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.


Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

The most elegant gentleman to come out of Minnesota, Mr. Butch Thompson, died yesterday in St. Paul. He picked up the New Orleans spirit listening to Jelly Roll Morton 78s and carried it through the 20th into the 21st century. He was a pianist and a clarinetist, the piano for the bounce, the clarinet for the blues, and if he could've he would've played both at the same time. We worked together for years, a quiet man, and I never knew him except through his music. God bless the memory, God preserve the music.

–GK

Born and raised in Marine-on-St. Croix, a small Minnesota river town, Butch Thompson was playing Christmas carols on his mother’s upright piano by age three, and began formal lessons at six. He picked up the clarinet in high school and led his first jazz group, “Shirt Thompson and His Sleeves,” as a senior.

After high school, he joined the Hall Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band of Minneapolis, and at 18 made his first visit to New Orleans, where he became one of the few non-New Orleanians to perform at Preservation Hall during the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1974, he joined the staff as the house pianist of public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. By 1980, the show was nationally syndicated, and the Butch Thompson Trio was the house band, a position the group held for the next six years.

From the early days on APHC, Butch remembers, “It was pretty casual back then. Margaret or somebody would call me and ask if I was busy on Saturday. More than once I remember saying I couldn’t get there by showtime, and being told to show up as soon as I could. Sometimes I’d go onstage without remembering what key something was in. If Garrison was going to sing, I usually couldn’t go wrong with E major.”

By the late ’90s, Thompson was known as a leading authority on early jazz. He served as a development consultant on the 1992 Broadway hit Jelly’s Last Jam, which starred Gregory Hines. He also joined the touring company of the off-Broadway hit Jelly Roll! The Music and the Man, playing several runs with that show in New York and other cities through 1997.

The Village Voice described Butch’s music as “beguiling piano Americana from an interpreter who knows that Bix was more than an impressionist and Fats was more than a buffoon.”

 


 

 

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Lake Wobegon is having a boom year thanks to millennial entrepreneurship—AuntMildred’s.com Gourmet Meatloaf, for example, or Universal Fire, makers of artisanal firewood seasoned with sea salt. Meanwhile, the author flies in to give eulogies at the funerals of five classmates, including a couple whom he disliked, and he finds a wave of narcissism crashing on the rocks of Lutheran stoicism. He is restored by the humor and grace of his old girlfriend Arlene and a visit from his wife, Giselle, who arrives from New York for a big love scene in an old lake cabin.

 

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In Boom Town, we are invited to catch up as Garrison gets caught up with all of those beautifully flawed human beings that populate and promulgate their mythical town where all the women are finally accounted for, all the men are self-realized or died trying, and all the children are still way above average.” —Martin Sheen

 

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Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

I’m an old man and so the airport of today is fascinating to me. Believe it or not, I remember when we’d walk into the terminal and go straight to the gate to welcome Uncle Bud and Aunt Betty when they flew in on a propeller aircraft for Christmas. There were no metal detectors, no uniformed security searching your bags and yelling at you to remove your shoes; back then, TSA stood for Talk Softly Always, and now I come through a scanning machine and a government agent says, “I need to pat down your inner thighs.”

Ordinarily if a man said that to me, I’d report him to authorities, but he happened to be the authority and I didn’t want to take the Greyhound to New York so I succumbed to being patted down. He did it briskly, without any intimations of affection, and I picked up my stuff and put my belt on and headed for the gate to board and unboard and wait for clearance.

It was a very congenial wait. A fiftyish woman in a heavy parka spoke to me and asked me what she should do in New York. Minnesota women don’t speak to strange men and so this was a surprise and what was sort of amazing was that she took me for a New Yorker. I told her to avoid Times Square, to walk around Central Park and if she likes tap-dancing to see “Some Like It Hot” and hang the expense. She said she’d never been to the city before.

“Why now?” I said. She said she was going there to see her brother whom she hadn’t seen for eight years and try to reconcile with him.

