The Year Of Living Lessly

It’s safe to say, and having said it to say it no more, that 2011 was an eventful year, documented in many ways and in many places.

But aside from that

This was the year we cut the cable and never looked back.  I first installed cable TV in a room I was living in off campus in college, over 30 years ago, and aside from a few months in our first apartment in Seattle we’ve always had it.  What’s not to like?

People get rid of cable for different reasons, although usually it’s either a budget thing or a personal philosophy thing.  For us, we were just bored with it.  John won’t watch anything and the two elders are always busy with that Internet business. It was an easy call, if a little uneasy at first; what happens if something happens?

Naw.  Nothing happened, nothing that wasn’t streamed.  This was Streaming Year, anyway, and while sometimes I missed sports (the one remaining selling point for cable, in my opinion, and the hardest to work around online), and occasionally I did the old-fashioned wrestling with analog (i.e., hooking up an antenna), we were content to choose…content.  So it saved us…600 bucks in 2011?  More?  That wasn’t really the point, other than feeling stupid paying for something we almost never used.

I still watched, though.  I became a full-fledged “Breaking Bad” junkie and bought every episode on Amazon, watching via my Roku on the big screen.  I stayed current with a few sitcoms (Thursday night on NBC) and pedaled away in the mornings while watching Jon Stewart.  Otherwise, it’s Old Media as far as I’m concerned, at least in terms of delivery system.  No regrets.




I lost a chunk of income in 2011 and gained a decent sleeping schedule, so for a few months I wrote mind-numbing, soul-sucking articles on software and casino management, trying to keep some money coming in while lots of it was going out to hospitals.  I had plenty of time to produce the great American novel, but mostly I watched Netflix and ate ice cream.  I gained about 25 pounds, which I lost during the summer, plus another 15, then gained that 15 back over the fall and now…status quo.  Which could be worse.  And income is much better, although the medical bills are truly hilarious.


John turned 21 this year and graduated from high school, an orchestrated delay that allowed him to continue services through the school district.  It was an accomplishment nonetheless, a surprise in many ways.  He’s still in life limbo and challenges will never go away, but he’s grown tremendously and is often just a joy to have around.  I’m all for kids growing up and leaving the nest (and leaving the nest less messy), but there’s something to be said for having them around, too.


It was at John’s graduation, actually, that two cameras failed on me and forced me – I mean, I was forced, right? – to finally succumb to the pull of an iPhone.  All my tech needs in my pocket, unnecessary but useful, and I used it.  In fact, that summer weight loss I attribute to my phone, since a couple of handy apps made it oh-so-easy to chart my progress, mark my miles, count my calories.

And if that seems indulgent, consider this: 2011 was the year I stopped driving.  Not really, but the brakes went bad on our old 1993 van, our secondary transportation, and what seemed unthinkable became easy.  I can walk to most things, I can bus to others, and I can work around JK’s schedule when I need a car.  Consider it a trade-off, then.  A phone for a car.


The rest you know, if you read and/or care.  I avoided air travel, with regrets; there are trips I need to make in 2012, Austin and Arizona.  I published a new book.  I waited in waiting rooms, I walked on walking trails, I upped my exercise and I ate, I think, no vegetables at all.  So I have goals.

I do, too, but I won’t bore you with those, or at least I’ll save them for another post.  It’s good to be alive, to have my wife alive, to have my children grown and doing well.  We lost our Strider but we gained a year of experience, and at least for yours truly learned to live with less.  Which some people say is more, and who am I to argue?

Here’s to more vegetables.


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The Blustery Year

The wind woke me up this morning.  It also put me to sleep last night.  It’s like having a personal element.

It was the same sound, too, that kept me curious until I conked out and finally got me out of bed at an ugly hour, when decent folk stay asleep.  It sounded like a car door slamming, or someone methodically bouncing a basketball, once, every few minutes.

But it was just the wind, bouncing its own ball.  A trash can lid, a For Sale sign, something.  It’s still going on.  Me, too.


