I Have Seen The Future. And It’s Dull.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I see no reason why I need to update the above, seven years later.

The gap between what is and what was speculated about, predicted, hoped for is big and getting bigger. I have to think it’s the most profound phenomenon of my lifetime, this blindsiding of the future. Science fiction, or at least the science fiction that I read, didn’t come close.

Didn’t really foresee the internet. Completely missed social media. And looking in the wrong direction when smart phones slipped into our pockets.

All of this is pretty cool. None of it feels that way, and that’s the biggest difference I can see between what we imagined and what we got.

I read this old post today, Facebook to the rescue of aging brains, and tried to construct a timeline of my life and technology. Not using technology. Just the aging brain.

By the time I turned 20, we were still sort of lurching. We had color television. We had push-button phones. We had microwave ovens. Cassette tapes arrived. Cable TV was starting to creep into the conversation. Videotape recorders had been around awhile but were bulky and pricey (around $1200, nearly 5 grand in 2017 dollars), and there was nothing to rent; they were primitive time-shifting devices.

This is just what I was aware of, as far as I recall. Things were happening. Electronics were getting smaller, faster, and ultimately cheaper.

But at 20 years old, I wasn’t buying electronics. I was in and out of college, and nothing was necessary. It was essentially an analog world and I was an analog guy, no surprise. We all pretty much were.

Ten years later, we had personal computers. Twenty and we had internet. Thirty and the iPhone was in town, but by then everything had changed. Those cute gateways to the future, Prodigy and Compuserve and AOL, were toys, curiosities for early adopters or aggressive day traders; by the time the 21st century arrived, so had broadband and we were off the races.

And despite all of this, the radical transformation of every aspect of our lives? Not that exciting.

That slice of pulled-pork pizza my son gave me last night? That I can get excited about. Never saw it coming, either.

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The Search For Meaning, Or Maybe A Chin

I picked up my wife around 5 last night, hoping for less traffic than the night before and pleasantly surprised; 55 minutes total, right at rush hour. We got to church by 6 to prepare for a 7pm Ash Wednesday service.

It was like pretty much anything along these lines. You get what you bring to it. It was a pretty wonderful night, then.

My affection for this community has only grown over the past few years, even as the congregation has contracted a little. We remain stragglers in an increasingly secular society, gathered around the fire, telling ancient stories, some of them obviously lies, and finding what truth and guidance we can. It feels pretty cool.

***

It’s been four years since I grew back my beard, preparing to begin filming Winning Dad in the summer. If you’re not a guy, and you’ve never had a beard for any amount of time, here’s the thing: You wonder. I mean, it’s your face. You see it most days, staring back from a mirror. You get curious as to what you look like under all that hair. Which, in my case, is mostly white.

So Lent seemed the season for shorning, somehow. The biggest drawback to this has always been my grandson, who knows only a bearded grandpa. I remember when my daughter was his age and I shaved my beard, and the way she reacted when I walked through the door after work. I was a little concerned. I live a long way from this little boy.

So I taped my cell phone to the bathroom mirror and recorded the whole process. I can probably edit it into a minute of speeded-up video to show him that grandpa is still grandpa.

The pictures below, then, are just screen captures from the video. Not hostage footage.

Not moody, just trying to figure out where to start.
And here we are. Gotta get those glasses fixed.
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Picking Your Chains

In June 2011, back when trauma was getting lively in this household and comfort food was exactly that, I broke down and got an iPhone. They’d always looked like pretty cool gadgets; I’d just resisted because I never saw the need.

I’m not sure “need” is the right word here. “Utility” is more like it, although that describes a lot of things I don’t have or want. I just reached a tipping point of sorts.

It was a bizarre time, at any rate. My wife, six months out from brain surgery, had a heart attack, and on the work-up for that they found breast cancer. At the same time, work drastically slowed up for about three months, plenty of time for me to find some old habits to practice. Mostly watching a lot of TV and eating a lot of junk.

Four years after losing about 90 pounds, it was the closest I ever came to climbing that ladder again. I gained about 25 pounds over those three months, zoom zoom. And then, before anyone really noticed and certainly no one commented, I dropped them. Within a month I was back in fairly normal range, and by the end of summer I as actually a little lighter than I had been for the past couple of years.

