The Keillor Reader — Introduction

When I was twenty and something of a romantic, I considered dying young and becoming immortal like Buddy Holly (twenty-two), James Dean (twenty-four), and Janis Joplin (twenty-seven) so that people could place bouquets on my grave and think what a shame it was that I never fully realized my enormous talent. But I didn’t have enormous talent. Some people believed I did because I wrote poems and was shy, didn’t make eye contact, kept to myself. (Nowadays you’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum,” but back in the day oddity was interpreted differently.). Anyway, death didn’t occur. I never needed to charter a plane in a snowstorm as Buddy did, and a car like James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder was way beyond my means, and heroin was not readily available in Anoka, Minnesota, so onward I went. I had a lot to think about other than immortality—sex, of course, and how to avoid going to Vietnam and dying young in a stupid war, and then I started a radio show called A Prairie Home Companion, which ate up all my time—a man has to work awfully hard to make up for lack of talent—and suddenly I was forty, which is too old to die young, so I forgot about it and headed down the long dirt road of longevity, and thus arrived at seventy, when I took time to sit down and read my own work and see what is what.

I started out with No. 2 pencil and pads of paper, then acquired an Underwood manual typewriter with a faint f and a misshapen O. You had to poke the keys hard to make an impression. I set it on a maple desk in my bedroom, which looked out onto a cornfield across the road, and I wrote stories about tortured loners who stood at a distance from the crowd and observed their comings and goings with envy tinged with contempt. Or contempt tinged with envy. My parents did not encourage literary aspirations: I was the third of six children of John and Grace, a young Sanctified Brethren couple in Anoka, Minnesota, on the Mississippi, a farm boy and a city girl who eloped and married secretly against opposition from both their families. We have a premarital picture of them on a summer day in a backyard in Minneapolis, looking very dreamy. The Brethren did not read novels or poetry and were wary of history, except what was in Scripture, but they offered a rich supply of contempt. They were the Faithful Remnant, maintaining the pure flame of God’s Word abandoned by the rest of Christianity. I grew up along the river in Brooklyn Park township, where we moved in 1947 into a house Dad built on an acre lot with room for a big garden. All around us were vegetable farms, fields of corn, peas, onions, potatoes. My brother and sister and I attended Benson School, a handsome three-room country school, where I had Estelle Shaver and Fern Moehlenbrock for teachers. In first grade, I was slow to read, and Miss Shaver kept me after school to read aloud to her, which she made me believe was not for my sake, but for hers, to keep her company as she graded papers. She said to Bill the janitor, “Listen to him, doesn’t he have a lovely voice.” In time, I turned into a bookworm and a good speller. At age eleven, after I dropped an easy fly ball during recess, I asked Miss Moehlenbrock’s permission to spend recess in the library, reading history books, a turning point in my life. Instead of vying for the respect of other boys, I sought out the company of old uncles and asked them about the war and the thirties and why did Grandpa Denham come over from Scotland in 1905 and why did Grandpa Keillor come down from New Brunswick in 1880? The old uncles were very grateful for a boy’s interest. All I had to do was ask a few questions and sit and listen. They thought I was definitely gifted. It was so much easier to ingratiate myself with them than to impress my peers. My peers thought I was strange. I didn’t mind. I won the class spelling bee that spring, beating out Billy Pedersen on the word veracity.

The summer before eighth grade, I walked into the office of the Anoka Herald, a down-at-the-heels weekly around the corner from the junior high, and asked the editor, Warren Feist, if I could write sports for him, assuming he’d laugh and say no. It was an act of reckless bravery by a fearful young man, and Mr. Feist was very kind. He smiled and said, “Sure.” So I got to sit in the press box at football games, high above the crowd, and look reporterly as I took extensive notes on each play. Back at the office—thirteen years old, I had an office—Whitey and Russ sat at the keyboards of their monster Linotype machines, with a little flame in back keeping the melted lead hot. Line by line, they clattered away at the stories, pulling the lever that poured the hot lead into the mold to make a slug. I banged out my stories and handed the yellow copy paper to Russ, who typeset them. He and Whitey were both heavy drinkers, pasty-faced with purple noses, and the paper languished in the shadow of the competing County Union. But I was thrilled to be there. Mr. Feist edited my stories gently, removing paragraphs of crowd description, drawing out the action on the field. The Herald was printed on Wednesday afternoon and I made a point to be there to watch. Whitey stood on a platform over the flatbed press and, though he was drunk, he could take a sheet of paper the size of a cafeteria table, shake it loose from the stack, and then flip it up and onto the flatbed, where the roller rolled over it with a whump and a shwoosh and the folder cut and trimmed and folded it, and a copy of the Herald slid down the chute with the sports page and my name, my story about the Anoka Tornadoes ready to be read by dozens, if not hundreds, of subscribers, men and women in kitchens all over Anoka absorbed in my account of the game. It was thrilling then and still is, years later, seeing your own words in print.

