October is a month for intellectual clarity. Try to keep that in mind. Cold is a stimulant, heat a depressant. The chilly month of October is when the Reformation began. Our guys in Germany were walking around enjoying the fall colors and the beer and the madchens and they thought, "Hey, why am I paying money to the church to scoot me into heaven? Nuts to that." A big step for mankind, and it led to public education, the free press and rationalism, which led to the telephone, the Internet and aviation, which was what took me to Missoula, Mont., last week.
It's a beautiful descent in a 737, into the Bitterroot Valley, following the Clark Fork River, along the Bison Range, on a perfect golden autumn day, under a high blue sky, and I hiked around town, the air sweet and dry, and was sort of overwhelmed by the perfection of it -- the old courthouse, the train depot, Mount Jubilee and Mount Sentinel rising up, the neon bars, the funky festivity of a college town -- and I imagined living there and finding contentment and writing a book about trout fishing and becoming a wise old beloved figure who is found in a booth at the Oxford Cafe at 6:15 every morning offering Western bons mots over the bran flakes instead of a cantankerous old man, which is what I am.
Twice in my life I have lived in rural paradises like Montana and I learned that contentment only goes so far and what I thrive on is irritation and dread. You need the city for that. 1) A guy walks down the avenue with his baseball cap backward on his head and you want to shake him until his contacts fall out. He is in his early 30s but still thinks of himself as an 8-year-old. He is Narcissus in sneakers. 2) People who, instead of saying, "That is so cool," say, "How cool is that?" A way of expressing enthusiasm without sounding enthusiastic. How dumb is that? 3) The man in the airport who is yelling to himself like an escaped lunatic and then I notice the dangly cellphone hanging off him. 4) Shrieky women in restaurants. You sit down and look at the menu and suddenly you're in a National Geographic special about orangutans, but it's not, it's just Girlfriends' Night Out, and they've had their first glass of merlot and gotten nice and loosened up and every 30 seconds there is an outburst of screeching. The alpha female shrieks and then they all do. 5) When I say "Thank you" to a younger person and he says, "No problem." That's a brushoff, not an acknowledgement. He is supposed to smile and say, "You're welcome." Or he could say, "It was my pleasure." A thank-you should not be brushed away like a housefly. You could be lying unconscious on the floor, your arms and legs twitching uncontrollably, and a paramedic puts the paddles on your chest (Stand back!!) and saves your life and you say, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, a thousand thank-yous," and he says, "No problem." How inappropriate is that?
Five vexations. There are others. Pick up a newspaper and read about Congress and you will find yourself yelling at walls and terrifying the cat. Last week, Congress moved to suspend habeas corpus, one thing that distinguishes a civil society from a police state. Reaction was muted.
Then the Party of Family Values was revealed to have protected a sexual predator in its midst until finally a reporter asked some pointed questions and the honorable gentleman resigned and ran off to recovery camp: This level of hypocrisy takes a person's breath away. You thought that Abramoff, Norquist, Reed & DeLay had established new lows, but the elevator is still descending.
The power of righteous vexation is what keeps so many old Democrats hanging on in nursing homes long past the time they should have kicked off. Ancient crones from FDR's time are still walking the halls, kept alive by anger at what has been done to our country. Old conservationists, feminists, grizzled veterans of the civil rights era fight off melanoma, emphysema, Montezuma, thanks to the miracle drug of anger. Slackers and cynics abound, not to mention nihilists in golf pants and utter idiots. Time to clean some clocks. As Frost might have written, "The woods are lovely, dark and thick. But I have many butts to kick and some to poke and just one stick."
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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.