Mary and Madelynne

(My cousin Jay has a birthday today. While I was musing over the unfairness of it all, how he’s 10 years younger and still has a little girl at home, I started doing some calculations to figure out how old she is now. Eight, as it turns out, just barely, easy enough to determine since I wrote this column when she was born. And just felt like posting it again. Eight years suddenly feels like a long time.)

We’re allowed to wander during weddings. There’s a bit of a liturgical license to think about other things, because we know what’s going to happen. There will be rings, and a kiss, and possibly an open bar at the reception.

This is part of the joy in our traditions and rituals, the comfort of familiar words and symbols. We can float in and out, absorbing the sight and at the same time marveling at how blue the Sound looks in the background.

I had several things on my mind, then, this past Saturday, when I watched Mary get married.

Mary Eidbo is my one of daughter’s oldest friends, and she’s been a presence in my home for years. Since we don’t actually allow most people to come inside, you know she’s special.

So I was thinking of different things. Watching Marty Eidbo walk her down the aisle and fight emotions as he gave an eloquent fatherly speech, I thought a lot about the merits of daughters just eloping.

Rev. Mark Smith performed the ceremony, and I found myself remembering when he baptized my children, so many years ago.

I thought about the beauty of the day and of my wife and daughter, as they sang together. The bride looked stunning and so did the sky. I wondered about sunscreen.

And, on this day of beginnings, I thought about Madelynne.

Madelynne Martin was born the morning of Mary’s wedding, across the country in the other Washington. She is my second cousin, 45 years my junior and firstborn to Jay and Angela.

Jay is the son of my mother’s sister, making him my cousin technically and my little brother in all other senses. Ten years younger than I, born three weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in the summer of 1968, Jay has always been one of my favorite people.

So I rejoiced a bit at the news that he was a father this Saturday, and as I watched young people get married I also thought about a little girl, born in her nation’s capitol at the beginning of a new century. And I imagined.

She will know nothing of an analog world. Camera film and rotary dial phones will be relics, museum pieces. Her entire life will be videotaped.

She will be the class of 2021, and the Twenties will be her 20s.

The first U.S. President she is really aware of will be elected in 2016. Somewhere along the line, at least one of them will be a woman, jettisoning that particular bugaboo once and for all.

When she is in her 30s, Bill Clinton will be buried, probably yapping to the end, charming and infuriating, the last president of the 20th century.

At 42, she will mark with others the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the last time a nuclear weapon was used in anger. She will be grateful.

When she’s 50, Keanu Reeves will get a Lifetime Achievement award at the Oscar ceremony, mostly because he outlived Matt Damon. “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” will be incomprehensible to her.

George Carlin will not ring a bell, or Bob Hope. Jerry Seinfeld will mean nothing to her, and Jay Leno will be an encyclopedia entry.

Jack Benny and Sid Caesar will be remembered as giants.

The New York Yankees will move to Minnesota and fade away, the Seattle Mariners will win 20 straight World Series, and in 2048 Edgar Martinez will be the first octogenarian to hit 30 doubles and 100 RBIs in a single season.

I’m just making stuff up now.

Maybe her parents will write down what was happening in the world when she was born. Iraq. Globalization. New diseases. Strange weather.

Maybe they’ll mention that she entered this world as Katharine Hepburn left it, 96 years young.

And if she takes care of herself, eats her vegetables and crosses with the light, when she’s 96 Madelynne will see a new century turn.

Our world will be dust then, but it welcomes you today, Madelynne Martin, 7 pounds, 3 ounces. We’ve given you most of a century to play with, so you go, girl.

I’m just a remote relative, stuck up here in my little corner of the country. I think it’s unlikely I will play any part in your life, or even that you will quite understand who I am.

But, when you’re a grown woman and I’m an old man, and you’re a little curious about the day you were born, feel free to look me up. I will remember.

It was a beautiful day up here, sunny and warm, and Puget Sound was bright and blue. I stood in the sun and toasted not only a marriage but also a birth, long ago when the century and you were new.

(June 2003, Beacon Publishing and The World According to Chuck)

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Flirting With Ms. Pandora

I’ve been working hard, an anomaly in the past few months, although I guess you could make a case for something more systemic if you looked at the big picture.  Be my guest.

But scrambling for assignments and paychecks since late winter left me unorganized and at the whim of worst impulses, which at this point in my life are not all that bad.  I wandered a lot.  I got sucked into a primetime soap opera that kept me streaming multiple episodes until I could just finish the stupid thing, some hours spent there.  I sent out queries, wrote some chapters, cleaned some counters, tried not to look at my bank account, and gave my wife a heart attack.  Sheesh.

