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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

June 2009 Archives

Unalienable Rights Include Decent Potato Salad

I walked the length of the westbound Lake Shore Limited as it left Albany last Sunday, six crowded coaches, and counted three Twitterers and a couple of phone texters, six laptoppers (two of whom were watching movies), four video gamers, and 27 people reading books. Books made of paper! Turning the pages with their fingers one by one, reading the lines left to right, just as people have done for hundreds of years. Ain't that something?

I didn't lean down for a close look at the books they were reading — I was not brought up to do that — so perhaps bodices were being ripped and stalkers were stalking and meteorites were heading straight for earth, but no matter. Books were being read!

Along with live theater, monogamy and the bald eagle, the paper book has been despaired over and its demise freely predicted, and yet, among people heading west, it seems to be the diversion of choice. So Dickens and Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor are not dead yet.

And the bald eagle is coming back, along with the gray wolf and the Yellowstone grizzly — though less attractive endangered species such as the glassy-eyed smelt and the orangefoot pimpleback mussel and various arachnids are still in doubt — and theater seems as alluring as ever, judging by the number of young New York waiters with large personalities. And as for monogamy, it's there, waiting to be rediscovered.

So let me speak up for an endangered menu item this Fourth of July weekend and that is homemade potato salad.

When the family meets this weekend to hobnob and burn burgers, the family member assigned to bring the potato salad is likely going to walk in with a couple of gallon plastic buckets of yellowish muck bought at a convenience store, the price stickers still on them, and set them down on the table with no apology whatsoever.

Or, if they have more disposable income, they'll bring paper containers full of brownish muck from the natural organic sustainable united empathetic co-op.

If you bring garbage to share with your family, the least you can do is tell a lie and say, "I couldn't make the potato salad myself because I am bipolar and my lover left me and my dog has leukemia and I have an oozing leprous sore on my mixing hand."

It is not that hard to make potato salad, people. Take half an hour away from your Facebook page and do the job right. Boil some eggs, chop the celery and chives and green onions, boil the potatoes, make your mayonnaise, maybe toss in a little sour cream, use plenty of dill, and sprinkle paprika on top. The eerie-yellow store-bought stuff in the tubs was manufactured at Amalgamated Salad in Houston by undocumented 12-year-olds from the hills of Michoacan. Worse, it is teaching our children that accomplishment doesn't matter.

A child served yellow slop from a bucket is being told that it's OK to plagiarize a term paper off the Internet just so long as it's poorly written.

What if Thomas Jefferson had been too busy hobnobbing to write the Declaration of Independence so he just downloaded a bunch of stuff he found Googling "independence" and coming up with stuff about indolence, pendants, incontinence, but hey, close enough, and he pasted it together and they all signed it and went out to a movie? Not good.

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the potato salad which has connected them with another, they will do it, believe me, so why insult us? Just because we're polite, do you think we can't tell the difference? Are we demented? Does this not seem self-evident to you?

Attend to the details. Teach your children manners. Write cogent paragraphs. Drive carefully. And make a good potato salad, one with some crunch, maybe accompanied by a fried drumstick with crackly skin — the humble potato and the stupid chicken, ennobled by diligent cooking — and is this not the meaning of our beautiful country, to take what is common and enable it to become beautiful? All our beautiful young people — so diligent and focused and powered by hope — you can't tell me those kids didn't have parents who took time to chop the celery and onions and experiment with the ratio of mayo to mustard to achieve a potato salad that is worthy of our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

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

Fortress of Solitude

One short weekend, so much to do — an invitation to go swimming at night by moonlight, the Iran protest march downtown with our mouths taped shut, a dance at the Eagles Club with a hot horn band playing '70s funk that propels people onto the dance floor as if shot from guns — but here I am stuck with houseguests who are unable to sit in a room without me for more than fifteen minutes. They follow me around like faithful collies. We ran out of conversation on Friday and they're here until Wednesday. I have had un-Christian thoughts about them. I may have to run away from home.

The problem, dear hearts, is a common one here in the American heartland: an inability to express personal preference in simple declarative sentences, no modifiers.

E.g. "I vish to be alone."

