The Lake Wobegon Virus: Chapter One

THE LAKE WOBEGON VIRUS

Chapter 1: FEBRUARY 16, 6:30 A.M.

Well, it has been a quiet year in Lake Wobegon except for the heat wave in February and then that weird epidemic of what’s called “episodic loss of inhibition” and sensible Germans and Norwegians pouring out inappropriate feelings, spilling crazy secrets, hallucinating about some conspiracy or other, acting out—Darlene baring her breasts at the Chatterbox Cafe—Dorothy stopped her in time, but still—our beloved Darlene, the last of the old-time waitresses who called their clients “Sweetheart,” at 55 opening her blouse!—and Pastor Liz making a fool of herself in a Sunday sermon. And Clint coming out as an atheist and Father Wilmer caught in carnal thoughts, the postmaster Mr. Bauser observed while on duty singing, “The State Department and Internal Revenue are promoting a One World point of view. Obama was a Kenyan man, took the oath of office on a Koran. Don’t be brainwashed by the press, they’re promoting godlessness,” and then saw Myrtle waiting to buy stamps. She said, “Are you supposed to be singing songs on the job?” She went out and told Clarence Bunsen, and Clarence came and talked to him, and Mr. Bauser denied all. And from then on, he returned Myrtle’s letters to her, marked “Address Illegible,” though she went to school back when good penmanship was taught and hers was A+. And somebody—guess who?—put her name on the mailing list of the American Free Love Party. It was ugly. When I came to town in March, people said, “I hope you aren’t going to write about this,” which of course aroused my curiosity since I had no idea what they meant and so I stuck around to find out.

That same day, Arlen Hoerschgen walked up to the checkout desk at the library, and Grace, gentle Grace, ever-patient Grace, looked at the book of limericks he wanted to check out and said, “When in hell are you going to grow up?” And she quoted a dozen dirty limericks at him, including:

There was a young girl of Eau Claire
Who was graceful and so debonaire,
But she did not pee
Like a girl, downwardly,
But could aim up high in the air.

and others even worse and said, “I tell you, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I remember your ne’er-do-well uncle going around town tanked up on sloe gin and singing filthy songs in broad daylight like the one about the shepherd and the magpie, and his poor children were so ashamed of him they all went off and became Seventh-day Adventists.” And she stamped the due date on it and handed it to him, and he felt sort of sheepish and returned with it 20 minutes later to apologize, and she had no memory of it whatsoever. “Where’d this come from?” she said. “Read whatever you like.” Loss of inhibition followed by memory loss.

Mrs. Torgerson entered a national talent contest performing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on Audubon bird whistles, all six and one-half minutes of it, and Bob took off on a long road trip to visit relatives in Oregon and Washington while she rehearsed. Neighbors said the artistry was incredible, sometimes involving three or four whistles at once, but the effect of the whole was to make you reach for your gun.

It was craziness, and it set neighbor against neighbor, Norwegian against German, a town that prided itself on sobriety and responsibility and modest behavior, and meanwhile, looming on the horizon was the very real threat of a Keep America Truckin’ Museum and Motorway in the planning stages south of town, featuring a mile oval for racing 18-wheelers—farmland was already being bought up for the thing—annual attendance estimated to be 2.2 million visitors, many with huge tattoos and carrying six-guns and six-packs, and rumor had it there’d be a six-lane freeway and a couple of high-rise hotels on the outskirts of town and maybe a casino. An absolute nightmare. The “Little Town That Time Forgot” suddenly becoming the little town that Misfortune fell in love with, where all the women are horrified, the men are bewildered, and the children are amused at the distress of their elders.

Dorothy of the Chatterbox said, “It’s been like a horror novel but with actual people, you wouldn’t want to read it but you are living it.” In the midst of a town council meeting, Mayor Eloise Krebsbach jumped up, threw her gavel out the window not noticing it was closed, and said, “This town has gone to the dogs and as far as I’m concerned, they can have it.” She took a job as a nail salon hostess in St. Paul and was replaced by Alice Dobbs, a newcomer to town (1995), who feels that problems have solutions and if we commit ourselves to the common good, we can find our way out of the woods.

Lenny, a Wobegon girl who left home to become an epidemiologist, came home during a bitter divorce and diagnosed the problem, and Alice, over fierce opposition, brought in a municipal therapist though people here don’t do therapy or discuss unpleasant feelings. If someone asks, “How are you?” you say, Fine. And that’s good enough. It could be worse. You go into therapy and you are apt to get engrossed in yourself and neglect your children and they turn out fragile and moody and take up songwriting or conceptual baking. But the therapist, Ashley, turned out to be a very nice person, mannerly, soft-spoken, once you got to know her. And in the midst of it all, I arrived to work on a sainthood project and thought about writing this book instead, but now I’m getting ahead of myself.

Where to begin?

It began on February 16th at about 6:30 a.m. in the Chatterbox Cafe when the old waitress Darlene leaned down and said to Daryl Tollerud, “You disgust me, and you know why? Because you never make eye contact, there’s never a ‘Good morning’ or ‘How are you, Darlene?’—you sit there waiting for the world to do your bidding and bring your bacon and eggs, and when I bring it, you stare at my boobs. It’s like you never saw a woman before. Twenty years you’ve been staring at them. Well, here they are—” And she tore open her shirt and there they were for a split second until Dorothy grabbed her, and Darlene picked up the plate and smooshed it in his face as fried egg yolk ran down his shirt along with hash browns and bacon, and she turned and stalked away. People around him pretended nothing had happened, which Lake Wobegon people are adept at doing. They could ignore an anvil falling out of a tree so long as it didn’t fall on them.

Dorothy cleaned him up and apologized, and Daryl felt bad about what she said, realizing there was some truth to it. It went back to when he was 16 and attended a carnival sideshow at the county fair and saw a contortionist named Maria who folded herself up to fit inside a breadbox and then handed her brassiere up to the ringmaster, and if you liked you could pay a quarter to go and look into the breadbox and Daryl did, and there she was, all folded up, her arms wrapped around her chest, and ever since then Daryl has felt a thrill at the sight of a woman with folded arms.

Minutes later, Darlene emerged from the ladies’ room as if nothing had happened, and when Dorothy said, “What’s wrong with you?” Darlene had no idea what she meant. “You spilled all down the front of your shirt,” she said to Daryl. “Don’t eat so fast.” Somebody told her she had bared her bosom. She said, “Good God, who do you take me for?” Daryl is a forgiving soul—he had four teenage children living under his roof at one time, one of them a Goth and a shoplifter, another a drummer—and also he felt he was responsible for what happened, a common reaction among Lutherans.

He finished his breakfast and went home and heard a voice from the bedroom—“Is that you?”—and of course it was him, who else would she imagine it might be? He felt a twinge of jealousy, and then there she was, half in her lingerie and half out, approaching him in a meaningful way, and said, “I was waiting for you.” His old Marilyn, mother of his five children, in the mood for love at eight thirty in the morning, will wonders never cease? She had been the most beautiful woman in town, and when she was young and went dancing at the Moonlight Bay Supper Club, men fought in the parking lot for the right to dance with her. Men cursing, fists on bone, she was so lovely, and that’s how she came to marry Daryl. All the fighting men were in a rage and she walked away with a pacifist.

