The Prism

I have this little electronic device that looks like a video game controller.  It’s plastic and inexpensive, unlike some of the actual video game controllers we have around this house.

I hold it in front of me and push a button, and supposedly it shoots a low-level electronic charge through my body, whooshing through water and bouncing off blubber.  It gives me a number that is, again supposedly, my body fat percentage.

As if mirrors don’t exist.

This morning it says I have 16.3% body fat, which sounds like a lot.  It’s not, though; it’s perfectly OK for a 53-year-old guy.  I thought maybe it would help motivate me to eat better, but the truth is I’m way past turning into some sort of physical specimen.  I forget sometimes how old I am.

But I had to calibrate it first, and it refused to be realistic.  There are two settings, Normal and Athlete, and it was stupid.  You answer questions about your activity level and it tells you which category fits, and it refused to let me be Normal.  Frequency, duration and intensity of exercise all play a part, and this dumb machine says I belong in Athlete.

I am not an athlete.  I pleaded with it.  I cheated a little.  I rationalized.  What, I walk a little in the morning for mental health.  I get on the stationary bike for a few minutes while I watch last night’s Jon Stewart.  I do a few yoga exercises, a couple of push-ups, some stretching.  I lift a few measly weights.  I’m just an older, irrelevant American male, trying to slow his descent by doing a minimum of movement, but this piece of plastic wants to up the ante and make me an athlete, just because I spend a couple of hours a day exercising.

I didn’t see that coming five years ago.

————–

That was the summer I didn’t mow the lawn, not really.  I sat on the front deck early one August morning and tried to imagine it as it was when we’d moved in, 18 years before, weeds and dirt.  I had planted grass and dug and mowed, tossed baseballs with my daughter, ran with my dog and other dogs, and had watched my son roll in the grass, my grass, tended and taken care of, and now it was me.  Life as an unmown lawn, wild and crazy as a bedbug.

I wondered for a moment if some neighbor would take pity on my poor wife, notice that I was gone and mow the grass.  Probably not; neighbors were out of the loop by then.

I was no longer 29, of course, holding a 3-year-old by the hand and following a realtor into this odd house, moved onto an empty lot, jacked up so a basement could be built, remodeled and reworked and then left alone when the contractor ran out of money.  I was dubious back then but it was big, this house, and we liked the neighborhood.  The basement was unfinished and the landscaping was nonexistent, but it was a house with possibilities.

Now I’d used up all the possibilities, and I sat out front and waited for my ride to Drunk Camp, and I noted that my suitcase wouldn’t…quite…close.

I must have known how to pack a suitcase at some point, I thought, surely.  Still, as hungover and sleepy and scared as I was, I knew a shoddy suitcase packing job when I saw one.  Clothes were sticking out, and a pair of shoes refused to play nice.  My suitcase looked a little chaotic there, as if packed by a crazy person, or someone who wasn’t all that sure he wanted to leave in the first place and was trying to discreetly point that out.

————–

I decided this morning that five years is a prism, all about diffusion and refraction, a different effect depending on how I hold it.  I don’t really understand the physics of light very well.

But I can entertain myself with relativity.  Five years is nothing, a little calendar manipulation, only 10% of my life.  A drop in the memory bucket.  I could do five years standing on my head.

And then, suddenly, it stretches out into a series of moments.  I came home from treatment calmer and less bloated, abstinent and batshit crazy.  It took me a year before I started to settle down, during which I time I bounced from compulsion to compulsion, watching hours of TV, baking like an imaginary 1950s housewife, constantly cleaning or cooking or staring at the walls, wondering.

I got better, eventually, and I didn’t drink.

Twist it again and I see everyone else.  I see John and Julie.  I see Beth, so many changes, love and marriage.  I see new friends, and a few I’ve lost.

I’ve also lost some hair and some flexibility.  Getting older is weird.

And I can see the drunk very clearly.  I make a point of it.  I have a theory that the further I away I get from him, the closer I approach again, so I try to stay opposite, watching, keeping an eye on him.  He gets up early every morning to begin drinking.  His hands shake like crazy.  He resembles me only barely, now, but I remember and I know him.  I want him to stay in my line of sight but at a distance, so I can see.

I can’t begin to estimate his body fat percentage.

——————

This is not a big day for me.  Some people like to celebrate these anniversaries; I celebrate with them, and have, but for me?  Naw.  Just worth noting, and moving on.  The drunk will never go away, and will never give me a break, so it’s unwise for me to assume that 60 months makes much of a difference.

