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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

February 2009 Archives

Cold Comfort

Some friends from the Confederacy came to visit us in St. Paul last week when the temperature was around zero and so we had to haul out electric blankets and crank the thermostat up to 68, but they still felt "chilled" and so I made them go for a walk outdoors, and when they returned, they felt warmer. They only needed to get perspective. Cold is not so cold if you compare it to actual death.

I grew up at a time when you didn't complain about winter. Blizzards raged across the prairie and that was that. There was no weather forecasting, just a strong sense of foreboding. Old people wrapped in quilts sat by the hearth, gumming their chicken bones, their rheumy eyes turned upward, listening to the wind in the chimney, and they said things like, "The judgment of the Lord shall not be withstood." That was about it by way of prognostication. The wind blew and blew. Zero was a mild chill back then. Twenty below was considered cold. At 60 below you had to take precautions. The car froze up, and when you raised the hood it screeched so loud that icicles fell off the eaves, huge 45-pounders like giant daggers of ice. We were a family of eight but we had been a family of 10. Icicles got Timmy and Louise.

I don't say this by way of complaining, not at all. Winter gave us a sense of purpose, to persevere, to go to school no matter what and to keep shoveling the walk and throw the snow up on the snowbank 15 feet overhead, clearing the narrow canyon of sidewalk with clothesline tied to our belts so that in case of avalanche, they could pull us out in time, watching for incoming icicles that dropped like artillery shells, and also for coyotes that grew daring by late February and would take on a boy, especially one who was immobilized by heavy clothing. There was no lightweight thermal wear back then -- you kept warm by the exertion of carrying heavy clothing: an 80-pound child might wear 30 pounds of clothing. Running was out of the question. You simply had to face the beast and stare it down.

Coyotes. Icicles. And also the danger of voiding the bladder at 60 below when you hear your own bodily fluid turn to ice chips as it hits the ground and you wonder how far up the golden arc this ice might come. Remind me to tell you about that sometime when we're alone.

My father was a stoic. He believed that if you couldn't see your breath when you talked, then the furnace was turned up too high, not that we talked -- we did not -- we knew each other well enough without it, but we respired. We exhaled vaporous clouds as we toiled over homework and then ascended to the cold attic and our frozen beds. Normally heat rises but not when it is that cold. We wore long woolens to bed and there was no thought of bedwetting -- we never considered it an option. Nor did we bathe on a daily basis. You just accepted that you were a mammal and didn't need to smell like citrus fruit. And that's just how it was. An alien experience to most Americans and so one has a responsibility to tell the story, just as when your child picks up an LP and asks, "What is this?" and you must try to explain about high-fidelity sound and woofers and tweeters, and how the needle on the tonearm rode in the grooves of a vinyl disc and produced stereophonic sound, which of course your child does not believe for one second, but that doesn't mean it isn't true.

But there was no phonograph in my childhood home. We arose every morning in silence, pulled on 30 pounds of clothing, and ate our Cream of Wheat and marched out into the storm. The school buses were frozen solid so we were taken to school in a horse-drawn sleigh driven by a man with enormous eyebrows and raced past the ravines where the last tattered remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia were holed up and looking for Yankee children to kidnap for ransom to buy gunpowder from the British so the South could rise again. Which it did not until the Republican Party seceded from the Union in 1968. But that is a story for another time

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

Upward and Onward

I enjoy a well-crafted obituary as much as the next man, and now that people of my own generation (what????) are appearing there, the obituary page becomes closer and closer to my heart.

Yesterday I thought I might have to write one for my older brother after he slipped while skating and cracked his head open and was rushed to intensive care, and so I was reviewing a few salient facts of his life -- his long off-and-on romance with Natalie Wood, his invention of sunscreen, his real estate empire in the Caribbean -- but now he is conscious and showing signs of intelligence so it looks as if I'm off the hook.

I like to read English obituaries, which are more frank than American obits. Americans go to great lengths not to speak ill of the dead and lean toward the comforting eulogy, but the obituary is not meant to comfort. It is meant to take inventory of a life. And thereby remind us that we too are mortal and someday the world will look at us with a cool clear eye and measure our contribution to the common good. ("His weekly column was always neatly typed and contained very few serious grammatical errors.") To make the dead guy into a demigod does not serve the common good.

This morning I read the obituary of an English writer I'd never heard of named Edward Upward, who died last Friday at the age of 105. (In fact, he outlived his obituarist, Alan Walker, who died in 2004.)

