Columns

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

What we know is not nearly enough

Of the ten worst mass shootings in America in recent history, five have taken place in Texas, so it was brave of Governor Abbott to go to Uvalde after the massacre of nineteen fourth-graders by an 18-year-old high school dropout with two newly bought AR-15s who had a whole hour to kill the kids and two teachers. The grief of a gun-lobby governor seemed rather thin but he went because he had to.

The hour delay between the first call to 911 and the shooting of the shooter was not explained in the media. A team of three Border Patrol troopers, carrying a ballistic shield, broke into the classroom at last and the shooter was exterminated.

Videos from Uvalde showed scores of heavily armed cops walking around, bearing assault rifles, bulky in their armored vests, even an armored vehicle outside the Robb Elementary School. For a moment I thought it was a scene from Ukraine, but no.

Read More

Time to head for the graveyard and pay respects

Memorial Day is soon upon us, a day that is personal to veterans of foreign wars and rather abstract to us freeloaders and draft dodgers, and seldom the twain shall meet, but this Day is one of those occasions. I speak as one who got a notice from my draft board to report for induction back in 1967 and I wrote to them and said I was opposed to the war and wouldn’t go, and somehow the matter disappeared and the FBI never knocked on my door.

A classmate of mine, Henry Hill, died in Vietnam, in Quang Ngai, at the age of 24, a star athlete and class president, a first lieutenant, infantry commander, died of multiple fragmentation wounds, and I think, “The Army was unable to turn this guy into a deadly killer. He thought he was still on the football team.” I don’t feel responsible for Henry’s death, I think Robert McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey were, and plenty of others who knew what was going on.

Read More

Time is more like it used to be than it was before

I have suddenly become very easygoing thanks to the black hole in our galaxy out near the constellation Sagittarius that astronomers have provided pictures of, a mass equivalent to four million suns, temps in the trillions, with a gravitational force that bends time, which has given me a larger perspective and made me less intolerant of those who say “less” when they mean “fewer” or those who misuse “who” and “whom,” of whom I know a few, plus aggressive drivers, over-friendly waiters, misplaced glasses, spam, a great many formerly irritating things are less so thanks to this new information and I’m grateful to whomever and whoever provided it.

It’s an enormous universe we’re floating around in. We thought it was a big deal to put men on the moon, but in the greater scale of things, that’s like going out the front door to the mailbox. We’re adrift in a sea of endless ignorance and to me this says, “Enjoy your insignificance. Be contented with what you have.” I have a cup of black coffee, a laptop computer, a grandfather clock whose pendulum ticks off the time without bending it, and from the next room I hear my wife getting dressed. She is an independent woman, curious, venturing, an observer of humanity, who never depended on me for entertainment though we do enjoy each other’s company. For me, she intensifies time greatly, which is even better than bending.

Read More

If you want a story, sit down and I’ll find one for you

Storytelling is an art of necessity that you learn when you are young and come home rather late from lying in the grass with Corinne in her backyard talking and holding her hand, your head on her shoulder, observing the slight rise of her breasts as she breathes, and your mother is at the door, wanting an explanation, and rather than get Corinne on your mother’s list of Temptresses, you invent a story in which you were hitchhiking and a drunk picked you up and he was a veteran of D-Day, wounded by the Nazis in defense of democracy, a good man fallen on hard times, and he was too drunk to drive so you took the wheel and drove him home and listened to his long list of troubles and then had to walk home. True? No. Sinful? Hardly.

Storytelling is crucial in panhandling, something I’ve never done but who knows what the future may hold? A bedraggled couple approach in a parking lot, pushing a baby stroller, and say, “Do you have any money?” This is not a good opening line. You need to say, “I’m sorry but my wife and I came down from Bemidji and slept in the park and our money was stolen during the night and we need to take our baby to University Hospital because he needs to take a blood test. Can you spare twenty dollars for cabfare?” This is a plausible tale, your speaking in whole sentences suggests you’re a reasonable person, not stoned on drugs, and you’ve made a specific request. And there’s a baby in the stroller.

Read More

What are fathers for? Anybody’s guess

I took my love to dinner last Sunday and told her what an excellent mother she is and it’s absolutely true, I observed her in action all those years, driving our child to appointments, reading to her, rocking her to sleep, listening to her anxieties, attending numerous meetings with teachers, but then the question of my fatherhood arises and I am pleading the Fifth, so no questions, please, I’m well aware of my inadequacies.

I’m not proud, but after my first cup of coffee, when I sit down at the laptop, my self-esteem problems go away. This is the beauty of writing, it takes the mind off one’s failures, failure is simply valuable material for comedy, and thanks to my long-standing habit of never reading my own books, I am perpetually hopeful. When I sit down to write, I am 27 again. Everything is possible.

