R.I.P. Tom Keith

Thanks for the kind thoughts shared so far, and bless you all for starting the tribute on your own. Like everyone who knew and loved Tom Keith, I’ve felt helpless and lost all day.

It is especially strange to sit here thinking about him on Halloween night.

Tom was a nimble radio sound effects artist who could, in an instant, summon the mad scientist from his lab and release the vampire from his coffin. He could do the werewolf howl and knew how to chortle like a maniac who has found a loose block in the wall of his dungeon. All the standard sounds of this cartoonish observance were in Tom’s wheelhouse, as they say, so you might expect him to embrace the day like Fezziwig loved Christmas. But Tom Keith was not a big fan of Halloween. A welcome and invited radio guest in thousands of homes, he frowned on the idea of strange people just showing up at the door. On Halloween night Tom became your crabby neighbor who would turn out the lights and go sit in the back room until the bell stopped ringing. This curmudgeonly attitude coming from someone known for his sense of fun was unexpected, and he knew it. In fact, if you asked him to portray a crabby neighbor who would turn out the lights and go sit in the back room until the bell stopped ringing, he could do it with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, a shift in weight, a suspicious grunt, and it would be so perfectly on target that your stomach would ache from laughing. Tom Keith saw many things with an unusual clarity. He did not take himself seriously, and he didn’t take you too seriously, either.

Like a lot of people, I first heard Tom as Garrison Keillor’s sidekick on MPR’s Prairie Home Morning Show. He was Ed Jim Poole, a trainer of attack chickens. The name was later re-shuffled to be Jim Ed Poole, though there was no real change in character. He gave us a sophisticated bumpkin and a dry wit comedian who appeared to say hilarious things by mistake. Or was it intentional? One could never be sure, and that mystery was an enduring part of the attraction. I worked side by side with Tom in a succession of small glass-walled rooms for five mornings a week over the course of more than 25 years, and I’m still wondering how funny he meant to be. Every broadcast was an expedition into unknown territories.

I wrote a pile of scripts for him. Many ideas were inspired by something I thought he could do, and he never let me down. Whatever I gave him got better with his contribution. The humor came in small moments – the timing of a single word or a slight change in inflection. It came in large helpings with the sudden inexplicable arrival of a fleet of one-bladed helicopters and the falsely brave yell of a man changing his mind as he is about to go over the falls in a barrel. Tom’s genius lay in the ability to render a complete realization of impossible illusions. Though he spent most of his adult life in radio, Tom Keith was, at heart, an illustrator.

He was also a softie, and a servant, always aware that his livelihood depended on an audience willing to pay the freight. Quite naturally he channeled his inner ex-Marine when he developed our Morning Show playlist guidelines, declaring that all listener requests must be turned in no later than 5 days before the date of broadcast. No exceptions. And with equal ease he tossed those regulations aside whenever anyone asked. If you were a grandmother needing to hear a specific song for your grandson’s birthday sometime in the next half hour before the kid’s bus comes, Tom Keith was your man. The harsh rules he had written could not stand up to anyone’s polite request.

Tom was not a prima donna or a show off, which was ironic given that he had such showy talents. His name was known to millions as one of the last surviving radio sound men, but he was not terribly interested in increasing his profile. He said no to television projects with Hollywood stars, and decided to stop touring with Prairie Home Companion when he got tired of the road. He would turn down commercial voice jobs because Schniederman’s was delivering a couch that afternoon, and he had to be at home to meet the truck. Above all, he was a man of his word and he always did his job, which was to make the work in front of him as good as it could be. He was frugal, sensible, practical, and oh so Minnesotan.

Respect outward.
Humor inward.
Integrity always.

Cheers, Buddy. And bon voyage.

Share a favorite Tom Keith / Jim Ed Poole memory.

Something With Goo in the Middle

Happy Halloween, Baboons!

As we prepare for the annual Trick-or-Treat kidstorm in our neighborhood (more than 500 tiny treats handed out at our door last year), I’m reminded of the blessing of infinite variety in our candy universe. We have hard, crunchy candies and soft chewy ones. Dark chocolate and milk chocolate for the older kids and fun, fruity chews for the tykes. Some candies are solid throughout. Others have gooey and even liquid interiors, which can strike some people as creepy and even dangerous.

And so it goes for asteroids, apparently.

There are millions of them in the asteroid belt, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Last year the European Space Agency accomplished a close-by flight on one such object, named Lutetia. Something about Lutetia is not quite right – she’s a lot denser than she appears (also true for some people – yours truly included). In the case of Lutetia, the theory making the rounds right now is that there’s molten metal in the center, which would be something new for asteroids and could suggest that Lutetia was on the way to becoming a full-fledged planet before succumbing to a case of arrested development.

It might also explain where magnetic meteorites come from.

