An Easy “A”

My sister-in-law, a lovely woman who seems to naturally lean toward compassion, spent a couple of days in my presence last month as I was starting in on my latest cycle of bronchitis and just generally annoying coughing. She finally pulled me aside and said that she’d read some articles about vitamin A lacking in our modern diets, and how sometimes adding a supplement will lessen the effects of respiratory illness or maybe prevent them.

I’m a little suspicious about vitamin supplements, but I’ve got nothing against vitamins. I just wonder; I read things, too. But this woman isn’t an idiot, she was trying to be helpful, and I gladly took a handful of capsules from her to give a try.

Until I checked my handy app that snags what nutritional noise it can from what I plug in, and as I believe I’ve mentioned here, I eat a fair amount of spinach. Occasionally kale. Really, along those leafy green lines is where I’ve been living lately, and it turns out that this provides a lot of vitamin A.

That’s not surprising, although me eating spinach might raise an eyebrow. The whole thing starts to feel silly after a while, but it’s at least harmless and Lord knows I can always eat better and who knows?

It’s strange enough that I shove a big handful of these greens into a blender along with berries and water and protein powder. Or strange enough that I actually drink it.

But yesterday, suddenly hungry and with nothing handy, I noted that we had some pepperoni in the back of the fridge (shelf life: Roughly 150 years) and a bit of mozzarella cheese. Add some flour and salt and olive oil, and a guy who likes to play with dough, and it was an easy call: Make a little personal pizza. An hour tops, from scratch to stomach.

It turned out fine, very thin crust, and I just felt like it needed something more, so I sprinkled some of those vitamin A-laden leaves on top. It was an excellent pizza, but once again: Not exactly like me. I would have taken a picture but, again, I was pretty hungry.

***

I’m not trying to do something here, or not consciously. As I said, I have lots of doubts about nutritional advice. Not that it’s fake or useless or even overstated; I just wonder how crucial it is at this stage of my life. Which, of course, by most measures, is the last stage.

An old friend of mine, from my teenage days but one I hadn’t seen in 15 years, was at Mom’s birthday thing last month and was asking about my weight. He’s a guy I remember always struggling to keep the pounds off, but with plenty of discipline and motivation. He’s usually looked pretty much the same, never lean but always looking pretty healthy, as he did when I saw him. Maybe a bit heavier, but he was wearing baggy clothes.

Anyway, he commented on my situation, asked a few questions. I told him some of my story, and then made the point that this – meaning the way I look – is just a hobby. A way of passing the time, staying engaged, trying to improve whatever I can. Fighting off the inevitable as a game, in a way.

Which is to say, I have my doubts that those leafy green veggies and these push-ups I’ve restarted doing and everything else I at least try to be consistent about in terms of a healthful lifestyle will have any effect on my mortality.

But, but. I’m not sure it can hurt. And whatever the rest of my life looks like, it’d be nice to be able to at least walk upright and not have oxygen tubes snaking through my nostrils. Maybe vitamin A is the answer. Maybe genetics are going to have the last word. Maybe I’ll get struck by lightning.

I’ll be standing up when I do, in any case, or that’s my goal. Keep on standing. Pass the spinach.

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Ups And Downs

I never look at analytics for this site. Actually, I’m not sure I ever set up analytics. I have them on my main page (chucksigars.com) but I notice them only occasionally, when I update. Not a lot of traffic, but some. Ebbs and flows. It’s hard to figure out what people are looking for without digging deeper than I care to. Than I care about.

That said, I don’t want to make this a miserable experience for anyone who wanders by. And that said, of course I’m going to write here pretty much what I want. I just try not to be offensive, or inflammatory, or too profane; a little profanity makes the world go around, but some people have tender ears, which I understand.

I will say this, even with the risk of provoking yawns and clicks away: The rhythm of life fascinates me, and lately it feels good. You know? I can’t really explain it. Just feeling a little better about things. Creativity is starting to creep back into the picture.

Not that being creative ever produced anything like real income, but that’s on me. It’s still good to have ideas pop up on a more frequent basis. Last night I played a chapter from the audio book I’ve been recording (sort of waiting for my bronchitis to clear up, now just trying to find the time) in the car for JK. It sounds good, or at least the way an audio book should sound. I have very little experience but I can see how people would enjoy listening to a book in the car or at the gym, or wherever. I’ll try to nail this down soon and see where I am.

Then there’s the project I’m putting together in stray moments. I’ve been writing for public consumption now for nearly 17 years. There’s a ton of material there that seems not only potentially compelling as a chronological picture of one ordinary life spread out over a decade and a half, but some of them are actually pretty good. Not bad, anyway. If I can find a way to anthologize all of this…well, I don’t know. Maybe someone would be interested.

I also have a vague idea about a podcast. I tried this a few years ago, tried interviewing people I knew with interesting life stories (which I think is pretty much everyone, with enough digging), but I ran out of guests. And the concept wasn’t nearly niche enough, and niche is our world. This new idea, though…it plays to a passion, and it might draw some listeners. So there’s that.

