If you look around you will not find much to bring cheer.
The president of the United States is an obvious criminal. If things go as it looks as if they will, the election next year will bring no relief because his opponent will be another obvious criminal. This is because our society is so enraptured with the cult of celebrity that it considers important questions of governance in the way less-insane societies look at athletic rivalries.
People who thought they could trust the LastPass password manager are discovering that no, they couldn’t. Not that it matters: Your car is almost certainly spying on you and the carmaker is selling your information to anyone who will pay for it. And I’m not talking about just travel information. Do you ever connect your phone to your car?
Elected officials, too ugly to be common street prostitutes, are plying the trade by providing other services to big spenders, meaning that no meaningful limits on the information that can be collected about you will ever be set. Hell, they make use of that information themselves in their endless quest for power.
A typhoon seems to be headed for Hokkaido, where it will destroy crops, bankrupt farmers, raise food prices, and endanger a close friend of mine.
When Joe “Bugout” Biden put together the sudden and unconscionable abandonment of Afghanistan, he made no provision to secure the huge quantity of American arms there, so now they’re in the hands of terrorists. (Maybe son Hunter is on the Taliban board of directors.)
The South American tin-pot despot posing as the Pope of Rome shows no evidence of being Catholic and now seems bent on destroying the Church, leaving 17 percent of the world’s population spiritually homeless. He proposes to replace the Church with communism. (And lest you think you have an alternative, you might take a look to see if your own denomination sold its soul to Donald Trump. Or Joe Biden.)
Reasons enough for me to be in a semi-permanent bad mood. But there is more:
An in-law of mine is struggling back from a sudden medical emergency so severe that for a time he was not expected to survive; in the midst of it all a hurricane hit. A close friend of mine, here from a small European country for his mother’s funeral and to settle much family business, has been beset by all kinds of roadblocks and woes. The person I’m closest to, who lives far away, has come down with an illness that so far has defied treatment that ought to have worked days ago, and lives in agony.
So, yes, I am in a very, very bad mood.
There was a time when respite was available, when for a couple of hours each week one could wipe his brow and smile. The restorative power of two hours of happiness is not to be underestimated.
I would get out of the Saturday afternoon vigil Mass, walk across the street to my car (which was old enough not to spy on me), and when I turned the key the car would start and from the radio’s speakers would come that week’s live broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion.”
I’d known about the show for decades but never listened to it until in late 1999 we were guests at supper each Saturday night at the barn where the show horse was kept. The owner’s wife and the chief stable hand were fans, so it would be turned on as we ate. It was wonderful and addictive. The content was varied but always satisfying and relaxing. There is great pleasure in hearing Lyle Lovett sing “If I Had a Boat” when you’re not expecting it.
After we had moved the horse and got instantly forgotten by our friends (am I alone in thinking that forgetting friends is poor form? It has become common, almost expected), I made a point of listening to “APHC” each week. I was seldom disappointed. (An exception was the February night in 2003 when, as I listened while driving in the truck, an owl smashed into the window and fell dead to the ground. The ancient Romans would have seen this as a very bad omen. The ancient Romans would have been right: it was the beginning of two hellish years.)
Each week there was “News from Lake Wobegone,” a wry series of stories told by the show’s host and writer, Garrison Keillor, about a fictional and lovable Minnesota town. My favorite was the one in which a young person there sought a religious home and tried out many churches. The description of what he found at each was affectionate, respectful, and hilarious. That’s not an easy tightrope to walk.
There was the time a guest sang a patter song that managed to make “scimitar” and “perimeter” rhyme, a bold move that remains unsurpassed in my experience.
There were the joke shows. It was here that I learned that the mark of a great joke is that you can retell it after having heard it once. An example:
A man walks into a bar and announces, “Drinks for everyone, on me.” Says the bartender, “You sound like you’re celebrating something.” Replies the man, “Yes, I finished a jigsaw puzzle in record time.” The bartender asks, “How long did it take?” The man says, “Just under a month.” “That doesn’t sound very fast to me,” says the bartender, to which the man replies, “I didn’t think so either, but the box said ‘2-4 years.’”
Always present were “Ole and Lena” jokes, which are unique to the Upper Midwest and are very funny. My favorite involved Ole having died. Friends gathered to comfort Lena, who had been with her husband when he died. Did he have any last words? they asked. “Ja. Don’t shoot.”
“APHC” was the best mood enhancer I knew.
Later, living in the Appalachian foothills, I came to know people who had appeared on the show. Some I knew well, others only a little. There was Jorma Kaukonen, of course, but also the great lap steel guitar player Cindy Cashdollar and the tremendous guitarist Pat Donohue. Their stature in my mind was enhanced. They had been through the looking glass. They had been on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
One of the most vivid colors, and the only known certain cure for a bad mood, was removed from the spectrum on July 1, 2016, when Keillor hosted his last show. (It wasn’t broadcast live but was aired the next day.) A pitiful husk of the show continued for a while, but it was the radio equivalent of “Mayberry R.F.D,” the Andy Griffith Show without Andy Griffith. Keillor did some political opinion writing — it was not a good fit — before he fell victim to the “Me, Too” fad. Minnesota Public Radio, an organization unknown before and since “A Prairie Home Companion,” cut ties with him. What was left of the show was renamed, but no one noticed because no one was listening, nor was it much noticed when “Live from Here,” then headquartered in New York instead of St. Paul, Minnesota, disappeared from the airwaves entirely in 2020.
But all is not lost. Keillor owns the name and the rights to all those shows, and many are available for streaming online. Not all of them; some of my favorites are missing, but the ones that remain are therapeutic. You would probably guess where they can be found, a website called prairiehome.org.
They aren’t topical, of course, as the original broadcasts were. No one listening at the time will ever forget Keillor, who couldn’t sing but thought he could, opening his November 27, 2004 show with a song. The Republicans, which unlike now stood for something, and had swept both houses of Congress and the presidency in that year’s election, and Keillor began the show with the song he had written, “We’re All Republicans Now.”
Listening to the old shows isn’t the same, but it’s as close as we’ll get.
And when you’re drowning, if it floats it will do.