Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents are allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation. This is a school for kids we once called “handicapped,” now we say “learning challenged.” I went to public school: you stood on the corner, you boarded the bus, it took you to school. This school is one that each of us parents searched desperately for as our child sank into the academic slough.

I stood in the shadows watching the promenade and my heart clutched as it often does at this school. Some of the students look as ordinary as you or I, and others have an odd gait, quirky movements of head or arms, a twitchiness, a speech abnormality. My heart clutches at the sight because I recall clearly how cruelly we treated people like them when I was their age.

And then the band struck up “So Fine” (My baby’s so doggone fine, she sends those chills up and down my spine), and young hips started shaking. The band was a local fivesome, old guys my age, the lead guitarist going bald on top but still maintaining a white ponytail down to his butt, playing songs of my youth, sort of incongruous as if my high school prom had featured the Charleston and the Turkey Trot, but the kids were flying high and improvising, and then we were on to “Brown-Eyed Girl” and I saw a friend of my daughter out on the floor, a young woman who was terribly injured as an infant and now, at sixteen, is blind in one eye and walks with a lurch, one arm semi-paralyzed, and there she was on the dance floor, in transcendent ecstasy, dancing to Van Morrison played by old men.

She was utterly transported, surrounded by classmates, each with his or her own twitches and lurches, all of them dancing like mad, laughing and a-running, skipping and a-jumping, just as the song says, and singing “sha la la la la la,” and the blessed fact was that none of them seemed the least bit self-conscious. When I was that age, I kept a running score on the Cool-O-Meter. These kids were free of that. Six kids in a conga line went by, two boys leaped straight up and down, obese children shimmied with abandon. Their own (pardon me) handicaps had preserved them from the obsessive self-awareness that we normals were plagued by in our youth and still are today, the constant comparisons to others, our work vs. their job, our kids, our clothes, a whole checklist.

The lead guitarist played his five or six basic licks, and the kids danced as if possessed, including the girl in orthopedic shoes, hands over her head. It was a vision of paradise, where at last we shall all be equal in the eyes of the Lord. And then a tall girl named Elizabeth dashed up, threw her arms around me, and we boogied. I do not, in the normal course of things, ever boogie. It is not what I was brought up for. But she obliged me to boogie. And I sang “Sha la la la la la la la la la lah de dah.”

Sunday, the gym was packed for graduation. A bagpiper led the Class of 2018 in, most of whom I recognized from the dance the night before. I sat there, tissue in hand, as one by one, the graduates came to the microphone and spoke their piece. I once made my living speaking into microphones, which came easily to me, and I could hear the enormity of their challenges, managing their tics, working around the blocks and stutters, and I was proud beyond proud of their valor. The president of the class, a tall Liberian girl, spoke, movingly, imploring us all to get to know each other for who we are, not for what we look like.

My daughter and I stood in the sunlight, watching the recessional go by, and she pointed out a favorite teacher of hers and said, “She and her wife have a little boy who I babysit.” The phrase “she and her wife” is dramatic to me, and to my daughter it is unremarkable, just as race is and ethnicity. Don’t believe everything you read. We are moving on.

 


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November 3, 2018

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November 3, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 20, 2007

From Charlotte, NC with legendary blues singer Nappy Brown, big time country artist Suzy Bogguss, prodigious ragtime pianist Ethan Uslan, and national banjo champion Charles Wood.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844), who said both “God is dead” and “[W]e should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” 

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of poet E.E. Cummings (1894), who spent his adulthood painting in the afternoons and writing in the evenings.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of singer-songwriter Paul Simon (1941), who played the last show of his farewell tour last month in his hometown of Queens, New York.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 12, 2018

“Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.” ––Alice Childress, born this day in 1916

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 10, 2018

Today we celebrate the birthdays of composers Thelonious Monk (1917), Vernon Duke (1903), and Giuseppe Verdi (1813).

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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