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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Sad story:  lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

For years I have put myself to sleep at night by standing at the rail of the Queen Mary 2 as she slips across New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and inches under the Verrazano Bridge and out to sea toward England. We sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate my 70th birthday years ago and my wife was wary of the extravagance but it has more than paid for itself by giving me thousands of nights of sleep. My sweetie lies in bed worrying about COVID variants and about all of her loved ones in turn and I stand at the rail with a glass of champagne but there you have it: life is unfair.

We have led a penurious life during the pandemic. “There is no point in wasting money,” she keeps telling me. So our refrigerator is full of tiny plastic bowls holding small portions of leftovers such as would sustain a Chihuahua and she has accused me of wasting laundry soap and I have to hide the books I buy: she only reads e-books she borrows from the library. She sleeps with two windows open so it’s cold when I wake up and I crank up the thermostat and she turns it back down. I ask if the stock market crashed during the night. No, she says, but you can put on a sweater if you’re cold. She says I use too much coffee. We are liberals so the coffee is a locally ground free-trade organic coffee, not made by child slave labor, so I don’t feel bad about generous portions, but I follow her instructions.

Last week she flew to Connecticut to visit family and I went to the store and bought half-and-half for my coffee and a New York strip steak for breakfast. I turned up the heat and closed the windows. I made the coffee strong. A man needs what he needs.

I was awakened at 2 a.m. by the roar of big dragster engines revving on I-94 nearby, drivers who love the bottleneck tunnel for the sheer reverberation. It sounds like a B-52 landing on the lawn. Pure adolescence of the Nobody-can-tell-me-what-to-do approach to life. There’s a lot of it around these days. Four hundred adolescents are likely to pay a price for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, encouraged by members of Congress who then fled from the mob. It was all about noisemaking.

I tried to imagine myself aboard the Queen Mary 2 but it was gone to sea and I was wide awake. The apartment was still. I turned on the bedside lamp. My sweetie, who handles all the anxiety for the both of us, leaving me free to write a comic novel, an adolescent enterprise if the truth be told, was gone. I thought about Connecticut, I thought about Lyme disease.

I tried reading Henry James who’s put me to sleep many times over the years. No luck. I turned on the radio, a call-in festival of people in agreement that the U.S. government had covered up the landing of aliens in New Mexico in 1947 — alien beings who have spread a virus that causes people to think collectively instead of individually, and the COVID vaccine is actually boosting that virus.

I went to the kitchen and put the coffee on. I looked out the window and saw other lighted windows nearby. The insomniac brigade, sentries of the sleeping world, thinking our 4 a.m. thoughts. I opened up the Times and read that Verizon is selling AOL to an equity firm and I remembered the love letters I wrote to my sweetie on AOL. We were both traveling back then, she with an orchestra in Asia, I with a radio show in the Midwest, and our love was urgent since I was fifty at the time. She wrote me about a steep hike to a Buddhist temple in Burma, the strange tourists, the wild monkeys in the trees, her exhilaration at being alone in a foreign land, and I wrote: “When your happiness makes me happy, even at a distance, independent of me, that means I’m the right man for you.” A profound thought and I turned off the coffee, opened two windows, crawled into bed in the chill, and the Queen was on course on the open Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down but there wasn’t an iceberg in sight and I am still here to tell the story.

Spring: we're going where we need to go

It is springtime in Minnesota and viva sweet spring, the tulips are opening and people are thinking about setting their tomato plants outside though of course we’re aware that it’s Minnesota and we’ve gotten snow as late as early June. But everyone we know is immunized so we’ve gone to people’s houses for dinner who aren’t in our bubble. We go outdoors without masks and can recognize other people even if we don’t know for sure what pronouns they use. I’ve been to two ball games. We visited relatives and did an exciting reenactment of a fairy tale with a five-year-old girl as Cinderella, her grandpa as the prince, and her grandma and my wife as the evil sisters. It’s a start.

