Columns

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

Last night I went to sleep by my girl

My friend Lynn, a personal trainer, has given me a list of twelve useful exercises to strengthen the core muscles and improve the sense of balance and I’ve been thinking about doing them, meanwhile I’ve been concerned with other matters, such as which came first, the can or the can opener. This question has no relevance to my life or yours and yet — what is the relevance of relevance at this point in my life? I need questions to answer, otherwise I lie in bed at night with a song repeating in my head, such as “Please Please Me” or “When They Ring Those Golden Bells,” both of them infectious. So the question of can openers is how I spare myself from thinking “Last night I said these words to my girl.”

The answers to all of life’s questions are on the internet and this is why I don’t get out and walk. Things I might’ve had to walk to the library to find out are in my computer on my desk. So here I am. An English merchant named Peter Durand invented the can around 1800, which made it possible to preserve food aboard ships for long voyages. People used knives or other sharp instruments to open them until 1858 when the can opener was patented. This probably saved a great many sailors from stabbing themselves in the hand, which, in those primitive times, probably meant serious infections from bacteria on knives also used to gut fish and shuck oysters. Some galley crew, opening cans, probably lost a hand to a fish-borne disease and replaced it with a hook and thereby became pirates and wound up being hanged. Mothers grieved for them back in Yorkshire and Liverpool. Then the can opener came along and piracy went into decline, shiploads of immigrants sailed unmolested to our shores, the Industrial Age began, slaves were emancipated, the automobile was invented, radio came along, and the 20th century, without people having to jab holes in cylindrical containers.

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The story of my life: revised version

I’ve bought many copies of Mary Oliver’s poems, Devotions, and on Friday I gave away the last so now I’m ordering more. I gave it to a friend whose description of brushing his dogs’ teeth reminded me of Oliver’s description of a grasshopper sitting in her hand and eating sugar, the jaws moving side to side, not up and down.

He said he uses a finger pad with bristles and a beef-flavored toothpaste and the dogs tolerate it well and the brushing spares them dental miseries so it made sense. Oliver carefully describes the grasshopper chewing and washing its face and flying away and then —

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Women: don’t read this, for men only

Maybe it’s just me but I have a nagging feeling that my gender, which once was fairly successful — Jonas Salk, Saul Bellow, Lowell Thomas, Tom Jones, the list goes on — is sagging and sinking, uncertain about changing norms of behavior, and we don’t whoop and holler the way we used to, and what this predicts for our species is not good. Geneticists are talking about the need to establish testosterone banks so that future males will be able to produce sperm and deliver it where needed, never mind earning a living or playing ice hockey.

Women, who have always been in charge of social life, are now openly wielding power, outlining goals and purposes, establishing spending limits, deciding what color the sheets and tablecloths should be. Men’s clubs like the Masons and Elk and Moose are a faint shadow of themselves except perhaps in parts of South Dakota while women are reforming the culture to their liking, and in my men’s group, the WBA (Wounded Buffalo Assn.), we discuss how, when we’re in a mixed group, women do most of the talking and men toss in the occasional nod or shrug or “I suppose so.” Back in olden times, women occupied the kitchen and talked about children, neighbors, ancestors, people at church, and men occupied the living room and talked about ideology. Now the two have merged and people are vastly more interesting than ideology, so men sit silent, dehorsed.

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A walk in the park on a historic day

Saturday morning, walking around south Minneapolis, a neighborhood where, back in my youth, when your elders start neglecting their lawn, you might move them out of the bungalow and plant them here in a one-BR apt. until they can no longer climb stairs and then there’d be a family meeting — shoot them? Or plunk them in the nursing home? — and off to Happy Acres they go, worn out since elliptical machines didn’t exist back then and there were no trainers except animal trainers.

And now it’s a neighborhood of 21-year-olds as you can see from the corner grocery, which is all bags of snacks and soda pop and frozen pizzas. Youth can survive on silage, if necessary. Young women walk their dogs at 8 a.m. and a man sleeps on a bus stop bench, a suitcase beside him. The apartment buildings all post For Rent signs, some offer deals, some have roommates waiting.

