Oh! The Flu That You’ll Do!

So, you’ve gotten the flu?
Hey, congrats!  What a break
Since you needed to rest
You needed to take
Some time off! And the best
Part, you know…
Coming down with the flu
Is that now you have time.

Oh, the flu that you’ll do!

Because Dr. Seuss is not spinning enough.

I’m not a fan of the way we use denial as a toss-around term.  Not that anyone cares what I think about contemporary semantics, but it’s problematic for me.  Denial starts to become more than what it is, which is essentially a coping mechanism, or a psychological trick to resist change.  It starts to become psychosis, the way we use it, a break from reality, and I don’t think that’s quite right.

So I think of it instead as pretending.  We pretend a lot.  I know I do.

And for the past four years, I’ve pretended that fresh air, long walks, a good attitude and probably a pure heart have all kept me relatively healthy and free of the flu.  It was make-believe.  I’m not that crazy.

Four years because that’s the last time I got stomped by a virus that resembled influenza, although “flu” is another fluffy semantic trick.  I call it the flu like you call it the flu.  Might be a whole ‘nother virus.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s the flu, for me, when it meets a criterion: My body temperature rises to meet stupidity.  As my mom reminds me, I’ve always had a tendency to run high fevers when I get sick, and it seems for every degree of temperature rise my IQ drops 50 points, maybe more.  And I need all the points I can get.

Sure, you’ll sniffle and ache
It’s the flu after all.
And you’ll take lots of Advil
You’ll be hot and then cold.
But your fever will fall
And you won’t feel so ill.

The reason I haven’t been sick, of course, is that I work at home.  I’m not a hermit, but it’s a matter of numbers.  I don’t work in an office or travel or have small kids or teach small kids, or teach big kids, or even kiss my wife as much as I should.  My odds are better than many of avoiding the close contact that spreads those nasty lifeforms.  It has nothing to do with my pure heart.

And Monday, somehow, it caught up with me.  It started off looking like an ordinary upper respiratory infection, irritating but not a big deal, a little cough, some congestion, a hint of aching.  By Monday night, though, when I couldn’t do simple calculations and I became fascinated with certain episodes of NOVA, it was clear that I was flu-ish.  Whatever.

And then boredom sets in.
And then Netflix gets old.
And then you start to think
That you’re not really sick.
That the fever’s a fluke.
That the whole thing’s a trick.
And right THEN, my sick friend.
You will puke.

Oh, the things that you’ll puke!

My life is made for being sick, in a way.  I have responsibilities that vary and are mostly fluid, a deadline here, some file moving here, a lot of time on the computer and not so much putting roofs on houses, you see?  I can handle some flu without a big disruption.  My family will find food without me.  And when the fever reaches a point where I can’t even type, there’s always NOVA.

And on Tuesday, my annual Weeds marathon arrived, right on schedule.  I’m a big fan of the Showtime series, the seventh season of which completed at the end of the summer and the Blu-Ray version of which was released this week, landing on my doorstep, literally.  So I watched six hours of Nancy Botwin and her dysfunctional family and I was dysfunctional myself, a match.

You’ll puke up your breakfast
Your dinner, your lunch
You’ll puke up last Tuesday.
You’ll puke up a bunch.

And when puking is through
When the cycle’s complete
And the retching you do
In an Infinite Loop
Let’s you eat…
Then you’ll poop.

I’m over it now, for the most part.  My temperature seems to be normal, after a short encore of around 101 yesterday, and I’m left with some residual cough and sneezing.  Coffee works again, the way it’s supposed to, and no harm, no foul.  And while I’ve probably learned nothing substantial, nothing about preventing what can’t be avoided, I guess it’s good to be reminded that even those of us who try to get regular exercise and aren’t mean to strangers and don’t run for elective office are just humans, susceptible and vulnerable, a semantic adjustment away from feeling bad for a few days, and not all that bad.

And those NOVA shows were good, and Weeds was still entertaining, and onward now.  Sneeze the day, crappy diem, whatever.


Continue Reading

Bridging History With A Monday Off

New column is online:

From the time my parents gave me a couple of young-reader books on U.S. presidents, I’ve been a presidential nerd. Nothing seduces me like a good biography, and if it’s about Millard Fillmore, sure, why not? He was born in a log cabin, he founded the University of Buffalo, he was an accidental president like Truman, he was the last Whig president…there’s material there. Some of it disagreeable, but then. These are human beings, the stuff of history.

Continue Reading

If You Give A Moose A Machine

My son has a crappy computer.  So do I.  So, probably, do you.

Crappy computers are everywhere, ubiquitous and useful, home and office.  They have cheap motherboards assembled God knows where (we know, too), flimsy processors, garbage software and they work just fine.  For what we do, I mean.  Write, surf, stream.  It’s a machine, and unless you hit it with a hammer or are dumb about threats, you can invest pennies per day and get your computing done.

