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 November 2, 2005.

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I’m a fan of The Fifties, and have been for a long time.  I mentioned this in an e-mail birthday wish to my buddy, Clarence in Kentucky, who turned 65 on October 26.  I’ve always accused Clarence of being Fonzie all grown up, a charge he accepts proudly.

Some of it is the music, of course, and some the movies.  Some of it has to do with hearing stories from my parents, and some, I’m a little embarrassed to say, came from serious exposure to “Happy Days” in the 1970s.

It’s odd how that particular decade is often described as placid, calm, a respite from war and the Depression.  It was that, surely, but it also was a time that kicked up its heels and started us down several interesting paths.  The Fifties has legs.

The interstate highway system.  The birth control pill.  Rock ‘n’ roll, TV dinners (TV, for that matter), Buddy Holly and Jimmy Dean, the Bates Motel and “Stella!”  Mass-produced neighborhoods and the genesis of suburbia.  The Dodgers and the Yankees.  Holiday Inns all over the place, suddenly.

There was Ed Cole, a man lost to anonymity now but who left his fingerprints all over the automotive industry, a driven, compulsive genius of an engineer who never saw a machine he couldn’t fix and make better and whose greatest achievement, a V-8, 160-horsepower baby that to car enthusiasts and the rest of us was and is simply called the ’55 Chevy.

Or Dick and Maurice, two brothers from New Hampshire who moved to California in the 30s, looking for work.  They tried the movie theater business and a hot dog stand, neither all that successful.  Moving to San Bernadino, they opened up a drive-in restaurant with all sorts of sandwiches, burgers and barbecue on the menu.  They started making good money, but noticed that pretty carhops attracted teenage boys who clogged the parking lot, and also discovered that their top-heavy menu was still producing mostly orders for hamburgers.

So they closed the store for three months, redesigned the kitchen, cut the menu by two-thirds, sent the carhops on their way, figured out that infrared lights kept burgers warm for a long time, switched entirely to paper plates and cups, and suddenly there were long lines and lots of interest in copying their formula.

When they finally, reluctantly, sold their first franchise to an Arizona businessman, they were astonished that he wanted to keep their name above his restaurant.  “What the hell for?” asked Dick.  “McDonald’s means nothing in Phoenix.”

The word “superstar” hadn’t been coined yet, but the 50s produced its share, in sports, film, television and politics.  Few would have much in the way of longevity, such is fame, either from self-destruction (Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy), a limited public attention span, or just simply attrition.  In fact, of all the iconic players in the drama that was the 1950s, I can think of only two who made it into the 21st century with some viability still intact: an odd couple, Marlon Brando and Billy Graham.

And the quiet lady.

In the past week or so, we’ve been reminded of the story of Rosa Parks, both the moment and the myths.  No, it wasn’t just that she was having a bad day, tired feet, etc.  She was already an activist, a secretary of the local NAACP.  If it hadn’t been that day, it would have been another.  She was, in fact, a movement just waiting to be asked to move.

On Monday of this week, nearly fifty years to the day from that bus ride in Montgomery, Rosa Parks laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda, a place reserved for fallen presidents, the first woman ever to share that honor.  And if that strikes some as perhaps political, an effort to drive the news cycle away from Scooter, well, then, it might also be noted that the Secretary of State, fourth in line for the presidency, grew up in the 50s and 60s in the war zone that was Alabama as an African-American girl, and surely had some thoughts on the matter.

It’s gender, actually, that interests me most in the passing of Rosa Parks.  She was a woman.

She had to be.  A black man refusing to surrender his seat in the segregated South risked fates worse than a misdemeanor arrest.  A 42-year-old woman was merely an annoyance, or so it was thought.

The most important American social movement of the last century (and it has stiff competition) was given a running start by a seamstress who said no.  Quietly, gently, firmly, and in a way that resonates and echoes to today.  Ms. Rice is her heir.  Oprah too.

But also Hillary Clinton.  And my wife, and my daughter.

My sister.  My mother.

The system of the 1950s was racist but also patriarchal.  And it still is, but less so, and partly if not mostly due to an African-American woman who said no, and yes, and at the same time, and for the same reason.  And if her name is linked forever with civil rights, then we need to understand, as Dr. King often mentioned, that “civil” and “rights” apply to all of us.

