January 19,2021: Tomorrow Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. Harry Truman was the 33rd president when I was born just shy of 70 years ago.
When I was a child my grandparents never wanted to talk about their own childhoods. I didn’t know why, they didn’t tell me. They just said it was a long time ago. “Go play”, they’d say. If I persisted and they weren’t so busy as to be annoyed they would eventually talk to me a bit about their old days. They amazed me with tales of the world in which they were kids. Cars, phones and electricity were becoming common in the early 20th century but a lot of people didn’t have them yet. Some homes still didn’t have inside plumbing.
My grandparents never saw an airplane until they were teenagers or young adults. This blew my mind.
I can remember when my parents got their first TV. It was a large piece of furniture with a screen the size of a small laptop.
This morning on the radio I suggested people go online for more information about something. These days we talk as if everybody knows how to go online and they do. We just say, “Get more information at the county website” and people know how to do that with no lengthy explanation and instruction. About 25 years ago when relatively few people owned home computers I had to read the entire web address aloud very slowly: “H-T-T-P, colon, forward slash – forward slash, saccounty – all one word (added for clarification), S-A-C county, – dot – com.”
Then I’d repeat it all to make sure everybody got it.
While you younger people wonder how we old farts ever got along without the Internet and 600 TV channels we wonder how you managed to grow up pen-bred, never free-range kids. We’re constantly wringing our hands over that. We worry that our grandkids will never skin their knees or learn the frustration of losing a game and not getting a trophy. Maybe games will be banned altogether soon because competition will be considered unfair and unhealthy.
I worry about that a bit but then I wonder if it really matters; I could be wrong about everything.
I just hope my grandkids will think to ask me about my childhood before I’m gone. If they don’t, I hope they at least wonder.
If they don’t wonder I suppose it won’t matter. It was a long time ago.
Thanksgiving was the day before yesterday. My son and his family called CarolAnn and me as sons and daughters have always been obligated to do on holidays.
That’s a time-honored tradition that must never die, by the way.
We loved talking with them. As a special treat, they called again yesterday because it was CarolAnn’s birthday. Neither call was made via Zoom or Facetime.
A week or so ago I set up a call with my doctor. It was so insignificant I don’t even remember why I called but the fact that it was easy and super-efficient was a big motivator. I wouldn’t have made an office appointment for this particular issue, whatever it was, but now I can consult with my doctor face-to-face without leaving my La-Z-Boy or even having to put on pants.
What a world.
Doc Friendman and I have never met in person. Seriously. CarolAnn and I have been his patients for more than a year but in his office, we always met with Physician Assistants never with the guy whose name is on the door until last week when I met his lovely face on my phone.
The P.A. must have called in sick that day.
I’m fine with all of this. As I said, I love the convenience and the fact that so far my online medical consultations haven’t required that I open my mouth, lift my shirt or drop my drawers in front of my phone.
I just wonder why we have to see each other’s faces? Wouldn’t a simple voice call be just as effective?
When my kids phone I’m constantly aware of how Zoom and Facetime make me look like some sort of fat cadaver in bad lighting. I don’t like that.
When I call the doctor for a face-to-face I don’t much care about my appearance. Seeing sick, fat, dying people is his job. But I wonder if Facetime, Zoom and Android Duo aren’t just an excuse to charge my insurance company for a regular office visit.
Sometimes technology has to explain to us why we need these “improvements”.
I’m reminded of a recent Tweet I saw:
Last night my friend asked to use a USB port to charge his cigarette, but I was using it to charge my book. The future is stupid.
I took my little boy to the airport yesterday and said goodbye again.
Sending him off alone that way reminded me of another day when I had to turn my back and walk away. He was just four years old then and in his mother’s arms. I wasn’t walking away from him of course, nor from her for that matter. I walked away because I had to. Life sent three of us in two directions. We had no choice in the matter.
That day on Pier 39 in San Francisco my heart was torn with every step. “Daddy!” he kept crying, a little louder each time. It still rings in my ears. Tears flowed in a very public place. I didn’t care. I forced myself to walk away quickly. I wanted to turn around and run back but I stayed strong for them both. I walked away because we had no choice.
