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 To the right, you find a selection of articles published since 1989, and a few unpublished pieces.
From Atlantic Monthly
John Tollefson awoke to the
clanging of the clock downstairs, and rose from bed, took
out the plastic mouthpiece he wore to keep from grinding his
teeth, did his deep knee bends and pushups, and touched his
toes. His feet looked gnarly, with shoe marks on them. He
definitely was getting a gut on him. He stepped out of his
blue pajamas and looked at himself in the mirror on the bedroom-closet
door. A middle-aged guy should check himself out every day
and assess the devastation, he thought. The flab around the
waist, the wobble under the chin. And he needed to practice
smiling at himself in the mirror. Young guys can get away
with being sullen; it even looks good on them. But on an older
guy gloominess looks like indigestion. People think you had
too much knackwurst for lunch.
An older guy has to lighten up and keep himself
looking fresh. Smile at people. Keep his sense of humor. Even
if he feels lonely as a barn owl. The world is interested,
up to a point, in the sorrows of women, but it doesn't give
a hoot about the problems of a middle-aged Norwegian bachelor
-- and why should it? So don't bother being unhappy; it only
makes you look like a creep.
He stood over the toilet bowl and peed and half
expected the water in the bowl to turn bright red with blood.
He'd been expecting catastrophic illness since he turned forty.
He'd go off to some specialist in the city and sit in a beige
waiting room, thinking about his crumbling innards, pleading
with God for mercy, perusing tattered issues of People, thinking,
"I am spending some of my precious last hours on earth
learning more about Brad Pitt." And proceed to the examining
room. Disrobe. Wait for the arrival of the prostate potentate
himself, Dr. Oh, and his various benedictions and incantations,
and then the presentation of the posterior for the digital
Maybe he should get out of radio and do something
distinguished with his life.
The immediate cause of his misery was the speech
he had to give the next day in Washington, D.C., at a public-radio
conference, accepting the Wally Award for radio management.
He hated the thought of giving a speech. The Wally was named
for a station manager who died in 1986 and whose colleagues
wanted to honor him because they felt bad about not having
liked him much. John was the general manager of WSJO, in Red
Cliff, New York, the radio voice of St. James College, a mouldering
Episcopalian outpost heavily endowed by Christian bandits
of the nineteenth century. Among financially gifted parents
of academically challenged students along the Eastern Seaboard
it was known as a place where you could pack off your child
and feel that, barring a felony conviction, he or she would
get to wear a black gown and receive a sheepskin with the
St. James crest ("Omnibus Omnia") on it.
His boss, Dean Baird, had nominated him for
the Wally Award, which John guessed might be a prelude to
his being fired. They did that in public radio -- gave awards
to guys right before they took them out to be shot, as a relaxant,
so that the doomed man wouldn't struggle. They gave you the
plaque and then they deaccessioned your head.
The dean had been pushing John for two years
to change the format of WSJO from music to talk. "There's
no point playing classical music on the radio when everyone
I know has CD players in their cars," said the dean.
He wanted more news, call-in shows, documentaries. He prodded
John into hiring a gaunt, sallow-faced woman named Susan Mack
as public-affairs director, who had, in a year and a half,
produced two documentaries, one on premature menopause and
the other on mercury poisoning from dental fillings -- "Amalgam:
The Enemy in Your Mouth." The menopause one was a lulu,
a marathon gripefest, an orgy of self-pity, women moaning
and grousing about their sad lives and the uncomprehending
world around them, and some of those women showed up on the
mercury-poisoning one, too -- the symptoms of that (forgetfulness,
fatigue, depression, achiness) being symptoms of menopause
as well. Plus there was the usual pious droning and technical
jabber from various experts. A thoroughly mind-numbing piece
of radio, so of course it received a Du Pont Award, and Susan
went on a speaking tour, yakking about why she had had all
of her own amalgam fillings replaced, and how this had improved
the quality of her personal relationships. Now she was working
on a third documentary, on agoraphobia.
What a pill she was.