There is a difference, though, and if I celebrate anything today it’s that.  A difference.  I know that five years will blur memories; life is complicated and things happen, and even Julie and John, who lived with the daily chaos, probably don’t remember it well.

But I do.  I have no choice.  And while I don’t celebrate, I will be grateful.  For love and concern, for help and understanding.  For tolerance, for sure.

And for time, and how glorious it can be.  I still get up early, when the house is quiet, although I drink nothing stronger than coffee.  I take the dog out and look over the lawn, always mown now, an amends to my neighbors.

This summer is cooler than normal, and at dawn it can even be cold.  As I watch Strider wander through the grass, if I stand there long enough I’ll start to shiver.  It’s a good feeling.  I know why my hands are shaking, and I know how to make them stop.

 

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Old Dog, New Tricks

I used to have casual, nonthreatening arguments with people who had affection for being “spiritual” but not “religious.”  Some of these people were educators, actually, trying to make a point they hadn’t thought through, in my opinion.  In my opinion, they were semantically challenged, trying to compare forms of speech.  An apple is similar to a hopefully.

I knew what they were doing.  They were trying to separate humanity’s seach for God, for the other-directedness, from its conventional practices that might scare some people off.  You don’t have to go a church, they were really saying.  You can just walk in the woods and be all spiritual and stuff.

Well, certainly you can.  But walking in the woods, assuming you do it deliberately in an effort to achieve some sort of spiritual experience, is a religious act.  It is the practice of your theory.  Just because you don’t have to wear nice clothes or clean up your language doesn’t make it less religious.  These are just words.  If you’re a spiritual sort, then you practice that somehow and that, my friend, is a religious expression.  Try not to take it personally.

This was only jousting with language, something I was in the mood to do back then, although it came up this morning when I thought there is a method to my madness.

My madness, in this case, isn’t really mad.  Just different, for me.  I went from a night owl to an early bird very quickly, shifting my schedule damn near 12 hours, and I was standing outside this morning at 4:30, watching Strider wander over the yard, contemplating peeing here and there, when it all came together.

I was irritated because my clothes were too tight.  I like to eat late at night.  I don’t like to eat in the morning.

And that’s mostly it.  Temptation is the devil that I know, and sometimes avoidance is the best advice, so I go to bed as early as feels not stupid and get up when I open my eyes, sunlight or not.  Pizza is the last thing on my mind at 4 a.m.  My clothes fit better.  Not madness at all.

I’m not a diurnal snob, though.  I used to accomplish a lot late at night.  Still, I enjoy what the other early birds do, the peace and quiet, the sense of hours ahead, the hot coffee.  The early morning walks when I don’t have to worry so much about stray cars.  This may all change in winter but for this season I rise, I caffeinate, I walk, I write a little, I wait to see what will happen.

I share it with Strider, who is not taking dying seriously.  He seemed to get sick last week, stopped eating and moving, mostly, and the end seemed near.  We all were nice to him, spoke to him gently and patted his head, tried to ignore the smell (he hasn’t had a bath in forever; it seems cruel to put him through, now) and the wet spots on the carpet, the relentless circles of dog shit all over, and we waited.

And then he perked up again.  He still refuses to touch his dog food but he’ll eat scraps just fine, and treats.  At this point I’ll feed him anything, what harm is there, so he’s had pieces of fresh bread and some sliced turkey.  It’s hard to say what’s going on.  I hope he’s not uncomfortable, but he’s a stoic creature.

A living creature, past his expiration date and still kicking.  His days are numbered but then so are mine, and as I watched him explore the yard at dawn, falling back on his sense of smell at the end, I realized that he was sustaining himself on routine, on instinct, and at that moment it all seemed awfully spiritual.

 

 

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Know Thyself

At the risk of journaling, something that holds no appeal, I note that there is something resembling order in this house these days.  Most of this probably involves not sitting in hospital waiting rooms.  All of it probably involves me.

And a lot of it, honestly, involves my iPhone.   I wrote a column about self quantifiers this week, the (mostly) Silicon Valley types who are using technology to measure and then change their lives.  Some of this is a little wacky but I get it completely, and I always have.

So while the actual phone-type activities are minimal, I’ve got my apps.  My reminders are favorites, popping up on my screen, telling me to take my vitamins.  The logging ones are good, too; a relentless note taker, I now carry these in my pocket, calories and grams and miles and the minutia of an examined life.

