Post to the Host

GK responds to queries on topics from childbearing to potato salad, with a little bookstore fetish in between.

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Here's your chance to ask GK your most pressing questions—about the writing life, the radio life, Lake Wobegon, Guy Noir, whatever you like. Also, feel free to send feedback about the show. Honest comments and criticism are always welcome!

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Coffee Shop

| 15 Comments

To the host:

I need to name the new coffeeshop at the Lutheran School of Theology (without getting fired). Help?

Ben
Chicago

--

Scriptural Grounds. Or-- Caffeinated by Grace. Or maybe-- He Brews.


Yoopers

| 6 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor:

Merriam-Webster's 2014 Collegiate Dictionary will include the word "Yooper" for the first time. As a long time resident of Michigan's Upper Peninsula who has benefited from a liberal arts education heavily steeped in the humanities, I'm personally pleased that our shared moniker has gained some legitimacy.

As an English major, what's your take on this and similar developments? Do such inclusions water down our treasured language, or should we be happy that our universe of words is forever expanding?

Sincerely,
Kenneth Stewart
Gwinn, MI
Yooper

--

I'm all for expanding the language but you and I have been using the word "Yooper" for ages, Mr. Stewart, and we didn't need Merriam-Webster to legitimize it. (Did I really just use the word "legitimize"? Aiyiyi.) It was a word for a proud people who are Michiganders but who stand apart from your rank-and-file Michigan crowd, and yet with no yen to be Wisconsinites or Canucks. People from a place where winter extends into May. Where miners live and the descendants of miners. In other words, a rough-and-ready bunch. Seeing it in Merriam-Webster now, I suppose all sorts of clans and tribes will want in. If Yoopers, why not Gophers? I grew up in a tiny sect called the Plymouth Brethren, who referred to each other simply as Saints, and when other kids asked what church I belonged to, I usually said, "Lutheran," to avoid a big Q & A, though it felt weaselish, Jesus having said that He would deny those who denied His Name. But it was too much for me at that age to say I was one of the Saints. Merriam-Webster never gave us that name, capitalized, but you know, it felt thrilling, even subversive, to belong to an unknown tribe. Now that you Yoopers have been admitted to the mainstream, some non-Yoops may horn in. Someone will come out with a line of men's clothing. There will be a TV show. Yooperism will be watered-down to mean simply anybody from the northern, or upper, part of anything, whether a peninsula or not. You know and I know, Mr. Stewart, that this thing is going to come around and bite you in the ass. That's just how it's going to be.


Argonne

| 8 Comments

Great show on March 29! You sang a song called "Argonne" and I wonder if you wrote it?

Nancy G.
Ashland, OR

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Yes, I wrote it, to an old tune "Lowlands" so instead of "Lowlands, lowlands, away my boys" I sang "All gone, all gone away, my boys, all gone away." I wrote it after seeing the picture in the paper of President Obama laying wreaths on the graves of several American soldiers who died in World War I, and I thought someone should say yet one more time that it was a senseless war that slaughtered a whole generation of Europeans and that laid the groundwork for World War II. Those men the president honored (and rightfully so) should never have fought in that war and, beyond that, General Pershing's tactics were all wrong. Twenty-six thousand American men died in one day of fighting and press censorship kept the news of that disaster from the American public. Attention was further diverted by the Army's promotional campaign to make Sgt. Alvin York, a genuine hero, famous.



The Empire Builder

| 5 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I very much enjoyed your "There's No Place Like Home" essay in the February issue of the National Geographic.

I do have a question. Twice in the article, you make reference to the Empire Builder (passenger train) suggesting that your father was a mail clerk on that train. However, when accessing your Dad's obituary online, it mentions that he was an RPO (Railway Post Office) clerk between St. Paul and Jamestown, ND. This would have meant that he worked on a Northern Pacific Railway train (like the North Coast Limited or Mainstreeter); the Empire Builder, back when you were a kid, was operated west of St. Paul by the Great Northern Railway.

As someone who is very interested in the history of the Empire Builder (growing up along its route in Cut Bank, Montana, and riding it back to the Twin Cities on numerous occasions....and it STILL RUNS!), I'm interested in even anecdotal history about the train, so I'd appreciate a clarification.

