What Goes Up

My Runkeeper app, which now knows more about me than my wife, offered congratulations the other day.  As I reached the front door, a message beeped and popped onto my phone, informing me that I’d just set a personal record.

I’ve been using Runkeeper for a year and a half now.  It’s a good app for a walker, not necessary but fun and inspiring.  It uses my phone’s GPS to track my movements and rack up the miles, along with my speed and changes in elevation, using all of this information (plus my weight, which it asks me for politely) to calculate calories burned, along with other things.

Mostly I like it for rambling walks, when I get adventurous and wander off.  Its map function is easily available, and knowing how far I’ve gone is important when it comes to knowing when I’ll get back home.  Very important if I’ve had three cups of coffee.

My personal best had to do with climbing, as it turned out, something I rarely think about in terms of numbers.  There’s no avoiding elevation in my neighborhood, sitting here at 600 feet above sea level, surrounded by hilly streets.  I can’t walk in any direction without going up or down, and usually I add in some serious climbs just for the fun of it.

So that’s part of it.  That, and the consistent long-ish walks, and then changing up my route a little lately to include a housing development that comes tailor made for hill climbers.  Some serious hills in this area.  Buns of Steel hills.  Sore calf hills.  Huffing hills.

In the month of September, then, which is technically not over quite yet, I climbed nearly 11,000 feet.  A mountain of daily walks.

I’m not sure I know what this means, given that climbing is unavoidable, but it’s nice that some programmer thought it was a big enough deal to generate an automatic notification.

This is one of the problems with self quantifying in a high-tech world: You can get as many numbers as you want.  I walked over 170 miles in September.  Is that good?  Is it troubling?  Is it important?

Look: I’m a big believer in paying attention to my behavior.  I learn from it, I’m guided, I’m informed and I use this information to nip stuff in the bud.  But along the way I’ve learned the limited utility of numbers, and mostly that they’ll lose their lustre tomorrow.  Best to keep them at arm’s length.

I climbed a mountain in September, cool.  October is another mountain.  It will never go away, and it will never give me a break.  Everything resets, every day, in my life, and it should.  That’s how I know I’m still alive, and I don’t need an app to tell me.

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I Remember It Well (ish)

Thirty-five years ago or so, Charlton Heston gathered journal entries he’d been making for a couple of decades, at that point pretty much his entire movie star career (and, as it turned out, pretty much his career, even if he kept popping up for most of the rest of his life, holding guns over his head), and turned it into a best-selling book.

I read it several times, as it also conveniently covered most of my life to that point, and also it was just fun to get some inside stories – as they happened – about the mechanics of movie making in the immediate post-studio era.

But what struck me then, and has never left me, is Heston’s awareness that things didn’t happen the way he remembered them.

Obviously we have a theme here, as for some reason I’ve decided it’s important that I remember this year.  A lot of that is a gimmick, a conceit, a reason to write a few sentences every day, to preserve weather reports and headlines, but there’s also an existential wink and nod, and not a little homebrewed neuroscience experimentation.  What will I really remember, about what might be just another year, and how will that match up with what happened?

It’s nothing new.  I can look back 11 years and get some idea of what was on my mind, just by reading what I wrote in the newspaper.  Or I can skim blog entries going back to 2003.  There’s some stuff there, hints and surprises.

Four years ago, Paul Newman died.  That’s what I wrote about.  That, and the first presidential debate between McCain and Obama (I wasn’t particularly moved, thought they both did OK).

I’m curious to go back, the closer we get to Election Day, to see what I was really feeling.  I remember being strongly affected by the historic nature of it, and getting a little romantic there toward the end with the images, Grant Park and so on, but essentially feeling a little removed, maybe jaded and mostly practical.  One of two men was going to be President, in an awful time, and I preferred one over the other.  But I may not remember it well, so I might go back and read as we get closer, just to see.

I definitely feel removed about this one, although I’m still fascinated and following all the details; I’m just not particularly inspired to write about it.  Still not.

