Half the registered voters in Texas voted early this year. When I got to my polling place on time today, Election Day, I felt ashamed for being late.
I’m just kidding about that. Everybody in the place was all smiles: poll volunteers, voters, kids tagging along to get a whiff of democracy.
I still like voting on election day. This morning it was in the neighborhood fire station. Last time I went into a school cafeteria. Often I’ve met my neighbors voting in a garage down the street. Garage voting is neat. It smells a little like bicycle tires and sometimes they have a dog I can pet while I’m waiting in line. Sometimes they have free coffee and if you get there early enough, maybe even some doughnuts.
That seems like real grass roots American democracy to me.
Voting early and by mail is convenient but I don’t want to vote from home. It makes me sad to think that before long we’ll all be voting with our smartphones. We will, you’ll see.
I think we should spend more time with our neighbors, shaking hands and introducing ourselves, smiling and feeling good about being there.
In Texas fall teases you like a puppy. It yaps at you, snaps playfully at your fingers and then darts away to plan another surprise attack.
I wore a sweatshirt last week. Today it will be 80. Tomorrow could bring snow. It’s the wonder of Texas weather that I love because I don’t like predictability.
Life itself is unpredictable and that’s how it should be, even and maybe especially life’s tragedies.
A man arises before dawn, showers, shaves, kisses his slumbering wife and kids goodbye and then he leaves home and dies.
I don’t mean to be morose. It’s just the unpredictable nature of life.
On my early morning radio news shows I’ve told these stories daily for decades. We get used to them, both in the telling and the hearing because the stories are framed in frigid cop talk, in matter-of-fact terms detached from emotion and personal reality.
“Dallas police responded to a fatal head-on crash early this morning. Officials say a wrong-way driver slammed into a late model Toyota southbound on I-75 near Walnut Hill. The driver of the Toyota died at the scene.
We don’t even learn his name.
Let’s see how that’s affecting traffic: live with Traffic on the Fives, here’s Bill Jackson…”
Bill explains that emergency vehicles have the wreck confined to the divider with officers directing a ten minute slowdown into the right two lanes.
“Meanwhile, inbound on the Dallas North Tollway there’s a slowdown at Northwest Highway…”
The Toyota driver’s wife and kids are still sleeping as a hundred thousand commuters deal with a traffic jam.
The family will probably be wolfing down breakfast on hurried schedules when the knock comes at the door.
But, I digress. I was talking about unpredictable fall weather and the unexpected turns in our daily lives.
Most people seem to live their lives focused on annoyance, oblivious to the small joys of the moment. We worry about trivial things and bitch about each day for trivial reasons.
We wish it was summer, we wish it was Friday.
We wish away the unpredictably wonderful moments of our lives.
We’re constantly told to live for today, in the here and now, and to stop and smell the roses. I don’t know anyone who has figured out how to do that but I’m working on it.
I thank God each morning for another day of life.
I don’t wonder if He exists. I’m just happy to be grateful.
Before I go to sleep at night I conjure images of my wife and children, my grandchildren, the friends I’ve made and the handful of very special people I’ve known and loved in my life. I give thanks for them all. Then I drift off to sleep without a care in the world.
Tomorrow will be another unpredictable day and though the possibilities include everything, glorious and tragic, I’m looking forward to it.
I’m going outside to mow the lawn now. It might snow tomorrow or I could die tonight.
I was just trying to organize my iTunes files. It’s a maddening process that forces me to access the gnat sized portion of my brain that insufficiently understands digital stuff so that I can preserve the memories of my heart.
I rarely listen to music and until just now I didn’t understand why.
I grew up in the sixties loving the Beatles, the Stones, Janis and Jimi. I was a radio rock jock at 17. I used to crank up the music LOUD when I was behind the mic in the KROY studio on Arden Way.
That time of my life passed quickly. I remember it fondly but I don’t live in the past. For some reason I’m not overly sentimental.
Once in a blue moon though I stumble across a song that brings a memory from my heart to the surface; it pulls my younger self out of the past and paints a moment with goodness and glory that can only be imagined.
This is a performance of a particular song by a group of musicians I knew during a very special time in my life. Like memories themselves it’s a grainy piece of film with a somewhat ethereal soundtrack that can’t do justice to reality as I have held it.
In my heart, I’m still there with the boys in the band as you see them. We have not aged. I’m on my feet under a freeway with hundreds of other fans shouting with joy, frozen in time on a Saturday night in a Sacramento spring.
Sharmayne is with me. This is our song. The trombone player is her man and I’m her best friend.
34 years later Sharmayne is gone and I can’t find Fritz. Rainer, Dieter, Charlie and the other boys have taken their lives elsewhere.
This is probably why I don’t listen to music much anymore.
It hurts too good.
NOTE: This is the Allotria Jazz Band from Munich in 1984. This particular performance was filmed in Germany, not Sacramento. That’s obvious by the narration. Still, Sharmayne and I thrilled to their music and this particular song many times over the years they appeared at the Sacramento (Dixieland) Jazz Jubilee.
