Monday, December 28, 2009

Questions I’m Having Trouble Answering

Another year older does not necessarily mean another year wiser. I still find myself tripping over unanswered — and sometimes unanswerable — questions.

● Why is there a dial tone when one person hangs up the phone on television? In real life, there's silence.

● Why did Sarah Palin call her autobiography Going Rogue? Did she somehow think when McCain’s campaign handlers said that, they were complimenting her?

● Why is the person who's waddling along in the slow lane almost guaranteed to take your exit?

● Why does Peyton Manning have more of a southern accent than his brother Eli?

● Why does my cat Bandit jump on me to wake me up in the morning and then stand in my path when I get up to get his breakfast?

● Why don't my fingernails and toenails grow at the same rate?

● What is it that Linda Hunt's character really does on NCIS: Los Angeles? She’s supposed to be the operations manager, but she spends an awful lot of time worrying about the agents getting blood on the clothes they wear. Is she really the wardrobe mistress?

● Why don't the number of leftover holiday cards ever match the number of leftover envelopes (even taking into account there’s usually an extra envelope)?

● Why does most improvisational jazz sound to me like eight-year-olds doing their best to damage musical instruments?

● If the hijacking in Air Force One was in response to the capture of a Russian general three weeks earlier, then how did the terrorists identify a renegade Secret Service agent so quickly?

● Whatever happened to Hootie and the Blowfish?

● When and why did champagne stopped being served in wide, shallow glasses and start being served in tall, narrow ones?

● How is that Maureen O’Hara, who played Natalie Wood’s mother in Miracle on 34th Street, has outlived her by so many years?

● Why does the Santa Ana Freeway go to San Diego and the San Diego Freeway end near Santa Ana?

● Why are there no more sanitariums? And whatever happened to oxygen tents?

● Given that their vehicles are remarkably similar except for cosmetic details, why does Ford Motor Company even need a Mercury division?

● Why isn't there more of a backlash against the swill Starbucks calls its Pike Place Roast?

● Why is someone stingy called a Scrooge when at the end of A Christmas Carol, he's undergone a thorough transformation? Shouldn't calling someone a Scrooge be a compliment?

Oh, well — on to another year in which the questions will undoubtedly outnumber the answers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Caution: Caution Ahead

If you’re looking for holiday cheer, you've come to the wrong place. As I watch the wrangling in Washington over health care, my despair over the state of politics in America deepens. Even though reform seems to be progressing, it's not clear who this reform helps, except the insurance companies.

I concur with Thomas Jefferson that the government that governs least, governs best. But there are problems so big that only government can logically tackle them; with this one, uninsured people are going bankrupt because of the cost of medical care. With premiums increasing, insured people don't have it so good either.

Admittedly, this is a complicated issue, because it involves three major industries: the medical profession, the insurance companies, and the legal profession. As the spouse of a doctor, I know that one of the big contributors to medical costs is malpractice premiums, but Congress doesn't seem to want to address that particular part of the triad (in part because most of them are lawyers).

Politicians have demurred about solving this problem previously, saying that gridlock prevents it. But now that the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the White House are all run by Democrats, they no longer have that excuse. So what's the hold-up?

It's not just health care. Back in 1973, the U.S. economy was thrown into recession and turmoil by an OPEC oil boycott. Today, 36 years later, we are no less dependent on Middle East oil than we were then. In my mind, we should have started investing in high-speed inter-city and intra-city mass transit years ago, because it gives us the biggest bang for the buck when it comes to solving multiple problems:

    ● We could decrease pollution and slow global warming
    ● We would be sending less money to the terrorists who want to kill us
    ● We could give people more job options if they had an easier time getting to different cities in the same region
    ● We could spend less money on roads
    ● We could even evacuate cities faster in the event of natural disaster (imagine how a high-speed rail link between New Orleans and Houston could have helped in preparing for Katrina)

But our representatives — and I use the term loosely — are seemingly incapable of thinking big. I wrote to one of my senators, liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer, a while ago about this, and ended my letter saying that a mass-transit program was as important to us now as the interstate highway system was in the 1950s. I got a note back saying, "Thank you for your letter about the interstate highway system." (I also have an idea for mini-maglev vehicles, if any venture capitalists out there are interested.)

So what are politicians focusing on? I can't speak for others, but I know that my congresswoman, Democrat Anna Eshoo, has decided that the most important issue facing the United States today is ... wait for it ... the fact that television commercials are too loud. In the face of deficits, health care, war, and unemployment, she has decided that the most important use of her time is making sure that the volume of commercials does not exceed that of the associated telecast.

I'm not smart enough to understand why this idiocy is happening. I have my theories. In California, and perhaps in other parts of the country, I fear we have gerrymandered our way to congressional districts that are safe — that is, so highly populated with citizens on the right and the left that representatives have little opposition and thus little fear of being thrown out of office. You'd think that would make them more adventurous, not less, but even so, they don’t seem to want to do anything that will be seen as pioneering.

And what of our president, who seems to have grown excessively cautious, even though he came into office with a stunning mandate? (I knew he wasn't going to be a shining liberal; I went to college with Punahou grads, and none of them were liberals.) He was such an inspirational candidate, promising change we could believe in. It may be the holidays, but I’m having trouble believing.

All I see are the same problems bounced from congressional term to congressional term, with no one tackling real solutions. All the while, politicians, even after they're out of office, take advantage of terrific health care and pension plans that their constituents no longer have access to.

I never used to worry about this problem. When you're young, there always seems to be plenty of time to fix issues. When you're young, politicians are older, and presumably wiser. But things are different now. For the first time in my life, the president of the United States is younger than I am. The problems are obvious, the solutions perhaps less so, but doing nothing is not an option. If politicians are so powerful, why are they so cautious?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Friday Nights at 8:30, 1963

It was with great sadness last Friday that I heard the news that Gene Barry had died. To most people, Gene Barry was a middling television actor and probably not widely remembered. But he meant a lot to me, and it took his passing for me to figure out exactly what that was.

His career had many high points. He starred in the original The War of the Worlds in 1953. He was the first murderer Peter Falk outsmarted in the original TV movie featuring Lt. Columbo, Prescription: Murder. He originated the role of Georges, the nightclub owner in La Cage Aux Folles, on Broadway. And he had the distinction of having three hit television series in three different decades: Bat Masterson in the 50s, Burke’s Law in the 60s, and The Name of the Game, which ended its three-year run in 1971.

The middle one was the one that endeared Barry to me. I was eight years old when it premiered on September 20, 1963, and watching it became a Friday night ritual that required very specific refreshments: a big bottle of root beer and a Sugar Daddy every single week (no wonder I had so many cavities as a child). A lot of shows at that time had to have a gimmick — The Addams Family was macabre and Bewitched had magic — but Burke’s Law had more than its share.

Ostensibly, it was about the Los Angeles Police Department’s chief of detectives, a man who just happened to be a millionaire. Amos Burke lived in a big house in what was presumably Beverly Hills. He had a Rolls-Royce equipped with mobile phone and driven by a Filipino chauffeur named Henry. Burke was a highly eligible bachelor, and in fact, the opening of the show followed a set pattern — first, the discovery of the body, and then Burke being interrupted in the middle of a date with a beautiful woman.

When the DVDs of the first season were finally released last year, my wife squinted at some of the episodes from under furrowed brow and said, "Of course you liked it — beautiful girls, fancy cars, big house — it's every eight-year-old boy's fantasy."

Was I really that shallow? Reflecting about it this weekend, I realized there was more to it. The show also had a wonderful wit, with frequent in-jokes. When Buster Keaton appeared, his character had laryngitis, so just as in silent-movie days, his voice was never heard (except for one off-screen line). When a murder occurred in the re-creation of an Old West town, Burke did a double-take at a headstone that read, "He Called Bat Masterson A Liar."

But for his first big hit, producer Aaron Spelling added another gimmick: every suspect was played by a Hollywood name. For a television junkie like me, this was delightful, even though I had only a vague concept of the greatness parading before me in the form of silent film stars such as Keaton, Gloria Swanson, and ZaSu Pitts, not to mention contemporary celebrities such as Broderick Crawford, Annette Funicello, Paul Lynde, Jim Backus, Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor, and Don Rickles.

It must have been a great deal of fun, because the show frequently riffed on Los Angeles as the land of fruits and nuts. At least one — and sometimes all — the suspects were usually wildly eccentric. One episode included Telly Savalas as a Muslim fakir who sleeps on a bed of nails, Wally Cox as "the world’s only living vampire," and Gloria Swanson as a proponent of free love who believes she's the reincarnation of the goddess Venus (remember, this was before hippies).

I realize now that what resonated with me about the show were not the toys Burke had, but the laissez-faire attitude Burke exhibited toward these people. And why not? Burke was every bit as eccentric as the suspects he interrogated. Why else would a millionaire become a civil servant?

What a great lesson for a socially awkward eight-year-old — that no matter how out-of-step you felt, you lived in a place called California where you could be offbeat and even somewhat outrageous without regard for the judgment of others.