My Runkeeper app whispers in my ear while I walk, telling me how fast and how far.  It’s clipped a minute or so off my mile speed, which is meaningless except for a few more calories burned and the appearance I’m sure I present of a man who’s always late for something, a pretty decent description.

It worked, too.  According to my phone, over the past two months I’ve averaged just over 1400 calories a day and exercised off just under 800, leading to 36 pounds sloughed off the aging male.  This seems like a lot but isn’t, having been in that neutral stage where I wasn’t anything, lean or fat, just 50-something.  But now I can wear whatever happens to hang in my closet, which is all I really wanted.

There’s probably an app to photograph and organize my clothes, but I have limits.  In the meantime, though, I’m getting some small amount of pleasure out of excessive documentation.  It reminds me that I exist, that I’m still capable of change, and that toys will be toys, useful or not.

 

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I Thought I Forgot Something…

In all the excitement of this past weekend, getting my ducks in a row regarding my new book, making sure that all the digital formats were set, arranging for PayPal for signed copies, spending way too much time playing with video, getting a Facebook page ready, etc., I neglected to mention it on my very own blog.  No wonder I don’t seem to be making any progress.

Anyway.  Here’s the main book page on my site.  It has more information that you need, but also video, so.  Hoping that makes it easier.

 

–Chuck

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What Have You Learned

Let’s review for a moment.

Ten years ago I started writing for a small newspaper. A year later, I was asked to write a piece for a much larger paper, an assignment that resulted in large paper offering me a job. Not a good job, but not bad; more money, much more exposure, etc.

Unfortunately, this coincided with a change in the management of Large Paper and suddenly an interesting awareness on their part, which was Hey! We’re dying here!

Not truly dying, but changing drastically. Eventually the job offer was withdrawn before it actually began, by which I mean they stopped answering my emails.

It worked out. I continued to write for Large Paper on an intermittent basis, and Small Paper every week. I retained my insignificant place in the journalism world.

I am not insignificant, by the way, and neither are you, and if you think either of us is you need a refresher course at George Bailey University. You would be missed if you were gone, and I am speaking in a figurative sense mostly. Let’s stay present, people.

In fact, the most reader response I’ve ever had came when I decided to take a small sabbatical from writing a couple of years ago. One lady wrote me every week until I returned, charming emails that boosted my spirits and made me laugh. And then there’s Mr. Michael Jennings, who wrote this very nice letter to the editor; I just recently read it again. Talk about affirming.

And over the years, I wrote less about current events and more about my front lawn, for some reasons involving retaining sanity but also because of a very finely developed feedback loop. I’ve said it many times, but once more with feeling: I’m not interested in public self expression, for the most part. I’m interested in what happens across the footlights, in the dynamic of writer and reader, how the stillness of the air starts moving again. If I can’t engage a reader with a discussion of Iraq, then I will write about my trouble with haircuts.

I’ve also written for hire on a number of subjects, this time truly bordering on insignificant, but look at me, Freelance Writer, making an income writing about software or hotels or the automotive industry. It’s not all about the glory, y’know.

Or a decent income, but moving on.

I always return to my column, though. It’s now part of me, inseparable from the other routines and activities of daily living. For good or lame, it’s what I do, and I will tell you two reasons why.

On several occasions over the years, I’ve observed a stranger in a public setting reading my column in the newspaper and laughing. I mean. You have to be a movie director sneaking into the back of a theater during a preview of your latest film to get something similar, I think, and look at me: I got it at IHOP. So. Much. Fun.

And I have a weekly record, stretching back a decade, and when I return to it sometimes I find that, hey, some of this was actually bordering on coherence. By which I mean thematically; I get something stuck in my head and I return to it again and again, sometimes after weeks or months.  It’s a Subject, then.

Thus we have the books.

My new book is nearly live (you could actually get a copy now, but let’s try to do this right). It’s called “50 Is The New Nothing,” and it consists of about 60 columns written over three years about aging and change and daughters and driving, a Big Birthday, a Big Day, and a Big Guy Not So Much Anymore.

More soon.

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My So-Called Sunny Disposition

I grab a handful of vitamin D pills every morning and swallow them, unlike me on so many levels, but there you go. I am of an age to hedge my bets.

