a rope by the dugout, where the Babe would shake hands with each person in that section.

He and the All-Stars changed into their red Sorbasol uniforms in the dugout, there being no place else, and people looked away as they did it (nowadays people would look, but then they didn’t), and the Babe and his teammates tossed the ball around, then sat down, and out came the Schroeders. They ran around and warmed up and you could see by their nonchalance how nervous they were. E.J. batted grounders to them and hit one grounder zinging into the visitors’ dugout, missing the Babe by six inches. He was too sick to move. The All-Stars ran out and griped to the ump but the Babe sat like he didn’t know where he was. The ump was scared. The Babe hobbled out to home plate for the ceremonial handshakes and photographs, and E.J. put his arm around him as the crowd stood cheering and grinned and whispered, “We’re going to kill ya, ya big mutt. First pitch goes in your ear. This is your last game. Bye, Babe.” And the game got under way.

It was a good game, it’s been said, though nobody remembers much about it specifically, such as the score, for example. The All-Stars were nobodies, only the Babe mattered to the crowd, and the big question was Would he play? He looked too shaky to take the field, so some said, “Suspend the rules! Why not let him just go up and bat! He can bat for the pitcher! Why not? It wouldn’t hurt anything!” And nowadays they might do it, but back then you didn’t pick up the bat unless you picked up your glove and played a position, and others said that maybe it wouldn’t hurt anything but once you start changing the rules of the game for convenience, then what happens to our principles? Or do we change those, too?

So the game went along, a good game except that the Babe sat sprawled in the dugout, the little black man dipping cloths in a bucket of ice and laying them on the great man’s head—a cool fall day but he was hot—and between innings he climbed out and waved to the fans and they stood and cheered and wondered would he come to bat. E.J. said to Bernie, “He’ll bat all right, and when he comes, remember the first pitch: hard and high and inside.”

“He looks too weak to get the bat off his shoulder, Dad. He looks like a breeze would blow him over. I can’t throw at Babe Ruth.”

“He’s not sick, he’s pretending so he don’t have to play like the rest of us. Look at him: big fat rich New York son of a bitch, I bet he’s getting five hundred dollars just to sit there and have a pickaninny put ice on him. Boy, I’d put some ice on him you-know-where, boy, he’d get up quick then, he’d be ready to play then. He comes up, I want you to give him something to think about so he knows we’re not all a bunch of dumb hicks out here happy just to have him show up. I want him to know that some of us mean it. You do what I say. I’m serious.”

It was a good game and people enjoyed it, the day cool and bright, delicious, smelling of apples and leather and woodsmoke and horses, blazed with majestic colors as if in a country where kings and queens ride through the cornfields into the triumphant reds and oranges of the woods, and men in November playing the last game of summer, waiting for the Babe, everyone waiting for the Babe as runs scored, hours passed, the sky turned red and hazy. It was about time to quit and go home, and then he marched out, bat in hand, and three thousand people threw back their heads and yelled as loud as they could. They yelled for one solid minute and then it was still.

The Babe stood looking toward the woods until everything was silent, then stepped to the plate and waved the bat, and Bernie looked at him. It was so quiet you could hear coughing in the crowd. Way to the rear a man said, “Merle, you get your hands off her and shut up now,” and hundreds turned and shushed him. Then Bernie wound up. He bent way down and reached way back and kicked up high and the world turned and the ball flew and the umpire said, “BALL ONE!” and the catcher turned and said, “Be quiet, this doesn’t concern you,” and the umpire blushed. He knew immediately that he was in the wrong. Babe Ruth was not going to walk, he would sooner strike out and would do it himself, with no help from an umpire. So the umpire turned and walked away.

The Babe turned and spat and picked up a little dirt and rubbed his hands with it (people thought, Look, that’s our dirt and he’s putting it on his hands, as if the Babe might bring his own) and then stood in and waved the bat and Bernie bent way down and reached way back and kicked high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and missed; he said huhhhnnnn and staggered. And the next pitch. He swung and cried in pain and the big slow curve slapped into the catcher’s mitt.

