garrison keillor | when your brother dies

4 03 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 171 | March 4, 2009


Editor’s Note: A well written obit is the equivalent of a fine essay or short story. Which is part of my own fascination with writing various ‘in memoriams’ to friends and family, other writers and artists, sometimes total strangers. It brings out the best in writers with a feel for someone else’s life. In readers as well, who interpret the message on various literary levels, encompassing art.

Unbeknownst to Garrison, we both lost a mutual writer-friend in Minnesota (Bill Holm) last week, within days of the loss of Garrison’s brother.

I’ll have more to say about Bill Holm as soon as I can deal with the immensity of his life and work.

But for now…I can’t imagine a more beautiful tribute to a brother than what Garrison has penned here. —Norbert Blei

When Your Brother Dies

By Garrison Keillor

March 4, 2009 My brother Philip died in Wisconsin on Friday while I was in Rome, and after I got my ticket changed to fly back for the memorial service, I went into a church off the Piazza Navona and lit candles for his aching family and stood in the piazza beside a fine fountain, with lots of splashing and nudity, the Fountain of the Four Rivers, which made me think of the Mississippi, where he and I used to skate in winter and once when the wind was whistling down the valley he opened his jacket and held the corners taut and the wind blew him away beyond the island and he didn’t come back until after dark.

He died while skating. He fell backward and hit his head and died 12 days later. A heroic thing for a man of 71, dying in action at sport, though I believe he would rather have been in Rome, looking at Bernini churches. He and I almost died together once, canoeing on Lake Superior. We paddled into a deep cave under one of the Apostle Islands, possibly Judas, and explored it, ducking our heads under the low ceiling, and emerged a half-minute before the wake of a distant ore boat came crashing into the cave, which would have busted our heads but good, no need for the EMTs.

He was an engineer, having grown up at a time when boys were still romantic about machinery. Our dad and uncles loved cars and knew how to fix them and also do basic plumbing and wiring and carpentry, so he grew up admiring competence. The incompetent stood and cursed the problem and kicked it and caused more problems. The engineer studied the problem, devised a solution, and when it failed he made intelligent revisions. I never heard my brother curse anything or anybody.

Of all things mechanical, he loved sailboats the most, planing into the wind with a sheet of canvas, a centerboard and a tiller, which he picked up from perusing the Horatio Hornblower novels. When he was a kid, he rigged one of dad’s dropcloths to a toboggan and sailed it at tremendous speed down the ice of the Mississippi, a death-defying feat. He switched careers from mechanical to coastal engineering so as to get himself out on boats on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, purportedly to study thermal runoff from nuclear plants and shore erosion, and he owned a swift sailboat named the Dora Powell after our grandmother.

My brother was her first grandchild and so he was well loved and extensively photographed, a curly-haired boy with dimples and a modest smile, taken against many backdrops since our family moved often in the decade after he was born (1937), renting here and there, squatting with relatives, moving on, which maybe stimulates a keen love of family in a kid, as you keep waving goodbye to your friends, and Philip practiced the delicate art of brotherly love. He always knew what you were doing and he kept his critical opinions to himself. He called me once to ask how I was doing and I knew without his saying so that he knew about some nonsense I was up to and wanted me to stop it and I did stop it without his ever mentioning it. That’s how he worked, no motor, just angles. His ties to family went back to his ancestor Elder John Crandall, who preached religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence with the Indians in colonial Rhode Island, and it included his hockey-playing granddaughters and fundamentalist cousins and his lawyer brother and his Chinese granddaughter who was skating with him when he fell.

When your brother dies, your childhood fades, there being one less person to remember it with, and you are left disinherited, unarmed, semi-literate, an exile. It’s like losing your computer and there’s no backup. (What it’s like for the decedent, I can’t imagine, though I try to be hopeful.) If I had died (say, by slipping on an emollient spill and whacking my head on a family heirloom anvil), I believe Philip, after decent mourning, would’ve gone about locating a replacement. If your brother dies, improvise. Someone you run into who maybe doesn’t fit the friendship profile but his voice is reedy like your brother’s, the gait is similar, he takes his coffee black and his laugh is husky, he starts his sentences with “You know,” and the first words out of his mouth are about boats. I didn’t run into him in Rome but I’m sure he’s out there someplace.

[SOURCES: the net, and various newspapers]


garrison keillor | the blessings of childlike wonder

27 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 165 | December 27, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth, end-of-the-year/holiday offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Previous postings include: “Down to the Lake”, “Carol Ordal” ( and a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at .


I can’t imagine a greater gift to American writing in our time, a writer for all seasons, than Garrison Keillor. There’s little I can add to all the well-deserved attention he has received thus far (a writer in his mere 60’s), all the work he has already committed to books, articles, radio, stage performances, good old-fashioned storytelling–not to mention one fine (somewhat overlooked) film, “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006) directed by Robert Altman, who never made a film that didn’t grab you: “Hey, I’m talking to you, Bub. Straighten up. Watch. Listen.” Altman (Kansas City, MO) and Keillor (Anoka, MN)—a perfect Midwestern match. “Prairie…” a film, a radio program, a Way (in the Eastern sense) about time, maybe a little ahead of its time–to be re-viewed years from now because it’s all there, everything—the way we like it. All one needs to know and love about the true heart of America.