Finally, every time I get ready to step into the shower, I get a picture of an aging male in the mirror. But it’s not as bad as it could be, thanks to keeping the weight off and the former days of lots of push-ups. It’s been a few years since I did them the way I used to, 200 or so every day, usually 20-30 at a time. It’s a great exercise.

And you forget how to do it. Some of it is lost strength, but some of it is psychological, I think, and the rest muscle memory. And I’m not trying to set any records. It just seemed, again, a good exercise, a way to keep the impending loss of muscle and strength at bay, at least for a while.

So since I’m not trying to impress anyone, and frustration kills motivation, I decided to start on my knees. Not the old PE way; you just rest on your knees and keep the lower legs elevated. It cuts about 40% off the body weight, and while it’s a little boring it makes a difference. I figure once I reach 50 or maybe 100 of those in a row, I’ll switch to regular ones. My life is so interesting.

But I’m a firm believer in incrementalism in these situations, so I’m just going to inch along. Make some recordings. Write some podcast scripts. Finish this anthology of columns.

And keep pushing up. That’s the ticket. Always push up. The alternative is pretty clear.

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Sing A Good Song

If I told you the worst nights of my current life…well. Hmm. Obviously I’m going to tell you. Didn’t really think that sentence through.

Wednesday nights. There.

You know about choir, unless you’ve just now wandered by this blog. My wife, who’s an associate pastor, a minister of music at our church, leads the choir. Small church, small choir. It used to be a bigger church with a bigger choir, and I’m sure some current members miss those days.

And maybe they’ll come again. Churches live out their relative utility to a particular community, and die. It happens all the time.

But sometimes there’s a flow to these things, when the congregation shrinks and then expands. I have no idea.

I just know the choir members are obviously passionate about it, given the need to attend practice in the middle of the week and get to church early on Sundays for more.

And if you’ve been reading, you might remember my experiences with choir. But some back story might be useful.

I always sang. When I was a kid, I wrote a lot, mostly poetry. I’m talking the very first writing, from age 6 or so. I loved poetry, loved to play with meter and rhyme and whatever primitive intuition I had about dissonance, assonance, etc.

But I sang, too. I had a clear prepubescent treble, on pitch and nice to listen to, so I sang in choirs in elementary school and junior high. I played my guitar and sang. When my voice changed to a solid baritone, it was right on time to jump into high school musicals and there I sang a lot.

Then there was college, and a couple of other musicals, and lots of other acting. For two summers, I sang for my supper at a local dinner theater, meeting my wife and friends who remain so all these years later. I sang, essentially, all the time.

I also was fascinated my music, and music theory, and I learned how to play chords on the piano. It turns out I have a good ear, whatever that means, so it was easy to take a few chords and improvise the melody of pretty much anything. This always seems to impress my wife, who can’t do it, and my wife is the most musical person I’ve ever met.

This is the salient point here. I have never had a particular skill with math (except geometry, for some reason; I was a star geometry student), but I can still do basic algebra and I do. You might be surprised how often it comes in handy, despite the clichés.

But I’m not a mathematician, or even very good at it. Most higher math left me baffled and a “B” student. Meaning, pretty average, nothing special. I can add and subtract.

On to music. I have some ability. I have a decent voice, and I can usually match pitch without a problem. After marrying a musician and fathering another, I let it slip away. It was obvious that wasn’t my gift, and I was pretty content to just observe my wife and daughter as an audience.

But that choir was diminishing, down to a solid 8 or 9 members, and not only was choosing anthems for them to sing all that more difficult with a small group, there were no baritones. Our pastor would usually sing that part, even though he’s more of a tenor, but he’s getting his doctorate and that was one more thing he could skip with his busy schedule.

So I got drafted, and thus Wednesday nights became the worst. Really. Just awful.

I hadn’t sung in years, much less in parts. I rarely even touched the piano, and my music-reading skills have never been great (for years, if I wanted to learn a song on the piano, I’d memorize it clef by clef; a few measures of the right hand, then a few of the left, then put them together and move on. I never mastered the bass clef on sight, always having to mentally transpose up two steps).

So I’m in this tiny choir, trying to sing the bass part with no one else to help. I would get hopelessly lost, unable to find a note, any note. My wife would plunk out my part and record it, and sometimes that helped. Sometimes our organist will come over and sing bass with me, which is great.

But most of the time I felt helpless, and I really, really don’t like that feeling. Especially with something I’ve been doing for much of my life.

Usually, though, by the end of practice I was feeling better. Socializing, even with drawbacks, is an injection of happiness in my life.

I still saw myself as hopeless, though, frustrated and always looking for an opportunity to slip away, take my seat in the congregation and sing hymns, always the melody.

Until something happened, and that’s the fun part of this story.

I got better. And sort of suddenly. Things work out that way sometimes.

Suddenly I was able to sight-sing with much more ease, finding the intervals easily and quickly finding the key, which, with my slightly hard-of-hearing but still functional ear, makes harmony so much easier.