None of us have ever talked about that one infinite minute. I just assume Jeremy was too young to remember. Maybe he does. I should ask. I think I know his mother well enough to know her heart was also breaking for him at that moment. And maybe, just a little, for me too.
Life patches up the scars pretty well. Jeremy’s mom and I both fell in love again and married better. We stayed close.
The little boy I put on an airplane yesterday is 43 now. He was going home to his wife and their son but he will always be my little boy.
I hugged him tightly and told him I love him. He said he loves me, too.
Then I went home to my life as he flew home to his.
One of the things I love about getting older is that I have a large box of memories to pick through when I’m in the mood. Sometimes they pop into mind for no apparent reason like an old photo that falls out of a drawer.
Here’s one I found this morning. I haven’t thought of it in many years. Sadly, there is no actual photograph.
In 1973 I was the Program Manager at KRTH 101.1 in Los Angeles which had a very small office and studio complex in a converted house on Venice at Fairfax, just off I-10 in West L.A. One Friday I left my briefcase at work. When I needed it the next day I drove back to get it.
K-eaRTH was automated at the time. We had no live disc jockeys, but we did have one studio we used for newscasts and recording commercials. On this particular weekend our company, RKO Radio, had granted permission to the American Film Institute to use the place as the setting for a short movie AFI was making about a radio talk show host who found himself trying to talk a crazed listener out of killing someone, maybe him or herself, I don’t remember. It was exciting. AFI made me a script consultant, asking me to look at the dialogue and make sure they were saying real radio-like things.
The legendary Jack Lemmon was the star of the film, donating his time and talent to the project.
“Failure seldom stops you. What stops you is the fear of failure.” – Jack Lemmon*
When I wandered in to pick up my briefcase that Saturday evening the tiny parking lot was crammed with production trucks, plugged in and humming. Cables ran everywhere, across the porch, through the doorway, and into the cramped studio area. The place was littered with professional lighting, sound equipment and very busy people carrying scripts, notebooks, and makeup kits.
My office was at the opposite end of the old house and as exciting as it all was I didn’t want to stand around and gawk like a rube so I just went straight to my office, inserted the key into the lock and opened the door.
Jack Lemmon froze when I entered, poised on one leg in my office in his skivvies, holding a pair of pants. He wore a white shirt and tie but my attention went to his legs; they were very white and kind of scraggly. I might have chuckled if I hadn’t been so surprised. He was surprised, too.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“This is my office,” I answered.
“Oh.” That’s all he said for a moment.
Then this magnificent and celebrated actor performed an unintentional but classic impersonation of himself, beaming with charm as he stammered, “Sorry. They… they told me I could use this as a dressing room. (A slight pause, a big grin.) Have a beer.”
There was a cold six-pack of Coors on my desk.
“Oh, thanks,” I said, “but I just came to grab my briefcase. I’m leaving.”
I grabbed my briefcase and said it was nice to meet him. He said “you, too” or something like that.
I wrote the first part of this piece three years ago. Just ran across it today and decided it’s ready for an update. No doubt more will come.
— Dave Williams,
June 16, 2020
One day last week I was looking for a new TV show to watch and came across something called Atlanta. I’d never heard of it but the picture of three young black men with peaches in their mouths was weird. It intrigued me so I took a look.
Here’s how the Hulu log line describes the show:
Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene in order to better their lives and the lives of their families.
That’s Hulu’s pr department trying to make it sound like a funky Modern Family. The description is so white bread it makes me wonder if someone was trying to intrigue me or chase me away. The weird photo makes a statement of its own. I’m not sure what it is but it sucked me in.
I punched PLAY.
Atlanta took me to a world I’ve never known, where everyone is black and speaks street slang in a dialect that was difficult for me to follow. I turned on captions and it helped but I still struggled a bit to understand what was being said and what it meant. Finally, I just sat back and let the characters develop. I was drawn in.
These people are just like me, but different. We live in very different versions of America.
I’m a white man in my middle sixties.