So I’m glad to have some work, even if a heavy week has left me with some aching back muscles, a bizarre sleeping schedule (hello? Awake at 4am), and an urge to bring a bunch of imaginary blog readers up to speed on my uninteresting life.  Proceed with caution, I think; once I start it might be hard to stop.

Still, there has been some fun (noncardiac) news.  My daughter got all her ducks lined up for graduate school, something that charms me to no end.  This is a weird world but I do believe it’s important to keep swimming, and I like the way this has worked out.

And John, after spending three post-high school years still hanging with the school system, trying to grab every ounce of attention he could get from special education professionals before they kicked him out at age 21, wrapped it all up with a diploma. The secret to this system is that they’ll let these kids stick around with special classes and help, but only as long as they don’t actually accumulate the credits to be an official graduate.  John didn’t have those credits anyway three years ago, but everyone did a nicely orchestrated bureaucratic dance to keep him just behind the finish line until his time was up.

So that was nice, a moment at different times we never saw coming, a teacher handing him a high school diploma, even a tardy one.  I think he wasn’t so much thrilled as relieved. I was thrilled for both of us.

See what I mean? I open the box a little, I could just keep going.

John’s ceremony provoked me, because all my photographic gadgets failed me at once. My daughter also provoked me, a little, so that some idle thoughts about maybe upgrading to an iPhone, with its spectacular camera/video and just overall technomagic, grew a little more active until I walked into the Verizon store last Friday and got one. In the world of phone upgrading I was way overdue, and so this came cheap once I got over some cheapness of my own.  I’ve had fun with it, even as busy as I’ve been, which I wrote about this week.  You can read that.

And speaking of pictures…Julie and I tried to help out the youth group at St. Andrew, who were preparing to go on a summer mission trip and needed funds.  A quick variety show was planned, right in our comfort zone, and while I did some emcee work I also got persuaded to sing a duet with my lovely wife, something that hasn’t happened this side of our living room in nearly 30 years.  I wrote about that here.

We sang “They Were You” from The Fantastiks, which you can sort of listen to here (I think; also, it’s a partial audio grab and splits in the middle). That went fine, no huge mistakes, lots of fun, but the night also provided some photos that tweaked my vanity.

Seeing another picture, four years ago this summer, got me in the mood to step on the scale, wondering just exactly how fat I’d become officially.  Officially?  272.  Yikes.  So I got motivated, and by the end of the year I’d managed to level down to 187, a good place to be for a guy my size approaching 50.  By the next summer I was in the low 170s, and by the next summer, the stressful/joyful one with a road trip and a wedding, I got on the scale one day and saw 168.  High school weight.  Fun fun.

Another year went by, and I started creeping toward 190 again.  No sweat, never thought about it much.

And then brain tumor and surgery, and then some John stuff, and then some job stuff, and then some heart attack stuff, and then a lot of late-night comfort/stress eating stuff, and that number started looking a lot like 208.  Again.  This is not alarming at all, and I knew exactly what was happening and why, but I didn’t care for the photos (and the jawline).

So we’re doing that again, iPhone apps in hand, trying to knock that particular number down a bit.  Not a big deal.  Just another item in the box.

This, though, is a big deal: Nine years after graduating seminary, 13 years after starting, it looks like my wife will finally be ordained next month as a Presbyterian minister of Word and Sacrament. It’s a strange thing to explain, to both non-churchy people but even to mainstream Protestants of different denominations, and I’m too laymanish to do it justice, but in brief:

Finish school, get your Masters of Divinity, pass your ordination exams.  Greek and everything.  And then you wait for a job.  And a job is a “call” from a particular congregation, an involved and serious process, in which the candidates put their stuff out there, churches look it over, call in people for interviews, talk a lot, probably pray some, etc.  Hopefully you find a match at some point, sooner than later.

With some special circumstances (i.e., it would have been difficult for us to leave the area, mostly because of John), this got more complicated. The Puget Sound is actually a desirous area, with few positions and lots of candidates, and eventually she moved on, took a teaching job at Seattle Pacific University and did her best to be an adjunct minister/pastor/preacher.

Lacking ordination, of course, which might seem technical but is important on more than a few levels, and I could find a bunch of analogies.  Like graduating medical school, passing certification boards, getting that nice “M.D.” behind your name but no “Dr.” in front of it until you actually get a permanent job. Sure, you can fill in at walk-in clinics and for vacationing physicians, but you’re not part of the team, really, until you’re actually…part…of  the team.  And you’re limited in what you can do.  You can take a history, say, but not a temperature.

In other words, she couldn’t do certain sacramental things, like perform marriage or preside over the communion table, something hugely important to her (and me), so this is so very nice. There shall be an ordination ceremony and probably a preordination ceremony and definitely some sort of postordination bash, and all will rejoice as Julie Kae becomes an associate pastor at St. Andrew and I become an associate pastor husband, holier by association, which is the way it’s always been, actually.  Hang out with holiness enough, you might actually learn something.