What helped me, besides a new steady gig that helped fill those empty hours and kept me from filling my stomach with ice cream, was the phone. And particularly an app, MyFitnessPal, which is now pretty popular but I just grabbed on a whim because it was free and I thought it would come in handy to keep track of what I was eating and exercise.

I never stopped, either. It may be a redundant app now, but for the time being I still use it the same way. Just punch in what I ate, finding nutritional information online or sometimes just approximating a calorie count. I figured it would all work out and it did, and over the years the app has added features that make it easier to do this.

The point is, I’ve used this particular app without a break for nearly five years, although it tells me that I’ve logged in for 700-plus straight days. I obviously missed a day along the line, catching up the next day, although it still sort of annoys me. I never broke that chain. I’d like some credit.

***

“Don’t break the chain” is a concept that Jerry Seinfeld talked about in an interview, and which has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years in the life-hacking community. His method, which involved making sure he wrote material every day, was to use a large calendar, putting a big red “X” on every day he wrote. And his goal became not to break that chain. Nothing too complicated, or original, but there’s a nice intuitive bounce here. Visual reminders are helpful. Repetition, discipline, and incremental progress are solid ways to achieve goals. Works for me.

I brought this idea up in a discussion the other day, and people seemed intrigued. Maybe I’ve been living with it too long. Feels like a no-brainer. Pay attention. Write it down. Repeat.

For what it’s worth, I eventually added RunTracker, which is a nice app that tracks my walks via GPS, gauging elevation and estimating calorie burns. It’ll also track walks in the background, which I use for short trips to the store, a mile and a half round trip or so.

And now I have a Fitbit. I have more data than I imagined five years ago. I have lots of data. I am Data King.

Yeah. It’s mostly just fun, some inspiration. Now that I’ve hooked up those first two apps to my Fitbit, heart rate is now dropped into the equation, and that’s really the stat in the long run that tells the tale.

Again, as with a smart phone, I was a late adopter. Both my brother and sister-and-law were wearing the same Fitbit as mine when I saw them in January. Still trying to figure it out.

Once an hour, it’s been nudging me to move, walk for a few minutes, and again the chain comes into play. It shows me nine hours, from 9am to 5pm, and checks off each hour that I moved approximately 250 steps. I’ve gotten to walking laps around the house. Gets me off my butt.

And it motivates me in other ways. It gave me a fitness score ranging from 48 to 52, just numbers but apparently excellent for my age. Now, two months later exactly, I’m up to 49-53. My resting heart rate, which started in the mid to high 50s, went up into the 60s for a week or so, and now sits at 51 this morning, has a lot to do with it.

The world record holder in the marathon has a score of 81, by the way. So that’s not a goal. Hitting 60 might be possible. Gives me something to shoot for.

None of this makes a huge difference in my life, other than to focus my increasingly jumpy brain on something concrete, with a little personal best sort of goal to keep me going. I’m not expecting an increase in longevity, although it’s possible I can delay wearing those chains I forged in my earlier life, the bad habits, the drinking, the smoking, the compulsive eating. They will show up eventually, and there’s no breaking them. I can only hope to mediate the natural progression, maybe keep some decent exercise tolerance for as long as I can.

And the numbers help, in a small way. Yesterday I ate about 1600 calories and burned around 2400, according to Fitbit, resulting in a weight loss of 0.3 pound. Which showed up on my scale this morning. Today I may eat 2400 calories and burn 1600. We are in a stable situation, then, unusual for me and surprisingly helped by this light little thing that always stays on my wrist.

My current pulse rate is 56. I weight 168-1/2 pounds. Hang between there and 171 or so and I can wear anything I own, which is all I’m asking here. That, and a few more years to see if I can figure out what to do with my life. Besides walking and writing.

And now I owe myself 250 steps. Piece of cake, really. Not literally. You get it.

