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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The Cat Who Left For Christmas

img_2682The nights have been bitterly cold here since last Saturday, the day our cat Zachary disappeared. He has long, silky, gray hair, and he’s smart enough to find someplace cozy, but still, he’s gone and we grieve.

Especially since his disappearance stemmed from someone else’s carelessness. We’ve been remodeling the house for far too long – first the bathrooms, then the kitchen. It’s been noisy and scary, especially for a cat that was born feral and fears people to begin with. Zachary, like most ferals, seemed to prefer the outside and loved it when he could roam the neighborhood during the spring and fall. When we were at a holiday party last week, the tile layer left the front door open (ignoring the big sign taped to it reading “PLEASE KEEP THIS DOOR CLOSED”), apparently while he cleaned some buckets, and Zachary saw his chance. He was gone when we got home.

They say that people who care for ferals are masochists, because they love and are unloved in return. Zachary is one of a litter of three that we adopted three years ago as kittens. We thought we could socialize them as we had with other ferals we’d fostered and adopted in the past, without success.

I thought things were changing, though. When the summer withered, I trapped the three ferals back in the house. This involved looping a rope around the sliding glass door to the family room, running it along the length of the outside of the house, and then back in the living room window. I left food bowls in the foyer. After dark, the cats would come in to feed, far enough from the family room that I could, while sitting quietly in the living room, yank the rope and close the door.

Max, who’d always dart from us when he saw us outside, became re-accustomed to being inside almost immediately, so much so that he began sleeping with us and actually begging for petting. We still can’t hold him, but we’ll settle for him sleeping between us. Zachary actually let him pet us a grand total of twice, as he was awaiting breakfast, but that was all. Rosie continue to be shy, although – now that Zack’s gone – she will plaintively mew at us, as if expecting us to magically produce him. I wish I could.

After I posted on Facebook that this was “curdling into the worst Christmas ever,” I received lots of encouraging stories about cats that returned home days, weeks, and even months after disappearing. One of our other ferals, Bandit, was trapped by a nasty neighbor and held at the local animal shelter for five days before I found him. He was 24 hours away from being euthanized. After he was “paroled,” he was a lot friendlier, and eventually became more affectionate than we had the right to expect a feral to be.

I hope Zachary comes back, like Bandit did. I would be happier if I could just catch sight of him somewhere, so I know he’s okay.

In grieving Zachary, I wonder what he was in search of. I imagine him standing in the doorway, surveying the wonder beckoning to him. The cold was less of a deterrent than the promise of freedom. But freedom from what? A warm house, food morning and evening, his siblings. Who would turn their back on that? And why hasn’t he realized the error of his decision and come back home?

I keep remembering a line from an old movie named A Touch of Class. In it, George Segal is having an affair with Glenda Jackson, and Segal’s friend Paul Sorvino tells him about the time he spent $18,000 in psychiatrist fees to figure out how to end his own extramarital affair. When Segal finally realizes that he has to break it off with Jackson, he tells her that it didn’t cost him $18,000: “It cost a lot more.”

I don’t know whether Zachary will ever come back, or if he will ever let us cuddle him in our arms like Bandit did. All I know is that whatever we spent to remodel the kitchen, it cost a lot more.

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Hope For The Holidays


The holiday cards are already starting to arrive, which is really embarrassing given that we just ordered ours a week ago. Our big news, of course, is that we both retired this year, which I thought wouldn’t be surpassed among our friends, given how little happens in the lives of people our age.

Wrong again.

The first holiday card to arrive was from college friends announcing that their daughter has come out as transgender, changed her name to something that could be construed as either masculine or feminine, and stated a preference for the “he” pronoun. This wasn’t entirely a surprise, since she – before she became a he – was more than a little precocious. Not that being T is a phase denoting precociousness, of course, but well, you know. Sometimes you meet someone and you sense they’re going to be … different. Not that different is bad. We need more different.

My first thought was to send a card saying, “Congratulations, It’s A Boy!” but that seemed inappropriate. My second thought was to send a card saying, “Congratulations, you no longer have to pay for the wedding,” but that didn’t seem appropriate either. (Say, Miss Manners, who does pay for transgender weddings?)

Then I really started to think about the wonderful thing that had transpired: a young person created his own identity. For someone like me who was dysfunctionally enmeshed in my parents’ identity for far too long, this is a little miracle. At a fairly young age, she recognized who he was and who she wasn’t, and took steps to change it.