John hated talk radio. Especially public-radio
talk shows. He loathed them. Drowsy voices dithering and blithering,
obsessive academics whittling their fine points, aging bohemians
with their Bambi world view, earnest schoolmarms, murmury
liberals, ditzy New Agers, plodding Luddites, sad-eyed ladies
of the lowland, all of them good and decent and progressive
and well-read and Deeply Concerned. Concerned about children,
about justice and equality, about the clouds in the clear
blue sky. Everything they said was to show their Concern,
to demonstrate their innate goodness; nothing they said came
from firsthand observation; they had no experience whatsoever,
only Concern, and the sign of their Deep Concern was their
use of dozens, if not hundreds, of modifying clauses in each
sentence, which was a great deal (or at least more than one
might ideally hope for) of modification, the result being
audio oatmeal, and two hours of them wasn't worth one Chopin
prelude, in his book. When you listened to Arthur Rubinstein
play Chopin, you were no longer a liberal or a conservative
or even an American but simply a breathing, sensate human
being with a soul. Music lent you the freedom of your own
mind. You listened to the Mahler Fourth Symphony or the Tchaikovsky
Serenade for Strings, and it evoked scenes and visions of
your own life and elevated these revelations into the realm
of art. Talk radio left you with nothing except a feeling
of superiority to the poor schlumps talking on the radio.
HE turned on Morning Edition as he shaved and showered. A
man was lamenting the slaughter of songbirds by America's
house cats and calling for a congressional investigation.
By the time he was dressed and in the kitchen, WSJO had moved
on to a Haydn organ mass, and he poached two eggs to the Kyrie
and toasted rye bread to the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and cranked
up the volume for the Sanctus, the polyphonic voices like
two sets of waves rocking an anchored boat from two directions,
and then the levitation of the Agnus Dei -- how lucky he was,
praise God. He looked around at the sleek kitchen, took in
the white Finnish cabinets, the oak breakfast table by the
window, and in the corner a painting of Bergen, the brick
warehouses, the green and white and cream houses behind, the
green trees marching up the mountainside, the sunlight pouring
into the valley -- the last sight his ancestors had glimpsed
He hated talk radio because he had never cared
for piety. He grew up among pietists back in Lake Wobegon;
he knew how they killed the spirit. Whenever he went to a
party, if he got into the room where people were discussing
the future of liberalism or the need for greater public support
of the arts, he backed right out and went in search of the
room where men and women were dancing in the dark, or the
room where men were holed up telling lies about the time they
and their buddies filled up a guy's car with a hundred gallons
of pig manure.
Talk radio was part of the tide of dreariness
slopping across America. Franchise architecture, generic shopping
malls, popular music as ugly and empty as it was possible
to be, and talk radio. The Cold War was over, the stock market
was booming, equity bursting at the seams, the twenty-first
century winked and beckoned, and yet the world's only superpower,
America, the Nation of Nations, was in the dumps, gloom was
playing on the soundtrack, and when you tuned in the radio,
you heard maniacs foaming about the Clinton conspiracy to
enslave America. The media wandered, lost in narcissism and
the fear of death and a slavish servility toward the rich
and a knee-jerk contempt for leaders. If ever an era needed
bucking up, it was this one -- but academics had given up.
You asked them for a vision, they gave you dissenting opinions.
He thought, "Lighten up. You're thinking
like an old fart."
John left his house on Green Street and crossed
College Avenue. The ashes and maples along the street, the
grass in the yards, the lilacs and forsythia and dogwood --
a voluptuous green lay on every hand, hung overhead, came
to his nose, an affluence of green, plants drunk in the morning
sun. He crossed the street and headed toward the Quad and
inhaled the smell of new-mown grass from a triple mower piloted
by a girl in shorts and a red halter top who wheeled around
on the far sidewalk and headed toward him. He walked across
the greensward and around the back of the chapel. Behind the
chapel was Gridley Hall, patterned after Huntly Castle, in
Scotland, donated by a Gridley who had stripped the forests
of northern Wisconsin down to the underbrush. The offices
and studios of WSJO were on the fifth floor. He came through
the glass door (WSJO -- PUBLIC RADIO FOR THE FINGER LAKES)
and the secretary, Fawn Phillips, looked up and smiled her
golden smile. Her boyfriend, Trent, sat beside her desk, slumped
in a chair under the Larry Rivers poster of Madame Butterfly.
"Good morning, Mr. Tollefson," she said.