You might gain some weight.  Could be something else.  Probably there’s an app.

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What Dreams May Come

My son is 21, stands 6’4 and 250 pounds. Those times we go shopping together, less frequent now, we play a game in which I get him to pretend he’s my bodyguard. He’s prepared to tackle any crazy lady who wants to pry that Walla Walla from my cold, dead basket. Never happens but we laugh. He’s a big guy.

And still I dream in these situations. He’s attending a two-week workshop, starting today, run by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, trying to help him with a job. Putting my son in a room with strangers for 7 hours every day is pretty much like setting his hair on fire, but he guts up and we’ll see. He wants to keep moving and he’s made so much progress, but I know who he is and so I have these dreams.

They’re standard issue, these dreams. Boilerplate subconscious. He slips out of my grip, runs into a crowded street or mall, disappears around a corner. I lose him, I always lose him, and I wake up wondering. Dreams.

I’ve got so many of his medical records on my hard drive, scanned and PDF-ed and backed to the cloud, handy for all sorts of reasons and at all sorts of times, but sometimes I just read. These begin when he was 4 years old, that’s how early we started finding specialists, and from the get-go they’re all serious. No overanxious parents crawl out of these reports; something is always wrong, different, diagnosed, speculated about. The list of medications and therapies over the years makes it hard for me to breathe, reading. Lots of brain tweaking was tried, some of it very effective, some of it making things worse.

I read the most recent ones, in which specialists and attorneys and social workers collate and abstract his life so far. There’s very little optimism, although sometimes you won’t see that in clinical reports. Everyone says he’s been given a raw deal by life and needs help, and probably always will.

The grace notes, though, also clinical and statistical, shine some light. He’s been tested over and over, as hard as it is for him to sit still, and he remains in the same place, 99th percentile in overall intelligence. He’s smarter than pretty much everyone.

And there’s the rub. He knows. He knows not only who he is and where he stands, but what he could have been, maybe, if there’d been just a little genetic fairness. Don’t we wish. It makes for hard days.

Mostly, though, he has jokes. “I’m AUTISTIC here!” he says. “Sorry, ADHD” he’ll say at other times, or, “Little OCD there,” and I’m, like, dude. Do you know how many people casually throw out that stuff and don’t have actual diagnoses sitting on my hard drive? A lot, I’m thinking. People are casual.

Humor is also a grace note, though, as is a natural affinity for his fellow humans, as strange as they appear through his eyes at times. John loves most people, and damn near everyone loves John, as odd as he is. I notice this.

“You’re surrounded by an aura of goodness,” I tell him, and he raises an eyebrow.

“So I’d better take a shower,” he says. We laugh, as I said.

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The Vice Grip

I lusted after a new phone all day yesterday, but I’m so over that now. You have to let these things play out.

It’s rare lately that I have these little toy urges. Mostly I handle them by cleaning junk off my computer. Or maybe junk off the kitchen table. I think it’s more of a desire to be more organized than anything.

And I’m grateful I don’t have this sort of longing that involves buying cars. You can get into serious trouble that way.

I was out walking, though, in what appeared suspiciously like sunshine and warmth, and I realized I’d forgotten my phone. Not a big deal; I don’t wander that far from home and no one calls me anyway, but I started thinking about how convenient it would be if my iPod, which I never forget, had a phone built in.

There is such an iPod, which you may or may not know.

The problem with getting an iPhone, which I know is an amazing piece of technology, is that it would require buying a data pack every month for about 30 bucks. This seems a no-brainer to most people; the advantage of having a smart phone is that you can check your email, scoot through Facebook while you’re waiting for coffee, etc.

But I work at home and have very little use for any of this, so it’s a deal breaker. I also have very little use for a phone, but sometimes they come in handy.

I did try to justify, rationalize and deceive myself for a few hours, which is actually the whole point here.

I have rusty skills in a whole lot of areas, and nonexistent ones in others, but my ability to sift through the consequences of a particular plan of action seems to be alive and well, and no wonder: I have to do it a lot, and five years of daily use has given me a handle on the whole thing.

Statistically, there seems to be a fair subset of people who’ve had problems with compulsive behavior, from drugs and booze to gambling, eating, sex, etc., who have patterns of risk-taking behavior (aside from the obvious, I mean). There’s no enough data to be all that meaningful, but it’s not hard to draw some intuitive conclusions.

This would not describe me, you would think. I’m a scaredy-cat by nature, very cautious and conservative. I’ve stuck my neck out but I can count those times on my fingers. Mostly I’m pretty careful.