My parents were dismayed by newspapering. My mother said that writers were a bunch of drunks, meaning F. Scott Fitzgerald. As a young woman, she had lived near his old neighborhood in St. Paul and heard stories. She also knew that Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Dylan Thomas all drank a lot. People went to Thomas’s readings to see if he could remain standing and not drop a cigarette down his pants and set himself on fire. She had read about that somewhere.

As Sanctified Brethren born and bred, they were not sympathetic to the writing life. They cleaved to the literal truth of Holy Scripture and pored over the Word, trying to discern the Lord’s Will. That was the writing that mattered and everything else was vanity and horsefeathers. The Lord wanted us to be watchful, waiting for His Glorious Return, not making up stories. We sat in the Gospel Hall on Fourteenth Avenue South in Minneapolis, perusing Deuteronomy, led by my Uncle Don, who felt that God’s instructions to the Jews wandering in the wilderness had relevance for us. The Bible was awfully exciting to read if you believed it was entirely true—as great literature, it was not bad, but as revelation, it was a wild ride. I was a devout young man, at least in my own heart, and asked to be baptized when I was fourteen, and waded out into the waters with Brother John Rogers as the Brethren sang a hymn. When I was twenty, I abandoned them. I thought that probably they were right, that it was sinful to want to be a writer, but I wanted to do it anyway. It was all I really wanted. A good Christian was supposed to sacrifice his desires to the Lord. I chose not to.

In 1960 I went off to be an English major at the University of Minnesota, where John Berryman, James Wright, and Allen Tate taught. My parents were not pleased, but I didn’t ask for their help and so they had no say about it. I owned three cardboard boxes of stuff including a Webster’s Third Unabridged and an Underwood typewriter. Hiking around campus in blue jeans, white shirt, corduroy jacket with elbow patches, Red Wing work boots, and a broad-brimmed hat, with a pack of Camels or Marlboros in my pocket, I felt obliged to smoke at least one pack of cigarettes every day, two if I could afford them, and drink coffee by the gallon, because that’s what writers do. Back then, a cup of coffee was two bits, a pack of smokes cost 35 cents, and a drink was a dollar. I supported myself by washing dishes and parking cars, both of them formative experiences. You work the morning shift in the heat and steam of the scullery and you feel clean and contented the rest of the day. You stand on a gravel parking lot on the high bluff of the Mississippi, the wintry blast sweeping down the valley, and you direct a stream of cars to their correct spots in straight lines, tolerating no dissent or diversion, stomping out individual preference wherever it occurs, and you discover the fascist storm trooper within yourself. Good to know one’s own capacity.

Mr. Tate was sixty-eight when I took his poetry seminar. A slim, elegant man with a Southern patrician accent—a pal of Robert Penn Warren and Hart Crane—he chain-smoked in class, so we did, too. The whole English Department reeked of tobacco smoke and was proudly alcoholic— anyone who wasn’t was considered an interloper, possibly a Mormon. James Wright chain-smoked through his lectures on Dickens and Whitman, which he delivered through a haze of hangover. He always looked pale and haggard. His line “Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body, I would break into blossom” was written by a man with smoke coming out of his mouth.

My hero, Saul Bellow (The Adventures of Augie March), had recently taught at the U and I liked hearing about him from his pal, my advisor, Joe Kwiat, a big, hearty guy with a great bark of a voice. Snowy-haired Robert Frost came and filled Northrup Auditorium, 4,700 seats, and recited his greatest hits by heart. I was in a crowd of students who stood by the back door and watched him emerge and shuffle down the walk and climb into his limousine. Our great drunken genius was John Berryman, the poet and wildly brilliant lecturer, a man of such towering intellect that I was afraid to be in the same room with him—one caustic word, even a disapproving glance, and I would’ve gone up in flames. He wore a big beard that made him look like he was eating his sweater. He gave readings of his Dream Songs at which his speech was slurred, he slumped against the lectern, lurching into flights of reminiscence, muttering asides to friends in the audience, a man on the verge of collapse. His greatness and his affliction seemed intertwined, a true artist engaging with dark forces in his own body in full public view. Fate had driven him to this condition, just as it had driven him to create poetry, and he could no more give up one than he could stifle the other. And I, fearful of embarrassing myself in public, was clearly incapable of this greatness.

