Monday, April 26, 2010

Celebrating A Cranky Anniversary

On its one-year anniversary, Middle-Age Cranky is moving to Wordpress, where it will be easier for readers to leave comments. Join me here.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Yesterday I rode my bicycle to the library.

In the abstract, it sounds silly for a man in his 50s to be riding a bicycle. But in the moment, I am astounded by how much I love it.

Part of it is just plain old common sense. It isn't far to the library, but that's a smidgen less gasoline used, and I hadn't done any other exercising over the weekend. But there's something more than that.

Mine is not a fancy bicycle. It's got 15 speeds, five more than the last bicycle I had, but I really only use the middle five. It takes me back. I was very independent for a seven-year-old. My working parents would let me cycle to the swim club, a couple of miles away. (I wonder if parents let their kids ride their bicycle that far anymore.) I used to ride my bicycle to the nearest Baskin-Robbins, when a single scoop cone cost 12 cents. That Baskin-Robbins is still there, but of course, the cones are more expensive now.

I remember my friend Jim Scott and I used to take a circuitous route up into the same hills, just to find ourselves at the top of a long and winding road. Sometimes we'd have to walk our bikes for part of the trip, but oh, that wonderful feeling of navigating those rolling curves on the way down. The downhill made the uphill all worth it.

These days, I sometimes cycle up to a nearby county park to go hiking, and it's a bit of a climb to get there. But oh, baby, that ride back down. The breeze, the ability to stop pedaling and be motionless, almost to be flying through the air, like a dream but wide awake.

There aren’t too many ways to feel like a kid again, but being on a bicycle sure is one of them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I Love Facebook

According to the latest statistics, one-fifth of Facebook users are Baby Boomers. Although our ranks on Facebook aren't growing as fast as they were a couple of years ago, especially compared to younger people, we're still a major presence there. We need to be. It's the only place we can keep track of everyone. It provides pictures along with names, which e-mail doesn't. Let's face it, it’s the best memory aid known to Boomers.

I love it for that and for other reasons. As the following exchange of messages shows, even the most innocent posting spreads out into cyberspace like a rock in a pond and blossoms into advice, insight, and — best of all — serendipity.

4:54 pm

Howard Baldwin
I am sitting here trying to get the string to my sweatshirt hood back through its holes. Shouldn't there be a machine for this?

4:55 pm
Shelley Ewer
There is. It's called: fingers!

4:56 pm
Howard Baldwin
Oh, the warranty expired on those YEARS ago. Part of the problem that Gus is here helping me. He is torn between wanting to be in my lap and playing with the string itself.

5:00 pm
Shelley Ewer
Hire someone to do the tedious work. Why should you be bothered?

5:04 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Attach a safety pin to one end of the string, which will give you something to grab onto as you thread it through.

5:37 pm
Robin Snyder
What Eva said - use as big a safety pin as you can find. Or give up, and entertain the cat. :)

6:06 pm
Clark Buehler
I actually had to do this several times over the last several years and the answer is the safety pin but not necessarily the largest one. It depends on the design of the clothing you are trying to restore. Trust me on this one, some patience required.

6:16 pm
Halsey Royden
Try your knitting needles!

6:24 pm
Megan Diehm Gebhardt
You could pay me to do it! You know, there are experts for everything....

6:27 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Ixnay on the knitting needles . . .

6:33 pm
Mary Schaefer Mercogliano
This must be an ancient sweatshirt - can't buy them any more because of strangulation concerns - you should see the recalls the CPSC puts out on an almost daily basis recalling hooded sweatshirts with drawstrings. Savor your antique :)

6:35 pm
Martie Muldoon
Wait ... I know Howard, and I know Eva. How do Howard and Eva know each other????

7:23 pm
Eva Langfeldt
Wait, Martie . . . how do you know Howard? He and I have worked together frequently (albeit usually remotely) over the years, both of us being editorial freelancers in the high-tech field.

7:28 pm
Edwin Watkins
Tie one end of the string to a cat, put the hoody on the cat, gently place one paw of the kitty in the opening of the string portal, then light the cat on fire.

8:09 pm
Paula Pierce Crockett
Let Gus have the string and buy yourself a new sweatshirt!

8:21 pm
Martie Muldoon
Eva, Howard and I went to school together. Howard, Eva and I have played together in symphony and theater.

9:27 pm
Howard Baldwin
You're all hilarious, especially those of you who suggested Gus help out. Because serendipity rules the world, I found a foot-long twist tie on the kitchen table (I still don't know where it came from) and pushed that through ... with patience. Problem solved. I will try not to strangle myself.

1:45 pm

Amy Helen Johnson
Hey, I like the sound of that for a New Year's Resolution, Howard -- try not to strangle myself. I'm certain I shall be more successful at that than eating less sugar and exercising more.

8:50 pm
Virginia Shea
Eva, I didn't know you knew Howard! Small world!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sensors Gone Wild

I drove a rental vehicle in Seattle recently that gave me a horrifying vision of the future. It was a six-passenger van manufactured by Chevrolet, chosen so that we could drive around with both my friend Andrew and his kids without having to take two cars.

It was sufficiently huge that once the kids were strapped in, they couldn't close the sliding doors with enough force to close them securely. This would prompt a message on the dashboard: RIGHT REAR PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. This would in turn force Andrew to get out and slide the door shut again. But his doing so would trigger even more frantic error messages: PASSENGER SEAT BELT UNFASTENED and PASSENGER DOOR AJAR. (Yes, they were in capital letters; I'm surprised there weren't exclamation points involved.)