Not if you’re a gamer, though.  Gaming is where the computing lies, these days, and I’m not talking about solitaire.

Gaming is what my son does.  This is unremarkable for a 22-year-old man, for sure, but also unremarkable for his particular neurology, and he’s always been this way.  None of the fussiness about gaming and compulsion and sedentary lifestyles and imaginary violence applies.  He could be charting bus schedules.  He plays games.  He is not that guy, forget that.  He is John.

His crappy computer was bought with a loan from me, not a hardship, and like other crappy computers it will do some things well and some things not.  Unlike his father, John’s PC limitations glare at him.  There are things he can’t do.  Things he would like to do.

I know something about this, not a lot, enough to understand.  You can buy an amazing gaming computer if you want to drop a couple of grand.  You can build one cheaper, but (at least in our case) that would require patience and time, piecing it together.  I could handle that delayed gratification, maybe, John not so much.

So for his birthday I attempted a Band-Aid.  At first I was leaning toward a high-end video card, but he has a processor onboard that goes way beyond mediocre and not in a good way.  I found one, a nice and powerful one, affordable.  I bought it for his birthday, but the day it arrived I learned of some complications.  It might not work, which we wouldn’t know until it was installed and way past the point of return, so I exchanged for one with more chance of success.

And success is what we got.  I’ve never done that, switched out a processor, but it was smooth and not all that tense, the two of us working together.  John is good with sensing spatial coherence, knowing that there is probably one way things fit together and seeing that one way.  Me, I imagine all sorts of potential fits, always have.  But unlike, say, plumbing, computers don’t make me sweat much.  I understand how they work, and why.  I just maybe need someone to align the edges.

That processor booted up and was an improvement, but that turned out to be the start of cascading consequences.  Sure, you had more power, but it turned out the video card was still the key.  So I offered to front him the cost of that same high-end baby I once had my eyes on, and it came yesterday.  Funny story about him waiting and when it finally arrived, but actually maybe not that funny.  I’ll pass.

That video card does not work, though, is not even recognized by his computer, like me standing in Macy’s at the perfume counter.  Unseen, unacknowledged, and maybe not really belonging.

I believe I’ve traced this to an inadequate power supply, since the specifications on the video card box mentioning 500 watts as recommended and oh, we have 250 watts, you think?  So off this morning to buy a new power supply, and we shall see.  Surely there will be something else, as we all know that if you give a moose a muffin, it’s going to want a glass of milk.  Possibly a new heat sink, too.  Mooses are like that.


Continue Reading

Continental Divide

I have some assorted thoughts on my quick trip to Austin, most of them discoveries about the process of taking the man out of his comfort zone and the eating of meat, but this week’s column is sort of an overview until I get around to that:

Austin is supposed to be an island in Texas, a place where music breaks free of steel guitars and where Whole Foods was born, where South by Southwest draws artists of all kinds, where films and reputations are made, where hipsters are apparently hatched, fully formed and wearing black glasses.  I saw some of this on my visit to Austin, but I also saw spectacular hill country and what appeared to be a thriving downtown.  And while I wandered through that Whole Foods and felt at home, with no need to flash my Northwest ID card and sneer at fake fish, I also traveled east to Lockhart, Texas and encountered Texan barbecue.


Continue Reading

A Cat, A Box, A Life.

So.  Schrödinger had this cat.

Erwin Schrödinger was a theoretical physicist, and this was a theoretical cat.  For the record.

It was a thought experiment, an activity physicists in the early 20th century engaged in a lot.  They would imagine hypothetical situations under perfect conditions, extrapolate and theorize and pretend to their heart’s content, and then they’d all get together and discuss these experiments with great passion.  You know the type.

Take a box, said Schrödinger.  Construct a diabolical mechanism, a Rube Goldberg device triggered by a small piece of radioactive material.  Given the nature of such things, eventually an atom of this material would decay.  Might take an hour, might take longer, might take less time, nobody knows.  But when it decayed – in this imaginary, ideal situation – it would lead to the release of cyanide gas.

Now put a cat in the box, close the lid, and think.

I’m thinking the cat didn’t consider the situation all that ideal.

But here’s the question Schrödinger posed: What’s the state of the cat, over time, with the lid remaining closed and no way to know what’s going on with that pesky decayed-or-not atom?

For those of us not theoretical physicists, it’s simple.  We think of two things.

(1)    Dude.  What did that cat ever do to you?  And

(2)    The cat is either alive or dead.

Again.  No actual cats were harmed. Sheesh.  Cat people.  Chill.

Schrödinger was just taking the new quantum mechanics that everybody was yakking about to its illogical conclusion, which would be that, in fact, the state of the cat couldn’t be known without observation, and was, in fact again, a statistic, a wave form of probability.  According to a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, the cat was sorted of smeared all over the inside of the box, neither alive or dead.  Messy though.

