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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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Unending Money Chase

            In the past week my email inbox has been brimming with correspondence from a number of old friends.
            I’ve heard from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Kristen Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Chelsea Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Wendy Davis, James Carville, Barney Frank, Barbara Mikulski, Barbara Boxer, and Congressman Pete Aguilar.
            And those are just the individuals staying in touch. I’m also hearing from organizations like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, End Citizens United and EMILY’s List.
            What can I tell you? I’m a popular guy with a lot of famous friends who all love me for one thing.
            They want my money.

The Mother’s Milk of Politics

            It’s getting to be tiresome. I understand that it takes money to run a political campaign, and that, as former California Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh used to say, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Thus has it always been and always will be.
            But if my experience is any indication, it has been accelerating out of control lately.
            It seems as if almost every day, there’s a deadline of some sort for raising X number of dollars to keep Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, or some other Republican villain du jour from destroying America as we know it. All I have to do to stop that is give a dollar or two or three.
            Of course, no sooner have the funds been raised to stave off the crisis at hand than there’s a new crisis and a new deadline the following week. It never ends.
            It’s a technological problem, in some ways. In the old days, they’d have had to send a letter and pay for paper, envelopes and postage. That had the effect of imposing some restraint. A blast email costs nothing but the expense of having some hack write it, so there’s no reason to hold back from sending as many as possible — to the point of ridiculousness.

Can’t Smell the Ordure

Now I realize Democrats feel they have to target smaller donors to offset some of the bigger contributors the Republicans get. But even so: Do the people who send all these emails have any idea how obnoxious and offensive the ordinary citizen finds them? How truly sickened most people are that our political system has become an endless pursuit of dollars?
Probably not. I think today’s political operatives have been living in the outhouse for so long it smells like a rose to them. I’m reminded of the story of former California Governor Gray Davis, who was asked by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters what politician he most admired and why?
            I forget who the politician was, but I’ll never forget the why. Davis said he admired the individual he named because no matter how busy a day he’d had, the man always found time to make 100 fund-raising calls each night.
            That’s not exactly what you’d call a profile in courage.
            Years ago, I saw Louis Malle’s film Phantom India, and a scene that has stuck with me ever since was the image of a swarm of beggars approaching the camera with their hands out. These days I feel as if I’m revisiting that image every time I check my inbox. Our politics has become a beggar’s opera, and we’re all worse off for it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Easing Out of the Fast Lane

            For the past year, I’ve been phasing out my business. In February, I turned 66, and while my health is pretty good and I enjoy what I’ve done for a living the past quarter century, I want to spend more time on my mystery novels and do more traveling with Linda, now that she’s retired.
            At the same time, I don’t want to give it up entirely. Not yet, anyway. So I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to cut back while keeping a hand in it. My recent experience with emergency surgery only served to remind me of the uncertainty of life and the importance of taking steps to make sure I’m doing what I want to for the rest of it.
            In retiring, but not really, I have one advantage. I’ve been a consultant with a number of clients, which gives me some leeway in terms of cutting back to just a few and working for them until they or I decide not to do it anymore.

50 Ways to Leave Your Business

            The scaling-down process began at the end of 2014, when I decided to stop looking for new clients. If someone specifically sought me out (and, to my surprise, that actually happened a few times), I’d consider it, but I wasn’t going to do any more selling and would concentrate on existing clients.
            Within that group, there were a few who were probably on the way out, whether from change in personnel, selling a business, or simply moving in a direction where my services weren’t going to be that important anymore. In a few instances like that, I decided to take the initiative and break it off myself, letting them know I was moving into retirement. I sense that a couple of them seemed relieved that I’d spared them an impending awkwardness.
            Finally, I gave some thought to the question of the qualities of a client I’d still like to work for, given that I don’t really need the money, but still want to do a little bit of what I think I’ve done well for a number of years. I came up with three qualities for a retirement, or semi-retirement client.

It Has to Be Interesting

            The first is that the work has to be interesting and not unduly stressful. Being of a curious disposition anyway, I’ve found all my work interesting to one degree or another, but clients who have long-term need for someone available at the drop of a hat, who have jobs with short deadlines and a lot of people to work with, are clients I can do without these days.
            Second, the people have to be good to work with. I’ve never had clients who were total jerks because I don’t put up with that. But people who can’t make up their minds, who don’t reply to emails or return phone calls, who make a job too cumbersome are people I can do without these days.
            And finally, they have to be clients who pay on time. Chasing down unpaid bills is probably the number one drawback of having your own business, and I’m over it. If you can’t get me a check within three weeks of my sending an invoice, find someone else to do your work.
            And looking over those last three paragraphs, it just dawned on me. This is how it should have been all along.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Taking a Detour from the Story

            In the recent Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies there’s an early scene in which Tom Hanks talks about insurance. He’s having a civil debate over drinks with another attorney about whether an accident that kills several people should be counted as several occurrences, with the insurance company liable for each one, or as one occurrence, with the insurance for the accident covering the maximum amount per occurrence, regardless of the number of deaths and injuries.
            I’m assuming the scene was put in to show — prior to Hanks defending a Soviet spy and later negotiating the release of an American spy pilot — that the character had a keen legal mind, which would come into play as the drama progressed.
            But even so: Talking about insurance law? That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do in a big-budget movie aimed at a wide popular audience. After all, what if the insurance debate put people to sleep?

