June 30

John and I watched a few minutes of a documentary on space flight the other day, long enough for him to be amused at early space suits

and for me to be jolted backwards. I was a Gemini kid, accustomed to early morning launches from Cape Canaveral. I don’t remember if I had any thoughts about growing up to be an astronaut, but surely I did. I had little plastic space capsules in my bedroom and imagined squeezing in, flicking switches above my head and watching the world below through a porthole. It was probably a toss-up between astronaut and Zorro, actually, if I’m remembering correctly. If I could have worn a mask and a black cape into space, it would have been a done deal.

Watching the film, reliving those 20 minutes of Alan Shepard’s first suborbital flight, I realized I was holding my breath at the end, in that same Apollo 13 why-am-I-doing-this way. Getting up there was one thing; coming down was a question. Even a fairly small object such as the Mercury capsule still has to deal with physics, with ram pressure of a body moving through a fluid medium, compressing the air in front and creating a lot of heat. It’s the coming down part that’s tricky.

We know now that space stuff arrives all the time, every day. And once a year or more, something large enough will explode in the upper atmosphere from the heat, producing 20 kilotons of energy (i.e., the Nagasaki atomic bomb).

Once every few centuries, on the other hand, something much bigger drops by. Something that would cause a lot of damage were it to survive intact to get within a few miles of the surface.

Which is what happened, most likely, on June 30, 1908, near the Tunguska River in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, a pretty isolated area at the time. The most commonly accepted estimates are that it exploded roughly five miles above the surface in an explosion comparable to a thermonuclear weapon, a hydrogen bomb. It flattened 80 million trees.

Eighty million.

This is one of those events that floats around in our collective consciousness. We’ve heard of it, sort of, somewhere. It fits in there with volcano eruptions and far-off earthquakes and famines and maybe even historical battles. Moving on, moving on.

It makes life seem tenuous this morning, but then, duh. I’d much rather think about Rear Admiral (Ret.) Shepard up there, the smartest of the seven original, the one chosen because he might have the best chance of fixing a problem should one have occurred. They delayed that launch for four hours, fussing and worrying, and finally Shepard forced the issue.

“Let’s light this candle,” he said, get it over with, life is always going to be tenuous, you can hide under the covers or you can fly. I may have to watch Apollo 13 again soon, hold my breath again. I’m still a Gemini kid, I realized, Zorro was just pretend.

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New column online now

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June 29

Jayne Mansfield died on this date in 1967, killed in a car accident outside of New Orleans in the middle of the night, her three kids asleep in the backseat. Mansfield had the bad luck to be blonde and built in the same universe and at the same time as Marilyn Monroe, although the two of them and their early deaths have perpetuated a particular model of glamorous women and their conflict in the boobs v. brains department (Mansfield herself is supposed to have had an IQ over 160, spoke 5 languages, etc. I don’t know how much truth we’re supposed to glean from this, given fame and all; her breasts, on the other hand, were well documented).

She was the first “major” star to appear nude in a feature film. She played her prominent parts up; she was having staged wardrobe malfunctions before Janet Jackson was born, and when she appeared on the Jack Paar show he announced her with, “Here they are!,” a line created by one of his staff writers named Dick Cavett.

Mansfield also recorded an album in the mid-60s on which the bass player was Jimi Hendrix.

That’s all I know about Jayne Mansfield, except that she wasn’t much of an actress as far as I remember. And that in the backseat of the car on that night in 1967 was her 3-year-old daughter, Mariska, who suffered a head laceration but was otherwise OK, and went on to what seems like a nice acting career. I remember her from a season on “E.R.,” but I guess she’s most famous for one of those Law and Order shows that I’ve never seen. So, sort of a happy ending.

Mariska Hargitay

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The enemy of sleep is an empty bed, or maybe an old dog; I’ve been deprived, at any rate, over this past week, and even though my IQ has never been near Mansfield territory it’s definitely bottoming out at the moment, after a week of boys only.

