A walk on the ice

With a little dose of courage and grandeur, who needs therapy?

By Garrison Keillor

Published December 7, 2005 11:00AM (EST)

Call me Hrothgar the Savage, but when I look at men's fashions in magazines, the models all sullen and sensitive and obviously spending much too much time on their hair, wearing sweaters made from Persian cat fur woven with feathers of snowy owls, yours for $1,495, I feel a strong urge to put on a parka and insulated pants and walk out onto a frozen lake and cut a hole in the ice and fish.

I felt the urge rather strongly the other morning as I drove along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, which was frozen over, while listening to a man talk on the radio about a book he'd written in which he explored his feelings about his father, whom he'd never felt close to. I said to him, "Oh, get over it." The ice is a good place for a man to go rather than waste time writing books about not knowing your father.

In other parts of the country, you can climb to the top of a mountain and look around. Here, we walk out on the ice.

You could be living in south Minneapolis, in a neighborhood of comfortable homes with DSL and HBO and nearby shops selling latte and cranberry scones, but if you walk a few blocks to Lake Calhoun and stride out onto the ice, suddenly you are in Tolstoy's "War and Peace," waiting for Natasha and Prince Andrei to come lickety-split through the birch forest in the sleigh. The moment you leave shore, you are gripped by a sense of grandeur.

This is all thanks to your mother, who warned you 11,000 times to stay off the ice lest you fall through, warnings that now serve to heighten the drama, which is further heightened by the fact that every year a few men, seeking a leadership role for themselves, drive their snowmobiles onto lakes before the ice is thick enough and drown, a Darwinian moment indeed. The water is cold and the laws of physics apply to us all. But a man must do what a man must do. It's in our circuitry. Little boys of sensitive, caring parents take the dolls that they've been given and rip the legs off and use them for pistols. It's just how they're wired.

A man needs grandeur in his life, more than calcium or vitamin E, so we can get loose of tedious regimentation and blather and b.s. and escape from Gravity Week when Americans are reminded not to slip and fall, and we can march to a different drummer, one who leads us out onto the ice.

Think of grandeur as an alternative to therapy. Hercules did. He had gone mad and done terrible things, as we all do from time to time, and he purified himself by performing heroic labors such as killing the nine-headed hydra and capturing Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates of Hades, and in this way he regained his health, and so may we, if we are brave.

In therapy, you complain about your dad not being available for you emotionally and you do it until you get tired of it and then you quit. It is whiny by nature. When you seek grandeur, you put your dad behind you and you get away from women and their endless questions (Why are you so quiet? What's wrong? What do you mean, "nothing's wrong"? What are you thinking? Why don't we ever talk? Are you listening to me? Do you think I'm too fat?) and you go off to do heroic deeds, such as write your autobiography, or drive to California, or build a cabin, or walk out on the ice.

I once led a group of winter visitors from California and North Carolina and Texas out onto White Bear Lake north of St. Paul. They had never done such a thing before. They stepped onto the ice gingerly, as if it might disintegrate under them, and walked out a hundred yards from shore, stopped, and looked around. It was a cold bright day and they trembled in the grandeur of the moment. They were speechless. They looked at me with tears in their eyes. Their noses were running. They wanted to tell me what a transforming experience this was for them, but it was indescribable, and anyway they knew I understood. We stayed as long as we needed to and then went back to the car. You don't have to go to Katmandu to experience transcendence. It's right here in Minnesota.

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

© 2005 By Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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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