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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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Names We Give Our Children

            There was a story in the local newspaper recently about a high school basketball game, and the first two paragraphs are worth quoting in their entirety:
            “With the defensive attention shaded towards Soquel High stars Ragine Graves and Madison Rocha, Saturday afternoon’s Central Coast Section Division IV quarterfinal playoff game gave Keahna Clark a bushel of open looks.
            “She made the most of her opportunity.”
            I don’t know if any other readers felt the same way, but I was grateful for the “She” at the beginning of the second paragraph. Forced to make a gender guess based solely on the first paragraph, I probably would have gone with the women but been far from certain about it. If you haven’t found yourself puzzled by the first names of the currently young, you just haven’t lived long enough. It will happen, guaranteed.
            In my far-from-wild youth in suburban Southern California, it seemed as if half the boys were named John, Jim, Bob or Bill. Two of my best friends in high school were John Sutton and Jim Ludlum; John had a brother named Jim and Jim Ludlum had a brother named Bill. On the street where we lived, we often played ball with the Knauf brothers, Bob and Bill.
            As your life changes, so do your friends, but the chances are the names don’t change that much because each generation has its own set of highly popular names. Starting with high school, I’d say I’ve had five best friends over the years, and three of them were named John. The other two were Paul and Jeff.
            In my school days there were few other Mikes; I recall only one other in my high school graduating class of nearly 400. My last name, Wallace, was almost as common a first name as my first name, Michael. So I was quite surprised when, in my early 30s, the wire editor at the newspaper where I worked informed me that Michael was the most popular name for newborn boys that year. Not long after that she and her husband named their new son Michael, though not after me.
            When Linda and I were expecting our son, we were looking for a name that was solid and traditional but not too common. We settled on Nicholas, and apparently a lot of other parents at the same time had the same idea. Our Nick has known many other Nicks as he has gone through school, and in fact, one of his current best friends is also a Nick.
            In girls’ names there seems always to have been more diversity and change over the years. In my parents’ generation there were a lot of Gertrudes, Mabels, Lucilles, and jewel names: Opal, Ruby, Sapphire, even Jewel. In my generation, nearly none.
            That was true on the male side as well. My father’s name was Clarence, and among his best friends were Harold, Mel, Walt, and Harry; I can recall one Walt in my high school class and none of the other names at all.
            Some day the Dylans, Taylors, Madisons, Ragines and Keahnas will seem as quaint to the contemporary ear as the Mels and Rubys of bygone days. The old standards keep making comebacks, to be sure, but not always at the same times. If you go to the wedding section of the paper, at least in California, you’re more likely to come across a marriage between a John and a John than between a John and Mary.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The First Federal Bailout

            In the summer of 1971 I was home in Glendale between my junior and senior years of college, working at my father’s plastics business in Burbank. Just down the road (literally less than a mile) from that business, history was being made in the form of America’s first corporate bailout.
            Lockheed, the venerable aircraft firm, was in trouble, largely owing to its connection with the airplane engine division of Rolls Royce, which had just gone into receivership. Lenders were unwilling to lend further without a guarantee, and without capital, Lockheed would be unable to finish building its Tri-Star airplane, on which it had more or less bet the company.
            President Richard M. Nixon, with the help of Treasury Secretary John Connally, drew up a loan guarantee proposal that would provide Lockheed with $250 million (about a billion and a quarter in today’s money) in loan guarantees. It was a controversial and hotly contested proposal.
            There were strong arguments on both sides. Opponents screamed bailout. Sen. William Proxmire, Wisconsin Democrat, who gave monthly “Golden Fleece” awards for wasteful government spending, was a leading naysayer. Alan Greenspan, then a young economic adviser to the president, cautioned that if the government bailed out one company, where would it end.
            On the other hand, there was a concern that if Lockheed failed, owing to problems with its British partner, America would lose a critical defense contractor, a key aviation firm, and about 60,000 jobs once the ripple effect was factored in. Right up to the time Congress voted, no one knew how it was going to go. Being so close to Lockheed’s main plant, we were all acutely aware of the fear and anxiety in the air, and it sometimes seemed as if Lockheed was all anyone was talking about that summer.
            Being in college, I of course knew everything, and had a strong position on the matter. Like Proxmire, I was against it, figuring that the government shouldn’t be bailing out large companies that had messed up. As a matter of abstract philosophy, it was an absolutely tenable position.
