The Boxer

I have about 40 years of memories with my father. Typing that, just a fact of life, sometimes makes me irritated at the universe. I didn’t have enough time. I’ve still got questions.

That said, nothing is owed anyone and life is cruel by definition, being finite as it is. People lose parents at all ages, and he was here long enough to see all of his grandchildren born, all of whom also remember him well. So there’s that.

But when he passed in 2003, the stories came swooshing out as friends and family gathered to mourn and celebrate his life, and I wanted more. I have solid memories of my dad when he was in his 20s, but I saw no kid in him, not once. He could be silly and joyful and goofy, but he was an adult. I think he was an adult for a long time.

So I wish I could have known the kid, the funny, popular guy with the quick smile, who sang in glee club, who was a bodybuilder for a time, and a boxer. I can see it in my mind, extrapolate from all the anecdotes. It’s not that much of a stretch. He was often the bright light of any party, and I can remember all of this, but I could also see, even as a child, the burden.

He got married just after turning 18, and at 19 became a father. At age 23, he had three kids under the age of 4, and he’d get up in the morning and shake, wondering how he could possibly support a family of five.

He managed to pull that off, as it turns out, but sometimes I wonder if that light he seemed to carry as a young man got dimmed as he faced his responsibilities with fear and obligation. I can remember the job promotions, coming in his 20s, the dawning awareness that my dad was considered something of a superstar in his chosen profession, admired and desired. We moved a lot during that time, better neighborhood to better neighborhood, before he landed an administrative (but still hands getting dirty) position in Phoenix, where we moved when I was a couple of months shy of my 11th birthday.

I was a thorn in his side for a while, always mouthy and snarky as I worked my way through the stages of young wit, and to a man who is scared almost every day and fights the fear by working even harder, having a preteen who is feeling his oats and has a handle on that special brand of obnoxiousness that comes with that, tolerance was not particularly the first place he went.

I got some temper. I got chewed out. I slunk out of many a room with my dad, still feeling righteous but aware that I was on thin ice, and staying alive to snark another day seemed the better part of valor. He had a quick temper, particularly when stressed, and while he wasn’t an abusive father by my standards ( and they’re the only ones I care about), I didn’t want to push it, just in case. I got the back of his hand a couple of times, and while that’s not my style and it’s not a choice I think is appropriate, that sort of spontaneous striking out (to a kid who by this time was taller than he was) always has seemed to me understandable, if not my style.

Understand that this was me, and my dad. He commented on this in later years, how he was too hard and in contemporary times the cops would have come and arrested him, etc. I tried to reassure him; this wasn’t a Stockholm Syndrome or just a beaten-down boy. There was no beating. Just a firm hand, a few mistakes, and a life that horrifies me, looking back. How did he survive at such a young age, trying to juggle work and family, one salary, sometimes more than one job.

And we all did just fine. We’ve had our troubles, but my parents managed to provide a happy childhood and enough lessons to allow us independence, and soon. All of us left home for college, returning occasionally when summers came or money got low, but mostly for holidays and birthdays. We were always a family.

Like many men of his generation, and with his background, he started smoking cigarettes at an early, formative age, long before public awareness of the dangers blasted into our cultural awareness. He tried to quit many times, finally decided he couldn’t, then spontaneously stopped in January 2003, just feeling bad and hoping to feel better.

But feeling bad was part of the lung cancer that was spreading already, finally diagnosed in that spring. He lived another six months or so, sometimes annoyed at the chemotherapy and its effects, and then slipping into gentleness, slightly goofy with tumors growing in his brain, then hospice and pneumonia and the end. He turned 67 four days before losing the battle.

We all lost that battle.

I wrote when he died that some people lead unremarkable lives, but there are no unremarkable people. My father could figure most things out, particularly mechanical things, a natural handyman, and at one time his most remarkable attribute to me was the way he could switch from an artisan to a polite and kind medical professional, who treated his patients with respect and dignity. People with physical disabilities need this, and my father seemed to understand that these were fully-developed human beings, facing adversity. My father understood the diversity of lives, and I suspect his patients loved him.

I loved him, of course. Early squabbles and arguments turned into diplomatic discussions and only the occasional heated ones, but from my early 20s on we were just friends, sharing a Scotch and a cigarette, talking about sports or families or the tough road ahead as the children grew up.

I learned to rely on him, in my own dance with the universe, Saturday night calls to pick his brain, run over options, get some advice. He would wander through his shortcomings, arguing that he was the last person to offer suggestions to my personal problems, but he always helped. And I always knew he was there, with over half a century of battling the odds that he would end up digging for scraps in an unwelcome economy. He made it work. He had some help, but mostly he used his own intuition and probably a few educated guesses on how to survive.

He was a devoted grandfather, intrigued by the different personalities of his descendents. Cory, Holly, Beth, Ben, John, Brendan, and Ryan. The older ones have already many inroads into adulthood, and the younger ones are working their way there.