Mark Meyer
Fort Worth, TX

--

It's eagle-eyed readers like you, Mr. Meyer, who keep us writers as honest as we are. Without you, and people like you, out there, I would've had the Empire Builder wandering down through Wyoming and putting it on a barge to cross the Great Salt Lake. You are, of course, right. It was the NP, not the GN. My dad John P. Keillor (1913-2001) worked that St. Paul-Jamestown run, sorting mail as the train raced north and west, throwing bags of mail out the open door as the train sped through small-town stations as a hook on the side of the car picked up the bag of outgoing mail that the local post office had hung on an arm. The postal clerks were armed with snub-nose revolvers, lest anyone attempt a Great Train Robbery, but my dad never used his: it was only for show. I drove him to work at the Union Station in St. Paul which now, glory be, has been beautifully restored and will soon see passenger trains stopping there once again. When you come north, be sure to visit it. I can't wait to go there on our new light-rail cars (in operation starting in June) and catch the Empire Builder to Chicago, a beautiful route along the west bank of the Mississippi to LaCrescent and then across and into Wisconsin. If I have the time, I'll catch the California Zephyr in Chicago and ride it through Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and into Oakland, crossing the Rockies and the Sierras, the most wonderful train ride in the U.S. But of course you know that already. (P.S. The train called the Prairie Queen that I wrote about years ago in The New Yorker, in a story called "My North Dakota Railroad Days," was a piece of pure fiction, and I loved the argumentative letters I got from railroad buffs insisting that there was no such train. Some of them were rather incensed, as if I had perpetrated a hoax. I took their letters as great praise.)


The World Theater

| 3 Comments

Memories of the early years of Prairie Home include "coming to you live from the World Theater in downtown St. Paul..." Before and shortly after the renovation of that beautiful venue, it seemed like a match made in heaven, what ever happened to that relationship?

Rich Allen
West Hartford, CT

--

The show still broadcasts from the theater, which was renamed the Fitzgerald Theater in 1995. We did 11 shows at the Fitz last season, are doing 11 this season, and plan to do 12 or 15 next season. We're still fond of the place, and the renovation of 1985 is holding up very well, but long ago the show ventured out to do broadcasts in other parts of the country (and a few overseas) simply because I like to travel and this was a perfect excuse.


Tishomingo Blues

| 5 Comments

To the Host:

What prompted you to change the show's theme song from "Hello, Love" to "Tishomingo Blues" when you "came back" for version 2.0 in 1990?

Mark Mosier
Overland Park, KS

--

It was just that old restless urge to do something different. The show was starting back up in New York, with a big band, and "Hello, Love" is a country song, so I made a list of other possibilities, and it came down to "Tishomingo" and Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" which I liked but our music director Rob Fisher questioned whether I really wanted to sing "Well O well I feel so good today, we just touched down on an international runway, jet-propelled back to the USA" every Saturday night and he also mentioned the potential copyright problems. "Tishomingo" is public domain and Chuck Berry is not and a person might want to opt for the simpler, less complicated route, so I wrote words for the middle section of "Tishomingo" -- "Hear that old piano from down the avenue -- I smell the roses, I look around for you" -- and I've been singing it to that sweet old someone coming through the door for almost 25 years now.


Be Brave and Be Excellent

| 2 Comments

To the Host:
Hello there -- we're elderly parents of an only child who will be heading up to a big state university in the fall to study pre-med. I know you went to a b.s.u. also, so I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom for her. I'm a bit nervous about sending her off to such a big school. She wasn't interested in St. Olaf, Concordia or Gustavus.

Thanks, Carol

--

Your daughter has an ambitious goal in sight and that's a terrific advantage. At a big school, she'll fall in with others of her ilk, young women aiming for a career in medicine, most of them highly motivated and bright and curious, and she won't be held back by the sluggish and inept as she was in high school. And she won't be as encumbered by social life as she might be at a small college. In her pre-med crowd, focused on the sciences, social life and academic life tend to merge. It certainly did for me eons ago hanging out with the literary crowd at the University of Minnesota. My advice to her is to hit the ground running. Make a reading program this summer to get in shape and come to campus determined to dig in and do the work and not coast. She can coast later, if she needs to, but it's important to sprint at the start. So don't go to college with a big flat-screen TV and a case of beer. Embrace the monastic life. Have a great freshman year, followed by a great sophomore year. There will come a time when exhaustion overtakes you and you need to let up for a while. You can weather those times if you've already established credibility. It's all about self-confidence. So be brave and be excellent.


