The robins and finches are singing here on the frozen tundra and the crocuses are popping up, yellow and purple bunches among the winter crud, and the heart is struck by one dumb idea after another, such as the urge to open a bookstore.
"Wholly to be a fool while spring is in the world, my blood approves," wrote E.E. Cummings, and what could be more foolish than the book business? To go mano a monstero with Amazon and Wal-Mart, much as one might attack a rhinoceros with an umbrella. On the other hand, a rhinoceros with an umbrella might be a pushover.
And then I got the idea to open a breakfast cafe where a lady in a little black dress stands in the crook of a piano and sings love songs at 8 a.m. My daughter-in-law would run it, so it could legally be called Breakfast at Tiffany's. People come in for two eggs over easy on hash browns and they hear the grand old songs of Gershwin and Berlin and Kern, which are associated with saloons, but love has less to do with martinis at wee hours than with coffee and breakfast. This most certainly is true. He may be Mr. Smooth at night, but does he wake up as Vlad the Impaler? You should find out.
However, knowledge does not predict behavior. Smart people can do dumb things. They can fall in love with vampires. Some cardiologists are chain-smokers. Einstein unlocked the secrets of the universe, but he ran his sailboat up on a sandbar. I have met nutritionists with Ph.D.s who confessed that while driving alone late at night in strange cities and seeing the giant yellow arches, have pulled in, ordered the double cheeseburger with bacon and the super-size fries, and parked in the shadows and slid down low in the seat and eaten the whole bucket of slops. Theologians have cashed in their pensions and flown off to Rio with Amber the cocktail waitress.
In time, one wearies of foolishness, but not soon enough. I look at crowded bars on Saturday night as a form of hell. I see the high school girls getting plastered at the prom and vomiting their little hearts out in the parking lot and think, "No more for me, thank you very much." But there is always some fresh foolishness to try.
Here in the Midwest, we're brought up to act older and to be solemn little children, and serious young people. Many of us don't indulge in extravagances (vacations, impractical cars, haircuts that cost more than $10) until our late thirties and early forties. Having been middle-aged for most of the first half of our life, we start thinking about maybe sowing some of the wild oats we've kept in the granary. Of course, it's hard to be wholly foolish knowing as much Scripture as we do, but sometimes in a particularly warm spring, we achieve a breakthrough and trade in the van on a red MG convertible, have our hair bleached and our foreheads Botoxed, take dancing lessons, buy the powder-blue tuxedo, look at beachfront property on Antigua, and switch from beer to Campari. Our friends are embarrassed for us. We disappear for six months and return, chastened, and take a back pew in church.
The Christian religion, let me point out, is no guarantee against foolishness. In the church that I go to, which is one of those old-fashioned churches where we sing out of hymnals, not off PowerPoint screens, and the minister doesn't have much hair and we don't hold our arms up in the air (we could but it would make it harder to sing from the hymnal), people seem to have about as many problems as they have over at First Atheist. We set out to love our neighbor and the next thing we're running off with her in the red MG.
I have found the adage "Step on a crack and break your mother's back" very useful as a guide in life. It has helped generations of kids imagine that acts have consequences beyond what we can imagine. Without meaning to, you might cause the old lady to suddenly fall to the floor, writhing in pain. Who knows how it happens? It just does. So if you stay off the pavement and walk only on grass or bare dirt, you are likely to stay out of trouble. Try it for 30 days and see if I'm not right.
- Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country, including KPR (FM 91.5) in Lawrence.