Thanks, Gene Barry, for playing such a debonair eccentric so well.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Better Name: The Useless Tax

Apparently the California state legislature is indulging in some gold-seeking fantasy — call it Treasure of the Sierra Nevada — that untold millions of dollars being siphoned out of state coffers from scofflaw business owners like me and the out-of-state companies I patronize. The cry has gone up: There's gold in them thar tills.

As you may know, the state of California seems to be in a perpetual level of fiscal purgatory when it comes to its state budget. The state government has either issued IOUs or shut down or both several times in the last few years when it ran out of money. The reasons for this are up for debate, ranging from the long-term effects of Proposition 13 hacking property taxes (for both residential and commercial real estate) to the short-term thinking of politicians who never met a spending proposal they didn't like.

In this latest development, I received a letter from the California State Board of Equalization the other day. These are the folks to whom California residents pay their taxes. It informed me that, as a business owner in California (as a freelancer, I am essentially a sole proprietor), I was required to pay a "use tax" on all merchandise purchased via online or mail-order methods that I use for my business. It's essentially a sales tax levied even though the purchase was not made in California. Consider this scenario: if you go down to the mall and buy a DVD, you're charged sales tax, which goes to the state. If you order it through Amazon.com, you avoid the sales tax. The state government is beginning to get cranky about missing out on that money.

Interestingly, this is not a new tax. It's just being newly enforced because of California’s budget difficulties. Don’t get me started on politicians who enact laws they can't enforce.

Here's a happy thought for the future: the law doesn't just apply to businesses. Consumers purchasing items by mail order or online are supposed to pay taxes on such merchandise as well. Although the whole idea of taxing online sales raises the hackles in Silicon Valley, I'm reasonably confident the government will be targeting consumers next.

But the SBOE is starting with businesses. The letter I received asked me to register my intent to pay the use tax for the tax years 2006, 2007, and 2008 ("asked" is probably too mild a word). As a good citizen who likes driving on roads and having water pumped to my house, I did so.

Then I went up into the attic where my tax records are stored to tally up all the items I'd purchased for my business in the last three years so that I could make restitution to the state I love so dearly.

I found three items: laptop batteries, a digital phone recorder, and an engineering technology book I'd gotten from Amazon.com.

Upon checking the receipts, I discovered that the company that sold me the batteries was based in Anaheim, so they'd already charged me California sales tax. The company that sold me the recorder was based in New Jersey, but because I was in California, it, too, had already collected the appropriate sales tax.

That leaves the engineering technology book, which cost $64.95. The tax rate in my county at the time of the purchase was 8.25%, meaning that the SBOE has embarked on this massive effort to recoup dollars and has managed to extract from this sole proprietor the grand total of … $5.36.

Of course, there may also be a penalty.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tribute to an Imprisoned Lawyer

This past Thanksgiving weekend was a pro football fan's dream — three games on Thursday, three on Sunday, and one yet to come tonight. That's seven times to hear the national anthem, and to be reminded of a lawyer who went on a mission of mercy one September afternoon and ended up imprisoned himself. The connection may not seem obvious; in fact, it's a little aggravating to me that the story has been forgotten so easily.

Just as now, it was a time of war. The lawyer was attempting to secure the release of a physician who had been captured by the enemy and being held on a ship anchored in the harbor. It was a different kind of war than the kind we wage today, I think. The captain of the ship invited the lawyer to stay for dinner — not to be hospitable, perhaps, but probably because the lawyer and his entourage, by virtue of boarding the ship, had become privy to its position and that of other enemy ships.

The lawyer and his entourage could not have known that a battle was about to begin, and the commander of the vessel was not about to let him go to warn his countrymen. After a pleasant meal, the lawyer was sent below decks as the battle began. I often think of him sitting there, under guard, helpless, having done no more than his lawyerly duties and thereby being caught up in the tide of battle.

He sat and watched his beloved city under siege, listening to the thunder of the guns and seeing the smoke rise and fog the air over a massive fort on the shore. At one point, the smoke cleared for a moment, and amid the flashes of cannon fire, he saw something that inspired him: the American flag, still waving undisturbed above the stone walls of the fort.

The lawyer's name, of course, was Francis Scott Key, and it was the night of September 13, 1814. He sat in the HMS Tonnant, not far from Fort McHenry, throughout the Battle of Baltimore, and later wrote the words of the "Star Spangled Banner" based on what he saw from his shipboard prison that night.

I don't tear up for lawyers too often, but whenever I hear the national anthem — as I did so many times this weekend — I remember a man who put himself in harm's way, his night of imprisonment, and the inspiration he took from it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Battle of the Bulge

Middle age, it has been said, is the time when you stop growing up and start growing out.

I can attest to this. It is a cruel trick of nature that just about the time you can afford to eat anything that appears on a menu, your metabolism turns your body into a packrat. "Sure," I can hear it saying, "eat whatever you want. We'll store it over here … forever."

Personally, I am multiply cursed in this regard. For one thing, I love to cook. Even as other sins come up on the schedule less frequently, eating is always convenient and fulfilling.

For another thing, I'm married to someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Katharine Hepburn — tall, thin, and opinionated. Her metabolism has not turned her body into a packrat; her metabolism has daily garage sales. She can eat a pound of See's candy and show no ill effects. It is, to say the least, highly aggravating.

To top it all off, she's also a physician, so her conversation is dotted with technical phrases like "pre-diabetic" and "body mass index," as well as less-technical phrases like "heart attack."

I am tired of hearing her use phrases like this. She thinks that just because she's a doctor and I'm married to her, I'm supposed to heed her advice. Of course, one time I didn't listen to her, and I almost died. She has never let me forget this incident, no matter how many times I remind her that I'm not dead.

Her advice to me regarding losing weight: keep my caloric intake down to 1,500 calories per day. This is roughly the equivalent of asking Congress to limit the federal deficit. You think it sounds doable, but some things are just way too tempting.

Speaking of the government, its guidelines really don't help much. Have you ever really looked at the Nutrition Facts box on the food you eat (the one above is for Cheerios)? Here's a tip — don’t look at the calories alone. Look at the serving size. Once a friend of mine took a measuring cup and showed her husband a serving size of Grape-Nuts. He sneered accurately, "That’s not a serving. That’s the dust from the bottom of the box."

And take ice cream. If you go to the Web site The Calorie Counter, it lists the serving size of ice cream as one-half cup. Hey, without too much effort, I can get a half-cup of ice cream in one spoonful. My favorite, however, is its nutrition listing for rich chocolate ice cream. It calculates this as having all of 26 calories. The serving size is the key: it's one cubic inch.

Suffice to say, 1,500 calories a day is a mirage. It is, however, a mirage that keeps me going. I tracked my calorie intake for a month and found, with some effort, that I can hit the 1,600-1,700 range. Exercising helps. I have lost twelve pounds while occasionally having pizza and beef so I do not feel deprived (there was even some Halloween candy in there). I am now wearing pants I have not been able to fit in for years.

The only thing I haven't figured out is how to keep my wife from thinking I’m following her advice.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wonderful Life, Wonderful Wizard: Accidental Classics

In an unusual convergence recently, the San Francisco Chronicle film critic, Mick LaSalle, wrote about the 70th anniversary DVD edition of The Wizard of Oz (taken from the L. Frank Baum book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). A smaller squib in the same section noted that It's A Wonderful Life was about to be released in a Blu-Ray version.

Most people think of these as unadulterated classics from the moment they were released, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Even as my sentimental side cries every time Mr. Gower slaps young George's ear hard enough to make it bleed, my crankier, more cynical side reminds me that it was sheer repetition that put these in the pantheon. Does this mean that if you force-feed the American public something, sheer repetition erases the initial mediocre reaction and it becomes beloved. Or -- and this is my sentimental side speaking -- does it mean that sometimes, we miss the beauty in some art the first time around?

As LaSalle notes, the original box office receipts of The Wizard of Oz were disappointing; it was its annual showing on television, starting in 1956, that gave it a gloss that it's never lost. And that happened by accident. As Aljean Harmetz notes in The Making of the Wizard of Oz (Knopf, 1977), CBS offered MGM $1 million for the television rights to Gone With The Wind. MGM, still confident that the Civil War epic could make money in the theatres (which it did), turned CBS down. As an afterthought (Harmetz's word), CBS offered $225,000 for the broadcast rights to The Wizard of Oz. MGM granted them, along with an option for annual re-showings.

The same kind of accidental chain of events affected Frank Capra's It’s a Wonderful Life. As Capra recounts in his autobiography, The Name Above The Title, the movie was soundly panned upon its release. Whether this negative reaction triggered a disdain for the movie or not, whoever owned the copyright on the film let it lapse. It’s A Wonderful Life entered the public domain, which allowed independent television stations to show it free of charge at will. It was repetition that led to re-discovery.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love both of these movies, for exactly these reasons. When I watch the Wizard DVD today, I'm always surprised when it doesn't cut to a commercial after Bert Lahr runs out of the wizard's throne room, because that was the way I was used to seeing it. One of the first times I saw Wonderful Life was one Christmas Eve with my parents, my sister, and her fiancée; it was a pleasant moment in an adolescence not known for them.