"It's a beautiful day, Miss Phillips,"
he said. "It's a work of art. It's a day by Monet."
She, on the other hand, was like an angel by
Botticelli, her wavy blonde hair tumbling down her shoulders.
She smiled a pure Renaissance smile. He had hired her impulsively,
a graduate of St. James, because she was angelic, and only
later did he discover that she could not spell or write, and
was the president of a group called Wounded Daughters of Distant
"Good morning, Trent," said John.
"Hey," said Trent. He blinked his
gecko eyes and slid a couple of inches up in the chair and
pulled in his legs. He wore baggy pants and a striped jersey
and giant air-sole basketball shoes, and his cap was turned
backward on his clumpy hair; earphones clamped on his head
emitted a sound like tiny chain saws.
The May membership drive was in full swing,
and when John came through the door, he heard his own voice
reminding listeners that WSJO was a wonderful addition to
their lives -- and then Priscilla Lee Wheaton came on the
air to mention the WSJO coffee mug, tote bag, and umbrella,
the premiums offered for contributions of $30, $50, and $100.
John walked into his office, followed by Fawn,
and closed the door. The office was long, with his desk at
the far end and a pleasant sitting area with a blue-striped
couch and two mauve wing chairs and a teak coffee table, and
square in the middle a bay window with a view of the Quad.
"The dean says he needs to see you before
you leave for Washington," she said. "And Miss LeWin
asked if you could come at eleven instead of noon. Her cat
is sick, and she's waiting for the vet."
"Which cat is it?"
"She didn't say."
"Probably Snowball. He's the old one."
John had been to Miss LeWin's house, and he'd memorized the
names of all eight of her cats. Snowball was the easy one.
Miss LeWin, whose mother was a Rockefeller, was eighty years
old, and John was courting her, looking for the propitious
moment to propose a LeWin Endowment Fund. A million dollars,
locked up, the earnings earmarked for the production of opera
and classical-music programs on WSJO. That would be his counteroffensive
against the dean. Miss LeWin was a friend of St. James; she
had donated the carillon. She adored opera. Her father had
taken her to see Rosa Ponselle in Carmen when Miss LeWin was
seven years old, and this experience was still vivid to her.
She had hinted to John that she was in the process of rethinking
her "legacy," as she put it, and was considering
WSJO. The main competitor seemed to be a gay guy named Alan
Dale who wanted to start an opera company in Syracuse. He
was a major cat lover and had wormed his way into her good
graces and advised her on fashion matters.
"Tell the dean I'll call him from Washington,"
"Okay." Fawn nodded. "Could I
show you something?" She handed him a CD. "Is this
anything you'd consider playing on the air?" It was called
Meadows of the Mind, by a singer named Loti, and had a picture
of a misty pasture on the front. He pulled out the insert
and saw that the lyrics were printed, lines like
I float with the wind
I am open, listening, to my life
The wind -- music of my life
Every day its magic reveals itself to me.
"Her music comes from a very powerful place," Fawn
Loti looked to be about thirty, a slender Brünnhilde
in jeans and a flaxen blouse, and there were endless thank-yous
and acknowledgments, the sure sign of a New Age album: "Thank
you Allan and Shondra for your strength and encouragement....
Thank you Shakti for being there.... Thank you Mufti for your
faith in me ..." -- the list went on for two pages.
"If you're able to open yourself up to
it, it's like a spirit bath," Fawn said.
He was about to put his hand on her shoulder
and say something about music, and then he pulled back. You
had to be careful about touching a Wounded Daughter. What
you thought was a pat on the shoulder might be taken as groping
for her zipper. He pretended to have pointed toward the window.
"Looks like rain," he said. He told her to say he
wasn't in the office if the dean should call and ask for him.
"I'd like to get all my ducks in a row before I talk
to him. Okay?"
She nodded, her eyes big, as if a major conspiracy
were under way.
His desk was oak, massive, yellow. It once had
belonged to the president of the New York Central Railroad.
Dark deals had been struck over this desk, unions busted,
congressmen bought, virgins sacrificed to the Wall Street
gods. Now it held a small wooden loon, a coffee mug, a stack
of payroll checks to sign. A memo from the dean about meeting
the needs of minority listeners.
