Life: The Art of the Embrace

Original Publish Date: February 1995

Originally published in Life Magazine

I saw the famous Eisenstadt picture of the V-J Day kiss in Life when I was a boy and thought it was sweet: the girl in the white dress standing, bent back in the arms of the sailor who is planting a hard kiss on her lips, with Times Square and grinning onlookers in the background. And now, in another era, one can look at it and imagine an act of harassment. It is only an embrace, but the woman’s body looks stiff, as if this kiss is not her idea and she can’t muster up enthusiasm for it; she isn’t clinging to the sailor, she’s just hoping he doesn’t drop her on the pavement. The picture illustrates the great danger and achievement of an embrace — to be any good, an embrace must be mutual, and there may be a chasm of uncertainty between the impulse and the deed, even when you hug your wife. Maybe she is still mad from when you came home an hour late ten minutes ago. You hug her and she says, “What’s that supposed to mean?” All an embrace means is that you expect to find the one you reach for reaching for you.

My mother told me that, on V-J Day, when news came that the war was over, people were so overjoyed they dashed into the streets and hugged complete strangers, even in Minneapolis where we lived. The thought of that surprised me then and still does. People in the Midwest don’t hug that much unless they’re Italian. Even in a euphoric moment, swamped by emotion, a true midwesterner would be careful who he threw his arms around. To us, an embrace is too intimate to be conferred on mere acquaintances; it would feel insincere. In the show business, which I hang out on the periphery of, there are people who embrace anybody they’ve ever been introduced to. This seems almost as unnatural to me as eating off the floor. I have met people who, after we’ve talked about this and that, say, “I’d like to give you a hug if that’s all right,” which strikes me as too weird for words. A hug that has to be announced? But of course the huggee has no choice, though afterward, I’d like to hand them a card that says, “Thank you for hugging me.”

To a shy midwesterner, an embrace is a profound and delicate statement, even the ordinary friendly hug you might give your dog, or your dad. It is never perfunctory, always full of feeling. The little girl embracing the elephant in this book must feel the enormity of the moment, and so do I, always, and always have approached it warily. Sitting next to a girl on the school bus, you put your right arm across the back of the seat behind her, testing her — does she glance back in disgust, as if she thought it was a snake? No? Then you put your right hand onto her shoulder, a tentative embrace, a deniable one, and you lean slightly against her and smell her fragrance. You like this girl a lot. She is so memorable and exciting, you would love to put both arms around her. Maybe she wants you to. You want you to. But what would it mean? Would it mean only that you are fond of her at this sunny moment, which is the truth, or would she think it meant The First Step On The Road To Ba-dum Ba-dum Ba-dum?

A great romantic, as I was when I was sixteen, adores the distant unattainable love — for me, that was Audrey Hepburn — but then I needed to find someone to go to the dance with and that was the girl who I sat next to on the bus, who was stocky, had a flat nose and mousy hair, and was attainable. She towed me onto the gym floor, and we assumed the waltz position, with my left hand on her right hipbone, her left hand in my right hand, her right hand on my left shoulder, and the air full of saxophones. We danced a long time together because nobody else wanted to dance with either of us, and it was pleasant talking to her with her head against my shoulder and my cheek against her hair. I loved having her ear just below my mouth and to be in her arms, to sway, to feel her hand on my shoulder, to hold her hand, and to feel her hipbone move. Maybe her hair was mousy, but at such short range, it didn’t matter. I kissed her eyebrow and we went out in the 1958 moonlight and sat on the grass and necked with great tenderness and curiosity.

I kissed her and was surprised how easy this was. So I did it again. I stroked her cheek and touched her hair. I touched my lips to her hair, I kissed her neck, I ran my finger along her hair line and down her neck to her collarbone, I put my arms around her and we lay on the grass facing each other, and it was lovely, right up until the moment I had to remind myself that this was the Road That Leads Over The Cliffs of Desire And Onto The Rocks of Regret, and to hold my horses, or else in five minutes we’d be high school dropouts living in her parents’ basement with our tiny child named Melody and I’d be pumping gas at the Pure Oil station.

It surprised me how naturally it all came to us: holding hands, caressing, nuzzling, fondling, snuggling, the little ballet of affection, even kissing, which I had worried I might not be good at — how there was no awkwardness, no comedy, no falseness, and how, in this language of touching, you can easily find what it is you really want to say.

