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, 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

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.