            My father, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who believed in Free Enterprise and distrusted the federal government, was for the Lockheed loan guarantee. On the eve of World War II, he had worked as a night watchman at Lockheed and had a soft spot for the company, but his main concern was jobs. He didn’t see how you could throw 60,000 people out of work if there was a way to avoid it.
            In the end, Lockheed got the money by the narrowest of margins. The vote in the Senate was 49-48, and in the House of Representatives 192-189. There were divisions in both parties. Republican Congressman H. Allen Smith, whose district encompassed the Lockheed plant, voted no, based on solid conservative principles. After doing so he decided not to seek re-election in his solidly conservative district in 1972, “retiring” from Congress at the age of 63.
            Forty years later, it’s a bit easier to see the picture. Greenspan was right about other bailouts following, but Lockheed and its jobs survived for another quarter century before the company merged with Martin Marietta. I’m now at about the age my father was at the time, and I’ve come around to his point of view. In the abstract, the government shouldn’t be bailing out large companies, and there are limits to when it can and should. But the people who get hurt aren’t abstractions, and it’s far from a sure thing that the free market will step up and replace the failed firms with minimal pain and disruption. Some times the philosophically weaker position becomes the lesser of evils.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Religious Liberty in Old Pennsylvania

             During his Philadelphia years Benjamin Franklin was actively involved in a number of town and colony governing offices. At the time, Quakers made up a majority of most governing boards, which made for some interesting politics when questions of public defense arose.
            Several pages of the Autobiography are devoted to discussing this. Franklin recalls when the Fire Company conducted a lottery to raise funds that might be used to create a defensive battery at the harbor. Twenty two of the governing board of 30 were Quakers, but Franklin soon learned that most, particularly the younger ones, were willing to tacitly support defensive measures if it could be done without openly going against their church leadership.
            When the time came to vote on the distribution of the lottery funds, the eight non-Quakers showed up, as did one Quaker leader, who adamantly insisted his people would not support the battery. At the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, those nine were the only ones in attendance; then Franklin was called to a nearby tavern by a waiter who worked there. Eight of the Quaker board members were waiting and said they would come to the meeting and vote for the battery, but only if their votes were absolutely needed.
            Knowing he had the 16 votes needed, Franklin returned to the meeting and told the lone Quaker representative that the others would wait an hour to allow the 21 missing Quakers to show up. To the surprise of the lone Quaker present, none of them did, and the motion to approve the battery was carried 8-1.
            In the Pennsylvania Assembly, where Franklin also served, similar difficulties arose when defense appropriations were necessary. “They were unwilling to offend government on the one hand by a direct refusal, and their Friends, the Body of Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles,” Franklin writes. “Hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable.”
            A common technique for appropriating defense expenditures was to pass a resolution allowing money “for the King’s use.” That was fine as long as the funds requested were for the Crown, but it didn’t always work. At one point, for instance, the Assembly was asked to approve an appropriation requested by another colony’s governor for gunpowder to defend a garrison.
            After much wrangling, Pennsylvania voted an appropriation of three thousand pounds to be used for “the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat or other grain.” Urged to reject the appropriation on the grounds that it wasn’t what he had asked for, the Governor replied, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder.”
            Ever the practical politician, Franklin realized that this approach could have been used in the fire company situation. As he later told a friend, he could have got a resolution approved that the money be used to buy a fire engine and had himself and his friend appointed as the committee to make the purchase. They then could have bought a cannon for the battery because what, after all, is a cannon if not a fire-engine of sorts?
            The moral here is that controversies between government and religion can be worked out by reasonable people of good will as long each side is sensitive to the other’s concern and not too starchy about asserting its own. If they could figure that out 250 years ago, you’d think they could do it now; but progress is not always a straight line.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Reflections on a Year of Blogging

                  With last Friday’s post, Out of Glendale completed its first year of publication, or whatever it is a blog does. When it started last February, I didn’t know if it would make it this far, so I suppose the occasion could be called a pleasant surprise.
                  For several years, in what seems like another age altogether, I wrote four editorials and a column each week for the newspaper I edited. Over the past couple of years I found myself yearning to write opinion again, and since no one would pay me to do it, I chose this route. No regrets.