I’ve been happier since I started to accept being uninformed. I read the newspaper headlines upside down as my wife sits across the table reading right side up and it’s too much trouble to follow Florida’s attempts to discourage voting and the romantic life of Matt Gaetz. But I do feel bad about Rudy Giuliani, the federal investigators banging on his door at 6 a.m. and executing a search warrant for his computer and phones. He was probably still in his pajamas, hadn’t even had coffee, couldn’t find his glasses, and he’s looking at the warrant, thinking, “Why me, of all people?”

It was a steep drop for the former mayor hailed as a hero after 9/11 who turned it into a lucrative career, giving speeches for a hundred grand per pop, and then hooked up with a New York tycoon with elaborate hair and became his mouthpiece, claiming election fraud where none existed, losing every claim in court, and in January his client refused to pay Rudy’s $20,000 per day fee. His big feral smile, like a shark with no gills, became the stuff of cartoons. He was photographed with hair dye running down his right cheek. The man is now a joke.

New York goes for big operatic dramas like his. It’s a town of big ambitions. I live some of the time there and walk in Central Park where the dogs are designer dogs, well-bred, coifed at a spa, accessorized, and the roads are packed with serious runners, lean women MBA vice presidents out to take over corporations and get a $3 million book deal, visionary thinkers conceiving new technologies that will turn our culture upside down, novelists writing 600-page books critics will describe as “penetrating, nuanced, mordant, cool,” and each of them uses plural pronouns (we, our) because each contains a multitude. In my little Minneapolis park, the dogs are normal scruffy dogs, as God intended dogs to be, and the people stroll or amble, they don’t race, and they’re simply feeling gratitude. I know I do. I think of the poet Roethke (A lively understandable spirit once entertained you. It will come again. Be still. Wait.) who died at 55 for lack of a drug I take twice daily. Thank you, God, for science.

After the raid, Rudy claimed political persecution, a weak defense in what may turn out to be a criminal case. The man is not getting good advice. He should come to Minneapolis and get an apartment near my park and write a book, admitting the hoax of the Stolen Election. Come out with the truth. Go on talk shows and say it loud and clear: “I was wrong. I was a fool. I was blinded by greed and I can’t believe I sank so low. I am a former D.A. who took on a crook for a client and believed him.” Accept that the days of the twenty-grand daily fee are over. You don’t need that kind of dough to be content in Minneapolis. That’s New York dough.

There is no redemption for Rudy in New York but he could find it here. Put aside the suits and ties and take up red flannel shirts, jeans, a denim jacket, and a Twins cap. Maybe take the last name Johnson. Shed the feral grin and the street fighter persona and take up fishing. Get a dog. Set about finding Ms. Right and marry her. Sit across the breakfast table from her and read the headlines upside down, stories about a man named Pmurt who is on trial for tax duarf or something. Don’t bother with it. It’s an old old story. You’ll learn more from Roethke: “God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, and learn by going where I have to go.”

 

The privilege of happiness: one man's story

The first One Hundred Days of Uncle Joe have gone by in a whoosh and we’ve mostly forgotten the guy with the Art Deco hair. Time rushes on. I look at the unread novels on my bookshelf and wonder what crime I need to commit to get sentenced to prison long enough to read them all. Probably handing over nuclear secrets to the Russians but I assume they already have them.

Crime, however, seems unlikely due to the fear of virus transmission which has locked us in our homes and brought me under close supervision by my wife. Thanks to her, my consumption of double cheeseburgers is at an all-time low; my intake of greens is now close to that of an adult giraffe. I am in her hands even when I’m not in her arms. She keeps telling me, “There is no point in wasting money,” and so we live like tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl, we save tiny portions of leftover salad in little plastic containers and we use bars of soap until they are the size of a potato chip. I grew up with Frugal Monetary Theory, but I’ve been corrupted by the ATM: stick in a card and it blows money at you like bubbles from a pipe. She finds a wad of cash in my jeans pocket and says, “What do you need all this money for?” Good question.

