We live in Lake Wobegon.

Rotten ice on Lake Wobegon--I mean on Keweenaw Bay

Everybody knows about Lake Wobegon, right?

It’s a fictional little town in Northern Minnesota made famous by story-telling Garrison Keillor (one of my story-telling heroes.)

Garrison hosts a radio show called “Prairie Home Companion” on Minnesota Public Radio every Saturday night at 6 p.m. in the Eastern Time Zone. 

We’ve listened to Prairie Home Companion–on and off–since we moved to the shores of Lake Superior back in the late 1970’s.  Once we even traveled to the old Ishpeming theatre with our friends Bertha and Bob to listen to the Butch Thompson Trio, one of Garrison’s standard bands  back in the early ’80’s.

We don’t listen much these days.  But every time I happen to discover Garrison telling one of his wild & crazy stories about Lake Wobegon (get it?  Woe be gone!) a smile arises involuntarily and you know–you just know–that you live in Lake Wobegon, too. 

It happened yesterday.  I was driving to town to buy eggs and cherry tomatoes and onions for enchiladas and frozen juice–on a Sunday afternoon–and happened to stumble upon a repeat show from Saturday night.  (I did not buy the cherry tomatoes.  They cost $4.99 for a quart.  An ominous sign proclaimed that crop failures in California or someplace was resulting in exorbitant prices this year.)

Garrison was broadcasting out of New York City.  My ears perked up, because we have a loved one living in NYC.  Part of me wishes I was in NYC right now visiting said loved daughter. 

He started bringing us the news from Lake Wobegon.

Please excuse all my wrong facts about this story.  I had no plans to write a blog, and probably have only about 63.5% of the tale correct.

A service group in Lake Wobegon had put an old car on the rotten ice on the lake.  “Rotten” ice is ice that is melting quickly and cannot be walked upon any more.  All the fishing shacks have been taken off, but the entire town waits breathlessly and buys tickets to bet on the exact day and hour the car will go through the ice and sink into the lake.  (A huge chain is attached so it will eventually be towed out of the lake.)

The funny part of this story is that our little town of L’Anse, on the shores of Keweenaw Bay, used to do the same thing.  Put a car out on the ice and sell tickets betting on its sinking.  Until the Michigan Department of Natural Resources or Department of Environmental Quality–whatever it was called back then–declared that was the craziest most polluting thing anyone could do and banned the ice-melting car-sinking fund-raiser.

Garrison Keillor said the Lake Wobegon service group would use the funds to send one of their brightest young people to a good college.

Then–in his magnificent story-telling meandering–he began to share that the brightest of the young folks will then leave Lake Wobegon, never to be seen again as they become successful and live successful lives anywhere other than Lake Wobegon.

He said the only ones you’ll get to know as you age along the shores of the lake are the challenged kids, the ones with problems, who stay home and don’t go anywhere.  (Garrison, that was not politically correct or even accurate.  tut-tut.  There are a LOT of kids without problems who choose to stay on the shores of the lake and raise their families.  Which you know.  Except you are a good story-teller so you exaggerate just a tad to make us laugh and make us see the truth hiding out in your stories.)

He also said the kids who are planning to be film makers will also come home to live in Lake Wobegon and stay for twenty or thirty or sixty years and end up changing our diapers before we die (I think I am making up the part about diapers) while we will never see the successful kids again because they’re out being successful–but it will be the problem kids, the challenged kids, the unmotivated kids, the would-be filmmakers, whom we’ll live with on a daily basis, whom we’ll get to know in their middle age.

OK, readers, by the time Garrison finished his story (my gosh how quickly it shifted from cars sinking into the ice to our children to dying!) I was crying in the car, having completely forgotten the high cost of cherry tomatoes.

Weeping.  Thinking about our bright children on two coasts of the country–although one of them may still attempt to become a filmmaker–so maybe someone will return.  Thinking about the young folks we see every day–like the teacher aide who graduated with Chris (who is a fine young woman, not problematic at all) and the auto mechanic downtown and the woman who cuts my hair and the smiling cashier at Pat’s Foods. Thinking how we will see them–day in and day out–for the next twenty or thirty or forty years and…

Well, this is getting rather sad, isn’t it?  Garrison called it one of the “great ironies of life.”  His story kept tying together these ironies, one after another, until he had a chain of ironies and I was weeping in the car, sure that we lived on Lake Wobegon, sure of nothing except the ice is rotten and Garrison is one of the best story-tellers on the planet.

**And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, folks.  I mean–the shores of the Keweenaw Bay in big and beautiful Lake Superior.  Stay tuned next week, or maybe tomorrow, for more stories bound to make you laugh or cry or ponder the great planetary ironies.

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
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32 Responses to We live in Lake Wobegon.

  1. Sybil says:

    Wonderful story. Garrison Keeler sounds like our (Canada’s) Stuart McLean who tells us stories from the Vinyl Cafe each Saturday on the CBC.

    We have so little story-telling anymore. Everything is 3 second, TV clips. Keeps us from having to pay attention and listen.

    OK. Stepping down from soap box now.