I'm willing to admit I'm being too cynical about this. No matter how CBS originally got Oz, its ratings were high. And Life became so popular that it began to be shown in theatres on Christmas Eve. I will never forget the year I went with a fraternity brother and his sister; she sat between us with a box of tissues and dispensed them to him and me at appropriate intervals.

Maybe classics aren't made, but borne by the public to that status. Casablanca wasn’t supposed to be anything more than a run-of-the-mill Warner Bros. World War II movie, but Allied Forces had just invaded Morocco when the studio was about to release it. The city of Casablanca was in the headlines, and that fomented interest. (If you read Round Up The Usual Suspects, the making-of book Aljean Harmetz (again) wrote about Casablanca, you'll see how accidental a success it really was.)

This makes me wonder if there other "classics" that have been made but not yet re-discovered by a new generation with a different perspective. Are there so-called bombs that fell by the wayside, waiting to be resurrected by repeated showings on fifteen movie channels and 24-hour cable? I hate to think I'm missing something wonderful out there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Little Boy Lost

The high school I attended in the early 1970s, Palo Alto's Gunn High School, is experiencing an increasingly unnerving suicide cluster, with four students having stepped in front of local commuter railroad trains and at least twice as many more reported to have made the attempt.

The news is disconcerting in its own right, but it is also disturbing because it brings up memories of one of the school’s first suicides — one of my classmates who, on a summer day in 1970, just a few weeks before entering high school, leapt from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Admittedly, Gunn was never an easy place to go to school. U.S. News & World Reports ranked it No. 74 on its list of top 100 high schools in the country this year. Among its students are both the offspring of the Stanford faculty and those who live in a tony neighboring town named Los Altos Hills. By law, its residential lots can be no smaller than one acre. In 1970, it was where the rich kids lived. Today, it's where the richer kids live.

If, like me, you didn't think you were as smart as the smart kids, or as rich as the rich kids, and weren't athletic, Gunn was not the happiest place on earth. But none of this applied to my classmate David. His father was a Stanford professor, and David had also been on our junior high school's football team, which had gone undefeated the previous season.

I did not know David well, so last week, I pinged several people who had gone to elementary school with him, hoping to get a sense of what happened. I also called his younger brother, Doug, who is now a psychologist living near Zurich. I discovered that, even though almost forty years has past, David's memory stays with each of us in different ways. Lisa still has the valentine David gave her in third grade. Peter can't look at the Golden Gate Bridge without a chill going down his spine.

They reminded me of what had transpired that August day. David had gone to San Francisco with Steve, another classmate, and suggested they walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Before they had gotten all the way across, David announced he was going to jump. Before Steve could even process that David wasn't joking — his first reaction — he was gone. "Most of us were really angry that David had done that to Steve," Lisa remembered.

At home, Doug said, David had left two letters in the dictionary, one next to death and one under m for Mary, a girl who'd recently broken up with him and whose family had moved away. The first note expressed his utter hopelessness at the state of the world. He had apparently internalized the turmoil of the '60s — the war in Vietnam, the assassinations, the urban riots — and convinced himself that the world would never be better. Doug also said told me something I'd never heard before: the year before, their grandfather had been diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide. "He was a rancher who knew that you shoot a lame horse. David admired that courage," Doug said. Whether it was unrequited love or societal disillusion doesn’t matter now; David chose what Ann Landers aptly called a permanent solution to a temporary situation.

When I heard the news, I was surprised and bewildered, just as the community is surprised and bewildered today. Even though I distinctly felt apart from the rich and the smart, I still thought of us as being lucky to be living in Palo Alto. I didn't feel academic pressure, as today's kids probably do (one of my teachers labeled me a "blithe spirit" who needed to knuckle down). While Lisa never felt it — and her father was one of Stanford's most famous professors at the time — Doug noted that his parents insisted on high standards.

All of us all labored under expectations, though, whether from our parents, our classmates, or ourselves. Still, I understand how a confluence of loss and discouragement can be overwhelming, especially to a 14-year-old. It is only with age that I've realized this simple fact: things change. Life rarely turns out the way we think it will, and sometimes it leads us in wholly unexpected directions.

I never thought I'd actually get accepted at Stanford myself. Even as a child of Silicon Valley, I never thought I'd understand computers. So I really never thought I would have a successful career writing about business and technology. My expectations — thankfully — turned all wrong. I wish David — and the teens on the tracks — had given their expectations the chance to do the same.

The saddest irony: the only thing that hasn't changed after all this time is David. He is vividly etched in all our memories, just the way he was on that sad summer day, forever lost but forever remembered.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Whatever Happened To Halloween?

Another Halloween come and gone. One of the fondest memories I have of trick-or-treating as a child was the news that someone was passing out real caramel apples — an amazing concept to a child (and even more amazing to an adult who's tried making them). I don't even remember if there were any left by the time I got there — just the pleasure of the journey was enough to seal it in my memory book.

To try and bestow that same kind of wow! factor today, I splurged and bought full-sized candy bars — 60 of them, in fact. None of these fun-sized midgets for me. As I write this, there are 18 left. And I would say that teen-agers, not children, represented half of those who came to our haunted doorstep (see photo).

We don't live in some out of the way place, either. It's a housing development, the kind of neighborhood that would have been teeming with children in the old days (heck, the family that owned the house before we did had eight kids).

As I wrote recently in Funny How Things Turn Out, this house and neighborhood are eerily similar to the one I grew up in. Even better for trick-or-treating, my old neighborhood was tucked away between railroad tracks, a cemetery, and a creek — all natural boundaries that made it a nicely self-contained place for two hours of candy-ransacking. When we were older, and Halloween fell under a full moon, dashing through the cemetery was especially exciting.

But was I mis-remembering how wonderful it was? I polled my sister and several next-door neighbors from those days. My sister Ann remembers a late-1950s group effort in which every house had a different activity — one was a haunted house where the kids reached into bags to feel creepy things they were told were eyeballs; at our house, our mother made donuts (which was almost as cool as caramel apples, but she never did it again).

But my brother-and-sister neighbors both recounted the embarrassing year that their father, on a health food kick, passed out apples instead of candy. As if that wasn't bad enough, he ran out of apples and started handing out potatoes instead. This could so easily have been the inspiration for Charlie Brown saying, "I got a rock," in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In the dark, a potato would look and feel like a rock.

Even so, amid the shower of candy, I doubt kids would remember the potato or the apples. At the same time, I find it so ironic than in the white-bread, Christian-dominated world of the 1950s (when "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, after all), a completely pagan holiday such as Halloween could thrive. Yet now, in the 21st century, a much more secular time, Halloween seems to have withered like an aging witch. The very same people who presumably enjoyed it as children are the ones sitting with the lights off and the curtains closed.

I don't know what happened, but I will keep buying full-size candy bars until that sad, dark evening that the doorbell doesn’t ring at all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Happy Holidays!

Today Middle-Age Cranky takes a hiatus from being cranky and turns to the subject of celebrating, fun, merriment, and other holiday-related activities. Too soon for the holidays, you say? Au contraire -- not in my territory.

I know that most of the rest of the country thinks people in the San Francisco Bay Area are crazy. We're the land of fruits and nuts. If you tip the U.S. on its side, everything loose will roll to the coast. One of my favorite comments came when Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin made a movie here called Maxie back in the 1980s: “Only in San Francisco would the female lead of a movie be named Glenn and the male lead be named Mandy.”

Personally, I attribute it to jealousy.

The bottom line is, we know how to have fun here, more fun than the rest of the country. Take the concept of the holidays. In the rest of the country, the holidays tend to start around Thanksgiving (though Hallmark keeps trying to push it earlier). I have long harbored a theory that the holiday season in San Francisco actually starts with Halloween and continues through Valentine's Day.

I cite the Halloween kickoff for a couple of reasons. First, the holidays always involve sweets, whether through baking or candy, and Halloween is ground zero for candy. I also tip my hat to those wild and crazy guys in the Castro District. They know how to party-hearty when it comes to costumes, bless them.

Then come the traditional holidays we share with everyone else: Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Years. Thanks to a vibrant African-American community, throw Kwanzaa in there too.

Come January 2nd, you might think the party’s over. Not here. Unlike most areas, we have two football teams to choose from. Though they've lapsed considerably in the last few years, between 1970 and 2002 (with the exception of three seasons), either the San Francisco 49ers or the Oakland Raiders competed in the NFL playoffs. That meant every weekend in January was a celebration worthy of tailgating or football-watching parties. (We still do this, but the efforts are little more half-hearted.)

February, of course, signals the beginning of the Chinese New Year. For many years, San Francisco had the largest concentration of people of Chinese descent in the U.S. (though it has recently been superseded by New York City). Hence, that was always a big deal.

