Uncertain Shepherds

(Funny story: I start column writing again next week, but a month or so ago I’d made a offhand comment to my publisher that I might write a piece around the holidays. Like most of my ideas, it immediately left my brain and hid in the basement with the exercise equipment. On Monday of this week, I got a note from above publisher, wondering if that holiday piece was ready. Whoops. Not a big deal, but feeling responsible, and already past a reasonable deadline, I grabbed an essay I’d written for The Seattle Times six years ago on New Year’s, updated a bit, and sent it in. I never heard back, but picked up a copy of the Mukilteo paper yesterday and there it was. Whether it shows up in the other publications, I have no idea, and for some reason their Web sites aren’t updated…but here it is. That was not a good time, 2003, and it would get worse before it got better, but as I’ve said before, it turns out my middle-aged hobby has been staying alive. And the engine for that is always hope. So no apologies, and happy New Year.)


Two hundred years ago, the future resided in the library of Thomas Jefferson.

Among his many passions, our third president owned the largest collection of books in the country on the Great Unknown, the American West. He shared the ancient dream of a Northwest Passage, and speculated about finding perhaps Patagonian giants or even the Lost Tribes of Israel. Who knew?

By May 1804, Congress had authorized $2,500, supplies were purchased and a crew assembled, and the Corps of Discovery set off from St. Louis up the Missouri River into history. Three centuries after Columbus, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to discover the rest of America.

By the mid-1960s, when I was a child, the future had become a number. “The year 2000,” we called it, somehow needing to qualify it the way we do ordinary things that create awe, and we calculated our ages at the turn of the millennium. We would be adults, alive in a world of moon colonies and flying cars. We had seen the future, and it was really cool.

Where have you gone, George Jetson? When did the future stop being exciting and start giving us the willies? Maybe it was the fear and anticlimax of Y2K, and then the terror of 9-11; our computers still worked and our bank accounts were safe, but when planes fell out of the sky it was on purpose. The future has become scary, uncertain and dangerous. “Here be dragons,” the ancient warning, has moved from the map to the calendar. Whatever awaits us, it can’t be good.

Maybe that’s what we’ll call it, eventually, this decade that finally ends and moves us into the double digits of the 21st century. The Decade of Fear, maybe. Uncertainty. Worry.

Or, maybe, we’ll just think of it in numbers, because there were a lot of them. Those tricky zeroes that were supposed to shut down our digital lives. “Nine-Eleven,” which immediately became a timestamp for terror that strikes in different places and in different ways. Florida votes, body counts, housing prices, approval ratings, 401k totals, barrels of gas, rising Arctic temperatures…yeah, it’s a numbers game now, or so it seems.

And I’m not immune. I could tell you personal stories from the past 10 years and give you a lot of bad numbers.

But good ones, too, glorious ones even, and they’re enough to remind me, as they always do, that new calendars can be a lot of fun. And that if we look ahead and see only danger, it’s because we’ve forgotten that risk is our business.

The future is our Great Unknown, our undiscovered country. We are born into it, prepared for it, wary of it and powerless to do anything but head for it, incomplete maps in hand. And once a year in January, we climb a ridge and look back and then forward again, keeping an eye out for dragons and hoping for the best.

It’s easy to forget about hope. It’s easy to see cynicism as growth, as intellectual honesty, and forget that hope keeps us breathing and gets us up on cold mornings. Hope is what kept me outside on late December nights as a boy, staring at the sky and waiting for snowflakes, dreaming of a white Christmas. I lived in Arizona. I had a better chance of being hit by an asteroid, but it was the season of miracles and I was a mystic. The future was all about hope.

It still is. A new year is a do-over, and a dream. We slap on nicotine patches and nurse hangovers, we start on a diet and prepare for the spring. We’ll learn from our mistakes and hope for better days, because that’s what we do.

And I’ll be reminded of my father, who taught me something about hope. Six years ago, on his 67th birthday, at the end of an eight-month struggle with cancer, too weak to walk, he went for a drive with my brother-in-law. It was only supposed to be around the block, but Dad had other plans. “I have some Christmas shopping to do,” he said, and he did.

This was the last lesson my father taught me, to never give up hope and to always plan for the future. He died four days later, in his sleep and surrounded by family, with a present for my mother wrapped and waiting.

I’ve started to think that maybe this strong, no-nonsense man knew more about hope than any of us. Maybe the careful lists of chores he always wrote out were less about duty and more about possibilities. Maybe he thought about the unknown more than I knew.