If the true sign of brilliance is to be seriously screwed up, stalked by livid demons, fatally wounded, then I was, compared to Berryman, a dullard and a dolt. My dad had not committed suicide with a shotgun outside my bedroom window when I was twelve. Berryman’s had. Mine simply worked hard. My boyhood may have appeared strict and narrow—no dancing, drinking, smoking, moviegoing, card playing, no rough talk or profanity—but my Brethren were people of great kindness, most of them related to me. I was quite at home among them.

So I accepted that I would never be a true artist and that my future lay in being amusing. For the campus literary magazine, The Ivory Tower, I wrote stuff that owed much to Benchley and Thurber, A. J. Liebling and E. B. White. My journalism teacher, Bob Lindsay, encouraged this. He was a Marine Corps captain—a veteran of two wars, his bald head had a noticeable dent in it, as if a mortar shell had bounced off it—and he was a no-nonsense teacher. In his class, one spelling mistake on a writing assignment, no matter how elegant, earned you an F. We were horrified to hear this. But we learned to copyread, a skill that sticks with you for life. Mr. Lindsay’s office was on the first floor of Murphy Hall, and whenever I walked down the hall, I slowed down, and if his door was open and he didn’t have a visitor, I stuck my head in. He was brusque, not given to b.s., and when he said I should try to catch on at The New Yorker, that was pure gold. And then, unbeknownst to me, he sent the magazine a few pieces of mine from the Tower and a letter attesting to my good character.

I had not told him that I had written to my draft board and said I would not report for induction into the U.S. Army, as I’d been ordered to do. Vietnam was on every young man’s mind and I waited for the FBI to knock on my door and they didn’t. Evidently someone at the draft board office stuck my file in a dark place and thereby put herself in danger—it is a felony to conceal or otherwise impair the availability of a governmental record—and whoever did that deed was braver than I. I owe her a large debt and wish I knew who she is.

In 1966, I spent July and August in New York, holed up in a boarding-house on West Nineteethth Street in a poor Hispanic neighborhood near the Episcopal seminary, and thought about staying permanently. The boardinghouse was cheap: breakfast and dinner along with a room for $75 a week. The clientele was about half recent patients from mental hospitals, doped up on Thorazine, a quiet bunch, who sat in the garden under ailanthus trees listening to the nuns in a nearby convent chanting in Spanish. I was supposed to marry a girl in September, a big wedding in a Methodist church with four bridesmaids in bronze taffeta and country-club reception—it was all planned—and I wanted to escape. I felt like a jerk, abandoning her and her family, who had been so good to me, but I was hearing warning bells—there was a large vacancy between her and me. New York seemed like a good move, what with marriage and the FBI way on my trail. I knew an artist named Irving who drove a cab by night and shot photographs by day, and I hung out with him. He was screwed up, as a true artist should be, he dropped acid, smoked dope, and lived in a one-bedroom fourth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side with his wife and two baby girls in such poverty as I knew I hadn’t the strength of character to endure. Tiny dim rooms, summer heat, city clangor, sink full of dirty dishes, weeping infants, a bitter wife. New York was a dark swamp where a man could walk deeper and deeper into the muck and disappear and nobody would notice. But what was waiting for me back in Minnesota? I tried to write a piece for The New Yorker that romanticized life on Nineteenth Street as operatic, flamboyant, exotic, people yelling at each other in Spanish, and took it to their offices on West Forty-third, where a very nice woman named Patricia Mosher read it and told me to keep in touch. I took a bus to Boston to interview at The Atlantic. An overnight bus, to save on hotel. Got to the Atlantic office on Arlington Street an hour early and went to the men’s toilet, stood at the sink, took off my shirt, and sort of bathed and dried myself with paper towels, and a man in a suit came in, stood at the urinal, and made a point of not looking at me. He, as it turned out, was the man who would be interviewing me. It was a brief interview and I was not told to keep in touch. I rode the Greyhound back to Minnesota and got married. The next year, Irving jumped out the window and killed himself.

