From the Desk of Garrison Keillor
A prolific writer, Garrison Keillor is a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines throughout the United States and abroad. To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.

You Say Potato
From Time Magazine

April 4, 1996

Tomorrow morning, you go to work at Amalgamated Potato and you find a white envelope on your desk with the CEO's name in the upper left corner and you sit down and draw a deep breath. After twenty-two years working your way up through the Skin Division, you are about to become road kill, one more confused raccoon smeared across the corporate highway.

Well, you've seen this coming for awhile now. Amalgamated has been downsizing and outsourcing like crazy for two years since the new management team came in, steadily reducing the number of drones in the hive. Everyone you know around here works sixty hours a week and goes home with briefcases as big as garment bags. You are the assistant manager of skin sales, you work like a draft horse, and you have languished at your present salary, in the mid six-digits, for quite some time, and now you're forty-six, and the new management team consists of wiry, short-haired, tremendously energetic guys in their mid-thirties, real sharks.

They came here from pasta, and set out to bring pasta-type glamor and growth to the humble potato, so that Amalgamated can turn a humungous profit and be bought out and make top management dizzyingly rich. Their first step was to cut costs by decimating the work force. And now it's your turn to walk the plank.

But you open the envelope, and it isn't your final notice. No, sir. It is a memo announcing that Amalgamated Potato is about to transform itself through Total Quality Organization, a team-oriented leadership process in which power flows transactionally within the organization, not hierarchically, and you will spend three days next week at a seminar being empowered.

So, next Monday you report to the seminar center, a big white concrete-origami structure with gigantic skylights and indoor trees and maple floors and modular furniture in primary colors. It feels like Sweden somehow. Or a kindergarten. There you sit in a circle of potato employees with looseleaf notebooks on their laps ("Tools for Transformation"), listening to a young facilitator named Terri explain how TQO works. She is friendly in a robotic way, as if she had taken one of those personal development courses where they train you to look the other person in the eye when you speak to him and smile and always say his name.

"Our business isn't potatoes, it's helping people live and work to their full potential," she says. This is a holistic team thing. We work together in teams to design a process for identifying and resolving issues, for we are the process owners: management does not "make decisions"; management promotes the organization's awareness of itself and empowers the team leadership process.

Oh, you think. I see.

The words "holistic," "leadership," "process," "quality," and "commitment" crop up everywhere (nobody talks about spuds here at all), and Terri reads aloud from the notebook sentences like "The commitment to quality is a holistic value structure throughout the leadership process which is accessed dynamically through all functions of the organization from the bottom up." Sentences that are self-erasing: the moment you read them you forget what they said. There is a lot of that.

In every organization, there are people who try hard to do good and people who try hard to look good, and you notice it is your least productive colleagues in the skin division who get enthused about this and learn to talk about the "team leadership curve" and the need for "iterative process" and "high-level roll?ups," and it dawns on you that nobody at work will ever utter a simple declarative sentence again. That you might wind up spending half your time in team meetings discussing leadership process, every sentence upholstered with TQO gibberish.

This might be a good time to think about quitting your job and heading for Alaska and open up a fishing camp, you think.

You listen to Terri talk and immediately you blame liberals for creating people like her. Something about the term "facilitator" makes you think of liberals and their schoolmarm view of the world (No running, please, no pushing, no bad talk) that leads them to invent euphemisms and jargon and eliminate sharp corners and outlaw flirtation between strangers and rearrange the playing field so that the sidelines are the goal lines. Liberals are in charge of the schools and they rewrite the tests to keep the scores from dropping. Liberals run the churches and nobody talks about sin lest it tend to make people feel marginalized.

But TQO isn't the work of liberals. Liberalism is dead, slain by the mighty Newt. Liberalism is so dead that Democrats have become moderate Republicans, and Newt is holed up in his cave, at a loss to find an enemy other than himself.