But I do enjoy watching the numbers, and lately I’ve been catching up with old friends, meaning the math brains at the Princeton Election Consortium.  They were pretty perfect when it came to numbers and results back in 2008 (and 2010), and it’s fascinating to read their calculations and predictions, all the while understanding maybe an eighth of it.  There are others, of course, and who doesn’t like Nate Silver? but it’s fun to check in with the nerds.

They say this baby is wrapped up, by the way.  Let’s see how that looks in a few weeks.  As I say, looking back is sometimes surprising.

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Friday Pants Update: Week #4

At two-thirds of the way through this adventure, meaning that it’s all downhill or uphill from here, in any case some sort of a hill, it’s a good idea to review that it’s not about the pants.

In my Theory Of Short-Term Goals, the pants are the MacGuffin (hat tip to Alfred Hitchcock, although not so much to his pants).  They are a plot device, an irrelevancy to create progress.  They are the least important aspect of this.

The primary aspect was to focus my wandering mind on something, hoping to create order.  The jury is still out.  Still sitting in the jury room.  Ordering lunch, probably.

The third aspect I don’t have a name for yet.  The Bonus, maybe.  In order to squeeze into these now-mythical pants, which I’ve come to believe were created either (1) to drive some fat American man crazy, or (2) specifically for Topher Grace, I had to shed some inches.  Inches are complicated things, of course, neither good nor bad but sometimes heavily loaded with symbolism and ego.  We do not wish inches when it comes to love handles, toenails or nose hair, just to give three examples.  Biceps and height are different things.  There are other examples.

Weight was not an issue, although it can’t be avoided.  We can talk about turning fat into muscle, but that particular alchemy is just that, a fiction, a fairy tale.  I can exercise my obliques from now until October 12 and they will become strong and firm and hidden under a layer of flab, thus allowing these pants to mock me.

So some weight had to come off.  And some did.  About 15 pounds so far, which is not bad at all.  Although I have no idea where it came from.  Possibly nose hair.  Plenty of flab left.

But the Bonus?  28 days of consecutive, consistent, fairly serious exercise.  I like to exercise.  After years of sedentary and often supine living, it made me feel good.  Why else would I do it?  I started to walk daily five years ago and I’ve never really stopped.  But I was getting too casual about it, missing too many days, stopping halfway and promising to finish later, which never ends well.

So at least five miles a day was the promise, and promise kept.  There were a couple of nine-mile days, and a lot of six-mile days lately.  And I’ve taken a full minute off my mile pace, which doesn’t mean much except more sweat, but these little things matter.  It’s about focus, as I said.

Here’s to two more weeks, then.  Maybe I’ll buckle down to boot camp mode, eat a thousand calories a day and work out for hours, but regardless: Changes have been made, and change was the name of my game.  Those pants are the least of my concern, and always have been, but then I don’t have to explain that to you.

I’ll tell you what, though: I am at war with Topher Grace, just saying.

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Watching All The Dancers

It was 44 degrees when I dragged my sorry self out of bed this morning, just south of 6am.  That’s been pretty par for September, or at least not unusual; a little on the low side but we’re just getting started.  The last time it was 60 degrees when I got up?  Over a month ago.

Oh, I can smell October.  November has no odor yet, but I have to be realistic.  At some point I have to stop walking in shorts.  It’s part of being an adult.

We all have to do stuff we’d rather not.  And sometimes, some of us would rather not watch.  That’s sort of what I wrote about this week, although I couldn’t help thinking out loud once again (stop it!) about Facebook and friends and politics.  As I noted before, I’m sensing something, even from my scattered observations, checking in a few times a day.  There’s some pulling back, less clamping down on beliefs and more live and let live.  This is all through the prism of my particular set, of course, my friends and “friends,” but I get some encouragement.

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Not that any of this is unimportant.  As weird as it is to watch a lot of people prepare to cast votes while at the same time having this odd idea that they’re electing an emperor, someone with ultimate power over life and death and gas prices and dogs without leashes, it’s not hard to get nervous when entertaining scenarios of all sorts.

