Leaving Las Vegas

Fabulous Las VegasSometimes juxtaposition accidentally provides enlightenment. We flew to Las Vegas late last month, to visit a friend who had fled the madness of Silicon Valley. It was an exciting trip, what with actual CSI techs blocking access to his street late one night and the pool deck of the Cosmopolitan going up in flames while we were two blocks away at Caesars Palace.

What wasn’t exciting was the gaming. I love Nevada’s number-one pastime; I always have. One Christmas when the family was visiting my sister in Orange County, California, we piled into the car and drove to Las Vegas. I wasn’t 21 yet, but I looked old enough, and I won $40 on a video poker machine. I have suspected ever since that the casinos have some way of identifying newcomers, and intentionally letting them win so they’ll always come back in search of that first-time rush.

My best friend in high school and college did both his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Nevada at Reno, and I visited him often. There were times I was so unlucky at the tables, I would have to borrow bridge fare to get back home.

I know that the very best one can do at the gaming tables is break even. But that presumes that you win something during your time there, and then lose it again; that at some point during the 24 to 48 hours you’re gambling that you’re actually ahead. During this most recent visit, with the exception of about ten minutes when I first started playing blackjack at a casino downtown on Fremont Street, I was never, ever ahead. And for the very first time, it just wasn’t fun.

So what’s the juxtaposition? Not long before I left for Las Vegas, I’d been asked by my gym trainer – a lad of only 22, which seems unbearably young – what it was like to grow up in the Sixties. As I later posted on Facebook, it took me a while to formulate an answer, but I finally told him that here, in Silicon Valley, the best word I could come up with was “cushy.”

The valley’s economy was roaring even then, thanks to electronics and defense, so I only remember one or two people that I would consider poor. I was in junior high school before any of my friends’ parents got divorced. The houses on television (The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, The Partridge Family) all looked like ours – suburban ranch houses with room to roam. Scholastic Weekly fed us right-wing propaganda about the domino theory and why we were in Vietnam War, and only one or two older brothers of my classmates were fighting there (one died). When Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, I knew it was bad, sad, and important, but I didn’t understand the political ramifications until much, much later. All of the uproar of the Sixties just didn’t seem to touch us as kids.

But this cocoon of cushiness overshadowed an eventual, bitter realization: that among all this cushiness, my siblings and I were being verbally and emotionally abused. I’m sure most of you are tired of hearing about my dysfunctional family, but no more tired than I am of trying to process and move beyond it. I still hope to come to ultimate terms with it before I die (barring that, I’m hoping for reincarnation). Even as I explained to my trainer my view of life in the Sixties, I realized that while it seemed idyllic, its underside was actually just the opposite.

Enter Las Vegas.

I can’t help but think of it as the urban equivalent of a dysfunctional family. It entices you with flashing, colorful lights, with visions of potential wealth and glory. It adorns itself with the glitter of Disneyland, agglomerating fantasies and nostalgia galore for those who yearn for Venice or Paris, for ancient Rome or Egypt, or some other magical place. It plies you with liquor and fine dining, with entertainment, with scantily clad women (what this does for women, I have no idea).

Like a domineering parent, it tells you that you’re lucky to be there, and that you should be having the time of your life. But at the same time, at the gaming tables, you’re getting beat up and humiliated and frustrated and abused. And it’s confusing, even to a rational adult, because everywhere you turn in Vegas, everything is fabulous. That’s what they call it: fabulous Las Vegas.

But the etymological root of fabulous is fable. And fables are just stories. Fiction. Lies. Just as those comfortable suburban homes on television were lies; just as the demands for familial devotion and obedience were built on lies.

Another juxtaposition: this trainer of mine is desperately trying to bring balance to my diet, to educate me on the sins of sugar and sodium, and the pleasures of protein and vegetables. I am learning to go without the things I love, like cereal and carbonated soda. And I’m wondering if the next time I go to see my friend in Las Vegas, I can finally forgo the gaming that I used to enjoy too much.

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The Right Regrets

When you get to be middle-aged (and admittedly, beyond), the topic of regrets comes up a lot. I’m pretty lucky. As Frank Sinatra sang in “My Way,” I’ve only had a few.

Regret #1: Travel. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I never got to attend my first choice of colleges, Emerson in Boston. That’s one regret, but another collegiate one is never spending a semester overseas. Stanford had wonderful campuses in Cliveden and Florence, among other places, but the idea of going to another country – even though I’d traveled all over the U.S. – petrified the emotionally immature me. (So what turned out to be the first country I visited outside of North America? Morocco!)

