The cold truth

What actually keeps us going is being able to look around and think, "If someone else can do it, maybe I can too."

Published January 4, 2006 11:00AM (EST)

I began the new year as a sick man in a rather small space. It was a good solid cold, the sort of cold I usually catch just before a vacation -- sore throat, stuffed head, racking cough -- and the space was a middle seat, row 10, on a flight from Newark, N.J., to Oslo, packed solid with Norwegians heading home.

You settle into a middle seat, your knees touching the seat in front, your arms snug between the armrests, like an egg in a carton, and you feel a twinge of panic. You think of small children trapped in caves, of Grandpa snug in his coffin. You think, I can't do this for six hours. No, no, no, no, no. And then you look at the people around you and you think, if they can do it, then I can, too. Their calm is calming to you, their stoicism cheers you up. We are a team back here in steerage, and for the sake of the team I will stick it out. And of course a sleeping pill helps. And an inflatable neck pillow. You doze off and awaken briefly east of Iceland, and then the wheels touch down in snowy Norway, a stand of pines slipping past in the pale morning light.

The Oslo airport is very bright and glassy. Even the cattle chute from plane to terminal has glass walls. A northern country appreciates light. And I am headed for a week's vacation in Tromso, 400 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, where there is no sunrise in January, only a pinkish twilight from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It's a good destination for a man who always gets sick on vacation. This is a form of Calvinism so deep-seated that it can shut down the immune system. The cold is the Calvinist's defense against the danger of pleasure. I've suffered wretched colds in Antigua, Barbados, Florida, Rome and Hawaii, so why not take a vacation in a place where you have every right to be sick?

The sky became murky as the plane flew north -- from Oslo to Tromso is like from Texas to Minnesota -- and we landed in darkness. A bus took us over the mountain and into the city, its lights glittering around the bay, a big coastal ferry moored at the dock, headlights streaming over the long arched bridge, and drove us along narrow streets lined with brightly lit shops, to the hotel, where I lay in bed for an hour, looking at the ceiling, trying to figure out my problem with vacations.

I would like to think that it's the obligation to have fun I find depressing. I dislike parties for the same reason: They're a conspiracy to be festive at a certain hour, and I don't know how to do that, any more than I can laugh on cue. New Year's Eve parties are the worst -- a celebration of the passage of time -- and the few I've attended were next to hellish, a lot of hard drinking by loud people in enclosed places. Vacations have the same insistent urgency about them: Play golf or die. And then, too, there is the fact that I enjoy my work.

I had dinner with Tove and Curt, two fellow Minnesotans who live in Tromso, and sat in jet-lagged stupor as they talked about the goodness of life here. I was dozing over my torsk, barely able to speak in whole sentences, and they happily told me about the mildness of the climate (thanks to the Gulf Stream that sweeps up the coast of Norway), the loveliness of northern nature, the fishing and moose hunting, the social welfare system, the excellent linguistics program at the university, and the fact that seasonal affective disorder is no worse here than in places with sunlight, and I trudged back to the hotel and slept and had an excellent dream.

I was sitting under an umbrella by an enormous swimming pool. My daughter was swimming laps, wearing a bright orange swim cap. My wife sat nearby, reading a novel and laughing out loud. I had a pad of paper on my lap and was working. This went on for some time. In the dream, I kept working and working and working, and there didn't seem to be an end to it. But all around me, under their own umbrellas, were other men working, and as long as they could do it, I figured I could do it, too.

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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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