It was an historic week for her and Daryl. They had rid themselves of a Chihuahua named Mitzi who was bought over Daryl’s objections, he being an old farmboy brought up to believe dogs live outdoors so they can run off interlopers and in payment for this service, we feed them. A Chihuahua serves no purpose except to share its anxieties. One day in February, the dog, on a toilet run, encountered a skunk. The dog had never imagined such a thing as a skunk existing—had no idea what the purpose of one would be—and the skunk unloaded, and Daryl grabbed the .22 and ran out and met the skunk, who still had some left in him, and Daryl didn’t even get off a shot. Mitzi had a nervous breakdown and Daryl showered for an hour and still had some skunk in his hair, so Marilyn clipped his head clean and Mitzi went off to live with cousin Janice in the city. Daryl slept in the guest room for a week and now, evidently, was attractive again.

She kissed him and unbuckled his belt and placed his hand on her bosom, and he stepped out of his shoes and his masculinity hung loose like a graduation tassel. He was spectacularly impotent. She tried to get its attention, but it was thinking of other things. After years of embarrassing involuntary erections in public—walking around with a ball-peen hammer in his pants—Darlene’s attack on him had removed the lead from his pencil. His billiard cue had turned into a curtain sash.

And two days later, an anonymous person left a gift for Darlene: a new bra made of molded plastic with a combination lock on the strap. It was a joke, but Darlene took it badly, and days later she packed up and left town without a word and the loss was felt immediately.

Some people are irreplaceable, and in a small town we know who they are. Darlene is a font of information about local history and who is married to whom and where their kids wound up and what they do. For example, David and Judy Ingqvist, the former pastor and his wife—retired, Napa Valley, hikers and bikers, switched to Unitarian, daughter Brenda is a professional pet grief therapist, author of Mourning Your Cat, conducts pet grief seminars and several annual pet grief cruises to the Caribbean. Nobody but Darlene can give you this level of detail.

She also rules over the potluck suppers in town, receives the offerings and arranges them on the serving tables, and when she is away, the number of store-bought dishes quadru-ples—big tubs of yellowish potato salad rather than homemade, factory-made lasagna. With Darlene as gatekeeper, people are inspired to make an effort, and with her gone, there is a great slacking-off, and you don’t want that in a small town. What if your firemen and EMTs and teachers start to slack off? What if your neighbors see your window wide open in the pouring rain and think, “Oh what the hell. Not my problem.”

And beyond that, she’s from a previous era when waitresses might call you “Darling” or “Sweetheart” or “Sugar,” and if she  knows you well, you’d be “Honeybunch” or “Sweetykins” or “Precious.” Maybe she’d ask what you want and you’d say, “The usual,” and she’d pinch the flab under your chin and say, “Maybe we’ve been having too much of the usual, darling.” With her gone, nobody would ever be “Precious” again. She was missed by all the old men whose wives no longer sweettalk them. Once, Duane Bunsen, home from his IT job in a Minneapolis bank, came back for a weekend and was Honeybunched by Darlene and went back to Minneapolis and called his office manager “Sweetheart” and was spoken to sharply. But in this town, Sweethearting and Preciousing between adults who’ve known each other since childhood is considered a comfort. And you, beloved reader, should take my word for it. I’m not kidding, Pumpkin.

It was a time of strange phenomena. Daryl and David Darwin, the one-time bullies of the town who loved fistfights more than life itself, now approaching 80, their hands having been busted so many times they cannot shuffle a deck of cards or handle a wrench—they stood in Wally’s Sidetrack Tap among the cribbage game, the basketball on TV, the pinball machine dinging, both of them tipsy on peach brandy, and they broke into “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” a favorite of their mother’s, sang it in sweet two-part harmony like Don and Phil Everly. The pinball stopped, the TV sound was turned down. Two rotten sinners and hell-raisers, but something had moved them and they sang from the depths of their blackened hearts, “Tho’ the heart be weary, sad the day and long, still to us at twilight comes love’s old song, comes love’s old sweet song.”

Wally said, “That was beautiful, boys,” and then he sneezed so hard he blew his cigar across the room, shedding sparks like a comet, and he threw out his sacroiliac. He looked for the cigar and found it under a radiator, and there beside it was a letter postmarked 2017, addressed to Daryl Darwin when he was in jail for malicious cruelty, written by his mother, Millie, on her deathbed and delivered three years late, which said, “Darling Daryl, I love you dearly and though you have hurt me deeply, I forgive you, and as I prepare to leave this world, I want you to know that I see the good in you and am proud to be your mom.” Nobody ever had said good things about Daryl Darwin and here he’d been forgiven from beyond the grave, and he and David sang their mother’s favorite song, tears running down their cheeks, and men in the bar who bore scars inflicted by the Darwins wept along with them.

The same day Darlene got the bra, the Men’s Fellowship, a group of 30 or so who used to be the Men’s Prayer Fellowship but gradually devolved into a social club, met for lunch at the Legion hall. It was always old man Bunsen who had prayed, Clarence and Clint’s dad, Oscar, and when dementia struck, he prayed in Norwegian, which was so majestic men wept to hear it, though they couldn’t understand a word, and when he died, few ventured to pray a real prayer, knowing the result would be inferior. Oscar was widely revered. On the day he died, at age 82, though out of his mind, he came to town and enjoyed a hearty lunch, had a beer at the Sidetrack, won three bucks at cribbage, told three jokes well, danced to “The Too Fat Polka” with Wally’s wife, who was tending bar, walked three miles home, lay down for a nap and never awoke.

The Fellowship sat down to chicken chow mein and coleslaw at two long tables, and everyone murmured, “God is great and God is good, and we thank Him for the food. By His hand, we must be fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” And then Clint Bunsen stood up as they started to dig in and said, “I have to say that the idea that there is a daddy in the sky who is arranging our lives and doing favors in exchange for our admiration is an old hoax, and everybody knows it deep down in your hearts and doesn’t dare say it. If he is a god of goodness and he doesn’t use his power to wipe out evil, then he isn’t omnipotent and there’s no reason to worship him. God is a wrong turn we took back in antiquity, and it is responsible for more hatred and warfare and cruelty than anything else, and yet our grandfathers handed it to our fathers and they gave it to us, and I say, No, thank you. Wake up, live your life, be glad for what you have, and don’t let delusions of godliness blind you to the beauty of nature.” And he sat down and dug into his chicken chow mein. And Roger asked Clarence if Clint was okay, and he said, “He was an hour ago.”

Conversation was muted after that and stuck mainly to the weather, the long-term forecasts. It was Lent, after all, and Lutheran men sign a Lenten pledge to observe 10 hours of silence a week, which for some of them would be a normal day. Anyway, they didn’t talk about atheism.

