The Old Scout

His nerves are tired and he needs to lie down
March 28, 2006

I went to the Mayo Clinic last week for the annual ceremonial physical, hoping my doctor would send me off to a hospital, one of those really nice ones with a sunny terrace where you sit in your bathrobe and beautiful brunettes bring you fresh orange juice. The diagnosis would be nervous exhaustion, I guess.

Back in my youth, people like Doris Day and Rita Hayworth and Natalie Wood got hospitalized for nervous exhaustion, and so I've always considered it a glamorous ailment, but what are the symptoms? My medical dictionary doesn't say. Probably they would include (1) extreme paleness and clamminess, (2) palpitations, (3) dilation of pupils and flaring of nostrils, and (4) piteous whimpering, things like "I'm-a waiting for you, Mama" or "I kin hear 'em singing!" I recall heroes in Victorian novels who collapsed from nervous exhaustion, and they were carried pale and trembling to bed where they lay for a few days and then decided to quit the bank job, break off the engagement to Daphne, and build a cabin of clay and wattles in a bee-loud glade and write poems.

But that's not what I want. I just want some time off.

My doctor is a Minnesota Lutheran so he's not up on nervous exhaustion. He asked me how I was and I said (as I was brought up to say), "Fine." He then proceeded to do the pump-pump-pump of the blood pressure cuff, the tap-tap-tap of the kneecap, and to note my complaints - headaches, gummed-up sinuses, inability to remember names of people I used to know - and take them up in a businesslike fashion.

Sinuses? Try putting your head over a sink and pumping salt water up your nostrils.

Memory loss? Forget about it.

Headaches? He sent me off to have my head examined. In an MRI machine. You lie on a narrow trough which is retracted into a massive cyclotron where you lie perfectly still for an hour in a space exactly the size of Grandpa's coffin, and if you are claustrophobic, this will send you right up the wall, and if you are not, you soon will be. You expect to hear Igor say in his adenoidal voice, "I have tied him down, Master. Shall I throw the switch?" The machine bangs and whirrs and you lie there in your coffin awaiting the Last Judgment, and the young lady running the experiment says on the intercom, "You're doing a great job, Mr. Keillor." A great job of playing dead.

I couldn't bring myself to tell the doctor, "My nerves are shot and I want to go to a hospital for three days. One with a terrace and fresh orange juice." I thought he might tell me to get a grip. Or jump into salt water and breathe it up my nostrils. The truth is that there are only a few hospitals that treat nervous exhaustion and they're in Los Angeles and you must have a publicist.

The longing for hospitalization goes back to childhood: I wanted my parents to notice me and wanted my siblings to kneel and beg for forgiveness as I lay gazing up at the Good Shepherd, radiant beams shining on my face, weeping angels beckoning from a hole in the clouds. It's a lovely fantasy, but the reality is that hospitals are dangerous places. People get sick there. Weird bacteria, zonked-out interns, the occasional serial killer. And people you never cared for descend on you bearing inferior chocolates and wilted zinnias and cheap balloons that say, "Happiness Is Knowing You Are Loved." They camp at your bedside for hours reminiscing about all the cancer victims they used to know. And worst of all, my sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter would not find a hospital amusing and so she would visit me for the minimum-daily-required minutes and wave goodbye and skip out the door.

So I dropped my little blue gown and pulled on my pants and came back to the living. When you have a daughter who is eight, you must schedule your collapses from nervous exhaustion. She has a full schedule of swim classes and school and church activities, and we're going to Alaska in July, so it appears that August is my first opportunity to fall apart. I am looking forward to it. We have a sunny terrace at home, and I can sit there in my bathrobe and whimper to my heart's content, and if the bees get loud I will throw some salt water at them.

© 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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