A Blogger’s Life

I’m about to write my 800th newspaper column. Or I wrote it a few days ago. I don’t really keep track.

It just occurred to me. Just eyeballing my history, roughly estimating. Guessing, although with some solid numbers.

Sixteen years of this, or close enough. Averaging 51 times a year (not really accurate; most of my missed columns came during a short sabbatical), and let’s say 850 words per, brings us close to 700,000 words published, printed, maybe read. That’s not counting guest op-eds and other writing, but the weekly column is the bulk.

For some perspective, that’s the equivalent of about 10 middling-length novels. Or one 25,000-page one. This covers multiple newspapers, but all owned by the same parent company, and none of them rocking the country. Just small papers, appreciated and supported by communities who want to hear about city council meetings and high school sports, and sometimes me. Small fish, small pond.

Here’s why numbers are on my mind: That 700,000 figure has to be dwarfed by blogging.

I started a blog 14 years ago, just on a whim. I’d been reading blogs for a couple of years, proto-blogs really, back when the term was creeping into conversation but not in a clear way. Mostly it was where the kids played, on Diaryland or LiveJournal or, eventually, Blogger.

But a writer friend suggested that it might be useful, and it turned out I had a lot to say. So I blogged and kept blogging, often cross-pollinating the column and blog, working out ideas, capturing stray phrases. It was writing gym, and I can’t begin to count the words.

My first blog has disappeared from all but The Wayback Machine, and at some point I’d gone back and deleted a bunch of posts. Since 2007, I’ve been writing at my own site, sometimes surpassing that 850-word mark every day for weeks, sometimes letting the whole thing slide back into cobwebs. Twice as many words total? Three times? No idea. There might be a couple of million words there, sent out into the world as spontaneous bursts of consciousness, written fast and published immediately. A couple of million at least, I think.

There’s nothing prolific about this, or nothing worth remarking on. Lots of people write as many words over the same period of time and never think of themselves as writers. Just emailers, report assemblers, relentless tweeters and texters. Not much to see here, in other words.

Still, I’ve spent the past week, from time to time, rereading out of some necessity and mostly curiosity. I’m about to move my website from one host to another, and taking advantage of this to rework everything. Since my current site holds 10 years’ worth of writing, a lot of it daily, I’d prefer not to lose that stuff. Then again, it’s not like someone will go back and read a couple of thousand posts. I just wanted to preserve the moments somehow, and since there were some technical problems involved in backing up the entire installation and copying it over, I settled on just saving it.

In the process, though, I ended up rereading quite a bit. Quite a bit.

One of the most influential books in my young life was “The Actor’s Life” by Charlton Heston. I wasn’t a huge Heston fan by any means, although he was hard to avoid. This book, though, was a collection of his journal entries over a couple of decades, from the mid-1950s to the mid-70s. To a teenager interested in acting, it was a gold mine of anecdotal time capsules, with plenty of films and screen icons making appearances.

It was Heston’s realization, on rereading all these old entries, that has never left me, though. His epiphany was obvious but important: It didn’t happen the way you remember.

Spot-reading my way through blog posts and columns, I hear this loud and clear. I found myself surprised on several occasions, my words from the past correcting my recollections.

I guess I’d suggest this practice—journaling or blogging or really whatever preserves the moment—to anyone, although “better late than never” is an interesting concept to me, right now. Some things are just late, and their relative utility diminishes.

So, maybe I’ll just stick to me. I’m glad I did it, glad I have it, and not sure what use it might be to anyone else, but I definitely own it.

And over the next week, I’ll own a new site. If you’re a regular blog reader of mine, be aware that you might have to adjust your bookmarks (just head to chucksigars.com and you’ll find it). Also make sure your tray table is locked, and that your seats are in a fully upright position. Might be bumpy.


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Sam Elliott and Laura Prepon in “The Hero”

First things first: Sam Elliott is not an icon, or an archetype, or a legend. You can make a case for all three, depending on the level of affection you have, but Sam Elliott is an actor. Wanted to be an actor, became an actor, stays an actor. He’s made a career out of it.

