I walked the length of the westbound Lake Shore Limited as it left Albany last Sunday, six crowded coaches, and counted three Twitterers and a couple of phone texters, six laptoppers (two of whom were watching movies), four video gamers, and 27 people reading books. Books made of paper! Turning the pages with their fingers one by one, reading the lines left to right, just as people have done for hundreds of years. Ain't that something?
I didn't lean down for a close look at the books they were reading -- I was not brought up to do that -- so perhaps bodices were being ripped and stalkers were stalking and meteorites were heading straight for Earth, but no matter. Books were being read!
Along with live theater, monogamy and the bald eagle, the paper book has been despaired over and its demise freely predicted, and yet, among people heading west, it seems to be the diversion of choice. So Dickens and Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor are not dead yet.
And the bald eagle is coming back, along with the gray wolf and the Yellowstone grizzly -- though less attractive endangered species such as the glassy-eyed smelt and the orangefoot pimpleback mussel and various arachnids are still in doubt -- and theater seems as alluring as ever, judging by the number of young New York waiters with large personalities. And as for monogamy, it's there, waiting to be rediscovered.
So let me speak up for an endangered menu item this Fourth of July weekend and that is homemade potato salad.
When the family meets this weekend to hobnob and burn burgers, the family member assigned to bring the potato salad is likely going to walk in with a couple of gallon plastic buckets of yellowish muck bought at a convenience store, the price stickers still on them, and set them down on the table with no apology whatsoever.
Or, if they have more disposable income, they'll bring paper containers full of brownish muck from the natural organic sustainable united empathetic co-op.
If you bring garbage to share with your family, the least you can do is tell a lie and say, "I couldn't make the potato salad myself because I am bipolar and my lover left me and my dog has leukemia and I have an oozing leprous sore on my mixing hand."
It is not that hard to make potato salad, people. Take half an hour away from your Facebook page and do the job right. Boil some eggs, chop the celery and chives and green onions, boil the potatoes, make your mayonnaise, maybe toss in a little sour cream, use plenty of dill, and sprinkle paprika on top. The eerie-yellow store-bought stuff in the tubs was manufactured at Amalgamated Salad in Houston by undocumented 12-year-olds from the hills of Michoacan. Worse, it is teaching our children that accomplishment doesn't matter.
A child served yellow slop from a bucket is being told that it's OK to plagiarize a term paper off the Internet just so long as it's poorly written.
What if Thomas Jefferson had been too busy hobnobbing to write the Declaration of Independence so he just downloaded a bunch of stuff he found Googling "independence" and coming up with stuff about indolence, pendants, incontinence, but hey, close enough, and he pasted it together and they all signed it and went out to a movie? Not good.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the potato salad that has connected them with another, they will do it, believe me, so why insult us? Just because we're polite, do you think we can't tell the difference? Are we demented? Does this not seem self-evident to you?
Attend to the details. Teach your children manners. Write cogent paragraphs. Drive carefully. And make a good potato salad, one with some crunch, maybe accompanied by a fried drumstick with crackly skin -- the humble potato and the stupid chicken, ennobled by diligent cooking -- and is this not the meaning of our beautiful country, to take what is common and enable it to become beautiful? All our beautiful young people -- so diligent and focused and powered by hope -- you can't tell me those kids didn't have parents who took time to chop the celery and onions and experiment with the ratio of mayo to mustard to achieve a potato salad that is worthy of our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)
© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.