Today I have some words of advice for my sons and theirs. We dads are very good at this. Even if the advice is sometimes nonsense we never stop spewing warnings, admonitions, analogies, metaphors and stories that begin with, “When I was your age…”
My own dad was a master of the art. He’s been gone for several years now but every day of my life things happen that remind me of something he said or did largely created the better parts of the man I am today. I still seek his advice and he still delivers.
Whenever I am faced with a perplexing decision I only have to ask myself, “What would Dad tell you?” The answer comes to me in a flash.
It works very well the other way around, too. Sometimes I have a dilemma that just can’t be sorted out by weighing the pros and cons of alternative actions or decisions. If I simply ask myself, “What would you tell Jeremy or Nathan to do?” I get my answer immediately with clarity and confidence.
These wise tricks of fatherhood are excellent tools and I highly recommend them. They almost always work.
So, the first piece of advice I must give my sons is: have faith in your wisdom but embrace your honest ignorance. There’s no shame in it.
Repeat after me now the three little words that are the most powerful item in a father’s bag of tricks:
“I don’t know.”
Say it again, fearlessly, as if you mean it this time.
“I don’t know.”
The more you say it the easier it becomes but you also must understand that these words should never be used except in sincerity. Your eternal responsibility to your children requires that you make every effort to help them find their way through life’s labyrinth. You, of course, are still finding your own way through the maze and sometimes they will encounter an intersection you’ve not seen. So, again with feeling, please:
“I don’t know.”
It’s getting kind of warm and charming, isn’t it? Maybe later we can address the other three words you need in your toolkit which require much greater skill and caution:
“Ask your mother.”
Post Script: After she read this my wife, the lovely and feisty CarolAnn Conley-Williams said, “You need to add the other three words that are the most important of all: ‘I love you.'” I replied, “That’s obvious.” She said, “No, it’s not. Many fathers can’t or won’t say it.”
She’s right, of course. I didn’t think of it because we Williams dads have no problem with it at all. You can read her comment below.
I have a device that fits in my hand and pocket and contains immediate access to all the discoveries, written histories and cultural achievements in the history of humanity.
Think about that for a second. It’s staggering.
We’ve landed men on the moon and robots on Mars. Modern medicine is on the verge of curing and preventing Alzheimer’s, cancer and genetic causes of heart disease.
But my home office printer is a spaz.
I have a powerful desktop computer that will whisk me off to faraway lands to enjoy the music and dancing of foreign cultures as they are actually happening. I can learn a new language and how to build or repair a house.
I can see and talk with friends I haven’t contacted in decades.
But my printer, a mere three feet away, can’t print a single page of text without sounding alarms and screaming out error messages. Each time it does we have to do a dance, my printer and I.
A few minutes ago I set the dance into motion by rebooting the printer, as usual. It has been clicking, clunking, whirring and spitting out blank pieces of paper since I started writing this. It shakes and clatters frantically, reminding me of the flailing arms of the robot in the original Lost In Space TV series of the sixties.
“Danger, Will Robinson!”
The app in the computer that contains my text source is ready to rock and roll, but the chunk of plastic next to me – which regularly reminds me I need to buy a new yellow cartridge to continue printing black ink – is still groaning and wheezing like a garbage truck.
What the hell is it doing?
I don’t fear guns made with 3D printers but I’m not in any hurry to get a heart from one, either.
I just turned 67. I feel fine, just got a clean bill of health in my annual checkup. I’m mentally alert and a whole lot wiser than I’ve ever been before.
But now I hear the steady tick-tick-tick I never noticed until quite recently.
The older I get the more excited I become by the life all around me. After fifty years of chasing career goals I’m close enough to the finish line now that I’m free of constant pressure to keep moving. I can sit down and look back with satisfaction. I can glance ahead with few wants and no expectations.
I enjoy my work more than ever because I’m not trying to go someplace else.
We’re always told to live in the present but you can’t get there until you get there.
Now I really do smell the coffee and the roses. I’m learning to let go of the nonsense and enjoy what’s left.
CarolAnn and I share the little things in our lives with more joy than ever. I’m embarrassed to admit I find myself paying the kind of detailed attention to our dogs that I should have paid to our kids when they were little. I tried, I really did, but there was always the background hum of things that needed to be achieved away from home. Now that’s finally gone.
I wish my boys could be boys again. They’d have more of me than I gave them 30 years ago. Still, they love me and they get it. I just didn’t know any better. I was being who I had to be at the time.
“Regret is just a memory written on my brow, and there’s nothing I can do about it now.” – Song written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, sung by Willie Nelson
But now there’s that damned clock. It doesn’t bother me because I fear death, it bothers me because I have so much I want to do yet and I sort of kick myself for not getting up to speed before now.
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right, what difference would it make? Each achievement would have simply brought a new idea. I’ll never finish as long as I can find things to excite me. I get that and I’m grateful.