We used to read newspapers because of the writers who talked to us in print every day. Spoke our language. Came out of our own neighborhoods or our neck of the woods. Tickled our funny bone. Made us feel the stories of people. New York had Jimmy Breslin. Chicago had Mike Royko. To mention only two–two of the very best.

We seldom see Breslin in the Midwest anymore. Royko’s been gone for years and has never been equaled. If you were lucky enough to grow up in Chicago, there was such wealth of good writing in newsprint you could hardly wait to get up in the morning, run down to the corner newshack, plunk your pennies down and see what they all had to say.

There’s a long history of writers with a sense of humor and humanity in American newspapers. Imagine opening your paper and reading Mark Twain in the morning. (Something else the troubled corporate newspaper scene in America today hasn’t paid enough attention to in their frenzied search for truth/meaning/salvation through marketing in a day and age gone cyber and too often, too meaningless.)

Imagine waking up in the morning, finding a real newspaper for sale at the local store…and opening the pages to Garrison Keillor–the Mark Twain of our time.

Now there’s hope for you. For the newspapers. For all of us.

If you don’t appreciate Garrison’s gift of words in this or any season—you’re probably way too far from home. —Norbert Blei


The Blessings of Childlike Wonder

by Garrison Keillor

It is the blessed Christmas season. But of course you know that. Unless you live 10 miles up a box canyon deep in the Wasatch Range with only your dog Boomer and are demented from drinking bad water, you are inhaling Christmas night and day and “Adeste Fideles” is stuck in your head like a 5-inch nail.

This Christmas I am in New York for the general dazzlement and variety. On Sunday St. Patrick’s was packed to the rafters for 4 p.m. mass in Spanish, the name Jesucristo drifting around the battlements, and a few blocks south the Jane Austen Society was meeting to discuss Christmas in Olde England, and in between, I stopped in a men’s store and bought six pairs of red socks. For myself.

Down deep I am selfish and don’t like to feel obliged to do what other people are doing— dancing, leaping, piping, drumming, welcoming the Christ Child with joyful hearts, etc.—at the times when other people are doing them. This city enables one to leap or pipe pretty much whenever you feel like it, even after 10 p.m. on weekdays.

The other day I took my sandy-haired, bright-faced daughter to dinner at 9 p.m., which is late for a 10-year-old, and introduced her to the idea of Ordering Whatever You Want, No Matter What Others May Think, and she got the chicken Kiev and for dessert an apple tart as big as a Gideon Bible. She is a good eater. She approached her meal with the quiet devotion that a chicken deserves. She loved the candles, the linen, the silver, the formality I enjoyed a tiny quail egg poached in a toasted brioche with a dollop of caviar, though, thanks to my upbringing, I eat my meals surrounded by gaunt Chinese children holding out empty rice bowls. And when the check arrives, I have visions of debtors’ prison, dank stone walls, a wooden bunk, a straw mat, water dripping, and so forth.

Here in New York, Mr. Madoff allegedly made off with $50 billion of other people’s money in a scheme, which is selfishness raised to a high level indeed, but the selfishness I am indulging is a simpler kind—for example, if I feel like having a mocha, I just step into a Starbucks and get one. A small one, no pastry but it feels luxurious, coming from a utilitarian background as I do. Why mocha? How does it further God’s work on Earth? I don’t know. I just like it.

A few weeks ago a pundit wrote about what a wonderful thing it would be to appoint Bill Clinton to the Senate to fill his wife’s seat, him being a former president and all, and then that idea vanished. Bloop. Bill called up a few people and said, “Whom are you kidding?” When a man can jet around the world and be received as a potentate and knock down a hundred grand every time he feels like giving a speech, he is not going to want to sit in the Senate chamber and hear old men drone on about Arbor Day and the crucial role of the forest products industry.

I feel the same way about Christmas parties. It isn’t fun to stand around making small talk with other people’s friends as they anesthetize themselves. But slipping into St. Patrick’s for mass in Spanish is pretty wonderful. It’s like a big family reunion at which I know nobody and so nobody is mad at me. Nothing said in Spanish offends me doctrinally or any other way I squeeze into the crowd, under the placid stone faces of saints, the sweet smell of burning wax and a hundred varieties of cologne, and feel the religious fervor, and tears come to my eyes, and I light a candle, say a wordless prayer, and out into the cold I go.

It brought back memories of Christmas Eve in Copenhagen 20 years ago and how beautiful the sermons were before I started learning Danish.

A man gets a keener sense of the divine in a church that is not your own. Maybe Luther and Calvin and Jan Hus and all of them were dead wrong and literacy is not the key nor an understanding of Scripture, and maybe the essence of Christmas is dumb childlike wonder, and the more you think about it, the less you understand. Which makes me glad I am no smarter than I am. Let’s go have lunch.

from The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 2008