Is this a terrible thing to vish for? I think not. One loves company and then one loves uncompany, just as one enjoys sunshine/darkness, summer/winter, funk/folk, b&w/color, all sorts of dichotomies. Solitude is recognized by most world religions. Hairy-legged hermits sit in prayerful contemplation in their mountain caves and nobody thinks less of them for it. So why can't you or I spend a couple of hours alone in an undisclosed location?

There is nothing odd about wanting to be alone. It doesn't mean that I am spray-painting Nazi slogans on the walls and fantasizing about getting even with them what done me wrong. It doesn't indicate male menopause. It only means that I am experiencing Personal Male Secrecy Syndrome (PMSS), the urge common to all men to climb a tree and sit on a high limb for a few hours. This is a powerful motive in most literary careers. Yes, John Updike had a great gift, but also John Updike preferred not to spend his life at a conference table but rather in a quiet corner with a yellow legal pad and a rollerball pen and write what he wished, nobody looking over his shoulder and saying, "Could we change that 'me' to 'you'?"

America could cut fuel consumption by 14 percent if we made it possible for people to be alone without having to get in their car and drive around town aimlessly on the pretext of running errands. (OK, maybe not exactly 14 percent, but A LOT.)

When my daughter was small, we discovered that she loved to be alone in her room with her hundreds of stuffed creatures around her. We could hear her in there, nattering at them, networking with Piglet and Raggedy Ann, creating family groups, constructing elaborate narratives — which is what I may be doing someday in the Good Shepherd Home — and she was happy as a clam.

Having grown up No. 3 in a brood of six, I envied her. As a boy I had to climb on a raft and go floating down the Mississippi for a little down time, and then there was the Falls of St. Anthony to worry about, and the water intake at the power plant, and enormous barges heading upstream. Solitude was treacherous. You could fall asleep and wind up in St. Louis and have to hitchhike home.

New York is a fine place in which to be alone. To walk into a little cafe with an armload of newspapers and sit at the counter and read them over a bowl of chili and a grilled cheese and a white mug of coffee, and a waitress who says, "What else could you like, love?" — this is heaven. In the papers are dozens of people in serious trouble and you are not one of them. You can soak it all up while you eavesdrop on your neighbors, one of whom is being hounded by her daughter who calls her three times a day to yik-yak, and how do you tell your daughter that enough is enough, already? "I can't turn my cell phone off because then I'd have to worry if my mother is trying to get hold of me. I tell Jessica, I say, 'I've got to go now, honey, and she doesn't hear me.'"

It is crucial in any loving relationship that the partners know when to leave each other alone without having to fill out a privacy application (Reasons for Needing Solitude, Goals of Solo Period, Estimated Time of Reunion). Don't ask, don't tell. Just go in the room and close the door. So long, see you later.

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

Road-Tripping on Father's Day

Don't bother calling to wish me a Happy Father's Day because I won't be here, kids, I've got the day off. I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by. But I'm in Minnesota. So I'll just climb in my black Lamborghini and head for the territories and west of Minneapolis pick up a county road that runs straight on flat prairie for a couple hundred miles. I'll raise my radar antenna and let that 270 hp V-12 engine run free and reach the Dakota border in the time it takes to drink a cold one and listen to Waylon and Willie — and don't call me on my cell because I don't have it with me, just Mr. Samuel Colt, a deck of cards, a roll of Benjamins and a dog named Lucky.

It's like Robert Louis Stevenson said: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor." That's a man talking.

Father's Day is all about retail sales and zero about me and I am having none of it. I've got enough cheap cologne to open a funeral parlor and I don't need neckties — I just carry one for a tourniquet in case of snakebite — and I don't want a card that says "It's Father's Day and I'm here to say: when it comes to the Long Haul, I'm awfully glad that you're my Dad cause you're the BEST of all!!!" because you and I know it ain't me, babe, so why say it?

I never wanted to be a Father. All I wanted was the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking, and a gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking. But I was in Minnesota at the time. We were dancing at Whiskey Junction, Suzanne and me, and she took me down to her place by the river — and how much of this do you really want to know? — and I touched her perfect body with my mind and the next thing I knew I was dating a lady with a basketball under her belt. Wowser, she was enormous.

