The Lake Wobegon Virus: Chapter One


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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Available December 1st: Garrison Keillor's memoir, via Arcade Publishing.

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

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Back in the sixth grade some boys campaigned for a dog to be class president. We were just discovering our sense of irony and wanted to exercise it. And then in 2016, it actually happened and there he was on the inaugural platform, a big woofer who didn’t know the NSA from the NIH from the end of a broom handle, and the Clintons and Obamas and Bidens were all shaking hands with the goofus and he was counting the crowd and wondering why he wasn’t getting a bigger cut of souvenir sales.

Now, as he tools around his golf course while red states are inundated with COVID patients and his lawyers litter the courts with motions to coronate him, we need to figure out how to defend the country against the next tyrant who is likely to be more competent than he. The problem is us Democrats: half of the voting public is repelled by us and no wonder. We lack discipline and we have no sense of humor. At a time of real suffering and meanness, we listen respectfully to people who feel that their personal identity is a political issue. Height-challenged people, for example, who feel overlooked. We put them on a pedestal. This strikes most people as odd.

Face it. The American people don’t enjoy democracy. Italians do, the French mostly do, and Danes are devoted to it. They have ten political parties in the Danish parliament, plus some independent members who couldn’t find any of the ten to agree with. The idea of a two-party system is abhorrent to Danes; to them, an election is an exercise of individuality.

Americans want a Moses. Trump is more psychosis than Moses but the next one is likely to be worse unless we unite behind Kamala and cancel the 2024 Democratic primaries.

Did you see Kamala and Pence on the split screen? It was the Homecoming Queen/Valedictorian versus the Lunchroom Monitor. America prefers a charming intelligent woman to an angry dullard, hands down. Let Joe do the hard stuff that makes you unpopular, and meanwhile Kamala’s approval ratings soar into the seventies. There are people who know how to accomplish this.

In three years, Snoozin’ Cruz and Two-Cents Pence and Rotten Cotton will be raging in Iowa and New Hampshire, doing eye pokes and carrying on urination contests, and the Democratic Party will be quiet, all of our fools staying in their rooms, our socialists socializing among themselves, the police defunders zipping their lips, there will be Kamala on the ballot, no communists, just a goddess of goodness and light supported by 100% of Democrats. Discipline.

Americans tend to be loose and so we admire discipline and that’s the appeal of authoritarianism. We Democrats need to learn from this. The woofer got elected because he knew nothing and was proud of his ignorance and never once admitted it: that is discipline. You and I have apologized hundreds of times. He, never.

Life can be hard. Deer hunting season is here, which is also the mating season for deer, a nasty coincidence: you’re with a beautiful female with big brown eyes and you paw the ground and snort and wave your antlers and then you smell beer and see a fat man with a red cap pointing a stick at you and there is a burst of flame and she gallops away and he walks over and slits your throat. It’s tragic. There’s nothing I can do to prevent it. But we can defeat the next Trump by closing ranks behind Kamala now and stop the nit-picking. Shut up, fellow Democrats, and form straight lines.

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain --- and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Joe Biden is my same age so that naturally makes me wonder about him. Seventy-eight is the age when you feel a strong urge to lie down and turn off the phone and put your favorite Emmylou Harris album on the turntable. But Joe didn’t look sleepy, he came jogging out to the lectern Saturday night in Wilmington and he gave a very amiable old-guy speech about our great country and healing and working together, and he didn’t refer to his opponent as Humpty Trumpty. He didn’t mention him at all.

It was the sort of hopeful speech you’d hear at commencement and it wasn’t terribly long. And it was preceded by Kamala Harris who, as the talking heads told us several times, is the First Woman VP and the First Woman of Color VP, and the First Child of Immigrants VP, a whole string of Firsts, but what really struck me is that she is the First Vice President With A Personality since 2016. She was delighted. She flashed a big grin. She showed a lot of spirit and her speech sounded like it might’ve been written by her and not a committee of Baptist coroners.

Neither she nor Joe complained about the incumbent as a “total loser” nor did they refer to their victory as “a historic landslide” (it wasn’t). It felt like a decent way to begin a new decade. Their families came out on stage at the end and you felt that probably they wouldn’t play a major role in the new administration. I don’t know if Joe owns a hotel chain but if he does, I assume he’ll divest himself of it and not travel around at government expense and stay in the Biden Caravelle or the Biden Majestic or the Biden Monte Carlo. I imagine we’ll get to see his income tax returns.

My evangelical relatives are in grief, of course, and I am sorry about that. They believe the 2016 election was an Act of God and even after his Bible photo op where he looked as if he’d never seen one before, they voted for the incumbent in obedience to God’s Will. By this same logic, if you contract colon cancer, don’t call the oncologist, simply light a candle and read a psalm.