Andrew and I immediately began imagining an over-networked world where sensors cause havoc instead of promoting safety. "Can you imagine some poor guy trying to get his pregnant wife to the hospital?" Andrew asked. "The car wouldn't start if she couldn’t get the seat belt around her midsection, and then you'd start getting all sorts of error messages: SEAT BELT NOT FASTENED. PASSENGER SCREAMS DETECTED. PASSENGER SEAT DAMPNESS DETECTED."

As a technology writer, I started realizing that all sorts of other nightmare scenarios were possible. At times, do-gooders have suggested that cars should have kill switches, so that the engines can't be started in any of a number of situations: an alcohol sensor indicates the driver is too intoxicated, or the seatbelt sensor indicates one or more of them is not fastened.

So what if car sensors networked with online banking systems? You'd try to start the car and start getting messages indicating you weren't going anywhere: PROPERTY TAX BILL NOT YET PAID; TRAVEL ON LOCAL ROADS NOT ALLOWED. GAS TANK ONE-QUARTER FULL, NO FILL-UPS ALLOWED UNTIL GAS CREDIT CARD BILL PAID.

These belittling warnings, of course, would not just be flashed on the dashboard; undoubtedly someone will figure out how to have that same annoying woman who sighs "calculating route" and "when possible, make a legal U-turn" on your GPS when you've gone in the wrong direction deliver them as well. An added "benefit": the volume would increase depending on how late your payments were.

With Webcams are already standard equipment on many computers, they'll probably migrate into cars before too long. I can only imagine algorithms that analyze how people are dressed, taking into account colors, patterns, and skin tones. Parents could have the car announce to their teen-agers: YOU'RE NOT GOING OUT DRESSED LIKE THAT. The algorithms, of course, could be reconfigured using a Web site based on the appropriate season. Heck, I'm thinking women would order this to make sure their husbands couldn't go out wearing striped shirts and plaid pants.

Hmmm. I may have stumbled on to something that will get people using mass transit.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Living With the Gray

One of my readers has suggested that I write more about controversial issues. This reader is not in my target demographic, and so may be less than captivated by my nostalgic Baby Boomer musings.

However, being controversial at my age is not as easy as it sounds. When you get older, things turn gray. I'm not talking about hair. I simply mean that once you've lived through multiple decades, crises, and presidents, life's political issues don't seem so black and white anymore. For example:

War. History vilifies English prime minister Neville Chamberlain for appeasing the Nazis in 1938; the Germans then overran Europe. Sometimes I think we suffered through the Vietnam War because politicians didn't want to see that same sequence of events — then referred to as the domino theory — replayed in Southeast Asia. It didn't happen, but we spent 50,000 lives and untold billions figuring it out.

We're purportedly in the Middle East today to keep it from being taken over by Islamic fascists, and yet, some of our allies there are as bad as the people we're fighting. World War I sowed the seeds for World War II; are we sowing the seeds for World War III in the Middle East today?

Pre-marital Sex. Once upon a time, pre-marital sex was bad. It brought unplanned pregnancies (the term "unwed mother" predated "single parent"). It spread sexually transmitted diseases. But society's disdain for it, like so many things, was hypocritical. Before marriage, boys were supposed to sow their wild oats and girls were supposed to be virgins. This is mathematically impossible.

Today, of course, there is no such thing as pre-marital sex. It's just sex. To my moderate mind, it helps couples see if they can reach the deepest levels of intimacy before they commit to a lifetime together. The alternative is to wait, discover you've chosen badly, and then divorce. But the same people who are against pre-marital sex seem to also be against divorce. This is emotionally impossible.

At the same time, it strikes me as unfair and even sexist that when young men and young women engaging in premarital sex create an unintentional offspring, it's the women who end up being the single parent. I believe the vagaries of the human spirit require some societal flexibility, but I worry about a world populated by only children who don't have the advantage of two parents who can trade off when one gets tired, not to mention the social graces they learn by having to share with siblings.

Politics. This is my grayest area of all. Rebelling against New Deal-Democrat parents, I registered as a Republican after my 18th birthday. But I went contrary to the tenet "if you're not a liberal by the time you’re twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative by the time you’re forty, you have no brain." I have become more, but not completely, liberal. Like a lot of people I know, I've left the Republican party but still can’t bear to join the Democrats.

I've come to realize that not everyone has had the advantages I had growing up, and the government in its vastness should offer some assistance to people who are trying to better themselves. But I also believe that you can't fund everything forever. We seem to have devolved into government by attention-deficit disorder, wholly reactive and short-sighted as opposed to focusing on how to make the country better and stronger for the next generation. Congress uses the future like a credit card that never comes due, so it can take credit today.

But the bigger problem is that while I'm mired in gray, much of the rest of the country is mired in black-and-white thinking. The result: an increasing polarization of the country, an increasing demonization of opponents (casting a racial slur at John Lewis makes as much sense as calling George Washington a traitor to King George III). One side seems to spend precious little time even acknowledging that there may be another side. It twists the perspective on almost any situation to fit its own. I sit here discouraged because I feel like we've lost a sense of accommodation, of compromise, of working together for a common goal.

Maybe this is my generation, the me generation, writ large: we want what we want and to hell with your opinion. I find myself yearning for less extremism and more centrism, in essence a wider understanding that in a complex world, there is no black and white. There is only gray and we have to get used to living in it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

With A Little Help from Friends

The funny thing about pop culture is the way we amalgamate pieces of it into our lives. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would ask each other "Do you feel lucky?" years after Dirty Harry was released. To this day, I don't have to be standing knee-deep in galactic garbage to intone, "I have a bad feeling about this, Han Solo."