It was so still, they heard the Babe clear his throat, like a board sliding across dirt. They heard Bernie breathing hard through his nose.

The people were quiet, wanting to see, hear, and smell everything and remember it forever: the wet fall dirt, the pale-white bat, the pink cotton candy and the gentlemen’s hats, the smell of wool and the glimmer of a star in the twilight, the touch of your dad’s big hand and your little hand in it. Even E.J. was quiet, chewing, watching his son. The sun had set beyond right field, darkness was settling, you had to look close to see—Bernie took three steps toward home and pointed at the high outside corner of the plate, calling his pitch, and the Babe threw back his head and laughed four laughs. (People were glad to hear he was feeling better, but it was scary to hear a man laugh at home plate; everyone knew it was bad luck.) He touched the corner with his bat. Bernie climbed back on the mound, he paused, he bent down low and reached way back and kicked real high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and it cracked and the ball became a tiny white star in the sky. It hung there as the Babe went around the bases in his famous Babe Ruth stride, the big graceful man trotting on slim little feet, his head down until the roar of the crowd rose like an ocean wave on the prairie and he looked up as he turned at third, he smiled, lifted his cap, strode soundlessly across home plate looking like the greatest ballplayer in the history of the world. The star was still in the sky, straight out due northwest of the centerfield fence, where he hit it. The ball was never found, though they searched for it for years.

“Did you see that?” your dad says, taking your hand.

You say, “Yes, I did.”

Even E.J. saw it and stood with the rest and he was changed after that, as were the others. A true hero has some power to make us a gift of a larger life. The Schroeders broke up, the boys went their own ways, and once they were out of earshot, E.J. sat in the Sidetrack Tap and bragged them up, the winners he produced and how they had shown Babe Ruth a pretty good game. He was tolerated but Babe Ruth was revered. He did something on that one day in our town that made us feel we were on the map of the universe, connected somehow to the stars, part of the mind of God. The full effect of his mighty blow diminished over time, of course, and now our teams languish, our coaches despair. Defeat comes to seem the natural course of things. Lake Wobegon dresses for a game, they put on their jock-straps, pull on the socks, get into the colors, they start to lose heart and turn pale—fear shrivels them.

Boys, this game may be your only chance to be good, he might tell them. You might screw up everything else in your life and poison the ones who love you, create misery, create such pain and devastation it will be repeated by generations of descendants. Boys, there’s plenty of room for tragedy in life, so if you go bad, don’t have it be said that you never did anything right. Win this game.

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I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

 

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

 

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

 

“What’s your point?” you say. “Get to the point.” I was just about to when you interrupted me. The point is that the country needs to honor competence over attitude. I say this, having come through a small but interesting medical encounter during which competence — knowing how to analyze the problem, arrive at a reasoned plan to deal with the problem, and how to describe the process to the patient — is front and center. The neurologist comes to my little ER alcove and tells me what the high-tech tests have shown and for fifteen minutes I am the focus of high-grade science and am reassured that life will go on. I admire this more than I care about his hair.

 

The country is in love with attitude and self-expression. I grew up when children were shushed and our parents were self-effacing, reticent to a fault, and it’s rather sweet to see the self-expression available to people today. Never mind Twitter and Instagram, think about the sheer variety of coffee cups in your cupboard today. Back in my day, we had identical beige cups we got as premiums at the gas station and now we have cups with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sayings by Thoreau, Monet’s water lilies, cartoons, nasty retorts, come-ons. A nice young woman talks to me at a party, wearing a black T-shirt that says, “I look like I’m listening but I’m waiting for someone else” and she is holding a coffee cup that says “Bad girl. Is that a problem?” Her grandmother is a friend of mine and sent her a book I wrote and she is telling me, in a vague way, that she liked it. The T-shirt and the coffee cup are only attitude accent pieces, so she won’t be taken for granted, which is fine by me, but what I really want to know is: what do you do that you care about? Seriously. What is your calling these days?

