American gratitude

We bellyache, we kvetch, we get our undies in a bunch. But we still have so much to give thanks for.

Published November 23, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Family, friends, good health (knock on wood), lots to be thankful for, including this $1.59 Rollerball pen and its flowing cursive line that makes me feel as elegant as Michel de Montaigne. Gratitude makes sense for an American. We occupy a bountiful country of great civility (yes, really) and robustness and freedom, and if not the No. 1 Country in the World, nonetheless it has some great stuff, including Lake Superior, the Supreme Court, the Greatest Show on Earth, the Four Tops ("Baby, I Need Your Loving") and the World's Largest Ball of Twine Ever Rolled by One Man (12 feet in diameter) in Darwin, Minn. Cawker City, Kan,, claims a bigger one, but it's more oblong and was done by committee.

Truly we should be thankful. And we do try to be. But the English language is so rich in terms of complaint and insult and groaning and rather sparse in the Exaltation Dept., so the Lord doesn't get praised as He should. Instead, we bellyache, we kvetch, we get our undies in a bunch. After all, we're descended from people who considered rejoicing to be bad luck: It tempts fate. So they grumbled about the weather, politicians, children, popular music, new cars, anything modern, and complained about their health year after year until they died and went to heaven, where no doubt they are a little edgy even now -- nice place, paradise -- a little surprised at who else is here, harrumph, harrumph, but never mind -- plenty of bliss, no tears and so forth -- not sure how long it can last, but we shall see.

As for me, I am grateful for the functional. In our home, we are going through a series of malfunctioning coffeemakers that sputter and vomit quarts of hot brown sediment on the kitchen counter and floor, and that makes me grateful for things like this pen, which really is a pleasure. Or Google, which can bring up 2.3 million references in .03 seconds, none of which sheds light on the subject, but they distract you so that instead of writing about "The Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot, you get interested in dental hygiene. I'm glad for the E-ticket, which frees us from standing in line at the airline counter so that we can swiftly go stand in line at the security check. And for the chat room, which frees everyone from inhibitions so that we can find out how much we'd rather not know about other people.

And let us all be thankful for the newspaper, a truly useful object. The press is the watchdog of a free society, and while TV reporters are styling their hair and practicing winsome facial expressions, newspaper reporters are on the phone, knocking on doors, doing the work, holding power accountable. And you read their work and absorb something from it, or not, and then you spread the newspaper out on the floor and it absorbs paint drips, or you pack it in a box around fragile objects, or you roll it up and swat cockroaches, or stuff it into cracks to keep the wind out, or stuff it under the kindling and light the fire -- one simple thing with six distinct uses. Or you can recycle it and it will transcend into cardboard. You can't do that with images on a screen.

These days I am grateful beyond words for a swimming teacher, Alyssa, who is a functional person of a very high order. Twice a week, she takes my sandy-haired, gap-tooth daughter in tow and puts her through her paces. Alyssa is young, blond, brimming with confidence, with broad shoulders and a car horn voice. She hollers, "Kickickickickickkick" and "GOGOGOGOGOGOGOGO" and the little girl puts her head down and swims for all she's worth. A few months ago, she was timid in the water, like me, and now she is a fish, all thanks to her wonderful teacher, a taskmaster with a sense of humor, who is in the pool with her pupils, unlike the Schwimmfuehrer of my youth who strode alongside the pool and showered us with contempt and ridicule. Alyssa's gift is enormous to us. My daughter gets a taste of discipline and success and this makes me very happy. So much that is dismal and destructive in the world, but for me, the joy of a 7-year-old girl putting on her swim goggles almost makes up for it. Thanks be to God for the teachers of the world.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)


By Garrison Keillor

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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