Columns

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

THEY WERE SO YOUNG

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Don’t name a library after me, please, I’m still writing

I had a long talk with my friend George Latimer, the mayor of St. Paul, last Monday, which went on for 54 minutes, which is a long time for a dying man, but Mayor Latimer is quite feisty at 88, has been in and out of hospice a few times so his intentions aren’t clear, and he was very funny, which is how I want to be when I am dying, should this ever occur. Though he left office in 1990, I still think of him as mayor because he is memorable. He won office despite being short and Lebanese, which some voters misread as “lesbian,” and is a native of Schenectady, which is not in Minnesota nor even near it, but he could talk like a bartender, speaking with great conviction while taking both sides of a question so as not to disrespect those who disagree and elaborating on the complexities so thoroughly that you forgot what he had said. And St. Paul was in rough shape at the time and why would you impose the mayorship on a friend? So we elected an out-of-towner. In St. Paul, you’re not a full citizen unless your grandmother was born there. From the mayorship, he descended into a spiral of deanships and professorships, board memberships, various eminent vacancies, and ten years ago St. Paul’s downtown library was named the George Latimer Library, which led many people to assume he was dead. He called me last week to tell me, in his own words, that he was not.

We agreed that the world we knew is slipping away. We were troubled by the Minnesota Republican convention the previous week at which their apparent presidential nominee said he’d won the state “by a landslide” in 2020 and the Republicans applauded even though he’d lost the state by roughly 230,000 votes, a margin that’s hard to ignore. In his speech, he said, “No matter how hateful and corrupt the communists and criminals we are fighting against may be, you must never forget … this is a nation that totally belongs to you. It is your heritage.” They paid $500 apiece to applaud this bilge.

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Losing my mind in New York and then finding it

I went into a Manhattan ER last Saturday out of concern about incidental memory loss (name of primary physician, for one, name of building I live in, a vagueness about the previous two weeks) and if you need an ER, Manhattan is the place to be. My sweetie was in St. Paul playing viola in an orchestra. I took a cab, walked in the door of New York-Presbyterian, and a few minutes later I was peeing in a plastic container and ten minutes later a neurologist was asking me what year it is, what date, date of birth, name of spouse or loved one and had I recently ingested marijuana or cocaine or anything of the sort, and the answers were 2024, May 18, 8/7/1942, Jenny Lind, and no and no. (Had this been Fargo, North Dakota, she might’ve asked for the name of my wife and left off the “anything of the sort” but this is New York and there are all sorts of that sort of thing.

It’s a fascinating drama, beepers beeping, pagers, men and women in blue quickstepping about their jobs, the occasional wacko screaming, the various souls you and I have no wish to deal with, but what is most dramatic is the kindness, the sheer kindness, the unrelenting gentleness and politeness, the doctor’s gentle pat on the shoulder when the interlocutory is done. Do they teach this in Med School? I guess so. Everyone, even the orderly who pushes your gurney, tells you their name and calls you by name. Nobody is anonymous. A woman is crying in the next alcove: a nurse says, “I’m coming to help you, dear.” The woman says she is in terrible pain.” The doctor is on his way, sweetheart.” Two doctors query two young men about drug usage — marijuana? coke? — and the young men hesitate and the doctors say, “I’m not here to judge. Was it meth? Was it fentanyl? Do you not know?”

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How I survived the solar flares and stayed sane

The geomagnetic storm caused by solar flares that hit Earth last week and triggered the Northern Lights and threatened to disrupt telecommunications and knock out power grids made me a little paranoid, sitting in a 12th-floor apartment in Manhattan, imagining my laptop computer getting fried, smoke pouring from the keyboard, and my novel-in-progress turned to ashes as well as my entire life’s work, leaving me to spend my remaining years in regret, but perhaps not many years would remain, perhaps the flares (which emanate from a sunspot 17 times the size of Earth) would also trigger thermonuclear war and within three hours Earth would be just another roasted planet like Mercury and Venus.

I worried about nuclear war as a child. In grade school, we practiced ducking under our desks in case of a nuclear attack but it only made us question the intelligence of our principal, Mr. Lewis. A nuclear bomb makes a deep crater, and ducking under a desk doesn’t change that nor is it protection against radioactive dust clouds. I’m sure the danger of nuclear war is very real and the prospect is horrendous but how long can you go on worrying over it? You move on to other things such as the prospect of electing a 78-year-old con man from Queens to high office. Didn’t we do that already? Why would we try it again?