I walk around, awestruck at the courage of the young. You come to the city from Aitkin or Brainerd or Cottonwood and either you get a job waiting on table and maybe salt away some dough or you go to school and rack up piles of debt, or maybe you do both and work 15-hour days and all in hopes of making a good life, whatever that might mean in your case.

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The story of my life, in 750 words

I was having a hard time falling asleep the other night because I’d thought of something that I was afraid of forgetting if I fell asleep, which was keeping me awake, not that it was the sort of timeless thing you see printed on coffee cups sold in bookstores, like “Hope is the thing with feathers” or the one Thoreau said about confidently pursuing your dreams, which now I forget the rest of.

Sleep is the great blessing of retirement, especially for someone like me — or is it “someone like myself”? I used to know this — someone who in his working years (so-called, in my case, because my work was talking and telling stories, no heavy lifting involved) — and I was crisscrossing time zones and going from EST to PST I’d be awake at 1 and 2 with a plane to catch at 7 so I could make it to a benefit in New York for Rich People Who Wish To Help Poor People Without Having To Be In Physical Contact With Them and I couldn’t sleep on planes because of a fear of dying in a plane crash and, having been brought up evangelical, I wanted to be awake for my death so I could quickly repent for any unforgiven sins and make sure I’d go to heaven and meet Grandma and Grandpa and not go to hell and spend eternity with Stalin and Hitler.

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In defense of feeling good in perilous times

I am thinking about moving to Texas so that I can be in open disagreement with the powers that be and express this freely, instead of living in colonies of liberal progressives where I must put tape over my mouth except when among close personal friends. Freedom of speech is watched closely where I live and we all know it. “What exactly is it you want to say that you can’t?” you wonder. It is something that, were I to say it, I’d be kicked out of the Democratic Party and my library card would be confiscated and I’d be barred from Amazon and Starbucks and the Episcopal church would make me sit in the Penitents’ Corner. So I’ll keep it to myself.

I grew up fundamentalist so I’m familiar with the drill. We couldn’t join marching band because we believed that rhythmic movement would lead to dancing, which then led to fornication. We never sang uptempo hymns, only dirges. Women kept silent in church because the sound of their voices would lead men to think impure thoughts. So the rigidity of progressive righteousness is familiar to me. I can live with it. I know which friends can be trusted and which cannot.

Anyway, it’s been lovely weather and my family is enjoying robust health and my novel is finished and we escaped from the nightmare of Ikea, a vast warehouse of a store designed by psychologists to disorient the shopper. It’s popular among liberals who wish they were Swedish, everything is tasteful, there is a great deal of whiteness, everything is white or natural wood, and I suppose if you live with Swedish furniture and tableware you feel less complicit in our shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and our corruption of the planet, but the place makes me insane, wandering lost through the puzzle of aisles, and, handsome though some of the furniture is, it requires self-assembly, which would drive me straight to the brink. A list of directions makes me look for a gin bottle.

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A modest proposal sure to be rejected

The sheer ferocity of Ida, high winds, buckets of rain, flash flooding in New York City Wednesday night, rivers and waterfalls in the subway, made millions of New Yorkers think about the advantages of settling in rural Minnesota, especially as more hurricanes, even more brutal than Ida, are forming over the climate-warmed water of the Atlantic. There is a limit to how much punishment people are willing to accept before they look around and consider greener pastures and meanwhile, in St. Paul, people thronged to the State Fair, devouring cheese curds and bratwursts, admiring the livestock and enjoying powerful centrifugal experiences. Facts are facts. If what it means to live in New York is to ride the subway into a waterfall, maybe it’s best to be less stressed in the Upper Midwest and instead of flooded tunnels and tornado funnels, take sanctuary on the prairie.