It was a sweet encounter, one person telling a story to another, and somehow the snowfall and the travel delay played a role in it. There is nothing like the unexpected to bring out the best in people. I’m not the friendliest person you ever met but I smiled at people, said hi to people who said hi to me, and though I heard some grammatical errors, a plural pronoun where singular was appropriate, “lay” used when “lie” was meant, I didn’t correct them. If someone’s hair had caught fire, I would’ve used my cup of latte to extinguish it and not asked for compensation.

I sat by Gate C1 and considered maybe starting up a sing-along, maybe “Leaving on a Jet Plane” but then thought no, some women might resent singing “So kiss me and smile for me” with men they don’t even know, so I didn’t, and then we reboarded in a festive mood, ready for whatever New York throws at us. I feel sorry for Florida, which is devoid of snowstorms that promote fellowship.

Our snowbirds sit in a wasteland of parking lots and shopping malls and conversation dies for lack of anything to talk about. I feel terrible whenever I read about a Minnesotan eaten by an alligator that slipped out of the water hazard at the country club and attacked the guy in the sand trap and devoured him, yellow pants and all. A golf club is no defense against these beasts. There are 1.3 million gators in Florida and they’re attracted to aged Northerners because we use older brands of cologne that make us smell fruity. I’m heading for Fort Lauderdale tomorrow. Kiss me before I go.

There's money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

I met a guy in the subway not long ago whose headphones I could hear twenty feet away. We were waiting for a downtown train at West 86th Street. He was about fifty, balding on top but with an ambitious ponytail. He wore a Metallica T-shirt, the one with a skeleton performing a brain operation with a fork and knife, eating the patient’s brains. I’d recently had a heart operation to replace a mitral valve with one from a pig and I thought he might like to hear about it but it was hard to make contact. We boarded the train and he turned the music off and I asked him, politely, what he enjoyed about Metallica. He didn’t hear me; I had to speak loudly and clearly. He said, “It’s very beautiful, no matter what people think.” I got off at 42nd to go to the library. He continued on, perhaps to an auto-crushing plant or a crematorium. Someday he’ll achieve deafness, and then perhaps he’ll become a reader and maybe he’ll google Metallica and find this column.

 

Hello, sir.

A person has a right to enjoy music about hopelessness, but when I look at some lyrics, suddenly the serial killings start to make sense.

Nothing matters, no one else
I have lost the will to live
Simply nothing more to give
There is nothing more for me
Need the end to set me free.

The kid who shot up the school in Texas, the night manager at the Walmart store who shot up his coworkers in the break room — it was about suicide and wanting the suicide to get attention. It’s sort of cheesy for millionaire musicians to crank out anthems to hopelessness — this isn’t the blues, it’s angry morbidity. But there it is.

I trust that you, sir, find some serenity in your silence. Perhaps you’ve taken up birdwatching. It’s a long way from thrash metal to thrushes and meadowlarks but the human imagination is capable of great leaps. I hope you’ve found someone to put his/her/their arms around you.

 

I went to the library that day and sat in the reading room, and I was the oldest in the room by far. Intense young scholars who I imagine may do the work needed to save this planet so that future generations can enjoy fantasies of violence if they wish. If the sea rises faster as the planet heats up, survival will take precedence over amusement. People will lose the liberty to be weird.

Two nights before, I had been in Palm Springs to give a speech and was reminiscing about the past and on an impulse I sang the words, “There are places I remember” and the audience sang the whole song with me. A thousand people knew the words to Lennon-McCartney’s “In My Life,” including the repeated last line with the high notes, “In my life, I love you more.” And then we sang “Silent Night,” all three verses. It brought me to tears, people united with strangers in beautiful works of art.

I wonder if, years from now, a crowd will sing Metallica songs for the pleasure of it.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, in Macedonia, to fix their minds on what is true and beautiful and I suppose they tried to do that, and eventually their city was destroyed by the Ottoman Empire and now, centuries later, the ottoman is just a footstool. The world changes and takes us with it. But the true and beautiful remains, more compelling than ever. Dystopia and mental distress are very much in fashion now and there seem to be no memoirs about a happy childhood, only trauma and displacement and broken hearts, and so be it. But comedy, which is a charitable deed, lasts longer. Knock knock. Who’s there? Metallica. Metallica who? Metallica doesn’t have a last name, it’s not a human, it’s abandoned.