I’m a happy man. I had a happy frugal childhood, riding my bike around the countryside back before cellphones and apps that parents could track you with on a laptop, but I avoid talking about happiness because I have young leftist friends who, if I admit to being happy, say, “Well, that’s very nice for you but not everyone is as privileged as you were.”

Privilege was not what made me happy. Dad worked for the post office, we were six kids, so though we weren’t impoverished, we could see it from there. No, it was the bike and freedom and the truck farmers who’d pay a kid to hoe corn and pick strawberries and I’d take my dough to the corner store and buy a couple Pearson’s Salted Nut Rolls and take them down to the Mississippi and eat them and skip stones. It wasn’t about privilege. Why can’t a man talk about happiness without getting a poke in the eye from someone who’s just read a book about systemic inequity and wants you to know it?

The great privilege of my childhood was hoeing and weeding, which is denied to kids now whose moms go to Whole Foods to purchase raspberries from New Zealand and a bag of baby arugula hand-raised in the coastal foothills of Northern California by liberal arts graduates, instead of growing food in a garden and affording their children a useful education.

Weeding is editing and editing is a basic skill desperately needed now that the computer has led to floods, downpours, typhoons of verbiage. Everything is ten times too long. (I had a couple thousand words here about my old editor William Shawn, which I’ve taken out, as you can see.) I read a memoir now and then and I think, “This person never mowed a lawn or weeded a flower bed.” Their book has, in a manner of speaking, a lot of old rusted cars and busted appliances sitting in tall weeds that need to be thrown down in a coulee and the grass mowed.

I grew up mowing lawns, parallel lines, back and forth, it was deeply instilled in me and that’s why I write prose today and not

Butterflies go tipitipitipitipi
toward the blue
crocus and focus
looking for nectar
and stick out their
connector like a straw
and cry,

aha

Notice how the irregularity makes it seem sort of artistic. So what? Sew buttons on your underwear. I am happy going back and forth, back and forth, putting subject and predicate together. It’s therapeutic. When I was your age, kiddo, I had artistic ambition, which was the privilege of ignorance — to look down the road and imagine being honored by the U.S. Essay Association, but in the pandemic, it’s all about today. A walk in the park, a skinny sandwich for lunch, a brief nap, a poem.

A virus called COVID-19
Can be sneaky, mysterious, mean,
But once immunized
I have been surprised
By days that are calm and serene
And limericks that are pleasant though clean.

A modest proposal for saving the republic

I am a simple man leading a simple life, thanks to my wife who reads the pandemic news and the dark dreadful visions of pessimistic epidemiologists and instills caution in me, otherwise I’d be hanging out in saloons singing sea shanties with unmasked ne’er-do-wells, passing a bottle of whiskey around and sharing bacteria. Instead, she and I lead a monastic life, staying home, reading books, eating salads, playing Scrabble.

A year of quarantine with your spouse is something we didn’t anticipate when we said our vows. I promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, but by “sickness,” I was thinking of a bad cold, maybe a sprained ankle, not a year of incarceration. But by God, quarantine is an excellent test of a marriage, and either you go to a hotel and call your lawyer or you discover that you married the exact right person, which, as I contemplate it day after day, seems to me to be the greatest good luck, right up there with being an all-star third baseman or winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

I had twenty aunts and uncles, all of them married, and I witnessed no yelling, no door-slamming, no sobbing in locked rooms, so I figured the odds were in my favor. But I walked into a couple of troubled marriages before luck struck, and now I think that quarantine should be a prerequisite for marriage. Six months locked in a one-bedroom apartment before the license can be issued. You will quickly find out whether you have anything to say to each other or not. You’ll find out about housekeeping habits, personal hygiene, sense of humor (if any), dietary preferences. I am a liberal and know what is good for people and premarital quarantine is right at the top of the list.

She loves foreign TV shows with subtitles and long brisk walks and Zoom chats with friends. I love to sit and write notes with a pen on paper and put them in envelopes with a U.S. postage stamp. She walks by me and puts a hand on my shoulder and I touch her hand and every night, sometimes more often, we say, “I love you.”

