This Day In History

I’ve been using Windows Edge as a browser lately, finding it quicker and less of a CPU drain, but actually I’ve been not exactly using a browser. Mostly.

And none of this is important, just changing up the way I do things here, trying to manage my time better.

But Edge has some bugs, and one of them seems to be losing web pages. That is, I load a page, then it freezes on me. Not a lot. Every once in a while. Never happened with another browser, so I’m sticking with buggy.

This only matters because for one of those buggy reasons, I can’t search the archives of this here blog. If I want to do that – and this is also not a regular thing – I have to use Internet Explorer, which amazingly still exists in a standalone form (I deleted Firefox and Chrome). So I did that, just to check.

And I was off. For some reason, I woke up today and noticed the date, and a bell rung. It just turned out to be a tardy bell. The day I was thinking of was Sept. 24, not the 27th. But close enough for my purposes.

I read the post from the 24th. A little laughable now. I had some goofy ideas.

What I did, though, wasn’t all that goofy in the long run. I had just passed my one-year anniversary of kicking the booze habit. I’d signed up for some community college classes. I felt hopeful, and optimistic, and more than a little curious. If I could go an entire year without a drink, what else could I do?

So I tossed out what junk food I had around the house, and decided to pay attention to what I ate. Maybe start exercising (shudder). I had a plan, anyway. I was pretty fat, although I’d managed to lose about 15 pounds over the past couple of months, down from the low 270s. I was estimating that a normal weight for me, a guy my size and age and temperament and hair color, was anything under 190 pounds. I would take 220 pounds and be ecstatic about it, but under 190 was sort of a goal. A dream goal.

That day was pretty important to me, then. It didn’t have that much to do with the weight loss, although that was fun. Aside from my adventures last winter with loss of appetite and the resulting weird lab results and lowish weight, there are few foods that I ate back in those heavier days I don’t still eat occasionally. Haven’t had a chimichanga in a while. It’s hard to think of others.

By October of 2007, I’d headed outdoors to get my exercise, getting bored with my treadmill, and that was pretty much the ballgame. I needed to do that somehow, get out of the house and into the sun and the rain and the snow and everything in between, just move, walk around the neighborhood. By December, I sometimes was clocking 3-4 hours a day of just walking, round and round.

I don’t need to tell you about this.

Or about the fact that somehow, mysteriously given my former lack of discipline or anything resembling will power, I lost the weight. Not all of it, of course, because then I’d weigh zero and that would be weird. Just the extra weight. It went up and down a little, but mostly stayed normal. I’m trying to hang around 170 these days. That feels good. Better than 160, which I would have dreamed about nine years ago but never quite imagined, even though it happened. Too thin, really. Didn’t look right on an older dude. At least this older dude.

But whatever. I was pretty happy where I was, actually; not happy about the pounds, but happy in general. Content. Peaceful. Fat, but peaceful.

Honestly, I wish I’d discovered a trick I could share. I just think it was a phenomenon of the moment, having passed that first year of sobriety and feeling ambitious. Today? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it. Not the way I did, every day for four months, focusing hard on my little project. It was a little exhausting, and I’m not any younger.

The only thing I did consistently, besides walk, was pay attention. I tracked my calories relentlessly, plugging them into a spreadsheet, trying to figure out how much I needed to maintain my weight and then trying to eat a little less. Plus the walking. But mostly just the paying attention part.

And that’s the part I still do. It’s easier now; my phone is a handy scratch pad for numbers, and of course there are apps, etc. It’s reflexive now. No matter how much I indulge, the calories get counted. And while I’ve gone through many intervals in which I stayed away from the scale and just tracked what I ate, it turns out that doesn’t work for me. Calorie counting is always going to be an approximation. I need to step on the scale every day, or almost every day. So I do that, too.

Mostly it was discovering what was possible, and that I was more interested in that than what was likely.

Look: Losing weight didn’t solve any problems. It did change my life, though. Not because I weighed less; that mostly involves what clothes I can and can’t wear. Doing it changed my life. Starting it changed my life. Sticking with it, with anything, changed my life.

And that’s why the date stuck in my head, even being three days off. It’s been nine years. I’m a different person, for different reasons but this one in particular. Once, nine years (and three days) ago, I decided to try. Funny what happens.


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I got a note from my editor after shipping off my latest column. She’d spotted some missing words, which sounds like it should be a superpower, although it was pretty obvious. And I had an obvious answer: Lots of copying and pasting of sentences into various paragraphs. Things sometimes get misplaced.

