Columns

From the New York Times, Time magazine, and the complete Chicago Tribune syndicated columns

Lighten up, people, it’s Thanksgiving for God’s sake

It worries me that I’m using GPS to guide me around Minneapolis, a city I’ve known since I was a boy on a bicycle, and also that I text my wife from the next room, and when I get up in the morning Siri sometimes asks me, “What’s the matter? You seem a little down. Would you like to hear the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3?” And I say, Leave me alone, I just want to think, and she and I wind up having a conversation about delayed gratification.

Too much technology in my life. I used to go to Al’s Breakfast Nook and now I go on Facebook. Thanks to social media, my handwriting has become illegible. It took me half an hour to decipher a note I left on the kitchen counter that said, “Why am I here? What’s the purpose of it all? Who needs me?”

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What I’m planning to do this winter maybe

It turned cold and gray in Minnesota last week and snow fell, which some people talk about as being depressing, but it’s not, it’s reassuring. The talk is ritual complaint, an attempt by people living comfy lives to acquire the dignity of suffering. Genuine suffering is on its way sooner than you think. One day we’ll be hit by a winter heat wave like the one that melted half of Greenland and then our real troubles will begin. One day I’ll step off a curb and my legs will buckle and strangers will call 911 and I’ll be hauled unconscious to a crowded ER and when I awake, I won’t be able to remember the words to “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” or “Minnesota, hats off to thee.” It’s out there, waiting to happen. Snow is nothing.

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Thoughts while waiting in line for coffee

I walked into a coffee shop Monday morning and stood in line for a cup of coffee, black, while people ahead of me ordered skinny lattes and half-caf cappuccinos and double-doubles and I didn’t mind the long wait — I was brought up to wait — we were a large family, service was slow. Waiting is an opportunity to think. I once stood in a long twisty line at airport security and in the course of shuffling along remembered how violent Pom-Pom-Pullaway was on the Benson School playground in 1950 and how I went in the library to escape being pummeled and fell in love with books and became a writer, all thanks to the lack of adult supervision. Had teachers kept the bullies under control, I might’ve become an anthropologist.

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Memories of a citizen of Halloween

Every October it’s my duty to point out that my hometown, Anoka, Minnesota, is known, at least in Anoka, as the Halloween capital of the world, and it puts on big parades and a football game, the Pumpkin Bowl. Even as a child, I felt that a town of 10,000 was overreaching to consider itself an international capital of anything, but I kept my thoughts to myself. It was a big deal, even if people in Russia or China were not aware of it. In 1953, I saw the last living Civil War veteran, Albert Woolson, ride in the parade, and one year Hubert Humphrey came. Our high school drum major Dickie Johnson was the proudest, struttingest, highest-baton-thrusting drum major you ever saw. When you saw him coming down Main Street, you imagined that Pope Pius, the Queen of England, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe might be coming along behind.

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Where have you gone, Dave Barry, and why?

I miss the old days when newspapers used to publish humor columns, like Dave Barry’s — why did he go away? In Dave’s column, you learned things the New York Times didn’t print, stuff about exploding badgers or a man with a blade of grass growing out of his ear, or a story about the amount of methane created annually by dairy cows.  

Dave pointed out the fact that men will never ask for directions and that this is a biological fact, which is why it takes several million sperm to find one female egg even though, compared to them, it is the size of Wisconsin. I laughed so hard at that, I almost coughed up a hairball.

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The days pass, and now and then one stands out

My father, John, would’ve been 106 years old on Columbus Day and though Columbus has been taken down a few notches, my dad is still on a pedestal. He left us at the age of 88. He’d been through some miserable medical procedures and said, “No more,” and went home to his eternal destination.

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Unexpectedly on a dark day, light shines through

I sleep with a woman who is worried about the fate of the planet and so is trying to avoid the purchase of plastic and if I dispose of a Post-it Note she fishes it out of the garbage and puts it in recycling, which I go along with because I don’t want to sleep alone. We lie in bed and I look over at her listening to the CBC and a long report on the melting glaciers, and I drift off to sleep. When I go out on the road, I miss her and so I am a slave to her every wish. If she tries to convert me to veganism and I have to sneak over to the dark side of town for a 16-oz. porterhouse and cover up my breath with Sen-Sen, so be it.

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Another fine week here in the republic

A new word leaped off the front page at me this week, “tranche,” which I’d never seen before. This is exciting when you’re 77, like being approached by a platypus on the street wearing a sign, “Look before you leap.” I’ve seen a platypus before but not a platitudinous one.

“Tranche” means a portion of something, and it’s used in finance, so that’s why I don’t know it. The New York Times said Congress had subpoenaed Secretary Pompeo, “demanding that he promptly produce a tranche of documents.” I imagine the Times said “tranche” rather than “portion” because it sounds more important: “portion,” to me, means two small potatoes, a cup of peas, and one slice of meatloaf.

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Sitting in a breakfast café with a small child

I quit TV around the time I stopped smoking, the two being psychologically linked, and also I was writing a novel at the time and working a day job and there simply wasn’t time for sitting and staring. So this golden age goes on without me.

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An elaboration on the sufficiency of the muffin

There was a cranky grandma in front of the supermarket on Friday, yelling at a baby in a stroller, “Don’t ask for another muffin when you have one in your hand! Eat that one before you ask for more!” and telling a little boy beside her, “Stop walking back and forth like that. Stand still, for God’s sake. And stop your whining.” The poor kid was a little restless and Grandma was at the end of her rope. He started to cry. “Shut up,” she said.

There is a limit to everything, even grandma love. Grandma has just so much saintliness in the tank and then she becomes an ordinary mortal, and I empathize, ma’am. My grandma Dora was so perfect in her black shirtwaist with white dots, her knitting, her scent of lavender, her gentle profanity (“Oh fudge” and “Oh drat”), that my girl cousins find it hard to rise to her standard. Grandma had been a railroad telegrapher and a country schoolteacher, had endured farm life during the Dirty Thirties, could slaughter a goose by wringing its neck, and was a woman of consummate dignity. She never had to say, “Shut up,” she only had to look at you. She had thirty grandkids and every year you got a card from her with a dollar in it.

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