Great Job Joe — Keep Your Promise and Retire Now

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“I can’t get up in the morning without one good rationalization.” Woody Allen

When I consider the possibility that Joe Biden is going to run for reelection, I feel like I am watching the opening scenes of a dystopian movie. You know the ones. They set you up for every other disaster in the next 90 minutes. It’s as simple as this. Almost all of us have had the privilege to know an 80-year-old human and not one of us has walked away from an hour with that beloved person saying, “You know, they should really run for president.” Joe Biden, for all he has accomplished, is too damn old to keep the job. As he now rationalizes that he is the only one for the job there is a seems to be a mass psychosis where seemingly rational Americans are overlooking the obvious and joining him in his fantasy.

I get it. The guy has wanted the job for his entire professional life. He finally got his dream job, and it turns out he is pretty good at it. But he also signed up for the gig saying explicitly he was going to do two things. First, he was going to calm things down. No insane hourly Tweets. No divisive language. A return to competent governing. By my eye: mission accomplished. Thing number 2 is trickier. He said he would be a transitional president, a bridge to the next generation of leadership. I liked that. Most of us liked that. It was a recognition that there is a season for every human and this good man knew his limits. Many of us voted for him on that basis alone. But the job alters people.

As a political observer, I am among the millions who like Joe but tense up every time we see him in front a live mic. Clearly, his staff is minimizing his unscripted time. He muddles names and places and timelines. He simply wanders off into the rhetorical distance the meanders his way back to relevance. Again, this is something we expect and tolerate in our elders. We are patient and give them latitude to be their age. But it is unacceptable in the President of the United States. Worse yet, it could be fatal in a candidate for president. Joe ran the last campaign from his home basement. A real campaign is a brutal, physical challenge. We have seen younger men ground down by the process. Think of Obama, eyes blurry and voice almost gone at the end of his campaigns. It’s no game for an 80-year-old.

The power of the presidency is a narcotic. The addiction’s most obvious symptom is a creeping narcissism. In the bubble around the White House the occupant comes to believe they are essential. Joe now believes he is the only one who can save us. He’s wrong. We would be fine without him. But the rationalization means he ignores what he knows about himself. The people around him, without considering it, become his props. They adjust presentation and schedule. They make excuses in the wake of mistakes. And, especially in this case, because he has had success and is a genuinely good guy, they don’t want to fail or abandon him. Who wants to tell grandpa it’s time to hand over the keys to the car for the safety of him and everyone else on the road?

But Trump, you say. Another blathering old man, I say. Stop looking at those polls that show Biden can beat Trump. They are meaningless. Instead, look at the polls that now say a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to run again. His base is wavering. They want him to keep his promise. Obama suppressed a new generation of leadership to make Hilary president. How did that work out? In the wings there are dynamic Democrat governors who are being suppressed by the cult of the good old guy. This is what Trump and Biden share. Rational people are afraid to say the obvious out loud. Their times have come and gone. No More Boomers in the presidency.

Then there is the Kamala problem. Her ascendancy was part of deal, the deal that got Joe off the mat in the South Carolina primary. That’s a pity because I have seen few elected officials so utterly awful at the job of politics. She is the master of the meaningless word salad, stiff in presentation and incapable of correcting any of her weaknesses. Her own presidential campaign quickly revealed all her weaknesses and she flamed out in weeks. Joe is a political pro, and he sees this. He knows she would be a disaster. He also knows that should he step aside he would be bound to support a dead bang loser and doesn’twant that to be his last act. But he must be better than that. Let Harris fall on her own, as she surely will.            

If Biden was 60, I would already have a sign in my front yard. He is the only one of the last 5 presidents who knows that Putin is a killer. He has a connection, though now mostly performative, with blue collar Americans. He remains a small “l” liberal, but no longer has the energy to resist the damaging dogma of the progressive wing of the party. Joe, unlike Trump, can cut deals. Take off 20 years and I am in. But that isn’t reality. That’s the rationalization. It’s time everyone stops covering for the old guy and bring in a new generation of leadership because here’s the bottom-line, if the Republicans figure out how to dump Trump and run a vigorous younger candidate, that contrast with Biden alone will give them the White House in 2024.

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The Collapse of Civilization –- Damn Close

I really wanted to see a movie. Simple desire. Now that we live in the burbs, we I don’t have access to all the wonderful old theaters in the big city. I knew what I was getting into here. It’s a compromise. Sometimes, I would have to go see a movie at a Mega-Whopper-Plex. But hey, Sally’s office had “generously” given her 4 Regal passes as at thank you for a year’s hard work. An entire year. Passes in hand, we were off to Bridgeport Village Regal to see The Fabelmans.

I have never been to Bridgeport Village. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. From my front porch, I can see the roof of Nordstroms at Washington Square. I haven’t been to that mall since 1985 and don’t plan on breaking that record. I was expecting a mall at Bridgeport. Nope. My first surprise was that it was some an ersatz village of places to buy and eat things. Narrow streets through retail canyons. Chain restaurants. And today, a special treat, bitter cold driving rain. Nice. 

My first question for the designers. Do you hate humans? You see, the parking garage is expansive, but they strangely placed the human exits. The side of the garage facing the stores, the happy village, has no human exits or entries. Nothing. Oh, I see, it’s in a dark corner of a small surface lot on the other side of the automobile exit ramp. No useful signage, just the feeling that the designers said, “You got here genius, you figure it out.” Noted.

I was still happy to see the movie. In the Mega-Whopper-Plex world, the snacks are everything, the real profit center. But we had those passes, so we needed to talk to a human. Tucked next to the entrance doors was a lonely, confused human with a phone ear-jack standing on a sort of podium surrounded by screen kiosks.

Sally waved the passes and said, “Hello, we’d like two seats….”

Before she could finish, “The system is down.”

“What? We still want to see a movie.”

“I can’t help you.”

I looked at the surrounding screens, and they had an error message of some sort. Ear-jack was still looking around for someone, anyone, who could help him. I looked behind us at the many lines at the snack counter and realized that they had not moved since we arrived.

“Go to the refreshment counter. They can take your passes.”

I have been blown off before. This was a punt, but we obeyed the command. Sally, because it is her nature, remained hopeful. We picked a line. Behind the long counter, a row of teenagers in Regal gear were huddling with a roving boss who, by my estimate, may have been 20 years old, but he was ear-jacked which seemed to be the chevron of rank in the Regal army. Sally kept a place in line, and I wandered over to the now abandoned podium. The number of confused people in every line was growing.

To the left of the empty podium were two terminals that looked older, doing things I recognized from my IT days. Slightly staggered in their progress, on ancient green screens, they were working through what looked for all the world like a vestigial DOS PC reboot. I laughed out loud.

A woman walked up and asked, “Are they fixing it?”