I feel obliged to note the distinction, if only to point out the obvious: He wasn’t born with that moustache. The now-famous Sam Elliott Cameo (see: The Big Lebowski, Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, etc.) created this contemporary Remington portrait of an American…something, I dunno. But whenever they haul Sam out for one of these moments—and they’re usually pretty effective moments—they slap another coat of paint on the statue, and I think it’s a shame.

I’m not saying he’s one of our best actors. I don’t think he is. But I think he’s a better actor than this iconic crap allows for, so I was glad to see “The Hero” get made. Somebody thought Sam deserved his very own movie, and about time.

Somebody was writer-director Brett Haley, who had cast Elliott in his 2015 feature, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Traveling together with Sam to do promotion for that film, Haley and Elliott developed a closer relationship and “The Hero” eventually came out of that.

Sam Elliott has taken some pains recently to point out that he’s not playing himself. The film is about an aging actor, Lee Hayden, who’s been plugging away for 50 years. He’s been working, hard enough for any actor, although his best role is decades in the past, and he mostly seems to do voiceover work, smoke weed, drink bourbon, and watch Buster Keaton movies with an old friend (Nick Offerman, who has some nice moments). He’s divorced and semi-estranged from his daughter, and early in the movie he’s given an ominous cancer diagnosis. Life has been a disappointment, we get it.

As Elliott notes, he’s been married for decades, he has a great relationship with his own daughter, and, as we can see, his career seems to be just fine. He’s got a Netflix series (The Ranch) and a new movie in the works (A Star Is Born, playing the manager to Bradley Cooper’s doomed musician).

I saw “The Hero” yesterday, noticing that it appeared to be on its way out of town after a week or so in theaters. What can I say? I like Sam.

I just don’t like the movie that much. Again, I’m glad to see him get a star turn, and he does some good work, but this film feels like it was written in a week. What seems to want to be a character study ends up swamped by its own sentimentality and just dumb ideas. Recurring dream sequences are occasionally visually striking but irrelevant and, again, dumb. As is a mid-movie set piece, a hokey awards ceremony in which Lee Hayden makes a grand gesture that, honestly, I’d like someone to explain to me. Using small words.

And cancer. Don’t forget.

It’s not a horrible movie, not at all. It’s just an aim and miss. Kind of dull. Nice to see Sam. That kind of movie.

And it’s nice that it exists, if only to give us a solid dose of Sam Elliott. We also get to see his wife of 35 years, Katharine Ross (playing his ex-wife in the film), although she’s on screen for maybe a total of 45 seconds and her only direction, apparently, was to frown a lot.

Offerman manages to play a drug dealer and still come across as he usually does, a well of common sense and wisdom about ordinary things. Laura Prepon is physically striking (those eyes) and has her moments, although she’s burdened with character traits that feel tacked on (she likes older men! She takes a lot of drugs! She’s a STANDUP COMIC!).

Krysten Ritter, the fine actress playing Sam’s daughter, is also handcuffed to a couple of facial expressions, none of which are all that flattering.

I searched through reviews of “The Hero” last night, wondering if I was just in a mood. Aside from an odd Rolling Stone review that was of the “mark your Oscar ballots now!” variety (not likely), I got a strong sense that critics were being gentle because, you know. Sam. “Rising above the sometimes weak material” and so on. Again, it’s just nice to see him get the screen time.

“The Hero” runs two hours, and I can’t think of a scene that doesn’t include Elliott. That’s a lot of Sam, and at age 72 there’s no movie magic. He’s a wiry, ropey senior citizen with decades etched into his skin, the years rumbling from his vocal cords, every bass note drawled out under that impressive facial hair. You can’t miss the drawl, an echo of his Texas roots.

Except he doesn’t really have Texas roots. He’s a California boy, born and bred, working his way up and down the west coast over the years but not straying east (and south) except for roles. That drawl? He’s an actor, folks. He appropriated it, and good for him. It’s a nice fit.

It also allows us to remember that this has been a long haul. He began acting in his 20s, leading-man looks getting him plenty of work, and eventually found a career. If we can all, maybe, remember specific roles that we can’t seem to forget (for me, it was his laconic, existentially challenged lifeguard in “Lifeguard” in 1976), it might be easy to forget the “working” part of working actor. He’s done a lot, and he’s a better actor for it.

