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A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor

The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

July 2009 Archives

The Art of Travel

Last week, we got several perfect days in a row in St. Paul — fresh and sweet in the morning, afternoons balmy, and evenings you could sit outdoors until midnight and talk extravagantly about life as you did when you were 25. I have no idea what it was like in Minneapolis, but St. Paul was perfect, and so of course one felt the urge to get out of town.

Possessing the ideal makes a person nervous: you sense the inevitable decline just ahead. Better to leave early and get a head start. So I flew to San Francisco, where it was chilly, highs in the low 60s, damp, foggy, perfect sleeping weather. And I planned another trip to Scotland, my ancestral homeland, from which I get my wary and unforgiving nature and my excellent sense of doom.

All Midwesterners adore San Francisco, the city of Sam Spade and the waterfront, the basso complaints of the big ships, the trolleys rumbling along Market Street, the Mediterranean colors of buildings, the river of fog in the Golden Gate, and the beautiful hybrid faces of young people.

Back where I come from, we mostly look like we walked out of a 1958 Sears catalog, but here, everyone is in a minority, and sitting outside a coffee shop, I'm struck by the handsomeness of this passing girl with Asian eyes, Hispanic cheekbones, Creole skin. An old bum stops at my table and I give him two bucks. He may be the reincarnation of a Gold Rush tycoon, one of the many who rose suddenly to vast wealth, built a fabulous mansion on Nob Hill, and died young of something we now have a pill for. He moves along and a man in a suit and a tall dark-haired woman in Italian sunglasses pass each other, and he stops and turns, stunned by her beauty as she strides across Irving Street, gone from his life forever. You shouldn't come to San Francisco unless you're prepared to have your heart broken.

And when it is, you can go to Scotland, where broken-heartedness is a way of life. It is, after all, where golf was invented, a game that almost never fails to show us the worst aspect of ourselves, our raging anger and self-loathing even in the midst of pastoral splendor.

The socially redeeming aspect of golf lies in the vast number of lawyers and bankers and managers who play it, and when you think of the damage they would do if they were at the job instead, you can see why golf courses are a wise investment for any municipality. Even on the skinny peninsula that is San Francisco, there are beautiful green landscapes where people can go and suffer intensely.

I don't play golf. I don't need to. I'm in the arts. We have all the opportunities for suffering that a person could possibly want. Great projects that one devotes years to turn out to be public humiliations, and the harebrained impromptu tossed off in an afternoon becomes a classic: this happens all the time. It takes great nerve to sustain a career, and at the death of Merce Cunningham at age 90, a person must stand in silent awe.

Here was a restless genius who remade the verb "choreograph" to venture beyond narrative and synchronicity and into realms of the abstract that defeated many an audience. He was worshipped in France, venerated in New York, and in Minnesota — well, we like the man and the woman to dance together, holding hands, transfixed by each other, not off doing random unrelated things.

Cunningham composed a dance

Like pedestrians caught in a trance

Which some people guessed

Was genius, and the rest

Left early when given the chance.

"You have to love dancing to stick to it," he once said. "It gives you nothing back ... nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive." Which is one more reason to leave the summer paradise of St. Paul and travel to the foggy places.

Travel is the art form available to Everyman. You sit in the coffee shop in a strange city and nobody knows who you are, or cares, and so you shed your checkered past and your motley credentials and you face the day unarmed, as the great Merce did. Bravery! Adventure! Defeat! Survival! And onward we go and some day in the distant future, we will stop and turn around in astonishment to see all the places we've been and the heroes we were.


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

The Call of the Highway (From a Cell Phone)

It's good to hear that the FCC is back in business, thinking about the Internet and wireless telecommunications and not so much about assessing huge fines to broadcasters who say "poop" on the air. The new chairman, Julius Genachowski, is a 46-year-old venture capitalist who is more interested in technological advances and bringing high-speed access to all Americans, and so the world moves on. Thank you, sir. How a guy so young came to be named Julius is a question for another time.

Cell phones are more crucial than cracking down on vulgarity, as I found out last week when mine went missing, a small black object the size of a box of Sen-Sen, and when I found it in the washing machine I said several vulgar things. It had drowned. I pressed # and * and ghi and mno — nothing — out of commission for an hour while I trucked on down to the cell phone store.

