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, March 30, 2012

A Little Bit Out of the Way

            Earlier this week I forgot two things wise men of my acquaintance have told me. One is that expectations are resentments waiting to happen, and the other is that people who write columns should never make predictions. This is what happens when you ignore good advice.
            My prediction was that Linda and I would drive up Highway 1 in California to Mendocino and the drive would be virtually the same as it was on our honeymoon 35 years ago. What’s that old saying: When men make plans, God laughs?
            At the time I posted Tuesday’s blog, containing that prediction, the biggest storm of the winter was bearing down on California — had, indeed, already hit farther north in the state. We caught it late afternoon and Tuesday night. When we stopped for gas just south of San Francisco, the car was as far under the gas station cover as could be and I got soaked in the few minutes it took to fill the tank. Rain was coming down in sheets and a high wind was blowing it sideways, right through the so-called protected area.
            We stayed overnight in Petaluma, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. The next morning the rain had pretty much stopped. We cut over to Bodega Bay on the coast and were looking forward to a leisurely hundred-mile drive north to Mendocino.
            Seventy miles later, just north of Point Arena, there was a sign saying the road was closed a mile ahead. It was the first indication that anything was wrong, and we assumed the closure was temporary. Not so. There was a roadblock and a sheriff’s deputy was turning people back. It seems the road had flooded, the water was several feet deep, and no one knew when it would be passable again.
            Highway 1 north of San Francisco runs along the coast, with a major mountain range blocking it from the rest of the state. Aside from a couple of goat-track connector roads, probably impassable after that storm, there are two state highways, 75 miles apart, that connect Highway 1 with the interior. The deputy said about our only choice was to turn around, drive 60 miles back to the first one, take it 30-some miles inland to U.S. 101, take 101 north to the other state highway, then take that road to Mendocino.
            In other words, we had to take a 150-mile loop to reach a destination that was only 30 miles away.
            Because the roads were curvy and it took only one slow vehicle ahead to create a traffic jam, we drove four and a half hours to cover that 150 miles, finally arriving in Mendocino just before dinnertime. We got there in any event, saw some scenery we otherwise wouldn’t have, and no real harm was done.
            In the course of travel, there are changes of circumstance that open up new possibilities and lead you to something exciting you otherwise would have missed. This was not one of those. There also are changes of circumstance that simply have to be endured, like a long delay at the airport. This wasn’t quite one of those, but it was close. When the grandchildren hear this story, it will be a tale of woe, not one of serendipitous discovery.
            This is being written Thursday night, following eight hours of steady rain. Friday morning, we head home again. Twelve miles south of Mendocino, State Highway 128 heads inland to U.S. 101. It’s the way we wound up coming in, and it’s definitely the way we’re going out. We hope any surprises will be of the pleasant variety.   