When Clarence caught up with him later, Clint, unlike Darlene, did not deny having said what he said. He said he’d heard a TED Talk by a woman who said that deism is destructive to our ability to empathize, that it dehumanizes us, and he’d been listening to her podcast, so some of her thoughts were running through his head and something moved him to speak them aloud, so he did, and he didn’t feel embarrassed, quite the contrary. His granddaughters had been encouraged to express themselves freely, and now they are all over the map ideologically, anarcho-humanist, animal activist, post-behavioral feminism, witchcraft, and he feels okay about stepping out of the Comfy Grampa role and staking out some ground for himself.

Clarence pointed out the obvious—that their Ford dealership, Bunsen Motors, is traditionally patronized by Lutherans, rather than the Catholic Krebsbach Chev, and so it might be prudent to keep any atheist thoughts to himself lest Ford owners feel a divine calling to buy Chevs instead. Perhaps an apology to the Men’s Fellowship would be in order. Clint declined to apologize. “I feel like I’ve been apologizing all my life and that’s enough.” He said it felt good to say his piece, and it made people sit up and think, and how can you be opposed to thoughtfulness?

“There is truth in what you say, I’m sure, but we have a business to think of,” said Clarence.

“Ha! A dying business. You and I are old, and none of our kids are interested in selling cars or working on them, believe me, I’ve asked. Duane’s happy in Minneapolis, Harry does comic books, Donna’s in real estate, Barbara Ann runs her husband Bill and elects Democrats. And what fool is going to buy a small-town Ford dealership that runs 85 percent on personal loyalty? New owner comes in, and suddenly all the Lutherans are free to shop around and buy Japanese. There’s a big Ford dealership just down the road that undersells us by 10 to 15 percent. You know it and I know it. You’re looking at retirement, Bubs. Another year or two and you can stop combing the hair over your bald spot and get yourself a bigger color TV.”

“Okay, okay,” Clarence said. “Think what you like, but don’t feel you have to share it with the world, okay? Spare me the headache. No need to go around desecrating things.” And Clint nodded and slid back under the car—a quart of peanut butter had melted into the heater and needed to be vacuumed and squeegeed out—reason enough, Clarence thought, to lose faith in God temporarily. He noticed on the workbench a white lily and a chocolate-covered doughnut and a Post-it note, “You’re my hero. I love you.” In Irene’s handwriting. He’d been counting on Irene’s help. No such luck.

Clint had had his doubts about Christianity for years, having been the Samaritan who goes out on emergency calls with the wrecker to rescue Christians with car problems. Hundreds of times he had stood beside a motorist staring helplessly at his engine and taking the Lord’s name in vain and Clint reached down and flicked something, and the car leaped to life, and the Christian hated him for fixing it so quickly (couldn’t he have pretended to be confused and said, “Boy, I dunno, this is a toughie,” but no, he just reached down and bingo). So the Christian hands him a ten, and Clint says, “No, no, my pleasure,” and he smiles and pats the Christian’s arm, and walks away, and it’s the pat on the arm that pisses the Christian off, the patronizing pat of the big hero of the highway, and you’re the goat. No, Clint had helped many a stranded Christian and heard his teeth grinding as he walked away.

Now he expected Pastor Liz to come and have a word with him about faith and offer him some helpful pamphlets to read, and he planned to tell her, “I decided it’s time to face the darkness and not be afraid,” and two days later Pastor Liz went over the cliff.

The next Sunday morning, she seemed distracted, she didn’t join in the opening hymn, she stood up to give the sermon. The rule about sermons is: they should have a clear beginning and a strong end, and the two should be as close together as possible. Liz is dyslexic, so she tries to memorize the sermon, but she carries blank paper with her because Lutherans get nervous if the pastor in the pulpit has no text, they worry that she’ll go on at length and the pot roast will burn in the oven.

This sermon got away from her, and it went on for almost an hour. It started out on the verse in Colossians about Christ interceding for us at the right hand of the throne of God, and the word “throne” flipped a switch, and she told about the time she flew to Boston and used the toilet on the plane, not noticing the warning sign “DO NOT FLUSH WHILE SEATED ON TOILET,” because she was sitting on the toilet at the time, and she flushed and felt a powerful force gripping her butt like a python seizing a rat, and she couldn’t pry herself loose. The flight attendant was tapping on the door and asking, “Are you all right?” and Pastor Liz didn’t know how to answer that question. She was basically all right in that she had faith in God’s unceasing love, but on the other hand, she was being swallowed by a toilet. The flight attendant tried to break the seal by inserting his hand between the toilet seat and her left cheek. But she was still stuck, and the plane had to make an emergency landing in Cleveland, and the ground crew cut the toilet free with an acetylene torch and lifted her out, the seat still stuck to her, and carried her through the terminal, toilet seat attached, and someone took a picture and it appeared on Instagram, Liz looking like a Parker House roll on a plate, with arms and legs. This picture made its way to the bishop, and so Liz, who’d been marked for a coveted assignment at prestigious Central Lutheran in Minneapolis, got shunted off to Lake Wobegon. Minneapolis Lutherans didn’t want a pastor whose buttocks had gone viral online. One wrong flush, and though she’d been valedictorian at St. Olaf, she was sent to the sticks. The mention of St. Olaf then reminded her of the boy named Adam who took her virginity, but she had to beg him to do it, he didn’t do it of his own volition, and then she talked about her cat, Muffin, who had a kidney infection, and then she went on a tirade against the church demoting the Holy Spirit, who is the feminine member of the Trinity—the congregation sat in shock and three people walked out, and then the organist, Tibby Marklund, who’d been working a crossword puzzle, planted her left foot on a pedal and there was a throbbing bass note like an ailing hippopotamus, and two altos burst out in horrible whinnying laughter, and Liz left and there was no Communion.

Lutherans are not amused by stream-of-consciousness sermons. Some people said, “Oh, she was only sharing her humanity,” but phone calls were made by the elders, and on Monday morning Lutheran HQ sent a psychologist to talk to Liz, who had no memory of the sermon though she admitted the toilet seat story was true, and the psychologist asked her if she had had a mental lapse of this sort previously, and Liz looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t care for your tone of voice. I am a minister of the Gospel, I am not here for you to patronize. Go be snotty to somebody else.” The next day she left quietly on an extended leave of absence with her sister Lil, who’d come all the way from Grand Forks to collect her. The cat was given to the Tolleruds, and that evening Daryl dosed it with a tranquilizer crushed in whipped cream, and Muffin went to the Great Lap in the Sky.

Lake Wobegon had never had a genuine clerical scandal before, and it made the most of this one, especially the Catholics did. They went out of their way to accost their Lutheran friends and express sympathy in a way that made you want to give them a good swift kick in the shins. Their sympathy was insufferable.

Myrtle Krebsbach said to Florence Tollefson, “I can’t imagine what you people are going through right now. This must be terribly painful. She seemed like such a nice person.”

Florence said, “Mind your own business for once.”

“To sit there Sunday morning and listen to your own minister talk about getting stuck on a toilet seat and then losing her virginity to somebody who didn’t even like her. In church. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like.”

Florence’s gaze drilled right into her. “Well, I’m glad we’ve given you all something to gossip about. Feast on it. Your turn will come, I promise.”

“If there’s anything I can do to help, I hope you’ll let me know.”

“You could start by losing 40 pounds and using less eye shadow. You’re 80 years old, for God’s sake.”