Guy Noir

| 7 Comments

To the Host:
Is your P.I. Guy Noir based on any one person or just the 1940s movie stereotype?

Bill Bourquin
Yorba Linda, CA

--

Guy was my first real dramatic role on the show, closely followed by Lefty the cowboy songwriter, and he was based on a vague memory of old detective movies I saw when I was a babysitter back in the Fifties, which was my only chance to see TV, my parents being opposed to it on grounds of immorality. So I only got glimpses of those stereotypes, the guy in the porkpie hat who talked out of the corner of his mouth and was able to deck somebody with a poke in the snoot when he needed to. In Guy's first season, the episodes were strictly formulaic. Guy's friend Pete, played by Walter Bobbie, came to the Acme Building and the two men got into an argument over some trivial issue and shot each other and died long lingering articulate deaths. The next week they did the same thing. This was when Walter, who I'd seen star in Guys And Dolls on Broadway, was temporarily out of work, before he directed Chicago and became rich and famous. Guy went on to meet his sweetie, Sugar, and his bartender pal Jimmy at the Five Spot, and open his charge account at Danny's Deli where they are always out of whatever Guy tries to order. Guy has not solved many crimes but he has located some lost pets and given some good advice and he has had his heart broken by dozens of tall beautiful women.


Romantic Saint Paul

| 2 Comments

Hi Garrison,

St. Paul was recently rated as one of the most romantic cities in the U.S. Why do you think this is? And, what places would you recommend couples to visit/dine in the capital city?

Thanks,
Heather in VT

--

We would consider San Francisco or New Orleans romantic, or Key West, or Greenwich Village, all of them iconic spots, and that's where St. Paul couples would go for romance. But of course in an excellent winter such as this one we're having, the whole city is fabulous, nothing quite like it, dazzling sunlight and brilliant snow, fresh snow having fallen on Thursday, and a couple walking hand in hand along Summit or Goodrich or up Crocus Hill would see house after house in waves of snow, candles in the windows, smoke from the chimneys, and receive sensations of idyllic love, the peaceableness of marriage, the blessings of children, everyone snug in their frame. And then there is the Mississippi winding through town, and the hills of Highland Park and Merriam Park, where tobogganloads of children go hurtling across the crusted snow. I recommend a couple walk and walk and walk and when you're cold and tired and hungry, go into any cafe that's handy and order the soup. A bowl of soup when you've been out for a hike on a cold day tastes better than almost anything else. It's sheer need that makes it so good. Same with romance.


Odd Cranky Hymns

| 18 Comments

Dear Garrison,
What hymns do you remember growing up as a Plymouth Brethren? Which were your favorites?

Peter Hicks
Belchertown, MA

--

The Brethren could not use musical instruments in worship because the New Testament did not authorize that. Somehow we felt okay about driving cars and using furnaces, but there was no organ or piano in our Meeting Hall, and the singing tended to be wavery. Also, the Brethren did not go for the familiar hymns of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts and Fanny Crosby so much as odd cranky hymns that, while hardly singable, were considered theologically stronger. And then the schismatic nature of the Brethren split us into smaller and smaller meetings and as the younger ones drifted away to mainstream churches, the singing became very thin indeed. Singing is an adhesive. There are people who go to church for the chance to sing in harmony with other people, whose beliefs don't exactly match the Creed. The most wonderful singing I ever heard was an audience in Goshen, Indiana, at a Mennonite college, in a big concert hall. I was supposedly the performer but when I started them out on a hymn, they rose up like angels and sang it, from memory, in six-part harmony, and thought nothing of it. And then another and then another. It was pretty marvelous. Nothing like it.


