The Last Efficient Bureaucrat

So if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that the public sector has gone just a tad topsy-turvy on us. Let’s recap.

Last month, the federal government – the one that makes laws forcing other industries to protect customer data, such as medical records and financial information – was subjected to a massive breach of its personnel database. Sometimes irony is charming, and sometimes it’s just annoying.

Then, this month, in what could have been a report broadcast during Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, the Environmental Protection Agency managed to accidentally unleash a wave of toxic waste into a Colorado river at the height of the tourist season. Yes, this is the same EPA that was created during the Nixon administration to … well, it’s right there in the name … protect the environment. There is no truth to the rumor that it will be renamed the Environmental Destruction Agency.

Then there are the seemingly endless flow of news reports about police officers killing unnamed citizens during traffic stops. Perhaps I say policemen, because none of the offending officers appear to be female, which is odd, because for years men didn’t want women on the force because … oh my god, don’t you know that they can’t control their emotions? If the police force is supposed to protect us, who’s going to protect us from the police?

I’ve often railed about my desire not to have bigger government or smaller government, but more-effective government. I’d love it if government would make things better, but if it can’t, at least don’t make things worse.

Then, in the midst of all this, came a story about a bureaucrat who actually did make things better. The sad part is, it was her obituary, and the heroic stand she took on behalf of the American people took place during the Kennedy administration.

Her name was Frances Oldham Kelsey, and she died recently at age 101. Her efforts especially resonate with Baby Boomers. Why? Because she was the FDA official who suspected that the drug thalidomide wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and refused to approve its sale in the U.S. If Baby Boomers had nightmares as children, part of the reason was likely the horrifying pictures in Life magazine of malformed children whose mothers had taken a drug marketed as Kevadon for morning sickness.

As the New York Times said in Kelsey’s obituary last week, Kevadon’s manufacturer, Merrell, made “glowing claims” for its “safety and effectiveness. Dr. Kelsey, working with a chemist and a pharmacologist, found the evidence for Merrell’s claims about Kevadon to be insufficient. She withheld approval and asked Merrell for more data on toxicity, strength and purity.”

Merrell, of course, had stockpiled the drug in anticipation of FDA approval – which in those days was apparently no more than a rubber-stamp – and stood to lose millions if Kelsey didn’t give the okay. As the Times notes, “The company supplied more data, but also mounted a campaign to pressure Dr. Kelsey. Letters, calls and visits from Merrell executives ensued. She was called a fussy, stubborn, unreasonable bureaucrat. But she refused to be hurried, insisting that there was insufficient proof.”

Even as issues with the drug began to surface, the company insisted the evidence was “inconclusive.” Kelsey stood firm, convinced the company wasn’t forthcoming. Before long, tragically, with the birth of deformed babies in England and Europe, her reticence was proved correct. Although some babies in the U.S. were born with foreshortened arms and legs – because of Kevadon samples physicians had distributed – Kelsey averted a disaster the effects of which would still be reverberating today.

Simply put, she protected us from rapaciousness, arrogance, and error. Why can’t we have bureaucrats like that today?

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The Empty Carrier

GusIs there any sadder sight than a carrier that goes into a vet’s office with a kitty inside, and comes out empty? I have written before of the horror of taking something you love and killing it. Last week it was 12-year-old Gus, one of the sweetest cats who ever owned a human.

Like many cats, he was a mystery. He was born feral, but never manifested their skittish tendencies. He was loving and affectionate, always happy to lay in a kitty bed on my desk (or, too often, between me and the keyboard). In the mornings, I often woke up in bed and found him nestled against my leg, as if the best place in the world was always next to Daddy.

Not so much recently. He’s had multiple bouts of illness since the spring, the most recent being several tumors in his lungs that had spread from some other unknown place in his body. He never figured out how to use the cat stairs I had built into my office desk, and now no longer had the energy to jump up on it. He moved slower, ate less, purred less.

It’s times like this that I can understand the decision one of our neighbors made many years ago. The slow death of their beloved Thumper made them swear off pets. I understand it, but I can’t abide by it. Sure, taking that carrier in never gets any easier, nor does taking it out again empty. Nor will it  be any easier when it comes time for the four cats still left in the house. Yet I love and cherish those purring little wonders.

As always, for Gus, and for his brothers before him, we faced a Hobson’s choice: we didn’t want to give him up, and we didn’t want him to suffer. Sometimes it’s hard to be the adult in a relationship.

I made the appointment for his passing, and waited for the designated time. I went out into the backyard to check on him. In the past few weeks, he’d been hiding under a lavender bush; I wonder if the fragrance was somehow medicinal for him. It’s summer, so work has been slow. No appointments in the morning, no looming deadlines. Nothing to take my mind off the horrible task at hand. I emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and filled it with dirty ones. Mundane things.

When the time came, I gathered him up, carefully, cognizant that he was in pain, and put him in his carrier for his last visit to the vet’s office. When we got there, I cradled him and told him how much I loved him. I sobbed uncontrollably. I said good-bye. I chose the little statue for his ashes.

And then I came back home, feeling emptier than the carrier.

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Leaving Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter Las Vegas.

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

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

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

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

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The Right Regrets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oh, The Stuff You’ll Keep (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Random Rants For A Summer’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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