Columns

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

A new day dawns and we rise cheerfully to meet it

There is a magnificent Presbyterian church in New York being hassled by its neighbors who’re tired of the scaffolding that’s been standing for fifteen years. The scaffolding is there because the building is falling apart, and the little congregation is dwindling and can’t afford the repairs. They’d like to sell the property and let the buyers demolish the church and put up a 19-story condo tower. But the Landmark Commission doesn’t want this building, a landmarked 1890 Romanesque Revival masterpiece, to be replaced by a filing cabinet. Meanwhile attendance is fading because who wants to go to church and be struck by a fifty-pound chunk of sandstone?

I favor demolition. There is nothing holy about a building, the Holy Spirit moves freely in and out of buildings, people can feel God’s grace wherever they happen to be. If the building were preserved and sold to Pizza Hut and ovens placed where the altar used to be and the organ automated to play Metallica and Black Sabbath, how does this serve the common good?

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I am an orphan and an officeless man

I miss having an office to go to. I had friendly colleagues and employees, and we were in the entertainment biz so we got to work with a lot of lulus and lunatics and we kept flexible hours and laughed a lot. I liked that we were in the business of making serious people split a gut. I also liked getting dressed up for work in a suit and tie, which you need to do when you’re involved with frivolity. Now I go to work in my pajamas at the dining room table. I don’t know if “clothes make the man” but I know that pajamas do not make the man. They make me feel like going back to bed.

I loved walking in the front door in the morning at 9 a.m., the way the receptionist straightened up and smiled, the electric anticipation among the minions that the captain was on deck, the ship was about to sail. I don’t sense that same excitement in my wife when I walk into the kitchen in my pajamas. She says, “Your hair is standing up like a rooster’s and I think you should check your left nostril.”

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Suddenly it’s clear why I wanted to be old

I love this September chill in the air. I love sweaters. They hide the age wrinkles on my inner upper arms. A stocking cap means I don’t have to comb my hair. Delicate souls are yearning for Florida and maybe catch a temp job as a consumer influence consultant, enough to pay for a condo with a pool, but not me, I’m not into influence and Florida brings out the bad taste in people and nobody wants to see an old man in a thong bikini. So here I am. I like the coffee here. I’ve figured out how the shower works and no longer stand under scalding water because I turned the wrong knob; I don’t want to go to Florida and stay in a motel with a crank for a shower knob and be burned alive while naked. So I’ll stay up North. Here I take a shower, wrap a towel around me, walk into the bedroom and sing, “O my love, my darling, I hunger for your touch.” In Florida, I’d go to the ER.

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Tempted to give up politics for Parcheesi

My mom admired FDR and Eleanor because they cared about the poor. My dad felt there was no such thing as a Depression, that anyone who wanted work could find it, that the WPA was relief for the lazy, We Poke Along. He maintained this view even after we pointed out that his first real job came from his uncle Lew who owned the Pure Oil station in town. Their difference of opinion never got in the way of their love for each other. Politics was far away; real life was up close and was all about family. Sometimes I’d find her sitting in his lap, the parents of six kissing. He was a little sheepish, she was not.

Sometimes I envy my parents’ close-up life. I sit every morning, a hard-hearted man scanning my email inbox, fending off the pitiful pleas of political candidates in tight races, falling behind with the fate of democracy itself in the balance, the future of the planet, but we’re losing (unthinkable!) to a weird opponent who believes COVID is a covert conspiracy of drug companies and is financed by tycoons who plan to relocate on Mars, the good candidate is only asking for a $10 contribution, he pleads, and I snip them off one by one, along with the fabulous 50% OFF THIS WEEK ONLY offers, and an African orphanage asking me to buy a $500 Apple gift certificate and forward it to this address to save kids from starvation. Out they go.

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What was so remarkable about Monday

Nobody does royal funerals so beautifully as the Brits and an American watches with awe the long procession toward the chapel at Windsor Castle, the precision left/right stroll of the Grenadiers alongside the hearse, the horsemen behind, the bemedaled notaries and royal descendants and then, having come through narrow arches into the courtyard, the hearse stops, the rear door opens, and the eight uniformed pallbearers do a side-shuffle march to take hold of the coffin and lift it to their shoulders and take it up the steps. No simple task but they do it precisely and a stately silence prevails except on TV where American reporters venture speculation about a woman whose job was to be a mystery and who did it very well.

