The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.


A Parent's Prayer

June 29, 2010

A perfect shiny summer day and a crowd of jittery children in clusters on the corner, about to board a yellow bus, their backpacks in a pile, their mothers giving urgent last-minute reassurances, and I stop and stare at this Large Life Event. Kids from nice homes being abandoned by their mothers in broad daylight and sent off to summer camp and God Knows What. The sweet fragility of the kids, especially the gawky boy with glasses. And the elaborate cool of the college kids in charge. The vast love of the mothers, who are on the verge of tears, watching their pups board the bus. (Do the brakes work? Who is the driver? Is he licensed? Sober? Might he be carrying a pistol? Are the wheels securely fastened to the hubs? Two days from now, will I think back to this moment and wonder, Why didn't I go around and check the lug nuts?)

There is more drama on this corner than on the silver screen, and I see it from three angles at once: I am the geek (when I was 12, I imagined the word was meant for me personally since my initials are G.E.K.), and I was at one time the cool camp counselor with the shades and the enigmatic smile, and now I am a parent and quite familiar with trauma.

Three protagonists in the play and I am each one of them. In my geek years, I was a solemn boy with pipestem arms, wire-rim glasses and a homemade haircut, and attended summer Bible camp where we learned about the total depravity of man and then came home and picked potatoes at a nearby truck farm. I assumed I'd grow up and live alone in a tiny room over the bus depot and earn my living by walking around with a sandwich board (EAT AT THE BANDBOX CAFE).

Instead, I went to college, became a cool counselor, and once took 18 young boys in canoes across Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota in a major thunderstorm, along with another counselor who had smoked dope that morning and basically cut his ties to earth and lay in his canoe singing "A Whiter Shade of Pale" as lightning tore the sky and we plowed across a mile of whitecaps. I yelled at the boys to steer into the storm and keep paddling no matter what. We made it to shore and pitched four tents in a downpour, and then the boy who'd been constipated all week because he couldn't bring himself to drop his drawers and grab hold of a tree and squat, went tearing into the woods and crapped, and then was too embarrassed to come back for paper, and wiped himself with leaves, and chose the wrong ones. Of all the leaves that God provided in the forest, these were the exact ones God didn't intend us to use for that purpose. And of course it was the fat kid. I made him come down to the lake and wash his butt with a special soap and anoint himself with lotion. His crack was neon red. He tried to be brave but he desperately needed his mother and I was not her. I woke up that night to hear him weeping.

I can still hear him and the trees dripping and Roger sitting by the fire exploring the frontiers of consciousness, though years have passed and I have a 12-year-old daughter, who can go through exaltation, hilarity, despair, all in the space of a minute, and when I send her off to school in the morning, I say, "Lord, have mercy. God, have mercy." Over and over. It is a parent's prayer.

And here they are, on one street corner, the three great strands of life -- Defenselessness, Cluelessness and Helplessness -- and now the innocent children are on the bus, it swings out into traffic: Oh God, no seat belts!! Have mercy.

Some people believe that God has revealed Himself to us and not to the others, the barbarians, and it is His Will that our tribe vanquish the others and rain death and destruction on them. Others believe that our understanding of God is incomplete but that He has bestowed this beautiful world on us, and other gifts, which should be shared, and we should walk softly and praise His Name. I walk softly to the cafe and order a large mocha and pray for the forgiveness of incompetence and for mercy to children. And thanks for the day, which happens to be perfect.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

GK is taking a hiatus from The Old Scout (his weekly column) so he can finish a screenplay and start his next novel. We'll post new columns when he decides to pick it up again. In the meantime, please enjoy the 5 years of Old Scout entries in the archive.


Not Smart? Not a Problem

June 22, 2010

My time is short and so is yours, so why not tell the truth: A person can get along very well in life without one bit of the mathematics and physics they rammed into our brains in high school. Fifty years later, and there hasn't been a single moment when I've thought, "Oh if only I could remember higher algebra!"

No, it isn't smarts, it's personal charm that propels you forward in this world and I, who grew up on the windswept godforsaken plains, know this for a fact. We Midwesterners have a charm deficit from day one and never catch up. Southerners have it in spades and many big city people and Texans and Unitarian women and Hispanic folks and black church ladies and hospital nurses and Jewish mothers, of course, but we prairie dogs are solemn and cold and people do not gravitate toward us and I, having been brought up fundamentalist, am a colder fish than most. That's what drove me into the radio business.

