The Cat That Slipped Away

Zack in Dining Room DoorwayThis is a story about failure. It is about two people who didn’t fail very much during the course of their life facing up to that very fact. That’s the problem with success: as wonderful as it is, when something, even a small thing, goes catastrophically awry, its importance becomes magnified. (The use of the word catastrophically is only a partial pun.)

This is also the story of Zachary (pictured). Of all of our rescue cats, he was the most willful – he never allowed us to pet him, and he was the one who was most interested in scampering outdoors, and the one least likely to return. I’ve written about his disappearances before, but he always came back. He would eventually appear in the front yard, plaintively mewing, his desire for adventure losing to his desire for regular meals.

He disappeared five months ago when we opened the door to let the cats enjoy the summer weather. Zachary went out, and then came back in. He went out, and then came back in. But then something happened that we never reckoned on: the territorial neighbor cat came in and scared everybody out. Rose came back. Max came back. Zachary never did – at least, not in the way that we wanted.

We were sitting in a lecture sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley about free speech when my phone buzzed. “Zachary Has Been Found!” the subject line read. The message – sent by the company whose chip he’d had implanted – told us to call the number of a local vet. But even in that short time, by the time I got through, the veterinarian told me that Zachary had been brought in by a family that found him in their yard. But he was too far gone – from some internal malady, the doctor surmised – and he’d had to euthanize him.

From the highest high to the lowest low in a matter of minutes.

We left the lecture and raced to the clinic. It had a room set aside for mourning, and one of the technicians brought Zachary’s lifeless body into us to say good-bye. It was one of the first and last times we had been able to pet him. We’d never even been able to hold him on our laps when he was a kitten. His fur was still lustrous. He was thinner than when he’d left, but he’d obviously found nourishment somewhere. As with any pet, even one that didn’t love us, it was hard to say goodbye.

And the fact that he didn’t love us was the toughest part about saying goodbye to Zachary. Thankfully, we got the closure of holding him one last time. We’d never have to peer in to the bushes, wondering if he was lurking there. We’d never have to wonder if he’d died alone and in pain. Nevertheless, the sad fact was that we’d failed him. We’d fostered feral cats before, and seen them become remarkably affectionate. Our most loving kitty, Billy, wandered into our yard two Decembers ago and never left. He goes out, but he always comes back. Why wouldn’t Zachary come back? We couldn’t have loved him any more than we did. Why did he choose the noise and the unfamiliarity and the uncertainty of the world over a house full of cat toys and Fresh Catch? For two people used to succeeding at most of the efforts they’ve put their mind to, the failure to nurture Zachary stings.

Our friend Barbarah is more easygoing about these things. She texted that Zachary was still wild at heart and was following his spirit. Indeed, he did live the last months of his life on his own terms. That’s somewhat inspirational, but no less sad in the end.

The day after Zachary passed away, I drove to the gym. When I opened the car door, there on the pavement, right where I couldn’t possibly miss it, was a penny, the legendary symbol that a loved one is sending a message from beyond. That rascal. Even though he’d slipped away from us, he made sure we knew he was still waiting for us at the Rainbow Bridge.

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The Dish Best Served Cold

My friend Amy’s mother has a saying: everything works out for the best. But sometimes when you’re in the middle of a really aggravating situation, it’s hard to see how that’s anywhere on the horizon.

I was reminded of this when I got an e-mail recently with the noncommittal subject line “Hi.” E-mails with that subject line are either from really close friends or really complete strangers.

When I opened it, I found myself reading a solicitation to refinance our house from a guy whose name was strangely familiar (I’ll exclude it here to save him even more embarrassment). It took me only a moment to realize who it was and where I knew him from.

Nine years ago, in the midst of the last recession, we were attempting to refinance our house with the Bank of America, an institution that I’d patronized for 35 years. That’s 35 years, not 3.5 years. Unlike so many other properties around that time, our house was not underwater; it had lost much of its appreciation, certainly, but we were in search of a lower interest rate. Unfortunately, my freelance income had also dropped, as it tended to do during recessions, and even though my spouse was still gainfully employed, the bank kept stalling and stalling, asking for more and more documentation. The guy who’d e-mailed me was the loan officer we had been working with, a guy who seemed absolutely powerless to intervene on our behalf and get the bank to either refinance or just flat out turn us down.

Finally, asked for one insane piece of documentation, I just said no. We ended up refinancing with another institution, and in high dudgeon, I closed all my Bank of America accounts: checking, savings, credit cards, and brokerage.

When I closed the Merrill Lynch brokerage account, I was surprised to see that almost half of my money was invested in Bank of America stock. I was surprised that that was even legal, but it turned out that it’s not illegal, because Merrill Lynch was a division (or subsidiary, or something) of Bank of America. It may have been unethical, but it was not illegal. That was in 2008.