If we wished, we could dive headfirst into the internet and find a turgid churn of people who see the vaccines as a “deep state” conspiracy to inject woke thought-control chemicals, or born-again anti-vaxxers who accept COVID as God’s Will and as the doorway to heaven; I worry about those people.

What with right-wing resistance to immunization, I worry that a big new wave of COVID could wipe out the Republican Party and suddenly we’d find ourselves in a nation of public-radio listeners, old folkies, organic sustainable people who are spiritual but not religious, and all the cranky uncles and crackpot cousins will disappear, and Terry Gross will be elected president. She does a show, “Fresh Air,” on which she interviews only people she admires because they agree with her. This is the problem with public radio. They can’t bear dissent. They are about unity and communal goodness, and their illusions is what led to the birth of Fox News.

I am an old liberal Democrat but I grew up among Republicans. My uncles were (their wives were undercover liberals), many of my teachers, my first employers. I do not want to live in a woke America with no street-corner preachers, no angry callers to call-in shows, no malefactors of great wealth who in their twilight years seek to redeem themselves through philanthropy to ballet companies and orchestras, no crazed individualists.

We cannot afford to lose the right wing through their self-imposed ignorance of communicable disease and that is why the National Guard needs to round them up and take them in trucks to internment camps for a month to get their shots. The Supreme Court may try to interfere with this and so they may need to be taken into custody too. The Jim Jordans and Lindsey Grahams and Ted Cruzes have a role to play in our country and we need to protect them from themselves. Lock them up and jab them and who knows, some of them may fall in love with the vaccinators and find true happiness. For their own good, we need to be the totalitarians they already believe we are. I don’t want to live in an entire nation of Vermonters. We need Texas and Mississippi too. Even Oklahoma.

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A Prairie Home Companion: May 15, 1999

A Prairie Home Companion: May 15, 1999

Our featured show this week comes from Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, with folk singer Greg Brown and country musician Junior Brown, the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band and The Royal Academy of Radio Actors.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 9, 2021

It’s the 100th birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mona Van Duyn (1921). She said, “I believe that good poetry can be as ornate as a cathedral or as bare as a pottingshed, as long as it confronts the self with honesty and fullness.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Saturday, May 8, 2021

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Poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder, was born in San Francisco on this day in 1930. His most recent book is one of essays, “The Practice of the Wild,” published in 2020.

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Today is the birthday of Johannes Brahms (1833), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1876), and Robert Browning (1812).

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The Writer’s Almanac for Thursday, May 6, 2021

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On this day in 1935 Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed 8.5 million out-of-work people on 1.4 million individual projects.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Wednesday, May 5, 2021

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Nellie Bly was born on May 5th, 1864. She reinvented investigative journalism with her exposee on life in a New York asylum, to which she got herself committed for ten days.

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Horace Mann was born this day in 1796. An advocate of public education and an opponent of slavery, he said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for Monday, May 3, 2021

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It’s the birthday of poet, novelist, and memoirist May Sarton (1912). Her memoir “Journal of a Solitude” (1973) has been called “the watershed in women’s autobiography.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: May 8, 2010

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Our featured show comes to you from  The Town Hall in New York City with legendary pianist and composer, Dick Hyman, vocalist Andra Suchy, The Royal Academy of Radio Actors; Tim Russell, Sue Scott, Fred Newman, and Erica Rhodes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for Sunday, May 2, 2021

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The author of the novel “Catch-22” Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn on this day in 1923.

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Writing

Sad story: lonely sleepless man thinks dark thoughts

For years I have put myself to sleep at night by standing at the rail of the Queen Mary 2 as she slips across New York Harbor past Miss Liberty and inches under the Verrazano Bridge and out to sea toward England. We sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to celebrate my 70th birthday years ago and my wife was wary of the extravagance but it has more than paid for itself by giving me thousands of nights of sleep. My sweetie lies in bed worrying about COVID variants and about all of her loved ones in turn and I stand at the rail with a glass of champagne but there you have it: life is unfair.

