The last of the pygmy mastodons

Garrison Keillor

By Garrison Keillor

Published July 20, 2017

The Closing of the American Mouth

The big news last week was that giraffes and lions are approaching extinction because we humans are turning their habitat into farms and senior high-rises.

I read the story and of course thought of the lion who killed a giraffe and brought the corpse back to the den and his wife said, "You can't leave that lyin' there," and he said, "That's not a lion, it's a giraffe."

The truth is that people who love jokes like that -- joke jokes, not mere sarcasm, but the How Many Talking Dogs Walking Into a Bar Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb sort of joke -- are facing extinction.

Women wince at those jokes, men edge away, afraid the joker is an aluminum siding salesman. If you like jokes, you find yourself sitting at the children's table at Sunday dinner. (What did the fish say when it hit the wall? Dam.)

Giraffes are dying out because they are a joke, an ungainly mythological-looking amalgamation of a horse and a stepladder.

Extinction is all around us. Look at me. My uncle Jim farmed with horses as Grandpa had before him, and I was privileged to ride on their backs as they worked. Gone, long ago, and all that's left are a few Brownie snapshots.

Likewise, the newspaper shop where I worked as a teenager, with the clattering Linotype machines and the alcoholic pressman who stood beside the flatbed press and flipped an enormous sheet of paper on it as the roller whooshed over it and the paper was trimmed and folded and out came the Anoka Herald. Gone, gone, gone. I necked with a girl in the front seat of a 1956 Ford. Now there is a gearshift where she sat. Sad.

So where does that leave us? Right here, on the page, writing like mad. The internet has made us the most loquacious society on earth. Our uncles chose their words carefully and our cousins too, but their children are texting, posting, blogging, emailing, and people who never struck you as literary are thinking about writing a book. Yes. The memoir boom started with troubled adolescents in their late 30s and now your mail carrier is working on one.

This great awakening of American letters will naturally lead to the extinction of therapists. You sit down and write 50,000 words about your childhood and you no longer need to sit in a dim room with a box of Kleenex and a kind woman who says, "And how did that make you feel?" And so it goes: one man's prosperity is another man's obsolescence.

Giraffes are gentle creatures who, scientists tell us, travel loosely in groups but without clear leadership and communicate with each other by humming. In this respect, they resemble Congress, which itself faces extinction. They are ungainly, communicate by twittering, have no sense of direction and no lack of self-confidence.

The giraffes are waiting for a lion to come along and de-mast the mastodon and meanwhile you have the buzzing and chirring of the media.

Mere insects, and yet hard-shelled and able to survive extreme heat and cold, and many are the mastodons whom the media have feasted on. The grasshopper who gets in the elephant's ear and drives him mad so that he runs off the precipice. It's a good story and it's happening again.

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Keillor is the host of "A Prairie Home Companion."