As this wonderful transcript from NPR recalls, Bank of America had bought a mortgage-lending company called Countrywide Financial the same year. NPR called this “quite simply the worst deal in the history of the financial services industry.” The following year, 2009, as the recession deepened, it turned out that a lot of Countrywide’s mortgages were not just bad, but black, mushy, squirting rotten banana bad. Bank of America lost $40 billion on the Countrywide deal, and its stock dropped 90 percent.

Which didn’t bother me anymore, because I no longer owned any.

It’s for situations like this that the Germans coined the word schadenfreude.

As I disclosed in 2013, we jettisoned the financial institution we moved our accounts to and went back to the Bank of America. I did not open another Merrill Lynch account, though.

I thought about just deleting the e-mail from the mortgage broker (who is now with still another financial institution), but I replied and told him that because of this reverse windfall, I really should thank him. But no, I wasn’t interested in his help in any sort of refinancing.

And Amy’s mother is still right after all these years.

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Flirting With Disaster

My sister-in-law is a firefighter in Contra Costa County, what we call the East Bay. Her unit, like most others across California, was called in to fight the Wine Country fires to the west of her and the north of us. She texted that she’d spent two days in Santa Rosa “watching the world come to an end.” She is not prone to hyperbole.

San Francisco Skyline

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island, Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The sky this week looked and smelled downright apocalyptic. The sun cast strange apricot shadows even at midday. The San Francisco skyline was mired in haze that wasn’t fog. It looked like one of those really hideous pictures of Los Angeles shrouded in smog.

Just as someone’s passing reminds us of previous deaths, current disasters bring memories of past tragedies. For me, it’s mostly how I’ve skirted them. I remember walking out to my car in Seattle one day in 1980 and running my finger through a grimy layer of ash from Mt. St. Helens. (Coincidentally, I was on a weekend jaunt with a high school friend in southwestern Washington, not far from the volcano, the morning of the eruption; to my eternal annoyance, I didn’t hear the boom because I was in the shower.)

In 1989, I worked for a magazine whose publisher had season tickets to San Francisco Giants baseball games. In one of the sweetest gestures he ever made, he distributed his playoff and World Series tickets to the staff. That was how I happened to be at Candlestick Park the evening of the Loma Prieta earthquake. When I returned to my Palo Alto apartment, the extent of the damage was a toppled lamp.

Now out of the Wine Country comes phrases like “cluster fires” and “zero containment,” phrases we are not used to hearing. The air here in the South Bay, just 90 miles away, intermittently smells as though our next door neighbors have a fire roaring in the fireplace. Despite the cancellation of weekend hikes we’d planned, and the potential postponement of this weekend’s football games, our lives continue unabated. Yet the smell is a constant reminder of others’ lives disrupted and discombobulated – and not just this week, but for years to come, given how much the Wine Country relies on tourism. Though much of it is untouched, who wants to drive through a moonscape on vacation?

It’s not that we’re immune where we are, I know. The foothills, full of dry brush and trees, are only a few miles away. So is the San Andreas Fault, for that matter. Our time may yet come. We sit here wondering how much time we might have, what we would save, and how the heck to corral feral cats that won’t even let us pick them up into carriers. (We’ve done it before, so I’m confident we’ll figure out how to do it again.) I wrote earlier this year about my brushes with death, and wonder if others are yet to come. I sniff the acrid air, and wonder.

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The Upside of Obsessions and Compulsions

PassportObsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) doesn’t run in my family; it sprints. I once lived in an apartment with a back door leading out of the kitchen. There was a light switch both at the back door and at the doorway that lead into the living room. If I was at the door to the living room and I needed to turn out the lights, I would use the switch that would ensure that the lights were off and both toggles were down, because that was the appropriate position for off … even if it meant crossing to the back door to do it. That, my friends, is OCD at its best.

You would have thought that retirement would have relaxed me a bit. Oh, so not true. Ever since the moment two years ago when a United ticket agent at the Buenos Aires Airport regretfully informed me that my reservations were for the following evening’s flight, I’ve tried to be very careful. I appreciate airlines and hotels pinging me 24 hours before my travels, notifying me that it’s time to check-in, but it doesn’t help. Even knowing that my boarding pass is on my phone doesn’t calm me down.

I don’t know why travel puts in me in such a tizzy. It may date back to the time I landed in the Cayman Islands as a wholly dysfunctional travel editor, only to find that the tourist office had forgotten I was coming. No one was there to pick me up, and I had no idea where I was supposed to be staying. If not for the Cayman Airways employee who was far calmer than I was, I’m not sure what I would have done. Several years ago, preparing to fly to Vancouver for an Alaska cruise, I dutifully put our chosen flight into my calendar but neglected to call the airline to make reservations. That was fun when I realized my mistake (but we did get to fly to Vancouver first class, since those were the only seats available).