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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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Rate, Rate, Don’t Tell Me

Somewhere around here, napping on my hard drive and in the cloud, is the word “flinder.” It’s a word I made up at a dinner with friends, all about my age, during a conversation about technology. It was just a combination of syllables I slapped together to stand for some new thing that we wouldn’t do, wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t relate to, wouldn’t be interested in. The new Facebook or Twitter, in other words.

Snapchat is a flinder, I think, at least for me, although that might not quite work. I don’t pay attention to Reddit, either. You can’t do everything, and nothing’s for everybody. I’m still in the loop, if a little skeptical these days.

Five years ago, I was skeptical about smart phones. Why would I pay an extra $30 a month so I could browse the webs from my phone? I could actually do that anyway, if I wanted to, although it was awkward and would be expensive if I did too much. I just couldn’t find a reason.

I found one eventually, or at least a rationale that I could live with, and I’ve never looked back. Or up, sometimes. I try to be responsible.

One of my reasons happened in the late spring of 2011, when batteries died in both my digital camera and my video camera at the same time, which was not a convenient time. There was also the annoyance of wanting to listen, sometimes, to music while I walked, but keeping my phone in a pocket just in case. Which, should it ring, might be impossible to hear give that I’m listening to music, and so on.

I consolidated technology, in other words. That’s what the iPhone was, and the ones that followed, and I took full advantage. It was a phone, both kinds of cameras, an MP3 player, and a Swiss Army knife without the blades. It could do a lot of stuff.

And as we moved through the iterations (I’m on my third generation of iPhone, and I may snag the fourth soon), more bells and whistles were added and it became a fitness tool, something I loved. It tracked my walks via GPS and kept records of miles and steps and theoretical calories burned.

But that was something I got for myself, working through the pros and cons, and overall happy with the way things turned out, even if life has become something of an obstacle course, avoiding teenagers walking directly toward me with their eyes on their screens.

This is my technology baseline, then. If there’s a way to combine several things into one thing, I’m interested. If it’s just a different and maybe easier way to do something, I’m less interested. My Amazon Echo, a Christmas gift last year from my son, is useful for playing music and serving as a nice Bluetooth speaker for my computer, but neither of those was necessary, thus making it sort of the perfect gift: I’d never buy one for myself, but I have some fun with it. It hasn’t changed my life in the least, but I can walk in the room and say, “Alexa, play some James Taylor” and that’s kind of cool, so win-win.

Which brings us to 2016.

I should mention that last week, I somehow lost my wedding ring. Sometimes it gets loose, a good sign that I weigh less than I should, but that hasn’t been the case. It somehow got caught on something and tugged off without me noticing. I keep thinking it’ll eventually show up, but since it was my second wedding band, just a nice pair that we bought in Santa Fe in 2009, I put on the original from 1983 and I’m all ringed up again.

I only mention it because my wedding band is symbolic, which is why I wear it. Otherwise, I’m not a jewelry person. I don’t like things around my neck, can’t think of even a stupid reason to get anything pierced, and I live in a world of clocks so I’ll skip the watch, thank you.

Yet now I have this thing on my wrist. It tells the time, but oh so much more, and I’m sort of on the fence about it.

My daughter and her husband gave me a FitBit for Christmas, something that always struck me as superfluous, although maybe not as much as the Echo. My phone doesn’t track my heart rate, for one thing, and I guess that’s an important thing to know, or it could be. So far, my heart hasn’t stopped beating according to this thing. I’m going to assume it’s correct.

I’m also going to assume that it’s correct when it tells me my resting heart rate is 56, which seems pretty good for a guy whose exercise has been spotty for a few months now. I went out yesterday, in fact, and walked about four miles, nothing too strenuous, and apparently averaged 113 beats per minute. Hardly aerobic, although there was some of that, and twice my resting rate? It might be OK. Doesn’t matter. I think I’m fine.

Again, it’s not something I would have bought for myself, so nice gifting strategy. It’s fun, I’m enjoying it, I don’t mind wearing it, and it actually gives me information I didn’t know (I apparently sleep pretty soundly).

But I’ve been down this road before. Last October I left my phone in the car when my wife dropped me at the airport, and I went through security twice just so I could run back outside and meet her to pick it up. That’s my situation with the phone. I’ve accepted it. I’m not entirely comfortable, but accepting.