Lutetia is odd shaped and nugget-like. It actually reminds me of a couple of things – one is a piece of the bag candy “Pop Rocks”, which fizzed in your mouth. Remember those? There was a pervasive bit of urban lore claiming kids who swallowed the candy or mixed it with a carbonated drink would suffer some kind of gastro-intestinal explosion – a thought that was just threatening enough to make Pop Rocks irresistible.

And of course as we’ve already discussed, Lutetia’s weird shape is reminiscent of a well-known image by Edvard Munch, now made even more alarming by the thought that there’s hot liquid metal sloshing around inside. How appropriate for Halloween. Don’t bite down too hard, unless you want to SCREAM!

What’s your favorite candy?

The Sidetrack Trap

Last night I had a strange dream that the leaves falling off the trees in my yard were actually words. When I gathered them up they seemed to make an indecipherable mound of text, but when I allowed myself to fall into the crunchy sentences, it all made a surprising amount of sense. In the spirit of autumnal thought collection and the pleasures of diving into a seemingly random word-pile, today’s guest post comes from that master raker of notions, the one-and-only tim.

Photo credit: HD Leader.

the trick to it is not to believe that you have any idea where you are going. the times i get into trouble is when i think I know something. i really do much better when i am aware that i am lost. my thinking brain goes to sleep on a regular basis and the difference between me in a new surroundings vs me at the kitchen table is night and day.it is not only perception, it is fact that the stuff that comes out of my brain in a comfortable setting is not nearly as creative as the stuff when i am looking at the surroundings and soaking in the environment at the same time as i am trying to function. i do love my rituals. the morning bath with the blog in front of me is much preferred start to my day vs the wake up grab a tea and hit the road for an early morning meeting on my way to stop 1 2 3 and 4 before the dust clears. but i am not convinced that comfort is the best mode to exist in. i am often times jealous when I see a person who takes no chances and knows how everything is going to come out in every situation they run into or put themselves in a position to deal with but I know for certain I can not be that person. I cant sit in a chair and enjoy the scenery or a thought for no more than a short stint before i start twitching and needing to find a different angle on my presence. computers are a blessing and a curse. i remember when i started on my computer side of life and i was reading about peter or paul of peter paul and mary and he was saying that he would get on the computer after dinner and get involved in a conversation with someone in a chat room and the evening go by unnoticed and by the time he looked up it was 4 am and he was cranked up and had a hard time getting to sleep. i am little bit that way although i don’t go to chat rooms. (yet) i do get on the computer and one step leads to the next and before you know it i am studying sleeping bags and the differences between down filled bags and the new space age materials. oh yeah space age… what was the date of the explosion that killed the school teacher and I wonder what henry bien is doing who I met that day and came back from lunch to discover the tragedy that had occurred as we walked back in to the land of cubicles….cubicles… oh yeah, dilbert cartoon receptacles. and before I know it i am so far away from the trip to the boundary waters I was contemplating i am looking up henry bien to see if he is still in texas where he was last time i saw him 10 years ago. not likely he moved around a lot. how do people who move around a lot do it? make friends, make a life, find the assets of the area and start over one more time. where would i like to visit for an extended stretch? iireland? new orleans? mexico? new zealand? wouldn’t it be cool to be able to just go? what would it take to make that happen today? and it goes on and on and on…. i used to have trouble reading a book because i would realize as i looked at the page in front of me that i had no idea when i tuned out but i had never seen or registered any of the words on this page before. i could go back 2 or 3 pages and still not recognize anything. i had been on a day trip while my trained eyes went from line to line and turned the page as we progress through the story in the book i am holding. i wonder sometimes if dementia is a ride that takes you away from the thoughts you are trying to get to or if it just is an out of control hodge podge that makes no sense to the victim as well as the helpless onlookers who get to deal with it.

is getting sidetracked a blessing or a curse?

Sky Blue Pink With A Heavenly Border

Sorry for the late posting today, baboons. Today’s guest blog is by Jacque.

The autumn skies are spectacular, especially at dawn and dusk. There is a point immediately after the sun sets on a clear day, when the light is dim, all silhouettes crisp. The exclamation point is the moonrise looming over the nearly night sky. Several weeks ago, driving home from work each evening at dusk, beautiful sunsets were strutting their stuff. Gorgeous shades of pink, yellow, orange, blue, and lavender spread across the western horizon. The car was headed westward, so each evening I saw the whole thing, start to finish. What a beautiful drive home.

It made me think of my late father and his favorite color. My sister, our friends, and I were obsessed with determining our favorite colors. We experimented with all the colors from the Crayola box. We also polled our parents and neighbors, persistently asking, “What is your favorite color?” Mom’s was orange. Dad’s was Sky Blue Pink with a Heavenly Border. Wow. Nobody could top that one. And he would show us this color at sunset.

“Look. There it is!” he would say, pointing west to the horizon.

So in September, when the sunsets were so lovely and I was making my way west towards home, I began to think of him. This prompted me to write a blog, with a picture of a sunset, of course. I had to carry my camera everywhere, so I could pull over and catch the color for the blog.