Regret #2: Quitting. Another of my college faux pas related to the school newspaper. I was a prolific writer in the entertainment section, writing dozens of movie reviews and other articles, so it seemed only logical to promote me to editor of the department the following year. What a disaster. I was way out of my depth; I once cut inches off a review of a Journey concert to keep my own review of Gone In 60 Seconds intact (much to my embarrassment now). Worse, my schoolwork started to suffer, so I quit after only a few weeks.

The paper’s editor begged me to reconsider, and in retrospect, I wished I’d figured out a way to make it work. Especially since the guy who replaced me now works at the New York Times.

Regret #3: Athletic Events. On October 17, 1989, thanks to the largesse of the publisher of the magazine I worked for at the time, I was sitting in Candlestick Park waiting for game 3 of the World Series to begin. There was a slight interruption, which we know refer to as the Loma Prieta earthquake, which rendered Candlestick temporarily unusable not only for the Giants-A’s game but for the 49ers-Patriots game the following weekend.

The latter game was moved to Stanford Stadium, and a friend of mine offered me tickets. What did I do instead? I went to the office, having missed work both the day of the World Series and the following day while we waited for the office to be declared safe. You know how they say no one ever sat up on their death bed and said they wished they’d spent more time at the office? I am the idiot who spent more time at the office.

Regret #4: Philandering. For most of my dating years, I seemed to be under the impression that monogamy was actually spelled m-o-n-o-t-o-n-y, and I hurt a lot of women when that particular illiteracy – spelled i-d-i-o-c-y – came to light. I’ll just chalk that up to the aforementioned emotional immaturity and be thankful that my spelling improved when I got married.

Regret #5: Trusting the Future. My friend Andrew frequently reminds me that the philosophy of mine that he loves the most is “live life according to a theory of abundance.” I didn’t always have this philosophy, unfortunately. In 2002, just after the storied technology downturn, I was out of work and collecting unemployment insurance (and damn happy to have it). It was a gloomy time, but a medical-school friend of Monica’s had taken a fellowship in New Zealand. I have always regretted – especially in light of the way my career subsequently improved – not just putting that very expensive jaunt on a credit card and heading south to see them.

Dear Abby once said that you can measure a man’s character by the things he’s ashamed of. I don’t know if regret and shame are the same, but they’re pretty close. Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” I hope these are the right ones, because they’re sure the ones I’ve learn from.

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Oh, The Stuff You’ll Keep (Part II)

Last week I wrote about all the clippings I found in my files that I will never – sadly – be able to use in my own stories. They range from sweet to ironic to … well, weird.

