Columns

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

Learning from other people how to make America better

I felt the world turn Monday when my wife walked up to a tree, snapped a picture of it with her phone, googled the picture, and said, “It’s a Japanese maple.” Then she did the same to a Siberian pine. I’d never seen anyone do this before. I thought of all the Boy Scouts who earned merit badges by learning to identify trees and this gave them the self-confidence to go on to important careers in government and finance. I thought of people who majored in botany and impressed their friends at parties by saying, “That’s not an ordinary maple. It’s Japanese.” Now a fourth-grader can do it. Maybe even a second.

I don’t mind being married to someone smarter than I. I’ve come to depend on it. It means I don’t need to read about the heat wave or the elections in France and the U.K.; she handles all that for me.

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The week we drifted down the Niagara River

In church Sunday we sang “All people who on earth do dwell” with the beautiful line about serving God with mirth, the only hymn that calls us to comedy, and it made me feel good after this dreadful past week in which mirth has been hard to find.

Suddenly I miss Jonathan Winters, the comic who worked in fragments — I wish he were here, he’d handle today’s news to perfection. Elderly dither was his specialty so he’d have done the Debate in 25 seconds: Biden’s breathless tremolo, the stricken eyes, the dazed solemnity, and Trump in nonsense Deutsch, the pump of a shotgun, baritone chortling, a sidelong snarl, the snap of a whip. Today’s comics are writers and they work in whole sentences and paragraphs but Winters was all phrases and feeling, lunacy, terror, smug confidence, profound stupidity. You can find an abundance of him on YouTube and while you’re there you can check out other varnished geniuses, the dignity of Buster Keaton in his triumphant defeats, the sweetness of Laurel & Hardy — once in a while when I feel gloomy, I google their three-minute dance in “Way Out West,” the fatso and the man-child doing an innocent buck-and-wing to the Avalon Boys singing “At the Ball, That’s All” on a busy street, oblivious to and ignored by the busy world around them.

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Standing up for the age of 81

The age of 81 has come under close scrutiny recently and, as an occupant, I should say a few words in its behalf. Most people are younger than 81, some much younger, and when they see me come onstage, they’re impressed that I’m upright and mobile. I walk to the microphone and speak entire sentences into it that apparently make sense. I don’t doubt that some maybe wonder, if I drop dead, will their ticket be refunded at the box office or will they need to go through a complicated procedure online. But what I say makes sense as do my various hand gestures — Magnanimity (Open Hands), Profundity (Index Finger), Thoughtfulness (Hands Pressed In A Steeple), Thumbs Up — and they relax and attend to what I have to say.

A man of 81 has quite a bit to say. It’s too late to try to be hip; back in my twenties I was hip and wrote bad poems about the fascination of unreality, the beauty of cloudiness and mystery and longing for meaning that I thought were beautiful. Now I know that honesty and compassion and kindness are beautiful and there’s no mystery about that.

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My take on the question, so you won’t have to wait

The debate was a joke, a cruel joke. Trump was the drunk in the corner saloon, sailing on vodka martinis, and Biden was a serious man attempting to frame an argument in response to unreality and in so doing he searched for the right words, as any normal person would, and so the journalists said, “TRUMP SHOWS ENERGY, BIDEN APPEARS HESITANT,” and suddenly working reporters gauge the popular mood and see Trump winning the night. This is silliness. “I am the greatest,” is a boxer’s brag. It’s nothing a president would ever say, it is unhinged. Muhammad Ali said it but he had to actually get in the ring and hit a man and be hit by him, risk having his brains scrambled, he couldn’t just raise a half-billion from friends to make himself famous even among ferrets and armadillos.

Nobody actually admires Trump; half the people loathe him on sight as a New York loudmouth and phony who’s won the favor of Christians even though his ordinary speech is laced with obscenities. Preachers don’t talk in obscenities, not where I come from, but some of them did some fancy gymnastics and joined the cult. It’s fascinating but not admirable. Trump degrades everything he touches. That’s why there is no Trump University and there’s no Trump Library, they are contradictions. The Republicans sucking up to him now will go down in history as suck-ups, whether they think so or not. It will be a blot on the record. Their biographers will have to work their way around it, like a conviction for embezzlement or marriage to a cousin.

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The story of my life, a brief version

My bio in 100 words is as follows: My parents were in love with each other, had six kids, I was third, an invisible child. I had no interest in crashing into people so didn’t play football or hockey and avoided brain damage. I dabbled in poetry and when I was 14, I read A.J. Liebling and decided to be a writer. I went into radio, which requires no special skill, and took the sunrise shift, which turned me toward comedy, listeners don’t want grievous introspective reflections at 5 a.m. I told stories for forty years and still do. I married well on the third try.

There you have it: perseverance, not brilliance, is the key. I walk out on stage, the audience assumes it’s the janitor. I have no stage fright because my vision is so poor, I don’t notice them looking at me. They pity that old man on stage but I’m holding a microphone and that’s the advantage: when I hum, they hum with me and we all sing “My country, ’tis of thee” and they’re amazed by how good it sounds. The audience entertains itself.

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The astonishment of mornings on the river last week

I spent my mornings last week at a little white house with a porch overlooking the Connecticut River, astonished by the early morning light, the devout silence except for the twittering of exhilarated birds, and the longer I sat there without opening my phone or laptop, I felt the prospects of the day getting better and better. This is the benefit of going to bed early. It causes concern among others — Is he sick? Was he offended? — but I rise at five and tiptoe downstairs and am dazed by wonder, which is a good thing for a man in the business of humoristicism. Comedy is about incongruity and dissonance and irony but morning light makes a person grateful for the natural world, for quiet and coffee and for the love and friendship of the slumberers upstairs.