In 1969, I sent some stories to The New Yorker and one was bought off the slush pile by Roger Angell, who became my editor, and I moved my family to a rented farmhouse south of Freeport, Minnesota, in German Catholic country. The magazine paid around $1,000 a story, and our rent was $80 a month, not including heat and light. I sent off two or three stories a month and if they bought one, we were on Easy Street. It was a luxurious life for a writer, not so good for the writer’s wife and infant child, isolated among clannish country people suspicious of strangers. Sweden might have been better, or Bulgaria. I wrote in an upstairs bedroom on my Underwood typewriter on a slab of ¾-inch plywood set on two filing cabinets, my back to a window looking out on the farmyard, the barn, the cattle milling in the feedlot, the silo, the granary, the pig barn, the woods beyond. I found that I could sit and look at a piece of writing for hours at a time and not get twitchy, a skill I had picked up in Brethren Bible study, and I was a good rewriter. Day after peaceful day, visitors on weekends, the occasional big check and encouraging letter from West Forty-third Street. My wife slipped into depression; she spent whole days hardly able to speak. We moved back to the city for her sake and I took a job at Minnesota Public Radio, the six to nine a.m. shift, played records and created a cheery on-air persona, the Old Scout, who rallied listeners to rise and shine and face the day with a smile. It was a good persona. I even started to believe in it myself. I was in an awkward marriage, I was absurdly self-conscious and timid and eager to please and arrogant, all at the same time, but I was lucky. On that early morning shift, I invented a town where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above average. Businesses in that town advertised on my show—Jack’s Auto Repair, Bob’s Bank, Bunsen Motors, Bertha’s Kitty Boutique, the Chatterbox Café, the Sidetrack Tap, Skoglund’s Five & Dime, the Mercantile—and I talked about the women, men, and children, and that town, Lake Wobegon, became my magnum opus, unintentionally. I just sort of slid into it, like you’d go for a walk in the woods and fall into a crevasse and wind up in a cave full of rubies and emeralds. I labored in obscurity for the first few years, and then Will Jones, the entertainment columnist of The Minneapolis Tribune, wrote a big warm embrace of a story and that was the beginning of many good things. Will was an Ohioan and admired James Thurber, thought Lake Wobegon was Thurberesque, and his kind words in print were intoxicating.

In 1974, after writing a fact piece for the magazine about the Grand Ole Opry, I started up A Prairie Home Companion on Saturday evenings, a live variety show with room for a long monologue by me (“It has been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…”), and found steady colleagues who did most of the work, starting with my boss, Bill Kling, and the producer, Margaret Moos, the engineer, Lynne Cruise, Tom Keith, Bill Hinkley, and Judy Larson, and down to the present day, Sam Hudson, Kate Gustafson, Richard Dworsky, Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Fred Newman, not to mention fabulous guests, tech guys, good stagehands, and so we sail the ocean blue in pursuit of truth and beauty, sober men and true, attentive to our duty.

Life can be good when you finally grow up. You find steady work you enjoy, buy a car that starts on cold mornings, look for love, sing along with the radio, beget children who nestle on your lap and put their little arms around your neck and kiss you. You mow your lawn, read history, learn to fry fish in beer batter, seek out comfortable shoes, converse with strangers on the bus. You find a hairstyle that suits you. Your taste changes, contemporary art strikes you as ditzy and you are moved by Hopper and Rockwell and Nordic painters of snowscapes. Young Sarah Songwriter only makes you wonder if she is getting enough exercise, whereas a Chopin étude carries visions of women in lamplight, the forbidden kiss, the whisper of silk, the nobility of the arts. You cross the line into your forties, the mortgage years, and the fifties, when you stand weeping at graduations and weddings, and then in the blink of an eye come your sixties and now you’re on Easy Street. You become eminent and benevolent and learn to harrumph. And then seventy. Ah, seventy. A golden age. You are full of wisdom, you have embraced moderation and humility, your work is triumphant, you pee like a Palomino pony, and your imagination is more vivid than ever before. One can’t wait to turn eighty and ninety.

Having once anticipated dying young, I now look back on those times when I might have and did not. The time I dashed out onto a busy freeway to retrieve a heavy mattress I’d foolishly tied with twine to the roof of the car and at 65 m.p.h. physics kicked in and it blew off. While I was dragging it off the road a truck bore down on me as if I were a raccoon and blew its air horn. I heard the Doppler effect up close and the whoosh of the draft made my pant legs go whupwhupwhupwhup and blew my hair back.