And I was finally mastering that bass clef on sight, without the transposition. I know the treble clef backwards and forwards, but now my mind automatically sees a D-flat instead of a B on the lower staff. It feels like a miracle.

Then again, I’m a guy always on the lookout for miracles. Shouldn’t be a surprise.

I’ll never be all that good. And choir singing is not my favorite, anyway; I was always a show-off, and I always wanted the spotlight. Choirs are about cooperation. It’s a good lesson to learn, along with those tricky accidentals.

And I can plunk out my own part now, although JK will still do it for me, singing the melody while she plays my part. Musical, as I said.

Little victories, I guess. These days, for reason that are unclear, I get a lot of reader mail. These are affirming and very satisfying, hearing feedback, and I cherish them all.

But there’s nothing quite like the alto section turning around when I finish an anthem on a low E or something, thumbs up, affirmation from the ladies who carry us and me across the finish line. I’m feeling my age and waltzing between hope and despair as I look at my current state of underemployment. I may feel awkward and out of place, definitely, but the frustration is less and the benefits are crystal clear.

I’m getting better. Talk about hope.

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Phone Home

Routines. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Write that down.

I’ve got my share, although habits are tricky for me, my tendencies toward compulsiveness understood and acknowledged. Sometimes it gets dangerous. Other times, good for me. Vigilance is the key, and now I have a nice pun that I didn’t see coming.

I spent some hours on the transit road yesterday, not my usual style but hey. It’s a break from habit. I needed to be down in Renton, some 30 miles or so south of here, at 7pm. For various reasons, it makes a lot of sense for my wife to take the car on Mondays, and she usually does.

But now I’m an elder. A Ruling Elder, actually, if you want to be specific. My wife is a Teaching Elder, which is the term we’re now using for ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I feel so sorry for her.

“Elder” is such a loaded word, carrying with it centuries of shorthand. Aged, wise, a fount of good advice.

Just not in the Presbyterian Church. “Presby” means elder; presbyopia, which pretty much everyone over 40 has (it’s why you need bifocals or progressive lenses), just means “elder eyes.” So the system is set up with a committee of elders, voted in by the congregation, representative democracy alive and well here in this particular denomination.

So the Board of Elders, referred to as Session, is essentially student council. We are on the board of directors of the church, although it’s a small church and big decisions are rarely on the table. It’s really a fine way to have leaders, which organizations need, without heads getting too big. We are all just servants.

Last night, we talked about making sure the dishwasher was loaded correctly. For an example.

Anyway, JK drove to school and then across the lake to church yesterday, her typical Monday, and I headed out at 3pm to do some bus work. The first takes me from fairly near my house to the mall, which then means I walk across the mall, the entire mall, to reach the next bus stop. I usually have 15 minutes to do this and can pull it off in less than 10, so there’s a little pressure but not much. And yesterday was warmish and sunny. I wore sunglasses most of the trip, even.

Then I pick up that bus, after my short wait, and spent an hour getting to the Bellevue Transit Center, where I wait about 10 minutes for the next bus. And then I spend another hour on that, walking the last half-mile from where it dropped me off to church. An easy trip, a little exercise, three hours of my time that, again, I could spend enjoying sunshine and some interesting podcasts.

And then the drive home, no big deal. I left a battery charging in the car, which I do a lot, so I had to turn around and retrieve it. A couple of hours go by as I unwind, and then I head for bed, another routine I try to keep.

As I took my glasses off to place on the nightstand, I realized I forgot my phone. I leave it muted for the night but it’s useful for setting alarms or getting the time in the middle of the night if I’m so inclined. So back to the man cave to retrieve it.

No sign of it there, and now I’m not quite so sleepy. One doesn’t want to leave one’s phone lying around. It’s locked down and I could wipe the contents remotely long before someone broke my PIN, but that’s no fun. Retracing my steps made more sense, and sure enough it had just slipped out of my pocket and was lying on the floor of the car.

Back inside to reassure my wife that phone was retrieved. A few minutes to let the adrenaline get re-uptaken or however that works, then back to bed, where I conked out quickly.

Fast-forward to 6am, when my wife stirs me to drive her up to the bus stop. At the last moment, I can’t find my keys, so I just use hers.

But no sign of the keys inside, or in the car. I obviously used them to get my phone, so we’ve narrowed the timeframe. Not on my desk. Not in my pockets. Not on the ground, shoved between the seats, lying in the flower bed. No keys. Keys are important.

A little panic this morning, then, until my wife texted to try the bed. It was late at night; maybe I left them in my pockets. And sure enough, there they were. Relief.

But a little fear, too.

***

It wasn’t the keys. That made sense. A spontaneous, late-night trip outside to get my phone? Easy enough to slip my keys into my sweatpants and then wear those to bed, letting my keys land where they will. It’s nice that I found them. No fun changing locks.