Ed went to Cambridge and was a friend of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood and his career seems to have wilted in the heat of their brilliance. They became famous and he got a job teaching school. And then he joined the Communist Party, which is a heavy load of bricks to carry, and he married a hard-line Communist named Hilda, and he wrote an essay announcing that good writing could only be produced by Marxists, whereupon he suffered writer's block for twenty years. (Talk about poetic justice.)

"The middle decades were bleak for Upward," wrote Mr. Walker. "During a sabbatical year designed to give Upward the chance to write, he suffered a nervous breakdown." And then when he did publish again, he had become an antique. His autobiographical trilogy, "The Spiral Ascent," was received by critics like you'd receive a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman.

And then there was the problem of walking around with the name Edward Upward.

It is a sobering tale for a fellow writer to read, and the main lessons of Upward's life, as I see it, are these.

1. Don't hang out with brilliant people who are likely to outshine you -- unless you are a satirist. In which case, do. And stand quietly in back and take notes.

2. Writers shouldn't join parties and especially not the Communist Party.

3. Avoid making big pronouncements such as "The only good art is Marxist art." You say it, feeling you're on the cutting edge of history, but it's only going to come back and bite you in the butt.

4. If you must write an autobiography, give it a better title than "The Spiral Ascent."

I am a satirist. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party. I might have joined if Natalie Wood had tried to recruit me, but she did not. I am a Democrat but mainly for the atmosphere and so I can meet normal people who do real work. I don't write essays or autobiographies.

And thanks to Edward Upward, I have decided not to take a sabbatical after all. You go off to the woods for a year and it puts you under terrible pressure to write "Moby Dick" or something worthy of having had an entire year in which to write, and the longer you work at this masterpiece, the shabbier it looks, the whale turns into a guppy, and at the end of the year you have torn up almost everything you wrote and you are filled with self-loathing and bitter regret. No thanks. I am sticking to my post and recommend that you do, too. And stay off the obituary page as long as possible. One hopes for an opulent send-off but it's not going to happen, dear heart, and so you may as well go ahead and live your life because your obituary is bound to be a big disappointment.

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

The Care and Feeding of Ex-Celebrities

The new musical that's moved into Washington -- New All-Star Cast! New And Cooler Songs! Awesome Dance Numbers! -- has bumped the old attractions off the avenue. The wax museum of Ann Coulter, the Fox vaudeville acts, the woofing of Rush and O'Reilly -- they're playing the VFW circuit now. When Barack and Michelle walked down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day, you could tell just by looking at them that the photographers are not going to be lying in wait for Sarah Palin just now. You heard the sudden sucking sound of vanishing celebrity, but it's not the worst thing that can happen to a person.

If you travel around by commercial jet, you've seen formerly famous people waiting at baggage claim, people who once had an entourage and who now tote their own baggage. You turn and there he is, standing right smack next to you -- Dan Rather, Hulk Hogan, Walter Mondale, some old rock 'n' roller with a vestigial ponytail -- and what do you say? You smile and say hello. Maybe you ask what brand of hair product they use. You try to frame a compliment.

The American people tend to be painfully courteous to the ex-celebrity. They might stare at Mr. Giuliani and his enormous incisors but they're not likely to say, "Glad ya lost, ya big weasel," or "How's your pal Bernie Kerik doing these days?" or "Saw your speech on small-town values at the Republican convention, and I wonder what you'd charge to come out to Thief River Falls and speak to our Kiwanis Club" -- no, sir. Americans may boo the referee and rag on the president and talk back to the dopes on TV, but they are not shoe-throwers, and if you're a household name who became a trivia question, they're not likely to give you a hard time. Americans assume it is terribly painful to have once been a big enchilada and now be a mere taquito.

Au contraire.

I speak as a recovering celebrity myself. You're too young to remember, but twenty-some years ago, aboard a flight to Rawalpindi, I took over the controls of a 747 whose crew was incapacitated by bad sushi and yours truly landed the craft at Pago Pago despite no pilot training and poor sense of spatial relationships and I swam through shark-infested waters with a rope in my teeth that enabled a tug to tow the plane past the reef and into safe harbor. Front-page stuff and I was on all the talk shows and now I'm subletting a motor home in Anaheim, but I have reinvented myself as a guru, and my book, "The Wisdom of Failure," is getting a lot of buzz. It says that defeat is an opportunity. I think it's going to be very big.

If your mission to expose the liberal conspiracy was met with defeat in November, there is no reason you can't retool and sell diamond rings on the Shopping Channel. Or found a megachurch in Colorado Springs. You just need to switch oysters.