He missed the great-children, and his 50th wedding anniversary, but I hope he thought occasionally that his offspring and their offspring would be OK in life. And if he dismissed his contribution, few of us believe that. I feel my father every day. He murmurs to me in quiet moments, and there have been times when I’ve felt strangely guided, likely a result of knowing how he was, but I’m ruling out nothing.

And oddly enough, I’m less inclined today, which would have been his 80th birthday, to focus on me. I would like, if I ruled the world, to have everyone focus for a second on him.

He rode trains by himself, traveling to another home, watched over by soldiers heading somewhere in those war years, remarking that the kindness of strangers was more prevalent those days.

He met my mother as a teenager, courted her relentlessly, wrote endless love letters to her when they were away, and knew what he yearned for. Both of them coming out of what we’d now call dysfunctional homes, they were determined to do the family thing the right away. A little Dr. Spock, a little common sense, a dash or two of their own upbringing but only the good parts. Discipline, daily chores, expectations of good grades, endless seats in an auditorium where I did plays, where my sister played in the marching band and orchestra, sitting in the bleachers for my basketball game.

He wasn’t perfect, but neither I and I doubt anyone else had perfection down. He had a short temper, and a disdain for the teenage rebellion and sarcasm that my brothers tossed his way, as if he couldn’t remember being young. Which was very possible.

But he was the strongest person I’ve ever met, physically and mentally. And that stuff stays.

Thirteen years has a way of massaging grief, turning it into a gentle overview of what I miss, and more importantly what I saw. My father would probably roll his eyes every time I pick up a screwdriver, but he supported the effort. And then he’d fix my mistakes.

I learned humor at his feet. I actually sat by his feet, watching together the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” in my senior year of high school. I found him sprawled on the ground, roaring with laughter. Another moment to share.

I can tell you some stories he passed on about his teenage years, but this was rare and didn’t come up so much. This is what I got from the people who knew him when. A picture of somebody I never quite knew, but could see through the mist.

I’ve had adversity of  types he never experienced, particularly dealing with three devastating medical crises (and possibly five) over a short time. He was long gone by then, and I missed bending his ear. His opinions, useful and sometimes not, were a reflection of his strength, endurance, and experience. I could have used some of that.

Cancer is a thief, cancelling our futures and rescheduling, with iffy long-range plans. There are no long-range plans for small-cell lung cancer and 50 years of the most smoking I’ve ever seen in another person. It will kill you, almost always, and if he was a little unclear about the timeline, the rest of us knew, gathered from time to time, seeing this unrecognizable man who was finally dependent on the kindness of strangers and family, particularly hospice. We have nothing but love and admiration for hospice and palliative care.

And I have admiration and love for this man, as briefly as he was with us. He was complicated but simple, with standards and traditions that made sense to him and passed on to us. You take care of business, you can’t change the past, you work as hard as you can, sometimes hating it.

He moved back to Arizona just when the Diamondbacks went to the World Series, a gift to a man who’d let baseball drift out of his life without a local team to root for. I think I could have swayed him over to my side and the Seahawks, but I’ve a feeling he’d be pulling for the Cardinals. You support your guys, the local team, the community. Loyalty was not unknown to him, sports in a small way, family in a much bigger one.

His own athletic career was not much, participating but never standing out, but then he was a different sort of man. Team sports were fun, but sometimes some of us just prefer being the one in the arena, singular battles that proved something, and that perhaps defines my father as much of anything. The ways of the world carry good roadmaps to convention, but he tended to find his own map, so in my mind I see him clearly.

He carries reminders of every glove that laid him down, and how he got back up. I am his son, far less able to emulate the man, but understanding that he flows through me, and his life before I was born has drawn a straight line to other lives, those he touched and who sought to touch him.

In the clearing stands a boxer. He remembers every blow, every cut, every loss. He let me remember with him, and so that’s where I see him. Standing in the clearing, waiting for the next blow, knowing how to get up, knowing that lesser men would have given up. Understanding, I hope, that he never did.

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Passing The Plate

 

Between my trip to Austin in October, during which I ate great food but maybe not as much as I should have (kind of typical for me when I travel), and the viral illness that knocked me back a bit, I lost a few pounds. Nothing huge, but given my issue with loss of appetite for half of 2015 and through the winter of 2016, it’s something I’m aware of.

And awareness is really all it takes, at least now. I was well aware a year ago that I’d been losing weight, but c’mon. It’s losing weight. Who doesn’t like that? And it was such a slow loss, drip drip drip, about a pound a week.

But do that for 40-plus weeks and you get what I got, sort of a frog-in-boiling water situation (not that this is an adequate metaphor, since in fact a frog will jump out of the pot long before it starts to boil). Incrementalism in any situation can create all sorts of illusions, a tilt-shift focus of the big picture.

