What I Did During The Election

As I’ve noted before in this space, I decided to endure what looked to be a particularly ugly presidential election by delving into the details, which is otherwise known as becoming a big ol’ nerd.

It didn’t start out that way, but I took off by the second or third week I was offering little presidential election trivia posts on Facebook. I think it started, actually, by thinking of the ages of the candidates we have in 2016, both of them senior citizens and not by a little. I wondered what the average age of our presidents was (around 55) and we were off to the races.

I should have known. I do love history, and I can think of odd ways of looking at it if I try. I enjoyed wondering which presidents we tend to forget or rank low on the list in the presidential pantheon who actually were pretty popular in their time. Warren G. Harding was enormously popular. Herbert Hoover won election in 1928 with over 60% of the popular vote.

Now. Of course. This is just one of those things, those things we all have and do and integrate into our personalities until, maybe, we get too much distance and don’t realize no one else cares. I spent yesterday, for example, in a seriously ecstatic state over the knowledge, which I discovered accidentally, which is how this all happens anyway, that in three different presidential elections, two men with the same first name ran against each other. Are you excited yet?

Ah, well. This makes me think I’m just feeling better. If I can get all goofy and annoying by a piece of trivia so boring I imagine William Jennings Bryan, who famously could speak for hours, would be yawning and checking his phone a lot, I’m thinking that’s not a bad thing.

Bryan was the key, by the way. He ran three times, twice against William McKinley and once against William Howard Taft. Ergo, three All-William elections. Alert the presses.

We had four presidents named William, by the way. Taft and McKinley were joined by Harrison and Clinton.

Here’s another: 43 men have served as president (we count Cleveland as two presidencies but only one guy), and they had 28 different names. Or, another way, 65% of our presidents had unique first names. Among the duplicates, there were six James (Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan, Garfield, and Carter), or 14% of presidents.

John and William tied at 4 each (9%), and bringing up the rear are three Georges (Washington plus the Bushes), two Franklins (Pierce and Roosevelt), and two Andrews (Jackson and Johnson).

Last names matching are so rare as to not be worth mentioning, but while I’ve got you: Two Adams, two Harrisons, two Roosevelts, two Johnsons, and two Bushes. All but the two Johnsons (Andrew and Lyndon) were related. Nothing of use here.

But it gives me pleasure, and no one has to read it. It’s a Facebook kind of thing.


Tomorrow I head for Austin, which means today I freak out about packing. All normal.

And then I’ll have 10 days away, trying to get what work I have done while soaking up the little-boyness, and enjoying the warm weather (mid-80s it looks like; it’s wet and gray here, usually not hitting 60 degrees). I doubt politics or presidents will creep in much.

And then I’ll have a week at home, probably keeping one eye on the downward spiral of Mr. Trump and one eye on the Seahawks, and then we’ll be ready for Thanksgiving, and giving thanks.

And if by some chance my ballot arrives today (Washington is all vote by mail), I’m going to fill out that sucker and drop it in a box before I head for the airport, having done by duty and learned a few things in the process.

But mostly heading to Grandpapa land, placing trivia exactly where it belongs. Under “trivia.” There are, as it turns out, other things.

Still kind of excited about that William-William thing, though.

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If It’s Wednesday…

I have no idea how many debates have occurred over this cycle. Twenty? Twenty-five? More? I could probably look it up.

I watched one primary one, the last between Bernie and Hillary, just to see if my low expectations could be beaten. All I got was a grumpy old guy and a grandma who seemed good with numbers.

I didn’t watch the first two general election ones as much as listen (I had them on but rarely looked at the screen) while I read Twitter reactions, mostly from journalists.

Tonight I have choir practice, which means the debate will start about the time I hit the freeway, and the postmortems will be well into effect by the time I get around to looking at my phone. It’s like getting out of jury duty. I’m mostly relieved.

What I have been watching is football, although it wouldn’t have taken much for me to skip that particular ride this season. Just a so-so home team would have taken the pressure off, and we had plenty of reasons to suspect that would be the case. The offensive line, a weak spot the season before, had been decimated and rebuilt from the bottom up, and we no longer had Beast Mode and so on.

