The Three Rules of Marriage

My youngest niece announced her engagement recently, which triggered thoughts of an appropriate wedding gift. I sent money, of course, to help with the nuptials, but that seemed inadequate.

Having navigated almost a quarter-century of marriage, it seemed more beneficial to offer something of greater value than money: experience. I outlined the humorous side of marital compatibility previously, so here’s the flip side. I have my own ideas of what makes a happy marriage, but also polled several long-time friends, all of whom either enjoy or have escaped marriage.

Their responses included the usual hilarity around “I asked my wife what she thought and then said, ‘yes, dear’ before sending the answers.” There was an intriguing suggestion to treat your spouse like a pet: pet them, feed them, and play with them. It sounded weird initially, but I’m beginning to like its simplicity. And of course, the fundamental recommendations for trust, compromise, communication, and respect.

But I finally boiled everything down to these three rules, presented in ascending order of importance.

Rule #3: Always look for things you can do together. A certain amount of independence is healthy, but when you find yourselves spending increasing amounts of time engaged in your own individual activities, it’s time to step back and find some things you can do together. It may be sports, it may be a television show, it may hiking, it may be dancing. In the spirit of the aforementioned compromise, one partner may need to try something new.

Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to start over. This does NOT mean splitting up. It means that when you find yourself wanting to divorce them twice a year and kill them once a year, sit down and remind yourself why you fell in love with them in the first place. And then do whatever you need to do to fall in love with them again. It could be a romantic vacation, it could be marriage counseling, or it could be just setting aside one night a week as “date night.” Repeat as necessary.

Rule #1: Never, ever, ever take the other person for granted. If I only had to offer one rule, this would be it. Nothing sours a marriage faster than the feeling that you’re no more important than the furniture. This covers a multitude of sins. If you bump into them in the hallway, apologize. If you’re late, call and say so. If they do the laundry or make dinner, thank them. If you fart in bed, say excuse me.

Simple, but effective. And no, I did not get my wife’s permission before posting these.

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Hey, Safeway – Aren’t You Curious Why I Don’t Shop As Often?

When it comes to customer loyalty, I like to think of myself as a pretty desirable guy. The cars in the garage were all made by Ford, and their fuel comes from Chevron. My last four computers came from Lenovo. With one hiccup during the last downturn, I’ve been at Bank of America for 40 years. To use consultant Geoffrey Moore’s wonderful phrase, I am a “prisoner of United” (except when I occasionally skip out on Southwest).

It takes a lot to dislodge me from default shopping. There was a time when I wouldn’t even think of going to any other department store but Macy’s, but as I wrote several years ago, its diminishing commitment to customer service eventually persuaded me to shop elsewhere.

Up until recently, I held a similar commitment to Safeway, the second-largest supermarket operator in the U.S. after Kroger’s, with stores in 18 states and affiliations affiliated with other chains such as Randalls and Tom Thumb in Texas and Vons in southern California and southern Nevada.

We didn’t decide to make this change lightly, but Safeway had long ago started to do things that aggravated me greatly:

  • What’s with all the cardboard display cases in the aisle? When there’s only room for two carts anyway, and there’s a display jutting out and a shopper stopped to consider nine million mustard options, it can cause a backup real fast.
  • I was intrigued by the online shopping option, until I discovered two things: delivery required a four-hour window, when I could get to the market and back within 30 minutes; and Safeway didn’t even offer many of its own branded items online – which meant I was forced to get the more-expensive option. (Maybe that was intentional.)
  • In addition to store loyalty, we have product loyalty. Safeway simply stopped selling some of the staples (like coffee and maple syrup) that we preferred (I now have French Market coffee shipped in from New Orleans.)
  • I switched my prescriptions to the pharmacy when Walgreens was threatening to take advantage of tax inversion. But the pharmacy hours were so limited that it wasn’t even convenient to get medications – not to mention that, without my consent, they put them on automatic refill.
  • Don’t even get me started on the way they treat employees. One friend of mine is a courtesy clerk who’s limited to 39 hours a week because one more hour would qualify her for benefits, while another friend was outright fired. His offense? There was a binder that had sat in lost and found for more than a month that contained credit card numbers, but no identification. He took it home to shred it, and Safeway accused him of removing “company property” (he worked through his union to get reinstated, but he still has a bad taste in his mouth).
  • Have you ever tried to redeem one of their coupons? Invariably, there’s a disclaimer in miniscule type that requires registering on some Web site, buying extra merchandise, or restrictions that only allow purchases on odd-numbered Tuesdays between 3 and 4 a.m. (okay, the last part may be an exaggeration, but only slightly).

