The Old Scout

Out with the Old
December 26, 2006

New Year's Eve is a high point of the old year and the low point of the new. You go off to a party with expectations of hilarity and camaraderie and wind up in a cacophonous room packed with people shouting at people two feet away. You eat shrimp and drink various grain- or grape-based beverages and drive home legally drunk and wake up at noon with chainsaws in your head and one eyeball half out of its socket. And someone has already turned on the television for the football triple-header. A major hangover, and now you get to sit and watch big bozos bounce off each other and the sponsor's pickup trucks race up steep mountain roads.

Then you realize that something you've done for thirty years under the impression that it was fun actually is not. I gave up New Year's Eve parties a few years ago. What was supposed to be a Cary Grant evening was more like Grant's Tomb. The problem was too much talk and no singing and dancing. All those earnest liberals bunched up around the cheese tray complaining about Bill Clinton needed to be herded onto a bare open floor with funky music on the horn and somebody point a pistol at them and make them dance. Sometimes the hokey-pokey is what it's all about.

So much art and music and writing that you once took pleasure in seems now embarrassing and trite. You clean house and find old books and LPs that you quietly send to a landfill. Meanwhile some classics endure. The poetry of Robert Frost can astonish you for its chiseled elegance - the road not taken, the birches, the beauty Abishag ("the picture pride of Hollywood"), the acquaintance with the night, the poem about the man digging potatoes on a cold day and the piano playing inside the house, and so on and on - while other writers who once burned brightly have rotted in the bin. You discard yards and yards of old jazz and folk - your nieces look at it, amused ("You used to listen to that??") - but the Beethoven piano sonatas are as moving today as when you first heard them.

Maxim Gorky said that Lenin, listening to the Moonlight Sonata, said, "I can't listen to this music very often." It made him sentimental. It made him shrink from the violence he knew was necessary to further the revolution. Now his revolution is a sunken ship, and Beethoven's moon still shines brightly.

In Washington, the new Congress is charged with finding a way out of the wreckage of the old and into some recognition of reality after years of ideological benders. You hope that with sobriety might come a measure of civility. It's been hard for Democrats to be civil since their opinion of the Current Occupant is somewhere between pity and loathing, but they owe it to the country to make a concerted attempt.

Civility doesn't mean acquiescence. It simply means trying to observe the standards of face-to-face conduct. People whale away at each other in the media and launch juggernauts of invective who never look each other in the eye. E-mail is a dangerous thing, and anonymous e-mail is toxic. Bloggers fight fire with fire, conspiracies are imagined, evil intent is assumed, or craven corruption or utter stupidity, but in the end serious people have to be willing to sit down and look each other in the eye and say what we think. Politics is not transacted between cartoons.

A man walked up to me in New York the other day and told me he didn't much care for my politics. I was sitting in a café, and he bent down and commented on something I'd written, and I thanked him for his opinion, which he took for sarcasm and walked away, but I really was grateful. Honesty is always to be preferred to the various alternatives, and it's highly unusual in this day and age to meet a critic face-to-face. A beautiful aspect of New York, a city of pedestrians, where you have to get used to being jostled.

So here we are. We've endured. We lost some good people in 2006, but you and I didn't die. Reason enough to celebrate. And we'll do better next year. Entropy - the natural tendency to fall apart - is not inevitable. Onward we go down the rushing river. Prudence, abstinence, courage, justice, faith, hope, charity. God bless you all.

© 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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