                  In its original concept, this blog was going to be more or less of a public affairs commentary, and for the most part it has been. But just a couple of weeks into it, I deviated from that goal and wrote a personal essay about selling the 1977 Volkswagen camper I’d owned since 1982. It’s probably generated more comments than any other post over the past year, which proves beyond a doubt that we care more about our rides than we do about our politics. Ever since, I’ve felt free to do a personal piece whenever I feel like it and to mix the personal with the political when it can help make a point.
                  Another factor that seems to generate a spike in page views, if not actual readership, is a post with cultural references. The blog on the Golden Age of mystery novels, which mentioned Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, got an above-average number of hits. So did a piece reflecting about John Ford’s Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I’m guessing the extra hits were a result of people Googling those names.
                  When I began to get serious about this blog, the idea of writing two 600-word essays a week seemed a bit daunting, despite past experience. It hasn’t really turned out so. With one exception, when I wound up on a jury and had to tend to my business after hours, there has been a fresh post every Tuesday and Friday. In one case I started writing at 4 p.m. on Friday, but that sort of procrastination has been the exception rather than the rule.
                  There’s one aspect of my original manifesto that I’ve tried hard to honor, which is that this blog will not try to be on top of current events and up to the minute. When a controversy moves into the public eye, there is far too much dreck written and spoken about it at the time it’s out there. I’ve occasionally written a piece about something in the news at the moment, then held it a few weeks, until the din has subsided, and reworked it a bit to have it reflect thoughts I didn’t see expressed while the debate was occurring.
                  At the beginning I made the decision not to have a space for comments to be posted. Part of the reason is that I feel this is my space, and I don’t want to have to patrol it for other people’s verbal misbehavior. I also have an abhorrence of anonymous commentary, dating back to my newspaper days when I worked very hard to verify authorship of letters to the editor. By all means, e-mail me if you have a comment.
                  So far there’s no evidence this blog has changed or even affected the national dialogue, and I’m fine with that. It’s been good for me to draw on my reading, memory and observation, and I’ve found that the discipline of writing twice a week has helped the writing I do professionally — sort of like a pianist practicing scales. I guess I’ll keep it going a while longer, and you’re all welcome to check in as you like.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Hypocritical 'Solution' to Abortion

            One slow afternoon in the late 1970s a reporter was going through the “exchanges,” the out-of-town newspapers that arrived at our office in each day’s mail. He picked up a paper from several hundred miles away, where he once worked, began reading, and after a couple of minutes said, loudly enough to wake up everyone else in the room: “Hah!”
            Not being overly busy at the time, I asked what prompted the exclamation. He pointed to a front-page story and asked me to read it. It was an obituary of a prominent family practice physician who had practiced in that town for decades, won numerous community service awards, was widely beloved, and had died surrounded by his family at a ripe old age. I looked up, and said, “So?”
            “So,” he replied, “what they left out of the story was that he was the town abortionist. Everybody knew he was the guy to see if you had a problem.”
            Once upon a time in America there were hundreds, probably thousands of doctors like him. Some were highly respectable and some ran seedy back-alley operations that threatened the lives and health of the women they served. Everybody knew about them and nobody talked about them. Abortion, though ubiquitous, was nonexistent as a political issue.
            Lately I’ve been having some nostalgia, no doubt unwarranted, for those times. I’m pro-choice, with reservations, but find myself more and more believing that our political dialogue is being poisoned by debate over an issue that consumes far too much attention and can never be satisfactorily resolved.
            Resolved? It can’t even be satisfactorily debated because there’s no common ground for framing a debate. Activists on one side say it’s murder; on the other side a personal moral decision. Too often, neither side respects, or even acknowledges, the other’s fundamental premise.
            Between those two extremes is a broad middle, probably 70 to 80 percent of the population, which is conflicted. There are pro-lifers who would make an exception in the cases of rape, incest or medical danger to the mother. There are pro-choicers who would support a reasonable parental-notification law for minors seeking an abortion. They have no chance of being heard, and, as the issue is highly situational, they often tune out the debate, except when they or someone they know is facing the decision. In the end, most people don’t want abortion criminalized, and whether it is or not, people will make their own decisions.
            A while back I was talking with a local police chief about prostitution and how his department enforced the laws. He told me that the trade is now almost all outcall, and that given all the other crime issues in his town, prostitution is handled on a low-priority, respond-to-complaints-only basis.
