This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Driving in Red-State California

            Heading north and inland from the San Francisco Bay area, you can see the landscape change abruptly. At Vacaville, Highway 505 branches off to provide a shortcut for northbound travelers between I-80 and I-5. Genentech has a big complex at that junction, but once past it, you’re in a different country.
            It’s not just that the landscape is open and sparsely settled. The signs along the road reflect the fact that the culture has changed as well. On a recent fishing trip that took my son and me through that area, we saw signs defensively proclaiming the importance of farmers and agriculture in general; signs, some with gruesome drawings, asserting that Jesus had died and shed blood for our sins; Tea Party signs, and others of similar provenance. A year ago there were a few “Produce the Birth Certificate” signs, but none were in evidence this year.
            Politically California is about as blue a state as you’ll find, but the blueness predominates in the urban areas near the coast, where most of the population lives. The farther inland and closer to the mountains you get, the more it feels like a red state.
            More than a decade ago I took a driving trip through the northeastern part of the state and southern Oregon a week before the presidential election. I literally went three days without seeing a single campaign sign for Al Gore, but there were hundreds for Bush/Cheney. Gore carried both states, but not the parts of them that I was driving through.
            People who live in small towns and rural areas, tend, and this is a generality, to feel that they are misunderstood by the great majority that lives in urban and suburban America. Some politicians — Sarah Palin comes to mind — do a terrific job of pandering to that resentment. And, as with most resentments, there’s a kernel of truth behind the feeling.
            But a lot of the suspicion is extrapolation and exaggeration of some reasonably held positions. I don’t know anyone, among my liberal friends, who hates farmers and agriculture. Most of them, in fact, are highly supportive because they feel farming protects open space while providing a valuable and essential commodity — our food. That many of those same people believe, as I do, that farmers should go easy on mass-produced chemical pesticides and should provide their field workers with decent wages and working conditions is by no means a slam on agriculture, though it seems to be taken as such.
Misunderstanding goes both ways. Many people in the cities abhor guns and hunting, not fully understanding that in small, economically distressed areas, killing a deer and eating its meat is a key part of the winter food budget. Many people in the country, who use a gun in that fashion, don’t seem to comprehend, for their part, that it’s not a good idea to have a lot of drug dealers and gangbangers running around with concealed weapons in a highly populated urban area.
            People who live in the less populated parts of the country are our last Jeffersonians. There’s a strong streak of self-sufficiency, a suspicion of elites and government (the greater the remove, the greater the suspicion), and a belief that community cooperation can take care of most problems. Jefferson felt that way, but he was quick to admit that his philosophy would work only to a certain scale; that once a society became too highly populated, too urbanized, and too industrialized, small government would no longer work. In most of the country, that time has passed, but north of Vacaville, the spirit lingers on.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tomorrow Is No Sure Thing

            From time to time I find myself thinking about a news story I edited years ago.
            It had to do with a man who worked in an office in a high-rise in a large city in the East or Midwest and was a creature of habit. Every Friday morning he got his paycheck and exactly at noon, he left for his lunch hour, rode the elevator to the ground floor, went into his bank nearby, and deposited the check.
            One week he had something coming up on the weekend and had to run a couple of extra errands. So instead of leaving the office at noon, he left at 11:45, rode the elevator to the ground floor, went into his bank, and walked through the door just as a holdup in progress turned into a shootout. He was killed by a stray bullet, leaving a wife and children to carry on without him, and probably to wonder forever why he couldn’t have left the office at his regular time.
            I thought of that story again recently when I read another one about a 39-year-old woman who left Monterey on a recent Sunday afternoon to ride her motorcycle to her home north of San Francisco.
            At about 4 p.m. on a clear sunny day, just shy of the northern boundary of Monterey County, a car being followed by the Highway Patrol crossed the center lane of the two-lane road she was on. She was killed when she hit it, and the driver of the car was killed when it ran off the road and down an embankment. If she’d left Monterey a few minutes earlier or later, she’d still be alive.
            Over the years I’ve written and edited more stories than I care to remember about people who woke up in the morning having no idea that it was going to be their last day on earth. They ranged from wrong-place-wrong-time incidents such as the above to more mundane departures.
            In the latter category was a story that ran as a plain obituary. It was about a man in his late 70s who keeled over from a heart attack while dancing the Tennessee Two-Step at an RV park where he and his wife had stopped while on the road. You could ask for a few more years, but how many people die that happy?
            The news business puts stories like this in front of you all the time, and it’s hard to deal with any number of them without developing a true appreciation of the fragility and transience of life. I’d like to be able to claim that this awareness has changed me profoundly for the better, but it hasn’t. I still waste time, put off things I shouldn’t, and generally act as if I’m going to live forever. But in some small way, I do believe I’ve learned to live in the present more and the past and future less, and to enjoy the moment. That’s something.
            Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that his idea of the perfect life was to live in vigorous good health to the age of 90, then be shot to death by a jealous husband. He got the first part, but not the second. I’d like to catch that bullet, too, but the odds aren’t good. Tennessee two-step is a slightly better bet, but I’d have to learn the dance. So to myself and everyone else, I’d like to say have a nice day today. There’s no guarantee we’re going to get another one.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Jefferson's Rosebud

