Saturday, December 15, 2012



I was just about to write to you about something, and now I can't remember what it was. I suppose I'm supposed to write to you about the latest tragedy on the news, but I find I'm out of step, once again, with the national zeitgeist, because I really have very little to say about it. Other horrors horrify me far more.

Oh, I did want to tell you about going to see Prairie Home Companion. I still don't know if you even like the show, but you must know of it, and going to see it live was a bit of an adventure. I told you a bit about the journey itself last week, when Chris and I first drove up to my mother's house and I saw all those hawks on the way. The next day dawned very foggy, and we proceeded in the fog to New York City, by bus. I'd intended to be all productive, but instead I slept most of the way. We took the train on the way back, again through the fog, a far more glamorous mode of travel. In the middle was the adventure.

My parents both grew up in New York, and I went there often when I was small, when my grandmother was alive, and oftener still when she was newly not alive and my mother was cleaning out the apartment. My father and I, not needed, I guess, explored the city together. We went to the Natural History Museum and bought soft pretzels from street vendors and ate them with mustard and we rode the subway. My Dad always got on the first car so he could stand and look out the front door window and I looked out the window, too. I suppose that basic curiosity, the desire to look out windows for fun, I must have had it naturally--I was four, after all--but my Dad showed me it wasn't just a kid thing, it was a human thing, to get a kick out of looking out of windows, of wanting to know. And I still do--I only just found out this week that apparently most adults don't care about looking out the windows on the subway, since both Chris and my mother thought it was strange that I wanted to. Mom reminisced fondly about my Dad's strange habit, her memory apparently triggered by my interest in windows. So apparently grown-ups aren't supposed to do these things, and I did not get the memo until this week. It's ok; I ignore this type of memo. I'm thirty-five, which is old enough to decide what type of grown-up I want to be. So I looked out the window, searching the dark for abandoned ghost stations (I saw one!) and I ate one soft pretzel with mustard and shared it with my husband.

One thing I know most grown-ups don't do is cover their ears against loud noises. I noticed that when I was twelve or so, grown-ups don't cover their ears against thunder. I saw no reason to stop, so I didn't. Thunder is loud. It hurts the ears and I do not like getting hurt. I don't like loud noises generally--train crossings, fireworks, of these days I'm going to get smart and remember to bring earplugs with me when I go to concerts, maybe even movies. School bells made me nuts, oppressed my heart, drilled into my skull. And the subways this time in New York...the subway noises never bothered me before, but this time the noise triggered a major anxiety state, not just the decibel level but its jangly discordance and too many people going every which way down alien tunnels and the knowledge that if I lost hold of my Chris or my mother I would be lost just as surely as I would have been when I was four. Except when I was four I did not expect myself to know where I was going and I did not think I could get lost.

And then there was Vivaldi.

Last week, I mean, in the subway, level upon level of echoing, grinding, screeching confusion and there was this strange sound slicing across it, slicing through at right angles to the other waves of sound, the dips and spikes of interference and I almost could not see it was so awful and it turned out to be this woman playing violin. She was tall and thin and swayed while she worked, her body echoing her music's grace. It's not that I don't like violin; I actually love violin music, the sound of the instrument, though I rarely listen deliberately because classical music does not hold my attention. But this woman was bowing right into my ear is the problem, playing fast and frantic and I could not get away fast enough. A man in another corridor played drums on upside down plastic buckets with skill but without arms and nobody looked at him twice, too polite or too jaded I could not tell and then onto another platform and the trains came screeching again. An unseen musician playing Silent Night  on a musical saw finally brought me some kind of peace.

Out above ground we saw Ground Zero, which I am not going to write about now, but waiting in the line to get onto the site I could see the new tower rising, a genuinely beautiful, deservedly iconic building I'd seen before only on television and there it was, a square becoming an octagon becoming a square again, the way things change as they go along, and it rose into the sky beyond the clouds and I could not see the top of it. A building to honor the dead cloud-snagged like a mountain.

New York is not my country. I do not feel comfortable there, I do not really enjoy my visits, which are therefore rare. But I can see why my mother likes it, its gritty, human reality of it, its glamor and complexity and energy, the street vendors and buskers like lianas on the great trucks of economy, a human upon human rainforest diversity greened by plane trees and ailanthus and the young white oaks of Ground Zero and a pigeon in Battery Park looked up at me in sudden surprise that I'd noticed it. It took two steps back and thought about me and I held its eye and thought about you.

Garrison Keilor likes New York City. It is a cultured and fascinating place for him and he describes the place as he sees it, a home of sorts for him, for part of him, while the other part still live on the prairie, he makes himself a conduits between these two lives, these two world, makes himself the contrasting dot on each half of the Yin Yang symbol every week, his stories now and then rising to the stature of secular homilies.

Watching the show was less of a big deal than I thought it would be; it was very much like listening to the show like normal, which is to say pretty darn good. Have you listened to it? You know those stringed notes and the introductory "from Minnesota Public Radio," that opens like a sonic curtain on the song that starts the show? You can hear that sitting in the audience, with those opening strings the show goes live and you get the thrill of knowing that if you yelled real loud your voice would go out to the nation.

Keilor is tall and awkward-looking and he wears red shoes always (or at least always when hosting the show). He is also an irrepressible flirt, which you can hear over the radio. What you cannot hear is that he stands too close to his female guests, stooping over them, invading their space, or at least he did so last week. The women slowly backed up and he advanced, the pair moving gradually across the stage as they spoke and he can't possibly know we can see him doing that, that we notice? Maybe he doesn't notice, and who is going to tell him? But never mind, this, his sonorous voice, has emerged from the dark of radio more often than not every week for all the weeks since that week in my childhood when we came across the show by accident while driving to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant and my Dad and I let my mother go hungry until the show was over because we wouldn't get out of the car. I had forgotten that, and the story makes me want to buy my mother dinner in recompense, though she has come to love the show, too, this voice, this storyteller, who links time and space, the one thing that does not change as we go along.

And this week, today, back in my living room eating Chinese take-out with my sweetie and the half-decorated Yule tree, I hear the opening strings and the sound is a conduit, an auditory passageway through the blind night and I know at that at the theater in New York the show has gone live and all across the nation millions of people are united in single experience and right now the man in the red shoes smiles awkwardly and sings;

Ah, hear that old piano
comin' down the avenue
I smell the spruce trees
I look around for you
my sweet, sweet old someone
comin' through that door.
It's Saturday, the band in playin'
Honey could we ask for more?

No, at the moment we couldn't.

--best, at ever,


  1. The musical saw player you heard in the subway was probably Natalia Paruz (a.k.a. the 'Saw Lady') This is her:
    And she also played on Prairie Home Companion twice :) See this photo of Keilor and Natalia

    1. Thanks for those links! That's so cool to know a bit of the backstory behind what I heard, and how interesting that she was also on PHC.