Columns

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

Mr. Cool is writing his novel under pressure

The astonishing Collin Morikawa was in the news this week, kissing the British Open trophy, something a man would rather not do with the Delta variant around, not knowing how many hundred folks had touched the thing, but he was excited, having won the Open on Sunday with a four-under-par 66, a 24-year-old Berkeley grad joking with his caddy, cool under pressure. Last year, the PGA, now the British, on to Augusta.

Some people have that coolness under pressure, such as the engineer who was sent to the guillotine but the blade wouldn’t drop even after several attempts so they decided to reduce his sentence to imprisonment but he looked up and said, “I think I see your problem.” Other people get into a tight squeeze and prepare themselves so well for defeat that even if they come through a winner, they can’t enjoy it.

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My mystification on the Connecticut coast

A quiet week at my wife’s family’s summer house on the Connecticut River, which sounds fancy but is a cottage full of furniture bought at yard sales. And there, this week, I make a big discovery: even after twenty-six years of marriage, I hadn’t realized the depth of her love of gardening. It was hot and she spent hours weeding a flower bed, three wheelbarrows’ worth, and came back to the porch happy and dripping with sweat.

When I met her in 1992, she was a freelance violinist in Manhattan, a Minnesotan trapped in semi-poverty by her love of classical music. We had a three-hour lunch, I fell in love. Nothing was said about yardwork. But here she was, in 2021, giddy after hours of weeding in the hot sun, the very thing I hated most growing up and so became a writer in order to avoid. I edit; I don’t weed.

The misery of weeding was what led to slavery. In the South, they couldn’t bear to work in the fields in that heat so they bought people in chains and beat them up. Slaveholders were people just like us who liked to be comfortable and that meant making other people hoe the cotton. You realize this on a hot day. The difference between us and the South is that it didn’t stay hot long enough in Minnesota for us to think of hauling people in in chains, but we would’ve done it, given time. But the beauty of love is that it leads you down a long path of discovery whereby you come to understand another person, and here was my love, sweat pouring off her, feeling exhilarated about weeding.

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What we crave, above all, is what’s real

The books about No. 45 are coming out and one says he was deranged and another says that his own people feared for the country, neither of which I doubt for a minute, but I’m not up for reliving those years for the same reason I don’t plan to spend January in Norway: been there, done it, life is short, no need for reruns.

The January in Norway is a story my wife tells so much better than I can. I was sick with the flu in a hotel room in the town of Tromsø above the Arctic Circle; she was the one who went dogsledding and ice fishing in the arctic twilight in a cold rain and the sun never shone and the food was gruesome and everyone worked hard to be upbeat and detached from reality, and now when she recites the miseries of that week, people laugh like crazy, whereas I was in bed, mostly sleeping. The trip was my brilliant idea and I missed out on it and her telling of the story is brilliant, epic but brisk.

We have no plans to return to Tromsø. It has served its usefulness as an example of how unfounded enthusiasm combined with loose cash can lead to a dark place.

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Flying through clouds and coming home

The class of 2021 has now matriculated into our midst, those lean exuberant people with lead weights of debt around their ankles, and they’ve set aside the commencement speaker’s advice to take this imperfect world and make it better and instead are trying to make car payments and avoid parental curiosity and enjoy some wild Saturday nights dancing in an amphitheater to a cover band and drinking buckets of beer.

But while they do, their elders are working assiduously to screw up the imperfect world further, such as the Texas legislature, which is passing a bill to allow anyone to sue anybody without having to show that harm was suffered. Their target is abortion clinics, but this revolutionary principle will mean people can sue you for looking at them cross-eyed and we will simply lock our doors and lead our lives on Instagram.

I have given up trying to make a better world and instead I’m working on my sock drawer and maintaining a small circle of friendships, starting with my wife. It’s a large project.

