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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Garrison Keilor's "Stuff"

I love Garrison Keilor. Here's just one essay that shows why. The man's imagination knows no bounds!

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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