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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

January 2009 Archives

Inner Tranquility and Unread Books

It is God that has made us and not we ourselves, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture, and George W. Bush is no longer the top sheep. Altogether a cause for rejoicing as we forge ahead in the struggle to achieve inner tranquility, which for me the other morning included misplaced glasses, a madcap dash to the airport, and en route in the taxi a call from my wife saying, "You forgot your billfold." One more sheep with a thorn in his hoof.

Tranquility. A woman you barely know comes to your home with a sheaf of papers and explains what the documents are about and you don't understand a word and the papers are a blur of fine print but you sign them. For all you know, she could take them to the bank, get a hundred grand in fifties, jump in the Jaguar and be in Toronto by midnight. You trust not. You hope not.

Paranoia belongs to the fringe right and left, not to genteel burghers like you and me. We sit under our fig tree and enjoy our cheeseburger without brooding too much about toxic chemicals used by meatpackers or thought-control drugs injected into the beef. Every morning in the newspaper, some columnist cries out in alarm that yet one more disaster is creeping toward us like a cougar about to spring and chew our throats, and we read a few paragraphs and turn the page and warm up another Danish.

We are a hopeful people. I have at home a traveler's phrasebook that tells you how to say you have a toothache in French (mal de dents), German (Zahnschmerzen), Italian (mal di denti) or Spanish (dolor de muelas), which, of all my investments, was the most hopeful and most foolish. I bought it in the airport years ago, imagining that on the flight over the Atlantic, I'd pick up an active vocabulary of maybe four hundred words or so, and be able to converse with cabdrivers and hotel clerks about the weather or the arrival of trains or location of suitcases, and so forth. I had a couple of old uncles who got along with small active vocabularies, things like, "OK then," or, "Oh for goodness sake," or, "Well, you never know" -- and I thought I could do the same in other languages.

The little book stayed in my suitcase. Cabdrivers in Berlin had no need of conversation with me, and I never experienced a Zahnschmerzen or mal de dents over there, and if I had, the dentist surely would've known the word "toothache." My attempt to say "mal de dents" might actually have made the French think I had a sharp pain in my left ventricle and they would've thrown me down and torn my shirt open and slapped the paddles on my chest and there I'd be with a toothache and also convulsing helplessly on the Rue de Tutti and regretting my attempt at international understanding. I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time.

The second most unused book, I suppose, is the Holy Bible, a perennial best-seller thanks to our good intentions to attend to the Word and divine the Lord's Will, which one does for a few days until you realize that you already know the Lord's Will and you would prefer not to.

After that come diet books, which are bought in vast number and perused and put away. Twenty bucks for nothing, when the secret of dieting is simply: "Eat when you're hungry." And then the spiritual books about achieving inner tranquility and "How to Achieve Orgasm in 30 Days or Less" and inspiring books of all sorts.

We are a hopeful people.

One ponders that as we see the fresh faces in Washington replace the bullheads who've been bottom-feeding for eight painful years, and one is full of hope that the replacements will do the right thing and serve the common good, but then we are the same people who planned to converse in French about toothaches, and that didn't happen either.

Meanwhile we have this classy family in the White House, overachievers but gracious about it, mischievous kids and a smart man and a woman who sometimes tosses him glances that say, "Oh just get over yourself." What their presence says about the decency and generosity of this country is huge, friends, just huge. Rejoice, America. Je suis Americain. Ich bin ein Amerikaner.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

A Day to Remember

One simply wanted to be present. Freezing cold or not, a crowd of 2 million, whatever -- solemn warnings about tight security, long lines, traffic jams, cell phones not working. In the end, one wanted to be there on the Mall before the Capitol on Tuesday at noon amid the jubilant throng and see the man take the oath of office -- our first genuine Author-President.

So I hitchhiked a ride in the middle of the night on a jet heading to Baltimore and got to the train station at 5 a.m. and already the platform was packed. A lot of black people in parkas and scarves and mittens. It was like "The Apollo Goes to the Arctic." There were Obama stocking caps, ski caps, skullcaps, and pins with the first family on them, and everyone was beaming, and nobody complained about how cold it was or having to wait in line.

People were being marshaled into waiting areas for each train to D.C., each of us with a Commemorative Train Ticket with a picture of Himself on it -- and the marshals, who wore yellow vests, were insistent on us Staying In Our Place, but I just boarded the first train that came through and nobody ever checked my ticket. Big rules, no enforcement.

I rode with a group of black women who had left Portsmouth, Va., at 1 a.m. to be sure to be there on time. They were heavily bundled and so excited they could hardly speak. And then when the conductor called out "Union Station, Washington," one of them looked at the others and she burst into tears. And they all cried. I would have, too, if they'd looked at me.