  • An April 11, 1982 San Francisco Chronicle story which discussed, among other attempts at the U.S. Post Office to make money, its launching of Electronic Computer Originated Mail (E-COM), a service that “allows customers to transmit bills, company messages or accounting information for delivery anywhere in the continental U.S. within 48 hours.” As this description from the USPS’s own historical site reveals, it was pretty clear why the service failed within three years: “E-COM service was introduced at a rate of 26 cents for the first page, and 5 cents for the second. In addition, there was an annual $50 fee for the service.”
  • The September 14, 1988 San Francisco Chronicle column Steve Rubinstein wrote about calling his sister’s answering machine just to hear it pick up. No one’s home “because a fire is a mile or so down the road. The firefighters told her to scram. … So I place calls to her house, knowing she’s not home. … If the machine answers, the machine is still there and so, therefore, is the house.” (Remember answering machines?)
  • A photocopy of a memo that I’m positive is a joke (well, almost positive): “To All Personnel From Management: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.”
  • An undated (though probably early 80s), unsourced clipping quoting a glum state of affairs: “It is a gloomy moment in the history of our country. Not in the lifetime of most men has there been so much grave and deep apprehension. Never has the future seemed so incalculable as at this time. The domestic situation is in chaos … Prices are so high as to be utterly impossible. The political cauldron seethes and bubbles with uncertainty. Russia hangs, as usual, like a cloud, dark and silent upon the horizon. It is a solemn moment … of our troubles, no man can see the end.” Turns out it’s from Harper’s Weekly, the Life magazine of its day, in October 1857.
  • A cartoon of two men standing in a cornfield, their arms outstretched as if acting as scarecrows. The caption – one man apparently answering a question of the other – reads: “English lit – how about you?” (This isn’t funny if you actually have a degree in English literature, as I do.)
  • A June 30, 1989 New York Times article about a lawyer jokes that opens with the story about the man who inquired about a lawyer’s fee and was told it was $50 for three questions. “Isn’t that awfully steep?” asked the man. “Yes,” replied the lawyer. “What’s your last question?”
  • A very sad Deutsche Presse-Agentur article, published in the San Jose Mercury-News in 1983, about German shepherds replacing St. Bernards as rescue dogs in the Alps, because “their compact bodies make it easier for them to fit into helicopters” than the up-to-200-pound St. Bernards.
  • An undated Seattle Times clipping in which a telecom executive revealed one of the more bizarre uses of its pagers: a farmer came in with a dirt-encrusted pager he wanted to replace. The farmer explained that instead of going and finding his herd of cows at the end of the day and leading them to the barn, all he had to do was hang a pager on the lead cow, send a page, and the herd would come in by itself. I’m still trying to figure out why the heck the farmer hung the pager on the cow in the first place.
  • A June 25, 1983 San Jose Mercury-News story about two doctors who saved the life of the attorney who was suing them for malpractice, with the help of a surgeon who was testifying against the doctors. The attorney, John Crisman, collapsed in the courtroom form an apparent heart attack, and was revived seven minutes later via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As one of the defendants told him, “It’s a good thing you sued good doctors.”
  • An Associated Press story about how New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz once helped a man propose to his girlfriend by creating a puzzle that include her name and his request among the clues. Oh, and her response was there too: yes.
  • But my absolute favorite is the undated letter to Dear Abby, in response to a girl who cried because she lived in a dump. It was written by a coal miner’s daughter who was so ashamed of the house she lived in that she gave her dates the address of a friend’s house and met them there. The ruse worked until one night when her date drove her back to her actual house and said, “I’ve always known where you live but it doesn’t make any difference in the way I feel about you. Your father is a decent, hard-working man who’s giving his family the best he can afford.” She closed her letter: “I’ve never forgotten those words, nor the beautiful college boy who spoke them. He died last year, after giving me four wonderful children and 49 of the happiest years of my life.”
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Oh, The Stuff You’ll Keep!

Back in the days when it wasn’t clear which way my career was going to go, I filed a lot of clippings. Because you just never know. Some of them were reference material – maps, charts, statistics. Some of them funny or touching stories – rings being found on a beach and returned to their rightful owner 25 years later.

Anything that tickled me or that I thought might go into a story or an article or a novel that was based in the strangeness of life on this planet. In fact, I built an entire home office predicated on the idea that I would be filing a lot of stuff away – without thinking that, most of the time, everything I was filing would either be online or digitized.

But now the course of my writing career is pretty well set, and barring divine intervention, I’m not going to be doing much for inflight magazines. (I still harbor homes of that Great American Novel, but I’m not holding my breath.) So during my work’s traditional summer slowdown, I’ve started cleaning out the files, keeping some, discarding most, and digitizing what’s easily found on the Internet (which is a lot).

Some of the clippings were stories I’d saved because I found them inspirational, or sweet, or ironic, or … something.