I complained later to my wife that I felt I was constructing a word salad, no opinion, no meaning, no nothing. And that maybe I’d run my course.

As it turned out, I had a nice email on the day the paper was printed from a reader who was affected, and I’ve heard other positive things. I have no idea. Reading it again, it’s not as bad as I feared, but still I wonder.

Fifteen years ago, I could write whatever I wanted to, and I did. I’d cover local issues, national debates, serious discussions about the state of my disordered brain: Everything and anything.

And then the column spread to other communities, so local stuff was out, at least specific to a particular city or neighborhood. And it struck me, helped along by feedback, that a lot of readers weren’t all that interested in my view on presidential races or national issues, so I mostly stuck with the original concept of the column: My world, seen through my window, filtered through my own near-sighted prism.

You can only do this so long, I think. As I approach my 15th anniversary, I’ve been curating all of those columns, considering gathering a good deal of them into one book, although I’m still unclear about how. A serious of five or six columns, for example, covering my thoughts on being the father of a young woman, from the time she was 16 until 31 and a mother herself, make a nice time-compressed story, but how many times can I walk to that well?

On the other hand, these things get published, read, and forgotten. It’s like writing new material, and I’m just basically collating. It might work.

I also don’t know what to do about audio books. Lots of people like them, and I’d love to do them, but I finally figured out that I’ll need to rent studio space just to get decent audio, and I don’t have the funds. Maybe a Kickstarter? I could do it for maybe $5000-7000, with most contributors getting their money back in terms of free audio books and other things. The world has options; the options are sometimes dicey.

And then there’s the small novel, a light mystery set in my region and involving a decades-old crime, that I started five years ago, just a chapter or two to see if I could actually write fiction. The whole thing is outlined now, and I see no reason not to give it a shot, but there are lots of novels.

This is my conundrum, then. I can be a comfort columnist, hanging in there until the newsprint dries up in a few years, or I can go on for weeks about how Donald Trump is the antichrist. It’s not a great choice. None of it is going to solve my existential question, which is how I dumped certain dreams in my 20s for reasons that seem logical but may have just been fear, and the opportunities that rose up got missed, or screwed up, somehow. I can’t seem to make any money doing this, and at some point I gravitated toward this odd way of earning a living. I can’t do it.

But back to 2016. It’s not like I’m not aware. I reject the lesser of two evils argument, every year, because (1) most of my presidential votes have been multiple-choice ones, just preferring one candidate over the other. I’ve been excited about elections, mostly when I was younger, and only a couple of times have I been truly enthused about a candidate. The rest of the time, just look at what I see and hear, run my personal opinions through a wringer of solid journalism and the occasional outlier, and cast a vote. Hope for the best.

And then there’s (2) the fact that I rarely see a human being, much less a president or candidate, who seems evil. Sometimes presidents do evil things: Our last two have killed many people on their orders, some of whom were serious enemies and this is a war, and a lot of civilians who were in the wrong place. There’s an argument to call that evil, in a purely moral sense, although I guess I land on a more nuanced viewpoint, which is that I don’t have enough information.

I don’t believe Donald Trump is evil. I actually don’t know what he believes, if anything other than in his own accomplishments. It’s distasteful, maybe, but that doesn’t make him a racist or a white supremacist or just an overall bigot.

I mean, I suspect he’s some of the above, but it’s the crowd he plays to. That stuff, that’s where evil starts to work. Big crowd, angered by their lot in life, wishing for a strong man who promises their jobs will return and those scary black folks will be stopped and frisked and so on. It’s ugly.

I don’t really know what Hillary Clinton might do as president, but it’s not a hard vote. I’m not all that enthused, but I don’t worry. It’s an easy vote, and in an easy state: Overwhelmed by our big cities on the west, Washington will go blue, even if a large part of it is essentially red.

So not much to say about that. Maybe one day, before the election, just to get it off my chest, but really, haven’t we read enough? Those of us who pay attention, maybe a little too compulsively, have pretty much what we need. The rest is up to our flawed candidates, and more importantly to the down-ticket races and the local decisions. It’s closer and more personal.

And it’s still possible that I’ll hang up my shingle, give up the weekly sentence structure that doesn’t say all that much, and mostly about me. There is probably enough about me.

The novel looks better every day. I may keep you posted.