It took a woman, as it turns out.  Who goes to her rest now, 92 years in this life, singular and random and marked by history, and perhaps not all that random, and perhaps free at last.

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Make Believe

We had sympathy wind yesterday, 45-50 mph for a good part of the day, nothing unusual, but enough to make the Sandy news run off my screen and seep into my unconscious a little.  Every time I looked outside, saw the tree branches moving and drops of rain, my brain fooled me into thinking it was The Storm.  So easy, really.

And I went out, then, finally, around 6pm, hungry and restless, and walked around the corner to the pizza shop.  I walked back home, a round trip of maybe 10 minutes, and noticed lots of dark blue sky in between pretty innocent-looking clouds, and realized also that my jacket was unnecessary; it was almost 60 degrees.  And realized where I was, where I lived, and that there was no devastation here, and pretty soon I was back inside, with electricity and heat, and no water running in the street.

I think there’s no real way to be grateful for just normalcy, but yesterday I got close.

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Five Days, Eight Days, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

I’ve been sitting here this morning, an earlier than usual morning for me, wondering what I would do.

If a Sandy-like event were heading our way, I mean.  Given the geography, it’s a hard comparison to make, but let’s just say.  Massive storm, a storm of the century, of many centuries, maybe.  Power outages are definite.  Schools closed, businesses closed, public transportation closed.  Trees crashing down, rivers flooding.  What would I do?

Given that there’s a big freaking mountain range about an hour east of me, maybe we could just head to Spokane, hole up in a hotel for a few days, easy enough to manage.  Or on to Idaho, visit a dear friend for the duration.  Assuming the entire West Coast is off limits.

I think it might be an easy call, getting out of town, but, again, it’s sort of hard to imagine.  We tend to hope for the best, or the best of the worst, and want to stick around, I get that.  Still, it wanders through my mind.

And so the amazing thing, what is maybe not given the weight it should, and maybe understandably so, is that as Sandy approaches, at this point right on time and unfortunately in the path predicted, is that we had five days.  Five days of warning, five days of get-outta-town.  Five days of batten down.

It’s not just the remarkable skill and technology that forecasters have now; it’s also the rapid dissemination of information.  If this is a perfect storm, then it came at a perfect time.  I stand with those hoping for the best of the worst, but I also marvel at what we know, and what lives may be saved by seeing the future so clearly.

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And so back to the future, and the election.  I’m pretty much on record with my disinterest in anything resembling broadcast news, particularly cable news, and for the obvious reasons: Too little pie to divide up, and too much time to try to utilize what pieces you have.  We’ve been complaining about hype in the news media for as long as I’ve been paying attention, but talk about a perfect storm.

Meanwhile, the quants are starting to run the roost, at least for those of us interested in staying away from the usual suspects.  Nate Silver got hisself a nice little career back in 2008, by being a numbers guy and being, pretty much, right when it came to analyzing what data he could see and forecasting the Obama-McCain election.  I still like to read and hear what he has to say, although his vertical leap to the New York Times adds a question mark; it’s not the Huffington Post, but they still need readers and page views.

This is why I’ve been sticking with the Princeton Election Consortium; they’re getting their share of attention now, but it’s still mostly an academic exercise, crunching numbers in a huge way, feeding all these polls into a way-forward machine and examining probability.

So while the cable guys and gals are hyping outliers – Romney is up by 7 in a Gallup poll!  No, wait; it’s Obama by 1! – the nerds are paying attention to what matters, state polls and margins of error.  And while Silver is taking a lot of heat, being as prominent as he is (and it’s getting nasty for him, the wingers starting to focus on what they see as an “effeminate” nature, so of course his numbers must be suspect; these people shouldn’t surprise me, but they still do), across the board the data is converging.  In a good way for the blue folks, not so much for the red.

So while we wait for Sandy, to see if the future comes through as expected but hoping it’s not as bad as all that, the state of the race looks stable.  A few days ago, mapping scenarios, I came up with a final electoral college result of 319 for Obama and 219 for Romney, although I can’t remember how now.  But let’s say that’s my prediction, and see how wrong I am.