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

California Route 1

            From the city limits of Santa Cruz north to Half Moon Bay, California Route 1 follows the coastline for nearly 50 spectacular miles. There’s virtually no development along that stretch of road, and the little there is would hardly be considered obtrusive: Farm structures, parking areas and picnic tables at state beaches, a few scattered residences. The town of Davenport, which can be driven through in less than a minute at the posted speed of 45 mph is the only outpost of civilization.
            Forty years ago I made that drive shortly before the November general election. There was a measure on the ballot, Proposition 20, which would establish a state commission entrusted with coming up with a plan to protect the California coast. The day I made that drive I remember thinking how badly I wanted it to pass and thinking that if it could save just half the open space between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, it would be a great success.
            It was even better; for all intents and purposes, the drive today is the same as in 1972. How much of that is owing to the Coastal Commission and how much to other forces can be debated, but the degree to which the open coast in the northern half of California has been protected is nothing less than astonishing, given how close much of it is to Silicon Valley and the greater San Francisco urban area.
            The only significant new development I can identify between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay since 1972 is the Costanoa resort, which offers tent cabins, camping, a store and restaurant about halfway along the route. It’s on the inland side of the highway so it doesn’t affect the view toward the ocean, and it’s set back and screened from the road so as to be hardly noticeable.
            I can’t object to that, and in the spirit of full disclosure should mention that in the mid-1990s I worked briefly on a plan, ultimately unsuccessful, for a public-private partnership to create a campground to serve one of the state parks along that stretch of road. Like Costanoa, it would have been inland and largely screened from the road, but it was controversial, and the plan was ultimately withdrawn some time after my involvement with the project ended.
            North of San Francisco, there’s another stretch of about 150 miles where Route 1 follows a largely wild coast. The only settlement of any size is Fort Bragg, at the northern end of that drive. Otherwise there are a few towns of under 1,000 people, fairly widely dispersed, and some stunning views. Sea Ranch, an exclusive residential development in northern Sonoma County, is about the only sight of human hand on the coastal side of the road, outside those small towns. And even Sea Ranch is well done and largely set back from the road so as not to be visually bothersome.
            We tend to worry a lot about our vanishing open lands, but as any airplane flight will show, there are still a lot of them left. The great majority of California and the country at large is still undeveloped — some of it by concerted action and some by simple fate or circumstance.
            Thirty five years ago this month Linda and I drove up Highway 1 north of San Francisco to Mendocino for our honeymoon. Later today we’ll be heading that way again for an anniversary getaway. We’ll be in a nicer car than we were in as newlyweds, but the road itself won’t be any nicer. It’ll be almost the same as it was 35 years ago, and that’s fine with us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Difficult Art of Job Creation

            A.H. Raskin, who for four decades was the most highly respected labor reporter in American journalism, once wrote that he owed his job at The New York Times to the federal government.
            In 1934 he was a correspondent for the Times, being paid by the story for articles on the City College of New York. The previous year, as part of the New Deal, Congress had passed the first wage and hour laws, establishing a 40-hour workweek and requiring overtime beyond that point.
            Newspaper publishers — then, as now, skinflints to the bone — tried to argue that reporters should be exempt from the wage-hour laws because they were professionals who should earn a flat salary. The government agency in charge of enforcing the new law had a good laugh over that one and ordered the owners to pay hourly wages and overtime. To keep overtime down, most papers hired additional reporters, despite the Depression, and Raskin was one of the beneficiaries.
            Imagine the hue and cry if President Obama and Congress tried to do something like that today. It would probably be denounced as the “job-killing wage and hour law,” even as it created jobs. It probably was so denounced back then, but history has kindly forgotten the losers of the argument.
            It does make you wonder, though, what the government could do today to create jobs.
            Doing nothing and leaving business alone to handle the job doesn’t seem to work. It can in boom times, but in today’s situation, where the problem is not enough customers, owing to unemployment, bankruptcy, and people paying off debt, some stimulus (if conservatives will pardon the expression) is in order.
            An obvious approach would be a major public works program, aimed at improving roads, bridges, schools and public buildings. With the housing and construction businesses in a true depression, this would create jobs utilizing the skills already possessed by many unemployed workers. The downside is that we have become so frightened of our deficit shadow that the will to do this is nonexistent.
            Cutting the work week to 35 hours is another possibility. It was done in France a decade ago and proved hugely popular with the public, though the jury is still out on the overall economic impact. Cutting hours worked in Raskin’s day; why not try it now?
            Or how about repealing President Obama’s health care law and replacing it with a national health service. The bureaucracy’s already in place; all you’d have to do is extend Medicare to everybody and hire a few more people to process the claims (more jobs!).
            This last one has several virtues. From a free-market perspective, it relieves businesses of the necessity of maintaining a benefits bureaucracy and dealing with the uncertainties of health care costs. The high cost of benefits surely discourages employers from hiring new people, so why not make it the government’s problem?
            Because that would be “socialism,” that’s why.
            It all calls to mind the story of the United Auto Workers and the big automakers right after World War II. Walter Reuther, head of the UAW, wanted a national health care plan to protect every American from devastating medical expenses. The automakers were horrified and cried socialism; they said they’d rather provide for their own workers and negotiated a contract by which they did. As a consequence of that decision, Detroit, half a century later, was spending more money on employee health benefits than it was on steel.
            Which just goes to show that sometimes (a lot of times, actually) business doesn’t even know what’s in its best interest.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Life as an Ed Sullivan Show