It was the phone. As I said, I keep it silent during sleeping hours, although it’s been programmed to let phone calls through from family members, just in case. It just saves me the beeping from late-night emails. It mostly serves as a convenient light, and the alarm. I never read screens in bed, not anymore.

But I panicked, bigly. And that’s the unnerving part.

Look: We all know about phones. Unless you’re one of those who’ve opted out of smart phones, and I know a few, our phones carry a lot of information. So do my credit cards and driver’s license, which I could also easily lose, but my phone? Emails, text messages, browsing history, photos…it’s an open book to pertinent details about my life, and could lead in the right (wrong) hands to a lot of information that could be troublesome.

An answer would be to downgrade to less reliance on my phone, but that’s not happening either. It’s an incredibly useful tool, letting me be reached (when I want to) anywhere in the world, along with maps and weather forecasts and all sorts of useful apps. I will take the good and keep an eye on the bad.

And, again, it’s pretty locked down. Law enforcement would have a lot of trouble breaking into it, as we saw with the San Bernardino shooter. Although I have no issues with law enforcement at the moment.

A criminal would be more inclined to try brute force, but again: I’m aware of this. My PIN is very long, and my fingerprint keeps a quick unlock available but only resides on my fingers. I never let my phone out of my sight for any length of time, so if it goes missing for any length of time I’ll just wipe the contents, put a recovery email message on the lock screen, and hope for a good Samaritan while I look into replacing the phone.

I was spared that, but the fear that went into a temporarily missing phone is disturbing. Keys, sure. Everybody wants to keep track of their keys. Letting my phone out of my sight, or at least my knowledge of its whereabouts, and I panic.

This bothers me. I may not be able to get unbothered; we make choices, and I guess I’ve made this one. And I’m not worried about living life with my face buried in a screen; I don’t use it that much, unless I’m traveling.

But take it away, even for a short time? That’s pretty classical dependency, and while I might be willing to accept it, it’s got me thinking. I lost my wedding ring a few weeks ago and I had nowhere near the anxiety about that in comparison. Maybe time to reevaluate.

Or maybe time to be extra vigilant. My phone isn’t going anywhere. At least not if I have anything to say about it.

I won’t say much into it, you understand. I just like having it around.

Pillow talk
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Counting the Days, Always

Here’s a mini-rant, although given the state of the world it’s not really in my top one-thousand, I’m guessing. It’s more something that makes me mildly exasperated, and usually with people I care about.

And it should be noted that there are any number of exasperating things I must do. Possibly writing this blog, today. Feel free to leave at any time, no hard feelings.

This particular exasperation has to do with Facebook, which has its own share of these. A person I know will post a link to an article (the vast majority – I’m forgetting the exact percentage – of news stories on Facebook are shared without being read, so right away we have some bad internet hygiene in terms of contributing to the problem) and then say, “Just posting so I’ll remember to come back to this,” or something similar.

I roll my eyes because, good grief, people. No clue about bookmarks? Or how to save to a reading list, or one of the many apps that make this simple?

I don’t know why this bothers me. Part of my Facebook issue, I guess. Easy enough to fix. My Facebook time is now down to a few minutes, a few times a day.

But then. I can’t swear that I write here or elsewhere with absolutely no thought about it serving as sort of a bookmark. I don’t have a conscious intent, but intent is a curious thing. Sometimes best understood backwards.

So this may be one of those.

***

I was sick in November, right after returning from a trip to Austin. A couple of days home and then wham, viral illness with a fever above 101 and some other unpleasantness for about 24 hours, then the bronchitis and bad cough that lasted long enough for me to seek medical attention.

And then again in January, after my trip to Arizona (granted, planes are flying incubators for microbes). No fever but more bronchitis, slow to resolve but it did.

And now I feel fine. I walked up to the grocery store yesterday in the middle of a mild windstorm (mild in my neighborhood, anyway; just breezy) and back, about 3-1/2 miles, and no problems. Ordinarily I try to avoid walking in big winds, just because it feels dangerous with branches flying and trees looking a little unstable, and we’ve got some big trees up here. I needed to pick up a prescription for my son, though, and some food, being without a car all day and night.

The prescription was important but could have waited. The food was more crucial.

So here’s my bookmark, for Future Chuck: Since January, I’ve averaged around 1600 calories a day. Some days are much more. Some are pretty light. Just an average. And since my Fitbit gives me what seems to be reasonable figure on exactly how many calories I burn each day, based on movement and mostly my weight (60-70% of the calories we burn – the energy we expend, to make it easier for you calorie-averse people – are just keeping us alive), I can easily look at the difference between the two. Particularly since I write it down.

And Fitbit tells me that number is pretty consistent, sometimes ranging up to 2400 calories and occasionally down to 1900, but mostly hanging around 2100. That’s without a lot of exercise, with the sickness and all, but some.

If I were neutral, just looking at those numbers, I’d expect a weight loss of around a pound a week. This isn’t something I’m real interested in happening, although it’s not dangerous. I’d just not like to keep this pattern.

