Dave

Dave FlackIt’s funny how things turn out.

Back when I had first entered technology publishing, in the 80s, I was hired for a job for a very specific reason: the editor-in-chief hated talking to vendors. Unfortunately, talking to vendors is part of the landscape of technology publishing, because the publisher always wants vendors to turn into advertisers.

This editor, whose name was Dave Flack (left), had a brainstorm: why not hire an editor whose job it was to talk to vendors? Voila, the products editor, and not long afterwards, voila, me. Products became my raison d’etre. I contributed monthly on a new single product; a round-up of traditional products; and listings of new products. I also wrote the occasional product feature.

For the round-ups, I covered the incredibly prosaic: uninterruptible power supplies, disk drives, Ethernet boards (yes, there used to be something called Ethernet boards). And in the new products section, because I was making the publisher so happy, Dave pretty much let me do almost anything I liked. That was how the new products listings ended up with descriptors like this:

Forget Your Troubles, C’mon Get HLLAPI [an IBM terminal emulation protocol]
Send in the Clones [PCs running Unix]
Driving Miss ESDI [a Maxtor disk-drive interface]
Acceleraiders of the Lost Ark [technology to speed up processors]
Yes, Sir, DAT’s My Baby [digital audio tape drives]
Hi-Ho, The Merry-O, The Unix in the Dell [Dell’s first PC running Unix]
It SIMMs We’ve Met Before [optional plug-in memory]

Dave probably thought he was banishing me to the third level of hell, but I thrived on that job. For someone who had only recently gotten into technology, it was like getting a master’s degree in every single component that not only went into a computer, but into a computer network. I wrote about stuff that most people never had a chance to delve into.

But our relationship was more than professional. Dave, as a recovering alcoholic, helped me in numerous ways as I was dealing with my own co-dependent recovery. I had a deep fear of speaking in public, and was horrified one day when he asked me to represent the publication on a conference panel. “What if they ask me a question I can’t answer?” I gasped. “Like what?” he said, in that calm, annoying Socratic voice of his. “I don’t know!” I fairly shrieked. “Well,” he replied, “there’s your answer.”

Ours was not a perfect relationship. When the executive editor resigned, I naturally and arrogantly assumed that I would be the logical person to take over the position. Neither Dave nor the publisher agreed with that assessment, and they hired someone with a background in newspaper publishing. When the newspaper guy left for a tech publishing start-up, I was once again passed over for the job – except the newspaper guy soon called me and asked if I wanted to bring all that product expertise I’d gained to his new publication.

In his desire to avoid vendors, Dave had inadvertently given me the foundation for an amazing career in technology publishing. At any subsequent job interview, when someone asked if I’d written about a particular product, I could say, hell, yes. I owe Dave Flack all that.

And so Dave and I remained friends. He and his wife even eventually joined my church, and we enjoyed a new phase of interaction. Last year we toasted their 50th wedding anniversary. By then, we had known each other almost thirty years.

But the problem with being this age is that sometimes the happily-ever-afters go awry. Dave died today after a bout with pneumonia. I sit here enjoying a fantastic retirement, its roots nurtured by far more people than just that ambitious, arrogant products editor of so many years ago. I sit here basking in the afternoon sunshine, in great part because Dave Flack needed someone to talk to vendors. And I was lucky enough for me to be that someone, and for me to be his friend forever after.

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The Strangest Place I’ve Ever Been

Sometimes I write about travel. Sometimes I write about politics. Sometimes I have the unique opportunity to combine the two.

Last month we took a National Geographic tour of Cuba. We wanted to get there before Havana turned into Miami. Somehow, that seems unlikely. Cuba is a very strange place unto itself, and highly resistant to change.

The closest metaphor I can offer for Cuba is one that Kurt Vonnegut created in Slaughterhouse Five: the precept of being “unstuck in time.” Vonnegut’s hero, Billy Pilgrim, if you remember, finds himself sliding between World War II, present day, and a future in space. That’s Cuba, and more.

Like most places in the western hemisphere, Cuba has a territorial history. Spanish explorers came in, decimated the indigenous peoples, and colonized away. Sit down in the central square of the city of Trinidad, close your ears to the car motors, and you could imagine being back in the 19th century.