Here in Silicon Valley, shopping at Safeway is almost an imperative. There are four stores within two miles of our house, and eight within five miles. We have the requisite Whole Foods and Sprouts, but the closest reasonably priced competitor is Lucky. A Lucky store used to be around the corner from our house, but its employees were unusually surly. No surprise when that store closed.

Eventually, after multiple false starts during the downturn, we were fortunate (not “lucky”) enough to see a local chain move into that space, called Zanotto’s. Good meat, good fish, good produce, nice people. The result: we spent more than $1,000 fewer dollars at Safeway this year in favor of the new store.

So here’s what mystifies me. Supermarkets for years have had loyalty cards to track customer purchases. Advances in analytic capabilities in the last few years has made that information even easier to parse. On a macro level, too, its revenues are down considerably: from $44 billion in 2012 to $36 billion in 2013 (it looks like 2014’s revenues will be similar to 2013).

Safeway may not care that one customer is giving it 25% less business, but it should at least be able to figure it out. It has my e-mail address. Isn’t it the least bit curious why it’s losing loyal customers?

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Things I Shouldn’t Say But Will Anyway

The holidays are over. Time to get cranky again.

  • How brazen of movie theaters to bombard us with commercials and dare call it “extra content.”
  • The powers that be at the NRA will not support gun control until some of their own family members are randomly gunned down.
  • The Republicans who say we should put boots on the ground in the Middle East haven’t visited a veterans’ hospital recently to see the damage, both physically and mentally, that war does to young men.
  • And oh by the way, the young men we send to war are predominantly poor, of color, and uneducated – that is, the kind of people who are least equipped to deal with its ravages.
  • I don’t remember giving Microsoft permission to pester me with reminders to update to Windows 10.
  • When I saw the viral video of the burglar who also helped himself to the orange juice in the refrigerator, I was struck less by the scandalous behavior of the thief than by how much I liked the way the victim’s kitchen was laid out.
  • The terrorists in the Middle East wouldn’t have the influence they have today if oil weren’t such a cash cow. Imagine the world if, after the first oil embargo in 1973, we had been courageous enough to start developing alternative forms of energy.
  • I can’t believe there are smart people in the world (my clients among them) who think “premise” is the singular of “premises.” Premise is the foundation for an argument. Premises is a singular noun meaning location.
  • Donald Trump is leading the polls in the Republican party because the Republican party has systemically driven out everyone except its fringe (I speak from experience).
  • If Trump is going to promote himself as a great businessman, and decry government intervention, then how does he explain the fact that companies he’s led have taken advantage of federal bankruptcy laws four times? Perhaps the Republicans should nominate him. Maybe being on the wrong end of a 50-state landslide will motivate some change within the party.
  • It shouldn’t be called a smartphone if it makes me feel so stupid.
  • Every time there’s a terrorist attack, there’s a call for more police protection. I fear that this is only going to take us toward more of a police state, with fewer freedoms – which, sadly, is exactly the kind of world the terrorists want us to have.
  • It scares me that when I read a list of Bernie Sanders’ campaign issues (income equality, infrastructure investment, climate change, getting big money out of politics), I agree with most of them.
  • I’m looking forward to the day when either my handwriting or my memory is so bad, I no longer have to send out Christmas cards.
  • Sometimes when I get on the freeway, I think that everyone – regardless of nationality – has simply forgotten how to drive.
  • Lost in all the news about massacres in Colorado Springs and San Bernardino was the story of a waitress who was shot because she asked a customer to stop smoking. Does that now fall under the gun nuts’ definition of terrorism?
  • Why is it always the first person in line at a stoplight who’s last to notice it’s turned green?
  • Don’t you just hate it when you unsubscribe from a mailing list, you get a confirmation saying you’ve unsubscribed, and you keep getting crap anyway? (I’m talking about you, Fandango.)
  • Don’t you hate it when people insert the word “just” into a sentence when it’s just unnecessary?
  • Don’t the Republican presidential candidates understand that when they talk about rounding up minority groups and refusing people entry to the U.S., they sound like mid-20th century demagogues?
  • The last two times I’ve been on United flights with brand-new planes (Boeing 737-900s or Embraer 175s), it was clear that the designers had never actually thought to consult the people who either stand (the flight attendants) or sit (the passengers) in those planes as to whether the design was user-friendly or not.
  • Am I the only one who wishes the Kardashians had never bred?
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Bringing Back Double Features

Alastair Sim as ScroogeIt’s hard to believe – especially at typical movie ticket prices today – that when Boomers were kids, most movie theatres showed double features. I don’t necessarily miss double features – my butt simply couldn’t take four hours in the same seat – but that’s also because only part of the time did the pairings make any sense.