But they’re hanging in there, my Hawks, now 4-1 with a couple of squeakers, a couple of nice wins, and a loss to the Rams, who always seem to be eager to break our hearts. So I’ll watch a little longer, I guess, although it’ll have to be on my phone for the next couple of weeks, if at all.

Saturday morning I fly down to Austin, the beginning of a 10-day stay involving, I can only hope, lots of Bix and Beth time, including my first Halloween in 28 years that I haven’t spent here at this house. It’s an interesting holiday for a diabetic kid (he gets to exchange his candy for prizes), and I’m glad I won’t miss it. Three years old? Halloween can be fun.

And so can football, of course, and even politics, although I’ve mostly taken this one off and in retrospect that looks like a fine idea. A year ago this appeared to be a race that would look exactly as it has, something that’s going to be analyzed to death. And maybe they’ll all be this way from now on, as America looks slightly different and some people are uncomfortable with inevitability.

Me, not so much, and not so much with the politics. More with the singing, and more with the boy, and I’m pretty sure I made the right call all the way around.

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Fifteen Is The New Fifteen

I’ve been watching Bruce Springsteen lately, with his new book and interviews with apparently anyone who could get a microphone in front of him. 

Not that he’s been a recluse, but he’s just out there a lot now, and I’ve noticed something. 

When someone asks him a question, particularly a personal one (he did write a memoir), he furrows his brow and squints his eyes even more than he usually does. He struggles a little with words, sometimes halting, occasionally fluent, and now I get it. I figured it out. 

He was just trying hard to tell the truth. 

It’s not that easy, you know. It’s simple just to hide little nuggets of truth in gauzy, fluffy clouds of nothing words, pretending you’re being modest and knowing you’re getting away with something, if trivial. Truth, again, is hard. 

Not public truth, in the sense of politicians or corporations or any other institution that deems it necessary from time to time to say something, usually as carefully as possible. 

Personal truth. Truth that might be self-deprecating, or righteous, or, maybe, sometimes, just the facts, ma’am. 

The Boss has talked about his bouts with the dark nights of the soul, his struggle with depression so overwhelming that sometimes the only relief was to grab a guitar and sing onstage for three hours or more, every night. This is truth. 

I know something of this, which is my truth. I’ve battled the same dark nights, sometimes miserable but manageable, sometimes so paralyzing that I’ve actually stayed in one spot most of the day, unable to achieve even impulse power. 

I’m OK these days. I take medication. I wasn’t crazy about that idea, but I wasn’t crazy about the alternative. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I lost 43 pounds I really didn’t need to lose. I’ll swallow the damn pill. 

That’s not the truth on my mind today, though. 

Today is actually kind of a fun day. After a couple of years of aggressive emailing and writing sample pieces for a mildly interested and very busy newspaper publisher, it was on October 17, 2001 that I wrote my first column. And every week, aside from a three-month sabbatical in 2009, I’ve written one. For 15 years. 

The difference between writing a newspaper column and, say, a blog — and the difference is a little blurry now — is that you have to find the blog. A newspaper column will find you, often, waiting at Starbuck’s for your nonfat whatever to be made, lying on an abandoned table. 

My favorite newspaper story is walking by a restaurant near my house and spotting through the window a firefighter with his back to me, eating his dinner and laughing as he read my column, which I could see clearly. I stood there for about a minute, just internalizing this rare, strange moment. I don’t usually see my readers. 

And on November 9, 2001, a few weeks into this new adventure, George Harrison died. It bummed me out a bit, losing a Beatle, and I eventually wrote about that day, just a series of vignettes about what I did and what I heard, and what I felt, and that was the day I knew.

I want to wake up, look at the world, and write about what I see.

And here’s my truth about these 15 years, bouncing between current events and my struggle with blackberry brambles, stories of old days and of contemporary ones as I moved from a 43-year-old dad with a 16-year-old iron-willed daughter and 11-year-old autistic son to a grandfather who, remarkably, fell in love at this late stage, this time with a little boy: I failed.

I’ve written 800 columns, many more blog posts, ad copy, ghostwriting, medical writing, just about any job that involved a keyboard, millions of words, including four books, and I failed. I never could make much money, and while it’s a hard gig for anyone I have to at least consider the notion that I just wasn’t good enough.

That’s a hard truth, but it’s been on my mind a lot. Even with medication. 

