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.


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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Where We Stand

captureI’m irrationally proud of this graph I made in Excel. I fed the last few months’ worth of poll aggregation from the Princeton Election Consortium, which has been my go-to site for election forecasting since, I think, 2004. Maybe 2008. It’s run by Dr. Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton; that is, this isn’t his gig. He doesn’t need or particularly care that much about page views, although I’m sure he enjoys the attention. Mostly he’s just a statistics geek, and along with his serious interest in neuroscience and cognition and how people react, etc., it’s always an interesting read.

Anyway. Turns out my graph looks like everybody else’s graph (the green line refers to something Dr. Wang calls the Meta-Margin, which is hard to explain since it’s hard to really understand, but it essentially shows the percentage points that the data would have to swing to make it a tied race. I’ve multiplied the numbers by 10 just so I could get a visible line on the graph, so “50” is actually 5%, and the closer we get the closer this number will reflect the popular vote margin. In theory).

I’m also irrationally proud of the fact that I’ve essentially stayed away from politics this cycle, as much as I’m interested in the subject. Maybe a comment or two on a friend’s Facebook post when I couldn’t help myself, but even those were mild. I see no evidence that my opinion would make any difference, and people seem a bit testy. I’ll stick with my graphs, vote the way I want, and stay out of the fray.

I’ve now spent the better part of a month drilling myself on Spanish, trying to dredge up forgotten tenses and vocabulary. I’m not sure exactly where this leaves me, what with a lot of years of study a very long time ago. It’s possible the whole thing snaps into place fairly easily, and I can at least converse and understand Univision shows. Or speak with Tim Kaine about dad stuff when we don’t want anyone to know what we’re saying. That could happen.

Our first major windstorm of the season is upon us, or has been upon us and is coming back tonight for round whatever. Models are starting to look more westward and so less heavy winds, but we might see some gusts in the 50s (as opposed to the 70s, which they were saying yesterday). We’re preparing as much as we can, mostly by making sure we get showers this afternoon just in case the power goes out tonight and we don’t look a little bedraggled at church tomorrow.

And those snacks I was supposed to bring? Buying, not baking, is the rational choice today, I think.

As for the rest? I head for Austin in a week, a 10-day visit with a now-3-year-old boy who hurts my face, I smile so much at just the thought of him. And I’ve been aiming for this trip a long time ago. I always knew, from when he was two weeks old and I wandered around the house with him in my arms, singing suddenly remembered songs from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, that this was an exercise in bonding, not memory. We’re just getting started with the memories now, but I set some things in motion that I’m hoping pay off. But what else could I do?

This is what I do, then. I fly to Central Texas, play with my grandson, eat some fine tacos, and come back to Washington once more encouraged to do what I try to do anyway: Stay alive. There are a lot of things I want to see the outcomes of, and a few people, and one little boy. Yo soy su abuelo, I say. I am.


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A Second Childhood, In A Good Way

(Note: This week’s column)

I’ve been given books on three different occasions in the past couple of weeks. not unheard of but a little unusual. Not new books, which would be accepted only if on a special occasion or at knifepoint. There’s no more room for new books. We have the book thing covered.
But a book that’s been read, that’s been handled, that contains bits and maybe quarks of DNA of former owners, a book that causes you to pause for a moment and suddenly, mysteriously feel as though a previous reader had paused at that exact spot — that’s a book. I accept these with thanks and joy, knowing I’ll either read them or pretend I have and then give them back.

This is not a screed against electronic books, by the way. I’ve always got a few stored on my tablet for an attack of spontaneous insomnia or a long plane trip, and dozens more are in my library. I’m fine with e-books and usually prefer them, if you want to know the truth, although that’s mostly a vision thing and, again, a fight against the book population explosion in this house.

There’s just something about a used book, though, an old book, and especially one that arrived at a particular time of life. This is where I get into trouble every time I make a feeble attempt to organize our library. These are more than dusty pages we’re talking about. There’s history here, and maybe even some well-worn wisdom.
And as much fun as it would be to use old books as a lame metaphor for human utility and relevance, I’ll skip the dance and just make the point. I’m older than most of the books in my house. I question my utility and relevance all the time, but I’ve managed to remember a few things.

