Lessons From People You Hate

Aficionados of I Love Lucy know the sad backstory that Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played bickering landlords Ethel and Fred Mertz, truly disliked each other in real life. In fact, there is an apocryphal story that when Vance learned Frawley had died while she was dining out at a restaurant, she stood up and yelled, “Champagne for everyone!”

I relate that story because I have a split of Veuve-Clicquot chilling in the refrigerator for when I get the same news about my father. Yes, I know that sounds terrible, but the fact is that my father should never have had children. Alcoholics should not procreate, simple as that. Kids need stability and consistency, and the outrageous behavior and cutting words that alcohol triggers fashion children who don’t know what to believe, who to trust, or what’s appropriate. (And yes, I do acknowledge the irony of celebrating the passing of an alcoholic with champagne.)

When I think of the emotional distress he visited on my siblings and me when we were growing up, and the way it impacted my first thirty years – my social life, my work life, my whole life – I just want to scream. And this is after years of therapy.

My father even admitted many years ago that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have kids. I think it was because he thought we made his life difficult. Introspection was not his strength.

And yet …

I have to begrudgingly admit that my father was not all bad. He got a Stanford MBA long before they were sexy, and created his own highly successful real estate business. We lacked for little, materially (love and affection were quite another matter). His investments kept him and my mother in a comfortable retirement and are still paying for his wonderful care today.

He may have been a lousy father, but as a man and a husband, he did okay.

Politically, he was a man of principle. He was outspoken against 1964’s Proposition 14, an initiative put together by the California Real Estate Association. It would have legalized discrimination, allowing homeowners to decline to sell to minorities, and his visible antipathy to it could have affected his business. He didn’t care. In 1966, he sponsored a Japanese restaurateur for membership in the Elks’ Club, which did not accept minorities at that time. When the application was denied, my father resigned.

There may have been whispers around divorce and affairs, but no evidence. He and my mother were married a few months past sixty years. I look at myself and realize the solicitousness with which I treat Monica comes from the way my father treated my mother. I look at the fact that I’ve been self-employed for a dozen years and realize that the focus and discipline with which I do my work comes in part from my father.

At the same time I struggle with my feelings about my father, I struggle with my feelings about my college fraternity. I was a dedicated alumni volunteer until the collective inanities of both the undergraduates and the alumni forced me to distance myself from the organization. Subsequent horrifying revelations about other Stanford Kappa Sigma members (see the Evan Spiegel debacle) and other Kappa Sigma members elsewhere (cf. college rape issues) make me wonder where the national organization is focusing its energy. It doesn’t seem to be on the molding of character.

And yet …

Many of the people Monica and I socialize with today are the friends I made in the fraternity, either in college or through my alumni work. We’ve seen each other through career ups and downs, weddings and kids, funerals and football games, too many poker games to count, and, oh my goodness, more laughter than anyone has a right to expect in any one lifetime.

What’s the takeaway? You never know what people are going to teach you. Sometimes the same person or entity teaches you things you want to emulate, and sometimes they teach you things you want to subjugate. The hardest part is figuring out which is which, and jettisoning the bad while cherishing the good.


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Do I Know You?

About ten years ago, I was talking a German class at night at the local junior college, the better to speak to my wife’s relatives back in the old country. One night the teacher, Frau Kural, told a wonderful story illustrating the differences between German culture and American culture.

Here in America – and especially here in our Silicon Valley neighborhood – it is considered acceptable to greet people on the street, even strangers. On a trip back to Germany, Frau Kural was walking down the street of her hometown and – just as she would have here – greeted a man coming in the opposite direction. She had that funny feeling you get when someone is looking at you, so she stopped and turned around. The man was indeed staring at her, with a perplexed expression on his face. “Kenne ich dich?” he asked. Do I know you?

The unstated question was, if I don’t know you, why the hell are you talking to me?

I think of Frau Kural and that story frequently these days, because I find myself increasingly in a similar situation. Once or twice a week, without fail, I’ll get an invitation on LinkedIn, asking to “connect” (the LinkedIn version of Facebook’s “friending”). More often than not, these are from strangers.

Now, LinkedIn offers a way to personalize the invitation to connect, but also more often than not, these people don’t bother to explain:

  • who they are
  • how I know them
  • if I know them
  • why they want to connect
  • what benefit I might derive from being connected to them

Maybe I’m just confused about what LinkedIn is supposed to be. In my mind, it’s a recommendation engine. I see that you’re connected to someone whom I’d like to work with, and I ask you for an introduction. Thus, I’m missing the point of being connected to someone I don’t know. If someone pings me asking for an introduction to one of my connections, I can’t very well say, “I have no idea who that is or why I’m connected to them, other than that I got an invitation out of the blue one day when I’d been drinking heavily and I accepted it.”