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Alexa The Great

My son bought me an Amazon Echo last Christmas, which still seems to me the most perfect gift: It’s something I can’t imagine buying for myself, and if I had it would have been a disappointment. I use very little of its many tricks and functions, mostly just idly asking “Alexa, what’s the temperature?” or “Alexa, play some James Taylor.” That stuff it does, and it’s fun and kind of cute and kind of creepy. It’s an audio-capture device that’s always on, waiting for me to say the magic word, which means I’ve voluntarily installed a listening device in my home that’s connected to my own network and, of course, the internet. And I’m a guy who has a piece of electrical tape over his laptop camera, just in case.

On the other hand, there’s only so much paranoia I’m willing to encourage. And I do like me some James Taylor.

I’ll also note that it’s a very nice speaker, similar to my wife’s Bose, and it’s got Bluetooth capability, so I can always shoot a podcast or song from my phone over to the big boy. Really nice speaker.

As compared to my computer speakers, which were worthless and bulky, and which I finally moved over to the television, since I can’t hear a damn thing anyway. And I don’t need to listen to anything on my computer. Until I do. And then the tinny built-in speaker suffices.

But no. I get these ideas, you know. After my upgrade a couple of weeks ago and all the hands-on time it took for me to get this old machine back up to speed, I started thinking about that Echo. A $6 Bluetooth USB dongle was all it took, and so now I also have a very nice PC speaker. Which I rarely use.

I know what’s going on here. I’m trying to feng shui myself back into a better place. Summer is lingering here but it’s obvious that this year isn’t going to be any different: Temperatures will go down, sunlight will decrease, clouds will roll in, wind will pick up – I’m talking about November, in case I wasn’t clear, and November is not my favorite time of year here in the lovely Pacific Northwest, not by a long shot.

I’ll be honest, and I usually am: The future is looking a little vague. Content is king these days, but quality seems to be somewhere down the chain of command, and I’m not producing quality at any rate. I can’t write without relying on hackneyed phrases and structure I’ve called on for 15 years. There’s something I can do about this, something I’ve done before, but I can’t remember now what it is.

But hey. I’ve got an Amazon Echo and James. Something’s bound to work out.


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Everything’s Fine

The conceit, which doesn’t show up so much anymore, given the current nature of blogging, is that readers are constantly rechecking and refreshing blog pages, waiting desperately for news, and then the blogger – after months, maybe years – starts off with, “Sorry I haven’t posted for a while…”

So we used to snicker at this, back in the day. You stop blogging, we stop paying attention. At least those who don’t use some sort of RSS feeder, ancient technology that still works pretty much as it always did. If you blog once every 18 months, when you do I’ll see it. Assuming I follow. And I do follow a few. Liz. Phil. Melodee. A few others, people I’ve read for years and have pretty much dropped out, but occasionally post. I’ve got your back.

So I’ll try to avoid assuming that anxious readers are waiting. Still, I wanted to say a few things, since analytics tell me I get anywhere from 30 to several hundred hits a day. I don’t know what that’s about, but whatevs.

Look: I’m doing fine. My year of not eating that ended last March, scaring the crap out of me and worrying my doctor and some friends, has resolved the way I imagined. I figured it would be hard to gain weight, and if lucky I would push that number from the mid-150s to around 170, if lucky, by September.

And here we are, and I did. So cross that off.

Exercise never picked up, but fall always inspires me and my endurance seems pretty much the same. I could head off today for an eight-mile hike up and down hills and feel fine.

The rest? Too much to write about at the moment. I’m drastically underemployed and at 58, I’m not sure what to do about that other than bagging groceries. Which is respectful and useful but, you know. Hard on the psyche.

At any rate, mood is fine, energy is pretty good, no ailments to speak of (fell a couple of feet off of a ladder and got sore for a couple of days, but all good now). My son is making huge strides into the adulthood that has been delayed for so long.

I just can’t write. I don’t know what that’s about. There are things to write, probably not anything that will solve my financial issues but dammit, just write. I’m not blocked as much as…OK, maybe blocked. I’ve just never been this way so terminology confuses me.

But I’ve learned two things, one of which I knew and the other of which I should have. In order to write, I need to write. And in order to want to write, I need to read.

I think we’ve got ourselves a plan.

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There Will Be Mud

(This week’s column)

I’m not particularly interested in this year’s general election, which is not to say that I’m uninterested. Just not particularly. That is, I pay a lot of attention to it. I just don’t feel compelled or even vaguely inspired to say anything about it, here or anywhere else.