I recently came across a list in an old diary of my first dates. What struck me – beyond the stupidity that I once dated and then dumped a girl who went on to compete in the Miss America pageant as Miss Florida – was the mismatching of the movies: Airport with Monte Walsh (a Lee Marvin Western); Love Story with Paint Your Wagon; and my favorite for dissonance, Woody Allen’s Take The Money and Run paired with Dustin Hoffman’s inscrutable Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?. Seriously?

One of the great things about the 21st century is that, thanks to DVD players and Amazon, we can now program our own double features. And one of the great things about the holidays is that we have time to watch them (as long as the pause button is handy for bathroom and snack breaks). We have our traditional holiday film fare: Miracle on 34th Street for Thanksgiving; Scrooge (1951 version; see photo) and It’s A Wonderful Life for Christmas; and Love Actually for New Year’s Eve. But if you want some non-traditional holiday film pairings, here are my suggestions.

Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply. Both of these movies came out in 1990, and while the former was far more successful, the latter was referred to as “the thinking man’s Ghost.” Funnier and sweeter than the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore movie, TMD is a British movie with Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in which his ghost helps her get over his untimely passing. Have tissues on hand for both.

Double Indemnity and Remember The Night. Stars appearing together in different movies are always fun to watch (if you want to find others, click here). That’s why I recommend the fluffy holiday pic Remember The Night. It turns out that Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck actually made four movies together, but this one preceded Double Indemnity. The latter, of course, is the classic story of insurance fraud, while Remember The Night has MacMurray as a prosecuting attorney taking shoplifter Stanwyck home for the holidays. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. Two star-studded war movies taken from Cornelius Ryan books about key World War II efforts, one successful, one not. They very much reflect their decades: the first one, made in 1962, is full of brio and pride; the second one, made in 1977, bristles with post-Watergate angst and disdain for authority and military stupidity.

Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove. Sometimes similar ideas flourish in Hollywood, and producers play chicken trying to beat each other into the theatres (see also two other great pairings: Armageddon and Deep Impact and Capote and Infamous). One of the reasons Fail-Safe was a failure in 1964 – even though it came from a terrific book and had a wonderful cast, including Henry Fonda as the President – was that it came out after Strangelove, which was essentially the satiric telling of the same story: the unsanctioned/unintended launching of nuclear missiles against the Soviet Union.

Mary Poppins and Saving Mr. Banks. You don’t have to be a writer with an alcoholic father like me to appreciate the sad backstory of author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, the tale of how Walt Disney enticed the Poppins’ author to Hollywood. Maybe it’s just because Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever saw by myself in a theatre, but I have a sentimental attachment to it. Alternative option of children’s book and (fictional) backstory: pairing Oz the Great and Powerful and The Wizard of Oz.

Casablanca and Play It Again, Sam. Five years before Annie Hall, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and Tony Roberts came together for the wonderful San Francisco-based movie (written by Allen, directed by Herbert Ross) about a movie nut who worships Humphrey Bogart and his hard-boiled characters so much that he conjures an imaginary version of the actor to help him with his love life. The snippets of Tony Roberts on the phone to his answering service (youngsters: ask your grandparents to explain what an answering service is) are hilarious, as are the homages to Casablanca.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and Who’s Minding The Mint? If you like It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (which I can no longer watch because it gives me a headache), put these two comedic descendants into the DVD player. Though Russians is more both more frenetic and warmer than Mint, they both inhabit a world where events spiral out of control with hilarious consequences. Mint re-teams Mad World spouses Milton Berle and Dorothy Provine, although not as a couple. Russians re-teams Mad World alums Jonathan Winters, Carl Reiner, and Paul Ford.