On the air Priscilla was saying, "We need
the help of every single one of you out there who listens
to WSJO and who values our programming. Morning Edition, All
Things Considered, Car Talk, Thistle and Shamrock, As It Happens,
Fresh Air, The Morning Concert With Thomas Neil Cameron --
where would you be without them? If you listen, and you like
what you hear, then go to your phone right now and give us
a call and say 'Yes! This is important. This is good. I want
to support this.'"
Membership Week was pure irony on public radio:
you tried to raise money to pay for your wonderful programs
by interrupting your wonderful programs and making this horrible
scraping and whining and wheedling noise -- it was truly dreadful,
and yet he was fond of it. It was the only time his employees
did real radio, and looked deep into the microphone and tried
to talk to people. Week in, week out, WSJO drifted along on
audio feeds from National Public Radio and taped concerts
and long selections of recorded music, and then Membership
Week came chugging in like a John Deere tractor, and everybody
had to come out from behind the golden arras and dig potatoes
for a few days.
JOHN pulled up the long drive to The Poplars at 10:58, and
parked under the portico. He ascended the steps and clunked
the big brass knocker, and Miss LeWin opened the door, looking
distraught, her eyes lined with red, and her white hair, usually
styled and sprayed, poking out from under a scarf. She motioned
him into the front hall. She wore a brown-silk housecoat with
a large fish painted on each pocket and brown slacks and a
pair of pink slippers, and she looked thinner than ever, her
face emaciated, the skin tight over her jawbone. He took her
"I'm terribly sorry about your cat,"
"It's bronchitis," she said.
"He's running a fever. Would you mind if we sat in the
hall, so I can be nearby if he wakes up?" She sat on
a loveseat under a painting of roses that John realized was
a Renoir and was not a reproduction. He pulled up a chair.
It was sweltering in the house. The heat was on. "I'm
glad to see you looking so well," he said. "I hope
you received my letter." She nodded and dabbed at her
eyes with a handkerchief.
"As I said in the letter, we put your last
two gifts -- which were extremely generous, and thank you
again -- we put those into a sort of trust fund, the LeWin
Endowment, from which we plan to use the annual earnings to
underwrite classical music, and opera in particular. And I
guess that what remains to be discussed is your feelings at
this point about building that endowment to the point where
the interest would be enough to secure the future of our music
The door to the library was open a few inches,
and John could see, in the dimness within, a pile of white
fur on a leather sofa. It was not moving.
Miss LeWin dabbed at her eye. "I'm sorry,"
she said. "I get so emotional about my cats." She
said she had been to see Mr. Alan Dale, who showed her the
old Palace Theater, which he proposed to put his opera company
in. He would name it for her father: the Arthur LeWin Musical
Theater. She had once seen Lillian Gish in person at the Palace.
It was the grandest place -- boarded up for thirty years,
but she remembered its gilded proscenium, the chandelier,
the ceiling fresco of angels welcoming Caruso and Jenny Lind
into heaven. "It seats two thousand," she said,
"and I don't know if there are that many opera-lovers
in the area, but Alan does not lack for confidence. He wants
to start immediately and renovate the theater and do a season
of four operas starting in the fall -- I admire his ambition.
Do you know him?"
"I do," said John. "Alan is a
good man. Very smart. Very ambitious. And I'm familiar with
the Palace." He clasped his hands under his chin. "I'd
recommend that you consult a structural engineer before you
put money into it. I've heard that if a hundred people in
the balcony stamped their feet in rhythm, the whole building
could come down."
Miss LeWin's eyes widened, as if she saw oncoming
"Alan is a good man, though. Brilliant,
in fact. I have great respect for him. He did that production
of La Bohème in Minneapolis four years ago that caused
all the fuss at the National Endowment for the Arts. You remember
that? No? It was set in the East Village and Mimi dies of
AIDS and Rodolfo is actually in love with Schaunard, and at
the end the singers fling paint into the audience. Not my
cup of tea, but the guy has his convictions. I do think that
anytime you have simulated sex onstage, you're going to offend
a lot of people. The scene where the baritone and the tenor
stripped naked and jumped under the sheets -- it caused a
major hoo-ha in Congress, and they whacked about six million
off the NEA appropriation, but I guess Alan did what he had
She took a deep breath. Apparently, Alan Dale
had not filled her in on his entire oeuvre.
