The cure for nostalgia is to read history, and the cure for holiday sentimentality is to listen for twenty-five minutes to an old friend telling you in a deep mournful voice how desolate his life feels to him right now with the air full of sugar and spice and musical bonhomie and him stranded on an iceberg, feeling unloved, wanting to run away and start over somewhere else, and what did I think he should do?
I listened and tried to say validating things, but guys don't sit and brush each other's hair and talk about life late into the night as girls do; our hair is too short. And my friend is 54, which is an awkward age. And I guess I believe in small answers to these large questions. What should you do with your life? Uh, go to a movie. Get out of the house. Wear black underwear. Get offline. Get more exercise. Cut down on coffee. Get rid of the whimsical T-shirts. Grow a moustache. Get in your car and take a trip for no good reason and without permission. Just tell them you're going and go. It's cheaper than divorce.
The thought of getting in a car and driving west has saved me from many a despairing phone call. West from Minneapolis, you have your choice of Highway 7 through Clara City and Montevideo toward South Dakota, or Highway 212 through Olivia and Granite Falls, or Highway 12 through Litchfield and Willmar and Benson and Ortonville and across South Dakota through Mobridge and all the way to Miles City, Montana. Our family drove that way every summer back in the Fifties, before the interstates, on ribbons of asphalt lifting and falling gently over the plains toward our relatives in Idaho and Spokane.
My dad loved getting behind the wheel and hitting the road, and I loved to stand right behind him in those pre-seatbelt days and look at the road over his shoulder and imagine myself driving. Alone. Window rolled down. Radio playing. The whole deal.
These days I travel by air, in the realm of stale pretzels and unhappy flight attendants, and I'm nostalgic for the long car trip. I was driving a hybrid car last fall, trying it out and watching the Living Map on a screen in the middle of the dashboard. A small blue circle marked the car as it sped along the bright red highway or the blue interstate or the thin black line of Summit Avenue, past green blocks of parks and over the crinkly blue ribbon of Mississippi River. The Map turned as the car turned. I did a U-turn in a parking lot and the Map spun, the world revolved around my car. And me.
I was so happy about the hybrid, I drove out to Milan, watching the little blue circle advance on the Living Map. This was not the Milan north of Florence, this was the one (pronounced MY-lan) east of the Minnesota River in Chippewa County, and on the way out there and back, I pondered my own troubles which, to be honest with you, don't require that long a trip. Especially not after seeing Julian Schnabel's beautiful movie, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about a young French journalist who suffers a massive stroke and writes his memoirs by blinking his left eye for each letter of each word as a woman recites the alphabet. The movie makes you feel that a two-hour drive across snowy western Minnesota is a vast luxury, which indeed it is.
I turned the hybrid in I don't need anything that fancy, with the little driving I do but I hope to take a long trip in one someday with my family and start out from Minnesota early one morning, the smell of coffee and bacon in the air, and head down the Mississippi to Memphis and east through the Smoky Mountains into Virginia, or west through South Dakota to Wyoming and the Rockies to Durango and the Grand Canyon and Los Angeles.
And I want that Living Map on the dash. No more spooky feelings driving at 1 a.m. as if you're in a noir movie and Richard Widmark might rise in the backseat and put a snub-nosed revolver to your noggin. You're not in a movie, you're on a map. You're at a precise point and if you turn here and go there, you'll be at that point. This may also be applicable in real life.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country).