Garrison Keillor: We need more church suppers and small talk

Life is good if you have your health and not all bad even if you don’t, which is sometimes forgotten in an election year, what with the high-pitched oratory on behalf of the embittered rich and people with ingrown toenails and what not. Apparently we are on the verge of losing our Second Amendment rights and will need to defend ourselves with tent stakes and bug spray. So I’ve heard people say.

I had an uncle, a farmer, who suffered from chronic hemorrhoids but he knew a druggist who sold an ointment made from opium and wormwood and it worked like a charm. The druggist was Catholic and we were born-again so there was moral compromise involved but when Uncle Gene was in need, he eased himself into his 1947 Ford with his special doughnut cushion and drove to town and got the cure. An illegal drug sold by a man who sent money to buy golden shoelaces for the Pope, but what are you going to do? Gene was a farmer and the tractor seat was hard and there were bumps. This is the amiable America I grew up in. You didn’t blame your hemorrhoids on the party in power in Washington.

“There are things more important than being right,” Uncle Gene said once on his way home from the druggist. Think about that for a moment.

I loved the old America where children roamed the neighborhood unsupervised and you hitchhiked and got to meet strangers. You knew people’s jobs then. My Uncle Lawrence fixed cars. My dad was a carpenter; you watched him run the board through the circular saw and brace it against the joists and nail it into place – whackwhackwhackwhackwhack. Uncle Aldridge was a small-town doctor. I once watched him, at the supper table, extract a fishing lure from the eyebrow of a weeping boy while the rest of us sat and ate our meatloaf and string beans. Work was sociable; people watched you and commented. Now everybody is in media; maybe they’re in charge of platform resource imaging or program development. They work in cubicles; nobody knows what they do exactly.

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The old America endures, as long as baseball endures, or gardening, or joke-telling, or the state fair where people go to see pigs the size of Volkswagens and ride inside something like a salad spinner. It endures along with church suppers. They are dying out some places because the Myrtles and Gertrudes who were the brains of the church supper movement faded away, but the suppers survive in small towns, a cultural institution. If you were a Syrian refugee resettled in Grover’s Corners, you should come to church suppers. Buy a raffle ticket to win the outboard motor and sit down with a plate of beans and baked chicken, potato salad, a roll, a slab of pie, and learn the art of small talk.

“So how are you doing?”

“Not so bad. Can’t complain.”

“Drove by your house and your lawn is looking pretty good.”

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“Well, we’ve had enough rain, that’s for sure.”

“How is your daughter doing?”

“Well, we don’t hear much from her so she must be okay.”

You will find common decency here, the common crucial values which are about marriage, parenthood, friendship, work, faith and attitude. You’re surrounded by people who’ve known each other for fifty and sixty years, and decency dictates that they show you hospitality. This culture dates back to before we got so task-forced and committeed, fedback and workshopped to death, and any joyful impulse gets filtered through six layers of management until it dies a quiet death. It happened in the 1980s. We chose lifestyle over principle and you saw vineyards cropping up everywhere – even North Dakota has a Wine Country – where people who used to care about justice sit around appreciating the bouquet of gardenias and brook trout and the long finish with overtones of particle board. Old people who are on OxyContin for their arthritis toss back a flagon of Riesling and a plate of Brie, and I’m sorry but this is not good for intelligence, and so here we are in the present dilemma.

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Style is not what keeps us going. We survive by virtue of people extending themselves, welcoming the young, showing sympathy for the suffering, taking pleasure in each other’s good fortune. We are here for a brief time. We would like our stay to mean something. Do the right thing. Travel light. Be sweet.

Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality. His column is distributed by The Washington Post News Service.