I can see the big picture better now, and those few pounds dropping off didn’t create a crisis, especially with Thanksgiving and the holiday season now upon us, but I’m still reminded from time to time of where I was and where I am. I went to one of the Beacon offices the day before Thanksgiving for a farewell party (the young woman, Sara Bruestle, who’s been editing me for the past few years got a new, terrific job) and met the editor of one of the other newspapers my column runs in. We had a nice conversation and he was very complimentary, but apparently he whispered to Sara that I looked nothing like my picture.

This bothered me for some reason. I actually like that picture, and when it was taken I thought, yeah. That’s the face I see in the mirror. For the first time, at least in the context of a headshot, I felt as though the picture looked like me.

So that was weird. Weird enough that I mentioned it to my wife, who gets irritated when she hears this stuff. She knows how panicky and scared I got last spring when all the lab tests were wacky and my doctor got real serious, real quickly, and I think she resents it when a stray comment tickles my anxiety.

And I should mention that she thinks I look great, healthy and fit. But different, apparently. And when people see Winning Dad and then see me, they comment that I look nothing like the guy in that movie. This also seems weird to me. I’m about 35 pounds lighter, but is that enough to change a person’s appearance drastically? I guess so.

And yeah. There are worse problems to have.

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This is all about diabetes. There’s some depression and just plain aging thrown into the mix, but it’s really about the sugar.

At least five of us who are related to Bix and know his story have lost weight, including everyone in this house. Most of America wants to lose weight, of course, but there’s no getting around our knowledge that this little guy eats well, a nutritionally solid diet, and he eats basically as though he’s working his way through the stages of the Atkins Diet.

But he’s a toddler, and for the first 17 months of his life he ate as healthy a diet as any baby I’ve ever known. So despite having pretty brittle diabetes, difficult to control, he had a head start and there was not much to take away, I think. He certainly never approached fast food.

A lot of this is speculation, which is all I’ve got, but my take-away is that if you want to lose weight, and you don’t want to be inspired by a family member with an autoimmune disorder, look at the sugar. It’s always the sugar. Glucose, fructose, lactose, you name it (it probably has a name).

So for those of us with a lot to unlearn – I’m really just talking about myself – cutting way down on sugar produces a new problem. Foods containing a lot of sugar are the most calorie dense, and that’s essentially the American diet. Take it away for the most part and you’ll lose weight. If you don’t want to lose weight, you’re going to have to compensate.

To give you an example, when I looked at our Thanksgiving dinner, which was small but pretty traditional, with sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and gravy and so on, my brain, conditioned as it now seems to be, looks at about 85% of Thanksgiving dinner as dessert.

So how crazy is this? After years of paying obsessive attention to what I was eating, always looking to drop a pound or two, I now have to make sure that doesn’t happen. And so I pay obsessive attention to what I eat. This doesn’t feel fair.

But not much is, and as I said, there are worse things. Any number of worse things, though, could cause me to lose weight, and as strange as it is I get that it’s important to have some room to lose, so to speak. Pass the mashed potatoes.

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Weather Or Not

After 33 years of living in the Puget Sound region, I’m well aware of the misconceptions people have. The same sort of misconceptions I have about other areas of the country I’ve never lived. For a long time, just for one example, I had this vague idea that Delaware was in New England. Really.

Anyway, the two main misconceptions are that Seattle is on the Pacific coast, and that it rains all the time. These are both understandable. I couldn’t tell you much about South Dakota. Or Wyoming, which is actually on my side of the country.

It has, in fact, been one of the wettest years in recorded weather history, which up here means the late 19th century. That aside, though, in terms of inches of annual precipitation, Seattle doesn’t even crack the top 20. New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Nashville…if you’re looking for wet, there are far rainier places.

Even in terms of days on which some precipitation fell, Seattle sits at #6, with some stuff falling from the sky on about 40% of our days. But not a lot of stuff, not usually.

What we’re not known for is snow, although it looks like we might see a bit next week. Our topography (I may not be using that word correctly, but I can’t think of another at the moment) creates really complicated weather, and mostly keeps us in the moderate range, highs in the mid-40s in winter, with lows slipping into the high 30s usually. We can certainly get cold air sweeping down from Alaska, but getting cold and moisture at the same time is hard for Mother Nature to pull off. It makes it very hard to forecast snow, which makes some people irrationally angry at meteorologists. In a region where it rarely snows, the difference between a dusting and 4-5 inches can create havoc.

So we shall see. Next week will probably be not much of anything, but there’s always a chance for something more. Living in a Puget Sound convergence zone as I do, which because of our mountains and other factors means that a narrow strip of weather can form, sometimes right over my house, we sometimes get inches of white while a few miles in any direction it’s dry.

