Weights and Measures

On my birthday, Monday, I wandered around with Julie, running minor errands and buying socks, and somehow by the end of the day I was down in the basement, listening to Pandora and assembling a weight bench. Funny how things happen.

I’ve been musing and talking about getting some free weights for a couple of years, although for fuzzy reasons. Mostly it seemed like another skirmish in my personal war of attrition, trying to slow the descent into physical deterioration. Maybe a little weight training would do some good, and I wasn’t about to join a gym (not much of a joiner, and I also know I’d never get my money’s worth). Something simple, something basic. A few weights and a barbell, a little minor workout a few times a week, something to do. And suddenly it was my birthday, and we were at a store, and there was a sale and they were cheap, etc.

I don’t enjoy this sort of exercise. As opposed to taking long walks or even dropping and doing pushups, weight lifting hurts. I’m not the sort who enjoys this kind of discomfort, even in the pursuit of health and tone. And it’s a lingering pain; I’ve done two workouts so far this week, and there’s no part of my body that isn’t sore, even with really, really light weights. But we’ll see what happens.


In National Lampoon’s Vacation, there’s a moment in the movie when the Griswold family discovers that Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) has kicked the bucket in the backseat of the family car. Clark Griswold slams on the brakes and they all exit pretty rapidly (not Aunt Edna).

I’ve mentioned this before over the years, but that scene was filmed at the exact spot in Sedona, Arizona, where I got married. You can see some of the scenery in the first few seconds of this clip:


So I sort of have a soft spot for this dumb movie.

We got married overlooking the red rocks 27 years ago, July 30, 1983. It was a word-of-mouth wedding; no invitations were sent, although a surprising amount of friends and family showed up. And no aunts died, which is always good.

I have nothing particularly romantic to say in this space today, although I’m a romantic guy. It’s been a busy week, and today is a busy day; our plan is to spread our anniversary over the next few days, actually, with meals and movies, pretending that we’ve actually gotten away by ourselves, something that has almost never happens. This is anniversary via improvisation, a casual way to mark something that is not, in fact, casual at all. Not 27 years. Not these 27 years.

But this occurred to me this morning.

I’m constantly tweaking my life these days. It’s just something I do, trying to keep busy, trying to improve, trying to get healthier, maybe, or saner (more likely). It’s part of my profile, something everyone who knows me understands and tolerates. So it’s no surprise for me to start a new routine, even one as weird as weight lifting.

As I say, it’s about improvement. I have plenty of motivation.

I just realized that inspiration comes in all sorts of ways, and sometimes there are just people who make you want to be a better person, and sometimes you marry them, and sometimes you ought to think about that.

(Julie and I help my grandmother celebrate her 73rd birthday, the day we got married)

If you’re interested in what we looked like that summer, and what we did for a living, here’s a little compilation from our dinner theater show. Yes, it’s almost unbearably sentimental that we sang, “I Remember It Well,” knowing we would.

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The Iceman Cometh

A column mostly about ice cream. A little about Elvis.

I’m not a snob, either.  Give me a bottom-shelf, store-brand ice cream made mostly with air and I’ll still have something nice to say about it.  But get me within tongue distance of something in the gourmet category, made with lots of egg yolks and vanilla bean and cream from a cow in a good mood and I’m lost, blissful and incapable of making a good decision.  This would be the time to ask me to help you move or sell me an extended warranty; I’ve gone to another place.  A cold, sweet place.

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52 Pickup

A Canadian couple in their 40s decide to drive down from British Columbia to spend a few days in the States, get a break from the kids, enjoy the weather, do something different. Maybe taking advantage of their alone time, the conversation turns to aging. Stopping at a McDonald’s on their way home, they pick up a newspaper and read this column.

So I get a nice email from northern neighbors, a little stranger-to-stranger contact, and even though this happens regularly it always lifts my spirits. And reinforces my place on this planet — I write things people read when they’re on their way to do something else. This is about as low-stress a job as I could ask for, and fun. Happy birthday to me.