And now I can see a situation in which I have no idea what my heart rate is, because somehow I’ve lost my FitBit. This slope is awfully slippery, and I have a feeling I’ve already started downhill.

———————

Note: I wrote the above yesterday morning, December 27. After I finished and began to post, I saw the news about Carrie Fisher. As ridiculous as it sounds, it felt disrespectful to be joking about health and tracking devices on the day somebody famous died following a cardiac event. Somebody about my age; two years older, my brother’s age, younger than my wife by a year. My wife, who had her own cardiac event six years ago.

And the news was and is just sad. It feels odd to me the way we throw around the word authentic these days; everyone’s authentic, but I guess I get it. Celebrity and all. So that’s part of the sadness, I think; she seemed to be a real person, with real problems and a nice attitude about all of them.

On the other hand, it’s not like we needed a reminder after the past year, but life is uncertain except for the last part. There are worse things than taking health a little too seriously. I’ve never been too concerned about heart disease, just because I have no warning signals and a lot of signals that say, nope. You will die some other way. Including the image below, which I don’t really understand but I’ll take. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher.

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Passing The Plate

 

Between my trip to Austin in October, during which I ate great food but maybe not as much as I should have (kind of typical for me when I travel), and the viral illness that knocked me back a bit, I lost a few pounds. Nothing huge, but given my issue with loss of appetite for half of 2015 and through the winter of 2016, it’s something I’m aware of.

And awareness is really all it takes, at least now. I was well aware a year ago that I’d been losing weight, but c’mon. It’s losing weight. Who doesn’t like that? And it was such a slow loss, drip drip drip, about a pound a week.

But do that for 40-plus weeks and you get what I got, sort of a frog-in-boiling water situation (not that this is an adequate metaphor, since in fact a frog will jump out of the pot long before it starts to boil). Incrementalism in any situation can create all sorts of illusions, a tilt-shift focus of the big picture.

I can see the big picture better now, and those few pounds dropping off didn’t create a crisis, especially with Thanksgiving and the holiday season now upon us, but I’m still reminded from time to time of where I was and where I am. I went to one of the Beacon offices the day before Thanksgiving for a farewell party (the young woman, Sara Bruestle, who’s been editing me for the past few years got a new, terrific job) and met the editor of one of the other newspapers my column runs in. We had a nice conversation and he was very complimentary, but apparently he whispered to Sara that I looked nothing like my picture.

This bothered me for some reason. I actually like that picture, and when it was taken I thought, yeah. That’s the face I see in the mirror. For the first time, at least in the context of a headshot, I felt as though the picture looked like me.

So that was weird. Weird enough that I mentioned it to my wife, who gets irritated when she hears this stuff. She knows how panicky and scared I got last spring when all the lab tests were wacky and my doctor got real serious, real quickly, and I think she resents it when a stray comment tickles my anxiety.

And I should mention that she thinks I look great, healthy and fit. But different, apparently. And when people see Winning Dad and then see me, they comment that I look nothing like the guy in that movie. This also seems weird to me. I’m about 35 pounds lighter, but is that enough to change a person’s appearance drastically? I guess so.

And yeah. There are worse problems to have.

——————-

This is all about diabetes. There’s some depression and just plain aging thrown into the mix, but it’s really about the sugar.

At least five of us who are related to Bix and know his story have lost weight, including everyone in this house. Most of America wants to lose weight, of course, but there’s no getting around our knowledge that this little guy eats well, a nutritionally solid diet, and he eats basically as though he’s working his way through the stages of the Atkins Diet.

But he’s a toddler, and for the first 17 months of his life he ate as healthy a diet as any baby I’ve ever known. So despite having pretty brittle diabetes, difficult to control, he had a head start and there was not much to take away, I think. He certainly never approached fast food.

A lot of this is speculation, which is all I’ve got, but my take-away is that if you want to lose weight, and you don’t want to be inspired by a family member with an autoimmune disorder, look at the sugar. It’s always the sugar. Glucose, fructose, lactose, you name it (it probably has a name).