    Signing off in Eastern Passage 😉

    • Kathy says:

      I think your Stuart McLean sounds like a fascinating story-teller, too. Hoping to find some time to listen to his stories from the Vinyl Cafe. Liking the idea of slowing time and listening more slowly…

  2. Susan Derozier says:

    Kathy – I was introduced to him in 1980 when we moved up to Superior and we never missed a show. He truly is an extraordinary tale spinner! Would that we all take the time to look around us and appreciate the simple wonders. You do it in your own style everyday with these wonderful blogs. Cheers to Garrison Keeler and to Kathy!

    • Kathy says:

      That’s what he does, Susan. He makes us appreciate the simple wonders, in such a resonating style. I think what he does is that he focuses on individual stories but they have such a universal theme. That’s why we cry and laugh so much. Glad to hear that you know about him, too. (And thanks for liking the blog–although I don’t know about a comparison with the great storyteller. I’m just a baby storyteller with lots to learn.)

  3. Elisa's Spot says:

    I love that radio show!

  4. holessence says:

    We listen to Prairie Home Companion, too! Three cheers for Garrison Keillor: hip hip hooray, Hip Hip Hooray. HIP HIP HOORAY!

    • Kathy says:

      How about four cheers? HIP HIP HOORAY! It’s amazing how many people who have commented here listen to Garrison or Stuart McLean.

  5. Nicole Smith says:

    Yes, if you listen to Stuart McLean tell stories and then Garrison Keillor, the similarities are amazing! They both have the rich deep voice, the utter simplicity of expression, and that habit of getting you from laughter to tears within minutes as they meander through telling human life with their stories. I just heard Stuart again on Saturday, telling a story that somehow connected trapped miners to a boy stuck in a laundry chute!

    Good news! He’s touring in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana this week and next. http://www.cbc.ca/vinylcafe/concert_dates.php

    “Lake Wobegon – where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average”

    Yup, sounds like Hamilton, Ontario too 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Nicole, I just scurried over to look at Stuart’s touring schedule. Where in Michigan would he be? (bated breath, hoping…) Ahhh, he’s going to be in Saginaw. Only eight hours south. Darn. That would be something to see! I am glad you added the quote about Lake Wobegon. That’s such a classic. Thinking Hamilton, Ontario, is a wonderful place, too.

  6. john says:

    There is a vicious circle with this Michigan brain drain. Michigan is a national topic. The layoffs cut the job pool, which creates less demand for services, which causes further layoffs. The quality of the schools drop from not only the reduction of funding, but from the exodus of the educated from the communities. Business won’t relocate to the area, because of the quality (or lack of) in the labor pool and people won’t transfer in due to the poor performance of the schools.

    Now figure in the gas prices which will further isolate the UP. The cost of transportation is going to raise the cost of many products, and the increased cost of shipping is going to deter businesses from opening or relocating to the UP. It is also going to raise the cost of vacationing up here (there, where am I?) so there will be a greater tourism drop reducing the demand for seasonal workers.

    Look around you … where are the Pynnonen’s children, the Brennan’s children and the Drue’s children? Not in the UP anymore, that’s for sure.

    • john says:

      Just a quick note: I edited my entry down considerably and it lost its spirit and tone in the process. The issue of the “brain drain” is something that we need to address and correct. I believe it can be done, I do not think we are in an irreversible spiral down. Our Lake Wobegon will recover and rise again just like the Finn’s Bar!

      • Kathy says:

        It can be a vicious cycle, can’t it, John? The old-timers around here talk about the same thing happening back in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s…since they can remember, they say. The young folks graduated and went down to Detroit and Flint and Chicago to work. When they retire they move back to Skanee and Aura and L’Anse and Baraga. So many of our retirees are people who were born here, worked elsewhere, and returned to enjoy their later years.

        This latest cycle of recession and economic downturn has been hard on the community. I wonder how many of our community we will lose for jobs elsewhere as unemployment benefits dry up?

        It’s also interesting how the U.P. seems to be at least two years behind downstate in an economic sense. Two years ago, downstate was still hurting bad. That level of hurting has just recently reached the U.P.

  7. Carol says:

    This relates only to tomatoes – last fall I popped some of my grape tomatoes into Foodsaver vacuum bags and froze them. I have discovered they work very well on salads when thawed out. I always chop and freeze other tomatoes for use in cooking, but this year I plan to plant two grape tomato plants rather than just one.

  8. Colleen says:

    We’re big fans of Garrison Keillor and Stuart McLean and the Vinyl Cafe.

    It’s funny because I’m just now reading his book of Good Poems, a collection of poems he has read over the years on The Writers Almanac, and smiling at his description of poetry that “makes us love this gaudy, mother-scented, mud-bedaubed language of ours”. His thoughts and stories seem to stick and stay with us. They get in our head and our heart……amazing how he does this.

    Adding more cheers for both of you!

    • Kathy says:

      Oh, Garrison’s written words are delicious, delicious! His radio-words are more conversational, but his written words are gaudy, mother-scented, mud-badaubed…ohmygosh, I am swooning. LIterally swooning. He is a genius!