Thanks, we wish you well and are glad you are alive,” this woman wrote, riffing on my subject matter but still. The sentiment is appreciated, and I’m glad too, glad to be here and glad for thoughtful people who take the time to drop me a line, glad for all the Facebook folks who sent their wishes this morning, glad for my wife who got giggly last night (“It’s your birthday eve!”), glad I wrapped up loose ends so I could pretend today is a national holiday, and I can do whatever I want.

And glad for the weather, which is very nice, warm, dry and sunny. This is statistically the safest time of year for a picnic or a barbecue, no rain in sight, but I’ll just take it as another gift.

There are lots of those, but I’m practicing brevity these days, so I’ll mention just one. And then I’ll put on my shoes and head out into the sun.

Like a lot of people who found themselves trapped in a dark room, knowing how they got there, surprised all the same, and absolutely baffled on how to get out, I got some solace and eventually even serenity by a particular discipline. I took steps, in other words, every day, to sort through the craziness. I had lots of help.

And for a long time, I’d wake up and think, Today I start over. Today is new. Today I begin again.

Very conventional, cliché. Simple. Start over. One day at a time.

And yet here we are, four years later, and I’m a proud member of the reality-based community. I know that life moves in only one direction. I know that writing new pages won’t erase the old ones. I know I’ve left bread crumbs on the trail, and certain monsters like to follow us. I can’t think at the moment of a single bad thing in my life, major bad or minor, that’s been out of my hands, unable to be averted or at least minimized if I’d at least made a few better decisions. You’re all off the hook.

So I know I’m different. I know I’ve grown, better in some ways, worse in others, and older in all. I may use shorthand for complex ideas, and I might wallow in the clichés a bit because it’s easy to do, but brass tacks? I know I don’t start over every day.

But I start something.

And the fun part of my life, these days, is figuring out what that something is going to be. Like today, my 52nd birthday. Happy to be here, happy to have been, and happy to feel like, for the first time in a very long while, I’m actually playing with a full deck.

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July 22

There’s not a morbid bone in my body, you know. Creaky bones, but nothing dark. I don’t dwell, at least not these days.

But it has crossed my mind that this may be the last summer for Strider, our Sheltie. Hard to say; he’s a mid-size dog, with statistically a longer lifespan than a Great Dane but less than a dinky dog, and now he’s 14 or maybe 13 (really, I can’t remember). That’s a senior citizen dog any way you look at it, and he’s pretty creaky himself. He has trouble getting up when he lies down, and he lies down a lot. He rarely barks when anyone leaves the house, which used to be his main job; now, he just observes. Go on, you kids have fun, I’ll just stay and examine the carpet and watch for…zzz.

There’s nothing I can do about Strider’s last summer, and as I say I don’t dwell. But maybe it’s bled over a little into my life, or maybe it was just our cloudier-than-usual winter and spring. I am hoarding my hours in the sun, at any rate, barely resisting the urge to roll in the grass.

It drove me crazy to spend all those hours digging holes in my yard, then, since there are a million other things to be done outside. And yesterday I did some of them, and I knew exactly why I was.

I weed whacked, mowed, did my little quixotic dance with the blackberry vines, stacked the residual lumber from my former deck that gravity and I, always partners, took down a while back. I strung out 200 feet of extension cord and used it all, greeting all the corners of my yard again after a long winter. I made a mental list of other chores, dreamed about a new deck a little, got my shoes dirty and didn’t finish anything, not really.

I dug up ghosts, always here in a yard that’s seen my family through 22 years now. There’s the tree my father-in-law planted in 1989. There’s the swing set debris, stuck in a corner of the yard to be hauled off and then ignored. There’s the sandbox, now completely covered by brush, a job for Indiana Jones, not me.

I found a yellow Tonka truck, left one day under our old deck by a little boy who lost interest. Which day? I wondered. The day he played with it in the dirt, came inside for dinner and never looked for it again, I guess.

We never know about those days, or which summer is our last, or the best ever, or the worst, which is why I ignore morbidity but appreciate mortality. Quixotic is not a bad way to be in the summer. I know the blackberries will keep growing, and I will keep fighting, and the whole thing somehow makes sense.


