As I Leave You

The plum tree that has done me no damn good is going.  I got a couple of bids, and next week it will no longer provide the ammunition for drone crows to drop on my roof, pathetic little plums I wouldn’t eat on a dare.

Not to mention the branches that have over the years crept further toward my roof (and bedroom window, delivering a storm soundtrack) until they now provide a nice Siberian ice bridge for critters.  And the branches on the other side, one large one of which once landed on my neighbor’s roof (it became disconnected, long story, much wind).  The tree is as good as dead, said the arborist.  Sounds like a poem I’d skip in the New Yorker:

The tree is as good as dead, said
The arborist,
Animated and eager
As I took one last look.

Or, faux Frost

What tree this is, I think I know
Its fruit is not for eating, though.
It cannot stand the winter’s cold
Or feed another errant crow.

So, good riddance, thank you Mr. Tree for some shade, although that’s about it.

And were I the romantic sort – and you all know that’s not me – I might remember running around its trunk with a 3-year-old girl, chasing daddy, wasting time, playing little girl games a long time ago, right here in this very spot.

I’m heading for Austin this morning, to see if I can nudge this not-yet into my world.  It could be days yet, it could be today, but university classes start on Monday here and so I’m the one with flexibility, the representative of this branch of the family tree.  I’m going to provide an extra hand, and to be on hand for the arrival, because I can.

And when I come back, there will be less shade in the backyard, fewer spoiled plums to mulch with the mower, and more light from the north, and more light is good.  This is all about light, really.

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Back To The Future

A new column is now up, in which I come clean about waiting in line and blame it on my childhood.

I grew up in an era in which the future was a real thing, easily imagined in “Star Trek” and even “The Jetsons.” Tomorrow was only a day away. Our cars would fly.  I wasn’t disappointed, either. Aside from the flying cars, which frankly never looked all that safe anyway, the future arrived on circuit boards and videotape, coinciding with adulthood.  The summer I turned 20, in 1978, I got a job that involved working on a computer network. George Jetson may have been in the next cubicle.

Ignore the paragraphing; this is a space thing, not the writer’s style to make every damn sentence stand out.  I do not want to make them stand out.


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Remember My Name

I’ve been doing the math.  Or, The Math.  It’s not hard.  It’s family.

My maternal grandparents were just shy of age 40 when they became grandparents.  My paternal ones were in their early 40s when that happened, as were my parents.  In fact, my parents would have three grandchildren before 50, and two more before reaching my age of 55.  My brother, two years older than I, entered grandpappy stage nine years ago.  It’s old hat to my sister, two years younger, through the benefit of marriage.  So it’s definitely time.  Not that there was a question.

And not that there was much doubt, although timing is always out of our hands.  My daughter got married four years ago, though, and has a wide domestic and nuturing streak, as does her husband.  Either one, I suspect, would be pretty content to stick around the house with a child, learning, as I did, how to see the world again from a slightly shorter perspective.  This was going to happen.

I can’t help thinking about this new role, particularly now while we wait.  As I said a few days ago, I’m thinking of it more as Dad Plus, like adding a leaf to the dining room table.  Same function, slightly different situation.  And as above, it’s definitely time.

What struck me, though, and is on my mind mostly, has to do with this young life, and me.  Imagining futures at this moment is fun but foolish, and I know from experience.  What genetic gifts stream from my side of the equation – we can only hope he has decent eyesight – are pretty meager compared to all the other variables he’ll encounter, starting from the most important ones, his parents.  Barring some move I don’t see in the immediate future, his relationship with me will be a little distant, hopefully a few times a year in person, and then maybe as a familiar face on the iPad or monitor, waving from the Pacific Northwest, where we have trees and mountains (come visit, little dude!).

And here’s the throat-clutcher: He will be the last person to remember me.

With plenty of caveats: He could have siblings or cousins, sure.  All sorts of situations are possible, including me living until I’m in triple digits, but just making an educated guess, based on the moment?  He’s my biographer, my memory book, the conservator of my brief existence in this world, in this time.  When he’s gone, for all intents and purposes so am I.

This is the way it’s supposed to be.  Of course.  Duh.

