Don't Know What's Wrong, but It's Okay

Garrison Keillor / Garrison Keillor's Website
Don't Know What's Wrong, but It's Okay Garrison Keillor. (photo: KUAR)

I am enjoying being an old man and I wonder why I didn’t get here sooner. There are benefits to being 79 that I would’ve appreciated in my late thirties. I look at the stories on the front page of the paper and I think, “Not My Problem” and the latest NMP is the shortage of goods due to shipping backlogs, freighters lined up for miles waiting to unload, docks piled high with containers, factory production slowed due to lack of parts coming from China, building projects halted, dire situations, workers idle, confusion, dismay — and here we sit, Madame and I, with the opposite problem, too much stuff, need to give it away.

We have about twenty big dinner plates and twenty small plates and when was the last time we sat eighteen guests down to dinner in this little apartment? Not since Jesus was in the third grade. I have eight suits in my closet: when did I last get dressed up? The number of unread books on our shelves would sink a pontoon boat. And why the whiskey glasses? Nobody in this household drinks whiskey. Neither do our guests, they’re all left-wing liberals and whiskey, in case you didn’t know it, has become politicized and is now reserved for patriots who are out to Stop The Steal. I wish they’d steal our whiskey glasses.

Two trillionaires, Bezos and Musk, are trying to fly into outer space but you can get away from Earth quite cheaply simply by heading for 80 and 85 when a person starts to feel himself floating in the clouds, unconcerned with so much of what’s going on, such as those hundreds of cars moving at 5 mph down the distant freeway at 7:30 a.m., honking, angry — what is going on with those people? What’s all the fuss about?

The controversy in Nashville over the need for country music to create spaces of healing and equity for people of all identities and to fight oppression of minority points of view, which sprang up after the first nonbinary musicians were featured on the Grand Ole Opry, was interesting but Not My Problem. I love the songs I love and for me country music hit a peak with Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin On Your Mind),” which was Loretta’s statement of empowerment and anti-oppression in hopes of changing lives and challenging patterns of discrimination so as to bring about evolution of behavior and clearly stating a moral imperative in order to liberate herself from systems of oppression to bring about a sense of authentic belonging and promoting values of mutual respect as an effective tool for social justice rather than perpetuate a structure of male privilege in daily life and mitigate its effects.

The two nonbinary singers, Morgan Newton and Oliver Penn, are demanding that Nashville issue a mission statement pledging to engage in anti-oppressive and inclusivistic musical storytelling that fights intolerance and cultural appropriation, but the way to change the world isn’t to demand change, it’s to write a terrific song as Loretta did. They say that Waylon Jennings’s “Rainy Day Woman” tolerates a structure of male privilege, and maybe it does, but it’s a great song. You disagree, then go write a better one. The Beatles’ first big hit, “Please Please Me,” was exclusionary and disempowering and built on a structure of exploitation, but their harmonies on the line “Come on, come on, come on, come on” made the song irresistible. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” never considered whether the hand, which presumably belonged to a woman, wanted to be held and the line “And when I touch you I feel happy inside” doesn’t consider whether she (or them or it) feels happy inside. You might be offended by the male privilege that’s made all too clear but the song kept running through your head, including the falsetto “OOOOO” and that’s the power of it.

Anyway, it’s an unjust and inequal and often oppressive world out there, and mission statements come flying like autumn leaves, and nonbinary and non-triplicate and quasi-quadrennials struggle for their share of the sunlight, and in Norway people are killing each other with bow and arrow, and the anger of those drivers on the freeway is almost palpable, and I feel some sympathy for all of the troubled, but only some, not a vast amount. I’m 79 and it’s Not My Problem, people. My problem is this computer, which has a bad habit of suddenly going blank and I’ve taken it to be fixed and they told me confiden

If you love your work, be sure not to finish it

The life of a writer is a wild adventure you wouldn’t imagine simply by looking at the lonely figure in the black cloak sitting hunched in her/his niche in the cloister, scratching corrections onto the parchment with a feathered quill pen, but it’s true and someone really ought to write about this. At the moment, I am looking at a galley of a new book of mine as sent by a graphic designer named David and I am stunned by the elegance of it, which makes my own words seem almost of classical quality, which makes me want to revise the work to bring it up to the quality of the design, meanwhile my crew of overseers is firing off memos insisting the book be finished by Friday. This is what I’m up against: David’s graphic artistry has shown me how wonderful my work almost is while editors are banging on the door of my cell, threatening to withhold food until I turn the work over to them. It’s ugly.

The book is set in a small town in Minnesota and I feel that a good street fight, an insurrection of farmers versus townsfolk, with a lot of hacking and clubbing and shouting and cursing, would add some interest and maybe also a good gas explosion. I’ve written many novels and never put a major explosion in one and it’s appealing to me now, the chance to have people I dislike file into a building and then blow it up. Terrorists do this all the time, so why not novelists?

