In my jet-setting job as editor of Vital Speeches International, I spend January and February flying around the world listening to the leaders of far-flung nations deliver various types of state-of-the-nation addresses.
No I don't.
But I do read lots of those speeches. After a while, they begin to remind me of a gathering at my corner tavern, the J&M.
I'm sitting there nursing my first Hamm's and Beam and thinking about whether I should burden my pals tonight with my harrowing business negotiations, brag to them about a fascinating story I'm reporting on lately, or entertain them with a story about how I nearly crapped my pants on the walk home the last time we were out together.
Before I can decide, New Zealand's prime minister John Key breezes in, in a terrific mood—especially for February in Chicago.
I don't usually ask people general questions about how they're doing. That's what young guys do. Older guys like me and my tavern buddies know that earnestly asking a fellow, "How are you?" is like going to Google and typing "information, please."
But Key, slapping his New Zealand dollars on the bar, seems to want to be asked. I bite: "How's New Zealand?"
"New Zealand is in good shape and getting better," Key says. "We are making great strides towards building a stronger, more prosperous country—a country where we can have a great lifestyle and earn a good income that compares well with the rest of the world."
I tell "Key-Wi," as I call him, that I'm really glad to hear it, and I begin to pass on the word from President Obama that the U.S. is doing well too these days. "The shadow of crisis has passed, Key-Wi," I tell him with a pretzel rod clenched in my teeth, "and the State of the Union in strong."
I'm about to give some happy examples when Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot shambles in. "G'day, mate!" I holler, figuring Aussies are a pretty cheerful bunch, and if things are going great guns for New Zealand, surf must be up down under, too.
Not so much.
"These are testing times for our country," Abbot reports morosely as he pulls up a stool. "It was an anxious year for our well-being, as well as for our security." He's really feeling the pressure at home. "In troubled times, people expect more of government, not less—and we have to deliver."
I feel terrible. How could I not have remembered about the fucking Islamic death cult, the 38 Aussies who died at the hands of Russian rebels, and the fact that the sluggish Chinese economy is dragging down Australia's with it?
I can't be sure, but it looks to me like Key-Wi's look of sympathy betrays a bit of sibling smugness.
I consider diffusing the gloom with my pants-crapping story, but just then Goodluck Jonathan bangs through the door, from Nigeria. What's up, Goodluck?
Could be worse, he says, ordering a Stella Artois. "A new nation is being born because of the foundations we have all laid, working together for the good and progress of our dear fatherland."
Hey, that's cool, man! Congratulations! Yeah, that's fucking awesome, dude!
But it's never that simple with Goodluck Jonathan. Or as we call him, "Bad News" Jonathan.
If it's not hopeless government corruption with this guy, it's oil in the drinking water. If it's not the AIDS epidemic, it's Boko Haram.
Tonight, it's Boko Haram.
"Regrettably, terrorists have unleashed much pain and agony on our land. They have made widows of our mothers and sisters and orphans of our children. They have shut down businesses, desecrated places of worship and brought untold hardship to both men and women."
And on and on and on and on like that until we're all about to kill ourselves.
Key-Wi is getting impatient. He didn't come down here to hear a bunch of meaningless bitching. For that, he can drink home, with his family.
Aussie Abbot absentmindedly suggests to Goodluck that bad things happen to good people all over.
And so it goes, until we've all gotten a little drunk and I finally get a chance to tell about how I almost crapped my pants.
And we all laugh and tell more yarns and jokes and interrupt each other and feed the jukebox and go for pisses and flirt with the bartender and share crackpot theories that our wives are tired of and debate the origins of words and act like experts on things and agree and disagree and pretend to disagree and pretend to agree until last call comes, as a shock.
"One more," Goodluck says without a trace of trouble in his voice, "and we gotta go."
So, how are we, after all? As long as we can still get together and share our troubles and spout our victories and then manage forget about all of it for a few hours without starting a bar fight—I guess we're doing well enough. Looking back from closing time is like looking around the world, like looking back on the old days as the man sang here last week: "They were just a lot of people, and they were doing the best they could. They did it pretty up and walking good."
I don't know about that last part. But I think I do know about the first.