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What It’s Like to Be Old

Photo by N Bandaru on Unsplash

I was back home in Minnesota last week, throwing away boxes of old manuscripts to spare my darling from having to deal with them after she plants me in the Home for the Happily Medicated. I saved the stuff thinking it might ferment, like wine, but it hasn’t, so out it goes. I look out the window at Loring Park where I used to walk when I was 17, on a break from my dishwashing job at the Evangeline Hotel, my first job out of high school. I was practicing smoking Pall Malls to prepare for a literary career. I’m 78 now and last week I had dinner with the man who hired me to do a radio show when I was in my 20s. Diligence and discipline are all well and good, but thank God for wild good luck.

It was a music show on Saturday nights. I grew up fundamentalist and we avoided rhythm for fear it would lead to dancing and copulation so we praised God in slow mournful voices, like a fishing village whose men had been lost in a storm. We never learned to play a musical instrument for fear we might have talent and this would lead to employment in places where people drink liquor.

I grew up fundamentalist and we avoided rhythm for fear it would lead to dancing and copulation so we praised God in slow mournful voices

When the radio show started, my lack of musical ability determined that I’d be the emcee. My musician friends didn’t want to do it: they were proud of their ability to play tunes with intricate fingering at impossible tempos. So I became the guy who walks downstage and says hello to the audience and tells the joke about the man and his wife who die in a car crash and they go to heaven and it’s stunningly beautiful and he says, “If you hadn’t made me stop smoking we could’ve gotten here when we were young enough to enjoy it.” And so, for lack of talent, I was made boss and had job security for 40 years. My bio, in less than 25 words.

This was back in the Era of Agitation, when people were opposing the draft and picketing Honeywell to protest weapons manufacture, and women were fighting to be ordained and gays were fighting for gaiety. I’m over that now. Now I’m in love with ordinary American life.

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I love looking at runners, each with his or her individual gait. The Fitness Era started after the Agitation. I hated phy-ed, thought running was boring, but I admire it as a democratic movement, people of all ages, many colors and ethnicities and creeds, some listening to Bach, some to punk, but feeling a common bond and all smelling bad. Each with an individual style and all feel warmly toward each other.

I love public happiness such as our State Fair, a place for gluttony and violent centrifugal experiences in contraptions operated by tattooed men who might have done prison time for larceny, a time to see giant Percherons and designer chickens with topknots and anklets and pumpkins the size of studio apartments.

I love the prospect of sitting in the right field bleachers, a sunny day, the outfielders shifting for each batter. I wait for a great play, a diving catch, a home run stolen, a double off the wall and the fielder pegs it to the cutoff man who catches the batter trying to make it a triple. Three or four great plays in a game, each one memorable.

The other day, I ordered lunch online and I learned I could track the delivery on my laptop, following the red car icon as it heads north on Lyndale to our apartment building. Somehow the technology that put a man on the moon has been put to work to reassure me that food is on the way.


When I was young, I imagined that old people think a lot about death, but no, I’m thinking about a video I took with my cellphone. I’m old enough to remember phones on the wall with cranks you turned to get an operator. There was no video. This video on my phone is from the Fair, of my daughter laughing hysterically. We’re in a boat on the River Raft ride and she’s looking at me and my pants are wet. This is the meaning of my life right here, my girl screaming with delight. When I’m in the Home, bring me the phone, let me look at it again.

Garrison Keillor
Prairie Home Productions