            Heading to the bakery for a morning pastry the other day, I hit the radio button for BBC World Service. In between the half-hour newscasts, they were doing an interview with Otis Williams, the last original member of The Temptations.
            They’re not a band I’m passionate about, but the interviewer (who never gave his name; they’re not much into celebrity at BBC) was clearly well informed and asked good questions about Berry Gordy and the early days at Motown Records; about the drug and alcohol use of group members; and about the experience of being an African-American performer at the height of the civil rights movement.
            Williams, in turn, answered candidly and at length, conveying the definite impression of a man comfortable in his own skin. It was a great conversation, I learned a thing or two from it, and was definitely glad I caught it.
            And, if I were someone who listened exclusively to his own playlist on an IPod, I never would have.
            One of the pleasures of growing older (and, frankly, there aren’t that many) is enjoying the moment more and savoring the pleasures of the unexpected. I worry that technology is increasingly cutting back on the serendipitous occurrences in life. If you only listen to the songs you’ve already picked out, how are you going to find new ones? Your friends, maybe, but they’re a small circle and know only a little of what’s out there — certainly not as much as a competent DJ. And the song that goes viral on Facebook and Twitter because of its broad appeal may not be the one that touches your quirky heart.
            Newspapers and magazines were and are a great medium for exposing you to new things. In the good ones, editors who know a thing or two pick out stories you may never have heard about or commission stories that shed a new light on things you thought you knew.
            What’s more, a good writer can draw you into a story you didn’t think you cared about by the simple expedient of telling it well. There have been many articles in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The Economist that I’ve kind of glanced at and started, then read to the end because they grabbed me and held my attention.
            But just as people can put together their own playlist, they now have the ability to put together their own news list. If you are so inclined, you can program your electronic devices to provide you with anti-Obama stories on Fox News or anti-Republican stories from The Times. What you miss by not looking at the paper, in print or electronically, are a lot of the outlying stories, which could be the ones that tell you something you didn’t know.
            There’s a degree of skill and experience needed to put together a wide range of material for a mass audience, whether it be a radio music show or a newspaper. Anyone doing that has to understand what’s out there and be willing to include some things that he or she wouldn’t personally be interested in. Ed Sullivan surely didn’t care for Elvis or The Beatles, but he realized they represented something new, something people were responding to. And so he put them on his show.
            Variety shows no longer exist on TV; how could they, when it’s so easy to go to another channel if you don’t like this comedian, singer, or juggling act? Yet at some level I want to be exposed to an ongoing Ed Sullivan Show of life, where something new is always around the corner.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Personal Benefit of Taxation