Furthermore, it's something we never outgrow. Even before the series ended, my wife and I had started incorporating bits and pieces of Friends into our lives. That's not surprising — not only was it was a funny, popular show for ten years, but it was one of the first TV shows to have all ten seasons available on DVD. (Some of us are still waiting for the complete Perry Mason and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) And of course, its reruns are as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy once was.

That's why I frequently ask cattily, "Did I say that out loud?" like Chandler, and my wife echoes Jack Geller by insisting, "I’m just saying." Occasionally, we'll quote Phoebe by shrieking, "This is madness … MADNESS!"

But the best thing we've extracted from Friends — and the one most germane to the theme of this blog — actually comes from a minor character: Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor. Mr. Heckles was the neighborhood curmudgeon; even his name connoted someone bothersome. Played with hangdog perfection by character actor Larry Hankin (pictured), he had, among other traits, a bizarre attraction to animals. He claimed that the cat that belonged to Rachel's paramour Paolo was actually his, and he dressed Ross' capuchin monkey Marcel in outlandish outfits.

But mostly Mr. Heckles complained about the noise that came not only from Monica and Rachel's apartment, but from all the friends in general. When he died of a heart attack, leaving all his belongings to "the noisy girls upstairs," they discovered that Mr. Heckles kept a meticulous journal, nicely embossed with the words My Big Book of Grievances.

In this journal, he recorded all of his aggravations. "Italian guy [Joey] comes home late; excessive noise." "Italian guy’s gay roommate [Chandler] brings dry cleaning home; excessive noise."

This is the pop-culture concept we have taken into our hearts.

Mr. Heckles' book is the perfect antidote to the aggravations of life. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my wife says gently, "Put it in the Big Book." When a checkout line isn't moving fast enough, or when dinner doesn't look anything like the picture that accompanies the recipe, we simply look at each other and chime, "Big Book!"

It is the perfect release, a realization that most aggravations in life are not only transitory, but insignificant. And the mental image of recording something in an imaginary book has the exact opposite effect of actually writing it down on a piece of paper — instead of remembering it forever, it vanishes almost immediately. Instead of remembering the slight, we simply remember the Big Book.

That’s what Friends is for.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Slinking Through Time

Why is it that when you're a kid, everything close seems far away, but when you become an adult, everything far away seems close?

When I was a kid, World War II seemed very far away, even though my father and most of my friends' fathers had fought in it. Cars with fins seemed positively ancient, mostly because there had been a profound shift in design principles in 1961, when seemingly every single car manufactured in Detroit got lower and shorter.

I remember watching Some Like It Hot (1959) on television as a child, a movie that took place in 1929. I was horrified by the wanton destruction in the opening scene of what I considered to be antique automobiles. I realize now that they were only 30 years old at the time. When I see cars from 1980 today, they don’t strike me as valuable antiques; they look like candidates for wanton destruction.

But now I can watch movies from the 80s and not consider them dated at all. Movies from the 30s and 40s, not so much. I think it's because I lived through that era; having experienced it, it does not seem distant (that doesn’t explain the thing about the fins, though, because my father owned a 1960 Chrysler Imperial that had two of the most massive fins Detroit ever devised).

This is why I feel perfectly comfortable hearing Beatles tunes coming out of in-store music systems. It only strikes me as odd when I look at the people behind the counter and realize that the music is frequently older than they are. Did in-store music systems play Big Band music from World War II thirty years ago? Will they be playing Eminem and Larry Platt in thirty years?

In trying to understand this phenomenon, I ran across an entry in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy called The Experience and Perception of Time. To be honest, it gave me a headache trying to understand it. I really just wanted an answer to the question I stated at the top of this entry, but I found myself knee-deep in concepts such as A-theory and B-theory and even the Special Theory of Relativity. Heavens to murgatroid.

Since I couldn't grasp those philosophical theories, I've developed my own theory: the AM and PM theory. Anything that came After Me (AM) is familiar and comfortable, and remains so even as I age. My temporal perspective just keeps expanding like an infinite Slinky, and I keep gathering memories that seem like they happened yesterday. Everything what was Previous to Me (PM) just might as well be sitting at the wrong end of a telescope, perhaps close but still appearing distant. I think this is a much simpler theory to grasp.

And they call Baby Boomers self-centered.

Monday, March 8, 2010

When The Brass Ring Slips From Your Fingers

Leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony last night, Turner Classic Movies has been screening its traditional 31 Days of Oscar festival. During this time, it broadcasts a flurry of wonderful films that either won or were nominated for Oscars.

Which always makes me wonder ... whatever happened to some of those actors?

This is not idle curiosity. Earlier this year, I wrote of my lingering yearning for fame and fortune (When Should Boomers Euthanize Their Dreams?), and I have long been fascinated by what happens to people who strive so mightily for the spotlight, only to have it turned off long before they would have flipped the switch themselves. I remember reading once in People that Donna Douglas (Elly Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies) went into real estate. She seemed happy with the decision.

There almost seems to be a palpable pattern. Take an actor like Michael Paré, who made big splashes with Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), Streets of Fire (1984), and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Shoot, he doesn't even come up under "popular searches" when you look for him in the Internet Movie Database; Michael Park and Michael Pate do (who?). After those three movies came a short-lived TV series (Houston Knights), supporting roles, and either TV movies or movies with straight-to-video titles (Ninja Cheerleaders, BloodRayne II: Deliverance).

It’s not just actors. Whatever happened to Robert James Waller, whose novel Bridges of Madison County created such a splash? And the legions of one-hit wonders in the music industry? Do they constantly yearn for those early days of promise? Do they wallow in the inflection points of the lives and careers and wonder what would have happened if they'd done just one thing differently?

What happens when they run into people who remember their glory days? What’s that conversation like? I always remember the classic exchange in Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden says to Gloria Swanson, "I know you. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big." Gloria Swanson replies imperiously, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Of course, Norma Desmond was completely crazy.

I'm sure some of these people live shockingly middle-class lives. But what if instead of a suburban home, they live in a two-bedroom apartment in a seedy neighborhood, the money gone and the spotlight's filament long ago fizzled? How do they feel then? Grateful for the moment they had? Jealous of those whose careers seem to thrive even with the occasional bomb (come on, Harrison Ford — Hollywood Homicide?). Scheming for a chance at a comeback?

For people like this, I believe there is great comfort in the words of actress and singer Bette Midler, whose career has certainly had its ups and downs. She started out her movie career with a big hit (The Rose) and she followed it up with a stinker (Jinxed). Back in 1987, she explained her feelings about fame to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter: "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and if you're not prepared to lose, then you shouldn't be playing the game. It's absolutely inevitable that it's going to go away once you get it, so you shouldn't invest so much emotion in it that it's going to crush you when [that time] finally comes. You have to be more devil-may-care, more cavalier. You have to have fun."

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Rich Are Different Than You And Me — Sometimes They’re Stupider

Silicon Valley is currently reeling from the loss of five people in two small-plane crashes just a few days apart. Three engineers from electric car manufacturer Tesla died when their plane apparently lost power in the fog and clipped an electrical transmission tower. A biotech lawyer and his fiancée died when their plane went down just one-eighth of a mile from their destination.

I have never — never — understood the rich's fascination for certain toys. Take golf courses — all that grass, all the water to keep it green, and all those fences to keep other people out. Take sailboats — they cost a fortune to buy and berth, and you spend more time maintaining them than actually being out on the water.

Let me make clear that I'm no populist, communist, or socialist. I'd like to be wealthy myself. I like flying first class. I like staying in hotels that overlook the Grand Canal in Venice. I like six-way adjustable leather seats.

But this fascination with small planes baffles me the most. I was in New York City the night of July 16, 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. (pictured), his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren took off in a small plane piloted by Kennedy headed for Martha's Vineyard for a wedding. They never made it. Some trivial matter delayed them, and they ended up flying at night, for which Kennedy, a licensed pilot for less than two years, was apparently both untrained and incapable.

Before I left the following morning, I thought about asking the taxi driver to take me down to Kennedy's apartment building in Tribeca to see the flowers piling up outside, but that seemed a waste of time. We went, instead, straight to Kennedy airport (irony strikes again).

When it got dark, Kennedy could have just gotten on a commercial flight to Martha’s Vineyard, or taken one the following morning. Would that have been so terrible? The Tesla engineers were flying from Palo Alto to Hawthorne, in southern California. Had they flown commercially, they would have had the choice of not one, but two airports: LAX and Long Beach. You can't tell me that, even with security lines, it takes longer to fly to southern California on a Southwest Airlines 737 than it does in a Cessna.

As for the biotech lawyer, okay, he was headed to Groveland, which is out near Yosemite National Park, far from any commercial airports. Still, I don't see the attraction of taking your life and that of your loved ones into your own hands. Wouldn’t the litany of celebrities who’ve died in small plane crashes — Jim Croce, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Cory Lidle, Paul Wellstone, Aaliyah, Payne Stewart, Otis Redding, and Will Rogers, among others — be a deterrent? Life seems to be dangerous enough as it is without coming up with new ways to tempt fate.

Or is tempting fate what made them rich in the first place?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Lullaby and Good Night

When I wrote a few months ago about my affection for Gene Barry and Burke’s Law, my friend Ed wrote that he had the same fond affection for What's My Line. He said he used to fall asleep listening to it as his parents watched it downstairs.

I can well understand his affection because I do that now — fall asleep listening to old television shows. I used to take Excedrin PM to help me sleep, but it eventually stopped having much effect. Sometimes when I can't sleep, I just pop in an old TV show DVD. I have no memories of being sung to sleep, or being read to, but when I hear the familiar shows, the familiar cadences, sometimes even the familiar lines, they're just like a lullaby.

I suppose that if most people wanted something hauntingly familiar to lull them to sleep, they'd turn on classic music. I prefer a different kind of classic. The characters' soothing voices, whether Perry Mason's gruff bluffs or Lt. Columbo's humble grumbles, imbue a sense of comfort and safety as I get swept off into the darkness. It's as soothing as a mother singing a lullaby — except, in this case, my mother is played by either Mary Richards or Ethel Mertz.

I wish I'd known I was always going to be able to hear these voices. I am embarrassed at the times when I cut short outdoor adventures and even dates to get home in time to see a Twilight Zone rerun on Saturday afternoon. Today the entire collection sits on my shelf, including episodes that were never released into syndication, along with the entire collection of I Love Lucy, Columbo, M*A*S*H, Friends, among others.

Of course, it doesn't have to be a television DVD. It’s equally easy to pop a classic like An American in Paris or The Wizard of Oz in and have Gene Kelly or Ray Bolger serenade me. Slipping off to sleep is like slipping surreptitiously back to post-war Paris or the Emerald City.

There's nothing like having a little time machine in the bedroom, one that lets me wander back to adolescence, childhood, and beyond.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Expectations, Interrupted

One facet of middle age that I've grown to appreciate is the smooth flow of the days, and even the prosaic milestones that punctuate them. The Sunday paper, a favorite weekly television show, putting out the garbage cans, winding the chime clock. The word routine is too negative; it's more of a rhythm that, if you're lucky, comes into your life and evolves into a comfortable sweater or pair of shoes.

The scramble of ambition that permeates our younger lives has slowed; we've settled into a fulfilling career or we've found that mythical "last job." It may not be perfect, but we've splashed in enough frog ponds for us to know that it'll suffice for a while. Life has the languidness of tropical sunshine.

