There was no music playing when Garrison Keillor took the stage at the Society of the Four Arts yesterday afternoon—no live guitar and piano, no foley sound effects, no pre-written comedy sketches, no manufactured commercials for nonexistent products, no Guy Noir.
In short, the longtime host of NPR’s “A Prairie Home Companion” entertained a packed audience of Four Arts members and guests without any of the accoutrements of his idiosyncratic show. But he didn’t need any of them; Keillor unplugged is just as idiosyncratic is Keillor on “Prairie” or Keillor in print.
Tall, gangly and slightly stooped, Keillor wore a red tie and an brighter red ensemble of socks and sneakers, his hair a permanent tousle. He opened with an a cappella song, a poem, and then another song and poem, his subject matter ranging from classic literature to butt cracks and this timely ditty, which he debuted for the Four Arts audience:
If you should be stuck on a highway or train/for hours for reasons no one can explain/think back, did you boo? Did you laugh? Did you scoff?/What did you do to piss Chris Christie off?
He then spoke for more than 40 minutes, seemingly without notes, and with that signature voice that would soothe a weary populace to slumber if the content weren’t so engaging. A great monologist, Keillor painted vivid pictures with words, beginning with a riff on the polar vortex, which then pinballed toward subjects like his own freezing youth in Minnesota, memorable trips to dentists and doctors and his humble beginnings in media, tying everything together with the overriding theme of cheerfulness in the face of life’s adversities. The experience was both riotously funny and wistfully moving. Here are some of the highlights.
“I love the term polar vortex, meaning a sort of inexorable downwardness, which for those of us who grew up fundamentalist is very satisfying somehow. All of us are caught in some kind of vortex, and the usefulness of that vortex in Minnesota is that it was blindingly cold at the beginning of last week, and then it warmed up a little, so that people could think to themselves, it could be worse. And it recently was. All we need in Minnesota to cheer us up is the idea that there has been some slight improvement in our situation. This is all. We don’t ask more than that.
“Our governor last week declared that he would close the schools in Minnesota for that Monday and Tuesday, thinking of little children in rural areas coming down the end of long driveways in the dark, in minus-42 wind chill, and waiting for buses to come. So he pronounced clemency on these children. Well, OK. But people my age all over Minnesota thought to ourselves, why didn’t someone do that back in 1951? What was wrong with our governor back then, the guy who used hair oil, and the jowly guy with the horn-rimmed glasses? Why didn’t he give us a break back then, when it was really cold? It was blisteringly cold, back before there was lightweight thermal wear. You kept warm by carrying a heavy load of clothing, heavy woolens and corduroy on your back. School was never postponed or called off in Minnesota back in the day. So we made out way through blizzards. My father tied a clothesline from the porch pillar down to the mailbox and all the way up to the county road where the bus would come, and we took hold of it and followed it through the snow, unable to see our hands in front of our faces. We could hear feral animals around us, carnivorous creatures, dogs who’d gone bad and run away. You could hear other children whimpering and pleading, but onward we went, and down to the highway, which was completely drifted over with snow, blowing snow, no windbreak except barbed wire. This was life out in the prairie, out in the steppes of America.
“You think about when you were a child, and you waited for that bus, and then a sleigh came, driven by a man named Erik, this old Norwegian bachelor farmer, who was half-crazy and who was two sheets to the wind. He came pulling up in his sleigh with two black horses, and away he went over the wind-crusted snow, and then down a rocky slope onto the Mississippi River, and then up toward school, swerving from side to side, avoiding men in grey who were hiding behind rocks and trees, the last remnants of the Army of Northern Virginia. That was a long time ago.
“I enjoyed watching the film footage of those fashionable New Yorkers during their polar vortex, all bundled up in heavy clothing, these slender people with sculpted bodies, wearing this lumpy clothing so they looked like everybody else. Faces that they’d spent a lot of money on covered with scarves, and 50-dollar haircuts covered with a cap with flaps.
“Life used to be harder, you see. We had the advantage of a hard life. Winter was hard. If you had been through the winter of 1951 in Minnesota, you were never made to move to a warm climate, because every succeeding winter was not as bad as that one. So you could console yourself by saying, it could be worse.
“Dentistry was hard. It was painful. We ate fistfuls of frosting, and we knew we would pay a price. But it was out there in the future. And then suddenly it was there, and you went down to the dentist’s office, which was up on the second floor. You walked up a narrow stairway above the drugstore, and there he was in this office that reeked of antiseptic. There was the dentist, sort of a twisted man— pockmarked skin, hair sticking out at old angles, unreal greyish-greenish eyes. And the answer so often was to pull a tooth. And when he pulled a tooth, he reached into his drawer, and he pulled out an ordinary pair of pliers from the hardware store, and he climbed into your lap, and he forced your jaws open. You were weeping, begging for mercy, but he got the pliers onto the tooth, and he moved it back and forth, and he yanked it out, and you never forgot this experience.