None of us know how much time is left on the clock. When it stops we’ll be right in the middle of something important. So, here’s what I think:
At 67 achieving goals is less important than having them.
(Originally published in 2009. Hey, I’m only plagiarizing myself.)
When I was a kid we didn’t have air conditioning, just a swamp cooler. On really hot days I just laid on the cold tile floor under that fan and panted like my dog, Rusty. I always figured that’s where the term “dog days of summer” came from: dogs that just lie around and pant in the heat.
As much sense as that might make, I looked it up and here’s the deal:
The Ancient Romans called it caniculares dies (days of the dogs.) It arose from the notion that Sirius, the dog star, was angry this time of year and caused the Earth to get very hot. To appease the star’s rage the Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of Dog Days.
No, I don’t know why it had to be a brown dog.
The Romans, of course, thought nothing of committing carnage upon any creature that moved if it might be even remotely possible that a good screeching, bloody sacrifice would serve some useful or noble purpose.
This is why the Ancient Greeks were considered the brains of the outfit.
You see them in every city and country village. As sure as the birdsong of morning sunrise brings old men to McDonalds restaurants all across America.
Before he passed away my dad was one of them. Most mornings he’d get on his bicycle at daybreak or hop into his old truck if the weather was bad and travel about a quarter mile to the nearest McDonalds. His buddies arrived about the same time and together they would grab a bite and drink coffee while solving the world’s problems for an hour or two.
That’s what Dad told me, “We drink coffee and solve the world’s problems.”
I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
— Mark Twain
If you know me at all you know I have a deep respect and love for old people. I’ve been that way since I was a child and asked my grandparents to tell me about their lives when they were young. Most of the time I got a quick smile and a dismissive comment like, “Oh, that was a long time ago. It don’t mean anything now. Go play.” Occasionally I’d get just a tidbit of information like, “We didn’t have TV” or “We didn’t have money for toys”. That’s not what I was asking but I got the idea they didn’t want to talk about it so I left the room to play.
I’ve written often about how old people are overlooked and disrespected these days but as I get older myself, a month away from 67 as I write this, I’m beginning to understand there’s more to it. Sometimes old people just seem to lose the need or desire to be heard. I shouldn’t assume their silence is a sorrowful response to being ignored. Sometimes they’re just satisfied to keep their thoughts to themselves.
A couple of days ago at work a colleague in her late thirties said something to me about how America has changed for the worse since her childhood. She’s entering the age of nostalgia, I guess. I was about to just agree but instead I told her, “Maybe, but I’m not so sure things were all that great 60 years ago when I was a kid. They were probably bad in different ways. Things are a mess now, that’s for sure, but I have faith in my grandsons. They’ll fix the problems we’re handing to them while they create new ones.”
My colleague gave me a look I gratefully accepted as a sign of respect. So, I added:
“The nice thing about being my age is I don’t think these are my problems anymore. I did what I could to make the world better. I tried to help. Now I’m retiring from all of that.”
She smiled and said, “Must be nice.”
“It is,” I assured her. “You’ll get there but not yet. If you retire from all that stuff now it’s just giving up.”
This is another reason people don’t talk to old men, except other old men.
“You mean you want to say Grace?” Nana and I are both surprised but try not to show it.
“Uh-huh. Like at school.”
Isaiah goes to a Christian preschool so the fact that he’s used to a blessing at mealtime doesn’t surprise me but this is the first time he has offered it at home. Normally we don’t pray over meals, except at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter family gatherings but it’s nice. I like this new wrinkle to the developing man who is still our four-year-old grandson.
We all bow our heads and Isaiah begins:
“Thanks for the food we eat….um…the good food and, and…thank you for this beautiful day and….ummm….”
Isaiah has clearly been properly coached in the manners of Grace but he’s momentarily stuck for a big finish. I know the feeling.
“And….and….bless Nana and Grandpa and Daddy,” he continues, gathering steam, “And please make things grow and make things green and make Paige’s mom feel better and make Angela’s dog come back and make Nana’s bottom better! AMEN!”
I think Nana managed to mutter “Amen,” before her head snapped up and I started snickering.
“What did you say about Nana?” she asked with forced and admirable restraint.
He apparently thought she was hard of hearing so he answered very loudly, “I SAID MAKE NANA’S BOTTOM BETTER!”
Wise Grandpa and veteran husband that I am, I try to change the subject.
“Did Angela’s dog get lost?” I asked him.
“Yeah, he ran away.”
“And Paige’s mom is sick?”
Isaiah’s interest in explaining his prayer was fading quickly. I couldn’t drag it out any longer but I did fight back most of the grin as I asked my wife, “Honey, what’s wrong with your bottom?”
“He knows I fell on the stairs months ago. That’s what he’s talking about.” As she said this I clearly saw for the first time the look on a person’s face always described as “chagrined.”
A thought struck me.
“Isaiah,” I said, “Did you say that same prayer at school today?”