We have led a penurious life during the pandemic. “There is no point in wasting money,” she keeps telling me. So our refrigerator is full of tiny plastic bowls holding small portions of leftovers such as would sustain a Chihuahua and she has accused me of wasting laundry soap and I have to hide the books I buy: she only reads e-books she borrows from the library. She sleeps with two windows open so it’s cold when I wake up and I crank up the thermostat and she turns it back down. I ask if the stock market crashed during the night. No, she says, but you can put on a sweater if you’re cold. She says I use too much coffee. We are liberals so the coffee is a locally ground free-trade organic coffee, not made by child slave labor, so I don’t feel bad about generous portions, but I follow her instructions.

Last week she flew to Connecticut to visit family and I went to the store and bought half-and-half for my coffee and a New York strip steak for breakfast. I turned up the heat and closed the windows. I made the coffee strong. A man needs what he needs.

Read More

Spring: we’re going where we need to go

It is springtime in Minnesota and viva sweet spring, the tulips are opening and people are thinking about setting their tomato plants outside though of course we’re aware that it’s Minnesota and we’ve gotten snow as late as early June. But everyone we know is immunized so we’ve gone to people’s houses for dinner who aren’t in our bubble. We go outdoors without masks and can recognize other people even if we don’t know for sure what pronouns they use. I’ve been to two ball games. We visited relatives and did an exciting reenactment of a fairy tale with a five-year-old girl as Cinderella, her grandpa as the prince, and her grandma and my wife as the evil sisters. It’s a start.

I’ve been happier since I started to accept being uninformed. I read the newspaper headlines upside down as my wife sits across the table reading right side up and it’s too much trouble to follow Florida’s attempts to discourage voting and the romantic life of Matt Gaetz. But I do feel bad about Rudy Giuliani, the federal investigators banging on his door at 6 a.m. and executing a search warrant for his computer and phones. He was probably still in his pajamas, hadn’t even had coffee, couldn’t find his glasses, and he’s looking at the warrant, thinking, “Why me, of all people?”

Read More

The privilege of happiness: one man’s story

The first One Hundred Days of Uncle Joe have gone by in a whoosh and we’ve mostly forgotten the guy with the Art Deco hair. Time rushes on. I look at the unread novels on my bookshelf and wonder what crime I need to commit to get sentenced to prison long enough to read them all. Probably handing over nuclear secrets to the Russians but I assume they already have them.

Crime, however, seems unlikely due to the fear of virus transmission which has locked us in our homes and brought me under close supervision by my wife. Thanks to her, my consumption of double cheeseburgers is at an all-time low; my intake of greens is now close to that of an adult giraffe. I am in her hands even when I’m not in her arms. She keeps telling me, “There is no point in wasting money,” and so we live like tenant farmers in the Dust Bowl, we save tiny portions of leftover salad in little plastic containers and we use bars of soap until they are the size of a potato chip. I grew up with Frugal Monetary Theory, but I’ve been corrupted by the ATM: stick in a card and it blows money at you like bubbles from a pipe. She finds a wad of cash in my jeans pocket and says, “What do you need all this money for?” Good question.

Read More

A modest proposal for saving the republic

I am a simple man leading a simple life, thanks to my wife who reads the pandemic news and the dark dreadful visions of pessimistic epidemiologists and instills caution in me, otherwise I’d be hanging out in saloons singing sea shanties with unmasked ne’er-do-wells, passing a bottle of whiskey around and sharing bacteria. Instead, she and I lead a monastic life, staying home, reading books, eating salads, playing Scrabble.