So for those of us with a lot to unlearn – I’m really just talking about myself – cutting way down on sugar produces a new problem. Foods containing a lot of sugar are the most calorie dense, and that’s essentially the American diet. Take it away for the most part and you’ll lose weight. If you don’t want to lose weight, you’re going to have to compensate.

To give you an example, when I looked at our Thanksgiving dinner, which was small but pretty traditional, with sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes and gravy and so on, my brain, conditioned as it now seems to be, looks at about 85% of Thanksgiving dinner as dessert.

So how crazy is this? After years of paying obsessive attention to what I was eating, always looking to drop a pound or two, I now have to make sure that doesn’t happen. And so I pay obsessive attention to what I eat. This doesn’t feel fair.

But not much is, and as I said, there are worse things. Any number of worse things, though, could cause me to lose weight, and as strange as it is I get that it’s important to have some room to lose, so to speak. Pass the mashed potatoes.

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Sue Ellen

The day was going to come. I’ve known it now for months, reading between the lines, shocked at how selfish I can be.

A family grieves, including small children and people who were once small children, who once came under the spell of one particular teacher. I read their comments on her Facebook page. I resist the urge to add something, to make it about me, although of course I’d feel compelled. It turned out to be about me.

I knew her for such a short time, and up until a few years ago hers was just another dusty name, alive and well in my memory but for reasons I didn’t quite understand.

I’ve tried to explain this on several occasions, and I don’t seem able to, somehow. But here you go: I’m not very interested in writing to make myself feel better. To rant, to vent, to rage against injustice, fold it up into a paper airplane and sail it off into the world, to do nothing constructive but spew; I’ve done it, but it’s not satisfying and I rarely have the urge.

Some people can pull this off, this personal catharsis that comes with assembling stray thoughts into little clauses. It’s just never worked for me. If I want to change my mood, I’ll take a walk or pull weeds.

But sometimes I learn things, if after the fact. Sometimes I’ll re-visit something I wrote, sometimes years ago, and see what was on my mind, what focus had been adjusted by the act of typing characters on a keyboard and waiting to see what came out.

So I wrote about her a few years ago, this distant memory of a music teacher, just a cute story I thought that pushed the narrative along. I was an adolescent, she was kind and inspiring, and how funny that my life would look oddly as though my trajectory was changed, if ever so slightly, by a few months of singing and learning, and watching.

And what I learned, later on, looking back at that piece, was that while I could spin a story about influence and inspiration, and how funny it was that I’d end up fascinated by musicians, marrying one and fathering another, there was an actual teachable moment there. Or moments. A long time ago.

I sent her the column, finding her alive and well online, and we had some communication after all of these years. And I tried to tell her, without getting too sentimental or lofty, that somehow she gave me confidence. It was a good time to receive it, at 13 years old. It made the next few years a lot more fun.

I figured out what I’d learned, that’s all, and why it wasn’t what I’d always believed.

And that was it. The occasional notes from time to time, and I kept an eye on her life as much as anyone else I once knew and now can observe through social media, lurking or engaging, my choice.

The last comment she left me was on Facebook, in fact. It was strange, with missing words and a few misspelled ones, which I tried to pass off as maybe a quickly dictated note, or maybe done with one hand in a spontaneous moment. That’s all I thought. I already knew she was dying.

That much she’d told me, if indirectly. I knew about the brain cancer and the treatment, and her decisions about the future. But it wasn’t as though we were close. Just a teacher, and a former student, and some people in common in a few crazy but actually understandable connections.

And yet here I am, trying to deconstruct a slight, tangential relationship to find something else. To find out why this makes me so sad.

I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s because, after connecting at a distance after all these years, I assumed that one day we’d end up in roughly the same geographic location, close enough to make a trip to say hi.

Maybe it’s because she was 67, in a year when we’ve lost some famous people who never reached 70. It was the same age as my father when he died, although under different circumstances, and that was 13 years ago. I obviously am closer to 67 now than I was then.

Or maybe it’s just what it is, and was. She was young and pretty, enthusiastic about music and about sharing it with young minds and voices. She lit up the classroom, and taught with humor and joy.