Or sit down in Parque Central in Havana and open your eyes and ears to a different century. Swirling around you on the streets are the vaunted output of 1950s Detroit in a rainbow of original and not-so-original colors. IMG_1255As Jimmy Buffett sang, “you’ve got fins to the left and fins to the right.” It was like the streets of my childhood.

Except that interspersed between those American behemoths are a remarkable number of AvtoVAZ-built Ladas from Russia, representing the halcyon days in the 1980s wheIMG_1039n the Soviet Union was Cuba’s primary trading partner and responsible for bolstering its economy. And then there are the Transtur buses everywhere. These are the state-owned buses that transport the new influx of tourists everywhere. That’s the 21st century sliding by. They all combine to create some sort of weird time-travel confusion like the scene in Ghostbusters where the Titanic disgorges its passengers.

There are other reasons why Cuba struck me as strange. For one thing, the people are very happy there. Even the ones who have the ability to occasionally jump the straits and shop in the Florida hardware stores dutifully come back. They love their free health care and education. They ignore the fact that their infrastructure is crumbling around them; you walk past buildings in downtown Havana, look up, and see there are no roofs there. IMG_0962They are not willing to forego the advantages of their socialist system for the disadvantages.

To my mind, they’ve been brainwashed, both about their own government and ours. In America, they’re told, there are gangs and lawyers. The gangs hurt you illegally and the lawyers hurt you legally. Question: if there’s no crime in Cuba, why are there chain-link fences in front of so many houses and bars on so many windows? There may be no violent crime in Cuba, but that’s what happens when only the police and the military are allowed to carry guns. Any dictator can keep you safe, if that’s the kind of safety you want. As much as I’m in favor of gun control, I also believe there really is a reason for the Second Amendment in the Constitution.

The much-repeated response about crime is only one facet of the intellectual dishonesty that seems rife among Cubans. They love their government, but they’re frequently looking for ways to subvert it. There’s a saying: “Cubans always find a way.” If you think American ingenuity is something, try Cuban ingenuity. Those finned American wonders only run today because of a whole lot of finagling and jury-rigging. It’s a wonder they run at all. When we toured a cigar factory, the workers closest to the tourists had the advantage of offering us boxes for sale, but only when the supervisors weren’t watching.

If the American government really wanted to screw the Cuban government, it would lift the embargo tomorrow. But as long as the Cuban government can tell its citizens that it can’t serve their needs because the Americans won’t lift the longtime embargo, it’s safe. Without the scapegoat of the embargo, I suspect Cubans would begin to see that it’s their government that’s causing most of the citizens’ problems. Only one Cuban was willing to speak the truth about the socialist political system, and even then only sideways: “Without ownership, there is no honor.”

The greatest irony of the trip – given that we wanted to go before Havana turned into Miami – was that before our flight back to San Francisco, there was no water in the Miami Airport for five hours. No flushing toilets, no coffee, nothing. There were a lot of people trying to fix it, many of them speaking Spanish. So while it seems doubtful that Havana will become more like Miami anytime soon, it seems that Miami is already becoming more like Havana.

 

 

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Reflections On A Career

Many years ago, I asked my father when he retired what he did all day. He thought a moment and shrugged, “The day goes by.” He neglected to add that the days go by really, really fast. Ironically, that’s exactly how I feel about the last forty years. They went by – really, really fast.

I neglected to devote a post to this at the time, but I decided last year that forty years as a professional writer was long enough. My first magazine article – an interview with the technical adviser for Jaws, who worked at Stanford – was published in 1976. Last year, I saw per-word rates inexorably dropping. I could have continued, but the idea of doing the same amount of work for less money annoyed me. I joined my wife in retirement.

What do we do? We hike more. We exercise more. I do more crossword puzzles. I’m cooking more of the recipes I’ve collected over the years. I’m spending more time on fiction.

All that worry and wonder. It still seems so vivid. The joy of the Seattle startup finally getting funding. The realization that I was never going to make a satisfactory income as a travel writer and finding my way into technology. The anguish of the layoffs (two by the same company, which had recruited me both times), one coming just a week after we’d bought our first house. The determination I applied to gaining missing experience whenever someone told me I hadn’t gotten a job because I lacked a certain qualification. The surprise when my freelancing career took off, enabling me to set my own schedule, set aside more retirement dollars, stop commuting, and have more control over my schedule.