This has resulted in a couple of questionable decisions, including making ice cream. Three years ago, as I bounced from one compulsive behavior to another, all of them benign but still serious, I got into making really good ice cream. French style, lots of eggs, lots of time spent heating cream and yolks to 180 degrees, lots of practice. Lots of sampling the product. I do believe I gained 20 pounds that summer, and there’s no mystery in my mind; a quart and a half of gourmet cold stuff can contain upwards of 4000 calories, and that’s without cookie dough dropped in.

So I stopped that, but I had a whim last week. The results weren’t what I remembered, or else my tolerance has lowered; I ate some, regretted it, tossed the rest, and decided that in the future I will make ice cream only when I need to bring something to a party that isn’t bread.

Otherwise we’ve managed, and John and I got the long stick – my busy wife has spent a week in a small Texas town with her parents, who are healthy and wonderful and active but well into their 80s, and the pace is slow. Slow is good, but I suspect she needs some R&R now, surrounded by stunningly energetic, remarkably good-looking and caring men who will bring her food and let her watch Wimbledon in peace for as long as she wants. Now if I can only find those guys…

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June 27

On June 27, 1967, the world’s first ATM was installed in London.

One June 28, 1967, someone started bitching about ATMs and the world going to hell. In your hearts you know I’m right.

There’s a guy I read every week, God knows why, whose creative conceit is that he doesn’t like the world. At All. Implicit in this, of course, all of us being human, is the notion that the world would also be much better if people would only do what he says. This is nothing new, a hook to hang your newspaper column on – Andy Rooney has been doing it for a long time – but given that this is not really Andy Rooney, on my good days I’m usually bemused and curious as to how someone like this maintains any sense of joy or pleasure when everyone else on the planet obviously annoys them.

On my bad days, I think he’s breathing valuable air and taking up valuable space. Although my bad days are few.

(The other week he wrote about baseball caps and how they were ruining America, or something.)

When it comes to newness, I tend to stick with my adjunctive philosophy; if I have a use for it, I use it. If not, I don’t. My basement is filled with bad decisions or at least obsolete ones, so maybe I’ve learned something, maybe not.

I held my first iPad yesterday, at BestBuy. John was bored so that’s always a fun thing to do, wander up and down the aisles and keep track of how many times we’re asked, “Can I help you find something?” (Answer: 20 minutes, roughly, inside the store. Thirteen times.) We looked at sound systems and stunning televisions, and then messed with the iPad. John tried out a racing game and I tried to gauge the heft, and imagine.

Not for us, the iPad, although I can imagine all sorts of people who would find it useful. Apple crested with the iPhone, though, at least I suspect, and I don’t see a world of pad carriers. The best things in life are free, and the second-best fit in your pocket.

We ended up buying milk.

And compressed air, which is actually what was on my mind. The downside to the most glamorous toy is maintenance, not necessarily my strong suit, but when it comes to personal computing I take it seriously. It’d been a few months since I went on the dust bunny war path, and the other day I decided to check my CPU temperature. Yikes. Hanging in the low 70s C(anadian), pushing the limit. A hot processor can ruin your day, your machine, your mood. It also slows stuff up, and probably is responsible for more problems than you think, with such a simple fix.

So I pumped some cold air into my vents, swiped the keyboard just because I was there anyway, and immediately the temperature dropped 25 degrees. It was deadly silent, my laptop, and running smooth. It cost me 5 bucks, I still have plenty of air left, no televisions or iPads were purchased, and I’m keeping my baseball cap, I don’t care what they say.

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June 26

Today is the birthday of the Cyclone roller coaster, the credit union, the helicopter, the United Nations, The Lottery, the bipolar junction transistor, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the bar code, the legend of the Pied Piper, and Christmas (as a federal holiday).

It’s also the birthday of Abner Doubleday, the Union general who fired the first shot of the Civil War but did not invent baseball (stop saying that), Pearl Buck, Peter Lorre, Col. Tom Parker, Babe Didrikson, Dave Grusin, Greg LeMond, Paul Thomas Anderson, Derek Jeter, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Vick, and Princess Alexia of the Netherlands, who is 5 today.

So my work here is done.