“I’m only expressing my sympathy. I’m sorry this is so painful for you.”

Florence said, “Well, you can take your sympathy and put it where the sun don’t shine.”

There was great delight in the Sidetrack Tap, of course, a place where decorum is not a fixed standard. Men took a toilet seat off the wall and passed it around, and Clint Bunsen, on his second rum and Coke, hung the seat around his neck and sang:

I used to work in Chicago
In a big department store.
I used to work in Chicago—
I did but I don’t anymore.
A lady came in for a girdle.
I asked her what kind she wore.
“Rubber,” she said, and rub her I did,
And I don’t work there anymore.

And Mr. Bauer recited: “There was a young pastor named Liz who sat on the toilet to whiz. She flushed and it stuck on her butt. WTF. And that’s what her ass meant and is.”

Clint split a gut, and then they did “Waltz Me Around Again, Willie” and “Roll Me Over in the Clover” and the dirty version of “Red Wing,” and they told limericks about the young man from Antietam and the young lady of Buckingham. The Sidetrack Tap is not the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and it has its own rules. Of course, if Pope Francis walked in or Michelle Obama, people would behave accordingly, but meanwhile, it is what it is, and the old patrons took some pleasure in the chagrin of Lutherans at the Liz episode.

And so the town headed into March, the month God created to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like. The Lutheran bishop sent a pale seminarian named Phipps to replace Liz. He was pleasant enough but had a terrible habit of strolling into the congregation during his sermon, approaching people, putting his hand on your shoulder, preaching face-to-face, which terrified people. What if he grabbed you suddenly and hollered, “Heal!”—what would you do? Lutherans are not Pentecostals, they’re not looking for out-of-the-body experiences. So Phipps was sent back to the factory, and a young woman named Faith arrived who was Episcopalian as you could see from the rather ornate sash around her neck, like a sidecloth from your grandma’s buffet, and good God, the way she genuflected with a deep curtsy—can’t you cross yourself without making it into a ballet move? She did the Good Friday reading of Christ on the cross, and when she read, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” it sounded like she was having an episode. And the Easter reading and the angel saying, “DO NOT BE ALARMED”—it was alarming. This is church, not Masterpiece Theatre. She was sent back.

Meanwhile, the inappropriate incidents went on. Margie Krebsbach sat down in the Bon Ton to have her hair done and started talking French to Charlotte. French! She spoke a whole slew of it. Charlotte remembers enough French from high school to recognize it as something of a communistic nature with the words “Allons! Allons! Mes camarades!” Then Margie closed her eyes and leaned back, and Charlotte did the usual and no more was said. Weird. It was Arlene Bunsen who read an article about inappropriate outbursts as a symptom of food poisoning, and she took it to Dr. DeHaven, who was busy with a man whose urinary tract was on the fritz, so she left the article for him and he wrote her a note before he went home for his nap. She had to find his old nurse Eleanor, who is the only person in town, including Dr. DeHaven, who can read his handwriting. He said, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got my hands full with people who actually need help. Your people are just competing for attention.” Dr. DeHaven was 78 and had hinted at retirement years before but was offended that nobody tried to talk him out of it, and so he stayed on. He was a good man, but his general motto was “Let’s wait and see,” which doesn’t always lead to good results. He was easily bored by people’s complaints and often changed the subject to his own adventures as a hunter and fisherman and told one story after another until the appointment was up and thanked the patient and saw him or her to the door.

The Lutheran church was pastorless, so the bishop sent Rev. Anderson, a retiree, a pastor from the pasture, 82, who often neglected to wear his hearing aids and seemed quite content to be deaf. According to Lucille, who cleaned the parsonage as well as the church, he missed the toilet when he peed, and he took two-hour naps, sometimes two in succession. It was discovered after three weeks that his sermons came word-for-word from Homily Helper, a collection of 520 sermon outlines that he read as sermons, about three minutes in length. To Lutherans, those are known as “chalk talks,” and they’re meant for children. The man was shirking his duty.

Lutherans are dutiful people. Many Lutheran couples, after their wedding and the supper in the church basement, have stuck around to help with the dishes and cleaning up, even though their families tell them, “You go now. We’re fine. It’s your honeymoon, for heaven’s sake,” but the couple insists, “No, we don’t want to leave you with the mess. As soon as we sweep up and clean off the tables, we’ll be out of here.” Elderly Lutherans have gone in the hospital and wished the pastor would come visit them but refused to let anyone tell him. They would rather die than be a problem, and often they do. But a three-minute sermon is an insult. So Clarence and Roger and Grace and Dorothy drove down to the Minneapolis Lutheran synod headquarters and arrived a few minutes before the 5 p.m. closing time, and the front door was locked, so Roger got out a lug wrench and banged on the glass until a bishop appeared, and they marched in without a word of apology, unusual for Lutherans, and told the bishop that Pastor Anderson was a disgrace to the vestments, and he was drummed out, and the next day Liz came back, good old Liz. She’d been accepted as an intern at an organic hydroponic herb farm owned by Ben, who was auditioning to be her boyfriend, but when the bishop called her, she felt a tug at her heartstrings, and besides, Ben—a Republican who believed that a Deep State of undercover Harvard liberals was running Washington—required more remedial work than she cared to invest in him, so she accepted her old job back and the next Sunday there she was, and as she came down the aisle, the congregation applauded. Highly unusual in a Lutheran church. Historic, even. But they’d seen the alternatives and compared to arrogance and sloth, a bare butt looked not so bad.

Wobegon is a town of nice people except for a few cranks who serve to show how nice everyone else is. Self-effacing people. Bare butts are not what Wobegon is about, not at all, and yet—once Lutherans had seen the grabby guy and the thespian and the slacker, they welcomed Liz back joyfully and forgivingly. It’s good for a pastor to experience public shame and be forgiven. You practice on the pastor, and maybe someday you’ll be capable of forgiving yourself.

 

© Garrison Keillor, 2020


The Lake Wobegon Virus comes out on September 8, 2020 via Arcade Publishing.

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That Time of Year softcover by Garrison Keillor!

That Time of Year coverThe "revised" softcover version of  Garrison Keillor's memoir, That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life will be available wherever you get your books on March 7, 2023.  It is available for pre-order in our shop now.

From the author:
I sat down and looked at my memoir THAT TIME OF YEAR when it came out and was put off by the sadness, the opening chapter about how much I missed doing “A Prairie Home Companion,” so I sat down to fix it. That’s why a writer shouldn’t read his own work. But I did and so I sat down to cheer it up a little and wrote a new first paragraph.

I am a Minnesotan, born, bred, well-fed, self-repressed, bombast averse, sprung from the middle of North America, raised along the Mississippi River, which we spelled in rhythm, M-i-ss-i-ss-i-pp-i, a sweet incantation along with the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23 and our school fight song about v-i-c-t-o-r-y. We sang it with a sense of irony, knowing we weren’t winners in the eyes of New York or L.A. or even our football rivals, but we were proud of our North Star State, the flatness, the fertile fields, the culture of kindness and modesty, our ferocious winters, when white people become even whiter, and to top it all off, we were the origin of the Mighty Miss. Wisconsin wasn’t, nor North the

Dakota. It was us and strings of barges came up to St.Paul to haul our corn and beans to a hungry world.