So many snapshots in time:

  • promising my co-workers that I would tape Monica’s answer to my marriage proposal on the door of my office so they’d see it when they arrived the following morning
  • delighting in the publisher’s distribution of Giants’ playoff tickets to the staff, randomly putting me at Candlestick Park the day the Loma Prieta earthquake struck
  • realizing with a queasy feeling that some bosses didn’t care how impossible it was to execute a project, because they didn’t have to do the work themselves
  • hearing my boss say that one of my co-workers had resigned and that I was being promoted into his job, a position I’d lusted after for years
  • advising someone while working at Macworld magazine during one of Apple’s self-destructive phases to sell the stock if it ever got back up to 22 (it’s now at 143, and I hope that guy never finds me)
  • grasping that no, I wasn’t flying to a telecommunications conference in San Diego the afternoon of September 11, 2001 (wish I could find that airline ticket)
  • proofreading final pages of an issue that had been overnighted to me while I was vacationing at the Hilton Waikoloa

It all went by in a flash. So many worries, all for naught. So much anguish over interviews, clips, typos, all dissipated into time. The funny thing is, as fast as it went, I’m pretty sure the next forty years are going to fly by much more quickly.

 

 

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Farewell, My Lovely Mustang

When men look back on selling their beloved sporty convertibles, it’s almost always with regret. Even being painfully aware of those stories, I sold my 1989 Mustang convertible this week. It was time.

I loved that car. It symbolized so much more than just a thirty-something’s desire for a convertible. It was my first new car. I bought it without asking for help from my parents with the down payment. (This surprised the hell out of my mother, not to mention me.) It was a talisman of my recovery, of my shedding my enmeshment from my parents, of my first steps into financial independence.

And I associate so many fond memories with that car. I was driving to the beach one day, and noticed my cousin in the car next to me with some friends. I waved. My cousin later told me that one of her friends shrieked, “Andee! That cute guy in the convertible is waving at you!”

I took it on long driving trips, so much so that I racked up 17,000 miles on it the first year. I throttled back on those after a while, but I loved traversing the open road with the top down and the wind blowing through what little hair I had at the time.

Once, when it was still pretty new, my friend Andrew and I took it on a trip through central California, sticking to back roads as much as possible. We found ourselves on a road so isolated that it wasn’t even paved. We stopped at a gas station later and pulled out a map to see which back road we should take next. We asked the attendant about one intriguing option, but he looked at the Mustang and said, “No, that’s the Parkfield grade. I wouldn’t take a car this nice on that road.” We returned to poring over the map, only to quickly realize that the road we’d driven in on was indeed the Parkfield grade.

It was also the car I was driving when I picked up the woman who’s now my wife for our first date. (I admit I started getting a little weepy when I remembered this particular significance, but I sold it anyway.) It turned out she hated convertibles, but was discreet enough not to say anything until after we were engaged. This may beg the question why I haven’t gotten rid of it before this, but like I say – I loved that car.

But recently, it just sat in the garage. I bought a hybrid Lincoln a year or so ago that we absolutely love – smooth, comfortable, and always delivering at least 40 miles per gallon. It’s more our style now. I’m no longer that thirty-something. It was time for someone else to enjoy it.

Am I going to be one of those sixty-somethings with regrets? Somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve already decided what to do with the space in the garage where the Mustang was – I’m setting up an electric train set. The boys stay the same; only their toys change.

 

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Ticking Down My Nine Lives

Sometimes I wonder if I was a cat in a former life. I love cats. I like sitting up high and looking out windows. There are times in my life when I would purr if I could. Case in point: my recent brush with death, which I won, thank you very much.

The first time I cheated death was on the Skykomish River, back in 1979. I worked for a magazine covering adventurous travel, and one of my co-workers ran a river-rafting company. Late that spring, when the rapids were still rushing and the water still snowmelt-cold, a group of us went out to scout the river for potential trips.

Because it was so cold, I rented a wetsuit, but I hadn’t put the headpiece on so I could hear my co-worker’s navigational instructions. The Skykomish that day, he later estimated, was rated at about 4-plus on a scale of 5 (1 equates to flatwater and 5 to, well, suicide). Not too far into the voyage, we wrapped on a rock and the icy waters swept me out of the raft.