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I’m ambivalent about habit; there are few qualities I admire more than discipline, which requires routine, and probably because it escapes me most of the time. I do, though, have a healthy distrust of same-old, based on long experience. It’s deadening and deadly as far as I’m concerned, and it’s rare that more than a few days pass without some thought about changes needing to be made. This is all personal, personal history and personal failings. Constant vigilance is required, etc.

It bothers me, then, when change pops in and nobody notices. Julie finished a very long and hectic school year, taught one week of intensive, all-day summer school, then hopped on a plane for Texas. You’d think this kind of personal subtraction would get our attention.

I’m not hurting her feelings; she knows. She knows she’s been gone a lot, and that John and I spend most of our days (and a lot of our nights) soloing, managing. It’s good for us and really nothing new. I get tired of him and possibly he gets tired of me (neurology is funny), but that’s nothing new either. Mostly we just do our daily dance, deal with the dog, find food, think up new chores and sometimes actually do them. We’re domestic creatures, and while we’re really not that good at it we can still get things done.

But at less than a week since she left, we’re aware of what’s missing. Both of us jump just a little when we hear a car door. Our sleep is off, and we laugh a little less. We joke about our clean and empty counters, knowing they’re a vacuum just waiting to be abhorred by our female contingent as soon as she gets home, a thousand papers or books or keys to be dropped in a convenient open space. We swear that we won’t let her do that but we will, we know, and we also know that our iPods don’t help, there’s just no music in this house right now, so we wait for her to come home and we’ll make an offering of our empty spaces, gladly.

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June 25

The Day The Music Died.

You know what’s funny? Funny-strange?

I got a text message from my daughter this morning, telling me they were on their way, pulling out of Boston and heading for the next future. This is all so evocative, in a handy, symmetrical calendar sort of way. A year ago this week I was doing the same thing with her, driving interstates from Massachusetts to New Mexico.

Our first day took us from Boston through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and into West Virginia, where we stayed in a lovely little town in a friend’s house. On the morning of June 25, my alarm somehow forgot to go off, so we were a little rushed, having promised said friend we’d stop in at the local café, have breakfast and say hi for him. But we managed, had our meal and then took off on a sunny day for Atlanta.

It would be the calm day; in my memory it’s almost leisurely, enjoying the scenery and the sun, looping into the Old South. The first day jitters were behind us; old friends were awaiting us in Georgia, and it would surely be smooth sailing from here to Santa Fe.

As it turned out, the next day would be the worst, starting early with tire trouble in Alabama and ending with 15 hours of humidity and stony silence in the car. Before our trip ended in New Mexico, Beth would literally make me drive her car around a parking lot to prove I could manage a stick-shift, and I would suggest several times, although maybe I didn’t actually say this out loud, that she drop me and my suitcase on the side of the road please, any road, at any time.

But water under the bridge, and from this vantage point I’ll just focus on our good day, June 25.

What’s funny, then, is that even though I essentially grew up with Michael Jackson, watched him nearly all my life, saw all the big moments and the not so nice ones, shook my head at the mess he’d become and still got a little sentimental when I heard one of the old songs, he’s now been forever linked to that long trip, and particularly that one specific, fairly stressless day of it.

So as I skim around today, see the various articles on Michael, one year after his sudden death, I realize that for me, and probably forever now, the King of Pop will always be associated with and accompanied by the memories of South Carolina, peaceful and pretty and rolling by, outside my window, on our way to a happy place.

 

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June 24

On June 24, 1947, a 32-year-old Idaho businessman and private pilot by the name of Kenneth Arnold was flying from Chehalis to Yakima, Washington, when he saw something funny flying around Mt. Rainier. Shiny, quick, apparently flying as much as three times faster than any aircraft at the time, these “flying objects,” which could not be “identified,” and were later determined by the “military” to be “mirages,” were referred to by “Arnold” in subsequent interviews as having movements not “unlike” saucers skimming across water, thus popularizing the notion of extraterrestrials, UFOs and quotation marks.

