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

Bringing people along with me 101

So the news is out. Harvard will be offering a course on Taylor Swift in the spring. The professor, who is 52, is a Swift fan and describes her interest in Swift — “she’s someone who worked to become herself and makes her own decisions in a way that brings people along with her and doesn’t alienate people.” I suppose you could say the same about Shakespeare, though he did alienate some people who then wound up in engineering or medicine.

In the course, Swift’s work will be compared to other writers such as Coleridge and Wordsworth. “Wordsworth also writes about some of the same feelings that Taylor sings about: disappointment in retrospect, and looking back and realizing that you’re not the child you were, even though you might want to be.” Students will write three term papers but there may not be a final exam. “I have such mixed feelings about final exams because they stress people out. They’re a pain to give and they’re no fun.”

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Singing to the Lord to save Herschel

The Communion hymn in church last Sunday was “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” which I cherish for the lines “Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice:
serve him with mirth,” which is the only time comedy is mentioned in our hymnal, I do believe. There’s joy and rejoicing and gladness, but the thought of serving our Creator with jokes is rather rare and, I think, beautiful. I’m not sure I know exactly what joy is but I do know the one about the engineer who sees another engineer rolling a little pellet between his fingers and saying, “I’m trying to figure out if this is more rubbery or more like plastic,” and the first engineer takes the pellet from him and says, “There is plasticity to it but there’s a viscosity, a sort of liquidity too” and he puts it in his mouth and says, “And there’s a salinity to it as well. Where did you get it?” The other engineer says, “Out of my nose.”

A joke is a friendly transaction between two persons and even if it falls flat, it conveys a generous spirit. I have four friends who still tell me jokes, three men, one woman, all of them old enough to remember the Helen Keller jokes (How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read the waffle iron.) and the lightbulb jokes (How many philosophers does it take to change a lightbulb? Define “light.”) or the “What’s the difference” jokes (What’s the difference between roast beef and pea soup? Anyone can roast beef.) and the “What did the blank say to the blank” (What did the maxi-pad say to the fart? You are the wind beneath my wings.) and double-amputee jokes (“What do you call a man with no arms or legs hanging on your wall?” Art.) and old guy jokes (Old lawyers never die, they just lose their appeal. Old actuaries never die, they just get broken down by age and sex.) and the Ole and Lena jokes (So Ole died and Lena called up the undertaker to come get him, and he said, “I’ll be there in an hour,” and she said, “I’m having my hair done in half an hour, how about I drag him out to the curb and you can pick him up there?”). And there were Viagra jokes but they petered out.

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Epictetus on Fifth Avenue, a week ago

The world’s longest parking lot is Fifth Avenue in New York at midday and a week ago I found myself stuck in it, in a cab driven by a devout Sikh with headscarf and big beard, whose religion evidently taught him to Yield, so we moved at a glacial rate from 86th to 43rd Street where I had an important lunch appointment. Had I taken the B train I would’ve been there in a few minutes but that mistake had been made and now I watched pedestrians on the sidewalk passing us.

So what can you do? No need to get fussed up. You embrace stoicism. Epictetus said the way to happiness is to not worry about things beyond your power to control, which includes this taxi ride, totalitarianism, the cost of tickets to “Tannhäuser,” and other things that begin with T. So the two VIPs I am meeting for lunch may have to cool their jets for a while. I don’t have their cellphone numbers — they’re very I — so they’ll just have to amuse themselves at the restaurant. This is New York, a city teeming with amusement, you can stand on any corner and it will come walking along.

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My personal journey toward self-minimization

I went to see “La Bohème” the other day, such a great opera, it doesn’t matter that the singers aren’t, and let me just say this — at the beginning of the first and last acts, set in the garret, you’ve got Rodolfo and Marcello and the guys and there’s no story, no purpose, nothing but vague bohemianism until Mimi shows up and then the lights come on, and it’s like that in life too. My opinion, okay? Message plays that preach justice and equality are okay for college sophomores but the real story is about two opposites who fall in love and she’s charming and he’s jealous and they come crosswise and hurt each other deeply but in the end they’re tied to each other. Lovers are real, families are real. Demonstrators, not so much.

These days we’re in the era of the Personal Position Statement as we saw in the recent National Book Awards ceremony in New York. There is no NBA for humor because the event is all about Taking Ourselves Very Seriously As Compensation For Slights We Have Suffered From The Uncomprehending World. The winner of the poetry prize, a man from Guam, accepted it on behalf of the poets of the Pacific islands. The translation award was accepted on behalf of gay men, the nonfiction award on behalf of indigenous peoples. If I’d been given the NBA for Brief Amusing Essays, I would’ve needed to accept it on behalf of recovering fundamentalists or overlooked Midwesterners or the marginalized octogenarian and nothing would be said about literary quality.