And some of these people are really random. I looked over my recently ignored invitations and discovered quite a motley crew:

  • the guy who fixed my television five years ago;
  • a woman I haven’t worked with for 25 years
  • various marketing executives and entrepreneurs I’ve never worked with
  • a whole bunch of people I’ve either never met or never heard of, including a woman who does SharePoint design at a pharmaceutical company; a massage therapist; a psychologist specializing in women’s mental health; and a couple of office managers
  • and some random friends with whom I’d rather stay in touch on Facebook

These random requests take me back to the pre-Internet days when I’d work with a public relations agency on a story, and then they’d ask if they could use me as a reference. And I’d be like, a reference for what? You set up one interview for me. How does that give me insight into what you’re like to work with? I was stingy with my references. I saved them for people with whom, as I liked to put it, I’d “rolled in the dirt” – people who got me the executives and customers I needed to talk promptly, consistently, and without whining about how difficult it was. People I knew could deliver. Frankly, people I knew.

I have no clue about these random people on LinkedIn. At the risk of sounding like Martin Short character Nathan Thurm in the Saturday Night Live parody of 60 Minutes, but … is it me? Am I the only one who’s confused on the point of LinkedIn? It’s not like a networking party where you’re trading business cards; it’s a personal version of Angie’s List where you can actually attest to someone’s veracity because you’ve actually interacted with them.

I’m beginning to wonder whether it is me, or if it’s just that everyone else on LinkedIn is drinking heavily.

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The lifeblood of any budding journalist is their clips – evidence of stories they’ve written and had published. That’s why it’s almost easier to be a writer in the 21st century than in the 20th century, when I started – you can post blogs and create your own clips. In my day (he said curmudgeonly), we had to submit queries, have them accepted, write stories, have them accepted, and only then would we have something to prove that we were bona fide writers.

There are three stages to being a freelance writer: unpublished, unpaid, and unknown. It took me a while, but I’ve finally worked through all of those stages, and am lucky enough that most of my work today comes through referrals and recommendations. I am finally known.

This musing comes about because I spent last weekend going through my clips. Almost no one asks me for clips these days. And if someone does, they want something recent, which means it’s a PDF or a hyperlink, not black ink on increasingly brittle newsprint. Ostensibly, I was culling material to put into scrapbooks. But frankly, what I found was a little depressing.

Item: I found multiple copies of a satirical story I’d written when I was a freshman at the University of California at Irvine, about cruising downtown Irvine. The original joke was that there was no downtown Irvine, and there still isn’t. The subsequent joke was that I had toted these pages in my files for … gulp … 41 years. And it wasn’t even that funny.

Item: There was a whole section in my files devoted to my life at the movies – dozens of reviews from both university and daily papers; a letter from the late Walter Matthau about the one movie he’d directed; a copy of the Remington Steele script I contributed to; and even the rejection letters from other studios for other scripts. The movie reviews brought back particularly pungent reminiscences, such as the time an attendee at a fraternity rush party revealed that he read my reviews avidly, and then did the opposite of whatever I’d recommended.

Item: Going through my clips was a walk down bad-memory lane in other ways. It reminded me of all the times I’d been laid off and then freelanced in the interim. And even when I was departing for greener pastures, there were reminders of bitter feelings. As I left one magazine, one co-worker asked others to submit their favorite memories of my time there. There were heartfelt remembrances, except from my boss, whose sole adieu read, “Please remember to send source lists for your current stories. Good luck in your future endeavors.”

It was not all depressing, of course. There were heartfelt thank-you notes from editors at defunct publications; warm memos about difficult stories finally wrestled into submission; memories of editors, some with whom I’d initially clashed with but eventually become friends (and some where the relationships traveled the opposite path).

As I edge closer to retirement, it was daunting to look at my career in toto. Sure, it’s great that it’s tapering to an end on a high, successful note. But staring 40 years in the face – and fitting it into a dozen scrapbooks that I know my heirs are going to toss unceremoniously – that’s a little depressing. I’m happy to be able to tangibly hold what I did. I’m glad that the crushing moments of firings and closures and layoffs have faded into dust. I’m happy that I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning.

But did it all have to go by so quickly?