            A good friend from the newspaper days moved away from the area nearly two decades ago, largely owing to the high cost of housing in coastal California. He and his wife settled in Davis, a university town down the road from Sacramento, but we’ve stayed in touch over the years. His most recent e-mail was an eye-opener.
            Not all of it, actually, but the part about Davis’s recent parcel tax election. California’s public schools, once the pride of the nation, have been in severe decline for about 30 years now. That decline, however, has not been universal, and Davis is one of the outliers.
            In a town of 65,000 people, where the largest employer is the University of California, you might expect the residents to be more supportive of education, and you would be right. The public schools rank among the best in the state, and one of the reasons is that residents have been willing to approve additional taxes to pay for them. In California, where almost everything requires two-thirds approval by the voters, this is by no means an easy undertaking.
            Davis recently approved a parcel tax to support local schools (one of several passed over the years), and my friend had an interesting financial take on the whole process.
            Houses in Davis command a sales price $100K or more than comparable houses in neighboring communities, he said, and the principal reason is that the schools are so good. People will pay a premium to live where that’s the case, and for those who are already there, it makes voting for a school tax a good personal investment.
            My friend notes that if he pays a $500 parcel tax every year for 30 years, he’s out of pocket $15,000 — even less, considering that the taxes are deductible from federal income. If the result after 30 years is that he owns a house worth $100-200K more than it otherwise would have been, he’s come out way ahead any way you look at it.
            There’s a lot of chatter among moderate and liberal pundits about the benefit of taxes as an investment in a better society, but this example shows how they can be a good personal investment as well. Simply put, when you invest in your community, you can reap tangible benefits in the form of better property values, lower insurance, etc. And better schools, of course.
            The Davis model won’t work everywhere. In a large-city school district, where the operation is so huge that all elements of it are in competition with each other and where the sense of community is not nearly as strong, it’s hard to get any tax approved even if only a majority vote is needed.
            Even in the school district where I live, with a population only a bit larger than Davis, taxes have typically fallen victim to forces of geography, race and age. (A significant number of retirees live here, and many of them figure they’ve already paid for their kids’ education and aren’t going to pay for anyone else’s. And if they expect to live out their time in the house they’re now in, they won’t be swayed by the property-value argument.)
            A town as well-situated as Davis is on a near-perpetual roll. From the standpoint of personal financial interest, a family with young children would do well to pay the extra money to buy a house there and the extra taxes for the school. If it comes to $120K, that’s half the cost of private school for one kid. And that’s assuming you find a bargain. So does virtue propagate itself.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Flattering the Man on the Street

The San Francisco Chronicle of the 1970s was probably best known as a punch line in the movie All The President’s Men. Playing Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee in that film, Jason Robards, Jr., was pitched an idea for a new-age feature of some type and he replied by saying, “Tell ‘em to take it to the San Francisco Chronicle.”
            The joke was not without basis (otherwise it wouldn’t have worked, right?), but the reality was that the much-pilloried Chronicle of that time was a good and lively paper in its own way. The way just didn’t happen to be that of the Post or the New York Times.
            It was a paper with world-class columnists: Herb Caen (who later won a special Pulitzer), Charles McCabe, and Art Hoppe. If it didn’t have a lot of in-depth investigative reporting, it nevertheless covered the news in a lively and entertaining fashion. The headlines and writing were sharp, and it got the details right in a lot of ways.
            I was reminded of that recently when I had coffee with a friend and business colleague, and he made a remark about how inane one of the local paper’s person-on-the street columns was. An ordinary reader probably thinks there’s nothing to doing such a column: Just go some place with a lot of foot traffic, ask the same question of five or six people, then come back to the office and write it up. Piece of cake. The ordinary reader would be badly mistaken.
            In the time period I speak of, the Chronicle had a superb practitioner of this type of piece. The column was called Question Man, and its author listed only as O’Hara. Much later, I learned that O’Hara, the question man, was actually a woman. That makes sense because two of the qualities needed to do the job right are an ability to put people at ease and an ability to listen well and hear what people are really saying. Women often do those things well.
            To get a compelling person-on-the-street column, you have to come up with a well phrased question and put it to more people than the number who will appear in the column. Some people are vapid, inarticulate, or both. There are those who would say such subjects should be included in the column, as they are representative of the population at large. I disagree. The newspaper’s space and its readers’ time are too valuable to be wasted on inanity.
            Nor is it enough, in all cases, to simply ask a question and let the subject talk. A good interviewer working on this kind of piece will ask good follow-up questions to elicit additional response and to help the interviewee, who typically is not used to talking with the media, articulate the point he or she is trying to make. That holds true whether the question is about Watergate or something as simple as what are you having for lunch today.
            After interviewing enough people, the columnist has to pull take a 500-word answer and editing it down to 75 words or so that capture the gist and sting of what the person was saying, and convey a sense of the person’s voice. Even the order in which the answers are arranged is important; if the reader sees variety and interest in the utterances, he or she will keep reading. I’ve never seen this type of column done as well as O’Hara did it, just as I’ve never seen an item column as good as Herb Caen’s. There’s no substitute for instinct and talent, and in flattering her subjects, O’Hara satisfied her readers.