            Part of me would like to deal with abortion that way: Declare it illegal again then never enforce the law. Sort of like Senator George Aiken’s suggestion in 1967 that we declare victory in Vietnam, then pull out. Planned Parenthood could stop doing abortions and do discreet referrals instead, and everybody could support it for the other 97 percent of what it does. Politicians on both sides could stop pandering on the issue. A little hypocrisy here could be a good thing.
            But it wouldn’t work. There would always be prosecutors who would see votes in going after the providers; there would be women outside the loop who couldn’t get served, and so on. It’s a pipe dream born of frustration over a political war that will probably still be fought a hundred years hence, with no winner in sight.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Clubs I Don't Want to Join

            Excuse me here while I have a bit of an Andy Rooney moment.
            Have you ever noticed how many retailers have been going over to a membership business model? It’s getting harder and harder to just walk into a store and buy something for the price shown on the shelf. In fact, it’s getting harder and harder to just walk into a store and understand the price shown on the shelf.
            I’m not just talking about Costco and other organizations of that ilk. Grocery stores like Safeway and drugstore chains like Rite Aid and CVS have gotten into the act. This is a bad idea if for no other reason than it adds an extra layer of time to the checkout process. Plus it creates a template for confusion at best and frustration and anger at worst.
            The other morning I ran out to get a pastry and decided, since I was going right past it, to stop at the local Safeway and get some Vitamin C. I had to have the car back home by 7:30 a.m. because Linda needed to leave for work then, so Safeway was my only option.
            As a rule, I avoid Safeway for a variety of reasons. The one near our house was built nearly 50 years ago and has been remodeled a couple of times with the apparent purpose of making it look older and crummier. The lighting is so dingy it would be a mugger’s paradise, except that the mugger would be hard put to find his way out. It’s chronically understaffed, so you generally have to wait in a long line because only two of a dozen registers are open, and the employees have apparently been instructed that under no circumstances are they to call for more checkers, regardless of how many people are in line. More often than not the employees are surly and uncaring, but I try to cut them a break. After five minutes in that place, I’m hardly Mr. Congeniality, and they have to be there for eight hours at a stretch.
            But I digress. That early in the morning the store was fairly empty and I was able to reasonably quickly locate a brand-name bottle of 100 Vitamin C tablets for $7.79, which the ten-spot I brought would nicely cover. The line wasn’t bad and the checker seemed reasonably good-spirited. I was counting the experience as a win until the checker swiped the vitamin bottle and rang me up for $15.16, nearly twice the posted shelf price.
            When I mentioned that, she asked for my Club Card number and swiped it again. Same result. “I think it’s a two for the price of one,” she said. “If you want to go back and get another one, we can try again.” At that point I looked at the line that was forming behind me and thought I discerned some homicidal intent in the facial expressions there. So I said, “Forget it,” and left without the vitamins.
            That night I went to a CVS pharmacy and bought 100 Vitamin C for $8.49 plus tax. The price rung up on the register was the same as the one on the shelf, but that may have been a coincidence.
            My question, after all this, is why stores bother with the club memberships. Wouldn’t it be easier and fairer and make for a quicker checkout if they simply gave every customer their best price every time? Of course it would, but then they couldn’t track our purchases as easily and pretend to offer great deals to insiders. All I can do is vote with my feet for as long as I have the option, and my vote is anti-club.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Loving Business From a Distance

            One of the more amusing aspects of American political debate is the reverence shown, in some quarters, for business. I can only conclude that the people who make the biggest and loudest claims of being pro-business either haven’t been in the business world themselves for a while, or have seen it only from an owner’s perspective.
            (And while we’re on the subject, does anyone else agree with me that the term “pro-business” should be removed from the political debate altogether? Aside from a few strays in a few college towns, there’s no such thing as an anti-business politician in America. The debate, such as it is, turns on the question of what counterbalances, such as labor unions, worker-safety regulations, and environmental laws, should be imposed on a business’s inherent desire to make as much money as quickly as possible, regardless of consequences.)
            For a few years in my early middle age I was an executive in charge of a small division for a Fortune 500 company so dysfunctional it could have served as the inspiration for Dilbert. Corporate headquarters was more than two thousand miles away, which was both a blessing and a curse.
            It was a blessing because it meant we didn’t have to deal directly with the head office too often, but it was a curse because it reduced our operation to nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet. To be sure, headquarters paid plenty of pious lip service to producing a quality product, but not once, in all the time I was there, did they ever put their money where their mouth was. Instead, they engaged in a form of reality avoidance all too common in the corporate world: believing they could get a Lexus on a Yugo budget.