I have a soft spot for snow, having gone to college in one of the snowiest cities in America (Flagstaff, AZ), where I also fell in love and got married. It’s a sentimental form of precipitation, although of course I’d prefer to just watch it fall and get a couple of inches that melts within a few days. I don’t need a snowmagedden.

This means I end up taking a lot of snow pictures when it happens, so I have a record of sorts. And we haven’t had any serious snow, according to those pictures, since 2008. Before that, it seemed as though we got at least one decent snowfall every year, or every couple of years, so go figure. Maybe the world is getting warmer or something.

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Sue Ellen

The day was going to come. I’ve known it now for months, reading between the lines, shocked at how selfish I can be.

A family grieves, including small children and people who were once small children, who once came under the spell of one particular teacher. I read their comments on her Facebook page. I resist the urge to add something, to make it about me, although of course I’d feel compelled. It turned out to be about me.

I knew her for such a short time, and up until a few years ago hers was just another dusty name, alive and well in my memory but for reasons I didn’t quite understand.

I’ve tried to explain this on several occasions, and I don’t seem able to, somehow. But here you go: I’m not very interested in writing to make myself feel better. To rant, to vent, to rage against injustice, fold it up into a paper airplane and sail it off into the world, to do nothing constructive but spew; I’ve done it, but it’s not satisfying and I rarely have the urge.

Some people can pull this off, this personal catharsis that comes with assembling stray thoughts into little clauses. It’s just never worked for me. If I want to change my mood, I’ll take a walk or pull weeds.

But sometimes I learn things, if after the fact. Sometimes I’ll re-visit something I wrote, sometimes years ago, and see what was on my mind, what focus had been adjusted by the act of typing characters on a keyboard and waiting to see what came out.

So I wrote about her a few years ago, this distant memory of a music teacher, just a cute story I thought that pushed the narrative along. I was an adolescent, she was kind and inspiring, and how funny that my life would look oddly as though my trajectory was changed, if ever so slightly, by a few months of singing and learning, and watching.

And what I learned, later on, looking back at that piece, was that while I could spin a story about influence and inspiration, and how funny it was that I’d end up fascinated by musicians, marrying one and fathering another, there was an actual teachable moment there. Or moments. A long time ago.

I sent her the column, finding her alive and well online, and we had some communication after all of these years. And I tried to tell her, without getting too sentimental or lofty, that somehow she gave me confidence. It was a good time to receive it, at 13 years old. It made the next few years a lot more fun.

I figured out what I’d learned, that’s all, and why it wasn’t what I’d always believed.

And that was it. The occasional notes from time to time, and I kept an eye on her life as much as anyone else I once knew and now can observe through social media, lurking or engaging, my choice.

The last comment she left me was on Facebook, in fact. It was strange, with missing words and a few misspelled ones, which I tried to pass off as maybe a quickly dictated note, or maybe done with one hand in a spontaneous moment. That’s all I thought. I already knew she was dying.

That much she’d told me, if indirectly. I knew about the brain cancer and the treatment, and her decisions about the future. But it wasn’t as though we were close. Just a teacher, and a former student, and some people in common in a few crazy but actually understandable connections.

And yet here I am, trying to deconstruct a slight, tangential relationship to find something else. To find out why this makes me so sad.

I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s because, after connecting at a distance after all these years, I assumed that one day we’d end up in roughly the same geographic location, close enough to make a trip to say hi.

Maybe it’s because she was 67, in a year when we’ve lost some famous people who never reached 70. It was the same age as my father when he died, although under different circumstances, and that was 13 years ago. I obviously am closer to 67 now than I was then.

Or maybe it’s just what it is, and was. She was young and pretty, enthusiastic about music and about sharing it with young minds and voices. She lit up the classroom, and taught with humor and joy.

And sometimes she’d sing, just a little, a beautiful voice, a lyric soprano who knew more about her own instrument than most of us would ever learn about our own.

I may have married my music teacher, in other words, the way some people are said to marry their fathers or mothers. I have no sense of this, although maybe it explains the familiarity I felt. I have very little insight into what I was like at 13, and no wisdom about what makes love happen.

It just made me a little desolate yesterday, knowing that we were losing a little light in this dark world, wishing it didn’t have to be that way. Wishing I had just one more chance to say thank you, for lessons learned. About singing, about music, about me.

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A Short Course

I just gulped down four pills, the last of the azithromycin and my next-to-last methylprednisolone. My coughing jags are minimal now, although I can’t claim relief from any of those medications. It’s likely; I just don’t get an immediate reaction, even from the steroids, which in the past have elevated my energy a bit (but that was prednisone, slightly different).

The cough medicine with codeine reminded me of when my dad’s doctor put him on bupropion or something similar, the antidepressant supposed to aid in smoking cessation; he said it just made him feel a little happier about smoking. I came back from my adventures in Sunday urgent care just in time to take a couple of teaspoons and park in front of the TV to watch Sunday Night Football. I didn’t notice much relief from coughing but at least I felt a little better about it. I took another dose before bed and had weird dreams.