And so it seems I’ve lost 5-6 pounds, although the scale is all over the place, having loaded up on food these past few days, bad news for my stomach but at least an attempt to correct. Heavy food sits in the stomach for a while, and messes with the numbers. Yesterday I weighed 172. Today I weighed 174, after several days of indulgence.

But based on my calorie intake and output, I’m really about 166. That’s a strange way to look at things, I know, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, amping it up last year when I trouble with my appetite. I can’t afford to be ignorant about what I’m doing.

And I know from experience that the scale will adjust. If I eat just a normal amount of food for a guy my weight, based on my caloric output, and don’t eat after 6 or 7pm, say, the scale will drop down to where that statistical number resides. It sounds crazy but trust me. Been down this road.

I’ve been doing this nearly 10 years, by the way. I have spreadsheets going back to 2007, when I crested at 273. I’m pretty confident in the numbers, but they’re just numbers. Only when they mean something; that is, when they match up with the way my clothes fit or I feel, or a comment is made.

People are a little leery about making comments, mostly because they know I’ve had some struggles with this. My wife is not leery at all. I came into the kitchen today and she rubbed my back, and asked me if I’d been eating enough. Thought I was getting a little thin again.

So there you go. I feel confident in all of this. I just need to keep an eye on it. Pizza and ice cream help. Not the best nutritional diet of all time, but lots of calories and calories are what I need.

***

The reason this just feels like a bookmark is because most people aren’t interested. Although some of you might be better off being interested.

I firmly believe that social media has dulled our cognitive abilities, or at least our common sense. Answers seem obvious to certain people, who are not shy about pointing out their subjective sense.

So let me put it this way, once again: I’ve been doing this for 10 years. It’s not hard. I’ve got apps, I’ve got a scale, it’s easy to keep track of calories and ignore food (that is, I don’t log food, just calories). I try to get on the scale once a day, although I usually miss a day once a week or so and then I just approximate, based on what I ate.

In other words, faced with a problem that I wanted to solve, I decided on data, and data, in my case at least, worked. Over that decade, I’ve been up a bit and down some more, but I’ve never gotten within 70 pounds of my highest weight. It’s just something it’s headed up over the holidays, and needed some extra attention come January.

But it’s been a few years since that happened. I’ve been pretty consistent, occasionally adding some spinach-berry smoothies to get some nutrients, or as much as I can given the smooshing together. If you went out to dinner with me, you’d see me eat a regular amount of food, maybe something special for dessert. I don’t look like a picky eater, although that may be all the food I ate that day, other than a few snacks. I have some appetite problems.

Even with all the noise out there, the different diets and different theories, most designed to make losing weight as easy as possible, depending a lot on the psychology of the person in need. Everybody thinks they have the answer.

Biology is not crowdsourced, though. I’m just one guy. Still, it’s been 10 years.

And after 10 years, I think I could help. Maybe. I have these spreadsheets and everything.

The variables are problematic, but in general they seem to work, and it’s a pretty simple philosophy: No matter what the charts or statistics or apps tell you, logging is the easiest and I suspect easiest way to make this work. Eat “X” amount of food. Burn “Y” amount of calories, settling on some formula and being consistent.

Let’s say I eat 1500 calories one day. Fitbit conveniently suggests that I burned 2100 calories. The equation is simple: Y-X=D, with Y calories out, X calories in, and D representing the calories deficit.

That is, 2100-1500=500 calories deficit. Since we generally equate 3500 calories with a pound (it’s the caloric equivalent of a pound of fat), we simply multiple 500 X 7 (days of the week) and we get, surprise, 3500.

And that’s it. I’ve lost 5 pounds in the past few weeks, despite what my scale currently says (ate a LOT of food, fairly late at night). I could eat 1600 calories, spread out over the day, and in three days my scale will say 166. Or 165. Don’t want to do this.

And that’s probably enough. No fancy here, no special fat-burning foods or exotic diets. I eat all sorts of things, some of them fried and some of them loaded with creamy calories. Just, maybe, not enough.

I’m not sure how to fix this. And I’m fine; that range between 166 and 172 it right in my wheelhouse, in terms of clothes and comfort. I just need to keep it there.

And maybe in a year I’ll look back on this post, and I’ll remember. Eternal vigilance.

And I’m willing to share my ideas. But I won’t offer. If you’re interested, let me know. Otherwise, you’ve probably already moved on. I don’t blame you and I wish you well. I’m just one guy.

But I weight well over 100 pounds less than I did a decade ago, and even the minor ups and downs show a remarkable consistency. Maybe I’m on to something. Maybe my wife worries too much, but I know of what she speaks. I can weigh whatever I want to weigh. If you haven’t stopped reading already, I’m thinking you can, too. Get familiar with spreadsheets, though. Trust the numbers. Figure out when you gain based on what you eat, tweak your spreadsheet, and carry on. Information is everything, awareness is everything, and cookies should be baked and given away. That may be the most important.

And now I have my book mark. Exasperate away.

