The real American dream

In spring, a person's thoughts turn toward what you would rather be doing than earning a living, and in this country that means Being An Artist.

Published March 25, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Spring is a time when we are one nation. In a few weeks, the South will head toward its air-conditioned caves and a cold summer chill will fall on San Francisco, but in spring and fall we are one people, more unum than pluribus, stepping gracefully to the music of photosynthesis, and not even a sour economy can change that, so Viva sweet spring. I say this as the father of a sandy-haired gap-toothed daughter who jumps up from breakfast to dance the shimmy. With so much pre-adolescence going on around you, it's hard to be glum.

Here in Minnesota, spring doesn't arrive for good until Mother's Day and the opening of walleye season, when men and their mothers go fishing and sit around the campfire afterward and pass the whiskey bottle and she talks about her years traveling with the tent show before she met their father, all the wonderful men she knew, ducktailed men with big tattoos on their chests who drove fast cars and carried rolls of 50s and weren't afraid to spend, which is a shock, to hear about Mother's wild roving years, but everyone did have them, so get over it. And the urge to rove wildly does strike people at this time of year. I, for example, am tempted to bleach my hair and change my name to Lauren L'Etranger though probably I will not.

In spring, a person's thoughts naturally turn toward what you would rather be doing than earning a living, and in America this usually means Being An Artist. This is the true American dream. Winning the lottery is a faint hope, becoming a sports hero is a daydream, but publishing poetry is the ambition of one-third of the American people and another third are thinking about writing a memoir.

And you thought you were the only one! Ha! You are part of a vast tide. One reason the economy is so sour is that nobody wants to tote barges or lift bales, they want to be edgy and multilayered and express their anguish in some colorful and inexplicable way. Your dental hygienist is a poet ("Into the ravenous maw flecked with food and decked with plaque, I descend, pick in hand"), and this does not make for better dental care. People who feel they have a Higher Calling may feel justified in slacking off on the Lower Calling even though it is the one that pays the light bill. Your mailman comes sweeping up the walk on the tips of his toes, arms extended, twirls, and hands you an invitation to his dance recital. Also a handful of your neighbor's mail. You attend the recital and it is not bad. Men and women barefoot in leotards tossing brown parcels back and forth and running from dogs and afterward you must go backstage and tell them how good it was.

That is the challenge when people you know become artists. They want to know what you think, and you have to frame compliments that are enthusiastic without sounding stupid. "I loved what you did" is good, and, "There was so much life in it." If you can't think of anything, just look stunned and shake your head and say, "Wow." Don't go for big phrases like "magical realism" or "pediatric apotheosis." Don't nibble their earlobes. Just tell them you loved it and help yourself to the cheese and crackers.

I took my mother fishing last year and discovered she'd been in the Johnson & Swanson Circus. She did backflips on a tightrope and swallowed flaming torches and exhaled a stream of flame 10 feet long. Recently we found a photograph of her in spangly tights, a hibiscus in her hair, standing blindfolded on the trunk of an elephant with a lit cigarette in her mouth which a swarthy man in a gypsy outfit is about to shoot out of her mouth with a pistol aimed over his left shoulder using a small mirror with a mother-of-pearl handle. We had no idea that she ever smoked. Mother is 93 and the picture is from 1934. She says she didn't inhale and that the man was firing blanks, but we wonder, "Was she happy, having given up that wild life of show business for a life of cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing? Did we cheat Mother of the springtime of youth?" I suppose we did, and if she wants to say so in a poem, welcome to the club.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of a new Lake Wobegon novel, "Liberty," published by Viking.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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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