They voted against socialism but we already have that in the form of Medicare and Social Security and free public education and public libraries. At least in Minnesota they are and so are our freeways.

My people are so discouraged by the advent of Biden-Harris, they believe the world is about to end and the Second Coming is at hand and they will soon be rapturized into heaven, which should make them happy but they don’t seem to be. The imminence of the Second Coming means that they can forget about lawn care, car payments, school assignments — just stay home and wait for the whisper of angels’ wings.

Meanwhile, I am happy that, as of January 20, a great calm will settle over Washington. We won’t see the name Biden in six front-page headlines every morning. Government, when you come right down to it, is fairly boring. It’s not a fireworks show, it’s people working in offices.

I don’t count on government to make my life worthwhile. I made a lucky marriage to a humorous woman who is never at a loss for words, I found work I enjoy, I look forward to April and another baseball season, and meanwhile I have the Franklin World Classics to occupy me over the winter. Twenty masterpieces for $15 is incredible. Capitalism would’ve charged me three or four hundred dollars. Dostoevsky for less than a dollar is communism, pure and simple. I am all for it.

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Walter O’Malley moved his team to Los Angeles because it was 1957 and not the Forties, cross-country air travel was an accepted convenience, and in Brooklyn he had to wrangle with contentious boards and councils and grassroots resentment of owners and moguls, and in LA he found a city that desperately wanted him. It was like leaving a jealous old girlfriend and going with an eager new one. Anyway, I’m not from Brooklyn. I’m from Minnesota and we have Wisconsin to begrudge and if we weary of scorning cheeseheads, there’s always South Dakota, the state where men on giant Harleys congregate to give each other the coronavirus.

I was brought up by evangelicals to hold a grudge against the Established Church, i.e., Anglicans: we met in storefronts; they gathered in cathedrals. I was brought up by Ford people to resent people driving Cadillacs and Buicks. My parents came out of the Depression and we had sensitive antennae to detect wealth and privilege: we shopped at Sears; they patronized clothiers. We drove to visit distant relatives and slept on our relatives’ floors; the privileged traveled to see exotic sights and stayed in hotels. (Nonetheless, we went to their houses on Halloween because they gave out full-size Hershey bars, not the miniatures.)

We’re a land of immigrants — even you Ojibwe and Iroquois moved around a good deal to escape from tribal quarrels and feuds — millions came from Europe who were weary of being despised by strangers and wanted to make a fresh start. My grandpa came from Glasgow to escape the disapproving eye of his stepmother. The Rosenbergs came over from czarist Russia and made the big decision at Ellis Island to become the Ross family. Goodbye history, be your own person.

I maintained my anti-Anglican grudge until I fell in love with one and married her in St. Michael’s Church, statuary looking down at me, stained glass, a priest in his robes, and now for thirty years I’ve tried to fit in and genuflect left, right, chin, belly button, and kneel for confession. My other grudges — against people with tattoos and unnatural hair colors, men with tasseled shoes, people who go around with wires in their ears — have faded over the years, especially as I spend more time in New York, a city where diversity comes with the territory. I board the subway in Midtown and I do not see one maroon U of M Golden Gophers T-shirt, not one. I doubt that anyone in this car would enjoy discussing sanctification by grace with me.

The past few years have seen a tremendous increase in grudgery in our country — need I point this out? We the righteous and civic-minded and tolerant cross the street to avoid having to talk to you yahoos and yo-yos. And this will do us no good in the years ahead. So we need to relax our loathing of each other. Especially our enormous grudge against Republicans. Yes, bug-eyed chinless Mitch has stiffed the country at every turn, trying to maintain minority rule, and yes, Lucky Lindsey gave us a 6-3 Supreme Federalist Court that is prepared to reaffirm the Dred Scott decision, but it’s time to forgive and put aside our enmity for large men in golf pants who comb their hair into ducktails using pomade that keeps the wings nicely feathered even in a stiff headwind. As a sign of reconciliation, I am going to bleach my hair and start following the Bible. It is a tremendous tremendously good book, a fantastic book. It’s the greatest ever. The greatest ever. And guess what. It’s in English so any true American can read it and that is a beautiful beautiful thing.