I’ve never experienced racial discrimination nor knowingly committed any but I’ve always known that it exists and is a damnable sin. I admit to being slightly uncomfortable around people of different classes and cultures. That’s just human nature and it has nothing to do with skin color, sexual identity, religion or nationality, it’s just a matter of “different”. I’m no anthropologist but I wonder if it isn’t an instinctive thing going back many tens of thousands of years to isolate and identify threats from other tribes. I don’t know. I’m just spitballing here. Regardless, we all experience that and almost all of us struggle to eliminate the built-in sense of fear that many people today would label bigotry.
Atlanta is just a TV show but in the comfort of my white middle-class family room it admitted me to a world I’ve never known and can’t visit in real life.
I watched all ten episodes of the first season and I’m all in. I care about the characters and their relationships. I like them. I want them to succeed. I want them to be happy. I love seeing their world through their eyes. It has opened mine.
But this isn’t a TV review. Here’s the point:
Each segment of our lives is a series of doors leading from one place to the next.
At 66, I’m allowed to ease off the pedal. Fewer doors, fewer choices, no hurry. I don’t have to immerse myself in long term goals and obligations; my kids are grown and raising their own families. My career is achieved and I can stop reaching for the next rung on the ladder.
In many ways I’m just starting to live life on my terms for the first time. I’m learning to let go of insistence and think about what I want to do just because I want to.
Lately I’ve enjoyed stocking bird feeders and watching finches jostle for position.
I find myself saying hello to strangers with greater regularity and sincerity.
Old black men go through this same transformation.
If you’ve not reached this point you have an exciting time of life ahead that you’re probably dreading because you think getting old means wearing out.
Getting old means getting free.
When it happens you’ll be amazed by how it clarifies your thinking; you’ll reassess beliefs and assumptions you forged long ago when you were gullible, impulsive and bulletproof. You’ll find yourself saying, “Maybe I was wrong” and being right about that.
In this sense growing old is a gift shared among people of all races.
Atlanta is just a TV show but it opened my eyes to a world inaccessible to me. The characters and their stories are fictional but I trust its cultural authenticity and insights.
In one scene Alfred, aka the rapper called Paper Boi, explains in a moment of frustration why he needs to be successful in music so he can stop selling drugs for a living.
“I scare people at ATMs,” he says. “I have to rap.”
That hit me like lightning.
I’ve never scared anybody by my mere existence. I’ve never had to think about how some might fear and maybe even hate me as a stereotype.
This is what people mean when they talk about white privilege. I didn’t get it until now because I’ve only heard that term as an accusation from other white people who live in my own culture. They try to teach me something while strongly implying I’m a bigot simply because I was confused and defensive. It was a revelation delivered to me in anger. They throw down the gauntlet of shame: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.” It demands I choose sides and smacks of condescension. It makes me frightened, angry and defensive.
“I scare people at ATMs.”
That’s when I got it.
I have white privilege, I understand that now, no thanks to the message delivery system.
It doesn’t mean I should feel guilty about it. It’s not my fault and nobody can tell me it is. It’s just sad and wrong. It’s human. Maybe in some small way my understanding can help fix it.
My Age of Aquarius, the 1960s, was a time of cultural revolution that was shocking and frightening to my parents’ generation. We who were young found it terrifying and yet exciting. With one foot in the world of Leave It To Beaver and another in bloody Vietnam the activists and advocates for change set their sites on the hopelessly lofty goal of universal peace and love, no more wars or discrimination; flower power, Woodstock and all that. Immediately.
They advocated world peace by shouting, “You’re either with us or against us!”
And today, “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.”
This is where most people pay their check and go home. You can’t insult people into understanding and accepting your view of life.
Between generations of change our culture needs a nap.
We grow tired of fear and anger. We grow up, grow families and want our comforting lives back so we take a break for a decade or five. We want our children to have the secure, carefree lives we insist on remembering. To some extent they do, but yet they don’t.
Eventually, our kids or theirs gear up for another fight, one that inevitably beats others into confused submission and thus advances the bar of human evolution just a tiny bit before they take another break and bring the next generation in off the bench.