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A Week Full Of Dying

Dying was a big topic of conversation last week. That’s not surprising when the week begins with the revelation that one of our most beloved entertainers could make everyone in the world laugh but himself, and continues with the passing of a Hollywood legend who from her teens had made glamour and celebrity look as easy as falling in love with Humphrey Bogart. (The unexpected third member of the celebrity triumvirate of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall was the venerable character actor Ed Nelson who, while nowhere near as famous, was every bit as familiar.)

But it wasn’t just in the news that death was so apparent; it was here at home, too. It wasn’t just the clear signs of summer gasping its last breaths – school starting, the days growing shorter, and NFL referees beginning the long season of throwing penalty flags at the Oakland Raiders.

There were other, completely coincidental signs. Our neighbor’s beloved kitty disappeared late in July, and every passing day made the return of her sweet mew on our doorstep less likely. By coincidence, I was just finishing a book I’d long intended to read, William Manchester’s weighty look at four even sadder days in American history, The Death of the President. The massive outpouring of global grief from that long-ago time, not to mention the loss of optimism that still feels fresh, saddened me anew.

And last Thursday would have been my late mother’s 93rd birthday. Something she said to me in the kitchen of the home I grew in when I was ten years old has always stayed with me. I don’t know what prompted such a morbid comment, but she said, “I am not afraid of dying, because I know you kids are smart enough to take care of yourselves. I’ve done my job.” I think we were making my lunch for school at the time, which made the statement and its setting even more preposterous.

But it begged the question of when it’s okay to leave. For Lauren Bacall, it was okay; she’d gone to be with Bogie, just as Kate had gone to be with Spence and George had gone to be Gracie before her.

Me, I have my mother’s stoicism. If I go tomorrow, cut down by some moron texting in his car, I’m okay with it. I’ve had the best time. The first thing I’m going to do after I die is write somebody the most heartfelt thank-you note for inviting me to absolutely the very best party in the world ever. It has some moments early on that made it seem like it was going to be a dud, but I got to be a writer, marry a doctor, and swim in a Tahitian lagoon on my 50th birthday. That, along with getting to live in Silicon Valley, calls for eternal gratitude.

But not everyone’s as lucky as me. One of my friends is facing the triple trauma of divorce, job loss, and moving out of his house. He’s fought depression his whole life, and the idea of his muddling through while someone like Robin Williams couldn’t amazes him (my friend may have been trumped by the revelation of Williams’ Parkinson’s disease, but just barely). Even as he railed at Williams during lunch last week, he admitting knowing the feeling all too well – that depression is like smokestack emissions: eventually it darkens everything so deeply that you can’t even remember what things are supposed to look like, or how they looked when the world was new. Everything just looks black.

So how do you respond to a week full of dying? The answer is the same for those of us who are happy and those of us who are sad, because none of us escape its inevitability. The only thing you can do is to avoid regrets.

It’s not a question of creating a bucket list and checking each item off one by one. Not everyone can afford to splurge on Tahiti, or Venice, and almost no one can afford the drinks at Harry’s Bar near St. Mark’s Square. No, experience the little things. Try a new Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (or better yet, work your way through Talenti’s gelato options). Venture back to the place you had your first kiss, with the same person if you can. Rent a convertible. Call in sick and go to a baseball game. Stick your feet in a stream. Hold hands with someone you love, even if it makes you feel silly.

The time to say “I wish …” and make it happen is now, because on that sad day in the future when you or someone you love is gone, the opportunity will have long been lost to eternity.

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Leave The Gun, Take The Cannoli

Rick and YvonneMy longtime friend Brian has a friend in China who’s started working as a translator for the Beijing edition of a major newspaper. He and Brian talked recently, and he bemoaned his biggest problem: translating movie references, mostly because he’s rarely seen many English-speaking movies.

Ever since the web gave journalists a global audience, the practice of using idioms has been beaten out of us. They’re not easily translated, and even native speakers of English – having grown up in Australia or India or England – would be confused by phrases such as “ballpark estimate” and “reading between the lines.”

But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped using cultural catchphrases. Hence the translator’s conundrum running into sentences relating to making my day, bigger boats, yippee ki-yay, and punks feeling lucky. Translating such catchphrase into Chinese invariably required some sort of context. He asked Brian what he should do, and Brian suggested watching more American movies. To which he naturally asked, “Which ones?”

And with that question, he managed to pass the conundrum onto Brian: if you were going to recommend five movies to watch in order to understand common catchphrases, which five movies would you choose?