We have some snow here but it is not catastrophic. I speak from experience. Snow falls gently and does not harm anyone. When the Weather Service says, “Minnesota was hit by a blizzard,” the verb “hit” is fanciful, like being “struck” by a bluebird feather or being “attacked” by ants. When snow falls, we don’t hide under the bed, we don’t need powerful pumps, there are no dikes to prevent snowdrifts. We enjoy a blizzard, standing in the kitchen, drinking coffee, and we feel grateful for having teenagers in the family who will shovel the sidewalks. Bob Dylan shoveled snow, Amy Klobuchar, Jessica Lange, Prince, Jesse Ventura. It is a life-shaping experience.

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The road to contentment is sitting right here

An old pal is locked up with COVID this week and another pal is dealing with QAnon relatives who think liberals are vampires and another pal is suffering anxiety about having ringworm infestation, which his doctor says he does not have but he lies awake at night worrying and has been put on antianxiety medication, which doesn’t help all that much.

I’ve never suffered from anxiety, I don’t know any QAnon people and I don’t have COVID, so I am going to skip complaining today. I’m old and out of touch, and, as the old gospel song says, “This world is not my home, I’m only passing through” so what is the point of complaining, it’d be like going to Vladivostok and asking people to please speak English, or going to church and when the usher comes by with the collection plate, putting in a twenty and asking for a whiskey sour. Wrong time, wrong place.

I am a lucky man and these are wonderful times and we are all fortunate to be living now, in September of 2021, and of course there is poverty and disease and suffering and ignorance and cruelty and crabby people and inferior food and lousy service and poor Wi-Fi and unruly children and robocalls trying to sell you aluminum siding and this cursed printer that says there’s a paper jam though there is not, but there are beautiful advantages that our elders didn’t enjoy, and let me be grateful for the anti-seizure medication and blood thinner that keep me chugging along and YouTube, which has just now, for my benefit, played Don and Phil Everly singing “Let It Be Me,” and all it took was googling a few words and there it is, tender brotherly harmony.

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A fresh start is a beautiful thing

Kathy Hochul took over as governor of New York on Tuesday and so far as I can see nobody said a single bad thing about her all week. In fact, the advance press was entirely favorable, about her extensive experience in local government, her good work habits, her love of getting out and meeting constituents and hearing their complaints. And, it must be added, nobody complained that she had laid a hand on them in a way that made them uncomfortable. It was extraordinary, a politician nobody is furious at. This is big news, people.

She’s from upstate and so to New York City residents, she is a complete mystery, as a Martian would be or a Mennonite, and this seems like a chance for everyone to get a fresh start and focus on the environment, health care, education, public safety, rather than the inappropriateness of commenting on a woman’s outfit. For years Governor Hochul served as an anonymous lieutenant governor to a man who hogged the stage, sang, danced, conducted the band, a man for whom public attention was oxygen. And then in short order he became a man whom people were thoroughly tired of reading about, or reading about anything that sounded like him, such as glaucoma, homogeneity, or combovers. When she took over, it was a huge relief.

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September, the finest month, is on its way

We got good weather in August, good for a city guy with no lawn, and then a typhoon came to town and a torrent fell last Saturday during a star-studded concert in Central Park where my wife sent me a video of Barry Manilow on stage, whose facelift had destroyed his voice, singing his brains out as lightning flashed to the south which shut down the show, but now the rain has ended and the world feels like September with the smell of apples and possibility in the air and I feel young and indomitable, crossing the street in front of eight beefcakes on Harleys and I feel like saying, “Which one of you cream puffs wants to take on a retired radio announcer?”

We’ve been living small for two years now and the simple pandemic life has been good for us. We switched from Perrier to New York tap water and when we want bubbles, we blow through a straw. We’re done with loud restaurants and the social whirl. I gave my fancy clothes to the Salvation Army and now I’m seeing homeless men in Armani tuxes. But now I need a break and I’m thinking we should rent a house on the coast and do what Emerson said, “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air …” Forget about memory loss and do some serious self-care. But do I dare suggest this to the boss?

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