Finally, given its official song ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco") and its unofficial motto ("the cool grey city of love"), the holidays really don’t wrap up around here until Valentine's Day.

That's three-and-a-half solid months of celebrations and merry-making. Call us crazy if you must, but don't call us too early because we’ve been out the night before having fun.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Funny How Things Turn Out

When singer Billy Joel was being interviewed by Playboy many years ago, he took the reporter out to the dock behind his Long Island home. It was night and the house glowed with warm light. Joel confessed to the reporter, "I keep waiting for the parents to come home."

The idea that we are living in our parents' home even when we're the ones making the mortgage payments is a powerful one. It was only some months after we bought our current home five years ago that I realized that I had unintentionally but delightfully bought an upgraded version of the house I grew up in. The house I grew up in was built in 1956; our current home was built in 1960. They were admittedly tract homes, but I like the consistency that a tract brings.

There were, of course, numerous apartments and condos and townhouses in the interim; young-adult accommodations that had their own sense of excitement and enjoyment. But I have to admit that there is nothing so comforting as coming home to a home that feels like a home is supposed to feel.

Because California real estate is a strange and unexpected world, the house in which I was raised has already been razed and replaced by a McMansion. But like our current house, it had a family room with a fireplace and a living room with a fireplace. It had an expansive backyard that was, in fact, two lots; another house has already been built on the second lot. We currently have a pie-shaped lot that provides plenty of space for gardening and other pursuits.

But there are totems in our current house that carry fond memories of that long-gone home. A conch shell (above), origins unknown, sits on our hearth, just as it did in the house of my childhood. A Howard Miller Westminster chime clock sits on the mantel, just as one from Seth Thomas did before. The family photograph that was shot in our living room in 1968 hangs on the wall in the upstairs hallway.

How strange to find that the memories and archetypes of childhood are so strong that they would infuse my adult life. On the other hand, growing up in the 50s and 60s in suburban California contributed to more archetypes than my own. I never thought that the tree-lined streets of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best were fake — that was exactly what my neighborhood looked like. It’s what my neighborhood still looks like.

Of course, the ironies here are thick enough to cut with a knife. While my childhood may have been physically comfortable, it was not emotionally comfortable. The unhappy memories outnumber the happy ones considerably. Perhaps that's why I love our current house so much. I'm not waiting for the parents to come home. This time around, I get to be the adult.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Help Save Coco and Cookie From Their Irresponsible Parents

Every so often I get something via e-mail that makes my blood boil. Last Friday I got an e-mail from an acquaintance with whom I’ve occasionally worked in feral cat rescue; we are usually the recipients of anything relating to animals in need.

But there's a difference between animals in need and animals being abandoned. I've seen pleas similar to this one before, and I don't understand them anymore than if they were written in Sanskrit.
"We are moving overseas in just 2 weeks. Unfortunately, I have still not been able to find a good home for Cookie and Coco. We're not able to take our beloved doggies with us and I've been desperately trying to find a home for both of them together . They were raised together and pine without each other. The Lab rescue [groups] have already said that they would probably separate them, so this is my last resort. Recently I tried to take Coco out in my car alone and she TOTALLY refused to even get into the car without Cookie......!!!! She absolutely pulled back on her haunches until Cookie was by her side.”

Hey, lady, how do you think they're going to react without you? Cookie and Coco look to you as the head of their pack. You don't think they’re going to miss you?

Why in the world would someone adopt two dogs if there was even a modicum of a chance you’d have to leave the country three years later? I keep hoping to hear that there are some sort of extenuating circumstances here, but I can't fathom any (and I haven’t heard back from my acquaintance about this person's circumstances [see update below]).

Many years ago, there was a flyer posted on the door of our then-veterinarian's office. It was a similar plea to adopt a cat. Why? Because the woman had had a baby and they wouldn't be able to pay attention to the cat. I wanted to call them and ask if they were going to give the first baby away when a second one arrived because they wouldn't be able to pay as much attention to it.

I just don't get this. Adopting an animal is a commitment for the animal's lifetime. They're not furniture you turn over to Goodwill because suddenly they don't match the décor. Even in our late Tuxedo's worst days of barfing and spraying, we never considered traipsing him down to the animal shelter and surrendering him. The day we adopted him, we made a commitment to him that he would always be safe and warm and well-fed (we kind of went overboard on that last one). We couldn't have loved him more than we did — and we certainly cherished him more than any piece of furniture or carpeting.

What saddens me most is that animal lovers will read this and understand. And the people who really need to get the message won’t.

Postscript: I learned after posting the real story about Coco and Cookie. They were indeed available for adoption, but back in February. They have been with a new family for quite a while. Their owners were not going overseas -- their house had been foreclosed upon and they were moving into an apartment that didn't accept animals. I can accept these as extenuating circumstances in this case, with regrets. However, my disdain for people who treat animals like furniture remains intact.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What Was This Blog Entry Supposed To Be About?

I am happy to report that I have stopped having college-related nightmares. It only took 30-plus years.

The one that I had most frequently throughout the years took place around finals week. I would suddenly realize that I was supposed to have been attending a particular class all quarter. While I may have dropped in on a few classes earlier in the term, months have passed and I have blanked on that particular commitment. It doesn't help that, as I try to conjure an explanation for the professor, I can't find the classroom anywhere.

The other nightmare that seems to have faded into justified obscurity over the years relates to post-graduation call from some administrative office within the university. A less-than-apologetic voice explains that an error has been made, and I really didn't have enough credits to graduate. My diploma is now invalid, and to gain proper standing as an alumnus, I need to take one more class.

If there's a theme here, it's that something’s missing; something's been overlooked and it's my fault. I wish I knew where this fear of forgetfulness comes from, this internal requirement to be sharp, be alert, don't let anything slip by you. Heck, I'm usually extremely organized.

The times I really have screwed up have been few and far between, but they make wonderful cocktail-party fodder. I cited one a few weeks ago in The Fees, The Rule of Three, and Me, when I incurred change fees from United because I'd made online reservations for the wrong day. The more interesting one occurred when I diligently researched flight schedules for a trip from San Francisco to Vancouver in advance of a cruise to Alaska my wife and I were taking. I noted the flight time in my calendar.

But as the day for the cruise approached, I realized I had no paperwork confirming those reservations. No e-mail from the airline either. This gave me the same frisson of fear that the finals week dream did. I called the airline and said hopefully, "I want to confirm my reservations for tomorrow's flight."

The reservations clerk was dutifully apologetic when he said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Baldwin, but you have no reservations on that flight." Further, he said, there were no remaining seats. There were seats available on a flight a few hours later, he added; I could almost hear him gulp as he said this: "The fare is $1,200." I told him I had no choice and booked the seats (it turned out they were $1,200 because they were in first class, and that figure included our return flight as well).

Ever since, when I put a flight schedule in my calendar, I amend it with the notation "reservation not yet made."

With a modicum of dread, I assume there must be a middle-aged equivalent of the forgetting-class dream. Will I show up at some border crossing without my passport? Will I fill out Part B of my Medicare application incorrectly? Will I start being ostracized at reunions? (Although that dream may have already started.)

More likely — I hope — the middle-aged resourcefulness that spawns notations like "reservation not yet made" will detour these dreams deeper into my subconscious, where forgetfulness can legitimately take over.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Downside

Every so often I feel like "Middle-Age Cranky" puts a false face on me. I'm generally a positive, upbeat person; that's probably why the aggravations of life seem bigger to me: I don't generally focus on them, until it's time to post here.

In fact, every so often something sweet will happen and I'll want to write about it, but then I realize I'd be violating my published persona as a certified grouch, misanthrope, and pessimist.

Take the change of seasons. I love the fall, for so many reasons. As a change of pace, I thought about documenting those reasons. But then I realized there was a downside to every single one of them.

Upside: The NFL Season Launches
Marrying an Oakland Raiders’ fan has given me a much deeper appreciation for football, as has TiVo, because we can fast forward through the timeouts and the blathering. At the beginning of the NFL season, optimism about the 49ers’ and Raiders’ playoff hopes is at its highest.

Downside: The College Football Season Launches
My spouse has also developed an abiding love of college football, which makes me a football widower on both Saturday and Sunday. I can barely keep track of the players on my favorite professional teams in this era of free agency, much less the college players. And I don't care whether Lane Kiffin and Urban Meyer serenade Carrot Top all night long.

Upside: The New TV Season
After a summer of re-runs, I’m ready for new stories. We’re a big fan of Jerry Bruckheimer’s procedurals (CSI: Anywhere, Cold Case) and NCIS.

Downside: The New TV Season
There are two problems here. First, the Netflix DVDs tend to sit unwatched for weeks on end. Second, my spouse loves the dancing shows. I'm okay with the dancing, but I despise shrieking. This means I have to stifle the urge to strangle 1) Mary Murphy on So You Think You Can Dance and 2) the entire audience of Dancing With The Stars.

Upside: Cooler Temperatures
There is a wonderful county park not far from us with extensive hiking trails. The cooler temperatures of autumn and its rolling trails make it a perfect place to hike, without the summer swarms of visitors.