It’s compelling, though.  I have no issues with being forgotten, just fascination.  This child has a good statistical chance of living into the next century, a moment when I will have been dead and dust, probably, at least 50 years.  He has an excellent chance of being the last person alive who touched me, spoke with me, remembers how I moved and spoke in casual moments.  And even if I have a slew of grandchildren, and even their children, while I still stay unshuffled off the coil, I suspect he’ll be the one.  The one who remembers, and the last one, and then I’m done.

This cheers me today, even though we’re actually talking about The End Of Me.  Enough me, I say (some readers say too).  I’ve written millions of public words, mostly about the trivial details of my trivial life, a very contemporary expression, and that will probably never vanish.  My descendants, if they want, will have a lot of material to work with if imagining another time and another man is on their minds.  You’re welcome, kids.  Have at it.

But that isn’t legacy, and never has been for humans.  Around here somewhere, in a box, are notes and letters from my grandparents.  If I were to dig around, they’d be mildly interesting, and mostly just to remind me.

I remember our conversations, our trips to visit.  I remember their stories.  I remember the ways they held a coffee cup, passed a plate, cooked breakfast.  I remember their quirks, their faults, their habits, and their paths as they and I aged in our different times and stages.  I remember how each and every one of them laughed.  I’m remembering that right now.

I told a friend the other day that suddenly I found myself deep into existential crisis of the weird variety.  It occurred to me that I desperately wanted to stay alive to see the last episode of “Breaking Bad.”  It was a joke, but then.  Jokes.  I want to stay alive a bit more, is all.

And one more reason arrives very soon.  As I said, it cheers me, this idea of my not-yet grandson on the other side of a whole bunch of calendar pages.  He’s ancient in a world always obsessed with youth, and he’s tied by time to another existence.  He could tell you about this, about his childhood in the 2020s and reaching adulthood in the 30s, his successes and failures mid-century, his memories of events and politics and people, and with luck he can tell you about his grandfather.

“I remember his laugh,” he says, and my God that makes me smile today.

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Unfouling The Nest

I never wanted to be a homeowner, you know.  Still don’t.

It’s not something that would appeal to me, although I get the appeal.  I get the appeal of lots of things I don’t care for.  Deer hunting.  Watercolors.  Golf.  Just not interested.

And now the chickens are coming home to roost, although they look more like crows.  Years of hoping certain structural problems would just go away  — or, more likely, since our neighborhood is constantly moving in a one-way direction toward density as opposed to large, open lots, that someone would want to buy the property, tear down this house, and build several smaller and taller ones in its place – have not fixed any problems, and weirdly enough some of them seem to have actually gotten worse.

So Angie’s List is my friend, and bookmarks sit on my desktop, contractors and companies ready to be called and then checked off.  The plum tree goes next week, which had to really happen before we could get roof work done, which is important because we have several leaks and a section of fascia about to fall off, which all feels more important than electrical, although it would be nice to have more light and some of these nonworking outlets working – all that before even considering the new deck, and painting and flooring and remodeling the bathroom.

Of course, I can’t really afford any of this but it needs to be done, mostly, and so we’ll find a way.  And with enough momentum, who knows?  Could be a new garage door in our distant future.  The possibilities are endless.

In the meantime, my neighbor has a wet spot in his yard.  Given the past few years and the crumbly nature (I imagine) of my 200-foot water line, which has been patched three times already, I immediately assumed it was my responsibility.  The problem is that, while my water bill rose a bit this summer, the meter looks static and it’s possible that his steeply raked yard at the bottom of our hill is just getting the brunt of run-off.  At any rate, after a bunch of false starts, a plumber comes on Thursday to assess.  And if no digging and repairs need to be done, I can always bring him inside to unplug the bathroom sink.


All of this as I prepare to head to Texas to see what I can see.  At least I can help out, run errands, cook, clean.  Things I know how to do.  Here I’m at the mercy of people who can fix problems with, you know, tools and their hands and stuff.  There, I’m assuming the landlord can do plumbing while I preheat the oven.  As it should be.

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Dough Boy

Every other weekend, it’s our goal around here to pretend to be a family, with special emphasis on the mama and the papa.  We try to keep our calendars clear and have some time together, particularly sharing a meal here and there.  This is harder than it sounds on most days, so it can take a whole weekend.

We went out on Friday night, the three of us, to a favorite local spot that has pretty remarkable food considering it looks like a family restaurant that particularly caters to retirees who eat dinner at 3pm.  But the staff are great, harried but helpful and friendly, and again: The food is really good.