I just wish he’d been given a better movie to act in. Haley’s other film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” is a much better movie, and allows Elliott to slip in and out of the story with ease while Blythe Danner does the heavy lifting (this one is definitely worth your time, if you can find it, although some of the same problems show up).

And I’m not discouraging you from seeing “The Hero,” or I don’t want to, anyway. I found it a little slow; your results may vary. If you want to catch it in a theater, you might want to hurry.

Sometimes good ideas don’t work out as well as we might hope, that’s all. I’m pretty sure Sam Elliott has that figured out by now. The dude knows how to abide.

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Six Years Wide

I got a text message, six years ago. It was late and I was already in bed, exhausted by a day of bad news. By months of bad news, actually, crawling and lurching its way into our reality until it never left us. It never does, it turns out.

And on July 6, 2011, we reached the peak, where it was easy to look back. In August 2010, my wife’s long struggle with her eyesight, with headaches, with word-finding difficulties, with all sorts of oddities had become understandable: She had a brain tumor, and she needed to get rid of it. The next few months would all be about this, surgery and recovery and adjustments.

In the spring of 2011, demonstrating technique to a young singer, my wife suddenly had pain. The next day she couldn’t climb stairs, and so on. We added a heart attack to her medical history, then, and there would eventually be anticoagulation and stent placement, and recovery from that.

While she was being worked up, routine mammograms detected what we thought were probably calcifications in both breasts. We thought wrong, and so the specialists talked to each other and juggled treatments, needing to keep her blood thin to treat her cardiac condition and yet needing to do a biopsy. It was tricky, and took weeks of waiting, but a biopsy was eventually done.

We sat down together, at home, that July 6, and listened to her doctor on speakerphone. This was a strange throwback; this physician was actually my first doctor on moving to Seattle. I remember bringing my infant daughter with me for an appointment, and my doctor coming out to the waiting room to admire this beautiful baby.

Now my daughter was 26, living in Texas and waiting by the phone, as we were. This doctor was calm and measured, describing the cancer that had invaded my wife, explaining that it was early and treatable.

But, again: We’d been climbing this mountain for a while.

I posted a cryptic Facebook message, then we headed out to a long-scheduled picnic. I baked a couple of pies, nothing new but now I wonder. Have I made a pie since then? Funny what you think about.

This is old news, of course. I wrote a book about these years, about how one goes about negotiating with dispassionate fate. No one to blame, nothing to attack. Bad stuff happens. Occasionally it keeps happening.

And six years is nothing. I know all about that July, and how July bucked us up. It’s our beginning of summer up here, and the sunshine and warmth buoyed us, a little. As did love and friendship and good surgeons, whose care was personal and kind. And expensive, although by then the costs had faded into fatalism. We were spared bankruptcy, but not going broke. If you can appreciate the distinction. It wasn’t a great time of life to go broke, but tell me about a better time.

This text message, though. I’ve discovered an intimacy to this, a few words that travel a thousand miles and nudge me in bed, keep me from dreaming for a moment while I read. It was from an old friend, just getting around to Facebook. She thought she knew what my comment was about. She wanted to touch us, comfort us, rail against the universe with us. It was a kindness.

People mostly didn’t know what to say. Mostly, they just showed up, and most of that was a digital presence, opening my eyes to the ways of the world. Proximity is nice, but long-distance love is still a pretty sweet deal if you can get it.

So love was good. Support was good. And time, ultimately, was good. The five-year mark has come and gone. Chemotherapy is over, and my wife counts fewer pills these days. Her routine appointments in three specialties have spread out a bit.

Live long enough and tragedy will sharpen its outline. You’ll see it when it happens, and understand that it happens all the time, to everyone. I have nothing new to add. Two months after the cancer diagnosis, our beloved pet, Strider, left us. My wife’s father died in 2012. The love of our lives, our grandson, was rushed to the hospital in diabetic ketoacidosis, changing everything. These moments come and go, the devil being in the details but the details keep changing. It’s just life, and it happens to all of us.

Six years later? I’ll stick with my thought from that particular summer. If the sea is so big and your boat is so small, prayer is good, friends are good. Love is good.

But maybe you need to get a bigger boat. Ours is six years wide now. We know every inch, and we know that ultimately we are not the captains. The sea will never give us a break. It’s beautiful to look at, though.

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