I’m not so interested in lists this year, a sure sign that I’m getting lapped.  I read an article on the top Internet memes of 2011, that cat thing, that guy thing, that video thing, and I was aware of only a fraction.  This is unlike me; I’ve always taken some pride, I guess, or pleasure, in feeling my finger on the pulse of trivia, the dumb stuff that gets passed around, but not this year.  So maybe this was the year I began to cocoon, to slough off unnecessary distractions and look inside more, dunno.  Maybe there was just more dumb stuff.  I knew about the pepper spray cop thing.

And maybe I had my own necessary distractions.  There’s that.

This was the year of what?  The Occupy Something?  The Natural Disaster?  The Hapless GOP Candidate? (aka The Natural Disaster).  Maybe it was the George Takei year; he seems to be everywhere.

And maybe everything old is new again except me, who is just old.  I’m less surprised, it seems, pleasantly or otherwise.  Less enthusiastic, maybe.  Certainly more skeptical, and critical?  Sigh.  I’ve gotta own that one.  It’s possible my insight has gotten sharper but so has my attitude.  Getting less tolerant as the years go by is no way to live happy.

Some people are jackasses, no question, but I’ve got some pretty sophisticated Jackass Prevention tools at my fingertips.  I can engage with them or not, and I’ve got to admit that it’s a choice.  I can’t avoid Newt but that guy on Facebook?  Hidden, whoosh, nothing to see here.


And Bright Side Memo: There have been so many good things.  In a really remarkable development for the post-half-century modern man, I’ve made new friends this year, lots of them.  Nice, friendly, charming, supportive people of all types and sizes and positions on the life calendar.

I marked a decade of writing a weekly column, and this was the year my readers got active.  My email has been busy for all of 2011, almost all of it affirming and fun, little conversations about nothing much between strangers.

I walked a lot in the woods, and on the water.  I sang a duet with my wife, and a bunch of anthems with a tolerant choir.   I lifted weights and pedaled miles to nowhere, penance for a lot of indiscretions, all of this a sidebar to living but still life.  Keep moving, stay alive, cherish the ice cream while you can.

I know myself a little better, and I know my jobs.  I learned that promises are important, particularly promises made on busy days on Arizona hills when your mind is maybe on other things, on straightening your tie and seeing your relatives and not forgetting the ring.  Promises that you will be there when that day, which may never come, does.  That when you say “I do” you mean I will, and maybe only then does that circle close.  It never occurred to me, I’m guessing, on my wedding day so long ago that on the other end of a bunch of calendar pages I’d spend a lot of time in hospitals, but I’m glad I did.  Wish it wasn’t necessary, but glad I did.  Keep your promises.


And listen.


We all hear it, in this house.  We’ve talked about it.

It could be the wind.  It could be nothing.  But we hear it, each of us, from time to time.  Or sense it, smell it, notice it, just out of sight, and we know what it is, and for a moment we’re secure in that, and then we stop and say to ourselves

There is no dog here.

That rustling or whatever is not him.  He left us, our Strider, this September, in a gentle, perfectly natural and perfectly expected way, but nothing’s perfect.  He left echoes and shadows all over the place, and somehow in a crazy year, a year of stents and surgeries, that’s what we think about.  At the end of summer, a weird summer, we said goodbye to our friend.


I still hear the wind.  Walking through the dark house, I still sense Strider.  Picking up a stray piece of torn wrapping paper, I know Christmas is over and a new year is coming.

You can cry or not, you know.  That’s what I told myself at the vet’s office.  You can cry or not, whatever makes you feel better, but this is going to happen and you’re going to have to stay alive anyway, so keep moving, man.  The storm fronts keep rolling in and the wind will never give you a break, but it’s nice weather for kites and remembering never hurt anybody.  Don’t forget to listen, either.


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Sounds of the Season

There’s something to be said for the Shuffle, a pure 21st-century experience.  It’s a cultural analog to the second law of thermodynamics: Everything progresses to disorder and randomness.  I could be overthinking it.

But, I mean: It’s an algorithm. You may sense a plan in your iPod’s playlist but there’s really not.  It’s a dumb calculation, scooping up songs and popping them into your head.  If “Billie Jean” comes up every time you hit shuffle, it means nothing.  Maybe you need more music.  It’s not a bad song.

What happens to me, though, is that I don’t keep proper iPod hygiene.  This is because I hate iTunes, like everybody else, and even though I try to organize my playlists some jarring things slip through.  So once in a while, at the most inappropriate times, by which I mean July, I’ll segue from Michael to a Christmas song.