It occurs to me, too, that my previous graphic designers were named Butch, Buddy, and Misty, and their surnames ended with -sen or -quist, and David’s name ends with a vowel, same as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, and Fra Angelico, and my literary reputation has been hampered by poor page design and bad taste in fonts. I think that with the addition of an insurrection and a gas explosion I could break out of my reputation for Midwestern nostalgia and be taken seriously by critics for the Times and Post who majored in women’s studies at Bryn Mawr and Smith, especially if the old white reactionaries who stage the insurrection are the ones who file into the building that minutes later goes up in a cloud of flame and smoke, but meanwhile I’m in the hands of deadline enforcement officers who want me to stop and hand over the goods.

Did Dostoevsky work under these conditions? James Joyce? Toni Morrison?

The real problem, however, is not only artistic but also my fear of finishing the book and dreading the onset of leisure time, which, in old age, only leads in one direction, brooding, mental deterioration, half-pound cheeseburgers, and watching MSNBC and Rachel Maddow, which leads to despair for the republic. I’ve spent the past year ensconced in fiction and was very happy most of the time. (I’ve never heard Rachel Maddow use the word “ensconced,” by the way. She might say “hopelessly trapped” or “barricaded” but “ensconced” is too comfy for her and she is not a creature of comfort.)

When the enforcers take possession of my hard drive and publish the novel, minus the clubbing and hacking and the gas explosion, I plan to take charge of my life and announce to my wife, who formerly was in charge of it, “My darling, I’m done with Manhattan. We’ve owned this apartment for twenty years and real estate values are skyrocketing and let’s clean up and move to Portugal.”

We spent a week in Portugal a couple years ago for her nephew’s wedding and we loved it. They are a sensible people, fishermen, farmers, sailors, explorers. When I told the nephew how I admired his wife’s ability to adapt to American culture and make friends and find her way around, he said, “Well, she’s Portuguese. She passes for Parisian but she’s her parents’ daughter.” Her father Antonio is an olive rancher and all-around handyman who stayed up all night dancing at the wedding and then drove us around the olive plantation showing off his trees and talking a blue streak in Portuguese. He is a happy man and keeps busy managing twenty or so unfinished projects. He’s a few years younger than I but he’s my model. I want to settle in his village and go to work writing unfinished novels.

A writer doesn’t need literary prizes to be happy, happiness lies in the work itself, sitting down in the niche with the quill pen and adding a few more curlicues. I am ensconced in my work. I don’t want to lose it and that means postponing publication as long as possible. They don’t teach this to MFA students but they should.

A few beams of light on our current situation

“Goodness gracious” was about as close as my mother came to actual profanity, that and “Oh fudge,” and now that our daily life is showered with profanity and obscenity, it is no more shocking than dog barks, whereas the words “Goodness gracious” still have (for me) a bite to them, and I can feel my mother’s dismay, which now I feel, hearing about the tidal wave of political narcissism opposed to the idea of social responsibility — Senator Graham was booed and harassed the other day by constituents when he suggested they consider getting vaccinated against COVID — people who deny that the state has a right to mandate vaccination or mask-wearing as a public health measure or enforce speed limits or restrain the sale of weapons meant for combat or the responsibility of parents to send their kids to school, and weird ideas that are being preached from pulpits by ministers who don’t realize that their own people are dying of COVID and in marginal states the plague may be delivering the 2022 elections to us socialists. To raging narcissism, I say, “Oh fudge.”

Nonetheless, I am happy. October has that effect on me and it’s heightened by sunny days and the fact that the suffering of us Minnesota Twins fans is at an end as we go into the postseason and last week we had the pleasure of seeing the plutocrat Yanks squashed by Boston, players who are up in Mark Zuckerberg’s pay bracket and who couldn’t buy a hit or even draw a walk. I am not proud of taking pleasure in the suffering of multimillionaires but it’s a long-standing American tradition. The Yankees’ star right fielder Aaron Judge said, “To me, it’s black and white. Either you win or lose. We lost.” Which, for a guy who could afford to hire a writer, or content provider, is not a memorable line, not even in the ballpark. Casey Stengel who earned a tiny fraction of Judge’s salary said, while managing the Mets, “You look up and down the bench and you have to say to yourself, ‘Can’t anybody here play this game?’” A great line and I’ve thought of it often in my life.