This is probability, remember.  There are no sure deals.  If Obama has a 97% chance to be reelected, it’s still just numbers.  It means that 3 times out of a hundred, Romney wins.  Lots of ways for that to still happen, just not as many as there once were.

And seriously: The best of the worst, that’s what I’m hoping for when it comes to Sandy.  Hang on, you guys.  I would send you a big freaking mountain range if I could.

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Name That Tune

When Glenn Miller recorded “Sunrise Serenade” in 1939, he put another composition on the B side.  Unlike “E-ticket ride” and probably a lot of other expressions that are still used despite faded origins, none of which I can think of at the moment, “B side” is probably already a dim reference, doomed to extinction as something people say.  It was the second half of a double feature (there, another one), a filler, an afterthought, maybe.

It turned out to be a good one for Mr. Miller, “Moonlight Serenade,” which became a huge hit and Glenn Miller’s signature song, a classic example of the big band sound, the clarinet leading the sax section.

It was the first song up on a local NPR station’s Saturday big band show last night, which I caught while driving home from the grocery store, entirely by accident.  But sometimes you wonder about accidents.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that I’ve been doing a lot of video editing.  This was a notion on my part, and maybe not all that well thought out; St. Andrew Presbyterian, the church my wife serves as associate pastor, is celebrating their 50th anniversary next weekend, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to create a video to show at the big event.

Video editing is tremendous fun and a time pit that still stuns me, even though I’ve done a fair amount of it.  The only thing similar I can think of is computer programming, what little of that I’ve done.  The hours are amazing, disappearing as you make minor adjustments, trying to find a whole, and the satisfaction at the finished product is somehow never as good as those endless moments spent putting it together.

So, given my schedule, maybe not such a good idea.  Also, since what passes for creativity in my brain tends to run in a definite nonlinear fashion, we had the potential for less of a 10-minute video and more of a miniseries.

At one point, though, I thought a section on what it looked like 50 years ago, in 1962, might be fun, and so I’ve become a bit of an authority.  World Series?  San Francisco Giants v. the Yankees, which sounds like duh but was actually the first time the Giants made it to the Series since moving west.  So they’re having a little 50th celebration of their own this year.

The Jetsons began in 1962, and while I don’t remember a specific date set for George and Jane, it could have 2012, why not?  Fifty years in the future; surely we’d all be flying around.  They did get two things right, though: People still have real dogs, not robot ones, and George’s treadmill is a pretty common household appliance.  You’ve probably got laundry on top of yours.

There were plenty of other events in 1962, most particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, which ended 50 years ago today.  But the music is what got my attention.

Pick a transition year, from the easy listening big band-ish sound to the thump of early rock, and you can make an argument for several, but I guess I would have assumed by 1962 we were well on our way.  Elvis was a household name by then, and four moptops in Liverpool were already making plenty of noise.  And a look at the top hits of 1962 shows familiar titles and acts: The Twist premiered that year, along with Johnny Angel, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, two hits from the Four Seasons (Sherry and Big Girls Don’t Cry), and, by the way, Monster Mash.

It was the number one hit of 1962 that caught my eye, though.  Composed by English clarinettist Acker Bilk for his daughter, originally called “Jenny” after her, it became the theme song for a popular British soap opera in 1961.  It zoomed up the UK charts, then crossed the Atlantic.  And in the age of Frankie Valli and The Beatles about to break, it feels like a last gasp, a coda to an era slipping away, an instrumental.

And one of my favorite songs.  “Stranger On the Shore” might be familiar to you, too; it was featured in Mr. Holland’s Opus and in the Jim Carrey film The Majestic, a schmaltzy, ridiculous piece of movie fluff that I would watch right now, I swear.  Love love.

“Stranger On the Shore” just feels recognizable, and I think it’s because it carries that Glenn Miller sound, the in-your-face clarinet, the lilt, the sentimentality.  So this was on my mind last night, as I mentally continued to edit this little video, thinking about music of the era, and then turned on the radio.

It was “Moonlight Serenade” but it could have been Mr. Bilk’s song, written for a little girl but also written for a time, long ago, half a century now, back when The Jetsons were born and everything seemed possible.  Back when what was new was also old, and now all these years later still feels that way.