And judging from a lot of my recent mail, I’m slightly older than many people who read this column. I’ve been hearing from a lot of recent empty-nesters, for example, and while I’m not exactly in that position myself, I have special circumstances. My kids are adults and have been for a while now.

And since these nice people who take the time to share their stories with me are at a certain stage of life, and I’m at a slightly different stage, I realized there’s one area in which I might be able to help.

Three years ago this week, I became a grandfather. He has Type 1 diabetes, diagnosed at 17 months, but otherwise he’s a happy, very verbal 3-year-old, living in Austin and turning me into a rabid collector of airline miles. I see him as much as I can, including in about a week, and while I miss out on a lot of things, my daughter keeps me up to date and video chats help keep me on his radar.

So, if you’re in your 40s or early 50s, and the kids have slipped the surly arms of the homestead and you’re wondering what comes next, I can help.

First, becoming a grandparent can be a shock to the system, as many of us remember our own grandparents as old people and we are most certainly not that.

More than this, though, will be the realization that everything you’ve ever heard about becoming a grandparent, all of these wonderful, cliché, almost cinematic stories of nothing but fun, are absolutely true.

Then there’s this, a limited truth, constrained by the subject and object and within those bounds, but still true: There is only one rule for being a grandparent, which is that there are no rules.

“Dad, you bought him a bouncy house?”
“It was on sale! Plus, I’m old and can’t live that much longer, and I wanted to.”

I’m speaking of a generic family, of course. There are all kinds. I was fortunate enough to raise a child who did the (mostly) conventional things and went to college, graduated, fell in love, got married, and three years ago gave the world both a healthy baby and a father who spends way too much time looking at stuffed animals on Amazon.

I’ve thought of it as being a parent once removed, but even though in my situation I was lucky enough to be able to provide around 50% of the parenting (and yet made 78% of the errors; this seems odd), grandparenting is completely different. Different in the way being a young parent with limited sleep and enormous stress is not the same as being a grandfather with a finger just waiting to be pulled by an unsuspecting toddler.

So, my slightly younger readers, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, to you and all potential grandparents: It’s exactly what’s you think it will be.

That’s been my experience, anyway, and I’ve had a few of those in my life. I’ve made a lot of decisions, some of them good and some not so much, and a few that were just dicey, but there are just some moments in life when it all suddenly makes sense. This has happened to me a few times.

Including three years ago this week, when I realized that life, often unfair and treacherous, sometimes comes through in a big way. I knew it was coming, I waited impatiently, not knowing what to expect, and then my heart blew open and all this new light and joy and a little boy flew in, and stayed.


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October Surprise

We arrived in Seattle 33 years ago today, also a Tuesday, driving a Chevy Citation and pulling a small U-Haul, lost and scared and young enough to get over that. This is just life, and sometimes you have to do scary things that don’t look so bad in the light of day, after a few years have passed.

This one sticks, though. I definitely remember the fear. Married for two months, about $500 in cash, arriving in a strange city far away from anywhere either of us had ever called home; a new life was about to begin and we didn’t feel particularly ready.

It all worked out, and that evening of fear on Oct. 4 dissolved the next day, as we hooked up with Seattle-based college friends, slept on their couch for a few days before renting an apartment in the building next door. I got a job in a week or so, although it didn’t start until the first of November, but then that first October is sort of a blur anyway. We bought our first furniture, first a bed from Penney’s and then a sleeper sofa from St. Vincent DePaul, eventually a stereo.

It was a one-bedroom apartment, a tiny place more suited for one person but reasonable for a young married couple. The kitchen was tiny, and the living room served as the main gathering place. I had a TV, so we set that up and I remember many late nights in October, holding desperately on to our previous summer’s viewing, David Letterman and the Linda Ellerbee show that followed (NBC New Overnight, with co-host Lloyd Dobbins).

Eventually I started work, and Julie soon followed. We rehearsed a play in our apartments, our little group of expatriated Arizona theater people, and it did very well, with a lot of talk in the Seattle theater community. A year later we’d repeat this particular success, this time with a one-act I’d written and was acting in, but by then Beth was a baby and we were living in Northgate, and it began to feel like a swan song. My goal had been to write plays, anyway, not so much with the acting anymore. I did one more play in 1987, and even though I tried occasionally to write something interesting, my life was wrapped up with a little girl and an exhausting job, 10 straight nights of 10 hours each, then five days off. Sleep was minimized but again: We were young.