“I had a wisdom tooth extracted about two months ago, and for somebody who grew up in the era of painful dentistry, as I did, just the phrase “wisdom tooth extraction” made me shudder—this must be horrific pain, the sort of thing prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. But there was an oral surgeon in a surgical gown, and two nurses, and one of them asks, would you like a sedative? Well, sure! You enter into this dream state far above this world of suffering and pain. And this procedure, whatever it is they’re doing, you’re not aware of it. It takes what seems about three minutes, and then you’re brought into a recovery room – recovery from what? You sit there in this dream state. A nurse asks you if you’re OK. You haven’t been this OK in a long time. You have entered into a world of chemical ecstasy you never knew existed. Now you realize what your friends back in the ‘60s and ‘70s were going after when they rolled those odd cigarettes and put the pasty stuff in the pipes, and the little white powder in the mirror and the rolled-up dollar bill and all. Now you understand: It’s here, in this prescription drug! In this little plastic bag. This is what they were looking for.
“But the idea of taking a drug that would provide you with this hazy sense of ecstasy goes against your nature. Your ancestors are warning you against this. They didn’t believe in ecstasy. They didn’t really believe in happiness, exactly. Bliss is a very brief duration, about eight seconds in the male, about 15 seconds in the female. Cheerfulness is what they believed in, which is a choice. And you make it in the morning when you get up. And you make it out of habit. You learn this from your parents, or you learn it on your own, but you learn that cheerfulness is always possible. You simply decide, this is how today will be. And as you get older, this becomes an obligation. This becomes your duty to your fellow elderly and to your children and grandchildren.
“My people were cheerful people. They grew up during the depression, and that was their school of hard knocks. And you did not talk about your fear for the future, and your sense that your possibilities in life were limited, because everybody else was in the same boat. So you didn’t discuss this. You recognized an obligation to amuse each other, and to be lighthearted in the company of other people. You might have a friend or two to whom you might confess that you’re depressed, and you’re worried and had money problems, but by and large, you didn’t take this up. You just put the best face possible on everything.
“Those were my people. They struggled; they weren’t poor, but they were living on the edge. They bought day-old bread every week. They would drive for miles to find a gas station that sold cheap gasoline. I realize there’s a problem there. But it was in their nature: Everybody was frugal. They made do with what they had. Every late summer or early fall, they canned hundreds of quarts of tomatoes and corn and peas and beets. We turned our kitchen into a boiler room, our hair pasted to our heads. This was our source of wealth.
“My father gave his sons haircuts. He four sons, and he cut our hair. We sat down on a stool in the garage with a sheet wrapped around us, and he held our heads still. As I look back on it, I see that this was as intimate as my father and I were with each other, whispering to me to hold still, and holding my head still with his hands. I, of course, was embarrassed that people in school would see that I had a home haircut, and they would think we were poor. But now you look back, and you see this as a service of love. This was pure love, from which I never thanked him. You look back on your life, and you see these things so clearly.
“I went down to try out for football, my last attempt to be an athlete, to be popular. And I went to Dr. Mork, and he put his stethoscope on my chest, and he heard a click in the valve, so he couldn’t sign the permission slip—which was a disappointment, but only briefly. And I summoned up all of my courage, and I went down to the weekly paper in town and asked if they needed a sportswriter. And the editor looked at me, and he said yes. I learned, years afterward, that he thought I was my uncle’s son. My uncle was the vice-president of the bank. And he had signed off on the editor’s mortgage. My father was a postal clerk. So I got into writing under a mistaken identity.
“I wrote sports, and instead of sitting on the bench, I sat up in the press box, high above the bleachers. My friends waved to me, and I didn’t wave back, because I was a journalist, and I was cool. I wrote heroic accounts of losing games, and I took them down to the linotype operators on Monday mornings, Whitey and Russ, two old drunks in their 40s, who had little Dixie cups full of vodka, and who sat at these enormous, hot, loud linotype machines, clanking out the line and then pulling the lever, and the hot lead flowed into the slug, and the slug went into the galley. And he put the galley into the chase. And the chase was set on the turtle, and he put the turtle down there in the flatbed for the press, and Whitey stood up on a little bench, and he loosened each sheet of newsprint and laid it down on the flatbed like you lay a tablecloth on a table. And the roller came over: Whoosh, ca-chunk, ca-chunk, and down into the folder it went. And then on page 12 was my story about the game, under my very name! To think of hundreds of people waiting to read your words … you never get over this, ever. This is a stroke of such good luck, to have a heart problem that made all of this possible.
“In so many ways, we have outlived our usefulness, especially men. Men become more or less decorative at a certain age. This is why erectile dysfunction is common among men past the age of 60. It’s nature’s way of saying, you’re done now. Go sit in a corner. We don’t want that anymore.
“We are, down deep, a cheerful people, who look forward to the next day, and put our knapsack of rocks down at the end of the day and not pick it up in the morning. The best solution to a terrible day is to go to bed, and sleep, and get up and see what the next day awaits. This is our function as older people. It’s a shock, of course, to be old, because inside, we are still 37. But get over it. This is our function now.”