John continued. "I must say, I believe
in the classical repertoire. I really do. Bohème, Turandot,
Carmen, Traviata -- call them warhorses if you like, but to
me, those are the doorways that a person goes through in order
to discover opera. A six-year-old child could see Carmen and
love it, and that child would care about opera forever. But
not if Carmen takes place at a stock-car race and Don José
is called Joe and everybody's in leather and the 'Habanera'
is about carburetors. Call me old-fashioned, but people writhing
around naked onstage and singing political slogans does not
constitute opera, Miss LeWin. I don't think so."
The white fur in the library slid down off the
couch and walked toward the door, and opened its mouth in
a silent meow.
"I have so much to do in the next few months,"
she said. "I am going in for surgery in October, and
I want to get my affairs in order."
"If there's any way I can help," he
said, "please let me know."
DRIVING east toward the interstate, he hoped that Snowball
did not succumb to pneumonia, in which case millions of dollars
might go to shelter stray kitties. He thought of writing Miss
LeWin a follow-up letter, about the tax advantages of the
endowment. He didn't want to come across as a bloodsucker,
but on the other hand, you shouldn't play the fish too delicately
at this point; you had to make sure the hook was set.
He drove to Washington, thinking about his speech
("Public radio is an invisible asset in America. There
are radio stations for aging rock-and-rollers, the religious
right, the audience with metal things stuck in their heads,
the deer-hunting, beer-drinking audience, and there should
be one for folks who find spiritual sustenance in great music.
Beethoven, Mozart, and Puccini are part of the broad humanistic
tradition that we all draw water from, where we find centrist
values such as tolerance, curiosity, a sense of justice, and
humor. We should not discard this tradition in favor of creating
a Wailing Wall, a freak show like Speakers' Corner in Hyde
Park, a radio zoo where people can hear lunatics foam and
growl and rush at the bars"), and got to his hotel at
ten. He ordered a club sandwich from room service, and edited
the speech while watching the Letterman show, in which a woman
in a low-cut dress appeared with her tropical fish, who did
cartwheels when they heard "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Nothing, he thought, was so somber as a single room in a big
convention hotel -- the decor bland and yet hostile, as if
designed by civil engineers; the immense TV; the hard bed
that nobody ever had sweet dreams in. He awoke exhausted,
hollow, at ten-thirty in the morning, showered, dressed, and
went down to the ballroom, where important people stood and
scanned the room for other important people. None of them
looked at him for more than a second.
He took his seat at the head table, along with
some famous people he had never heard of, whose names he forgot
immediately. They screeched and hugged; men slapped one another
on the back. John pulled out his speech and looked at it.
He didn't touch the lunch of veal medallions with potatoes
au gratin and crême brulée, and then the woman
next to him -- who produced segments of All Things We Wish
You Were Interested In, as John called it -- started yakking
about storytelling as the glue of community. She had come
from a seminar that very morning at which Jonah Hadley had
spoken on the subject. He had been brilliant, she said.
"Jonah Hadley's Journal," an audio
essay, a sermon with sound effects, ran every week on All
Things Considered. Hadley was a good writer in the worst sense
of the word: humorless, tone-deaf, smug, predictable, all
gesture, no smarts. He'd talk about sugar mapling in Vermont,
and you'd hear the crunch-crunch-crunch of footsteps in the
snow and the drip of the sap in the bucket and some extremely
laconic Vermonters muttering something about syrup (they talked
at a rate of four words a minute, which gave their mutterance
an air of vast profundity), and then Jonah tied it all up
with a whispery voice-over, something solemn and flabby about
tradition as a force for sanity in our lives, a few sentences
that managed to bring in Tocqueville, Bob Dylan, the quest
for the Holy Grail, a quotation from an obscure Sufi poet,
the crisis of male identity in the nineties, the myth of Sisyphus,
and the Easter bunny.
The awards program began, and people at the
head table were introduced, and some of them spoke, and the
woman next to him stood up and said a few words for a long
time, and then a man in a plaid jacket talked about the Wally
Award and referred to the original Wally as "an innovator
who was deeply committed to radio," a description, John
thought, that covered many sins indeed, and then everyone
looked at John and clapped, and he rose and was handed the
Wally by a woman from NPR who smiled all the way up to her
gums, and he took the speech out of his breast pocket and
set it on the podium.