 

When I was Bad Girl’s age, I wore a beard, a tweed jacket, jeans, and smoked unfiltered smokes to create an intellectual air about me, but I was a fake. I used CliffsNotes to write a term paper about Moby-Dick, which I’d only read up to page 37, six pages of fake critical intelligence for which I received a B-minus, pure humbug and monkeytalk. My real education was working as a parking lot attendant at 6 a.m. winter mornings on a huge gravel lot on a bluff over the Mississippi, waving cars to park in straight lines, chasing down the freelancers and bullying them back to where they belonged. I believed in creativity but in a parking lot it creates chaos so I embraced authoritarian measures. Enlightening. I was lazy in class but discovered I was a hard worker at heart, menial jobs were up my alley, and that leads to this, writing a short essay about being real. Don’t be a Pekingese. Bring the vaccine. Find lost children.

O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

My family was circumspect and didn’t talk about love and romance. My parents were crazy about each other but it was the Depression and the courtship went on for years, Grandma needed Dad on the farm after Grandpa died, and one day, driving a double team of horses that spooked and galloped out of control, Dad almost broke his neck when the wagon crashed, and felt his own mortality and the romance became urgent and four months later she was pregnant and they ran off and got married. This wonderful story was kept secret all their lives. Nonetheless, I knew I came from people who loved each other, a profound blessing. I live in the shade of a romance made urgent by wild horses. It’s lovely to be with these young relatives who love each other, their young children deep in their books, my daughter with the dog’s head in her lap. We will ourselves to be happy. So many times my wife has approached her glum husband and put her arms around his neck and kissed the top of his head and thus she wills him to lighten up. And she does it so beautifully that I do. So many times bad feelings have been dispelled, not by talk but by this simple gesture.

This porch is a tiny island and we are aware that a fourth of America’s children are living in poverty, essential workers are abused, the burden of college debt is obscene. The list of injustices goes on and on. Changes need to be made and I believe they’ll come through the efforts of people who know the goodness of life, not from rage and fury. This gentle cadence of conversation, like water lapping on the shore. Life is good. Somebody should stand up on the Fourth of July and say so. We come from fallible human beings but they gave us this beautiful opening to happiness and let us take hold of it and celebrate America. We’re maybe not great at government but we excel at happiness and we produced baseball, the blues, barbecued ribs and the banana split, and when we feel down we can go look at the Badlands or the Grand Canyon. We’ve produced great poets and standup comedians and when the fat lady sings “land of the free,” let’s feel free to put an arm around each other.

Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

My photographer friends are a happy gang. It’s a collegial world, unlike the factionalism of fiction, the pitiless competition of poetry, the assassins of the essay. Poor focus and off-kilter framing are considered creative choices. But in my course, “The Art of Aging,” I shall guide my students toward a late literary career. You begin by writing comedy, the hardest field of all, and you write a devastating satire of whatever you did for a living, medicine, academia, the ministry, public radio, sanitation, and rip it to shreds, infuriating your colleagues who vote to take away your plaques. Then you turn out a heroic memoir, then write scandalous fiction.

The point is to stay busy. You rise in the morning with stuff to do. Work is a necessity of life. Serious work, not standing in a group of slim silent people with binoculars staring at a whippoorwill, which contributes nothing to society. Crimes occur daily that if birders had devoted themselves to watching the street rather than the sky, suffering would’ve been averted. Electric scooters go racing along the streets, ignoring red lights that if the Audubon-bons served as crossing guards instead, they could save lives rather than impressing each other with their knowledge of wrens.

I am a journalist and our role is to stir up trouble. Television is a deadly sedative: hundreds of channels are streaming thousands of shows and a person glued to it loses cranial sensation. TV is a big blur, like a day spent driving across North Dakota. Rachel Maddow helps, Tucker Carlson, Morning Joe, they try to raise the blood pressure and so does the newspaper. You glance at the front page and find three famous people to despise and your day is thereby given purpose and meaning.