Sex is glorious and earth-shaking, as well as necessary, but it is in touching each other, holding each other’s hands, stroking the skin, that we are most eloquent. So many different ways to make a mutual nest of our bodies and put skin against skin. We humans can be awfully formidable with our intelligence jingling at our side and our ambition grinding away and our high standards fluttering in the breeze, and it is thrilling when someone slips through the defenses and puts an arm around us. Sex is an athletic act, like bowling except without the shirt, and like bowling it can sometimes be (yes, it can be) boring, but the small sweet gesture of an arm slipped around your waist somehow never loses its poignancy and surprise. Here we stand, old friend, side by side in a reflective moment, a great swath of silent history between us, and perhaps it is a mutual reflex, or perhaps one of us, you or I, wonders, “Is it okay to do this now?”, and then, with one graceful motion, we are embracing and embraced. You move me, and I care for you, and there simply is no other way to say so.

Garrison's weekly columns

For full list, click here

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

It’s the Age of Sensitivity. A house down the street has hung up Christmas lights, but as I look closer, I see that alongside the star of Bethlehem is a Star of David and also a star inside a crescent moon with an inscription in Arabic. These people are liberals, like me, but their inclusivity strikes me as show-offy — and why did they leave out Buddhism and Hinduism? And how will agnostics feel when they see this?

Last month, I went to the grocery store and I asked a clerk where I’d find the dairy case and she told me and I said, “Thank you, kid” and she said, “I don’t accept people infantilizing me.” She was in her fifties. I was stunned. I told the manager I wanted to apologize to the woman and he said, “Don’t worry about it. She is nougat intolerant and it makes her hypersensitive, though I’m not supposed to use that word, and if you report me, I’ll deny everything.”

In the Minnesota I knew, there was very little sensitivity. We played hockey on backyard rinks with rolled-up magazines for shin pads. It was bitterly cold. Kids whacked me with their sticks, I was pelted with insults — dodo, dummy, dimwit, moron — until, a few years ago, I was diagnosed as being “at the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” and I got a card to carry in my wallet: “I am an autist, high-functioning but with limits. Please be patient.”

The big cultural shift came with the introduction of no-smoking areas in the Sixties, after the Surgeon General’s report. Back then, everyone smoked except sissies and pantywaists, and then suddenly it was uncool. I loved smoke and still do, though now I limit myself to pre-inhaled smoke. But the ban on smoking was followed by rules about joking and poking and then a city ordinance was passed forbidding the custom of “Ladies First” as patronizing: women demanded the right to open doors for themselves. Church attendance plunged due to the threatening language of the Bible.

In the old days, threats were everywhere. Parents yelled at their kids, kids yelled at each other. That’s why I’m not a hugger; when someone takes a step toward me, I step back. In the old days, someone stepped toward you, they’d say, “Look down there” and you looked down and they stuck a foot behind you and shoved you and yelled, “Doughnuts!” I grew up with that.

(Meanwhile, Individual-1 is still in power, a man straight off the grade school playground of 1954, swiping candy from the weak, pushing, shoving, depantsing people. He enjoys a latitude of rudeness denied to the rest of us and half the population approves of this.)

The other morning at the coffee shop, I said, “Good morning, dear” to the barista. I knew I shouldn’t say it but she had given me such a sweet smile, I thought maybe she is the granddaughter of an old classmate, maybe she loves my writing. She stiffened when I deared her. She said, “You are using your power position as a customer to imply an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist and thereby enjoy a fantasy that is demeaning to me.” I said, “Your smile implied a personal relationship and made me think I might know you and simply had forgotten your name.” She said, “You’re out of your mind.” And I showed her my Autist card. She said, “I am so sorry. I had no idea you were mentally handicapped.” And then she recognized her mistake, using the forbidden h-word. I told the manager and she was fired. I got a gift certificate for two dozen lattes. Cool.

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of writer Edna O’Brien (1930), one of a select number of Irish artists who have been bestowed the honor of Saoi.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of Shirley Jackson (1916), author of morbid short story “The Lottery” and novel-turned-Netflix-hit “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 13, 2018

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake, described by victims as a very nice pirate, set out to sail around the world.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 12, 2018

Today is the birthday of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863) who said, “My sufferings…are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1911), who delivered his acceptance speech in Arabic when he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988.

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 15, 2007

This episode’s got five concertinas, four melodeons, three button boxes, two tin whistles, and a partridge in a pear tree. Guests include Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Boys of the Lough (pictured).

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 10, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson (1830), who grew up very social and only gradually became reclusive.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

Read More
Writing

Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

Read More

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

Read More

The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

Read More

The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

Read More

One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

Read More

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

Read More

Two options for staying in touch:

  • Subscribe to the “Garrison Keillor” list to receive a weekly email including his latest column, excerpts from Garrison’s books, news about upcoming shows and projects, plus links to performances, TWA & APHC merchandise, and poetry features.
  • Subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” list to receive a DAILY email that includes the classic “on this day in history” section, a poem, and a link to listen to that day’s episode.

Prairie Home Productions News


Get In Touch
Send Message