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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

March 2009 Archives

The Poetry of Spring

Spring is a time when we are one nation. In a few weeks, the South will head toward its air-conditioned caves and a cold summer chill will fall on San Francisco, but in spring and fall we are one people, more unum than pluribus, stepping gracefully to the music of photosynthesis, and not even a sour economy can change that, so Viva sweet spring. I say this as the father of a sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter who jumps up from breakfast to dance the shimmy. With so much pre-adolescence going on around you, it's hard to be glum.

Here in Minnesota, spring doesn't arrive for good until Mother's Day and the opening of walleye season, when men and their mothers go fishing and sit around the campfire afterwards and pass the whiskey bottle and she talks about her years traveling with the tent show before she met their father, all the wonderful men she knew, ducktailed men with big tattoos on their chests who drove fast cars and carried rolls of fifties and weren't afraid to spend, which is a shock, to hear about Mother's wild roving years, but everyone did have them, so get over it. And the urge to rove wildly does strike people at this time of year. I, for example, am tempted to bleach my hair and change my name to Lauren L'Etranger though probably I will not.

In spring, a person's thoughts naturally turn toward what you would rather be doing than earning a living, and in America this usually means Being An Artist. This is the true American dream. Winning the lottery is a faint hope, becoming a sports hero is a daydream, but publishing poetry is the ambition of one-third of the American people and another third are thinking about writing a memoir.

And you thought you were the only one! Ha! You are part of a vast tide. One reason the economy is so sour is that nobody wants to tote barges or lift bales, they want to be edgy and multilayered and express their anguish in some colorful and inexplicable way. Your dental hygienist is a poet ("Into the ravenous maw flecked with food and decked with plaque, I descend, pick in hand"), and this does not make for better dental care. People who feel they have a Higher Calling may feel justified in slacking off on the Lower Calling even though it is the one that pays the light bill. Your mailman comes sweeping up the walk on the tips of his toes, arms extended, twirls, and hands you an invitation to his dance recital. Also a handful of your neighbor's mail. You attend the recital and it is not bad. Men and women barefoot in leotards tossing brown parcels back and forth and running from dogs and afterward you must go backstage and tell them how good it was.

That is the challenge when people you know become artists. They want to know what you think, and you have to frame compliments that are enthusiastic without sounding stupid. "I loved what you did" is good, and, "There was so much life in it." If you can't think of anything, just look stunned and shake your head and say, "Wow." Don't go for big phrases like "magical realism" or "pediatric apotheosis." Don't nibble their earlobes. Just tell them you loved it and help yourself to the cheese and crackers.

I took my mother fishing last year and discovered she'd been in the Johnson & Swanson Circus. She did backflips on a tightrope and swallowed flaming torches and exhaled a stream of flame 10 feet long. Recently we found a photograph of her in spangly tights, a hibiscus in her hair, standing blindfolded on the trunk of an elephant with a lit cigarette in her mouth which a swarthy man in a gypsy outfit is about to shoot out of her mouth with a pistol aimed over his left shoulder using a small mirror with a mother-of-pearl handle. We had no idea that she ever smoked. Mother is 93 and the picture is from 1934. She says she didn't inhale and that the man was firing blanks, but we wonder, "Was she happy, having given up that wild life of show business for a life of cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing? Did we cheat Mother of the springtime of youth?" I suppose we did, and if she wants to say so in a poem, welcome to the club.

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

Victims of Class Warfare

As a member of the board of directors of the American International Group, I am pained by the hailstorm of fecal matter raining on our company for the $450 million in bonuses we are paying out to the traders in credit derivatives after receiving billions from the U.S. Treasury to rescue us from going over the cliff that the derivative traders were driving us toward.

I was in Greece when the storm hit and got a call from Marie, my assistant, saying, "We're sending the jet," and came home to find a stack of anonymous letters in the solarium, saying, "Bonuses? To the jerks who totaled a corporation? Where did this idea of rewarding failure come from? Are you living in a fairy tale in which wealth is generated by following owls into underground caverns?"

Many of these missives were written with black felt-tip pens in big block letters and words snipped out of magazines, words such as "fraud" and "skunks," "San Quentin," "die in hell" and "eat glass shards," and a picture of a naked man chained to a rock and a bird pecking out his liver.

To cancel bonuses because of a bad year is like refusing to water the greens just because a golfer has hit into the rough. It would be counterproductive.

And in the end, AIG is not about credit default swaps or derivatives. It is about people.

People like Megan, who suffered a painful case of shingles after a $4 billion default swap dropped to $234.15 and whose mission is to save the endangered grommet. That's where her bonus is going, to create a grommet habitat in Vermont.

I wish that the politicians lining up to drop cherry bombs in our toilets could meet the AIG family, including its wonderful board of directors: Peter Lorre, Louie Louie, Larry King, the Duke of Earl, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ralph Stanley, Morgan Stanley, Stan and Ollie, Alley Oop, Rupert Murdoch, Dr. John, John Roberts, Judge Judy, Rudy Giuliani, Sweet Leilani, Sleeping Beauty, Buddy Guy, Sy Newhouse, Rufus Wainwright, Wayne Newton, Newt Gingrich, Richard Cory, Lorrie Moore, and did I mention Peter Lorre? He's there too.