Meanwhile, the disciples of Roger Tory Peterson disperse into the parks and ravines, looking up at the flyways, competing to be the first to distinguish the Canada goose from the Quebec condor and the Vermont vulture, and they feel ignored, having no natural enemies. That is my role. And so I come into their bird blind and scatter seed soaked in hallucinogens that condors and vultures snarf up and minutes later Mildred and Gladys and Marvin and Gordon are under attack by sharp-beaked fowl, waving their parasols in defense, shrieking shrieks the attackers recognize as mating cries and they spread their wings and attempt inappropriate things.

You do not fully appreciate a creature until you are attacked by it. This is what I do for the ornithology gang. I go for the throat, I make them feel like part of the natural order. Birds are real, they’re not a cartoon, and when a drug-crazed bluebird flies up in your face and pecks at your eyes, it’s something you never forget.

Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

I expected to be grumpy in old age and of course there’s still time, but instead I’m awestruck. As Emily says, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” No, Emily, but I’ve realized life for about 245 minutes since a week ago, and it’s delicious. I was released on Saturday and went to church on Sunday and the choir was glorious and I wrote in the bulletin:

The words come in with a whistle
Like the sound of an incoming missile.
It’s so good to hear it,
“Let us live in the Spirit,”
From Romans, St. Paul’s epistle.

When you’re in the Spirit, it’s a sort of weight loss. I became 165 pounds, walking down Amsterdam Avenue to lunch with a friend whose granddaughter got married recently, the wedding dress refitted to accommodate the little boy in the bride’s belly, and in her great happiness, the grandma is setting out to write a memoir. I told her to avoid modesty. “No problem,” she said. She is 88, a decade ahead of me, and she is funny and sassy and when she goes after the high and the mighty, she can be devastating. She’s a scout riding ahead on the trail and the report is inspiring.

As for raccoons, I take this seriously. My dad grew up on a farm and he loved fresh strawberries, sweet corn, and tomatoes, and that’s why we were landowners, not apartment dwellers. He knew the difference between fresh strawberries and store-bought and fresh was a pleasure he cherished. He didn’t drink whiskey or chew tobacco or dance the tango, but he loved stuff from his garden. I had artistic ambitions and felt superior to gardeners; I was a songwriter and my best song was the one with the verse in the middle:

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

But now I don’t see it as superior to strawberries. The wonders of the world all join in praise of the Creator. Minneapolis made a political decision to require dogs to be leashed because loose dogs can be frightening to children. Dogs running loose also defend the garden against raccoons. And so, Rocky Raccoon devours the good strawberries and people have to buy a pint at the grocery for $6, unfresh from California, and so a growing minority believes that a conspiracy of Satanists is running the country.

I do not. A man who goes into the ER amid the dying and distressed and comes out and goes to church is like Emily, a ghost walking among the living, telling them to love this life and all the ordinary things in it, clocks ticking and coffee and the walnut baklava with gelato and the couples walking along Amsterdam and the long-legged woman in denim shorts and the cops having a smoke and the smile on the waiter’s face as she sets down the bill, which moves me to tip her 40%, that smile that says, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful,” and I say goodbye to my friend and come home. I have ten more years. What a gift. Life is good and one visit to the ER confirms it so let us drive upstate, darling, and look for a sign, “Pick Your Own Strawberries,” and be ecstatic.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Humor Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Poetry Prairie Home Christmas Show Solo Songs Stories The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

June 29, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Just Added: Stillwater, MN 6-29

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JUST ADDED   June 29, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, […]

June 30, 2021

Wednesday

5:30 p.m.

The Avalon, Stillwater, MN

Stillwater, MN 6-30

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   June 30, 2021, 5:30 PM – 8:30 PM  THE AVALON, STILLWATER, MN St. Croix Boat & Packet Co., 525 Main Street South, Stillwater, MN 55082 DINNER, CRUISE, AND SHOW […]

July 2, 2021

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI

Bayfield, WI

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   July 2, 2021, 7:30 PM  BIG TOP CHAUTAUQUA, BAYFIELD, WI Reserved $60/$52/$42 The Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua is a 900-seat music venue and performing arts center, located near […]

July 4, 2021

Sunday

4:00 p.m.