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Facing The Future

We headed out on Tuesday afternoon, my son and I, just because. He was feeling a little cabin feverish and I couldn’t think of a reason not to, so we walked around the mall and the Best Buy store, the same way we always have.

There are some differences. As I’ve said many times, John has never known another home, or one in which his father worked outside of it. This may have been a healthy thing for him, being neurologically inclined to see change as a threat. Dunno. It’s hard to create counterfactuals for him; we’ve been playing catch-up forever, reacting forever. We can’t afford to spend a lot of time trying to change the past.

The differences, though, make me aware of the past, just because we drive the same streets and he’s now 27. Twenty years ago, I would have been mostly focused on keeping him by my side and watching his relentless public politeness. Now we can just be guys, alternating running commentary on the nature of consumerism and how ignorant most salespeople are about the products they’re selling. It passes the time.

We were driving down one of those familiar streets on Tuesday, a dreary day, dark and cold with snow still piled up on the sidewalks, too cold to melt, when he asked me a funny question.

“Do you ever wonder what it would be like to live in Russia?”

I must have. I thought about Russia a lot when I was younger, for good reasons. My first semester in college I took a Russian language class, majoring in journalism and imagining a future of doing stand-up reporting from Moscow. The future looked a lot different then.

Later, I took a class on Russian and Polish theater and got more enlightenment about the culture and political structure of the Soviet Union, so yeah. I’d thought about it. Very dreary, that place. I could see why it had crossed his mind.

I was wrong, though.

***

He turned 27 yesterday, a birthday that came with some blues but brightened up considerably just as the big day got close. He’s just aware now that life keeps moving and he’s been pretty static, or that’s probably what it feels like. I get that, but what we’ve seen in the past 18 months or so is the opposite of stasis.

He’s on tiny doses of medication now, after 20 years of taking pills. I can’t tell you whether the medication was a good idea or not; I suspect it was, but as I say: We were playing catch-up with brain chemistry. Most of us did our best.

And he’s aware of the world around him, thanks to a news-reading app on his phone, even if he lacks a little context. The context, of course, is history. Most of the time it is, with most of the people.

He wasn’t talking about Russian winters. He was talking about authoritarianism. He was talking about Trump.

I wasn’t biting. I don’t believe it can’t happen here. I just think it would be really, really hard. Americans are ornery down to their DNA. And Trump is demonstrably stupid, and Bannon is an anarchist. Power in this country is all about riding the tiger and not getting eaten. This should at least be interesting.

But history again. Somewhere around here is a scrapbook, a gift from someone, a baby book in which we wrote down details of his birth, etc. I remember noting that Buster Douglas had just defeated Mike Tyson to win the heavyweight title, which seems like it was important at the time.

And I wrote about the Soviet Union quickly disappearing, something that made no sense. It was disorienting to someone growing up during the Cold War. The Berlin Wall came down. It just came down, brick by brick. It felt as though aliens had landed.

***

I got him another video card for his PC, which as it turns out was what I bought him four years ago. If you’ve never glanced at those things, you’d probably be stunned at the price range. It’s pretty easy to drop hundreds on a video card, if you feel like dropping.

This one was bearable, and it apparently gave him the boost he needed to get true 4K on his 4K monitor (another gift, Christmas a couple of years ago). This matters to someone who plays video games.

It doesn’t matter so much to me, although this new build of mine has a pretty decent card. For what I wanted to do, though, which was some simple video editing and a little animation, it’s mostly about CPU and RAM. I didn’t want to spend the money for a souped-up CPU, but this AMD with a 3.5 clock speed seems to work fine.

I’ve actually been editing video for over 30 years, back to when I’d rent another VCR so I could edit actual videotape. This sort of thing I do now? Could only dream of it, back in those days. I would have killed for the ability to just add titles.

I’m not looking for a bright side. That’s never interested me, twisting logic to rationalize a sunny outlook. I tend to be an optimistic person, but I don’t think I’m unrealistic. I have no idea what’s going to happen to the world, to us, to me. Some things don’t look particularly sunny.

But this is a world that has my son in it, and I can’t seem to see Russia from my porch, no matter what the news says.

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White Is The New Gray

Winter tends to stop a month early up here, if only in the sense that by the third week of February, roughly, we’ve seen the last of the big Pacific storms. In any given year, of course…but this generally works out, and at least for me it’s a light at the end of a very cloudy tunnel. We’ll still have clouds and rain and wind, and these past 12 months have produced some weather anomalies so everything’s still on the table.

But I’ve got no complaints. If anything, I sort of longed for a decent snow, just for old times’ sake. We got one of those yesterday, and it was plenty. Not as bad here as down south and east, from what I can tell; we maybe had 5 or 6 inches, but I didn’t go out to get a good look. All three of us stayed inside, the correct response to snow in my opinion.

Scraping it off the car this morning at 6:30, and negotiating the hills, cured me of any lingering romanticism about snow. Really, I think a screensaver would do it for me as far as watching the world turn white.