Downside: Cooler Temperatures
Fall brings different kinds of swarms to the park: an unbelievable number of both flies (there is a working farm in the middle of the park) and cross-country runners from local high schools. Neither the flies nor the runners seem to understand English.

Upside: Halloween
I love Halloween. Not for what it has become — an opportunity for teen-agers to roam looking to score candy, but as a remnant of childhood and waiting anxiously for darkness to come so children can roam the streets and still feel safe.

Downside: Halloween
Halloween is also the unofficial launch of the holiday candy season, a celebration I am trying to forego this season. 'Tis better to give than receive, so I'm trying to shed pounds rather than receive them. Somewhere there are Milky Way bars with my name on them, and I'd just as soon they didn't find out where I live.

Upside: Getting Dark Earlier
I thought about this a lot. There is no upside to it getting dark earlier.

Downside: Getting Dark Earlier
Daylight savings time used to occur each year on the weekend nearest my birthday and my half-birthday. Then they moved it, so it's harder to remember when to change the clocks. Besides, it's an antediluvian throwback to an agrarian culture that doesn't exist any more.

Oh, my. I guess I really am cranky.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shreds of My Existence

Not too long ago, the police department of the city in which I live sponsored a shredding event. Citizens could take up to ten boxes of records, receipts, and refuse in to have the contents shredded under the purview of the people sworn to ensure that our credit numbers wouldn't float away into the hands of criminals.

Although I thought this was a great idea, it's not exactly the way I like to see my tax dollars spent. I also realized that given the material being shredded, there wouldn't be a lot of time or effort expended to separate recyclable paper from old carbon receipts. I decided I would tackle the separating and shredding process myself.

That was how I ended up climbing into the attic and discovering that, while I had been diligent about saving evidence of my business expenditures, I had also lost track of way too much time. I had receipts dating back to the earliest days of the Reagan administration, which meant that I had carted these boxes unnecessarily through no less than four moves.

Even more enlightening was how even the flotsam of life has changed. Before computers, we were awash in carbon paper from credit card imprinters (which, interestingly enough, you can still purchase). These decades-old receipts all had long-lost credit card numbers on them, plain as day. What wasn't plain was the reasoning behind some of the purchases I'd made and long ago forgotten. I marveled at all the money that seemed to flow through my hands in my bachelor days, seemingly as plentiful and unmemorable as water.

It was also an agonizing reminder of how old I am (or, to put it in a sunnier way, how much life I've lived). I had:

• check stubs from projects I'd forgotten I'd done
• prescription receipts from illnesses I've long been cured of
• flight coupons from airlines that haven't existed for 20 years
• restaurant receipts from meals with people whose names (and even affiliations) were mysteries
• W-2s from too many companies that are out of businesses

It wasn't so much like walking down memory lane as it was walking through a graveyard of events that seemed very important at the time, but were just — especially after I subjected them to the voracious blades — shreds of my existence.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Fees, the Rule of Three, and Me

Twice in the same day last week, two companies I've done business with for a long time hit me with outrageous penalty fees that were (in my mind, of course) unjustified. One was United Airlines. I had made return flight reservations for the wrong day and had to change them; the fee to change them wasn’t much ($6), but without explanation, I lost our Economy Plus upgrades, which cost significantly more.

The other was the Bank of America, with whom I've had a love-hate relationship since college. My credit card bill was due on Labor Day, and I made the payment through online banking on the preceding Sunday. No, came back the reply, this won’t post until Tuesday. I'm confident there will be a $39 late fee for that (which, as a supposed valued customer, I will contest).

My rant, however, is not about these fees. It's that I feel powerless about protesting.

The most logical protest is to take my business elsewhere. But where? In economics, there's a concept called the "Rule of Three" (though I'll be darned if I can find who first proposed it). According to this rule, eventually competitors get whittled through attrition and acquisition until only three major players remain.

Take major American airlines. In my youth, you could chose from American, Delta, United, Pan Am, Eastern, National, and TWA for transcontinental flights. Today, only the first three remain. The idea of leaving United behind only brings back worse memories of the times I previously attempted to do so. Of the first three flights I booked on Delta, two were cancelled. The last time I flew on American, the gate agent tore out the wrong coupon from my multi-leg itinerary — and couldn't understand why I was so upset at the idea of arriving at my next destination without a ticket. (For you younger readers, this was when we still actually used tickets.)

Once upon a time, Macy's was our default department store. Retailers would supposedly kill for that kind of loyalty, right? No. After several bad-tasting episodes (one of which involving the receipt a grammatically incorrect, non-apologetic response from some assistant in customer service), we said hasta la vista, returning our credit cards sliced in two.

So what happened? Macy’s (then called Federated Department Stores) went on a buying frenzy. I think the only stores it currently doesn’t own are Wal-Mart and Nordstrom. I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I’ll shop at Wal-Mart, but I do patronize the latter. (To be completely truthful, though, because Federated bought Frederick & Nelson, we have been known to sneak into Macy’s and buy Frangos.)

The same obstacle applies to switching banks. I've never heard anyone say they were happy with their bank (though there have been times I’ve been happy with Bank of America, even after it was acquired by NationsBank). So what's the point of switching? No other institution is better; they've all risen to the same level of barely adequate.

So when you get to middle age, having tried most of the options available and found them lacking, you're stuck when it comes to taking your business elsewhere. There is no elsewhere. Besides, I've spent 20 years learning where all the Versateller machines are, and I'd hate to have to start over.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Parade of Changing Tastes, Part II

A couple of weeks ago, I had something to eat I hadn't had in years. It was something I’d fantasized about, and as with many fantasies, the reality fell short.

It was a fluffy, puffy cloud of pink cotton candy, straight out of the drum.

As any cotton candy aficionado knows, the food police have ruined the whole idea by requiring that it be put into plastic bags for cleanliness. But I was attending an A's game at the Oakland Coliseum, and to my delight, the vendor asked me if I wanted my cotton candy freshly made. I looked at him as if he'd just offered me a ride in a time machine.

But it was not the way I remember cotton candy. It didn’t taste as sweet. It didn’t crystallize in the air the way I expected.

There are probably multiple reasons for this. First, our taste buds, like everything else, age as we do. They get less sensitive (this is apparently why every restaurant in Palm Springs, including the Italian ones, forgoes spices in its food). Second, my primary venue for cotton candy as a child was the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Perhaps a necessary ingredient to perfect cotton candy is salty sea air moistening selected crystals and turning them from wispy to hard and from pink to magenta. I can still remember the light crunching of the sugar and the incipient rotting of my teeth.

But it's not just cotton candy. I used to love fast food — Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Up until recently, when I was on my own for dinner, I would visit KFC. I haven't been for quite a while. I can't tell if it's the memory of the greasiness that's deterred me, or the distant sound of my spouse's voice saying, "If you sit quietly while you eat that, you can hear your arteries slam shut."

It's not just the health concerns that haunt me. There's something about the taste of fast food that seems ... different from when I was younger. It doesn't have the same pop on the tongue that it used to. Not rancid, but perhaps the same freeway exit.

And breakfast cereals. You know how Jerry Seinfeld used to have ten boxes of cereal on a shelf in his kitchen on his TV show? That was my idea of heaven. I mourned the passing from my childhood of Post Crispy Critters and Sugar Rice Krinkles. I loved the Kellogg’s Jumbo Pac — 18 perforated boxes that you could open, pour in the milk, and eat right out of. (The Product 19 and the Rice Krispies were always left over.)

I used to love Trix and Froot Loops, but not after they added the radioactive colors. In the last few years, I have bought Post Alpha-Bits or General Mills Frosty O's in the hopes of crunching into old memory, but even those have lost their appeal. This from a man who used to think of Cocoa Krispies as boxed heroin.

When I was a child, I looked forward to a time when I could afford to indulge in any kind of food I wanted. But I have been betrayed — whether by my mind, whispering about health concerns, or by my withering taste buds, straining to reproduce a forgotten memory, I do not know.

I can look at old pictures; I can listen to old recordings; I can touch old toys; I can inhale aromas. Taste, I fear, is the only one of the senses that can never be recaptured.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Parade of Changing Tastes

I am beginning to doubt my taste. This is nothing new. I have friends who have doubted my taste for years.

I originally started to think about this in relation to one of the shows I loved as a child. Bewitched was the story of a mortal who marries a beautiful witch. I found Elizabeth Montgomery enchanting, pun intended.

I saw a re-run recently on TV Land and thought it was the most idiotic thing I'd ever seen. I couldn’t believe I'd actually looked forward to watching that show each week.

Okay, so the tastes of a child are different than the tastes of a man. But I also watched The Godfather again recently, which I had disliked as a teen-ager. I probably found it overly violent and wasn’t convinced by Michael Corleone's sudden transition from a soldier in the U.S. Army to a commander of a Mafia family. This time around, I understood better its rich undertones of family, loyalty, and the fact that sometimes life takes you unexpected places.