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Back in my leather fringed vest days, I assumed I would die young and become immortal like Buddy Holly or James Dean, but I was too poor to afford a fast sports car or a chartered airplane, and soon I was too old to die young. I survived absurd self-consciousness, cold winters, hard labor for no money, a fondness for whiskey — and now on Sunday mornings when I’m in town, I go to church, a traditional one that offers extensive moments of silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” it says in Scripture, and we do. God often speaks in the stillness. We confess to ourselves that we are not in charge of our lives and we believe that a Greater Power is in charge who loves us and we shake hands with the people around us and walk home.

Back in the day, I went to public schools and so did everyone else and we sat in a classroom with all sorts of kids, there were no special tracks for the gifted and brilliant, they had to sit next to us dummies. We all sang out of the same songbook, we loved the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies and the grasshopper picking his teeth with a carpet tack. People my age know these songs by heart. I spoke at a college convocation once for Parents’ Weekend and realized when I got there that the speech I’d written was crappy, a Dare-To-Be-Different message they’d heard often enough, so I said, “Let’s just sing some songs that we all know,” and I led them in those old songs and I saw kids holding up cellphones, googling “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” because they’d been assigned to the Gifted Track back in fourth grade, which encouraged creativity and Daring To Be Different. The parents in the audience sang about Dinah and the land where my fathers died and “His truth is marching on” and roses love sunshine, violets love dew, and apparently enjoyed a sense of commonality that was denied to the gifted.

It’s a beautiful aspect of old age that you become more like other people than you wanted to be back when you were uniquely gifted. There is something about physical decrepitude and loss of acuity and a long memory and a sense of history that draws you together with kindred spirits. I often think of Leeds, Barry, Frankie, Corinne, my friends who died young, and wish they could’ve enjoyed old age. It’s worth the trouble.

I was the oldest person at our Thanksgiving table and I didn’t say much because the kids were so lively and funny and why bring them down with a lecture about the wonders of old age, including the fact that every morning is an occasion of gratitude. I’ll let them discover that for themselves, Lord willing.

Walking a crowded street in gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows? The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal. I know nothing about software. I use a laptop but nine-tenths of its capability is foreign to me; I use it as an educated typewriter. I love that it makes a squiggly blue line under misspelled words, even exotic ones. I imagined Twitter was run by robotechnicians, no need for a company cafeteria, just a lube station, but apparently not so. There are human beings there and they have feelings, which is what the rich guy is inexperienced at dealing with. He knows about circuitry but he’s bought a circus and now hundreds of acrobats have quit. You come to appreciate humanity, living in New York as I do. I walk down upper Broadway and it’s very amiable, like the Minnesota State Fair, throngs of people, the smell of pizza and hot pretzels in the air, bursts of music in passing, a general civility, all that’s missing are the farm implements and barns of giant swine. I’m a Midwesterner, wary of strangers, but walking in New York inspires a feeling that people are good at heart. Of course we’re all Democrats in this neighborhood. That’s all we have. You couldn’t find a Republican if your life depended on it. Thank goodness, the need for one has seldom arisen. Last week I flew to Detroit and spent a couple days in a suburban landscape of strip malls, a church next to a used-car lot next to a Walmart and hotel overlooking a cemetery, vast acreage of asphalt parking, a landscape that if I hiked a few miles along the main road, I’d feel isolated, threatened, and after dark, it’d be terrifying. I descend into the New York subway, an institution that is often grieved over but still packed with people taking great care not to bump each other or maintain eye contact for more than a few seconds. I’d rather be on the subway than drive my car through suburbia trying to find a shopping center; I’d slow down to try to get my bearings and the car behind me would honk with real fury. I’ve never encountered fury in the subway. It’d be too scary so people avoid it. We’ve all experienced a strong centrifugal urge to find loneliness in the woods, a cabin, a beach house, a tent on an island, and I’ve been there and done that and found that silence makes me uneasy and that the presence of birds and small mammals does not constitute company. Hermitude was not appealing and in the fall I heard gunfire and imagined a headline: Writer Slain in Cabin, Sheriff Asks Public for Clues. So now I am pleased to be in a subway car jammed with people. There’s no other city where you can see so much of America at once as here. The sheer variety is fascinating. The woman with the three small children opposite me: the sight of them speaks to my heart. The tall young woman in the black leggings whose stone-faced expression says she’s tired of people admiring her classic beauty, which, face it, is stunning, but I respect her need to be ignored, I look away, but the image of her is memorable. New Yorkers feign indifference, but if you should fall down, people will come to your assistance. If Mr. Musk tripped on a curb, people would stop and bend over and ask, “Are you okay?” They wouldn’t say, “I closed my Twitter account you idiot and you know something? I don’t miss it!” He’s human and if he’s injured himself, we’d help him up and call 911, same as we would for you.
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