So until I have my butt in the seat of the aircraft, I worry. I worry about having an accident on the way to the airport. I worry about other people having an accident on the way to the airport, and creating a traffic tie-up. I worry about security lines, even though, as a TSA Pre member, I rarely see one. I worry about my seat being double-booked.

As we began on our recent jaunt to England, the car service was taking us to San Francisco International Airport, with plenty of time to catch our flight, even though we were leaving on the front edge of rush hour. First I dug my phone out of my carry-on to make sure that the flight was really departing at the time when I thought it was. It was, and I put the phone back.

Then I checked to see if the passports and our Global Entry cards were still in my carry-on, even though I’d shown them to my wife before we left the house. This is a condition of actually leaving the house, the confirmation by two parties that we have our documentation. (In database technology and distributed systems, this is known as a two-phase commit; I don’t know what it’s called in the real world, but it’s really, really important.)

Then I dug my phone out of my carry-on again to make sure the flight was really departing that day, and not the following day (or worse, the previous day). It was, and I put the phone back.

Each time I chastised myself for being such a worry-wart … right up until the moment we got to the check-in counter in the international terminal at the airport, where I was vindicated. In front of us was a couple frantically arguing in a foreign language. As near as I could tell, based on what the husband said to the ticket agent, his wife had left her passport at home. Given the rush hour traffic, there was no way she could get home and back without missing their flight to Taipei. Who the hell leaves home for a flight to China without making sure they have their passport? Clearly, these two had never heard of a two-phase commit.

Call it karma, call it kismet, call it whatever you want … I felt better about my OCD right then and there.

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Welcome To Code Blue

It’s time for the change of seasons, but instead of moving from summer to fall, when the leaves shift from green to amber, we’re shifting from scandal fatigue to disaster fatigue. For those of you keeping track at home, there are record-high temperatures and fires in the west; hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean; and earthquakes in Mexico. Fox News is reporting that locusts are on direct approach to the Midwest, but that may be more appropriately be spelled Faux News (still pronounced the same way).

What this brings to mind is nothing more than Patient Earth approaching terminal status. It started with increasing temperatures (fever) and is manifesting itself in sweats (flooding), shivers (earthquakes), and severe burning sensations (fires). If I didn’t know better, I would think that the earth is doing its level best to divest itself of these parasites it calls humans. Like any body under attack from overdevelopment and undernourishment, it’s fighting back the only way it knows how.

Like an aging smoker and overeater, the Earth is no doubt feeling its arteries clogged with plastic and its lungs clogged with pollutants. Does it sense that specific parasites – identified by scientists as Trumpium and Pruitticium – are working to exacerbate these maladies? The patient has been feeling so good for so many decades – less pollution, no more lakes catching on fire, more recycling – that it’s probably wondering why things are suddenly taking a turn for the worse. It’s not age-related, because the earth has been around too long for that. No, these are external maladies. No wonder the patient is working so hard to eradicate the cause of its discomfort.

The only question that remains is whether we’ll come up with ways to minimize the symptoms (oh, say, like not paving over a city built on a bayou so that it actually has some drainage capabilities when a hurricane hits, or not warming the oceans so much that melting polar ice caps start drowning people). If we’re not part of the cure, we’re surely doomed to be the disease.

 

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Nonsense and Sensibility, Public Sector Division

As a liberal, I’m still trying to figure out what happened last November. I don’t want to be one of those people who repeats the past because they forgot what happened. What happened, of course, was this: almost 63 million people preferred a misogynistic, ethically challenged, inexperienced braggart to a seasoned politician.

Think about what that really means. Hillary Clinton had her drawbacks, no doubt, and for many of us, they paled in comparison to Trump’s.  Yet tens of millions of people trusted someone with no experience in government over someone with years of experience in government.

This wasn’t solely just a factor in the presidential election. Republicans have a majority in the Senate and in the House. Just a few short years after many of us thought changing American demographics would doom the Republican party, or at least severely minimize its effectiveness, they’re in charge – dominantly. I’m trying to figure this out.

Of course, I have a theory. I wouldn’t be writing about this if I didn’t. It comes down, as the Republicans love pointing out, to one thing: money. Citizens don’t trust the government to do what it’s supposed to do. As I’ve said many times before, it’s not a question of big government or small government; it’s a question of efficient government. And citizens don’t see that – probably because it’s not there. The government spends billions on homelessness – and there are still homeless. The governments spends billions on law enforcement – and there’s still crime. The government spends billions on transportation – and there’s still gridlock.