This doesn’t work.  Listening to Christmas music at a non-Christmas time doesn’t just feel wrong, it feels…really wrong.  It feels like putting your shoes on the wrong feet, or putting salt in your coffee.  Not a big deal.  A music misdemeanor.  But odd.

Because there’s a small window for Christmas music.  It’s your call when to start, although much before December and you probably have issues.  Again, this is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the past, we allowed radio stations and department stores to dictate, but now we own our music and we choose.  What and when.  It’s like democracy.

It’s the window that bothers me.  I always lag.  It’s not like I’m lacking in reminders, but I tend to wander through the 12th month, listening to the same old stuff, trying not to dance in the middle of the street like a crazy old guy when “Billie Jean” comes on, and I forget to load up the Christmas songs.  And then suddenly I’m desperate, racing through Pandora, having to put up with Dean Martin, etc.  I need to be more prepared.

I thought about this the other day, and decided that what I needed was a dose of Christmas past.  We have plenty of classical Christmas music in this house, which I can’t really define but I know it when I hear it.  What I was looking for, though, was my childhood, those half-remembered, almost buried songs my parents played.  Pop, but not gross, and mostly solo singers.  And mostly men, as I recall.  Wish I could place it.

Wait.  There’s an Internet.

So I downloaded an Andy Williams album I matched from memory.  Definitely 60s, green cover, all Andy teeth on the front.  He was Mr. Christmas back then, Andy Williams, the leader of the pack, elbowing Bing aside for those folks who thought that was stodgy.  He’s a nice singer, Andy, scooping all over the place but pleasant, good range, and he sang and had a Christmas special every year and found the Osmonds on a Provo street corner or something.

And it did the trick.  I loaded that puppy up and went out to walk around the neighborhood, listening to “Sleigh Ride” and a pretty goofy “O Holy Night” and some songs I’d completely forgotten, and there I was.  Waiting for Christmas, reveling in the season.

So thanks, Mom.  I didn’t need to be reminded it was Christmas, but I think I needed to be reminded of something, and Andy did the trick.  Now I’m all about Christmas, and getting some exercise, although I switched to “Billie Jean” at the last minute because sometimes you just gotta dance.


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RIP Hitch

The phrase “inexplicable sadness” creeps around my brain this morning as I think about the passing of Christopher Hitchens, a writer I’ve read and had many imaginary fights with for years.  This is actually very explicable, as it turns out.  I wanted to keep reading.

He dug in, Mr. Hitchens.  He had tenacity.  And while he moved across political spectrums as if he were somebody special, someone who didn’t have to obey the laws of nature and could actually, you know, change his mind from time to time, he tended to stake out solid, sometimes harsh positions and defend his ground aggressively, to the point where I thought his consistency wandered close to foolishness.

And for all his intellect and skill – and contrary to a lot of reminiscing by people who knew him well – I saw him flummoxed on more than one occasion, almost sputtering, not losing his cool but his place.  I suspected, too, that he was just unprepared and maybe half in the bag.

I never read any regrets, in the past 18 months, from him regarding his smoking and drinking, either of which can be dangerous and both of which I have some experience with, oh yes.  Together, though, particularly in the quantity he enjoyed, they can be lethal and they were.

Bah.  We all forge our chains.  He liked to drink and smoke constantly, and it surely killed him, but something would have anyway.  This is not what makes me sad, not the cause, just the effect.  I read, when he was first diagnosed, some words about things he might now miss, particularly family things, particularly a daughter’s wedding, and that’s it.  That, and, as I said: I can’t read him anymore.

I wrote a friend about this today, wrote about being grateful that I started a family early, that I’ve already seen my daughter graduated, married and happy.  That I will see my wife’s ordination happen.  That I have left a word trail, thanks to books and the Internet, something to remember me by in case a bus has my name on it and I’m not looking both ways one day.  Or something else.

But there are times when I hate the music stopping, and the thought, too.  I can’t at this moment really tell you what I haven’t done yet in this life, besides make money, but it’s out there, this undone stuff, and the clock ticks and the cells degenerate and entropy happens and so on.  I don’t feel more mortal when a famous or ordinary or loved person dies: I get mortality.  But I feel restless.

