Edna

Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.” I have already proved the back end of that quote with the novel Suicide Squeeze and think I will be able to apply the principle to daily blogging. Edna also said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.” Among other honors and awards, she won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923. So she seems to have wandered on the upside of her quotations despite her somewhat dour outlook. I am doing the harder work; ironically I am cheerier about it. And yet she gets all the credit.

Clirehugh’s Prayer

My parents spent many a New Year’s Eve out of town. When my brother and I were in our twenties, we took the opportunity with our spouses to throw New Year’s Eve parties in their elegant home. We would set up a sit down dinner in the large dining room and serve take out Chinese food on our Mother’s good dishes. One year, one of the guests asked if he could say Grace. We agreed but as his prayer rambled, we found ourselves wondering if the blessing was going to turn sacrilegious or ever end. It did not turn into a disaster. But after that, several of us began to use the term “Clirehugh’s Prayer” as a shorthand expression to describe an awkward situation where tension is growing over the escalating uncertainty of what is going to happen next. We have translated the meaning of the idiom to others. It makes me wonder if unbeknownst to me, some family has an expression like “Stamper’s Folly” to describe any idiocy that resembles some particular gaffe of mine.

Lottery

One Million dollars was the prize in the first lottery I played back in my late thirties. The ticket seemed free because I just added a buck to the bill for the gas I pumped when I went inside the mini mart to pay. It was well worth it because I could spend the next several days dreaming about what I would do with my winnings. One day I was explaining to my wife that the payout was actually $50,000 per year for twenty years. Although my annual salary was a little above that, I told her that I would quit my job and use my new free time to make lots more money doing something more satisfying. She argued that I absolutely could not quit my job and the disagreement escalated into a heated exchange. I will not outline the two positions because I cannot remember why mine made any sense. The fierce debate about how we would spend the money was interrupted when our oldest son piped up from the back seat, “Did we win something?” That was when I realized that money does not solve everything. And maybe it does not even solve anything.

Rope Ladder

I cope with escalating personal disasters by imagining how much worse it could have been. Last week Mollie flew home from Virginia with a set of our son’s car and house keys. She mailed them back and I reminded her how much worse it would have been if we had mailed back a set of our own keys by mistake. So we were able to congratulate ourselves on how clever we were not to do that. My rule is that the imagined disaster has to be something very much in the realm of possibility. I started years ago when I reflexively locked Mollie out on our upper deck after I had poked out to tell her that I was leaving to run some errands. She was stringing Christmas lights. Two hours later I found her freezing out on the deck. She had no cell phone on her and could not get the attention of any neighbors. She had not thought of trying to climb onto and over the roof to the lower side of the house; but hoisting herself up on the roof was unlikely anyway. My many suggestions of what she could have done better were surprisingly unwelcome. So I explained how lucky she was that I cut my trip short and did not go to Home Depot as planned and so she had not gotten desperate enough to jump and break her leg. She was not yet ready to embrace the spirit of the game, so I followed up by giving her a rope ladder for Christmas.

Counting

I am descended from Tribe Checklist. I have methodically set foot in all fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico (just in case). I am not alone. I have met others who are on (or have completed) the same mission of visiting each state in the Union. One impressed me by guessing that North Dakota was one of my remaining states when I was stuck at 46. Others have no interest in state tabulation. My wife must have 47 by now but refuses to cooperate in the identification process or in strategizing how to bag fifty. I had to wait fifteen extra years to pick off Arkansas because she refused to drive fifty miles out of our way to touch that state. This 50 State thing is more about counting than quality of travel experience. I once saw a cab load of people drive up to the Iwo Jima Memorial in Virginia and only one passenger got out. He snapped a couple of quick pictures, jumped back in the cab, and they all sped away. I checked Arizona off the list decades before I ever saw The Grand Canyon. I am not a big time traveler. I have only been to ten countries outside the United States, even counting Canada and Mexico. I visited six of those on business trips. My Mother has been to sixty countries. We know that because she counted them. She is my genetic connection to Tribe Checklist.