Over the past four years, I’ve delved as deep as I can into the financial crisis of 2008, which means I reached my level of incompetence a long time ago.  The best I can say is that I’m aware of how dumb I am when it comes to economics on pretty much every scale.  But I’ve read a lot, and watched my share of documentaries, and last night I watched “Too Big To Fail,” the HBO dramatization of those months four years ago when a lot of smart, serious people looked down and saw nothing but a big drop.

It was a Big Deal in terms of casting, nice little surprises showing up in almost every scene (wait, that’s Matthew Modine!  Paul Giamatti!), and it was slick and short and well done, four stars.  But mostly it was frightening.  This is the problem with trying to be an informed citizen: It’s not so much watching the sausage being made as realizing that the sausage makers are only human.

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And as I prepare to wallow a little in all of October’s goodness, and try not to think too far ahead, every morning I sit down here at the computer and look out the window at those damn roses.  They’ve got to be terribly thirsty, and desperately need some pruning, but they’ve got summer written all over them still.  It’s a nice way to open my eyes.

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If Today Is Tuesday…

For one brief, shining moment yesterday I thought it was Wednesday.  Long enough to post a Wednesday Archive entry, in case anyone is wondering, which no one is.

So today is Wednesday, meaning yesterday was Tuesday, a day that should have been circled in red on our wall calendar.  It was the first day of classes for Prof. Sigars, who slid out yesterday under her usual cloud of hurry, and the first evening of class (singular) for John.

Just one class, but that’s important.  It’s a core class, a requirement for a degree program he’s interested in, and it gives him a toe just under the surface, just a sampling.  His school history is mostly a horror story, pushing every one of his odd buttons, but after a year of looking for work with professional assistance (hard enough for a regular 21-year-old in 2011-12), he seemed ready for another direction.

His parents too, although that didn’t stop us from fretting, and driving him to school, and waiting outside the classroom with him, as subtle as we tried to be.  He doesn’t need us to do this, but it didn’t hurt and he didn’t seem to mind, and overall the first college experience for my particular boy was positive.

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Aside from a few moments here and there, we still haven’t had rain to speak of in weeks, actually months, and this is meaningless to us here (winters are what matters, snow packs and rivers, and those are fine.  This is a drought in some sense but not most senses, not in a shortage sense).  But my gutters still need desperately to be cleaned, and it’s become one of Those Things.  There are several of Those Things, the things that wander off into winter, when it’s really too late.  Note to self, then: Winter is 87 days away, but don’t let that fool you.  It will make an early entrance, and roofs can be only so tolerant.

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This election is uninteresting to me, seeing as it’s proceeding the way I imagined it would, and of course the real questions have nothing much to do with polls or tallies.  What are we doing here, once we eliminate the noise?  John Dickerson, a good reporter, is trying to figure out what qualities a President should have, and how we would know.  For those looking to dig a little deeper.  Trust me, the shallow end is boring.

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Wednesday Archives

Wednesday has been Column Day for 11 years, and over 11 years some stuff will happen. My rule of thumb is that one should not re-read oneself unless one is willing to pay the emotional price, which usually involves groaning, but at least it’s some sort of record of what I was thinking, or not thinking. Some of these are collected in my books, but I’ve decided to ignore that for the time being and just find one from the past, every Wednesday, and post. If not for your edification, then mine. Groans are acceptable.

From September 22, 2004.

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Thomas Dewey had a good summer in 1948.

Papers and news reels showed pictures of him, relaxing on a boat, looked tanned and confident.  Sometimes the Republican nominee was referred to as “The next President of  the United States.”  No one seemed to have a problem with this.  “Conventional wisdom” may be in the same oxymoron category as “common sense,’ but it can be a powerful force.

Harry Truman was an accidental president, after all, a quirk of history, a fluke.  He was widely considered unqualified and incompetent, certainly in comparison to his predecessor, and he seemed ineffectual when faced when a Republican-controlled congress.  Besides, the Democrats had held the Oval Office for 16 years, and the American people wanted change.  Or so conventional wisdom went.