He told a joke to start. "There was a famous
American naval captain of the War of 1812 who, when his ship
went into battle, always wore a red shirt, so that if he was
terribly wounded, his men would not see the blood and become
demoralized. And now you know why I am wearing brown pants."
There were titters in the audience, and a woman in a red suit
sitting at a front table rolled her eyes. A poop joke. Oh,
The speech was about how public radio, in the
midst of the Balkanization of broadcasting, is creating an
intelligent centrist voice, blah blah woof woof ... He did
a page of that, and the crowd was quiet, and he wished he
had told the joke about the engineer going to the guillotine.
He plowed through another page -- skipping over a long paragraph
about a remote tribe of South American aborigines who knew
nothing of toothbrushes or mirrors or cameras, who were given
a dozen cellular phones, which they incorporated into their
religion as sacred totems and instruments of prayer -- and
went on to talk about the building of WSJO, and then he saw
that the rest of the speech was laced with references to that
South American tribe, so he had to backtrack and sort of summarize
about the cellular-phone thing, which took a while, and he
fumbled around, and the crowd got restless. They could sense
what a flop it was, their blood lust was aroused, they exchanged
knowing glances (This is pretty bad, isn't it? Oh, yes, this
is a gobbler all right) -- and suddenly he was in a sanctimonious
passage about public radio as a telephone in a dark forest
whereby the brave exchange their messages. (Where did this
dreck come from? he thought.) He felt ashamed to be giving
a speech this dumb and wasting everyone's time. Shame rose
in his throat; he was choking on it. He wanted to stop, if
only he could find a stopping place.
And then the woman with the gums passed a note
over to him: "Wind it up, thank you." That was disconcerting.
He skipped two pages and looked for the paragraph about the
funding crisis in public broadcasting -- it was in there somewhere.
He searched, he skipped another page, he looked up at the
audience and grinned and said, "Almost to the end,"
and then there was a crash, as if someone had dropped a bowling
It was Bob Edwards's head. He was sitting at
the main table, two seats away from the podium, and he had
rested his chin on his hand and closed his eyes and dozed
off, and then his elbow slipped and his head whacked the table.
Cups and saucers bounced, and people thought "Coronary"
-- the voice of NPR's popular Morning Edition dead! -- and
then Bob Edwards raised his head and grinned, and people clapped!
They practically gave him an ovation!
John said, "And thank you very much for
this fine award" and stuffed the speech in his pocket
and turned and hustled out of there as fast as he could. Bob
Edwards reached out to shake his hand, and so did the woman
from All Things Considered, but John couldn't bear to talk
to anyone. He had said enough.
He fled through a door that said FIRE EXIT,
which opened into a concrete-block stairwell; he ran three
flights down the stairs, two steps at a time, thinking, "Dumb,
dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb!"
One mark of a good general manager must be the
ability to give a horse-hockey speech and shrug it off, but
this had hit him hard. He felt nauseated and dizzy. He sat
down on the stairs in that silent stairwell and leaned his
head against the steel rail and felt his heart pound and prepared
to vomit. He thought, "You're forty-four years old and
you're wasting your life."
He heard a door open above, and two men stepped
into the stairwell, and the door closed. One of them said,
"What's wrong?" and the other said, "I saw
McCullough coming, and I don't want to talk to him, the big
dummy. He's been a stone in my shoe for years, and now he's
badmouthing my book. What a shithead."
He recognized that voice. It was Jonah Hadley.
The first voice said, "You going up to
Hadley said, "No, I had enough. I'm going
home. Who was that gasbag they gave the Wally to? Geez."
"I dunno. Some jerk from New York. Pretty
"New York City?"
"God, no. Upstate. He's from Minnesota
They both snickered at the thought of Minnesota.
Pretty hilarious to them. "Minnesota," Hadley said,
"I should've guessed," and they chuckled. They talked
about what a snoozefest the conference was, compared with
other years, and John's face burned -- to be called a gasbag
by Jonah Hadley! It was like being called ugly by a tree toad.
