Hope For The Holidays

 

The holiday cards are already starting to arrive, which is really embarrassing given that we just ordered ours a week ago. Our big news, of course, is that we both retired this year, which I thought wouldn’t be surpassed among our friends, given how little happens in the lives of people our age.

Wrong again.

The first holiday card to arrive was from college friends announcing that their daughter has come out as transgender, changed her name to something that could be construed as either masculine or feminine, and stated a preference for the “he” pronoun. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, since she – before she became a he – was more than a little precocious. Not that being T is a phase denoting precociousness, of course, but well, you know. Sometimes you meet someone and you sense they’re going to be … different. Not that different is bad. We need more different.

My first thought was to send a card saying, “Congratulations, It’s A Boy!” but that seemed inappropriate. My second thought was to send a card saying, “Congratulations, you no longer have to pay for the wedding,” but that didn’t seem appropriate either. (Say, Miss Manners, who does pay for transgender weddings?)

Then I really started to think about the wonderful thing that had transpired: a young person created his own identity. For someone like me who was dysfunctionally enmeshed in my parents’ identity for far too long, this is a little miracle. At a fairly young age, she recognized who he was and who she wasn’t, and took steps to change it.

And even better, he got to choose a new name. Who among us likes their name? I don’t. The uniqueness of being the only Howard in my high school class was overshadowed by the fact dorks in the media are usually named Howard. I would love to have a different name. I’ve always wanted to be named Jeff, which isn’t generally a female name except that the mother of one of my oldest friends was named Jeff. So if I’d been T, I could have been a Jeff, finally.

I’m struck by how utterly courageous this news is. At the dawn of the presidential administration of a racist, right-wing misogynist, this young person is so true to himself that damn the Trumpkins, full speed ahead. I wasn’t that courageous at that age. I didn’t even have the smarts to figure out how to go to school back East after my mother said she wouldn’t pay for it. (I’m not asking for sympathy for the Stanford diploma; I’m just saying that I wish I’d been more proactive about my decision.)

More than anything else during this shattering month, this news has given me hope. That’s what the upcoming holidays represent, after all – a beacon of hope. This year, it just arrived a few weeks early.

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Seven Reasons Why What Happened Last Tuesday Could Be Wonderful

  1. With great power comes great responsibility.

Now that the Republicans control all three branches of government, they have no excuses for not pursuing their economic agenda. Since it’s by no means clear how they’re going to bring manufacturing jobs back to America without sanctions and tariffs that will damage the economy, prepare for another call for change in 2020, one that may sweep in a progressive administration (Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, please call your offices).

  1. Old adages ring true.

It turns out that anybody can grow up to be president. And they don’t even have to progress beyond adolescence.

  1. We have a real teachable moment on our hands.

Since our schools no longer teach civics, elections in which the loser garners more votes than the winner provide an indelible opportunity to explain the Electoral College and why the founding fathers wanted to avoid tyranny of the majority. Unfortunately, we really need someone right about now to explain why we have tyranny of the minority.

  1. Election night evoked memories of great Shakespearean literature.

As the results of too many states remained too close to call, it began to feel like Romeo and Juliet. You know what’s going to happen, but you really, really wish it was going have a different ending this time.

  1. Boredom is a thing of the past.

If you look at politics as entertainment, the ratings for the next four years are going to be sky high.

  1. A political dynasty gets stopped in its tracks.

If there’s a God in heaven, this will be the last we hear of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were – in retrospect – the last people we should have sent up against a man accused of improprieties, sexual, financial, or political.

  1. It’s impossible to hold two horrible thoughts in your head at the same time.

The memory of the University of Washington’s 66-27 smackdown of the University of California the previous Saturday night and the New Orleans Saints’ 41-23 battering of the San Francisco 49ers the previous Sunday immediately dissipated.

 

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Thank Goodness For Donald Trump!

Not long before the first presidential debate, I turned to my wife and said, “You watch – Donald Trump is going to say something in one of the debates that’s finally going to be his downfall.”

