Columns

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

Forget about songwriting. Try fiction.

The word from people who know is that Taylor Swift is working with younger edgier indy artists, trying to stay relevant, hoping to hang on in today’s rapidly shifting pop culture, trying to free herself from the bonds of the narrative lyric and pick up the style of spatter imagery. Miss Swift is 32.

So forget about songwriting. Thirty-two is much too young for irrelevance. In solid professions such as medicine, engineering, law, the humorous essay, you’re just hitting your stride at 32. Miss Swift’s problem is that she prospered for years appealing to 11-year-old girls but now much of her audience is in its early twenties and doesn’t want to be in the same demographic with 11-year-olds so she needs to change the act to drive away the children, make it edgy, frighten the parents.

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Drama is life trying to get our attention

When an old man prepares for open-heart surgery, he maintains a confident demeanor and so does his good wife. He has an excellent surgeon and the procedure has been around since he was a teenager, pioneered by Dr. Walt Lillehei of Minneapolis. All is well. Stay calm and pull your socks up.

The old man is me and Dr. Lillehei attended the University of Minnesota, as I did, but he did not major in English as I did nor did he write surreal poetry and doomsday fiction that took a stab at cynicism. I come from fundamentalist Scots who would’ve looked on heart surgery as a waste of money. The heart is sinful and heart disease is caused by rich living and can be remedied by physical labor, thinner dinners, and prayer. Dr. Lillehei came from progressive Norwegians and he had more curiosity.

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I’m very old, as God knows, and he’s watching

I maintain there is always hope if you look around for it. I read the first few paragraphs of a story in the Times about fungi and how they absorb carbon that might otherwise be airborne and aggravate global warming and they enable plants to survive drought and serve as fertilizers. The headline was Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus and right there was my source of happiness for the day and I read no farther lest I come across the inevitable Buts and Howevers. My podiatrist says I have fungus under my toenails. This tells me that I shall be able to dance again and maybe run the low hurdles.

It’s good of the Times to offer hope. Usually it’s a downer. You read it and learn that the seas are full of plastic, a carbon cloud is making the glaciers melt, whole species are dying out, and half of our Republican friends believe that Joe and Jill are occupying the White House illegally, so we’re not the United States, we’re the banana republic of Ameragua and bands of revolutionaries will come down from the Sierras to overthrow the tyrants. I’d rather believe in the power of fungus.

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A big event and then a major announcement

I maintain there is always hope if you look around for it. I read the first few paragraphs of a story in the Times about fungi and how they absorb carbon that might otherwise be airborne and aggravate global warming and they enable plants to survive drought and serve as fertilizers. The headline was Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus and right there was my source of happiness for the day and I read no farther lest I come across the inevitable Buts and Howevers. My podiatrist says I have fungus under my toenails. This tells me that I shall be able to dance again and maybe run the low hurdles.

It’s good of the Times to offer hope. Usually it’s a downer. You read it and learn that the seas are full of plastic, a carbon cloud is making the glaciers melt, whole species are dying out, and half of our Republican friends believe that Joe and Jill are occupying the White House illegally, so we’re not the United States, we’re the banana republic of Ameragua and bands of revolutionaries will come down from the Sierras to overthrow the tyrants. I’d rather believe in the power of fungus.

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Let’s talk about gender, but only for a moment

On summer vacation, I get my news from my wife, which is a great convenience and helps brighten the mood and she’s just read me the story about sharks sighted off the coast and beaches on Cape Cod and Long Island posting warnings to swimmers, which only reaffirms my lifelong aversion to beaches. Lying sunburnt on the sand, looking out at ocean vastness in the company of people who have no business wearing loincloths in public never appealed to me, especially not the vastness part. I am a domestic creature, I love enclosed spaces. I went to Alaska once, checked into a hotel in Homer, ordered room service, sat in my room with the shades drawn, and was quite content.

Now that I know about shark-infested beaches, I have one more reason to stay inland. I don’t want some poor reporter to have to write the second paragraph of my obituary, “Mr. Keillor was eaten by a shark off Jones Beach on Tuesday while wading in a raspberry-colored swimsuit and wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat fringed with straw fronds. A memorial service will be held at a time to be announced later.”

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Listening to that lonesome whistle blow, etc.

I am in the process of packing up and leaving Minnesota where I’ve lived for most of eighty years, which seems dramatic but isn’t since most of my classmates left long ago and Bob Dylan, who overlapped with me at the University of Minnesota, heard the lonesome whistle blow and matriculated his way to New York and if Bob ever wrote a song about hating to leave home, I’m not aware of it. The itinerant life was what he was all about.