Tom Robbins is 74 today (he claims 77). If I wanted to drive an hour or so north, I could probably find him and say happy birthday. Let’s all read Another Roadside Attraction instead.


My Own Private July is now available for instant reading, amazing.

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July 21







Pipe repaired, at least for now. Sore knees. Running water. Trivial things, really.

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July 20

I know a lot more about plumbing than I used to. Electricity, which can kill you quicker, somehow seemed easier to grasp in terms of home maintenance than pipes. Because you can get wet with plumbing, and nobody likes that.

I know more because I’ve had a problem, and because I’m working with a plumber who’s friendly and casually tosses out information that he knows I don’t know, but not in a way to make me feel inferior for not knowing. Do you know? Maybe you don’t. I didn’t and I do, now.

And I know, partly, because I’ve done the reading. You can find out a lot online, and particularly by reading the stories of people who, like me, didn’t know. At first.

So, on the good chance that someone will search for this particular problem and find me, even though I do absolutely no SEO with this site, here’s a very brief explanation and update.

In the picture above, the A is my house. The red squiggly line is a rough approximation of my main water line. The blue line represents the fence that surrounds my neighbor’s yard, in front of me. The red X is where, a while ago, I noticed some soggy sod.

Right off, this might be different from your situation, since instead of 25-50 feet, my water main runs a good 200-250 feet from my house. This will be important later on, to me.

This, incidentally, seems to be a fairly recent satellite photo, since once we discovered the wet spot I took to parking my white van in that area of the yard, to discourage visitors from parking there and sinking into Argentina the Indian Ocean.

So I started digging, in fits and starts, hoping that the leak I was experiencing was on my side of the fence. It wasn’t, as it turned out, and in fact my neighbor was bearing the brunt of all that water. I just had a little puddle; he had a very soggy backyard.

Yesterday, then, another neighbor and I took down some of the fence and kept digging. Sure enough, we found the water pipe. And we found it in a very common way, by which I mean my neighbor struck it with a shovel and got the usual reaction from the pipe.

As I said, you can get wet.

So now there are TWO leaks.

This would actually be minor, except that in the world of pipe material, up here there are two pretty standard kinds. One is a black PVC. The other is referred to as “the blue crap.” The blue crap is very flexible. Also, it breaks. A lot. There was a class action suit in the mid-1980s. Lawyers got rich. Et cetera.

The blue crap is almost impossible to fix, since once it starts to crack it keeps cracking. There are temporary measures, but they won’t last. The whole line will have to be replaced sooner than later. It will be expensive.

That’s where we are. The original leak, actually, hasn’t been uncovered yet, but I know pretty much where it is and I’ll finish that excavation today. There are other utilities down there and it’s tricky. In the meantime, I’m running a hose from my neighbor’s bib to mine, borrowing water temporarily to flush toilets and wash mud off my body.

Lessons learned? Shovels can be dangerous. Plumbing is messy. And fences do not make good neighbors, don’t believe it.


Keeping with the birthday theme, now.


2003 – The Boys of Summer

I turn 45 this week, and I’ve learned something recently. At 45, you can’t really fool yourself into pretending you’re still somewhere around 30, because you’re not. At 45, it turns out you’re exactly midway between 40 and another place that I’m not going to talk about.

I learned this because last weekend, my friend Dave and I spent the first 10 minutes of our annual road trip talking about our teeth.

Even a year ago, I couldn’t have imagined spending even five minutes on dental issues, but we were just getting warmed up when we mutually agreed to stop because it was freaking us out. Talk about lower back pain and bladder problems seemed just around the corner, and we wanted to play loud music and laugh and party like we were young, and maybe take a nap in the afternoon.

Although we did have a brief conversation about vasectomies. That’s OK, because after a few minutes of that you really want to talk about something else, anyway.

Dave is three months younger and about an inch taller, just as he was when we met 30 years ago in the hallway at our high school and I made fun of his hat.

It actually was probably a very “cool” hat, or “hip” or maybe “the cat’s pajamas” (I can’t remember how we talked in high school, so I get confused. We said “far out” a lot as I recall). It was black with a wide brim, though, so I took to calling him “Zorro” and he didn’t seem to mind as long as he sensed, you know, some respect for the hat.