This is what I think about, anyway, and what I thought about on that Christmas evening in 2003. I stood at the window, remembering him and Christmases past, waiting for the future, and noticing that, amazingly enough, it had started to snow.


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2009 – The Ones I Miss

Bea Arthur Henry Gibson

David Carradine        Dom Deluise

James WhitmoreHarve Presnell

Jennifer JonesDon Galloway

John Hughes    Karl Malden

Larry GelbartPatrick McGoohan

Natasha Richardson Ricardo Montalban

Ron SilverPatrick Swayze

Brittany MurphyPat Hingle

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2009 – Film

Obviously I didn’t do my part. I don’t keep notes on movies I’ve seen (and I know people who do), so I have no clear stats on my habits. If you asked, I’d say yeah, once a week I watch a movie, and probably that’s true. And I know I’ve wandered backwards to find films I missed years ago, or to revisit. And having Turner Classic Movies has taken up some of my time.

And for various reasons, I just didn’t get out to the theater a lot this past year, far less than normal. Five times, in fact, from piecing it together, and one of those was “The Dark Knight,” which actually was from 2008.

But being statistically pure, out of the 600 or so films released in the U.S. in 2009, I saw 23, and three of them I didn’t finish (“Duplicity” just bored me, “Earth” I meant to get back to and just never did, and “Lymelife” hit me at a bad time and a bad mood, so I plan on seeing that one again).

Julie and I went to see the Harry Potter film because, I guess, we just think we ought to, although really I suspect the whole Potter franchise will be a little blip in a few decades. Just a guess. It was fine, no problems, but I have no desire to see it again. And I’m sure I’ll finish out the series and be done with Harry.

“Star Trek” was by far the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a long time. I loved it, I’ve seen it three times now, and I’d watch it tonight. Dunno, just loved it.

The biggest disappointment was “Extract,” which has just been released on DVD. I like Mike Judge, I liked “Office Space” a little and “Idiocracy” a little, and thought maybe he was going to put it together with this one, but no. Jason Bateman does his good guy thing well, Mila Kunis showed me again that she’s got some sort of career possibilities, and Kristen Wiig got a paycheck again (she seems to be in everything, with the same flat affect, passive-aggressive routine, which was funny in “Knocked Up” and hasn’t been since, although they keep paying her).

Let’s see. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” was a waste of time. “Management” had a few moments but really, no. “Knowing” was just pathetic, but it’s still fun to watch Nicolas Cage commit career suicide and then spring back again, time and again. I really like Nicolas Cage, for some reason.

“The Proposal” was DOA as far as I was concerned, but I still watched it to the bitter end. Must be my fondness for Sandra Bullock, but I fear for her career, seriously.

“The Great Buck Howard” surprised me by being sort of entertaining. “I Love You, Man” was fun until the last 25 minutes or so.

I don’t think “Shrink” even played in a theater, but you might want to check it out. Flawed but Kevin Spacey does a nice job as a shrink to the stars who’s floundering in the face of grief and loss. The plot is too cute by half but I can recommend the rental, as if you care what I think.

And before the year is out, I think, I’ll see “Up In The Air,” and “(500) Days Of Summer” sits on my desk.

That leaves me with nine, so in order of preference:

9. Sunshine Cleaning. Amy Adams. Alan Arkin. Dead people’s houses. It could work.

8. Coraline. How many Gaiman films have been made? I have no idea. This has to be the truest, I would think. Genuinely spooked me in a fun way.

7. The Soloist. I will watch any movie about a newspaper columnist. I promise.

6. Up. Oh just watch it, you’ll see.

5. Funny People. Sort of fell apart at the end, but also redeemed by a James Taylor cameo (at a corporate gig, comic Seth Rogan asks Taylor if he ever gets tired of singing the same songs over and over. Taylor looks at him. “Do you ever get tired of talking about your dick?”)

4. Adventureland. I’m tired of writing now. Good.

3. The Hangover. Lived up to its hype. I laughed like crazy at some of the Judd Apatow films because they were vulgar. This movie is raunchy, no question, but the laughs are earned by great comic writing, not penis jokes. If you have hypertension issues maybe not for you, since it never stops, but excellent.

2. Away We Go. Two extremely likeable actors/characters, expectant parents trying to figure out what that looks like. Could have been my favorite easily, except for

1. State Of Play. Damn near perfect. Political corruption, investigative reporting, the death of the daily newspaper, Jason Bateman not playing a good guy, Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams…what “All The President’s Men” wanted to be.