So Dewey took the summer off, more or less, while Truman took a train, whistle-stop to whistle-stop, talking to small crowds and railing against the “Do Nothing Congress.”  Pathetic.

The pollsters backed all this up.  Scientific polling was still fairly new on the American political scene, but the basics had been established.  Identify your statistical sampling, make the phone call, ask the questions, and write it down.  Dewey wins.  Easy.

So it wasn’t just a headline writer in Chicago who got surprised on Election Day (or the day after, in that case).  All sorts of watchers and commentators were shaking their collective conventional wisdom heads, wondering.  How could this happen?

Turns out that the Man from Independence had the right idea.  The straight-talking, fiery Missourian resonated with rural folk in particular, farmers and such, people who worked hard and had solid values.  They turned out for Truman in droves, a phenomenon the pollsters had no way of predicting.

Because a lot of these people, in 1948, didn’t have phones.

I’ve been thinking about polls a lot lately.  It’s a presidential election year, and I’m not immune to wondering how the whole thing is going to turn out.  Historically speaking, when an incumbent runs it’s often not a close race, one way or the other, but this one smells tight.

How tight?  Tight enough to imagine a scenario like 2000, when one candidate wins the popular vote and the other the electoral college.  Tight enough, even, to imagine a literal tie in the electoral college, which, depending on other results, could theoretically end up with George Bush as President and John Edwards as veep.  No kidding.  It’s in the Constitution and everything.

Last spring, an enterprising guy with a passion for politics (and spreadsheets, apparently) set up a web site to look at polls.  He started collecting data and plugging it in, averaging results and tracking state by state.  This probably makes true statisticians shudder (no two polls, or pollsters, are alike; apples and oranges, in other words) but it paints an interesting picture, for what it is.  I subscribed to his service on a whim (it was free, always a consideration), so every day I get an update.

July looked good for Kerry, although not much in the way of a convention bounce.  August belonged to Bush, and he did get a bounce, although a temporary one.  Now we seem neck and neck again, although the president holds an electoral college lead at the moment, if mostly in the margin of error neighborhood.  So it still looks like a horse race.

There’ve been some anomalies, though.  Several polls by big organizations have shown a double-digit lead for Bush, raising questions about methodology.  It’s enough to make one suspicious about polls in the first place.

We’ve all heard somebody grumble, “Nobody ever polls me,” and statistically that probably makes sense, but still we wonder: Who are these people?  In these days of Caller ID and answering machines, are there people who actually pick up the phone without having a good idea of who’s calling?  Surely, but who are they?

Pollsters probably adjust for this, to be fair.  Still I wonder.  Makes me think about the old joke of a defendant in a trial having to entrust his future to people too dumb to get out of jury duty.

And, finally, there’s the mystery demographic, at least to me.  Twenty-percent of the voting public this year is between 18 and 25.  Young people, Generation Y.  For many of them, this is their first presidential election.  People like my daughter, who has an absentee ballot and an opinion.  If a pollster wants to know what this 19-year-old college student thinks, all he has to do is ask her.

But he won’t.  Because pollsters don’t call cell phones.

There are 170 million cell phones in this country.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re out there, and from my research (i.e., going to the mall) they’re the primary form of communication for young people, many of whom see no need for an old-fashioned “land line” when they can be reached at any time.  Just not by Mr. Pollster.

I have no idea how Gen Y would vote, or even if they will.  But there’s a war now, and a majority of those fighting and dying are under 25.  So maybe this will be a big turn-out year for young people.

But we won’t know about it until Election Day.  Headline writers beware.

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What Malcolm Said

I’m intrigued by tipping points, although not because of Malcolm Gladwell’s book (which I read, liked, and don’t remember now).  The idea, though, a time and place where graph lines intersect and produce something else, something new, and afterwards nothing is ever the same – that gets my attention.

The concept actually seems ideal for me to do incessant reflection on my life, but it never comes up.  Surprise.  I mostly look at the world, and all its changes, and look through what windows I have at other people, and wonder what will happen to all of us.