And I admit that I have often hired musical performers for my radio show (heard weekly by more than 400 people) because those performers were pleasant and smiled and were Fun To Be With. I used to hire brilliant troubled artists, but I don't anymore. They are a pain in the wazoo and usually more troubled than brilliant, and what's the point?

A terrific smile will take you a long way in this world. If Barack Obama had grown up fundamentalist in Minnesota, he would not be the Leader of the Free World, he'd be reading the news on an AM station in St. Cloud right now and doing commercials for fertilizer and used-car lots.

I was brought up imagining that cream rises to the top, merit wins out, the race is to the swift and riches to men of understanding, but it ain't necessarily so. The swift stand a better chance if they are also beautiful.

Someone in Massahoosetts wrote to me saying they want to give me an award for something and I wrote back, saying that I am unworthy, etcetera, which, as you know, is true. Awards should go to those who have suffered for their art and not to one who has had a whale of a good time. But then I thought, "What if they don't insist? What if they say, 'OK, you are right, we made a mistake there. Sorry.'" I might never receive an award again.

So I tore up the declining letter and said Thank You instead.

Awards are notoriously unfair and some of the best people go unrecognized and some of the deadliest and dopiest get one Lucite trophy after another, but awards are major jujus in the world you and I live in. In the writing trade, if you win a Pullet Surprise, this is the Heisman Trophy, Get Out Of Jail Free card and Magic Twanger all rolled into one, and though it's awarded by a roomful of large enchiladas at Columbia University in New York, and The Upper West Side Prize would be a more accurate brand name, nonetheless it has juju power all across the land. People bow low and tug on their forelocks when a Surprise winner walks into the room. Dogs are silenced. Fresh flowers are strewn. Maidens offer themselves.

This is how the world works. The lonely striver with bad hair and serious overbite who is scratching out her thoughts in the Omaha Public Library is facing a wall of sheer granite a thousand feet high and luckily for her she doesn't know it now but someday she will and my heart goes out to her.

This Massahoosetts award should go to her, I guess, but it's not mine to give, only to receive, and it is blessed to receive an award though my upbringing tells me that probably the day after the award ceremony I will be struck by a speeding bike and get a broken leg that will need replacement, knee and hip, with titanium joints and I will never polka so gallantly as I do now, but if fate dictates, who am I to protest?

If your kid flunked out of school, don't worry about it. Teach him to love his life. Teach her to do good work and not expect recognition. Not smart? No problem. Be useful. That may be better for humanity than to be brilliant and troubled. And it wouldn't hurt you to smile more. Just do it. Thank you.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


The Miracle of Shared Pleasure

June 15, 2010

A drizzly Flag Day and wet flags hang on their little poles stuck in the grass along our street. The child asks, "Why the flags?" So you talk about the meaning of the flag, that we Americans are one people, despite our contrariness, and you go on too long about this in the coffee-grinder voice of adulthood, but it's June, School Is Out, time to simply enjoy America and not try to explain it.

One of the beauties of fatherhood is the small miracle of shared pleasure. The 12-year-old girl is trying to be her own person and yet we share a love of peanut butter, which, for all the inventiveness of the prepared-food industry, continues to be made from peanuts, no fruit added, no cherry, no chocolate chips, no chunks of pineapple. No Marmite for us, thank you. A slice of bread toasted, lightly buttered, heavily peanut-buttered, is a joy to her and also to me. Equality of pleasure -- this is what a father searches for in June. The little moral uplift lecture: give it a rest -- forget about teaching. The trees will go on digesting food and absorbing water whether we write term papers about this or not, so let us lie in their shade and look up at the clouds and absorb the blessedness of the sun. (But do use sunscreen.)