Bus Children

| 2 Comments

The schoolbus lyrics you sang in April are quite different from those you sang in February, 2006. What brought about the changes?

Loren Engrav
Seattle

--

Do you mean the lyric "Bus Children," the one that begins:

Out on the prairie so wide
The school buses wending their way
From the towns they travel
For miles on the gravel
An hour before it is day.
And the winter wind blows
Cross the corn stubble rows
Where the dirt has turned the snow gray.

The lyric was shortened slightly in April, but the main difference was at the end. In the earlier version, the last line was softer, something like "And seldom will see them again" ---- in April I sang:

And in due course they will fly
Away, young women and men
With mixed emotions
Cross mountains and oceans
And become what we could not have been.
We will tenderly kiss them
Goodbye and miss them
And never will see them again.

I sang the lyric to the tune of a Carter Family song, "Little Moses." You can find the lyric in a new collection of poetry, O What A Luxury (Grove Atlantic).


Hard Work

| 3 Comments

To the host:

As a young person, it is hard to find role models and peers who enjoy working hard... doing good work. In trying to be an aware, fit, and wholesome individual, it seems I only identify with old people. What do you suggest?

Jenna Lyons
Missoula

--

You're so right, that the pleasure of work is crucial to a healthy life, but surely you know classmates who love their schoolwork, whether its math or history or writing or music, and that's where it all begins. In any school, there are the comedians and the hipsters, the joiners, the fluffheads, who make a point of sloughing off work, who take their identity from not doing well, and then there are us nerds who dig down into the material and want to do well, not to win approval but because the work makes them feel whole. Marge Piercy wrote a poem, "To Be Of Use," in which she said:

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

You can learn a lot from old people but the hard work needs to be done by your generation, Jenna, and I wish you well. Find some strivers your age and talk about the work you want to do in your life and look for people engaged in that work and see if they'll take you on. Be wary of fields in which there is rigid hierarchy, look for fields in which people of many different competencies are accepted as equals, in which everyone pulls together. And good luck.


An Entirely Different Job

| 3 Comments

My granddaughter is a freshman in college. What advice does a grandmother who has made more mistakes than you can name give to her? She's bright, talented, her own person and so excited. Perhaps she needs to go where she's never been without advice from me. What do you think?

Take care of yourself.

Pat Hall
Green Bay

--

What would be good for your granddaughter is an older, wiser, familiar soul (you) to whom she can speak freely and tell the truth and know that you respect her independence. A benevolent listener who will offer advice if asked but who will not pry and will not tattle, except in extreme circumstances. So make plans to drive to her town and take her out to dinner. A college kid can always use a free meal. Skip the advice. Tell her about the dumbest thing you did when you were her age, or the Five Dumbest Things. Have a good talk. Make her laugh. Get yourself a motel room and ask if you can come to a class with her. She'll be impressed that you take an interest. And you'll get to take vicarious pleasure in her adventures in the world. Don't discuss her with her parents except to stick up for her when they rag on her, as parents are wont to do. You're her grandmother. Entirely different job.


Developing Your Musical Craft

| 6 Comments

To the Host:

I am 35, and used to listen to the show when I was driving semi-truck. The music brightened my day, and reminded me how important it is to keep playing and writing my own music. What advice would you have for a young man trying to dedicate his life to his music and present himself to the world?

Steven Jones
Newman Lake, WA

--

Thirty-five is not so young in the music world, Steven, and I'm sure you know that. Eighteen is young, twenty-two is young, and thirty-five is sort of a gray area. My advice is to focus on the craft of performing, developing your musical craft, and put your original music on the shelf for a little while. Try playing music that people want to dance to, or hear in the background as they eat their dinners, or that has ceremonial weight (weddings, funerals), or that you could play in a public place and make people smile as they pass by. Music that will lift up the lonely. There are a lot of lonely people in the world and music can be therapeutic for them and right there is a big vocation. Think of people at the beginning and end of the life cycle, a roomful of 2nd graders squirming in their seats, a roomful of elderly in wheelchairs, and think what you could give them in 15 minutes that would brighten their day. That's a huge service and an enormous challenge. And those people are available for music. They need it, unlike most people in the middle years who are ferociously busy, distracted, hard to reach. At the age of 35, a person has lost some of that youthful ambition and drive to excel, but he has not lost the need to Be Useful.


