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.

Young Peter

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

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

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

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

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Blame it on the internet, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

A Prairie Home Companion: March 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 6, 2021

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 5, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 5, 2021

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 2, 2021

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

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

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

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A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

A Prairie Home Companion: March 4, 2000

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

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

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

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

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Writing

Blame it on the internet, why not?

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

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

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

Read More

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

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

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Excuse me while I have a few words with Joe

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

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

Read More

The old scout stands in line at the clinic

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

Read More

The pandemic: one man’s appreciation

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

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

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An old Democrat in a chorus in the Orkneys

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

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

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

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The world turns, days get longer

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

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

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

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A night outside, eating with friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A true story about last Tuesday and love and death

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

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

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

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