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Pacific Northwest | October 24, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober, 24, home Home delivery

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The Party Line
The old have conversations, the young just message

I like to read gossip columns about the lives of rich and famous people. They are usually about some stupid thing these folks said or did, something I probably would do, too, if I were rich or famous.

The other day I read that a well-known movie actor married a woman who was 23 years old. While this marriage may be a happy and long-lasting one, what got my attention was that this particular groom was my age.

"I have pants that are older than this guy's bride," I say to the Truly Unpleasant Mrs. Johnston.

"Not to mention your underwear," Mrs. Johnston replies.

Despite what my children may think, I am not older than rock formations in the Cascade Mountains. When I mention the Civil War, it doesn't mean I witnessed it firsthand. The same is true about World Wars I and II, but these events get mixed up in younger people's head and they are lumped in with events like Vietnam (which I did have a role in) and most things that happened before MTV.

In other words, if it happened before 1990, the kids consider it ancient history.

While the idea of marrying a woman younger than some of my pants has some appeal — for instance I would have a new audience for my jokes, and I would require her to call me "Mr. Johnston" — I wouldn't like the idea of having someone around who, when I said something about Richard Nixon, would need me to explain who Richard Nixon was.

That's one of the benefits of being married to the same person for more than a quarter of a century. It saves a lot of explaining. And when you mix in most of your friends having the same lengthy marriages, you can hold a whole conversation just in a few words.




The other day I was talking with my college-age daughter and her friends. The young ladies all had these new portable telephones that not only make phone calls (which is what a telephone is designed to do) but also allow you to send typed messages to another telephone (called "text messaging"). You can even send photographs that you have just taken with the same telephone.

This is just short of being amazing, but our children take it for granted. I wanted to tell the kids how amazing I thought these telephones were and started to tell a story from my youth. This is something the Johnston children are always eager to hear. ("Oh boy, Dad is telling a story from his youth in Everett," they scream as they gather at my feet . . . Oops, sorry. I was hallucinating.)

"When I was a kid," I began, "we used to have party lines."

"We still have party lines," a child said. "You want to have a party, all you have to do is text message your phone list that you are having a party."

"No," I said, chuckling the way old folks do when they want to let the other person know they lost their minds, "each house in your block was connected to the same phone line, and when a phone call was for you, it would ring a certain way. Your ring might be two long rings and a short while your neighbor's might be two shorts and a long."

"You mean, you had to answer the phone at your neighbor's house?" a child asked.

"No, you had your own phone in the kitchen. But you couldn't use it if someone else was on the party line."

By that point, I had talked more than 30 seconds, which is beyond the MTV children's allotted attention span, so they turned back to text messaging and sending pictures of their father looking like a goofball.

I told Mrs. Johnston that it was better to be married to her than to a 23-year-old. Mrs. Johnston looked over at me and said, "Some 23-year-old out there is very thankful for that."

Steve Johnston is a retired Seattle Times reporter. His e-mail address is Paul Schmid is a Times news artist.


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