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O C T O B E R 1 9 9 7
by Garrison Keillor
OHN 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.
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It's Just Work (October 1997)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview Garrison Keillor talks about writing, radio, and his perpetual "revolt against piety."
A Prairie Home-Page Companion (October 1, 1997)
Not sure what socks to wear? Ask Garrison Keillor. He's hanging out at the Prairie Home Companion Web site.
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 exam.
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.
E 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 of Norway.
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 Fathers.
"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," John said.
"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"Her music comes from a very powerful place," Fawn said.
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.
OHN 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 bony hand.
"I'm terribly sorry about your cat," he said.
"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 broadcasts."
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 headlights.
"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 to do."
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."
RIVING 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, my.
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 ball.
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 the suite?"
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 boring."
"New York City?"
"God, no. Upstate. He's from Minnesota originally."
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."
RIVING 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.
N 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.
Garrison Keillor is the host of the Public Radio International show A Prairie Home Companion. His story in this issue is adapted from his book Wobegon Boy, to be published by Viking Penguin this month.
Illustrations by John Maggard
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Talk Radio; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 57-69.