Julie did a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then moved on to the Seattle Opera Chorus and eventually bigger, splashier, and more substantial roles, including several leading ones for Tacoma Opera, followed by recitals and concerts and cabaret until 1998 rolled around and she saw seminary awaiting.

That’s just an origin story, the transfer from Arizona to Washington, and 33 years of life have eclipsed those first few months, not all of them very fun. But we managed and survived, and here we are. Two adult children, a grandson about to turn 3, a marriage that has endured since 1983 and a relationship that extends before that.

I have no idea when I began to fall in love with my co-worker at the dinner theater. We all went out after the shows, a fairly tight bunch, and somehow she and I just got closer, deepened our friendship, and eventually it deepened into something else. It would be the fall, I think, when I lost my chance to play King Arthur opposite her Queen Guinevere, the production being double cast. I’ve told the story before: The other Guinevere was a tall woman, and the other Arthur was on the short side. We were an obvious match, and she remains a friend to this day (and lives up here, too), but my heart ached and after the show, a week or more went by when I never saw Julie.

We finally met accidentally in a parking lot outside of the Creative Arts Center, where she was directing a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and somehow that tipped the scale. We’d lost each other for a while, and that was long enough.

And now I think it’s very possible that I fell in love with my wife-to-be on or around October 4, 1982. Why not? Who knows about love?

What it does mean, though, is that she was on mind a lot during that autumn in Northern Arizona. I imagine I thought about her every day.

And now it occurs to me that I’ve never stopped. There are probably days when my mom or siblings don’t cross my mind, not to mention friends and other family members. My children are adults and a day or two surely passes when I don’t dwell even a little on them. You know what I mean.

But I have thought of Julie Kae Sigars every day for 34 years, I have no doubt. This is the nature of intimacy and romance, but also partnership and marriage.

And while I’m not about to paint a perfect picture of a marriage, I’m arbitrarily giving us credit for hanging in there in the rough times. My son has enriched our lives but has lived with us for 26 years, and it takes a fair amount of work to help him move into self-sufficiency – and I’ve often said that he and I are the most consistent relationship in my life – but credit where credit is due.

I met a lovely woman once, I liked her immediately, I loved her eventually, I married her and dragged her to the Pacific Northwest, where I had friends and she did not, and through the good times and bad, she has never left my thoughts, not even for a day.

And you can call that anything you like.

Our first Seattle home, a 1930s-era brownstone that still exists (picture taken from Google Maps)
Our first Seattle home, a 1930s-era brownstone that still exists (picture taken from Google Maps)
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Fast Times

I’ve been interested in generational theory for a while now, although not in a fancy-pants way. In a functional way.

You can look up generational theory, by the way, in case you still doubt my self-effacement up there. It’s a real thing. You’ll see the names Strauss and Howe.

And while it’s all very fascinating, particularly the Strauss-Howe stuff, it feels a little like astrology, which might actually teach you something about the cosmos if you really work at it. The rest, of course, is just pretend.

As is generational theory; that is, the idea that we belong to a particular club in which we all, more or less, have shared experiences that have shaped our lives. The obvious arbitrary nature of this makes the whole thing fascinating speculation, but just speculation.

But I think about it a lot, and for practical reasons: I wonder about references. I wonder who knows what, who remembers what, and who isn’t interested. I read a story today in which a young person (a Millennial; generationalists take note) was interviewed about voting for a third-party candidate and asked if he/she worried about a “Ralph Nader” effect on the election.

To which our young person responded, appropriately, “Who’s Ralph Nader?”

That’s what I worry about, or at least question, whenever I get in the mood to reflect backwards. I think of it as The Howard Cosell Question. Cosell, the famous sports broadcaster whose distinctive voice, personality, ego, and opinions were much discussed in his heyday, which was primarily the 1970s. I wrote a op/ed piece for the Seattle Times 15 years ago in which I mentioned him, and my daughter’s English teacher made copies for her class and had them discuss it. That was pretty cool, but he needed to explain who Cosell was and that’s when this all started.

