A Memo To The Idiots Among Us

My new favorite saying is never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. The problem is, so much in this world can be explained by stupidity, because we seem to breed idiots faster than we can either educate them or get them out of the gene pool. As a public service, I’ve endeavored to first categorize them, and then advise them. Feel free to distribute this as necessary.

To the idiots who drive among us:

Signaling when you’re already halfway into my lane really doesn’t count.

The fast lane is called the fast lane for a reason. If you don’t want to drive fast, don’t drive in it.

Your car is not as wide as you think it is. You really can go around that car waiting at the red light to make a right turn. I would show you how to do it if you weren’t blocking my way.

If you miss your turn because you’re in the wrong lane, proceed forward and make a U-turn later. Don’t try to bull your way across multiple lanes in front of the people who actually know where they’re going.

To the idiots who smoke among us:

I have multiple troubles with the concept of smoking. First, it’s expensive. Second, it’s medically ill-advised. Third, it makes your clothes smell. Fourth, it pollutes the air. Where does the part that it makes you look cool come in?

Just as your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose, so too does your right to smoke. Find a factory spewing chemical waste into the air and smoke there, where you won’t be noticed.

To the idiots who enact laws among us:

Stop enacting laws that you have no way of enforcing.

Start thinking about how your laws’ unintended consequences. Ever since our city council banned plastic bags and started charging for paper bags, the local charity is chronically short of bags they fill with food for the needy.

Those of you in Congress: Your job is to make the United States work more efficiently, not less efficiently. The United States is a commonwealth, and a commonwealth is a political community founded for the common good. Stop doing more for the third syllable in the word than you do for the first two.

To the idiots who vote among us:

If you vote Republican, you are voting for people who favor corporations over people. If you like favoring corporations because they supposedly create jobs, take a look at how much cash they’re sitting on rather than creating jobs, and then read the first sentence of this paragraph again.

If you vote Republican in a presidential election, you are increasing the chance that the winner will appoint more right-leaning justices on the Supreme Court. These are people who also favor corporations over people, only the effect of their votes will long outlive yours.

If you vote Democratic, on the other hand, you are voting for people who favor government over people. This works fine, except when the government does things like ignoring our First Amendment protections; replacing seismically unsafe bridges with newer, but still seismically unsafe, bridges; and generally doesn’t even come close to the effectiveness that government advocates insist it’s capable of. Sigh.

Sometimes I think we elect them out of stupidity and they in turn govern us with malice – except that would be giving them too much credit.

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The Flaw In My Thinking

rainbowpeepsThis was my plan: in releasing myself from the demands of posting a blog weekly, I would be able to focus on quality rather than quantity.

But as weeks went by without inspiration, the pressure increased. I haven’t posted recently, so this better be really funny. But no matter what I tried, nothing ever seemed really funny.

I tried to write about the onslaught of winter, but it’s kind of hard to do that when, here in California, it’s more of an offslaught of winter. While the Midwest and East are drowning in snow, we’re all driving around with the top down in sincere emulation of Australia.

It’s also hard to spin an entire diatribe against that sin against nature: blue, green, and orange Peeps. Peeps are yellow, period. And while we’re on the subject of inappropriate color, why would you want your Porsche to be the same color as a school bus, anyway?

I thought about other topics. Twice in one week, I had public relations people pitch me on interviewing chief information officers about products they used. Generally I welcome these stories, but both times it became quickly apparent that the vendors and the CIO’s companies were actually partners, facts that neither PR person felt it pertinent to reveal. I wanted to send them gifts of dictionaries with the words disclosure, transparency, and conflict of interest highlighted. But I realized that educating people about ethics is like that old joke variously attributed to Mark Twain or Robert Heinlein about teaching a pig to sing: “It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

I didn’t write about that because it struck me as being too “inside baseball” – that is, the whining of a journalist at a time when most people would be consider journalists to be scum if it weren’t an insult to the scum. Not sure where public relations people fall on that spectrum.

For the same reason, I chose not to whine about people who use the phrase on-premise technology when they mean on-premises technology. I suspect that a wide swath of my readers do not care about alternatives to cloud computing, nor do they know or even care what cloud computing is.

There continues to be the rich topic of my father’s declining mental facilities. His latest slip into the netherworld involves thinking he’s on a cruise ship (which is actually not a bad fantasy to be caught up in), but he had no answer for me when I asked if he’d noticed that the scenery outside his window never changed. He continues to ask why he only has $27 in his wallet, but since all of his needs are provided for, that’s really all that’s necessary.