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Thank goodness for Minnesota

Winter is here, people, and let’s face it — somebody has to live up here in the north, we can’t all sit around Mirage-a-Lounge, Florida, and play golf every day, somebody has to raise the soybeans and defend the border against the insatiable Canadians, and so here we are, putting on our puffy coats that make us look fat and stocking caps that destroy our hairstyle and heading out into the frigid blast and going to work and getting important stuff done, and not passing nuclear secrets around to our pals at the club or doubling the size of our penthouse on loan applications. I don’t know any Minnesotans who do that sort of thing.

When Hubert Humphrey was LBJ’s vice president, I’ll bet you anything he didn’t sit around Murray’s steakhouse in Minneapolis and show Canadian tycoons the formula for the H-bomb.

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Finding harmony in the midst of chaos

I flew into New York last week into JFK, which would not be my choice but that’s where the plane landed. LaGuardia has been remade into a marble palace and JFK is an obstacle course to find out if you really really really want to come to New York or if you might rather go to Cleveland. The Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and that’s JFK, huddled masses yearning to claim their baggage and find a taxi.

Your best strategy in dismal circumstances is militant cheerfulness. You say “Thank you” and “God bless you” to anyone who holds a door for you or lets you pass, you ask the taxi starter how he’s doing today, you address the cabbie as “My friend” and it really does brighten your day.

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“Stand up for yourself,” I keep thinking to myself

I ate breakfast with a woman last week who, in the course of twenty minutes, sent four cups of coffee back to the kitchen because they didn’t meet her standards, a drip-brewed cup with milk, two lattes, and a latte with oat milk. (Her name does not begin with J.)

I’m not a newcomer to this world and I have never met a person with such exquisitely fine taste in the coffee realm. Wine, yes. Coffee, no. I say this with all due admiration. It’d be so easy to reproach her, what with wars and starvation and natural disasters and global warming and doxing and polls showing that a majority of Americans support blatant dishonesty and corruption, but I don’t go down the shaming road.

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The comedian’s thoughts at the wedding

I went to a wedding in California last week, a beautiful wedding out under the eucalyptus trees, a rare pleasure for me, being at the age when friends are not vowing “till death us do part” but watching death part them, and it was fun. It being California, the men were very mellow, the women were all glamorous in bright strapless gowns and hugged each other and cried, “Oh my god, you look fabulous,” and effusiveness was the rule. The men were all socially engaged, tolerant of differences, committed to social justice. The parents stood up and gave speeches praising the bride and groom so lavishly, it made me wonder if the couple had been diagnosed with a fatal disease.

I’m from Minnesota where weddings are solemn and parents do not speak admiringly of their children. Not lavishly anyway. They worry. They wonder if the marriage will last. They wonder if the guests are having a good time. In Minnesota, it’s hard to tell.

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On the phone with my people

A balmy, even summery, fall in Minnesota and then suddenly snow fell and my aging homeowner pals back home are reconsidering their options. The supply of teenage labor to shovel walks is spotty and you hear horror stories about ice buildup in the attic, water dripping from the ceiling, tons of ice inside the roof because the vapor barrier was put in wrong, and then of course there is the ever-present danger of slipping on a frosty sidewalk and twisting your back as you fall and something cracks and suddenly you are on the waiting list for Cripple Creek Care Center. A friend told me about a squirrel who’d climbed down the chimney to get warm and fell into the old coal furnace and tore around the house in a panic, scattering soot everywhere until they finally chased him out: “I got a .22 and I could’ve shot him but he was moving pretty fast and anyway the kids were watching and they were cheering for the squirrel.”

These are true Minnesotans, stalwarts, stoics, not summer soldiers, and the thought of decamping for the Florida swamps or the Arizona desert is for them something like gender transition or conversion to Zen Lutheranism, something to be postponed as long as possible.

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The memory is alive with old roots

The simple pleasures of a long close marriage on a perfect October day, leaves dropping from the trees, eating an egg salad sandwich after her long morning walk, playing Scrabble. She talks about who and what she saw on her hike and I, the writer, am silent in thought, having played the word “irony,” which triggers the memory of a day long ago in Saginaw, Michigan.

I’d gone there to give a speech — don’t remember the occasion, only that afterward, a man in a shiny blue suit said to me, “It’s so hard to get good speakers to come to Saginaw.” And it wasn’t clear if this was a compliment or an insult.

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