Here's how crucial cell phones are. In Minnesota it's illegal to text-message while driving — trying to type on a tiny keypad at 70 mph is crazy ("On my way. Be there in 20 minu — O NO NO NO aiiieeeeeeeee") — but it's legal to make calls while driving, which in my case means removing my glasses so I can see to scroll down the directory while steering with my knees at 70 mph. I call up my mother while driving, which is exciting for her since she is 94 and remembers when phones were attached to the wall and you talked on them while standing still. "Is that safe?" she says.

No, it's not, but neither is life itself. Animal fats, ultraviolet rays, unknown persons trying to get you to carry things aboard an aircraft, Argentinean women trying to lure you down to Buenos Aires — it's a minefield out there.

My hero Barry Halper died in his white convertible on Highway 12 east of St. Paul in the spring of 1961 when he was 20. He was excited to start a new job as a newsman at a radio station and crashed into the rear end of a school bus. He was a tall swanky guy who loved comedy and radio. Had he not died, I might've become a high school English teacher, but I seem to have adopted his ambition instead. And so it goes.

Back then, the highway meant freedom. We were crazy about cars and wary of the cops who lay in wait for us. I loved to go visit my aunts in Isle, Minnesota, one reason being the perfectly straight stretch of Highway 47 from Ogilvie to Isle through scrub pine forest on which I kept my '56 Ford coupe at 100 mph (pre-seatbelt, mind you) for 20 miles. It was a lawless stretch of road, houses few and far between. I considered the hazard of some old man in a pickup truck pulling onto the road and our two lives merging but drove fast anyway, and when I got to Isle, I resumed being a nice Christian boy with good manners.

There is a little legislator inside me that wants to crack down on speeders and cell phone users and there is also a teenager looking for open highway. Not so unusual. We want contradictory things. A person can love Columbus Avenue and also the Chief Joseph Highway over the Beartooth Pass down into Cody, Wyoming. It's a big country. A person can love opera and leave the Met walking on air, and yet k.d. lang singing "Crying" is opera too, and a kid with a beat-up guitar who gets hold of "Key to the Highway" can tear at your heart like nobody's business.

So we should tread lightly, be smart, listen to the opposition. They are speaking to our own contradictions. The censors have their day and then we move on. All that noise that Judge Sotomayor listened to so patiently about the danger of empathy — respect it for what it is, a gentle pushback, and then move her into her new chambers. And then take up health insurance. We have an expensive, inefficient, treacherous, Kafkaesque system that is a drag on business and preys on the vulnerable, but something in us is leery of reform, the opposition clusters like a flock of ravens on the highway shouting "No," and we should slow down a little, and then they will fly up in a cloud and we'll go on.

The Beauty of Ordinariness

A summer Sunday in an old Midwestern river town, walking down the avenue under the elms past yards burgeoning, with vinous and hedgy things and multicolored flowerage, the industry of each homeowner shown in the beauty offered to the passerby. The children of these homeowners may be telling their therapists harrowing tales of emotional deprivation suffered in this very home, and yet back in April and May, weekends were devoted to making this front yard splendid, and that is worth something. Much can be forgiven of those who make beautiful things.

I'm on my way home from church, where I tried to forgive myself, which is a good reason to go. And also for the stories. This morning it was about John the Baptist, imprisoned by Herod though he knew John to be a godly man and was a fan of his preaching, but John had condemned Herod for taking his brother's wife so into the dungeon went the prophet. Herod threw a feast, got roaring drunk, and when his young stepdaughter danced, he was deeply moved, as drunks so often are, and offered her her heart's desire, and she, consulting with Mom (the brother's wife, now Herod's), asked for John's head on a platter, and — voila! — there it was, the bloody head of a godly man, dripping on the dance floor, and Herod felt terrible about it, end of story.

A tale of cruelty that somehow brought Dick Cheney to mind and the secret CIA program that he kept secret from Congress, in defiance of law and tradition, and also the late Robert McNamara, who was, by his own admission, a war criminal, having helped engineer the fire-bombing of Tokyo on March 10, 1945, that incinerated one hundred thousand souls in one blazing evening, a military attack on civilians, its purpose purely cruel. The Japanese had committed their own atrocities on the Chinese and Koreans, the British destroyed Dresden, the Germans carried out the Holocaust, and so it goes. The heart of man is merciless.

All the more reason to savor this peaceable street and its lawns and driveways, kids' bikes leaning against the house, the listless cat on the porch, the sheer beauty of ordinariness. The ambitions of our society are met on this street, peace, prosperity, a bed of petunias, a porch, a pitcher of tropical punch. There are men who would destroy this street and other men would defend us against them: Those opposing men may have more in common with each other than with the people living on this street or the people in whose names it would be destroyed.