I didn’t have to wait long.

Trump’s riposte to Hillary Clinton in the first debate that not paying taxes “makes me smart” seems to have clinched it (though it was quickly eclipsed by the Access Hollywood tape). There’s a bumpersticker somewhere in that debate comment: “Suckers pay taxes so Donald Trump doesn’t have to.”

That’s essentially what Donald Trump is saying: “I’m smarter than you because I’ve figured out how to avoid paying taxes.” He’s reached the nirvana that many of his supporters only dream of: the ability to starve the faceless bureaucrats who only want to serve themselves and their friends by padding the public sector payroll.

Except … it’s not true. As CNN reported the other day, eight out of ten Trump supporters believe paying taxes is a civic duty – that is, the price we pay for living in a great country, a commonwealth where those who can contribute help pave the way for others who will eventually do the same for the people who follow them.

It’s also not true that Donald Trump paid no taxes because he was smart. He paid no taxes because the tax code has been written to allow billionaires like him to gamble huge sums of money without taking a whole lot of risk. I believe that people who invest in our infrastructure might need an incentive to do so, but the incentive to do so is profit, not a tax break that allows you to avoid paying taxes for a child’s entire life. He’s taking advantage of laws that most of his supporters have no access to.

And that’s why I say thank goodness for Donald Trump. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of laws on the books that let rich people spend and invest without risk: if they win, they get the profit; if they lose, they get a write-off. But those laws only benefit those who have lots and lots of disposable income. That’s why rich people can get away with paying no taxes. That’s why Mitt Romney pays a lower percentage of his annual income in taxes than I do. That’s why the rest of us have to pony up more – because people who really can afford it have accountants and lawyers and lobbyists to make sure they don’t have to pony up at all.

What this all boils down to is that Donald Trump is pretty darn stupid. Inadvertently, he’s turned a klieg light on the rank unfairness of our tax laws. Maybe now we’ll start clamoring for a tax code that benefits everyone, not just the billionaires.

 

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Three Solutions For Nine Problems

Polling service Rasmussen Reports released a survey last week that confirms the downcast mood of America: 62% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. This is a pretty consistent figure over the last seven years, although it had gone as high as 70% during this summer.

The upshot? We’ve got a lot of problems. Worse, we’ve got a Congress so divided along partisan lines that it looks like nothing is ever going to get done, from Supreme Court justice hearings on down. That’s just dumb.

With apologies to Jonathan Swift (since I’m not being satiric), I have a modest proposal: let’s focus. Let’s pick some issues that give us the biggest bang for the buck, issues that solve more than one problem. There may even be some ideas here to entice both liberals and conservatives.

Solution #1: Mass Transit

I can’t speak for those back east, but out here in the West, we had the dad-blasted bad luck to launch our biggest housing spurts when everyone thought the car was the perfect transit solution. Now we’re sitting in traffic, with no plans, land, money, or will to expand mass transit. But that’s exactly what we have to figure out to do, and here’s why.

The first problem better mass transit can address is a long-range one. We’re not going to do anything about climate change until we stop polluting the air. One way to do that is to give people alternatives to driving. We have alternatives to driving here in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they were disconnected, inconvenient, and time-consuming (they’re also so popular as to be standing room only on most occasions).

Another payoff of mass transit is improvement to our infrastructure, not to mention the middle-class construction jobs that come with it – jobs that by definition can’t go overseas. Guess what else we get with more mass transit? Less reliance on foreign oil (although consumption of that has been going down) and – oh by the way – the ancillary effect of giving less money to religious fanatics in the Middle East who want to kill us.

Solution #2: Public Funding of Elections

I’ve always hated this idea, but I believe its time has come. For one thing, no longer do politicians to rely on expensive television and newspaper ads. Donald Trump has proved through social media that it’s easier and cheaper than ever to communicate with voters.