            In 1770 fire destroyed Shadwell, the boyhood home of Thomas Jefferson in Virginia. Burned, along with the building, were nearly all the documents relating to the first 27 years of Jefferson’s life. If there was a “Rosebud” in his childhood, we’ll never know.
            Because the Founding Fathers left such an extensive paper trail, the loss of Jefferson’s early documents may not seem like such a big deal. Up to that point he’d hardly been in the public eye, and the rest of his life was highly documented, both by his own documents and those produced by others, including Adams and Franklin, who dealt with him regularly.
            Still, you have to wonder. Jefferson was brilliant, dreamy and ethereal, possibly the most idealistic man ever elected president. He was pretty much that way from the time he entered the public record, but was there a formative event or events in his childhood that explains some of his character? Rosebud, the boyhood sled in Citizen Kane, was a pat explanation of the sort so beloved by Hollywood and so seldom seen in real life. A Rosebud for Jefferson is unlikely, but if you’re a historian or journalist, more information, even when inconclusive, is always better.
            Much of history lies behind metaphorical doors, closed to us forever. When the library at Alexandria burned, we lost much of our knowledge of the ancient world. Other manuscripts were lost during the Middle Ages, and still others survived, undiscovered for centuries in some monastery or other.
            Stacy Schiff, in her book Cleopatra, makes much of how little is known of her heroine’s life and times, and how much has to be inferred by the historian, weighing a range of sketchy and incomplete evidence. In such an instance, a historian’s work becomes largely that of an intuitive artist.
            Even in more recent times, there are things we just don’t know, and not always because a fire destroyed the evidence. What, for instance, were Lincoln’s religious beliefs, if any? He didn’t oblige us, as Ben Franklin did, by writing a detailed letter on the subject months before he died. Was Lincoln a non-churchgoing Christian? An atheist? A freethinker who conceived of a vague higher power and incorporated many of the teachings of Jesus into his philosophy of right living? I lean toward the third, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove any of those notions.
            We now live in an age where almost everything is photographed or recorded on video, and even so part of the visual record gets lost. In the early days of television, many of the shows, including the newscasts, weren’t saved. Incredibly, the people at the networks didn’t think they were valuable. If live, they often weren’t recorded, and if recorded, they were often erased and recorded over. It was big news a while back when a kinescope was found of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. It was one of the greatest baseball games ever played, and all we have is that one recording, which Bing Crosby, a part owner of the Pirates, ordered made because he was out of the country at the time.
            Nor will even the newest technology save everything. Ask Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory, a Southern California comedy club. For years he videotaped performances that included priceless footage of future stars in their formative years. To preserve the video he turned it over to an online backup storage company, which, in some unexplained way, lost 1,500 hours of it. Proving, I suppose, that it doesn’t take a fire to wipe out history. A speck of dust on a hard drive will suffice.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Culprits Show No Remorse