  • From the Sunday, Nov. 16, 1980, Syracuse Herald-American (this would have been from my days at Cornell): a list of college lingo, including the slang term “Face Book” as a reference to a yearbook. (This was printed four years before Mark Zuckerberg was born.)
  • A one-day calendar page (remember those 4” x 4” gift calendars – word of the day, stuff like that; remember calendars?) for May 18, noting the coincidence that the play Our American Cousin, which Abraham Lincoln attended the night he was shot, was also playing in Chicago on May 18, 1860, the place and day Lincoln was nominated for president.
  • A purloined brief from the law firm where I used to do word processing at night (now defunct itself), in which a “document” is defined as “any written, printed, typed, photostatic, photographed, recorded, or otherwise reproduced communication or representation, whether comprised of letters, words, numbers, pictures, sounds and symbols, or any combination thereof, including but not limited to any and all originals, copies or drafts of any of the following: correspondence, memoranda, notes, records, letters, envelopes, telegrams, messages, studies, analyses, contracts, agreements, projections, estimates, working papers, summaries, statistical statements, financial statements or work papers, accounts, analytical records, reports and/or summaries or investigations, opinions, reports of consultants, accounts [sic] or other persons, books, diaries, articles, magazines, newspapers, booklets, brochures, pamphlets, notices, forecasts, drawings, diagrams, charts, graphics, photographs, films, tapes, disks, print-outs, telegrams, telexes or cables.” I’m not sure why telegrams had to be listed twice.
  • An August 2, 1982 Newsweek article entitled “The Decaying Of America” about the disgraceful state of U.S. infrastructure – which turns out to have been dated almost exactly 25 years to the day (August 1, 2007) before the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis.
  • The 1985 obituary of Marion Tanner, the real-life inspiration for Auntie Mame, including the news that her nephew, the author of the book about her, was now estranged because she used the money he gave her to help people less fortunate than her – exactly the behavior he celebrated in her fictionalized story.
  • The 2004 obituary of Vaughn Meader, the singer/pianist who discovered in the early Sixties that he could uncannily impersonate the voice of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Interestingly, I was able to find digital versions of the AP story recounting his death, but discovered that only my local paper had inserted this line referencing Gerald Nachman’s book Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, which noted, “One twist to the single-bullet theory that didn’t make it into the Warren Report: The same bullet that killed JFK also murdered Vaughn Meader’s career.”
  •  A printout of one of those wonderful stories that did and still do circulate around the Internet, this one explaining that the rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle are the width that they are because they had to be transported via railroad tracks, the width of which was determined by the width of two horses pulling Roman Chariots. I always loved that story, but it turns out it’s not true. Darn. Does that also mean that the first toilet shown on television wasn’t on Leave It To Beaver?

And those are only from a couple of folders in a couple of drawers, so … more next week.

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Random Rants For A Summer’s Day

When John Roberts says that the ruling for gay marriage has “nothing to do with the Constitution,” does that mean he’s actually never read the 14th Amendment’s discussion of equal protection under the law?

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I’m beginning to wonder if Safeway actually doesn’t want me to push a cart down its aisles. Otherwise, why would it fill them with displays that only get in the way?

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I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my whole life, but I still get confused trying to place Fairfax and Fairfield; San Lorenzo and San Leandro; and Pleasant Hill and Pleasanton. I imagine the people in Seattle have the same problem with place names like Duwamish, Snohomish, Swinomish, and Sammamish, while the people in Boston have to deal with Dedham, Needham, Stoneham, Waltham, Bellingham, and Framingham.

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It’s too late for me, but I’ve finally realized that one reason to have kids to have someone to get the holiday decorations down from the attic.

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Have you ever noticed that if you wait until you all your voice mails before you start returning calls, most of the problems will have already been resolved?

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I wish that resilient little hair follicle on the side of my nose would find its way back to the top of my head.

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There’s a great line in For The Boys when Bette Midler, playing a woman in her 90s, says something crass to Arye Gross and he replies, “I can’t wait to be old so I can talk to people like that.” I’m getting there. When I hold an unacknowledged door open for people, I’ve started to say, “You’re welcome.”

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It makes me sad to realize that I will never write anything as funny as Dave Barry’s “A Journey Into My Colon,” in which he writes that MoviPrep makes you eliminate food that you haven’t even eaten yet: “We must never allow it to fall into the hands of America’s enemies.”

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I’m waiting for the day that LinkedIn realizes I don’t want to be connected with everybody.

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Everyone says you can’t retire until you know what you’re going to do with all your free time, to which I say, “Oh, I think I can.”

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If people can scream at the top of their lungs, does that mean they can whisper at the bottom of their lungs? And if so, why don’t they?

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Do I really want to figure out how to get Netflix streaming, or does that way lie madness?

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Wouldn’t it be simpler to just announce who isn’t running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016?

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Everybody who doesn’t think last week was one of the coolest weeks in the history of America can say whatever they want about it, as long as they do it at the bottom of their lungs.

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Walking Away From The Madness

I don’t cringe much anymore, but I sure did when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S. Car.) announced he was running for president with the pronouncement (as reported by CNN), “I want to be President to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them.”

Really, Senator? Really? How’s that been working out for us so far?

We’ve spent trillions of dollars on wars in the Middle East that, if anything, have made the oil supply chain we crave to protect less stable, not more. What if we’d spent those trillions of dollars upgrading our mass-transit infrastructure here in America? Gee, we’d have created thousands of jobs and made it easier for people to get out of their cars.

