from newspaper columns by
James Lileks

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columns by James Lileks


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columns in the Star Tribune by
James Lileks
“Remotes are getting out of control,”

Star Tribune column, June 6, 2004

It’s a guy thing; electronic equipment occupies the same place in our brains as shoes do for women. Buying them is more fun than having them. It’s embedded deeply in the genes, I’m certain: Thousands of years ago in the caveman era, Og discovered that a certain kind of wood shed a brighter light, and this meant he could cast high-definition hand-shadows on the wall to illustrate the Tale of the Hunt. “Og, you using that new Burn-Fast-Like-Gazelle maple, there?” “Absolutely, my friend. Check out something else I’ve invented. See, this hand casts the shadows of the herd, and this hand is us on the hunt. Now watch when I suddenly stop moving my fingers.” (Grunts of amazement.)

“Gentlemen, I have invented the concept of Pause.”



items below checked (see note) when added

“Hottest dish in town”

Star Tribune column, August 22, 2008

Lowing beasts, farm machinery, grass-roots political schmoozing, processed and congealed meats impaled on a dowel, folk art, high art, chain-saw art, mop hucksters, BBQ slopped in plastic baskets, gap-toothed carnies barking flat rote come-ons, squalling kids, squealing piglets, idiot chickens, mullet-rubes at the test-your-strength booth, first-date teens and 40-year marrieds. Sunrise over pancakes at the Epiphany Diner; sunset at the midway with neon rolling overhead. The fair has begun, and for 12 days we do America better than anyone.

It smells good, too. It has that new-fair smell. The animals haven’t yet saturated the south end with, well, their south ends; the grass hasn’t been beaten flat by the herds of humans. The grease is fresh.

Compare to:

Robert A. Heinlein

“Economy, pumpkins come down to Earth”

Star Tribune column, October 12, 2008

Everyone’s looking for silver linings in the dark clouds — as in, how we can get those clouds, rip them open and hoard the silver? Because if we’re going to go to a barter economy, I’m low on the whole pigs-and-chickens part. Some people note that you don’t actually lose money in the stock market until you sell, and that’s true, but somehow it sounds like “if you die while you’re asleep, it doesn’t really count.”



“Lots of lonely folks in the city looking down on the suburbs”

Star Tribune column, January 9, 2009

Many in the ’burbs can’t imagine why anyone would live in the city; some think you can’t walk around the lake in broad daylight without a tax collector holding you up at gunpoint to collect the money to support failing schools.

I’ve found, however, that people in the city are more likely to look down on the ’burbs than vice versa. People in the ’burbs don’t give the core cities much thought at all, which irritates city dwellers. It’s like we’re still mad that the suburbs broke up with us and posted photos of their new love on Facebook.



“You hate this weather? Go ahead! Just quit your whining”

Star Tribune column, January 16, 2009

It is unbecoming to complain; we’re supposed to take this as the price for living in God’s country. And you don’t hear Him complaining.

We’re allowed to admit to a few inconveniences. It’s hard to drive when your eyeballs freeze solid, and you can’t blink because your eyelids would get stuck like a tongue on a flagpole.

If you’re lucky, your car’s heater can be set on “Blast From the Gaping Maw of Hell” and it thaws your orbs by the time you hit the highway. But I pass people whose teeth are chattering like wind-up gag dentures, and it’s obvious their heaters are incapable of emitting anything warmer than penguin flatulence.

These people need an advocacy group. [...] Someone who will stand up and say what millions of us believe: THIS IS RIDICULOUS. I’M TIRED OF PRETENDING IT MAKES US BETTER PEOPLE.

Because it doesn’t. It just means we know how to layer.



You can say it’s brisk. It’s bracing. Oh yah, it’s nippy. Oh gosh, it’s just bitter[...]

But for all those who truly, deeply, despise the skull-cracking temps of a Minnesota winter: you’re not alone. There’s nothing wrong with you.

Just keep it to yourself, because no one likes a whiner.

“Loudest, and slowest, Jackson tribute concert”

Star Tribune column, June 28, 2009

Musical celebrities of all ages should be advised to come up with a signature tune that can be played on giant bells and be instantly recognizable. [...] In between tributes to the fallen, the bells could be put to other uses, you know. It would be an interesting sociological experiment to play “shave and a hair cut” at noon without providing the rest, and see how long it took for a torch-and-pitchfork mob to gather at City Hall, demanding they play “Two Bits” so everyone can get on with their life, already.



“Is it Art? The courts say no, but who makes up these rules?”

Star Tribune column, July 17, 2009

Because the bar was attempting to get around the law by resorting to devilish conceptual subterfuge, we’re told, it isn’t Art. You can’t shout THEATER in a crowd of fire.

Note (Hal’s):
A bar had tried to circumvent nonsmoking regulations by declaring patrons engaged in a “theatrical performance,” invoking a specific exception in the law.

— end note



A soup can is just a soup can, but a silkscreen of a soup can is commentary. Please note: a photograph of a silkscreen of a soup can is copyright infringement, but a photo of someone taking a photo of a silkscreen of a soup can might be Art.