It took weeks. The sunsets were suddenly bland. The camera broke. I had to buy a new camera, learn to use it, and catch the just right sunset. I waited for days for the proper color and scene. It was tough. I took many pictures which were colorless, uninspiring, just not Dad’s color. Finally I found one that would do, even though it does not have quite enough Heavenly Border.

Then one morning, as I headed out to walk the dog I saw it again on the mailbox in the form of Morning Glories:

The beautiful sunset inspired memories, pleasant thoughts and a photographic binge. I learned new skills after the colors made me spend money on a new camera so I could share it with you. You just never know what a sunset will inspire.

What does color do for you? Do you have a favorite?

Watch This Space

I had a cup of coffee this afternoon with a friend of mine – a very nice man who just got back from Los Angeles and a visit with Jayne Meadows. He knows a lot of grateful, gracious, formerly famous people who are invariably thrilled to have someone a) remember them, b) pay attention and c) ask questions.

Why yes, I’d be delighted to tell you more about me. Pull up a chair.

Later today I’ll head down to St. Olaf with another good friend to talk to some of the students who work at the campus station, KSTO, about creating radio. Another walk around the block for a couple of old dogs. I’m looking forward to it, though I’m not sure my style of radio has much appeal to the online generation. So much of everything (music, humor, companionship) is available through the Internet, it’s hard to talk about a sound-only medium without seeming, well, quaint. In fact, our little presentation and Q & A will be streamed live on video here.

Go figure.

I plan to encourage the group to make full use of the possibilities of the medium by embracing its limitations. Take the absence of a visual as a challenge to activate the imaginations of listeners. How? I can only go over some of the things that worked for me, but who cares about that? The next generation will have to take a fresh approach if radio is to survive this latest assassination attempt by a brassier, flashier, but inferior technology.

Jayne Meadows was a star but not a legend. More “B” list than “A”. What does that mean? She once won the Susan B. Anthony Award for portraying women in positive roles. You can’t get to be a big star doing principled stuff like that. But it does leave you with a set of memories you can always enjoy talking about.

A local college invites you to be a visiting expert.

What are you going to talk about?

Baboons in the News

This story from South Africa was just so charming, I couldn’t resist. A baboon breaks into the car of a guy whose job it is to follow around the baboons to make sure they don’t mess with people and break into their cars.

I, too, have been this effective in some of the jobs I’ve held.

The Daily Mail’s story says the baboon monitor is “flinching out of the way” of the thief, although the caption could just have easily said “The baboon, tired of being watched, decked the nosy monitor with a brisk right hook as he made off with the prize.”

We know that the baboon took the man’s bag out of the back seat and made off with it. We have no clue what was in the bag, but obviously it was something irresistible. Only Blevins knows. Or is this Rhonda? Or some other member of baboon society we have not yet met? Clearly, there is an untold tale here. Perhaps through bits and pieces of imagined detail drawn from our vast reserves of baboon knowledge, we can divine the true story.

Tell it.

Ask Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

I’m running for President of the United States because I think I’m a pretty good person. I have a lot of radical ideas that make perfect sense to me, so I figured my passion and certainty would be enough to get me elected if people would only give me a fair chance. But as soon as I got started with my campaign I discovered that I had to hire a bunch of other people to do the things I didn’t have time to do. And believe me, that’s a lot of things! Running for President is a lot more involved than raising 852 foster children, which I’ve done and which I thought was the busiest kind of work a person could have. Surprise!

And just like children of all kinds, the campaign workers have started to snipe at each other and call each other names and say that they got pushed and their foot was stepped on and somebody took their favorite hat and somebody else said out loud at school that they smelled like poop and now their life is as good as over and they’re going to have to run away!

When selfish children start to pick on each other like this, some people automatically blame the mom, saying she’s a lousy parent. That last part could be true, but even the best possible mom can wind up with whiney, petulant children. It doesn’t automatically mean she’s bad – only that she chose to get deeply involved with people whose brains are still developing.

Now some of my critics are saying I shouldn’t be President because my campaign workers are fighting. I find that really, really frustrating and I want to speak out because I know the whole story of what goes on behind the scenes. And what I want to say to those critics is that if you can’t something better than a few squabbling children as your reason why I should never be President, you aren’t trying hard enough.

But of course I can’t really say that, since it would be self-defeating.

So Dr. Babooner, do I keep quiet and take a mild bit of heat, or do I lash out at my tormentors and take the blazing inferno?

Sincerely, Mrs. B.

I told Mrs. B that she’s complaining about the wrong thing. Negative attention is still attention, and if the alternative to making things worse is being forgotten, you have to go ahead and make things worse. Even a casual, oblique, half-sympathetic reference to you as part of a clubby little blog written by a clueless dolt might be worth a vote or two, and you really can’t afford to throw any of those away.

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?