It is frustratingly slow but we have frustratingly short lives and so much living to do between protests.
As an old man who has been there and done that I am glad for the effort. Positive change is inevitable, I think. We do make progress but it is painfully slow, especially painful for the young and anxious.
I’m tired. That’s not a good excuse, it’s just a fact.
I have no great wisdom to impart or solutions to offer. I can only say that I wish people would stop shouting long enough to listen, really listen with open minds and hearts. We might find we have more in common than we believe.
It was the best of pans, it was the worst of pans.
CarolAnn and I will celebrate our 34th anniversary three days from now. It’s a proud achievement for us both. The secret, as most long-married people will tell you, is to learn the art of compromise. Here is one of ours.
I am not allowed to cook with CarolAnn’s baking sheet. She likes her pots and pans to shine. I don’t see the point, I really don’t, especially when it comes to the bottom of a pan, the part that sits on a stovetop or oven rack. We don’t put food on burners or racks and in any case the long exposure of a trifle of potato slices or a slab of chicken to high heat makes any argument about cleanliness really academic in my view.
My view is not universally accepted.
So, we each have our own baking sheets. Here are hers and mine side-by-side. You guess which is whose.
When I cook for us I use my pan and it doesn’t seem to bother her in the least. And, cookies that come from her glistening cookery have never tasted too clean for my palate. The result is peace and tranquility lending itself to an epic tale of marital harmony.
Just one final note. In the spirit of helping younger life partners evolve a bit in this matter, I’ll leave one more picture.
CarolAnn does all of her cooking in the kitchen next to our family room. This is mine.
I believe we leave traces of ourselves everywhere we go and among everyone we meet. Over a lifetime these fragments of others meld with our own essence to create the people we are.
My special friend, Terry Nelson, has apparently died. I say apparently because it’s something I can’t yet accept. It just doesn’t make sense.
Of all the people I’ve known Terry is one of the few whose very existence inclines me to believe in God, His goodness and His famously mysterious ways.
I wish I could tell Terry that. He’d laugh like hell and say, “Man, we need to get you another drink.”
Terry is one of those rare people I’ve known who always wears a smile. Always. I never saw him down or angry. He speaks with a persistent and infectious chuckle. He pays attention to every word I say, nodding his comprehension and agreement. He responds with a sterling compliment: “Dave, that’s exceptional”, he’ll say, and then give me a brief, positive reflection on what I had told him. He often leaves behind a nugget of revelation.
A few moments spent with Terry always makes me feel better about myself.
The eddies of life as they are, swirling, mixing and moving apart, I haven’t seen or spoken with Terry in years but the traces of him that migrated to my soul have made me a better man.
I guess the reason I can’t believe he’s gone is that he isn’t. He lives large in each of us who loved him.
We all say we want to live each day as if it was our last but we don’t. We live responsibly and follow rules of behavior that sometimes tug at the free spirit within us like a dog straining at the leash.
We try to be people others will approve of.
Randall “Bunky” Jacobs did not.
“Uncle Bunky burned the candle, and whatever else was handy, at both ends. He spoke in a gravelly patois of wisecracks, mangled metaphors, and inspired profanity that reflected the Arizona dive bars, Colorado ski slopes, and various dodgy establishments where he spent his days and nights.”
Bunky didn’t care what anyone thought of his life of self-indulgence. Though some would surely judge him harshly it seems pretty obvious that Bunky just plain didn’t give a shit.
Yet, those who knew him loved him.
“His impish smile and irreverent sense of humor were enough to quell whatever sensibilities he offended. He didn’t mean any harm; that was just Bunky being Bunky.”
He died far younger than necessary I suppose. Still, his obituary tells me that Uncle Bunky got more out of 65 years than most of us would in 165.
“In lieu of flowers, please pay someone’s open bar tab, smoke a bowl, and fearlessly carve out some fresh lines through the trees on the gnarliest side of the mountain.”