A year of quarantine with your spouse is something we didn’t anticipate when we said our vows. I promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, but by “sickness,” I was thinking of a bad cold, maybe a sprained ankle, not a year of incarceration. But by God, quarantine is an excellent test of a marriage, and either you go to a hotel and call your lawyer or you discover that you married the exact right person, which, as I contemplate it day after day, seems to me to be the greatest good luck, right up there with being an all-star third baseman or winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read More

My plan for the future, whenever it happens

Spring is here, the park is gloriously in bloom, and I sit on a sunny bench watching the young on the running path, working hard out of their fear of mortality, and I feel the great privilege of being in my late seventies, all my ambition gone, enjoying life itself, not aiming for distinguishment. All those decades I tried to be intelligent, to be in the know and to maintain a cool sense if irony, an elegant detachment from the mundane, and now that rock-climb is over: it takes no effort whatsoever to be an old man. You sit in the park and savor your happiness and let the young do the suffering.

I enjoy writing more now than I ever used to. I have writer friends my age who’ve been stuck for decades because they once published a book that was greeted by heavyweight critics as “provocative and profound,” “unflinching,” “bold and riveting,” “dense and dazzling,” “lushly layered,” “exceptional,” and “exquisitely crafted,” so now they look at a first draft and there’s nothing exquisite and it makes them flinch — you get put on a high pedestal and it’s a long way down. But nobody ever accused me of exquisiteness, the most I ever got was “amusing yet often poignant.” That’s not a pedestal, it’s a low curb. So I write freely, happily, no looking back.

Read More

A walk around the Central Park Reservoir

With the birth rate falling and America getting old and cranky, it’s wonderful to walk in Central Park on a sunny day and see all the little families rollicking around, all the little kiddos. It’s brave to raise boisterous kids in a small apartment in a bumpy economy and good for Joe Biden that he put some child support in his Recovery Act. We need more of these kids, otherwise we’ll become a national historical reenactment.

I don’t want that. I want the past to fade into the sunset, except for the classics, like Central Park. I walk in the park as April comes in and it’s a genteel world like what Renoir painted in Paris with the ladies carrying parasols and Dvořák walked in Prague whistling a tune that became the Humoresque that generations of kids would learn for spring recitals and Shakespeare sat in and scribbled notes for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” –– it is a permanent pleasure, to be cherished for all time, but I want life to move on so the kids grow up and think of Vietnam as a cuisine and trump as part of card games and “pandemic” will come to mean a college prof who gets negative reviews.

Read More

Still thinking of Yesenia weeks later

When I read in the paper last month about impoverished children playing in a park and finding used hypodermics and thereby contracting HIV, the tragedy stuck with me. I had a young child once, two of them, twenty years apart, and can envision this happening and how the heart would break absolutely. And this story puts all the other lesser stories into line: this is a prime function of journalism, to show us the difference between hokum and hogwash and bean counting and true tragedy.

The scrimmage in the Senate over the filibuster is a contest of mastodons. And the discovery of the subatomic particle, the muon, that physicists say may change our understanding of the cosmos is a cloud of mist. You read and turn the page. And then comes a story that brings you to full attention.

The early morning crash in the California desert on March 2nd of the Peterbilt truck and the Ford SUV packed with 25 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants was a tragedy to be grieved over by any reader. The first officers on the scene found bodies scattered on the highway, some moving, a woman crying out in Spanish, brushing the blood from her daughter’s beautiful face, Yesenia Melendrez Cardona, 23, dead. They had traveled 2,500 miles to Mexicali on the U.S. border and paid thousands of dollars apiece to be smuggled across and a few miles north the SUV ran a stop sign and was crushed by the truck and 13 persons died.

Read More

Spring arrives in time to forgive us our debts

It’s spring, the air is brisk, the forsythia is blooming, there’s widespread amiability afoot, and walking through Central Park you feel you could pull twenty pedestrians out of the flow and rehearse them in “New York, New York, it’s a heck of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people ride in a hole in the ground.” Winter tried to hang on, like a loud drunk at closing time who staggers around and takes a swing at you but eventually you heave him into a cab and it’s spring. “All the merry little birds are flying in the floating in the very spirits singing in are winging in the blossoming,” as E.E. Cummings down on 10th Street & Greenwich Avenue wrote. “And viva, sweet love.”