So here’s to getting out more, to seeing “Up In The Air,” to avoiding “Avatar” if possible, and to blocking Turner Classic Movies if I plan on having a life any time soon. And to watching “Star Trek” again. Maybe now.


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Made For Walking

So. I wanted a pair of boots.

I have a pair of boots. Cowboy boots, long story, lots of nostalgia, some sentiment. I tried them on a couple of months ago and they fit and were comfortable. I wore them the other night when we went out and they were not. Comfortable. At all.

I have wide feet. Not extraordinarily wide. Not even special-fit wide. Just a little wider than normal with a normal shoe, so that my footwear tends to wear out first on the sides. Not a big deal.

Since I work at home, blah blah blah. Lots of times I don’t wear shoes. Other times mostly sneakers.

But I felt the need for some boots. Something nonsneakerish. Something solid, something hard to slouch in, something to prod me to stand up straight and not lurch. Dunno. Just wanted some boots all of a sudden.

But not cowboy boots. Since they taper toward a pointy end and, as I say, I have slightly wide feet.

So something in a square toe. Something bootish, preferably black. Not hiking boots, since I have those, but something that might take polish if such a rare occurrence were to pop up. Something that went with jeans but also khakis or slacks or frankly anything I might wear, which is limited anyway.

Out to the mall then. Out to a movie, but just a quick stop in the mall, grab a pair of boots for Chuck because he has a notion.

Stop. Laughing.

Women. Women, women. Boy do you have a boot selection. I never noticed before, but if you’re a woman you can get boots anywhere, any price. Probably at the drugstore they have a women’s boot section.

But men, no. Outside of a boot store, which this particular mall did not have, boots were rare. Penney’s, no. Nordstrom, no. Movie? Ha. No. Finally Macy’s, and there was a pair of boots. What I was looking for. Who knew?

Turns out there’s this company called Harley-Davidson…

So I now own a pair of H-D boots. Me, who will never ride a motorcycle again, for good reason (fear of death), has a great pair of boots, which will outlive me and which were expensive, but feel great and now I can kick down doors if that’s necessary, just ask.

And since today was a bit nippy, and I had to take John to meet his case worker, I not only wore my boots but my brand-new Christmas coat that Julie was kind enough to give me, since I haven’t really had a winter coat in years. A couple of jean jackets, nothing else. A nice, warm, long coat. Goes down below the knee. Really, very warm.

Wore that, and the boots. Stood up tall, great posture. And John and his friend did their thing, and I walked around, feeling warm and tall, and as I headed back to meet them John was smiling.

“I finally figured out who you look like,” he said.

I love my son, truly. Sometimes he blurts out inappropriate things, and he can be a hassle at times, but I do love him. A lot. More today. Since he thinks I look like this.


The End.

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2009 – Television

As I do believe I’ve mentioned before, my relationship with television is complicated. Layered. Nuanced. Maybe neurotic.

There are lots of reasons for this, including that I can always think of a better way to pass the time. But this is the nature of goofing off, which is why I can’t really pass judgment on computer solitaire players or Farmville afficionados or Oprah watchers or marathon book readers. We’re allowed. I’m allowed too.

No, my issue is just garden variety compulsion. If I find a show I enjoy, even something silly, I have to see it all. Every episode. Going back if I’ve missed the beginning. Renting the DVDs, streaming from NetFlix or Hulu, setting the DVR. So I’m careful and pick my time wasters carefully.

Cable networks help, producing quality shows with limited episodes. I miss “Mad Men” but I sort of don’t, now that Sunday nights are open for other stuff until the spring (or whenever). And premium channels, which I consider a waste of money (although they’re probably producing the best stuff these days), teach me about delayed gratification: One of these days the most recent season of “Weeds” will show up on the shelves and I can have a little compulsive week with Nancy and her gang, then be done with it. This works for me.

Side note: It’s funny that of the very few hour-long shows I watch, two of them deal with ordinary people who turn to drug dealing in order to make ends meet (“Weeds” on Showtime and “Breaking Bad” on AMC). I have no idea.

So, understanding that I watch very little TV so I really have no context and no business talking about any of this, my favorites of 2009:


Mad Men (Bravo, Sunday nights): Duh. Just repeat what everybody else has said. What draws me, though, besides the solid writing and acting, and the meticulous attention to set dressing (I’m constantly catching some item in the background, a vase or a picture, that I faintly remember from childhood), is this tendency I have to place people (fictional and otherwise) into historical context automatically. Tell me you were born in 1940 and immediately I’m calculating that you were 18 when I was born and 25 when Vietnam began to escalate and 34 when Nixon resigned and 66 when “Mad Men” premiered. It’s a gift.