“Now, let’s see what laws you’ve been breaking”

Star Tribune column, August 2, 2009

Surely, there are archaic laws cluttering the statutes; you know, like it is illegal to hire an Irishman to repair a calliope. Automobiles shall signal their approach to an intersection with a hired troupe shooting Roman candles, or other such nonsense. Every new law should mean one has to be removed, so the balance of things the law doesn’t cover remains equal. Right? I mean, there ought to be a ...

Never mind.



“If this is the ’burbs, that can’t be a bear”

Star Tribune column, September 27, 2009

When you see a raccoon in the city, you’re always startled. The back-door light snaps on, you see a creature the size of a sailor’s duffle bag. You freeze. He freezes. It’s embarrassing for you both, like walking into a co-worker when you open a bathroom stall door. The raccoon’s expression seems to say, Look, I’m fat, OK? Otherwise, I’d run. Let’s just pretend this didn’t happen. Where do they live? The sewers? I’ve seen raccoons you couldn’t poke down a manhole without a pound of Crisco.

“True or false? School is tougher now”

Star Tribune column, May 27, 2011

Calculus is different. Calculus destroys self-esteem on contact. Everything in modern education seems devoted to telling kids they’re special and smart and can do anything, and then WHAM! CALCULUS. It should be taught in Latin just to complete the effect.



“Can’t they just be happy with that lobby?”

Star Tribune column, October 12, 2012

Sure, we have a peerless cadre of world-renowned musicians who preserve and reanimate the most sophisticated, complex cultural tradition of Western civilization. But they’ve forgotten what it’s like to have that burning fire that drove them into music in the first place.

They’re pampered. They’re soft. There’s too many of them, too. I’m sure you’ve been to the concerts: There’s huuuuge stretches where some of the players are just sitting there waithing for something to do. Don’t tell me that horn section can’t hustle over and pick up a fiddle during a languid adagio.



If not enough people want to pay for it, that’s too bad, but we don’t subsidize the buggywhip industry.

Granted. Of course, if buggywhipping were a big national sport, we would be building an enormous facility for the express purpose of holding nine televised buggywhipping matches. But I get the point.

The sports metaphor just makes you realize that the orchestra made a tactical error by not introducing full-contact symphonies into its repertoire, complete with referees and announcers. If the purpose of a concert was to have the violins wrest the baton from the conductor’s hand and get it past the bassists’ goal line, the Legislature would have funded an entirely new Orchestra Hall, and a third of the evening newscast would be devoted to the way the violas are shaping up this year on defense.

“YES and NO lawn signs are the yard sails of democracy”

Star Tribune column, November 2, 2012

You dread the day they propose a Youth Employment Service, or YES, and the signs say VOTE NO ON YES. What if they have a Northland Opportunity measure, called NO, and the same lawn with VOTE NO ON YES has a sign that says VOTE YES ON NO?

And heaven save us from the Minneapolis All-Year Business Enterprise, or MAYBE. What if there was an initiative to rescind the program? VOTE YES ON NO TO MAYBE.

People would weep in the streets.

[...] there’s a good reason you don’t talk politics while raking the lawn. Unless you can do it nicely:

“How’s it going, delusional tool of the plutocrat class?”

“Can’t complain, willing serf of the socialist overclass. How ’bout those Vikes?”

“I’m impressed so far, although I’m sure you see their high salaries as a refutation of systemic racism.”

“Nah, I just enjoy that thing you hate – you know, competition, merit-based outcomes. Hey, you want to come over for a beer when we’re done raking?”

“Sure, ya Fascist.”

“Great, Commie-symp.”

“Have something to say? Maybe you shouldn’t”

Star Tribune column, March 1, 2021

A piece of mail from a company that offers cremations. And I thought that first AARP letter was dismaying.



“All’s fair in bidding for World’s Fair site”

Star Tribune column, June 27, 2022

Previously, when the subject arose, I argued against it. We have a State Fair, which is the greatest in the world. If you want a World’s Fair, just rebrand the State Fair for a year. [...]

But a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and I have come to look at the matter in a different light. Why? Because I don’t want to write the same danged column again, easy as it would be. The trick, of course, is to present your reformed opinion with the same brash certainty as your previous opinion.


Ralph Waldo Emerson



“The great Minnesota schism over potato salad”

Star Tribune column, July 16, 2023

My burgers are the best in the land, thanks to a tip passed on by my friend, the Giant Swede: Fry up some applewood-smoked bacon, then add the drippings to the ground beef. The results are fantastic, but I feel as if I shouldn’t put this in the paper without a link to a 15% off coupon at Stents ’R’ Us.



“It’s time to bring back ‘elevator music’ ”

Star Tribune column, September 24, 2023

There was the usual boarding sequence: people who need assistance, military members, families with children, children who have served in the military, First Class, Platinum, Diamond, Tungsten, Uranium, Sky Priority, Troposphere Premium, Comfort Select, Discomfort Select (for the masochists), then Lady With Three Shopping Bags and a Pillow the Size of a Small Black Bear class — she holds up departure for 10 minutes, standing in the aisle while she fills three overhead compartments — and, finally, Peasant Classes one through six.

Now imagine going through all this while accompanied by the worst pop song from the past year, some tuneless thumping thing sung by someone whose voice has been fed through filters until they sound like a robot with a head cold, played loud while everyone morosely files on.


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Background graphic copyright © 2003 by Hal Keen