Part of this has to do with the nature of this year’s presidential race. Part of it has to do with the democratic nature of opinion in our current culture, in which thoughtful and informed voices are drowned out by status updates from people we knew in high school. Going on Facebook these days is like getting stuck at a traffic light behind a car with an obnoxious bumper sticker. Sometimes the better part of valor is looking away.

One of those thoughtful and informed voices belongs to John Dickerson, the former White House correspondent for Time magazine and now political director for CBS News, who hosts “Face the Nation” and comes by it naturally. His mother was Nancy Dickerson, the first female correspondent for CBS (and the first woman in broadcast history to report from a convention floor).

Dickerson wrote a book about his mother, who passed away in 1997, called “On The Trail,” and a couple of years ago he began a podcast, “Whistlestop,” in which he passed along a passion for stories from presidential campaign history.

This is a passion I share, which is why I listened and why I bought his new book, “Whistlestop,” which expands his podcast and adds a few special moments. If you’re interested in politics and/or American history, and you’re looking for something to get that bad taste of the 2016 race out of your mouth, I highly recommend it.

“The only thing new in the world,” Harry Truman once said, “is the history you don’t know.” This is the mission statement for “Whistlestop,” which manages to entertain as well as educate. If you’re appalled with the tone of this year’s election, it might be a little cheery to read about the election of 1840. Or 1828. Or 1964. We’ve been here before, which is what Mr. Truman and Mr. Dickerson both understand.

If Dickerson’s interest in political history was inspired by his mother’s profession (I have no idea), my inspiration came from a slightly different source but still traceable. As soon as I could read, books became easy birthday and Christmas gifts, and some of those books were about history. I practically memorized young-reader biographies of our presidents, and television helped: One of my early favorites was “Daniel Boone,” which began the year I learned to read and took place around the time of the American Revolution. I was hooked.

And while I’m certainly not qualified to write a book about American history, that hasn’t stopped me from boring anyone who is unfortunate enough to be in the same room and too polite to jump out the nearest window.

Take the election of 1840, which Dickerson describes in wonderful, quirky detail in the chapter, “The Birth of Umbrage.” It was the first time a presidential candidate actively campaigned, for one thing; this was William Henry Harrison, who easily beat the incumbent, Martin Van Buren (it helped that the country was in its first major economic downturn, and that Van Buren was viewed much as Herbert Hoover would be almost a century later, indifferent and uncaring). But that was only the beginning.

Harrison was the oldest president elected up to that point (age 68 years and 23 days at inauguration), a record that would last another 140 years. He gave the longest inaugural address ever, at just under 2 hours. He was the first (there were two) Whig to be elected. He was the first president to die in office and served the shortest amount of time (30 days, 12 hours, 30 minutes). He was also the last President born a British subject (in 1773).

In 1820, James Monroe ran for a second term as president unopposed, the only time (after George Washington) that’s happened in our history. In 1872, President Grant’s opposition was a fellow Republican, newspaper editor Horace “Go West, young man” Greeley, who was not only nominated by a splinter party calling themselves Liberal Republicans but also by the Democrats. It was the first time a candidate had been nominated by two different parties.

Greeley had only briefly served as a congressman before running, but then Lincoln only had one two-year term in the House on his resume before he was elected president. Prior to 2016, the last time a major party nominated someone with no political experience at all was in 1944, when businessman Wendell Wilkie came out of left field to snag the GOP nod.

And if you think that 2016 is particularly nasty, take a look at the election of 1800, when two Founding Fathers, the incumbent John Adams and his former vice-president, Thomas Jefferson, slogged through the mud, spurred on by a press that had no illusions, and certainly presented none, of objectivity; Dickerson covers this in his chapter, “Keep Your Attack Dog Fed.” You should read it.

You should read the whole book, or at least if you’re looking for solace. This is who we are, and who we’ve always been, and still we’ve managed to peacefully transition for over two centuries, ugliness and all. As Mr. Truman might have said, everything old is new again. Just wipe your feet when you’re through.


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Starting Over, Staying The Same

I know people who probably sit down at a keyboard in front of a monitor so seldom that we might as well say never. Phones and tablets all the way down, baby. It’s a mobile world.

These people are all much younger than I am. And none of them spend much time writing, which is stressful and slams the door on most creative impulses when I try to do it on an iPad Mini, which is all I’ve got. Even with a Bluetooth keyboard.

So I get it. If I can travel without my laptop, I’ll gladly skip the extra bag, cram my clothes into a backpack that fits under the seat in front of me and go all millennial on the world, but I miss it. I miss the big screen, leaning back in my chair with a mouse on my lap and reading from a distance. This is a habit that’s been baked in for decades now, and I don’t mind.