Chaos ensued. Some of the rafters tried to get us off the rock, but one of them – another co-worker named Kyle – grabbed my headpiece to keep me from being swept downriver. A couple of years before, I had gone rafting on the south fork of California’s American River, where there’s a place known as Swimmer’s Rapids. It’s calm enough that rafters frequently disembark their boats and float down the river. The Skykomish was not like that, but that didn’t stop me, with the cold water diminishing my intelligence, from telling Kyle to let me go so I could swim downriver. He ordered me to get back into the boat. Slowly, I agreed.

Funny epilogue: I have never forgotten Kyle and always wanted to tell him how much I appreciated him saving my life. I finally found him on Facebook a few months ago and messaged him, expressing my gratitude and asking if he remembered me. His unexpected response: “In my eight years as a professional rafter, I probably saved a hundred people from drowning. So, no, sorry, I don’t remember you.”

I’m not sure this next instance counts as cheating death, but I was once on this flight into Houston during a rainstorm when it became clear that we were descending nowhere near an actual runway. We went up and around again and landed safely.

The next time I brushed up against death was also airline-related. A business trip to Sydney involved sitting in coach for a long stretch (really, not the right word, because I couldn’t). When I returned to the United States, I started having shortness of breath, and although I thought I was having an anxiety attack, when my doctor heard I’d just returned from Australia, he tersely said, “I’ll meet you in the emergency room.” An ensuing procedure showed multiple pulmonary emboli, aka blood clots, the things that kill people most of the time. My wife, the physician, still reminds me that I didn’t listen to her, and I still remind her that, even though I was in the hospital for a week, I’m still not dead.

Which brings us to late last year. Fran Leibowitz once wisely said, “Adolescence is the last time you’re excited to hear the phone is for you.” And in fact, as we age, the list of things we don’t want to hear gets longer. Way up high on the list is your gastroenterologist saying, “There’s this abnormality in your colon we need to investigate further because it might be malignant.”

Mine delivered this judgment to me recently. I much preferred the last thing he’d said to me ten years ago, which was, “See you in ten years.” Those ten years passed far too fast.

The recommended testing for these “abnormalities,” was something known as an endoscopic ultrasound. Of course, BOTH the colonoscopy and the ultrasound required drinking that charming overnight preparation that resembles Sprite that’s been both over-sweetened and over-salted. My hilarious gastroenterologist refers to this as a “tsunami-in-a-box.” There were three possible outcomes to the ultrasound: the abnormality was nothing; the abnormality was something, but could be excised during the course of the procedure; or the abnormality was something, and would require surgery. I got the Let’s Make A Deal equivalent of the mule behind door number 3: surgery.

The procedure is known as a partial colectomy. It involves removing the part of the colon where the suspected malignancy had taken up residence, along with everything else in the vicinity. Think about those massive urban renewal projects of the 1960s, where they’d rip out entire neighborhoods, and you have some idea of what happened to me.

The subsequent pathology report revealed that the malignancy had not spread. Physically, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus, and emotionally, I felt like I’d missed a plane that had later crashed. One of our friends who’d had colon cancer warned me that after the colectomy, I would fart more. As one who is all too familiar with flatulence, I had to ask, “How will I able to tell?”

So here I am, a testament to the value of regular colon screenings. I hesitate to call myself a “cancer survivor” because I never had to undergo chemotherapy, but unfortunately, whenever a physician asks any of my relatives if someone in their family had colon cancer, they have to say yes.

But I have cheated death once again. Six more lives to go, five if you count Houston.

 

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Regrets, I’ve Had A Few

The hullaballoo over the first inaugural song for our newly crowned (because I’m still not convinced he was really elected) President got me thinking about one of the more wistful lines of “My Way”: “Regrets, I’ve had a few.”

Actually, I’ve been thinking about regrets for a while now, ever since I retired professionally in October. I’ve been struck by how few of them I really have, and how lucky that makes me. Looking back over my life and career (so closely intertwined for so long), I wonder why I stressed so much. Unlike so many other boomers, who’ve found themselves cast adrift in their 50s by age discrimination and other idiocies, everything turned out fine.