The girl and I went to the ballgame the night of the last day of school and equally enjoyed our hot dogs. No basmati rice in the hot dog, no fennel, no tamarind sauce, just a beef weenie in a white bun, mustard for me, ketchup for her. I gave a very brief refresher lecture on baseball basics and we sat back and observed, holding hands. I want her to absorb the beautiful geometry of the game, the fly ball to deep left-center and the outfielders stretching out full tilt, their paths converging, and the arc of the descent of the white ball and that thrilling moment when the ball rolls into the gap for a double. I'd like her to feel the beauty of limitations, the remarkable, unlikely and graceful things that happen within this fixed finite field. Bases loaded, one out, our pitcher is struggling, disaster is on the horizon, and then there it is -- that squiggly grounder to the shortstop who underhands it to the second baseman running across second who leaps, pivoting, and fires to first for the DP, and 30,000 fans jump to their feet and yell, YES! Pure reflex. The day my daughter jumps up and yells for the double play will be a happy day in my life.

That day isn't here yet. She was more interested in foul balls, the parade of vendors, and the gang of young girls who sat behind us texting their friends through two hours of baseball and when the crowd jumped up and yelled, the girls were like, What? What happened? And you can't explain a double play.

Compulsive texting gives me the willies: it's just another form of butt scratching. But baseball does its best to accommodate the hyperactive cyberworld of children by flashing live HD video of fans on the big scoreboard. Between half-innings you can watch the intense narcissism of the young, the enormous grins on their 50-foot faces, instant fame, wowser. OK, whatever. Baseball remains a fixed mark in our attention-deficit world. YouTube comes and goes, meanwhile it's permanently 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate to the pitcher's mound. There and their and they're are three different things. The offering comes after the sermon. Flag Day is June 14 and people still do fly the flag. Amen to all that.

A father needs to make a bond with his children based on pleasure, and this is a delicate negotiation. My daughter and I love to sing the University of Minnesota Rouser, and we enjoy jokes, bookstores, old musicals, ice cream, trains, water fights, and hilarity at the dinner table.

Have fun on Father's Day. No cologne for me, no tie, thanks, I have enough. A good joke is the only gift I need. How about the one about the father who asked for a cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream, and the waitress said, "Sorry, we don't have any cream -- how about no milk instead?" What you don't want, you can't have it anyway, so how about not wanting what's available? Story of my life, kid. And then you came along. An inside-the-park home run on the first pitch.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


Hanging Out With the College Crowd

June 8, 2010

A fine rainy day in Minnesota, and of course we should be discussing regulation of banking and the credit-default-swap market, but something in me wants to walk under a big black umbrella to the cafe for a skinny latte and eavesdrop on the college crowd, who, despite the lousy job market, seem as ebullient as ever. I live near an art school where you can learn conceptual sculpture and also near a community college where you can major in auto body repair, so the cafe draws all types. School's out in a few days and the cool winds of freedom are blowing. Just the other day I heard a cool young man talk about maybe heading out to California, maybe L.A., maybe San Francisco, he wasn't sure. His buddy said, "How you getting there?" and Mr. Cool said, "Hitchhike."

I was thrilled. That's how we used to talk back in the day, back before college kids were weighted down with a ton of debt. We talked about sticking out our thumbs and escaping from our stolid lives into a beautiful new swashbuckling life, probably out West, out where people do that sort of thing. I haven't seen a hitchhiker in ages, just the occasional old guy my age with a cardboard sign ("Wounded Vet. Homeless. Please help. God bless you. Have a nice day."). I wanted to turn to Mr. Cool and say, "Do it, kid. Don't get old, regretting the big adventures you didn't take." But I didn't want to scare him.

I was at the cafe last night and caught a conversation between two girls about whether one of them had dated a particular boy or was just hanging out with him, an interesting piece of semantics. Texting the boy on a cell phone was what distinguished hang-out from date: She had flashed him a friendly "What's up?" and he being nearby met her for a dish of ice cream, and they migrated to a party at his friend's house and thence to his grandma's, where he is currently living (and driving Grandma's BMW), his parents having cut him loose financially since he quit school to become a writer. There was audible eye-rolling on the word "writer." She didn't want to date him because he was too screwed up, so it was only a hang-out situation. I wanted to know more about the BMW guy who lived with Grandma — think of it! Unconditional love plus a luxury automobile with a perpetual full tank of gas — but the girls drifted away and left me sitting alone, staring into my latte.

