The old America is fading

In spring one has hopes for the beloved country. But an old guy like me can't keep the doubt from creeping in

Published March 31, 2010 12:31AM (EDT)

It is spring glorious spring (da do ron ron ron da do ron ron) and our gallant president has rallied his fractious forces against wacko demagoguery, the crocuses are up, and birds are returning from the South, preferring to raise their children here in Minnesota where we pull our pants on one leg at a time and not all at once. Some people in Washington haven't managed to get their pants on in years.

Slowly, slowly, the simple fact dawns on the electorate that the Democrats have passed a moderate Republican healthcare reform. That's what it is. The frenzy on the right is pure fear of stepping out of line with the Republican politburo and getting shipped to Siberia. This lockstep mentality is rare in American history. Here is a grand old party frozen, suspended, mesmerized, in thrall to a gaggle of showboats and radio entertainers and small mobs of fist-shakers standing staunch for unreality, and no Republican elected official dares say, "Let us not be nuts." There will be books written about this in years to come, and they will not be kind to the likes of Rep. Boehner and Sen. McConnell.

Meanwhile, it is spring, and one has hopes for the beloved country, though an old guy like me has his doubts. We are in the midst of a deluge of literature that only gets deeper and wider. Back in the day, you glanced at a couple newspapers and a handful of magazines and that was it, your duty was done, you had the evening free to sit on the porch and jiggle the ice in your glass and talk slow sensible talk with the friends and neighbors. But now, if you dare open your computer and go online, you are swept away into a vortex of surf and whirled around and around and when you finally gather the will to click Disconnect, you find that hours have passed. Weeks, perhaps. And you can't remember a bit of it.

It's all minced together, the raving bloggers and the cat who does backflips and Flip Wilson, Woodrow Wilson, San Salvador, Salvador Dali, Dolly Parton, George Patton, Patti Smith, Smithfield hams, Knut Hamsun, Sonny Liston, Franz Liszt, Lester Flatt, the origin of pancakes, Kay Kyser and his College of Musical Knowledge, kaiser rolls, Roland Barthes, Bart Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, wind energy, G. Gordon Liddy, Little Richard, Richmond Virginia, gin, Ginger Rogers, Roger Miller, Miller Lite and Thomas Edison -- and all you get from the experience is a lot of iron filings on the magnet of your brain and a vague sensation of activity of some sort, you're not sure what.

It's remarkable that the American people manage to withstand this storm of data and get outdoors and rake up the leaves and cultivate around the rosebushes. Turn on your radio and there's a lot of yelling about Marxist socialism and We Need To Take Back Our Country, and yet the American people plant tulip bulbs and sluice off the driveway and haul the glass bottles to the recycling center. Some sanity persists.

But the old America is fading, and I mourn its passing. Children don't wander free and mess around in vacant lots the way we used to -- they're in daycare now or enrolled in programs, and one worries about a certain loss of verve and nerve among the young who've been under constant supervision for too long.

And the old hometown is no longer a town but has morphed into suburban anonymity, and it hurts me. My grandmother taught school there, my grandfather came in 1880 and served on the town board that brought in telephone service and paved the roads, but their community of mutual assistance is gone, gone, gone. I have old friends in their 80s who've lived in that town for 50 years -- good citizens, church people, passionate volunteers and solid Republicans -- and in a crisis, when their health took a bad turn, nobody noticed. Neighbors don't know each other; ambulances come and go and nobody comes by to ask what's going on. The community they thought they were part of simply doesn't exist anymore. If you fall by the wayside, you may as well be in the wilds of Alaska.

What you do, if your life goes to pieces, is call up a social worker and she will see that you get some sort of assistance. So don't bad-mouth government programs. Unless you have fabulously wealthy children, you're going to need the help.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)

© 2010 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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