Winter is a thoughtful time. Snow falls in the trees and my natural meanness dissipates and the urge to bash my enemies’ mailboxes with a baseball bat. I put fresh strawberries on the cornflakes and taste the sweetness of life. I speak gently to the lady across the table. Marriage is the truest test — to make a good life with your best-informed critic, and thanks to her excellent comedic timing, we have a good life. My third marriage and this year we ding the silver bell of twenty-five years.
America is the land of second and third chances, not like Europe. We have remedial colleges for kids who slept through high school. In Europe, the system is geared toward efficiency: it separates kids by age 12 into Advanced, Mediocre, and Food Service Workers, and once they assign you to a lane, it’s hard to get out of it. In this country, if our children are lazy and undisciplined, we try to see signs of artistic ability. We put them in a fine arts program. They spend three years writing weird stuff and get an MFA and you drive through McDonald’s and the young people fixing the Egg McMuffins are poets and songwriters.
Our ancestors were happy to escape the zeal of revolutionaries and the madness of despots and come to America and work like draft horses, hoping their children and grandchildren would have an easier time of it.
It’s a land of high hopes, thanks to the Atlantic and Pacific that serve to isolate us from reality. Our ancestors were happy to escape the zeal of revolutionaries and the madness of despots and come to America and work like draft horses, hoping their children and grandchildren would have an easier time of it. And we do. Fifty years ago, when we referred to “homosexuals,” it sounded like people suffering from a condition that required treatment, but when “gay” became common usage, it changed everything. How can you be opposed to happiness?
For an old man, there aren’t many second chances, but we still hope for them. I miss my youth, the buzzin’ of the bees in the cigarette trees near the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, and now the bee population is down, the smokes are gone, lemonade contains dangerous additives, and when did you last see a bluebird? In my youth, men worked on their cars, changed the oil and the spark plugs, replaced the fan belt, and other men gathered, squatted around the car, and talked about manly things. The driveway was their territory. This is all gone now. Cars can’t be repaired by ordinary people with ordinary tools. Men have been forced into the living room, which belongs to women. They say, “Take your shoes off” and you have to do it.
The country is falling apart. There are new food allergies every week so we can’t have dinner parties anymore unless we limit the menu to locally sourced artisanal lentils. And people who come for dinner spend the first half hour talking about how long it took to get here — rush hour is horrendous, three and four hours, so people email and text behind the wheel, even shave, and do makeup, change a shirt, put on a tie, nobody dares tailgate because they’re steering with their knees so traffic moves even more slowly. Online medical education means someday we’ll go in for a tonsillectomy and come out missing our left lung. The Boeing debacle means we can only ride Airbuses now, planes designed by engineers who eat mussels and wear silk scarves. And Washington — Mr. Trump wouldn’t have been a capable water commissioner in a midsize city but here he is, running foreign policy based on phone conversations with Tucker Carlson. Republican politics is based on the imminence of the Second Coming: if Jesus doesn’t descend within three years and take the Republicans to heaven, they are going to be in very deep waste materials.
But hope remains. People still fall in love. I know millennials who are crazy about each other and don’t try to hide it. The country is on the skids but still I see people going to the trouble of seducing each other. In Minnesota, this is done by owning a snowblower and going to the home of the person you adore and blowing the snow, and if he or she (or they or we or those) is receptive, they will invite you in for a bowl of homemade chili.
I don’t know what Californians do but in the north, it’s very simple. Snowblowing followed by chili. Chili with ground beef or chicken in it. What the heck — take the risk. Veganism can wait until after marriage.