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.