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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

May 2009 Archives

A Tale of Two Cities

Memorial Day in Washington, and geese swimming in the great reflecting pool that reflects the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial, depending on where you are standing, and busloads of tourists pulled up to the curbs. Heroic architecture everywhere, bas-relief sculptures of heroes, men on pedestals, monuments to Fidelity and Sacrifice and Devotion, and a milling crowd of people, many of whom are Hot and Irritable and Dazed with Tedium.

Signs of museum fatigue everywhere. Stone-faced couples in shorts walk by, cameras dangling from their wrists, who appear to be on the verge of divorce. Small children crouch whining and weeping who do not realize how close they are to being put up for adoption.

The smell of Vienna dogs and sauerkraut wafts around the Vietnam Memorial, and schoolkids in bright blue T-shirts circle around back of Mr. Lincoln under his grand pavilion to see if it is true that the face of Robert E. Lee appears in the whorls of Lincoln's hair (not), and people come into the white marble cave of the National Gallery to cool off and pretend to look at paintings.

I love Washington, a city reviled by the right even when they were in power but which inspires in me a simple patriotism not so different from what I felt in the fifth grade. One does feel elevated in a city that honors public service, which this one does, and not only on Memorial Day. And then I got on the train to New York, where public service is a remote abstraction, a sort of Higher Consciousness that is spoken of but rarely practiced.

In Washington, I watched a woman present awards to 12 students for their good work and stand next to each of them for the ceremonial photograph. The kids were goofy or sheepish or solemn, and the lady was exactly the same graceful smiling person in each picture — I told her afterward that I admired that and she said, "Well, it's their moment, not mine." Exactly. And there is the byword of public service, whether in the ranks of the uniformed or in a cubicle or at the White House: It's Not About Me. And in New York, it is. All About Me. Or sometimes about You and Me. It's not about you, I'm sorry.

New York is the original MySpace where you can go to put yourself out there and maybe become Famous, at least for a few minutes. Do something weird or funny and suddenly people are noticing you and maybe one of them will develop a big crush and now your Friday night is taken care of. Health care reform is not an issue, nor the war in Afghanistan, it's all about who I am and what I want and what is necessary for my happiness at this very moment.

It's been a liberal city since 1654, when a shipload of Jews arrived in a Dutch Reformed community, and they wanted to observe Rosh Hashanah, which was illegal in New York at the time, and the Dutch authorities said, "Well, why not? Go ahead." And they have been saying "Well, why not?" ever since.

And now, if you went out in the streets in your pink pajamas with a banana in your ear, New Yorkers would simply assume you must be very rich to be that eccentric, or that you're an artist making a fashion statement, or that you are up for first-degree manslaughter and going for the insanity defense. They'd be interested up to a point, but they wouldn't intervene or show you disgust or pity.

I was discussing this with relatives from the Midwest as we hiked across the Brooklyn Bridge Monday night, the great stone arches and the harp-like suspension cables so beautiful in the floodlights, the skyscrapers of Wall Street huddled together, yearning to breathe free, and the impassivity of passersby, the stone-faced women, the blank men. Not hostile, just impassive. It's meant to minimize interference and allow each other to be private in public.

There in lower Manhattan on 9/13, people were going to movies and sitting in cafes eating mussels and talking about their careers. Evil had shaken the world and busloads of firemen went by, to rake through the smoking ruins, and in the Village, the waiter brought out the linguini, and let me tell you about my screenplay, it's a sort of Coming of Age story of a guy my age. I have a hard copy if you want to read it.

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

Stop the (Trouser) Presses!

I come to London for the signage ("Danger: Men working overhead"), and to pick up a tube of Euthymol toothpaste and devour a cup of Mr. Whippy lemon ice and a package of chocolate HobNobs, and to enjoy the roomy taxicabs and the cabbies' no-hesitation style of driving, their bold U-turns, and to observe the gilded gates and the Mounted Guards and all the storybook tinges of aristocracy so dear to us Americans.

And terrific theater. Saw a beautiful and moving performance by puppets — life-sized horses in "War Horse" at the National Theatre — light shells of horses with visible frames and legs of two puppeteers inside, another manipulating the head, and yet the sight of the beasts grazing, nuzzling, shying, rearing up was the most perfect and believable thing I've seen onstage in a long time. And then at the vaudeville-burlesque "La Clique," saw a fine contortionist work his body through the head of a tennis racket and an American comedienne drop her drawers, pull a kazoo out of her bosom and stick it up her dress into a very private place and proceed to give us (we thought, we assumed, we dared to hope) a rendition of "America" from her nether regions and, a moment later, put another kazoo in her mouth and play a very accomplished orifice duet, all with the innocence of a 4-Her doing a performance project at the county fair. Wowza.