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

The Parker, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Fort Lauderdale, FL for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show comes to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, MO with Heather Masse, Rich Dworsky, Pat Donohue, Dean Magraw, Sue Scott, Fred Newman and Tim Russell. (Theater Event and Livestream available)

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00P (CT)/ 8:00P (ET)

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

Livestream available for our “A Prairie Home Companion Christmas Show” Dec 15 show in St. Louis

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Torrance, CA. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unites us.

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Bellefontaine, OH for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Kansas City, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Springfield, MO for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Wichita, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard and Dean Magraw bring their show to Iola, KS for a performance of classic love songs, poetry, The News from Lake Wobegon, and a conversation about Why You Should Go On Getting Older

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

Keillor & Company with Prudence Johnson and Dan Chouinard bring their show to Maryville, TN for 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, December 3,  2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, December 3,  2022

Neon lighting was first demonstrated on this date in 1910. It was invented by a Frenchman named Georges Claude, and he debuted it at a Paris auto show — which also happened to be the world’s first auto show.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, December 2, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, December 1, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Today is the birthday of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain (1835), born in Florida, Missouri. One of the most quotable of authors, Mark Twain said: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.”
And “Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain’t so.”
And “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Today is the birthday of British novelist, scholar, and poet C.S. Lewis (1898), best known for the Chronicles of Narnia series, seven volumes of stories about young children who find entry to another world through an old wardrobe. They meet a magisterial lion named Aslan who asks for their help in battling evil. Aslan says, “I never tell anyone any story except his own.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 28, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 28, 2022

Today is the birthday of Jon Stewart, born in 1962. He made a name for himself as the host of The Daily Show. He said: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values — they’re hobbies. You know, one of the genius moves of The Founders was not writing The Bill of Rights on the back window of a dusty van.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 3, 2011

A Prairie Home Companion: December 3, 2011

A 2011 December classic from New York City with special guests Nellie McKay and Heather Masse. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 27, 2022

It was on this day in 1786 that Scottish poet Robert Burns borrowed a pony and made his way from his home in Ayrshire to the city of Edinburgh. He had recently published “Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” to raise money to travel to Jamaica. It was an astonishing success and he eventually became one of the most famous poets in the world.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 26, 2022

Author Marilynne Robinson celebrates her 79th birthday today. Robinson is author of the novels “Housekeeping,” “Gilead,” and “Home.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 25, 2022

American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was born on this day in Scotland in the year 1835. He used his wealth to endow 2811 libraries and charitable foundations, and in purchasing organs for churches “To lessen the pain of the sermons.”

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Writing

Winter is here, thank goodness, P.T.L.

Minnesota got a good dousing of snow this week but not the light dry sparkly snow that inspires jollity but the heavy snow that tangles up air travel and leads to delays and cancellations and you see ordinary sensible well-dressed people sleeping on floors at the airport, their heads on knapsacks, our friends and neighbors turned into homeless refugees. I was on a flight out of MSP to LaGuardia, which got delayed a couple hours due to 50 mph winds in New York City but people didn’t complain: the thought of dramatic turbulence, the plane bouncing and shaking, grown men grim-faced, agnostics praying devoutly, children excited by the roller coaster ride, as we descend low over a body of water, is something we’re glad to avoid. Pilots don’t use the word “turbulence” — I imagine company lawyers sent them a memo — they refer to “a few bumps” but we passengers know better, so we were in good humor as we unboarded the plane we’d boarded twenty minutes before and camped out in the gate area to await further developments.