I live in F. Scott Fitzgerald's old neighborhood, and it seems to me that Dexter Green in "Winter Dreams" would've lost interest in the wealthy Judy Jones if there had been cell phones in 1922 and he could've texted her and hung out with her instead of worshipping her from a distance and making her a symbol of all that is Noble and Beautiful. Hanging out would've shown Dexter what a nobody she was and saved him the trouble of disillusionment.

Or Holden Caulfield. A cell phone would've made "The Catcher in the Rye" a denser and funnier book, Holden roaming around, flashing messages to Sally Woodruff and Jane Gallagher and Phoebe and Sunny, instead of brooding about who is and who is not a phony.

Meanwhile, the bankers are scheming to gouge higher interest rates out of the young and naive, while speculating in high-risk realms, while avoiding regulation but counting on the feds to rescue them in time of trouble. This acrobatic act requires the extensive use of lawyers and wizards, which means long meetings and 12-hour workdays and plenty of homework, all in hopes of early retirement at 55 with enough cash to go traveling on and transform yourself from stolid drudge into a beautiful adventurer. But 55 is a little late for transformation. And having money gets in the way of it. Sorry. All you can do is hang out on the periphery of transformation, as I do. The young are swarming like fireflies, flashing messages like mad, and personally I am rooting for the BMW boy who is screwed up (always an asset for a writer) and wants to maybe write a novel about a dropout like himself, which could be a huge best-seller and earn him enough to be able to afford a reclusive life in New Hampshire, and those two girls will be telling people for the next 50 years how they used to date him. You just wait and see.


© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC


A Great Nation Immobilized

June 1, 2010

I flew home from Washington Monday night, looking at live pictures on the BP website taken by an underwater robot of the greasy waters of the Gulf, and how's that for a Metaphor of Our Times? Aboard a Delta Airbus at 37,000 feet maneuvering around giant thunderheads, connected to the Internet via satellite, looking at dark gloop a mile below the sea, contemplating the death of a beautiful body of water, unable to think of a single sensible thing to do or say about this that would make a milligram of difference, and yet here I sit with a clear view of the situation, like a passenger in a car skidding slowly into the median.

Years ago, in some crowded gymnasium, a commencement speaker told us that we should pursue our education because Knowledge leads to Power to Effect Change, but I don't see it in this case. I'm flying in a jet airliner consuming oil as I observe a disaster caused by the demand for oil, mine, yours, theirs — and yes, there was gross corporate irresponsibility, zero government regulation, rank corruption in the Minerals Management Service, but growing demand (Drill, baby) is what's pushing us toward the next disaster and the next and the next.

We are self-centered, short-sighted people, intent on comfort, averse to sacrifice. We know this. Knowing it does not empower us to change. The new guy at MMS will attempt to exercise oversight, Congress will hold more hearings, but in reality we have given over the Gulf to British Petroleum. Only the oilmen can plug the hole. The value of moral harrumphing is rather minimal, and though, as an ex-fundamentalist, I can sermonize with the best of them, I will spare you my tiny outburst of dudgeon.

We are a great nation immobilized at the moment by navel-gazers and poseurs and flackmeisters, and when you visit Washington, you see this clearly. Here are all the little marble palaces of the AFL-CIO and NEA and NRA and AARP and AMA and PhRMA and the trial lawyers and realtors and plumbers and the chemical industry and the nursing home operators — everybody but bank robbers and newspaper columnists has a mouthpiece in Washington — and it's a lot of high-priced schmoozing and yipping and yakking by thousands of overeducated schtoonks in nicely pressed shirts pumping out hogwash and hokum that is easily ignored by the bureaucrats and elected officials who do the actual work.

This is democracy, I suppose, and so is the toilet-papering of Washington known as the Tea Party with its simple self-contradictory platform — if you are in favor of Medicare and Social Security and national defense and you are opposed to big government, then the sun's so hot you froze to death, Susanna don't you cry. But these fake patriots in their play tricorners are simply thrilled to death by all the attention.