I strained my lower back the other day, doing a perfectly ordinary exercise, and it’s giving me grief.  If I sit for more than a few minutes, I get up bent halfway over, like the old people I see at the grocery store.  This haunts me for a moment, this feeling of being trapped on the horizontal plane, and then I straighten up slowly and keep moving.  Movement makes it all better.  Standing and moving and walking, that’s the secret.  I only stiffen up when I stop.

This gloominess will loosen up, too.  I just wanted to note his passing, this amazing writer who drove me crazy so many times, and note that mortal reminders are good things, sometimes.  I intend to keep moving as long as I can.


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Life With Father

My friend Maggie is from Scotland, and so wears her heart on her vowels.  She has lovely things to say, thoughtful and inspiring, but I’d be happy to listen to her read from a Denny’s menu.

It’s not just the accent, either, although in a country where we’ve flattened out the way we talk, many of us, it’s always nice to hear a different sound.  But Maggie carries a melody with her, as some people do, no matter what mood she’s in or how busy she is, and this is why I listen.  And I know something about women and music.

Maggie has two red-haired daughters, who also inspire me.  I was almost shocked when I first met them, especially Molly, who in profile and at a distance is the spitting image of another little girl I once knew.  I could post pictures of the two of them, Molly and Beth, and you’d see it, too.  And when Molly marches up to the front of church to read or sing, a little shy and completely confident at the same time, it’s another melody, this time a coda.  I know something about women and music.  I remember.

Or I think I remember.

I remember remembering, anyway, and I have the words to prove it.  So today I wish my daughter a happy birthday, and I’m posting an old piece, written exactly 10 years ago, when Beth turned 17 and was a junior in high school.  It was the first column out of God knows how many I’d write, using my daughter and inept fatherhood to fill space, in the newspaper and somewhere inside where life goes on and little girls grow up.  It was probably the first time I wrote because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  I was closer to being a young father then than now, at any rate, and it’s fun to read what I remembered then.

She was also shy and confident, as I recall, and opinionated, as you can see.  What can you say to a little red-haired girl who insists that you can’t lose your shadow?  You say, yes, you can.  I know something about this, too.

From December 2001.


This year, December 14th falls on a Friday.  It does that every once in a while.  You’d think it would be every seven years, but you’d be wrong.  This has to do with Leap Year or Daylight Savings Time or something.

It fell on a Friday in 1984, too.  I remember.  I was in the kitchen preparing my favorite dinner, tacos and beer, which was about the extent of my cooking skills.  I was browning ground beef and opening can #2, when my wife came out of the bathroom with an odd look on her face and said, “Don’t drink any more beer.”

She says this all the time, of course, but, again, she had an odd look on her face.  She would actually make a lot of faces over the next 12 hours, many of which I hesitate to describe, but the next morning I watched the sun rise over downtown Seattle from a window in Swedish Hospital, holding in my arms my newborn daughter.  A few weeks earlier than expected, but healthy and beautiful.  I was 26 years old.  It was the best day of my life.

A couple of minutes after Beth was born, I ran and grabbed the video camera and pretty much didn’t put it down for about five years.  I began to organize the tapes: Beth Volume I, Volume II, etc.  And this was in the first week.  I had a three-tape set entitled “Beth Sleeping.”   One afternoon I turned the camera on and a few minutes later she haltingly walked from one chair to another on her own; her first steps.  I’m pretty sure I made tacos that night.

My wife and I were opposed to day care, based on the sound principle that we couldn’t afford it, so we worked a lot of odd shifts to balance the parenting.  I usually got the late mornings and early afternoons.  For several years of my life, then, I spent most of my non-working time with a little girl.

I had a tendency to play Mr. Rogers.  I took her to the library.  I used apples and oranges to demonstrate how the earth moves around the sun.  I taught her about syllogisms and syntax.  We spent hours playing “Answer Girl,” a game we made up in which I’d quiz her on numbers and colors and TV show theme songs.

She was bright and curious and only occasionally cynical, as when she saw “Peter Pan” for the first time.  “No one can lose their shadow,” she said disdainfully, and turned off the TV.  This was pure Beth.

Not that I want to be too sentimental about a time of very little sleep and endless hours of Big Bird.  I wasn’t all that far removed from the freedom of my college days not to realize I had been pretty neatly tied around a little finger.