 “Oh yea,” I said, “by the looks of it someone has just pressed Control/ALT/Delete.” Pointing to the screen, “See, those are Windows operating system boot up messages.”

 She flashed a look of recognition. Younger than me, but old enough, she knew the bitter disappointment of the Windows screen of death. She shook her head and walked away.

I went back to Sally.

 “Sal, we are fucked. A crashed Windows system has killed everything in this place.”

 Then behind us another ear-jack yelled, “We are now cash only!!”

I laughed again and looked down the counter. Young people who clearly had never dealt with cash without a screen in front of them to do the math were a herd of deer in the headlights. The older couple in front of us attempted to pay with a twenty. After much stumbling about, the kid handed them an uncertain amount of change and told them to just take the food. “It’s good.” The couple paused, looked around like thieves, and made their escape.

Counter Ear-jack had gone down the line handing out pens, pencils and little pieces of paper. A lad to my left stood looking at the pen in his hand as if an alien had just handed him a rectangular egg. The surface tension of basic technology, upon which he relied, had broken, and he was sliding into waves of chaos.

To her credit, Sally went into problem-solving mode.

“We have these passes. Can you just take them and write a note that we have paid then we can still go to the movie?”

The Regal soul presented a look like he had just time-shifted into a Fellini movie and Sal was speaking Italian.

“This will not work,” I whispered to my wife.

“The can figure out how to adapt to this,” she insisted.

“No, honey they can’t. Look around, no one prepared for this. There is no plan. They assume the tech will always work.”

She persisted, trying to help the dazed kid. Finally, he handed the passes back and said, “I can’t do it.”

At last, some truth.

I nudged Sally to leave. The crowd of the confused was growing with more victims still coming in the doors, blissfully unaware that, in this place, at this moment, their world had ended. Self preservation alarms went off. This could get ugly. I mean, they were there to watch more violent Marvel movies. Too many aspiring superheroes for the room to stabilize.

“But they aren’t problem solving,” said Sally.

“I know. We are old. We know how to do that, but they don’t know how. Honestly, look around. Look at their faces.”

Still, my wife wasn’t done. A female ear-jack, a tribal elder in her early 20s, had assumed the power position at the podium. Sally walked up to talk to her. I went back to the two screens. Now they were flashing messages that said they couldn’t find their DHCP server. I laughed harder than before. Basically, ET was trying to phone home, and the Internet had abandoned him. I walked back to my persistent wife.

“…but the system is still down. We can’t take those passes,” said elder female ear-jack.

I touched my wife’s shoulder. “Sal, it’s over here. This will not get better.” Female ear-jack looked down and offered what she could, the generic customer service smile. We walked away.

Back in the cold, apocalypse Sally told me what she says all the time.

“I have no expectation that we will always have power 24-hours a day.”

“I know. I know. Those kids in there are the resilient Zs we hear so much about. We just got a small taste. By the way honey, I am pretty sure that this theater gets its movies across the net. They digitally stream like everyone else, just with insanely expensive popcorn and vats of pop. So, my guess is that if there are people who made it into the theaters, they are sitting in the almost dark waiting for the Windows reboot too.”

We did not waste the afternoon. No, we got a benign preview of the collapse of civilization. But I still want to see that Spielberg movie.

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Ghost Dog at Our Feet

Mozy had been with us for over a year when Zoom arrived. We were cautious about how they met, backyard first so neither of them felt hemmed in. After a few sniffs, and the new boy demanding some play, they were bonded. I found pictures of Zoom that day, malnourished and jet black except for his white fur edges. I had forgotten how quickly Zoom was a shadow to his new big sister. Theirs’ was a tactile relationship. A paw, a head, a back, a neck, always in contact. And, if there was a squirrel to chase, they streaked off as a team. They would run side by side up to the little window above our library seat to monitor Sally and I coming and going. We learned to look up to see two dog faces smooshed together behind the narrow leaded glass. And sometimes, on a signal we humans could not discern, they jumped up from a sound sleep, ran up the stairs to the little window and assumed their post as second floor sentinels over the neighborhood.

The Day They Met

As age and disease crept up on Mozy, we both worried about Zoom. Mozy was Sally’s dog. Zoom is my little boy. If there are two dogs and two people, the dogs pick. That’s just the way it is. I had seen the breakup of our first pair where the survivor went into a deep funk and essentially gave up living without her companion. With every step to the end of Mozy’s life, my worry about Zoom increased. I read the stories about dog depression and how to help a dog who lost their partner.

After a normal, if not lively, evening, around midnight, Mozy fell into a health crisis. She made a rapidly approaching decision for us. I could get a vet here at 3 AM. I warned the vet that Zoom would bark and challenge her, as he did everyone (his Border Collie half protecting the herd) but that he wasn’t dangerous and would quickly calm down. Some say it is easier on the surviving dog if they are there at the end with their partner. I wasn’t sure. Quickly, there were three humans and 2 dogs on the floor of our bedroom. Sally was whispering into Mozy’s ear. I had Zoom in hand. At first, he was shaking but settled facing Mozy. He gently sniffed her nose to nose. I wondered if he knew what was coming. Maybe so. At various moments, he checked Mozy, my hand on his collar. When Mozy died, I let him go. He sniffer her up and down, even followed her out to the vet’s waiting car, stopping one more time to look at her face to face.

She Charmed Carrie and Fred.

We vowed not to leave the little guy alone for a few days. More than usual, he marked my every move. There is this thing that happens to me when a dog is gone. I have a strong sense of unoccupied space at the bottom of my vision. Mozy’s loss magnifies this feeling as she had depended on us for basic things for a long time. We helped her to her water and food dishes. Kept a schedule to relieve herself. We often walked out into the backyard, in all weather, to rescue her from her endless clockwise circling as she hunted for the door back to the house. Thinking about it now, it is remarkable how we came to accept her challenges as normal. I know from experience that, as surely as water levels when swimmers leave the pool, the emptiness finds a new equilibrium. Still, I catch myself automatically stepping around where Mozy used to lay.

Two days after Mozy died, I picked up Zoom’s food dish for dinner. There was something wrong. The stainless-steel bowl was a little dirty, some kibble crumbs and a hint of water. The sight caught me up short. I didn’t figure out what was wrong until I stood, filling his bowl with food. In all the time we had Mozy, I had never seen a dirty dog dish. The Collie-mix loved her food and lick-shined both dishes seeking the last molecule of goodness. Mozy woofed down her meals. Zoom is a slow, picky eater. Always done first, Mozy to stood patiently behind the little boy until he finished to lick his dish until we told her she was done. Late that night, I watched Zoom sleep and wondered if Zoom missed the ritual licking of his bowl.