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

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: December 6, 2008

With Michael Feinstein (pictured), Metropolitan Opera Tenor Raul Melo, and Inga Swearingen. Scripts include English Majors, Guy Noir, and a sound effects sketch.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 29, 2020

It’s the birthday of Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May), who founded a commune called Fruitlands and became a vegan before the term even existed.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Grand Ole Opry, originally titled “WSM Barn Dance,” began broadcasting from Nashville on this date 95 years ago.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 27, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Friday, November 27, 2020

Penn Station opened on this date in 1910. The original building was pink granite, with stately columns and a skylit interior modeled after a Roman bath.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, November 26, 2020

Today is Thanksgiving, a day for being grateful and eating lots of food. With a poem by Jane Hirshfield about cooking.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, November 25, 2020

It’s the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), who said, “The great secret of doctors…is that most things get better by themselves.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Tuesday, November 24, 2020

It’s the birthday of Arundhati Roy (1959), who wrote “The God of Small Things” (1997) all at once, no drafts, and it won the Man Booker Prize.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 23, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, November 23, 2020

“We see you, see ourselves and know / That we must take the utmost care / And kindness in all things.” –Joy Harjo

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A Prairie Home Companion: November 29, 1997

A Prairie Home Companion: November 29, 1997

A ’90s November show from Chicago, Illinois, featuring a handful of legends: including gospel singer & activist Mavis Staples and broadcaster & historian Studs Terkel.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, November 22, 2020

It’s the birthday of novelist George Eliot (1819-1880), who said, “My only desire is to know the truth, my only fear to cling to error.”

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A modest proposal to head off the next one

It’s a dangerous time, when families gather for Thanksgiving and pass the deadly virus from the young to the elderly and kill them off. This will be very hard on the Republican Party. Gamma and Gampy in South Dakota think the communistic Bidenists are the threat but actually it’s Oliver and Olivia home from the U. The kids see COVID as inapplicable to them, like dementia or hair loss, and return to the farm to cough on the cranberries and kill off Elmer and Gertrude. A generation, wiped out. By 2032, South Dakota’s two senators may be 30-year-old artisanal Democrats.

These are, as evangelicals keep pointing out, the Last Days. Forest fires, hurricanes, over-regulation, the closure of churches, face mask requirements, everything points toward apocalypse. But what if the world does not end? Somebody has to fix the highways, send out the Social Security checks, distribute the vaccine. Competence is required.

Read More

Looking forward to Uncle Joe

A guy my age is going to be president in a few weeks, a cheerful guy, not a scowly one, and I think it’s going to be an instructive four years for the nation. Growing old is, along with marriage and religious faith and hiking the Grand Canyon, one of life’s fascinating experiences, one to look forward to. It is the reason your mother told you to look both ways before crossing the street and to chew your food thirty times before swallowing. It’s the reason I stopped smoking: after twenty years of cigarettes, you’ve pretty much exhausted the possibilities, time to move on. And now here I am, floating along at 78, an age at which the obituaries are becoming more and more interesting.

Read More

A warm week in November: Thank you, Lord

It has been a quiet week in Minnesota but then it usually is so it comes as no surprise. The big news wasn’t the election but the week of balmy weather that followed. The election was simply a course correction. Your wife says, “You turned right, you were supposed to go straight” and the lady in the dashboard says, “When possible, make a legal U-turn,” and so you do.

I voted on Tuesday and then I got engrossed in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which I bought months ago at a yard sale, one of twenty Franklin World Classics in leather-bound editions that I paid $15 for –– the whole pile, quite a bargain — and I got engrossed in it for several days, and eventually I remembered the election and turned on the TV and evidently other people had voted for Biden too because there he was announcing his victory.

Read More

A call for reconciliation: It’s time

Some New York friends tried to shame me for rooting for the Dodgers last week on the grounds that I should uphold their grudge against the team for leaving Brooklyn in 1957 and moving to LA, which is ridiculous. I have my own grudges to maintain without taking on other people’s. They also shamed me on grounds that the Dodgers’ payroll is four times the Tampa Bay Rays’, a big rich team versus a young scrappy team, but I am not impressed. I used to have a grudge against prosperous writers until August 1969, when a magazine paid me $500 for a story at a time when my monthly rent was $80. I’ve been in favor of prosperity ever since.

Read More

A column that doesn’t mention his name? Yes, indeed.

New York is a city of fast women, as I know from my morning walk — one after another, they say, “On your left,” and they stride past, grandes dames and leggy lasses in a hurry to get somewhere, and meanwhile I shuffle along, a slow-moving obstruction, no schedule, nobody’s waiting in a coffee shop for me to come talk shop. This is the freest I’ve felt since I was a kid. I could hop on the A train and ride out to Far Rockaway and watch the Atlantic waves roll in on the shore and observe planes landing at JFK and I wouldn’t even need to invent a reason.