And yesterday, after a rambling trip to Home Depot (we walked out with light bulbs only, and a fantasy about a future bathroom), we stopped by the grocery store to pick up a prescription from the pharmacy (as opposed to getting it in the produce section?) and I suddenly kicked into gear.

I know this gear.

I’m a natural feeder of people, and while I’m happy to hear about how noble this is, I think most of us understand enough basic psychology to grasp that there’s more here than pie.  For me, it’s probably needing to feel useful to battle feeling the opposite, and there were times when all I could manage was to get food on the table, hovering around while I asked obnoxious questions (“Is that OK?  Did it need more salt?  It’s bad, isn’t it?  Isn’t it?”).

As time went on and I calmed down some minor demons with major weapons, I had less amends to make and more time to just be present, so the feeding has tapered off.  And then there are the schedules, etc.

But I’ve been itching lately.  I know what this is, too: It’s just impending grandparent nesting, brushing up on what skills I might have, practice practice.  Every few nights for the past weeks, I’ve made pizza, tweaking it, trying to get the best possible crust out of an ordinary electric oven, which is never going to work the way I imagine.  But “best possible” is an accessible bar, and I’ve managed a decent, thin, chewy crust that…resembles pizza.

Yesterday, then, surrounded by all this food just waiting to be cooked as we waited for the prescription, and having a relatively free afternoon, I kept it simple but made dinner, roasting a chicken and some Yukon Golds, steamed green beans, and this, My Thing:

I forget about My Thing.  I’ve been doing it so long it doesn’t even seem like a thing, any more than boiling water, and so months will go by without fresh bread around the house, particularly since Julie and John both seem to prefer cheap white grocery store bread for toast and sandwiches, go figure.  And I’m opposed to bread on nutritional grounds, meaning who needs dumb carb calories?

But I forget that it smells good, and tastes good hot out of the oven, with butter or anything else (not lima beans).  And I forget that it’s My Thing, one of the few, and again: I know exactly what I’m doing here.  Someone else grab the hot water and towels; I’ve got the yeast and flour.  Babies welcome.

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My Fingerprints Are All Over This

At some point, it became important to keep in touch.  At some point, as crucial as it felt to get out of the house, wander around for errands and or just to wander, it was just as crucial that I could be reached.  Tumors had invaded.  You know. 

I’d take off for a nice long walk, then, with my iPod in my pocket just in case I needed distraction music, and my cell phone in the other pocket, just in case I was needed.  And thus we had two devices to start with.

(I could put music on that ancient cell phone, but it was awkward. The whole point of an iPod was that it wasn’t awkward.)

As anyone over 25 or so remembers, there was a dark, primitive era in which we were unconnected.  If we went to the store for milk, there was no way to tell us to pick up bread, too.  And email had to wait until we got back home.

I’m sure there’s a catchy economic term for this, although I just think of it as compulsory consumption.  For most of us, I imagine, once we tried a cell phone there was no going back.  Unless it was to retrieve our phones.

And then there was the day I wanted to take pictures, lots of them, a big event, and so I packed up my digital still camera and my pocket-sized high-def  video camera, and being me I never thought about battery life, which for both was pretty much nonexistent.  On top of the bulk, my devices had failed me because there were too many things to consider for my slow-ish brain.  I dreamed of one little device that would be my electronic Swiss knife.

It turned out somebody else had that dream, and had actually built the damn thing.  So after a few years of resisting, feeling that a smartphone was overkill, unnecessary for my homebound life, I got an iPhone.  It changed my life.

Well, I mean.  It did.  Little changes, but I liked them.  It motivated me to exercise because handy apps let me track my progress.  I could let GPS map my walking routes as I went, listening to tunes and podcasts, and if I saw a pretty flower I could stop and snap.  If I slipped and fell into a ditch, my wife would eventually notice my lack of returning and check her iPhone to track my location, while I took high-definition videos of the clouds passing overhead and recorded my final thoughts.  Or maybe just watched an episode of “Arrested Development” on Netflix.

So I constructed a necessity out of historical thin air, considering that I survived half a century without an iPhone and now I have no idea how.  I’m not proud of it.