I wrote a new preface and a cheerier first chapter, which came (literally) from the heart I having undergone heart surgery at Mayo to replace a leaky mitral valve and I felt good. I did this for readers who missed the hardcover edition, to give them a lift, and also myself. The revision led to SERENITY AT 70, GAIETY AT 80 and a new book in progress, CHEERFULNESS. It’s a happy phenomenon, an author still ambitious at 80, and I give credit to my wife Jenny. If I were teaching Creative Writing today, I’d teach my students the importance of marrying the right person.

Garrison Keillor

From the Publisher:
With the warmth and humor we've come to know, the creator and host of A Prairie Home Companion shares his own remarkable story.

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.

He says, “I was unemployable and managed to invent work for myself that I loved all my life, and on top of that I married well. That’s the secret, work and love. And I chose the right ancestors, impoverished Scots and Yorkshire farmers, good workers. I’m heading for eighty, and I still get up to write before dawn every day.”

 

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Music as a means of detecting a heart

At least once in your long and delicious life you owe it to yourself to go hear Olivier Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-symphonie” and don’t wait until you’re 80 as I did but finally last week went to hear the New York Philharmonic take us on this wild 90-minute roller-coaster ride in which Catholics are kidnapped and Baptists go Buddhist and you think in French and fly in a formation of geese and get a taste of molecular physics as horses go galloping down the aisles, and in the gorgeous slow passage “Garden of Sleeping Love” you will fall in love forever with the person next to you so be very careful where you sit. I sat next to my sweetheart and after years of thinking I was averse to modern music, here was a hymn to joy and time, movement, rhythm, life and death, with big Wagnerian chords, delicate intervals, a dozen percussionists, a genius pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and we’ve been happily married ever since. It’s not often a person gets to experience euphoria. For years I imagined alcohol could do the job if I could just find the right brand but eventually I gave up on that. Sometimes in church I’ve felt it. When I was 11 I got to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I sang the Dead’s “Attics of My Life” once with two women and got a little high from it. And one night before the Philharmonic I experienced it at the Bowery Ballroom on Delancey Street listening to Aoife O’Donovan and Hawktail and the phenom fiddler Brittany Haas and it made the big crowd go wild to see artists overcome gravity and simply float. Aoife and Messiaen, two transcendent tours on successive nights: it makes living in Manhattan worth the trouble and expense. You can eat expensive mediocre food in loud restaurants, almost get run over by e-scooters, deal with surly salesclerks, cabs stuck in dense traffic, extortionate rents, impenetrable bureaucracy, but the museums and trains and tulips in spring and the occasional transcendental experiences make up for it. Two nights of mind-blown beauty make me want to start my career all over again. But the world has changed, of course. Taylor Swift, the middle-aged 14-year-old, has kicked off another tour, taking self-absorption deeper than ever before in human history, standing on a stage in front of 70,000 fans who each identify deeply with her, saying, “Tonight is so special and you have led me to believe, by your being here, that it is special for you too and it’s so nice that this is mutual. I don’t know how to process this and the way that it’s making me feel right now.” Who in the entire history of show business has ever talked like this? A woman adoring her fans for their adoration. The iconic emptiness of it is phenomenal. How does she maintain her powerful insecurities despite being a billionaire? The mind is boggled. Did Elvis tell the crowd he was so overwhelmed by their coming to see him that he was confused by it? No, he was Elvis. But you walk out the door and across the street, into the park, and bubblegum disappears, and you’re among real people watching their kids, walking their dogs, jogging, looking at birds, reading the paper, enjoying city life. The city relieves you of the burden of narcissism. People look out for each other in the crowd, make way for the elderly, for people with kids, pay attention to the musicians playing under the trees. And then you remember that night at the Philharmonic, the moment the symphony ended, the maestro relaxed, and the crowd jumped to their feet to whoop and applaud. Messiaen is dead. He didn’t create a cult, he created a masterpiece, and it lives on. It can’t be played by any orchestra in town, it’s too ferocious, but in the right hands it is a priceless gift to the audience. Same with Brittany Haas. I’ve heard hundreds of fiddlers in my day, all with their virtues, and they strove hard to find something and she simply has got it in her pocket. She stands on their shoulders. She can do it all and a ballroom full of people got their socks knocked off. Messiaen and Haas, you hear the music, you don’t envy them or admire them, the music simply goes through you like radio waves and proves that you’re alive.

The longer you live, the better it gets

I went down to the Bowery one night last week to see Aoife O’Donovan sing to a ballroom packed with young people standing for two hours and whooping and yelling — I sat up in the balcony and whooped and yelled too — and what the woman could do with her voice and guitar was astonishing, utterly fabulous, and for a man my age to be astonished is remarkable, she was competing with my memory of Uncle Jim handing me the reins to his horse-drawn hayrack and my grandma chopping the head off a chicken and seeing Buster Keaton perform at the Minnesota State Fair and also Paul Simon at Madison Square Garden and Renée Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier, but there she is, Aoife, in my pantheon of wonderment.

I came home from the Bowery to learn that a dear friend, Christine Jacobson, had died — amazement and mortality in one evening, and it’s a rare privilege to be aware of both, the beauty of life and the brevity. I look down from my balcony seat on the heads of young people excited by an artist and in their behalf I am worried about our country, with so many of our countrymen in favor of resuming the Civil War, with our history of trillions spent on wars in Vietnam and Iraq from which no benefit whatever was gained, but the exhilaration of the young is better than bourbon, more wonderful than wine.

Two young people called my wife recently and she put the phone on Speaker and I could hear the quiet joy in their voices that told the story, no explanation needed: she was pregnant, a child is on the way, she can feel it moving. Someday, I trust, my grandson will call me and I’ll hear that joy in his voice, and the Keillor line will extend into the 22nd century.

I am descended, in part, from William Cox, a British seaman aboard a man-o’-war docked in Charleston harbor in the early 19th century, who jumped ship, which was a capital offense, and made his way to Pennsylvania and settled among Quakers who were unlikely to turn a man in for desertion, and married Elizabeth Boggs who bore a daughter, Martha Ann, who married David Powell from whom my paternal grandmother, the one who beheaded the chicken, was descended. I sat by her bedside when she died in 1964, tended by her daughters. She and her twin sister had been railroad telegraphers, a rare thing for women in 1900 — they had learned Morse code as kids to give each other the answers to tests in school — and she became a schoolteacher and married my grandfather, who was on the school board.

Having a grandma who’d taught school was a big factor in my childhood: I wrote her letters and was very careful about spelling and grammar. I write this sentence now and I am aware of Grandma Dora. If I came home with a poor grade, my mother said, “Grandma would be disappointed,” and her possible disappointment weighed very heavily on me. I became a professional journalist at age 14, writing sports for a weekly newspaper, and my grandma read them and approved. And so a man finds his career.