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What Comes

The gloves have come on.  Gloves, coats, scarves, sweaters too.  Our 2012 summer was all L-words: Lazy, languid, long, lingering.  It messed with us, the way weather does, but entirely appropriate and welcome.  Store up on the sun, and all that.  We got our share.

But we always do, really, if not sun then relative peace, and definite seasons.  As what could be Hurricane Sandy makes its way toward land, I have to be reminded that we’re spared such things here.  We can get serious wind, far more serious than people might think, hurricane serious, but this constant watching of radar and boarding up windows?  No.  We just watch and wonder what it’s like, hope for the best, and if we’re aware at all we’re also grateful.

October has been wet, leafy, soggy and brisk.  I walk along the same streets of summer and the whole landscape has changed.  The air has that October smell, part damp and part woodstove-y, and I’m always glad to get back from my walks now, no lingering for me.

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My son, whose school history has been mostly special ed and special circumstances, and most of them not good, wrote his first research paper the other day.  It was a short one, and I kept telling him it wouldn’t be difficult, but of course I do this all the time, type and write and link and cite.  The day before it was due he spent nine hours, mostly, sweating over every sentence, me sticking my head in the room to goose the process, give him hints, hold his hand a little.  But it was his work, his stress, and the next day it was like everything had changed.  Everything was now a possibility, everything was now more exciting, everything was now going to, maybe, be OK.  I can’t describe it more clearly than that.  You see a hurdle.  You get past it.  You look back, then forward.  You know.  This was a big deal.

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This is all a big deal, although it’s hard to figure it out sometimes.  I’ve been doing a lot of video editing for a project lately, and I find myself mentally panning and zooming as I go through the day.  What’s the big picture, what’s really important, what’s the thing that will stand out, should stand out?  It’s a strange way to see the world, focusing and unfocusing, looking for moments, but I seem to do it a lot.

And I always come back to the day, just one, just all I have.  This one is starting off wet, as usual, but who knows what will happen, and who knows what it will mean tomorrow.

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Adding It All Up, Still No Answer

This is the 300th day of 2012, if you weren’t paying attention.  There’s a roundish number for you, although whenever I find myself doing this, imagining that certain numbers are neat and tidy and others aren’t, I remember a scene from Jodie Foster’s excellent film, “Little Man Tate.”

The teacher writes a number on the board; let’s say it’s 20.  “What numbers can be divided into 20?” she asks her elementary school class.

Young Mr. Tate looks baffled.  “All of them,” he says.

Paraphrased.  I need to watch that again.  But you get my point.  It’s an artificial symmetry, this 300, not a magic number at all.

Still.  What could we have done with 300 days, one at a time?  I could have thrown away or recycled one item in this household, every day, easy.  Books alone would have kept me busy.

A dollar shoved into an envelope once a day would almost get you one of those mini iPads, or a plane ticket to somewhere, or maybe a nice suit.  A fabulous meal, for sure, or a night at a fancy hotel, all for a dollar a day, imagine that.

If you’d lost a tenth of a pound, every day, you’d be 30 pounds lighter.  In metabolic calculation, that means you have had to burn 350 calories more than you consumed, every day.  One less cookie, one more short walk, it could be done.

Actually, I just checked my iPhone app, and today I’m 30 pounds less than I was on January 1.  Coinky-dink.  Also, 30 pounds on me is not that big of a deal.  A pair of jeans fits better.

I look at 300 days, though, and wonder about never getting them back, and hoping to do better.

——

Numbers are part of my life, it seems, strange for a guy without much math aptitude.  They help with chaos, I think.  Numbers, statistics, demographics…watercolors, really.  Reality has a lot more details, but numbers sometimes get the essence, for a moment, of what’s going on.

I’ve been thinking of my personal numbers lately, as I wait for the Blue Cross or Shield or whatever to determine whether or not they will allow me to pay them $4500 a year for the privilege of getting a physical once every 12 months.  It’s easy to beat up on insurance companies, but I completely understand why this might be troubling.  I have a distinct lack of continuity in medical care, a missing four years, and I’m apparently not 25.  At 54, one wonders.  What preexisting condition is this guy hiding that he expects us to cover, now that he graces us with premiums?