Wishes

Shel Silverstein famously wrote about Lester who wasted his wishes on wishing. The summer my brother turned nine, we were visiting our grandfather in Bermuda. When we went to Church, our step grandmother told us we could make a wish because you can do that any time you visit a church for the first time. When we exited, my brother announced that his wish was that he would make more money than me. This confused me because his wish: (1) seemed to violate wish protocol of not telling your wish; (2) was well beyond the scope of anything I could imagine as I approached the age of ten; (3) appeared to be a negative for me; although (4) it did reinforce my world view that everything is all about me. I cannot definitively remember what I wished for but it was likely that the Dodgers would win the World Series. So far my brother’s wish has come true, although I am still very optimistic that my investment in the lottery business will pay off big time. Meanwhile the Dodgers won the World Series five times after I made my wish. In hindsight, I realize that I wasted my wish just like Lester did. If I could do it over, I would wish for the Mariners to win the World Series.

Expressions

My wife Mollie’s favorite expression is, “What were you thinking?” Mine is, “It seemed funny at the time.” It took four decades before I discovered that my mother-in-law (a person with admirable restraint) does not like the way I treat her daughter. If I had known, I could have faked better treatment whenever Mollie’s mother was present. My wife and I use every public appearance as an opportunity to entertain with our bickering routine of endearing insults. We have always believed that the vast majority of people in the world are so very amused by the awkward tension birthed by such performances. Unfortunately, the small percentage of people who are horrified at such displays are disproportionately clustered among our friends and family. Before speaking, I try to weigh the appropriateness of my comment versus how funny it is. If something seems 99% inappropriate and has only one percent chance of being funny (i.e., son Dustin is in the room), logically I have to go for the tin cup and say it because no time exists to be computing percentages. Aging compounds the problem as my filter is eroding. I went to the doctor to get it fixed. He was confused. So I said, “You must have cheated to get into an unaccredited medical school because you are too stupid to understand your patients, you big ugly buffoon.” Meanwhile, I do not know why Mollie keeps asking me what I was thinking when she darn well knows I was not thinking at all.

Nature or Nurture

Darwin says the genes my parents passed down to me are responsible for my faults. Freud says the way my parents raised me accounts for my defects. Whether these two guys resolve their dispute in favor of nature, nurture, or some combination of the two, still they are both blaming my parents for my failings. And my Mom and Dad deserve better. Clearly my siblings did the damage to me. I do not understand why my parents let them get away with causing this hot mess. I am trying not to make the same mistake. I take every opportunity to let my three sons know that their brothers are the guilty ones. So far this strategy is not working. My Plan B is to adopt the Freud reasoning because everyone knows that my wife was the person raising those kids. In fact, my Dad used to accuse me of being “a man and no help” (which sets up a Plan C if I need it).

Depth

Years ago, several of us were out on Lake Washington as the owner of a new sailboat tested it out. We were fascinated by the depth finder as we were sailing toward the eastern shore between the two floating bridges. We seemed to be getting fairly close to land but the depth finder still registered twenty feet. Apparently it was set so as not to show a depth of less than twenty feet because that was our alleged depth when we ran the boat aground. At what point would you override the electronics and rely on your own senses to alter course? I have always wondered if we would have continued to believe the depth reading and run the boat up on the beach if we had not run aground while still in shallow water.

Identity

I used to think I was not someone who needed the status of a job title at a respectable company. But then I took early retirement and suddenly felt naked without the comfort of a short answer to the question, “What do you do?” No one wanted to hear a string of my activities any more than they wanted a detailed reply to the mostly rhetorical question, “How are you doing?” But I felt like I had to justify my existence: I spent a month on a murder trial jury. I was writing the grating American novel. My appendix burst. I was doing my own gardening and painting the house to save money on my lower income. I ran a couple Marathons. I finally saw the Grand Canyon. I exaggerated my charity work. I ran for State Rep. I wanted to pass out resumes because no one stood still long enough to hear the whole list. And I sounded pathetic. But that was only the beginning of the erosion of identity. I was always a six footer with three quarters of an inch to spare. But doctor visits over the years chipped away at that designation quarter inch by quarter inch. I tried wearing socks (really thick socks) and had to be reprimanded to keep my heels on the floor. A few years ago I finally accepted that I was 5’11” plus. Old photographs of my father clearly demonstrated that shrinking height was not a phenomenon unique to me. But at my recent physical, I came in at exactly 5’11” and realized with horror that I may even lose my newfound 5’11” identity some day soon. Still that is better than losing the identity of aliveness that I am clinging to.