Saturday, July 23, 2016

Garrison Keillor's last Chicago Show

The Show Must Go On

    Garrison Keillor has tried retiring before, but it's different this time.  He's picked out his successor, Chris Thile, a MacArthur genius award-winning mandolin player, who will steer Prairie Home Companion (PHC) in the direction of less talk/more music.  There's nothing wrong with that mix now, but Garrison's talk is irreplaceable. When Chris was asked if he might rescind his retirement decision again, Chris laughed and said "unlikely."

    For good reason.  On June 3rd, Garrison had a brain seizure after doing two back-to-back concerts in Virginia.  After an an MRI at the Mayo clinic, he issued a press release saying the brain scan showed a dark area near, but not in, the language area of his brain.  And that he intended to finish his last tour anyway.

    What do you take from that, you with experience decrypting medical bulletins from family and friends?  Reassurance? A note of defiance?  No and Yes for me.
Chuck and Kathy, 2016

    Early February, when my friends Chuck and Kathy had invited me to visit them and go to Garrison's last live Chicago performance, was a high point of this electoral season.  The three of us are ardent Sanders supporters, and expected him to do well in New Hampshire. And the previous week, when Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump, the NY Daily News had published its famed "I'm with Stupid" front page, with the photo of Palin and Trump pointing to each other approvingly.  But by June, Don had vanquished his Republican rivals, and the Hillary machine had amassed enough delegates to secure the Democratic nomination.  As Yeats said, and Garrison read, when he selected The Second Coming as the poem on on his Writer's Almanac podcast: The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.  In my febrile imagination, Garrison's saw his last tour as a chance to rally the blue state tribe.

The Lewis Family Home Companion

    My first impulse was to tell Chuck and Kathy no thanks.  I'm teaching a summer session Computer Science class at SFSU, and needed to spend that weekend writing lesson plans.  In other words, I'm a grind.  But I ended up saying yes, thinking that Jean would have liked the idea of closing the circle.

    In August 2007, Jean accompanied her mom Sylvia on a PHC cruise to Norway.  Sylvia, then 86, purchased two tickets well in advance, hoping to persuade her boyfriend Ben, a trombonist whom she'd met at a jam, to use the other. But after Ben died suddenly of a heart attack that April, Sylvia started losing her bearings.  She did remember her tickets however, and asked Jean to go in Ben's place.  Jean wanted her mom to have one more adventure, and she'd been a PHC fan herself since her college days U. of M. Fortunately, on their very first day on the ship, they met Chuck and Kathy.

    By that time, Sylvia was incontinent.  Chuck and Kathy saw the situation, and stepped in to help without being asked.  Sylvia also needed constant attention to prevent her from wandering off, and her new friends would keep an eye on her so Jean could dash off on lightening tours at Norwegian ports of call.

    At this point in the story, Garrison might step in and dead-pan something like "it was a struggle, but they kept Sylvia clean and dry."  And they did.  And mother and daughter also performed an accordion/flute duet in the cruise talent show, exchanging a few words with Garrison himself during the festivities.  Sylvia confused was still a commanding presence, and on the flight back to Detroit she decided they were disaster victims, and demanded that Jean lodge a complaint with the Red Cross about their cramped facilities.  Jean calmed her down, and got her home safely to Ann Arbor.

    Our own favorite PHC show gave us a shorthand for saying we're deeply married, "burying the pigs."  It was 2001, summer was ending, and Jean and I were walking on the beach at Alameda at sunset, holding hands, listening over headphones.  That April Jean had a miscarriage, convincing us to end three years of escalating fertility treatments that started with hormone injections and culminated in fetal implants.  The very next week, my manager handed me a cardboard box and said to clear out my cubicle. In May 2000, I'd left BofA, where I'd been a software engineer for fifteen years, looking forward to a job doing more actual computer programming.  By August 2001 I'd been unemployed 4 months, no interviews scheduled, and my child support payments were higher than my unemployment benefits.  Instead of bearing our own child, Jean was supporting two we never saw, and me.

    The Lake Woebegone monologue was about a rural couple who plough their savings into a pig farm.  Things go well, until an infection sweeps through the drove, killing all the pigs.  What would they do?  Plenty, in the fullness of time, but something was required immediately.  They didn't blame each other for the stupid mess they were in, they just worked together digging a burial trench.

The Show

    The show was actually in Highland Park, a verdant suburb 25 miles north of Chicago, at the Ravinia Pavilion, June 11.  At the entrance, gulping the hot coffee not allowed inside, I noticed a t-shirt promoting the Ricky Byrdsong Race against Hate. Asked, and learned that Ricky had been an African-American basketball coach at Northwestern, gunned down in 1999 by a neo-Nazi on a killing spree that also netted him an Asian-American and an orthodox Jew.  The shirt seemed to resonate with the political moment, although my memory could be clouded by the Orlando massacre, which happened about 10 hours later.