But the best show in town is the Daily Telegraph's dogged campaign to bring down Gordon Brown's Labor government by exposing the squishy underbelly of corruption in Parliament that Labor has tolerated for years. Day after day for almost two weeks, the paper has pounded away with details of petty grifting in high places and large unflattering photographs of members of Parliament, some of which seem horizontally distorted to give the Honorables a piggish appearance, like a funhouse mirror. And now, as I write, the speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, has stepped down, the first to do so in more than 300 years, knocked off his horse by a crusading newspaper.

The story is fairly simple: Parliament members from districts outside London can be compensated for expenses deemed "wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred to enable you to stay overnight away from your main home," and a large number of members have exploited this provision to pad their modest salaries (slightly more than a hundred grand per annum) in ways that Martin tried to keep secret. But some minion in a parliamentary office took home a computer disk and sold it to the Telegraph for a tidy sum and out spilled the garbage — 2,000 pounds for a 37-inch high-def plasma TV set; 1,625 pounds for a garden table, chairs and parasol; 7,000 pounds for a new kitchen; 519.31 pounds for a week at the Bide-A-Wee holiday cottage; 100 pounds to remove moles from a garden; 725 pounds for a cherrywood mirror; 600 pounds for the removal of wisteria; 2,200 pounds for the cleaning of a moat; 2,000 pounds to repair a pipe under a tennis court; 5,700 pounds for a portico; 115 pounds for a handyman to come and change light bulbs — on and on it went, day after day, a tide of savory details.

There were several instances of members being compensated for interest on mortgages that turned out not to exist, a criminal matter. But most of the stuff was rather small, if fascinating, potatoes. A wealthy member who owns seven homes in Britain and part of one in France charged the taxpayers 119 pounds for a trouser press. This is the sort of thing that makes a constituent grab his pint of bitters and slam his fist on the table.

And now, having seen the Speaker walk the plank, the Honorables must go out to their districts in Sodden Wickham and Twitching Bridgewater to explain why taxpayers paid for the cleaning of a moat. A dreadful fate, having to kneel down and crawl in public as the mob flings dead fish and dry dog dung at you.

The other part of the story is that Telegraph sales are up by 10 percent, which is one answer to the question all newspapers are asking these days. If you print stuff that people are avid to read, they will buy your paper, and there is nothing people love more than to savor the embarrassment of the high and mighty. Forget about Iran — if Mr. Obama is charging us for his trouser press, we want to know.


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

We Are What We Are

Only one out of five Americans is willing to describe himself or herself as a Republican these days, and frankly I am tempted to become one of them. For the variety, and because they need me and because when I heard former Vice President Cheney talk about the meaning of Republicanism the other day — "We are what we are," he said — I felt drawn to the simplicity and dignity of that. And I have never been a Republican, just as I've never been to South America, and that makes it tempting.

I look at pictures of Machu Picchu and think, "Why don't I get on a plane and go?" And I look at Dick Cheney and think, "This man needs friends." I voted for Obama, and will vote for him again in 2012, Lord willing, but in the meantime, it's a free country.

And it is just a whole lot more satisfying to be part of a militant righteous minority than to be in the anxiety-ridden confused majority — to be a nightrider and ambusher rather than one of the people in the long wagon train — to be free to juke around and say wild stuff and know that it doesn't make a dime's worth of difference.

I went to a party the other day and heard the word "torture" and said that I didn't think we should prosecute the Bush lawyers who wrote those torture memos, and people jumped all over me like I was an escaped Nazi, so as long as I was persona non grata, I said some more stuff — that America would be a better country if we took the vote away from people over 65 because they are selfish and greedy and the future of America is its young. People about dropped their drinks. And then I said that cat ownership is a sign of emotional immaturity and a good predictor of a tendency toward violent crime. I saw lifelong friends turn away in disgust. And you know something? I Don't Care. It felt good.

Liquor wasn't the cause. Crankiness was. And crankiness is the birthright of Republicans.

As Mr. Cheney said, "We are what we are. We're Republicans. We have certain things we believe in. And maintaining our loyalty and commitment to those principles is vital to our success." A good thing to say, and many a president of the Elks, the Odd Fellows, the Moose, the Knights of Pythias, and the Ancient and Mystic Order of Hoot Owls has said something similar: We will not bend our principles so as to please people we didn't like in the first place.