I’m sort of rescued from a sad fate, throwing out dozens of dated references, by demographics: The people who might be clueless about Ralph Nader aren’t the ones, mostly, reading newspapers.

It’s interesting as it is to read the theories, particularly the Strauss-Howe book The Fourth Turning, which attempts to diagram the cyclical nature of western civilization in general, and the United States specifically. It’s fun to read. As I said, like a horoscope. You can find some science there, and well-thought-out ideas, and it’s reasonable but still a little contrived. It’s observable but can’t be demonstrated, because it’s too vague to demonstrate. The Millennial Generation, according to them, might be the next greatest generation. Good for them, good for us, but what does that even mean?

And I think I see the flaw. Strauss-Howe tend to mark our 14 generations since colonial days in roughly 20-year increments, corresponding to the four stages of life: Begin adulthood around 20, mid-life around 40, old age around 60. Begin is the operative word.

I have a new way. I made it up all by myself.

Since we already tend to generalize decades (the 1960s, the 1940s, the 1980s, etc.), I say we skip the clever names and just focus on high school.

High school. It’s hard to argue that these are formative years for most of us, since we enter as newbie 14-year-olds and leave as legal adults, ready to vote or serve. What happens in the world is viewed through our teenage prisms, sometimes politics and other current events but mostly (I think) culture. This is where the references are hatched, unknown a decade before and fading quickly by the next.

So here’s my new plan: Anyone who spent at least a year and a half in high school during a particular decade belongs to that generation (or cohort, maybe, is the better word). This is also arbitrary, but at least it’s a more manageable group. If you started your junior year in high school in the fall of 1989, graduating in 1991, you’re a 90s. If you graduate in 1990, you’re an 80s. If you graduate in 1971, you’re a 70s, but a 60s if you’re the class of 1970. See?

It becomes much more manageable, in my opinion. I graduated in 1976, making me a full-blooded 70s, shared with people three years younger and five years older. Or, another way, my cohort ranges from 55 to 63. Next year it’ll be 56 to 64.

This seems much more effective than the 20-year collections, which really make little sense. In some models (they tend to vary a little in start and stop dates), both Bill Clinton (age 70) and Stephen Colbert (age 52) belong to the same generation. This is crazy. It makes more sense to me to say that Bill Clinton is a 1960s and Colbert is a 1970s (he spent 1-1/2 years there, part of 1978 and all of 1979). The year Clinton graduated from high school, the top films were Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, although Beckett and Hard Day’s Night were in the mix.

When Colbert got his diploma, he had Gandhi, Sophie’s Choice, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Tootsie, along with Diner, Blade Runner, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, a difference.

And that’s just film. There’s music, books, trends, fads, fashion, and interesting haircuts.

I think this is brilliant. But it’s kind of early.

Anyway. Doesn’t really make much of a difference, but it helps me out. I meet someone in their mid-50s to early 60s, I figure we’ve lived through mostly the same experiences. For example, by the time the 1970s rolled around, even the earliest of our bunch had far less chance of being drafted than their slightly older brothers. Me, I never even had to sign up for the Selective Service. I was grandfathered in (only men born between March 29, 1957 and January 1, 1960, were exempt when Carter reinstated registration in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. History which probably falls into the Nader category for Millennials).

Again, this is astrology. Your results may differ. And not everyone, particularly writers with a historical bent and artists seeking inspiration from the past, fits neatly into the cultural milieu of their high school years. Some of my favorite films were made decades before I was born, and I tend to prefer music from the 1960s when it comes to pop. But this is the nature of artificial constructs: They work well in certain situations, not so much in others.

My take-away is to buck conventional wisdom and dismiss the idea that we have short memories. We just have specific memories, frozen in the cerebral cortices of teenagers. If anything influences the people we become (and I have my doubts in these general terms), it’s those.

And then we gather new ones, and process, and try to integrate with our formative years, and some of us do better than others, but I still suspect most of us are solidly grounded in our eras. And I’m not sure it matters all that much. Don’t know Ralph Nader? It’s OK. But if you decide to branch out, discover what happened before you were around, and what’s happening now that may be slightly off your radar, well. You could go all the way. And that’s a quote.