The last couple of months, Zoom had been more and more watchful of Mozy. I believe, with their keen sense of smell, dogs know about disease in ways we can’t understand. When she became blind, he was sweetly tolerant of Mozy stepping on him while he was sleeping. He moved to accommodate her. Lately, when it was time to go outside, he didn’t run off; he stood near the door and waited for slow Mozy to come out with him. When the blind girl got stuck in the bathroom behind the door, he came to get us to free her. And, when she had an accident somewhere in the house, Zoom changed his aspect with us to tell us to fix it. Maybe I was just more aware, but it sure seemed like he was staying closer to Mozy.

It has been a week since Mozy left us. It will take more time for the clouds to lift. We try to fill Zoom’s life with his favorite things. He is getting longer walks and more frisbee. He is still sticking close. While I will never know, it sure seems like Zoom knows that Mozy is gone and never coming back. But like us, I am also convinced that he too sees a ghost dog in his world.

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My New Bike: At Least I Missed the Creek

You never forget. Just like riding a bike. Something I reminded myself as I extracted myself from an Alder tree.

In the memory fog, most of us have a rite of passage story about our first bike ride. It’s the moment we discover the alchemy of balance and forward motion. Finally, our little legs can escape our parents or siblings. The first unassisted bide ride is a parent letting go, maybe for the first time. The breeze in your face is a sign you are moving both further into and away from childhood.

As a new college student, I assumed I needed a bike. Coming from a family that fetishized automobiles, I don’t have a clue why. Perhaps it was the television shows and movies where every campus background had 10-speed bikes buzzing back and forth. I imagined I would ride my bike to class and to, well; no idea where. I bought a 10-speed. At school, I locked the pristine white bike into the rack on my dorm patio and never rode it. Not once. In fact, I didn’t know someone had stolen it until the police contacted me. Worse for wear, I locked the bike back on the dorm patio. No idea what happened to it. Maybe it was stolen again because it never made it back home.

The longer I was in Portland, the greater my ambivalence, if not hostility, to the entire concept of bikes. Well, not exactly the mechanical conveyance itself, but Portland bike riders. I get bikes are an elegant way to amplify human muscles. Unfortunately, there is a notion that owning Spandex and a bike helmet are an anointing. And with God’s anointment comes the belief that almost anything done on a bicycle is God’s work. And, given God’s grace, there was no reason to follow the traffic laws that bound the rest of us planet haters. I lost track of the number of times my quick reflexes at the wheel saved the life of a bike rider. The most common thank you was a middle finger. God’s work.

Middle-aged idiocy put me on a bike once more. At about 50, I decided that I finally needed to be a jogger. I got the right shoes, read the right books, bought the right clothes, then out into the night I went to aimlessly circle a Mt Tabor reservoir. As the gasping and wheezing settled, I enjoyed the solitude and the biting cold. Then my feet failed… badly. Seems that St John’s Bridge level high foot arches with a few decades of wear are not made for jogging. I damn near crippled myself. Ordered by a doctor to not do that again, he suggested that biking was a safer workout. Safer being relative.

So, there I was in a neighborhood without a single level street with my first bike since college. My first impression was that since I last rode a bike, they had gotten taller. I looked down at the passing asphalt and got a chill that never happened when I took my Mini Cooper out on high-speed racetrack days. But I stuck to it, making my way further and further up the park’s cinder cone and back. But that was it. I had no desire to go anywhere else. My new bike was medicinal. I got some fresh air and a little workout. After a few months, my feet healed. My bike sat in a rack at the back of our garage. One day, after a quick trip to the store, I pulled into the driveway to see it was gone. Two thoughts: Some asshole came up our driveway with Sal home and took my bike. Damn it. And… good riddance. I hope they get some use out of it.

Flip forward to a Social Security card and our move to Tigard. During the house search, I nurtured a new fantasy. I said to anyone who would listen, there’s an isolated bike trail along Fanno Creek, “I am thinking about a bike.” Laughing ensued. In my newly addled mind, I was highly motivated because just over a mile down that isolated, mostly flat trail, there were 3 taverns. Cold beer. A noble pursuit. Sal, who once commuted by bike, was thrilled. “We can ride together,” she gushed. Happy wife….

Armed with Google and YouTube, I dove deep to find the perfect old dude bike. As a modern hunter/gatherer, I was now an expert. After mowing the yard at our now old place one last time and heading to the new home in Tigard, I stopped at a bike shop, walked in, saw the bike I wanted, and pointed at it. “I’ll take that one.”

The young woman greeted me, looked confused. “You don’t want to look around? Can I ask you some questions? Let me help you.” 

“Nope, I’m good,” I said with unearned confidence. “I now live next to Fanno Creek Trail and this is what I need.”

“You want to ride it on our indoor track?”

“Nope,” I said, horrified that someone would watch this old man get on a bike for the first time in over a decade.

“Well, let’s at least size it for you.”

“And a helmet. And one of those water bottle things. A bell. I need one of those bell things. How many bell options? Good lord. No, let’s keep it simple. Can I take it all now?”

“Of course.”

“Easiest sale you have ever made I bet.”

“Different,” she responded.

I’m bizarrely stubborn, a trait for good or not. It’s important to know that as you read this next part. In the last few years, I have gained a couple of vestibular syndromes. Vertigo. Seems one inner ear doesn’t always sync with the other one. That means my world can get a little off. Turn my head quickly and it’s like my eyes are trying to catch up with what they are seeing. At its worst, I can’t drive. Doing hours and hours of PT and regular home exercises has taught my brain to mostly ignore the unsteady world when this new unbalanced feature kicks in. A rational soul might say I wasn’t the perfect candidate to take up bike riding. But a trail. But taverns. But new toys!!!

Our house has a steep driveway, so I pushed my new bike out to the sidewalk. I told (warned?) Sally that I was going for my first bike ride. She was almost gleeful. Was that the same reaction my folks had the first time I stayed up on a two-wheeler? Phone in my pocket, just in case. Helmet uncomfortably pulled down tight. I straddled my bike and pushed off. OH SHIT! While you don’t forget how to ride a bike, that doesn’t mean you are immediately good at it. Turns out, our street cascades down to the creek. Okay, not cascade so much as it leans. I gained speed too fast for my muddled reaction times. Hell, I didn’t know which brake worked the front or back. I kept looking down to figure it out. And the height. Good god, I am up in the air. Which gear? How many of those do I have anyhow? Where are those brakes? Damn it! Slow down! Cars? Are there cars at the intersection? I don’t think I can turn around and look back without crashing! Panicked, I pulled to the curb and stopped. Well, kind of stopped. Maybe bounced off the curb and dragged my feet. But I didn’t fall over, which I counted as an achievement. Assuming a nonchalant pose I had seen a thousand times, I reached down and pulled out my water bottle, took a swig, and looked around disinterestedly. I had ridden one block.