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My position on congestion pricing, plainly stated

Congestion pricing comes to Manhattan in June, a system of tolls to reduce daytime traffic on streets that have become sluggish so they’ll start moving again and not turn into parking lots, which is a noble idea, just as no-smoking laws were back in the day: you don’t have a right to be a public nuisance. If you drive into Manhattan below 60thStreet, a license plate reader will assess you fifteen bucks, more for trucks and buses; your taxi fare will go up $1.25, twice that for Uber or Lyft, and the $1 billion collected per year will go to improve mass transit. Like most bold reforms, congestion pricing is unpopular, and New York being New York, people love to jump into the fray, lawsuits are filed, bureaucracies are denounced, families are split, lovers break up, conspiracy theories abound, the death of the city is predicted, dread mounts as June 30 approaches, and why shouldn’t I, a Minnesotan in exile in the city, not voice my concerns? I pay taxes here. I vote. Why should I be silent? You got a problem with that, pal?

I like congestion. It’s part of city life. Why try to turn Manhattan into Minneapolis? Downtown Minneapolis is a ghost town. Walk down Hennepin Avenue at noon, you feel like the lone survivor of a catastrophe. But a taxi ride from the Upper West Side down Columbus Avenue to a 1:30 appointment on 23rd Street is very very exciting. You jump in the cab at 96th and you cruise for a few blocks and in the Seventies it becomes a dramatic slalom run. The cabbie keeps switching lanes to avoid stopped vehicles. Delivery trucks are double-parked, reducing three lanes of traffic to a single lane. Sometimes cross-street traffic blocks the intersection so you may sit through a couple of stoplight changes. Bicyclists fly past, ignoring red lights. Motorcycles thread through the jam, helmeted guys with delivery boxes on their backs, zooming inches away from your cab. If you jumped out of the cab at any point, your mangled body would lie there until the cops arrive, further tangling traffic; eventually a hearse would pull up. Other drivers would curse you as they passed. There is extensive cursing in times of congestion: English and other languages are fully employed, horns honk, pedestrians shake their fists. Diners sit in the restaurant sheds built in the parking lanes back during COVID and eat their lobster rolls and Thai chicken while inhaling carbon monoxide and paying exorbitant prices. You sit in your cab as pedestrians pass, the whole carnival of diverse ethnicities and body types. Food aromas waft from the food trucks, hot dogs, burgers, felafel, burritos. It’s the Minnesota State Fair on amphetamines. Your awareness is heightened. You arrive at 23rd an hour late — your appointment is canceled, or you’ve lost the gig, or the lady’s left the restaurant and won’t ever speak to you again — but it’s thrilling.

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All of me loves olive oil and this is why

I am now putting olive oil on my pancakes, in my coffee, sipping it from a wine glass, after reading that it is beneficial in holding dementia at bay. Don’t ask for proof, I believe what I want to believe, like most other people my age. I don’t want to spend my last years babbling in a seniors’ warehouse; I plan to do stand-up comedy until I’m 97 and then be shot cleanly by a jealous husband whose wife told him she wished he were more like me. A Republican husband — these guys can shoot straight — will aim his .44 and send me instantly, no mouth-to-mouth, to whatever paradise God keeps for us Episcopalian liberals. Probably a dorm where we’ll sit around and read the same copy of the New York Times over and over. No bliss, just boredom.

Do I sound demented to you, dear reader? Tell me if I do.

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Let’s talk about honesty, grrrr, rrrfff, rrrfff

Whenever I open an egg carton, I think of the chicken at work in the factory, creating this elliptical work of art onto a conveyor belt, to be stolen away, and then the hormones in the chicken feed kick in and the process of creation repeats itself, sort of like me and limericks: I write a good one and it stimulates the next limerick and pretty soon I have a hundred of them, which I could collect in a book but won’t because very few people appreciate limericks — women do not, because so many cruel limericks have been written about women, and when men read a limerick they think, “I could’ve done better than that,” being the compulsive competitors they are, and meanwhile here I am with this work of art in my hand.

Minneapolis is great. Have you seen it?

The streets go from Aldrich to Zenith.

It’s the birthplace of Prince,

Than whom no one since

Has been any hipper, I mean it.

The city is good for the sickly.

The streets are numerical, strictly,

And alphabetical

All so that medical

Teams can get to you quickly.

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The critic who lit up my week and more

April was an awfully good month for me, so good that I’ve been walking around St. Paul, looking up into the branches of trees, making sure there isn’t an anvil roosting in one of them that’s waiting to fall and kill me and thereby serve justice. I’m a happy old man in love with my wife and in touch with good friends and I’ve been on the road doing good shows at which, among other things, the audience sings beautifully some songs they and I have known by heart since we were in grade school and now, on top of all this, my book Cheerfulness, in which I attempt to defend the title attitude against our present Age of Dread & Gloom, has gotten a long, intense, brilliant review by Meghan O’Gieblyn in Middle West Review, the spring issue. Only a fellow writer can know what this means. A lot.

