Well, it’s been a quiet week in Michianapolis, Michiana, my Indiana home, here on the banks of the Saint I Ain’t River.
I ran into a station honcho this summer who asked why these Michiana Chronicles essays can’t sound more like Lake Wobegon. That got me thinking. I remember that old hokum. I follow the horseshoe scores in the Mishawaka Enterprise. Let’s do it. Let’s serve up some rhubarb pie.
They ended the season and tarped the infield one last time and across town the tunnel of trees turned yellow along Potawatomus Drive. Fall birds have returned to feeders, the football squares are full at Benny’s Barbers, and they’re all out of blueberries at the farmers market.
There was roughhousing and a couple punches over masks at a Central High pep rally, and authorities confirmed shootings are up but ShotSpotter is down. Eviction court is back in session, pandemic benefits are expired, and the number for poison control is still busy. The art walk will again be postponed.
That’s the news from Michianapolis, where the dads aren’t rich but the moms are good looking, and the kids are all right.
I first heard NPR in Madison, Wisconsin in 1992 and have been listening ever since. During those early years, I felt like I’d stumbled onto the kind of marketplace of ideas we heard a lot about on campus at that time, a regional and national conversation of learned and thoughtful people, many of them writers, overheard by others like me who wanted to participate directly or at least follow along closely in the same way I then read The New York Times. I loved Frank Deford and Bob Edwards and Cokie Roberts, came around on Car Talk, and finally did find weekend comfort and silly Midwestern pride in Garrison Keillor’s show and his breathy, extemporaneous monologues.
That’s two dot-com bubbles ago and many light years from what the big NPR shows sound like today, uniform in their prescriptive contemporaneousness, chipper in their let’s-do-the-numbers corporatism. So I get why a longtime listener might want some powdermilk biscuits with his Morning Edition coffee.
But we can’t discuss Keillor without acknowledging the circumstances and timing of his fall and exile, what it was and represents. And we cannot speak more generally about public radio without recognizing that the national mood, media, politics, mores and manners, the national center, whatever that was, have rearranged, that it’s a different and fractured zeitgeist now, a multiplicity of competing, furious zeitgeists, spread out over the land, the airwaves, and what AP style long insisted we call the World Wide Web.
Not exactly the makings of a sing-along.
Lake Wobegon’s appeal was its gentle traditionalism, the touchstone segment of a program named for Sears Roebuck catalogs from the early, rural 20th century. Yet the show’s host and radio players were all boomers, raised on a lot of post-war framing, including the Saturday Evening Post and its winsome Norman Rockwell covers. Keillor’s little town on the prairie was more or less the sound of those paintings, a comforting fiction about the fading, bygone folkways of bedrock America. The falsity of that particular artifice is presently inescapable.
And anyway there are better options for small-town source material, one of which I recently purchased at the library book sale for a quarter. Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, a book published during World War I, is strikingly consonant with our own time. It’s a collection of short, unsentimental testimonials from the graves of a fictional central Illinois cemetery. The dead are left to settle scores, revisit their many trespasses and regrets, and finally to level with themselves about who they were and were not during their one and only lives.
On our way out of Michianapolis, let us detour to Shade Oak Cemetery and the grave of Darryl Lee Bradley, deceased December 2020:
I lived my life in disbelief
And would not be bossed.
Learned only my own lessons,
A limit I now lament.
I waited for something to happen
And when it did not
Waited for something else
That did not happen.
Here I will remain
Beneath this small stone
Near an anthill in the sun.
How far did I go?
Not far enough.
Music: Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, “La Valse de la Prison,” La Musique Creole