When I was a kid looking up at a movie screen, I could read the text faster than it scrolled up from the bottom of the screen -- "Once upon a time, in a land faraway, in a beautiful castle in the forest" -- and I took this to mean that I was smart. It came as a huge relief to be smart, since dumb kids were scorned and teased, and to demonstrate my smartness, I learned facts from the World Almanac and I developed prowess as a speller. By the time I was 10, I had won the label of Brain. This was easier back then: If you wore glasses and were self-absorbed, they took it as brilliance. Nowadays I might be labeled autistic.
Labels tend to stick. You could get a wind-up chicken for your birthday and make the mistake of enjoying it and Christmas brings a chicken that does back flips and one that dances the funky chicken and the year after that, you get 10 more. Your home takes on a theme and when you die, the obituary reads "Chicken Man Succumbs at 82." You did many things in your life, but oddity is trump so you're the Chicken Man.
This is nothing you or I would wish for, but we know that the world wants to place us in a box. One more good reason to travel -- to walk away from that pinchback suit of an identity and become a mysterious fellow in dark glasses walking in Montmartre, the world of Renoir and Manet, and who would ever guess you are not a philosopher but a car dealer and your face is on billboards back in Butte: "See Crazy Don for Unbelievable Deals!"
Familiarity breeds contempt, so a guy would like to be astonishing now and then by, say, casually tossing together a lobster souffle for his family -- you! A well-known cheeseburger connoisseur, whipping up a sauce at high heat, tossing in some cognac for a burst of blue flame (voilà!) and pouring a 1988 white Bordeaux -- you, a well-known cheapskate! Sacre bleu! Once in the driveway, I shot a basket backward, over my shoulder, without looking, and hit a swisher, which my uncle Don saw and it astounded him. Exactly what I'd hoped for: not to be easily summed up in a word, but to embody contradictions.
The label of Liberal has been pleasant to carry, though, especially after it came into disrepute. We are well-meaning souls invited to stand up at ceremonial occasions and talk about the value of education until the audience is desperate to leave. We are the deliberate drivers who turn other motorists into raging psychopaths. Right-wingers calling us godless traitors made us suddenly sexy, which we hadn't been before.
Last week a radio man tosses out a string of racist epithets, insulting a team that had just lost its big game, thereby escaping the lead jacket of respectability. In today's market, it's better to be a goon.
The Current Occupant, trying to escape the dreaded term Moderate Republican, has done violence to the Constitution and flown in the face of reality. He invades a country and allows neocon ideologues to play at colonialism until the country has descended into chaos and thereby costs the lives of young Americans who had other plans than to be blown up in a war whose purpose now is forgotten. And then he wraps himself in Old Glory and dares you to say otherwise. We are now three-quarters of the way through the Attention Deficit Administration and who knows what dark surprises remain?
After you pass 60, there is one label remaining and that is Distinguished, which is a big joke, of course, coming at a time when you keep losing your car keys and glasses and forgetting the word for the thing with a wheel that you carry dirt in, but it is pleasant: to think that late in life your sins and misjudgments may be forgiven. Young people are deferential and ask you easy questions and listen to your long-winded irrelevant answers. Old people clutch at your lapel, teary-eyed, and murmur things that you, almost deaf now, cannot hear.
I don't think the Occupant plans on being Distinguished anytime soon. I think he'll stay at the ranch and wait for the revisionists. In 30 years, a few historians will come along to say that he was better than a lot of people thought. For our sake, I sure hope they're right.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.