Columns

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

Floating down the canyon through the rapids

I’m an old man but not utterly clueless and as I hear music come out of the ceiling, I hear rap and hip-hop become monosyllabic, a string of shouts and macho mumbles with machinelike percussion, a sort of anti-music, and then along comes a young woman who sings actual stories in whole sentences to a real melody and you have Taylor Swift and she takes over the music business and becomes the most famous person on earth, bigger than Vladimir Putin. When Putin fills a stadium, you know it was at gunpoint. Mister Marlago fills small plazas but it’s all the same people, mostly retirees with time on their hands who love hearing that same speech over and over. Taylor draws huge paying crowds who are overjoyed from start to finish and also buy the merch and go home happy.

I accept the fact that I am a back issue, a relic, and that younger people have taken over. Eight years ago I played the Hollywood Bowl; a few weeks ago I played a 200-seater in Menomonie, Wisconsin. It was fun. People in the seats talked back to me. We hung out in the lobby afterward. I caught influenza from one of them. Do Taylor’s fans get to share their germs with her? I doubt it very much.

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Forty days of self-exams, then spring

It is Lent, the season meant for us to meditate upon our wayward ways, even us Episcopalians whom you rarely find falling down drunk in the gutter or shoplifting at Walgreens or getting into fistfights — no, for us failing to write thank-you notes is major — but still we have our shortcomings, which, I must say, are clearer to me this week when my wife the violist is away playing Beethoven for a ballet in Minneapolis. Without her here, my life goes slack, I sometimes spend all day in pajamas, my mind jumps from one lily pad to another, I can’t focus. My room is a mess, the bed is a tangle of bedclothes.

My grandma Dora always made her bed upon arising, believing it lent order to the day. She was a seamstress, schoolteacher, railroad telegrapher, farm wife, mother of eight. Her bread was light and crusty. She had firm habits: she drank Postum, ate Grape-Nuts, slept with the window open for fresh air, and she was a progressive Methodist who believed that women and persons of color were the equal of white men and that science could solve many of our problems. Compared to Grandma, I am a hopeless mess. I mean it.

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Pull up your socks, people, let’s get going

Before it dies, I want to come out in favor of the hyperloop project in Minnesota to create underground tubes in which people would travel in capsules propelled by electromagnetic force at speeds up to 700 mph. No seat belts, no use of carbon fuel, no roaring engines or jarring bumps. They’re proposing a link between Minneapolis/St. Paul and Rochester, 85 miles, which by my calculation will take about 7 and ½ minutes, or one cup of coffee, whereas now it takes 90 some minutes, or about the length of the opera “Hansel and Gretel” if you include the search for a parking spot and the hike to where your appointment is.

Minnesota’s, of course, would only be an experiment, which, if successful, could be extended and thereby make the country smaller — three hours from Chicago to L.A. but without the pollution — and eventually you might eliminate the vast underpopulated middle, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana, which would become one huge federal agricultural reserve, run by the Department of Agriculture, tended by migrant workers, no need for towns and cities. Kansas has 105 counties, a pointless bureaucracy ruling over wheat and soybean fields. Farming is heavily subsidized by the feds anyway and in the name of efficiency, why not let them run it, allocating acreage based on nutrition, convert wasteful grazing lands to vegetable crops. Eliminating those states would reduce the U.S. Senate by 20 seats, which could only improve it, and likely send the Republican Party careening into history, which it has been seeking for some time now. And who can name the last great senator from Kansas or South Dakota?

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A good snowfall can change everything almost

A splendiferous snow fell on Manhattan a few days ago, seven inches, a new bright world, school was canceled and soon neighborhood children were hauling their sleds and saucers into Central Park to go sliding.

Sliding is something an old man avoids but I remember the pleasure of lubricity — tobogganing down a steep slope and out onto the Mississippi ice where we could skate upwind and then open our jackets for a sail and go flying home. We flooded a rink in a vacant lot and played hockey and somebody’s dad hauled an old chicken coop over with a woodstove in it for a warming house. And I may be idealizing now but I do remember a spirit of chumminess and good cheer in that warm house on bitter cold days. Bad kids chose to suppress their malevolent tendencies; subzero weather made them sort of sensible.

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Last Wednesday, stuck in a traffic jam

Joe Biden came to Manhattan for a couple fundraisers last week, which gave the NYPD a fine excuse to close off as many streets as humanly possible, which is why some people go into law enforcement — for the chance to make civilians stand behind barriers — and there I stood, looking at York Avenue, abandoned except for a few cop cars, lights flashing. I’d crossed over from the West Side in a cab driven by a cabbie who’d been at it for 39 years and who was highly irritated by the blockages, also said the economy’s tanking, shops closing, people abandoning the city, crime up, Wall Street in trouble, but at the same time, he said, “It’s Number One, the greatest city in the world.”