I wrote a magazine piece about a radio show, which led me to start my own, which is how I came to know Aoife and I’d sung with her before, and now, sitting in the balcony, I was dazed with admiration. Admiration of her artistry and also of the openhearted enthusiasm of the crowd below. To me it’s all connected somehow, the desertion of Mr. Cox from the cruelty of life below decks, my good penmanship writing to Grandma, the old radio show, and the woman on stage bestowing enormous gifts on us all.

Mortality is what makes the gifts enormous. That afternoon I got a phone call from my old pal George, who is 87 and who announced that he’d been bounced out of hospice because he’d failed to die and was feeling very chipper about it. He recalled eulogies I’d given at funerals for our friends Arvonne and Martin and he seemed to be angling for me to eulogize him. I said, “George, if I do it for you then everyone’s going to want it for them. I used to think death was a tragedy and now it’s a trend.”

A necessary trend. There are people standing in the crowd who will need to sit down and we in the balcony need to make room for them.

Marriage is a game and two can play it

BANK STOCKS SKID was the scary headline days ago sending shivers of 1929 and old newsreels of breadlines on Wall Street and Dorothea Lange photographs of migrant women and naturally the thought of a Crash makes me think we need to go out for entertainment, of which New York has plenty.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks are playing at Birdland, a 12-piece band reliving Twenties stomps and blues with Vince’s bass sax honking at the head of the formation. The New York Phil is playing Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony. There’s an Emo Ball with DJs playing disco hits and an All-Night Singles Party at which ladies drink for free. (How do they make sure you’re single? Or a lady?)

The Met is doing “Lohengrin,” so you could sing along (“Here comes the bride, big, fat and wide”) and then go to a club that offers Afro-Caribbean dancing from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. on Friday night. Four hours of German mysticism followed by euphoric dancing and then go out for waffles and sausage: what better way to get financial distress off your mind?

The Missus and I will be going to the Phil for the Messiaen, which is 80 minutes long and has an enlarged orchestra with maybe eleven percussionists. I married up, she’s a professional musician, and she loves Messiaen, and I will sit quietly and write in my program:

The composer O. Messiaen
Caught the measles and almost was gone
But was saved by physicians
To compose compositions
That go on and on. And then on.

She also loves to look at art, which I can take or leave and mostly leave. I go to museums to overhear conversations between couples, usually the woman telling the man, “You don’t like it, do you” and he says, “It’s interesting,” and she seizes on his lack of enthusiasm for the splashy canvas he’s looking at, thinking “I could’ve done that,” and she says, “If you’d just take the time to learn something about art, you’d enjoy it more,” as if this is a personal failing on his part.

The guy majored in economics, he’s on track to become a vice president at Amalgamated Linguini, they vacation on the Cape, the kids are in private schools, and suddenly she wants him to be an art critic and talk about ambience, brushwork, and chiaroscuro? And she walks on to the next piece as he follows her like a dog on a leash.

I find this more interesting than anything on the walls, the competitive aspects of marriage. Women’s ace card is the eye roll; they learn this by the age of 14 and use it on their mothers, and then on the husbands.

My sweetie has an eye roll that makes the room spin. Due to the fact that I’m an author and have so much on my mind, I have a hard time finding my glasses and keys and phone, even shoes, and she rolls her eyes and I have to sit down and put my head between my knees until I can see straight.

I go to the Met and am naturally drawn toward sculptures of naked people, some of which the Met places near the entrance so as to pull in folks from the Dakotas and Wisconsin where nudity is rather rare, big Roman figures with proud buttocks and muscular thighs and naked women standing tall and proud, but I only give the statuary a sidelong glance as she leads me toward the Egyptian pottery exhibit. She is fascinated by it. I am fascinated by her and the fact that she is interested in things that bore me to tears. Such as myself.

I’m rather tired of myself, if you want to know the truth, I’ve heard all my good lines dozens of times, but a few days ago when I stepped out of the shower and had to go to the hall closet to get a towel, she walked in and saw me and smiled. This was a smile you could take to the bank and it showed interest on her part, maybe not 100 percent but more than 7.5. “You’re dripping water on the floor,” she said but she said it softly and she didn’t roll her eyes. She didn’t rip the towel off me and hurl me onto the bed but she was very nice to me the rest of the day. That’s all I can say for now. Wild horses couldn’t drag the rest out of me.

Thanks to Lutherans I skipped ballet

I talked to a friend last week whose Lutheran church in Minneapolis is trying to attract people of color. Lutherans have been white for centuries, coming as they did from Scandinavia and Germany, countries that were never great colonial powers and didn’t grab big chunks of Africa and Lutheranize the indigenous people. Some Lutherans are more gray than white, but if you go to a Lutheran church you sense a monochromaticism due to the fact that people in the pews tend to be descendants of Lutherans, the faith was handed down, it’s like farming — most farmers grew up on a farm — not many Manhattanites develop a passion for soybeans and head for North Dakota to buy 400 acres and a John Deere.

“I know that,” he said, “but still.”

It’s a complicated subject.

I grew up in Minnesota, which is a Lutheran culture. Even Catholics are Lutheran, they tone down the glitzier aspects of Romanism and speak in flat tones and don’t make big sweeping hand gestures and the incense is simply Glade air freshener. Even the atheists are Lutheran. It’s a Lutheran god they don’t believe in. Of course, one shouldn’t generalize but Lutherans without exception are very polite and never say anything harsh about anyone — “I don’t get it” is as harsh as they get — and if you take them to a dreadful play, “It was interesting” is as negative as they’ll go.

They are dutiful people who, if you put on a party they stand off to the side and discuss public education and infrastructure needs and around 9:45 p.m. they start to clean up the kitchen and put things away, even while other people are opening a third beer and singing “I Saw Her Standing There.” Personal charm is not high on their list, they associate it with insurance salesmen. They do not express personal preference, and when offered a choice of desserts, they say, “Either one is fine, whatever, makes no difference to me, I’m happy either way, whatever you have more of.” This refusal to make choices is responsible for the very high rate of Lutheran strangulations.

The low point of their year is the summer vacation. She wants to go to California and he prefers Washington, D.C., so they compromise by going to the Happy Bison Motel in Bismarck, a warehouse surrounded by forty acres of asphalt and semis going by all night, and the air conditioner sounds like a power lathe. They go because her cousin lives nearby whom neither of them likes. And they are good and glad to get back home.

The question I ask myself is, “Do people of color really and truly wish to enlist in this army?” It isn’t just a religious faith, it’s a culture.

I’m not putting down Lutherans. There are advantages to being one. I read a review last night of two books by ballet dancers, both women, about the cruelty of the Swan Lake world, the physical pain, the abusive ballet masters, the starvation required to attain impossible physical perfection, the endless mindless repetition, and it struck me that, growing up in Anoka, Minnesota, among Lutherans, we didn’t know a leg extension from a dining room table. Had I grown up in the Hamptons or Boston I might be writing my own miserable memoir about suffering at the hands of choreographers, leaping around in black tights and hoisting skinny women up over my head while standing tippy-toe, and as you can see it didn’t happen. I am a comfortable guy with a good appetite and no back problems.

Growing up among Lutherans also helped to deter me from committing tax fraud, soliciting state officials to commit election fraud, fomenting an insurrection, and perpetrating big lies, which means I’m not waiting for the phone to ring, someone calling to tell me I’m under indictment in several different jurisdictions all at once, facing a long summer in courtrooms, dreading the thought of being led away in an orange prison outfit.