This makes me electronically vulnerable, and everyone who knows me well gets it, because when I have computer problems then I make sure everyone shares the pain. I behave pretty much exactly as a chain smoker does when sitting on the tarmac for six hours before a crosscountry flight. I get a little snippy.

Five years ago my laptop died at a bad time, although I’d seen it coming. It sometimes took multiple efforts to get it booted up, which I thought I’d traced to the CMOS battery, which takes a pro to replace and even then. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it won’t end well.

At any rate, it was like the old joke about the hunter whose companion suffers a heart attack. He calls 911 and tells them his friend has collapsed and died. “First, make sure he’s dead,” the operator tells him, so there’s a pause on the line, he hears a gunshot, and then the hunter says, “OK, he’s dead.”

In other words, I did my own laptop repair and made sure it was dead. But after I bought a new one. No pressure. Won’t do it again.

I bought the cheapest acceptable PC I could find at Best Buy on a holiday weekend, losing money for every hour I spent getting back to business. Even with an intact hard drive on the old one, which saved me a lot of time moving files, and a healthy backup regimen to ensure that no surprises showed up, it took me 10 hours to get everything put together the way I needed it. I’d rather not.

And I’d definitely rather not do it again any time soon, so I’ve done my best to keep this little Lenovo humming. I swapped out the hard drive onboard for an SSD. I kept it clean, using every piece of software I could find that had good reviews from people I trust. When three years passed I figured I was living on borrowed time, so I got aggressive.

Here we are. A fan blows directly into the vent and is on all the time, keeping things cool, and my backup layers are maybe too redundant but it’ll do.

And I’m on my third operating system, moving up from Windows 7 through the 8 iterations and now smoothly into Win 10, none of which slowed me down and all of which seem to be an improvement in terms of speed and safety.

When the anniversary update for Windows 10 came out a few months ago, it automatically downloaded and installed, leaving me with a slightly different UI and no internet access. I rolled back the update and postponed it, finding out that this was a problem with my network adaptor and that I wasn’t alone.

I tried it again last week, hoping (I guess) that the issue was fixed. It wasn’t, and after over an hour of upgrading I was left disconnected, and for a while unable to even log into the computer to roll it back until John solved that problem but not the next one: Even after the rollback, and even after I loaded a disk image from three weeks ago, I had no internet. Hmm.

The solution turned out to be almost as easy as turning it off and back on again. I just deleted the adaptor and its driver, then rebooted. The PC automatically reinstalled the adaptor and voila.

I welcome Labor Day, then, and salute the Lenovo folks and me. Together we’ve kept a $300 computer machine from biting the dust, and there’s no snippiness from me. I’m still living on borrowed time. They just keep raising my limit, and I keep taking it.


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The Age of Reason

(This week’s column)

If it hadn’t been a Sunday, I might have missed Mbah Gotho.

Or, maybe, I should be more specific: If it hadn’t been a Sunday in August 2016, a season in which there are no slow news days, I might not have been idly skimming headlines or had the time to dig deeper into what struck me at first as tabloid filler.

It wasn’t a tabloid, though. It came from a source that has been delivering all the news that’s fit to print, and quite a lot that really isn’t, for over 150 years. That’s not enough to erase my inner skeptic, but it passes the smell test that a story coming from News4U-dot-com doesn’t. Plus, as I said, I was idle.

In case you missed it, Mr. Gotho is an Indonesian man who has some fairly authentic-looking documentation suggesting that he is the oldest person on the planet.

This is not a small thing. According to Indonesian records, Mbah Gotho was born on December 31, 1870, making him 145 years old.

This is very old. You probably knew that, but I want to be clear. It’s really old. So old that Mr. Gotho himself made burial arrangements in 1992.

So old that there’s no need for polite euphemisms. When you’re pushing a century and a half of life, you’re in tortoise territory. The maximum lifespan for a human has been thought to be about 120 years, based on documented cases of supercentenarians (over 110). The official record is/was held by Jeanne Calment of France, who reached 122. This is a record measured in days and weeks, not decades.

The documentation means that this also passes the smell test, although I suspect it’ll never be confirmed officially. Still, I think we have a glimpse into the future of human longevity, and its relative nature can cause a little vertigo. Assuming the Gotho records are accurate, if you’re 45 years old then you now know there is someone alive who was 100 years old when you were born.

