The Old Scout

The Magnetic Power of the Herd
December 27, 2005

A winter afternoon of soft gray light and then the snow comes, snowflakes descending through the cone of light from the streetlamp, a majestic stillness falling on the city, a lovely moment in life. Lighted windows of the big frame houses along the street and the shush of tires in the snow, and I put on my long black coat and a stocking cap and walk up the street to the neighborhood coffee shop.

The moment for personal reform has come, the dawn of a new year, and my resolutions are as follows:

(1) If you see something, say something. (Sign on the New York City subway.)
(2) Don't project. (Advice given by a friend when I was stewing about ominous things lurking in the future.)
(3) Be appropriate. (Sign in a grade-school classroom in Seward, Nebraska.)

One could add to this list: Walk two miles every day. Become smaller. Read more fiction. Drink less coffee. Stop making lists. But these seem sufficient for now. I have a busy schedule this winter and don't have time for major reforms until mid-July or August.

Like most men, I am tempted to turn my back on city life and become a woodsman and find a shack miles from the nearest road and keep a small garden, collect wood, live in harmony with nature. No PIN numbers, no e-mail, no security checkpoints, no crazed businessmen walking through airport terminals talking loudly to themselves. Just me and the trees and the snow and a shelf of books.

This is a regular temptation and I resist it, because I would miss the herd. The crowd piling into a theater before a show we've all heard is good, the genial humor often found at the end of a long queue, the mutual affection of the congregation emerging from Sunday-morning service. Scripture tells us that we are like sheep, and as usual God is right on the mark. We grazing animals bumble around as coyotes or cougars never would do. They are targeted to go straight for the kill, like the guys on AM talk radio who go after Bill and Hillary for three hours a day Monday through Friday and rip them to pieces. They have been at this for 12 years. Loners in radio studios talking to loners in cars.

We sheep have a tendency toward tolerance and mediocrity. The solo cook is tempted to great feats of cuisine, marinating, trussing, tying up fresh marjoram in cheesecloth, peeling and deseeding the tomatoes, blanching the almonds, to create a masterpiece, but a potluck supper is a feast of the ordinary. Open a can of navy beans and chop up some sausage and put in ketchup with Worcestershire and onion-soup mix for flavor, and you've got it. It's good enough.

Alone, on a dark night, on a beach somewhere, looking up at the Milky Way, it's possible for a person to imagine that he has unlimited creative potential that he is about to unlock and enter into his greatness, just as, in a thick fog, you can imagine that you're on the Atlantic Ocean and not in a canoe on Lake Calhoun, but eventually the fog lifts. Sitting here in the neighborhood coffeehouse, among the strivers at their laptops, the old guys playing chess, the UPS men on break, the lady getting her French lesson, the lady doing the crossword, one does not think about greatness. One enjoys the simple creaturely pleasure of being among one's own kind.

I overheard a conversation in here three weeks ago, two men sitting at a table behind me.

- So how'd you come out at the doctor's then?
- Oh, not so good.
- What'd they say?
- Cancer. But I knew that going in.
- Prostate?
- Nope. Pancreas.
- So what you gonna do then? Chemo?
- Naw, I don't want nothin' to do with that stuff.
- How long they give you?
- A year, maybe a little more. That's what he said.
- Well, they don't know everything. Lot of guys still walking around who were supposed to croak years ago. Don't give up, for Chrissake.
- I'm not giving up. I'm just not as interested in my pension as I used to be.

And they both laughed. I had an urge to turn around and pat him on the back, but it wouldn't have been appropriate. He wasn't projecting. He simply had seen something and said so. He belongs to the same herd I belong to. He could have been any one of us.

© 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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