I thought of it a few hours before the game when I tried to sign up for ESPN so I could watch it and I had to use the round clicker on the remote to write. I am a guy from the Three Network era back just after the Civil War when ABC, CBS, or NBC would’ve carried the game and all I had to do was open a bottle of beer, but now I have to manipulate this weird device and after three failed attempts I called my wife on FaceTime and we struggled to get it done and there was some yelling but the marriage survived and I got to see the pinstripe guys slump off the field while the Red Sox danced and whooped and the fans were delirious in the Fenway stands, though surely they knew that this team will likely break their hearts as it has so often in the past.

“Can’t anybody here play this game?” comes to mind when I read about Congress and the debt ceiling hassle and the Republicans’ aversion to talking about climate change even as the reality of it is rather clear and auto manufacturers are planning for electric car production, but Republicans are satisfied with a policy of denial. This is not intelligent but they believe it’s a winning strategy. Goodness gracious. Who are these people? What game are we playing?

With my team packed up and gone home, I’m free to spend October with a light heart. This is the advantage of defeat: the dreadful anticipation of it is over, you got skunked, and you discover defeat is a sort of liberation. But Washington is another matter. The South lost the Civil War but went on to win the 20th century and today we’re living in a confederacy. We have a Confederate Supreme Court and soon will likely have a Confederate Congress. My mother was of a Depression generation that didn’t tolerate narcissism but here we are. But as Casey almost said, “The Democrats have shown me more ways to lose than I ever knew existed. They say there’s always hope, but sometimes that doesn’t always work. But never make bad predictions especially about the future.”

Lonely guy seeks old café and three buddies

I am an orphan, which is not so unusual for a man of 79, and like everyone else I know, I work out of my own home and at the moment I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of Cheerios beside the laptop and a cup of coffee (black). I have no office anymore. I’ve had offices, not cubicles but offices with doors and a window, sometimes a credenza, since I was 22 years old. I miss them.

If someone opens a Museum of the American Office, I volunteer to be a docent and I’ll show them around the office of fifty years ago with the mimeograph machine, the manual typewriter, and the big telephone with the long curly cord that went into the wall. There was no copier, we used carbon paper. Someone knocked on the door and I hid my copy of Portnoy’s Complaint in the top drawer and a woman poked her head in and said, “The meeting is about to begin.”

That’s what I miss, the meeting. They were like little morality plays, in which people assumed allegorical roles, Dreamers, Realists, Satirists and Strategists, and the outcome was usually to maintain inertia but they were entertaining. I was a satirist in my early years and then suddenly I became the boss and I was surrounded by realists, and at the end of my office career, I became a dreamer and the two women employees listened and took turns being the assassin who points out the deadly reality so not much happened but I was okay with that. The pleasure was in the meeting itself.

We cleared out the office because we didn’t need it, the copier went, the coffeemaker, conference table, the files were packed off to Deep Storage (where we’ll all wind up someday), and we went home.

Electronics made the office redundant, no need to be combed and suited up by 9 a.m. I imagine the Oval Office may be only a ceremonial room and Joe, though still the most powerful man in the world, may be working from his breakfast table in his T-shirt and pajamas like me. Maybe the Supreme Court will decide to go on conferring by Zoom, the justices at home in their judicial bathrobes.

But I miss it, those friendly Good Mornings as I, Mr. Boss Man, walk in. My wife says Good Morning but sometimes she also says, “You really need to do something about your hair. And your eyebrows. My gosh. How do you see through those things?” My employees never said that.

So now I sit at a laptop at my kitchen table, still in pajamas at noon, and I compose limericks like:

The poet Sylvia Plath
Suffered depression and wrath:
The day that she dove
Headfirst in the stove,
She should’ve just had a hot bath.

A man doesn’t need a staff to sit around a conference table and help him write five-line limericks. But it’s lonely and there’s a loss of status. When you can no longer say, “I have a meeting at the office this morning” people put (Ret.) after your name, and I don’t want that. I’ve thought of about getting myself a psychotherapist just to have someone to meet with and talk about stuff but I’d be trying to amuse her, which is my line of work, and she’d be probing for the dark dank cellars of my unconscious though there truly are none, I’ve looked, and my unconscious has no basement, it’s a solid concrete slab, nothing mysterious about it. I have friends who are in the therapy business and they listen much too closely and the way they say “Hmmm” and “Oh really?” makes me uneasy.

So I’m trying to get together some men to have lunch with. I’ve got one guy, a former Republican, formerly in the investment biz, a guy who turns to the sports page first thing every morning. He’s perfect. Now I need to find two more sort of like him. I’m a Democrat so I’d like a Republican and maybe a guy who knows about science. Race and ethnicity don’t matter. Two guys over forty. Nobody in the arts. If we met this morning, I’d look through my enormous eyebrows and tell about two lively small towns in Pennsylvania I saw this weekend, Sellersville and Jim Thorpe, and how walking around in them made me love this country more than ever. Someday I’ll find my group. Oyster stew and a grilled cheese. Coffee. Looking forward.

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