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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Rest in Peace, Butch Thompson

 

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

–GK

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

 

Available Now: BOOM TOWN by Garrison Keillor!

In Garrison Keillor’s newest novel, Boom Town, we return to Lake Wobegon, famous from decades of monologues on the classic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

**Available in Hardcover, Audiobook, and eReader formats**

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

 

Praise for Boom Town:

“Wonderfully over-the-top. Blisteringly funny, acute, and true. Keillor’s speaking to us with encouragement and empathy about the American life. But at the same time, he’s got our number that way he’s always had it. This book is a tonic.” —Richard Ford

 

“You can’t go home again unless you’re Garrison Keillor and home is Lake Wobegon. Then, of course, it is imperative that you do so—and we are fortunate indeed to tag along and share in the final chapter of the most fascinating and compelling characters ever conjured from the most vivid imagination of America’s greatest storyteller!

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

 

Read the first chapter for free >>>

Purchase Boom Town Hardcover >>>

Download the audiobook as mp3s  >>>

Listen to the audiobook via Audible >>>

Read it on Kindle >>>

 

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An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking a crowded street in gratitude

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

Thank you, thank you, thank you

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

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

And then there’s the GPS lady in the dashboard who leads us through mazes of 18th-century streets in New England towns and there are no more of those “I told you to turn left” arguments. And Google, which lets you type in “Now thank we all our God” and it gives you “With heart and hands and voices, Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices; Who from our mothers’ arms” and so forth. And YouTube, where “Going to the Chapel” and “Under the Boardwalk” and “Sugar Sugar” and all the hits of my youth are instantly available when needed, no need to rummage through the 45s. And my WordPerfect software that makes a squiggly blue line under “Leviteracetem” until I correct the spelling to “Levetiracetam.” (My old Underwood typewriter didn’t care one way or another.)

And then I think of the phone call I made in 1992 to the sister of my sister’s classmate. I had called her, at the classmate’s suggestion, six months before to invite her to lunch and she said she couldn’t, she was going on tour with an orchestra in Asia. She was excited about going to Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia, which she hadn’t seen before, and I was impressed and wrote her number on the wall and six months later called back. We had a long lunch at a seafood joint on Broadway at 90th and so at the age of 49 and three-fourths I found a partner for life.

She was a freelance violinist in New York, living in a walk-up apartment on 102nd, a woman who loved her work and endured the vicissitudes of freelance, namely the occasional poverty, and never asked help from family. I was a successful writer. I lived in a little bubble, isolated, chained to a computer, a veteran of two unhappy marriages to women I made even unhappier. She was an inveterate walker who on her tour of Asia had ventured alone into strange cities, climbed hills to see temples, braved the language barrier. In New York, she kept her spirits up through penurious periods by walking six, eight, ten miles a day around Manhattan, Central Park, museums, living on crackers, cheese, and coffee.

I tried to impress her, bought box seats at the opera, took her to classy restaurants, and of course she enjoyed that, but what she liked most was good conversation. She was endlessly curious. I told stories about my evangelical upbringing, about the writing life. She is very honest. She is a hugger and my friends and family like her better than me (I’m a shoulder patter). She loves people. She’s adorable. I’m lost without her.

There is an old man in New York
Who is cheerfully popping the cork
In sheer thanksgiving
For the pleasure of living,
Thanks to Jenny and a small piece of pork.

What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

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

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

The rest of the crowd was working hard to appreciate the play because, though dull, it was rather dark and so people around me watched intensely as if this were Drama 101 and afterward we’d divide up into discussion groups and they wanted to think up intelligent things to say about the threat of fascism in our own time, and not just “I didn’t care for it” but I felt no need to be the smartest person in the audience, failure holds no fear for me, I’ve been there repeatedly, so I checked out of the play and thought about Mozart.

The night before the play, I’d gone to a concert with a Mozart violin concerto in it and found it astounding, the lightness and gaiety, the brilliance of the playing, the sheer beauty Mozart put in the hands of the soloist, and all this in the 18th century when a cruel aristocracy sat on thrones, abysmal poverty was the rule, men were hanged for thievery, and people perished miserably from the ignorance of infection and antiseptics.

Mozart was sick for a great deal of his life, suffering smallpox, pneumonia, rheumatism, typhoid fever, his wife Constanze agonizing over him, and died at 35 but it was his gift to create beauty and to entertain. People are still laughing at the jokes in The Marriage of Figaro. The violin concerto I heard was joyful and the violinist made it clear that he loved it too. He was finding expressive freedom within a strict form, the best of the 18th century brought to the 21st.

Fall is all about mortality. The leaves are falling, the sky is gray, winter is coming. Fall has inspired countless men to suffer a fatal attraction and quit their jobs, leave their families, and run away with Rhonda Rainbow and enjoy an ecstatic week in a Best Western and be dumped and die of an overdose of toilet bowl cleanser. I know good men who were teenage football heroes and sacrificed themselves for the glory of Central High on autumn afternoons and now, thanks to numerous concussions, sit in a locked ward and watch golf tournaments on TV.