But it occurred to me yesterday that behavior may be beside the point to some extent. So I didn’t go bungee jumping or drive drunk or have unsafe sex or pick fights with Billy Bob. The thinking might actually be the same: What happens today has no effect on what will take place tomorrow, because tomorrow is hard to pin down. Intellectually, sure, but psychologically, emotionally, philosophically and spiritually? Tomorrow can seem awfully foggy to certain people, and by that I mean me, once.

Some alcoholics refer to thinking through the drink, visualizing the process step by step until you can see its obvious and sad ending. Again, this is something that maybe normal people do without having to watch the wheels turn, but I’m not quite normal.

At any rate, I’m done with the pining. I did, in fact, tweak my computer a little. I watched some episodes of Sports Night on Netflix. I confirmed some new writing assignments, which is a pleasant thing in these expensive days. And I practiced thinking about tomorrow, which doesn’t come naturally but somehow always seems to come anyway.

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Begin To Commence Now

NOTE: Since my column has been mysteriously absent from the online version of the papers recently (although alive and well in the dead tree versions), I’m posting here. Sigh. Have to do everything myself.
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“It’s not how well the bear dances,” the Russian proverb says, “but that the bear dances at all.”

I mention this because dancing bears are fun to think about, and also as sort of an object lesson in creative laziness. Starting a column, essay, blog post, speech or toast with a proverb or quote automatically tells your audience that you got stuck for an opening. I’m just saying.

I also bring up Mr. Bear because this proverb is how I begin all my graduation speeches, a theoretical exercise since I’ve yet to be asked to make one. It’s that time of year, though, when thoughts turn to passages, congratulations, emotional moments and the awareness that summer doesn’t begin for another 6 weeks or so up here. We have time, in other words. Let’s move on with the advice giving to graduates.

The dancing bear is actually useful here, so let’s start with that. Commencement speakers vary but tend to stick with a familiar theme, which involves accomplishment, following dreams, hard work, relationships, something from some Greek philosopher, a couple of jokes, a little riff on how “commencement” means “beginning,” and maybe some advice on always having a designated driver.

Our bear up there is all about surprises, though, and how they come about by trying new things. Or, to further demonstrate my laziness, I quote from Dr. Dean Simonton, a professor of psychology, who said, “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” This is really a smarty-pants way of saying that in order to produce something worthwhile, you first have to churn out a lot of stuff, much of it possibly really bad stuff. Failure can be a character builder, but trying is transformational. Don’t hesitate to try; nothing is quite as much fun as surprising yourself.

I grabbed the Simonton quote, which I like a lot, from a magazine article by Malcolm Gladwell, so here’s another piece of advice: Steal from the best. Life is a collaborative effort, and none of us are isolated and the sole creators of ourselves, so look for the best people, the smartest and most accomplished, and steal from them.

A corollary to the above: Offer attribution as often as possible, including (and especially) to your parents and teachers. They will probably be responsible for most of you.

Be the one who cleans the coffeemaker. It doesn’t take much time and the benefits are immense.

Form opinions on a wide variety of matters and then challenge them often. Understand that whatever your thoughts on a subject, there is someone else who is smarter, more experienced and better educated about that subject who disagrees with you completely. There is also someone so dumb you marvel that their brain produces enough energy for ambulation who completely shares your beliefs.

Also, any subject that prompts you to quote a dictionary definition is probably something you should study more before offering an opinion.

Polite people lock the bathroom door and close the curtains at night, not so much because they’re afraid of being caught in their underwear but because they don’t want to embarrass someone else. It might surprise you how easy it is to make a decision about what you do and how you present yourself, including how loud you play music, once you think of other people.

Find something sacred and keep it close. It can be “The Godfather.”

Someone you love will always object to the way you load the dishwasher. Stay serene.

Even in 2011, it’s probably a safe bet that most of us will never go into outer space and gaze back on the earth. Go to the Grand Canyon. It’s pretty close. Just go.

Understand that even good habits lie on one side of a continuum; on the other is compulsion. Change things up once in a while.

Having children and learning how to cook are wonderful things but you didn’t invent them.

Be agnostic about everything at least once in your life; truth can take scrutiny.

Scoff at ritual and symbols if you like, but then be prepared to dismiss birthday candles and wedding rings.

Find a family. Don’t believe what you hear; it’s possible to choose your relatives, and occasionally necessary.

Sometimes the most creative thing you can do is pay a compliment. It’s OK to lie a little.

Teeth might be more important than you think.

Moustaches are tricky; proceed with caution.

Exercise.

And know, graduates, that those of us on the north side of life envy you, but we also ARE you. You will never stop graduating, because you will never stop starting over. There is amazing joy in this, and in everything.

It’s not how well the bear dances, you know. It’s not, actually, about the bear at all. It’s about dancing. Don’t forget to dance.

And congratulations. Commencement means beginning. Go begin something. The rest of us will be watching.

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