Read More

There’s money in dystopia but so what?

One advantage for us Christians of living in New York is that we’re a small minority just like in early A.D. living among Romans and Turks so we can’t lord it over people. We walk quietly. If schools avoid using the word “Christmas,” we understand. Children walk past, cursing like truckers. We ignore it. In places where Christians form a powerful majority, they can bully and persecute with great enthusiasm, even though our Savior instructed us in kindness and charity.

I speak as an old man. Righteous intensity fades with age. We spend too much time wringing our hands over evil. I no longer read stories about What’s-His-Name. There’s nothing more to be learned about narcissism. Fascism is not that fascinating.

Read More

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

I decided not to spend $700 for a seat at “Music Man” on Broadway though I love the musical and know most of “Ya Got Trouble” by heart and sometimes “Gary, Indiana” comes spontaneously to mind or “Lida Rose” or “Goodnight, My Someone,” so it’d be $700 well spent, but Broadway theater seats are too small for a tall person, and two hours of physical discomfort and possible knee damage is two hours too many. I have given up suffering in my old age. I don’t go to loud restaurants. I avoid political rallies. I don’t hang out with boring people or conspiracy hobbyists or people who use obscenities as punctuation. I don’t pay a large sum of money to be crammed into a space designed for children.

Aversion to misery is one aspect of aging and another is feeling oppressed by material possessions. Too many books, pictures, shirts, souvenirs, gadgets, and gizmos. I could go through my closet and dispose of two-thirds of it. All I need are some jeans, black T-shirts, a few white shirts, and about six suits. I’m from the Sixties generation that rebelled against the suit, trying out leather fringed vests, paisley cloaks and capes, psychedelic scarves, ethnic things, a cowboy look, hobo styles, but it was way too much trouble planning the right look every day — way way too much — and so I started to appreciate the suit, a simple dignified uniform that requires no thought about your current identity, you just step into it and go about your business, and if someone wants to read something corporate into it, that’s their problem.

Read More

Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

It surprises me, a man of pen and paper, that Twitter requires regular maintenance and without the attention of veteran software engineers could easily crash leaving millions of twitterers to write notes on paper, and would they be able to write with a pen or would they need to cut words out of a book and paste them on paper to make sentences, the way kidnappers do in the movies? You’d expect the Head Twit, the world’s richest man, to be smarter than to drive his new acquisition into a bridge abutment, but who knows?

The crises of the extremely rich are entertaining to the rest of us, such as the billionaire addicted to inhaling nitrous oxide, which inspired him to think he was crystallizing. And Mr. Amazon who wants to go to the moon. And the ex-president guy who has been there for years. This gives us in the back of the bus some reassurance that vast wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In so many critical ways, it’s good to be normal.

Read More

Thank you, thank you, thank you

I come to Thanksgiving in a cheerful mood, counting the blessings, starting with the new pig valve Dr. Dearani’s team sewed into my heart three months ago, which enables me to type this sentence and saves some poor soul from eulogizing me and getting it all wrong. My legacy is that I sang gospel songs and told immature jokes on public radio and thereby took up arms against pretense. “There was a young man of Madras” and “How Great Thou Art,” I love them both dearly. It horrified thousands of managers and vice presidents but I got away with it.

As a Minnesotan, I’m aware that my state is the No. 1 producer of turkeys, an ugly ill-tempered bird with a sharp beak and a single-digit IQ and no redeeming qualities except the meat. Minnesota used to produce computers and semiconductors but then Apple and Microsoft took the business away, and now our state produces 45 million turkeys a year, which means that in early October, there is a possibility that the birds could rise up and take over. We have only six million people, many of them elderly and easily confused, and if a strong westerly wind hit the penal ranches and the fowl panicked and a feathery wave swept east toward the cities and the National Guard assembled a wall of snowplows along I-35 and the stampede flowed over the mountains of carcasses and ten or fifteen million birds hit Minneapolis, late-night comics would feast on us and my state, which gave you Prince and Robert Bly, would be a joke.