And sometimes she’d sing, just a little, a beautiful voice, a lyric soprano who knew more about her own instrument than most of us would ever learn about our own.

I may have married my music teacher, in other words, the way some people are said to marry their fathers or mothers. I have no sense of this, although maybe it explains the familiarity I felt. I have very little insight into what I was like at 13, and no wisdom about what makes love happen.

It just made me a little desolate yesterday, knowing that we were losing a little light in this dark world, wishing it didn’t have to be that way. Wishing I had just one more chance to say thank you, for lessons learned. About singing, about music, about me.

sue-ellen

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Fast Times

I’ve been interested in generational theory for a while now, although not in a fancy-pants way. In a functional way.

You can look up generational theory, by the way, in case you still doubt my self-effacement up there. It’s a real thing. You’ll see the names Strauss and Howe.

And while it’s all very fascinating, particularly the Strauss-Howe stuff, it feels a little like astrology, which might actually teach you something about the cosmos if you really work at it. The rest, of course, is just pretend.

As is generational theory; that is, the idea that we belong to a particular club in which we all, more or less, have shared experiences that have shaped our lives. The obvious arbitrary nature of this makes the whole thing fascinating speculation, but just speculation.

But I think about it a lot, and for practical reasons: I wonder about references. I wonder who knows what, who remembers what, and who isn’t interested. I read a story today in which a young person (a Millennial; generationalists take note) was interviewed about voting for a third-party candidate and asked if he/she worried about a “Ralph Nader” effect on the election.

To which our young person responded, appropriately, “Who’s Ralph Nader?”

That’s what I worry about, or at least question, whenever I get in the mood to reflect backwards. I think of it as The Howard Cosell Question. Cosell, the famous sports broadcaster whose distinctive voice, personality, ego, and opinions were much discussed in his heyday, which was primarily the 1970s. I wrote a op/ed piece for the Seattle Times 15 years ago in which I mentioned him, and my daughter’s English teacher made copies for her class and had them discuss it. That was pretty cool, but he needed to explain who Cosell was and that’s when this all started.

I’m sort of rescued from a sad fate, throwing out dozens of dated references, by demographics: The people who might be clueless about Ralph Nader aren’t the ones, mostly, reading newspapers.

It’s interesting as it is to read the theories, particularly the Strauss-Howe book The Fourth Turning, which attempts to diagram the cyclical nature of western civilization in general, and the United States specifically. It’s fun to read. As I said, like a horoscope. You can find some science there, and well-thought-out ideas, and it’s reasonable but still a little contrived. It’s observable but can’t be demonstrated, because it’s too vague to demonstrate. The Millennial Generation, according to them, might be the next greatest generation. Good for them, good for us, but what does that even mean?

And I think I see the flaw. Strauss-Howe tend to mark our 14 generations since colonial days in roughly 20-year increments, corresponding to the four stages of life: Begin adulthood around 20, mid-life around 40, old age around 60. Begin is the operative word.

I have a new way. I made it up all by myself.

Since we already tend to generalize decades (the 1960s, the 1940s, the 1980s, etc.), I say we skip the clever names and just focus on high school.

High school. It’s hard to argue that these are formative years for most of us, since we enter as newbie 14-year-olds and leave as legal adults, ready to vote or serve. What happens in the world is viewed through our teenage prisms, sometimes politics and other current events but mostly (I think) culture. This is where the references are hatched, unknown a decade before and fading quickly by the next.

So here’s my new plan: Anyone who spent at least a year and a half in high school during a particular decade belongs to that generation (or cohort, maybe, is the better word). This is also arbitrary, but at least it’s a more manageable group. If you started your junior year in high school in the fall of 1989, graduating in 1991, you’re a 90s. If you graduate in 1990, you’re an 80s. If you graduate in 1971, you’re a 70s, but a 60s if you’re the class of 1970. See?

It becomes much more manageable, in my opinion. I graduated in 1976, making me a full-blooded 70s, shared with people three years younger and five years older. Or, another way, my cohort ranges from 55 to 63. Next year it’ll be 56 to 64.

