Columns

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

The pleasure of running into Stan on Sunday

I stopped in a cafe on Sunday after church to get awakened from a feeling of blessedness and who should I run into but my Anoka High School gym teacher Stan Nelson, who is 99 years old and still talking and making sense. He looked at me and said, “Are you still having trouble with chin-ups and the rope climb?” I was 17 at the time and now I’m 76, and I told him that I’ve managed to stay out of situations that might require me to climb a rope or lift myself up by a horizontal bar, so the answer is, No, it’s no trouble at all.

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When I consider how my time is spent

A mockingbird couple has set up housekeeping in a tree in our backyard and the male goes crazy whenever we set foot in his territory, which I guess means that their children have hatched and are at that perilous point in life when you’re about to fly. When we slip out back for supper, he shrieks at us from the corner of the yard, far from the nest, and flies from branch to branch to fence, cursing us, threatening to peck our eyes out. He’s a good father. The mother stays on the nest and he exercises his toxic mockingbird masculinity and yells bloody murder.

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Life, liberty, dancing, feasting, hugging, and collecting stuff

I have returned from a week in Portugal and a little village where we attended our nephew’s wedding and enjoyed lavish feasting and shameless dancing and people hugging each other left and right. There was liquor involved but mostly it sprang from lack of self-consciousness. Everybody knew each other except for us Americanos; there was nothing to hide. After the wedding, I saw men hugging other men, if you can believe such a thing. The father of the bride hugged the groom and squeezed him hard.

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A June wedding in a faraway village

We came to Portugal knowing only the words for apology (desculpe) and gratitude (obrigado) and were stunned by the beauty on every hand, the seaside city of Porto on the river Douro, the narrow twisty streets and red tile roofs over skinny passageways into stone-paved courtyards, the crowd on the stone wharf at night, the girl swinging flaming torches and an old man singing to his guitar about his many heroic disappointments.

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In the Fatherland for Father’s Day

I’ve landed in London where there are no elevators, only lifts, and where the signs say “Offices To Let,” which at first looked like “Office Toilet” to me, and where you see “Look Left” or “Look Right” painted on the pavement at every pedestrian crossing — and I wonder, How many of my countrymen looked the wrong way and were crushed by a lorry before the Brits painted the warnings? Nebraska wheat farmers, New York stockbrokers, confident successful men who brushed off their wives’ warning to look both ways. “I know how to cross a street, dang it,” they said and stepped in front of a double-decker bus and were erased from the face of the earth and their dust flown home for the memorial service.

They spoke of the kindly delight
In family, how he fought the good fight,
And nobody said
As they spoke of the dead,
“Why didn’t he look to the right?”

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Trying hard to relax and have fun

I’ve been a grind for many years, chained to my oars, and I am in serious need of frivolity, so last Friday my wife and daughter and I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in New York and sailed out of the harbor and under the Verrazano Bridge bound for England with a dance band on board, a casino, deck chairs where one can lounge and doze and do nothing meaningful whatsoever. A big band plays nightly in the enormous ballroom and there is a multitude of serious dancers on the floor who know the jitterbug, the foxtrot, the tango — really know them, don’t just stand and sway rhythmically — and a handsome Irishman belts out “Night and Day” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” There are impenetrable Brit accents everywhere and elaborately polite service — waiters who say “Thank you” at every opportunity. The bottle of English ginger ale says, “Upend before pouring” — when was the last time you saw “upend”? The sign in the toilet says that the plumbing does not operate on a “cistern system” but a pressure system so do not flush while seated. There is the sunny aft deck where I can lie and not read a book. So what do I do? I think about work.

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The graduation speech I didn’t get to give

It was graduation weekend at my daughter’s school and so I hung out with emotional dads for a couple of days and at the graduation dance I got a little teary-eyed myself. It was the Father-Daughter dance and we shimmied and shook to “I Saw Her Standing There” and then a slow waltz to “Wonderful World” and I sang the words to her, “I hear babies cry, I watch them grow; they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know.” And I meant them.

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A fine day on which I did nothing at all

Memorial Day and my love and I walked out in the park to observe the young and restless, the old and rickety, soaking up the sunshine. The laziest day of the year, meant to remember the insane fury of war. Contented families, families making an effort to ignore each other, kids teetering along on bikes or skateboards, dozens of runners each with his or her signature stride (lope, lunge, trot, traipse, scoot, sprint, stagger), picnickers lounging in the shade and dogs sniffing other dogs and toddlers acquainting themselves with the wonders of grass.

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Life is so interesting, it’s hard to stop

It’s a privilege to have a doctor of medicine in the family and my family has two, one American, one Swedish. We dreamers and ideologues need to come into contact with science now and then. The Swedish doctor told us yesterday she is skeptical of the American practice of routine colonoscopies, that the profit margin on the procedure is very high and the rationale is modest at best. I’d never heard skepticism about colonoscopies before; it was like someone bad-mouthing mouthwash. I’ve been pro-colonoscopy because it feels good to get cleaned out and the muscle relaxant is so luxurious and pleasurable, and health insurance paid the freight so I didn’t give it a thought. Interesting.

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What I learned from window replacement

I am drinking coffee this morning from a cup that says “Verum Bonum Pulchrum” — truth, goodness, beauty — an impossible ideal, but it’s my sister-in-law’s cup, not mine. Our apartment is undergoing window replacement so my love and I are being harbored by relatives. She sleeps in a handsome mahogany bed that belonged to her grandmother Hilda and I sleep on a hard single bed in the basement. Separation is good for a happy marriage like ours. We say good night and I trudge downstairs and lie in the dark on a skinny bed that is like the one I slept in when I was 17. So I close my eyes and it’s 1959 and I’m considering my prospects in life.  

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