Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.
Inner Tranquility and Unread Books
January 27, 2009
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.
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