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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High School Graduations Ain’t What They Used To Be

mortarboardMy wife’s nephew graduated from high school last weekend, a joyous occasion all around, especially since his mother sat in a completely different part of the amphitheater. This meant that at no time before, during, or after the ceremony did we have to clench our jaws into a frozen and completely insincere smile aimed in her general direction.

While I was enjoying not clenching my jaw, I observed a few things about this ceremony that were just a tad different from the day I graduated from high school – which, although it was some 41 years ago, seems like yesterday. For instance:

At my ceremony, not one of the girls talked about how proud she was to be setting an example for her daughter by getting her diploma. If memory serves, the first girl to have a child in my high school class was actually married at the time. Notice I didn’t say, “the first girl to get pregnant.” We did not talk of those things in those days.

  • No one at my ceremony was dressed in an outfit that bared their midriff, the better to show off a pierced navel. The only time the word “pierce” was mentioned is when my classmate Matt got his diploma.
  • No one wore a jersey with the name and number of their favorite sports star. Everyone wore actual clothing appropriate for a graduation ceremony.
  • Family members arrived before it began and left after it was over. It wasn’t like a cocktail party that you dropped in on whenever it was convenient to your schedule.
  • When my high school’s principal asked that family members hold their applause until all the graduates had received their diplomas, family members held their applause until all the graduates had received their diplomas. At last weekend’s ceremony, no one made such a request and no one would have complied anyway.
  • No one brought a klaxon horn to blow at the mention of particular graduates. Last weekend, I couldn’t tell if we were celebrating or moving to DEFCON 2.

Some traditions were observed, I’m happy to say. Everyone seemed genuinely happy at being paroled from high school, an emotion that never really goes out of style. The whole switching-the-tassel from one side to the other went smoothly. The go-out-and-make-the-world-better mantra still reigned in a lot of the speeches, because apparently all these decades later, the world still sucks.

And kids keep growing up and getting older, which kind of sucks too.

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No Party For Me

One of the great things about California is that when you get fed up with being part of any of the two major political parties, rather than aligning yourself with a splinter party that makes noise but not laws, you can sidle under a designation known as “decline to state.”

When I departed the Republican Party out of disgust at the beginning of George Bush’s second term, that’s where I landed. I got tired of the hypocrisy that insisted government should keep its nose out of everyone’s wallets, but in wombs and bedrooms. Nothing any Republican has said since has made me regret my decision.

You’d think over time, I would have wandered over to the Democratic Party, but it apparently never met a law it didn’t like. Whenever one person does something bad, bam, they want a regulation to govern everyone else.

The problem – as I have discovered in excess over the past few weeks – is that even though some might think regulations and laws and all those nasty niceties are the government’s job, it doesn’t seem to do it very well. Sometimes it doesn’t even bother to enforce the laws it’s so hell-bent to enact. The evidence of this ranges from local to statewide to federal instances.

Let’s start with local. Here in our cul-de-sac, one of our very nice neighbors is doing so well that he decided to remodel his single-story house – and when I say remodel, I mean tear it down and create a two-story house in its place. I have no problem with that, except that our city has enacted very specific rules about when contractors can work. They’re not supposed to work before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.

Because this crew represents typical contractors, they regularly don’t show up, or when they do, they come at 11 a.m., and because it stays light late, they keep working after 6 p.m., continuing the banging I’ve heard all day at my desk into the dinner hour. I’ve asked them to stop, and they’ve kept on doing it. I’ve notified the police, but because it’s not an emergency, they’ll mosey on by an hour later to see if the crew is still on premises. By that time, of course, it’s gone. It makes me wonder why we have a law at all.

On a statewide level, there was the charming story in the San Francisco Chronicle this week about laws enacted to control agricultural water usage during droughts which said in part:

“The state designed laws to push agricultural water districts to track their water flow and make the largest districts charge farmers based on how much they use. … But those rules are widely being ignored amid one of the state’s most severe droughts on record. All but the smallest agricultural water districts were required to track and report to the state how much water they deliver to customers as the result of a 2007 law. Only 20 percent – 48 of 242 districts – have filed those reports, according to California Department of Water Resources data. They were due 10 months ago.”

The kicker appears later in the story: “There’s no penalty for agricultural districts that don’t report how much water they’re delivering to farms.” This is what’s known as a law with no teeth.