The death of liberalism was accomplished in order to peel away bureaucracy and onerous rules and regulations dreamed up by liberal utopians and to open the door for corporate America and the free market to make us free and happy. But if you thought Big Government operates with a heavy hand, you don't know what Big Corporations can do. And when people talk about the free market as the engine of progress, I remember that when I snuck off to see the movies as a boy, movies were shown in gilded palaces with deep carpeted aisles and you sat in a throne beneath a ceiling of smiling cherubs and goddesses and looked up at a luminous picture on a screen fifty feet high, and today, you go to a 32-screen multiplex in a shopping center and sit in a concrete shoebox and watch a bad print on a screen the size of a tablecloth and when you get up to leave, your feet stick to the floor. This is what capitalism has wrought.

You've got to make a swift smart decision, whether to be a team player at Amalgamated, work a longer week, accept the pay you're offered, accept the fact that the company has switched your health plan over to an HMO that requires thirty-day notice of emergency care, accept the TQO gibberish about power percolating up from the bottom, or whether to fly to Anchorage and head up the Iditarod Trail and get work guiding hunters across the trackless wild in search of the wily caribou.

Forty-six is late to be making a jump like that, but there's a lot to be said for reality. People in Alaska don't sit around the fire and discuss the holistic process of quality leadership sharing. They do real things all day, and at night they tell stories about them. That's why Alaska is there: to give you an alternative to the monkey island of corporate life. You take a float plane from Anchorage and in two minutes you're beyond the grid and out over moose country, out where people survive by observing carefully the workings of nature, out where the level of b.s., c.s., and h.s. drops sharply as reality rises.

A dense fog has descended on Amalgamated Potato, and it will not lift soon, if ever. You need this like you need a porcelain hairnet. Go west, young man. Go north. Get out of town.

Past Articles
  • Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
  • Bill Holm, 1943–2009 (02/26/09)
  • Happy New Year, Friends (12/29/08)
  • Talk of the Stacks (11/17/08)
  • What Makes St. Paul So Great? (09/03/08)
  • GK On Historic Preservation (10/05/07)
  • Welcome to St. Paul (09/23/06)
  • "Homegrown Democrat," Chapters 1-4 (08/10/04)
  • Sing the National Anthem—and Try it in the Key of G (07/02/04)
  • Holiday Greetings from Garrison Keillor (12/23/03)
  • Remembering Plimpton (10/01/03)
  • Crankiness in Decline, Says the Old Guy (04/19/02)
  • A Governor Works in Mysterious Ways (10/19/01)
  • In Praise of Laziness (09/10/01)
  • I Just Needed a Valve Job (09/13/01)
  • A Eulogy for Chet Atkins (07/03/01)
  • A Foot Soldier in God's Floating Orchestra (04/01)
  • Exile on Main Street (10/02/00)
  • Walking Down the Canyon (07/31/00)
  • The Mysteries of Prom Night (05/15/00)
  • How I Write (12/04/99)
  • The Christmas of the Great Flu (12/99)
  • Let Jesse Be Jesse (10/10/99)
  • The Rice, the Bat, the Baby (09/06/99)
  • Faith at the Speed of Life (06/14/99)
  • The Republicans Were Right, But (02/15/99)
  • Minnesota's Excellent Ventura (11/16/98)
  • The Dangers of Christmas (04/06/98)
  • Gasgate (11/10/97)
  • Talk Radio (10/97)
  • The Seven Principles of a Successful Christmas (09/08/97)
  • The Seven Deadly Sins—Envy (04/97)
  • You Say Potato (04/04/96)
  • The Poetry Judge (02/96)
  • With All the Trimmings (11/27/95)
  • In Autumn We Get Older (11/06/95)
  • Minnesota's Sensible Plan (09/11/95)
  • The Art of the Embrace (02/95)
  • The Voters are Angry (08/94)
  • Word Play (05/18/90)
  • We Are Still Married (12/18/89)
  • Elevator Tales
  • A Graduation Speech

  • 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).

    Available now»

    American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy