Monday, June 29, 2009

Talkin' About My Generation … Dying

The passing last week of Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, and Ed McMahon brings back the old axiom about celebrities dying in threes. In my faulty memory (which I'll blog more about next week), there was a period in my adolescence when three groups of three celebrities died around the same time. However, checking the Internet Movie Database's helpful Died In Year database, I can only find two pair (below), not three triplets.

No surprise. I frequently remember things that didn’t happen and forget things that did.

What strikes me as strange about the synchronicity of Fawcett, Jackson, and McMahon is that they were all pop culture figures. When celebrities die in proximity, I usually think, I never would have invited them to congregate in St. Peter’s waiting room at the same time. (If this week's triad is Gale Storm, Billy Mays, and Walter Cronkite, I rest my case.)

The best example of this I could find was May 18, 1995, when television actress Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), ballet dancer and actor Alexander Godunov (best known for Die Hard, among just seven movies he made), and character Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon), all passed away. Like Fawcett and Jackson, Montgomery (age 62) and Godunov (age 45) were astonishingly young.

Other strange celebrity synchronicities:

● Late in January, 1973, tough-guy actor Edward G. Robinson and John Banner, best known for playing Sergeant Schulz on Hogan’s Heroes, died within a couple of days of each other.

● TV actor Wally Cox (Mr. Peepers) and film actor Tim Holt both died February 15, 1973. Pretty much forgotten at the time of his death and never a Hollywood powerhouse even when he was alive, Tim Holt nonetheless had the distinction of acting in three classic movies in the 1940s: Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

● On three consecutive days (September 30-October 2, 1985), Oscar-winning actress Simone Signoret, author E.B. White, and actor Rock Hudson all passed away.

● The day after Katharine Hepburn died in 2003 (June 29th), comedian Buddy Hackett died (admittedly, they had both appeared in movies with Spencer Tracy).

● On October 2, 2005, comedian Nipsey Russell and playwright August Wilson both passed away.

For other pairings, some strange (Federico Fellini and River Phoenix) and others not-so-strange (Billy Wilder and Milton Berle), check out Associated Content.

Celebrities, like parents and teachers, provide a common touchstone for all of us to measure both the nostalgia and the progress our lives. It’s not so disconcerting when they’re older (Hepburn was 91 and Hackett was 79), but it sure is when you remember their long-ago heyday (as I do with Fawcett), or they’re younger (like Jackson).

It brought back the words of the father of a friend of mine. When Natalie Wood and William Holden died within two weeks of each other in November, 1981, he lamented, “I can deal with William Holden dying. He was old. But Natalie Wood is my generation.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Taking Aim At An Easy Target

In a blog devoted to crankiness, technology is a remarkably easy target. But as much as I love it most of the time, I keep coming up with examples of it that aggravate me.
    ● Why in the world does my iPod revert to the first song played the last time I used it? Shouldn’t it revert to the last song I played the last time I used it?

    ● In public restrooms, I hate sinks and paper towel dispensers with motion sensors. I feel like a mime waving my hand vertically or horizontally to trigger either water or paper. Of course, if I didn’t wash my hands, I wouldn’t need the paper towel, but I don’t want to get a reputation as that kind of guy.

    ● For reasons I have yet to fathom (and the city has yet to fix), when my bicycle activates the traffic sensor at several of the intersections in my neighborhood, the opposing light turns red — but my light doesn’t turn green. And the opposing light barely stays red long enough for a car to get across, much less a boomer on a bicycle.

    ● I really wanted to add appliance LEDs to this list, but a guy named Mark Alhadeff ranted far more hilariously about these internal counterparts to runway landing lights on the Burbia site last month.

    ● Why don’t regular telephones have backspaces the way cell phones do, so I don’t have to hang up to redial a misdialed number?

    ● The automotive engineer who decided that a car’s horn should beep when the doors are locked remotely should be forced to live above a parking lot.

    ● Why does my cell phone ring to announce voice mail instead of ringing when the call actually comes in? (Actually, I know the answer to this; it relates to network traffic — but it’s still aggravating.)

    ● Why does my digital video recorder skip shows it’s supposed to record when it’s only at 85% recording capacity?

    ● Why don’t grocery store shopping carts have an in-store GPS on them? I want to be able to beam my shopping list wirelessly from my smartphone to the system, and have it sort the list in the order that the items appear on the shelves, based on the direction I’m traveling. And as much as I hate things that beep (see above), I want it to beep when I’ve passed an item on my list without checking it off.

    ● And while we’re at it, I want to be able to move a cursor to an item on TV and get more information about it. For instance, if I move the cursor to a character actor, I want to know his name and other movies he’s been in, and I want to connect to Netflix to order it. And whatever happened to the promise in that Qwest commercial where “all rooms have every movie ever made in any language anytime day or night”? I’m still waiting for that one.

Well, I feel better. Even if it was too easy.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Razed in the U.S.A.

Being middle-aged in the place where you grew up and went to college has its pros and cons. On the one hand, you know all the good short-cuts during rush hour. On the other hand, when you run into people who look familiar, you have to run through a long litany of possibilities before you determine where you met them -- high school, college, work, neighborhoods, volunteer work -- pick one. Also, if you live in a place where fifty years is considered old, and buildings are considered to have the same disposability as a Kleenex, it can be highly disconcerting.

Here in Silicon Valley, I can drive down streets no more than a few miles from the neighborhood I grew up in and not recognize a single structure. Even the house I grew up in, which was new when my parents bought it during the 1950s, has already been razed and replaced by a McMansion (in stark contrast, the house in which my late mother grew up in Albany, New York, still stands).

This is why I have developed a simple rule for navigation. When you're giving me directions, don't tell me what to look for today. Tell me what was there 20 years ago, and I'll find it just fine.

But even this is becoming harder and harder to do. Some thirty years ago, in the city where I now live, the city fathers saw downtowns losing business to suburban malls. To avoid that, they simply razed most of the downtown, except for one historic block, and replaced it with a shopping mall. Problem solved, except that other nearby cities had built bigger and better-designed shopping malls. A few years ago, the mall went bankrupt, and now it’s been mostly torn down.

It's supposed to be replaced by the latest trend, a faux urban village with retail on the ground floor and housing and office space on the upper floors. And this has to be melded not only to the remaining historic block, but also to the anchor stores of the mall, which were not torn down because they represented too much tax revenue. It's unclear what this mélange is going to look like because the downturn has wreaked havoc with the downtown project. The project is way behind schedule and may already be doomed because, yes, San Jose has already done something like this much better with its Santana Row development.

And even while this project stumbles along, civic leaders in Santa Clara and San Francisco are arguing about who's going to build a new stadium for the 49ers. This would be to replace Candlestick Park, which is younger than I am. No word about what will happen to Candlestick, which was built for $15 million and has undergone two cycles of renovations, once for the same amount and then again for twice that amount. Even so, we're ahead of Seattle, which spent $67 million on the Kingdome, which it used for all of 24 years before imploding it.

This is not a paean to personal nostalgia. It's a rant against the disposability of structures. I am not suggesting that the world stay the same for my navigational benefit. I just wish we could more frequently apply the concept of "reduce, reuse, and recycle" to big things as much as we do to little things.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Unmitigated Arrogance of Some People

I go to the public library so infrequently that I usually have to renew my card every time I'm there. I like having my own books. I figure when I'm old and senile, I'll have forgotten all of them and can re-read them as if they were newly published.

Times being what they are, however, I've been sneaking off to the library more frequently. I’ve bought enough wholly disappointing books (if anybody wants a copy of Billy Wilder’s biography, let me know) that borrowing them first — even if I buy my own copy later — is much more practical.

Because I'm far too organized for my own good, I also keep a list of books I'm interested in. I note them when they're initially published, and then wait about two years to either borrow them from the library, or look for them on the remainder tables. The great thing about middle-age is that two years goes by with the same whizzing sensation as a fast-forward button.