This probably sounds crazy if you’re 45, since you’ve already noticed signs of degradation. You can’t read fine print as well. You’ve probably had some hearing loss already, and possibly gray hairs. Possibly a lot.

You’re feeling your age, in other words, and while I’m sympathetic I don’t really want to be. You can be older than 45 without setting off the early warning detection monitors with the Guinness (books, not beer) people. Trust me on this. I’m an excellent source. No smelling is necessary.

In fact, if you’re younger than I am, there are a few things I’ve learned the hard way. I can help.

At least I can tell you what I’ve noticed, which is that at some point in the future, somewhere in your 50s, you have to make a choice. That’s what I think, anyway. If you’re in good health and there are no other mitigating factors, you get to choose between aging and becoming old.

If you’re older than I am, sorry. It’s probably too late. You’re not going to throw away all those shirts.

You’d be surprised at how many people take door #2 and decide to just be old. I’m not surprised, since I’m 58 and also I’m on Facebook. The evidence is all over the place. There are pictures and everything.

For example, if you find yourself starting a sentence with, “In the day…” or something similar, feel free but understand that you’ve immediately self-identified as irrelevant. Pick something else.

Don’t wear those socks. Or those. Actually, just find a professional sock person. This is too serious.

Be realistic about your station in life. For example, I enjoy the Summer Olympics because I like track and field, and specifically because I like to watch the high jumpers. I was a pretty good jumper in high school, and that was my event. I won a few meets and placed in others, and it turns out that the world record for people 60 and above is approximately the same as the highest I ever jumped, and I’m not 60 yet.

So I entertained the fantasy for a while that I could start training now and when I reach the big day I might be ready to get my name in the record books. I might, according to this part of my brain, be able to jump slightly higher than I did when I was 15.

Don’t do this, then. Your jumping days are probably over. That’s OK, too; you really don’t need to jump.

You don’t need to dance, either, although dancing is fine. Just slow dancing, though. As slow as possible. When the music speeds up, take a break. YouTube exists for a reason, and that reason is old people dancing inappropriately. You get credit but it’s like wearing a birth certificate on your back. Slow, slow.

Otherwise, keep doing what you’ve been doing. Exercise, engage, laugh. You can’t keep up with the young people and shouldn’t care. Dress, date, speak, listen, and move in age-appropriate ways and you’ll be amazed at what you can get away with, even if you can’t read the fine print.

Or do what you want, whatever. It’s not my job to keep you from appearing foolish and embarrassing your kids.

Just remember to dance like everybody’s watching, because they most certainly are. You don’t want to end up like a cat video.

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Save The Date

I’m not particularly interested in this year’s general election, which is not to say that I’m uninterested. Just not particularly. That is, I pay a lot of attention to it. I just don’t feel compelled or even vaguely inspired to say anything about it, here or anywhere else. Maybe I will; there’s no reason not to, but so far, yeah. Not particularly interested.

But at some point last winter, and carrying into the summer, I began watching The West Wing again, from start to finish. I think I started when I heard about The West Wing Weekly, a podcast with one of the show’s stars, Joshua Malina (Will Bailey, seasons 4 through 7), and a big fan, podcaster and musician Hrishikesh Hirway. Their plan was to talk about each episode, in order, one per week. It’ll be a while.

I couldn’t resist watching ahead, though, and then I just outraced them, probably averaging four or five episodes per week, and a little binge-watching at the end. I started for a reason and continued for a different reason, or several different reasons. Boredom was one. Procrastinating was another.

And a sense that I was trying to wash away the bad taste in my mouth that 2016 has left and will probably continue to leave by watching a shiny and theatrical but idealistic and civic-minded version of governing.

I also began posting little presidential trivia on Facebook, another effort at mouthwash via proxy. These started off with little things I’ve noticed over my lifetime of reading about American history, and then it progressed as I began searching for material that musing late at night inspired.

So I was primed for what came next (inside joke), if surprised by when. Watching the series finale, season 7, episode 22, I saw something that in my current mindset led to an eruption of nerdicity. I caught an error.

I didn’t catch it in the sense that, you know, I alone caught it. Lots of people obviously did, or have over the past decade since it first aired. I’d seen the episode a couple of times. Maybe I even caught the goof before, and then forgot. Don’t rain on my parade. It was fun.

I’ll assume no one reading this knows the show, although if you do it won’t matter. It’s set on the morning of Inauguration Day. The outgoing President and First Lady have just gotten up. The President is looking out the window. His wife starts to banter, not sure if he’s in a funk or just thoughtful about leaving office after 8 years. They comment on the weather and how cold it’ll be outside at the swearing-in.