So that’s gone, too. Whatever the actual mechanism of this illness was – and as uncomfortable as I was, we’re really just talking about a cold with maybe a bit of an attitude – it seems to have tapered off to pretty much nothing. As I assume it would have anyway, if lingering a little longer. Anyway, good riddance.

And now I realize that the past five weeks have taken me somewhere else, through the end of this election, to Austin for 10 days of Grandpa Land, and then the beginnings of my transition back to normal life here when this sickness hit.

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Today marks the 48th anniversary of something that I’m pretty sure most people on the planet have no inkling of, which amuses me to no end because hey, trivia. I’m old and now I remember silly stuff that has no bearing on anything.

But on November 16, 1968, when I was 10, NBC interrupted the end of a football game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets to show the movie, Heidi. This was a big deal; it would be later voted the most memorable regular season game in football history.

A lot of this had to do with the Raiders scoring twice in the last minute to win the game. There was also the ascendency of the old AFL, 1968 being the year that the above-mentioned Jets beat the Colts in the Super Bowl, the league’s first world championship.

Do we care? Nope. Still, it changed a few things about the way sports events are broadcast and how networks consider their viewers. And it happened on this date.

And since diehard football fans, even young ones, might have some sense of the ’68 Jets and Joe Namath, I’m pretty sure few of us remember Heidi, or why we should. Alps, old man, little girl, some sheep…that’s all I got. Give me a big finish any day.

Or today. I could use one of those, just to feel a bit normal again.

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Lungs All The Way Down

img_4287I went to an urgent care clinic on Sunday, mostly to give my wife a little peace of mind. It was a bad cough and had lasted 10 days, and a call to my insurance’s nurse hotline resulted in a recommendation to be seen, so it wasn’t ridiculous.

Still, it felt as though I was seeing a doctor for a cold, and after years of wandering through dusty shelves of medical records I tend to roll my eyes at this sort of thing. It’s the cycle of abuse, in a sense, that perpetuates a lot of our healthcare costs and problems, at least from my vantage point as a consumer with a tiny bit more information than most.

Go to a doctor for what’s probably a cold, and a few tests will probably be run just to be safe, as long as you’re there. And if you’re the kind who insists on some kind of treatment, then antibiotics, which are probably useless, might be prescribed, adding one more opportunity to create resistant bugs.

Or, to put it in more personal terms, it’s certainly possible that my short course of steroids and antibiotics, along with an inhaler, will make me feel better sooner than without them (I also got cough medicine, which is useless for anything other than inducing sleep, which is not an issue), but the meds alone cost me $85 out of pocket, and I’m expecting several hundred dollars more in billing before all is said and done.

This is what makes me crazy. Not that I have solutions, other than single-payer universal coverage in which it’s hard to see a physician for minor issues. It wouldn’t be perfect but I suspect it’d be better. And I suspect the chances of anything resembling that being enacted into law are roughly zero, so this discussion is as useless as that cough medicine.

On the positive side, and it was generally a positive experience, the staff at this particular clinic branch (it was about 15 minutes away but had the shortest wait time according to their website, 20 minutes compared to 2 hours for the one nearest me) being very friendly and helpful, there was nothing abnormal on my chest x-ray other than a few signs of bronchitis (I have no idea how bronchitis shows up on a chest x-ray, or if it really does; it told the doc something, anyway, and nothing bad).

And there was certainly nothing to raise alarms or suggest that I had ever been a chronic smoker. I’m not sure I actually was a chronic smoker as much as a recalcitrant one, somebody who kept returning but never got into serious numbers (never came close to a pack in a single day after the first few years, and spent years completely smoke free). Not that I feel safe; if COPD or emphysema or lung cancer heads my way, I’ll know where it came from. Can’t blame the universe for that.

Another funny thing: The x-ray showed really long lungs, stretching down to the 12th rib, which is apparently unusual; the doctor said he’d never seen it before. They were perfectly normal, and could represent either (a) me taking a very deep breath during the x-ray, or (b) just increased lung capacity, either by luck of the draw or the years spent climbing hills and walking many miles.

My guess is the latter, just because I’ve had some experience with this. On my last physical, my doctor told me to take a very deep breath and after about 20 seconds said, alright already, sheesh, stop with the inhalation.

Once again, then, I’m grateful to still be alive, to not have pneumonia or something worse, and to still be in reasonable condition for a guy who’s uncomfortably close to 60 (just a little uncomfortable).

And then there was my weight, which was a nice improvement over last March when it was 155 with an arrow pointing down. I seem to have solved that issue, and even though I had shoes and a light jacket on, and my scale first thing in the morning had me four pounds lighter, it’s a good place to be.