            The product in question was a newspaper, not an automobile, and I tried in vain to make the argument that drastic cuts in quality and production would be readily obvious to the readers and advertisers. In one particularly surreal discussion, I made the point that cutting a reporter from the staff meant that about 300 stories a year wouldn’t be covered. The corporate executive I was talking to looked me in the eye and replied, “That’s the old way of thinking.”
            I never did find out what new way of thinking would cause 300 news stories a year to be generated without any human being available to research and write them, and if I’d pressed the issue, the answer would probably have been something along the lines of “It’s up to you to make it happen.”
            After a while, it became obvious that our operation was nothing to headquarters but numbers on a spreadsheet. Headquarters wanted costs cut and profits raised to ridiculously high levels immediately. I argued for more modest short-term profits and more reinvestment in the product to take advantage of an area that was rapidly growing. In divorce court, they would call that irreconcilable differences, and after three years I decided to leave while it was still my decision.
            As it turned out, we were both wrong. This was a few years before the internet arrived, and none of us saw it coming. It essentially broke up the paper’s unique standing, which we all took for granted. That standing was what allowed headquarters to pursue a goal of squeezing the news for short-term profit and me to argue for investment in expectation of a long-term future return. Three years after I left, the company realized it couldn’t get the profits it wanted and still pay even lip service to quality. So it sold the paper to another company that cut the staff in half. It was just business.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Quarter Century Club

                  When you walked through the front door of the small-town newspaper where I used to work, you came into a lobby area with the main switchboard on one side and the newsroom on the other. On one wall was a set of sepia photographs that attracted almost everyone’s attention. As a young reporter I often looked up from my typewriter to see someone standing in front of that wall, gazing at the photographs in rapt fascination.
                  Above the photographs was the headline “The Quarter Century Club.” They were pictures of the men (and one woman, Virginia Peixoto) who had worked at the paper for 25 years. Time spent in the military, if served after being hired by the paper, counted.
                  At the time of my hiring in 1972, the newsroom was represented by editor Frank F. Orr (hired in 1938), managing editor Ward Bushee (1946) and city editor Howard Sheerin (1931). Quite a few of the photos were of printers and pressmen, guys without a college degree who became damned good at a skilled trade and made a life’s work of it: Gordon Littlefield, Hank Senini, Dick Heebner, Cy Crawshaw, Bill Brazil. Others went up on the wall later.
                  One of them was Sam Vestal, the paper’s first photographer, whose pictures proved the connection between the district attorney and a notorious gambler and helped the paper win a Pulitzer Prize. Sam went on the wall in 1975, and I remember being out with him on a story a few weeks before. At one point he reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a beat-up wristwatch with a broken band and checked the time. I asked when he was getting it fixed. “Not worth it,” he replied. “I hit 25 years in a few weeks, and I’ll be getting a new one from the company.”
                  They gave watches in those days, too.
                  In today’s economic and employment environment, where two-way loyalty is an alien concept, the idea of a quarter-century club is incomprehensible. It wasn’t always that way. A company with solid roots in the community could provide steady, long-term employment at a decent wage, obtained, to be sure, with some coaxing from labor unions representing the printers and pressmen. If you had a high school diploma and the willingness to learn some skills, you could make a career of it.
                  What happened in the newspaper industry is typical of what happened across America to businesses that actually produced a physical product. There are no printers any more because technology wiped out their jobs; computers enabled editors and reporters to do the typesetting and produce the pages themselves. The high cost of maintaining a press, coupled with satellite capability and the internet, has decimated the ranks of pressmen. Many newspapers no longer do their own printing; instead, the editors design the pages on the computer and send them electronically to a press at a distant location. One community newspaper has even tried moving its newsroom offshore, outsourcing reporting work to people in India, who cover the city council meeting by watching a community TV broadcast on the internet. The printed newspaper itself will no doubt vanish during my lifetime, replaced by images flickering across a computer screen or smart phone.
                  For a long time I assumed my picture would be on the wall some day, but the company was sold and I left after 19 years. I remain grateful for having had the experience of working in such a stable and welcoming environment, forever gone. Newsrooms will have typewriters again before the Quarter-Century Club makes a comeback.