Bunky surely had his regrets. The obit doesn’t mention a wife or children though that doesn’t mean he didn’t have them. I’m guessing he did not and that might have been a sore point for him. Who knows?
It’s impossible to know what a man on his death bed is thinking. Did Bunky wish he had done things differently or did he simply enjoy his life, accept his fate graciously and look for the exit? The obit suggests the latter.
“I’m ready for the dirt nap, but you can’t leave the party if you can’t find the door.” – Uncle Bunky
I’ve decided I can admire Bunky without idolizing him. I don’t think he’d want to be idolized anyway.
Maybe he could have lived longer and even happier in some respects, maybe not. That’s a personal matter we’ll all have to decide for ourselves.
Either way, there’s something about Bunky or his legend that I love.
It’s Saturday morning, my favorite time of the week.
I slept well and longer than usual. I’m drinking coffee and enjoying a North Texas spring rain with Amelia.
Saturday morning is luxurious because it allows me guilt-free time for my mind to wander. This morning it has wandered to short attention spans. I’m not sure why, probably because I was reading people’s kneejerk reactions to mere headlines of slanted news articles posted on Facebook, but it’s Saturday morning. Let’s not go there.
I just start thinking about stuff.
By now we’ve all heard that the memory of a goldfish lasts just three seconds.
Turns out that’s a myth. It is fun to think about a goldfish looking at me through the glass, taking one quick trip around the bowl and upon seeing me again wondering, “Who’s that?” It’s just not true, apparently, though I don’t know that anyone hasn’t researched it but wouldn’t be surprised if someone has.
I don’t know why my mind wandered to that this morning but further cogitation led me to this gem of serious scientific research: The Attention Span of a Fly, by Bruno van Swinderen, Associate Professor at the University of Queensland Brain Institute.
In his abstract summary (abstract is his scientific word, not my snarky comment) he explains:
In the brain recording preparation, local field potential (LFP) activity in the 20–30 Hz range was found to be transiently associated with novel images and suppressed for competing, non-novel images.*
I don’t know about you but when I read that I throw in my cards and admit that this man’s brain spins at a much higher frequency than mine. But I still wanted to know the results of the study, so I poured another cup of Joe and dug in. Here’s what I managed to decipher:
A wild fruit fly can remember an image for nine to twelve seconds.
Ponder that for a moment, not the finding as much as the fact that there are people who want so badly to know this sort of arcane and arguably useless information that they will dedicate their lives to its exploration.
(And no, I didn’t realize there is such a thing as a domestic fruit fly, as implied. Let’s not go there just yet. Maybe in a future post.)
I’m not making fun of Professor van Swinderen, far from it.
With just a little more digging I learned that he’s a highly respected authority on human brain function and it turns out that understanding the human brain requires some experimentation with fruit flies. (Wild ones, at least.)
At the end of it all I’ve learned a factoid but I also discovered Professor van Swinderen, a fascinating man doing interesting and important work in ways I would never have imagined.
Yes, my brain goes in wildly unexpected places when unshackled from its daily requirements. It’s what makes Saturday mornings and my occasional writing sabbaticals so rewarding.
Now, for the snarky comment:
Nearly nobody will read this blog, much less consider for themselves the attention span of a goldfish or a fruit fly. Nor will most people consider the importance of this sort of research. Based upon a headline they’ll label Professor van Swinderen a loon.
Most of us construct our serious thinking these days from social media, blasts of ill-constructed pre-determined opinions posing as fact. We don’t bother to read, think for ourselves nor spend five minutes investigating truth by looking for the bigger picture. We just don’t have the time.
We carry all the recorded information in all of human history in our pockets. Think of that! — It’s mindblowing, but we don’t take time to appreciate it nor to be fascinated by our own amazing minds nor allow ourselves time to just think.
We’ve got other stuff to do.
When you come right down to it we’re fruit flies, by choice.
–May 16, 2020
*Bruno van Swinderen(2007)The Attention Span of a Fly,Fly,1:3,187-189,DOI: 10.4161/fly.4561
Bruno featured podcast, A Grey Matter: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/podcast-general-anaesthetics-and-consciousness