It’s a revelation of delight, of our Creator’s delight in His creation, and though we’re brought up to be skeptical, wary of big hopes, prepared to deal with the injustices of life, still the dawn light argues with stoicism and you see the beauty of the ordinary. And then a distant leaf blower starts up, an angry drone like an air raid siren and we’re back in comedy. What was wrong with the old-fashioned hand-operated rake? Why does anyone need this monster that puts you in mind of the German Luftwaffe, the electric chair, the cruel dentistry of my youth?

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You never know, so it’s good to pay attention

I am a man in a bubble, walking the streets of New York, taking short views, smelling the flowers and the fragrance of hot dogs, leaving it to others to deal with the planet, the nation, the cognitive dissonance of everyday life, the media conspiracy to cover up the prophecies contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I simply watch out for bicycles and scooters. They are treacherous, ridden by libertarians who recognize no traffic laws. I cross the street on the Walk sign and an e-bike zooms silently past and through the red light without a “Sorry” or “Excuse me,” and they are so agile, changing lanes, racing through narrow passages in traffic jams, they appear out of nowhere, inches away, and the man on foot is a sitting duck.

I’ve had a long interesting life and I’d like my obituary to take note of it. I don’t want the most memorable line to be “Keillor was killed by a motor scooter racing down Amsterdam Avenue to deliver three platters of crudités for an LGBTQRST fundraiser at Symphony Space.”

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A father speaks, after the day has passed

The third Sunday of June is Father’s Day and if you forgot, that’s okay, we fathers don’t expect to be celebrated, we only want to be forgiven. Our contribution to creation is rather small, some necking and a few minutes of pleasure, then we fall asleep and it’s the mother who provides room and board for nine months and pushes them down the chute and does most of the worrying. So Mother’s Day in May is a major occasion while Daddy Day is often overshadowed by National Nanny Day and Cleaning Lady Day.

The most prolific father of all time was surely Solomon, who, according to Scripture, had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which would certainly keep a man well-occupied on evenings and weekends. Just remembering their names and birthdays would take a concerted effort. And if the Song of Solomon is any indication (“How beautiful and pleasant you are, O loved one, with all your delights! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!”) he was quite enthusiastic in the bedroom. So it’s reasonable to assume he fathered thousands of kids.

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I’m fine, thank you, and how goes it with you?

I spent most of last week at the Mayo Clinic back home in Minnesota, one of the friendliest places I know of, where I peed in a cup, turned my head to the side and coughed, had my eyes dilated and looked at the ophthalmologist’s right ear as she shone brilliant lights into my eyes, stripped to my shorts to be examined by a dermatologist, took a deep breath and held it while a doctor listened to my heart, was X-rayed, had electric shocks transmitted to various leg and arm muscles, and had my arm pierced and several vials of blood drawn by a man from Baghdad who came to this country at age 22 with no English whatsoever and I admired his perfect diction as he told me his story. I am not a hypochondriac so I know very little about medicine; what I love about Mayo is the humanity of it, the cheerfulness of the men and women in blue who call you from the waiting room to the warren of examining rooms. Their gentleness with the halt and the lame. The good humor. I sit in the examining chair and the ophthalmic nurse says, “I want you to follow my finger with your eyes,” and I say, That’s not your finger, it’s your thumb.” And she laughs.

I am a lucky man. Mayo has kept me alive. When I set out to be a writer, I felt obligated to smoke several packs a day and become a serious drinker, both of which I gave up long ago, but I still love cheeseburgers, so it’s a wonder to find that my cholesterol is low. My idea of exercise is walking fast in airline terminals and not using the moving sidewalks. So I’m touched to look at the echocardiogram screen and see my heart working, including the valve from a pig that a Mayo surgeon installed to replace one of mine. Its little petals flutter in stupendous synchronicity.

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A round table in downtown St. Paul Friday night

The rule is “Only buy oysters on the half-shell in months with an R in them,” but I took some relatives to dinner Friday and shelled out fifty bucks for a dozen shells of not much, which is truly dumb for a man my age. But it gave me the chance to quote Mark Twain to a great-niece sitting next to me at the restaurant, a smart sixth-grader: “Good judgment is the result of experience and experience the result of poor judgment,” and she laughed. She’d never heard of Mark Twain. Which gave me the chance to quote some more of him: “To do good is noble. To tell others to do good is even nobler and much less trouble.” And “Don’t let your education get in the way of your learning. I was educated once and it took me years to get over it.” I’ll bet she went home and googled him and read a hundred more quotes and learned something invaluable about sentence structure, and long after I am gone into the sunset I will have helped bestow a fine humorist upon the world. Which is a noble thing and all the result of poor judgment.

It was a beautiful dinner, the best I’ve been at in months, nine of us relatives around a table in downtown St. Paul, and four of us were teenagers, which taught me I’ve been spending much too much time with people my own age, and when I do, the conversation devolves to a low point — inevitably, just as if you eat dinner with four other plumbers you’re likely to wind up discussing interesting toilet problems, when I eat with old people we wind up talking about Mr. Mirage-of-Long-Ago, but Friday evening his name never came up. Not once. The closest was when I said I do my best writing before dawn.

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