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A ball game, a book, and a brat: happiness

Being a 78-year-old unemployed orphan does not qualify me as a tragic victim and that is just a fact, plus the fact I am married to a woman who has a big heart, loves a good time, is fond of me in particular, and she is also able to read instruction manuals, which is something you don’t notice during courtship, your mind is on other things, but now in the twilight years when one is tempted to throw the new printer over the parapet and hear it crash on the pavement below, it is good to have a rationalist in my life.

So I don’t need to discuss my fear and loathing of washers, dryers, coffee makers, and air conditioners, their mysterious manuals, because that’s her department so instead I’ll tell about Amazon and their purchase of MGM this summer, which earned a bundle for my family so that people now assume we’re going to leave Minnesota and move to an island in the Caribbean. No way.

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Happiness comes to those who don’t give a rip

I am a happy man now that I know what the secret of happiness is, which, according to Buddha and Jesus both, is to give up wanting things. It’s just that simple. I’ve bought houses in hopes of happiness, taken vacation trips to Hawaii and Norway and Barbados, bought three-piece suits and shirts with French cuffs, and spent as much as $28 on a haircut, and felt vaguely dissatisfied after, but now I am 78, an age at which I expected to be cranky and of course there’s still time but now I discover I can’t get what I want because I’ve forgotten what it is. So there you are. Time solves another problem.

Happiness is rare for a writer, an occupation with a failure rate somewhere around 85 or 92 percent. If doctors had our failure rate, America would be a country of about 15 million, most of them not feeling well. The westward migration would’ve ended at the Mississippi. Why cross a big river when you’re already nauseated and feverish?

Luckily, we writers get to discard our mistakes, unlike doctors. In this line of work, there are no autopsies. I threw away two versions of the first paragraph, each one dumber than the other, and nobody will ever see them, just the one that begins “I am a happy man.” Two sheets of paper, crumpled, in the wastebasket, made me happy.

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Sticking my neck out, talking to myself

American culture took a sharp turn when the guitar took supremacy over the keyboard. I was a teenager, I remember it. Little Richard sat down at the piano in 1955 and tore the joint apart with “Tutti Frutti” (A wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom!) and Jerry Lee Lewis did the same with “Great Balls of Fire” but Elvis, who could play piano, picked up a guitar as a prop, and a nice Jewish kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, decided to be an alienated loner cowboy poet and a whole generation of loner heroes with Stratocasters blew in on the wind and there went the ball game.

The piano is not a loner instrument. It requires a piano tuner and piano movers. It is a piece of furniture. Playing piano implies home ownership. You can’t put it on the back of your motorcycle. The piano has social standing; it belongs in church or school or a barroom. It is an instrument around which people gather. Whereas the guitar became an ax, a weapon. Your parents wanted you to take piano lessons with Mrs. Lindquist but you went to a junk shop and bought a Sears Silvertone used for $7 and got a Mel Bay chord book and sat in your bedroom and taught yourself to play a G chord and a D7 and then started writing your own songs, about being misunderstood and mistreated and hoping to find a woman to leave this town with and head down the highway.

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The truth of the Fourth: a minority report

Nobody gives Fourth of July speeches that I’m aware of because what can you say about beer and barbecue except (1) take small helpings and (2) stay out of the sun and (3) watch what you say and whom you say it to. This is not a united country and the divisions may well extend into your own family, a beloved uncle may cling to cherished ideas that qualify him for full-time supervision lest he spread them to your children. Any speech you’d give about American democracy would consist of four vague generalities wrapped in platitudes and frosted with mythology.

In our country today, a considerable minority of our fellow citizens believe that the 2020 election was stolen in plain sight by left-wing mathematicians in Venezuela who devised algorithms to rig voting machines to overturn a landslide Republican victory and elect a senile Democrat and his communistic base to run the government who want to confiscate your guns and make everyone ride bicycles and live on tofu and kale and who invented a fake Chinese influenza so they could force immunization with a vaccine that makes people passive and accepting of state control, which allows vampires to move freely and drink the blood of small children, but in August, when the rightful president is reinstated and our borders are secure, we can breathe freely again and make America great.