In this rhythmic life, the only interruptions are usually those we plan ourselves — vacations, parties, new cars, sometimes even buying a new house if we're really motivated for change.

But there are the interruptions that are thrust upon us, the ones that remind us that languidness never lasts for long.

When I got home last Thursday night from a local high-tech conference, my wife greeted me not with hello but with an anguished sob informing me that her father had found her stepmother dead in their hot tub.

That's not a break in routine; it's a fracture.

The news was all the more astounding because, not five days before, Annelies had sat across the table from me at my father's 90th birthday party, engaging, bubbly, spirited, inquisitive as always. She could have a conversation with anyone about anything; she listened carefully as one niece talked about her excitement at working at the National Institutes of Health, her first job out of school; she engaged another niece's boyfriend in a discussion of European capital cities.

If you step back and looked at the rhythm of Annelies' 77 years, there was comfort to be found there. For someone who saw the Nazis march into her native Czechoslovakia as a little girl, it’s not so bad to pass away in a hot tub high on a hill overlooking Monterey Bay. Sitting in that warm water was a rhythm she'd cultivated over the last 20 years, as long as she and my father-in-law lived there. On that one day, though, according to the coroner's report, she stood up too quickly, passed out, and drowned. The initial shock is palpable, even as insight flows in around it.

But Annelies’ passing — as sudden and sad as she was happy — has reminded me that even as you luxuriate in the soft flowing rhythms you've created, you still never know how the day will end.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Summer, 1972

Two weeks ago I wrote about my inability to stop writing fiction, even after many failed attempts to sell anything.

Because my id keeps the creative impulse alive, and my superego tells me I'll never sell anything, I decided that I would write something that I wanted, not something I thought would sell. I'm finally tackling a story that I've wanted to tell for years.

In the summer of 1972, I took a student tour around the United States via Greyhound bus (it cost $900; today’s student cost more and last a week). There were 35 of us, mostly from Palo Alto; we were astonishingly homogenous — white, middle-class, mostly strait-laced, even though it was a time when the rules of what constituted "good morals" were being re-written.

Perhaps everyone thinks the summer they were 16 is grist for the Great American Novel, but I (or my id) would argue strongly for 1972. It was the fuzzy transition between the Sexy 60s and the Subdued 70s. It looked like the war in Vietnam was ending, but a cloud was hovering in the form of corruption, inflation, and the oncoming era of limitations. The people we called Jesus Freaks were the beginning of the fundamentalist movement (I dated one). The way women saw themselves was shifting like a loose tectonic plate. Engineers here in Silicon Valley were inventing the microprocessors that would power the computers that would change the way we lived.

It was a wonderful summer that affected me deeply. It brought me a best friend, who introduced me to my wife. It gave me an interest in travel, which blossomed into my first career as a travel writer. It showed me how different the rest of the United States was from California, an education in itself.

Surprisingly, creating the atmosphere of 1972 has been simple. While I have been religiously dragging around ephemera and memorabilia from 1972, the irony is that researching the elements of the past is remarkably easy, thanks to the web. One baseball almanac site lists the score of every single baseball game that summer. eBay posts auctions of postcards from our destinations the way they were. The brochures from the Civil War battlefields we visited are online, refreshing my memory on why the heck we were visiting them.

And, like any novelist, I get to (or my id gets to) tell the story differently, with a little more sex, a little less stupidity, and a little more insight into the angst many of us must have been harboring.

Best of all, I get to plunge headlong into a time of promise and pleasure. We told ourselves we were living lives of "divine decadence" (a phrase we stole from Cabaret), even though it was all pretty tame in retrospect. But after that summer, there were colleges to apply to, jobs to compete for, gas lines to sit in, rising prices to worry about. Life was never the same after that summer, and I was too young to know that life was never the same after every summer.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Economies of Scale: Sweet Music or Sour Notes?

A couple of news stories in the last two weeks vividly contrasted the chasm between the questions the government is trying to answer and the questions the government should be asking.

The first story relates to President Obama proposing legislation to Congress that would keep banks from becoming "too big to fail." I can partially see the logic in this. The FDIC guarantees consumers' deposits; the failure of a large bank would bankrupt this program. Before regional banks were approved in the 1980s and interstate banking approved in 1995, this wasn't an issue.

But on the other side, what if this trend doesn't stop with banks? What if Congress decides that an airline shouldn't be too big to fail, because it has too many employees that would be out of work, or its loss would limit competition at certain airports?

The second story relates to an article in Parade about cities and counties considering consolidation in order to make municipal services — police, fire, garbage, utilities, animal control — more efficient. It identified Buffalo, Natchez, and Pittsburgh as cities pondering the possibility.

The trend is nothing new. The city and county of San Francisco have been coterminous since 1850; the city and county of Philadelphia since 1854. New York City's boroughs used to be separate cities until a vote in 1898 consolidated them. The logic was the same in 1898 as it is today: achieving economies of scale and thus lowering administrative costs.

This is why entities, whether they’re in the public or private sector, merge. It's not a question of cheap money or bad management; it's a question of economies of scale. I admit to seeing this through the prism of technology: the costs of developing or deploying efficient software and hardware are lower when you spread them over a greater number of employees, branches, or offices. If you write software to manage your automatic-teller network, is it more efficient to write it for 100 branches, or for 1,000 branches? Ask Bill Gates, who made his fortune off of writing something once and selling it a gazillion times. (In this regard, economies of scale relate more to white-collar than blue-collar work.)

As much as I respect President Obama, I think that worrying about entities becoming too big to fail is exactly the wrong tack. If government is to become more efficient, we should start thinking not about too big or too small, but the right size to begin with.