I’ve got to stop me here. In at least a couple of other places in this episode, the cold weather is mentioned. The President-Elect is seen putting on long underwear and explaining to his wife that someone on his staff advised him against wearing an overcoat, so he would look young and vigorous. A call-back to JFK’s inauguration, actually. Anyway, no coat and hence the long underwear. We obviously didn’t elect an idiot.

I’m just putting that out here. I have no idea why they kept mentioning the cold weather. There’s no plot development that relies on the weather.

Back to our goof. The First Lady tosses out an apparent rhetorical question. “Who in his right mind decided that January would be the best time of year to hold an outdoor ceremony north of the equator?”

Me again. Who talks like this? North of the equator? It’s the inauguration of the President of the United States. We know which side of the equator we’re on. You had me at “ceremony.”

The President laughs and starts naming names. “Jefferson, Adams, Franklin…”

They joke a little bit more. Poke a little fun at those guys in the powdered wigs and their dumb ideas when it came to scheduling stuff.

The President isn’t gloomy, it turns out, just thoughtful. We know this because he speaks softly and doesn’t launch off into one of his soliloquies about meteorology or the Founding Fathers or the benefits of long underwear. He’s a brilliant man but he does go on sometimes.

He certainly doesn’t explain to his wife, an educated person and now First Lady for two terms, that she should know better. In fact, she just asked the question; he’s the one who gave the wrong answer.

And this character, on this show, as written, wouldn’t give the wrong answer because he’s never wrong about stuff like this. Other stuff. But not historical fact stuff. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin.

Again, I’m sure I had to be in the right frame of mind, thinking about history, trying to wring out a few drops of trivia but making certain I remembered everything correctly, so always on guard and rechecking my facts. I was in that frame.

And it was the last episode. This show ran for seven full years and put a lot of effort into getting it right as much as they could, understanding that they were entertaining but also providing a little civics lesson each week if we were receptive to it. This is how you pass a bill. This is how you run a campaign. This is how diplomacy works, etc.

Not to mention our nerdistic fictional president, who most certainly would know that there’s nothing in our founding documents, particularly the Constitution – the writing of which did not involve either Jefferson or Adams – about the inauguration of our presidents. No dates, no structure for ceremony. Just take an oath. The Constitution went into effect – our true birthday as a country – on March 3, 1789, and after Washington’s first term (when he was sworn in on April 30, in fact) Inauguration Day remained on March 3 by statute for 144 years. There were plenty of people alive when I was a kid who remembered inaugurations as taking place in March, since the first one on January 20 (established by the 20th amendment, ratified in 1933) didn’t come around until 1937. A few weeks after my parents were both born. There are less but still plenty of people today who remember March inaugurations.

Ah. Well. It amused me, anyway, that this show would break this carefully constructed fourth wall with such a mistake. The President would have known, and wouldn’t have let his wife off the hook. Not that she wouldn’t know, too. It was dumb.

Now, The West Wing takes place in a slightly different universe, although one that matches ours pretty much up until the mid-60s or so (they refer to Vietnam but don’t reference any presidents past Kennedy). In theory, any screwing around with historical facts is allowed. In practice, I don’t buy it. It’s a goof.

And somehow it still seems more believable than this 2016 election. Go figure. What’s next?


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(Note: On Friday night, July 29, three former Kamiak High School students were murdered while they were enjoying a backyard party, shot by the ex-boyfriend of one of the victims. This is my column for this week.)


I know what I’m doing, and how it works.

I’ve written in this space for 15 years, and being a digital pack rat from the early days, all 750 or so of those columns are sitting on my hard drive. And a couple of other hard drives. And in the cloud. Possibly in a scrapbook that my mother made (she likes to scrapbook; I haven’t asked).

The disadvantage to writing for so long is that I repeat myself. Constantly, actually, or that’s how it feels.

The advantage is that probably no one remembers, but it bothers me. So whenever I get the feeling that I’ve used the same phrase before, and maybe several times before, I do a quick search through the archives just to see what turns up. Sometimes I’m surprised. Sometimes not.

There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head for the past few days, though, and it doesn’t belong to me. I’ve never used it before, as far as I can tell, but it still resides somewhere in what passes for my brain.

I began to think that I might have read it in a book when I was in high school, and somehow it stuck. High school was a long time ago, though.

