Goodnight, John-Boy

He seemed to be from a bygone era. The Connemara accent might have unfairly tipped me towards thinking that way, but his unflashy practicality added further to the impression. He had cycled from Dublin’s north side, locked his bike to some railings, rang the doorbell, then ceremoniously walked me into Harcourt Street. He supervised my crossing of every road, told me when I could and couldn’t walk, which sounds controlling, but it was too innocent and well-meaning to be such; a natural inclination, I would suggest, to return me in one piece.

Once ensconced at our destination, he leaned into the chat. Conversation is a shared responsibility, that I understand, yet I relinquished my end of the bargain in favour of listening. I listened as he spoke of walking the Camino, growing vegetables, climbing hills and mountains, mapping standing stones and cairns, managing his brother’s few cattle and sheep, slowly renovating a Georgian house, erecting greenhouses, hauling nets from a currach, his deceased mother’s tenacity, the importance of good friends, the exportation of Irish livestock, the importance of distinguishing the letter of the law from the spirit of the law, the humour of Garrison Keillor (I’d never heard of him). 

The next day I looked up Garrison Keillor and decided his stories may be too homespun for my taste; an opinion unfairly formed until I actually read some of his work. What did interest me though, from my brief research, was the formulaic nature of Keillor’s Lake Wobegone stories set in rural middle America, a series read by himself on the radio, always closing with the same words: “That’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Now that’s a bedtime story I would be happy to fall asleep to, for who wouldn’t want to live there. Comforting and steady, reminiscent of The Waltons: “Good night, John-Boy. Good night, Elizabeth. Good night, Daddy. Good night, Son.” Or of Bagpuss: “Even Bagpuss himself, once he was asleep, was just a saggy old cloth cat. Baggy, and a bit loose at the seams, but Emily loved him.”

We all want to know how stories end. We all want the ending to be happy, we want it to be familiar, we want it to be formulaic, and we want to be part of the chorus mouthing along to the lines. Which is probably why Lake Wobegone’s closing lines became so famous. So famous that their essence became distilled into what is known as The Lake Wobegon Effect, which is: The human tendency to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others – stronger, better looking, above average.

I suspect this way of thinking may be a particularly western phenomenon. No harm in it; as an orientation it surely must have many benefits: that of accentuating the positive; seeing one’s half empty glass as being half full; believing that confidence can fill the gap created by a dearth of talent and ability. To over-estimate oneself can be the making of oneself. And surely, in the correct proportions, it is a more attractive quality than self-deprecation. On the other hand, it is a mindset that might well end in disaster if, in trying to clear a gap that one is ill-equipped to manage, one falls into the crevasse and break all of one’s bones. Of course, the crevasse is metaphorical, and should the person who falls hold fast to the The Lake Wobegon Effect, then no doubt they shall pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and eventually succeed.

And did my story have a happy ending? Happy, insofar as it was predictable and the closing lines familiar. Good night, Mary-Ellen, he said as he returned me to the front gate of my lodgings (except he used my real name). Good night, John-Boy, I replied (using the name given him at the font). And off he cycled, four miles back over the Liffey where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

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