One summer my brother Philip and I canoed into a deep cavern in Devil’s Island on Lake Superior, attracted by the dancing reflections on the low cavern ceiling. We steered into a narrow passage, ducking under rocks, and he took pictures of the formations, and after awhile we paddled out, a few minutes before the wake of an ore boat a mile away came crashing into the cavern, three-foot waves that would have smashed us into the rocky ceiling like eggs in a blender. Our mangled remains would’ve floated out and been found by fishermen days or weeks later—two Twin Cities men perish in boating mishap—but instead we sat in the canoe and watched the waves whopping into the cavern and said nothing, there being nothing to say. He raised his Leica and snapped a picture of the crashing waves and dropped it into the lake and it got smaller and smaller as it plummeted to the bottom.

Philip died a few years ago in Madison, Wisconsin, skating on a pond near his house. He who had survived the close call in the cave on Lake Superior fell and struck the back of his head on the ice and suffered serious brain injury and died. He was an engineer, a methodical man, a problem-solver, and I imagine that even as he fell, he was analyzing his mistake—he should’ve sat down on the ice and landed on his butt rather than his head. He tried too hard to remain upright; he should’ve collapsed. His family tried to keep his funeral as light as possible. There were three funny speeches and a rollicking gospel finish, and then we stood around the hole singing hymns as the gravedigger bent down, exposing a big slice of butt crack, and lowered Philip’s body into the ground, and then went to supper.

After we buried my brother, he became a steady, flickering presence in my life, even more so than before. He was a man who strove to get along with people and try to accept them and not scorch them with ridicule, and now I try to be more like him and less like myself.

When you’re in your seventies, people die all around you, at a steady rate. A high school classmate collapsed at our Fiftieth Reunion while I was at the microphone nattering and died two days later. A man died in the audience at A Prairie Home Companion in Seattle; he was old and very ill but wanted to come to the show, and during intermission he simply leaned against his wife and expired. Tom Keith, who was on the radio with me for four decades, came to a post-show party at my house, felt fine, and three days later fell down dead—the man who played Mr. Big, the jowly incomprehensible man, and did the sounds of a golf swing, a man falling off a bridge into piranha-infested waters, a 350 h.p. snowmobile driven by an orangutang over a cliff and onto the ice of Lake Superior. He was a champ.

The living wander away, move to Arizona or Colombia—we don’t hear from them for months, years—but the dead move in with us to stay. They keep busy exhorting us to greater faithfulness, forgiving us, comforting us. My mother-in-law, Marjorie O’Bleness, is smiling from the doorway, holding a Winston and a Rob Roy, listening to a good joke that I cannot hear. My grandmother Dora is kneading bread on the counter, whistling a tune I can’t make out.

I think often of John Updike, who lovingly re-created the backyards and clotheslines of the 1940s small town and described a snowstorm as “an immense whispering” and wrote beautifully of his father bidding him goodbye on a train platform and astonishing him by planting a kiss on the son’s cheek. I last saw John on the New York subway, riding from Broadway and 155th Street to 72nd, a white-haired gent of seventy-five grinning like a schoolkid. At 110th a gang of seminarians boarded and crowded around him, chattering, not recognizing him, and he sat soaking it up, delighted, surrounded by material.

The film director Robert Altman is a hero of mine—shooting a movie in St. Paul though he was eighty-one and in the throes of cancer and barely mobile. He loved his work and so put his mortality aside. If you have flown a B-24 bomber, that screaming unheated boxcar of a plane, on fifty missions in the South Pacific at the age of twenty as Bob had, there is not much left to be afraid of. I remember him sitting in a canvas chair at four a.m. on the corner of Seventh and St. Peter in St. Paul, on a Sunday in July, directing a scene in which Kevin Kline gets up from a stool in Mickey’s Diner and walks out the door and scratches a match on the doorframe and lights a smoke and walks across a rain-soaked street. Bob was pushing to beat the sunrise but he loved studying that walk and lighting it, angling it, instructing the man with the hose, the man in the cherry picker with the spotlight, all the while offering running commentary to his audience of grips and extras. He was a happy man who refused to be seduced into being somebody else, even in Hollywood.