Summerfield Amphitheater, St. Michael, MN

St. Michael, MN

GARRISON KEILLOR and some friends from Prairie Home Poetry, Stories, and Classic Duets Featuring: Prudence Johnson Bob Douglas and Adam Granger Dan Chouinard, music director   JULY 4, 2021, 4:00 PM  SUMMERFIELD AMPHITHEATER 4300 O’Day Ave. NE, St. Michael, MN 55376 $42/$15 Outside concert FAQs In 2021 we are going bigger, better, bolder, and in the […]

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 19, 2021

Today is Juneteenth, also known as “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.” It’s a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 18, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 18, 2021

On this day in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, June 17, 2021

“99 percent of every beautiful thing you ever knew escaped and went back out into the world where you vaguely remembered it.”― Ron Padgett, born this day in 1942.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Today is “Bloomsday,” the annual celebration of that 1904 day featured in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Named after protagonist Leopold Bloom, the book follows him during an ordinary day in Dublin

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, June 15, 2021

It’s the birthday of one of the masters of the Japanese form of poetry called haiku, Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa (1736).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 14, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, June 14, 2021

It’s the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811), abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: June 19, 2010

A Prairie Home Companion: June 19, 2010

Our broadcast comes from a performance at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. With special guest, Bluegrass sensation Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Also with us, Kent, Ohio’s very own Jessica Lea Mayfield, vocalist Andra Suchy.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, June 13, 2021

“Readers are plentiful; thinkers are rare.” A quote by sociologist and writer Harriet Martineau, born this day in England, 1802.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, June 12, 2021

“Readers are plentiful; thinkers are rare.” A quote by sociologist and writer Harriet Martineau, born this day in England, 1802.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 11, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, June 11, 2021

Ben Jonson, author, playwright, friend of William Shakespeare, was born on this day in London, probably in 1572.

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Writing

I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

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O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

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Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

Read More

Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

Read More

A man in a back pew, thinking to himself

I’ve been avoiding the news for a while, but it was hard to ignore the recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that showed about 15 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood and that patriots will need to depose them by violent revolution. This represents as many people as belong to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in America. It is sort of dizzying to contemplate, even for an Episcopalian like me.

The study found that 55 percent of Republicans “mostly disagreed” with those ideas but not entirely. One-fourth of Republicans disagreed entirely, compared to 58 percent of Democrats, which still leaves a good many ambivalent Democrats.

It makes me wonder about the purity of drinking water in the middle of the country. These are not ideas taught in public school civics courses. I’ve never overheard anyone discussing Satanist pedophiles at a table near me at lunch. But PRRI now classifies QAnon, which holds these views, as a major religion. So there you are. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Out of the bubble, into the hullabaloo

Spent twenty-four hours in an emergency ward and am still giddy from it and from having gotten off light when it could’ve been otherwise, which someday it will but not yet. I lay in a little alcove, off a busy core of staff at computers, gurneys coming and going, beepers beeping, but vast professional courtesy prevailing. It was a big hospital on 68th and York in Manhattan, so it was an international staff, Asia, Africa, all over. My neighbor was a woman with cancer who often yelled, “Somebody come and help me! I just want to die! Help me!” and my other neighbor was a drunk who was mentally ill and also a jerk, a terrible combination. He had checked himself in and was now calling 911 to come get him out. Four cops arrived. It may have been the highlight of their day.

As for me, I’d been sent by my doctor for tests after I’d twice blanked out and had memory lapses (including the name of my doctor), which alarmed my wife. I called the doctor and his secretary asked for my phone number and when I couldn’t recall it, she put me right through. I took a cab over and Dr. Nash quizzed me. I’ve suffered a couple of strokes in the past, light ones, and he is a good explainer, and I canceled everything and went over to ER. My wife kissed me goodbye and said, “You remember that Maia was born here, right?” I did, then.