I could actually have a preexisting condition, although I seriously doubt it.  Living without health insurance – not to mention watching members of my family wade through medical issues – tends to sharpen the perception.  I notice a lot of little things, wonder about them, extrapolate from this awareness, then watch them disappear.  I think I would know, but then, of course, you can’t know everything.  Plenty of stuff could be sneaking around.  Stuff I deserve, too.

But aside from a lifetime of questionable habits, I feel great.  Those 30 pounds help with that, as do the walks and the bike, the clean living and the pure heart.  I broke my tailbone in 2000, had a couple of minor outpatient surgeries a few years ago, and took a trip to the funny farm, but aside from that, no asterisks that I can see.  No hospitalizations, no hypertension, no elevated cholesterol, no elevated anything in my medical record.  I’m a good candidate for catastrophic insurance, with a few visits allowed for health maintenance.  I know this, they don’t.  So I wait.  Which I can do, of course, no hurry.  But sooner than later would be nice.

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One quick election update: We have 11 days.  As I said yesterday, this is the time when, if you want to get geeky about numbers and not be all partisan and upset and nasty, etc., the race becomes sort of static.  Things can always change, and most people haven’t voted yet, but one assumes that most people who will vote have made up their minds.

And as close as it appears, the numbers are daunting for Gov. Romney.  It will actually be quite an achievement, electorally speaking, if he wins.  And I guess an achievement for the Prez, too, to win with an unemployment rate that still looks dismal.  But it’s harder for Romney, and here’s why.

There are a total of 538 electoral votes up for grabs.  The winner needs 270 to get the big prize.  With the red/blue stuff now permanently set in our brains, and pretty solid at any rate, both candidates have locks on a significant number of votes: Obama 24737, and Romney 191.  It looks like only 8 states are in play, although you might get one or two more in the next week or so, it can happen.  But really those 8 are it.

So you see?  Obama needs 23 33 votes, while Romney needs 79.  And those 8 states combine total 105.  And of those eight, four are leaning blue, two red, and two currently toss-ups (North Carolina and Virginia).

Give Romney the red leaners and the toss-ups, and he still needs 18.  Ohio has 18 votes, which is why everybody’s talking about Ohio.  But Obama has been ahead there the entire time, so maybe that’s not so likely.  Romney needs to also pay attention, then, to siphoning off Colorado and Iowa, currently looking pretty blue, which would give him 20 and the win.  Just one won’t do it.

Anyway.  Sorry for the geek stuff.  Just a head’s up, though, if you don’t want to mess with the nastiness but still want to see if you can figure this game out: Watch Ohio, but also watch Virginia and North Carolina if you’re an Obama person.  Also if you’re a Romney partisan, but keep an eye on Colorado and for God’s sake don’t let Florida go all blue on you; that will be all she wrote.

And we have 65 days until 2013.  Let’s see what we can do with those, OK?

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The Mail Conundrum, Plus Polls

I was driving last Sunday, taking John to a meeting, when my mother-in-law called.

And yes: There is a Henny Youngman joke bubbling around in there, although jokes weren’t on my mind.  Feel free.

Aside from the surprise at my phone actually ringing, and aside from my usual rule about refusing to deal with it when I’m driving, which I always follow except when I don’t, I was trying to find a parking place.  That’s enough for my brain to deal with at any given time, trust me.  So I let it ring.

But I had to wonder, of course.  My in-laws are fast approaching the age of 90, and although they seem to be in excellent health…there’s a phone call in the future, of course.  We’ve all got one coming.

They were fine, as it turns out.  She hadn’t heard from Julie in a couple of weeks, is all, and decided to call me, working a little back channel magic.  I give her credit for creativity there.  And I would have been glad to reassure her that her daughter was alive and well, just busy.

I’d be glad, in fact, to reassure her all the time, except she lives in 1983 and I happen to be here in the 21st century.  It would probably alarm her if I called just to chat, make her wonder what’s being left unsaid, and of course the usual ways are out of the question, email, etc.

I could write her a letter, I guess, but then I’d have to print it out, find a stamp and envelope…it used to be simpler, I think, but I live where I live.  There are plenty of internet companies that try to fill in this demographic gap, but what I really need is a broadband neighbor down there in Gun Barrel City, someone willing to print my stuff out and walk it over.  I need to work on this.