Some are fairly easy. Casablanca is the wonderful source of everything from “I’m shocked, shocked to gambling going on here” and “Play it, Sam. Play As Time Goes By.” (My personal favorite is still, “There are certain parts of New York I’d advise you not to invade,” but the opportunity for that one doesn’t come up too often.)

Ditto The Godfather, because – especially in business – the topic of making an offer one can’t refuse comes frequently, as does advice like the title of this post, and the chilling disclosure that Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.

But after that, it gets kind of hard, if only because you want to compile a short list and suggest movies that have the biggest bang for the buck. When I posed this question to friends, they frequently came up with movies that were both famous and financially remunerative but without as many catchphrases as you might think.

For instance, Star Wars has “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” and “May the force be with you” and … yes? What else?

The Graduate has “I have one word for you – plastics!” and “You’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you, Mrs. Robinson?” and …

And after “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” I couldn’t come up with anything substantive from Jaws.

Another journalist who specializes in writing about Hollywood had two great suggestions – checking the top 100 quotes list as compiled by the American Film Institute. She also suggested The Wizard of Oz, from which we get such favorites as “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too” and “my, people come and go so quickly here” and “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” (Hands down, the best use of the latter was a Detroit Free Press headline in October 2011 when the Tigers were in the playoffs and the undefeated Lions were playing their division rival Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. I’m frankly not sure how that would have translated in Chinese, which only substantiates his frustration.)

A friend who clearly has a predilection for Saturday Night Live suggested Caddyshack, Animal House, Meatballs, and Stripes. I hesitated to pass those on though, simply because I couldn’t think of a situation where a writer for his paper would refer to togas, gophers, or even admit that it just doesn’t matter.

Similarly, The Princess Bride came up a lot in discussions, but I’m having trouble envisioning someone in his paper writing, “Have fun storming the castle!” or “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Strangely enough, what did seem like a logical addition to the list was not an American movie at all, but a British one: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I actually ran an article years ago about the supposed death of mainframes with the headline “I’m Not Dead Yet” (the author’s idea, but it was too perfect to change). There’s also “blue – no, red!” and “It’s only a flesh wound,” not to mention discussions of African versus European swallows. These are topics that flow more naturally within the pages of a major newspaper.

Ultimately, I found impossible to come up with a really good list. I had to admit that what we had here was a failure to communicate.

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Death of a Default, Birth of a Boycott

Walgreens logoI’ve never worked in the retail industry (and I’m not sure why it’s so top of mind recently). But I like to think from the years I’ve covered business that the ultimate goal of a retailer would be to have customers that visit them automatically, almost without thinking. That is, their default.

Isn’t the goal of business customer loyalty? Isn’t it cheaper to retain a customer than to spend money on marketing to entice new ones? You’d think.

I first ran into this situation many years ago with Macy’s. Macy’s was my default department store. Household goods, wedding gifts, clothing. It served my needs. But then I noticed something odd – this loyalty wasn’t being reciprocated. Its customer service deteriorated. Its product quality deteriorated. In frustration, I finally wrote a letter of protest to a company executive and received in reply a grammatically challenged letter from somebody’s executive assistant.

Today, the only time I step inside a Macy’s is to look for Frango’s candies (and even then, I can’t look at a display without thinking how much better the selection is at the store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago).

And there was my well-documented split and reconciliation with the Bank of America.

Now, it’s happening again. Walgreens has been my default drug store. It’s the largest drug store chain in America, but it’s also always been the most convenient to a lot of places I’ve lived. The one around the corner from our house is not only convenient, but the staff is extraordinarily friendly. And you can find the most amazing selection of merchandise there. But now … [grimace].

It all started with the announcement from competitor CVS that it would stop selling cigarettes later this year. That seemed like a pretty good idea for a company like Walgreens that touts itself as being “at the corner of happy and healthy,” but when I asked them online if they would follow suit, the long-winded answer eventually translated to … no. Apparently, cigarettes are simply too profitable a habit to kick.

Then last week, word went out that thanks to its acquisition of Swiss drug store chain Boots, it was planning – at its shareholders’ urging – to become a Swiss company in order to avoid U.S. tax rates. The process is known as inversion, and according to the linked San Francisco Chronicle article, a lot of technology companies do it – but Walgreens is one of the few consumer-facing organizations to consider it. Really? Not a company I want to support.

And just to season the cranky pot a little more, word came out just a couple of days later that three years ago Walgreens had actually fired an employee who – suffering from low blood sugar – had grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf in order to keep from going into diabetic shock. Her crime? She didn’t pay for the bag of chips until later that day. The story hit the news because the EEOC ordered Walgreens to pay the employee $180,000 in compensation for her illegal firing.