Braking constantly, I eased myself down to the trail. Ducks. I see ducks. Don’t look at the damn ducks!! I hadn’t counted on the fact that the paved trail would be so narrow. Okay, it isn’t narrow, but now I was horrified that some other biker would come at me from the opposite direction. The first time it happened, I almost rode off the trail as my arms locked like rusty steel pistons. I rode to the first trail exit and exhaled in relief; fiddling with the mystifying gears as I made it up the precipitous rise to my house. Right, maybe a gentle rise. Huffing and flush with victory, I walked into the house and loudly announced I was back. “Okay honey,” was all that Sally said, clearly not appreciating the magnitude of my victory over time and balance.

By my third ride, I had expanded my orbit. But nothing felt natural about riding the bike. I still glanced down at the brakes as I applied them and tried little memory tools to remind me how and when to shift up or down. For reasons that escape me, instead of looking around, I watched my front wheel. It was as if I was an enormous antibody attempting to isolate and kill the toxic invader between my legs. I came to a blind corner and thought about ringing my bell. I mean, I had a yet unloved bell. I looked down at the bell, then back up. At the apex of the corner, in the middle of the trail, was a small Latino man, his bike and bundles. He was tinkering with something. Have you ever watched your brain work? My noggin was saying: Brake? Front or back. Both? Go right and try to sneak by him? Bell? What? Hit him? Left. Go left and you will be fine. I did none of those things. Braking far too late, I went straight across the trail toward Fanno Creek plunged into an Alder tree. Face first.

Suddenly, there was no motion, just confusion and some pain. I looked down to see my front tire hit the trunk dead on. Well, at least I didn’t ride into the creek. My helmet was askew, glasses hanging from one ear. My body seemed fine, well, except for one knee caught in the briar. My face hurt as I scratched it in several directions. I yanked the bike back onto the trail. The small man, eyes red with some sort of substance abuse, stood next to me, almost face to face. In any other circumstance too close, but now vaguely comforting. He said nothing as he pulled bits of twigs and leaves off my face, brushing them away with the side of his hand. I recall he did so in the most delicate way. He stepped back, and I put the bike on its stand on the other side of the trail. It looked to be all in one piece. I thought to summon the little Spanish I know, but no phrase I knew would have been meaningful. I think we simple exchanged “Okay” back and forth a few times. Then he was on his way.

Still shaking, I rode home. In the bathroom mirror, I saw I had some scratches deep into my beard and a bump on my face next to my left ear. I said out loud, “Are you fucking kidding me? The third time. Are you fucking kidding me?” Uncapping the hydrogen peroxide, I asked myself if I really needed to be a bike guy. What in the world was I thinking? But here’s where being stubborn is a good thing. I know all about trauma. On the ride home, I felt familiar sensations erupting in my body. Icky levels of adrenaline. A certain recoiling away from harm. I had trouble sleeping as I replayed the feeling of helplessness as I lost control of the bike over and over. Slow motion self-torture. But the next day, with Sally at work, I said to myself, “No goddamnit. Not this time.”

I was determined to do the same ride. Back to the scene of my crash, before the blind corner, I stopped, parked the bike, and walked the trail. I ducked as a branch was hanging out over the trail at the bend. What? On my bike, that branch would have hit me in the face. Somehow, I had edited that detail out of my replays. I had to be ducking that branch as I rounded the corner. No wonder I had so little time to react. I walked to the place where the little man had parked and looked back. My god, even as slow as I ride, there was no way I could have avoided what happened. I shook a little, fighting back tears, took a few deep breaths and got back on my bike to finish the ride that had ended so abruptly the day before. Not this time trauma, not this time.

A week after the crash, my face had almost healed, except for that bump near my ear. One evening, I scratched the itchy bump and felt something hard. I looked at my finger there was a part of an Alder twig that had worked its way out my head. Bike rider and part tree. Perfect. I took rides the rest of the summer. On vacant streets, I practiced swerved around leaves on the ground reminding myself what the little boy me did naturally. The brakes and gears came more naturally. Still wary, I took the trails slowly. No need for this old dude to be in a hurry. But here’s the funny part. From August on, Fanno Creek Trail was closed north and south of our home by park and trail construction. I never made it to that tavern. Instead, I stopped to look for a Blue Heron who I saw now and again. I still clench a little when a bike or a walker comes toward me and let out a relief breath when I am by them. But I also share nods with the approaching strangers because that seems to be what bike riders do. My bike is tucked away for winter now. Come the spring, those taverns will still be there.

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My Improbable Dahlia Habit

Another happy surprise I took from Portland.

I am a dahlia guy. Growing up, I hated yard work. In the desert, it was a hot, nasty business that ended with me wheezing and sneezing nonstop in front of the air conditioner. No such thing as Claritin in the faded past. But when, in 1990, I bought my first little house on Mt. Tabor, everything about lawn work was different. I bought a big, used Reader’s Digest book of gardening and taught myself the nature of each of the plants I inherited from an elderly couple. Out front, under the dining-room window, were dahlias. I was smitten.

In bloom, the variety of dahlia flowers struck me as alien. Not merely alien, as the different, but something from another planet. The blooms do things that seem impossible. Geometric, honeycombed balls. Heavy saucers of rippling color. Purples are so dark that they may as well be black. Delicate stars that dance in the breeze and give up their petals almost as quickly as you notice them.

When Sally and I moved a couple of blocks up Mt. Tabor in 1977, I brought the dahlia tubers from that little first garden. It turned out that down our new block lived a frail, kind old man who was an expert in two plants: dahlias and fuchsias. One late summer afternoon, I saw he was sitting in a chair in his driveway, cane propped between his legs. As always, I admired his garden. This time, I had the privilege of thanking the gardener. As is sometimes the case, whatever aches and fatigue he bore disappeared as he beckoned me to follow him up his long driveway to a combination shed and greenhouse. Before I followed him inside, I was gobsmacked by what appeared to be reinforced clothesline in the shade of a tall tree. He had hung rows of different varieties of fuchsias. Purples, reds, pinks. The cascade of inverted flowers over the edges of each pot. On the ground beneath each plant was a puddle of faded color, wilted flowers returning to the soil.

He was eager to impart what he knew about his flowers. I am now old enough to know that impulse. He told me how he bred varieties, stored his plants and tubers, the secrets of his soil mix and what time means for a dahlia. I was an eager apprentice. As I parted, he pressed some cut flowers into my hands. I scooped the flowers into the crook of my elbow, offered my hand and thanked him. As I walked to the end of his driveway, I turned and watched as the electric charge of our meeting faded and he grew dim and seemed to shrink a little. It was a lucky encounter as he passed away soon after and two subsequent owners, lacking his passion, let his work fade away. One day, curious, I walked back up the driveway. The shed was abandoned and the fuchsia clotheslines were gone.

