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.