Instead I went to church Sunday and said the prayer of contrition for my sins, which include pride, envy, and sloth — I seem to have gluttony and lust under control for now though maybe that’s pride speaking — and afterward I shook hands with people in the pews around me. We’re Episcopalians and it’s New York so there’s a variety of people around, but people are people. Some of them may be secretly Lutheran, I don’t know, we don’t ask. God loves them all.

 

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

March 28, 2023

Tuesday

7:30 p.m.

The Pace Center, Parker, CO

Parker, CO

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

March 30, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Vilar Performing Arts Center, Beaver Creek, CO

Beaver Creek, CO

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

March 31, 2023

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Avalon Theater, Grand Junction, CO

Grand Junction, CO

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

April 27, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Cary Memorial Hall, Lexington, MA

Lexington, MA

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

April 29, 2023

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Park Theatre, Jaffrey, NH

Jaffrey, NH

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

April 30, 2023

Sunday

7:00 p.m.

Paramount Hudson Valley, Peekskill, NY

Peekskill, NY

Garrison Keillor brings his solo show to Peekskill NY. Be prepared to laugh and sing along as you celebrate all that unite us.

July 6, 2023

Thursday

8:00 p.m.

Sellersville Theatre, Sellersville, PA

Sellersville, PA

Garrison Keillor and Robin & Linda Williams come to Sellersville, PA for an evening of poetry, gospel, sing-alongs and the News from Lake Wobegon.

buy tickets
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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 23, 2023

Today marks the first day in 1942 when the U.S. government began moving Japanese-Americans from their West Coast homes to internment camps. Between 110,000 and 120,000 people were forcibly relocated. Some Japanese-American men were drafted into the War even as their families remained incarcerated. The camps remained open until 1945.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Today would have been the 93rd birthday of Stephen Sondheim. The American composer and lyricist was born in 1930 to unhappy people. At 10 years old he made friends with the son of Oscar Hammerstein, and his life changed as Hammerstein took him under his wing. He taught him about lyrics, harmony, the business of the theater, and was responsible for Sondheim being involved in “West Side Story” his first Broadway show.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Alabama Freedom March began on this date in 1965. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and 3,200 demonstrators set off on a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the disenfranchisement of black voters. The marchers traveled about 12 miles a day, and slept in the fields at night. By the time they reached Montgomery on March 25, their numbers had swelled to 25,000. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — which prohibits racial discrimination in voting — in August, less than five months after the Selma march.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 20, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, March 20, 2023

Today is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Emily Dickinson said: “A little Madness in the Spring / Is wholesome even for the King.” Mark Twain said: “It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 16, 1996

A Prairie Home Companion: November 16, 1996

Digging deep in the archive for this 1995 gem from The Town Hall in New York City, with Al Franken, Alice Playten, pianist Jaki Byard, and the cast of Radio Gals.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, March 19, 2023

Today is the birthday of novelist Philip Roth, born in 1933. In 1959, when he was 26 years old he published his first book, a novella and short stories titled “Goodbye, Columbus”. It won the National Book Award. In 1969 he wrote a best seller “Portnoy’s Complaint”, which is entirely made up of a monologue delivered by a patient, Alexander Portnoy, to his analyst.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, March 18, 2023

Novelist John Updike was born on this day in 1932. His literary career had him write more than 50 books, including novels, poetry, short stories and many newspaper columns. He said, “No amount of learned skills can substitute for the feeling of having a lot to say.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 17, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, March 17, 2023

Today is the birthday of novelist and children’s author Penelope Lively, her novel Moon Tiger (1987) won the Booker Prize. In Moon Tiger, she wrote: “We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse: we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, March 16, 2023

“The books we enjoy as children stay with us forever — they have a special impact. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, the author must deliver his or her best work.” – Sid Fleischman, born on this day in 1920. He won the Newbery Award in 1987 for his novel “The Whipping Boy.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 15, 2023

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Today is the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by conspirators in 44 B.C.E. The Roman Senate felt Cesar was a threat to the Republic, and had tyrannical leanings. An assassination was planned where only senators were allowed to be present, knives easily concealed in the drapery of their togas. Despite warnings Caesar went to meet the Senate. Upon arrival he was set upon, and murdered. The assassination that was meant to save the Republic actually resulted, ultimately, in its downfall. It sparked a series of civil wars and led to Julius’ heir, Octavian, becoming Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor.

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Writing

The longer you live, the better it gets

I went down to the Bowery one night last week to see Aoife O’Donovan sing to a ballroom packed with young people standing for two hours and whooping and yelling — I sat up in the balcony and whooped and yelled too — and what the woman could do with her voice and guitar was astonishing, utterly fabulous, and for a man my age to be astonished is remarkable, she was competing with my memory of Uncle Jim handing me the reins to his horse-drawn hayrack and my grandma chopping the head off a chicken and seeing Buster Keaton perform at the Minnesota State Fair and also Paul Simon at Madison Square Garden and Renée Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier, but there she is, Aoife, in my pantheon of wonderment.

I came home from the Bowery to learn that a dear friend, Christine Jacobson, had died — amazement and mortality in one evening, and it’s a rare privilege to be aware of both, the beauty of life and the brevity. I look down from my balcony seat on the heads of young people excited by an artist and in their behalf I am worried about our country, with so many of our countrymen in favor of resuming the Civil War, with our history of trillions spent on wars in Vietnam and Iraq from which no benefit whatever was gained, but the exhilaration of the young is better than bourbon, more wonderful than wine.

Read More

Marriage is a game and two can play it

BANK STOCKS SKID was the scary headline days ago sending shivers of 1929 and old newsreels of breadlines on Wall Street and Dorothea Lange photographs of migrant women and naturally the thought of a Crash makes me think we need to go out for entertainment, of which New York has plenty.

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks are playing at Birdland, a 12-piece band reliving Twenties stomps and blues with Vince’s bass sax honking at the head of the formation. The New York Phil is playing Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony. There’s an Emo Ball with DJs playing disco hits and an All-Night Singles Party at which ladies drink for free. (How do they make sure you’re single? Or a lady?)

Read More

Thanks to Lutherans I skipped ballet

I talked to a friend last week whose Lutheran church in Minneapolis is trying to attract people of color. Lutherans have been white for centuries, coming as they did from Scandinavia and Germany, countries that were never great colonial powers and didn’t grab big chunks of Africa and Lutheranize the indigenous people. Some Lutherans are more gray than white, but if you go to a Lutheran church you sense a monochromaticism due to the fact that people in the pews tend to be descendants of Lutherans, the faith was handed down, it’s like farming — most farmers grew up on a farm — not many Manhattanites develop a passion for soybeans and head for North Dakota to buy 400 acres and a John Deere.

Read More

The worst play I ever saw: a landmark

In case you’re wondering why I was not in church Sunday morning, I was in the Omaha airport at 6:30 a.m. waiting for a flight back to New York, listening to an announcement that unattended baggage would be confiscated, eating a breakfast croissant and blueberry yogurt, drinking coffee, which came to $19.74, which happens to be the year I started doing my old radio show.