Then there's The Poseidon Adventure. I think I saw this disaster movie six times as a teen-ager. Now I can't bear to watch it. The action is all in the beginning of the movie, and the religious metaphor of climbing upward toward salvation annoys me. I am only somewhat placated by the fact that it was the top-grossing movie of 1973, so at least other people agreed with my initial assessment.

But the more I think about this, the more embarrassed I get. Most people don't know that I spent six years early in my career as a movie reviewer. (I rarely go now, not only because the incessant chattering aggravates me, and also because theaters don’t have captions like DVDs do.) The bulk of my reviews were published in the Stanford Daily, but some did appear in daily newspapers and magazines. I'm beginning to wonder if I owe a whole bunch of those readers an apology.

Sometimes, admittedly, I was dead-on. I skewered most of Peter Bogdanovich's post-Paper Moon disasters, such as Nickelodeon and At Long Last Love. I lavishly praised One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But anything by offbeat or foreign directors, such as Altman or Antonioni, just left me cold. Oh, and I liked Funny Lady, the sequel to Funny Girl that disappeared like a rock and, to my knowledge, has never surfaced again. A classmate once told me that he and his friends used my reviews as a contrarian device; if I hated it, they bought tickets.

Now that I'm in middle-age, I'm wondering, do I have to re-think my whole value system regarding what's good entertainment? Do I have to go back and watch all the movies from my past all over again in order to form a more accurate opinion? The idea of sitting down for hours to prove myself wrong seems counter-productive, a time-consuming search for an inconvenient truth.

On the other hand, making amends may not be such a bad idea.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

As I Lay Thinking About Death

At the last high school reunion I attended, someone had the bizarre idea to create a memorial to all the people in the class, as well as those from the adjacent classes, who had died. It had roughly the same unsettling effect as the hagiography that's become part of the Academy Award ceremony, where they flash the famous faces who've passed on in the previous twelve months ("Richard Widmark died? When did that happen?").

On the sheet of poster paper, nicely laid out on a picnic table, I saw too many names I recognized — classmates, siblings of classmates, names of girls I'd dated, and names of girls I'd wanted to date. It shocked me anew that I'd gotten to the time in my life when I look at the ages in the obituary column and notice how close they are to my own.

It's only going to get worse. I've had close friends pass away, but not often: once when I was 21, again when I was 42. But those were on the upward slope of middle age. Now we're on the evening side of the mountain. One of my classmates since second grade passed away this year, in his early 50s, and I received via e-mail a link to his obituary. When I saw it, I couldn't help thinking, "Ah, the deluge begins."

In the 21st century, of course, we won't even have to wait until reunions to find out the death toll. With Facebook, the word about the sick, dead, and dying can spread even faster than before. Admittedly, though, there are kinks to work out; I received a Facebook message recently asking if I'd heard a rumor that a mutual friend had died in a hiking accident. Trying to confirm the rumor, I received the response: "Yes, it's true — but that was ten years ago."

That was disconcerting, but what is more disconcerting to me is my own ambivalence about death. The joyous part of me wouldn't mind hanging around another 50 years. The pragmatic part of me acknowledges that I've done almost everything I've wanted to do in my lifetime, including owning a convertible, swimming in a Tahitian lagoon, and sleeping with a virgin. (Shoot me, I'm a guy.) If I had to go soon, I'd have no regrets.

But then I'm back at the reunion, staring at the roll call of death and missing the missing. They're like the winners of a lottery you wouldn't want to enter. Against really high odds, they become famous and talked about, except for the wrong reason. Then, as time goes on, the odds start changing in all the Boomers' favor.

That's when death becomes more ordinary, and dare I say, desirable. I had a friend once, one of the older members of my college fraternity, who lived well into his 90s. He had an amazing life — graduating from Stanford to become a stockbroker in 1927, just before the stock market crash; becoming an itinerant agriculture buyer; going bankrupt; and eventually building a comfortable life for himself in San Francisco. But he outlived his younger brother, his wife, and most of his classmates.

That was life's bitter trade-off, he told me: the price of living a long time is having to say good-bye to all your friends as they leave. How sad to be the last one left at the reunion.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Road Not Taken

In a recession, it's natural to look back at your career and think, did I make the right choices along the way? What if events had transpired differently? I've started thinking back on some of the situations that have had the most impact on my career. Today, they're clearly inflection points from which two different possible sequences of events flow. I didn't know that term in the 70s; I only knew the Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," in which two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

My first magazine job out of college was with a company called the American Adventurers Association. The entrepreneur who founded it essentially wanted his own National Geographic Society, choosing to ignore that there already was a National Geographic Society. (The backstory of how I came to be in Seattle and got that job represents a whole different set of inflection points.) The AAA published a bi-monthly magazine on adventure travel and an annual guidebook listing adventurous trips -- river rafting, ballooning, mountain climbing. Only rarely did the staff actually get to engage in any of these activities.

It was a lush magazine, published nevertheless on a shoestring (most of us were paid $3 per hour in the beginning). My responsibilities encompassed acting as an assistant in every department -- editorial, circulation, administration -- and after three years at the magazine, I had a wholly inflated sense of my potential in the publishing industry. Growing up in Palo Alto and going to Stanford will do that to you.

Thinking anything was possible, I planned my next move: getting an ever-so-fashionable master's degree in business administration. After that, I would move to New York and use my soon-to-be-acquired business acumen and my recently acquired editorial experience to become a publisher. Isn't youthful enthusiasm intoxicating?

Of the ten graduate schools I applied to, only Cornell accepted me (this should have been a tip-off as to what was coming). As it happened, the Cornell curriculum of statistics, economics, and accounting was far more quantitative than the average English major could fathom, and it was especially difficult for one who was used to blissfully skating through life without working too hard. For the first time in my life, I had a report card full of Cs and Ds.

Before the beginning of the second semester, I was ordered to appear before the Academic Standards Committee. Outside, snowflakes gently floated down. Inside, my plans were harsly batted down. The three dour professors on the committee informed me that because what was taught in the first semester formed the foundation for the three semesters that followed, and I had clearly not grasped those fundamentals, I would not be allowed to re-register. Ever since, I've blithely said that if you're going to get thrown out of somewhere, make it someplace classy like the Ivy League.

I went back to California, drank a few years away, and eventually started writing about technology. I was writing for a McGraw-Hill publication when I had a meeting with an executive who actually had gotten a Cornell MBA. I mentioned in passing that I had been kicked out of that program. He replied immediately with a riposte I have never forgotten: "And look how it's ruined your life."

He was right, of course, and now, twenty years later, that executive's remark is even more prescient. If I had been able to stick to my original plan, I would now be sitting in Manhattan among the rubble of the publishing industry, scrambling to find perhaps the last in a string of non-existent jobs in a diminishing world. The Web is rewriting the rules of everything printed without offering insights to the future -- just as strikingly as the Academic Standards Committee rewrote my plans and fogged up my future.

But I was able to come back to the land of innovation and sunshine and ride the rise of the personal computer, the Internet, and corporate networks into a wonderfully fulfilling career. The end of my Cornellian dreams, the road involuntarily taken, has indeed made all the difference.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lawyers, Used Car Dealers .. and Veterinarians?

Last week I had to commit a heinous but necessary act. It's one many of us are forced to do in our lifetimes, frequently more than once, but one we rarely talk about, except among our immediate families.

I had to take something that I had loved and nurtured for 18 years and have it killed: my beloved orange marmalade tabby Tuxedo.

But this is not a blog about a lost pet. Tuxedo had a wonderful life and was clearly in physical pain at the end. I told him that he had to tell me when it was time to go, and over the previous week, his cries became more plaintive, and on Wednesday he stopped eating. But this is a blog devoted to life's aggravations, and this entry is specific about raw anger about how Tuxedo's death was handled by the people who were supposed to care for him — with a bit of a twist.

We have been patronizing a local veterinarian's office almost since it opened seven years ago. It's only about three blocks away, so it's easy to transport cats in distress when necessary. The doctors there were the first to diagnose trouble with our cat Fluffy, who eventually passed away from lymphoma five years ago. Tuxedo, Gus, Bandit, and even Midnight, the stray who lives outside and whom we once trapped for neutering, have all been there.

When Tuxedo's time approached, I wanted him to pass away at home, where he was comfortable and the smells familiar. But when I called our clinic, I was curtly told by the receptionist, "We don’t do home visits." I was aghast. At the very time when an animal needs the most compassion (not to mention its parents), it's denied. At the very time when an animal is the most vulnerable, it's supposed to be brought to the one place it associates with fear and pain. I find this unconscionable — particularly from a clinic that lists "compassion" as the first word in its motto.

Irate, I called the doctor that had administered Fluffy's lymphoma’s treatments (work beyond the ability of our primary care clinic), who had graciously agreed to euthanize Fluffy in our backyard, where he would feel the most comfortable. I got a call back from her technician. "She doesn’t have time to do that anymore," I was told. (Never mind that we have paid thousands of dollars in treatment costs to both of these clinics over the years.)