As Proust said in his "Remembrance of Things Past" — or, in French, "A la recherche du temps perdu," his memoir of doing research, or "recherche," as a temp at Purdue and of the mysterious Madeleine, who was one of the things he remembered, but don't let me give away the whole book, you should read it for yourselves — "Nous sommes qui nous sommes": we are what we are, and that is the heart and soul of Republicanism today.

It is like one of those old men's choirs who get together one Friday night a month to sing "On the Road to Mandalay" and "Stout-Hearted Men" and "Finlandia" and "Kathleen Mavourneen" and "The harp that once through Tara's hall / The sound of music shed, / Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls, / As if that soul were fled." Other choirs are ambitious to venture into African idioms and Ojibway chanting and Bulgarian nose flute music, but these old men gather in their old blue blazers and sing "Juanita" and, doggone it, I really, really love "Juanita," and it's about time I admitted this.

The old men's choirs were established by immigrants who had left their homeland, their families, their language, and come to live on a strange flat place called Minnesota, and they felt a great loneliness that could only be assuaged by standing shoulder to shoulder with other baritones and singing "Juanita." We are what we are.

And that's the Republican Party. Once a bulwark of All We Hold Dear, it's now a statistical subgroup. Somewhere in an Elks club, men gather at a banquet at which the speaker rips into those who would tear down the greatest health-care system in the world and introduce socialism to the land of the free. And then they all sing "This Is My Country" just like in my childhood days. I might go, if I have that night free.

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

Drama for Mama

I was going to visit my mother on Sunday and bring her a jonquil and a ballpoint pen for Mother's Day, but that's all off thanks to my brother, who is awaiting trial for mail fraud. His lawyers have asked me not to discuss his case, and so I won't, except to say that he's guilty, the little stinker, and richly deserves what's coming to him, but of course you can't tell Mother that.

She turns 94 this week and still lives in her own home, drives her own car and only recently gave up playing senior women's hockey. She was tough, let me tell you, and as she slowed down, she resorted more and more to high-sticking and tripping. As she says, "Old age is not for the timid. I didn't get to be 94 by baking lots of sugar cookies."

I went shopping for a Mother's Day gift at a clothing store but, as it turned out, it was a men's store. So as long as I was there, I bought myself a few nice suits.

And anyway, Mom said, "No gifts for me until Larry gets out of the pokey." I said, "Mom, Larry was selling Powerball Bibles with the winning number hidden in Scripture. He was selling stock options to evangelicals with the promise that the Lord would come again in 2008. It didn't happen. He's going to spend 10 to 15 years making license plates." She said, "So he misread prophecy. He's not the first." I said, "Ma, he misread it to the tune of $16 million in profit to himself that is sitting in a bank in the Bahamas."

She said, "You can't believe everything you read in the papers." I said, "Ma, he's been a liar and a cheat since he was a kid. Remember for your birthday he used to give you those little certificates that said 'Good for one hug' and 'Good for doing dishes' -- Ma, you never collected on those. It was a scam." She said, "I kept them. I loved the way he made the little certificate curlicues with his green crayon."

There were four of us, Larry, me, my other brother who works in a small dim office and does something he can't explain, and my sister the singer-songwriter. She recently had her lower lip pierced and a large wooden disc implanted in it which she says gives her more resonance.

The other day, Mom said, "Notice anything different about me?" Which of course made me nervous. A man wants to come up with the right answer to this question. You don't want to say, "You got a haircut," if the correct answer is that her leg was amputated. I checked her out: snow-white hair, hockey jersey, jeans, high heels. I said, "Only thing different about you, Mom, is that you're looking younger than ever." And she said, "Nope. I'm carrying a concealed weapon."

My mom, packing a pistol. She said, "I am not going to let your brother rot in jail because of a big misunderstanding." I told her to read the indictment -- Larry is a creep -- but she stood up for him, as she has all these years despite his lies and despicable dirty deeds, and then on Tuesday she got the drop on three U.S. marshals and freed Larry at gunpoint and drove him to a grass landing strip south of Minneapolis and they took off in a small jet and made it to Venezuela, and there they are today, my little mom and her son the felon. She is learning Spanish and working as a cleaning lady and he is at the beach, plotting how to get his fingers on that Bahamian treasure.

And here I am, the loyal son, the one who has looked after her all these years, the one who had made his mark in the world as a syndicated newspaper columnist. Why does she devote her life to a cheater and ignore the son who has done everything in his power to make her proud?

Frankly, I think that mothers have a masochistic streak that makes them love the bad eggs more. They want to be hurt. Sick, but there it is. I wish I could be meaner to my mother, but it's too late. I wouldn't know how. I pass this on for what it's worth. Go out and steal a car, she can't do enough for you. Be a credit to the family, you're ignored. Happy Mother's Day.





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