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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Things I Used To Be Against

It’s funny how things you once loved sometimes become anathema to you. (“Anathema” is a Greek word meaning what the hell did I ever see in you?; it’s mostly used in the context of ex-wives.) Before I lost weight, I used to love making – and devouring – chocolate chip cookies. Now I think of them only as tasty little traitors to the cause.

Conversely, there are things I used to sneer at that I no longer do. Consider Hillary Clinton. I hated her so much I sent money to her Republican opponent in her first Senate race in New York, Rick Lazio. I’m still not crazy about her, but there is now a Hillary 2016 bumpersticker on my car.

Another thing I used to be against is the public funding of elections. I used to look it as a way for elected representatives to siphon even more money from taxpayers than they already do. But then I had some epiphanies.

Epiphany #1: Undue Influence

Why do we have income inequality? In many cases, it’s because the tax code favors the rich (mortgage deductions for second homes – really?). Why do they favor the rich? Because they’re the ones who can lobby for and influence the enactment of laws that benefit them. With public funding of elections, maybe elected representatives would have to listen to a wider array of constituents (i.e., those without money).

Epiphany #2: We’re Not Getting What We Pay For

It’s become increasingly apparent that elected representatives spend an inordinately amount of time fund-raising, rather than actually focusing on constituent issues. Not convinced? Check out this Mother Jones article as to why a GOP congressman retired, or this Newsweek article recounting a hilarious but sad Last Week Tonight segment by John Oliver.

Epiphany #3: Technology Changes Everything

One of the reasons I was concerned about public funding of elections was the inordinately high cost of buying television ads. I thought the only entities that would benefit would be television stations. But technology fixes that. There are so many more inexpensive ways for candidates to reach voters, whether through blogs, e-mail, Twitter, or some other electronic means. Donald Trump has practically written the handbook for it – which is the only value I can discern about him so far (unless he manages to fracture the Republican party into little, tiny, powerless pieces).

Given what a drain fund-raising is on elected representatives, I’m surprised they’re not all over this idea. Perhaps they don’t want to align themselves with Bernie Sanders. Certainly, it would be anathema – there’s that word again – for Republicans to say they want such a thing, since they’re so dead-set in favor of starving the government (even while availing themselves of police protection, air traffic controllers, fire protection, paved interstates, and other such horrible public-sector funding recipients).

All of them, Democrats and Republicans alike, should just go ahead and vote for such a plan. Hang the public response. That’s politicians’ current mode of operating now anyhow, so why change a good thing?

 

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Technology Is Stupid

Most of my work day is spent writing about how people can use technology to be more efficient, so I’m always surprised when it becomes obvious how brain-dead technology can sometimes be. Sometimes it’s the people behind the technology who’ve had lobotomies, but sometimes, it’s hard to tell one from the other.

Here are several reasons I find technology frustrating:

Plug ugly. Don’t get me wrong – I think the USB standard, which allows computers to accept multiple peripherals using the same socket, is brilliant. But why don’t the plugs have any indication of which way they’re supposed to be plugged in? I’ve had to put little circular orange labels on each of my plugs – not to mention the smaller ones that charge my tablets and smartphone – so I know up from down.

Peripheral vision. Why does my Canon digital camera plug into my new Windows 10 computer and allow me to transfer images without any problem when my Canon scanner won’t do the exact same thing?

Search me. Why are web sites smart enough to know that I visited, but not smart enough to know what I did there? I was writing about Comcast Business Solutions, so I looked up its web site. I’m going to a conference in New York, so I made reservations at the Grand Hyatt. My wife bought Frango’s for some co-workers at Macy’s.com. You can guess what happened next.

I started getting banner ads for Comcast Business Solutions, the Grand Hyatt, and Macy’s. Uh – folks, I either completed my transaction or never intended to. Advertising Frango’s to me after I’ve already bought them is a fruitless endeavor. The more logical banner ad would be either something like Godiva Chocolates – assuming I’m a candy aficionado – or a weight loss program – assuming I’m too much of a candy aficionado.

My new best friend. The associated annoyance to making transactions comes when I have purchased something. Why does Macy’s (or Staples or whomever) suddenly think that I want to get e-mail from them every single week? Who wants that much e-mail? Who wants to go shopping that much? (I know, there are people who love retail therapy.)

Close but no cigar. No one likes pop-up ads. I’m frankly surprised they still exist. But even worse than most pop-up ads are pop-up ads that omit the little x that allows you to close them – or makes it so small or puts it in an odd place that you spend more time searching for the close box that you actually spend at the site. Really – not interested.

Shake shack. The associated aggravation to pop-ups comes when a site populates the ads first, and then the content. Some of the ads appear atop the content, and because they tend to be graphically heavy, they take longer to load. So I’ll be trying to read something, and then the text drops down on the screen, so I have to scroll down to find it. Then, because I haven’t clicked on the ad, it disappears, and the content jumps back up again. The day that I can control ad content on my screen – especially for sites that I pay for – is the day that I’ll be happy.

 Complaints aside, we can do more with technology now than we’ve ever been able to do before. Overall, it’s a godsend. That’s why it’s such a nuisance when, all too often, it just gets stuck on stupid.