            John Ford’s classic western Stagecoach is set in the Southwestern territories in the 1880s, but in at least one respect it is a reflection of the year it was made, 1939. The villain was a banker.
            He was one of nine people on that fateful coach, and he was trying to make off with most of the bank’s deposits. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, he makes a disparaging remark about the prostitute, played by Claire Trevor, prompting John Wayne to respond with one of his signature lines:
            “Back where I come from, mister, a man doesn’t talk like that to a … lady.”
            It’s a telling sign of those times that a banker was considered less socially respectable than a lady of the evening, but given the pain that Wall Street and the banks had recently inflicted on the American public, the sentiment was entirely understandable.
            That sentiment is belatedly bubbling to the surface again in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the wonder is that it’s taken this long. There is no dispute that bad behavior and shoddy business practices by banks and investment firms have been primary contributors to the current economic misery. What surprises me is the lack of humility and contrition from the people in that sector. Far from acknowledging that remedial action is necessary, they are defiantly demanding that they be left alone to do it again. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they were closet Marxists, trying to ignite a revolution.
            Anger and resentment are no substitute for good policy, but they can be a catalyst for developing it. The Wall Street protests at least recognize the corrupting influences of corporate wealth on public policy even if, for now, they propose no concrete measures to deal with the problems.
            Contrast that to the Tea Party, which shares very little ideologically with the Occupy Wall Street crowd other than a bilious dislike of the bailouts and guarantees the federal government offered corporations and financial institutions in 2008-09. The Tea Party, however, continues to support Republican candidates who oppose all meaningful attempts to regulate the industries that got us into this mess.
            As far as I can tell, the Tea Party position amounts to letting business do whatever it wants, then doing nothing, governmentally speaking, when the reckless behavior of big business precipitates a crisis. I guess the idea is that the Invisible Hand of the free market will take care of the problem, though believing that calls for a greater leap of faith than any religion requires of its adherents. The recent bailouts may not be defensible from the standpoint of justice, but hoping that, left alone, something good would have risen from the ashes would have been playing Russian roulette with the country’s future.
            Just about any business, left unwatched, will begin to slide down the slippery slope of dangerous, unethical or dishonest practice in the pursuit of near-term profit. Public opinion can be a partial counterweight, but laws and enforcement are a more consistent mitigating factor.
            Back in the 1930s most of the financial wizards at least had enough humility and awareness to realize that they had forfeited, for the time being, the expectation of having their way. A president and Congress of the same party wouldn’t have listened to the money men anyway, and those politicians passed laws and regulations that led to three quarters of a century of financial stability and prosperity. I’d like to believe that historians looking back on us in 75 years will be able to say the same, but I lack the Tea Party ability to make that leap of faith.

Friday, October 14, 2011

When Your Life Has Problems

            If you grew up with a father around the house, chances are you’ll go to the grave with several of the old man’s sayings rattling around in your head. Two have been bubbling up to the surface this past week:
            “When you own a car, you own trouble.”
            “If your car has problems, your life has problems.”
            Did I mention that Dad used to sell Chevrolets? Back in the good old days, when they were great cars? Good cars or no, wisdom born of long experience had taught him that no machine is utterly reliable and the greater your reliance upon it, the greater your difficulty when, inevitably, it lets you down.
            Last Saturday night, I went out to pick up a pizza, and on the way home the car started badly misbehaving, lurching along with sporadic power. By the time it coasted into the garage, it was clear that it was done for the weekend and would have to be towed Monday morning.
            Once in the hands of my excellent mechanic, the car went through a four-day repair process, as follows:
            Monday: Sit in the queue with the other Monday-morning limp-ins, behind the cars that had service appointments that day.
            Tuesday: Up on the rack for diagnosis, which determines that a new fuel pump is needed. Part ordered for Wednesday morning delivery.
            Wednesday: Fuel pump installed and scheduled servicing added to the tab. Car would be ready for pickup at the end of the day, except that the fuel filter that came with the pump was the wrong model. New filter ordered for Thursday morning delivery. Car remains in shop.
            Meanwhile, on her way home Wednesday afternoon, Linda notices that temperature gauge shows engine heat rising dangerously. With much starting and stopping, she gets it to another mechanic just before closing.
            This takes our family of three drivers down to one functioning vehicle: Our son’s 1990 Ford Ranger, recently bought through Craig’s List (how did we ever live without Craig’s List?) from Raoul in Fremont. We say prayers for Raoul.
            Thursday: My car finally sprung from shop at great expense, though not unreasonable considering amount of work done. Linda’s car diagnosed with bad circuit board, which they are able to replace, leaving us with full complement of cars at 5 p.m. — first time in five days. Ford Ranger still running like a champ, though we choose to ignore ominous rattle and say additional prayers for Raoul.
            All in all, it was a week of vehicular scheduling mayhem, greatly elevating my consciousness about how much my life depends on ready access to a car. The three of us work three different places at different but overlapping times, and our house is far enough off the beaten track that getting to basic services without a car is arduous. Depending on my work situation, I sometimes have to do a lot of driving around to appointments and doing tasks for clients; mercifully, this week I didn’t. Still, at a time like this, I find myself entertaining fantasies about moving to New York City, where you can get around without a car, and if the subway breaks down, it’s the city’s problem, not mine.
            And, to keep it all in perspective, at the end of this car-challenged week, nobody had died, gone bankrupt or missed work, and we were reminded how lucky we are to own three cars. If this is the worst thing that happens to us this month, it will still be a pretty good month. And if nothing else, it was good to think about Dad again.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Hidden Rise in the Cost of Living