He Believed in Himself

            Now I’m guessing again, but I suspect Spielberg had enough faith in himself, Hanks, and the Coen brothers (who wrote the dialogue) to feel that he could put that scene in the movie and not lose his audience. In fact, by developing the character, he might have pulled at least some viewers deeper into the film. It certainly made a positive impression on me.
            Spielberg is a master story teller, and job one for a story teller is to make it interesting. An awful lot of terrific story ideas have never become good books or movies because the artists couldn’t get the details of story telling right. It has a lot to do with pacing, weaving together the threads of the story, and imparting information at the right time in an effective way. Not many people can do it.
            Adding detailed information that doesn’t immediately move the story forward is even harder. It can be worth doing because character development and creating a sense of mood or place can make a story richer and more memorable. Think, for example, of Dickens taking two pages to describe the howling storm that rages on the night Magwitch returns to London to see Pip again in Great Expectations.

I’ll Take the Details

            It’s hard to say how typical I am, but I’m one of the readers who wants a bit of detail. If a murder takes place during a bird-watching expedition, I want the author to tell me something about bird watching and why it exerts a spell on its followers. If characters are regularly meeting in their favorite bar, I want the author to tell me a bit about the bar, because in doing so, the author is telling me more about the characters.
            These days I read a lot of books where detail of that sort is missing. And at one level I can understand the reasons. An author or filmmaker understandably wants to keep the story going and the pace as fast as possible, and, let’s face it, a lot of times the extra details are laid out in a way that doesn’t work. So why pause to admire the scenery when it’s so easy to have more action?
            A good story teller, and one with a sense of depth and breadth, is more likely, however, to say something along these lines: I find it interesting, and if it’s interesting to me, I think I can make it interesting for everybody else.  And then does just that. Is it a skill that can be taught? I rather doubt it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Get Me Rewrite

            They still had a functioning linotype machine in the composing room when I started work at the newspaper in 1972. It was gradually being overtaken by early versions of computerized typesetting (CompuGraphic was the brand name), and eventually the linotype machine was painted over and put by the front door as a sort of freestanding sculpture that would have scared the entrails out of any competent liability attorney.
            We didn’t have computers in the newsroom. What we had were typewriters, and some pretty ancient ones at that. Most were Underwoods, with a couple of Royals thrown in. We used them to type our stories on cheap paper that still had chunks of wood floating in it.
            When the stories were complete, we didn’t hit a “send” button, we took the paper out of the typewriter, arranged the pages in order, and pushed the corners of them over a sharp metal spike on the managing editor’s desk. A couple of people perforated their thumbs trying to do that.

Composing a Story on the Fly

            There were reporters at the county seat in Santa Cruz, and there were other times when reporters were out in the field and had to get a story in under deadline. Today, they’d write them on a laptop and email them in. Back then, the stories had to be dictated.
            What that meant was that the reporter would call in to the office, sometimes from a pay phone, and dictate a story to another reporter, who was cradling a phone receiver on one shoulder and typing the story. I’ve always felt that the ability to dictate a story cleanly was one of the great journalistic skills of the time. Not many people could do it well back then, and I suspect hardly anyone could do it now if forced to.
            It’s hard enough to keep a story straight when you have it in front of you and can check it. When you can’t see the story and have to remember exactly what you said — well, let’s just say that takes an awful lot of concentration. An almost inhuman amount, really.

One of the Best There Was

            I got to thinking about dictation recently when I saw one of our former reporters, Lee Quarnstrom, a couple of months back. He was in Santa Cruz, plugging When I Was a Dynamiter, his memoir, which had a large focus on the time he spent with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s.
            That’s not the sort of background you’d expect to produce a mind so clear and focused that its owner could almost seamlessly dictate a 750-word story, on a tight deadline, complete with paragraphing and punctuation. Lee did it all the time. Other reporters needed a lot of help from the news staffer typing the story, but with Lee, you could just type what he was saying and make only the slightest of changes later.
            Years later, when he was working for the San Jose Mercury, Lee described how a computer guru came to the Santa Cruz news office and explained the benefits of the new computer system, especially how it allowed you to move paragraphs and rewrite things easily. Lee said he didn’t need all that because he just sat down and wrote the story from beginning to end.
            “Oh,” sniffed the computer guru condescendingly. “You must have learned to write on a typewriter.”
            Damn straight, and he and the rest of us who did were better writers for the experience. It’s one clear case of how an improvement in technology isn’t entirely an improvement.