Lutefisk: Should I Try It?

| 18 Comments

To the Host:

I am now living in Norway and I am faced with the ultimate question -- Lutefisk: should I try it? I have put it off for two years, should I hold out?

Andy Reeves
Stavanger, Norway

--

Let's just substitute the word "kale" for Lutefisk -- Kale: I have put it off for two years, should I try it? One: there surely are more important questions in your life that you need to be taking care of -- are you getting enough exercise? Are you consuming too much beer? Have you read enough Dickens? Two: if you have put off eating kale for two years, probably you have built it up in your imagination to the point where it would be impossible for you to enjoy kale. On the other hand, if you go on refusing kale, you might well start to obsess about this and to blame all your other problems on your kalelessness -- your inability to understand algorithms, your awkwardness on the dance floor, your shyness in the presence of lawyers, your confusion about the subjunctive mood -- I say this because your phrase "hold out" shows you already have made this into an issue, not a simple matter of choosing what to eat. I, for example, have not eaten lutefisk in the past two years: avoiding lutefisk is not a problem for me. I stay busy around the holidays so that if someone invites me to a lutefisk dinner, I have an excuse: all my evenings and weekends are spoken for. Anti-lutefiskism has not taken over my life, as it threatens to take over yours. "Put it off"? Mr. Reeves, you write as if you feel an inevitability about lutefisk. As if you have no will of your own. As if something is drawing you inexorably into the dark chasm of lutefisk. You are not, believe me. Even in Stavanger, there are plenty of people who are strangers to lutefisk, who will always prefer the meatballs. The answer to your question is very simple: you will meet a woman and fall in love and either she will be a lutefisk person or she will not, probably depending on whether her family is pro- or con- and you will, at least in the early stages of courtship, follow her lead, especially if she takes you home to meet her parents over the holiday. Either they will serve you this disgusting gelatinous offal or they will not: if they do, you will eat a small portion and smile and say it is the best lutefisk you ever ate. And in your case, that will be true.


Advice for Young Authors

| 14 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor, I am 18, just starting my first year of college. My Writing professor assigned us to write about the advice an author gives on writing and how we could learn from it. Having an affinity for your work I want to write my paper on you. My Professor has also asked that we research how the author's life influenced their work and careers as writers. 1) What is the most helpful piece of advice you could offer to young authors? 2) What do you believe most influenced your writing?

Thank you, sincerely
Calvin F. Connors
Sutton, Mass.

--

Dear Calvin,

I wasted so much time when I was 18 trying to write self-dramatizing stories about myself, my feelings of loneliness, about being misunderstood, being an outsider, being torn by spiritual conflict between the beliefs I was taught and what I saw in the world around me, and I wish I had devoted some of that time and effort to listening to my elders talk about their experiences and writing down what I heard. I grew up among men who had fought in World War II. My gym teacher took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. My aunts and uncles went through the Great Depression on very little money. My aunt Ina bought a Model A Ford and, without benefit of driving lessons, drove it, with three friends, from Minneapolis to Yellowstone Park and back, on rough roads. My relatives were extremely reluctant to talk about themselves but I should have tried harder. Loneliness is utterly ordinary and banal and not worth a person's time trying to describe -- not compared to a car trip in 1926 by four young women, or a young man in a bobbing boat spotting German artillery at Normandy beach in June, 1944. And now their stories are gone. I feel sad just thinking about it.

What influenced my writing was the King James Bible and the New Yorker magazine and which was the bigger influence, I'm not sure.

Calvin Connors, by the way, is a terrific name for a writer. Also for an actor. Or anything else you decide to put your mind to. Good luck.

GK


Red Rocks

| 4 Comments

Hi Garrison,

I enjoyed your tender, sweet, funny show at Red Rocks on July 18th and wanted to know what you and your colleagues thought of the venue?

(I just read Pilgrims and it was laugh-out-loud funny!)