So while I’m watching the goings on at (the late, lamented) Sterling Cooper, I’m also busy placing little stick figures in time. Don Draper, assuming he cut back on the smoking and drinking, is now 83. Everybody older than him is dead. Pete Campbell and his wife are of my parents’ generation. And the Draper kids, Sally and Bobby, always in front of the TV or being shooed off to bed? That’s me and my brother and sister, more or less.


The Daily Show (Comedy Central, Mon-Thurs): Got me through the election, keeps me smiling through the craziness. I’m not crazy about the hit-or-miss skits, but I love that Stewart has 2-3 authors on a week (and that he usually reads the books), and no one else comes close to the mastery these guys have over their Tivos (I have no idea when, if ever, we’ll get a generation of politicians with enough brain cells to realize that when they say something, someone is, y’know, probably recording it. This is frustrating civics but really entertaining television).


NBC Thursday Night: Sitcoms fit me well, 22 minutes and smiles, but this is an amazing line-up (even if nobody else is watching it). Alec Baldwin carries “30 Rock” but it has the best writing on television (caveats above aside; what do I know?); an episode from a couple of weeks ago was the most brilliant example of sitcom writing I think I’ve ever seen. And “The Office” is just flat-out brilliant, again being carried by its star, Steve Carrell, and keeps getting better. It’s sometimes painful to watch, since for all the yuks Michael Scott is, in fact, mentally unraveling and started decompensating a couple of seasons ago, but I don’t miss it.


And their new entry, “Community,” about a group of people attending a generic community college, fascinates me because of my loyalty to it. It’s absolutely average, straight from sitcom class, and the characters are two-dimensional, broad and unbelievable, but damn: It’s charming, and who knew Chevy Chase could be funny?

But the winner, my favorite, goes to…


Parks and Recreation (NBC Thursday, but then): Taking “The Office”‘s mockumentary format, this show started off slow and then got wicked funny. Starring Amy Poehler from SNL, and with a cast that doesn’t have a weak member (many of them stand-ups), P&R upps the stakes of humor in humorless situations. Pawnee, Indiana has to be more boring than Scranton, PA but it’s also funnier. Really. Go back, rent the first mini-season (6 episodes, now on DVD) and then catch up via Hulu or On Demand or whatever. For a guy who doesn’t watch much TV and thus knows virtually nothing about what’s on and therefore should be ignored, take it from me. This was the best. For me. For 2009. So far.

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Reviewing The Situation

I begin column writing again next week, and my joints are creaky. I have moved beyond hackneyed into posery, which I do not believe is even a word. This is all theory, of course, just what crawls around my brain, nothing actually written yet. We shall see.

I do have some exercises in mind, things I’ve never gotten around to writing about, mostly reviews of things I’ve seen, read, heard or experienced. Maybe my 2009 Likes. We shall also see.

But off the list, most probably, will be this whole sourdough bread business. I’ve read for hours, watched endless baking videos, proofed and pounded and nurtured and burnt my fingers. I’ve turned out magnificent crusts and really nice bread, but not so much sourish. And I think I’m done. One last experiment today and then I think I’ll retire my starter for the occasional loaf. Baking has always been therapeutic for me, not creative, and while I can certainly be meticulous when I need to be I think I maybe don’t care for it.

I did it, though, and even if I haven’t gotten quite the tang I was looking for, I created some nice bread using yeast I pulled from the air, like a magic trick. So I cross that one off my list, and say I learned something in 2009, and that’s a good thing.

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We had a very nice Christmas in this house, lots of music and happy people, unwrapping presents and being thankful. There was a time when just the three of us had Christmas, the first year or so, and we’d passed on the tree and decorations and humbug, it was humbug and sadness.

We’ve adjusted, though, the way Julie and I adjusted our very first Christmas up here, no furniture, one Charlie Brown tree at the last minute, a couple of gifts. You become grateful for love and family, and you dance around the little tree and wait for the future to happen.

John’s gift showed up on Christmas Eve, a huge recliner that Orson Welles would have been very comfortable in, completing his corner of the house where he likes to play video games, converse and usually sleep. I got Julie another sedentary thing, a bed pillow that adjusts every which way and supposedly which she enjoys.