Eventually, it was too late to dither. Tuxedo's anguish took precedence over my anger, and, without having a chance to hear an explanation of the clinic's lead vet, I took him on his last ride. And that's where the story becomes a little gray.

Tuxedo was the first cat we had as adults. My wife and I adopted him even before we were married. I always said that before Tuxedo, we were a couple; after Tuxedo, we were a family. In addition to being frequently cantankerous — as male orange tabbies are wont to be, I later learned — he was also a teacher. He taught us how to be good parents.

When he was young, he pounced on the bed at 2 a.m. because he was lonely and wanted to play. To my eternal regret, we had to shut him in the bathroom to get any sleep. But we realized quickly that he needed a playmate; he taught us just how social cats are and how much they enjoy having other animals around. That was how Fluffy came into our lives. Tuxedo was jealous of Fluffy for all of 36 hours, until we could almost see the light bulb go on with his realization that we had finally figured out that he wanted a friend.

Another time, many years ago, Tuxedo was clearly in some sort of distress. We had no idea what it was, but when we brought out the carrying case we used for taking him to the vet, he walked right in and lay down. He knew he wasn't feeling well and that — as much as he hated it — he had to go see the doctor.

Fast forward to last week. Tuxedo initially whimpered when I put him in the car; the car always meant going to the doctor. But then he was quiet, even after I carried him into the exam room. The only time he cried again was after they put the catheter into his vein to give him an initial sedative. But he knew it was time to go; once again, he was saying, please take care of me.

I think — I hope — that Tuxedo understood that, rather than being a place of fear, the vet’s office was the place where he would finally be released from his pain. It was the launching point for his trip to Rainbow Bridge. He was a smart cat that way.

I'm still angry at those veterinarians; I'm still anxious to discern their definition of compassion. And while there is a big hole in the house where that little cat used to be, I am glad to know that he is finally at peace, hopefully romping with his brother, his teaching career finally over.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Hair-Raising Experience (With Any Luck)

It's a true Baby Boomer phenomena — the increasing attention to cosmetic surgery. According to statistics from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, people in the 40-54 age group had 5.7 million cosmetic procedures in 2008, a 4 percent increase over 2007 (the 30-39 year olds had 2.3 million, up only 1 percent).

Anyone who's seen Joan Rivers or Faye Dunaway recently can discern how flawed this process can be. Yet, the siren call of maintaining our youth still wails, at least to me. I still remember the morning in my room at the fraternity when I noticed that my hairline had receded from its original location. I was twenty. It seemed patently unfair.

When I was thirty, I scheduled a consultation with a hair-transplant surgeon in San Francisco. If the cost of the surgery hadn’t been roughly equivalent to half my annual salary, I might have considered it.

And even though I married a wonderful woman who insisted she was more concerned with what was in my heart than on my head, the idea of returning my head to a more hirsute state stayed with me. The only place it seemed that bald men weren’t dorks or nerds were in Rob Reiner movies. Even Ron Howard seems to favor nicely actors with full manes like Tom Hanks and Russell Crowe.

Now it's more than twenty years later, and the wailing is getting louder than ever. Hair-transplant surgery is no longer half my annual salary, but it's still a five-figure commitment, with other toys on the list ahead of it, such as a remodeled kitchen or a cruise in the Greek isles.

And while it may be too late in middle-age for one to consider such a hefty investment, the fact remains that my father is approaching his 90th birthday, and his mother died just a couple of weeks before her 102nd birthday. If those genetics hold, I would have transplanted hair longer than I'd live in the house with a new kitchen.

Thus I was naturally intrigued when I saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle announcing a hair-transplant study and looking for men with specific characteristics: dark hair, balding in a specific pattern, and between 30 and 59. The study was being done by a start-up in Sunnyvale called Restoration Robotics, which has developed a device that would harvest hair follicles individually (more elegant than plugs) faster than a cosmetic surgeon could. The goal of the study was to determine that the robotic device could harvest follicles as safely and efficiently as a human surgeon.

I applied to and was accepted into the study, and underwent the surgery at the end of July. It’s important to note that the goal of the study is to test the efficacy of the machine, not to bestow full hair transplants.

But I did have an ulterior motive: I wanted to see if I could stand the pain of cosmetic surgery. Just as with my first colonoscopy, I was given a shot of the sedative Versed. But there was also a double-Valium chaser prior to the surgery, not to mention a supply of Vicodin to take home. Talk about V for victory.

I took a Vicodin before going to sleep that first night, and even then did not sleep well. When I woke up, I felt like someone had used my head for a piñata. Even raising my eyebrows caused a twinge. Another Vicodin in the morning helped considerably, but I was truthfully glad I didn’t have any deadlines that morning. The sole extent of my output that day was to coin the phrase "Vicodin vacation."

As the week has gone on, the pain has diminished but the itching sensation — both where the hair was harvested and where it was implanted — has increased. A Vicodin at night is still a good idea. All this for a patch of fuzz on the very top of my head that I can only feel, rather than see, and has roughly the same surface size and texture as a Brillo pad.

It remains to be seen whether I'll talk to the surgeon about more transplants — which would be on my dime, rather than that of Restoration Robotics. I have reached one certain decision. Rather than do a transplant in stages, as time and money permitted, I will certainly deal with it all at once. To ease the scratching and wincing, I will probably schedule a week of recovery at an oceanside resort in Hawaii. When the Vicodin ran out, the daiquiris could flow in.

Only one question remains: whose makeover am I itching for more, mine or the kitchen's?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cambridge Blues

In his movie reviews, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, occasionally refers to "the idiot plot." This is a device in which, in order for the plot of the movie to move forward, the leading characters must react to the situation unfolding around them like blithering idiots. This is not a compliment.

Reading the news reports of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police officer James Crowley brings to mind Ebert's description. According to various sources, a passerby saw Gates and his driver trying to shove open his stuck front door. I had a cousin who used to live in Cambridge, and you could drop a marble at one end of her apartment and watch it roll to the other. The way some of those houses have settled over the years, a stuck door is perfectly logical.

The passerby called the police, and Officer Crowley responded. He asked Gates for identification. According to Crowley, Gates refused to show him his driver’s license and only showed his Harvard employee ID. According to Gates, he showed both forms of ID. When Crowley tried to determine if anyone else was in the house, Gates became abusive and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Now, like most Stanford graduates, I've always harbored doubts about Harvard, and not just because it awarded a diploma to George W. Bush. Its motto is "veritas," which is Latin for truth. But any campus tour guide will happily tell you that the statue of John Harvard is colloquially known as the statue of three lies. The statue bears the inscription, John Harvard, Founder, 1638. In reality, the institution was founded in 1636, not 1638, and as New College; it was renamed Harvard College in 1639 after John Harvard contributed a significant amount of money (with the stipulation that his name be applied to the college, if memory serves). The statue was cast by Daniel Chester French in 1884, but because there were no likenesses of John Harvard available, French used a student as a model. Veritas, indeed.

Back to the idiot plot. You have a woman passing by a professor's home — presumably a local citizen — who has no idea who lives there. Here's a tip — get to know your neighbors, lady.*

Then you have a police officer sent to the house who somehow believes that the 58-year-old man within is potentially a burglar. Here's another tip: show some respect for your elders. Unless you’re a big fan of Going in Style (in which George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play a trio of unlikely bank robbers), you should know that guys with canes aren’t usually burglars. Heck, I can't even lift my television set, and I'm younger than Gates.

Then you have a Harvard professor, who, admittedly, is probably cranky after a long trip. Here's a tip: show the officer some respect for the job he has to do. Be thankful that if a burglary was indeed taking place while you were away, he arrived to investigate it.

What I find equally mystifying about this idiocy is that everyone — from Gates to Crowley to the Cambridge police chief — is sticking to his guns about who was right and who was wrong. That is, they're continuing to be idiots about the whole sequence of events.

I gotta tell you: Even with a cameo by the president, this is not a movie I would pay to watch. Even as a comedy.

*After this was posted, I learned that the woman was actually an employee of one of Gates' neighbors.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Seven Things That Really Frost Me About Middle Age

When I think back on some of the things I did to my body when I was younger — alcoholic binges, all-night poker games — I probably shouldn't be surprised that it's taking its revenge on me now when I'm most defenseless. Here are seven problems with my body that really make middle age a challenge.

After The Laughter Is Gone. There’s nothing more delightful than finding something so hilarious that you just descend into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter. Every so often, my wife and I will start dishing on someone or something and just fall into a state of uproariousness that won’t stop. The problem now is that, instead of laughing uncontrollably, I always end up coughing uncontrollably. That just hacks.

Back When My Back Was Young. I am astonished at how the slightest twist in the wrong direction can make my back not only twinge, but turn into some sort of spasm-inducing fiend bent on crumbling my evolutionary right to walk erect. When I was a teen-ager, there was a movie called Hot Rods To Hell. In it, Dana Andrews (on the downside of his career) played a man on a driving vacation with his family who was tormented by hot-rodders on the same highway. Whenever Andrews tried to take on the hoodlums, his back would go out. I thought it was a way-too-inconvenient device to keep the movie going; now I'm convinced it's just sadly true-to-life.