Friday, March 9, 2012

If the Vatican Were Run Like A.A.

            Bill Wilson was the principal founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that, among other things, calls for turning your will and your life over to God as you understand Him. Curiously, after finding God and sobriety, he never found a church he could belong to.
            As a believer without a church, he was in good company: Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and John Wayne come to mind. (The Duke once said, “I believe in God, but not religion. If God wanted us to have religion, he’d have just made one.”) Bill was apparently taken with the Roman Catholic Church and flirted with it, but the deal-breaker at the end was the concept of the infallibility of the pope.
            Having grown up in a small town in Vermont, where matters were settled democratically at town meetings at which everyone could be heard and could vote, he simply couldn’t go along with the idea of following the dictate of one man who claimed to be channeling God. That’s why a critical element of A.A. is that decisions are made by “group conscience;” everyone who comes to the meeting gets a say and a vote, and God is presumed to speak through the group as a whole.
            Applied to life and institutions in general, I think Bill’s philosophy is the right one, and not just for spiritual reasons. The more people who are involved in a decision, the better it’s likely to be. If nothing else happens, a larger and more diverse participation increases the odds of the key questions being asked. Most bad decisions are the result of not thinking of something that becomes a glaringly obvious problem down the road.
            It’s a messy process, to be sure, and sometimes a wrong-headed person or sub-group can hijack the process and lead it down the wrong path. Even when it works, it takes time and compromise, which frustrates those who are absolutely convinced of their righteousness. But over time the right thing happens a lot more often than not.
            Bill’s issue came to mind recently during the uproar over the new health care law requiring Catholic secular institutions such as universities and hospitals to provide birth control coverage in their health insurance plans. Birth control being against church policy (though widely practiced by actual church members, if you believe the polls), the issue turned into a religious-freedom donnybrook that I won’t go into here.
            Buried deep in an article about that controversy was an illuminating point. In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII created a Vatican Council considering reforms within the church. One of the matters on the agenda was ending or relaxing the Church’s outright rejection of birth control. For a variety of reasons, the idea had broad support and was recommended to the pope.
            By the time the matter reached the Pontiff’s desk, John had died and Pope Paul VI had taken over. On July 25, 1968 he issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which rejected the majority report and upheld the Church’s traditional ban on artificial contraception. In Paul’s remaining ten years as pope, he never wrote another encyclical.
            It’s possible that if John had lived long enough to make the decision, it would have been different, and of course every religion gets to decide how it hears God. But if the Vatican were run like Alcoholics Anonymous, and decisions were made by group conscience, the Catholic position on birth control would in all likelihood be far different than it is today. Considering how that would have gone down makes for one of history’s greatest what-ifs.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Elvis, Rhonda and Conway Twitty