I’m still writing books but haven’t been reviewed by anybody in ages, maybe because I’m an Old White Male and our time is up, or maybe I’ve written too many books, and I’m okay with unreviewing — going way back to Veronica Geng’s caramel custard review of Lake Wobegon Days in the New York Times in 1985, the reviews have been warm and sweet, which is nice for the publisher but for me, the hardworking writer, are unremarkable, like a friend’s cat climbing into my lap: not the equivalent of good conversation. But O’Gieblyn’s essay is a brilliant and engaging piece of work and I feel honored that she went to so much trouble. It pleases me that she quotes funny lines from the book and not pretentious ones: she could easily have used my own words to make me look like a hack and a bore. She does use the word “schtick” in connection with my radio monologue, but I don’t mind: in stand-up, schtick is simply useful, like the handheld microphone. She says that my willful optimism seems somewhat strained at times, and she writes, “There is, alas, no shortage of holes in the book’s logic that could be exploited by an attentive critic”and she goes ahead and sticks her finger in some of them, but she also says, “It’s hard not to conclude that Keillor has reached the sunny equanimity of enlightenment.” (I’ve made it as hard as I could, Meghan.) And then she says, “The prose throughout the book is both sharp and buoyant, and often arrives, somewhat unexpectedly, at profundity.” I was aiming for buoyancy. Profundity is well above my pay grade; it’s Ms. Gieblyn’s territory, not mine. To me, this sentence from a writer so sharp as she is worth more than any prize given by a committee. “Sharp and buoyant” is a nice phrase for promotion, but what makes it meaningful to me is the brilliance of Meghan O’Gieblyn.

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On the road again, meeting the folks

I went out West to Idaho and Washington to do my show in Boise (soft s) and Spokane, and was surprised by how vibrant, bustling, handsome both cities are, and walked out onstage and sang Van Morrison’s “These are the days of the endless summer, these are the days, the time is now” and they seemed to like it okay, so I hummed a note and they sang “America the Beautiful” with me and then we did “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the Republicans in the crowd and they sang it full-out, four parts, and then, for contrast, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and we were on our way.

It’s an age of dread, the news perpetually discouraging, TV and media merchandising ugliness, and either you join the Greek chorus of gloom or you go with the American choir of cheerful resolve, and I choose cheerfulness. I am capable of dismay: I’m dismayed by the Working From Home syndrome that is leaving our big office buildings half empty. I call up an office to get answers to difficult questions and I hear Death Chute singing “Vanilla Windows” and a guy says, “Yeah?” and a dog barks and a woman yells, “Put it on headphones!” This is what Allied Federated has come to. I’d prefer to get a woman named Mildred who is an authority on health coverage and who is looking at me across her desk. But never mind me, I’m old.

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The beauty of falls that you walk away from

This is not a sermon, just a fact: since I cut out alcohol 22 years ago, I’ve often awoken in the middle of the night with beautiful ideas, which is a golden gift for a writer, better than emeralds. Tuesday night, for example, I woke at 3 a.m., next to my sleeping wife, arose, dressed, slipped out of our hotel room in Minneapolis, and sat in the lobby with my laptop and started writing a book with a ten-word title about happiness. I’m a happy man, I am qualified. Last week I did two shows, just outside D.C. and in Vermont, two serious locations, and I made those people laugh so hard, they were glad they’d brought an extra pair of pants. I went to Minnesota hoping to solve a Medicare problem that I’d spent years on the phone about, listening to mind-numbing music on Hold, waiting to talk to a clueless functionary working from home, TV blaring in the background, dogs barking, and in Minnesota I went to an office, sat across the desk from a human being, the way we used to do, and he solved it in a matter of minutes. And he thanked me for my patience. Life is good.

I’ve been waiting a long time to become as old as I am and it was worth the wait. You couldn’t pay me enough to go back to being young again. I did dumber things than you’d think possible for a university graduate. That’s why I excused myself from the jury — paying off a porn star and claiming it as a business expense? Heck, I’ve made accounting mistakes, too. But — this is the beautiful 3 a.m. idea — you’ve got to have some disasters, the kind you walk away from, to notice the bluebird on your shoulder. My disaster was a series of falls I took while walking around Manhattan. I’m 81. I used to have a good jump shot from the free-throw circle, I have hit for extra bases in softball, but that was a long time ago. Now, as I walk through LaGuardia, men driving passenger carts stop and offer me a ride. I decline. They say, “Are you sure?”

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