What has only recently been discovered is that, at approximately the same time that Arnold spotted these objects, or at least on the same day, in two different locations on the planet, babies were being born: Peter Weller, who eventually grew up to play RoboCop and then Buckeroo Banzai, and Mick Fleetwood, who became the drummer of a band known as, “coincidentally,” Fleetwood Mac.

And it was Fleetwood Mac’s hit song, “Don’t Stop,” that is widely considered to be the only reason that Bill Clinton was “elected” President in 1992.

Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

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It’s day #3 of boys only, and by now I have lots of fun stories except I don’t. Really, John’s mom and my lovely spouse, the same person, has been so busy these past nine months that we’re used to this being an estrogen-free zone. It’s not as much fun, but we’ve got our routines. Mostly we send her a few text messages, hope she’s not too bored in Gun Barrel City and able to relax and visit, and take the dog outside. We cook a little, clean a little, muse about our fates and Tuesday we bought a wastebasket for John’s room. We’re going through the paperwork of registering John for a summer class at the community college, and occasionally we discuss music, but mostly? This is life as usual.

Except that it got into the mid-70s yesterday, which was definitely not usual. And since it’s hanging around 100 in Gun Barrel, and you know that’s not the good kind of 100 degrees either, we remain mostly grateful, and wait for her to come home. Flowers might be in order.

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June 23

I had a brief moment of relevancy yesterday, which is all you can hope for, really. I was on the phone with my daughter when my Gmail notifier went postal on me. For unclear reasons, although it sure is fun to speculate, a group of newspaper readers decided to drop me a line, all apparently unconnected and all at approximately the same time.

I mean. I get mail. Just not synchronized. Four days after the newspaper was published, actually, a particular paper in a particular community, and boom. The sun is shining, the coffee is good, the water is pretty, let’s drop Chuck a line.

All were kind of jokey, but kind. I had the impression that someone snickered, and then emailed, that’s all.

I have no intention, as if I have much of a say in it, of having a tombstone, but if I did, I think “Someone snickered” would be a fine epitaph.

This is all the relevancy I have, want or hope for; insignificant and ephemeral, lasting as long as the cup of coffee or the sunshine. Anything more means controversy, and who needs that.

Although I wouldn’t mind inventing a word, or a phrase. That’d be cool. No luck so far, but a boy can dream.

Manute Bol passed away this weekend, age 47, sad and odd. Rail thin and very, very tall, he went to the NBA with limited basketball experience but an impressive wingspan, so he blocked shots for a living, at least for a while. I don’t really follow basketball anymore, but I knew of Manute Bol.

What I didn’t know, and what scooted around the nets yesterday, nurtured by this column in the Washington Post, was the mark Manute might have made in contemporary culture, shot blocking aside. These things can get dicey to trace and nothing definitive is usually found, but apparently, 20-some years ago on the court, when he made an error Manute Bol, English not his native language, would say, “my bad” instead of “my fault.” It caught on. Or so the story goes.

As I say, it’s hard to document. We use “OK” all the time, and sometimes “okay,” and no one knows where it came from. There are lots of theories. Probably not basketball.

“My bad” would be inappropriate on a tombstone I think.

These things are fun, at any rate, even as sad as Mr. Bol’s fate is. Just thought about this today, noticing that it was the birthday of Bob Fosse. Fosse has been dead for 23 years, but the Fosse dance style seems alive and well in some quarters, distinctive and recognizable, the rolling shoulders and the bent knees and particularly the hats. Dancing with props was Fred Astaire’s thing, and Fosse appropriated it, but he was a big fan of hats and dancers and that stuck, a legacy of sorts.

And really? He was sensitive about going bald at a young age, so he liked hats. Funny, or maybe just to me. Not in a snickering way, but you know.

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June 22

When my computer powers down into sleep mode, my monitor turns into a TV, the signal from the cable box becoming the default. So sometimes, when I’m not paying attention, I get a few minutes to watch silent movies.

It’s interesting; take the voice away, and you can see actors acting.