This was hammered home to me by an opinion column commentator Tom Brokaw wrote for the New York Times last year, in which he asked why the Dakotas needed 17 educational institutions:
In my native Great Plains, North and South Dakota have a combined population of just under 1.5 million people, and in each state the rural areas are being depopulated at a rapid rate. Yet between them the two Dakotas support 17 colleges and universities. They are a carry-over from the early 20th century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season.

I know this is heresy, but couldn't the two states get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions into, say, the Dakota Territory College System, with satellite campuses but a common administration and shared standards?

In California, we have the University of California (10 campuses); the California State University (23 campuses); and California Community Colleges (110 campuses within 72 districts). That may not seem like a lot for a state the size of California, but within a 15-minute drive north or south, I can choose from three community colleges. Is that financially prudent?

This is the 21st century. We have a global economy. We have created technology that makes economies of scale scale even larger that ever before. We should stop living with 20th century (or worse, 19th century) perspectives and start thinking creatively about how we can be more efficient, how we can adapt quickly to the way the world is changing.

Cities that are considering consolidation shouldn't be anomalies — they should be the norm. Yet because of political will (or more likely, lack of it), no one wants to consolidate the fiefdoms that they've built. Worse, the government is telling us that big is bad.

That's not true. Big badly run — whether in the public sector or the private sector — is bad. The Titanic didn’t sink because of its size; it sank because of its design and how it was run. Big run well could be the best use of our increasingly limited financial resources.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When Should Boomers Euthanize Their Dreams?

What did you want to be when you grew up? Such an American question, imbued with the ideals of choice and determination and freedom.

And how'd that work out for you? Did your dreams come true? If not, when did you euthanize them? More important, what made you decide to kill them?

I was talking to a high-school classmate of mine a few months ago about this. Dan and I had acted together in high school plays; he was frequently the lead and I was always a supporting character. He had gone to UCLA and pursued an acting career, one that never really went anywhere. Now that there’s DVD technology, he says wryly, you can pause Steven Spielberg's 1941 and find him as an extra in the crowds.

But eventually, he told me, he realized he wasn't getting where he wanted to be. "I had to say, you know what, I gave it that shot, and now it’s time to grow up. Time to move on."

I'm trying to make that same decision about writing fiction, but I'm not having much luck. I find myself staring into a chasm of fruitlessness, and yet I can't stop myself from edging across this rickety, dilapidated rope bridge. I used to say that I'd give up my fiction writing when I turned 50. It didn't happen. I don't understand why I still cling to a shred of raggedy hemp.

I had my chances. I wrote a screenplay after college that I managed to get into Universal Studios, thanks to a national film essay award I won. I got a partial story credit on a Remington Steele episode, but only because I was dating Stephanie Zimbalist's best friend at the time. This is why I can say in all truthfulness that I slept my way into Hollywood. If you want to see the episode, called "Steele in the Chips," it’s on Disc 7 of Season 3, available through Netflix. (Be sure to listen to the commentary, especially when executive producer Michael Gleason asks Stephanie who I am, and she replies, "Some guy — I forget." I'm thinking of using that for my epitaph.) I had an agent once that half-heartedly sent a novel around New York, but it was just after 9/11 and I don’t think anyone was paying attention.

What I'm facing, I fear, is a classic clash between my id and superego. My pleasure-prone id still lusts after fame and fortune, the fantasy of celebrity and philanthropy.

My rational superego insists the dream is not necessary to my life. My wife would live with me in a mobile home if it came to that. The friends I had before Remington Steele are the same friends I have now; our camaraderie was not based on my being successful in Hollywood. The cats are completely indifferent, as long as there's Fresh Catch in the pantry.

My id hones in, scud-like, on the stories of elderly authors like Helen Hooven Santmyer, who published And The Ladies of the Club at 88. My superego responds to stories like these by noting that family or other connections usually escorted them through the publisher's door.

My id believes I am still young, still a potential prodigy, with stories to tell. My superego deems the whole idea ridiculous, and doubly so in light of the fact that I have friends and colleagues who have gotten agents, and have sold novels, and who have even seen them made into movies, without any significant impact on their lives.

But still I am drawn back to the keyboard and characters I want to know better. I hear my superego asking, why spend the time? But this particular dream refuses to slip away.

The compromise sits clearly within semantics. On one side of the chasm is writing; on the other side, getting published. Unlike my friend Dan, I don’t need a stage and an audience. My fiction writing may never amount to anything, and that's okay. We play the piano, knowing that we'll never be concert pianists. We swim, knowing that we’ll never compete in the Olympics. We exercise, knowing that we will never get our 32-inch waists back. I make up stories, knowing they may never live anywhere else except my heart.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Addressing An Aggravating Issue

If I were boss of the world, my first order would be for all high-tech CEOs to have to drive themselves to a randomly chosen office on one of their own campuses. Then they'd see just how difficult it is for outsiders to find where the heck they’re going.

If you've ever been to Silicon Valley, you know that it's the land of expansive campuses of tilt-up buildings, so-called because they're low buildings, usually two to three stories, the walls of which were lifted up into place, not unlike an Amish barn raising (though with mechanical assistance).

Because the valley was originally farmland, valley real estate tends to be spread out, separated only by parking lots. As the industry has consolidated, you have more and more employees clustered into clusters of buildings — most of which have addresses that are either marginally visible, non-existent, or just plain obtuse.

I visited one high-tech company (which, like the others, shall remain nameless, since I am a contractor to many of them) last month using the address on its Web site. What its Web site failed to include was the directional designation of the street.