Long lines at Union Station for coffee and restrooms, but everyone was in such a fine mood that waiting was painless, and the same was true of the line to go through security and be scanned and get onto the Capitol grounds. The line was six blocks long, the longest line I have ever stood in, but there is nothing so pleasant as being in a crowd of happy people when you are happy about the same thing they're happy about. Up above, cops with automatic rifles on parapets and walkways, and down below the mob milled along Louisiana Avenue and the line inched forward and the good will radiated up from the crowd just like in Grant Park on Election Night.

It was more than Democrats feeling their oats or African-Americans celebrating the unimaginable, more than revulsion at the gang of bullheads who held power for too long. It was a huge gasp of pleasure at a new America emerging, a country we all tried to believe in, a nation that is curious and venturesome, more openhearted and public-spirited.

All kinds of people, the slim and sleek, the XXXLs, the heavily insulated, the carefree, and we moved through ranks of souvenir sellers -- whatever else he may accomplish, Obama has been a boon to the pin and T-shirt trade -- and in our slow trek toward the Capitol, one felt the enormity of the day for the black people around us. I wouldn't try to express, I simply was grateful to be among it. Old ladies with sore feet hauled themselves along.

The crowd down below the podium had their opinions. There was a profound silence when Mrs. Bush was announced and walked out. People watched the big screen and when Mrs. Obama appeared, there was a roar, and when the Current Occupant and Mr. Cheney came out of the Capitol, a low and heartfelt rumble of booing. Dignified booing. Old black ladies around me tried to shush them -- "Don't do that!" they hissed -- but it's a democracy, and how will those men know how we feel if we don't tell them?

The band tootled on and there were shouts of "O-ba-ma" and also "Yes we can" (and also "Down in front") and then he came out and the place went up. That was the first big moment. The second was when he took the oath and said, "so help me, God" and the cannons boomed and you got a big lump in your throat. And the third was afterward.

The invocation was extensive and segued into the Lord's Prayer, and the music was OK if you like Aaron Copland, and the inaugural speech was good enough, calling on us all to great deeds and sacrifice, details to be announced later. You could hear each oratorical phrase repeated over and over in the series of loudspeakers down the Mall and bouncing off stone facades, a sort of cubist effect. The inaugural poet followed, a sort of filler, with a long windup, a few good phrases in the middle ("someone is trying to make music somewhere ... a teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'"), and then it trailed off into some misty thoughts about love. And then a big horn blast of a benediction.

But the great moment came later, as the mob flowed slowly across the grounds. I heard loud cheers behind me and there on the giant screen was the Former Occupant and Mrs. Bush saying goodbye to the Obamas in the parking lot behind the Capitol, the Marine helicopter behind them.

The crowd stopped and stared, a little stunned at the reality of it.

They saw it on a screen in front of the Capitol and it was actually happening on the other side. The Bushes went up the stairs, turned, waved and disappeared into the cabin, and people started to cheer in earnest. When the blades started turning, the cheering got louder, and when the chopper lifted up above the Capitol and we saw it in the sky heading for the airport, a million jubilant people waved and hollered for all they were worth. It was the most genuine, spontaneous, universal moment of the day. It was like watching the ice go out on the river.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

She Saw Her Pale Reflection in the Window

I like this government report saying that more Americans than before are reading novels and short stories, 113 million, in fact. Fiction is my cash crop, and that's good news. Too bad, though, that the report was issued by the National Endowment for the Arts. A deep-down aversion to a-r-t is one big reason half of America stays away from fiction.

They're afraid they'll come across a sentence like, "She looked out the window and saw the reflection of her own pale face against the drifted snow." Something girlish and moody like that.

These are guys who like to play video games in which you shoot people and spatter their blood on the wall. And what they might go for is manly fiction.

-- "Read my book, buttface," said the novelist standing in the dim doorway of Brad's garage. "Pick it up and read it." "I ain't gonna read your book, it's got a lot of weird words like 'languid' and 'luminous' in it," said Brad. He wondered if that was a real gun in the novelist's hand. It was. BLAM BLAM BLAM. Blood spattered all over the garage and his workbench. Blood glittered on the gunstock that Brad had been sanding for his shotgun. He wouldn't be sanding it no more. No sir.

Something like that.

People naturally want to be seen as sensitive persons of exquisite taste, and so America's creative writing programs churn out MFAs to write stories in which she sees her pale face reflected. And the National Endowment for the Arts subsidizes that stuff.

But what readers really want is the same as what Shakespeare's audience wanted -- dastardly deeds by dark despicable men, and/or some generous blood-spattering and/or saucy wenches with pert breasts cinched up to display them like fresh fruit on a platter. It isn't rocket science, people.

-- "Read my book," the novelist said. "Are there breasts in it?" asked Brad. "Oh just grow up," the man sneered. He didn't notice Brad's left hand reaching under the workbench for the .357 Magnum he kept taped there for just this eventuality. "I'm a serious novelist," the man said quietly, "and I've won many awards." But those awards weren't going to save his skin from some serious perforation now. No, sir. BLAM BLAM BLAM.

You get the idea.