Meanwhile, oil pours out of the pipe in the sea floor, and the plane descends over the St. Croix and Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, these beautiful waterways that I have canoed and swum in since I was a boy. Back when the Republican Party included some tweedy conservationists who liked tramping in the woods and it was possible to accomplish things now and then in Washington, Congress passed legislation that cleaned up those rivers to some extent, as anyone who lives around here knows. (Luckily for us, there are no oil deposits under them.) If you want to run your 80-foot yacht up the St. Croix, you can do that until you come to a sandbar, but you can't flush your poop overboard. Big government, taking the place of your mama, will slap you if you do.

If man is pushing the planet toward extinction, then we should stop doing what we're doing, and if we cannot stop ourselves or tolerate government making us stop or slow down, then I suppose we should enjoy the ride. The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast. I can't think of anything better to do right now than to sit in my backyard and look at the Mississippi and listen to Bach cello suites and enjoy a dish of ice cream with fresh raspberries. As the Gulf turns dark and the polar icecap melts, I intend to listen to Bach more and listen to the news less. It's good to know that, in the midst of vast indifference and mediocrity and narcissism, mankind did manage to produce the St. Matthew Passion and the Mass in B minor.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


The End of an Era in Publishing

May 25, 2010

I ran into my daughter's favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, in New York the other night, whose Magic Tree House books I've read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume. It was a rooftop party in Tribeca that I got invited to via a well-connected pal, wall-to-wall authors and agents and editors and elegant young women in little black dresses, standing, white wine in hand, looking out across the Hudson at the lights of Hoboken and Jersey City, eating shrimp and scallops and spanikopita on toothpicks, all talking at once the way New Yorkers do.

I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself. These are anti-elitist times, when mobs are calling for the downfall of pointy-head intellectuals who dare tell decent people what to think, but I admire the elite. I'm not one of them -- I'm a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it -- but I'm sorry about their downfall. And this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it's all free, and you read freely, you're not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you're like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you've got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes. But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And the New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, will vanish (POOF) whose imprimatur you covet for your book ("brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light" -- NY Times). And editors will vanish.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn't work anymore, alas.

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I'm sorry you missed it.


© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


The Care and Feeding of U.S. Senators

May 18, 2010

I was the only reporter who snuck into the Senate Spouses dinner in Washington last week and nobody swore me to secrecy so here goes ...

Tuesday, May 11, in the lofty, leafy glass arcade of the U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol, tea partier Scott Brown hobnobbed with prairie progressive Tom Harkin, affable Chuck Schumer put an arm around flinty Chuck Grassley, and cranky old Jim Bunning went around saying hi, even to Democrats. The Udalls were there, Mark of Colorado, Tom of New Mexico, looking like Eagle Scouts, as Udalls do. Here were obstructionist Republicans, smiling and gracious as small-town morticians, and their socialist death-panel colleagues being gracious right back: Dodd, Dorgan, Durbin. Some members seemed less embraceable than others: Roland Burris, the Rod Blagojevich appointee, was not Mr. Popularity, and one could detect a distinct coolness toward Saxby Chambliss, whose 2002 campaign defeating Max Cleland was more like first-degree assault than civics, but otherwise, people mingled freely.

Out in America, the U.S. Senate is regarded as a tiny medieval fiefdom of pompous gasbags, but in the Senate, there is genuine affection among colleagues. And why not? They spend a lot of time together. Johnny Isakson of Georgia palled around with Al Franken. There was friendship on both sides for Bob and Joyce Bennett of Utah. Senator Bennett has served three terms and, at 76, was hoping for a fourth, but a few days before, his state Republican committee denied him the endorsement, a big shock here, a sign of the anti-incumbency wave, and his fellow incumbents kept slipping over to him and patting him on the shoulder.

I walked past Sen. Carl Levin, sitting at a table, and got an aerial view of his incredible comb-over, which starts above his left ear and fans out across his bald pate -- you would not want to see this man in the shower room. Landra Reid, the wife of the majority leader, was there, her first public appearance since she got clobbered by a semi on the interstate in March and broke her neck. She looked exquisitely lovely, ethereal, an Aubrey Beardsley portrait in our midst. Senator LeMieux of Florida arrived with infant daughter in a carrier, and Vicki Kennedy knelt down to speak to her.