Enough of quantum theory, which I will never truly grasp, although I try.  And enough of theoretical physicists, for that matter.

Except to note that some of them, including Schrödinger and particularly Einstein, were bothered by all this talk of mathematical possibilities and uncertainty and discontinuity, etc.  This is reality, Greg.  They wanted a connection between the quantum atomic world and the classical physics of Newton, where an apple fell to the ground and didn’t just hang in mid-air in a state of probability.  This sort of thinking drove Einstein right up the wall.

And we can imagine he would have gone ballistic, in his Einstein way, had he lived just a few years longer to see the “many worlds” concept begin to take off, the idea that uncountable little choices spin off into multiple universes and timelines; in one the cat is dead, in the other the cat is alive, and so on.

Once again: There was no cat.

This is what’s really on my mind.  Not quantum physics, although that’s fun to think about sometimes.  But other lives?  I’ve been there.

This weekend I head for Texas to spend a few days with my girl, overdue and anticipated.  I held her in my arms a few seconds after she took her first breath, and I imagined her life to be.

And if you had told me the future that actually happened?  Absolutely.  I would have grinned and nodded.  It makes sense.  She has surprised me in so many ways, but I could have seen it way back when, definitely.

Tomorrow my son turns 22, though.  And here we go.

You hold a newborn and you see the paths; you can’t help it, I think.  They dance from general to specific, from an unknown future to particular chromosomal arrangements.  I saw a boy and then a man, back then, fuzzy but there.  I imagined all sorts of things.

I was wrong, of course.

I have two sons, then.  One had the joyous sitcom life I imagined in the delivery room, the Little League and the first car and the prom dates and (forgive me) the winning catch.  Or the winning essay, or the solo, or the lead role.

And then there’s the son I have observed, who has faced challenges that would send me under the covers, and done it with mostly grace and humor.

If he sees the other life, he doesn’t dwell on it.  This is the Newtonian reality, with gravity and momentum, with medication and forms, with special classes and uncertain options.

I’ve known a lot of people in my life.  I still think he’s the bravest person I’ve ever met.  Walk in his footsteps and wonder.

I have grieved for that other boy, just a little, just a couple of times, on purpose and with a specific point.  I didn’t want to change the past, fix the future, argue with God about the unfairness.  It happens.  People have it worse.  I love my son just the way he is.  I wish it had been easier for him, but then.  Wishes.

And after I mourned this alternative reality, I learned something important.

What didn’t happen can’t hurt us.  What might have been has no power over us, not unless we let it, and I won’t.  Don’t.  Can’t.

It’s not just John.  I have a lifetime of other options, if I want to play that game.  So do you.  Take it from me, then: Regret can cripple you.

Hope, on the other hand, is pretty cool.  I’m a big believer in hope.

This is where I’m heading now.  Hopeville.  Hopeland.  The Hope Community.

And also Austin, as I say.  Looking forward to that.  And to John’s 22nd birthday, when I get to once again recite the details from amniotic fluid to apgar scores, and he can roll his eyes.  This is the life we get, this is the day we get, it’s what I can observe and what becomes real as soon as interact with it.  The rest is just theory, and a little of that can last a long time.

There is no cat.  Just so you know.


Continue Reading

When High Tech Goes Bad. Or Boring.

Lately my mind has wandered to chromosomes, mine in particular, and why they’re broken.

It may not (of course it’s not) be biological, just cultural or even random individuality, but I know something about men and toys.  And we live in Disneyland, we do.

Even a new, 50-buck microwave gives me little spasms of joy.  If it runs on electricity and has something you push, swipe, plug or push, I’m liking it a lot.  And if I can program it, well.

So I can’t really explain it, other than I’ve just outgrown myself.  There are a couple of new computers in this house, and I’m really weary.

I bought my first computer in 1990, preparing to go into business for myself and diving into overhead in a big way, for the time.  That first one – ordered from a small Seattle company, and taking a week to assemble before I got my shaky hands on it – cost me approximately a month’s salary.  Add in that fancy dot matrix printer and we were talking real money.  I had one foot dangling over a cliff and the other on top of a 1400-baud modem that was pretty much worthless.

You know the story, if you did this and remember.  A 286 processor.  40 MB of hard drive, way more than I could fill up with word processing.  A floppy disk drive (5-1/2-inch, of course) and MS-DOS.  “Back to the Future III” was in theaters, George H. W. Bush was in the White House, and I was computing, gingerly.

I’ve lost track of computers, now.  That first one went to the kids after I upgraded (one with CD-ROM and Windows!).  Then I upgraded the kids’, who were also upgrading themselves.  Then a motherboard went bad, then a new and fancy one, then a hasty one, then a laptop for JK when she went to seminary, then a laptop for Beth when she went to college…they blur.  Lots and lots of computers.