Because mail is fun.  Sending and receiving, which is sort of what I wrote about this week.

—–

And as I wrote last week, I’m enjoying being landline free this political season.  No robocalls for us.  And with no cable, and almost no radio listening, I’m pretty much immune from ads, too.  The only ones I experience come from Hulu, when I’m usually too busy sweating to pay attention, or the bit of radio I get on the way back from dropping the Rev. Missus at the train station.

One I’ve been hearing a lot is hilarious, although unintentionally and unfortunately I’ve forgotten exactly who the candidates are.  It’s the outrage that’s funny: This politican got caught not reporting some lobby money, and had to pay a fine of a thousand dollars! (insert Dr. Evil quote here).  His wife was put on the payroll of a lobbyist and received a salary of 25 thousand dollars!  This bad man and his family got extras, too, like free use of a pickup truck!  Oh man.  All politics is local, and you gotta love local.

But I pay attention, and I have my passion.  I have strong feelings about the presidential race, and so I’m always eager/anxious to see if I can figure out how it’s going.

And as I’ve mentioned here before, I mostly pay attention to Dr. Sam Wang over at the Princeton Election Consortium.  I first starting reading this in 2004, another tight election, and now I’m hooked.  I ignore the rest now; for me, it’s Wang or nothing.  And we’ll see on Nov. 7.

In case you’re interested, then, some Wangisms.

Forget about the national polls.  It’s the state polls that matter.

And forget about individual polls.  You need an aggregate; there are too many of them, with widely varying methods and margins of error.  Take them all, toss in some serious math, and see where you are.

And relax.  What will happen will happen regardless of your stress level.

In the world according to Dr. Wang, then, who has a pretty spotless record in this regard, the race looks like this: Very, very close.  But stable, as it should be this close to Election Day.  President Obama has been ahead the entire campaign, even though the Romney side tightened things up in September (then loosened again).  It’s statistically possible for either man to win, or for it to be a mess, with Romney eeking out a popular vote victory and Obama taking the Electoral College, as happened in 2000 and three other times in U.S. history (maybe four; there’s a solid opinion that Nixon actually won the popular vote in 1960, another story).

But at this point?  Obama for the win, narrow but solid.  I’ll pass it along if things change, as is possible, of course.  Otherwise, relax.  Go drive your free pickup truck or something.

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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 October 20, 2004.

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If you’re a man, and I know some of you are, you understand that in life there are questions and then there are Questions, which is what we learned in Man School, by which I mean TV sitcoms.

You know.  The Questions.  The traps that are supposedly waiting with the women in our lives, the unanswerable inquiries.  “Does this dress look all right?  Do these pants make me look fat?”  It’s been a staple of television comedy since Desi and Lucy.  Turn on the TV (go ahead.  I’ll wait) and I guarantee that within 15 minutes you’ll see some variation of this.

And there’s a glimmer of truth there, even if it’s just television.  It can be a delicate dance, men and women living together, an idea Mother Nature probably really never intended to be taken seriously.  There’s a steep learning curve, particularly for men.  Women are just more complicated.  They think more.  They take things seriously.  And they can be confusing for your basic sitcom male at first, particularly when he realizes that the bathroom has been taken over.

A few years ago, when there were two women living in my house, my son made this particular discovery.  He was looking for something, his comb or toothbrush, something, and I could hear him getting more and more frustrated.  Sigh.  Time for The Talk.

“Look at all this junk!” he said.  “What do they need all this for, Dad?”

I patiently tried to explain as best I could.  “Now this, son, is lipstick.  Or eyeliner.  Maybe rouge.”  It’s not easy.  I still, after all these years, don’t know the difference between mousse and gel, and why there are eight bottles of it in the cabinet.

“What this thing for, Dad?”

“Hmm.  To be honest, I’m not sure.  I just know that sometimes it gets really hot.”

When my son gets older, I’ll also talk to him about Questions.  I’ll tell him that life is not really like “Everybody Loves Raymond,” that there are no trick questions, that part of the secret of men and women living together in harmony is a subtle balance between truth and fiction, but honestly is usually the best policy.