***

I spent part of yesterday goofing around with Premiere, learning how to create a simple animation without the need for AfterEffects or some other expensive software that I don’t need. This is all done with my grandson in mind; I have sort of an idea bubbling around upstairs about making him videos, with an animated grandpa avatar who travels to far-flung places where they have hippos. I’m getting there.

This is all a result of the new PC, which lets me take an idea and build it from scratch in a few minutes, as opposed to an hour. Below is an animated GIF, which may or may not work. It’s a pretty simple trick, but enough to keep me amused. Obviously does not work. Here, I mean.

And snow. No special effects necessary.

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The Odds, The End

I would tell two stories. Both of them require visualization, though, and I don’t have enough time to describe what happened. Let’s just say that my Big Night started off with two big cans that needed to be opened and no can opener on the premises, and then a few hours later I pulled the last casserole out of the oven and it promptly decided to plate itself on the floor. Some of it. Maybe a third.

And none of this mattered, other than to give me fodder for my personal version of I Love Lucy. Everything would have been fine with a little forethought (I know this kitchen fairly well, but I’ve never had to open a can or even boil water there) and just bringing along a few handy items (pots and pans, a can opener).

There was plenty of food at any rate, fortunately much of it provided by a caterer who had some extra dishes of enchiladas and pot pies. I only had mostly side dishes, plus the casserole that took a dive. And despite the bumps, there’s nothing like feeding people. It sounds noble to say that we get more out of the experience than the people who come by for a decent meal. We still do. All of us. Just FYI, then.

***

We haven’t had a big snow (anything more than a dusting, maybe an inch) in a few years. It looks pretty likely that we’re getting some starting tonight. Possibly a fair amount, although that’s still in the realm of uncertainty. And it could be another bust; this is just the nature of the Pacific Northwest, not our meteorologists. Cold? Sure, we get it. Moisture? Of course. Together? Doesn’t work that way most of the time. May not this time.

But it may, and wouldn’t that be fun?

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Mr. Church and Me

On our movie night last week, I was in the church kitchen, baking some lasagna, when the administrative assistant for REACH stopped by and got all thoughtful real fast.

“I forgot that you cook,” she said, although she really meant she forgot I baked. I was planning for a simple meal to offer people who came to see the film, just in case, and others were bringing other things. I made lasagna because it can serve a lot, and lasagna isn’t a complicated dish. I tend to use too much sauce, but that’s because I don’t really care for lasagna. Just not a huge pasta fan. Good lasagna is still good, and I still will eat it, but you know. Not if I had several options.

REACH is the homeless advocacy group I’ve worked with for a few years. On the weekends they usually cover the evening meals that are offered by the Renton Meal Coalition, and this weekend they needed a cook. Hence the thoughtful look. Hence my Saturday. Hence my today, that is.

I’ve read a few lists in my time, lists of necessary skills that any modern human should have in their repertoire. These lists are, by their nature, pretty obnoxious, considering the type of personality who has enough confidence in their own wisdom to write it down and tell other people to be that way.

There’s also a culture to deal with. I still think it’s a good idea to know how to change a tire, although in this ride-sharing world where young people often don’t own cars and maybe don’t even have a driver’s license, it probably moves down the list. It’s still useful, particularly because it’s the one car repair kind of skill that most people can do. I’ve tuned up a number of cars in my life, and I have no natural ability along that line, but I’d have no idea where to begin with a 21st-century car. Must work the same way. No idea.

So I can’t make a list, although knowing how to cook surely is still important, at least if you don’t have oodles of money and definitely if you have kids. My mom is a very good cook and I probably picked up a couple of things just from observation, and then of course the kids. I became adequate at certain things, and as time went on I got better.

I learned how to cut an onion, how to cook eggs in any number of ways, how to sauté vegetables and when to add the garlic. I can do your basic cooking. Baking is different. Baking is a hobby, mostly because it feels creative and thus fun. When you bake, what you stick in the oven usually looks a lot different than what comes out. It’s fun, as I say, and right in my wheelhouse for some reason.

But I have never cooked for 75 people before. Especially using only what ingredients are available, and what I’m willing to buy on my own. I’m not sure it’s a skill that everyone needs to have, but I might be persuaded. Ask me tomorrow.

***

Just an aside here. I enjoy movies that have cooking themes, or some movies anyway. Big Night is a favorite (Stanley Tucci; good grief), as is Chocolat and Babette’s Feast. Really good movies.

My mom suggested I check out Mr. Church, which she spotted on Amazon Prime (I think; could be Netflix). I’d never heard of it, and there’s a reason for that. It was pretty much panned when it was released last fall, and disappeared quickly.

And I guess that makes sense. It’s a soap opera disguised as Eddie Murphy Oscar bait, and even I, pretty notoriously sentimental, rolled my eyes a little. Murphy plays a cook who’s also something of a jazz musician, and he comes to cook and feed a tiny family in 1971. It’s a mother and daughter, and mom is dying. Murphy’s employer – or whatever, it’s never quite explained – had a romantic relationship with the mother until she discovered that he was married, and then he died anyway. Before going, he promises Murphy (whose name is Henry Church, only referred to as Mr. Church) a lifetime income if he will look after this poor woman for her final months. About six months, we learn, is all that’s expected.