On the less-pathetic side, I had no interest in upgrading, swapping out for the latest model.  If you know your iPhones, I got the 4 back in 2011.  A few months later, the 4s arrived (with Siri).  A year after that, it was the iPhone 5, claimed by some to be the mold-breaker: No smartphone could possibly be any better, or smarter for that matter, and still I was, like, yawn.  My phone is fine.

It was getting a little beat up, though, to the point that I had to wrap rubber bands around it to charge the battery (pocket lint in the charge port that I never quite got out), along with some sluggishness and nicks in the finish.  You know how it is.  Things wear down.

And even then I was content, not particularly interested or excited about the new iteration that Apple rolls out, rain or shine, every September, until I learned two things: Apple (and Verizon, my carrier) would now bypass Craigslist and buy your old still-solid-value iPhone, and the new model had a fingerprint sensor that appeared to actually work.

My paranoia being alive and well, having read way too much, I protected my phone and its data with a very long PIN/password, but I’m at home a lot and it’s a hassle to type that in every time I want to log some calories or leave myself a note, so I usually left it unlocked and hoped I’d remember to lock it before I left the house, which almost never happened, and here at last was the answer.  My phone would always be easily accessible to me, but me only.  Suck on that, phone thieves.

I’ve never done this, set my alarm so I could be at the store first thing in the morning, wait in line, hope the model I wanted was still available, but there’s a first time for everything.  It was actually easy, only an hour or so of my time, and with my phone trade-in I got a brand-new slice of mobile technology for $100, which felt like a good deal.  The fingerprint scanner works exactly as advertised, the new chipset makes for a much faster response, and 4G?  Nice.  Fast.  Doesn’t come up much, but nice when it does.

But there are starving people in this world, dammit, and the price I pay for indulging high tech is always going to be guilt, mine or someone’s projection, and sure enough I got it yesterday.  That’s another story, maybe I’ll tell it, but let me just say that if the future of the United States is fascist, it might be my fault.

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…And The Wisdom To Know The Difference.

New column is now online, in which it occurs to me that I forgot to pick up wisdom when they were apparently handing that stuff out.

[T]here was a time when public opinion expression was considered a commodity, something with worth, with some assumed experience and education on the part of the opinion expresser.  Now people I went to high school with who were once challenged by locker combinations have firm opinions on our Syria strategy.  

I am, on the other hand, an expert at practically nothing, my son’s feelings about my macaroni and cheese notwithstanding. This is an awkward position to be in if you write a newspaper column, unless you stick with pasta.

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Big Night

I mentioned to John that I was going out last night, helping a friend pick out a new computer.  He raised an eyebrow.

“That must be nice for you.”

“Yep.  It’s like my dream job.”

It is, too.  My current computer is a piece of junk, by which I mean inexpensive and completely functional, the same as my next one will be, I assume.  I know what’s out there, what’s new and shiny, and I also know what I need.  I am personally practical and vicariously shoot-the-moonish when it comes to electronics, and when the last Best Buy store closes I will grieve.  No more wandering through the toy department unsupervised.  The end of dreams.

If I really wanted a MacBook Air, you understand, I’d buy one.  Or a $2500 gaming behemoth, or a Windows 8 touch screen laptop, like my friend bought last night.  I don’t need it now, can’t justify it, know I’d be ho-hum about it in two weeks and back to window shopping for dreams.

But ask me to assist – in this case, a friend who spent most of his hours at work, coding and hopping from work station to work station, with no need for a personal computer until his company closed down – and I know my true calling.  It was glorious, and I’d do it again tonight.  You pay, I’ll play.

My friend spent twice as much as I would have, but he came with ammo supplied by Consumer Reports (he has an account! I watched him log on!) and left with a nice machine, no question.  And after picking up a late-night meal for John, patiently waiting at home, and coinciding with the arrival of my wife, having spent a few hours in the middle of Seattle Presbytery and not stopping to collect calories, the three of us headed out for a late dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant, deserted after 9pm but still functional itself.

Which, as it turns out, was the highlight of the evening.  A quiet restaurant, a wide-ranging conversation about the craziness of the world, three people who didn’t need to get up early and who have known each other for decades, and a tab of $35, which I gladly paid, having had the best of both worlds and come out of the experience alive and not poorer at all.