Monte C.
Denver, CO 

--

The Radio Romance tour has hit some great outdoor venues like Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City and  Mountain Winery in Saratoga, California, and the fabulous McMenamins winery in Portland, and some not so great. What matters isn't the backstage stuff so much as how the venue treats its customers. At the Idaho Botanical Garden, for example, the place is laid out so that the audience sits looking directly into the setting sun and it's painful to see thousands of people trying to shield their eyes. Red Rocks is huge and the people sit on stone, surrounded by towering stone walls -- warm it is not -- and it's quite a hike from the parking to the venue. But the sound is good and Denverites seem to like it, so there it is. A show like ours feels rather small in that big canyon. Led Zeppelin would probably be a better act for the venue.


Liberty

| 2 Comments

I will be the Moderator for my Book Club in a few days.  I put LIBERTY on our list, and that's what our read has been the past month.  Any suggestions as to what questions I should ask the group or anything pertinent you might suggest to add to our meeting?

I love the book....second time around for me.  Thanks for any comments you can give me!!

June Folkes 
Raleigh, NC

--

The author of LIBERTY was attempting to get loose from his reputation (undeserved) as a celebrator of small-town values and Days of Yore and he wrote a novel in which Clint Bunsen, a diehard Republican, bucked the passivity of his neighbors to put on a smash-hit Fourth of July parade and get national attention for Lake Wobegon, a triumph that led to his illicit love for the young woman who portrayed the Statue of Liberty in the parade. It was the author's first attempt at portraying such a romance and perhaps that's where the club should start -- is the romance believable? Miss Liberty marching up the street steps on the hem of her robe and walks right up the inside of it and rips it off herself and reveals herself to be naked -- believable or not? And the sexual encounter between them? And the scene where she comes back a year later and wants to take him away with her and encounters his wife Irene? I liked that scene, thought it was particularly cinematic, thought of turning LIBERTY into a screenplay and then went on to other things. 


Bob Dylan

| 6 Comments

Sir:

Just doing some math and it seems you and Bob Dylan are close in age. And you both went to U of Minn. Did your paths ever cross back then? Did you ever catch his act at "The Ten o'Clock Scholar"? 

Thank you. 
Joe Herald
Cincinnati

--

Mr. Dylan arrived at the University a year before I did and he left about the time I got there and went to New York to find his fortune. I gravitated to Dinkytown and McCosh's Bookstore and the Scholar, places where he hung out, and I heard stories about him from old folkies who had known him, Maury Bernstein and Jon Pankake and others, but I doubt that our paths crossed. My main path was from Dinkytown to Eddy Hall, where I worked at KUOM, and Vincent Hall, seat of the English Department, and Murphy Hall, where the office of the Ivory Tower was. His path was along Bleecker and McDougal Streets in the Village. And 4th Street, of course.


Selfishness

| 13 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I'm halfway through college, and I realize what I want to do. I want to be an adventurer. To travel, to meet people, to gain experiences, to work, to suffer, to live.

And to have some really great stories.

I'd like to have 50 different jobs before I die. There's so much to do, and know.

My question, and fear: Is that selfish? Is that enough?

Taylor Zabloski
Amherst, VA

--

You got the right idea, Taylor. Somebody has to be an adventurer, we can't all be drones and mercenaries. I don't think it's selfish at all -- you will go off to South America, Africa, Asia, India, Nevada, anyplace ending in A, and you'll see astonishing things and file posts on Facebook, and your thousands of friends, classmates, cousins, will read these and feel envy, amusement, horror -- you will be a bright flashing light in their humdrum lives. I have a friend in Kenya who is a peace worker, mediating between rebellious tribes and the government, and her family, while they worry about her constantly, is terribly proud of her gumption and bravery and resourcefulness. I notice you didn't ask me HOW to become an adventurer: you sense, correctly, that I am not one myself. I travel cautiously and avoid dealing with unpleasant people and rent cars rather than hitchhike and never stay in accommodations that do not have a private bath. And I don't drink the water.

You'll be able to have 50 different jobs so long as you're willing to work for cheap, which, being an adventurer, you will be. (An adventurer does not have a mortgage or car payments.) And so long as you report on your adventurers, you are earning your keep and more. But don't go looking for suffering. It will find you soon enough. And good luck. 

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