  9. barb says:

    Hi Kathy, I wonder if every place with a hard winter and a lake has a contest about when the ice will melt? Ours (for Lake Dillon) doesn’t involve a car, though – the lake is part of Denver’s water supply. Here in the mountains of CO, the opposite seems to be true about young people. They ALL want to live here and many are highly educated and working 2-3 jobs so they can afford the cost of living in a resort town. Everyone here is from someplace else (maybe even the Keweenau Peninsula).

    • Kathy says:

      That is an amazing thing, Barb. That your young highly educated folks can actually live in your area and can find jobs (even though they must work 2-3 of them.) From what I know of Colorado resort towns, they have a very different “feel” from the woods around here. And I’ll bet–no, I know!–that there are people from the Keweenaw and L’Anse and Baraga living around you. Have you met any of them yet?

  10. bearyweather says:

    I went to see Garrison K when he did a live Prairie Home Companion in Bemidji, MN this January. It was the second time I had attended one of those shows and I loved every minute of it. I actually started a blog post on it, but life events interrupted me and I just never finished … i will have to go revisit that one. Anyway, what I love most about his stories is the nostalgia it brings to mind …. he talks about small town, northern MN things that I have seen and does it with great humor. He is talking about retiring, so if he comes to a town near you I hope you will find a way to go see him in person, you will love it.

    • Kathy says:

      I’ll bet you did enjoy seeing Garrison in person, bearyweather! And you live that quissential northern Minnesota life. It would be interesting reading your blog post about it. If you ever do write about him, give me a nudge, will you? (And yes, I saw about his possible retirement after writing this.)

  11. Susan D says:

    Deeply touched and moved by your reaction to the tale. How it resonates. Tears from a deep well rose…

    How interesting that my own young drew me to our Lake W. How my young and I love Prarie Home Companion. Long-time fans. Sweet memory of my mother giving me Garrison’s book when I was young, sensing that I’d love it. Tears rise again from a deep well…

    I want to stay here in our living room of friends and listen to more stories, and eat tomatoes, and hear our young who ever call our names with tender tugs to our hearts…

    • Kathy says:

      Susan D, how I love it that you cry so openly and easily. I have another friend who longs to be able to cry like you do. I remember that one of your bebs invited me to a Garrison Keillor show in a tent in northern Wisconsin once. I declined, for some busy reason or another. Should have gone. Should have gone. Should have gone… OK, feeling tender tugs to the heart right now.

  12. Dawn says:

    Cherry tomatoes here are $4 something a PINT!

    And I used to listen to Garrison and Lake Woebegone stores years ago from up there. Sort of fit my life then. Haven’t heard him in a long time but would enjoy it I’m sure. And I remember getting a bit teary eyed too from time to time listening to him.

    • Kathy says:

      You know, Dawn, now you have me wondering. Maybe it WAS a PINT!! Yikes, that is even more frightening. (Glad you get teary-eyed too.)

  13. Robin says:

    Unfortunately, food speculation will be driving up food prices as well. I’m always reminded of Scrooge (in “A Christmas Carol”) when I hear about people speculating on the price of food. It seems wrong, somehow. But I suppose there is a reason for it I know nothing about.

    I love Garrison Keillor. He occasionally comes our way for a live broadcast, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet him twice. He is a master storyteller. But what makes him even more special for me (if that was possible) is that he is genuine (which I bet explains why he is such a fabulous storyteller). Sometimes the people I admire have turned out not to live up to the story I built around them (not their fault, of course, because it was *my* story, not theirs, and I have learned not to do that anymore). I was happy to find that was not the case with Garrison Keillor.

    This made me a little weepy too. It would be nice to have my little family all together, nearby. But then, they wouldn’t be doing what they are supposed to be doing. That’s just the way it is, in all Lake Wobegones, I reckon. The birds have to leave the nest, and the children have to grow up and do their thing. (Am I dating myself with that last remark? lol!)

    Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful post, Kathy. 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Robin, that is something fascinating to think about. What makes a person/storyteller genuine when you meet them in person? Yep…it’s usually our expectations that we have built up around the other person. I am glad that I have learned **OK, maybe still am learning**not to build up those expectations.

      I know what you mean about being glad that your family members are doing what they’re doing. I LOVE to listen to the stories of my children’s lives. I LOVE that they’re living where they are. (OK, 73.2%) lol–and a tear.

  14. Tracy says:

    So sad that our rural communities are shrinking. You made me cry too!! And yes, you are correct. It’s not just the challanged ones that stay. I enjoy your blog.
    (agreed, Stuart McLean is also a wonderful story teller!)

    • Kathy says:

      Tracy, I’m glad you agree that it’s not just the challenged ones who stay. I look around and see so many fine young people who have stayed, thank goodness. (Glad you cried, too…and nice to meet you!)

  15. Barbara Rodgers says:

    Garrison truly is a master story-teller – a keen observer of human nature. Whenever I laugh at something in his stories I discover that I am also laughing at myself. When someone can make us take ourselves less seriously it is an extraordinary gift!

    • Kathy says:

      Anyone that can make us take ourselves less seriously is a gift, indeed, Barbara. He makes us want to observe human nature even more closely, doesn’t he?

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