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Coming Home

I usually get a flu shot in September or early October, and I’m always pretty pleased with myself. My bouts with influenza have, as far as I recall, always come in the winter, often around Christmas or early January. My immune system has a calendar, maybe.

I’m a little late this year with the flu shot. Soon, I think. I got home on Tuesday night, and this week has been sort of a blur.

And oh yeah. I definitely have the flu.

I really can’t complain, although I’m not beating myself up. A flu shot is an educated guess about prophylaxis, anticipating certain strains but not covering everything, and to be fair, I haven’t been officially diagnosed with influenza. But Julie and John (who did get flu shots) had bad upper respiratory infections, at least, while I was gone, and they sounded miserable.

They were on the mend when I got home, although both still have congestion and coughing, the tail end of whatever. I had two days of busyness, paying bills and going to choir practice and dropping my wife off at the bus and baking bread for a service at school she was presiding over, just busy, and I kept my eye on the lawn. October was the wettest on record up here, and it needed, I thought, one final mow before taking the winter off. Friday looked to be dry.

And Friday I had the flu. Having not been here when the others were sick, I can’t compare but I wasn’t surprised. Coughing, sneezing, congestion, a little achy: I had a cold. I forced myself outside to mow and called it a weekend then, tried to eat a little and then went to bed.

A feverish Friday night led to a feverish Saturday, which is why I’m calling it the flu. Along with the nausea and vomiting, always fun.

I have no complaints, really. Maybe the flu shot would have eased this a bit, maybe not, but I had glorious weather for my entire visit, sunny and low to mid-80s every day. Texans were probably ready for a change in weather but for me, it was a chance to renew my summer card, just a little. If somehow the universe needed to extract some price for my fun, it was worth it.

And sometimes you just get the flu.

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I followed the campaign noise from Texas, although it seemed pretty apparent in August that this was shaping up to be the most stable election for many cycles. Kind of dull, even, if we just look at numbers and ignore the ugliness. I sent in a electoral college guess to a site I like to visit, just for fun; for the record, it was Clinton 312, Trump 226.

This probably won’t be the case, although I doubt it’ll be closer. Turn-out is the key, and usually is.

But something struck me in my fever dreams, something I remember first occurring to me in 1976, when I was 18 and voting for the first time, and now it’s a little more front and center because of the conflicting ideologies and rhetoric. A lot of people out there seem to fear an existential threat to our system of government, mostly coming from the anti-Trump people (on both sides) but a lot from the anti-Hillary side, too.

I see the threat, but, again, I don’t believe the election will go that way (the Trump way; I don’t see an existential threat from Hillary Clinton, obviously).

But what I noticed was the ease in which pretty savvy political watchers, including some journalists I respect tremendously, extrapolate from polling data and rally sizes and other numbers a sense of where the American people are at, and this is very wrong. I knew it at 18 and I know it today.

There are roughly 325 million people living in the United States. Approximately two-thirds of them are eligible to vote. As we know from our past elections, slightly more than half of those eligible will actually cast a vote.

To make it quick and easy, this means that in any given general election, about 65% of Americans don’t vote. This has been the case for the last 60-70 years (as far back as I was interested in looking), more or less. If we call this percentage of the population (PoP), then a solid win for a candidate would be getting over 20% as a PoP. Usually it’s in the teens, and unless turn-out is drastically increased this year, it’ll be the same.

So don’t listen to anyone who says they’re surprised, for example, that 40% of the American public favors Donald Trump. Or that 45% favors Clinton. Nope. The only thing we can say with some confidence is that most Americans don’t care enough to cast a vote.

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Anyway. That’s what floats around my brain when I’m under attack from some virus that I will call the flu. My lawn has been mown, ibuprofen has been consumed, I’m feeling a little better this morning (although stayed home from church, since I still feel as though I’m a walking Petri dish, and not walking all that much), and my ballot sits here, ready to be filled out. We’re totally vote-by-mail in Washington and have been for years, and there are ballot boxes for me to drop it in.

My vote isn’t going to matter in the presidential race, but there are some interesting initiatives and other candidates down ballot. It’s the grownup thing to do, exercising my franchise, at least as far as I’m concerned, and when I sign and seal that ballot it’ll be done for this round. And I can get back to worrying about the Seahawks offensive line, which has its own existential threat to deal with. Game on, I guess.

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Pictures!

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Loved this, Mom with her Scotch in hand while trick-or-treating (she wasn’t alone).
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He was an angler fish, in case you’re wondering.

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What I Did During The Election

As I’ve noted before in this space, I decided to endure what looked to be a particularly ugly presidential election by delving into the details, which is otherwise known as becoming a big ol’ nerd.

It didn’t start out that way, but I took off by the second or third week I was offering little presidential election trivia posts on Facebook. I think it started, actually, by thinking of the ages of the candidates we have in 2016, both of them senior citizens and not by a little. I wondered what the average age of our presidents was (around 55) and we were off to the races.