I was saved by physical cowardice. I never went in for shoving, never threw my body against someone else’s except in the case of a few women and then very gently after asking permission.

The play ended and the audience gave it a standing ovation of course and I put on my coat. The usher stood by the door, thanking people for coming, wishing them a pleasant day, and also pointing out a treacherous step and preventing them from falling and crashing headfirst into the brick wall and suffering a hematoma and winding up in the ER with drunks and lunatics. I don’t remember much of the play but I remember his kindness. I wonder if he’s maybe an unemployed actor who’s thrown himself into the ushering role and found his true calling.

Mozart had a right to share his suffering with us by writing music that makes us sick but instead he was an usher, directing us into a joyful realm of playfulness in which we become happier than we had intended to be. And he gave that violinist the chance to be so brilliant, we brought him back for three bows. Then we got a cab and resumed the struggle. I went home and worked on my stand-up act for New Jersey Saturday night and did 90 minutes and everyone left happy. Me, too.

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

December 4, 2022

Sunday

8:00 p.m.

Broward Center for Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale, FL

Fort Lauderdale, FL

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

7:00 p.m.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

St. Louis, MO

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

December 15, 2022

Thursday

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

The Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis, MO

LIVESTREAM – St. Louis (12/15)

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

January 7, 2023

Saturday

8:00 p.m.

Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation, Torrance, CA

Torrance, CA

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

February 3, 2023

Friday

7:00 p.m.

The Holland Theatre, Bellefontaine, OH

Bellefontaine, OH

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

February 8, 2023

Wednesday

8:00 p.m.

Uptown Theater, Kansas City, MO

Kansas City, MO

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

February 9, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Gillioz Theatre, Springfield, MO

Springfield, MO

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

February 10, 2023

Friday

8:00 p.m.

Orpheum Theatre, Wichita, KS

Wichita, KS

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

February 11, 2023

Saturday

7:00 p.m.

Bowlus Fine Arts Center, Iola, KS

Iola, KS

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

February 23, 2023

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

Clayton Center for the Arts, Maryville, TN

Maryville, TN

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

Radio

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To make a donation to support this archival project, please click here. You can also support us by buying a paid Substack subscription or mailing a check to Prairie Home Productions  PO Box 2090  Minneapolis, MN 55402

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 24, 2022

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Today is Thanksgiving day, for which we celebrate words of gratitude from Ralph Waldo Emmerson, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Safrain Foer.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 23, 2022

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Today is the 57th birthday of poet, historian, and philosopher Jennifer Michael Hecht. Author of “The Happiness Myth,” “Doubt,” and “Who Said.”

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Writing

An old man thinking at the Thanksgiving table

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

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

Read More

Walking a crowded street in Gratitude

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

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

Read More

Thank you, thank you, thank you

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

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

Read More

What Mozart did for me last week. Thanks, Amadeus

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

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

Read More

Once again, Violetta does the right thing

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

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

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

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

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

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My thoughts after being cut down by a tree

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

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

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A true story about last Tuesday

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

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

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Sitting in the sixth pew, brooding on things

My grandpa Denham grew up in the tenements of Glasgow back when the residents leaned out the window and shouted, “Comin’ oot!” and threw the contents of the chamber pot into the street. Grandpa got sick of being dumped on and brought his brood to Minneapolis and he never looked back. He wasn’t nostalgic about his origins. He was happy to be here.

I thought of him when I took the train to Washington last week, a city he wanted to see and never did. I go to Washington to remind myself what a beautiful city it is despite the contempt brought upon it by so many elected officials, many of whom are emptying their chamber pots in the form of campaign advertising. The Jefferson and Lincoln memorials are stunning but you look at the dome of the Capitol and remember the mob that stormed it in the name of a miserable lie that is being repeated this election year and how do you explain this? The mob went to the same schools we did, learned about Jefferson and Lincoln, and yet they are fascinated by fascism and long for a dictator.

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Less is more: repeat ten times daily

I am noticing a good many books and articles about masculinity in crisis these days, and am faithfully avoiding reading them, since I’m not in crisis myself and I’m on a campaign of clearing out clutter in my life. I have just cleared off the top of my desk and am feeling good about myself, even though some of the flotsam got stuffed into the desk. I am now going to rid myself of books I’ll never read and clothes I never wear.

Sometimes I sit in the evening drinking ginger tea and watching baseball on TV with the sound off, two teams I don’t care about and so it’s not about winning, it’s about the art of baseball, the sharp reflexes of infielders and the unique windup of each pitcher, the occasional incredible full-tilt leaping outfield catch that kills the rally and the fielder casually tosses the ball into the stands. It’s such a cool move. Home runs mean nothing to me but that beautiful high-speed intersection of outstretched glove and ball and there’s no victory dance, just cool disdain. Tough luck. The fielder heads for the dugout, the ball goes to a kid in the grandstand. The commentary of the announcers is worthless; it’s all about the beauty of youth and agility and discipline. In another ten years, that fielder will be a civilian like you and me.

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

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

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