New Yorkers have this ability, to express despair and municipal pride in the same sentence. I over-tipped him and hiked 12 blocks to my doctor who took my blood pressure and said it was excellent, so I owe Joe for getting me to exercise. I was so surprised though by his language describing his likely November opponent, which I read in a paper I won’t name, a two-word term, a participle of concupiscence modifying a word for a common human orifice. Joe, unlike the other guy, is a churchgoer and if my chest had a bazoom, I would clutch it, but it doesn’t, not yet. I just wonder, where are we headed?

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Cleaning out my closet

My beloved and I live in a large co-op building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that I bought in 1987 and from our terrace we can look up to the apartment where Sinclair Lewis lived in his alcoholic distress before going away to die in Italy in 1951 and farther up is Faye Dunaway’s old apartment with panoramic views of the city. She resided there when she was having an affair with the Italian heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni — Marshmallow Macaroni, we used to call him — and where she, in a fit of fury because he wouldn’t marry her, threw his clothes off the 20th-floor balcony to sail down onto the brownstone roofs. A neighbor told me about it who’d gotten the scoop from a previous resident, since departed. Faye screamed a name at him and heaved two armloads of shirts and pants and they went fluttering down like a flock of dying butterflies. “It was a good thing he wasn’t in one of the shirts at the time or she would’ve heaved him over in person,” the neighbor said. “I went out and found a couple in the ramp going down to the garage and they are just my size, one orange, one green stripes, not exactly my style but they make me feel like a Somebody.”

So from our terrace, I look up and remind myself to stay off alcohol except for Communion and avoid the sadness of Lewis’s end. He kept cranking out novels in his old age but people had had enough of him especially as he got old and out of touch with the current scene and the work got more cartoonish.

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We need each other, it’s a fact

The great debate continues over Flaco the eagle-owl spotted recently flying around our home on New York’s Upper West Side, a year after he got loose from the Central Park Zoo: should he continue to roam the city freely, feeding on rats, or should he be put back in captivity for his own welfare?

He’s a big bird, six-foot wingspan, bright orange eyes, and he’s gained a considerable fan base, most of whom are rooting for him to be free. Some renowned owlologists, however, feel the bird is in danger, primarily from rat poison but also from vehicular birdicide, and needs to be rescued from his urban habitat.

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The meaning of the freestanding life

Aging is a beautiful natural process, the wisdom gained, the growing sense of gratitude, the amusement of seeing young people make your same dumb mistakes, but one thing that bothers me is the difficulty of putting on underpants while standing and not leaning against a doorpost. It’s a graceful moment, left leg held high and poked through the hole, then the right, freestanding, no wobbling, which I’ve done since I was a kid, and now at 81 I can sometimes still perform the trick, but then comes a bad experience — the left foot catches the underpants crotch and you lose your balance and suddenly you’re headed for a tragic accident.

I do not want my obit to read “The author died at home of a concussion, while trying to pull on his briefs. No foul play was suspected.” And so after a near fall, I sit down on the bed and practice safety, but still there is a sense of loss. Trousers are easier but not without risk.

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With misery comes a little additional wisdom

It’s good to know what true misery is as opposed to irritation, frustration, or annoyance, and now, thanks to influenza B, I am clued in. It hit suddenly last week, fever, chills, chest congestion, a hard dry cough, shivering, shaking, and a profound fatigue such that I grabbed a cane to assist me to the bathroom. Suddenly I was 98 years old. I felt I was at death’s door. I put on a sweater and lay shivering under a quilt. I slept in an upright chair to ease the coughing. I tried to order chicken soup from a deli to be delivered but they needed me to do it through PayPal, which meant creating a new PIN number to add to the twenty I already have, so I declined. Tylenol helped with the fever so I could sleep a little and in the morning I headed for the doctor’s.

I looked so pathetic that the cabdriver got out of the front seat and helped me in the back. The doctor could see I was suffering badly. A blood test revealed influenza B, and I headed home with the prescription. All in all, that’s what I call pure misery.

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A noble idea that hit me last Tuesday

I was riding home from the cardiologist’s in a taxi and heard a woman on the radio say that if you see a bird lying on the sidewalk, you shouldn’t ignore it, you should pick it up gently and move its legs — if the bird reacts, it’s alive, and may recover, so you might put it in a paper sack and carry it to a warm place and if it’s wounded, you could take it to a wild bird shelter.

I had never heard this advice before and I was impressed. The cab was wending through heavy traffic in Manhattan and the thought of someone stopping to give first aid to a bird seems unlikely to me. Maybe in a children’s book, but in New York, no. I say this as someone who’s fallen three times in New York, tripped on a curb once, hit a low-hanging limb once, tripped on uneven pavement, and each time, within three seconds, strangers rushed to my side, asked if I was okay, offered a hand. God has His Eye on the sparrow so I believe He watches over you and me, but New Yorkers are busy people with a lot on their minds.

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