I wasn’t looking for fame and fortune. I just wanted to pay the mortgage with words, and I couldn’t, and now I probably won’t ever. 

And here’s the last truth: Life doesn’t keep score. For every error in judgment and move in the wrong direction, I have a family who tolerates and loves me, good health, a community of friends and supporters who have my back. There are far better writers out there; nobody has my family and friends except me. 

So I find myself today, noting those 15 years, reflecting on what might have been and never got around to happening, and I have nothing but gratitude. 

I didn’t want to change the world, you know. I just wanted to amuse it for a few minutes, once a week. I was kind of hoping for advice on blackberry maintenance, but that’s cool. I was just having fun. 

So I’m grateful today, and I think I may have amused myself the most. My life really isn’t that interesting. Making it seem that way in 900 words is a fun challenge. Win some, lose some. 

No, I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize or a PEN award or anything else remotely resembling affirmation from peers who most certainly wouldn’t see me that way. 

But in six days I head for Austin, to spend as many hours as possible with a boy and his mother, and that’ll give me plenty to write about. I might hide a few nuggets of truth in there, or I may just tell the whole truth, which is that I’ve been blessed, privileged, and fortunate to live the life I have, and I’d do it all over the same way, including the last 15 years. 

And in the end, maybe being a failure was too harsh. Maybe being lucky is more honest.

And maybe, if I furrow my brow and squint my eyes, I’ll figure out that I was luckier than many, if not most. So here’s to 15 years, and whatever comes next. My guess is tackling the blackberries, but the day is young. There’s a lot to write about.

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Where We Stand

captureI’m irrationally proud of this graph I made in Excel. I fed the last few months’ worth of poll aggregation from the Princeton Election Consortium, which has been my go-to site for election forecasting since, I think, 2004. Maybe 2008. It’s run by Dr. Sam Wang, professor of neuroscience and molecular biology at Princeton; that is, this isn’t his gig. He doesn’t need or particularly care that much about page views, although I’m sure he enjoys the attention. Mostly he’s just a statistics geek, and along with his serious interest in neuroscience and cognition and how people react, etc., it’s always an interesting read.

Anyway. Turns out my graph looks like everybody else’s graph (the green line refers to something Dr. Wang calls the Meta-Margin, which is hard to explain since it’s hard to really understand, but it essentially shows the percentage points that the data would have to swing to make it a tied race. I’ve multiplied the numbers by 10 just so I could get a visible line on the graph, so “50” is actually 5%, and the closer we get the closer this number will reflect the popular vote margin. In theory).

I’m also irrationally proud of the fact that I’ve essentially stayed away from politics this cycle, as much as I’m interested in the subject. Maybe a comment or two on a friend’s Facebook post when I couldn’t help myself, but even those were mild. I see no evidence that my opinion would make any difference, and people seem a bit testy. I’ll stick with my graphs, vote the way I want, and stay out of the fray.

I’ve now spent the better part of a month drilling myself on Spanish, trying to dredge up forgotten tenses and vocabulary. I’m not sure exactly where this leaves me, what with a lot of years of study a very long time ago. It’s possible the whole thing snaps into place fairly easily, and I can at least converse and understand Univision shows. Or speak with Tim Kaine about dad stuff when we don’t want anyone to know what we’re saying. That could happen.

Our first major windstorm of the season is upon us, or has been upon us and is coming back tonight for round whatever. Models are starting to look more westward and so less heavy winds, but we might see some gusts in the 50s (as opposed to the 70s, which they were saying yesterday). We’re preparing as much as we can, mostly by making sure we get showers this afternoon just in case the power goes out tonight and we don’t look a little bedraggled at church tomorrow.

And those snacks I was supposed to bring? Buying, not baking, is the rational choice today, I think.

As for the rest? I head for Austin in a week, a 10-day visit with a now-3-year-old boy who hurts my face, I smile so much at just the thought of him. And I’ve been aiming for this trip a long time ago. I always knew, from when he was two weeks old and I wandered around the house with him in my arms, singing suddenly remembered songs from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, that this was an exercise in bonding, not memory. We’re just getting started with the memories now, but I set some things in motion that I’m hoping pay off. But what else could I do?