Not in a dystopian way either.  When I wonder about this, about society and technology and politics and environment, all smooshing together to inspire transformation, I mostly stay optimistic.

There’s always a down side; not even worth bringing up, of course there is.  Mostly, though, I see this usually as resistance to change, futile and impractical.  It’s not the way it was.  Sorry, dude.  And also? The way it was wasn’t that way, not really.  Try not to panic.

What’s on my mind is what’s happening in the realm of social media and the upcoming general election.  Facebook in particular has swept through our culture so fast that it’s tricky to pin down when it actually began, but just a look at the numbers tells us that the way so many people communicate online these days, the status updates and the sharing of pictures and the comments on cats, has never happened before, and certainly wasn’t anywhere near as encompassing in 2008.  New ball game.

So I watch as people start to get revved up, many by their cable news revvers, and it leaks out into social media and they find out something that has always been true: Their friends don’t all feel the same way.  In fact, some of their friends feel exactly the opposite.  In fact, some of your friends quite possibly think your political philosophy is stupid.  At least.

I watched this take off a couple of months ago.  It was fascinating, having been discussing and debating things like this in public for a very long time.  I could read the shock in 140 characters, the way people would post innocuous statements such as “How can some people not understand that Barack Obama is destroying America?” and lo and behold, some people don’t.  Maybe your grandma.  Maybe your high school chemistry teacher.  Maybe your best friend.

It has ripples, I think.  I began to see less of this, eventually, less dumb copy-and-paste directly from FOX News or HuffPo.  Lots of staying away from the subject, too, but also just sort of a calm.  Oh, well.  We’ll just have to disagree.

This is nothing new, just on a larger scale.  As my mother-in-law has always observed, you don’t talk politics in church.  People know there are disagreements.  Still, I’ve watched some eyes open in the past few months, people who suddenly seem to realize that others who share pretty much their stories and life experiences and general beliefs disagree on pretty substantial things, all of it playing out in the big world of point and click.

As I say, I’m optimistic.  Maybe dumb, too.  I mean, we’re constantly told that we’re a divided nation, and voting seems to bear that out.  I’m mostly thinking about the day after, and the day after that.  In the same way that Soviet communism fell in a cascading effect, as citizens passed bootleg video tapes of the Western world around and saw that there was another side, I wonder what will happen next.  I don’t know what the tipping point is, or when it will come.  I just feel it coming.

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Ninety-Four Days

Autumn begins.  I double checked the calendar, just in case.  I double check everything these days.  Some days I check to see if I’m breathing.  I don’t trust my memory for anything.

There were 94 days of summer, days I followed and noted in a journal I started on June 20, a spontaneous decision I made when I noticed my iPhone had helped me track some trivial statistics for a year.  If a smart phone can do it, so can I, was the thinking.

It’s a bucket of trivia, this journal.  It was a whim, a notion, a wish.  I wanted to savor summer but not save it, not preserve it.  Just remember it.  Just do something, every day, and see where I ended up.

Well, here.  The last day of summer was surprising, given the last couple of months and the weather predictions for September.  There was drizzle; not sure if it was measurable or not, but that was definitely water falling from the sky.  My un-unclogged gutters are causing drips to plunk on my garage roof, reminding me that I meant to do that and now it’s a necessity.  The roof is in bad enough shape without turning it into a pond.  There must be a ladder around here somewhere.

Here’s how trivial this journal is: I write down the temperature when I get up (also what time I get up).  It was 55 yesterday and the high seems to have been 58.  The last day of summer was vacillating, then, an undecided voter, not sure what season it really was.  But in case we needed a reminder, now we know: This is autumn.  There will be 92 days of this, and then something else.

I don’t need a journal to tell me what this summer held.  Besides some nice weather, I had a birthday and an anniversary, both celebrated over a long weekend with the Rev. Missus.  We got some new/used furniture that we still use, imagine that.  The Olympics came and went.  I had plenty of work, and other than the first few days no illness to speak, no colds or summer flu.

I’m about five pounds lighter than I was on June 20, another trivial matter.  Ninety-four days older, not so trivial but I try not to panic.