I am fond of Minnesota, the home of Hazelden and the recovery industry and America’s front line of defense against the flood of illegals from Canada, which has led to the boom in hockey, the season now extending into summer. It’s the home of Robert Bly, author of Iron John, which was big back when there was a men’s movement but it disappeared due to gender fluidity when masculinity liquified and men were no longer required to be solid granite. I tried to be Agnes for a while but it was too late, I was in my late sixties, stoicism was baked into me, voice-raising drugs had no effect, my eyebrows are bushy, and I hate hockey, which real Minnesota women are very good at.

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Some days are perfect: why not say so?

A summer evening on the porch overlooking the Connecticut River and Her Healthness has relaxed the rules and we’re having beef hamburgers off the grill and corn on the cob slathered in actual butter, not a vegan imitation, and the Parisian niece has baked custard tarts so delicious I decline a second knowing it would push me over the edge into decadence, a gent in capri pants and caftan, smoking a Gauloises in a cigarette holder, listening to the Gypsy Kings on my earbuds, aloof to those around me.

I’ve avoided decadence so far except for a mild addiction to Dairy Queen Blizzards, which so far is under control. I’ve avoided COVID and knee replacement and wood ticks that carry a virus that makes you talk endlessly in run-on sentences about a former president, and so it’s a pleasant evening, and we hear the happy cries of children at an old children’s camp nearby that teaches traditional values of friendship, sharing, good manners, daily chores, curiosity, and creativity. Children are not allowed electronic devices and “social justice” and “healing” are not in the mission statement, presumably “friendship” and “sharing” cover that. The boys and girls wash their faces in the morning in cold water at an outdoor trough. It’s not a church camp so they miss out on Ecclesiastes, but there is an evening campfire and I’m sure I’ve heard “Kumbaya.”

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The author disembarks almost

A beautiful summer day, sitting on a porch in Connecticut, looking at boats anchored in the cove, grateful that I don’t own one. It’s one foolishness I’ve avoided in my life: most of the other numbskull boxes I have checked and as I sit here enjoying the breeze off the water, I torture myself with memories of dumbness, mistaken romances, real estate stupidity, as vivid as the incident on Wednesday when, stepping out of a New York subway car, I paused to make sure it was 42nd, and the subway doors closed on my neck.

Yes, you read that right. I had bags in my hands, and I dropped them to try to pry the doors open, my head poking out, and couldn’t, and then a man pulled them open and I got out, turned and said thank you. He was a construction guy in an orange vest. He looked concerned. Then I remembered that Penn Station is at 34th so I had to catch the next train for one stop. I got on that train and got off without incident. So I’m a man whose head is caught in the doors while getting off at the wrong stop. There are worse things. The guillotine, for one.

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Good manners are a sign of trust, no?

I was in Nashville last weekend and saw an old man wearing a shirt with eagles and red and blue stripes on it and also the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. I did a show there in front of an audience wearing more brightly colored clothes than you’d find up north, including pastels I thought had been outlawed long ago. During the show the audience (at my invitation) sang “How Great Thou Art” and other hymns with such evangelical power I was tempted to come to the Lord then and there except I’d done that already years before. And after the show I drove past two blocks of bars with garish neon signs where everyone in sight was very young and very drunk. So the South is still the South. In New York, the audience would’ve worn a lot of black or tan, the hymn would’ve been sung reluctantly but tolerantly, and you’d have to look far and wide to find universal intoxication. And in all Manhattan you wouldn’t find a shirt like that. Only on Staten Island.

I enjoy living in this country with the rest of you who are not much like me, I truly do, but I do have my limits. I come across nice young women whose arms are covered with tattoos like a child’s doodling and big dark serious ones on their legs, and I wonder why a perfectly nice woman is trying to look like a convicted felon.

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She and I and you and us, all watching TV

I have it on good authority that we now have 26 sets of personal pronouns available in English, including the gender-neutral zie, zim, zer, zis, zieself, and I expect there will be more to come since the spectrum of personal differences is endless. My wife, for example, who is adored by me, I can no longer think of as she or her, lumped in with other women including harridans, hags, harpies and shrews, and so my wife is jen and jer and jenself and several individuals whom I despise are scheiss and scheissen and scheissenself. My fellow tall persons have the pronouns hi and hiya. Height is every bit as crucial an identifier as gender and so is intelligence. I don’t know any people I’d refer to as dem or dose but surely dey’re out there somewhere.

Personal identity is a complex matter and if a pronoun is all you need to validate you, fine. It’d help if you pasted your pronoun on your forehead, but if you feel that would marginalize you or stereotype you, I understand. And now that the Supremes have made it a basic constitutional right to carry a concealed loaded weapon, I predict that we’re going to respect gender identity more than ever. A guy with a .45 under the jacket thereby becomes plural and they is going to be more numerous and you might want to become plural too.

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