It is instructive to meet the wives of men you have thought ill of in the past. I sat between Kathy Gregg, who is genuinely charming and married to a stone-faced New Hampshire conservative, and Mrs. Chambliss, who is chipper and chatty and the spouse of You Know Who. And then there was Barbara Grassley, who is as warm and funny as her husband is not. Which is a spouse's job, especially in an election year -- to stand beside the gore-smeared warrior and bear mute witness to his humanity: "He and I have shared many pleasant meals together, and I have even had sex with this raspy-voiced, gimlet-eyed old weasel, and I plan to do that again in the near future."

And now the reader interrupts to inquire: "And in what capacity were you there, sir? As a busboy?"

No, dear reader, I was the pre-dinner speaker, which seems like an honor but turns out to be a sacrificial role. You get a Mighty Wurlitzer introduction by Leader Reid that makes it seem as if you died recently while rescuing small children from an onrushing locomotive and then you rise to tepid applause from men who've heard nothing but yak yak yak since early morn and you suddenly realize that 95 percent of the people in this room hope you will speak for three minutes or less. That's why they've put you on the program BEFORE dinner.

Aha.

You've come armed with 20 minutes of wit and wisdom about Our Nation and Our People, like a man with an armload of zucchini, and your audience has been eating zucchini all week and would now like never to see another one.

And so you cut to the chase. Standing there before moon-faced Mitch McConnell and his lovely wife Elaine and the shining head of Mr. Bennett and the exquisite Landra, you say three funny things and press the ejector button and parachute gently to earth. One funny thing I said was: "The interesting thing about sitting next to a senator's wife at dinner is to realize that you've found someone who's been even angrier at him than you have." Even Senator Bunning threw back his head and laughed at that. So it must be true.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


A Farewell to a Gentle Swede

May 11, 2010

Mr. Ray Nilsson died in an upstairs bedroom in my house early Monday morning around 2:35 a.m., which was nothing he or I contemplated back when I married his daughter, but life takes us down some mighty interesting roads. If he'd had his choice, he probably would've died in the woods around his log cabin in northern Wisconsin, axe in hand, splitting wood — a big whump in the chest and the sky spins and you fall off the planet — or in his library, reading American history and listening to Schubert, or maybe in Sweden, walking around and listening to the beautiful language of his mother and Whump get run over by a Volvo.

It was cruel, the last hand that life dealt him, multiple myeloma, months of veering wildly between excruciating pain and drugged stupor, and so it was a blessing when at 2:35, he simply drew a long breath and then not another one. He was 10 days shy of his 88th birthday. His caregiver, a beautiful black man from Tanzania, an African prince named Al, called us and we ran into the bedroom and Ray lay on his side, under a brown blanket, eyes closed. There was loud weeping, distraught phone calls, more weeping, embracing, and my wife put on a CD and the room was filled with a Schubert mass, and around 5:30 the men from the mortuary arrived and took Ray's body away, and at 7:10 I drove my 12-year-old daughter to school.

She liked to go visit her grandpa in the bedroom, though she was leery of the medical paraphernalia, and she was informed of his death, but she loves to get to school early so she can tear around in the gym and shoot baskets with other kids and play tag, and that was more important than death. I believe Ray shared that view. All of the rest of us felt the enormity of death, but the dead man and the little girl shared a disregard for the business of mourning and went off to other things.

He was a gentle Swede, an orderly man, a man of powerful memory who could recall exactly how he had gone about laying the concrete steps at his cabin 30 years before and recall this in such excruciating detail that you wanted to jump out the window. He wrote a wonderful memoir of all the cars he had owned (which, of course, he called his Auto-Biography). He could remember the day when, as an infant, he took his first steps — he really could — and he could remember every moment of that afternoon when a beautiful young woman from Rutherford, N.J., had come knocking at the door of his parents' rooming house in Minneapolis, looking for a room for her brother, and something electric passed between them, which led to a long loving marriage.

He made his living as an elected official, the clerk of district court, and left it with no regret to embark on a long and happy retirement, walking two miles a day, reading history hour after hour, listening to Beethoven and Schubert and Bach, cutting wood, shoveling his driveway, writing the history of his family. I came into his family late and was too busy to get to know him well, but I saw him clearly one fall day at his cabin when my wife begged me to please tell him not to go up on the roof. He was 80 and he had put a ladder up to go sweep leaves out of the gutters and was halfway up it. I didn't know how to tell Ray what not to do, so I simply climbed up on the roof with him and helped clean the gutters, which made me queasy, the sight of the ground far below, the fearful faces of women looking up, and the old man striding along the edge of the precipice, but neither of us broke our necks that day. He was a tall taciturn man who, had you passed him on the street, you wouldn't have noticed, but what an excellent life he lived until the killer came tiptoeing into the room.