But while I’m still trying to get my head around the idea that – after successfully remaining without children my whole life – I now have a 94-year-old toddler to deal with, I also don’t want like making fun of the poor guy. Not while I’m walking into rooms myself and wondering what the hell I intended to do there.

So there you have the flaw in my thinking. Even halfway between April Fools Day – when we make fun of others – and April 15th – when the government makes fools of us – I am surrounded by folly but not merriment.

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Somebody Is Crazier About Disneyland Than I Am

Disneyland EncyclopediaWhen I was a teen-ager, and still feeling my way in creating fiction, I wrote a story about a group of teen-agers (surprise!) who invade Disneyland one night. It was called, in an over-obvious nod to the contemporaneous film The Night They Raided Minsky’s, The Night They Raided Disneyland. That was so long ago that I don’t even remember what they were seeking in the invasion. Unlike the group of hippies who took over Tom Sawyer’s Island in protest one afternoon in 1970, my guys’ goal wasn’t to stir up trouble. These were kids like me: affluent, clean-cut. It could have been money, although why there would have been money in the park afterhours is one of those plot points lost to time.

In researching this charming caper, I pored over my one map of Disneyland from 1970 (which now hangs framed in my office), trying to discern the best place to sneak in over its famous berm without detection. I of course had no clue at that time of the tunnels that employees used to traverse the park.

I long ago stopped fantasizing about invading Disneyland but not walking in through the front gates. As it happens, I’ll heading back to Disneyland next month with a Southern California native. When she asked which rides I wanted to go on (in order to plan our FastPass strategy for not having to wait in line), I realized that the ones I most preferred were the ones from those early days – and they are diminishing in number. Because I’m not a roller-coaster fanatic, Star Tours, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Indiana Jones Adventure just don’t do it for me. “Ah,” my friend said, “so we’re taking the nostalgia tour.”

As I once wrote, “if the Disney Co. wants to make money, they should stop putting parks in Paris and Tokyo and wherever else, and simply reproduce the original Disneyland somewhere. Boomers would go stark raving mad and storm the gates. Hall of Presidents, no!; Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, si! Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, no!; Nautilus, Triton, Sea Wolf, Skate, Skipjack, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Ethan Allen, si!” (For those who feel as I do, there is a Web site called Yesterland.)

But beyond even my passion for Disneyland (which I wrote about several years ago in Stumbling Down Memory Lane) and that of Yesterland, there is someone whom I discovered only this month who is even more obsessed with Disneyland than I am. Chris Strodder, the author of The Disneyland Encyclopedia (Santa Monica Press, 2008; second edition 2012), puts the rest of us to shame.

There’s an old joke about a little girl who has to do a school report on butterflies, and goes to the library. The librarian directs her to an entire bookcase of volumes about butterflies, to which she says, “That’s more than I wanted to know about butterflies.”

The Disneyland Encyclopedia is a little more than even I want to know about Disneyland. Strodder has forgotten more about Disneyland than I ever knew. A southern Californian who clearly spent way too much time and money there, he knows about rides that lasted for only a few months, plans for areas of the park that never came to fruition (Chinatown?), the names of shops over the years, and oh, by the way, everything else, such as how far a walk it is between certain attractions. This is the guy who should have written about raiding Disneyland – and in fact, he does talk about attempts to both go over and under the berm that surrounds the park.

But he also educated me on the fact that at night, the place comes alive with people who clean, sweep, polish, and replenish, so many that it would practically be impossible to frolic along empty sidewalks in search of whatever it was my characters were searching for.

I’m still not sure what I’ll be looking for when I go back next month, but I do know that if I can’t find it there, all I have to do is come back and look in Strodder’s amazingly comprehensive book.

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When Do Malaprops Stop And When Does Confusion Commence?

My father – who turned 94 last week – has been diagnosed with MCI, which in his case stands for mild cognitive impairment. That precipitated his recent move to assisted living. He also took a bad fall in the garage of his retirement facility on Christmas Eve, which necessitated a call for an ambulance. Looking at the chart the residential nurses provided, one of the paramedics looked at that diagnosis and said, “He’s had a heart attack?”

The attendant was confusing mild cognitive impairment with myocardial infarction. In a medical context, by the way, MCI also could have referred to mandibular cortical index, muscle contraction interference, or myocardial contrast intensity. Clearly, the attendant had a right to be confused.