Even a liberal like myself can easily come up with examples of how the local, regional, and state governments routinely misuse my money.

Item: One Saturday in our cul-de-sac, a tree branch fell. SIX city workers showed up to analyze and rectify the situation, all of them probably on overtime. The branch needed no more than two people to deal with it.

Item: Several years ago, the county spent billions of dollars building a light-rail transportation system – except it didn’t go to the airport; it was deemed too expensive. No one remembers the part about the money now – they only know that they have a public transportation system that doesn’t work vert well.

Item: Just this weekend, we were on a state highway and saw a caution sign reading, “Left lane closed ahead,” following by one communicating the same sentiment graphically. There was no lane closed. The road workers had either forgotten or were too lazy to remove the signs, which caused a slowdown while drivers prepared for the imaginary merge.

All of these are just everyday, ongoing reminders that government (like corporations) are really only out for themselves. If you had a contractor who’d bungled a job and then came back and asked for more money, you’d throw him out on his ear. And that essentially is what American citizens have done. They’ve looked at the Democrats and decided that the party has never seen a government program it didn’t like. They’ve concluded that because the extant government programs don’t seem to serve the public, there’s no reason to believe that any new ones will. So they’ve turned to the party which – even though it has some rather bizarre and contradictory notions about things like say, keeping the government out of private lives and outlawing abortion, which is as private as it gets – promises to save them money.

What’s the answer? In my mind, it’s for government has to stop acting fat and sassy and start being more productive. Start serving its constituents first. I’m not saying it should be run as a business – that’s not possible. I don’t want to have to call the police department the same way I call United Airlines, with my credit card handy. Governments need to be more accountable. They need to start explaining a little more clearly what they’re doing, why we’re doing it, what it costs, and show some tangible evidence that yes, they’re actually trying to budget and disperse taxpayers’ money as if it were our own.

That is the only way liberals can overcome anything the Republicans throw at us, from gerrymandering to voter restrictions or anything else. We have to create something that runs so well, people stop noticing it, like a great movie soundtrack. Then and only then will citizens stop listening to the people who want to starve government and start listening to the people who want government to be a healthy contributor to everyday life.

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Who Paved The Way For Donald Trump?

There’s nothing like finding an old movie that just reeks of prescience. The most prominent example is Network (1976), which not only imagined more than three television networks, but the idea of combining news and entertainment. My favorite, however, is an HBO movie about the 2008 election called Game Change. (Though it takes its name from the book by political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, the movie actually only focuses on the Palin campaign; don’t buy it thinking you’ll get a more in-depth version of the movie.)

The movie is most well-known for Julianne Moore’s Emmy-winning performance as Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. But every time I watch it, it becomes clearer to me: That election was really the precursor of the groundswell that became the Donald Trump presidency – that is, the election of someone whose charisma exceeded his capability. Even Obama himself presaged Trump. On one of his campaign stops, he said, “You understand that in this election the greatest risk we can take is to try the same old politics with the same old players and expect a different result.”

But what’s glaring is the comparisons between the candidates in 2008 and the one who was elected in 2016. As political consultant Steve Schmidt (played by Woody Harrelson) says in the movie about Obama, “A man of no accomplishment has become the biggest celebrity in the world. What we need to do is ask the American people a very simple question: do you want a statesman to be your next president, or do you want a celebrity?”

But who did the Republicans select for the vice-presidency but someone who could bring that kind of celebrity to their campaign? Schmidt frequently refers to Palin as a “star,” “a red-light performer” (as in, when the camera comes on, so does she), and “the best actress in American politics.”

Even though the ticket lost, it’s no surprise that the incipient desires that gave us Sarah Palin kept bubbling up and gave us someone who is – as Palin is portrayed in the movie – unqualified, emotionally unstable, and plays fast and loose with the truth. 2008 was just the dress rehearsal for 2016.

Item: CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said about her intelligence: “It’s not that she doesn’t know the right answer. It’s that she clearly doesn’t understand the question. This is way beyond anything we have seen from a national candidate.”

Item: During an exchange between Palin and a reporter when he asks her about Troopergate, she says, “I was thrilled to be cleared of all wrongdoing,” to which Schmidt later says, “You can’t say that, because you weren’t! You’ve got to stop saying things to the press that are blatantly untrue.”

Item: This quote from John McCain (played by Ed Harris): “There is a dark side to American populism. Some people win elections by tapping into it.”

Do those statements remind you of anyone?

Keep in mind that this movie was released in 2012. Donald Trump didn’t announce his candidacy until 2015. But the movie foretold the future best when Schmidt, knowing the Republicans had lost the election, lamented, “This wasn’t a campaign. It was a bad reality show.”

 

 

 

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