And the theory, which I read in the NY Times so it must be true, has to do with our cultural evolution into a society of sun avoiders, which is funny to think about up here in the Pacific Northwest but I take the point. Not only do we have cars and air conditioning and roofs, but we’ve been taught that Mr. Sun is not our friend and Mr. Sun, as it turns out, is sort of necessary. Photosynthesis, for one thing, but also vitamin D, which is our main weapon against inflammation and cell mutation, which can go by another name that Shall Not Be Named. Out of weariness.

So I take them. Probably worthless, as it the multivitamin I now try to remember to swallow with my Diet Rite. My nutrition has remained at dorm room cuisine stage for decades and I seem to be doing OK, although then you could bring up some missing molars and hair on the back of my head and point fingers. I’ve made honest attempts lately to eat more leafy green veggies and I have the rotting broccoli in the trash can to prove it. Hard to make that transition but it’s on my list.

The inertia of conventional wisdom is another item on my list, something to be cranky about. How do we know what we know and when did we know it? It’s one thing to accept injuries and deaths that have now been avoided by the use of seatbelts and bike helmets, but our Ozzie and Harriet ancestors ate bacon and eggs and hamburger all the time and you know what? They weren’t so much the fatties. That right there should make you pause, and wonder about the sun, too.

Bah. Moot matters; I’m outside every day anyway, I’m not getting out of here alive, I prefer to concentrate on the wonders of warm summer days lately and not so much about annoying neighbors, vitamin deficiencies, the creeping nature of this season’s “Breaking Bad” episodes, etc. There is now in my hedging heart a sense that there are more important things than preventative medicine, and that in this particular season all I need to do is look up. Hello Mr. Sun, thanks for the the memories and the vitamins, I can use them.

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Being Alive

Our Sheltie, Strider, is doing remarkably well. He’s nearly halfway through a summer I suspected he wouldn’t see, bad hips and eyesight and all. He’s almost 14-1/2, and last week I thought he was wrapping up life, but then I switched to soft food and he got all perky again.

His digestive system, always stellar, has been problematic of late, and by that I mean we own carpet, but this food switch seems to have made the difference in that, too. He eats and drinks with vigor now, and is more insistent about his bathroom needs, which we are eager to oblige. Good dog.

And somehow, being human and flawed and blindered from the big picture, it occurs to me sometimes that we must have done something right. This is almost certainly not true in a traditional pet-managing sense, and even if you scrounge around for little ego doggy treats you’ll mostly find endurance, and a lot of inertia. We tried, we did the best we could, and we stuck around.

I took him out at 5 a.m. today and looked up to see the light in the window above, and for a moment I thought, What’s John doing up so early? Funny. It’s my light, from my working room, but it was his bedroom for years, the room he came home from the hospital to, and instincts are relentless things.

Sons are not pets, although I could tell you digestive system stories, but endurance has played some role with John, too. He is, psychologically and neurologically, who he is, and the long road is not nearly clear at this point, but what is shows me a sweet, sensitive man who likes his parents a lot, at an age when he should be at a safe distance. A lot of this is his particular situation, sure, but some of it has to be consistency. As much as I shake my head and roll my eyes at occupational choices over the decades, I’ve been at home as long as he has, which is an entire life. This has been a steady life, and some of it has been right.

And then there’s my sourdough starter. I am not a good starter manager, I admit. I’ve had it for a couple of years, nurtured on my kitchen counter with grapefruit juice and flour and whatever it could eat from the atmosphere, but I let it sit in the fridge for months without thinking about it. Then I drag it out, ready to toss, but a couple of stirs and hey, it’s ALIVE. So I feed it and then I make some bread, and the bread is fabulous (never the sour taste I was looking for, but tangy and crust? Don’t ask. Or ask. Good crust).

I’m not much of a bread eater these days, but I’ve been baking it for 15 years, irregularly and sometimes awkwardly, and sometimes on demand only; it’s been a steady thing, too. Like writing a weekly newspaper column for 10 years. You learn things, you develop muscle memory, you get some routine fermentation going on. You stick around, sometimes you get bread.

Sometimes you get more, too.

This has been a crazy summer for me, crazy in a crazy sense. I’m restless, unable to watch movies or read much, or sit at the computer for very long. My sleep is screwed; I’m in my existential exuberance phase again, when I open my eyes and decide to live longer, so I get out of bed early regardless of the hours passed. I drink my coffee early and walk around the neighborhood with my headphones in place, letting Steve Jobs pick my soundtrack, and I enjoy this immensely. I’ve moved from late-night questionable eating to lean cuisine, and over the past couple of months I’ve dropped 30 pounds I really didn’t need to lose, but it wouldn’t hurt and it doesn’t.