Now, there are two problems here. First — I'm embarrassed to admit — I had traveled this particular street thousands of times and had never noticed a) that it had a directional designation and b) that at what thoroughfare it switched from one to the other. When a street is a mile from your house, you don't look at those things. Also, I was fairly confident that I knew the general area where this company's offices were — except I was wrong. They had been there at one time, of course, but had moved; as I'm fond of saying, don’t tell me what’s there now — tell me what was there 20 years ago, and I'll find it.

Second, directional designations present a special challenge in Silicon Valley because of the way the peninsula curves between San Jose and San Francisco. The direction you frequently think is north is actually west. Even though I grew up here, I'm still surprised to see the sun set where it does.

Okay, so last month's lost-in-the-valley was on me. But this month, I headed out to another company, looking for the number I was given by my contact there. When the buildings on the street shifted to residences, and the number of digits dropped by one, I knew I had crossed over into the next town. I pulled over, punched the address into my GPS (which, believe me, is no guarantee of finding anything), and headed back. The GPS cheerily told me that I was approaching my destination on the right, and then said, "You have arrived."

The only problem: the location at which I had arrived was not leased by the company I was looking for. Suspecting that I was at least close, I turned into the next driveway — which had a completely different street address from the one I was looking for — and discovered that while the buildings were numbered, none of them had their actual street address on them. I called my contact (thank goodness for cell phones), and he said he'd come get me.

This is not a random occurrence. I've been to Silicon Valley buildings that do have clearly labeled address numbers, but they were set back far enough from the road that the numbers weren't visible until you'd already arrived. I’ve been to buildings where the address numbers are like bas-relief ornamentation that's impossible to see unless you’re standing underneath it or know to look up at the corner of the sixth floor.

And to be fair, I shouldn't vilify Silicon Valley alone. I once visited a company north of New York City that purposefully, as a security measure, had absolutely no signage identifying itself. A defense contractor? No, it was online service Prodigy, which gives you some idea of the high regard in which its executives held themselves. Incidentally, this was the company that was vilified for pioneering online advertising, and while it died a sad, lonely death, the Web looks today what Prodigy looked like 20 years ago. Irony sucks.

There is another challenge here in the valley. The original cities grew from their original downtowns into farmland until their boundaries met and melded: there are streets that run from one side of the valley to the other, but may have two or three names along the way, a vestige of the old days. Of course, municipal leaders could improve this, but they choose not to. It means actually collaborating with counterparts in other cities and possibly looking weak because if the street is changed from what it was in city A to what it is in city B. This means the businesses on the street in city A have to change their advertising, their stationery, and so on, and that gets the business owners angry at the municipal leaders — who, if they can be voted out of office, avoid that sort of outcome like the plague.

So if we can't control the names of the streets, that means it's doubly important for companies to make it easier to find their damn offices.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Boomers’ Bad Habits Spreading To Their Parents?

Boomers are stereotypically self-indulgent, but now there's the possibility that they've spread the attitude to their parents. If so, it proves the adage: insanity is hereditary — you get it from your kids.

The New York Times published a story on Friday entitled Seeing Old Age as a Never-Ending Adventure. Talk about maddening. It was about seniors — people in their 80s and 90s — continuing to engage in adventurous pursuits. One of the sources was a man who engaged in wing-walking at 89.

The story's anecdotal lead told the story of an Ocala, Fla., woman who, at age 90, went hiking in South Africa. At some point during the three-week trip last August, she sprained her ankle, and because no one had thought to bring crutches along, she had to cut her trip short.

What the story doesn't mention is what "cutting the trip short" entailed, and what effect it had on the itinerary, the guides, and the other participants. I have some limited experience with this, one that was not pleasant. We took a cruise through Tahiti for my 50th birthday, and one of the optional shore excursions was a jungle walk on Raiatea. It was blatantly advertised as a strenuous hike, involving the use of ropes to climb up dirt slopes.

There was a very sweet man on the cruise named Henry (see photo), who, though well into his 80s, thought this would be a fun excursion. He lasted no more than about a third of the way through the journey, when he became short of breath and realized his folly at coming with us.

So what then? My spouse, an internist, was reluctant to leave him alone on what could barely be described as a trail. But there was only one guide; for him escort Henry back to town would mean essentially cancelling the trip. Henry insisted he would be okay, but my spouse wasn't confident of that. So what happened? She stayed with Henry, and missed a spectacular hike through the jungle that ended at a swimming hole at the base of a picturesque waterfall.

Back on the ship, our inquiries as to why a man of Henry's advanced age had been allowed to sign up for this excursion were met with shrugs and apathy. Nor was there any offer of a refund for my wife.

I don't want to sound ageist, for a variety of reasons. First, I realize that everyone is different. Back in the days when I was a travel writer, I spent a week in Morocco on a familiarization tour with a group of travel agents. One of them was 77, and after a day’s activities, she would jump into a cab with a couple of other agents and visit other hotels in the city to jot down notes.

Second, I know that there's only a narrow sliver of years from the time you have the discretionary income to travel adventurously to the time you stop collecting frequent flyer miles entirely.

Third, and most important, I know that I'm going to be making this decision myself someday. I only hope that I have the common sense to recognize my limitations. My own father, who will be 90 next month, went to Venice and Dubrovnik a couple of years ago with one of his granddaughters. I tried to explain to him, having just been there myself, that Venice is the quintessential walking city. But you can't just hail a cab to take you back to your hotel if you get tired. You can hail a gondola, of course, provided your hotel is actually on a canal and that you have converted most of your retirement fund into euros. To my father’s credit, he swore off European travel after that trip.

I'm all for staying active, but have some consideration for your fellow travelers. That certainly is not the case with the woman from Florida who sprained her ankle. She's going back to South Africa this year to complete the journey. Sheesh.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Crankcase for 2009

Crankcases are short notes relating to aggravations and other humorous observations.