My Favorite Year and The Front. You wouldn’t normally pair a comedy based on Sid Caesar’s live show with a drama about the blacklist, but they’re both wonderful paeans to the early days of television. MFY is the fictionalized story of young writer Mel Brooks babysitting washed-up actor Errol Flynn, while the other is the story of Woody Allen providing a name and face for blacklisted writers (and another rare situation where Allen appeared in another director’s movie). Even taking into account this year’s Trumbo, The Front is without a doubt the best movie ever made about the blacklist.

Coming Home and The Best Years Of Our Lives. Two very different stories about veterans heading back to civilian life, the first about Vietnam and the second about World War II. Oh, how the world had changed. They’re both tear-jerkers, but while the first one is grittier, the second one, one of my favorite movies of the 40s, has a good old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending.

Here’s to happy endings and a happy new year.

Note: This blog was amended after its original posting to add The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.

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Spring, 1977

Century 21 TheatreLater this week, a whole lotta Boomers are hoping to travel back in time, not just to a galaxy far, far away, but back to a time and place when they had their whole lives ahead of them, and they discovered a science fiction movie that told the resonating story of a lonely teen-ager who became a reluctant but resourceful warrior.

In the spring of 1977, when Star Wars was initially released, I really only had two responsibilities: film reviewer of the Stanford Daily and co-rush chairman of the local Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter. Thanks to credits both from advanced placement tests and work I had done at my previous school, UC Irvine, I had actually fulfilled my coursework at Stanford by the end of the previous quarter.

I was living the dream of what I’d always said about Stanford – that it would be a great place to go to school, if only we didn’t have to take classes. By the time that last quarter rolled around, I wasn’t.

I combined my two avocations and, using the connections I’d garnered as a movie reviewer, arranged with the manager of the spacious Century 21 theatre in San Jose (see photo) to bring a contingent of Kappa Sigs and rush candidates to Star Wars’ opening night. No other fraternity had such a prestigious rush event. Even that night, before anyone had seen the movie, there was a sense even then that something special was about to debut.

That much was clear when we showed up at the theatre on that cool, spring night. The line already stretched out into the theatre’s parking lot. I’d checked in with the manager, who told me to create a separate, shorter line with my group. He also insisted that we tell anyone who asked that we were queueing for another movie entirely, so as not to inflame those who had been waiting longer.

Keeping that secret wasn’t easy, and before long, I was accosted by a young man who’d found out that we were actually seeing Star Wars too. He wanted to surreptitiously join our line, but he’d been directed to me. I courteously but insistently explained to him that he could not join us, and he courteously but insistently argued that one more person couldn’t make a difference.

We were going back and forth, each of us intractable, up until the moment that I noticed the guy first glance over my left shoulder and then glance over my right shoulder. His expression paled and his determination faded. I turned to see what he had been looking at and saw that behind my right shoulder stood Kappa Sigma Doug Greenwood at 6-foot-6-1/2 and behind my left shoulder stood Kappa Sigma Dave Fullerton at 6-foot-3. They had come up behind me and stood silently but menacingly. It should also be noted that Doug had grown up in rural Alaska and while he was undeniably sweet, he didn’t have the best orthodontics and basically looked like he spent much of mealtime tearing at raw meat.

Without a word, Greenwood and Fullerton achieved their fraternal mission. The guy suddenly stopped arguing and said, “I’ll go wait in the other line.”

To this day, we remember that night. After all, who can forget the opening crawl, followed by the battle cruiser seemingly flying above our heads? To me, it had been as simple as pulling some strings and creating a special event for Kappa Sigma. But the subsequent impact of Star Wars was so great that if you poll my fraternity brothers on the best nights of their undergraduate years, that premiere will make any list that includes social, sexual, or academic milestones. (This is why, even as recently as last week, I rib my friend Andrew for skipping the event to study.)

It will be undeniably hard to capture the magic of that night. The prequel trilogy didn’t come close. You can’t unearth the surprise of buried treasure twice.

But because it was so special, because it was so magical, and because we are so optimistic, come this week, we’re all going to try.

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Of Late I Think Of Old Friends

If you really want to incur my wrath, call me Howie. I really don’t like my name much, but I hate its diminutive more. It reminds me of a dysfunctional and detestable childhood. I like to say there’s only one woman who can call me Howie, and she’s dead.

Except there are also the girls from my elementary school (Kit, Sara, Francie – you know who you are) who can’t seem to make the transition to my adult name. And yet, I have come to cherish them for it. Knowing someone for 55 years gives you that kind of privilege, the kind of privilege that’s usually only afforded to mothers.