If there was a song on the radio she particularly liked, Beth would instruct me to get down on one knee and she would jump and wrap her arms around my neck, and I’d lift her up and we’d dance around the living room.  Who am I, Bojangles?, I’d think, wondering whether I should have closed the shades first.

Then, of course, one day I drove her to school and she flipped down the visor to check her hair in the mirror, and that was pretty much that.  The little girl whose highlight of the day used to be watching me shave had other things to do.  My duties had been reduced to handing over cash and jump starting her car.

Beth will spend her 17th birthday following in her mother’s musical footsteps, earning a few bucks playing the cello with her group, Trionfare Trio, at a holiday gig (there’s your plug, guys).  My cooking skills have improved, but maybe I’ll make tacos anyway.  Just to feel useful; for it suddenly occurs to me that out of all the things I know how to do, after all the childhood fantasies of becoming a wide receiver or a movie star, it turns out the thing that came most naturally to me was being the father of a little girl.  And now my time is up.

So maybe I can be excused a moment or two of nostalgia.  Maybe I can be forgiven for wondering when that very last game of Answer Girl was.  Maybe you can understand how, from time to time, I have the oddest feeling that I’ve somehow lost my shadow.

It’s there, though, somewhere.  It lingers on lazy afternoons in a small apartment with a red-haired 3-year-old girl.  She holds on tightly and we dance around the living room, and for a few hours I am her entire universe, and she is mine.


And here’s a little mash-up of some of that video, which I put together two years ago.  The young guy with the baby you’ll see was 27, which is the age Beth is today.  I can’t explain that.  Or the moustache.

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No Sex Please, It’s Christmas

I’ve written enough words about the film “Love, Actually” in the past two weeks that I’m beginning to think I’ll skip it this Christmas.  This is the price I pay for a trivial idea that exploded into something slightly less trivial.  I accept.

And some of it, to be honest, is about “Love, Actually” being just a diversion, a sentimental, light, frothy, meringue-like movie, coming as it does from the director of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” (also “Black Adder” and “The Vicar of Dibley”), both of which might actually, technically, be better films, barely.

“Love, Actually” is just entertainment, and I’m all for that, but a reader reminded me that it might also be called sort of forgettable. Meaning that I forgot something.

What I forgot, as I was thinking of Colin Firth and Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman and on and on, was one of the minor stories (there are A LOT) in the movie, featuring two strangers who work as stand-ins on a movie set.  They take the place of the real actors while technicians set up lights and camera angles.  It’s not a glamorous job, and the love, actually part comes from these two people gradually developing a relationship as they go about their menial, boring duties.

The comedy – this is a comedy – comes from the fact that they are stand-ins for porn actors, in a porn film.  So as they stand around, go through the motions of simulated sex under the lights, adjust profiles, and take direction from disinterested (but British-polite) tech staff, these two people begin to talk and get to know each other.

See?  They are faking intimate acts, and become intimate while doing so.  We get it.  EVERYBODY gets it.

But it’s still amusing.  In a British-polite way.

My reader and I both forgot about this segment, somehow.  She told me how she found a copy of the movie in a remainders bin and bought it as a holiday gift for her 85-year-old grandmother, remembering the Christmas stuff and conveniently forgetting the naked parts until, at the last moment, she was reminded.  Whew.  Someone should make a movie.

Again, it should be noted that this was all for comic effect.  It should also be noted that my reader’s 85-year-old grandmother in all likelihood has had some life experience with sex and naked bodies.  As do, I assume, a lot of newspaper readers.

I don’t feel badly, in other words, although I wrote a follow-up piece this week and added that little caveat, just in case.  Added here, too, also just in case.  If your Christmas viewing pleasure is not enhanced by bare breasts and buttocks, stick with George Bailey and Charlie Brown.  They’re safe, and if you’ve forgotten anything it’s probably not all that important.


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Aphasia As A Lifestyle

I had coffee with an old friend the other day, someone I’ve known since we were teenagers and routinely lied about girls.  We were catching up, and he asked about my wife.

I mentioned that she’s now hyperaware of symptoms, of pain and bumps and strange sensations, and worries that she’s becoming a hypochondriac. That’s not a worry she needs to have, of course, not after her past year.