I’m not saying get rid of cars (although I suspect that technology may significantly diminish the need for privately owned cars before too long). I’m saying make it easier for people to get to work. If we’re really a capitalistic society, then the goal of the government should be to help people make money. Corporations, too, even though they’re not – and I don’t care if I’m in opposition to the Supreme Court on this – people.

What is it about politicians that they want to keep sending money to the Middle East? Before these wars, we protected our oil by supporting corrupt regimes – the Shah, the Saudi royal family, and probably a few others in emirates and protectorates that I couldn’t even find on the map. And what has been the result? Those people hate us.

Did you know, according to the Center for Global Development that in every year between 2010 and 2013, the United States has given at least a billion dollars in aid to Pakistan? (The number was only $858 million in 2014.) And they didn’t even tell us that Osama bin Laden was hiding out there. It’s like regularly patronizing a restaurant where the host loses your reservation, the sommelier insults your taste in wine, and the waiter spits in your food.

The religious fanatics think we’re wholly corrupt because we allow women and homosexuals – not to mention homosexual women! – to walk our streets. The opposition thinks we’re not doing enough to get rid of their dictators and bring democracy to their land. But almost all of them have lots of money to fight us, because we keep sending it to them. I would love to figure out a way to cut off the flow of oil for money, but I suspect that China would just buy up whatever we didn’t use.

I don’t care how we do it, frankly, but I would love for the United States to stop obsessing on the Middle East and start obsessing on the United States. Let’s stop sending money to people who want to kill us, and start sending money to people who actually like America – like, say, Americans. Let’s upgrade our schools, our medical care, our transit systems, our crumbling bridges, even the highways that trucks use to get food from place to place.

If we did this, the day may come, China notwithstanding, when the people of the Middle East come begging to us for help. Then, and only then, I might consider it okay to dispense some foreign aid. But only if a delegation of lesbians delivers it.

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Sifting Through The Stuff We’re Not Supposed To Say

Why is it, I wonder, that even among our closest friends, we’re more willing to share bad news than good news?

You’re more like to hear low-grade good news, like kids graduating from high school or getting a new car or going on a cruise. But why don’t people share the really, really good news, like the fact that someone had really hot sex the night before (even – or especially – with their spouse). When you walk into the office in the morning, wouldn’t that be the first thing you’d like to share? Friends are more likely to share the bad news that they caught their kid having hot sex in the new car.

You’ll even hear bad news like someone getting fired or started seeing a therapist. But you never hear about someone has becoming so masterful at their work that their salary is going to double this year – and oh, by the way, the amount it’s going to double to. No, that’s just considered gauche. It’s more acceptable to tell someone you’re undergoing cancer treatments than it is to reveal that you’re paying off your mortgage.

Or the fact that someone just won the lottery and will never ever, ever, ever have to work again. Think about that. If you won the lottery, wouldn’t your first inclination be to throw a party … in Tahiti? But no. Again, because gauche.

Of course, there is also the strong possibility that, if you tell your friends you’ve won the lottery, some of them will think they’re entitled to share in your good fortune. The one friend of mine who won the lottery wanted to entitle her memoirs, “I Heard You Won The Lottery – Will You Give Me $80,000?”

Of course, there are gradations of bad news, most of which people keep to themselves. They don’t go around talking about how much they lust after the babysitter or their secretary, or the six ways they’ve figured out to cheat on your taxes. That’s just prudent.

Or is it? Maybe it’s friends that people should share the really bad stuff with, if only to keep them from acting on their feelings toward the babysitter or the Internal Revenue Service. Why is it a joke when someone says, “A friend will help you move. A really good friend will help you move a body.” That should be part of the policies and procedures manual.

Maybe I’m just an old fuddy-duddy. Well, not maybe – I am. Maybe younger generations haven’t slathered themselves with varying amounts of political correctness and politesse. Last week, I thought about telling the joke about the dying Irishman who wanted his friend to pour a bottle of fine Irish whiskey over his grave. The punchline: “Do ya mind if I strain it through my kidneys first?” I refrained because I was in what used to be known as “mixed company.” Having seen Bette Midler in concert last week doing bawdy Sophie Tucker vaudeville jokes, I probably shouldn’t have been so genteel about what the opposite gender’s ears hear.

It seems to come down to this, I guess: we can be gauche about bodily functions but not about money. That’s kind of a strange rule, but I guess it makes sense: after all, not everyone has money … or babysitters … but everyone pees.

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