Times have changed, and I know this because I have children, two of them, one born in the old days and one in modern times. One was born back before seat belts, when a child might ride standing up in the front seat next to Daddy as he drove 75 mph across North Dakota, and nobody said boo, though nowadays Daddy would do jail time for that and be condemned by all decent people. My younger child rides in a podlike car seat, belted in like a little test pilot. She likes it.
The older child grew up inhaling clouds of secondary smoke, and the younger one lives in a house in which nobody ever thinks about smoking, though sometimes a guest has lurked in the backyard like a convicted sex offender, and consumed a cigarette. The elder child was raised on hamburgers and hot dogs; ground meat was our friend; melted cheese made everything taste better. The younger one lives in the House of Organic Leaves, where beef is viewed with suspicion, as if it might contain heroin. The younger one's rearing was guided by a 10-foot shelf of books by psychologists. The older one was raised by pure chance.
I don't miss the old days. Well, actually I do, sometimes. I miss the jolliness. We had lovely illusions in the old days. We felt giddy and free in that speeding car. The cigarette was a token of our immortality. We chowed down on whatever tasted good. We thrived on ignorance. We all were a little jiggly around the waist and didn't worry about it. My in-laws were suburban Republicans who kicked off family dinners with hefty Manhattans, which eased the social strain considerably. After two, my father-in-law and I got almost chummy. He knew I was a Democrat and a heretic in suburbia; in the gentle mist of bourbon, it began to matter less and less. They won't tell you this at Hazelden, but alcohol can be a real mercy sometimes.
Now here we are in the age of too much information. The landscape lined with guardrails. Warnings on everything: "Do not touch when hot." "Sharp: may penetrate skin if pressed." "Open with an extreme sense of foreboding." Security men in fake uniforms stand in a stupor in every mall. A safety cap secures your shampoo bottle. Every week the use of some ordinary thing is found to have potentially horrible consequences.
I'm a parent and anxiety comes with the territory, but it gets to be a burden. Last week, on pure impulse, I drove to my office with my seat belt unfastened. I just did it. Just for the cheap thrill of it. I ignored the warning buzzer. It made me feel young again. I never told anyone this. You're the first.
I imagine going to the doctor one day, and he comes in with the X-rays, a shadow across his handsome features, and he says, "It's disseminated fibrillation of the fantoids. You have six months, maybe eight. There's nothing we can do except make you comfortable."
"Not a problem," I say. "I can make myself comfortable." I head for the nearest grocery and ask for a carton of Luckies. The lady is horrified. She hasn't sold those coffin nails in a coon's age. I walk home with the smokes under my arm and people see me and try to intervene. They hand me pamphlets. They recite the statistics. "Cancer schmancer," I say. "When your number's up, it's up." I light one and my entire nervous system jingles like it's Christmas.
I locate the martini glasses, which had been used for fingerpaints, and I chill them, and I shake up the gin and vermouth in a pitcher of ice, and put on a Sinatra CD, and word gets around. The neighbors come over. They've been slaves to the brutal schedule of their children's social, educational, spiritual, recreational and therapeutic activities, with scarcely a free moment for themselves. "How about it?" I say. "Lock the little buggers in the laundry room and let's party. If they get put into foster care, so be it." I pour us each a stiff drink and slap some beef on the grill, and we have ourselves a whee of a time.
I have myself a reasonably good time on a regular basis, but I haven't wheed in years. Please don't write to me about this. Don't tell me about yoga. I'm not about to go over the edge. I just like to look, that's all.
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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
(c) 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.