But I couldn’t come up with “hypochondriac.”  Just sat there, mouth waiting for flies to visit, finally mumbling something about “psychosomatic” but that’s not the word, you know what I mean?

This is the sweet side of old friendships, not to mention the comfort of having a cohort to understand. He just nodded, waved his hand a little, never mind, I gotcha, his acknowledgement that we’ve both now reached a point in our lives where words go AWOL.

Until it happens you think it won’t. You think all those crossword puzzles will help.  You think staying engaged with current events will help.  You think taking lethal doses of vitamin D will help.  You will be wrong.

But it’s okay.  You can share it with your friends.  They will understand intuitively, and between the two of your aging brains you still won’t find the hypochondriac (there’s something contagious, I think, about word-finding glitches), but it’s understood. Like hearing loss and the fact that we can’t see a damn thing, the symptoms of aging lose their power once they arrive.  Also, we have smartphones.

There’s something about this, then, that’s making me feel all Christmasy and relaxed lately.  It’s as if I’ve suddenly discovered, as my body breaks down, that I know how to do stuff.  I know how to enjoy the season now, know how to cherish friendships, know how to seize the day briefly and appreciate the moments I spend with friends and family.  Know how to look stuff up.  Lots of things.

And if I stumble and fall, which I have and will, it’s good to know I’ve gotten up before, and also that absolutely no one is watching.  It’s a nice feeling, to reach an age where I’m now free to move around the rest of my life.  There’s a word for that.  Give me a minute.


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On Radio Silence

As I went off to bed the other night, I heard JK yell out from the other room: “You haven’t written in your blog since November 23!”

This is how we roll in this house.  We keep each other on our toes.

So, yeah. A lot of that can be explained away by other outlets. Some is that I got weary of commenting on current events; I pay a lot of attention to this, can’t help it, but these cocoons we’ve apparently constructed of reinforced opinion, like-minded minds, all the news that fits in our particular world view and no more, please, discourage me.  Not in the sense that I’m down in the dumps, just a reluctance to engage the cognitive dissonance I see more and more, at least online.  Discussion is hard when facts become Lewis Carroll things.

Anyway.  I should do better with this blog thing.  Will try.


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Love, Actually

New column is up:

A Love, Actually List, then, is not about guilty pleasures, things you know are bad and might enjoy simply because of their badness, like donuts or Nicolas Cage.  The list is for things that transcend quality and live in your heart, and you don’t care who knows it.

Submissions are pouring in, or trickling, or whatever submissions do.  This concept has been on my mind for a couple of months now, ever since I was asked the question, “Do you own a copy of ‘Love, Actually’?” and I thought, yeah.  I do.  Actually.

I worry that I wasn’t clear, although that cat has left the barn.  Still, I’m getting a lot of responses that probably fit more in the category of My Favorite Things, which is fine too.  If you like raindrops on roses then I support that.  I don’t get the whiskers on kittens part, though (and do you like eyebrows on humans, Julie Andrews?).

Where I was heading, though, was the peculiar passion.  I have a friend, for example, who for as long as I’ve known him (30+ years) has been a Barry Manilow fan.  Adores Barry Manilow.  Likes to sing medleys of Manilow songs.  Probably sings them in the shower.

This seems a pretty tame passion, but we have to remember there was a time when Barry Manilow was generally despised by all right-thinking people (and who was buying his albums?  Scientists can’t agree on this).  And still he proudly expressed his Manilow love.

That’s what I’m talking about.  Like the way my wife used to love Velveeta “cheese” (she gave it up for the sake of her cholesterol levels, but swore by it in terms of grilled cheese sandwiches among other things).  Like the way I love my greasy tacos.  Like the way my mom loves Rod McKuen.

It doesn’t have to be questionable, just passionate.  My daughter loves “The Godfather.”  Well, who doesn’t?  She watches it every week.  Who does?

She’s also pretty passionate about “Father of the Bride” with Steve Martin.

So feel free, Blog Reader(s) (hi Travis) to offer your own.  Will see how this works out in a week or so.  It’s Christmas and I’m feeling all fuzzy, so I hope for the best, but there’s only so much I can do.  I just write the songs.  I need help with the singing part.


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