Garrison Keillor on 18 Things We’ve Learned So Far

Now that the author has reached his current level of veneration, he reasons he might as well dispense some wisdom.

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Ralph Smith for Reader’s Digest

I turned 70 aboard a ship on the Atlantic Ocean, just so I could do it quietly, without a cake flaming up like the wreck of the Hindenburg and a bunch of friends singing to me in their crinkly, ruined voices. And it was the right thing to do—a little lunch on the aft deck as the ship plowed through the fog, not far from where the Titanic went down. When I returned home, I found that younger people now addressed me as Sir. And when I spoke, they got all hushed as if it were an invocation, which was gratifying. I’ve waited a long time to reach this level of veneration, and now that I’ve gotten here, I might as well dispense some wisdom.

1. The rules for mothering and fathering are: Keep your voice down; no sudden moves; don’t crowd the child. Keep all thoughts of disaster to yourself. Find out how to enjoy being with your child, and do that as often as possible, even if it almost kills you.

2. Take care of your friends because there will come a time when you’re not much fun to be with and there is no reason to like you except out of long-standing habit.

3. Put a big dish by the door, next to an electrical outlet, and when you come home, put your car keys, your billfold, and your extra glasses in the dish, and plug your mobile phone into the outlet to recharge. In the time you’ll save not looking for these items in the morning, you’ll be able to write War and Peace. Or the Mass in B Minor.

4. Don’t think ill of crazy people—you may be one of them.

5. Be hospitable to strangers. You have been a stranger yourself, and you will be again. Extend yourself. On the other hand, your home is your home; it isn’t the bus station. Scripture says to give all you have to the poor, but if you did, then you would be poor and they’d have to give it back, and so on and so on. But anybody can afford to give 10 percent.

6. There isn’t a lot you can do, but you ought to do that much. And if you do, you’ll likely find there is more you can do, and you should try to do that too.

7. No matter how much you want to keep your secret secret, you know that eventually people will find out, so you should start now to think up a good story. The secret may be shameful, but if you can make it interesting, you’ll be less an object of pity and scorn. And that is good.

8. Don’t beat up on yourself. Endless contrition is a pain. Make your apology, repair the damage, hold your head up, and march on.

9. It’s good to dream, but the urge to perform is not in itself an indication of talent.

10. Never marry someone who lacks a good sense of humor. She will need it. It is a challenge to live intimately with your best-informed critic.

11. Tall people cannot count on short people to look out for things tall people might bump their heads on. You have to take care of that yourself.

12. Most tragedy is misunderstood comedy. God is a great humorist working with a rather glum audience. Lighten up. Whatever you must do, do it gladly. As you get older, you’ll learn how to fake this.

13. Your friends are very fond of you, but there are limits. Sadness is tedious. When discussing your troubles, be concise. Five minutes and then change the subject.

14. Do unto those who don’t like you as you would have them do unto you, but you know they won’t. Do this before they can do the devious deed to you that they would do if given the chance. Shame them with goodness. Kill them with kindness. Cut their throats with courtesy.

15. Flattery is the reverse side of malicious gossip, and this coin is very quickly flipped. Beware.

16. Acts have consequences, and we are responsible for them even if we didn’t intend them. Be kind, and exercise caution. Step on a crack and break your mother’s back. Who knew it could happen? Anyway, it’s your fault, so quit your job and take care of the old lady and don’t complain.

17. People have made perfectly rational decisions that turned out to be dumber than dirt. There just doesn’t seem to be any way around this.

18. The best cure for a disastrous day is to go to bed early and wake up fresh in the morning and start over. In fact, I am going to do exactly that right now. Good night. God bless you. Close the door on your way out.

Garrison Keillor is a humorist, author, and storyteller and the host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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Garrison Keillor
Garrison Keillor hosts A Prairie Home Companion on Minnesota Public Radio. He and his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson, live in St. Paul, Minnesota.