'You Americans are such optimists'

 Garrison Keillor

By Garrison Keillor

Published Nov. 1, 2018

The Nobel-Prize

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter's school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ's explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

I love being old among young people. With old people, you learn too much about orthopedics and the lamentations are repetitive. Young people are sort of charmed to be around someone in his mid-70s (me). They wonder what it's like. (A vast improvement over middle age.) They try to think of questions about the Sixties, like "Did you know Bob Dylan?" No, but I know people who knew him and he still owes them money.

I love their eagerness. It takes my mind off my own perverse sense that the happier you are, the more likely it is that something awful is about to happen. I've had this since I was young, perhaps a result of an evangelical upbringing.

Rich famous people die stupidly of drug overdoses because their handlers didn't dare say, "Stop that." Tycoons feel invincible and put their faith in nostrums and perish from curable diseases. Buddy Holly got in a plane with a young pilot who, awed by celebrity, didn't dare say, "I'm not comfortable about flying by instrument in this snowstorm" and so he misread his instrument panel and flew the plane into the ground.

A tall man has a longer way to fall; a happy man has more to lose.

I'm a lucky man, which makes me wary. I went to Mayo for the annual digital prostate exam and expected the doctor to say, "You have a brain tumor and it's wrapped around the left anterior cerebral axis where language is stored." I say, "How can you tell I have a brain tumor when you've got your hand up my — " and he says, "Guess." So I go in for the operation and wake up and it's all gone — gone! — heebie-jeebies, hobo, humbug, hobnob, goombah, moolah, doodad, diddly-squat, my entire vocabulary — all I can do is point or nod or shake my fist — I went in an author and I come out mute.

Except it doesn't happen.

I'm okay. But still I drive with such caution I become a traffic hazard. I step into the shower gingerly, recalling men my age who slipped on wet tile and crunched a vertebra and began a long journey through chiropractic and holistic humming and the application of warm organic compresses and finally orthopedic surgery, and now a steady diet of Vicodin.

So I count my blessings. I married well. I am sitting pretty. And thus far, it is possible to make coffee, put bread in the toaster, and open the newspaper without a password that includes at least one numeral and one capital letter.

The spirit of America is enterprise, and young people have it. I visited two of them on Sunday, 30-year-olds, a writer and his wife, a photographer, who decided to leave New York City and move to a little town three hours north. The cost of living in the city is such that they'd have to give up their dreams and go to work as assistant executive vice presidents in charge of execution, and so they bought a rundown little house on two acres of wooded land and are busy repairing and painting. She's an elegant woman I'm used to seeing in slim black dresses and there she was in Carhartts, yanking off rotted siding with a hammer.

It was a joy to be with them, to absorb some of their enthusiasm, the boldness of their big move, the talk about starting a family.

And me? I'm embarking on a new career as a playwright. A big adventure. Who knows where it leads? Maybe nowhere. I met a man a month ago who sailed his 18-foot sailboat across the Atlantic to Norway, the land of his ancestors, and a Norwegian stood on the dock in Oslo and looked down at the boat and said, "You Americans are such optimists." I hope we are. The alternative is living with nameless dread. I'd rather get out on the floor and dance.


Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.