As for me, some clothes, a really nice long coat and a cast iron Dutch oven, which has been on my list, mostly because it will allow me to bake bread at extremely hot temperatures and that’s a good thing, but a boy can’t help but dream of spectacular pot roasts. All good stuff.

And then more music and rest, and I of course had to work last night, some of the time spent reading a bread book Beth and Cameron sent me, Peter Reinhart’s “Artisan Breads Every Day,” full of meticulous bread-baking tips and lots of pictures.

I’m not sure about this. As I’ve said before, bread has been off my personal menu for a few years now, and my baking has only been occasional (and usually pizza dough at that). But I like baking and I like new things, so this will be interesting.

As far as my sourdough starter that I carefully nurtured against all hope, and which responded in yeoman fashion, above and beyond, I’ve played around with it a bit, in an amateur way. The trick to sourdough is long fermentation times, sometimes overnight, which grates against my immediate gratification grain. I currently have a few experiments in the works, we’ll see, but I had fun this morning.

I’ve left the starter bowl out, bubbling away, feeding it every day, not putting it in the refrigerator yet because I plan on baking for a few days anyway. When I first got that great tangy smell, knew that it was working, I would go back every few hours and sniff some more, just to be sure. I tried not to make others sniff but sometimes I did.

Today, though, after all the business, I took a look at it and a whiff, and got a surprise that really shouldn’t be a surprise. A good, healthy starter will sometimes develop liquid on top, actually 12% alcohol, and actually called “hooch” by bakers in the know. This can be poured off or just stirred back into the mix (and will bake away, don’t get any ideas).

But that first sniff was something, and Julie thought so too. “I’ve invented whiskey!” I said, which is not really true, but it sounded funny coming out of my mouth, of all people, and I proceeded to stir it up, keeping things lively as always.

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Christmas Bubbly

I still have gifts to get (of course), thrown off a bit by Julie being out of town and then my natural inclination to Panic Shop. I get off on the adrenalin, and also don’t have to stretch my patience to the limit. Getting done 2 days (maybe 1) before Christmas pumps up my holiday juices and does interesting things to my bank account (so, good news and bad news there). But it’s Christmas, and it will be.

For me, though, I think one of the best parts will be a really random exercise in chemistry and tradition. I made some clam chowder the other night, something I’ve stayed away from since Beth and I made a huge batch for a class of hers back in high school and I was appalled by a $40 pot of soup (it really made a lot, though). Alternatively, I’ve got a really nice creamy, garlicky potato soup that fills the bill and the belly, no complaints.

But I made this chowder and realized I should have been, always, my pleasure in these darker days always having something simmering, stews or chili or soup. Something I can play with, stir and sample and thicken as needed, adding salt and other seasonings and lurking over my family’s heads as they eat. If there were a Meyers-Briggs Personality type for cooks, I’d definitely be a Feeder and a Lurker. Annoying, too.

With our chowder we chose a loaf of sourdough white from the bakery, since that’s always our preference, and once again I thought, hey. I should make some sourdough bread, since everyone loves them some sourdough. I just never got around to it, particularly since the word on Baking Street is that these starters are particularly hard to grow here in the Northwest, at least this time of year, for various reasons.

So I wasn’t expecting positive results, but it’s not a difficult job, just maybe a pessimistic one.

(for those of you who don’t bake or don’t care, a starter is simply creating your own yeast zoo in a bowl on the counter, letting the little buggers grow as they will, and in a success story after a few days of watching and feeding with more flour and water — and in my case, some pineapple juice, my secret weapon — you’ll have a bubbly, fermenting mess o’ yeasties, producing that nice sour smell that we love when it comes from bread.

And on the fourth day, I got that, surprising myself. Great texture, great frothiness, great smell.

Big things, as they say, sometimes come in small bowls of bubbles. Ain’t nobody doesn’t like sourdough bread (and if you don’t, don’t tell me), but my victory also includes my little home chemistry, my tough-to-come-by patience, and the fact that I’m getting back to basics, more so than even just baking my own bread. I made my own yeast, in other words, wild yeast pulled from the moist, moderate climate of the place I live and love, and quite possibly some dog hair. The first loaf shall be baked tonight and we’ll see, although I know something about bread success and failure. Sourdough can be eccentric and also can take longer, depending on its mood, but we’re all looking forward to Christmas cheer in the form of wheat and butter and oil and flour and water and sourdough, finally, Christmas magic. Very pleased with myself having done it the way my ancestors had, capturing the yeast in the wild, although I didn’t personally have to shoot any. Just feed them.

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