I take no position on that. Strange things happen every day. I am only an observer; I don’t make the rules. As I have said on so many occasions, “You kids work it out among yourselves.”

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What made last Tuesday better than average

Back in Minnesota briefly and in the euphoria of returning home to the land of slow talkers, I called up some friends to invite them to supper at a steakhouse. As the submissive husband of a quasi-vegan, my steak opportunities are few and far between, and she happened to still be in New York, giving me a couple days of freedom to hunker down with other cavemen by a blazing fire and hack at the half-raw hunk of animal flesh and speak Middle English. But several friends declined. Invented excuses. An errand to help a son, a school assignment. As a longtime fictioneer myself, I can detect made-up excuses. The real reason, I’m guessing, was a lingering fear of contagion. My friends are worriers and if you google COVID you will be offered 1,437,893 things to worry about. Arriving from New York, I was unclean in their eyes.

You know me, I’m not a worrier. We have a division of labor in our household and worrying is her department. My job is to be a bringer of joyful enthusiasm. My family was evangelical and expected the world to end and in college I wrote dystopian stories, thinking it was the thing for a serious intellectual to do. For the same reason, I also chain-smoked and drank heavily. Around the time I quit that, it dawned on me that the Creator of the cosmos loves humanity and this includes me. It wasn’t a dramatic event like Heracles slaying the dragon and getting the golden apple, it was more like waking up one day and deciding to stop kicking the wall with your bare feet.

If I were a professional wrestler, the pandemic would’ve been rough on me, being a 300-lb. guy with big tattoos and weird hair and nothing to do but walk his Pekingese, but for a writer, isolation is an opportunity. And I found a young couple to join me for dinner. Two musicians pursuing nonmusical careers that engage them, both of them cheerful and looking ahead, and I ordered oysters and a salad and they ordered a humongous chunk of meat, which might’ve been a flank of antelope or the left cheek of a cougar, which they split, and, just in case their mothers inquired, a serving of broccolini.

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Sitting with friends at an outdoor cafe on Amsterdam Ave.

It’s a gorgeous June in New York and I feel sorry for the people who can’t be here because they’re in federal custody or have children in soccer programs. I walked in Central Park and admired the dogwood and magnolias and was passed by a tall stunning beauty in running clothes who was dripping with sweat and who, three feet from me, let out a burst of methane like the honk of a goose and did not say “Sorry.” It’s a feature of New York, beautiful women who express themselves freely and without apology. Hurray for outspokenness.

I was brought up to be penitent. I am not a New Yorker. But I feel lucky to be here in a city of great talkers. Words everywhere you look. Wherever people are, they take time to sit with a cup of coffee and consult, confabulate, kibitz, chew the fat, schmooze, shoot the breeze, spill the beans, spread the word, spit it out.

The New Yorkers I know don’t go for alternating dialogue, they like multiple centripetal contrapuntal talk, three people talking at once because when the talk flies the topic shifts and you don’t want to lose your chance to comment on that scoundrel Putin because we’re now on to the Catholic bishops who might deny Communion to a devout Catholic president after four years of playing up to a guy who wouldn’t know Holy Sacraments from a sack of potato chips and then it’s poor Lin Miranda accused of casting people of color who weren’t dark-skinned enough and the dang electric scooters that race through the streets delivering food and terrifying people and the Supreme Court allowing Catholic agencies to deny adoption to gay couples and I’m trying to mention the fact that some Buddhist monks in Tibet are fans of a song I did on the radio meanwhile others mention the candidate for mayor who apparently lives in Jersey whereupon a guy at the end of the table recalls having met the Dalai Lama in New Jersey once, a huge name-drop that blows my Buddhist anecdote to bits, and my wife says something about perfection and this leads the Dalai Lama guy to mention having met Don Larsen who pitched that perfect game for the Yanks.

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