I suppose there is no good way to die, but Ray made the best of his. He resisted painkillers to the best of his ability, wanting to keep his mind clear. He expressed satisfaction with his life. He showed his vast love of his four children and his wife. And throughout his misery, he said "Thank you" over and over and over. Those were the last words he said, two days before he expired.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


Hullabaloo in Times Square

May 4, 2010

I often walk through Times Square where the Incompetent Bomber parked his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder last Saturday with the alarm clocks wired to the M88 firecrackers in the canister between the five-gallon gasoline containers and the three propane tanks, the bags of nonexplosive fertilizer, and so I take a personal interest in the case.

I'm fond of Times Square, which is an out-of-body experience offered for free to the general public, the colossal flash and razzmatazz of 10-story LED hi-def imagery rolling and bouncing among the JumboTrons and billboards in the glass canyons above the statue of Father Duffy by the TKTS booth. It is pure hullabaloo, millions in advertising canceling itself out by sheer overload, and one block away is beautiful Bryant Park and the serene reading rooms of the New York Public Library, where, for all you know, the scholarly gentleman across the table from you may be studying the art of explosives. It's a free country.

Saturday night, at the time the Nissan was discovered and cops started to evacuate the area, I was at a show on 43rd Street two blocks away, unaware of any threat, and I maintained unawareness for the next several hours, catching a taxi on Sixth Avenue and proceeding to a Chinese restaurant on 65th and packing away some giant prawns and fried wonton in the company of others. We ate freely and jabbered about all sorts of things, and nobody came running up to ask if we'd heard about the car bomb. People in Williston, North Dakota, probably got the news before I did. This often happens in the Communications Capital of America: Large events transpire two blocks away and you sit happily ingesting your Seven Joys of Tofu and reminiscing about your childhood in Anoka, Minnesota. That's what I love about the city, that feeling of being utterly out of touch, as if you were in the Australian outback.

Bomb experts did not agree on the deadliness of the device. One retired New York bomb guy said it came within a "millisecond" of creating a fireball 30 feet high that could've killed hundreds of people and "caused horrific lung damage and fried the hair and faces of anyone within a 50-yard radius." He was the guy the tabloid Daily News decided to quote. The Times quoted another bomb guy who referred to the device dismissively as "a Rube Goldberg contraption" -- "It's the 'swing-the-arm-with-the-shoe-that-hits-the-ball-and-knocks-over-a-stick-that-knocks-something-off-a-shelf,' and it is all supposed to work." He did not offer a scenario of tourists with fried faces stumbling down 45th Street, clutching their scorched lungs. The bomber, he said, thought he'd invented the atomic bomb but was somewhat short on ability. The Daily News guy recalled a car bomb years ago that blew the hood of the car 21 stories into the air, suggesting that this might've been of that magnitude. The Times guy was slightly amused by the perp as being ambitious but certainly no Ted Kaczynski. A knowledge-impaired terrorist.

Both bomb guys agreed on the fact that the bomb had not detonated.

By early Tuesday morning, the cops had put the collar on a Pakistani gentleman at JFK, and now, as I write, hundreds of detectives and agents of the Joint Terrorism Task Force have set out to gather too much information about him.

The Times reports that New York City operates 82 surveillance video cameras between 34th and 51st streets and Sixth and Eighth avenues, and I hope the city fathers aren't mesmerized by Cheneyesque visions of fireballs and fried faces and persuaded to station 82 officers to observe those monitors in eight-hour shifts, a mind-numbing occupation.

We have more than enough security people in this country now. Highly trained TSA operatives with headsets for instant communication stand by the scanners in airports in Boise and Santa Barbara and remind you to put your computer in a separate bin and remove your shoes. You walk around any downtown and see all the beefy guys in fictitious uniforms whose job it is to stay awake and scowl. This is not the same country I grew up in, but never mind.

