Columns

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

Hard-earned wisdom passed on at no charge

There never was a bad nap. I pass this wisdom on to you, as an old man who has experienced more disappointment than you’ll ever know and it took me 75 years to learn how to deal with it: you lie down, close your eyes, and wake up feeling better.

I used to eat Wheaties because they sponsored “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy” on the radio back before the rest of you were born and a men’s quartet sang, “Have you tried Wheaties? They’re whole wheat with all of the bran. Won’t you try Wheaties? For wheat is the best food of man.” Jack traveled the world foiling the evil plans of villains, and Wheaties were made by General Mills, based in Minneapolis, and Jack was based on a student at the University of Minnesota, which I intended to attend (and did, and graduated with a B.A.), and I was loyal to it for years, but last year, the most profitable in General Mills’s history, they jacked up the price of Wheaties to $8 while reducing the food content, and I felt betrayed and I haven’t put a spoonful of the Breakfast of Champions to my lips. The cereal in the box is worth about a dime, the box itself about a quarter, and the rest goes to enable a battalion of execs to own homes in Minneapolis and Aruba and Aspen and fly to Paris for a weekend. Nothing to do with foiling evil plans.

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Man walks out on stage as storm rolls in

I did my solo stand-up act in Ohio last week and in the midst of a story, the auditorium shook with a blast of thunder. I paused. The audience laughed. Another roll of thunder. And I started singing, “How Great Thou Art,” with the line, “I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,” and the audience joined in en masse, they knew the words, they sang it so beautifully, the chorus drowned out the thunder. I was telling a story about me as a teenager necking with a girl in a car and when thunder struck again, I looked up at the ceiling, addressing the Lord, and said, “It was her idea, it wasn’t mine. She unbuttoned my shirt.”

I loved that audience dearly and gave them a good ninety minutes and afterward a distinguished man stopped by to shake hands. Back when, he’d heard me on the radio. I said, “I detect an air of authority about you. You’re the president of something.” He said he was a retired Army major; he’d commanded a tank battalion. “Where?” I said. “Vietnam,” he said. I said I’d never heard of tanks used in Vietnam. He said, “That’s because they would’ve sunk four feet down in the Delta and so they were useless. When we got there, we became infantry.”

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The joy of standing with arm upraised

It was plain and simple joy to sit in a packed church on Easter Sunday and sing the Alleluias and listen to the story of the women finding the tomb empty and wait in a long line for Communion. We Episcopalians have been known to marry existentialists, hedonists, individualists, pantheists, Baptists, and disAnglified sophisticates, and it’s lovely to have them all under the tent to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection regardless of what doubts may flutter in their heads. I grew up among separatist fundamentalists, a joyless and judgmental lot, and this was entirely different, public happiness openly shared. The women at the tomb where his body had been laid were afraid but there was no fear among us on Sunday morning, and in Manhattan, where one’s mind easily turns to dark scenarios, this joy is palpable.

And after Communion, we stood and sang a beloved Catholic hymn whose chorus, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day,” brings many of us to tears, and though Episcopalian, members of the church of the wingtips and tweed vests, in our wave of feeling we raise one arm like storefront Pentecostals, and I think of my dead brother, my grandson Freddy, my parents and my wife’s parents, and feel the glow of faith that we will be reunited. This faith is not an intellectual feat; it feels miraculous and I carry it around all day.

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A letter from Greenville, S.C.

I spent last week gadding about the Carolinas doing shows and enjoying the South, eating eggs and grits and hearing the waitress say, “Can I get you more coffee, darling?” and encountering Republicans, a tribe rarer than Mohicans on the West Side of Manhattan where I live. I miss them. My uncles tended Republican, believing in personal responsibility and fiscal reality, and at church on Palm Sunday, at coffee hour, I heard the word “taxes” uttered contemptuously and a gentleman in his sixties was saying, “Everything government touches, it messes up,” a genuine living Republican. Twenty minutes before, at Mass, he had been forgiven his iniquity, and I wanted to put my arms around him.

I am comfortable in the South. I’m okay with not talking politics with crazy people. Yes, in the rural areas, they display the Confederate flag, but I’ve got junk in my closet too. I see no need to remove statues of Civil War heroes: just paint their uniforms olive drab and enlist them in the U.S. Army. A good summer job for teenagers.

