Inexpensive truths about family, gender and Midwestern cowboys

March 15, 2007|By GARRISON KEILLOR

I see in the paper that the U.S. Department of Education laid out $750,000 for a study that shows that going to art museums and looking at art is good for schoolchildren, which I would have been happy to tell them for, say, $500 and a nice lunch. If the government is paying large sums of money to have the obvious pointed out, I am your man. Ask me about this war, and I'll tell you for free.

I grew up the child of a mixed-gender marriage that lasted until death parted them, and I could tell you about how good that is for children, and you could pay me whatever you think it's worth.

Back in the day, that was the standard arrangement. Everyone had a yard, a garage, a female mom, a male dad and a refrigerator with leftover boiled potatoes in plastic dishes with snap-on lids. This was before caller ID, before credit cards - before pizza, for crying out loud. You could put me in a glass case at the history center and schoolchildren could press a button and ask me questions.

Monogamy put the parents in the background, where they belong, and we children were able to hold center stage. We didn't have to contend with troubled, angry parents demanding that life be richer and more rewarding for them. We blossomed and agonized and fussed over our outfits and learned how to go on a date and order pizza and do the Twist and neck in the front seat of a car back before bucket seats when you could slide close together, and we started down the path toward begetting children while Mom and Dad stood like smiling, helpless mannequins in the background.

Nature is about continuation of the species - in other words, children. Nature does not care about the emotional well-being of older people.

Under the old monogamous system, we didn't have the problem of apportioning Thanksgiving and Christmas among your mother and stepdad, your dad and his third wife, your mother-in-law and her boyfriend Hal, and your father-in-law and his boyfriend Chuck.

Today, serial monogamy has stretched the extended family to the breaking point. A child can grow up with eight or nine or 10 grandparents - Gampa, Gammy, Goopa, Gumby, Papa, Poopsy, Goofy, Gaga and Chuck - and need a program to keep track of the actors.

And now gay marriage will produce a whole new string of hyphenated relatives. In addition to the ex-stepson and ex-in-laws and your wife's first husband's second wife, there now will be Bruce and Kevin's in-laws and Bruce's ex, Mark, and Mark's current partner, and I suppose we'll get used to it.

The country has come to accept stereotypical gay men - sardonic fellows with fussy hair who live in over-decorated apartments with a striped sofa and a small, weird dog, and who worship campy performers and go in for flamboyance now and then themselves. If they want to be accepted as couples and daddies, however, the flamboyance may have to be brought under control. Parents are supposed to stand in back and not wear chartreuse pants and black polka-dot shirts. That's for the kids. It's their show.

Last week, I visited a grade school not far from where I grew up, and I strolled into a second-grade classroom and, good Lord, those lovely faces - Somali, Ethiopian, Hmong, Hispanic. Only about six kids looked anything like the kids I went to school with, and of those, three were Croatian. Fifteen different languages and dialects spoken in the school, a teacher told me.

In my lifetime, the potato fields had been developed into tract housing for World War II vets and now a landing site for immigrants and their second-graders, most of whom ventured into English only a year ago.

It was I Love Reading Week, and I was there as an Author. So I told them a story about how, back in the day, we were cowboys and rode horses across those flat spaces, rounding up our cattle, even in blizzards. For proof, I sang a cowboy song with a big whoopi-ti-yi-yo at the end of each verse, and I got them all to do clip-clops and whinnies.

They seemed to understand it all, at least the clip-clop part, and they are better children for having met me. Pay me a quarter-million dollars and I'll do a study that proves it.

Garrison Keillor's column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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