Their friendship is all the reward I need for my service, although I will receive a bonus myself for having a perfect record of attendance for three years running.

Last weekend, we held an emergency meeting in Antigua at one of those resorts where men can walk around freely and not be accosted by embittered stockholders or their lawyers. We agreed that the first priority is to re-establish confidence.

These are difficult times and we will need to think positively to work our way through them and reach the other side. Recrimination will get us nowhere.

It's just like in sailing a yacht. If your crew neglects to secure the lanyard and the yardarm swings loose and knocks the martinis off your tray and spills a thousand dollars worth of beluga caviar on the deck, do you curse the silly buggers and perhaps distract them so that the Windermere lands on the reef and is reduced to splinters in waters populated by hammerhead sharks?

No, and neither do we at AIG.

It's easy to look back and say what should have been done, but that is not our style.

I have never heard an iota of acrimony in a board meeting. The level of civility has never wavered. My bonus was approved unanimously, and when I announced my resignation, people came around to give me hugs. They cried, "If you're leaving, then we'll leave too," and so they will, and as of Monday we'll be replaced by Dick Cheney, Lil Wayne, Jane Smiley, Miley Cyrus, Don Imus, Iris Murdoch, Dr. Phil, Lil' Kim, Jimmy Kimmel, Homer Simpson, Lil Simon, Simon Cowell, Carl Kasell, Russell Banks, Ben Bernanke, Frankie Avalon, Lon Chaney, and did I mention Dick Cheney? He's there too.

It's painful for me to leave AIG, but I am not comfortable with the government owning 80 percent of our company. Call me old-fashioned, but that is just plain socialism to me, and this latest frenzy of plain old class warfare fomented by an anti-business administration has convinced me that it's time to move on. And so I am leaving for Costa Rica and a settlement on its Pacific shore where one can enjoy the ocean breeze far away from discord and bitterness. It is a new residential development called Tierra de Gracias and homesite sales are limited to persons who are profoundly thankful.

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

Disabilities and Delusions

In hard times a man must consider new options, and right now I'm thinking about going on disability. I read in the Washington Post about the wonderful deals that police in Montgomery County, Md., negotiated for themselves way back when, whereby after a few years on the force if you twist your back reaching for a jelly doughnut and are no longer able to dash down dark alleys and leap picket fences while firing your revolver with deadly accuracy, you apply for disability and a committee of gentlemen who report to nobody whomsoever and whose deliberations are highly confidential award you $50,000 per year tax-free. And then, though disabled, you pass the physical and are hired as a security guard at John F. Kennedy High School, named for the man who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but on the other hand don't turn it down when it's easily available," and all this at a time when they are cutting music and art out of the schools and children must start classes at 7 a.m. due to a shortage of buses.

Meanwhile, in and around Long Island, everyone who's been working on the railroad is collecting disability for paper cuts, motion sickness, acid reflux and halitosis.

The Authors Guild, of which I am a member, has done zilch to secure disability protection for writers. In my line of work, disability comes down to two things: memory loss and something else, I forget what. You lose the vocabulary retrieval skills you had when you were 30 and interesting words such as "parietal lobe" and "sedimentary rocks" flocked to your brain, and now you sit inert at the laptop for a number of horrendous minutes trying to remember the word for the thing that if you picked it up and dropped it on your foot it would be very, very bad -- anvil! This is a disability, and a writer should be able to receive payments, and also for the other thing, whatever it is.

When it comes to disability pensions, you ought to include congressmen, especially these remarkable Republicans who, in the midst of a serious banking crisis, are recycling Herbert Hoover and decrying socialism and paying homage to a fat sweaty guy living alone with his cat in a five-mansion compound in West Palm Beach. At the moment, he seems to be steering the Republican Party like it's his personal power boat and Mitch McConnell is the girl in the bikini on water skis.

"I am at the top of the mountain of what I do. Everybody underneath it wants what I've got," Rush said on his show the other day. "As such, they'll do what they can to take me down or to criticize me or what have you. It is beneath my dignity to be critical of those beneath me. It's just a waste of time."

For similar delusional megalomania, you have to go back to the rock stars of yesteryear, but they were 30 or so, and Rush is somewhat north of there. You have to wonder if the man doesn't need to get out of the compound more and converse with real people and not just talk to his cat. Has he ever sat at a bar and talked to other men over a beer? One of the problems with OxyContin is that it's such a lonely drug: Guys don't get together to toss back a few pills and tell jokes, so an Oxhead like Rush is missing the social skills that one might develop over beer and bourbon. At the bar, a man can rant and rave about Obama and hope he will fail, but when he stops for breath, he has to listen to someone else point out that we are in an economic crisis and the country seems to want a change of course.

But delusion is no disability in broadcasting, my friends. Au contraire, it is the very lifeblood of the trade, and so there will be no pension check for the fat man. But what about me? It's almost spring and a big winter storm is about to sweep across the tundra and here I sit trying to bring this piece of writing to a -- what is the word for it? I think it starts with C. I think it's a C-word. Conniptions. Connecticut. Cougars. The U.S. Coast Guard. Sorry -- I am no longer able to function as a columnist and I respectfully request that I be compensated for it.

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

The Delicate Art of Brotherly Love

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 backwards 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 granddaugh ters 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.

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





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