Next Saturday I will be back in Times Square, and I plan to walk around and enjoy the crowds and the lights. I'll walk across 45th Street past the Nissan's parking spot to the Eighth Avenue subway and take it uptown. Call me irresponsible, but I may stop and think of the millions of dollars spent on self-erasing advertising cascading mindlessly overhead. God bless America and now let's go eat.


© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


Fact and Fiction

April 27, 2010

It's the best spring ever, green and lush, and baby robins are chittering in their nest in the maple tree and the smell of blossoms is in the air — and yet we dour Scots cannot forget that April 27 was the anniversary of our ignominious defeat at the Battle of Dunbar, our good King John stripped of his regalia, and the Stone of Scone hauled off to London. Yes, I know that 1296 seems like a long time ago, and maybe 714 years is a wee bit long to be grinding our teeth over a bad day on the battlefield, but we Scots nurse our resentments carefully. I know I do.

Plenty of people have said nice things to me over the years that I vaguely remember, but I remember with stunning clarity where I was sitting in algebra class when my classmate Cliff Nordstrom reached over and put his thumb and forefinger around my wrist and told me that I had skinny arms "like a girl's." The moment burns in my memory 52 years later, a permanent wound in my life. I still feel self-conscious wearing short-sleeved shirts.

Ditto, a dozen other small slights. To you they'd seem minuscule. A review of a book of mine, mostly favorable, but one sentence was like a shiv between the ribs, and that is the sentence I remember. Even in the green miracle that is spring, the memory of that sentence stings.

It's resentment, I think, that lights a fire of ambition in our tails and drives us to beat our wings on the porch screen, hoping to reach the incandescent glow of fame and fortune.

And now I wonder what deep-down resentment the late Stephen Ambrose was nursing that motivated him to lie about his closeness to his biographee Dwight D. Eisenhower and claim to have spent hundreds of hours with Ike when, in fact, according to a close examination of the General's daily diary, Mr. Ambrose probably spent no more than four or five.

When the story came out in The New Yorker last week, I felt ill. I admired the man. I loved "Citizen Soldiers," about the Battle of the Bulge. He was a deservedly best-selling historian ("D-Day," "Band of Brothers"), the prolific author of books on Lewis and Clark, George A. Custer, the transcontinental railroad, the Civil War, biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon: Why did the gentleman need to stoop to such a pitiful petty lie? And why did he lift passages from other writers and use them without quotation marks? Did someone make fun of his lack of erudition, growing up in Whitewater, Wis.? Did he feel inferior to his doctor dad? A longtime smoker (who died of lung cancer in 2002), maybe Mr. Ambrose was given to tempting fate and playing with fire.

Plagiarism is suicide. It stems from envy, I suppose, or in Ambrose's case, the rush to produce books in rapid succession, but no matter, it's a stain that peroxide won't lift out. All your hard work over a lifetime, blighted by the word "plagiarism" every time somebody writes about you. It's in the third or fourth graph of your obituary, a splotch on your escutcheon.

Here, dear reader, I must disclose that I have repeatedly lied about my closeness to General Eisenhower and have claimed more than once to have been his aide aboard the cruiser Memphis where he observed the D-Day landing from the porthole of his cabin where he was ensconced with Marlene Dietrich, sipping champagne, as I sat outside the door strumming "Lili Marlene" on a HarmonyTone F-4 mandolin.

Years later, an eagle-eyed reader blew the whistle, pointing out that HarmonyTone's F-4 mandolin was not manufactured until 1947. Also, that I was 2 years old at the time of D-Day. Also, that Marlene Dietrich was in Hawaii at the time, canoodling with John F. Kennedy.

Luckily for me, the expose came out on the very day that President Nixon resigned, and so it got buried in the back pages, along with the embarrassing fact that my book, "Sailing With the General," contained large swatches (unattributed) of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." Thankfully, these embarrassing disclosures never got in the way of my friendship with President Eisenhower, and he and I golfed many, many rounds together, at Augusta and Burning Man and Plum Creek, with George S. Patton and Walter (Old Iron Pants) Cronkite, the memory of which the smell of plum blossoms brings back with startling clarity.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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