Unfortunately, writers are a gloomy bunch given to whining about the difficulty of getting published, the pain of rejection, the obtuseness of critics, etc. They sit at their laptops and write a few sentences about pale reflections and then check their e-mail and Google themselves. Maybe click onto a Web site where young women display their breasts like ripe fruit. They get busy messing around and don't have time to write fiction so they write poems instead.

Poems are easy. A haiku is three lines of five, seven and five syllables. You can crank this stuff out with one hand, so people do.

But nobody reads poetry, thanks to T.S. Eliot, whose "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" we were forced to read in high school, that small dark mopefest of a poem about whether or not someone dares to eat a peach or wear his trousers rolled. And we got the idea that Literature is a Downer.

T.S. Eliot had no friends at all and he married a ballet dancer and they slept in separate bedrooms and she had a nervous breakdown. She wished she could've shot him three times in the chest, but they were in England at the time and there are no guns there.

A guy like that can't be expected to write "Guys and Dolls," and old Tom led a million writers down the path to writing reams of stuff that nobody wants to read. Literary quarterlies that sit on library shelves and nobody reads them except poets who want to be published in them.

-- "You got a problem with that?" said the poet. The columnist turned. He saw a beautiful woman with a gun in her right hand. Her long auburn hair hung down over her pert breasts. "You wrote this?" he said. "The part about looking out the window and seeing your pale reflection against the snow?" She nodded. He was going to say that hers was a reflection he wouldn't mind seeing himself. But he never got that chance.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

The Perils and Joys of Self-Esteem

When you look at the audience numbers for TV and then add up the incarcerated felons, Alzheimer's patients and confirmed barflies in America, it dawns on you who is watching TV these days -- people unable to lead normal productive lives -- and yet they give out awards for this stuff and the hosts of shows are driven to and fro in Lincoln Town Cars and they suffer from toxic self-esteem. TV is wallpaper nowadays and those talking heads might as well be talking to the smoked trout in Murray's Deli or the No Parking signs along Broadway, as people do from time to time, but we allow them their delusions.

And we allow the Current Occupant to leave the Mansion d'Blanc with a big grin in a couple weeks, his self-esteem apparently fully intact, imagining that his legacy will emerge golden and shining in a hundred years after all of us are deceased. He is one of the cheerfullest idiots you ever saw, a man who could burn down his own house and be happy that the patio was still standing. Had Congress impeached him, his defense would have been that he was not capable of understanding the charges.

Laura got the publishing contract, though the world is not abuzz waiting for her to tell us that he was not as dense as he looked. Sure. Right. But she will write it and then go on TV talk shows to flog it and she will be seen by thousands of people in airport waiting areas who will think, "My, she looks familiar. She reminds me of somebody."

So you shouldn't fret, dear hearts, if what you do doesn't draw a big crowd or get written up in the papers. Be proud. If you've dedicated yourself to the tango, or playing drop-thumb banjo, or digging up ancient cities, or writing sonnets, you are beautiful, and please do not yearn for the bright lights. Those wombats reading the news off teleprompters are talking to the bedridden, the delusional and the criminal. The happy StairMaster president is on his way to a mansionette in Dallas, to be the decider of where to put the sofa. His successor, Mister Mambo, has cast his lot with Harvard and Yale and old Clinton hands, and soon enough, Lord knows, they will get the first of many comeuppances, and their shining faces will be chopfallen.

Meanwhile, you and I go on. We dance our little dance and pursue the circuit of our dreams insofar as the bus schedules permit. I have just spent four days in an old Miami hotel under the sheltering palms, having read about how important dads are to their daughters' self-esteem, and so I brought my sandy-haired bright-faced girl down to the Largest Swimming Pool in Judeo-Christian Civilization and got to observe her excellent breaststroke and butterfly, her little pink goggles rising and plunging, her big strong arms pulling her forward, and also her fine social skills in the art of approaching other little girls and becoming fast friends within minutes. Self-esteem did not seem to be a problem.

As for me, I sat and wrote sonnets, including one about self-esteem.

Life is absurd. A man can count on that.
Here I am on the front page, standing alone,
Refusing to hide my face behind my hat,
Which, in my case, I do not even own.
MAN, 66, NABBED FOR PUBLIC EXPOSURE.
All I did was go take a leak in the bushes.
I didn't run through the park with no clothes or
Flash anyone. Ridiculous. Absolutely atrocious.
The injustice! Some gumshoe at the P.D.
Was out to enhance his crime-stopping reputation
And now I am an outcast crying bootlessly
For the crime of emergency urination.
With fortune and men's eyes I'm in disgrace
But you still love me and I refuse to hide my face.

It was inspired, if you must know, by observing a man taking a leak in the bushes at a park where a Cuban band was playing, and a line of dancers formed impromptu next to the stage and did a lovely salsa step, so simple, graceful, slide slide turn slide, arms up, turn step step slide, and you had to think, O my God how beautiful we are. And beyond was the man disgracing himself, and he was beautiful, too.

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.





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