Picking a day smack dab in the middle of summer, August 6, I note that it reached 88 degrees.  It was a Monday, and I bitched to myself about writing a dumb column.  “Eating is out of control,” I noted, which is also pretty dumb.  Really, you can’t take this stuff seriously.

And really, the dull and routine nature of this journal confirms what I knew anyway: The world will always turn, days can be relentlessly uneventful, and spending any amount of energy on changing the past is never going to be fulfilling.

It does remind me, though, that this was a summer and now it’s not, and that while I get a little pleasure in the routine of daily noting, I’m not very interested in where I’ve been.  I’m awfully curious about where I’ll be, though, and somehow that seems to be the point.

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Friday Pants Update: Week 3

Stop already.  It’s not about the pants.

Maybe the pulse, though.

As I finished a long, fast walk last Friday, coming up the driveway my phone buzzed with an email from my mom.  Responding to my blog, she suggested I check my blood pressure before and after my work-out, just in case.

Just in case moms run out of things to worry about, which will never happen, but I thought, hmm.  Good idea, actually.  Just in case.

I walked in the door and our blood pressure cuff was sitting on the ottoman in front of me, since (1) I’d just checked Julie’s blood pressure the day before, (2) we have an ottoman, and (3) once you take something out from its storage place in this house, why would you ever, ever put it back?

So I took my blood pressure, and it was fine, great even, as it has been lately, knock on wood.  My pulse was 100 and coming down, I assumed, which I relayed to my mother, who then suggested that I monitor my pulse rate too.

This is how it works, in case you were raised by wolves.  It doesn’t matter how old you are; in fact, it helps if you get older.  Moms will never run out of things.  My mother probably has a file labeled “Things To Worry About With Chuck” and just pulls it out from time to time.  I’ve observed this behavior with the mother of my own children, so I’m prepared to say it’s universal.

She was also on track with this, too.  There are lots of reasons to exercise (Mom! Start a file on this!), but it’s nice to know what you’re doing, and not only to limit sudden cardiac death.  In theory all this sweating that I’ve been doing for the past five years should be making my heart stronger, but hearts are tricky.  Best to check.

Since I don’t own a watch, don’t exercise near a giant clock with a second hand, and generally am too lazy to stop and actually take my pulse, I got a pulse monitor on Amazon.  It has lights!  And numbers!

Good numbers, too.  Seems this exercise, either walking briskly for six miles or pedaling to nowhere, pumps that organ up to around 125 beats per minute consistently.  Since my maximum heart rate is supposed to be 166 (subtract your age from 220), that puts me right around 70-75% of maximum, placing me in the aerobic range and what I would consider moderate exercise, which is all I want.  Not as strenuous as a guy who runs 6 miles a day, but in that nice, 85%-calories-burned-coming-from-fat range.

And it drops quickly; by 5 minutes after exercise it’s well down into the 70s.  Resting heart rate seems to be between 58 and 62, although I never know when I’m resting and you can only check your pulse so often before it gets weird.

Still.  Let the word go forth: It’s possible for a sedentary 49-year-old to turn it around and become a 54-year-old with a decent heart.

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Only occasionally do I lust after a good camera.  The iPhone is fine for what it does, available and easy, but for on a night like yesterday?  Serious lust.

The wedding was held on a boat docked on Lake Union, an hour before sundown, kayakers on the water, the Seattle skyline just sitting there, no need to brag.  Clear skies, 70 degrees, and nothing but love and joy.  It was a mix of elegance, grace and casual fun, with plenty to eat, drink, watch and wallow in.  Everyone’s wedding should be so nice.

Including me and the guy who got married, there were four of us, here in Seattle last night, who graduated from Maryvale High School (Phoenix) in 1976.  That we still know each other might not be a surprise in the Facebook era (although I seem to be the only one dipping into social media), but that we’re close, that we see each other fairly often, that three of us live up here, that we’re alive and well, with families and lives, is also worth celebrating, and was.  Gotta love life some days; it disrespects calendars.

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