This is what I do, then. I fly to Central Texas, play with my grandson, eat some fine tacos, and come back to Washington once more encouraged to do what I try to do anyway: Stay alive. There are a lot of things I want to see the outcomes of, and a few people, and one little boy. Yo soy su abuelo, I say. I am.


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A Second Childhood, In A Good Way

(Note: This week’s column)

I’ve been given books on three different occasions in the past couple of weeks. not unheard of but a little unusual. Not new books, which would be accepted only if on a special occasion or at knifepoint. There’s no more room for new books. We have the book thing covered.
But a book that’s been read, that’s been handled, that contains bits and maybe quarks of DNA of former owners, a book that causes you to pause for a moment and suddenly, mysteriously feel as though a previous reader had paused at that exact spot — that’s a book. I accept these with thanks and joy, knowing I’ll either read them or pretend I have and then give them back.

This is not a screed against electronic books, by the way. I’ve always got a few stored on my tablet for an attack of spontaneous insomnia or a long plane trip, and dozens more are in my library. I’m fine with e-books and usually prefer them, if you want to know the truth, although that’s mostly a vision thing and, again, a fight against the book population explosion in this house.

There’s just something about a used book, though, an old book, and especially one that arrived at a particular time of life. This is where I get into trouble every time I make a feeble attempt to organize our library. These are more than dusty pages we’re talking about. There’s history here, and maybe even some well-worn wisdom.
And as much fun as it would be to use old books as a lame metaphor for human utility and relevance, I’ll skip the dance and just make the point. I’m older than most of the books in my house. I question my utility and relevance all the time, but I’ve managed to remember a few things.

And judging from a lot of my recent mail, I’m slightly older than many people who read this column. I’ve been hearing from a lot of recent empty-nesters, for example, and while I’m not exactly in that position myself, I have special circumstances. My kids are adults and have been for a while now.

And since these nice people who take the time to share their stories with me are at a certain stage of life, and I’m at a slightly different stage, I realized there’s one area in which I might be able to help.

Three years ago this week, I became a grandfather. He has Type 1 diabetes, diagnosed at 17 months, but otherwise he’s a happy, very verbal 3-year-old, living in Austin and turning me into a rabid collector of airline miles. I see him as much as I can, including in about a week, and while I miss out on a lot of things, my daughter keeps me up to date and video chats help keep me on his radar.

So, if you’re in your 40s or early 50s, and the kids have slipped the surly arms of the homestead and you’re wondering what comes next, I can help.

First, becoming a grandparent can be a shock to the system, as many of us remember our own grandparents as old people and we are most certainly not that.

More than this, though, will be the realization that everything you’ve ever heard about becoming a grandparent, all of these wonderful, cliché, almost cinematic stories of nothing but fun, are absolutely true.

Then there’s this, a limited truth, constrained by the subject and object and within those bounds, but still true: There is only one rule for being a grandparent, which is that there are no rules.

“Dad, you bought him a bouncy house?”
“It was on sale! Plus, I’m old and can’t live that much longer, and I wanted to.”

I’m speaking of a generic family, of course. There are all kinds. I was fortunate enough to raise a child who did the (mostly) conventional things and went to college, graduated, fell in love, got married, and three years ago gave the world both a healthy baby and a father who spends way too much time looking at stuffed animals on Amazon.

I’ve thought of it as being a parent once removed, but even though in my situation I was lucky enough to be able to provide around 50% of the parenting (and yet made 78% of the errors; this seems odd), grandparenting is completely different. Different in the way being a young parent with limited sleep and enormous stress is not the same as being a grandfather with a finger just waiting to be pulled by an unsuspecting toddler.

So, my slightly younger readers, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, to you and all potential grandparents: It’s exactly what’s you think it will be.

That’s been my experience, anyway, and I’ve had a few of those in my life. I’ve made a lot of decisions, some of them good and some not so much, and a few that were just dicey, but there are just some moments in life when it all suddenly makes sense. This has happened to me a few times.

Including three years ago this week, when I realized that life, often unfair and treacherous, sometimes comes through in a big way. I knew it was coming, I waited impatiently, not knowing what to expect, and then my heart blew open and all this new light and joy and a little boy flew in, and stayed.


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October Surprise

We arrived in Seattle 33 years ago today, also a Tuesday, driving a Chevy Citation and pulling a small U-Haul, lost and scared and young enough to get over that. This is just life, and sometimes you have to do scary things that don’t look so bad in the light of day, after a few years have passed.