            If you were a typical American family 75 years ago, in 1936, you may or may not have had a telephone. If you did, the chances are that you were on a party line in order to save money.
            You may or may not have had an automobile. Most people were a walk or short bus ride from work back then. But if you did have an automobile, you probably had only one for the family and used it sparingly.
            You probably had a radio, but once you bought it — probably on the installment plan — it hardly cost you anything. Once you plugged it in, you got the stations you were going to get, and you didn’t have to pay for cable or premium channels.
            Today, of course, the average family has several cell phones in addition to the land line most still keep. The monthly cost of watching television, factoring in cable, premium channels and Netflix, can easily exceed $100. And that family will have at least two cars, often making long daily commutes. Since those cars are mostly computerized, they cost the earth to repair.
            Add to that the cost of buying and maintaining washers, dryers, dishwashers and solar panels, as well as having computers, printers, and other gadgets, and you have to conclude that the basic cost of living has gotten higher as society has become more technologically advanced.
            That rise in the bottom line of living costs is something rarely discussed, but it’s a key part of the ongoing squeeze of the middle class. Not only have wages been stagnant, jobs less secure, health benefits less generous; the dollars people do make have to cover far more things now considered essential.
            It’s a factor that makes cost-of-living comparisons a squishy business. A standard like the Consumer Price Index can give us a sense of what a dollar will buy in gasoline, groceries and rent compared to years past, but how do you factor in all the other stuff that sucks money out of our wallets?
            A friend of mine likes to say that the computer companies are the new drug pushers. They get us hooked on their product so we can’t live without it, he says, then once we’re enslaved, we have to constantly spend more money on software, upgrades and new models. And really, it’s not just the computer companies. It’s all the firms that produce technological products. I still fish with the same fly rod I bought in 1984, but I’m on my fifth cell phone since 2005 and am probably not unusual in that regard.
            In 1956, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden said the advanced western nations were faced with a crisis of rising expectations. But it’s really turned into a crisis of rising necessities. If you don’t have a cell phone or a computer, it’s tough to get a job, so how do you cut those things out of your budget? It’s analogous to the government problem of being bled by the cost of paying for health care as it gets better, more complicated and more expensive each year.
            A century ago, in a rapidly urbanized and industrialized nation, Henry Ford saw a similar problem. He possessed a great ability to produce automobiles in large numbers, but he also realized he had to grow the market for his product. One of his answers, considered radical at the time, was to raise the pay of his workers so they could afford to buy a car. Is anyone applying that kind of thinking today to the high cost of living in modern times?