That's how I ended up with a library copy of actress Ellen Burstyn’s fascinating 2006 autobiography, Lessons In Becoming Myself. Before her "overnight" success at 38 in The Last Picture Show, she had endured an unbelievable parade of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of parents, boyfriends, and husbands (sometimes her own, sometimes other people's). Her insights into emotional recovery and spirituality resonated with me.

What did not resonate with me — in fact, what drove me absolutely crazy — is that in this particular library book, some self-appointed copy editor had periodically taken pen (not pencil) in hand and made not only grammatical corrections but content suggestions as well. Some of these involved changing "me" to "my," among other stylistic trivialities. Another indelibly suggested that perhaps the actress didn’t mean to refer to Charles Boyer in one instance but rather to Paul Henreid. Both played suave European lovers, so what right does this self-appointed officer of the accuracy police have to suggest Burstyn is wrong?

Even more appalling: this bozo didn’t even catch obvious errors, such as when Burstyn wrote about Edmund G. "Pat" Brown. She noted that he would "later" become governor (a clear confusion of the father and son who bookended Ronald Reagan’s terms as governor of California).

As a professional writer and editor, I kneel at the wisdom of most copy editors. They have been the last bastion of style, accuracy, and consistency at most of the magazines where I've worked. But the editor is the last person to look at the page, and sometimes style must defer to voice, as it should in Burstyn's very personal book.

I took a while to ponder how to deal with this graffiti fascist, and realized that the only way is to take a page from George Orwell (pictured above), who knew a thing or two about fighting such people. In Orwell's book 1984, when the powers that be didn't like something, they erased it and replaced with what they considered the truth. I simply went to Alibris, the Web site for used books, and ordered a replacement copy of Burstyn's book. That's the one I returned to the library, clean and without defacement. The work of that arrogant scribbler? Gone. Thanks, George.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Watch Out!

Somewhere between the shackles of Kunta Kinte and the two-way wristwatch of Dick Tracy, there must be something appropriate for my wrist. I just haven’t found it yet.

I stopped wearing a wristwatch a few months ago. It was one of those impulsive decisions that I’d been considering for weeks. Time seems to find me well enough without my giving it a place to perch on my arm. There is a clock on the computer, one in the car, one on the cell phone, and one on the iPod.

Initially, my time without a watch worked fine initially. I liked not having something on my wrist. I liked having one less thing, after my wallet and keys, to think about putting in its place when I went out.

But other times being without one ticked me off: playing poker, hiking, greeting at church. I also discovered that substituting a cell phone for a watch requires that there actually be cell phone service when you want to know what time it is. Those of us still campaigning for phones that simply make and receive calls, as opposed to taking pictures and running blood tests, know that uninterrupted cell phone service is, like Bigfoot and Wall Street financial propriety, a myth.

So I suffered a relapse and bought another watch. I’ve never needed to have the timepiece equivalent of a BMW on my wrist, but I do like to have the day-and-date display so I know where I am on the calendar. There’s a little watch sales-and-repair shop in the neighborhood, and the proprietor had always been wonderful about showing me how to figure out the intricacies of an old pocket watch my father gave me. I bought another wristwatch — the brand of which shall remain nameless — which turned out to be a huge mistake.

For one thing, instead of a battery, this watch theoretically wound itself by the ordinary movement of your hand throughout the day. This is exactly the wrong kind of watch for someone who hasn’t been wearing a watch for weeks, and who only needs it for specific occasions. If you don’t wear this kind of watch constantly, it runs down … constantly.

The second problem was that it had a plastic backing, so you could see that the mechanism within was running. I wasn’t quite sure of the design philosophy behind this, but it also turned out that when you did perform vigorous activities while wearing the watch, such as riding a bicycle, the plastic back would fall off. This seemed wholly counterproductive. You had to keep the watch moving to keep it running, but when you did, you were in danger of losing the cover that kept the mechanism clean.

I took it back to the watch shop. The proprietor happily glued the plastic cover back on. But by the time I got home, the glue had seeped into the mechanism and it was clear that time was up for that silly watch. Like a tarnished politician, it never ran again.

Problem solved. I threw it away and haven’t had a second thought about wearing one since.