She got big and she got very needy. "Rub my back," she said about 37 times a day. "Go get me some persimmon sherbet and dark chocolate with anchovies in it. The good kind." She used to be wild and loved to jump on a horse and ride like the wind, and then she became Somebody's Mother and was transformed into an obsessive neurotic. One minute she was Cindy Crawford and one night I came back and she was Dorothea Lange's sharecropper's wife from the Dust Bowl, a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man.

Women say, "Why don't you talk to me anymore? I wish you'd tell me what's going on with you!" so I start talking (like now) and they say, "How can you say that?" This is our dilemma.

It's like the time I tried to celebrate the Fourth of July in Copenhagen. I invited fifty friends to a BBQ. Took me two days to find a butcher shop that sells pork ribs. Danes don't eat ribs. But Chinese Danes do, and I found a Chinese butcher shop near Trepkasgade and bought all the ribs in his freezer. Then I had to find Tabasco sauce. I whomped up the ribs, the Danes came and scarfed them all down and got a little drunk, and we sent a few dozen rockets flying over the beach, and then in the spirit of the Glorious Fourth I said something mean about Queen Margrethe (You Don't Do That There) and they blanched and pretended I was invisible.

So that's why I'm heading out to the territories. I'm going to join up with the gang out near Yellow Gulch, saddle up and go. I want to be with people who know the words to the same songs I know and those songs are "Freight Train" and "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Hobo's Lullaby" and "This World Is Not My Home (I'm Only Passing Through)," songs about hearing the lonesome whistle blow, high-tailing it out of here, feeling the wind in your face, driving through little farm towns and not stopping and seeing the envy in their eyes. The journey is the reward and don't you ever stop.

Back on Monday.

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

The Angel's Cocktail

This world belongs to the young and the daring, the avid, the adventurous, and that's why one follows the saga of corporate bailouts with a certain trepidation. We're mortgaging the future and we are rescuing the stubborn and stupid. The cost of a good college education for the young and daring is stupefying, meanwhile the federal deficit yawns, tax increases lie ahead, job losses per month are like a major city getting wiped out, and India and China are doing what we used to do better.

So why does my mind keep drifting back to the woman I knew when I was in college, a writer like me, tall and magnificent, languorous, delightful, whose thighs were so ticklish that when I kissed them she burst out laughing. She lay shrieking and writhing and that was my sexual initiation, a link between the erotic and the comic, make of it what you will. And now when I hear young women laugh loudly, as I did last night, I think of her and wonder where she is and who is making her laugh.

Last night a couple of friends and I were in a restaurant, eating local produce and discussing the world's troubles, and we were on the subject of the Middle East and its intractable troubles when peals of girlish laughter rang out from the booth behind us. I had tuned out of International Relations a few minutes before and tuned into the program next door so I got the joke.

One woman was talking about her mother, a nurse in a nursing home, and about a cocktail of morphine with a few additives that Mom would serve to select patients when she felt quite sure that they wished to be released from the bonds of earth. She ushered them out of the world around 4 a.m. when it was quiet — "hearing is the last sense you lose at the end, so if an old man hears a ballgame on the radio, he may come bounding back to life to catch the score" — and she made sure that someone was around to hold the dying person's hand. Death came painlessly around 7 a.m. and she called the family with the news, who now did not need to sit a long death watch, and the body was moved out and the bed changed for a new customer. All very orderly.

"But one day I walked into the living room and saw my father napping on the couch and my mother, the Angel of Death, standing over him and looking at him in a professional sort of way. Our cat sat on a chair watching her with concern in its eye. The cat knew. He never napped out in the open."

That was the laugh line, the wariness of the cat. And when the woman called her mother Snuff Queen, her mother said, "I just hope that when I get there, someone will do the same for me." More laughter.

A person should be horrified by young people laughing at euthanasia, but I only thought of Margie and that apartment on Erie Street in Minneapolis and how hard it was to keep focused when the object of your lust was laughing to beat the band. She played guitar and sang the blues and wrote her term paper on Joyce's "Ulysses" and her laughter was like an aviary of exotic birds. We were young, we had no money, we possessed the world through sheer enthusiasm.