And now I think: Remember when that used to be fun?  Maybe it was an emergency, or maybe it was just time, and almost always it hurt my checking account, but a new computer?  That was fun with a capital everything, and the thrill lasted for weeks.

On Labor Day I had another motherboard melt-down, my 5-year laptop starting to creak and overheat.  It was a bad day for it, and being savvy by now and informed I walked into Best Buy and walked out five minutes later.  I literally bought the second computer I looked at.  Fine, whatever, I’ll take it, price is right. What a pain.

And it was.  Ugh.  Transferring my files from the cloud and external drives, reinstalling familiar programs, setting up VPN, decrapifying the preloaded junk…a waste of a day.

Last week, loading up her car in the university parking lot, dark and cold, my wife left her laptop bag all by its lonesome.  Someone picked it up and turned it in to Security, but something happened.  Something less than being run over but more than nothing.  The screen was shot, and screens are important.

It worked fine with an external monitor, but trying hauling one of those around.  It was also an ancient machine, and by now a new computer is essentially an unexpected but minor car repair bill: Nobody likes it, but the electricity stays on.  Not a huge deal.

Getting her back to work, creating exams and grading papers?  That took me a while, and with other things to do and the clock ticking, the stress built and nobody was happy, and here we are.  New computers.  No joy.  Mostly irritation.

This is a specific kind of anhedonia, I think, the inability to experience pleasure.  It’s a fine computer.  Much nicer than her old one, and much lighter too.  Better processor, more RAM, good graphics, shoot me now.  I’m just not that into it.

What I want, actually, is a door.  A new garage door.  Some new interior doors.  That would be sweet.  That’s what is on my mind.  Some solid, functional, old-fashioned doors.  And maybe some flooring.

It was bound to happen.  Our electronic attention deficit disorder was bound to crop up, even in this world of new and improved.  Or else my tastes have changed, like everything else.  I got a food processor from my daughter this Christmas, a pretty simple tool that makes chopping quicker and easier, and it gives me pleasure every time I use it.  It doesn’t even stream movies or play mp3s, but it gives me way more pleasure than a new laptop, and so now I wonder.

Also?  Really want those doors.


Continue Reading

Lone Starring

It’s currently 31 degrees at my house, while in Austin, according to my sources, it’s 68.  This is what I’m talking about.  I may have picked a good time for a trip, although let’s see what next week brings.  If it’s 45 degrees and rainy there next Friday, I won’t be disappointed, although I can’t rule out thinking that somehow I deserve it.  I really should have been a better person, etc.

I’ve been practicing my Texan.  I’m fixin’ to get on a plane, and so on.  Verbs are important in Texas, as are hats.  This is very complicated but I’ve done it before.

Texans are also masters of the double negative, proudly and unashamed.  This was introduced into the Lone Star lexicon by Sam Houston hisself, who famously said, “We don’t need no damn help.”  It stuck.  It’s also useful in Best Buy.

I have a long and well-documented history in Texas, including bloodlines.  There are plenty of my people in Texas, not all of them in Starbuck’s.  A lot are buried in the Fort Worth area, my grandfather used to tell me.  My mother spent part of her childhood on a farm in West Texas.  The bloodlines are there, popping up occasionally, nudging me toward fried food and pick-up trucks, although I resist.

And of course I snagged a Texan 29 years ago, spun my web and charmed her with my clumsy dancing and near-sightedness.  She’s a fixer, a Texas trait, and I was imminently fixable.

It made sense that my daughter would head there for college, given her waiting support system and a nice sense of adventure, but I remember having concerns.  She was a Northwest native, reared on sushi and aloofness.  Her first word was “macchiato” and she grew up thinking that football teams always lost.  She was used to seeing mountains, and fresh vegetables on her plate.  She was accustomed to the practice of Seattle triage: We assess a situation, give first aid and other help, but we don’t want to get involved.  Here’s how you get to Pike and Fourth, no problem, buh-bye now, got a book to read and a bike to ride.  We’re not social animals.

But she survived and flourished, snagged her own Texan, and in a week I get to visit, my first trip there since the two of us drove through on our way to Santa Fe, a long day we’d both probably rather forget.  Now I get to see her new town and her new house, her front porch and her cat.  I’m fixin’ to go to Texas in a week, and I can’t wait.  The only question is whether I bring my hat or not, but I’ll figure that out myself.  I don’t need no damn help, as they say, thanks anyway.

Continue Reading

Everything Old Is New Again

Latest column is up:

But before that happens, sometimes we run out of something. Plates. Glasses. Spoons. Oh my God, spoons. You have no idea. And there is frustration, and fussing, and whining, and improvisation with forks, etc. Because the notion of washing dishes individually (i.e., washing dishes), is hard to grasp. Apparently.

Continue Reading