This seems much more effective than the 20-year collections, which really make little sense. In some models (they tend to vary a little in start and stop dates), both Bill Clinton (age 70) and Stephen Colbert (age 52) belong to the same generation. This is crazy. It makes more sense to me to say that Bill Clinton is a 1960s and Colbert is a 1970s (he spent 1-1/2 years there, part of 1978 and all of 1979). The year Clinton graduated from high school, the top films were Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, although Beckett and Hard Day’s Night were in the mix.

When Colbert got his diploma, he had Gandhi, Sophie’s Choice, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Tootsie, along with Diner, Blade Runner, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, a difference.

And that’s just film. There’s music, books, trends, fads, fashion, and interesting haircuts.

I think this is brilliant. But it’s kind of early.

Anyway. Doesn’t really make much of a difference, but it helps me out. I meet someone in their mid-50s to early 60s, I figure we’ve lived through mostly the same experiences. For example, by the time the 1970s rolled around, even the earliest of our bunch had far less chance of being drafted than their slightly older brothers. Me, I never even had to sign up for the Selective Service. I was grandfathered in (only men born between March 29, 1957 and January 1, 1960, were exempt when Carter reinstated registration in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. History which probably falls into the Nader category for Millennials).

Again, this is astrology. Your results may differ. And not everyone, particularly writers with a historical bent and artists seeking inspiration from the past, fits neatly into the cultural milieu of their high school years. Some of my favorite films were made decades before I was born, and I tend to prefer music from the 1960s when it comes to pop. But this is the nature of artificial constructs: They work well in certain situations, not so much in others.

My take-away is to buck conventional wisdom and dismiss the idea that we have short memories. We just have specific memories, frozen in the cerebral cortices of teenagers. If anything influences the people we become (and I have my doubts in these general terms), it’s those.

And then we gather new ones, and process, and try to integrate with our formative years, and some of us do better than others, but I still suspect most of us are solidly grounded in our eras. And I’m not sure it matters all that much. Don’t know Ralph Nader? It’s OK. But if you decide to branch out, discover what happened before you were around, and what’s happening now that may be slightly off your radar, well. You could go all the way. And that’s a quote.

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Todos mis pecados recordados

I just read an interesting article by a couple of theoretical physicists, although it just seemed interesting to be honest. It’s not like I have much of a clue here.

The idea, I’m guessing, deals with an old notion, at least in the world of physics: Time is pretty much irrelevant. Time might not even actually exist; it certainly doesn’t seem to make any difference in terms of quantum physics.

What it most reminded me of was Slaughterhouse-5 and Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, who became unstuck in time. He sort of hopped between events, past and future; “present” also becomes irrelevant and sort of ridiculous from the novel’s point of view. And maybe from science’s point of view, at least according to this article. The only reason we can’t remember the future (agh, already out of my league) is that our memory doesn’t work that way. It has something to do with entropy and Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. I think.

No matter. I’m curious but I’ll never understand. I mostly was reading to try to infer something constructive about memory. I think about memory a lot.

I’ve spent the past 10 days – and I have no idea why I started – doing exercises with Duolingo to try to bring my Spanish skills back up to…somewhere. I left high school fairly fluent; I got tripped up with the subjunctive tense and my vocabulary needed a big boost, but I could make conversation.

So where does that go? Nearly a thousand hours of classroom work alone, and I look around this room and can spot a dozen items I can’t name in Spanish, and I’ve got a handful of verbs only. Still, every day I spend 20-30 minutes drilling myself, slowly de-cobwebbing. Los niños comen manzanas roja. That should get me into a good restaurant.

What’s odd is that I seem to have no problem conjugating simple verbs, even if I’m relearning the verbs. That part seems to have stuck, along with a fair amount of other grammar details. I have trouble with the word for “socks” but I can say I have them with no problem.

So, no idea. At my age, it seems daunting if not sort of quixotic to try mastering another language, or even getting some comfort with it, and even if it’s one I used to speak fairly well. And yet, so far it seems to be working. Let’s see where I’m at in a couple of months. Let’s see if I last that long.

Who knows? I may be a volunteer on the exploration of brain plasticity and our ability to learn new things, even if we’re aging canines. I may not remember the future, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get ready for it. I hope it has tacos.

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