Overwhelming Underarms. Is it just me, or is my body odor worse now than when I was a teen-ager?

Midnight Runs. It's not getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom that bothers me; I actually find the preceding dreams about unsuccessfully searching for a urinal rather humorous in retrospect. No, it's the occasional inability to go back to sleep afterwards that I hate. At least now there are 100 DirecTV channels to entertain me, as opposed to test patterns and all-night talk radio when I was a kid.

Food, Wonderful Food. It is a cruel trick of nature that, once you reach the point where you can pretty much afford to eat whatever you want, there sits a roadblock. Whether it’s the threat of heartburn or the peril of prescription drug interaction (I want my grapefruit back, Lipitor!), I now have to be careful about what I eat and when I eat it.

No More Marathon Drives. After I graduated from college, I lived in Seattle for three years, but frequently visited friends in San Francisco. It was anywhere from an 18- to a 22-hour drive, and I used to be able to do that in one shot, only stopping for Coca-Cola, fast food, and gasoline. (Though this was after Starbucks was founded, it was before I had discovered coffee.) Now my stamina for long drives is so low (translation: my butt begins to hurt), I can’t even get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one shot. If there were still double features at movie theatres, I wouldn’t be able to sit through them either.

To Caption It All Off. And speaking of movies, it’s all but impossible for me to go to movie theatres anymore. It's not just the idea of showing up on the movie theatre's schedule, listening to other people's conversations during the movie, not being able to pause it the way I can with a DVD or a DVR, or paying more for snacks that the actual admission. It's that I have become so accustomed to watching movies with the subtitles on to catch all the dialogue that I really can’t understand what the heck the characters are saying most of the time.

The really sad part is that I checked and found that none of the foregoing body parts are candidates for transplant surgery.

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Foreclosure Comes, Blame The Cats

I do my best work in the morning. That's when my mind is most active and alert. When I commuted to magazine jobs in San Francisco throughout the 90s, I would get proportionally more work done on the train (this was before cell phones were wildly popular) than I ever did once at my desk.

Now that I'm self-employed and work at home, I'm still at my best in the morning. The problem is, so are the cats. I'm positive that if the house gets foreclosed upon, it will be because the money dried up because I couldn't work because the cats wouldn't leave me alone in the morning.

They apparently think my job is not to write, but rather to entertain and minister to them. It's a wonder I get anything done. They have not yet made the connection that the house they sleep in, the yard they play in, and the food they eat is a direct by-product of my work.

It starts with Panther and Midnight, both named for their beautiful black coats. Midnight was a skinny stray that we noticed hanging around the house not long after we moved in five years ago. We started feeding her (yes, after trapping her and taking her to the vet, we confirmed she had been spayed) and she’s filled out considerably.

For a long time, I was amazed at how much food Midnight could put away, until the day when I looked outside and discovered not one but two black cats staring at the house from the front walk, willing someone to come outside with food. Even now, I think they work in concert on bait-and-switch tactics for food: "Oh, no, that wasn’t me you fed an hour ago. That was the other one."

The problem with feeding strays is that it attracts other unwanted animals: in our case, crows. As I'm sitting down to work, there can be an ungodly cawing on the front door step, as one crow will signal the rest of the gang that it's time for the cat-food scavenging to begin. This involves getting up from my desk to retrieve the food dish.

Next on the let's-bother-Daddy agenda is Gus (see photo, in which he has apparently eaten my keyboard). Now, Gus is one of the sweetest cats I've ever adopted. He was one of two ferals whom we were socializing for adoption about six years ago, until my wife decided she couldn't part with them. (Her exact words, as I remember them, were, "If you take those cats to another adoption fair, I'll kill you.") Given toward self-preservation, I kept them.

Though his heritage is unknown, it's clear that Gus has a lot of Ragdoll in him. Ragdolls are traditionally big cats with very soft fur, very affectionate, and prone to bonelessness when you hold them (hence the name). There may also be some Maine coon in him, because he tips the scales at about 18 pounds. A bigger bundle of love you’ll never find.

The problem is that cats love routine. And Gus' routine is to come to Daddy for loving first thing in the morning; he's here purring as I post. This involves jumping on my desk, shoving the coffee mug aside (or over), and butting his head against my hands on the keyboard. I have had to become a lot more assiduous about proofreading since Gus initiated this routine. I know that while we have friends and work, our cats only have us, but I just wish Gus would choose some other time of the day to be so friendly.

Once I convince Gus that only his going into his basket will stave off bankruptcy, Tuxedo will barf up his breakfast. Tuxedo is an orange tabby who will be 18 in a couple of months. I had no idea one cat could expel so much stuff from either end until Tuxedo came into our lives. The veterinarian can't find anything wrong with him – in fact, she considers Tux to be remarkably healthy for his age – so I resign myself to keeping terrycloth and paper towels handy.

Finally, it's Bandit’s turn. Bandit was the other feral. Mostly white (except after he’s been rolling in the garden), he has a black mask that spawned his name (it's also appropriate because he stole our hearts). Far more than Gus, Bandit loves returning to his feral roots and being outdoors as much as possible, especially these days when the weather is nice.

Still within the timeframe of my greatest productivity, about mid-morning, Bandit will return from his adventures in the garden. He doesn't just trot inside, however. For a cat that meowed infrequently as a youngster (like most ferals, who’ve been taught by their mothers not to attract the attention of humans), Bandit has since developed amazing vocal cords. He'll come back in search of brunch and make a noise that sounds like a siren to announce himself. Last week he let out with something so sharp and short, it sounded like a bark. That means it’s time for Daddy to once again interrupt his work and get the kitty treats out of the pantry.

By this point, of course, there's enough kitty hair floating through the air that my eyes begin to itch. This means trotting upstairs for a dose of prescription Systane, something my ophthalmologist gave me that’s far superior to regular eye drops. I don't know what's in it, but I love it.

Eventually, every feline ends up in their favorite basket or sleeping place. Later, I try to nap too, but before that happens, it's my only chance to be productively uninterrupted and avoid foreclosure.

Monday, July 6, 2009

When Memories Collide

I find myself increasingly drawn to the subject of memories, perhaps because by middle-age we have all amassed an amazing collection of them. Memories are the only things we collect that don't need display cases. I suspect that some memories have greater durability than actual physical matter.

This is not a new concept, of course. In the science fantasy pantheon, there is a much-loved book by Jack Finney called Time and Again (1970). In the broader world, Finney is best known for having written The Body Snatchers, the book upon which the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a gazillion remakes were based.

But Time and Again, named as one of the five best mysteries of all time, is a classic about a man named Simon Morley who finds a way to hypnotize himself back in time. Richard Matheson used the same concept in his book Bid Time Return, so when he wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, Somewhere in Time, he named the character of the philosophy professor who coaches Christopher Reeve after Finney.

Less well known is the Time and Again sequel, From Time To Time (1995). In it, scientists start discovering multiple instances of conflicting memories, as if two parallel worlds where similar events had different outcomes suddenly fused together. Some people distinctly remember the Titanic docking at Chelsea Pier in New York City in April 1912, while others remember it sinking. Someone discovers a newspaper from February 22, 1916, the day after the Battle of Verdun began — but there’s nothing about it in the headlines. A campaign button from Jack Kennedy’s 1964 re-election campaign turns up.

A world in which conflicting memories exist side-by-side is not that big a stretch. While the ones in Finney’s book are fiction, so many others are real. Recently in Razed in the U.S.A., I ranted about the disposability of large structures and the havoc it plays on our sense of time and place. Every building that’s been torn down still exists in our memory, side-by-side with what exists now.

In the 70s and 80s, I spent a lot of time in Reno; my best friend at the time attended the University of Nevada for both undergraduate and graduate school. Today, downtown Reno has changed considerably: I look at the Silver Legacy Hotel, the Eldorado, and even the National Bowling Stadium and think, "Wait, what used to be there?"

I've seen this happen with my father. We were heading to the barber recently, a man who’s been in the business in Palo Alto for years. I used to get my hair cut in the shop his father ran. My father had his real estate office in the same building as the barber shop. As we drove to the shop, my father helpfully reminded me that there was parking behind the building.

The only problem: the barber shop hadn’t been in that building for 20 years. The shop was now a block away, in a location that both my father and I had visited. My father was born when Woodrow Wilson was president, but his age is really not the issue. He's been in this area almost twice as long as I have, so he has twice as many opportunities to collect conflicting memories of where things used to be, rather than where they actually are.

As I get older, I feel these conflicting memories grow stronger. Is it possible that the parallel worlds that Finney envisioned actually blossom in our heads? Perhaps that's where we go when we die. Our destination at the end of our physical life is a neighborhood we create in our mind that's comfortable and familiar, with all the amusement parks and ice cream parlors and tree houses we could ever want.