Still …

Regret #1: Not attending a real liberal arts college. After winning a national essay-writing contest in high school, I received invitations from a lot of small eastern and Midwestern liberal arts colleges,  including Oberlin and Kenyon, asking me to apply. I wish I’d pursued these a little more assiduously. As I’ve said before, though, a Stanford diploma deserves no sympathies.

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: Not spending a semester overseas. I was such a lily-livered wimp that I was actually scared of the idea of going to Cliveden or Florence. I mean, they spoke English in Cliveden, so what would have been the big deal? As it turned out, the first country I ever visited outside of North America was Morocco, where I went on a travel-writing assignment. That probably doesn’t deserve any sympathies either.

Regret #4: Not getting comfortable with computers sooner. I was such a lily-livered wimp that I was actually convinced I would never understand personal computers. Even though writing about them represented the late 20th-century version of the gold rush, I hung on like grim death to my dream of being either a travel writer or a screenwriter. After that dream faded, I went on to write about everything from games to mainframes and chips that ran them for thirty years.

Regret #5: 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 now 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. (The 49ers won, 37-20.)

Regret #6: 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 #7: 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 learned from.

 

 

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No Such Thing As An Overnight Failure

The cry goes up, as Macy’s and Sears announce plans to close even more stores, what hath Amazon wrought?

To which I answer, “Not a thing.”

A couple of stories from my distant past:

No. 1: There was a Sears store in the first shopping center I ever visited as a child. My mother alternated between the Co-op and the Purity store, two retail chains that have long since disappeared (also without Amazon’s help), as well as a toy store. I liked that mall, as outdated and mid-50s as it eventually came to be (it’s completely torn down and redone now).

But as an adult, I would occasionally visit the Sears store. It would be hard to find clerks, and the merchandise was never quite as good as other department stores. But what really floored me one day was when I wrote a check for a purchase. This shows you how long ago it was – the idea of a debit card was still years in the future. In those days, when you wrote a check, cashiers asked for two forms of identification, which was usually a driver’s license and a credit card.

I handed over both, the latter an American Express card. The clerk looked at it as if he’d never seen one before, and then at me. “Don’t you have a Visa card?” I looked at him like he was an idiot, which he was, took back the American Express card, and handed him my Visa card. But I began to associate Sears with a lower social strata.

No. 2: There was a time when Macy’s was my default store: clothing, housewares, gifts, you name it. It always struck me, in an age when it was more efficient to retain a customer to get a new one, that having someone like me was retail nirvana.

We had bought a trio of candle holders at Macy’s, each one a metal stand of staggered height into which a glass neatly slid. Nothing fancy, but elegant enough for our young household. Of course, one of the cats knocked over one of the stands, breaking the glass. Dutifully, I took the metal stand back to the store so that they could order another piece of glass for me.

“Oh, we can’t do that,” said the clerk immediately. I didn’t understand. I’d bought the item there. They knew who the manufacturer was. The manufacturer could surely ship a replacement piece of glass. It wasn’t like I was asking for them to replace it without charge. The answer was still an unqualified no.

Being a good default customer, I wrote to Macy’s corporate. Surely, this was just the ravings of a lazy clerk. Surely, it was not. In response to my letter, I received an ungrammatical, ungrateful response not from an executive, but from an executive’s assistant, confirming that indeed, Macy’s had absolutely no interest in helping to keep my candle holders trilaterally intact.

We stopped going to Macy’s (although we will occasionally drop in for Frango’s, even though they make them really hard to find).

My point is that both of these events are from the distant past. The first happened long before Amazon was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’ eye, and the second one long before Amazon became a retail powerhouse. Online commerce did not cripple Sears, Macy’s, and their ilk. Sears, Macy’s, and their ilk crippled themselves by turning a deaf ear to customer needs, customer service, and just plain customers. They may have felt they were immune in the past when they were hot stuff, but when alternatives appeared, guess what? Customers disappeared.

What’s not yet obvious is whether online retailers, by virtue of the fact that they can maintain their electronic distance via e-mail and phone prompts from hell, will tread the same path. One hopes they remember that no matter how or where the transaction takes place, there are always people to worry about: the potentially dissatisfied customers who will take their business elsewhere, and the upstart retailers who will welcome them with open arms.

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