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 piƱata. 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?