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.