And even better, he got to choose a new name. Who among us likes their name? I don’t. The uniqueness of being the only Howard in my high school class was overshadowed by the fact dorks in the media are usually named Howard. I would love to have a different name. I’ve always wanted to be named Jeff, which isn’t generally a female name except that the mother of one of my oldest friends was named Jeff. So if I’d been T, I could have been a Jeff, finally.

I’m struck by how utterly courageous this news is. At the dawn of the presidential administration of a racist, right-wing misogynist, this young person is so true to himself that damn the Trumpkins, full speed ahead. I wasn’t that courageous at that age. I didn’t even have the smarts to figure out how to go to school back East after my mother said she wouldn’t pay for it. (I’m not asking for sympathy for the Stanford diploma; I’m just saying that I wish I’d been more proactive about my decision.)

More than anything else during this shattering month, this news has given me hope. That’s what the upcoming holidays represent, after all – a beacon of hope. This year, it just arrived a few weeks early.

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Seven Reasons Why What Happened Last Tuesday Could Be Wonderful

  1. With great power comes great responsibility.

Now that the Republicans control all three branches of government, they have no excuses for not pursuing their economic agenda. Since it’s by no means clear how they’re going to bring manufacturing jobs back to America without sanctions and tariffs that will damage the economy, prepare for another call for change in 2020, one that may sweep in a progressive administration (Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, please call your offices).

  1. Old adages ring true.

It turns out that anybody can grow up to be president. And they don’t even have to progress beyond adolescence.

  1. We have a real teachable moment on our hands.

Since our schools no longer teach civics, elections in which the loser garners more votes than the winner provide an indelible opportunity to explain the Electoral College and why the founding fathers wanted to avoid tyranny of the majority. Unfortunately, we really need someone right about now to explain why we have tyranny of the minority.

  1. Election night evoked memories of great Shakespearean literature.

As the results of too many states remained too close to call, it began to feel like Romeo and Juliet. You know what’s going to happen, but you really, really wish it was going have a different ending this time.

  1. Boredom is a thing of the past.

If you look at politics as entertainment, the ratings for the next four years are going to be sky high.

  1. A political dynasty gets stopped in its tracks.

If there’s a God in heaven, this will be the last we hear of Bill and Hillary Clinton, who were – in retrospect – the last people we should have sent up against a man accused of improprieties, sexual, financial, or political.

  1. It’s impossible to hold two horrible thoughts in your head at the same time.

The memory of the University of Washington’s 66-27 smackdown of the University of California the previous Saturday night and the New Orleans Saints’ 41-23 battering of the San Francisco 49ers the previous Sunday immediately dissipated.


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Thank Goodness For Donald Trump!

Not long before the first presidential debate, I turned to my wife and said, “You watch – Donald Trump is going to say something in one of the debates that’s finally going to be his downfall.”

I didn’t have to wait long.

Trump’s riposte to Hillary Clinton in the first debate that not paying taxes “makes me smart” seems to have clinched it (though it was quickly eclipsed by the Access Hollywood tape). There’s a bumpersticker somewhere in that debate comment: “Suckers pay taxes so Donald Trump doesn’t have to.”

That’s essentially what Donald Trump is saying: “I’m smarter than you because I’ve figured out how to avoid paying taxes.” He’s reached the nirvana that many of his supporters only dream of: the ability to starve the faceless bureaucrats who only want to serve themselves and their friends by padding the public sector payroll.

Except … it’s not true. As CNN reported the other day, eight out of ten Trump supporters believe paying taxes is a civic duty – that is, the price we pay for living in a great country, a commonwealth where those who can contribute help pave the way for others who will eventually do the same for the people who follow them.

It’s also not true that Donald Trump paid no taxes because he was smart. He paid no taxes because the tax code has been written to allow billionaires like him to gamble huge sums of money without taking a whole lot of risk. I believe that people who invest in our infrastructure might need an incentive to do so, but the incentive to do so is profit, not a tax break that allows you to avoid paying taxes for a child’s entire life. He’s taking advantage of laws that most of his supporters have no access to.

And that’s why I say thank goodness for Donald Trump. This is only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of laws on the books that let rich people spend and invest without risk: if they win, they get the profit; if they lose, they get a write-off. But those laws only benefit those who have lots and lots of disposable income. That’s why rich people can get away with paying no taxes. That’s why Mitt Romney pays a lower percentage of his annual income in taxes than I do. That’s why the rest of us have to pony up more – because people who really can afford it have accountants and lawyers and lobbyists to make sure they don’t have to pony up at all.

What this all boils down to is that Donald Trump is pretty darn stupid. Inadvertently, he’s turned a klieg light on the rank unfairness of our tax laws. Maybe now we’ll start clamoring for a tax code that benefits everyone, not just the billionaires.


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