I should have known. I do love history, and I can think of odd ways of looking at it if I try. I enjoyed wondering which presidents we tend to forget or rank low on the list in the presidential pantheon who actually were pretty popular in their time. Warren G. Harding was enormously popular. Herbert Hoover won election in 1928 with over 60% of the popular vote.

Now. Of course. This is just one of those things, those things we all have and do and integrate into our personalities until, maybe, we get too much distance and don’t realize no one else cares. I spent yesterday, for example, in a seriously ecstatic state over the knowledge, which I discovered accidentally, which is how this all happens anyway, that in three different presidential elections, two men with the same first name ran against each other. Are you excited yet?

Ah, well. This makes me think I’m just feeling better. If I can get all goofy and annoying by a piece of trivia so boring I imagine William Jennings Bryan, who famously could speak for hours, would be yawning and checking his phone a lot, I’m thinking that’s not a bad thing.

Bryan was the key, by the way. He ran three times, twice against William McKinley and once against William Howard Taft. Ergo, three All-William elections. Alert the presses.

We had four presidents named William, by the way. Taft and McKinley were joined by Harrison and Clinton.

Here’s another: 43 men have served as president (we count Cleveland as two presidencies but only one guy), and they had 28 different names. Or, another way, 65% of our presidents had unique first names. Among the duplicates, there were six James (Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter), or 14% of presidents.

John and William tied at 4 each (9%), and bringing up the rear are three Georges (Washington plus the Bushes), two Franklins (Pierce and Roosevelt), and two Andrews (Jackson and Johnson).

Last names matching are so rare as to not be worth mentioning, but while I’ve got you: Two Adams, two Harrisons, two Roosevelts, two Johnsons, and two Bushes. All but the two Johnsons (Andrew and Lyndon) were related. Nothing of use here.

But it gives me pleasure, and no one has to read it. It’s a Facebook kind of thing.

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Tomorrow I head for Austin, which means today I freak out about packing. All normal.

And then I’ll have 10 days away, trying to get what work I have done while soaking up the little-boyness, and enjoying the warm weather (mid-80s it looks like; it’s wet and gray here, usually not hitting 60 degrees). I doubt politics or presidents will creep in much.

And then I’ll have a week at home, probably keeping one eye on the downward spiral of Mr. Trump and one eye on the Seahawks, and then we’ll be ready for Thanksgiving, and giving thanks.

And if by some chance my ballot arrives today (Washington is all vote by mail), I’m going to fill out that sucker and drop it in a box before I head for the airport, having done by duty and learned a few things in the process.

But mostly heading to Grandpapa land, placing trivia exactly where it belongs. Under “trivia.” There are, as it turns out, other things.

Still kind of excited about that William-William thing, though.

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If It’s Wednesday…

I have no idea how many debates have occurred over this cycle. Twenty? Twenty-five? More? I could probably look it up.

I watched one primary one, the last between Bernie and Hillary, just to see if my low expectations could be beaten. All I got was a grumpy old guy and a grandma who seemed good with numbers.

I didn’t watch the first two general election ones as much as listen (I had them on but rarely looked at the screen) while I read Twitter reactions, mostly from journalists.

Tonight I have choir practice, which means the debate will start about the time I hit the freeway, and the postmortems will be well into effect by the time I get around to looking at my phone. It’s like getting out of jury duty. I’m mostly relieved.

What I have been watching is football, although it wouldn’t have taken much for me to skip that particular ride this season. Just a so-so home team would have taken the pressure off, and we had plenty of reasons to suspect that would be the case. The offensive line, a weak spot the season before, had been decimated and rebuilt from the bottom up, and we no longer had Beast Mode and so on.

But they’re hanging in there, my Hawks, now 4-1 with a couple of squeakers, a couple of nice wins, and a loss to the Rams, who always seem to be eager to break our hearts. So I’ll watch a little longer, I guess, although it’ll have to be on my phone for the next couple of weeks, if at all.

Saturday morning I fly down to Austin, the beginning of a 10-day stay involving, I can only hope, lots of Bix and Beth time, including my first Halloween in 28 years that I haven’t spent here at this house. It’s an interesting holiday for a diabetic kid (he gets to exchange his candy for prizes), and I’m glad I won’t miss it. Three years old? Halloween can be fun.

And so can football, of course, and even politics, although I’ve mostly taken this one off and in retrospect that looks like a fine idea. A year ago this appeared to be a race that would look exactly as it has, something that’s going to be analyzed to death. And maybe they’ll all be this way from now on, as America looks slightly different and some people are uncomfortable with inevitability.

Me, not so much, and not so much with the politics. More with the singing, and more with the boy, and I’m pretty sure I made the right call all the way around.