Crankcase: Security Check

I was flying out of San Jose airport a few weeks ago and noticed that the TSA had actually done something sensible with the security lines. One was marked "frequent travelers" and the other "infrequent travelers and families." This was apparently an effort to simplify the process for everyone. Now all they need is a third line for people who are too cheap to check luggage and try to pass off two suitcases as carry-on bags.

Crankcase: Oh, Sweet Mystery of Technology

If global business relies on technology, I often wonder how the whole system doesn't come crashing down around someone's ears. This week my laptop's Internet connection -- which uses Sprint's wireless broadband, the easiest and most reliable technology I've ever owned -- started getting sluggish.

Yesterday, it started timing out on everything -- Web pages, e-mail, even my online banking. I visited my local Sprint store, where a helpful technician swapped wireless cards with me. My card worked fine in his machine; his groaned in mine.

Geek Squad, which was two doors down in the same mall, wanted $200 and two days to diagnose the problem. If I was going to do that, I needed to get files off the computer and retrieve the power adapter first.

Before I went home, I stopped at Starbucks to use the Wi-Fi connection to at least download my e-mail, which, strangely enough, worked fine, as did my Web connections. As an occasional optimist, I then tried to open the broadband connection again. It worked like a charm.

So disabling one network connection and enabling a different network connection cleared out whatever cache was bogging down my work. But if problems pop up unbidden, and get solved by seemingly random solutions, how does anything get fixed except by accident?

Crankcase: Here’s a Free Idea For You

I saw a guy about my vintage at the gym the other day. I noticed him because he was wearing a terrific T-shirt – it read "Old Age – It’s Better Than Death." I asked him if it was part of a series, and he said he didn’t know because his "smart-ass kids" had gotten it for him.

If it’s not part of a series, I think the manufacturer is missing a big, big opportunity. I was thinking of new versions even before I left the gym.

“Amputation – It’s Better Than Gangrene.”

“Foreclosure – It’s Better Than Negative Equity.”

“Herpes – It’s Better Than No Sex At All.”

Crankcase: Giving A Finger to the Feds

I firmly believe our health care system is broken and in need of fixing. At the same time, though, I'm not convinced the federal government should be in the business of health care. Logically, it should, but I’m not convinced it has the collective intelligence to ensure that the situation will improve under its purview.

I make this decision after hearing about a request my wife — a primary care physician working for the Department of Veterans affairs — received regarding a patient. The request came from the Department of Defense, wanting to know why this patient could not be deployed back to Iraq. The man is 50 years old, has back problems, and displays symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As if that weren’t enough though, there’s this one other little condition the man has to deal with. Bear in mind that a perquisite for being deployed — no matter where in the U.S. Army — you must be able to shoot a gun. This particular patient had his right index finger amputated after an accident during his first tour of duty in Iraq. But the Department of Defense still wants my wife to explain why he shouldn’t be deployed.

These are not the people I want in charge of my health care.

Crankcase: They Can’t All Be Funny

I was interviewing a vice-president of IBM last week and started off by asking her to talk about what her responsibilities encompassed. She rattled off a litany of wide-ranging activities. As I frequently do when hearing such a mind-boggling list, I jokingly said, "So what do you do in the afternoons?"

When her response was complete silence, I said, "I guess I should stop saying that because people don't get the joke." She replied, "Oh, I got it. I just didn't think it was funny."

Crankcase: Stoned Wallabies

In the July 4th Earthweek column, columnist Steve Newman quotes a Tasmanian official complaining of wallabies (marsupials similar to kangaroos) who have been invading Tasmanian poppy fields and getting high on the flowers being grown for medicinal purposes. Clearly, this is the derivation of the term "hophead."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Time For A Different Kind of Holiday

We have just come off the traditional season of gratitude and sharing, starting with Thanksgiving and wrapping up with Christmas.

I say, enough of this frivolity and joy. It's time to commemorate crankiness. If we can have a month of Advent, why can't we have a day of just Vent?

Scheduling it sometime in January would be appropriate, as the credit card bills from the holidays come in and the weather is still dark and stormy. January 29th would be perfect. It's within the appropriate wintry season, but more important, it's the day H.L. Mencken died in 1956. Mencken was the crusading newspaper editor who said it was the media's job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But he was also a well-known crank who defined cynic as someone who, when they smelled flowers, looked around for a coffin.

A potential back-up date would be February 12th, birthday of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. She was the Washington hostess known for saying, "If you can’t say anything nice, come sit next to me."

Commemorating a Day of Vent might be problematic, however. On most holidays, people take the day off. On this one, though, customer-service call centers would have to double their staff. When people take the day off, they like to go out and eat, but restaurants would probably be closed. None of their staff would want to work on a Day of Vent, because dealing with customers the other 364 days of the year is bad enough.

On the other hand, unlike other traditional holidays, it would be a perfect day for families not to get together. Venting about the accumulated slings and arrows of the preceding quarter-century would make for a truly depressing day.

It would also be an appropriate day for Disney to release a sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The story of Crabby, Grouchy, Surly, Sulky, Mopey, and Whiny (Grumpy, or course, would be retained from the original) could turn into an annual holiday classic, the flip side of It’s A Wonderful Life. Of course, I’m not sure of an appropriate title: Slush Gray and the Seven Dwarfs sounds like a porno movie; Seven Angry Men and Return of the Maleficent Seven sound like sequels to different movies entirely.

If anybody's going to work overtime on a Day of Vent, it should be the psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs). They would have to schedule special extended hours. The good thing about a Day of Vent is that it could have therapeutic value all around. After all, what some people need is a good listening to.