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Why we are staying home tonight, not going out

We sat out on our terrace in New York the other night, she and I, and cherished the feel of summer, a great blessing to us stoical northerners unaccustomed to paradise, so we contemplate all that is to come, the first rhubarb and strawberries, strawberry-rhubarb pie, sweet corn, fireflies flashing each other, the light produced by the oxidation of luciferin — one of those insignificant facts you carry around, waiting for a chance to dazzle someone with. If I were a firefly, I’d say to a female, That’s the oxidization of luciferin there, you know, and she’d be impressed and we’d mate and then I’d die.

I look forward to the next big storm, purple sky, lightning ripping the sky, volleys of thunder, so I can be calm and reassuring, a manly role, though I’m the last person you’d want in a real emergency. If I tried to give artificial respiration, I’d probably suffocate the patient.

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Going to Newport with Mrs. Dashboard

We went to Newport for three days last week, two Minnesotans long married, to rediscover the fact that ocean air is delicious and invigorating and can even make you happy. That surely is why the Vanderbilts built their monstrous mansion on the shore: sinking into decadence in a fake palace with more marble than Arlington Cemetery, nonetheless they could take a deep breath and feel childlike pleasure. So could their servants. So did we, crossing the beautiful bridges over the bays to Aquidneck Island, seeing the Atlantic, thinking “Oh wow” and “Oh my god.” The world is in turmoil, but walking along the shore and inhaling salt air lets you remember how good it felt to be twelve years old.

It’s a fine old town. You come and eat oysters and cod, text videos of the surf to your inland friends, and drive around and get your fill of colonial homes in dark greens and browns, many of them turned into boutique hotels. It’s here that I appreciate having a car with an electronic lady in the dashboard to give us directions. You simply press a button and say, “Cliff Walk,” and she says, “In six hundred feet, turn left on Narragansett Avenue and drive one-half mile.” Her vocal inflexion is very good; she sounds like an educated American woman in her mid-forties who knows her way around. And you drive down Narragansett and there, past Salve Regina College, is the ocean with Cliff Walk above it and you walk along the cliff and you can look across the vast green lawn to the marble pile where the Vanderbilts sank their ill-gotten gains, which is open for tourists to wander through and see how grim boughten grandeur can be.

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An adventure in my own home on Tuesday

The life of an honest satirist is a hard life and so there are few of them. We cherish our delusions — I am very fond of mine, especially the belief that I am master of my house and captain of my ship, but on Tuesday, sitting on the throne, I saw that the toilet paper dispenser was empty, no extra rolls of Scott tissue in sight, and the Chief Provisioner was off on her daily walk, and so I had to hike around the apartment, pants at half-mast, looking for the goods.

A man who doesn’t know where the toilet paper is kept in an apartment he’s lived in for many years is in a ridiculous position. He knows this as he wanders from room to room, opening cupboards, looking in drawers, hoping she does not walk in and see her husband the noted author in this delicate moment. He has lived with his head in the clouds and lost touch with the essentials of life.

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The impending crisis of exploding cicada data

My grandpa left Glasgow in 1905 and sailed to America and brought his thirteen children up as Americans and so I haven’t yet taken a position on Scottish independence but with the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party in elections last week, I suppose I’ll have to. I like to involve myself in other people’s problems where I myself have nothing at all at stake. Someone asked me about Ukraine the other day and though I haven’t heard anything from there in a long time, I gave a good answer, reasonable, balanced, on the one hand this, on the other hand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been focused on the crisis of the seventeen-year cicada, trillions of which will soon crawl out of the ground from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, from Georgia to New England, their incessant skritching filling the air for weeks, as they breed and the males drop dead and the females lay eggs to hatch into larvae to tunnel down into the ground to spend seventeen years and then resurrect.

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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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