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Everyone’s a member of the subway

Some friends of mine put me up for membership in a very exclusive New York club, one where you go and meet all the right sort of people who know things that a nice Midwestern guy doesn’t, such as where can I find a really vicious lawyer when I need one and how can I improve my chances of getting a rave review in the Times, so the friends wrote recommendations and the admissions committee interviewed me, and a week later I was rejected for the best of reasons, because I was dumb.

It was a Monday, 2 p.m. I flew into LaGuardia that morning with a suitcase so I took a cab home to the West Side and decided to take a shower and freshen up. Dumb. I should’ve gone straight to the club but instead I made myself fresh and winsome and dashed to the subway and took the B train to near the club and then came out of the subway and in confusion walked the wrong way and arrived at the club half an hour late.

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Forget the bunny, it’s about resurrection

Easter is almost upon us when we Christians take a deep breath after Lent and relax and whoop it up a little. I mean, rising from the dead is no ordinary thing — if you were heading to the airport and passed a cemetery and saw people coming up out of the ground, wouldn’t you pull over and take a video with your iPhone even if your flight is boarding in an hour? Of course you would.

And what if it were a Unitarian cemetery, a mausoleum with a large silver question mark on the roof instead of a cross, and you saw clouds of ashes forming into friendly people nicely dressed and a couple of them are standing by the highway, hitchhiking, and you stop and they get in and the guy says, “Wow, you won’t believe what we’ve just seen.”?

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Why I’m happy and you should be too

It’s so good being an old man that if I’d only known, I’d have arrived at 81 sooner, and I don’t just mean senior discounts. I mean the liberation from hipness, being out of the loop, going to bed early, not reading book reviews or pundits. William Butler Yeats said it all in 1919: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” My wife just walked over in her pajamas as I was googling the Yeats and she leaned down and I was filled with passionate intensity, so I’m no better than you, I’m just older.

I don’t go to movies anymore — don’t know the actors and the butter on the popcorn is worse than ever — don’t watch TV because the remote is way beyond my pay grade. That’s why I’m not a Republican: I never watched “The Apprentice” — and there was a deadness in the man’s eyes that told the truth. I read a transcript of his speech in Rome, Georgia, a week ago: “We have the stupidest people in the history of our country running things. These are stupid, these are stupid people. And we should be saying, ‘Crooked Joe, you are fired. Get out of here. You are fired. You’re incompetent. You’re incompetent. Get out of here. You’re destroying our nation. Get the hell out of here. You’re destroying our country, Joe.’ He doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t even know. He doesn’t know he is destroying it. He has no clue. He has no clue.”

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My plan for today and April and May

Today I am going to get organized and the first item of business is to establish a Home Plate in which I will put things such as billfold, keys, glasses, phone, pens, meds, nail clipper, checkbook, postage stamps, cufflinks, shoelaces, eyedrops, matches, grip tape, flashlight, magnifying glass, things that in the time I’ve spent looking for them in the past few years I could’ve translated The Iliad and made peace with China and unionized college athletes, both men and women.

On the other hand, do we really need a new Iliad? The poet hit a homer and the Odyssey is even better. Ulysses is tempted by the babes along the way but he makes it back to Penelope and is a happy man.

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What’s with this winter anyway?

I come from pot roast people and the past two months have been rough on me, when, doing penance for the holidays, we’ve been on a bunny rabbit diet, grazing on bowls of greenery. My mother made pot roast for Sunday dinner, which made me think of it as sacred food. She put chuck roast in a covered pan in the oven at low heat when we left for church and when we returned four hours later, the kitchen was redolent with goodness. I don’t recall that she ever tossed a salad. Cows ate salads so whatever good was in them came to us by way of beef.

Urbanites are in flight from their pot roast heritage unless it’s called “pot-au-feu,” which is the same thing — cheap beef cooked slowly — but served by someone with an accent.

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Mature man available for speaking, easy terms

I haven’t yet been invited to give a commencement address this spring and I’m okay with that. I am 81, an age that’s gotten a bad rap recently, and I’m not famous anymore, but nonetheless I do have things to say to the Class of ’24 and I come cheap and have my own gown if you’re unable to provide one.

I did a radio show for years whose name, if you rearrange the letters, spells “Pie Aroma in Microphone,” a show of wholesome humor and uplifting music, nothing satanic or hallucinatory and only gently satiric, and yet it did well in New York City, and New Yorkers curbed their irony when they came in the door and listened politely.

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