New York gets a bad rap, much of it richly deserved, but spring is such a blessing you can almost forgive the rest. You wend your way from the Trinity churchyard where Mr. Hamilton lies who got not one thin dime from the musical he inspired, through the Village where brilliant and bewildered people once lived, and visit Grand Central with its starry ceiling and the Rose Reading Room of the Public Library, hike past the schist outcroppings of Central Park and Teddy Roosevelt on his horse defending the Natural History museum, the apartment palaces of the Upper West Side, the cheese department at Zabar’s where you gain weight with every deep breath you take, Harlem, the Cloisters, the mighty Hudson — and did I mention the schist outcroppings? My family forbade dirty talk and so the word “schist” is a favorite of mine.

Read More

Portrait of the columnist as an older man

I respect the Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick in New York, at which millions of us commoners have stopped and felt chastened by that noble 17th-century gaze that says, “What have you done great lately?” Not much. I look in the mirror and see a grim-faced old fundamentalist staring back and now I understand why, when I went to parties back when there were parties, people social-distanced around me before there was such a thing. I wandered alone around people’s living rooms looking at photographs of their friends on the walls, wishing I had friends too. So I’m thinking about seeing a dermatologist about getting Botox to give me a beautiful smile but my wife says, “Do not go down that road. No matter what, Botox never looks right. I don’t want a husband who looks laminated.” And so I’ve come to accept that being loved by one person is an amazement, especially when I know she looks at me and sees Boris Karloff.

We live in New York because she loves music and shows and has friends here who can talk for three hours nonstop. I’m more at home in Minnesota among friends who are comfortable with silence. I feel uneasy in New York because it has bike lanes and I’m certain that one day I’ll be struck down and killed by a deliveryman on a bicycle. They go whizzing by at top speed and do not slow down for red lights or pedestrians. A shout and a quick whiff of sausage pizza with extra onions and that’ll be the end of me. The obituary will say, “He was struck by a pizza deliveryman and died instantly.” It won’t mention the distinguished limericks I wrote, or my classy memoir, my radio reminiscences. There won’t be a link to a video of me singing “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” with Heather Masse. In people’s minds, I will be forever linked to pizza and they will wonder, “What size and did the family who ordered it get a refund?”

But life is good, especially if you had an unhappy childhood among fundamentalists thinking about the imminent end of the world. After a hellfire childhood, everything is easy. People who complain about pandemic life grew up with unrealistic expectations based on watching Mister Fred Rogers who led kids to imagine the world as a friendly neighborhood in which you are well-liked just the way you are and don’t need Botox. So they find it hard to cope with endless days of isolation.

Read More

Still thinking of George, wishing I’d known him

I am still thinking about George Floyd almost a year after he died with the cop’s knee on his neck because it was in south Minneapolis, a few blocks from the Brethren Meeting Hall I attended as a kid, near where my aunts Margaret and Ruby lived. I wish I had met him but I didn’t patronize the Conga Latin Bistro where he worked security and I didn’t eat at the Trinidadian café he liked. He’d come here from his hometown of Houston where he grew up in the projects in Beyoncé’s old neighborhood. He was a high school basketball star, went to college but it didn’t take, did some hip-hop and rap, did drugs, did prison time, and got religion. He attended a charismatic church that met on a basketball court and he was the guy who hauled a horse-watering trough out on the floor for the pastor to baptize people in. He came north to get in a drug rehab program and change his life.

He’d been unusually tall since middle school and knew that this made him appear threatening and to avoid trouble, he adopted a friendly demeanor all his life. He grew to 6’7” and 225 lbs. He made himself meek and blessed are the meek. He was easygoing, even sort of shy. Shaking hands, he used two hands. He was a hugger. He could lift up a troublemaker and carry him out of the Club. He tried to dance but was too tall, and people laughed at him, and he didn’t mind. He kept a Bible by his bed and in his struggles with addiction, he and his girlfriend Courtney made a practice of standing together, hand in hand, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm. A tall Black man far from his family, dealing with demons, stood close to his girlfriend and they both said, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” and declared their faith in goodness and mercy.

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

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