The Old Scout

A FINE day to be somebody else
October 25, 2005

People stood out on my front porch the other night talking about politics and inhaling the sweetness of fall, intimations of nobility in the air and also decaying vegetable matter. What we felt was the elation of a warm night in late October in the northern latitudes, when you can stand outdoors in your shirtsleeves after twilight. In these circumstances, even newspaper columnists feel the urge toward poetry:

Across the street, the maple now
Is flaming yellow on the bough.
It stands beside an evergreen,
All dressed up for Halloween.
Now of my three-score years and ten,
Sixty-three won't come again.
Subtract from seventy sixty-three—
It scares the daylights out of me.
And since to look at maple trees,
I'd like more time (Lord, if you please),
I'll briskly walk in admiration
And stimulate the circulation.

The smell of fall takes me back to fourth grade, the girls in their pinafores and the boys in plaid shirts, our hair wetted down and combed, watching Mrs. Moehlenbrock write the math problems on the board, thinking about What To Be for Halloween. Girls could, if their mothers had the time to sew, dress up as royalty, or as fairies, but for a boy, princehood was not an option in those days, nor was pixilation. You could smudge your face and be a hobo, or put on a red nose and fright wig, or you could be ghoulish and loathsome.

Last year I succeeded in that, without meaning to. I put on a tuxedo and painted my face blue and handed out candy bars to a couple hundred kids and their parents before a kind neighbor informed me that the blue paint, in dim light, looked rather black, and then I remembered the pained looks on the faces of African-American parents who came to my door. I guess they figured Mr. Keillor, for reasons of his own, had decided to dress up as Al Jolson and might whip out a banjo and serenade them with a few plantation songs. No wonder they were so quiet as I doled out the candy into the children's sacks; they were wondering what this old booger might have put in the Butterfingers.

"To be great is to be misunderstood," said Emerson, which does not mean that misunderstanding confers greatness. It does not mean that at all. Everybody is misunderstood most of the time. Back in my bohemian days, I liked to put on a flowery shirt and fringed vest, as if I were a true individualist, and now I wear a suit and white shirt and tie and try to impersonate a businessman. Either way, strangers take one look at you and with great confidence come to conclusions about you that are dead wrong. This happens to us all every day.

And so we should celebrate Halloween. It's as close to a carnival as we Northerners have, and it's a chance to slip out of the stereotypes assigned to us and find truth and beauty in caricature. If you are pegged as a Midwestern mom, Monday is your chance to be Decadent Heiress, Transcendental Heartthrob, Taxi Dancer, Aviatrix, Lady Macbeth or the Goddess Athena, and break free of your family's low expectations - a chance to be something passionate.

We made our choices in life, based on lousy information, and got stuck being who we are. You: attractive, impetuous, with bedroom eyes and a savage wit. Me: rumpled, preoccupied, shambling, dropping things. And do we regret this? No, not really. A person only needs to be truly understood by two or three people. Everyone else is audience. Passion is in your head. Two people can be married for a dog's age and despite all the aches and bruises of matrimony they still look at each other and get excited. Nobody else understands this. Nobody else needs to.

So, on the Eve of All Hallows, let us paint our faces and put feathers in our hair and venture off along the curve of the earth and be somebody else. I will go as a Special Prosecutor in a shiny suit, carrying a black briefcase, who after 7 p.m., turns into Raffaello, King of the Tango, with pointy shoes, trailing a cloud of lilac cologne. I will be a figure of stark terror and also a font of erotic energy, a scourge of miscreants and a friend of adventurous women. And when the candy is gone, I'll turn into your father and send you home: That's it, kid, the party's over.

© 2005 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.


From the Desk of Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor
Photo by Cheryl Walsh Bellville


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