Sarcasm seems a strange way to start a relationship, but 30 is a long time in friend years so there must have been something. If you were to graph our separate tastes and interests, the lines would intersect only briefly. He’d no more go to church or a baseball game than I’d spend 8 hours watching European spy films, but we share a common history. We remember old girlfriends, apartments and jobs, weddings and promotions and one particular night that we rarely talk about because neither of us can really remember it, but I think we were 19 and it involved a case of beer.

We didn’t pass through Portland this year but stayed there, meeting Bill and all three of us getting rooms with balconies on the banks of the Columbia River. We’ve done this for years, getting away for a summer weekend with old friends, but this one was the best, for various, circumstantial reasons. Things just went our way.

We had our usual close encounters with waitresses. Every year, there are waitresses who flirt, joke, or insult us, and sometimes all three. We got a trifecta this year, and it just felt right.

We are a motley band of brothers but we’re a band, and we walked through the market and downtown, to the waterfront and back, finding a good parking spot and a great Irish pub, accidentally running into a parade with bagpipes and discovering a place to stay next year, when we’ll do it all over again.

My brother says he looks forward to these trips to remember how to laugh, and that’s a good enough reason for me. I laughed all weekend, mostly at how fortunate we were to be there, to be having fun, and to find what we were looking for, even if we were a little unsure of what it was until we found it. We should have bought lottery tickets; it was our weekend.

I’ve written about these trips with the boys before, and more than one guy I know has expressed, sort of wistfully, that he’d like to come along, even knowing the dynamics wouldn’t be the same. I guess it does seem a little strange, middle-aged men heading out of town with no real destination, no salmon fishing or off-road racing or kayaking to do.

We just pass the time with familiar faces, as time passes us, and we comment on that and other facts of life, but mostly we just remember how to laugh.

Dave got a new hat on this trip, as did Bill. I got new shorts and some socks. We all got sunburns. We went to bed before midnight and brushed after every meal.

One minute after we headed for home we were back in Washington, which made me laugh again. We wanted to go someplace else, but as soon as we got there we stopped. That was far enough. The whole trip, in fact, was far out, which was something we used to say a long time ago, when we were really boys, when friendships were forged, and when the last thing on our minds was teeth.

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July 19

I’ll take a thematic break here, although there will be a theme. There almost always is.

I finished a birthday column today. This is always summer column fodder, another year older, another something something, etc. Gives me something to write about, which would of course be me, as I mentioned the other day. Something I slowly know something about.

And as I finished this piece, and sort of reflected on the annual tradition of it, I started to wonder about that. Did I really do this? I mean, write about my birthday every year? Should I be embarrassed about that? And what are the differences, over a decade, in my perceptions about aging and turning the calendar pages?

Yes. To all of the above, or at least the above that could be answered realistically with “yes.”

So I’m going to haul these out, over the next week, dust them off and see if I’ve learned anything, see if it means anything, see what happens. Something we can all share, even though it’s all about ME, always is, always has been. Of course.


2002 — Do Not Pass “Go”

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly at 4:30 a.m. on your 44th birthday. The prednisone tablet is small and thin, but if I let it linger on my tongue more than half a second I’m tasting it the rest of the morning. A reminder, and happy birthday to me. Not that I’m depressed.

Prednisone is strong medicine, intended to speed healing to muscles that have gotten irritated and aren’t going to take it anymore. I saw a doctor at the walk-in clinic after suffering (not in silence either, not me) for a few days. I described how the pain started in my shoulder and then wandered down the outside of my arm, stopping to dance a bit at my elbow and making me wonder if I really needed an elbow all that much anyway, and then proceeded down to my hand, where it made my fingers jump from time to time. Sometimes my whole hand would jerk and flutter involuntarily and I’d watch it flap around, feeling like an interior decorator making a big presentation.

My regular doctor was booked up, which was probably a good thing as she would have just laughed at me. She does that a lot; it’s a style thing, a casualness that I appreciate, but this was big-time pain and this guy was serious about it. He probed and took me through different positions, and then announced that it was probably my neck.

