Columns

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

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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So much one can live without and should

I keep unsubscribing from junk mail and it seems that the simple act of unsubscribing opens the sluiceway to even more junk. I get offers to pay cash for my current home, to consolidate my debt, to save up to 50% on things I don’t want, to get a credit card for people with bad credit, a hair implant, introduce me to other lonely people, and so forth.

So I keep clicking and praise God for the Delete key, the invention of which ranks with Gutenberg’s movable type in the annals of human progress, not so much for eliminating junk mail as for eliminating one’s own dim-witted writing. Back in the typewriter age we had erasers and liquid white-out and so-called “Lift-Off Tape” or correctable ribbon, which was okay for fixing a misspelled word, but Delete enables you to remove whole pages of pretentious garbage from your writing such as the passage about the privilege of washing blackboards in Mrs. Moehlenbrock’s fourth-grade classroom at Benson School, which I just deleted here and unless I click on “Undo delete” which I will not do, you need never read it.

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The old man’s Sunday sermon to himself

Probably the greenhouse gas report of the U.N. Environment Program shouldn’t have come out the week of Thanksgiving, a time when gassy emissions are quite heavy in the U.S. and people are likely to use the newspaper for guests to park their snowy boots on, but there it was and the picture is bleak, perhaps dire. The planet is heating up at a rate faster than scientists had ever expected, the U.S. is turning our back on the issue, and most people are dozing comfortably through it all. The press leaps when the White House tweets but it doesn’t know how to cover the major crisis of our time, the slow demise of Earth itself.

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What we did Friday night, if you want to know

I didn’t mention 1963 though the day is clear in my mind. I was 21, walking across the University of Minnesota campus, and a man ran by saying something weird about the president, and I went in the back door of Eddy Hall where KUOM had an AP teletype and there it was, clattering away, typing bulletins in incomplete sentences. He was dead in Dallas.

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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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