Surfing the interwebs for thoughts and reflections on Garrison Keillor’s departure from “A Prairie Home Companion,” I was struck by the number of times writers, amid notes of praise and affection for the man, added a qualifying line to the effect, “there were years, though, when I never listened to the show.”
Prior to last weekend’s farewell performance at The Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles (which is not exactly the Mower County Fairgrounds), I recognized the obligation to say something. It’s what you’re supposed to do. A grand cultural figure like Keillor exits his most familiar stage and standard operating procedure requires everyone following the media for the media to hit the same deadline — in advance of the final curtain — and then leave the review of that performance for the next news cycle … before dropping the topic entirely for the next.
Not being a fan of the herd mentality in general, and believing that someone like Keillor, a demonstrably talented and thoughtful human being (as opposed to the pop heartthrob/marketing contrivance du jour), deserved at least another 24 hours of attention, I let that first deadline slide. Another reason was that I was never a devoted fan of the show, and other than catching snippets off other people’s radios, hadn’t listened to an entire episode in years.
Media columnists have, I think, a special obligation to resist the usual decorum and protocols. (Because the people in the media we cover are supposed to resist herdish thinking and behaviors, and frequently don’t.) But I also didn’t feel like playing the sour note amid the cheering for a guy who — over a genuinely remarkable span of time and work — deserved every hosanna of approbation he was getting.
Also, I didn’t know exactly what to say. (And that, to paraphrase mom and dad, is always a good time to say nothing at all.) Eventually, though, as the long, lovely holiday weekend rolled on, and I recalled some of my personal interactions with Keillor, I settled on the view that admiring and appreciating Keillor and not being a fanboy of “A Prairie Home Companion” were entirely compatible responses, and, as Robert Lloyd wrote in a particularly good piece for The Los Angeles Times, “I have had my own ups and downs with ‘Prairie,’ but I have come to feel they were generally of my own making, a reflection of my own temper at the time rather than the quality of the thing itself, which is generally high. I was aware of the product before the show, of the stacked paperbacks and cassette tapes that somehow seemed to occupy every sight line in the brick-and-mortar bookshops of yore. My reflexive first impulse, based on the packaging and the placement, was to distrust it as straightforward, cinnamon-scented sentimentality, like a year-round Christmas store.”
While I worked for a daily newspaper back in the ’90s, Keillor and I were on generally good professional terms, and had a couple entirely friendly meetups: a lunch at the St. Paul Grill with a steady flow of greeters stopping by the table; another I remember over breakfast in Miami, during Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky troubles.
Having been publicly scolded for his own relationship troubles, Keillor expressed a certain level of sympathy for Clinton’s perjury. I laughed as Keillor made a passable, first-draft defense of guys lying about sex or while “simply trying to get laid.” There’s a basic, reptilian biology at work here, folks. The species practically depends upon it.
Somewhere along the line, I, like other reporters, found myself removed from his “will accept calls from” list. It may have been the column I wrote about my personal disinterest in “Prairie Home”’s folksy, nostalgic, rocking-with-grandma-and-grandpa-on-the-porch music. (I had enough of that as a kid to get me well past retirement.) Or it might have been the one where I suggested that rather than letting everyone see you all peeved and sweaty about something some local gossip columnist said about you, the wiser tack would be to regularly remind yourself that, “I’m Garrison Keillor, they’re not,” and let the little stinging droplets of envy slide off you, like a mallard’s back in a Wobegon slough.
Or maybe it was something else. I have no idea. Whatever it was, I saw no reason to take it personally. I was one of the gnats. He was Garrison Keillor. A great friendship was unlikely to bloom. Moreover, I have special admiration for people who become celebrities based on the time and effort they devote to their own distinctive craft. To my way of thinking, such people have earned the right — the dispensation — to guard their time and privacy in ways that violate those standard rules of protocol and decorum. Put another way, good on them for not wasting time on the rubes.
Basically, though, as I rolled my recollections and assessments of Keillor and his craft back and forth, the definitive judgment — not that he should care — should be based on the quantity of quality work a person produces. An occasional, thoughtful, satirical novel or essay is well and good. But once you get into the dozens-to-hundreds of such works that Keillor has produced over the years, you’re talking something of significant, broad value, albeit maybe not something your average 18- to 34-year-old appreciates as much as you or your elderly aunt. (Like others I read last week, I’ve been much more a fan of Keillor’s essays than “PHC.”)
The example Keillor sets — and to which he often alludes in those “Writer’s Almanac” spots he does — is not only to “do good work,” but do it regularly and often. Use your limited time to full advantage. Keep applying grace to nature.
Very few around these parts in our lifetime have achieved that goal as well as Keillor, and so for that I too say, “Thank you, sir.” And, “Here’s to your continued good health and prosperity.”