I created three front yard beds for my dahlias. While I was still a working stiff, I didn’t have the time to dig the tubers every season. Wet weather killed about a third of the flowers every year, which meant that we could make a fun trip to Swan Island Dahlias to pick new varieties to blend into the mix. There was one flower I watched for every year, a mid-sized purple beauty that added white tips as it matured. That variety came with me from our first house.

Living on retirement time, I kept a promise to dig and winter over my tubers in the basement. I divided them and dumped them into 2 milk crates. My system is simple. The containers were for either tall or small varieties. Each summer was like Christmas, with mystery dahlia packages under the tree for a month as they came into bloom. No two yearly gardens were the same. I had become the neighborhood old dahlia guy, educating my neighbors on how to grow them and providing starter tubers from the abundance of the division. When strolling folks admired my bounty, I cut flowers for them. The youngsters were especially fun. I told them the flower would keep for days in water. This news inevitably resulted in squealing children running down the sidewalk. Funny how they all thought getting the flowers in water was an emergency.

That leads me to the dilemma of our move to Tigard. I HAD to take my dahlias. When we found our new home, it had an awful 200 sq ft all St John’s Wort mess in the front. The sunny location was perfect for a dahlia bed. To get the house in the crazy market, we had to do a 60-day rent-back which put my flowers beyond the planting period in May and early June. I needed 2 things: a landscaper to remove the invasive wort and soil prepped for my flowers. I asked our agent to create a new condition to close the deal. I had to have access to the garden before we moved in. The two agents had never heard of such a thing, but the seller was a gardener and understood. And here’s the deal…. Our offer was not the highest, but the dahlia amendment penetrated the enforced anonymity of the transaction. The seller saw a human via a garden and later told me that the dahlias were one reason they took our offer.

Plants don’t have a calendar. The landscaper was hard to find. Time drifted out of my control. In the basement, the tubers sprouted. We couldn’t move until the middle of June. I was going to lose all the dahlias as the bed wasn’t ready. There was no good advice to be had for planting in the heat of early July. I created a solution. I bought two dozen 3 gallon planting bags and filled them with compost. Dahlias are delicate when as they sprout. The probing shoot is weak, and the tuber puts out a lacy network of roots. One by one, I moved the sprouted flowers from the crates to the bags. One each. Two rows of black bags in the new back yard: tall and small. My idea was to let the dahlias mature into reasonably healthy green sprouts, then move them to their new home as they matured. Other growers told me, “Maybe some will survive.”

I planted the first dozen. First, I dug their new homes and tossed in some bone meal. Then like a woman rolling down stockings, I revealed the new plants, carefully pulling down the sides of each bag. The network of fine roots filled the new ball of life. I wiggled my hands under the fresh growth and lifted the baby plants out, cupped in my hands. A curious intimacy happened each time I lifted a plant from its temporary home. I eased each one into the holes and snuggled new soil around roots. Given dahlia nature, there was no reason this should work. But it did.

Today, the tall varieties should be at least five feet high, exploding with blooms. My most robust plants are not yet three feet high. But, against the odds, here and there I have blooms. The picture above is the first one to arrive. I know that variety. In my last Mt. Tabor garden, it was at the bottom of my driveway, closet to the sidewalk. It was the star that beckoned passing eyes. That plant should be four feet high. Still, from a single, scraggly shoot, it did what even abused and stunted dahlias can do. It offered beauty. Here and there, very late in the season now, others have joined the parade.  I am a dahlia guy with a tradition. Every year, I take the last bloom, sometimes close to Thanksgiving, cut and dry it. I put the dried flower next to my meditation altar, a reminder of summer in the fleeting sunshine of winter days. In the spring, when I plant my tubers, I take that dried flower and blend it into the new soil. Continuity. An offering, of sorts, in an unknown religion. A month ago, I thought circumstance had broken the chain of my ritual. Happily, I was wrong.

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The First Portland Apartment Porch Mystery

Good grief, it has been a long time since I have had the time to sit down and write. The last 2 months of the move have been one task after another. I enjoy feeling productive and genuinely enjoy the time I have spent working on our new home and planting the big ass garden in the front yard. Still, having the old Mt Tabor house off my list of weekly chores is a massive relief. For Sally and me, we are just now feeling like we can center in this new place. Our choice of Tigard delights us. On Sunday, we went to a downtown beer garden. Our first observation: no hipsters, just folks of all ages. Above my head right now is the whack, whack, whack of roofers at work. That is the last big thing as the water of our lives seeks equilibrium.

A couple of months ago, I wrote I had happy stories about my decades in Portland. One of those tales appeared from the bottom of my top desk drawer. Under the dust and detritus was a small, yellowed piece of paper with a mostly unrecognizable scrawl. Except, the second I saw it, I got a happy shiver in my chest.

I landed in Portland at the city’s northernmost edge, a strange summer sharing a houseboat at Jantzen Beach moorage. I would take trips into the completely unknown city looking for an apartment. Having a goofy, epileptic Labrador named Dobbsie has my constant traveling companion made the search harder. But as a friend told me, “You wouldn’t really want to live anywhere that didn’t allow a dog, would you?” Yup, he was right. Finally, I found a lumbering 1906 family home that had been carved into 3 apartments in the now fashionable Buckman neighborhood. Buckman was down on its luck, as was I. The place had a small backyard for Dobbsie. $145 a month furnished, heat included.

The kitchen window looked out on the yard and the house next door. When I moved in, a slightly older lived there. I met them and chatted sometimes. He was an engineer of some sort who designed the first Widmer Brewery. That connection got me an invitation to the opening of the plant, where I met the now legendary brewing brothers. With time, the couple had two girls with memorable names: Mahonia and Lanea. Looking out over my kitchen sink, I watched the girls grow up warm season by warm season as they first sat in child seats watching mom, then with wobbling steps.

The line between observer and voyeur is wavey. The family at rest in their yard was perhaps something a bit too intimate to watch. I felt that, but didn’t stop looking. My place has a wonderful multi-step stoop and a big porch. I often took my newspaper (newspapers… sigh) out to the steps in the afternoon. Inevitably, mom with a stroller and Mahonia wandered by. We talked, mom rolling the stroller back and forth. Everyone has seen the cute, shy little girl routine. Mahonia’s unabashed curiosity struck me about me. Mom said, “Jim is our neighbor.” The Jim didn’t stick with the Mahonia. But from then on I was Neighbor.

Many kids walked by the house on the way to Buckman Elementary School. Dobbsie delighted them by galumphing up and down the low chain-link fence. Dobbs, with her odd hopping, never gave off a threat. The kids caught onto that immediately. Mahonia was no different. She loved to see Dobbs and when she talked to me, she asked about Dobbsie. On demand, I brought my dog down from the apartment for a hug. 