This one sticks, though. I definitely remember the fear. Married for two months, about $500 in cash, arriving in a strange city far away from anywhere either of us had ever called home; a new life was about to begin and we didn’t feel particularly ready.

It all worked out, and that evening of fear on Oct. 4 dissolved the next day, as we hooked up with Seattle-based college friends, slept on their couch for a few days before renting an apartment in the building next door. I got a job in a week or so, although it didn’t start until the first of November, but then that first October is sort of a blur anyway. We bought our first furniture, first a bed from Penney’s and then a sleeper sofa from St. Vincent DePaul, eventually a stereo.

It was a one-bedroom apartment, a tiny place more suited for one person but reasonable for a young married couple. The kitchen was tiny, and the living room served as the main gathering place. I had a TV, so we set that up and I remember many late nights in October, holding desperately on to our previous summer’s viewing, David Letterman and the Linda Ellerbee show that followed (NBC New Overnight, with co-host Lloyd Dobbins).

Eventually I started work, and Julie soon followed. We rehearsed a play in our apartments, our little group of expatriated Arizona theater people, and it did very well, with a lot of talk in the Seattle theater community. A year later we’d repeat this particular success, this time with a one-act I’d written and was acting in, but by then Beth was a baby and we were living in Northgate, and it began to feel like a swan song. My goal had been to write plays, anyway, not so much with the acting anymore. I did one more play in 1987, and even though I tried occasionally to write something interesting, my life was wrapped up with a little girl and an exhausting job, 10 straight nights of 10 hours each, then five days off. Sleep was minimized but again: We were young.

Julie did a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” then moved on to the Seattle Opera Chorus and eventually bigger, splashier, and more substantial roles, including several leading ones for Tacoma Opera, followed by recitals and concerts and cabaret until 1998 rolled around and she saw seminary awaiting.

That’s just an origin story, the transfer from Arizona to Washington, and 33 years of life have eclipsed those first few months, not all of them very fun. But we managed and survived, and here we are. Two adult children, a grandson about to turn 3, a marriage that has endured since 1983 and a relationship that extends before that.

I have no idea when I began to fall in love with my co-worker at the dinner theater. We all went out after the shows, a fairly tight bunch, and somehow she and I just got closer, deepened our friendship, and eventually it deepened into something else. It would be the fall, I think, when I lost my chance to play King Arthur opposite her Queen Guinevere, the production being double cast. I’ve told the story before: The other Guinevere was a tall woman, and the other Arthur was on the short side. We were an obvious match, and she remains a friend to this day (and lives up here, too), but my heart ached and after the show, a week or more went by when I never saw Julie.

We finally met accidentally in a parking lot outside of the Creative Arts Center, where she was directing a production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” and somehow that tipped the scale. We’d lost each other for a while, and that was long enough.

And now I think it’s very possible that I fell in love with my wife-to-be on or around October 4, 1982. Why not? Who knows about love?

What it does mean, though, is that she was on mind a lot during that autumn in Northern Arizona. I imagine I thought about her every day.

And now it occurs to me that I’ve never stopped. There are probably days when my mom or siblings don’t cross my mind, not to mention friends and other family members. My children are adults and a day or two surely passes when I don’t dwell even a little on them. You know what I mean.

But I have thought of Julie Kae Sigars every day for 34 years, I have no doubt. This is the nature of intimacy and romance, but also partnership and marriage.

And while I’m not about to paint a perfect picture of a marriage, I’m arbitrarily giving us credit for hanging in there in the rough times. My son has enriched our lives but has lived with us for 26 years, and it takes a fair amount of work to help him move into self-sufficiency – and I’ve often said that he and I are the most consistent relationship in my life – but credit where credit is due.

I met a lovely woman once, I liked her immediately, I loved her eventually, I married her and dragged her to the Pacific Northwest, where I had friends and she did not, and through the good times and bad, she has never left my thoughts, not even for a day.

And you can call that anything you like.

Our first Seattle home, a 1930s-era brownstone that still exists (picture taken from Google Maps)
Our first Seattle home, a 1930s-era brownstone that still exists (picture taken from Google Maps)
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