Instead I walk into Central Park and sit down on a bench by the dog run, an acre of grass where people let their dogs off the leash so they can tear around in a circle chasing each other (the dogs, that is), yapping and woofing happily. Apartment dogs enjoying a brief period of wildness as their owners stand in a group and converse. It’s a sociable scene, the dog run. Dogs in euphoria and people socializing who ordinarily would pass each other with eyes averted. An urban phenomenon.

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What is normality and do we want it?

So here we are, locked down in our tiny village since March, winter on the way, chilly winds over the tundra, we’re waiting for men on a dogsled to bring the sacred COVID vaccine, meanwhile we hunker in our dark hut and while away the hours telling tales of old conquests. I try to while but whiling is not my strong suit and I’ve had no conquests, only a series of lucky breaks. I married well. I was born late enough so that medicine had figured out how to repair my congenital heart defect, which enabled me to enjoy the marriage a good deal longer. I took up writing as a profession, which is advantageous for a man with a long face and no social skills. I could list others.

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Enough of the news, onward with friendship

Someday we shall look back at these golden October days with wonder and amazement, how good life was even in a pandemic during a lunatic. Here in New York City, everyone wears a mask, there is a high level of civility, and though riding down Columbus Avenue feels like we’re driving across a freshly plowed field, life is good. I sat in a sidewalk café with a friend on Sunday, unmasked, telling old stories, enjoying freedom of speech. She complained about the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature: “I wrote poems like hers when I was in the ninth grade. ‘The leaves are turning brown, the leaves are falling, death is near.’ Who put the Swedes in charge of literature?”

Back in Minneapolis, where I’m from, you couldn’t say that. Too many Swedes around and too much PC and self- righteousness. Back there, among young lefties, I am a Privileged White Male, not a person but a type, but in my New York neighborhood, which tends Jewish, an old WASP is sort of a novelty. I walk around amid all colors and ethnicities and interesting accents and hairstyles, and I’m just a guy in jeans and a black T-shirt. This is a big relief. One big pleasure of urban life is looking at other people and it’s hard to do that if they are glaring at you as a symbol of all that is wrong. New Yorkers don’t.

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A word from an old WASP, awaiting winter

The gorgeous October days go parading by and you know they will end and then there’s one more, warm and golden, the Van Gogh trees, the Renoir sky: it’s beautiful but I’m an old white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, the demographic responsible for the mess we’re in and all the messes before it. So I prefer to stay indoors. I wear a mask, the largest one I can find. Social distancing comes naturally to me — I’ve been emotionally distant since childhood. My parents weren’t huggers, they patted the dog and I guess we were supposed to extrapolate from that.

I’m 78. I’m heading into the Why Am I Here years, when you walk into a room and try to remember what you came for.

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In a troubled time, it’s time to make a perfect day

It is a true accomplishment to give a perfect birthday to a beloved person and a whole gang of us managed to do this for my sweetie on Saturday, a day of perfection, beginning to end. She arose at 10 a.m. and went to bed at midnight and in those fourteen hours there were no harsh words, no snarls or snippy comments, no big spills, no spam messages, no knocks on the door by downstairs neighbors complaining about our shower leaking onto their bed. Instead there were phone calls from numerous people she loves, there were numerous small thoughtful gifts, there was a very long entertaining supper outdoors on a warm September evening with good food (but not too much) and lighthearted talk and some good stories and nothing about a possible constitutional crisis in November with the election being thrown aside by a 6-3 vote of the Supreme Court, none of that. She was happy the entire time.

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A former outlaw appreciating the Republican life

In the spring, there was a shortage of vegetable seeds and now, I’m told, there is a shortage of canning jar lids. This doesn’t affect me, locked down in Manhattan, but it brings back memories of my childhood home, the half-acre garden, the big tomato, corn and cucumber crops, the steamy kitchen with the pressure cooker going full tilt.

As a child, I worried that we might be poor and maybe canning was a sign that we were. Our neighbors were not canners. The dread of the stigma of poverty stuck with me until I was 18 and went to college and actually was poor and took it as a point of pride. I was a poet specializing in unintelligible poetry, and poverty was a mark of authenticity. Geniuses were, of necessity, poor. My girlfriend, however, came from a suburban Republican family and over time, against my principles, I came to love them, especially her mother, Marjorie. She had grown up in North Dakota in the Depression, when dust blew through the windows, her father and brother drunk in the barn, and she set out to make a graceful life of her own and maintain a cheerful atmosphere, avoiding the sort of dark brooding that filled my poetry, and I stepped into the role of boyfriend and enjoyed their company, and gradually they corrupted me and instilled strong bourgeois leanings that an outlaw poet should shun.

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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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