My movie-star handsome teacher Reed Whittemore, author of a fine poem about the enormous silence that follows after a high school marching band finishes practicing on the football field in a small town, author of a fine rant against New York (“Where the best and the worst and the middle / Of our land and all others go in their days of hope to be made over / Into granite careerists”), proposed that literature is a defender of the individual against society and it is also a job of work, like planting a field or building a fence. I am grateful for my own work—more now than ever, the pleasure of scratching away on paper. I sit in my office and look up at a photograph over the fireplace of the old schoolhouse. He had been a carpenter in the shipyards of New Brunswick and came to Minnesota in 1880 to help out his sister Mary, whose husband was terribly sick, and soon after James arrived, the husband died of tuberculosis, leaving Mary with three small children and a 160-acre homestead. So James stayed on. One spring day in 1902, about the time her children were raised, he walked across the road to speak to the schoolteacher, Dora Powell. He was forty-two, a farmer, and she was twenty-two, a lovely slip of a girl from Iowa. He had a strong tenor voice and knew many songs by heart and he always had a book with him and people often saw him reading while driving a team into town or sitting on a mower, cutting hay, reins in one hand and book in the other. We don’t know what happened in the schoolhouse that afternoon, but when they emerged, she had agreed to marry him, and thus they became my grandfather and grandmother. They drove to St. Francis to be married by a judge and when they arrived home, James was so enthused, he forgot to unhitch the horses and they stood all night in the farmyard, their reins hanging down to the ground. He took Dora in his arms and carried her upstairs, a ritual he continued until he got old and feeble. In later years, the Brethren met in the schoolhouse and I sat with them and listened to their long silences, the ticking of the old Regulator wall clock, their prayers, the soulful drone of their hymns, and imagined my grandma, who was then almost seventy, as a young schoolteacher, very proper, hair tied up in a coil of braid, being urgently courted by the farmer from across the road. And now I am her age and the schoolhouse looks down from the wall. It is 1902, and she sees him cross the road, a handsome man with a full moustache, and he walks into her schoolroom and she sees that he has combed his hair and put on a cologne. He stands by her desk and talks about the weather and she sees his discomfort and guesses what he has come to do and she says, “I’m glad you came over because I’ve been meaning to say goodbye. When the school term ends, I plan to go back to Iowa. And I want to bake you a pie to thank you for those times you came over here and lit a fire in the stove and warmed up the place before I got here, and I need to know what kind of pie you like, apple or blueberry.” That is as far as she can go, and now it is his turn to say that he wishes she would not leave, that he would miss her, that he has taken a shine to her, that he has wanted to kiss her for several months now and didn’t know how to manage it. She does not blink. They gaze on each other, not smiling, not frowning, and then he takes a step toward her and bends and kisses her. And kisses her again. He is forty-two and still innocent, locked up in loyalty to his sister’s family, now free. His life is about to begin. He has thirty years left on this earth. He died before I was born. My father believed that he would meet his parents in heaven and recognize them, but Scripture doesn’t say that. I can only meet my grandfather in imagination and there he is, wrapped up in a heavy jacket, frost on his moustache, enjoying his work.

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She loves me enough so I live in New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My mother told me and now I'll tell you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

January 27, 2022

Thursday

12:00 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center (Lobby), Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA Luncheon

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

January 28, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Carrollton Cultural Arts Center, Carrollton, GA

Carrollton, GA

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

buy tickets

February 4, 2022

Friday

7:30 p.m.

High Point Theatre, High Point, NC

High Point, NC

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

buy tickets

February 5, 2022

Saturday

7:00 PM

The Wayne Theatre, Waynesboro, VA

Waynesboro, VA

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

buy tickets

February 6, 2022

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

The Avalon Theatre

Easton, MD

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

March 4, 2022

Friday

8:00 p.m.

The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Kent, OH

March 4 in Kent, OH Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

March 6, 2022

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

Virginia Theatre, Champaign, IL

Champaign, IL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard. A performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

Radio

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, January 22, 2022

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Writing

She loves me enough so I live in New York

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

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

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My mother told me and now I’ll tell you

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

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

Read More

A beautiful afternoon is good for the heart

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

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Read More

A man walking through a big city snowstorm

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

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Why Washington needs more snowstorms

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

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

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Meditation while waiting for coffee to brew

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

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

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Forget auld acquaintance, forge onward

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

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

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Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 preview

Garrison’s newest book on the unexpected pleasures of aging. A perfect gift book for Keillor fans and those approaching their older years!

Read the preface here

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You make me happy when skies are gray

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

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

Read More

I am dreaming of a light Christmas

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

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

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

Read More

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If you are hosting a show with Garrison, please feel free to use the below press photos for marketing, as well as the below short biography. Promo video for purpose of booking is available here.

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

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

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