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Looking Back

I noted to John on Monday that it was the last day of summer. My rules.

It’s hard to argue with me, I think. We skimmed into the mid-70s, clear and sunny, and I waved goodbye. Thank you, summer of 2016. You were pretty good.

Three years ago, I was in Austin, waiting for a baby. This whole grandparent thing has given me a couple of extraordinary experiences (outside of the actual fact of, you know, a grandchild). I got to spend a couple of weeks with the expectant couple, watching and remembering. And then a couple of weeks later I returned, this time to play surrogate partner to my daughter when Cameron had to go out of town. It wasn’t the same as having Dad around, but at least I shared in the sleep deprivation and the baby soothing, a real-life throwback to being a father for the first time. I suspect not a lot of men get a chance to do this, new moms probably wanting another woman who has actually had a baby before in these situations. But I was there, I saw and I did, and I’m forever grateful.

Also grateful that I’m heading to Austin in about three weeks. Nothing but gratitude here, for this, for our nice summer, for the crispiness in the air now, for the past and most definitely for the future.

Lake Austin, September 2013
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Todos mis pecados recordados

I just read an interesting article by a couple of theoretical physicists, although it just seemed interesting to be honest. It’s not like I have much of a clue here.

The idea, I’m guessing, deals with an old notion, at least in the world of physics: Time is pretty much irrelevant. Time might not even actually exist; it certainly doesn’t seem to make any difference in terms of quantum physics.

What it most reminded me of was Slaughterhouse-5 and Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, who became unstuck in time. He sort of hopped between events, past and future; “present” also becomes irrelevant and sort of ridiculous from the novel’s point of view. And maybe from science’s point of view, at least according to this article. The only reason we can’t remember the future (agh, already out of my league) is that our memory doesn’t work that way. It has something to do with entropy and Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. I think.

No matter. I’m curious but I’ll never understand. I mostly was reading to try to infer something constructive about memory. I think about memory a lot.

I’ve spent the past 10 days – and I have no idea why I started – doing exercises with Duolingo to try to bring my Spanish skills back up to…somewhere. I left high school fairly fluent; I got tripped up with the subjunctive tense and my vocabulary needed a big boost, but I could make conversation.

So where does that go? Nearly a thousand hours of classroom work alone, and I look around this room and can spot a dozen items I can’t name in Spanish, and I’ve got a handful of verbs only. Still, every day I spend 20-30 minutes drilling myself, slowly de-cobwebbing. Los niños comen manzanas roja. That should get me into a good restaurant.

What’s odd is that I seem to have no problem conjugating simple verbs, even if I’m relearning the verbs. That part seems to have stuck, along with a fair amount of other grammar details. I have trouble with the word for “socks” but I can say I have them with no problem.

So, no idea. At my age, it seems daunting if not sort of quixotic to try mastering another language, or even getting some comfort with it, and even if it’s one I used to speak fairly well. And yet, so far it seems to be working. Let’s see where I’m at in a couple of months. Let’s see if I last that long.

Who knows? I may be a volunteer on the exploration of brain plasticity and our ability to learn new things, even if we’re aging canines. I may not remember the future, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get ready for it. I hope it has tacos.


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The Aging Of The Oval

Most people who know me well have long since figured out that I have a relentless fascination with politics, but only of the big picture variety. This sometimes means things such as referenda but usually it’s all about the presidents. I should be more concerned about local issues, since that’s where I’m most affected, but what can I say? I like history, and presidential politics is always about history.

Especially when no incumbent is running. When things seem OK or even when they don’t, the incumbent walks in with an advantage and it’s his or hers to lose. In an open race, all sorts of odd things can happen, and it’s automatically historic: Only 43 people have served as president. It’s a big deal.

There have been 56 elections since Washington’s first term (no incumbent was possible, so I dropped that one), and at least from an eyeball count on a list of elections 24 of them have been open contests, with no incumbent. Close to half, which seems to make sense; if every president had served two terms, then every other presidential election would be open. But we know this isn’t true; over a third of our presidents didn’t run for a second term or were defeated (only James Polk, at least off the top of my head, decided not to seek reelection, and in fact had pledged not to do so). LBJ withdrew from the 1968 race when he didn’t like the signs he was seeing, but there’s no doubt he would have sought a second term had things been less chaotic.

