A restless genius

It takes great nerve to sustain a career, and at the death of Merce Cunningham at age 90, we must stand in awe

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A restless genius

Last week, we got several perfect days in a row in St. Paul — fresh and sweet in the morning, afternoons balmy, and evenings you could sit outdoors until midnight and talk extravagantly about life as you did when you were 25. I have no idea what it was like in Minneapolis, but St. Paul was perfect, and so of course one felt the urge to get out of town.

Possessing the ideal makes a person nervous: You sense the inevitable decline just ahead. Better to leave early and get a head start. So I flew to San Francisco, where it was chilly, highs in the low 60s, damp, foggy, perfect sleeping weather. And I planned another trip to Scotland, my ancestral homeland, from which I get my wary and unforgiving nature and my excellent sense of doom.

All Midwesterners adore San Francisco, the city of Sam Spade and the waterfront, the basso complaints of the big ships, the trolleys rumbling along Market Street, the Mediterranean colors of buildings, the river of fog in the Golden Gate, and the beautiful hybrid faces of young people.

Back where I come from, we mostly look like we walked out of a 1958 Sears catalog, but here, everyone is in a minority, and sitting outside a coffee shop, I’m struck by the handsomeness of this passing girl with Asian eyes, Hispanic cheekbones, Creole skin. An old bum stops at my table and I give him two bucks. He may be the reincarnation of a Gold Rush tycoon, one of the many who rose suddenly to vast wealth, built a fabulous mansion on Nob Hill, and died young of something we now have a pill for. He moves along and a man in a suit and a tall dark-haired woman in Italian sunglasses pass each other, and he stops and turns, stunned by her beauty as she strides across Irving Street, gone from his life forever. You shouldn’t come to San Francisco unless you’re prepared to have your heart broken.

And when it is, you can go to Scotland, where brokenheartedness is a way of life. It is, after all, where golf was invented, a game that almost never fails to show us the worst aspect of ourselves, our raging anger and self-loathing even in the midst of pastoral splendor.

The socially redeeming aspect of golf lies in the vast number of lawyers and bankers and managers who play it, and when you think of the damage they would do if they were at the job instead, you can see why golf courses are a wise investment for any municipality. Even on the skinny peninsula that is San Francisco, there are beautiful green landscapes where people can go and suffer intensely.



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I don’t play golf. I don’t need to. I’m in the arts. We have all the opportunities for suffering that a person could possibly want. Great projects that one devotes years to turn out to be public humiliations, and the harebrained impromptu tossed off in an afternoon becomes a classic: This happens all the time. It takes great nerve to sustain a career, and at the death of Merce Cunningham at age 90, a person must stand in silent awe.

Here was a restless genius who remade the verb “choreograph” to venture beyond narrative and synchronicity and into realms of the abstract that defeated many an audience. He was worshipped in France, venerated in New York, and in Minnesota — well, we like the man and the woman to dance together, holding hands, transfixed by each other, not off doing random unrelated things.

Cunningham composed a dance
Like pedestrians caught in a trance
Which some people guessed
Was genius, and the rest
Left early when given the chance.

“You have to love dancing to stick to it,” he once said. “It gives you nothing back … nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Which is one more reason to leave the summer paradise of St. Paul and travel to the foggy places.

Travel is the art form available to Everyman. You sit in the coffee shop in a strange city and nobody knows who you are, or cares, and so you shed your checkered past and your motley credentials and you face the day unarmed, as the great Merce did. Bravery! Adventure! Defeat! Survival! And onward we go and some day in the distant future, we will stop and turn around in astonishment to see all the places we’ve been and the heroes we were.

(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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