I’m not sure how easy this split is going to be. I have to figure out how to move my prescriptions – and where I’m going to move them to. I have to fight the temptation to go to the most convenient drug store, rather than one more deserving of my patronage. And hope they don’t start selling Frango’s.

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If This Is A Capitalist Society, Then Why Can’t I Get What I Want?

Back in the days of the Cold War, one form of propaganda (hey, there’s a word you probably haven’t heard in a long time) was to show people behind the Iron Curtain waiting in line for staples like bread and meat. The lesson: people in communist countries did not have the constitutional right to go down to 7-11 and get a massive cup of soda pop that would eventually give them diabetes and other maladies.

Now, even in so-called Communist countries, like China, capitalism is chic. People have – to use one of my favorite portmanteaus – affluenza. Yet here in the United States, the country that took capitalism to its zenith, we seem to have lost the concept.

Capitalism, after all, is the precept that if enough people want something, some smart cookie will build it. So why can’t I get what I want? To wit:

Groceries. I walked into the brand-new Safeway store in our neighborhood, at least 50% bigger than the store it replaced, and it has seemingly an entire aisle devoted to yogurt. Greek yogurt. Low-fat yogurt. Non-fat yogurt. Fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. Store-brand yogurt. But you know what? No soy yogurt. At least, not the brand of soy yogurt that my wife – in her effort to consume less dairy – wants. How could they miss the one thing I wanted?

Technology. A couple of weeks ago, my Hewlett-Packard laser printer finally died. It was so old I couldn’t even remember how old it was. It wasn’t even the printing mechanism. A little prong on the plastic cover had broken, but it prevented the cover from closing, which in turn apparently made the printer think it was still open.

But when I called the technician that serviced it previously, I got voice mail and left a message. No response. I called again and got a human; asked him if he could replace the plastic cover. He said he’d check and I never heard from him. I left another message and … still haven’t heard from him. I’m still not sure how he makes money, and I didn’t have the heart to explain capitalism to his voice mail.

Figuring I’d gotten enough use about of the first printer, I bought another HP LaserJet. I took it out, plugged it in, downloaded the drivers … and nothing. Just an arcane error message and blinking red lights. I called the support number that came with the printer, and the technician’s response floored me. “I’m going to send you a reconditioned printer,” she said. “No, you’re not,” I told her quickly. “I just bought a new printer. Why do you think I would accept a reconditioned printer?”

I took it back to Office Depot, where there was a little bit of a kerfuffle because they’d given me the option of e-mailing me my receipt. I couldn’t show it to them, of course, BECAUSE THAT WOULD HAVE REQUIRED A WORKING PRINTER. Hesitantly, I exchanged the printer for an exact same model, the only difference between the first one and the second one being that the second one actually worked when I plugged it in.

Phones. Last week I finally got fed up with being razzed for having a flip phone, so I went to the local outlet of Sprint – from whom I get wireless broadband, cellular service, and a 4G-enabled iPad – to upgrade to a smartphone. I was told the wait would be about 20 minutes. I spent most of the time thinking about some case studies I’ve been writing about wireless carrier T-Mobile, which is making extensive efforts to provide exceptional customer service to win customers away from competitors like Sprint.

After twenty-five minutes, there were still two people ahead of me, so it seemed less important to move from the 20th to the 21st century, cell phone-wise. Realizing that Sprint is now attempting to acquire T-Mobile, I left, much sadder than when I walked in.

Tumblers. We had a couple of coffee travel mugs that, after many years of use, were getting harder to clean. So we set out to find new tumblers with two parameters, neither of which we thought of as daunting. We wanted them to be dishwasher safe, and we wanted them to be made in the United States. [Insert raucous laughter here.]

In our search, we mostly found tumblers from China. Sometimes only the lids were dishwasher safe (who the hell cares if the lid is dishwasher safe?). Thermos makes plastic tumblers in the United States, but they don’t hold coffee. Their coffee tumblers were built “in the Orient.” I wanted to inform Thermos that referring to Asia as “the Orient” was considered racist, but I didn’t want to prolong the interaction. They were, however, dishwasher-safe, so I ordered two.

These are just the recent examples. I could tell you stories about shopping forays in the pre-Internet past that were just tortuous, especially after the realization that the moronic salespeople not helping me were probably allowed to both drive and vote.

I can only console myself with the realization that, as we’ve gotten older, we just don’t need that much stuff anymore. That’s good, because if this keeps up, I’m never buying anything ever again anyway. Take that, capitalism.

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