Or most of them, anyway. The other day, for whatever reason, some channel was showing The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), Alan Alda’s early attempt to break the MASH mold. I remember it vaguely, and nothing in the 15 minutes I ended up watching last week made me think I’ll ever remember it any other way.

Except for Meryl Streep. Even then, right at the beginning of her film career, not yet 30, to my eyes (and eventually ears), she looked like an actor brought over from another, way better film.

And the beginning was big for her — brief parts in three films, Manhattan, The Deer Hunter and Tynan, and then there was Kramer vs. Kramer and boom, it was all Meryl, everywhere. She won her first Oscar 3 years later for Sophie’s Choice and could have been given some sort of lifetime achievement award right then and saved time.

Sixteen Oscar and 25 Golden Globe nominations, more than anyone for both. And the career never stopped; it slowed a little in the 1990s but just look at this century — Adaptation, The Hours, A Prairie Home Companion, The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, Doubt, Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated…it’s not an encore or a resurgence, just more of the same.

She turned 61 today and looks it, looks fabulous, luminous, amazing. And all this success, from early on, from the beginning really, all of it because she was just that good. No mysteries here, except what she does next. I’d keep the sound on.


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Today we start what should be a familiar period for us – the household goes all male, all the time. My wife is heading for Texas and we’re heading into very known territory, John and I. Cheese will be involved. Stay tuned.

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June 21

My weekends are long and late, and these days I get to watch the dark come and go. When I sit down at the computer at 6, prepared for an evening of answering questions and adjusting punctuation, I know there are hours of daylight left. At 4am, when I drag my not-too-taxed body off to bed, some stupid bird is already singing. Solstice time.

Although it’s worth noting that yesterday, penultimate solstice, was the most sunless day up here since February (as NW weather guru Cliff Mass pointed out), murk and more murk, adding one more curiosity to our already weird spring.

I’ll also note that these late weekends for me involve working with people all over the country, so I hear about weather problems. Murk is lousy but it beats tornadoes. Also humidity and hurricanes.

So, solstice, in theory anyway. Last year I was heading east on this day, the first leg on my little cross-country adventure, helping my daughter move, an appropriate Father’s Day. She’s actually moving again this week, heading to Austin, but I’m not required, so I spent the day in the company of another offspring (redundancy! Always a good idea).

My neighbor Larry Simoneaux has some good and common sense thoughts today on intelligence, what it means and why we should think about that, maybe. All of this on the heels of a local school board member who made some sloppy comments in an email that have blown up real good. People are sensitive.

I’m a great example of what Larry is talking about; the clever things I do are dwarfed by my everyday stupidity about all sorts of things. My eyes glaze over at linear directions; when the number 2 follows the number 1, I get suspicious and sort of provincial. Big shots and their fancy directions.

My son is also interesting, and I’m interested. Statistically he’s more intelligent than 99% of everyone else, although that’s potential and that’s always how we’ve looked at it, as sort of a tool in the chance that everything else sort of works out. Over the past year, though, I’m stunned pretty much on a daily basis by what he observes and says about it. I’ve always been impressed by his endurance, the way he copes with all sorts of adversities, and this seems to be his battle plan: When confused, calculate. Propose, test, rethink. It makes being a father fun.

As was Father’s Day, mostly because of him. His math is pretty simple here: Seems to be a special occasion. Something to do with dads. I have a dad. Ergo.

(He doesn’t say “ergo,” but if you knew him you’d expect him to. And he might, one of these days, and then we’ll start hearing it all the time.)

So he bought me some new shorts (he’s generationally opposed to shorts that don’t cover the knees at least, if not the calves; sort of puritanical if you ask me, and also my knees aren’t that ugly I think) and a shirt, and he spent the rest of the day trying to do stuff for me. He offered to do my laundry at least twice. He cleaned up the kitchen. He didn’t once ask me to make him something to eat. He was completely on top of this Father’s Day thing.

And while it was less adventurous than a trip to Boston and then to West Virginia and onward, “adventure” is a good word for fatherhood, and a good word for John’s life, too. Makes up for the murkiness, and naked knees and summer that can’t get here too soon if you ask me.

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