Speaking to our contradictions

Part of me wants to crack down on speeders and cellphone users but I also long for the freedom of the open highway

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Speaking to our contradictions

It’s good to hear that the FCC is back in business, thinking about the Internet and wireless telecommunications and not so much about assessing huge fines to broadcasters who say “poop” on the air. The new chairman, Julius Genachowski, is a 46-year-old venture capitalist who is more interested in technological advances and bringing high-speed access to all Americans, and so the world moves on. Thank you, sir. How a guy so young came to be named Julius is a question for another time.

Cellphones are more crucial than cracking down on vulgarity, as I found out last week when mine went missing, a small black object the size of a box of Sen-Sen, and when I found it in the washing machine I said several vulgar things. It had drowned. I pressed # and * and ghi and mno — nothing — out of commission for an hour while I trucked on down to the cellphone store.

Here’s how crucial cellphones are. In Minnesota it’s illegal to text-message while driving — trying to type on a tiny keypad at 70 mph is crazy (“On my way. Be there in 20 minu — O NO NO NO aiiieeeeeeeee”) — but it’s legal to make calls while driving, which in my case means removing my glasses so I can see to scroll down the directory while steering with my knees at 70 mph. I call up my mother while driving, which is exciting for her since she is 94 and remembers when phones were attached to the wall and you talked on them while standing still. “Is that safe?” she says.

No, it’s not, but neither is life itself. Animal fats, ultraviolet rays, unknown persons trying to get you to carry things aboard an aircraft, Argentine women trying to lure you down to Buenos Aires — it’s a minefield out there.

My hero Barry Halper died in his white convertible on Highway 12 east of St. Paul in the spring of 1961 when he was 20. He was excited to start a new job as a newsman at a radio station and crashed into the rear end of a school bus. He was a tall swanky guy who loved comedy and radio. Had he not died, I might’ve become a high school English teacher, but I seem to have adopted his ambition instead. And so it goes.



Back then, the highway meant freedom. We were crazy about cars and wary of the cops who lay in wait for us. I loved to go visit my aunts in Isle, Minn., one reason being the perfectly straight stretch of Highway 47 from Ogilvie to Isle through scrub pine forest on which I kept my ’56 Ford coupe at 100 mph (pre-seat belt, mind you) for 20 miles. It was a lawless stretch of road, houses few and far between. I considered the hazard of some old man in a pickup truck pulling onto the road and our two lives merging but drove fast anyway, and when I got to Isle, I resumed being a nice Christian boy with good manners.

There is a little legislator inside me that wants to crack down on speeders and cellphone users and there is also a teenager looking for open highway. Not so unusual. We want contradictory things. A person can love Columbus Avenue and also the Chief Joseph Highway over the Beartooth Pass down into Cody, Wyo. It’s a big country. A person can love opera and leave the Met walking on air, and yet k.d. lang singing “Crying” is opera too, and a kid with a beat-up guitar who gets hold of “Key to the Highway” can tear at your heart like nobody’s business.

So we should tread lightly, be smart, listen to the opposition. They are speaking to our own contradictions. The censors have their day and then we move on. All that noise that Judge Sotomayor listened to so patiently about the danger of empathy — respect it for what it is, a gentle pushback, and then move her into her new chambers. And then take up health insurance. We have an expensive, inefficient, treacherous, Kafkaesque system that is a drag on business and preys on the vulnerable, but something in us is leery of reform, the opposition clusters like a flock of ravens on the highway shouting “No,” and we should slow down a little, and then they will fly up in a cloud and we’ll go on.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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