QUESTION:  “Does this skirt look all right, or is it a little young for me?”

ANSWER:  “How would I know?  I’m a GUY.”

See?  Piece of cake.

I’ll also tell him, should he be dumb enough to still be listening to me, that these stereotypes are just shorthand for comedy writers, and that life is different, that men and women adjust and learn and grow and then maybe just give up and settle.  Depends.

For example, the questions my wife likes to ask me are usually of the rhetorical nature.  It’s like a game to her.  “When is it going to stop raining?” she’ll ask, waiting for me to answer.  “Is he going to wear that same tie every Sunday?”  That sort of thing.  This drives me crazy, which is probably why she does it.  It keeps the marriage lively.

The other night, though, she asked me a real question, one I could answer, and it bothered me.  She was lying in bed, working a crossword puzzle, which she likes to do in bed.  I was lying in bed, trying to sleep, which is what I like to do.

“Who ran against Dwight Eisenhower for President?”

“Adlai Stevenson.”

“Both times?”

“Uh-huh.  G’night.”

And suddenly I was wide awake, listening to my heart beat very fast and starting to sweat, middle-age man sweat, the way you feel when you suddenly realize you’re really never, ever going to play in a pick-up game of basketball again and for a very good reason.

This was my fear: There is really no earthly reason why I should carry around the name “Adlai Stevenson” in my brain.  None.

Not only that.  How come I know all the words to the theme song from “Gilligan’sIsland?”  BOTH VERSIONS.  How come I can name almost the entire starting offense of the 1967 USC football team?  How come I know details about the 1952 Presidential race, the color of the shirt I wore the first day of high school, and huge chunks of dialogue from “The Incredible Mr. Limpet” but if someone asks for my zip code I have to pause?

See, I’m thinking that the brain is finite, that there’s only room for so much stuff, just like a bathroom, and I should have been jettisoning years ago.  I mean, my wife has two Master’s degrees, she’s very intelligent, but she doesn’t need to know about Adlai Stevenson because that’s what encyclopedias are for.  Or husbands, I guess.  She saves brain room for important things.  Me, I’m starting to think I’ve used mine all up, and it scared me.

Julie had put down the puzzle and turned off the light.  “Honey?” I said quietly.

“Mmm.  What is it?”

“Do you think I’m getting dumber?”

There was no answer, of course.  As I say, we ask a lot of rhetorical questions around here.

Or she could have just been asleep.  That was probably it.

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Grape Expectations

So the Giants and the President won last night, unless you disagree, in which case go Cards, I guess.  Also the Bears won, I believe.  Really, I’m a little busy.

I prefer personal, little victories, ones I can mull over at night, note at the end of the day, talk to friends about, take to bed and dream on, a little.  Insignificant in the big picture, I guess, but then what’s a big picture other than dots of light and shade?  Concentrate on the light, I think.

Here’s an example: My wife is a teacher, much loved by many students.  Particularly private students, the ones who come to the house and sing in my living room, although it’s not really mine anymore.

And every holiday season, they come to sing bearing gifts.  Typical Christmas stuff, mostly edible.  My wife is much appreciative, although here’s a little secret: She’s very picky.  No nuts.  No coconut.  No marshmallow, certainly.  She’s not exactly crazy about caramel, either.  What she likes, in fact, is almost solely dark chocolate, and that in tiny bits.

So we are surrounded by an enemy of sugar during this time of year, the time that is approaching, and every year I promise that I won’t scavenge the uneaten candy, that I won’t munch on cookies, that I won’t gain weight, and I break that promise almost immediately.

I imagine I’ll break it this year, too, but here’s my secret: I’ve been dropping pounds, very slowly, in preparation, giving me room to grow.  I will take this as a victory, assuming it all works out.  And assuming no dental emergencies.

John has achieved a similar victory, although I take responsibility for orchestrating it.  Every day I give him a Dr. Pepper; he’s 22, but I’m the designated Doctor deliverer.  He’s well aware of the danger, so I dole it out, one a day, and it works for us.

This wasn’t a sugar thing, but a caffeine one.  He’s very sensitive, and sleep has always been an issue, so that’s why the good doctor is limited.  The rest of the day, though, he’d suck down non-caffeinated soda, mostly orange, which wouldn’t keep him up but didn’t help his gut, pancreas or teeth.

