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We went to Newport for three days last week, two Minnesotans long married, to rediscover the fact that ocean air is delicious and invigorating and can even make you happy. That surely is why the Vanderbilts built their monstrous mansion on the shore: sinking into decadence in a fake palace with more marble than Arlington Cemetery, nonetheless they could take a deep breath and feel childlike pleasure. So could their servants. So did we, crossing the beautiful bridges over the bays to Aquidneck Island, seeing the Atlantic, thinking “Oh wow” and “Oh my god.” The world is in turmoil, but walking along the shore and inhaling salt air lets you remember how good it felt to be twelve years old.

I’d keep our dashboard lady but have her be lesbian, hard-core conservative, and very sarcastic, to make car trips more fun.

It’s a fine old town. You come and eat oysters and cod, text videos of the surf to your inland friends, and drive around and get your fill of colonial homes in dark greens and browns, many of them turned into boutique hotels. It’s here that I appreciate having a car with an electronic lady in the dashboard to give us directions. You simply press a button and say, “Cliff Walk,” and she says, “In six hundred feet, turn left on Narragansett Avenue and drive one-half mile.” Her vocal inflexion is very good; she sounds like an educated American woman in her mid-forties who knows her way around. And you drive down Narragansett and there, past Salve Regina College, is the ocean with Cliff Walk above it and you walk along the cliff and you can look across the vast green lawn to the marble pile where the Vanderbilts sank their ill-gotten gains, which is open for tourists to wander through and see how grim boughten grandeur can be.

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Back in Minneapolis where streets are numbered, avenues alphabetical, Mrs. Dashboard is not so crucial, but in Newport there was no urban planning until it was too late, and you drive through a jumble of streets, Gidley, Ann, Brewer, Dennison, Young, Howard, Pope, so forty years ago, one spouse drove and the other read the road map, and right here is where many marriages came to a screeching end, the Mr. cursing the traffic and the Mrs. yelling, “I said to turn left two streets back!” and the big map blocked his view and he crashed into a parked car and he went back to Minnesota and she went to her sister’s in New Rochelle and lawyers were called. The dashboard lady makes everything simple and pleasant.

Someday she will become a close personal friend. She’ll know you from your car conversations and keep track of your family members near and far, their Facebook posts, names of children, birthdays, occupations, politics. She’ll be able to carry on a conversation with you while being aware of passengers in the car and what can and cannot be said in front of them. Our dashboard person is a lady but you’ll be able to choose a gender, male, femme, neutral, trans, or anything you can think of. I’d keep our dashboard lady but have her be lesbian, hard-core conservative, and very sarcastic, to make car trips more fun. Ask her for directions and she tells you to go stick your head in the toilet.

An old man appreciates modern technology. At Grandma’s farm when I was little, the phone was on the wall, you cranked it to get an operator, sometimes you had to wait for someone else to finish talking. It was the size of a breadbox. Now my sweetie and I walk around with tiny wireless phones that enable us to go our separate ways without making elaborate plans for when and where to meet up. She walks four miles along the cliff, inhaling the air, and I sit and write postcards and eat a scoop of caramel cookie dough ice cream.


I also come to Newport to celebrate my ancestor Elder John Crandall who settled here with Roger Williams in the 1640s, a virtuous ancestor who didn’t live off the labor of others or build a big ugly stone house. Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn were also descendants of his. They have no connection to the Vanderbilts. And then there is the ocean air. How many times in the past week have you said, “Oh wow”? My sweetie and I are up to twenty, heading for fifty or more, a wowful week indeed.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions