Columns

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

I have something to say: is that a problem?

It’s a strange world we live in when a Pekingese wins Top Dog honors at the Westminster Dog Show, a furball beating out a whippet and a sheepdog. I read the story twice and it said nothing about the criteria except “showmanship,” which is pretty far-fetched when referring to a lapdog, a dog designed to be a pillow. A whippet is a racer, a sheepdog herds livestock, and a Pekingese simply grows billows of hair that might be, who knows, made into wigs.

But this is the world we live in. Evidently the dog showed a lot of attitude and this impressed the judges, despite the animal’s lack of useful skills. Huskies pull the sled that brings the vaccine to the Arctic village, St. Bernards carry cannisters of warm liquids to fallen mountain climbers and assist them to safety. German shepherds guard the perimeter of the airbase and rip the throats of enemy spies attempting to steal nuclear secrets. Golden retrievers locate lost children. Border collies can be trained to carry crucial messages through a snowstorm to a distant outpost. Doberman pinschers are useful in a pinsch. A Pekingese is simply a furry stuffed dog who happens to poop.

If attitude is now the all-important quality, then Donald J. Trump will win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He knows more about chemistry than all chemists put together. Ask him, he’ll tell you. About one-fourth of the country imagines he won the 2020 dog show over the Irish wolfhound who is in the White House and doing the work.

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O beautiful for summer skies and waves of conversation

Finally, a fine summer, which we Minnesotans appreciate, having endured winter’s attempts to depress us, and just when we were about to go into therapy and talk about how emotionally unavailable our dad was, summer came along and here I am on a sunny day with relatives on a porch enjoying a sweet slow conversation. I’m not so fond of sunshine, I’d prefer a dramatic thunderstorm; I grew up evangelical and I’m happiest when lightning bolts are flashing all around and none are hitting me. But a sunny day is okay.

The relatives are from Florida but they’re nice normal people, no yellow plaid pants, they’re vaccinated, they accept Joe Biden as president, and their kids love books and their dog snoozes on the floor, his head on my daughter’s lap. She’s been afraid of dogs since she was four. She trembles at the sight of one. A hundred times I’ve yelled at her, “It’s only a dog!” but her terror prevailed, and today, by force of will and the beauty of a summer day, she is snuggling with a dog. Her courage brings tears my eyes, pleasure overcoming dread.

It’s so peaceful and pleasant, so much like a summer night in my boyhood, Mother reading the Minneapolis Star, stories about heinous criminals, and Dad dozing through the Millers game on the radio, Red Mottlow the announcer waiting for a Miller home run so he can yell, “Goodbye, mama, that train is leaving the station, Whoooooooooooooo!” Dad didn’t wake up for a home run, only if you turned off the game. My job was to move the sprinkler around the lawn. The dog lay under the porch, panting. I was twelve. I imagined becoming a grown-up and I must say that adulthood has turned out well for me. I never got involved with Lyme disease or poison ivy, never did recreational drugs, and I got out of academia after a year of grad school. I met my wife in 1992, she was the sister of my sister’s high school classmate, so it was sort of an arranged marriage and it’s worked out well, according to me.

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Why I am avoiding retirement and you should too

I feel like teaching a course on aging for people in their fifties who are headed that way but on the wrong path, looking forward to unemployment as if it were not the tragedy it is. My nephew has now achieved unemployment at age 55 and is becoming an outdoorsman and birdwatcher, the most useless occupation available to man, second only to competitive expectoration.

What can I say? The birds know who they are and are attracted to the proper mates and wary of enemies and there is little we can do to be helpful other than put out seed. Instead of showing off his familiarity with the finch family, the nephew could walk through the park, eyes peeled for slimeballs selling bad stuff to teenagers. Birdwatching can be left to the birds themselves.

All of my peers are unemployed except those of us who are writers or engaged in what we call “the arts,” where, as a rule, you keep going until you drop dead. Beethoven and Brahms didn’t retire at 65 because it’s so hard to get that good, you’d naturally keep knocking out the concerti so long as you could see and the Duke of Earl was willing to shell out the guilders. Same with painters. So long as the naked female form still held interest for them, Gauguin and Goya and their painter pals kept at the easels. The artistic life was treacherous, what with syphilis, liver damage, lead poisoning, and the knowledge that your death would wildly inflate the market value of your work, creating wealth for schlumps and nothing for you. Posthumous prosperity: what a rotten deal.

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Me and Emily, out on the town

It got into the 90s back home the other day and friends complained to me over the phone though guiltily because they knew I’d spent a day in the ER in New York which, honestly, had been a beautiful illuminatory experience and not miserable at all, but they felt sheepish about complaining of a heat wave and the raccoons devouring their strawberries despite the netting and apologized for talking about it, feeling that a brain seizure trumps a heat wave and rapacious raccoons. Not true.

I came through the valley of the shadow of death and the Lord prepared a table before me in the ER and poured oil on my head and I came out feeling like Emily in “Our Town” — “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” I can’t help it that I have a Grover’s Corners side to my personality that emerges during big thunderstorms and at night on the bow of a ship in the mid-Atlantic and once hiking into the Grand Canyon and once during Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and also that time in the ER. Is there such a word as “enraptured”? If there is, that’s what I was.

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A man in a back pew, thinking to himself

I’ve been avoiding the news for a while, but it was hard to ignore the recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute that showed about 15 percent of Americans believe the government is controlled by Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood and that patriots will need to depose them by violent revolution. This represents as many people as belong to Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches in America. It is sort of dizzying to contemplate, even for an Episcopalian like me.