Somewhere in this flow, little things started showing up on the front porch. The two other guys who lived there left the flotsam alone. A Rock. 3 Rocks. A pinecone. A wilted Dandelion flower. Some arranged leaves and sticks. I looked them over and cleared them away when I got home from work. A mystery. Finally, on one of their walks, mom said, “She is quite fascinated with you and insists on leaving you things.” Mahonia slipped behind mom. I looked at the little one and told her, “Thank you very much, Mahonia. I really like your surprises.” Mom mouthed ‘thank you’ and Mahonia danced away home.

One day, something new appeared on the porch. It was a stack of small papers stapled together. There were odd drawings and pages of, well, scribbles. The next time I saw mom, I asked. She said that one day Mahonia insisted on making Neighbor a book. People had given me books, but this was the first time someone made one for me.

Then, as now, I am a loner by nature. I have the urge to make and keep friends, but my wicked strong introversion makes that a fool’s errand. Even as a child, I stood back and watched other people’s lives. From windows and stoops and benches and car windows, I let my curiosity flow as I watch generations ripple by. There was that one time in my earliest days in Portland where my watcher bubble was neatly pierced by a little girl.

When I moved from that apartment, I realized how much I was going to miss the porch mysteries. Of course, there would be a day when Mahonia would shed her fascination with Neighbor. But on the day before I moved, still that guy to a little girl, I took over a couple of gifts, a fairy tale book and a collection of stickers that I had seen she applied liberally to herself. Mom thanked me and explained to Mahonia that Neighbor was moving. I am not sure the little one fully grasped what was happening. That’s fine. I think for both of us, I was leaving at just the right time. I thanked her for all the surprises and waved goodbye.

And so, in the bottom of my drawer was one more surprise. A note from a friend on which she had written my name.

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Portland the First Time: My Euphoria Story

As Sally and I get ready to leave Portland, it occurred to me I have been clear why I am leaving, but not so revealing about why I came here. So, this tale will be one of a series of vignettes about how I got here and why I stayed for 40 years.  Here goes….

I came to Portland to stay in 1982. However, my first visit was in 1978. For almost a year, I lived in Salem for about a year with my girlfriend. I had been working in my home desert after school about as aimless as one can be. A college friend, who was doing graduate work at Willamette University,  sent me a postcard which suggested I come to Salem. I went to the library (yeah, pre-Google) and read about Salem, Oregon. On a river, which meant it was the anti-desert. State Capitol. Hey, I had a new degree in Political Science, maybe that could be a thing. I left the desert, without a clue, and ended up working graveyard shift at a freeway gas station and growing pot in a closet. Now there’s living large.

My college friend had a boyfriend who was at the law school. He was a car geek, who made moonshine in the basement and had a love of the blues music. I didn’t yet know blues, only knew it was the foundation of rock. We lived almost across the street from each other. One day, he walked over and said that Muddy Waters was going to play in Portland. Was I interested? Sure, I said. Great, he said. But I needed to drive us to Portland to score tickets because both his Porsche 356A and Austin Healey were not running (note: way cool cars, but running wasn’t their thing). Off we went in my little Toyota Corolla Deluxe. Deluxe was a relative term for the Japanese cars of the 70s.

My first time on the streets of Portland started at the Memorial Coliseum exit off I5. Mark had a little sheet of scribbled notes and an alarmingly positive attitude. I recall seeing the black box arena and how we seemed to go in circles. We ended up in a head shop/music store and parked in an alley out back. Smell being a powerful memory, I remember the overwhelming aroma of incense, then popular to cover the smell of still felony marijuana. We got the tickets but didn’t linger, as the price of gas and tickets had exhausted our entertainment budget for the month.

Funny thing about where we bought the tickets. Many, many years later, I pulled into the weird diagonal head in/back out parking lot behind my all-time favorite music store in Portland, Music Millennium. Standing in on the sidewalk, looking at my car, it hit me. This was where I parked when I came to buy the Muddy Waters tickets. By then, I had been in Portland for decades and made friends with the owner, Terry. By then I had been to about 100 blues shows, but only at that moment did I realize that this was where my connection to Portland started.

The show was in an industrial area at a club called The Euphoria Tavern. It had an unlikely entry up a few steps on a street lined with loading docks and parked trucks. (The place still exits behind the Office Depot on MLK. It has had a dozen venue lives, and I once saw the queercore Portland band Team Dresch there.) Once inside, the place was pure Portland hippie funky. Beat up wood chairs, a few wobbly tables, and some rows of church pews up front. I recall a little before the music started, but what I didn’t know then was that Muddy’s backup band was a collection of blues royalty. Pinetop Perkins on piano, Jerry Portnoy on harp, Bob Margolin and Luther ‘Guitar’ Johnson on guitar, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones on bass and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith behind the drum kit. The band came out and played and played and played. Muddy Waters was nowhere to be seen. I mean, the music was great, but we came to see the man and I was getting antsy. Beers doing their job, I went to the restroom.

It was a two-urinal facility. I took my place and got about my business when an old, black man in a shiny purple shirt, black jacket and porkpie hat appeared at the urinal next to me. I could hear the band still playing (over the years, I have come to love taking a piss with live music in the background) and I had seen Muddy’s picture on Mark’s album cover. Yup, I was taking a whizz with Muddy Waters. Here is the bit of dialogue locked into my memory of my first trip to Portland.

Staring at the wall in front of me, with a slight head tilt and a little side-eye, I said, “Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”

Never looking my way, I heard his gravelly voice, “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”

We finished our work and I hung back, so he exited before I did. Following him out, the small crowd saw him for the first time. The band switched to his walk-on music. People stood, clapped and hooted. One of the band members stepped to the mic and yelled, “Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters!” (I later learned that blues headliners always make the same sort of entrance after the backup band plays for a while.) That day, Muddy was the age I am now. Perhaps he was a prophet on that long ago night. Because what I didn’t know about Portland that night was that four years, and thousands of miles later, he had it right. “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”

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Heading for the T-Places

I have an admission. From the mid-1980’s when I arrived here until a few months ago, I had no idea there was a difference between the cities of Tigard and Tualatin. I knew they were somewhere south of Portland. I got this intel from freeway exit ramps from I5 south bound. Since I rarely left the comforting street grid patterns of Portland, I absolved myself of any need to know about these cities by simply calling them the T-Places.

Now, because irony is my lifelong north star, my wife and I own a new home in Tigard. Turns out it is a city of 50,000 north of Tualatin and that the bigger city of Beaverton squats down on both the T-Places like a resting monkey on a branch. Come the end of June, we will abandon our longtime home “High Atop Mt. Tabor” and plant ourselves near the banks of Fanno Creek. This an outcome both as bizarre to me as it is natural.