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What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

I went to a play on Broadway this week, a matinee, and was impressed by the usher in our aisle downstairs who was elaborately kind to everyone, managing a stream of elderly customers confused by row numbers, pointing them to seats while maintaining pleasant small talk, reminding them to turn off their phones, directing them to washrooms (downstairs) or to the counter that offers hearing devices, handing out programs — his competence was stunning and dramatic — and he did it against the clock and never was caustic though he had a right to be, dealing with the dither.

As for the play, I guess it was trying to be a tragedy but there was a good deal of O MY GOD WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN overacting and professional actors trying out their Euro accents, working to make their part GRIPPING and the silences MEANINGFUL and after half an hour I checked out and thought about other things.

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Once again, Violetta does the right thing

We went to the Met to see La Traviata on Election Night and so did many other people and the Violetta was delicate and pure and commanded the stage right up to when she died and Verdi’s choruses were glorious and moving and he gives Violetta some heartbreaking unaccompanied passages, a lone soprano singing in the extensive acreage of the Met, it takes your breath away. Of course some people won’t recognize great art even if it tap-dances in the nude while handing out Eskimo bars but I tell you the truth, Act 3 was so stunning it took your mind completely off Herschel and Dr. Oz and Kari Lake and the doctor running for governor of Minnesota who doesn’t believe in immunization.

For months I’d been getting pleas for money from candidates besieged by evil and now I wanted to see the courtesan Violetta living in sin with Alfredo whose father begs her to leave him so Alfredo’s sister will not suffer shame and can marry, and the courtesan agrees, a sinner performing an act of charity, sung by soprano Nadine Sierra who is also a Lucia, Zerlina, Susanna, Gilda, and for all I know may be a D.A. in Atlanta.

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An idea, probably wrong, but it’s an idea

I’m thinking I should get to work on a museum of the era before the internet and cellphones and streaming music so that people under 40 know what it was like to talk on a phone with a cord on the kitchen wall and gossip without your mother understanding what it was about. People wrote on stationery with a pen back then, not a stationary bike but paper, wrote letters in a cursive hand to their grandmas and Grandma told you what fine handwriting you had. Now Grandma is happy if you stick with your birth gender and don’t get tangled up with fentanyl.

I’m not nostalgic for those days, I simply feel that you young people need to know some history. When I was 20, 60 years ago, I walked into the Capitol in Washington one evening and there was one cop sitting at a table inside the door, reading a book. There was no metal detector. Nowadays, they put up metal detectors at the doors to elementary schools. I’m not kidding.

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My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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A true story about last Tuesday

I am feeling good about myself today, if you can believe that. I come from simple peasant stock in the middle of Minnesota (not the end of the world but you can see it from there) and I’ve lived my life with a severe sense of inferiority. My parents never praised me lest it lead to arrogance, and teachers didn’t praise us: if you got a good grade, you were simply working up to your ability, and our preachers didn’t tell us that God loves us, though Scripture says He does, but emphasized our abject iniquity. And so, though I’ve written a couple dozen books and done hundreds of radio shows, I never came away from one with a feeling of elation and if someone said, “That was terrific” (or “awesome” or even “rather good”) I shook my head and said, “I don’t think so,” which, as my wife said, was rude — when someone praises you, you should say “Thank you,” but I honestly felt that everything I did fell short. Until today.

It was a gorgeous October day in New York. I took a cab to an appointment at the podiatrist’s and got out of the cab and a moment later, as he pulled away up West 72nd Street, I realized that I didn’t have my billfold. I had had it in the back seat of the cab and I didn’t have it anymore. He was about thirty yards ahead of me and I did something I haven’t done in years — I broke into a run. I’m eighty years old, I had heart surgery two months ago, but the thought of having to replace credit cards and driver’s license and insurance cards was too awful to contemplate. At this age, one doesn’t have time to waste on the unnecessary. And I dreaded going home and saying, “I left my billfold in a cab,” which might lead to my beloved putting me under guardianship and hiring a walker to accompany me. All of this flashed in my mind, the tedium of replacement, the suspicion of dementia, and so I ran.

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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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