The fact that this story covers 15 years tells you something. It might also tell you something that I could only watch 20 minutes at a time for a while. Notoriously sentimental.

But it might be worth your time; I don’t regret a second. Just watching Mr. Church prepare breakfast is worth the price of admission, so to speak. It’s not as good as the films I mentioned above, but then it really doesn’t pretend to be. It’s about feeding, not cooking. And that’s a skill worth learning, you betcha.

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The Next Voice You Hear

One of my to-do items lately has been finishing my audio book recording for Learning to Walk. I have no idea why I think this is worthy of being on a list of goals, but it is. Testing the waters, I guess. People have mentioned it.

I started this months (over a year, maybe) ago, but there were technical problems. Airplanes tend to fly over my house. The minimal audio requirements for this are still stringent for a home studio. It was just a hassle.

But I learned a few things, and the more I read the more I sounded like myself. I found a plug-in for my recording software that analyzes the clip to see if it meets the standards, and I’ve figured out the normalizing and leveling settings that make it fit, every time.

So I just need to finish the rest. About a third of the way done. These planes could give me a break and it might be quicker.

***

I was always a reader. I read better than I write. And when I say “reading,” I mean aloud. So this should be not hard.

It was thinking about this, though, and a card that came yesterday, that made me realize I have big shoes to fill. And I can write about this now.

For my mom’s birthday celebration, the idea of a slideshow or some other tribute was never far from my thoughts, but only got into the conversation a little late. For a year my siblings and I communicated about details, with my brother (who’s retired and has two grandchildren in central-south Arizona) doing most of the scouting and detail work in terms of invitations, etc., and my sister, who is definitely not retired but lives the closest to Mom, trying to keep us informed about her mood and condition. That rheumatoid arthritis, exacerbated by a slip on the ice and a wrist injury, made her miserable for the better part of a year.

She was in great shape for the party, though, and as we talked about this slideshow idea, I got a little pessimistic. Mom’s got all the good pictures, for one thing. Kind of hard to make this sort of thing without her help.

And we didn’t need one, really. My brother got enough pictures scanned that we had them placed around the party site. Her life in review was on display for anyone to peruse.

What I really wanted – what I think it needed – was a short film in which I could get interviews will all sorts of people from her life, talking about her. That would have been sweet. And if I’d been on the ball, I could have maybe made it work with an early start. A short trip to California would have yielded a whole bunch of riches in terms of old friends, and family.

But it was November already, with a January party looming, and that’s when I got the idea of asking the grandchildren.

Who else could confirm and testify to my mother’s best qualities than the ones who were showered with her attention from the beginning? She became a grandmother at age 44, and over the next 15 years she’d have seven of her children’s children to work her magic on, and her magic held multitudes but was particularly special for one thing.

A thing I would have never guessed. A thing I only distantly remembered. But it wasn’t for me, anyway.

Mom would take her tape recorder (which she still has) and record stories for her grandkids. Lots of them, and she had lots of grandkids.

And when I asked her grandchildren to say something about their grandmother, take their phones or pads or cameras and record a little tribute, it was fabulous. The shy ones surprised me, and the more outgoing ones did, too.

Those cassettes were a theme, then, mentioned specifically by several. Including my daughter, who talked about going to sleep every night to the sound of my mother’s voice. Gulp.

So my little project doesn’t seem that daunting, not in comparison. I think I finish it this week.

***

Our showing of Groundhog Day was last night, and was as much of a success as I could realistically hope for, which means pretty successful. I didn’t get a head count, but around 20 people wandered over to the church (any given Sunday we might have 45 or so, sometimes more, sometimes less), ate some food, got delayed by a scheduling snafu with the Cub Scouts, who use the sanctuary as a gathering place for their weekly meetings before breaking up into groups in the classrooms, and then had a surprisingly fun time, or so it seemed. A projector, a laptop with DVD player, and a screen. All we needed to wander back to 1993 and wallow in the sweetness of that story, which gets sweeter and more substantial each time I watch it.

One of the attendees brought up an interesting idea, or at least I thought that was where he was heading. It’s one I’d never thought of, at any rate, although we discussed allegory quite a bit. This is just a romantic comedy until you start thinking about allegory.

And this man seemed to suggest that maybe the whole fantasy of one unpleasant man living out the same day, over and over again, might be analogous to all of our lives. We do the same things, we deal with the same people, we have the same routines. Not all of us, but most.

And if this is life, then the last scene, the quiet town covered with new snow as the two romantic leads head off toward their future, looks a lot like heaven. Whatever heaven is to you.

I can see that, I think. It’s as good a take on this film as any other, and one I need to ponder. In the meantime, I’m just happy it turned out well, that there was enough food, and that people seemed eager to do it again.

I’m supposed to say, “And again, and again…” but you know. Way too easy.

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