If elections are publicly funded, then Congressional representatives no longer have to spend their time either fund-raising or enacting laws that exempt corporations for certain activities. In fact, public funding of elections would mean that those representatives would have no excuse not to start simplifying the tax code.

Simplifying the tax code would help address the problem of income inequality. Both the rich and the corporations have ways to get out of taxes, through loopholes and other wriggling. The poor pay little in the way of taxes, so who gets stuck? The increasingly shrinking middle class. And from what I’ve heard, representatives would love to spend more time on legislation and less time on fund-raising.

Solution #3: Broadband Deployment

According to the latest rankings of Internet speed, the United States isn’t even in the top 12 countries in the world. Hence, let’s start doing more to ratchet up broadband deployment in America, both so that people have more choices for Internet access (and not just Comcast, for crying out loud) and higher speeds.

What’s the subsequent payoff? Let’s consider another looming problem: a shortage of physicians and medical care. Without broadband, there won’t be any telemedicine, and without telemedicine, there are going to be a whole lot of people in rural areas who don’t have access to medical care. The shortage is especially prevalent among primary-care physicians, who get paid less than specialists everywhere (and yet, pay the same basic medical school tuition). [Disclosure: my spouse was a primary-care physician until last spring.]

Broadband also benefits other rural populations: students, small business, and factories. If we’re going to have manufacturing come back to America at some point, it’s got to be cost-effective (and without tax exemptions; see #2). Putting rural areas on equal technological footing with the rest of the country is a way to do that.

It Takes Two

If there’s one more commonality to all three of these suggestions, it’s that none of them are something the private sector can do alone. It takes public sector involvement to make these changes work. Suggesting that we just let capitalism pave the way doesn’t work with everything: Congress has to get off its collective butts and start working toward making America better – and its citizens prouder.

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Those Who Forget The Past … Or Who Still Live In It

With the presidential campaign in full throttle, I ran across some truly thought-provoking passages recently. I’m probably going to violate some Fair Use laws here, but I’m taking the risk. This author spoke of this presidential candidate’s:

“… thundering, gut-level appeal [to voters] to rise up and smash all the … ‘bureaucrats in Washington’ who’d been f**king them over for so long. The root of the [candidate’s] magic was a cynical, showbiz instinct for knowing exactly which issues would whip a hall full of beer-drinking factory workers into a frenzy – and then doing exactly that, by howling down from the podium that he had an instant, overnight cure for all their worst afflictions. … [The candidate] assured his supporters that the solution was actually real simple.”

He continued:

“The ugly truth is that [the candidate] had never even bothered to understand the problems – much less come up with any honest solutions – but [the candidate] has never lost much sleep from guilt feelings about his personal credibility gap. … [He] is one of the worst charlatans in politics, but there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy.”

Elsewhere in the same work, this same candidate is referred to as “a demagogue of the worst sort” and “a threat to the country’s underlying values of humanism, of decency, of progress.”

Any guesses what I’ve been reading, and who wrote it?

Fear and Loathing On The Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson. That’s right – a book written 44 years ago by a man who’s been dead for 11 years. He was talking about former Alabama governor George Wallace.

44 years. Two generations. And yet the frustrations that Thompson refers to are still aflame today. These frustrations come from the relentless economic, technological, and capitalistic forces that drive change. In the 1970s, and probably every decade since, factories were closing and jobs were moving elsewhere. People felt abandoned not only by their employers, but also by their politicians.

Are politicians really powerful enough to affect the rules of capitalism? No, but they do have the power to effect legislation regarding taxes and investments and write-offs. They craft those laws at the behest of the people who fund their campaigns. That, at least, hasn’t changed. What’s happening today is no different from what happened back in the 1970s.

But are the politicians completely to blame? I say no. This is America, after all. We have innate freedoms that people haven’t exercised: the freedom to learn, the freedom to fail and start over, the freedom to change. How is it that two generations later, a huge swath of the population is still blaming minorities for the ills that plague them? How is it that, all these years later, these people still believe that there’s a politician who can wave a magic wand and solve their problems?

