The best part of Christmas is just before it starts, when all the preparations are done or it's too late to worry about them, and after you run a vacuum around the living room you can sit down and close your eyes and let old Christmases come winging back from the Olden Days of Yore, before credit cards, when parents were cautious about lavishing money on children for fear of spoiling them rotten.
Money does not grow on trees, as we know. You were permitted to wish, but you weren't encouraged to expect success. You hoped for a pair of six-guns and a copy of "The Royal Road to Romance" by Richard Halliburton, and you got a green plaid flannel shirt and a New Testament.
Men didn't venture into the kitchen then. The women whipped up the monumental dinner as a choir sang on the radio, and they reminisced about their childhoods in the big white frame house on Longfellow Avenue, and they tasted the food. Meanwhile, my dad and uncles lounged in the living room and discussed cars. They had grown up with the Model T and so were well-grounded in mechanics. As a matter of pride, they got under the hood and changed spark plugs and fan belts and adjusted the carburetor. It took a keen eye, but they had always bought excellent used cars - bought them for a song - and they knew men who had walked into a showroom and paid a bucket of money for a pile of headaches. My father's loyalty to Ford was steadfast, so between him and the Dodge and Pontiac uncles there was always food for discussion. And talking about cars segued into pleasant memories of car trips to New York and Florida and the West Coast.
For Christmas one year I was given a toy garage, the Acme Car Garage, with an island of gas pumps and a rooftop parking ramp with a hand-cranked elevator to take the cars up and down. There was a hoist, too, for grease jobs, but no grease. I also got a printing press with movable rubber type, and that was so much more fulfilling. You could print official notices (This Room Off-Limits Until Further Notice) and letterheads (G.E. Keillor, Esq.) and even a short story of 50 words or so ("The Mysterious Interloper"). And so the twig was bent, and I abandoned auto mechanics for the pleasure of tinkering with sentences. It all happened one Christmas.
My father may have been disappointed. It wasn't anything we talked about. My father didn't go in for sweeping statements, especially not about people. So I went to college, where nobody knew about cars except that they needed one that worked. I was of the '60s generation that hung on in college so as to avoid the draft and not go to Vietnam. We weren't intellectuals, not really, but we pretended to be, out of self-preservation, and mastered the jargon and plodded through graduate school, and we became the overeducated generation. A lot of us who would have been happier as mechanics went into management. With auto mechanics, there is such a thing as competence. With management? I don't think so.
The men who gather in the living room on Christmas this year don't have the easy common language that my uncles had. In Minnesota, you have the weather for conversation, but that's only good for an hour or so. Sports is not the common ground it used to be; nobody has the time to be a fan and develop the expertise that makes arguments possible. There's politics, of course, but that's a topic for pontificating and harrumphing, which isn't the same as conversation. We can compare laptops and cell phones and iPods, I guess, but that's really about money, which is not a fit topic. To talk about our children is rather delicate, comparisons are inevitable, and if your child is in advanced kindergarten, the French-immersion one, and mine is still figuring out shapes and colors, it can be painful. Theology is treacherous ground, and we don't discuss sex, and around Christmas we try to avoid vicious gossip, so what's left? Cars. But you can't fix cars yourself anymore unless you've been to car college, and the loyalties aren't so strong as my dad's feelings for Fords.
So we gaze out the window and we say things like, "I was reading a column in the paper today about men not having a common language anymore." Oh, really. Who wrote that? "I forget." Oh. End of discussion.
- Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country, including KANU (FM 91.5) in Lawrence.