Garrison Keillor

The secret of happiness

I don't know why flight attendants put a skinny plastic swizzle stick in your cup of coffee, but there it is, and the other day, I brought the coffee to my lips and stuck the stick way up into my nostril, which gives an odd sensation, pain and also shame of course and slight nausea like when a doctor snaked a probe with a tiny video camera into my nostril and down into my gullet and on the video monitor I saw red inflamed tissue all wet and twitching and some droopy things that might have been adenoids or the rudiments of gills, the creaturely innards of me that I do my best to ignore. I prefer the white shirt and herringbone jacket aspect of myself.

I got the swizzle out of my nose and the flight attendant leaned down and said, "I never saw anybody do that before." She didn't mean it as a compliment. And then the very next morning, a woman was striding past my house in St. Paul just in time to see me bend down for the morning paper and slip on the icy step and lurch forward and come crashing down on my right hip. It wasn't the most graceful fall and I might've liked another chance at it, but with music. She stopped. "Are you all right?" she said, as you're supposed to say. "Yes," I explained. "I'm just fine. Thank you."

And I am quite all right, thank you. The swizzle incident was due to inattention and the slippage too, and once winter gets going in Minnesota and we are done with autumn and all of that emotional turmoil of balmy days, the romantic longings, the quest for individual identity and so forth, and we get a good snowfall and can pick up our shovels and recover a sense of focus and purpose and balance, we won't be falling and sticking things up our noses anymore.

Some people among us imagine there will be more warm weather and so they have not raked their leaves. They are hoping God will grant one more 60-degree Saturday for leaf-raking purposes, but this is not going to happen. The rest of us are psyched up for that first big soul-stirring blizzard when we'll rise up like a chorus of Russian peasants coming onstage in Act II after the Princess has fainted for having been spurned by the young lieutenant at Count Androvsky's grand ball, and we'll sing, "With true hearts and strong, we go to the fields to harvest the beets. The bitter winds we endure only make us more grateful for the borscht with its dollop of sour cream which is all one needs to be happy."

Winter is what we were meant for and we welcome it. We thrive on adversity and that's just the truth. The snow shovel is the secret of happiness. We older guys who have moved into heart-attack country pick up the shovel, aware of the risks, and feel a gathering of the vital inner oomph for the challenge ahead, the sheer heroism of the thing, and we attack the snowdrifts like the hero of Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Snow" — what is life without adventure? Adventure brings out the best in you. Amiability. Kindness. And if you're lucky, sweet amour.

Meanwhile, those unraked leaves of slackers will freeze and form a hard crust and kill the grass. In the spring, they'll seed and lay sod but grass will never grow there again, due to powerful toxins created by unraked leaves, and as a result those homes will lose half their value and the nonrakers will go bankrupt. They will lie awake at night, thinking, "Why? Why did I not rake those leaves when my neighbors raked theirs?" It was the romanticism of autumn, the need to be unique and to march to your own drummer. Too late now. Those families will be forced to migrate south and pick cotton and live in shotgun shacks and eat biscuits and gravy with hubcaps for plates and be tormented by red-eyed evangelists and banjo-picking albinos and clouds of horseflies and cottonmouth snakes slithering into the bedroom at night.

We don't have poisonous snakes up north, not during winter, nor horseflies to trouble us, and so we focus on what is important. Preserving the Union. Husbandry. Gladness of heart. Snow shoveling. The sheer satisfaction of it. We're fine up north. It's you Southerners we're worried about.

© Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved.

The secret of happiness 11/21/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 23, 2008 8:20am]

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