My time is short and so is yours, so why not tell the truth: A person can get along very well in life without one bit of the mathematics and physics they rammed into our brains in high school. Fifty years later, and there hasn’t been a single moment when I’ve thought, “Oh if only I could remember higher algebra!”
No, it isn’t smarts, it’s personal charm that propels you forward in this world and I, who grew up on the windswept godforsaken plains, know this for a fact. We Midwesterners have a charm deficit from day one and never catch up. Southerners have it in spades and many big city people and Texans and Unitarian women and Hispanic folks and black church ladies and hospital nurses and Jewish mothers, of course, but we prairie dogs are solemn and cold and people do not gravitate toward us and I, having been brought up fundamentalist, am a colder fish than most. That’s what drove me into the radio business.
And I admit that I have often hired musical performers for my radio show (heard weekly by more than 400 people) because those performers were pleasant and smiled and were Fun To Be With. I used to hire brilliant troubled artists, but I don’t anymore. They are a pain in the wazoo and usually more troubled than brilliant, and what’s the point?
A terrific smile will take you a long way in this world. If Barack Obama had grown up fundamentalist in Minnesota, he would not be the Leader of the Free World; he’d be reading the news on an AM station in St. Cloud right now and doing commercials for fertilizer and used-car lots.
I was brought up imagining that cream rises to the top, merit wins out, the race is to the swift and riches to men of understanding, but it ain’t necessarily so. The swift stand a better chance if they are also beautiful.
Someone in Massahoosetts wrote to me saying they want to give me an award for something and I wrote back, saying that I am unworthy, etcetera, which, as you know, is true. Awards should go to those who have suffered for their art and not to one who has had a whale of a good time. But then I thought, “What if they don’t insist? What if they say, ‘OK, you are right, we made a mistake there. Sorry.’” I might never receive an award again.
So I tore up the declining letter and said Thank You instead.
Awards are notoriously unfair and some of the best people go unrecognized and some of the deadliest and dopiest get one Lucite trophy after another, but awards are major jujus in the world you and I live in. In the writing trade, if you win a Pullet Surprise, this is the Heisman Trophy, Get Out Of Jail Free card and Magic Twanger all rolled into one, and though it’s awarded by a roomful of large enchiladas at Columbia University in New York, and The Upper West Side Prize would be a more accurate brand name, nonetheless it has juju power all across the land. People bow low and tug on their forelocks when a Surprise winner walks into the room. Dogs are silenced. Fresh flowers are strewn. Maidens offer themselves.
This is how the world works. The lonely striver with bad hair and serious overbite who is scratching out her thoughts in the Omaha Public Library is facing a wall of sheer granite a thousand feet high and luckily for her she doesn’t know it now but someday she will and my heart goes out to her.
This Massahoosetts award should go to her, I guess, but it’s not mine to give, only to receive, and it is blessed to receive an award though my upbringing tells me that probably the day after the award ceremony I will be struck by a speeding bike and get a broken leg that will need replacement, knee and hip, with titanium joints and I will never polka so gallantly as I do now, but if fate dictates, who am I to protest?
If your kid flunked out of school, don’t worry about it. Teach him to love his life. Teach her to do good work and not expect recognition. Not smart? No problem. Be useful. That may be better for humanity than to be brilliant and troubled. And it wouldn’t hurt you to smile more. Just do it. Thank you.
— Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.