In fact, my 40th high school reunion in this weekend, held at a fancy resort in Phoenix, where by the time the festivities get started it should cool down to somewhere in the upper 100s.

I’m not going, but not really because it’s being held in August in a city where people who actually live there leave town. I’ve just got things to do, and I’m not really that interested anyway. I know a few people from high school, and can easily keep tabs on others if I wish. In the past year, as a matter of fact, I’ve had mini-reunions with several of my fellow 1976 graduates.

I wish them all a good time, though. I imagine a lot of stories will be told, once everyone figures out who the other people are (we’ve probably aged a little). Favorite teachers, the big state football championship game (we lost), the fact that it was the Bicentennial year.

Maybe they’ll remember our last day of school, which was memorable. A senior who failed a class or something and so wasn’t going to be able to graduate got angry, and somehow got hold of an Army tear gas canister. He set it off in a trash can on that day, sending clouds of gas swooping through the hallways and panicking everyone, of course. It was all over the news, and we never went back to our high school until we walked across the football field stage a few days later to get our diplomas.

This was domestic terrorism, or we’d call it that today. It was just a minor trauma for most of us, confusion and fear mixed in with a big day. When Columbine happened, it brought back the memory, although they were two different events, of course. No one died at my school.

And that’s not where the phrase stuck in my head comes from. But it’s part of it.

There were no school shootings back then, or if there were they were so isolated, and so resistant to copycat behavior for whatever reason, that we didn’t notice.

We noticed in 2014, when a few minutes after my wife left her job as a professor at Seattle Pacific University, Aaron Ybarra entered Otto Miller Hall and began firing, killing 19-year-old Paul Lee and injuring two others. I sat by my phone, eyes on the live video coverage, waiting to hear from my wife, imagining the worst.

By then, of course, we were all used to the horror. Not desensitized, but it was beginning to feel familiar. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Springfield. And so on.

I wrote about some of this, but never used this particular phrase. And yet it bounced around my brain all last weekend, until I gave Mr. Google a try.

I didn’t want to plagiarize, and it felt so familiar, those words.

It turns out that they have a confusing provenance. A version appears in Tom Hank’s acceptance speech when he won an Oscar for “Philadelphia.” Another, with slightly different wording, comes up a decade later in an episode of “The West Wing.” So now I know why I was hearing them, and why now.

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.

My daughter went to Kamiak High School, and sang in the choir.

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.

My wife has taught many high school singers from many of the high schools in this area, including Kamiak. Jackson. Meadowdale. At least a couple of the young people at that Mukilteo house party have been in my home.

The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight.

I have no solutions. No answers. No nothing. I just know singers, and I know young singers, or something about them. I hear them, have heard them, for years, many of them in my living room.

But this is community grief only. Not the grief of parents and family and friends. Just grief, and shock, and sameness that leads me to dark places. I need music. We all need to sing.

I like to believe the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight, and I like to believe they are singing.

(Photo by Sara Bruestle)
(Photo by Sara Bruestle)
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The Days Are Getting Shorter

My uncle died on our 33rd anniversary, on July 30. It was also his mother’s (my grandmother) birthday, although she’s been gone for a few decades.

He was a good guy to my mom after Dad died (his brother), doing chores around her house that she could use an extra hand with, and occasionally making her crazy. Both Sigars brothers had a tendency toward perfectionism and the attitude that there was one way or the highway. It could be frustrating but also inspiring, in a sense. I sort of like the idea of one good way.

This is fairly ominous for me, should I decide to look at it that way. He was around 74, tying with my maternal grandfather for the oldest lifespan of a male in my family, at least going back a couple of generations. My father died at 67, and his father at 66.

My grandmothers landed in the same territory, early to mid-70s. I am, then, at least from a family history standpoint, 15 years away from living on borrowed time.

It’s possible to whistle my way past the graveyard on this a bit. Both my father and his father had some very dangerous habits, cigarettes being the main culprit but alcohol had a part to play, probably more so with my grandfather. This will cut your lifespan, you betcha.

Grandmothers? Dunno. There were issues, but we all die from something. My family tends to die young.

On the other hand, Mom turns 80 next January. We’re having a party. She’s our only hope.

I don’t know what to make of this, or why I should spend much time worrying about it. My uncle died from a rare disease that can strike anyone, without cause or provocation. He was always lean, a radical nonsmoker, and active and engaged. Bad stuff happens.

This existential flavor to the past year or so is getting a little tiresome, but here we are. It’s time to see life as finite, finally, and figure out what I’m going to do about that.

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