My father’s confusion, of course, is a little more advanced. In periodic spurts, he transposes the surnames of his grandchildren. He remembers their spouses’ names, but not theirs. He thinks he’s in Las Vegas. He thinks he has to have new medication picked up in San Francisco. Talking to him is occasionally a down-the-rabbit-hole adventure.

Then, a minute later, he’ll be back to his old self, sounding completely lucid but also completely aggravating as he frets about why his kids don’t get along with each other.

A lot of people advise me to be patient with these communication lapses, but the fact is, he’s never been a great communicator. When I was in college, he gave me directions to a restaurant by saying, “You get off the freeway and then you wiggle around and you’re there.” (A more enlightening description would have been “get off the freeway and make three right turns.”) It’s a wonder I chose a profession that relies on the highly precise use of words.

This is just the graduate-level class in Trying To Understanding Dad. All this might be even slightly humorous if it weren’t so clear that we all have these issues – me, the ambulance attendant, and probably you too.

For a party last year, my father-in-law – a florist by trade – made a beautiful arrangement for the buffet table. I admired it and said, “Isn’t that a lovely centerfold?” Now, whenever anybody in the family can’t remember a word, they just say “centerfold.”

Not only that, it’s taking me longer for my random access memory to randomly access words. This is a problem for someone who’s a writer by vocation and a crossword puzzle fan by avocation. Last month I couldn’t remember the word “simian.” Last week, it took me five minutes to come up with “gratuitous.” I’m trying to deal with it.

I figure that there’s still a big difference between my father and me. I may confuse centerfold and centerpiece, but when the time comes that I can’t remember that the latter goes in the middle of the table, then I’m in trouble.


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Loyalties Don’t Get More Divided Than This

Manning and ElwayLet’s be real clear on this – come Sunday afternoon, Peyton’s my man. I don’t know what it is about the guy, but ever since he took over quarterbacking for the Indianapolis Colts, I’ve loved him. His first season, he went 3-13, but he always remained humble and optimistic. My heart broke for him in his second Super Bowl, a loss to the Saints, when his receivers kept standing on the wrong site of the first-down markers.

This may seem strange because those who know me know my heart frequently yearns for Seattle. My first job after graduation was there. My best friend lives there. I dream of a lodge on the western side of Puget Sound, shrouded in fog, with a dock and a kayak tied to it. I would fulfill that dream if not for falling in love with someone who can’t stand rain.

But the Seahawks? Feh! This may also seem strange to those who know me (and the one who can’t stand rain) because the Seahawks are chockablock with recent Stanford grads (cornerback Richard Sherman, whose degree should be revoked, and wide receiver Doug Baldwin) and Cal grads (running back Marshawn Lynch), among others. But the Seahawks are coached by a man the mere sight of whom makes my nose wrinkle in distaste: Pete Carroll, former coach of USC.

I have seen USC crush our college teams far too many times to like anything that comes out of it. (With apologies to two of my nieces, who inexplicably graduated from the place.) Even the reversal of its fortunes, with Stanford whomping them regularly over the past few years, hasn’t dissipated the bad taste in my mouth for Carroll.

And of course, the Seahawks now being a powerhouse that has the 49ers number, at least in the Clink (as the locals call CenturyLink Stadium), just frosts me too. That’s why I have always traditionally rooted for the AFC team in the Super Bowl – because the NFC team usually only got there by beating my beloved 49ers.

But I also love the Broncos, in large part because John Elway, erstwhile quarterback and now co-owner, went to Stanford, but also because I associate him with the day I began to love pro football. It was January 11, 1987, a game between the Broncos and the Cleveland Browns for the AFC Championship. I don’t think I’d watched a single game that season. I was with my sister at a sports bar to watch the game, simply because it was the playoffs and it was Elway.

With five minutes left in the game, the Browns leading 20-13, the Broncos pinned on their own two-yard-line, Elway began what is today immortalized as “The Drive.” Elway took the Broncos 98 yards down the field to tie the game with 37 seconds left; the Broncos won on a field goal in overtime. My sister and I were hoarse from cheering. I loved that afternoon.

So when it comes down to it, with a whole lotta Stanford vs. Stanford, why am I going with Denver? Because as Middle Age Cranky, I ultimately gotta root not for the young guys, but for the old ones.


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Five Things You Must Do To Deal With Aging Parents Now

My father – soon to celebrate his 94th birthday – recently made the move within his retirement community from independent living to assisted living. Although he initially balked at the idea, he now apparently likes the idea of being surrounded on a daily basis by young, pretty attendants who cater to his every wish. He probably thinks this is what his kids should have been doing all along.