How is it that they haven’t figured out, after all this time, that they need to put some effort into not relying on institutions for their well-being? These are the people, after all, who believe that government should stay out of their lives, the ones who love America because it rewards individual initiative. Where is their individual initiative?

And what the heck did they teach their children a generation ago? To bide their time and wait for some authoritarian madman to come along and solve their problems by returning the country to some magical time and place that might as well be Oz for how ethereal it was?

I have always had a deep-seated belief in the common sense of the American people. When demagogues and race-baiters and others – from Joe McCarthy to Richard Nixon to George Wallace – have risen up, they have always slid back down. But I hate that we haven’t seemed to learn enough to keep them from rising up in the first place.

 

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So This Is What A Whimper Sounds Like

“This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.” –T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

The world that’s ending is my career. Given how obsessed I’ve been with it over the last 40 years, it’s somewhat disquieting that I am letting it go so easily. But the time has come. I’ve been a professional writer for 40 years, if you count back to my first paid byline while I was still in college (I profiled the technical adviser for Jaws, who worked at Stanford).

I think four decades is enough for any sane person. All the highs and lows it encompassed still seem so vivid, so important, even as they become less important.

My friends have always joshed me about my career, and how charmed it often seemed:

  • I got my first job after graduation without an interview or even a resume; I had a chance meeting in Seattle’s University District with an editor who’d bought the Jaws profile, who was hiring for a new magazine he was starting.
  • One time a boss called and pleaded with me: “I know you’ve been traveling a lot recently, but would you mind going to Palm Springs this December?”
  • I started out as a travel editor, and knew nothing about technology. But when I was hired by a corporate publishing start-up, our only clients were technology firms. I lucked into the most lucrative gig possible for a writer in Silicon Valley: explaining computers.
  • There was the insane rollercoaster month in which, in short sequence, we bought our first house; the magazine I worked for closed down; and I received a job offer at a higher salary the following weekend. (My wife never worried when I lost my job after that.)
  • After the web went bust at the turn of the century, and I was surviving on unemployment checks and writing articles for 10 cents per word, I heard that a former colleague was looking for writers. She started assigning me features at a considerably higher per-word rate, reminding me that I was the one who’d recommended her for the position.

My career always had an underpinning not so much of ambition but of dissatisfaction. I always wanted something better. Whenever I was told that I didn’t get a job because I lacked a particular kind of experience, I went out and got it – news writing, product reviews, whatever was necessary. I worked a lot of places, got fired and laid off a lot, but got some nice promotions too. When I started freelancing in 2002, man, I was prepared.

I was not prepared, however, for what’s been transpiring recently. Simply put, work has become work. It doesn’t feel charmed anymore. The web has long been pushing fees down in a lot of markets; the technology market, where I’ve been working, was immune for a long time, but that’s changing. Two of the companies I work with most are for sale, and I doubt their new ownership is going to pay as well; one division has already cut its rates by 10%.

There were other issues. As Danny Glover sighed in one of the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m getting too old for this [expletive deleted].” Much of my work comes through agencies, though I frequently work directly with their clients. I’d already been blackballed recently by one agency’s client after a call where I thought I was being assertive and they thought I was being obnoxious; I didn’t want that to be my legacy.

Around the same time, I was working with another agency’s client in the marketing department at the world’s most famous database company. The client was insisting that I use a phrase in a headline for a business-oriented white paper (this kind of behavior always made we wonder, if you know what you want written, why have you hired a writer?). But as it happened, the phrase actually had a technical connotation that would not resonate with the business audience we were trying to reach. Treading diplomatically because of the recent blackballing incident, I reminded her of this connotation. She replied that ten people had been in the meeting where they’d approved that phrase. Fortunately, the only technical person on the call sided with me.

The question looms: am I getting too old, or are the clients getting too stupid?