America loves second and third acts. A heavyweight boxer retires from the ring and starts peddling grills. A White House aide becomes a novelist. A famous actress who went down the detox-rehab trail now does a funny stand-up routine about it. There is no reason to let a trademark languish just because the product becomes passé. Diversify. Retrain. Get a makeover.

I am seeing Rush Limbaugh as an actor in action movies, a sort of Nero Wolfe supersleuth who, though he never leaves his luxurious New York brownstone and his rare orchid collection and his personal chef Fritz, uses his superior powers of ratiocination to locate the missing uranium bars in the cellars beneath the great mosque in Tehran. I am seeing Ann Coulter as someone who can revive the professional female wrestling franchise, and I am seeing Rudy Giuliani as a name brand of work clothes and steel-toed boots.

And then there is the Former Occupant himself, who is busy deciding on carpeting and window treatments in Dallas. Building a presidential library is not going to be enough for him. And I am seeing him as a late-night TV host. The man has a definite resemblance to Johnny Carson, and the American people would enjoy watching him chat with authors and kid around with Angelina or Beyoncé as they introduce their film clips. People would tune in every night to reassure themselves that he's not in charge of anything anymore and that would be wonderful. Simply wonderful.

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

Appreciation for a Great Appreciator

Ten a.m. A phone call from my daughter's school, and instantly the father's mind goes to Dark Foreboding, but no -- this is her teacher calling to say that the child scored 96 on the spelling test. The child's instant reward is the phone call home and the words of praise. She sits at her desk pretending not to listen, basking in the acclaim. Well done.

Having begotten a good speller is no small matter to a writer. Writing is an act of paying attention, and if you don't care about the difference between "their" and "there" or "needle" and "noodle," then I am sorry for you.

The teacher's praise of my child is a large moment in the day. I live with fear as any parent does. I know people who've gone through catastrophes -- schizophrenia, the suicide of a child -- the skin shrivels at the words, and so the life of a parent is one of constant wordless prayer. Today, my child scored 96 on spelling. A good day.

It has been a good winter with plentiful snow. The skiers are grateful, so are the men with snowblowers. The people who loathe winter are happy in their loathing and can practice the fine art of grumbling and grousing, and we who love a winter night can bundle up and walk the streets of St. Paul in the friendly lamplight past billows of snowdrifts and the houses concealing the lives of our neighbors, though of course we can speculate -- this unscraped sidewalk, is it not a sign of alcoholism? And I think of John Updike, who illuminated private lives and wrote so lovingly of the world, who called snowfall "an immense whispering" and compared a brilliant snowy day to overdeveloped film. Who re-created the backyards and clotheslines of small-town 1940s Pennsylvania and described the way a girl walked in the hall of high school carrying her books against her body, and in a great story, "My Father's Tears," three years ago in The New Yorker, he gave us his father bidding him goodbye on a train platform. Nothing was beneath his careful attention.

I saw him a year ago in New York, and my wife and I rode the subway with him from 155th Street down to 72nd, and he grinned all the way, a white-haired gent of 75 in a tan raincoat, like a boy going away to school, and a little nervous. As it turns out, that was my very last chance to tell him, standing above him, the train swaying, that "The Centaur" and the Rabbit Angstrom books are permanent masterpieces and also his Olinger stories, and I didn't tell him that. I opted to be cool. And then a gaggle of college kids boarded and crowded around him, not recognizing him, and in all that chatter and attitude, Updike sat soaking it all up. Material.

He was the great American man of letters of the second half of the 20th century, critic, poet, novelist, master of the short story, and a man of Lutheran virtues, cheerful, hardworking, self-deprecating, ever grateful for opportunity. He was a charming and generous interview though he claimed to dislike being interviewed. He was dark on the subject of celebrity -- "Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face," he wrote. "As soon as one is aware of being 'somebody,' to be watched and listened to with extra interest, input ceases, and the performer goes blind and deaf in his overanimation. One can either see or be seen." -- but as a Famous American Writer, he was a champion, worthy to wear the belt.

He was the cheerfullest writer in the world. He mourned the loss of a wide readership -- he loathed the term "literary fiction," which seemed to quarantine serious writers like him (why not just call it "fiction you won't enjoy"?) -- but he was full of gratitude and appreciation. He was a great appreciator. And if John ever wrote you a note of appreciation for something you had written or done, it buoyed you up for weeks.

This is what the obituaries leave out. The giants fall and we leave them behind but who is left to bless us? Nobody. As long as John was in the world, you could imagine him calling up one morning and saying, "That was good. I liked that." And now the phone is dead. I feel bereft.

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





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