    Garrison wore an off-white suit and a red tie.  His tall frame is a little bowed,
Before the Broadcast
hair graying, face aged, and when he sits down between the segments when he must stand to speak and sing into the mike, he does so slowly and carefully.  The backdrop of the stage was decorated with signs for "sponsors" familiar to PHC listeners: Powdermilk Biscuits, the American Duct Tape Council, Café Boeuf. Before the broadcast began, he and guest star Heather Masse (she of the Wailin' Jennys) strolled from the stage down the center aisle and out into the surrounding park, where people listened to the show over loudspeakers.  They sang a medley of patriotic songs, including America the Beautiful and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  When they came back in we all stood for The Star Spangled Banner.

    The show proper began with his tribute song/monologue to the Windy City, cued by notes on sheets of 8 1/2 × 11 paper that he let fall to the floor as he finished them.  The tribute is a series of swift images and maxims that portray a "blue collar city."  Don't wear a tie or ask for artisan beer.  Architecture is the
Heather and Garrison
natives' favorite art form.  "Sign saying 'get a new life through bankruptcy'." "Women in pink hair and pink slippers."  Sign for St. Helen's: "'What's missing in CH _ _ CH?  UR!'"  Corner grocery store selling pickled eggs and fresh baked rye bread, the cashier so busy arguing in a "foreign tongue" with another woman, who could be her mom, that she waves aside Garrison's attempt to pay for a small item.

    It's been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone … where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.  Unlike the tribute song, Garrison does his famous monologue entirely without notes, pacing back and forth across the stage, head down, often turning his back to the audience.  Like a boy squirming to justify his misadventures to a skeptical but convincible authority figure, coming to the point cautiously.

    Being June, the theme was graduation.  Back in the day, graduates were not congratulated, they were interrogated about summer jobs, and picking potatoes and laying asphalt were two correct answers. At the 2008 Lake W. High graduation, a teacher gave a speech in a storm, holding an umbrella over his head, "knowing he should stop but not being able to."  "They remember that graduation, but not a single word he said … an important lesson there for intellectuals."  At a recent ceremony, Lake W. High featured a speaker from Garrison's class, who lives in Florida, plays golf, and runs half marathons.  He looked old and fragile, which Garrison attributed to excessive physical activity — all the exercise you really need you can get just by sitting at a desk and writing.  But even the contemplative life wears you out eventually, and he read a limerick about the inevitable end game:

    Old age is a treacherous bridge.
    It comes to the poor and the rich.
    You get up in the night
    and then on comes the light
    and you find that you pissed in the fridge.
    Heather sang In a Sentimental Mood, which we were, and Chris performed a song called Da Da Da, celebrating emerging life in the guise of his one-year-old son Calvin, and Calvin's expressive single-word vocabulary.  Garrison announced the intermission, "time to see a man about a dog," and Heather, Chris, and Richard Dworksy sang Stars and Stripes Forever while the audience stirred to take care of business.

    There was more graduation irony in the second hour.  Garrison read a poem written from the perspective of unabashedly relieved parents: … No more church youth groups, amen/ and we'll never watch field hockey every again … .  Heather sang a parody of Dark as a Dungeon, the famous Merle Travis number about life in the coal mines.  Instead of Come all you young fellers so young and so fine/and seek not your fortune in a dark dreary mine, the second line in the PHC version is Get you a job doing something online. Picking potatoes and laying asphalt are not necessarily virtuous acts nowadays.
    At the end, Garrison noted that he had performed at Ravinia every year since 2004, and was happy to be here one last time.  The audience brought him back for an encore, and Garrison, just 73, joined in singing the Beatles' She was just Seventeen, and then took a final bow with Goodnight, Irene.

Chuck, Kathy, Marilyn, Matt
Marilyn was on the Norway cruise when
Jean met Chuck and Kathy
     We walked back to our cars, stopping briefly for group photos.  Chuck noted there had been no Guy Noir, Private Eye routine; no Dusty and Lefty, cowboys on the open range range. And the Lake Woebegone monologue had not been saved for the second hour.  Obviously all part of a gentle exit strategy.  Garrison's sign-off on his Writer's Almanac podcasts is "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."  Garrison the same in his next phase.


    Stuart Dybek is from Chicago, but his poem The Windy City is not explicitly about his hometown. Is it?  I read it as an eulogy to the passing of youth, which ties in with Garrison's graduation them.  Which ties in with retirement.  Anyway, as Garrison might say, it's a really good poem.

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