Meanwhile, his kids – by which I mean me, since I live the closest of the three of us – are left to clean out his apartment. The retirement community gives you 90 days to do this. I initially thought this was an excessively long time, but now I am not so sure. Every time I think I am making progress cleaning out closets and drawers, I find more closets and drawers. I am not sure where I got my domestic organizational skills, but it wasn’t from my father.

Herewith, then are five tips for dealing with aging parents – or, more accurately, their stuff.

Cancel their Costco membership. Our parents are likely to be children of the Depression and thus hard-wired into worries about scarcity. Even so, this does not they need 100 rolls of toilet paper and 12 24-packs of double-A batteries. If they must go to Costco, offer to take them on your membership so you can monitor their purchases.

Duplicate and tag their keys. Keys are the most important things in the world and, not coincidentally, the easiest things to lose. My father gave me duplicates of all his keys – including those to the storeroom in his retirement community’s garage, which has even more stuff.

Label and organize photographs. One of the best projects my sister and late mother embarked on was putting all the family photographs into scrapbooks and identifying who everyone was. Once your parents pass away, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to identify anyone again, and the photograph will become meaningless. This also gives you the opportunity to shred your dorkiest childhood photos.

Don’t let the problem grow. Offer now to help organize stuff. You’d be surprised how much junk you can find in a two-bedroom apartment. The move to assisted living for my father was prompted by his diminishing cognitive capability (a topic I’ll discuss in more depth in a future column). This manifested itself, stuff-wise, in oddities such as greeting cards. He would frequently ask my sister to get him cards to send to people, forgetting that he had four boxes of such cards stacked in his closet. Those cards at least we can use. But add scratch paper, plastic checkbook covers, paper clips, and – given my father’s proclivities – promotional glassware from every liquor manufacturer in America, and eventually you’ll have a huge reclamation project on your hands.

Detach from where you find significant items from your childhood. This is a corollary to the previous tip. Be aware that your parents may not hold certain items in the same esteem that you do. In that garage storeroom, I found a clay coyote I had made in fourth grade. It was the best art project I ever created, given that I had absolutely no artistic talent, then or now. It was in a box labeled “dust collectors.”

There is an emotional toll of putting an aged parent into assisted living, because you’re contributing to their diminishing independence. But I have to say that it’s nothing compared to the toll of trolling through ninety years of memories and figuring out whether to save them or let them go. Not to mention finding out that your most creative work has been designated a dust collector.

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The Fine Line Between Organization and Obsession

F. Scott Fitzgerald“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

Gee, I must have a first-rate intelligence because I do this frequently. I’ll blithely plan to run errands on Saturday morning, all the time being  just as committed to walking on the beach with the family.

Here’s another example, fresh in mind because I spent some time over the holidays cleaning out the attic. Whenever I buy something new, I very carefully save the box it came in. This is so that when we move, I have the box, the Styrofoam inserts, everything I’ll ever need to pack that puppy up and put it in the moving van.

There’s only one flaw with this thinking. The last time we moved was ten years ago. The time before that, 21 years ago. In fact, I’ve had only twelve mailing addresses in my entire life, including college.

Based on Fitzgerald’s theory, it’s a wonder I’m able to function at all, what with thinking I need boxes when I don’t ever actually move.

That’s why, when I climbed up to the attic, I found boxes for appliances that have already died and been given proper burials. In fact, if memory serves … actually, that’s a bad phrase, because at my age, memory doesn’t serve. More frequently, it drops the dishes just as it’s coming out of the kitchen, gets distracted, and leaves the mess for someone else to clean up. But I digress … if memory serves, in some cases, I found boxes for appliances whose replacements had already died and been given proper burials.

I gave myself permission to throw out the boxes in the attic, under the assumption that – if the universe reels and we do move again before another ten years pass – I’ll be able to pack any item appropriately even without its original box. More likely, next time I move, it’ll be to someplace smaller that reeks of sanitary disinfectant, and I’ll just be giving away everything I own anyway.

But once the boxes were broken down, it looked like Santa had been especially generous to us this holiday season. There were so many product boxes in the recycling and so much Styrofoam in the garbage that if the ghost of Thorstein Veblen had happened by, it would have just stood there and cried.

I, on the other hand, am much happier, having given up this particular obsession for organization. Based on Fitzgerald’s definition, however, I have now downgraded myself to a second-rate intelligence. Clearly, you can’t have everything … or the boxes it all came in.


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