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By Any Other Name

We’ve had any number of jokey conversations in the past few months about grandparent names, a topic that almost never occurred to me until it did.  I grew up simply; my grandparents were called Grandpa or Grandma, and referred to with a surname so often (“Grandma Baker”) that it seemed to be one name, purely functional and for identification purposes only.  “Grandpa” wasn’t a pet name anymore than “Dad” was; we had to call him something.

And I’m sure that this was carried on from my parents, or at least my mother, and it felt natural and completely unremarkable.  My parents, too, became grandpa and grandma, although my mother-in-law held out for “grandmother,” supposedly to distinguish her from my mother but also, I think, because it had more dignity, or so she thought.  She’s definitely not a nana.

So grandparent nicknames feel weird to me, and affected.  It just wasn’t done in my family, although I get it.  And while my mother-in-law got her wish, it also meant she had to wait some years until the kids could accurately pronounce it.  So she became any number of names, sort of a fuzzy, blurry identifier, a granmamamer thing.  You pick your poison.

But, whatever.  I’m just not picking it.  “Can’t he just call me Chuck?” I keep saying, but no one takes me seriously, even though I’d be cool with it.  It is my name.

The more I think about it, though, I’m starting to lean toward some variation of Father Plus.  Dad Plus, Papa Two, something.  An augmented father, with new and different roles, and that’s what is really on my mind.

Details, mostly.  The general stuff will come naturally.  Little people are fun to watch and be around, even without an emotional attachment; I’m all about logistics at this point.  Having two children with warm but distant relationships with their grandparents, all because of distance, I figure there has to be a way to make this work better.  They live in Texas and I live in Seattle, and there’s no way around that (there is a way, it’s just not happening any time soon, if ever, and mostly I imagine a northwest move, not the opposite; they have no water down there.  People need water), but a little planning surely can smooth this relationship out.

Airline miles are my immediate answer, although it’s not a great one.  They used to be almost a currency, these miles, but times have changed and anyway, there’s only one decent way to accumulate airline miles and that’s by flying them.  I rarely travel, and almost never further than 2000 miles or so in one direction.

Having escaped credit cards years ago (some involuntarily), I treat them with respect and approach them with caution.  I’m happy to let Best Buy carry the cost of the occasional laptop or tablet for 18 months, interest free, because I pay the bills and I know how to do that.  There will be no secret gray charges and certainly no interest or penalties.

Same thing with my airline VISA card.  In theory it’s good to have it, just in case, but revolving credit for me is just that, meant to revolve without actually ever having to pay anything.  My goal was to load up that card to the maximum and then immediately zero it out, then repeat.  Free miles, over and over again.

Which works only if you have a lot of bills.  I consider more than two to be a lot, of course, but we just don’t spend that much money, not counting medical invoices that arrive every few days, and even those are better than a year ago.  Still, a free flight to Austin (or Phoenix, my other destination of necessity) takes roughly 20,000 miles, and barring double- or triple-mile offers, which usually involve spending on something I don’t need, it takes $20,000 of bill paying to get there.  I’m not going to rack up a free trip every month, obviously (is it not obvious?).

So there’s that.  And then just getting over the cost, which is still remarkably low even as plane tickets seem to have risen sharply in the past few years.  I can drop $300 on something questionable, occasionally, and shrug it off and promise to do better, but now I have a focus: That’s a trip to see the grandchild.  No iPad or new monitor has quite the same appeal, or will.  The bullet will just have to be bitten, and my stingy ways will have to go.  A child awaits.  Just pay and smile.

And teach a small boy how to say “Chuck” when his parents are away.  Simple goals here.

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Mistakes Will Be Made

I wrote a post a couple of days ago (so I’m told; I almost never reread) in which I might have slighted my dear Maggie Breen, who has been sharing the pastoral duties at our church with Julie while our senior pastor is on sabbatical. I feel badly. I promised to make cookies. I don’t know what else I can do short of cookies.


I wrote a column this morning that started off with a description of my Sunday nights lately, which involve staying offline so I don’t accidentally hear anything about the new “Breaking Bad” episode until I can watch it on Amazon the next day, being cableless. So that’s what I’m about to do. It’s risky just writing this.


Also, I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this new iPhone iteration, and now I’m wondering if I should or not. More on this exciting news later. I’ve got to climb on the bike and watch now. Then bake.

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