We managed to switch him to sugar-free Kool-Aid for a while, which he liked, but oddly that’s getting hard to find.  He doesn’t care for most of the Crystal Light flavors, but a few weeks ago we found a generic store brand type of powdered sugar-free grape drink, and that works.

This is what I’m talking about, then.  Tiny changes, hardly noticeable but ones that change the light, so to speak.  Brighten the future a bit.  John has had a lot of them, lately; college is going surprisingly well, for example.  Sleep is better.  Other things.

And I’m less flabby, and Julie is loving her train-bus commute.  We’re busy, and not too broke, and Advent is just around the corner, a good time to appreciate what we have, and what might be coming.

As long as we don’t run out of grape drink, as John reminded me this morning.

 

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What I Think Is My Business. I Think.

I got an interesting email from an editor last week, interesting in the sense that I didn’t see it coming, and if I’d thought about it for more than a second I would have imagined an email asking the opposite thing.

What she wanted was for me to write longer newspaper columns.  Not that much longer, just a little longer.  They’ve adjusted the typeface point size down recently, and since they don’t jump my column (i.e., continue it on another page) they were forced to place dumb little ads on the bottom to fill the space.  They need another 30-40 words.

I was tempted to suggest that they could run the same ad every week in that space, a little blurb that said, “Send Chuck a Dollar!” but it seemed…tacky.  But five dollars would be too much, you know?  A dollar would be fine.

At any rate, adding a couple of sentences is not a problem, so it was nice to be asked.  It usually takes me 400 words or so to locate a verb, so more room is better.

——–

This was the second email conversation with this young woman in the same week, a rarity.  In a normal week, which is to say always, I’ll send her a column on Monday morning, occasionally early afternoon.  Mondays are very busy for her, and I’m sure she’d appreciate a column sent on, say, Thursday of the prior week, but that’s not how I roll.  Or rock.  Or write.  I have too much respect for deadlines to not approach them with reverence and affection and get as close as possible.

But last week I wrangled with myself over a word choice.  I vacillated between “convince” and “persuade,” and even though I know the general rules (“persuade” really needs an action to follow; I can be convinced of something, but I persuade you to do something else) this was an unusual sentence, passive and reflexive.  I ended up choosing an entirely different, possibly inappropriate verb, so I asked her to practice her editing skills and help me out.  Which she did, by leaving it the way it was (this is a lovely thing for an editor to do, BTW).

It did start me thinking about persuading, though.

My friend Sid wrote another op-ed for the Everett Herald yesterday, this time on same-sex marriage.  The state legislature legalized this last spring, but immediately a referendum was in the works, and so Washington citizens are being asked to approve this idea, or not.  I’m uneasy with the referendum process, and particularly in this case, although it looks like it will pass fairly easily.  Wedding bells will be ringing.

Sid tries to make the case for this, eloquently and logically, and so we come to my thinking.

I don’t believe most people are persuadable, and the ones that are raise my suspicions about many things.  One on one, sure; in a fantasy situation, where you and I make our cases, back them up, offer personal insight and passion and enthusiasm, I can see persuasion.  When  it comes to law in particular, there are often unforeseen consequences and little details that can be missed.  Sometimes a friendly conversation can clear this up.

But a public conversation?  I don’t see it, and so mostly I don’t do it.  I just can’t gin up the interest to express my opinion, sending it out into the world signed and notarized.  I have this opinion.  It has been considered, and thought about.  I often have great passion.  If asked, I’d be glad to share it.  I just lost interest in trying to practice the art of persuasion, which is what we’re talking about.  I’d rather make jokes, honestly, and hope they’re recognizable as such.

I agree with Sid, of course.  Same-sex marriage harms no one, including “society,” and denying a segment of the population a right the rest of us enjoy is a distasteful way to practice democracy.

I just don’t believe I can change another mind, and I doubt Sid can, either, but God love him for trying.  Me, I’ve got an unopinionated column to write myself, a little longer than in years past, and somewhere in there I’m hoping to place a joke.  And a verb.  I’m convinced I can do it, too.

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