Here on this street, we have less interest in war crimes and criminals than, say, in a furtive romance between a president and an intern, or the machinations of Richard Nixon. Those are good stories, like the beheading of John, whereas the slaughter of 100,000 is a statistic. You wish people got angry about cruelty and not many do.

E.g., the man on the freeway last Friday offended because I merged in front of him, who pulled up alongside me and lowered his window and screamed, his face contorted with rage. He followed me up the exit ramp and pulled alongside and yelled some more, red-faced, finger in the air.

I wish he could spare some rage for Dick Cheney, but off he went, and maybe he felt mortified for being an idiot and hoped that nobody he knew was watching, and maybe his tantrum purged him of anger, so that when he pulled up in his driveway on this quiet street and his children ran out to greet him, he felt an even more extravagant love for them. I can imagine this. When my green Volvo with the Al Franken bumper sticker swung into the gap ahead of him, it was the final insult in a long chain and he was enraged and for a minute, maybe two or three, he sincerely wanted to shoot me and put my head on a platter, but he didn't. He cruised on home, penitent, and spoke gently to his children. He kissed his wife tenderly. He changed out of his suit and tie and picked up a hoe and went out to cultivate around the flower beds along the front sidewalk and water the juniper bushes.

Thank you, sir, for your uplifting yard. It is magnificent. Your moment of public ugliness is forgiven. Go and screech no more.

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

Health-Care Issues Await the Sausage Mill

It was a good Fourth of July where I was — no Republicans or Democrats, just a crowd of sunburned people sitting on the grass, and a brass band played amid the smell of hot dogs, and Clarence and Ralph, two World War II vets, described their European tour of 1944-45 from Normandy through the Hurtgen Forest, and it was duly noted that the Revolution was not going well in the summer of 1776 when Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Hancock put their names to the Declaration of Independence, an act of treason and great bravado, and then the crowd stood and sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and discovered that, in the key of G, it is a fine piece of music and very singable. And people know the words.

It's interesting about the national anthem: First of all, nobody really wants to sing it, and if there's a soloist we won't, but if someone asks us to sing it and gives us a note and a downbeat we jump to our feet and sing and once we're into it, we love it. It is powerful and moving and when we hold the note on "free" and the sopranos wail, it's opera.

This simple less-is-more approach is the genius of conservatism — get out of their way and the people will provide — and it holds true in many areas of life, such as education, the arts, broiling hamburgers (a committee around the grill is always going to overcook the food), and not so much in others, such as national defense, bank regulation and health care.

In the past two weeks, I've attended two benefit concerts to raise money for musicians to pay their medical bills, and that is just ridiculous. Why should anyone, least of all a valuable contributing member of society, have to pass the hat to pay the doctor? But there I was, watching one of America's few true-blue cowboy singers hoist himself on crutches onto the stage to sing "The Old Chisholm Trail" as we put our twenties in the pot to pay for his pelvis, broken when a horse threw him. A cowboy singer can only afford the $10,000 deductible health plan and that means that he must sell Old Paint or become a charity case.

Meanwhile, a friend visiting London forgets to look to the right while crossing the street and gets whacked by a taxi and is scooped up and taken to the hospital with a broken leg where — wait for it — nobody ever asks him for an insurance card, they just go about doing what needs to be done. A civilized people, whatever you may think of the beer, that they treat a fallen American the same as if he were one of them.

Health insurance is the business that Congress is taking up this summer with the help of hundreds of high-paid lobbyists, many of them former congressmen or congressional staffers, all of them arguing for schemes that will be good for the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies and not necessarily good for the cowboy or the careless pedestrian. Reports the size of Sears catalogs will be circulated, and smart men and women smelling of citrus and sandalwood will argue persuasively and extensively for all points of view.

Our representatives will face pages and pages of statistics, acres of numerals, and even as they wander in the great fog of data and expertise, they will be at least as confused as the rest of us. Somehow out of this dance hall and sausage mill will come legislation that must stand the light of day, a miracle if it should happen, and then we shall see if the common good was served or if we have been sold down the river into the hands of cheats and scoundrels.

I shall not be spending my summer in Washington being lectured to on health-care issues by self-important people. I plan to write a novel instead, a genre of literature that is deeply and sincerely authoritarian. I get to decide who is in it, and I plan to include a blizzard and some ghosts and a goose dinner. I work at home, whenever I feel like it, and then once a week I write a column in which I may, if I wish, castigate public servants for their lack of heroism. I tell you, this is a great country for the indolent and the callow.

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





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