I grew up Sanctified Brethren, so it was odd to wind up in comedy, but my mother loved Jack Benny and Lucille Ball, so there’s the hitch. I started the show to amuse her, and I succeeded. And the one Saturday night in Omaha did too. A tall woman and I sang love duets while a piano player with wild hair kept the beat and I did octogenarian stand-up and the audience accepted this pretty well.

Read More

Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson – The Family Car

Bill Hinkley and Judy Larson – The Family Car

Read More

The old man’s winter weekend

In case you’re wondering why I was not in church Sunday morning, I was in the Omaha airport at 6:30 a.m. waiting for a flight back to New York, listening to an announcement that unattended baggage would be confiscated, eating a breakfast croissant and blueberry yogurt, drinking coffee, which came to $19.74, which happens to be the year I started doing my old radio show.

I grew up Sanctified Brethren, so it was odd to wind up in comedy, but my mother loved Jack Benny and Lucille Ball, so there’s the hitch. I started the show to amuse her, and I succeeded. And the one Saturday night in Omaha did too. A tall woman and I sang love duets while a piano player with wild hair kept the beat and I did octogenarian stand-up and the audience accepted this pretty well.

Read More

Thinking about that woman in Kentucky

I was down in Frankfort, Kentucky, last week and sat in a café one morning and a fortyish woman in a white uniform approached and said, “What can I get you, Hon?” and I, being a Northerner, was rather touched because female food service workers up North don’t go around Honning male customers. I’ve been Deared a few times but only by women older than I and they may have Deared me from dementia. Once a waitperson in Minneapolis Friended me and I almost spilled my coffee.

(Notice that I don’t refer to them as a “waitress.” The “-ess” is a diminutive, it’s a patronizing relic of male dominance; she is a Waitperson, even though that term could be mistaken as “Weight Person,” meaning “fat lady.” Anyway, female service personnel in Minnesota do not address a man as “hon” or any other term of affection and if he addressed her as Hon, he could be arrested, handcuffed, and taken downtown.

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I missed out on the big storm regretfully

I flew down to Florida for a few days and regret missing the blizzard in Minnesota. I love snow, but I’m afraid of slipping and falling and joining the Joint Replacement Society, whereas in Florida you’d only slip on a banana. I needed to walk and take long strides, which facilitates clear thinking. And what I think, after a brisk walk, is that Florida is a lovely place if you don’t have anything to do and want to be with other people who don’t either. The major industry is relaxation. The bars open at noon, people have a few screwdrivers and go home and take a two-hour nap and watch a golf tournament and then maybe read Instagram or hang out with their iguana. The air conditioning is so cold, you have to wear a parka indoors. There is background music everywhere. Every lobby has a television on that nobody’s watching, music that nobody’s listening to, an environmental drug to keep people from thinking.

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So much is known but mystery remains

We’ve learned something about privacy lately, namely that it doesn’t exactly exist. The case against the man accused of murdering four students in Idaho shows that cellphone tracking and ubiquitous surveillance cameras make it possible for law enforcement to learn a great deal about a person of interest. Spy satellites enable intelligence agencies to focus in on you as you park at the drive-up window and see how many Egg McMuffins you ordered and whether you take your coffee light or black. And a defamation lawsuit against Fox has subpoenaed internal memos showing that the network’s top stars managed to forget what is fact and what is not and why they should care.

There’s no getting around the fact that we’re more visible than we can imagine and if you care to be paranoid, you now have a reason to be, though in fact the spyware is gathering so much data, gazillions of gigabytes, more than anybody can analyze, and so there is safety in confusion.

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SING ALONG (July 2022)

The sun come up, it was blue and gold
The sun come up, it was blue and gold
The sun come up, it was blue and gold
Ever since I put your picture in a frame

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Whether solo or accompanied by Richard Dworsky, Heather Masse, Prudence Johnson, Dan Chouinard, Dean Magraw, or others, Garrison Keillor delivers an extraordinary, crowd-pleasing performance.

Garrison Keillor’s celebrated radio broadcast A Prairie Home Companion ran for forty years. He wrote the comedy sketches and more, and he invented a “little town that time forgot and the decades could not improve.” These days, his shows are packed with humor and song, plus the audience-favorite News from Lake Wobegon. He has written dozens of books — recently, Boom Town (a Lake Wobegon novel), That Time of Year (a memoir), a book of limericks, and Serenity at 70, Gaiety at 80 (reflections on why you should keep on getting older). Garrison and his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, live in New York City.

Trained as a jazz singer at the New England Conservatory of Music, Heather Masse is equally versed in a variety of traditions — folk, pop, bluegrass, and more. As member of Billboard-charting group The Wailin’ Jennys, she has performed at hundreds of venues across the world. She was a frequent guest on A Prairie Home Companion, both solo and with The Jennys. One reviewer rightly lauded her “lush velvety vocals, capable of melting butter in a Siberian winter.”

 Prudence Johnson‘s long and happy career as a singer, writer, and teacher has landed her on the musical theater stage, in two feature films (A River Runs Through It and A Prairie Home Companion), on a national radio show (several stints on A Prairie Home Companion) and on concert stages across North America and occasionally Europe. She has released more than a dozen recordings, including albums dedicated to the music of Hoagy Carmichael and Greg Brown, and a collection of international lullabies.

 For 23 years, Richard Dworsky served as A Prairie Home Companion’s pianist and music director, providing original theatrical underscoring, leading the house band, and performing as a featured soloist. The St. Paul, Minnesota, native also accompanied many of the show’s guests, including James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Yo-Yo Ma, Sheryl Crow, Chet Atkins, Renée Fleming, and Kristin Chenoweth.

 Dan Chouinard is a St. Paul-based honky-tonk pianist, concert soloist and accompanist, street accordionist, sing-along enabler, Italian and French teacher, and bicycling vagabond. He’s been writer and host of a number of live history-with-music shows broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television. He played on a dozen live broadcasts of A Prairie Home Companions plus a half dozen APHC cruises, and served as rehearsal pianist for Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and Lindsay Lohan on the 2005 APHC movie. He’s featured on a number of recordings with Prairie Home regulars Peter Ostroushko, Prudence Johnson and Maria Jette.

 Composer/arranger/producer/guitarist Dean Magraw performed and recorded extensively with Ukrainian American virtuoso Peter Ostroushko over several decades, and he has worked with some of the finest musicians in the North America, Europe, and Japan. As one of his collaborators commented, “Dean Magraw’s guitar playing transcends, transports, and lifts the soul to a higher level as he weaves, cajoles, and entices every note from his instrument.”

Recent reviews:

“Fans laughed, applauded and sang along throughout Sunday night’s two-hour show” -Jeff Baenen, AP News

“His shows can, for a couple of hours, transform an audience of even so-called coastal elites into a small-town community with an intimacy only radio and its podcast descendants can achieve” -Chris Barton, LA Times

“[Keillor is] an expert at making you feel at home with his low-key, familiar style. Comfortable is his specialty.” -Betsie Freeman, Omaha-World Herald

 

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