The Old Scout

The character-building properties of sweaters
January 24, 2006

I wake up and bounce out of bed in a pleasant mood and then notice that I can see my breath. There is frost on the bathroom mirror and a thin sheet of ice in the toilet. So I trot downstairs and turn up the thermostat. I like the house to be cozy, as if we had a blazing fire in each room, but I am married to Nanook of the North, who feels that in a world of finite resources a person of character can put on a warm sweater and be comfortable at 58 degrees; the house does not need to re-create the womb.

The furnace rumbles in the basement, and I make coffee and fetch the paper. Then she appears in the kitchen in her woolens and says, "The thermostat was set at 85. Do we have elderly people coming for breakfast?" I explain that I had found the thermostat set low - did the stock market crash during the night? Have we become paupers? "Put on a sweater," she says. "It's not Poland, 1938," I say.

"Poland, 1938" is our code term for poverty. The closest I came to it was in 1967, when my first wife and I moved into her parents' basement, a room with a concrete floor and joists above with heating ducts snaking around, and sponged off them for a few months so I could try writing fiction. My mother-in-law Marjorie was the soul of kindness and never intimated by word or raised eyebrow that this arrangement was anything but normal. I think back on that with gratitude and amazement. Parents: the Guggenheim Foundation of First Resort. I hope I said thank you to Marj and Gene. But a 25-year-old can have a large sense of entitlement. When I think back to 1967, I feel good and guilty.

I felt guilty about it again last Sunday morning. In our church we kneel for confession, and there's not room between the pews for a tall man to kneel comfortably (and why should confession be comfortable?) so you must fold yourself up and twist into position - it's like trying to make love in the back seat of an old VW - and by the time you get to the things you have left undone, such as saying thank you to your in-laws 40 years ago, your lower back hurts. And you have left out a lot of bad stuff. We read the confession at a good clip, which is fine for the aged and infirm, but for me, a man with a good memory, there is a backlog of material. How can you sweep all of life's nastiness under the line "Forgive us for that which we have done" and feel absolved? We should hand out worksheets, with plenty of space under Lust and Pride and Anger and Covetousness and Others, for people to write out their recollections and use the back of the sheet if they need more space.

I suppose we trot through the confession because our sins are such dreary stuff, small potatoes, a snarky comment here, some low-grade neglect, some vague lustful thoughts triggered by lingerie ads, nothing heroic like Clytemnestra shacking up with Aegisthus after Agamemnon sailed off to the Trojan War, then she and the lover offing Ag with an axe, only to be done in by Ag and Cly's son Orestes, meanwhile Electra has gone nuts - this sort of thing is rare up here on the frozen tundra. Not that we are better people. But maybe turning the thermostat down is how we put the damper on our darker tendencies. Nanook may be onto something.

If you learn nothing else from great literature, at least you learn that the nicest people are capable of the darkest deeds. If you don't know that, then you are not a functioning adult. Perfectly lovely, well-behaved children active in church groups suddenly show up in the paper, accused of heinous crimes. Blame it on secular schools, if you like, or video games or high sugar consumption. But it may be that the thermostat was kept too high. Heat relaxes the inhibitions, and soon you start to think about stealing from your mother and getting hopped up on happy dust. It doesn't matter that you went to Sunday school regularly. The heart wants what it wants.

So chill, children. Put on a sweater. When tempted, go outdoors and lie in the snow and make angels.

© 2006 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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