If Hadley came down the stairs, John thought, he might like
to shove a finger in Hadley's chest and tell him that his
show was a blight on radio. But then the two men slipped out
the same door they had come in.
John sat and felt blue, and a moment later
the door opened again and a woman called down, "John?
John?" It was Susan Mack. He stood up quietly and tiptoed
down the stairs, and then his foot scraped, and she cried,
"John? Is something wrong?" and came after him.
He ran down five more flights, trying the door at each landing
-- each one was locked -- until he finally escaped into the
parking garage. He dashed along the rows of cars toward a
far wall that said ELEVATOR and followed the arrow around
the corner and punched the UP button and waited. He felt like
a jewel thief. He was perspiring. He took the elevator up
to the lobby, jammed with bodies, and made a sharp right turn
toward the hotel elevators, where four security men stood,
dazed from tedium. "You with the convention?" one
of them asked. John nodded. A light flashed, a bell dinged,
the doors opened, and he got on the elevator. He squeezed
into the corner, behind a tall blonde in cool sunglasses,
wearing articles of clothing not sold to members of the general
public. Her breasts, visible on three sides, brushed against
his arm; they felt like molded plastic. An immense shoulder
bag hung under one arm, the sort that women in public relations
carry, and she was talking on a cellular phone. "Everything's
running late," she said. "Some creep stood up and
talked about nothing for half an hour."
DRIVING north that afternoon, passing trucks on the New Jersey
Turnpike, he thought about his dumb life pushing a desk. What
a wimpy, wasted life it was, compared with the life his ancestors
had led in Minnesota. They worked in the fields all day, and
at night they built a blazing fire and drank and challenged
one another to fight for the fun of it. A straightforward
deal compared with office politics. You didn't go to meetings
and sit wooden-faced in the downpour of bullshit: you drained
your whiskey bottle and stripped off your shirt and whooped,
"Whooooooo-haw! What fool among you dares to engage in
a test of manhood with me, the unbeatable Sigurd? Whooooooooooo
-- yeow. Look upon me, gentlemen, and see what the standard
shall be! A farmer and a Christian gentleman, and one who
can beat the living crap out of any one of you. Who would
prove me wrong?" And then a younger man stepped into
the circle and whipped off his shirt and eyed you up and down
and said, "Sigurd, a wounded skunk on a country road
has a greater understanding of trucks than you have of manhood,"
and with a ferocious roar the two of you fell into a clinch
and rolled in the dirt and sandburs and pounded each other,
and finally, when it was enough, the others separated you
and stood you up, and the bottle was passed, and you grasped
each other's hand and grunted, "Huh." Which meant
that you were true brothers and your fight meant nothing at
all except that you loved to fight.
Those men were giants compared with him, a privileged
little pissant who stood up and blathered in public. Why hadn't
he just said "Thank you" and sat down? He imagined
how it would be to pull over to the side of the road, write
a farewell note ("I am sorry. I tried hard to resist
this conclusion, but it is unavoidable"), leave it on
the dashboard, steal a boat from a marina, paddle out to the
middle of the river, tie the anchor to his ankle, and pitch
himself into the water and let his life be quietly obliterated.
There would be a surge of adrenaline at first, and he would
struggle like a dervish, but down he'd go, under the waves,
and oblivion would come quickly. It was interesting to think
of this, knowing that he wouldn't do it.
He thought of the men back home who parked themselves
at night in the Sidetrack Tap, that dark, warm cave of beer
and smoke, the Norwegian bachelor farmers at their end of
the bar, the gentry at the other, and the contempt they all
shared for men like John, fools in suits doing rat's-ass work
in offices, work that didn't make a dime's worth of difference
to anybody, the work of con artists, snake-oil salesmen --
managers. His dad, back when he ran the grain elevator, came
home from a visit to an agriconglomerate in Minneapolis once
and said, "Dullest people you ever saw -- daylight is
wasted on them." Some vice-president had invited him
into his big carpeted office with plate-glass windows and
a panoramic view of the Mississippi River gorge, and John's
father was deeply unimpressed. "Young guy with a moustache,
suit and a tie, shoes with tassels, poufy hair, dumb laugh,
you know the type. Sits down and right away it's first names,
like you're pals. Talks your head off, and -- boy oh boy --
there's nothing going on upstairs. The guy is all foam and
no beer. All wax and no wick. A rocket without a payload."
