Columns

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

Got the autumn blues, put on my walking shoes

 I love October and I hate to see it pass so quickly. My love and I ate dinner outdoors last Friday and it felt like the Last Time and as an old man I find Lasts rather painful. I rode the Amtrak into New York from Boston, with that delicious flight in Queens as the train descends toward the tunnel to Manhattan and we’re skimming the housetops like Clark Kent in pursuit of evil gangsters, and I thought, “When will I get to do this again?” and it pained me.

It pains me to see the wave of puritanism in the arts, arts organizations competing to see who can write the most militant mission statements declaring their dedication to Equality and Inclusivity and Anti-Elitism, which tells me clearly that the end is near. Art is elitist because some people are better singers than almost anyone else and some plays astonish and others only fill the time, and if equality is now the goal, then where do we go to experience the extraordinary? Art then becomes ideology, and for astonishment we must wait for the next blizzard or thunderstorm. A Manhattan thunderstorm is worth waiting for, but still.

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Don’t know what’s wrong, but it’s okay

I am enjoying being an old man and I wonder why I didn’t get here sooner. There are benefits to being 79 that I would’ve appreciated in my late thirties. I look at the stories on the front page of the paper and I think, “Not My Problem” and the latest NMP is the shortage of goods due to shipping backlogs, freighters lined up for miles waiting to unload, docks piled high with containers, factory production slowed due to lack of parts coming from China, building projects halted, dire situations, workers idle, confusion, dismay — and here we sit, Madame and I, with the opposite problem, too much stuff, need to give it away.

We have about twenty big dinner plates and twenty small plates and when was the last time we sat eighteen guests down to dinner in this little apartment? Not since Jesus was in the third grade. I have eight suits in my closet: when did I last get dressed up? The number of unread books on our shelves would sink a pontoon boat. And why the whiskey glasses? Nobody in this household drinks whiskey. Neither do our guests, they’re all left-wing liberals and whiskey, in case you didn’t know it, has become politicized and is now reserved for patriots who are out to Stop The Steal. I wish they’d steal our whiskey glasses.

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If you love your work, be sure not to finish it

 The life of a writer is a wild adventure you wouldn’t imagine simply by looking at the lonely figure in the black cloak sitting hunched in her/his niche in the cloister, scratching corrections onto the parchment with a feathered quill pen, but it’s true and someone really ought to write about this. At the moment, I am looking at a galley of a new book of mine as sent by a graphic designer named David and I am stunned by the elegance of it, which makes my own words seem almost of classical quality, which makes me want to revise the work to bring it up to the quality of the design, meanwhile my crew of overseers is firing off memos insisting the book be finished by Friday. This is what I’m up against: David’s graphic artistry has shown me how wonderful my work almost is while editors are banging on the door of my cell, threatening to withhold food until I turn the work over to them. It’s ugly.

The book is set in a small town in Minnesota and I feel that a good street fight, an insurrection of farmers versus townsfolk, with a lot of hacking and clubbing and shouting and cursing, would add some interest and maybe also a good gas explosion. I’ve written many novels and never put a major explosion in one and it’s appealing to me now, the chance to have people I dislike file into a building and then blow it up. Terrorists do this all the time, so why not novelists?

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A few beams of light on our current situation

“Goodness gracious” was about as close as my mother came to actual profanity, that and “Oh fudge,” and now that our daily life is showered with profanity and obscenity, it is no more shocking than dog barks, whereas the words “Goodness gracious” still have (for me) a bite to them, and I can feel my mother’s dismay, which now I feel, hearing about the tidal wave of political narcissism opposed to the idea of social responsibility — Senator Graham was booed and harassed the other day by constituents when he suggested they consider getting vaccinated against COVID — people who deny that the state has a right to mandate vaccination or mask-wearing as a public health measure or enforce speed limits or restrain the sale of weapons meant for combat or the responsibility of parents to send their kids to school, and weird ideas that are being preached from pulpits by ministers who don’t realize that their own people are dying of COVID and in marginal states the plague may be delivering the 2022 elections to us socialists. To raging narcissism, I say, “Oh fudge.”

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Lonely guy seeks old café and three buddies

I am an orphan, which is not so unusual for a man of 79, and like everyone else I know, I work out of my own home and at the moment I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a bowl of Cheerios beside the laptop and a cup of coffee (black). I have no office anymore. I’ve had offices, not cubicles but offices with doors and a window, sometimes a credenza, since I was 22 years old. I miss them.

If someone opens a Museum of the American Office, I volunteer to be a docent and I’ll show them around the office of fifty years ago with the mimeograph machine, the manual typewriter, and the big telephone with the long curly cord that went into the wall. There was no copier, we used carbon paper. Someone knocked on the door and I hid my copy of Portnoy’s Complaint in the top drawer and a woman poked her head in and said, “The meeting is about to begin.”

That’s what I miss, the meeting. They were like little morality plays, in which people assumed allegorical roles, Dreamers, Realists, Satirists and Strategists, and the outcome was usually to maintain inertia but they were entertaining. I was a satirist in my early years and then suddenly I became the boss and I was surrounded by realists, and at the end of my office career, I became a dreamer and the two women employees listened and took turns being the assassin who points out the deadly reality so not much happened but I was okay with that. The pleasure was in the meeting itself.

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On Tuesday it all came down at once

The world is turning wondrous again, maples and ash and goldenrod turning golden Van Gogh colors and I got into a weepy mood on Tuesday, which is unusual for me, a man with dry eyes, but I was overwhelmed by everything happening at once, thinking of an old friend and sweet singer who’d died, and on Tuesday a reunion of my Anoka high school class (1960), feeling kinship to old rivals and antagonists but now we’re all in the same boat, a sinking ship. The names of some of our dead were mentioned, including Henry Hill Jr., a star athlete and a good guy who enlisted in the Army and made first lieutenant and was killed in action in Quang Ngai province in 1968, leading his unit of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division.

The woman who spoke of Henry remembered a few lines of a song I wrote about him, “His picture’s on the piano in a silver frame and his family weeps if you speak his name. In ’68 he went off to the war and now he’s forever 24.”

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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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