As I have written here before, sadly, Portland has become a burden. While our neighborhood still has most of its former charms, the trip in and out of our few blocks is now an ugly affair as inner SE Portland is besotted with camps, crime and vandalized buildings. And perhaps our block on Mt Tabor isn’t what we want. The new wave of couples with baby strollers is friendly enough, but they now live in what recently became million-dollar homes. Google money has arrived. I suppose I should just get over it, but my blue-collar roots wonder how I ended up living in what is becoming an exclusive neighborhood. I don’t know if the slightly smaller house in Tigard will eventually have the same fate. I think it will feel different without all the history.

Another reason we are leaving is time. In the last few years, I have experienced how quickly aging can drastically alter one’s relationship with place. The most visible symbol on our street comes and goes. It’s the long aluminum ramp to the front door of these older homes. Our place has at least 3 steps in and out, and two stairways once inside. Turns out, especially as we age, a few steps can be a mighty impediment to living a functional life. The new place is a single level ranch style. Over the last year, we have been excited about potential homes only to open the garage door and see 4 steps to the main level. Sal and I are impossibly practical, but in this need, we feel prudent. Now, we won’t have to think about that outcome, should it be in our future.

Living in a big city, it is hard not to hear the phrase “walkable neighborhood.” In theory, that is where we live now. I can see Hawthorne Blvd from the front steps. I could walk to groceries, dining, coffee, and entertainment. Guess what. I don’t. I like to drive. I drive everywhere. You can take the boy out of Southern California, but you can’t get him out of his car. Everything I need, well Home Depot could be closer, is a quick drive from the new place. And even better, we are 5 minutes from the delicious GTI playground back roads in the Willamette wine country. This thrills me as going for a ride is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Was I a suburb guy all along? I wonder.

Still, early in our search, we concluded that downtown Portland needed to be less than 30 minutes away. I still need live music, baseball, cocktails with friends and vintage movies at the Hollywood Theatre. There is a vast difference if something is 20 minutes away and not 40 minutes. At 40, I know I will just blow it off. Portland is a different place if you are a visitor.

One last admission. I hate, yes hate, the privilege and smugness of bike culture in Portland. I had a bike when I injured my foot. Used it for exercise. It was stolen. I was fine with that. Truth is, biking on the street scared the shit out of me. Not my thing. Unbelievably, I am now looking forward to getting a bike. We are a block from the Fanno Creek trail system. Miles of isolated, improved bike/walk trails. And, 1.2 miles away (I checked) on those trails is a collection of taverns loaded with good cold beer. Now, at last, I have a motivation to try a bike.

Why did I use the dystopian photo for this piece? It’s a perfect example of life in Portland now. Less than a year ago, that building was a 7/11. I liked that store for ice cream bars, beer, and industrial strength corn dogs that spun on those hot chrome tubes. Almost immediately after it closed, the graffiti appeared, followed by a homeless camp followed by large piles of garbage. The owners painted over the graffiti, moved the camp and put up the fence. The next day the fence was breached and all the decay was back. A predictable, endless loop. Even occupied buildings are tagged. Last week, someone shot two souls outside of Gold Dust Meridian, a cocktail bar I like on Hawthorne. An arsonist attempted to burn down buildings at the little Christian college down the street. One was occupied by a family. My wife can’t use her office looking out on Dawson Park because of the gunfire and rounds that shattered the windows of her offices. The litany is endless. We are leaving for many reasons, many good ones. But in the end, we just couldn’t take it anymore. Compassion fatigue, Sal calls it. That’s about right. See you in the burbs.

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My Best Live Show… Ever

With over 1,000 shows on my list, as I watched the snow fall, I thought about which one was the pinnacle. I could go big, Bowie, Stones, Who, Eagles in the 70s. But as my memory pot simmered, and everything else disappeared with the steam, I had one night left. On April 15, 2013, I saw something transcendental in a little bar down in the inner eastside industrial district in Portland. I didn’t take any pictures, don’t have the ticket stub. They were out of t-shirts. All I have from the show is a little blue lapel pin that says “I AM HERE.”

My buddy Bob got a heads up from somebody that he really needed to see a band from London that was coming to town on a school night. Bob told me to meet him at Bunk Bar. This is a deeply odd place to see a show. It’s a small, former warehouse space that specializes in magical sandwiches and the mandatory row of Portland beers on tap. There is no stage. At some point, the wait staff pushes back an arch of tables, and a few monitors appear as a demarcation line, the illusion of a stage. No sound system. You get the sound right off the amps. No special lights, just a seemingly, randomly aimed collection of spots. There isn’t a green room. Opening bands blend into the crowd when they finish their sets and load out. There’s a hallway that leads to the restrooms and a door to the kitchen. That’s where the next band mills about, guitars strapped on, waiting to plug in.

One element that makes this show so special is that I almost didn’t see it. I was in a tough run, trying new medications to deal with my PTSD and panic disorder. That entire day, I had vacillated whether I could deal with a show, the people, the noise and especially the voices in my head. About the time I knew Bob was at the bar, I called him and said I was a goner. I simply couldn’t summon up the willpower to make it down the hill from my house. Being my pal, he both understood and gently encouraged me. I was disconsolate after I hung up, pacing about almost in tears. Time had ticked by for the opening band. Finally, as I have often had to do with the voices, I got punk rock on them and said, “Fuck it. Just go down and see what it is like.” That was the trick I often played on myself. Commit only to the parts. Drive down. Find parking. Mill around outside. Buy the ticket. One small step at a time. Each one with an escape plan.

Finally, inside the door, I looked for my friend. There couldn’t have been over 50 people in the place. He was in the back, beer in hand. I had surprised him. He came over and gave me a big hug and said, “Let’s get you a beer.” As the booze took effect, I knew I was there for the show. Conscious of the exit door, I motioned him down to lean on a table on the right side of the stage. He’s a short guy, so I am always conscious of his sight lines. I can see fine over his head. There was a manager looking guy sitting in a chair at the edge of the drum set staring at his phone. He gestured to the hallway and out came 4 women from London: Savages. We knew nothing about them. Never heard a song. But Bob and I share a minor obsession. We love women who rock. We seek those bands and singers. Too old coots, we are the most unlikely Riot Girl fanatics on the planet.

They looked rock band tough, all dressed in slick black clothes. Being eye to eye with a band in a small space means there is no place for them to hide. No antics. No posing. You get to see the band in what is little more than a practice space or a basement show. From the first slashing, high speed, almost surf guitar notes, I got that familiar chill as my body shed all anxiety and was fully present. Bob and I looked at each other, eyes wide, mouths agape. The singer, Jehnny Beth, was a blowtorch of charisma, seemingly in a trance for a moment, then exploding in swirling, dark lyrics. At the end of each song, as the room heated up with moving souls, Bob and I kept mouthing “what the fuck” at each other. Three songs in, Jehnny Beth talked to us. And here was where the intense fourth wall imploded. We were in awe, but so were they.