Even more discouraging, I started the year hunting for new business, something I’d never had to do before, and found I was talking into a dead phone. It became clear very quickly that 2016 was not going to be a banner year, income-wise, and I always said that when that happened, it was time to move on. My wife had already retired earlier this year, and although I insisted I wasn’t jealous, it turned out that I really was. It required the very best of my math skills, but I finally calculated that yes, we had put enough aside to enjoy a comfortable (though not extravagant) retirement.

And so, with few regrets, I’m letting my passion, my obsession, my focus for forty years slip away. I’m not sure what I will do with the shelves of magazines I have: the evidence of old work that I kept in order to get new work. Now there will never be new work. (Though there will be the occasional blog, and maybe even some fiction.)

I was lucky enough to be a writer in a place and a time where it was necessary (and lucrative) to have someone explain what these new machines called computers could do. I soon realized up that it was like walking into the middle of a movie: if you sit down, shut up, and pay attention, you’ll soon figure out what’s going on.

The problem is, I’ve grown too dissatisfied to deal with what’s displaying on the screen now. It’s time to take my memories – some of them distasteful, but most of them delightful – and quietly walk away.

 

 

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This Goes Over There

Reduce ReuseDo you ever feel like you spend too much time rearranging where things go in the world? I sure do.

A big part of it is this “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra that’s going around. On a recent trip to Oregon, we were faced with disposal options labeled “landfill,” “compostable,” and “plastic bottles.” But we had many conversations among ourselves as to what represented landfill and what was compostable, and where the heck were we supposed to put aluminum cans and newspapers?

In our own home, the 3 R’s have created an organizational challenge. Just the other day, my wife listed seven different categories of bags in which we’re collecting stuff. I’m sure there are more.

There’s one for electronics to be recycled. There’s another for metal to be recycled. There’s one for toilet paper and paper towels rolls, which my sister-in-law takes and fills with birdseed for a wildlife preserve. There’s one for damaged but usable fabric, which goes to my sister, who makes quilts. There’s one for usable clothes, which goes to the local shelter. There’s one for towels we no longer use, which go to the Humane Society to cradle small animals. There are bags for Goodwill. There are bags for recycling. There are bags for compost. There are bags for books that get donated to the library. That’s ten right there.

But it’s not just stuff that we want to get rid of. There’s also a rearranging regimen for stuff we want to keep so that we can find it the next time we need it (good luck with that concept). Given my recent weight loss, I have a drawer dedicated to clothing that needs to be altered. I keep finding promotional scratch pads from real estate agents in drawers, so I have to rearrange those so they’re all in one place.

I have magazines from earlier in my career that I keep moving from drawers to magazine boxes to shelves and back again. These only go up to the end of the last century or so because after that, everything I wrote was electronic. The day is going to come (soon) when I don’t need to keep evidence of what I’ve written, because I’m not going to be looking for any new work. When that day comes, that’s even more decisions about rearranging: scrapbooks? Portfolios? Who knows?

Then there’s the whole logistical aspect of rearranging that drives me crazy. We have a table in the kitchen on the way to the garage, which doubles as a staging area for what gets moved from one place to the other. The foyer doubles as a staging for what leaves the house. Otherwise, nothing would ever leave the house, because we would forget about it as we were walking out the door.

And now there’s a new problem to contend with, an inflationary trend bloating the 3 R’s into 6 or more R’s (see the graphic above if you really want to be horrified). These include:

  • refuse
  • respect
  • replenish
  • reinvent
  • rethink
  • repair
  • replace
  • rotate

I already sometimes refuse water in restaurants, because that’s the way we’ve been forced to live in California. Repair really isn’t my specialty, and fix-it shops have gone the way of VCRs (which no one has been able to fix for a long time anyway). Rotate is what my head is doing trying to figure all this out.

Frankly, I’m not sure what replace is doing on the list, because that’s the opposite of reuse. Ditto replenish, unless that’s referring to the idea of refilling recently reduced receptacles retaining remnants of regularly … oh, forget it.

The Jetson’s dog Astro said it best when he uttered, “Ruh-roh.”

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