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A Trend I’d Like To Counter

Has every newly opened restaurant adopted a new business model that eliminates table service in favor of walk-up counters? If so, put me down as a no vote. I hate it … for so many reasons.

Econ 101. I really don’t understand the point of these places. Are they saving money by eliminating the wait staff? Saving time by avoiding the arcane accounting rules involving tips and minimum wages? They don’t seem to be cheaper or faster than regular restaurants, so who’s deriving the value from this new business model?

Not so fast. Having adopted the efficiency model created by fast-food restaurants, they’ve overlooked one thing. The food in fast-food restaurants is fast because it’s either already prepared, or it’s easy to do so. I was in a restaurant recently where not only did one of the items I ordered take 20 minutes to prepare (something the cashier neglected to tell me), but they forgot to prepare it.

Pay in advance. In a restaurant, there’s some logic to paying at the end of the meal. Did you get everything you wanted? Was it satisfactory? In the foregoing example, the manager told the cashier to refund my money for the forgotten items. If I’d been at a traditional restaurant, we wouldn’t have had to go through that rigmarole. (In fact, I might have just left without any food.)

Wait, wait. Which brings me to the absence of wait staff. As I was wondering about where the heck my food was, I had two choices – ask the lone busboy, who barely spoke English and knew nothing anyway, or go back to the counter and wait for someone to address my problem. Disintermediate the wait staff all you want, but as with other middlemen, they provide a real service – communication between the kitchen and the customer. In a counter restaurant, if the order is incorrect, you have to explain to someone who probably didn’t take your order why there’s a problem. At least with a waitperson, there’s one point of contact. (And oh, by the way, if you want to order more food, an idea most restaurant owners encourage because it brings in more revenue, you don’t have to leave the table to do it.)

Here’s a tip. In a counter restaurant (unlike a fast-food restaurant, usually), there’s a tip jar by the cash register. I like to tip well when the service is good, but tipping when you order is a real crapshoot. I ate in a counter restaurant this weekend where it took 15 minutes to deliver a salad, and one that was tasteless besides. I really wanted to go back to the tip jar and retrieve what I’d left.

Apparently once again I must buck a 21st century trend and yearn for a return to 20th century traditions. When it comes to walk-up counters, I must counter with “no, thanks.”

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What Your Friends Won’t Tell You

Baldwin 0021 smallI wrote several months ago about how, leading up to my 60th birthday, I shed 35 pounds, about the same amount that a small child would weigh. One person asked me if I was going to put out an Amber alert for the toddler I’d lost. I’m happy to report that five months later, even over the holidays, I’ve managed to maintain my weight loss.

But that was only part one of the new me. I promised myself that if I lost a lot of weight, I would reward myself. So not long after I brought my weight down, I got a hair transplant. That’s right – you know all those Boomers getting cosmetic surgery? I’m now one of them.

I hated being bald. I hated the way I laughed it off: “I used to have a receding hairline, but now it’s just gone.” I hated the way my wife laughed it off: “You have more face to love.”

Truth be told, what I really wanted was the hairline I had when I was sixteen. I was cute when I was sixteen. The surgeon, however, informed me that our scalps tighten as we age. A sixteen-year-old hairline on a sixty-year-old scalp would have just looked weird. I accepted her advice.

The result? It’s not as thick as I wanted it to be, but it’s still a work in progress. It looks better than it did before. I now have to (get to) brush my hair in the morning, which I haven’t done for years. I also had a new professional photograph taken, now visible above and on my Facebook and LinkedIn pages.

But here’s the strange thing: nobody notices it. I don’t know whether they’re doing it intentionally or unintentionally. Friends look at the newly svelte me and say, “You look great!” Friends sense that there’s something different, but they refrain from saying, “Didn’t you used to be bald?”

I guess I can understand this. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t walk up to a girl from high school and say, “Who the hell stole your crow’s feet?” or “Have your boobs always been that big?” I also imagine that nobody walks up to Faye Dunaway or Meg Ryan and says, “You know, you really should sue the person who did that to you.”

So if you’re shy about pointing out cosmetic surgery, don’t be. I can dispense with your questions easily. To wit:

  • Yes, it was painful. For weeks I felt like I banged my head on something and for months my scalp itched something awful.
  • Yes, it’s my hair. I have a smile-shaped scar across the back of my head where they harvested the follicles.
  • No, they’re not plugs. The technicians transplanted 4,400 follicles from the back of my head to the top.
  • No, it wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be.
  • Yes, I am now officially a hypocrite. After speaking out for years against breast augmentation and botox, I submitted to the male equivalent.

 

Is this the quieter equivalent of a midlife crisis? Perhaps it is. But I have to say that I’m pretty darn happy with it. My wife said it wasn’t necessary – and even yelled at me as I was going into surgery that I didn’t have to do it. I think she thought that, between losing weight and gaining hair, I wanted to start having affairs, but I quietly informed her that I wanted to look better for her.

I didn’t tell her that I wanted to look better for me too. Because even if nobody else does, I notice the new me.

 

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