Other instances: 

  • When we filed our tax returns in April, the federal government notified us that someone had already filed a tax return with one of our social security numbers, and that ours was being rejected. Given that we had been filing tax returns using those numbers for more than 30 years, I’m a little confused as to why the government didn’t reject the incorrect return, rather than ours. 
  • My wife’s state medical license was set to expire this week. She had sent in the paperwork weeks ago, but it still hadn’t been processed. Her employer (the federal government, I hasten to note) insisted that if she didn’t have her license, she couldn’t practice after last Friday. She finally called the state medical board and found out that she had neglected to check “box G” (whatever box G was). After some faxing back and forth, her status was correctly updated. While all this was happening, she received a letter sent by U.S. mail to her office notifying her of this box G situation. There are phones. There is e-mail. The state government prefers to rely on the mail to communicate in matters like this – what, because it’s faster? 
  • Similar thing happened to a friend of mine. He and his wife are trying to have an amicable divorce (although it’s unclear that she understands the meaning of the word “amicable”), handled through arbitrators. They each submitted the proper forms, but because she neglected to put the date on one of them, this triggered the scheduling of a meeting at which both of them had to leave work and be present. I’m still not clear on the reasoning or the efficacy of this, but it sounds like something government agency employees would do to keep themselves gainfully employed until they die, or perhaps longer.

 I suspect that if this keeps up, everyone will become as disillusioned with the established political parties as I am, leading to a future when California’s nickname evolves from “the golden state” to “the decline to state.”



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Drought Intolerant

As most of you know, while the rest of the country has been hit by snowstorms, rainstorms, and mudslides, California is entering into its third year of drought. If you don’t know, just start watching your produce prices this summer and you’re bound to notice.

Californians have lived through this sequence before; I remember back in the mid-70s being forced to take “Army” showers (I also remember my roommate cavalierly leaving the water running while he brushed his teeth).

There are, truth be told, some advantages to a drought. You can drive a filthy car without being criticized. You can skip the pretext of pre-washing your dishes and let the dishwasher attack the grime. You can skip a shower, and when someone says you stink of body odor, you can respond with morally superior civic-mindedness.

But while I’m happy to take advantage of those perks, at the same time, I must admit to becoming somewhat inured to the politicians’ cries that to the effect that – even though rain might not be falling – the sky is.

Here’s why. I’ve come to notice a rather annoying pattern in the reporting on the drought. We’ll be told that a certain reservoir’s capacity is done to 50 percent of normal, or that rainfall is 25 percent of normal. (Insert shrieks of panic regarding these completely random numbers here.) But no one actually reveals what normal usage is.

If my gas tank is 25 percent full, and I’m going to drive 500 miles, that’s a cause for concern. But if it’s 25 percent full, and I’m going across town, it’s not. So if a certain reservoir is 50 percent full, and we use 25% of that capacity annually, yes, that’s probably a problem. But if we only use 1% of its capacity annually, excuse me, I think I’ll go top off the swimming pool. I have not seen a single article that explains how much water we actually use annually.

I’m also beginning to get a little cavalier for other reasons. For instance, I’ve read that industrial water usage far outstrips residential usage, so my taking an Army shower really doesn’t have much of an effect compared to a farm reducing its consumption by 5 percent, say (again, making these numbers up). According to a letter to the editor in this morning’s Chronicle, the cotton, rice, and alfalfa crops alone soak up 15 percent of agricultural water usage in California.

And while some northern California cities are imposing water limits and fines, there are no such restrictions being imposed in southern California. The golf courses in Palm Springs are still emerald green.

Speaking of restrictions, it would be nice if there were some consistency to them. I realize that certain water districts have access to more liquid resources than others, but yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle reported that the East Bay city of Dublin is restricting its citizens to 640 gallons of water a day. Think about that a moment. The paper noted, without wry intent, that the cap “is expected to affect a fraction of residential customers.”

And as some of my conservation-minded friends note, it’s harder for someone who conserves regularly to cut back than it is for someone who’s been watering their lawn in the middle of the day.

At the same time, Santa Cruz has imposed a limit of approximately 249 gallons a day. That still sounds like a lot, but here’s the kicker I love: according to the story, “the caps don’t apply to businesses.” That means restaurants can keep slinging water glasses onto patrons’ tables and keep filling them up with impunity.

I can see there’s no rain. I’m being told there’s a drought. But until I get some real information about when we might actually run out of water, or see some consistency in how California’s citizens – both commercial and residential – are told to respond to the “emergency,” I have to admit that I’m getting more and more drought intolerant.

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