The study found that 55 percent of Republicans “mostly disagreed” with those ideas but not entirely. One-fourth of Republicans disagreed entirely, compared to 58 percent of Democrats, which still leaves a good many ambivalent Democrats.

It makes me wonder about the purity of drinking water in the middle of the country. These are not ideas taught in public school civics courses. I’ve never overheard anyone discussing Satanist pedophiles at a table near me at lunch. But PRRI now classifies QAnon, which holds these views, as a major religion. So there you are. Welcome to the 21st century.

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Out of the bubble, into the hullabaloo

Spent twenty-four hours in an emergency ward and am still giddy from it and from having gotten off light when it could’ve been otherwise, which someday it will but not yet. I lay in a little alcove, off a busy core of staff at computers, gurneys coming and going, beepers beeping, but vast professional courtesy prevailing. It was a big hospital on 68th and York in Manhattan, so it was an international staff, Asia, Africa, all over. My neighbor was a woman with cancer who often yelled, “Somebody come and help me! I just want to die! Help me!” and my other neighbor was a drunk who was mentally ill and also a jerk, a terrible combination. He had checked himself in and was now calling 911 to come get him out. Four cops arrived. It may have been the highlight of their day.

As for me, I’d been sent by my doctor for tests after I’d twice blanked out and had memory lapses (including the name of my doctor), which alarmed my wife. I called the doctor and his secretary asked for my phone number and when I couldn’t recall it, she put me right through. I took a cab over and Dr. Nash quizzed me. I’ve suffered a couple of strokes in the past, light ones, and he is a good explainer, and I canceled everything and went over to ER. My wife kissed me goodbye and said, “You remember that Maia was born here, right?” I did, then.

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Why we are staying home tonight, not going out

We sat out on our terrace in New York the other night, she and I, and cherished the feel of summer, a great blessing to us stoical northerners unaccustomed to paradise, so we contemplate all that is to come, the first rhubarb and strawberries, strawberry-rhubarb pie, sweet corn, fireflies flashing each other, the light produced by the oxidation of luciferin — one of those insignificant facts you carry around, waiting for a chance to dazzle someone with. If I were a firefly, I’d say to a female, That’s the oxidization of luciferin there, you know, and she’d be impressed and we’d mate and then I’d die.

I look forward to the next big storm, purple sky, lightning ripping the sky, volleys of thunder, so I can be calm and reassuring, a manly role, though I’m the last person you’d want in a real emergency. If I tried to give artificial respiration, I’d probably suffocate the patient.

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Going to Newport with Mrs. Dashboard

We went to Newport for three days last week, two Minnesotans long married, to rediscover the fact that ocean air is delicious and invigorating and can even make you happy. That surely is why the Vanderbilts built their monstrous mansion on the shore: sinking into decadence in a fake palace with more marble than Arlington Cemetery, nonetheless they could take a deep breath and feel childlike pleasure. So could their servants. So did we, crossing the beautiful bridges over the bays to Aquidneck Island, seeing the Atlantic, thinking “Oh wow” and “Oh my god.” The world is in turmoil, but walking along the shore and inhaling salt air lets you remember how good it felt to be twelve years old.

It’s a fine old town. You come and eat oysters and cod, text videos of the surf to your inland friends, and drive around and get your fill of colonial homes in dark greens and browns, many of them turned into boutique hotels. It’s here that I appreciate having a car with an electronic lady in the dashboard to give us directions. You simply press a button and say, “Cliff Walk,” and she says, “In six hundred feet, turn left on Narragansett Avenue and drive one-half mile.” Her vocal inflexion is very good; she sounds like an educated American woman in her mid-forties who knows her way around. And you drive down Narragansett and there, past Salve Regina College, is the ocean with Cliff Walk above it and you walk along the cliff and you can look across the vast green lawn to the marble pile where the Vanderbilts sank their ill-gotten gains, which is open for tourists to wander through and see how grim boughten grandeur can be.

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An adventure in my own home on Tuesday

The life of an honest satirist is a hard life and so there are few of them. We cherish our delusions — I am very fond of mine, especially the belief that I am master of my house and captain of my ship, but on Tuesday, sitting on the throne, I saw that the toilet paper dispenser was empty, no extra rolls of Scott tissue in sight, and the Chief Provisioner was off on her daily walk, and so I had to hike around the apartment, pants at half-mast, looking for the goods.

A man who doesn’t know where the toilet paper is kept in an apartment he’s lived in for many years is in a ridiculous position. He knows this as he wanders from room to room, opening cupboards, looking in drawers, hoping she does not walk in and see her husband the noted author in this delicate moment. He has lived with his head in the clouds and lost touch with the essentials of life.

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The impending crisis of exploding cicada data

My grandpa left Glasgow in 1905 and sailed to America and brought his thirteen children up as Americans and so I haven’t yet taken a position on Scottish independence but with the resounding victory of the Scottish National Party in elections last week, I suppose I’ll have to. I like to involve myself in other people’s problems where I myself have nothing at all at stake. Someone asked me about Ukraine the other day and though I haven’t heard anything from there in a long time, I gave a good answer, reasonable, balanced, on the one hand this, on the other hand that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been focused on the crisis of the seventeen-year cicada, trillions of which will soon crawl out of the ground from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, from Georgia to New England, their incessant skritching filling the air for weeks, as they breed and the males drop dead and the females lay eggs to hatch into larvae to tunnel down into the ground to spend seventeen years and then resurrect.

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