See listing of Recent and Most Popular articles on the Home Page

My World

Category: Relationships / Topics: Civility Communication Relationships Social Issues Travel

The Old Man's Lecture: Manners (Boring)

by Garrison Keillor

Posted: March 2, 2023

It was a beautiful little scene of civility…

Believe it or not, I used to be rather cool. This was before you were born, probably, but I have pictures. I was aloof and enigmatic, unsmiling, and I liked the monosyllabic. Someone said, “It’s a beautiful day today.” I said, “Right.” Flat tone. Irony. My dad was a friendly guy who always made small talk with clerks and waitresses (“So how’s it going then?”), which I found embarrassing and stood apart from him so people wouldn’t know we were related.

That was long ago and a person learns by experience and now I’m so far from cool I wouldn’t know it if I saw it. I am an advocate of cheerfulness. I believe in good manners. I like making small talk, just as Dad did.

Six a.m. at the MSP airport, a February morning, long lines of sleepy travelers snaking their way toward Security, and I approach the scanner and a TSA lady sees that I haven’t removed my shoes and says, “You’re not over 75, are you?” and I say, “Darling, you’ve made an old man very happy,” and she smiles and says, “My pleasure.” I go through the scanner and a TSA guy pats down my back and underarms and I say, “Are we having fun yet?” and he says, “It’s a laugh a minute.” Two simple exchanges, two moments of fellowship.

I’m old enough to remember the pre-terrorist time when you walked uninterrupted to your gate, no questions asked, and now long lines of flyers laden with baggage listen to screeners barking orders and a TSA sniffer dog walks along the line, giving it a prison-camp feel, and this makes it all the more important to be cheerful and say, “Good morning” and “Thank you” to the agent who stops me to search my briefcase and find the little capsules of eyewash.

A bleak hour but you say “Good morning” to the clerk at the coffee stand and the gate agent and it improves your own morning inch by inch. I say it to glum young men just like the man I once was and it confuses them.

I happen to own a grim gravedigger’s face, the result of growing up with the Book of Revelation, and Jenny reminds me often: “Smile.” So I try.

Standing in a long line at 6 a.m. in February is not a unique personal experience. I’ve read stories about Nazi death camps and inmates who did their best to encourage others and maintain their humanity in the face of evil, and when they lost this cheerful urge it meant that their spirit was extinguished and the end was near.

I see a young woman head for the conveyor belt and her lurching gait shows some sort of brain injury but she is very focused on putting her stuff in the bins and cleaning out her pockets. She appears to be unaccompanied. She also seems quite proud to be on her own, as she strikes the correct pose in the scanner. The TSA woman pats down her hips and back. The girl follows directions. The TSA woman puts an arm around her and says something and the kid grins.

It was a beautiful little scene of civility. If this young woman can make her way cheerfully in the world, then what right do I have to feel abused? None whatsoever. The young woman collecting her stuff at the end of the conveyor is dealing with life cheerfully and this strikes me as the height of heroism.

So when I hear a woman behind me say, “This is the last time I fly early in the morning. This is just unbearable” (except she put another word ahead of “unbearable”), I turned and said, “Did you hear about the guy who was afraid of bears in the woods?” She shook her head. “His friend told him that if a bear chases you, just run fast, and if the bear gets close, just reach back and grab a handful and throw it at him. The guy says, ‘A handful of what?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’ll be there. It’ll be there.’”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said, and then she laughed. It was a real laugh, not just a polite one. She said, “I can’t believe that you told me that joke.” I said that I couldn’t believe it either. She said she was going to Milwaukee to see her brother and she intended to tell him that joke. So we got into a little conversation about Milwaukee. She said, “Have a nice day,” and I said, “I’m having it.”

Garrison Keillor © 02.28.23

America's story teller, known for his heartland wit and wisdom, and for many years as the voice of Prairie Home Companion on NPR. For additional columns and postings, subscribe to

Posted: March 2, 2023

Go to the list of most recent My World Articles
Search My World (You can expand the search to the entire site)
Go to the list of Most Recent and Most Popular Articles across the site (Home Page)

Sam's Club - IOs