It is possible in this day and age to fly south in December and three hours later land in a city where you can sit comfortably in your T-shirt and linen jacket and eat your dinner at a cafe under palm trees and still enjoy the protections of the U.S. Constitution, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Paradise, in fact.
The problem with paradise is that it's temporary: You don't belong here, and the neighbors are nobody you care to know, so it's only blissful for a week or so. You're in a city built on sandy marsh in a boom period, and when you look around at the freeway, the office parks, the malls, the curvy streets of houses, your hotel, you see nothing that predates 1980, nothing that distinguishes this city from Scottsdale or Fort Lauderdale or any other suburb in America, which is exhilarating to some people but not to you. And the people around you are all in the throes of relaxation. As we know, people are at their best when engaged in the endless heroic quest for whatever - truth, love, literary excellence, supremacy in tennis, a royal flush, the perfect salad - and relaxation makes them dull. It's true. We're hunters. Once we chase down that wildebeest and devour its hindquarters, we get suddenly stupider.
I'm sitting with wife and child at a cafe at a marina, and the big motor yachts parked in the water bring back the memory of long, boring afternoons aboard boats. There is no boredom like that boredom, sitting in the stern of a big, expensive boat as it churns through the coastal waters, watching your host, the wheel in one hairy hand and a bowlful of Scotch in the other, woofing at you about how much he loves this, meanwhile the sun is beating down, turning your brain to tomato aspic. The conversation deceased an hour ago and the cheese dip has gone bad, and the jouncing of the waves is making you very queasy.
And yet - you yourself have gazed at million-dollar cruisers in boatyards, imagining the euphoria that could be yours. It's a beautiful dream, and God forbid it should come true and you become just one more drunk driving a boat.
Some of the people around us at the cafe under the palms look like boat people. Geezer gents and their geezerettes looking a little exhausted in the company of grandchildren, tired of their incessant questions - e.g. What do we do tomorrow? Why can't we go back to Reptile World? Can I watch a movie now on my iPhone? - longing for a quiet deck chair and the muffled rumbling of the generator and the burbling of the hot tub. The grandmas sip their Campari and sodas, the grandpas sit back walrus-like, digesting their seaweed and krill, and I know I'm not going to walk over and strike up a conversation with them. I wouldn't know how.
What we talk about up north in December is the existence of God, but I don't sense much theology here in paradise, just a large sense of entitlement. Up north, you talk about God because life is brutal when the wind blows hard on the borderline. You need a reason to keep trudging forward across the frozen tundra.
The fundamental religion of most of mankind is the faith that God has revealed Himself to us and not to the barbarians. Our tribe is the one God chose, and so if we vanquish the other tribes and rain fire and destruction on them, we're only carrying out God's Will.
There is a countervailing faith that says that God is in and of the world and has bestowed vast gifts to be shared with others, and that our understanding of God is faint and incomplete, and so we should walk softly and not assume too much.
When I'm up north, I naturally tend toward the warrior view, believing myself to be one of the Chosen, the select few to whom The Great Giver of Truth has vouchsafed the sacred secrets, but now, in the suburban tropics, eating blackened grouper under the Southern moon, I am sliding into hedonistic pantheism, slouching down the coast of Florida toward Key West, on a quest to make my wife and daughter happy until the money runs out and we regain our senses and head home. More certitude next week. Meanwhile, Happy 2010, dear reader. I lift a glass of sparkling water to you.
Garrison Keillor's column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.