Every marriage has its ups and downs. There are the days when you look at your spouse and hear choirs humming hallelujahs, and there are the days when you wonder, “Who are you, and what is your stuff doing in my house?” Those are the days when you play golf. Fishing works, too, or writing sonnets or digging post holes. It keeps the two of you apart for a few hours, and usually that’s all you need.
I have an after-dinner speech about marriage that is about 15 minutes long and somewhat funny. (“The rules for marriage are the same as for a lifeboat. No sudden moves, don’t crowd the other person, and keep all disastrous thoughts to yourself.”) As a thrice-married guy, I feel an obligation to share such insights.
So I found myself in a cab to LaGuardia to catch a plane to Atlanta to give the speech. (I was in New York to speak at the Edith Wharton Society, but not about marriage, since she had a miserable one.) The cab stops at the tollbooth on the Triborough Bridge, and I hand the cabbie a $5 bill for the toll, but he waves it away and gives the man in the booth a $50 bill, which turns out to be counterfeit. “Not just counterfeit,” the toll taker says. “It’s lousy counterfeit.” The $50 bill is confiscated, forms are filled out, I pay the toll, and we get to LaGuardia 30 minutes before flight time. I give the driver $25 for a $23.75 fare, and he yells, “Why take it out on me?” Because you knew the bill was counterfeit—that’s why. I’m no rube. I didn’t just fall off the cabbage wagon.
I dash to the plane. I am speaking at a benefit luncheon, and I dislike benefits because you have to endure other people’s gratitude, which can be exhausting. This sounds ungracious, but it’s true. You go speak for free to a banquet of the Episcopal Promise Keepers of Poughkeepsie or the Honorary Society of Menomonie Economists or the Scandinavian Skin-Diving School in Schenectady, and 30 people tell you what a wonderful thing you’re doing, and it wears you out. If one person would tell you a joke instead, you would throw your arms around him or her in gratitude.
I get on the plane, and I’m in seat 8D on one of those toy jets that airlines have introduced that are designed for groups of fourth graders. The seats are hard on the vertically gifted such as myself, so that when the man in 7D reclines his seat, it almost kills me. If Abraham Lincoln were sitting in 8D, he would give up on that “malice toward none” concept and club 7D on the top of his little bald head. But I bite my tongue, and I also do not shoot my neighbor in 8C, a piggish fellow in an expensive sweater and tasseled shoes, snarfling his lunch while poring over the Wall Street Journal and poking me with his elbow as he eats. I come from a part of America where people apologize if they poke you and make sure not to do it again. He comes from a part of America where you push your way up to the trough and elbow people out of the way.
The benefit luncheon in Atlanta is not a happy time. It is an organization of Very Rich People Helping Wretched People Without Having to Be in the Same Room with Them, and it’s full of alpha males of the sort you see strutting around airports with cell phones clipped to their ears hollering at somebody in Cincinnati and gushy women who tell you they adore your TV show and never miss it on Sunday night, even though it’s radio and it’s on Saturday. I give my 15-minute speech, which suddenly isn’t amusing at all, and the president of Very Rich People gives me, in gratitude for my generosity, a hideous Lucite plaque, which I deposit in a trash bin at the airport, and I fly home to Minnesota, and there is my elegant wife waiting at the curb in her car.
It is good to see her. We’ve been married ten years, and surely we have problems, but at the moment, I cannot think of a single one. We drive through the streets of St. Paul, and there is no place I would rather be. Misery is the secret of happiness in marriage. Go make yourself miserable, and then come home.
Copyright © 2006 by Garrison Keillor. A Prairie Home Companion (April 11, 2006), prairiehome.org.