Read More

Nobody asked, but I’ll tell you anyway

I come from Minnesota, the modest K-shaped state with the bump on top, sitting on the front line of defense against Canada, predominantly white Protestant but trying not to be too obvious about it, maybe grow a beard and eat oysters on the half shell and read poetry to raise questions in people’s minds. Sometimes we’re called the North Star State, sometimes the Gopher State, but really we’re the Recovery State, where Hazelden was born and various programs for curing chem-dep and other addictions. AA is big. There are thousands of big rooms full of folding chairs where people hear accusatory talks and then break up into discussion groups.

Bob Dylan was from here but he loved Woody Guthrie, the itinerant life, the train whistle in the night, surrealist poetry, none of which are popular here, and we have no idea where he is now. Some say he has a big farm near Moose Lake but who cares? Prince was a greater musician but came to a tragic end, there being no good recovery program for addicts so rich and famous. Fitzgerald is our one great writer in the American Pantheon and he was good but no Hemingway.

Read More

Driving across Indiana today

I come from low-key Minnesotans who like to end a sentence with then or now — “So what are you up to then?” — which is intended to soften the question and avoid an accusatory tone and if you said, “Oh, just waiting to see what turns up,” they might say, “Sounds good then,” so when I heard that the Supremes plan to toss out Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision in Roe v. Wade, I thought, “So what kind of a deal is that then, for crying out loud,” which is my people’s idea of profanity but doesn’t call down fire and brimstone then.

He was a low-key Minnesota Republican who grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood of St. Paul and got scholarshipped to Harvard and returned to Minnesota to be resident counsel at the Mayo Clinic, and the heart of Roe v. Wade is the reluctance to interfere in a woman’s intimate life and dictate the answer to an agonizing question, which reflects a Midwestern temperament. We would interfere with a big kid bullying a little kid, or a child torturing an animal, or some other act of cruelty we witness, but the Mississippi law the Supremes are prepared to uphold is a radical invasion by the state of a woman’s life. That’s what sort of deal it is.

Read More

Kindness: you look and you’ll see it.

I’ve been a rhymer ever since I was twelve and read the limerick about the young girl of Madras who had a remarkable ass and so when I read about a trans legislator in Kansas, it started my engine, but she turns out to be a nice woman named Stephanie Byers (choirs, lyres) who is only advocating kindness for her kind, no big deal in my book, and I looked up the girl from Madras. It’s one of the only limericks that accuses the reader of unseemly thoughts — her ass is “not soft, round, and pink as you probably think, but the kind with long ears that eats grass,” and I loved this as a kid, having grown up evangelical and knowing something about righteous fever.

I’ve gone through my own fevers back in my youth, I marched, I manifestoed, and I am still capable of high dudgeon, but I’ve come to have a higher regard for kindness than righteousness, especially the sort that burns other people at the stake, which we see more of these days.

Read More

One more word about Twitter, then I’ll shut up

I once knew a librarian who at age 34 fell in love with a poet she met in a bar who, though sober, announced that he adored her. For years she’d only dated men who were looking for a sympathetic sister, but this fellow lusted after her and suddenly she was shopping for a bigger bed and learning to samba. The problem was that his poems were bleak and not ingeniously bleak but dull bleak, disconnected dark images of dread and dismay. He wrote one for her and she said, “It’s nice,” and he said, “I can tell you don’t like it,” and she said, “It’s sort of dark,” and he ran out the door (he was living with her) and she hasn’t heard from him since.

It can be dangerous to tell the truth. Why couldn’t she have said, “I love it, it’s one of your best”? His poems weren’t hurting anybody. Polar bears weren’t dying from them, they weren’t poisoning the rivers. Let the man be a bad poet and eventually he’ll find his way into marketing or lawn mowing or some other gainful employment.

Read More

What macaroni and cheese means to me

Men my age are not riding high these days compared to back in the Renaissance or the 19th century so I am taking a back seat and not getting fussed up. I appreciate new stuff like YouTube and the Unsubscribe option and the peanut butter latte, but I don’t know who famous people are anymore — Abe Lincoln, Al Kaline, A.J. Liebling are on my A-list but I wouldn’t know Adele if she walked up and offered me her autograph. I’m out of it. So I keep my mouth shut. I’ve listened to people discussing their loyalty to particular coffees from specific regions of Kenya or Nicaragua and I don’t weigh in on this. I’d be okay with Maxwell House Instant. Coffee is coffee. Debating it is like arguing about doormats. You walk in, you wipe your feet, it’s not a transformative experience. I feel the same way about gender: it’s your beeswax, not mine. Be who you want to be but don’t expect me to call you them or it or us.

I drink coffee because it is a warm liquid and I accept the myth that it enlivens the brain though probably hot water from the tap would serve as well. My coffee habit is a cultural choice: I don’t want to be part of the tea crowd, it’d mean I’d have to have a ponytail and wear linen clothing and have a cockadoodle named Josephine. I drink coffee and have short hair and jeans with a hole in the knee.

Read More