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October is coming, prepare to be bold

She told me out of the blue that she adores me. I was there, in a chair, listening; she was standing by the grandfather clock. She didn’t sing it but she said it clearly. This should answer any remaining questions. But Mister Malaise and Madam Miasma are ever on our trail, skulking in woodlands and meadows, waylaying the vulnerable, requiring us to drink discouragement and despair, and they got me a few days ago, two weeks after mitral valve replacement, walking tall in Transitional Care, transitioning back to normal life when I was hit (in the time it takes to tell it) by abject weakness, dizziness, nausea, and had to be locked up in hospital and tubes put in my arms for blood and antibiotics, and then released in a weakened semi-invalid state. It’s a lousy feeling. I look out at Minneapolis and imagine it’s Odessa, which it is not. I worry the Swiss banks will fail. Water mains will burst. Bacon will be banned, leaving us with vegan substitute.

The body wants to heal and it has felicitous intuitions how to go about doing it but meanwhile I ache and shuffle around like an old grampa and hike the hallways and work at maintaining a cheerful outlook (false). My wife is a worrier and when we promised to love and honor each other 27 years ago, diarrhea and vomiting weren’t mentioned in detail, so I walk carefully.

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What if it does and they do?

Sea levels are rising as the polar ice caps melt and now it’s clear why Republicans are in favor of global warming, it’s a form of gerrymandering. It destroys the Democratic coasts and drives disheartened Manhattanites westward to wander lost and confused in Ohio, their sophistication shredded, their street smarts useless. The Obamas will lose their place on Cape Cod and move to Omaha. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez will wind up in Topeka and go back to bartending. The fashion industry will move to Des Moines and polyester plaids will make a big comeback. Broadway will, of course, settle in Oklahoma –– where else?

My love and I live on the 12th floor of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which won’t be so upper much longer and so we’re thinking of buying a kayak so we can still make it to Zabar’s when the streets are flooded. We’ll paddle around the little islands that used to be Central Park and the Belvedere Castle to look in the Guggenheim, which will be turned into a water slide, and when Zabar’s closes with its fabulous cheese section where a shopper gains weight simply by inhaling, then we’ll order a chopper to lift us off the roof and wave goodbye to the old life and be flown to Pittsburgh to fly back to Minnesota. One chapter ends, another begins.

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Never been such times as these before, I swear

It’s good for your breathing, the deep breaths you must draw at the systemic shamelessness of Mar-il-Legal, the casual heist of government stuff, the FBI arriving to take away the top-secret documents and all, the refusal by the Former to acknowledge error, his wholesale abuse of the FBI, and then the weaselish dictum by the Trump judge to hold the DOJ at bay, it was breathtaking, like watching a hippo climb a tree.

The sorting of material, separating articles of clothing from top-secret documents into their own piles, seems to be a problem for DJT, according to the FBI. Surely the man’s valet puts the socks in the sock drawer and not with the golf balls and cheeseburgers, but in his official dealings DJT seems prone to chaos.

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Lying in bed, grateful for it all

A week in hospital has brought me back to an appreciation of Jell-O, scrambled eggs, mac and cheese, the banana, food that is beyond criticism. There is no such thing as a deluxe banana. The best mac and cheese you ever had was not significantly better than the worst. My beloved disagrees. She is somehow repelled by Jell-O, perhaps she thinks if you eat it you’ll wind up living in a trailer park. To me, Jell-O is what it is, Jell-O. My dad lived in a trailer park and loved it; I think it gave him a sense of imminent mobility. Hitch up the tow, let’s go to Orlando.

My beloved has some Swedish ruminants in her ancestry whereas I have coyotes in mine. The ruminants had a taste for savory weeds and the coyotes only ate weeds to get the taste of chicken feather out of their mouths. Somehow we’ve made a happy marriage out of this.

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What was done for me back in Minnesota

There is vast kindness in this world and right now I am resting in it, astonished by it, a man who in the space of 48 hours went through an ablation procedure to calm wild heart arrhythmia and then a heart valve replacement and a valve repair. I climbed aboard the gurney for the first procedure, an adult male of 80, and was borne away from the second in an infantile state, helpless, somewhat hallucinatory, a disastrous life change for a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and through it all I was aware of the young women and men in blue scrubs who were at my side, making friendly small talk while checking tubes and adjusting pillows. They asked me to squeeze their hands, wiggle my fingers, look into a bright light, push up against their hand pulling my foot down, smile, raise my eyebrows, follow their finger with my eyes, and when I did they said, “Awesome,” “Fantastic,” “Excellent.” I said, “A person doesn’t have to do much to win praise around here” and they laughed. It was the only useful thing I could do, make them laugh, so I became a lie-down comedian, interpreting literally what they said: “Oh, we are going to have a bowel movement now? Fine, you go first and I’ll watch and see how it’s done.”

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