I was ignorant enough to think that if my shoulder hurt, it was a shoulder problem, but he mentioned referred pain and spastic rhomboids so I kept my mouth shut. He gave me prescriptions for the prednisone along with a muscle relaxant and a pain medication, so my birthday started with a steroid jolt and then a loosey-goosey feeling in my arms and legs, and finally a narcotic fuzz that lasted through the day. Birthdays used to be better than this.

I didn’t tell the doctor about the Monopoly game. He seemed in a hurry and it would have been awkward anyway. My son got this “Star Trek” version of Monopoly, where you buy starships instead of hotels and Park Place is some weird planet and your pieces are aliens (I think one of them was a Spastic Rhomboid, come to think of it). You still went to Jail and passed Go, though, and I did a lot of reaching across the table to move and that was probably it.

I saw a woman once wearing a tee shirt that said, “Oh, no. I’m 40 and I forgot to have a baby!” There are no instructions for creeping into middle age but we expect them to be there, and then when they’re not we realize we’ve missed some stuff. Wasn’t there something about flossing? I vaguely remember comments about stretching and dollar cost averaging and not voting for Democrats, but I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I was 22 yesterday, after all, and the chances of being 44 seemed pretty remote. Now, suddenly, I’m here and I realize that optimistically half my life is over, gone, kaput, and I’ve yet to write a novel or see Spain and I have to use caution with board games.

“The great thing about getting older,” author Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” This is true, I think, but there’s still a lot of condescension to deal with. A friend of mine once said that getting older meant always imagining your 14-year-old self standing over your shoulder, smirking and disappointed at how you turned out.

On the other hand, when I was 14 I was trying to make the freshman football team and my greatest desire was to gain weight. So maybe I’m OK.

Oh, it’s just another birthday, and I’m optimistic enough to dream that I can reverse the years of sedentary life. Maybe you’ll see me out there, along the side of the road, jogging so slowly that squirrels are rolling on the ground, holding their stomachs as they laugh at the image. I’ll be wearing baggy sweat pants and a tee shirt that says, “Oh, no. I’m 44 and I forgot to exercise!” I’ll be breathing hard. My hand may be doing a little dance.

But give me some room. Acknowledge my effort. Envision my potential. Have some pity.

Or, better yet, just run me over. You might be doing us all a favor, sparing us the sight of one more middle-aged man trying to reclaim his youth and his thin thighs. I had my chance, after all, and I could have flossed if I’d really wanted to. It’s all about choices, and if you land on Park Place you need to buy it then. Passing Go is never guaranteed. Not that I’m depressed.


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July 18

For someone who writes the sort of things I write, the threshold for at least the appearance of narcissism was passed a long time ago. This is curious, since I like to think I’m a reflective guy and by now pretty much on target as to where I stand in the universe, and overall I see a pretty unremarkable life. Pedestrian at least, boring if you want to be blunt. And still I write about myself. Because I’m handy, you see. I never leave me.

I have a birthday in a week, which is another excuse for reflection that I never miss, although the last few have been a lot of fun. I like the idea that this planet has completed a revolution of the sun and I’ve managed to hang on for the ride.

Also for the last few years, I’ve been trying to come up with a unified theory of aging, although with no luck. Are we just repeating the same steps? Is the world different? Is my generation – which I really, really like to believe – actually Benjamin Buttoning, getting younger in a relative sense as our ages head north? Is this a linear process or an exponential one?

And that’s as far as I get. This is what I call the Gödel, Escher, Bach phenomenon, a much more reliable indicator of intelligence, in my opinion, than any IQ test. How far, no matter how many times you’ve tried, you’ve managed to read Mr. Hofstadter’s book before giving up will pretty much tell you how many big ideas your brain is able to hold, and I’ve never made it very far.


I do wonder sometimes, speaking of exponential growth, if the world has become one big example of Moore’s Law, with change doubling constantly until we’ve lost track of where we fit in. Particularly where soon-to-be 52-year-olds fit in.

