The Old Scout

Today's lesson: It could be worse
November 8, 2005

It could be worse. The Pharaoh keeps piling mud on your desk to be made into bricks, and you work late, and you head onto the freeway, which is packed with Huns and Visigoths, and your mere presence infuriates them. They shriek at you and make vile gestures. Meanwhile, you're listening to the teeth-grinders on the radio blaming the president's troubles on the Democrats.

Downtown, you run into a covey of evil teenagers, the girls with black lipstick and chopped black hair and black clothes, the boys with graffiti tattoos and their belts down around their femurs, and they look at you with such extravagant loathing, you want to tell them, "I am not worthy of so much contempt. Please, I am only a pedestrian like yourselves, save some of that for Hitler and Stalin."

You go into the restaurant, Les Espensif, to meet your wife to celebrate your marriage and view its remains. The joint is way hoity-toity and attended by attitudinous waiters with fake accents serving half-ounce medallions of pork on a white plate two and a half feet in diameter with swirls of green foam on it and a spoonful of caramelized rice for $28, which you eat in 45 seconds as your spouse tries to sucker you into an argument about home maintenance, and you think, "What happened to that old joie de vivre that I was known for back in my salad days?" Well, it could be worse.

It would be worse if you didn't have a shed. A man needs a shed. A shed with a woodstove, a workbench and an old couch, coffee cans of bolts and screws, a pile of old Playboys, a bottle of Old Overcoat, a tin of snoose, a deck of cards. The Pharaoh can't touch you here: You are safe in the bulrushes.

A den isn't as good, or an attached garage. You need to put some distance between you and the Main House, which, as we all know, is the domain of women. A woman is likely to pick up your Ventril-O-Disc from the kitchen counter as if she'd found a cockroach and demand to know what it is. A shed is a place where you can practice ventriloquism and do the exercises described in the book on Dynamic Tension that you obtained from Charles Atlas, the World's Most Perfectly Developed Man. You need a place where you can sing your song and not hear her say, "Would you mind?"

There is almost nothing so good for you as singing old songs, whether you sing praise to the Lord God or sing about the gin-soaked barroom queen in Memphis and your friends Long Tall Sally and Bony Maroney and Jenny Jenny. You've got trouble in mind and the water tastes like turpentine but you know you belong to the land and it's a grand old flag and the sunny side of the street is where you should direct your feet. Ben Hecht said, "Old songs are more than tunes. They are little houses in which our hearts once lived." In other words, they are sheds.

Winter is coming, which simplifies everything and shows you that the essentials of life are heat, food, shelter, plumbing. The rest is decorative. The life that your wife writes about in the Christmas letter, the life of steady accomplishment and upward movement on life's graph, is mostly fiction. The reality is that we are all in over our heads. I am and you are. God help us. And so far He has. It could be worse.

Whatever bonehead things we've done, we have not yet put our tongue on the pump handle and let it freeze there, and this is a fact not to be overlooked. There are pump handles around, and in freezing weather they become lethal. You walk past them and they exert a powerful force on your body, particularly on your tongue. Imagine the misery of standing, tongue frozen to the iron, waiting for the firemen to come and pry you loose. In my darker hours, ever since I was 6 and went trotting off to Benson School, I have imagined that the pump handle would be my fate, but so far I have avoided it, and you too, my friend. Together, once again we hope to come through the cold season with our tongues intact, and if we do, then winter has no grip on us. It could be worse.

© 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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Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

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