But the privilege is not one-sided. I feel privileged as well. There is something about old friends. It’s not just the idea of having grown up in the same time and place, the bond that helps us relate to classmates at reunions (events which I previously and erroneously defined as “periodic gatherings of people who had nothing in common to confirm they still had nothing in common”).

No, old friends bring a consistency and constancy to our lives. My friend Barbara and I were close friends during my first year of college, and for a few years even after I transferred to Stanford. A decades-long hiatus followed, until we reconnected. We spent a day at Disneyland last month (she lives in Anaheim and is a longtime Disneyphile) and it was like having one foot in the past and one in the present. We brought the perspective of dealing with our difficult parents and of overcoming marital difficulties, but leavened it with the joy being in a magical place that we both loved.

Brian is perhaps my oldest friend. We walk on the beach below Santa Cruz frequently on Saturday mornings (a ritual my father-in-law initiated). We grew up next door to each other and while – like Barbara and me – there have been hiatuses in our relationship, when we see each other now, it’s as if the flow of friendship has been long and unbroken. We laugh about how much our mothers disliked each other when we were four, knowing now that it was because they were so similar in temperament.

Over Thanksgiving, we visited my friend Andrew in Seattle. From our college days onward, we’ve been through a lot together. We’ve vacationed from Massachusetts to Hawaii. We’ve battled each other on the Scrabble board more times than we can count, and he still cheerfully takes my ribbing for the time he chose to study instead of joining the fraternity at the opening night of Star Wars in 1977. We’ve known each other so long, we supply each other’s punch lines. We laugh until we’ve forgotten what we’re laughing about.

But it’s not just laughter with old friends. We know their life stories, share the same memories. There’s the pain that goes unspoken – of those first, long-forgotten marriages, sulky siblings, family rifts, layoffs, all the vagaries of life. All those things are like the faint remnants of glue between the pieces of a vase that’s been mended. If we look closely, we can see the cracks.

But we choose not to. We ignore all that. We choose instead to feel privileged for all the beauty our friends have brought into our lives over the years. Like all natural beauty, they are priceless.

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The Holiday Card That Will Never Come

The week after Thanksgiving always brings a twinge to me, and it’s not from indigestion. It’s because for many wonderful years, the first holiday card always arrived that holiday weekend from my friend and former colleague Brady Ennis. In addition to being a superb editor, Brady was a talented artist, and his card always featured a stunning sample of his sketching prowess. No less impressive was his ability to organize his holiday card distribution in order to have his be the first of the season.

Brady passed away all too young at age 52 in the summer of 2006. The last years of his life were not happy, but his last days were. Brady and I worked together at a travel guidebook in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. Brady was my assistant; we were the entire editorial staff. He had actually applied for the top editorial job at the same time I did, but cheerfully handled being second-in-command. His editorial acumen and copy-editing skills made me look good. After I left, Brady was passed over yet again. But my successor quickly flopped, and it became clear it was Brady’s turn to take over.

But after he left the guidebook several years later, he could never find another job that matched his editorial capabilities. His career devolved into more and more menial work, and eventually he had to declare bankruptcy and move back to his home town of Alton, Illinois. He also had health issues – he smoked and he was HIV-positive – but he always tried to see the good in the world. His sister told me that he was getting his life together back in his native habitat.

On the day he died, in fact, he was on his way back from an animal shelter, having optimistically adopted a kitten he told his sister he was going to name Shadow. His car went off the road – whether because of a medical event or some other unknown reason – and he was killed. Undoubtedly petrified, Shadow ran off and was never found.

I think of Brady at this time of year. Sometimes, forgetting, I anticipate his card arriving in the mailbox. Then I remember it’s not coming.

I think of the sad trajectory of his life and how many of my old friends in their 50s (and now 60s) are facing the same distress he faced. The world – seemingly more youth-obsessed now than even when the Boomers were young – has dispensed with their services. It cavalierly discounts their wisdom and experience in favor of who will work longer hours for less money – but not necessarily with more productivity. It doesn’t matter if someone works a twelve-hour day if they spent four of those hours chatting or surfing.

I’ve been extremely lucky in my career, and I anticipate putting it to bed in the coming years on a high and satisfying note. While I would like to sing of my success, I can’t, because gloating.

The week after Thanksgiving always brings a twinge to me. It is the bittersweet twist of gratitude for my life and of sadness for my friends and all their shadows.

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