                  I’ll never be able to listen to Conway Twitty’s “Tight Fitting Jeans” without thinking of the McCloud River Inn, where I heard it for the first time.
                  When I woke up that morning in October of 1984, I had no idea I would be at the McCloud River Inn that night. My friend Paul De Lay and I were going on a long fishing weekend, and the plan was to camp at Ah Di Na Meadows along the McCloud River, twelve miles up a dirt road from the last trace of civilization. But as we drove north on Interstate 5 that morning, menacing clouds were moving in from the north.
                  Heading into the mountains outside Redding it began to rain, and as we gained elevation, it began to snow. By the time we reached the turnoff to McCloud, it was clear that camping, or even getting to Ah Di Na Meadows on that treacherous road was out of the question.
                  Mid-afternoon, driving gingerly to stay in the tire grooves through a couple of inches of snow on the road (it was so early in the season I hadn’t thought to bring chains) we made it to the town of McCloud and rented a cabin at a deserted motor court. After a couple of restless hours, we decided to walk through town and see where we could have dinner.
                  Which is how we ended up being half the population of the bar at the McCloud River Inn that night. As we had our pre-dinner drinks, the place was still as a tomb, and the music came through loud and clear. When “Tight Fitting Jeans” came on, Paul and I looked at each other, and we knew. This was the song that would define the trip.
                  Another country song forever associated with a time and place is Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed.” In September 1978 I was doing a photography trip in the western prairie section. For three days, as I drove from the Texas panhandle into Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, the one station I could get clearly and consistently was the megawatt KFDI Big Country, Wichita. They played Sleeping Single all the time, and more than 30 years later, I can still sing most of it by heart.
                  About the time I was hired at the newspaper where I worked for two decades, the Eagles came out with “Witchy Woman,” a huge hit. The Salinas rock/pop station I listened to at the time seemed to play it almost every morning between 7:40 and 8, as I was driving to work. Every time I hear it now, I feel, for a few seconds, as if I am 22 or 23 again, with my life in front of me. If only that could be bottled.
                  Last week I got a new car (how it happened is another story), with Sirius Radio, which I’d never had. Saturday night I went out to run a couple of errands and tried Sirius for the first time, checking out Cousin Brucie’s Sixties music show.
                  On the way to the gas station, Rhonda from Saskatchewan called in and requested Elvis’s “Rubberneckin,’” which Brucie played. Before he did, he asked, since Rhonda was calling while on a road trip (I hope she was the passenger), that everyone driving a car or truck honk twice. Traffic was light, so I did, and that imprinted this song as well, as the one that will be forever linked with Sirius and the new car.
                  Thank you, Rhonda. I’ll never forget you.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Too Much to Say, Nobody to Say It

            Perhaps you have had the experience of going to a web site for a business or organization and seeing an invitation on the home page to subscribe to its e-mail newsletter. Perhaps you went a bit farther and checked out the newsletter archive on the site and discovered that the last newsletter was put out two or three years ago.
            I see this sort of thing all the time in my line of work, which includes helping clients with newsletters, annual reports and other forms of public outreach. It’s part of the overall societal issue of information overload.
            Everybody is being told these days that you have to have a web site, you have to be on Facebook, you have to be on Twitter. Not everybody has to, of course. The corner bodega that lives off neighborhood walk-in business can easily behave as if the Internet never happened and do just fine, thank you.
            Still, for most businesses, it’s a good idea to get your story out there as much as possible, though I admittedly have a professional bias on that issue. The critical question is who’s going to do it.
            Most businesses and organizations aren’t exactly adding people to handle their communications needs. What happens, typically, is that they assign the communication to an existing employee. Chances are that employee is already trying to do 45-50 hours of work in a 40-hour workweek, with no overtime authorized. If that’s the case, something has to give. If the employee is an administrative assistant, rather than a communications specialist, the communication work tends to get put on the back burner until it falls behind the stove and is lost from sight.
            In some cases a business will hire a freelancer, such as myself, to take on some of the communications work on a spot basis. Again, I have a bias here, but that makes a lot of sense. Instead of having an employee who is putting off the work until everything else gets done, the organization gets an outside contractor who doesn’t get paid until the job is done. Hence, the job gets done as quickly as possible.
            There’s a certain cycle I see, particularly with nonprofit organizations. Such an outfit will typically start out lean and mean and focus its energy exclusively on developing a donor base and establishing its programs. After several years of steady growth and success, people in the organization start to say the same thing to each other:
            “We’re doing such great things, and nobody knows we exist.”
            I’ve made a lot of money over the years from that complaint, because that’s typically when the organization decides to hire an outsider to take on the information duties. What happens next is that with someone with a financial interest in doing the communicating, the communicating gets done, and the organization sees the benefit in terms of public recognition and resultant growth.
            This, then, enables the executive director to move on to a bigger operation at a bigger salary in a few years. In comes a new executive director, who decides the communications work is getting so big it should be handled in house, which often makes sense, and so I’m gone. A staff position at least partially for communications is created, and the outfit moves forward until a sour economy and the loss of a few major donors force the position to be cut or restructured.
            Then, a few years later, people in the organization start saying.”We’re doing such great things and nobody knows we exist,” and they start looking for an outsider to take on the information duties. Is this the land of opportunity, or what?