Columns

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

Sitting in a boat on the Niagara River

I was brought up by evangelicals so I can understand the fervent campaign to elect a revolutionary socialist to the White House. My people believed that we alone knew the mind of God and that He loved us more than the ignorant pagans around us. So when I see the old revolutionary shake his fists and shout against injustice, I relive the righteousness of my childhood. Happy times. I haven’t felt half so superior since.

It’s more satisfying to be part of a militant righteous minority than to be in the anxiety-ridden confused majority — to be a nightrider rather than a passenger in the long wagon train. The problem with righteousness is that it isolates you from those who are less righteous, which is okay if you’re self-sufficient and living in the woods but if you depend on others, you need to cut corners. When I was 20, I looked down on people who hadn’t read the right books, but then one day you need to call a plumber and your world starts to broaden.

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An old man’s Sunday morning annotated

“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” said the prophet Isaiah, which we read in church on Sunday, but nobody shouted. We are flatlanders, brought up to be still and behave ourselves and listen to instructions, but if the instruction is to shout out and raise your voice, wait to see if other people do it and then, depending on which ones do, maybe do it yourself but quietly. And we are Episcopalian so what would we shout? A poem by Mary Oliver? A recipe for bouillabaisse?

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The light bulb is out and needs changing

I flew into New York last week, descending over the East River onto LaGuardia, and outside Baggage Claim I was surprised to find men and women in official yellow vests guiding us tourists toward the taxi stand, helping with luggage, saying, “Welcome to New York” and “Thanks for using LaGuardia” and “Enjoy the city.” This is not the New York that we Minnesotans expect to find, but thank goodness the cabdrivers are still genuine New York cabdrivers, surly, scrappy, contemptuous of the stupidity all around them.

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What goes on in Minneapolis on a winter night

I drove to the grocery the other night and there, near checkout, saw a freezer case with the sign, “Artisan Ice Cubes,” a bold new step in our march toward Preposterosity. I asked the checkout guy if maybe the sign meant to say “Artesian” and he wasn’t interested. Word usage is not his responsibility. To me, artisanal ice is in the same category as organic non-GMO ice cubes. I’m a Minnesotan and I appreciate the beauty of frost and snow but an ice cube is an ice cube.

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Some New York thoughts on solitude

I stood around looking at J.D. Salinger stuff last Friday, his old black Royal typewriter, family snapshots, and typewritten letters, at the New York Public Library, and it was a wonder to see. I’m one of the many millions for whom The Catcher in the Rye was an important book back in my teens and back then, Salinger was famous for guarding his privacy. He didn’t do interviews, was never on TV, and so was portrayed in the press as a crank, an anti-social weirdo. It’s clear from the exhibit that he was not.

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The art of love in the far North

Winter is a thoughtful time. Snow falls in the trees and my natural meanness dissipates and the urge to bash my enemies’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. I put fresh strawberries on the cornflakes and taste the sweetness of life. I speak gently to the lady across the table. Marriage is the truest test — to make a good life with your best-informed critic, and thanks to her excellent comedic timing, we have a good life. My third marriage and this year we ding the silver bell of twenty-five years.

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Man of the North finds bliss, becomes incoherent

My family and I are at a swimming pool under the palm trees behind a pink stucco 1929 hotel in San Diego, my wife reading a memoir, my daughter swimming laps of alternate crawl and butterfly, and I am trying to think of what one can say about blissfulness other than that, for a Minnesotan brought up on the principle of “It could be worse,” blissfulness comes as a major surprise, like weightlessness. The hotel looks out on the Pacific, a beach where sea lions fraternize and waves crash on the rocks. As I ate my oatmeal on the balcony this morning, a seagull landed on the railing and cocked his eye at the raisins on the cereal so I tossed him one and he caught it. This almost never happens back on the frozen tundra where nature makes serious attempts to kill us. In paradise, it’s Live and Let Live.

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Wave your arms, kick your feet, do the 2020

I don’t do New Year’s Eve anymore because the parties never were that much fun and we wound up trapped in corners in the usual intense conversations (kids, schools, political lunacy), and some people drank too much and forced the rest of us into a guardianship role and the sheer awkwardness of telling an old drunk to let his wife drive him home, and so the party ended with us wondering: why do we not know how to have a good time? White liberal guilt? The inbred gloom of northern people? Too many books one has read and is eager to quote? Lack of dancing skills?

The correct answer is No. 4.

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Suddenly, once again, good Lord, it’s Christmas

Coming through airports this week it struck me how kind everyone was, ticket agents, TSA people, cab starters, and then light dawned: it’s Christmas. Charles Dickens had a big impact on the world and so did Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart, not to mention St. Luke. I stood in a long winding line in LaGuardia and sensed no impatience; the TSA guy even smiled and asked how I was. And when I lost my ticket in Atlanta, I walked to Gate T7 and asked an agent and she made me a new one, no problem.

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Thoughts from the back row of the memorial

I learned a new word last week: “anonymized.” It means just what it says, “made anonymous,” and was used in reference to government reports obtained by the Washington Post that contained truthful revelations about our 18-year war in Afghanistan that the government was lying to the American people about while spending a trillion dollars to achieve something that nobody in the Pentagon could quite define.

My uncles, may they rest in peace, would not have been surprised by the Post’s story. Their regard for generals was low, based on their own military service, and their opinion of politicians lower: they associated high office with adultery, alcohol, and bribery, end of discussion.  

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