The world belongs to the young. Old pitchers get shelled one day and the next winter are released. Old writers go fallow and that's when people start giving them awards. Old politicians are locked up in think tanks. Old pop stars play casinos. We're marching toward the cliff and the middle-aged are pushing us and the young are pressing them. The angel is waiting with a cocktail. The poets told us to gather rosebuds while we could, that the flower that smiles today tomorrow will be dying, and it turns out that they were right.

My friends discuss the upcoming election in Iran, and over my left shoulder young women chortle at the thought of geezers being launched into eternity by the Snuff Queen, and I remember the beautiful girl laughing and laughing and laughing. I was alarmed at how much she loved me and I neglected her for a whole summer and when I came back to school in the fall, she was gone gone gone.

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

An Uplifting Performance

The driest May in Minnesota since the Dust Bowl. Venerable GM slides into bankruptcy and you shudder for the old Pontiac dealers and the retirees in Michigan. In the middle of the night, an Airbus drops out of the air into the Atlantic Ocean and the veteran traveler shudders to think of it. And the posthumous John Updike appears in the bookstore, a book of short stories ("My Father's Tears and Other Stories") and his last poems, written by "my right hand ... faithful old five-fingered beast of burden ...

its labors meant

to carve from language beauty, that beauty which

lifts free of flesh to find itself in print."

In the midst of these ominous rumblings, I went to a lovely party Saturday night, which is newsworthy because I stopped going to parties a long time ago because it's boring to hear people talk about getting old, but then Saturday night there was this party and I went. A big brick manse on a quiet street, 30 people, half of them under 25, on a deck out back, hamburgers, fried chicken, chips, beer, wine, the usual repartee, and a lot of youth going on around us.

A boy and a girl with eager eyes, in the shadows, like badgers at a campsite. Three boys holed up with a video game. A beautiful coltish 16-year-old girl leaning around in a black strapless evening gown, trying out different personas (Dorothy Parker, Nancy Drew, Ava Gardner), who struck me as a reincarnation of Anne Frank. A teenage boy sitting with his nose in a book, making a great show of isolation. And an intensely quiet blond girl, a math whiz, who, with no reluctance, sat down at the piano when I asked her if she played piano, squared her shoulders and played the exquisite Chopin Prelude No. 2 in A minor, the notes of the slow movement like raindrops on birch leaves, smoke drifting by, an anguished old man pacing in the grass, and played it so beautifully it transformed the entire evening.

Transformation is no easy trick: it's what art promises and usually doesn't deliver. But she did. It was a difficult piece, and what she showed us was the intense poetry underneath her calm Lutheran exterior. She borrowed Chopin's passion and made it her own, an astonishment, and then she stood up awkwardly and we all clapped and whooped. It was so much more than what we deserved to hear, which is true of art, a lavish gift of the heart that shames pretense by its outrageous generosity.

I went back to the crowd on the deck and had a piece of rhubarb pie with ice cream, feeling buoyed up by the performance, and still feel buoyant days later. The plane falls, the company slides, the good man is gone, the lawn turns brown, but with Chopin you come back to basics: Do I regret this life? Is it, despite all our brave words, a cheat and a waste? Does it make any slight difference to the universe that we are present?

What depresses me about the old-age monologue is the air of regret — Poor Me, I Am Unaccountably Sixty-Five, My Brain Is Leaking, My Legs Are Gone, Where Has It Gone, The Beauty And The Dream? — and what makes me love cities, despite the uproar, are the constant reminders of the generosity of life, the readers on the subway, the cheeses in the deli, the pictures in the gallery, the musicians in the park. The exuberant salad eaten on the sidewalk amid bus exhaust and the drawn faces of passersby.

Playing the Prelude No. 2 in A minor is not a step on a career path. There is only one Emmanuel Ax, and he has the Chopin chair for now, and there are plenty of dead pianists around on CDs. I suppose that you could argue for a correlation between mastery of the Prelude No. 2 and scholastic achievement leading to opportunities in computer programming, but meanwhile, it simply is an extravagant gift from the heart of a girl to the hearts of whoever is standing nearby. Life is good, no matter the disappointments — O God the disappointments. Just square your shoulders and give them your utter best. As the late great Marilyn Monroe said, "I don't want to make money, I just want to be wonderful." Life is insurmountable, but we mount up every morning and ride forward. Thanks for being wonderful, dear heart.

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





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