I remember, of course, that a year ago we had no idea, not even an inkling, that Julie had a brain tumor, or that she’d suffer a heart attack and then be diagnosed with breast cancer, all in the space of a little calendar flipping. There is some foolish consistency involved in finding good in this, but there was good, and we got through it. She’s doing well; insurance approved Cyberknife radiation, which is much shorter and more precise than traditional whole breast, and by late August she and we should be through with this particular ride.

And I will remember the young man, almost five years ago now, who had a proud moment. He was sitting a few feet from me, six months into a major life change, and it made him happy. “We’re proud of you, too,” I said to him, and he smiled at me and mouthed a thank you, and I thought suddenly

I made a difference

And then I thought

Stay alive.

Some of you have been with me since the beginning, and have walked a little with me; thanks. I will say that in a couple of weeks, when the calendar pages flip to a familiar date, I can guarantee you I won’t have a conventional proud time. I will be grateful, and relieved, and certainly I might type some stuff if I can think of anything, but nothing big, I think. The big thing happened, the rest has been just sticking around.

But for all my wife’s concern about my lack of sleep and my sense that I could cut out the coffee, and of course the occasional wish that I hadn’t ever smoked a cigarette or had a drink or learned to love ice cream or made a million bad choices, my early mornings are sweet reminders that I stuck around, somehow, and probably made a small difference, and I’m alive. Grateful for that, glad to be here.

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Fun with FB and Trailer Trailer

Harry Truman called it his “constitutional,” an old-fashioned word but if it’s good enough for Harry, I’ll own it.

We’ve had swimming presidents, of course, and plenty of golfers, the occasional bowler, and a full third are on record, photographic or othewise, as having thrown a baseball at least once. And then there are the post-Ford joggers with the exception of Reagan, who was a chopper.

But we have two world-class walkers among our our 44, Jefferson and Truman, and Harry was remarkable. Look at film clips: The man walked a solid 4mph in my estimation and he did it every day. He was 60 when he ascended and in superb shape, one of the fittest, so I’ll take his old-fashioned word.

I was doing my constitutional, anyway, the other day, with my iPod set on its regular shuffle, sometimes surprising and often reminding me that I really need to clean some crap off, when I got a couple of songs from “Buffy: The Musical.” For those of you outside the Buffyverse, this is from the season #6 episode “Once More With Feeling,” when the Scoobies and everyone else in town are mildly cursed by breaking into song, often and, again, with feeling.

This is my wife’s music, actually, but I do enjoy and I do, as it turned out, know all the lyrics by now, which struck me was funny for a 53-year-old guy. So I did the mature thing and posted this insight on Facebook, which started a conversation with a friend, another old guy well versed in Whedon World, and then my wife joined in and we had a little thread. Between her and him, they started making references to one particular little song, about a lady trying to get out of a parking ticket, and now let’s go to the tape:

***

I think the best job in movie making would be the small few who construct film trailers. I would do that all day long. And now, as we know, it’s become common to make book trailers, little promotional videos. I’m all for that, too, and I’m certainly willing to write books in order to be able to make a trailer.

And I’ve written a new book, as it turned out, a fact I also mentioned on Facebook, since I was facing a stack of galley proofs that needed work. Since there were a few curious people, and I also had one of those rare weekends when I had time and inclinations all over the place, I threw together a trailer trailer, an idea that I intend to claim.

I got my feelings hurt when I posted this on FB, as several people wanted to poke fun as what they saw as promotion of the…avaricious is not the wrong word…type. So let’s be frank here: There is no money in writing books, the way I write books. I get royalty checks from time to time, about the same size as that guy gets who wrote some episodes of “Three’s Company” 35 years ago. I could sell 1000 copies tomorrow and it might pay for one of those MRIs that are starting to wake up and get into billing mood right about now; 10,000 copies would be nice and different, but again: None of this can possibly make much of a difference, financially speaking.

The point of seeing a book in print, besides the sense of accomplishment and just essential joy (which is pretty essential), is the hope that they will wander. The ideal book buyer will read it and then donate it, to a friend or a library or a church book sale, something. Send those babies out into the world, and maybe it’ll one day hit a tipping point and I might be able to write even more stuff. That’s all. If I could afford it I’d just give them away, obviously. Obviously.

So. That’s over. Here’s the trailer trailer. And here’s to the next one. And to the next book, which I actually am fond of and is coming, as they say, soon.

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