Moore’s Law was described by Gordon Moore, who wrote about it in a 1965 paper, noting that the number of transistors that could be placed on an integrated circuit (which was invented in 1958! Year of my birth! Coherence!) had doubled approximately every 2 years. And has continued to double, by the way, which maybe is why our remote controls are so confusing.

The co-inventor of the integrated circuit was Robert Noyce, who worked with Moore at Fairchild Semiconductor. When these two braniacs left to form their own company in 1968, they decided (save your narcissism comments) to call it Moore Noyce. And then they had a problem. An Escher problem, maybe, or Bach-ish.

Moore Noyce. Say it fast. Or, say it slow. It still sounds like “more noise.”

So instead they just called it NM Electronics, then changed that to Integrated Electronics. Then shortened that to Intel.

Which was founded on July 18, 1968. Coherence, as I say.

I’m going to try to read that book again. Really.

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July 17

Since I seem to be in a catchphrase mode lately, today is a good day to explore the E-ticket ride.

Which we still hear, occasionally, like “the best thing since sliced bread.” This happens; etymology gets lost and all that remains is a phrase that should, I’m guessing, be incomprehensible to a lot of people without the desire to use their Wikipedia bookmark.

The story, for you kids, is that Disneyland used to charge an admission and then sold coupon books, which were originally labeled A, B and C. People called these tickets, not coupons, as people will do, and the further along in the alphabet, the fancier the ride. Eventually they added D and then E. An E-ticket ride, then, was for the more elaborate, popular attractions.

These were phased out in the early 1980s, but they linger. Anyway.

Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, with a big televised opening featuring the old reliable pitchman, Ronnie Reagan.


My default mode is to manage stress; this is a learned behavior, self preservation and necessary. It became my primary focus several years ago and it’s always on my mind. Stress kills.

So I’m generally a calm guy. No road rage. No screaming. No sleepless nights, usually. What will happen will happen regardless of what my blood pressure does, so I concentrate on changing what I can and trying to be oblivious to that which I can’t. Working so far.

But this week has been a challenge. Once an hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a theoretical person in this household takes a shower. We’re not nearly that clean, but that’s the amount of water that’s being used, flowing out through a hole in my water main that I CAN’T FIND.

This is not a dumb as it sounds, although mistakes have been made. Mostly, though, it’s a big yard, even though supposedly I’ve been scientifically instructed on where the leak is. And it’s uncomfortably close to the property line between me and my neighbor, and smack dab on that property line is a serious fence (not a light-hearted fence).

And then there’s the time factor, with other things I have to do, and a plumber who was supposed to come and got caught up in other work for a couple of days, and my other neighbor who’s giving me helpful suggestions, and the water company with their helpful suggestions, and my back and always the DRIPDRIPDRIP.

So more digging today. Yesterday I blew it off, having reached sort of an apex of little sleep and soreness and, of course, stress. This will get fixed. The question now is whether I have to take down sections of my neighbor’s fence and swaths of his yard, and if and when this plumber is ever going to get here.

But my stress is manageable, no fears. And some theoretical person is very, very clean.

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July 16

During one of his stints as a pilot in the military, I believe (off the top of my head, good luck with my memory) during the Korean War, baseball legend Ted Williams was the wingman and his squad leader was the craziest pilot he’d ever run across, a daredevil, a risk taker, a wild man in the sky. Just one of those funny stories.

This was John Glenn, who got as famous as Ted Williams, although the wild side got sort of airbrushed out and he became the face of The American Hero, a straight-arrow Marine who went on to be the first American to orbit the earth, and eventually the oldest man (77) to go into space.

I mentioned Glenn in my column this week, musing on my awe of astronauts, nurtured as a kid and still alive and well. He’s got a birthday on Sunday, as it turns out, his 89th, and today is the anniversary of his 1957 crosscountry supersonic flight, California to New York in 3 hours, 23 minutes and 8 seconds, a transcontinental speed record. As I said in the column, there are just certain people in this life that would tie my tongue were I fortunate enough to run across them, and Glenn is one.


Lots to say, but my hole calls me.

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