It’s odd how a man facing heart surgery hears from friends who seem to have more on their minds than they’re willing to say — “How are you?” they say and “Thinking about you” in a way that suggests maybe they asked me months ago for a blurb for their new novel (“Recklessly absurd but lyrically sensitive”) or I promised to talk to their creative writing class — and I want to say, “Get to the point,” but these are Minnesotans and we are point-avoiders.
The elephant in the room is mortality, of course, and if they’re calling to wish me well, okay, but the novel is unimpressive (“Where confusion collides with revulsion at over-writing”) and my advice to young writers is “Get a life, then think about writing” and that’s enough about that.
My London family is visiting as I prepare for surgery, who are eager to talk about English medieval history, the murderous conspiracies and bizarre assassinations, that make current American history seem like a playground scuffle. It’s an excellent distraction for a soon-to-be-incised man, hearing about the grisly murder of Edward II in 1327 at the hands of barons and clergy, so much better than sympathy. I’m a leaning tower of good fortune, especially compared to Edward.
I like being old and am looking forward to a meeting with my surgeon, an interesting social occasion, shaking the hand that will cut my chest open. Should I make a joke about it? I haven’t decided yet. Open-heart surgery didn’t exist when I was a kid; they trundled you off to the Old Soldiers Home and gave you a stiff drink but now the fact that they imagine a guy of eighty deserves a battery jump is very inspiring. I intend to accomplish something with my additional time that will justify all the trouble.
I’m in stand-up comedy, a line of work that goes back to the Romans, not the ones St. Paul wrote the epistle to, but their uncles. I am one of the few octogenarian stand-ups in the country and I intend to keep standing until I fall down and when I fall I plan to pass gas at the same time and get a huge laugh.
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I have no pride. I am an ordinary left-wing socialist, having attended a public school where we all ate the same macaroni and cheese for lunch. If you were allergic to synthetic cheese, tough luck: go to the lavatory and throw up. I was good at menial jobs like parking cars but went into radio because it was Minnesota and vacuum tubes give off heat. It was public radio where all the announcers sound like Methodist ministers except not as friendly and there is no Jesus, and I distinguished myself by telling jokes and stem-winding stories about a small town. People liked it; go figure.
Now I live in New York, a city of phenomenal tolerance where you can walk the streets talking to yourself and nobody minds and some people might even offer to share their medications. And if you’re wearing pajamas, they’d assume you’re under indictment and going for the insanity defense. Midwesterners think of New York as cold and indifferent because they come and stay in hotels in Midtown and never actually meet New Yorkers, just other Midwesterners, who aren’t cold, just stunned.
But Minnesota is home and always will be. I recognized that when I last went to Mayo for surgery and it seemed awkward not to converse with the orderly as he shaved my groin and put a tube up my urinary tract so I asked him if he did this full-time and he recognized my voice. (He didn’t know my groin from a bale of hay.) “My wife really likes your show,” he said. “She thinks your singing has gotten a lot better.”
That is a true Minnesota compliment. The thought that you’re better than you used to be. What more can you ask for? I’m ready to be cut open in hopes of further improvement. I’ve forgiven the few people who done me wrong — three, to be exact — and I intend to come out of the hospital a better husband and better friend. I’m done with isolation and ready to sit around a table down on an October afternoon and eat a cucumber salad and talk about the phenomenal advances in the world that help make life better and better.