Friday, October 7, 2011

When Democrats Built Dams

            Seeking another term as president in 1948, Harry Truman was making a tour of America’s farm belt. At one stop he was told that a local farmer, a lifelong Democrat, had decided to vote Republican after four years of record-high farm prices.
            “What’s the matter with that fella?” Truman replied. “Can’t he stand a little prosperity?”
            Something similar seems to be happening in American politics today. Granted, there hasn’t been a lot of prosperity going around lately, but in a tough economy, one party, the Democrats, is generally pushing for policies more beneficial to consumers and the middle class, while the Republicans are acting as if the solution to what ails us is to give the keys to the vault to the businesses largely responsible for the mess.
            And while it’s far too early to tell, there’s a chance that the Republican party could get enough people to vote against their own economic interest and elect its candidate for president.
            The phenomenon of people voting against their economic interests is one of the great puzzlers of American politics. Part of it has to do with the fact that there’s a substantial bloc of voters who are utterly nonideological and willing to try the other side if things aren’t going well — regardless of what the other side proposes.
            Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the Democratic Party has, in the last half-century, gotten away from its core focus on jobs and housing. That has enabled Republicans to paint it as the party of gay rights, minority special pleadings, entitlements, and environmental elitism.
            If there’s a metaphor for this, it would be the party’s change from building dams to opposing them. Nobody outside China and Africa is building dams any more (environmental laws make that nearly impossible), but when Democrats were building dams, they were a much more popular party.
            One of the first programs of the New Deal was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built a series of dams in the south and brought electrification to a region that literally had been living in the Dark Ages.
            In addition to the TVA, the Roosevelt administration built numerous other large dams, including Fort Peck, Montana, Shasta near Redding CA, and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River. Each of those projects provided thousands of jobs, turned the local communities into boomtowns, and created substantial benefits from cheap hydro power to flood control.
            Unless you were a fish, how could you complain?
            Eventually, of course, the fish got a voice through environmental legislation, and while that’s a good thing, it’s a hard sell to someone whose livelihood depends on building a dam. If you’re looking at several years of steady employment working a bulldozer, with good wages and overtime, it makes no sense at all to scrap or delay the project to protect some three-inch-long endangered fish. You can’t win an environmental argument with that person.
            The fact that dams aren’t being built any more is a reflection of increased awareness resulting in increased complexity. The entire TVA was completed without a single environmental impact report (as we know it, at least) being filed, and that’s one of the reasons it could be done so quickly and effectively. Businesses complain about regulation, but it affects government as well. Part of the problem with President Obama’s stimulus package was that there were few shovel-ready projects environmentally approved and good to go.
            We’re paying a price for listening to our better angels. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that when Democrats could just go out and build a dam, they were winning a lot more elections.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

More Than the Residue of Design

            Watching football this past weekend I was once again reminded of the importance of luck in sports — and in life as well.
            Playing in Philadelphia, against a highly favored team, our 49ers came from 20 points behind in the second half to win the game 24-23. There was a lot of skill and grit involved in their doing that, but some spectacular luck as well. In the fourth quarter alone the Philadelphia kicker missed two field goals inside the 40-yard line, which, as far as I’m concerned, is one more than a professional kicker should miss from that range in an entire season.
            Either field goal would have won the game for Philadelphia but didn’t. Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers once said that luck is the residue of design, but please tell me what design makes a pro kicker go wide right from short range twice in one game. How do you design an opposing kicker’s yips?
            Coaches in all sports are volatile people, and no wonder. Whatever they say for public consumption, they have to know in their hearts that a lot of the outcome is outside their control. By every measure except the numbers on the scoreboard, Philadelphia outplayed San Francisco on Sunday and still lost. In addition to the missed field goals, there was a Philadelphia fumble late in the game. The loose ball could have bounced out of bounds or into the hands of a Philadelphia player. Instead, it went right to a 49er, who scooped it up to seal the game.
            Beyond the bounce-of-the-ball type of luck, there’s the whole question of personnel luck. In 1979 the Dallas Cowboys had a chance to draft Joe Montana. He was at the top of their list when their turn came late in the second round, but they decided they were set at quarterback and went for another player. Bill Walsh of the 49ers drafted Montana, and working together, they both went on to the Hall of Fame.
            If Montana had gone to Dallas, or if he had suffered a career-ending injury in his early years, how different would things have been? My guess is that Walsh would have ended up in the same league as Marty Schottenheimer, a good coach and a consistent winner who ended his career without a championship. Unless, of course, he got lucky and found himself another Montana in a future draft.
            And what if Montana hadn’t been lucky in his teammates? It’s customary among sportswriters and commentators to hold it against a quarterback if he doesn’t “win the big one.” There’s probably no argument in sports more wrongheaded. Quarterbacks don’t win championships, though they make a major contribution, but teams do.
            Show me a team that won a Super Bowl, and I’ll show you a team that almost certainly had a Hall of Fame-bound defensive player. Montana played for teams that had Ronnie Lott and Fred Dean on the defensive side of the ball. His Hall-of-Fame successor Steve Young ran up the best passing-efficiency numbers in the history of the game but won only one Super Bowl, in 1995. Anybody remember the name of the defensive player who joined San Francisco for that one season only? It was Deion Sanders, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame earlier this year.
            As it goes for football (and other sports), so it goes for war and life. Whenever Napoleon was reviewing officers for promotion, there was one question he always asked his generals about the candidate: “Is he lucky?”
            Napoleon knew.