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Fifteen Is The New Fifteen

I’ve been watching Bruce Springsteen lately, with his new book and interviews with apparently anyone who could get a microphone in front of him. 

Not that he’s been a recluse, but he’s just out there a lot now, and I’ve noticed something. 

When someone asks him a question, particularly a personal one (he did write a memoir), he furrows his brow and squints his eyes even more than he usually does. He struggles a little with words, sometimes halting, occasionally fluent, and now I get it. I figured it out. 

He was just trying hard to tell the truth. 

It’s not that easy, you know. It’s simple just to hide little nuggets of truth in gauzy, fluffy clouds of nothing words, pretending you’re being modest and knowing you’re getting away with something, if trivial. Truth, again, is hard. 

Not public truth, in the sense of politicians or corporations or any other institution that deems it necessary from time to time to say something, usually as carefully as possible. 

Personal truth. Truth that might be self-deprecating, or righteous, or, maybe, sometimes, just the facts, ma’am. 

The Boss has talked about his bouts with the dark nights of the soul, his struggle with depression so overwhelming that sometimes the only relief was to grab a guitar and sing onstage for three hours or more, every night. This is truth. 

I know something of this, which is my truth. I’ve battled the same dark nights, sometimes miserable but manageable, sometimes so paralyzing that I’ve actually stayed in one spot most of the day, unable to achieve even impulse power. 

I’m OK these days. I take medication. I wasn’t crazy about that idea, but I wasn’t crazy about the alternative. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I lost 43 pounds I really didn’t need to lose. I’ll swallow the damn pill. 

That’s not the truth on my mind today, though. 

Today is actually kind of a fun day. After a couple of years of aggressive emailing and writing sample pieces for a mildly interested and very busy newspaper publisher, it was on October 17, 2001 that I wrote my first column. And every week, aside from a three-month sabbatical in 2009, I’ve written one. For 15 years. 

The difference between writing a newspaper column and, say, a blog — and the difference is a little blurry now — is that you have to find the blog. A newspaper column will find you, often, waiting at Starbuck’s for your nonfat whatever to be made, lying on an abandoned table. 

My favorite newspaper story is walking by a restaurant near my house and spotting through the window a firefighter with his back to me, eating his dinner and laughing as he read my column, which I could see clearly. I stood there for about a minute, just internalizing this rare, strange moment. I don’t usually see my readers. 

And on November 9, 2001, a few weeks into this new adventure, George Harrison died. It bummed me out a bit, losing a Beatle, and I eventually wrote about that day, just a series of vignettes about what I did and what I heard, and what I felt, and that was the day I knew.

I want to wake up, look at the world, and write about what I see.

And here’s my truth about these 15 years, bouncing between current events and my struggle with blackberry brambles, stories of old days and of contemporary ones as I moved from a 43-year-old dad with a 16-year-old iron-willed daughter and 11-year-old autistic son to a grandfather who, remarkably, fell in love at this late stage, this time with a little boy: I failed.

I’ve written 800 columns, many more blog posts, ad copy, ghostwriting, medical writing, just about any job that involved a keyboard, millions of words, including four books, and I failed. I never could make much money, and while it’s a hard gig for anyone I have to at least consider the notion that I just wasn’t good enough.

That’s a hard truth, but it’s been on my mind a lot. Even with medication. 

I wasn’t looking for fame and fortune. I just wanted to pay the mortgage with words, and I couldn’t, and now I probably won’t ever. 

And here’s the last truth: Life doesn’t keep score. For every error in judgment and move in the wrong direction, I have a family who tolerates and loves me, good health, a community of friends and supporters who have my back. There are far better writers out there; nobody has my family and friends except me. 

So I find myself today, noting those 15 years, reflecting on what might have been and never got around to happening, and I have nothing but gratitude. 

I didn’t want to change the world, you know. I just wanted to amuse it for a few minutes, once a week. I was kind of hoping for advice on blackberry maintenance, but that’s cool. I was just having fun. 

So I’m grateful today, and I think I may have amused myself the most. My life really isn’t that interesting. Making it seem that way in 900 words is a fun challenge. Win some, lose some. 

No, I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize or a PEN award or anything else remotely resembling affirmation from peers who most certainly wouldn’t see me that way. 

But in six days I head for Austin, to spend as many hours as possible with a boy and his mother, and that’ll give me plenty to write about. I might hide a few nuggets of truth in there, or I may just tell the whole truth, which is that I’ve been blessed, privileged, and fortunate to live the life I have, and I’d do it all over the same way, including the last 15 years. 

And in the end, maybe being a failure was too harsh. Maybe being lucky is more honest.

And maybe, if I furrow my brow and squint my eyes, I’ll figure out that I was luckier than many, if not most. So here’s to 15 years, and whatever comes next. My guess is tackling the blackberries, but the day is young. There’s a lot to write about.

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