You see, this was their first American tour. They had driven all day to Portland from San Francisco. The first thing she said was almost adorable, “We did not know how big America is. What we drove today was the entire length of our country.” Looking at the faces of the four women, you could see they were a little exhausted, pumped on adrenaline, and a little lost in what was happening to them. I don’t think I have ever had the thought at a show before, but there was an innocence hanging in the air all around them.

There were no weak songs. Each one was an experiment. Challenging rock ballads. Full-on aural assaults. And, in each one, an ethereal challenge for the listeners. I looked around the room. Everyone was on the same ride, a shared journey of discovery. It was an experience you never wanted to end. When they finished, the applause and yelling was the most sincere demand for an encore I had ever heard. They came back out of the hallway and stood there, not plunging in. The drummer stood behind her kit. Jehnny Beth took the mic and said, “Uh, this is the first time we have done an encore.” The room went nuts yelling and clapping. She put her hand up to calm us down, “No, you don’t understand, EVER! We only know one more song. We could play that and one more again if that’s alright.”

Of course, it was alright. They ripped through the two songs, and all came out front to bow and thank us. I looked at their smiling faces and saw clearly that they were just kids who had stepped through a dream door and had only then realized it. Our great luck was to go along with them for a couple of hours. I stepped over to the mech table wanting a t-shirt. The woman behind the table said, “We didn’t know this would happen. We only have these buttons left.” For me, that night, that button said it all. I put it in my shirt and gave my friend a hug. Yea, I AM HERE.

I have seen them in headlining tours 2 more times. The photo is from a sold-out show at the Wonder Ballroom. Last night of their US tour where Jehnny Beth started by yelling, “You are getting everything we have left tonight!” We did.

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The End of Mystery

Surfing Netflix, I came across the 1998 movie, “As Good as It Gets.” If you haven’t seen it, just the on-screen time between Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, who both won Academy Awards, is worth the 2 hours. About 90 minutes in, I noticed something strange. Rather, I noticed the absence of something now ubiquitous. The movie appeared on the cusp of smart phones and the widespread use of the internet. I was highly attuned to that moment, as I was an early adopter of both. Leading an IT engineering team, we had a 24X7 on call rotation to support the company’s business servers and network. I didn’t have a rotation. As the boss, I was basically on call all the time. So, when cell phones became smaller than a valise, my team all got them to go with our pagers. It was a time when, if I was on my phone walking down the sidewalk, people did a double take. The movie is from the last gasp of an unconnected world. I couldn’t shake the feeling that may have been a better world because it was defined as much by what we didn’t know as what we knew. Everyone lived in their own mystery bubble.

Let me first be defensive and challenge the reflex that this essay is just another old man’s lament. We are now well into the second generation of ubiquitous, first world connectivity. Millions of people don’t know what they cannot know about the past. I am not saying pre-connection was better. That’s a silly way to judge history. However, layering context is essential. It this case, I believe there is a spiritual difference in the previous analog world based on what could and couldn’t be known. Every day, people were reminded of what they didn’t know. Simple questions like: ‘Where is she?’ ‘Where am I?’ governed our lives. We moved about in patterns that others could not know. We got lost and sought help, sometimes from a skinny kid at the local gas station like me. Resolving gaps in our knowledge started with a nearby person. “Hey, have you ever heard of… .” Stumped, the first thought was to pick up a phone and call someone who “just always knows.” Crowdsourcing information was a person-to-person, leisurely pursuit. Sometimes, the ultimate authority for a conundrum was an exchange of letters, snail mail, or even a trip to the library. None of this caused anxiety because we had faith that somewhere, someone had an answer. Mystery was ubiquitous.

I don’t have children, so have not been privy to the Borg-like intertwining of youthful minds and the internet. But in my work life, I saw an influx of Gens M and Z. One thing that startled me about their days was the need for certitude. If our conversations charted new ground for them, they would stop mid-sentence, reach for their smart phone, or turn to a screen and fire up the Google. Not surprising. Who hasn’t consulted the internet? What was different was the immediate need to end the discomfort of ignorance. Their’s is a world where mystery must be wrestled to submission. Oscillating between biological and electronic communication was second nature. Amongst their peers, the banter continued as eyes floated down to phones and back to other eyes. Having experienced a world where attention, focused personal presence was highly valued, I found the new digital habit first distracting, then frustrating, and finally, sad. Possibly more disconcerting is that I am now more likely to behave in the same way.

But I wonder, will the connected from birth ever feel the pure fun of an argument where facts are in doubt? I have spent hours with friends and strangers, engaging in the joy of pointless speculation. Among baseball fans, the beers came and went in long arguments about the relative merits of players or teams. We injected facts randomly based on the knowledge of hardcore fans. Everyone was an expert on something or feigned such expertise. Yea, we bullshitted each other. Most often, the discussion resolved amicably, if not inaccurately. In this way, we could revisit the same argument. Sometimes, the argument itself became a signifier for a relationship in the group. Should facts become critical, we consulted “the bible.” The bible was The Baseball Encyclopedia, a massive tome that collected all baseball stats from the beginning of the game. I have one. Page after page of the names of players and their careers. It’s an absurd book because it was obsolete the year it was purchased. Season by season, data marches away from the book. Now, Google solves all arguments because the internet it timeless. Is that a good thing?

Without accepting mystery, we are likely to fall prey to certainty. With a tap or some clicks, we are now sure we know. That need to know has become dangerous. Being addicted to certainty predisposes us to demand rapid answers, the endorphin hit of clarity. And once one is certain, repeatedly, a crack opens through which information can be altered to fill the need to know. We now see that truth has become relative. The quick hit of any sort of certainty is often more important than the muddy reality of nuanced and strained truth. Having lost the ability, or need, to live with a mystery, doubt becomes the enemy. People spouting the misinformed nonsense now swear that they “have done their own research.”

With no mystery, we fall prey to lies that feel like the truth. Feelings become facts. Any good behavioral therapist will tell you that the path to constant neurosis is an inability to separate feelings and facts. Look around you or look at your social media feed. How much of what you see is based on how people feel? How have they have substituted feelings for facts? And now, most dangerously, once anyone expresses a feeling on the internet, the algorithms spring to life to feed you more solace for your feelings. The algos don’t exit to provide facts because it’s feelings that sustain clicks and clicks make money.

When the movie ended, I sat for a time staring at the blank screen. For a couple of hours, I had been somewhere familiar. Clean is the word that came to me. The relationships portrayed were uncluttered by instant communication and electronic paths to false certainty. There was no need to clutter the screen with text bubbles into the virtual world. With no immediate digital outlet for self-expression, impulses had to be contained, questions pondered. Humans benefit from slow. Digital speed exceeds our ability to understand. Spontaneous feelings take flight thoughtlessly. In the crowded New York sidewalk scenes, everyone was looking up, out and around. Awareness extended only as far as anyone could see. Beyond that point in the distance, everyone shared the same limitation. The world was a mystery.

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