That's me, John thought. One more self-important
lummox hurtling through space, trying to make an impact somewhere.
He didn't want to be a general manager anymore: he wanted
to be something good. His ancestors knew how to walk away
from a bad deal. They looked around them in Norway and saw
it would be fifteen years before they inherited a piece of
the farm and it'd be a woeful and backbreaking fifteen years
and the piece would be too small. They did not agonize over
it, did not go into therapy, keep a journal, or call up talk
shows; they simply headed for America. When some of them got
to the Midwest and saw that they had exchanged one bad deal
for another, and then heard about gold in California, chunks
of gold that lay in streambeds for a man to scoop up with
his bare hands, they set down their tools in the yard and
walked away without hesitation, seeing their chance to break
out of the traces.
IN a few months WSJO would change over from Haydn and Beethoven
and Puccini to The Gay-Lesbian Parenting Hour at 1:00 P.M.
and The Men Dealing With Anger Hour at 1:15, The Hearing Impaired
Hour at 1:30, Wounded Nephews of Distant Uncles at 1:45, People
in Grief for Deceased Pets at 2:00, The Herpes Hour at 2:15,
People in Search of Closure at 2:30, each with its own smug
host and tiny clientele, its own style of vacuity, and should
John fight this? No, he did not think so.
Fighting was noble in theory, but when you looked
at the lives of battling visionaries -- Joe Hill, Susan B.
Anthony, Eugene Debs, Carry Nation, Father Coughlin, Dorothy
Day, Martin Luther King, Ralph Nader, Newt Gingrich -- you
saw the price they paid, the loss of the private self, and
how the inner fire that drove them to battle also made them
not much fun to be with. Joe Hill's wife, Jill, married a
florist after Joe's execution and happily gave up the labor
movement for a life of Girl Scouting and literary teas in
Muncie, Indiana, and hoped never to hear the word "solidarity"
ever again. Eugene Debs, five-time Socialist candidate for
President, was divorced by his wife, Debbie, who said that
marriage to a great man was about as enjoyable as sleeping
in a bed full of dead fish, and she found happiness raising
Pomeranians and later playing Aunt Sis on Friendly Neighbors.
Dorothy Day's husband, Ray, never accompanied her on her Catholic
Worker tours or walked the picket line; his great passions
were raising orchids and weaving baskets and maintaining his
collection of Deanna Durbin memorabilia. Besides, he was a
Congregationalist. Ralph Nader's wife, Nadine, tired of her
husband's abstemiousness and fled to Santa Barbara and opened
a gift shop. And poor Gingrich. The cost of leading the Republican
revolution was to become a man nobody but major donors cared
to eat dinner with. Gingrich's first wife, Ginger, said that
Newt was unable to focus on conversations about topics other
than himself, that he was afraid of small children and shrank
back from them as if accosted by porcupines.
John got home, toddled up to bed, and switched
on his radio, and there was a woman calling in, whose daughter
created original silk-screen T-shirts, saying what a hard
time talented people have in our society and they never get
the recognition they deserve. A man called in to say he suffered
from chronic leg cramps. "I don't think people realize
what a rough time people have who don't quite qualify as handicapped.
I mean, I have to park way at the other end of the lot even
though my leg hurts like heck sometimes, so I can't attend
as many athletic or cultural events as I'd like because I
never know if those leg cramps might kick in suddenly, and
I'm just saying I wish there were a little more public understanding."
The host thanked him for his comments,
and then a guy with a quiet, whiny voice talked about how
alone he felt in the world. "Hey," John thought,
"the reason you're alone is that people who know you
don't like you that much." He thought of calling in and
saying, "I wish there were more public understanding
of guys like me. I like to walk around town in pink pants
and lead my wolverine on a leash and sing 'Whistle While You
Work' in falsetto, and I am hurting no one by this, but people
look at me as if I were a monster. Why is life like this?"
But before he could reach for the phone, he fell asleep.
Phil Keillor Benefit for the Tenney Park Shelter (04/17/09)
Bill Holm, 19432009 (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)
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)
A Graduation Speech