But here’s what’s interesting about this, to me: Of those 24 open elections, 15 occurred in the 19th century. In the 20th, we had five through Kennedy (1908, 1920, 1928, 1952, and 1960). We had #21 in 1968, then we waited another 20 years for #22 (1988, Bush vs. Dukakis). After that, we started our current string of two-term presidents, only broken by George H.W. Bush in 1992, so 2000 and 2008 fill out our card.

It’s been fairly rare in my lifetime, then, that I’ve seen an open election (5 times out of 14, and for the first one I wasn’t concentrating on politics, being in diapers at the time, and for a good reason), and I was 10 years old in 1968, aware but not all that much. So really I’ve only seen three of these, and now a fourth. It should be exciting.

And it’s not. And I think I know why.

From at least last spring, it seemed clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee, while Clinton and Sanders were still tussling. That meant we would either get the oldest president ever elected (Trump), the oldest president ever elected, and by a lot (Sanders, who would best Reagan by five years), or the second-oldest president (Reagan leads at two weeks shy of 70, and WH Harrison at 68 years and three weeks is currently second. Clinton would move into that position at 69 and three months).

They were all too old, in my opinion, although this was less my concern over their health than just political hygiene. The beauty of our republic and its tradition of peaceful transfer of power is that four years is a long time in politics, and eight years is an eternity. It’s hard to keep a viable political career going once you enter your 60s, and so it’s hard to get traction if you’re a rookie trying to make it to The Show.

In 1960, we transitioned from a member of The Lost Generation (born from the early 1880s until 1900), Eisenhower, to a bone fide GI Generation member (also known as The Greatest Generation). Six presidents from this group were elected until 1992, when we transitioned to the huge Baby Boomer demographic with Bill Clinton, followed by George Bush, followed by Barack Obama (who is on the cusp between Boomers and Gen Xers, and is a member of what’s been called Generation Jones, those who were born in the late 1950s and early 1960s); Obama was a definite but slight generational transition, and eight years later…

…we go backwards, back to the early boomers, or even earlier (Sanders would be The Silent Generation group, born from the mid to late ‘20s until the early 1940s. McCain would have been the same).

It just feels wrong. But we have the candidates we have. Rubio, Cruz, Christie, even Jeb would have been a more consistent choice for the GOP, and I dunno about the Dems. It’s hard to drum up ambitious politicians when your party has held the White House for the past 8 years. And 69 might be the new 54.

So that explains my less-than-enthusiastic interest in this election. I watched one debate before last night’s, a late one between Sanders and Clinton, and that was pretty uninteresting. But I’m old, too.

That is, I know all the players and have for a long time. I became aware of Bernie Sanders in the mid-1980s, and paid a lot of attention to him once he reached Congress; he always was worth a listen. Trump has been Trump forever. Clinton has been in the public eye since at least 1991, although she wasn’t unknown in political circles, if mostly for her legal work on children’s issues as the First Lady of Arkansas.

So there’s nothing new under the sun, or the stage lights. I was an Obama supporter in 2008 (I went through some infatuations before I decided), so I was a little antagonistic about Clinton from the start. I thought her campaign pandered too much, and I also thought she’d draw so much hostile fire from the Republicans that Obama was a better chance (I was so wrong, and I’ve said many times to my wife, a Hillary backer from the beginning, that if their roles had been reversed – if Clinton had won in 2008 and Obama had become, say, vice-president and lined up to run in 2016 — it’s possible things would have been better. I didn’t anticipate the wave of craziness that swept certain parts of the country at the election of an African-American as President. Knew it was there, just didn’t see the insanity coming.).

And now, with the nomination of the least-qualified candidate for president in my lifetime, I don’t see the insanity stopping soon. If Trump gets elected, I have no idea but I don’t see exactly rosy relations between citizens. If it’s Hillary, then more of the ugliness anyway. No stopping this train, not in the immediate future.

As for the debate? What everyone else said. SMH.


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