Monday, September 29, 2008

I'm Going to Need More Than a Dime

No More Juice

George W. will very soon know if "this sucker is going to go down."

The failure of today’s economic rescue bill is an indication of how little juice is left in the vessel that was the Bush Administration. In the midst of a serious crisis and after numerous warnings about its seriousness, his own party repudiated him today. With the markets tumbling, Republican members of Congress voted against the measure by a two to one margin. We’ll find out how urgent was the passage of this bill in the days and weeks ahead. What we do know is that Bush futures aren’t even trading. There just isn’t a market for them.

It doesn’t bode well for John McCain. Voters are likely to choose to vote for anybody else rather than vote in another Republican President.

Another One Bites the Dust

The FDIC has arranged another shotgun marriage, this one between Wachovia and Citigroup, which will assume $42 billion in bad paper held by Wachovia. What were these companies thinking?

It will all be underwritten by the FDIC. And it will mean, according to the N.Y. Times that this further concentrates Americans’ bank deposits. Now Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup would control more than 30 percent of the industry’s deposits. Of course that doesn't count the U.S. Government, which will probably own every financial institution in America before we are through.

And the good news is the U.S. Treasury is completely debt free.
Just kidding.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It’s a Bill and its Radioactive

President Bush Goes Before Cameras Yet Again to Calm Markets

Just before the Asian markets opened at 6 p.m. EDT, Sunday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) came before the television microphones and said there was a rescue bill or a bailout bill or whatever you would like to call it, that it was up on the Internet and that it was frozen. Done. Clearly nobody in Congress wants to touch this thing: it is that radioactive. If they pass it, voters will think its a bailout for the rich creeps on Wall Street and they will vote out everybody who favored it. They don’t pass it, the market tanks, banks fail, the new Great Depression rolls in and voters vote out everybody who favored it and everybody who didn’t.

The Democrats have a majority in both houses and can pass any kind of bill they want, but Rep. Pelosi said “It’s their bill, it’s a Republican administration.” The Democrats don’t want to get burned on this thing unless a big group of Republicans will give them cover by voting for it too. We still don't know if the votes are there.

It’s a no win, everybody loses kind of bill. Meanwhile none of us really knows what will happen to the markets if this bill passes--or if it doesn't. We can always go by what that well-known economic expert George W. is reported to have said at Thursday’s acrimonious White House meeting: “Look, if we don’t loosen up credit, this sucker could go down.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Somebody Up There Liked Him: A Tribute to the Late Paul Newman

Paul Newman
(January 26, 1925-September 26, 2008)

Paul Newman, who died last night at the age of 83, was one of the most talented actors in film in the last fifty years. He made more than 56 movies in his half century on screen and was nominated for 10 competitive Oscars. He finally won his first competitive Oscar for the so-so Color of Money in 1987—too bad, in a way, because he was in so many other Oscar worthy films. Any of his roles in the films for which he was nominated and did not win—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict, to name a few—could and should have won him Oscars. And some of the parts for which he was not nominated are possibly even better. Among those, my favorites are Newman as: Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (a sad and funny movie with Newman in an endearing, once-in-a-lifetime part); detective Lew Harper in Harper and The Drowning Pool (William Goldman scripts with the famous coffee grounds scene opening Harper); Reggie “Reg” Dunlap in Slap Shot (profane but very funny film about an aging hockey star); Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (“Who are those guys?” Screenwriter William Goldman again) and; Henry Gondorff in The Sting (all Newman had to do to hook you, was to lay a finger by the side of his nose, just like Santa in the famous poem.)

There will be lots of other tributes to him so I don’t need to go on. That he had a long and good marriage to actress Joanne Woodward. That he gave millions and millions to charity through his Newman’s Own food company. That he loved cars and loved to race and used them to escape the suffocating world of his fame. All this is true. He must have been a great guy. But the way future generations will know him, will be through his wonderful films. Hollywood thought, for a long time, that he was just too good looking to be really talented. Hollywood was wrong. Paul Newman leaves behind an amazing body of work and now that we’ve lost him, we can be grateful that he did.

No Country for Grumpy Old Men: My Blog on the First Presidential Debate

I believe that in this campaign Senator John McCain has the best credentials to be President of the United States, but during the first presidential debate last night in Oxford, Mississippi, he looked like a grumpy old man who could only rarely frame a thought into a complete sentence. Senator Barak Obama, whom I don’t support, came across, by contrast, as a thoughtful, intelligent person who looks at America as an ideal and wants to make that ideal better. I think that’s how Americans will view this debate: not as a boxing match, with each candidate scoring points, blow by blow and round by round, but as whole in which one candidate seemed articulate and smooth and the other looked old, tired, and, to put it as nicely as I can, a little bit like your doddering old grandpa who is always haranguing you on his favorite subjects.

The old part? Well, McCain can’t do anything about that one. His white hair and aging, aching body make him look like the senior citizen he is. The doddering part? You could see it right out of the shoot when Senator McCain had the opportunity to explain why he dropped everything and went to Washington on Thursday, and what he would like to see in a bill designed to rescue our beleaguered economy. Not a word on those subjects. What we got instead was this crotchety old guy who kept dwelling on “earmarks:” something no one in his right mind would publicly favor. Alright already, grandpa, let’s move on from this subject (picture the kids here poking each other in the ribs and rolling their eyes.)

On foreign policy, McCain was sharper and more knowledgeable than he was on the economy. But then there was that crack about Putin: “I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters. K. G. B.” I think this was supposed to be a joke, but McCain said it with an expression on his face that made him look like a mad scientist. Eeek! He’s losing it! (I said to myself.) Timing is everything with humor and McCain’s timing wasn’t there. Even his perceptive comment about Obama’s liberalism—“It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left”— was not said with an ounce of good humor toward his opponent.

Obama looked the man he was: taller, thinner, younger, smoother, an ivy leaguer who is more like 21st century America than is McCain and who wears his multiculturalism like an Armani suit. I know his record shows he’s a liberal. But at this first debate he spoke about his country and its voters with great affection and talked about how he might help them. I didn’t hear McCain match this emotion once—okay, that one time when he spoke about veterans. But there are others of us out here too.

McCain harped on “the surge” in Iraq far too much, and kept calling on the name of General David Petraeus as if he had god-like qualities. Obama, on the other hand, spent far too much time crying over the spilt milk of the Iraq war. On that subject, McCain made his best point saying that the next president won’t be dealing with whether we should or should not be there but instead, “How we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.”

In this debate the advantage went to Barak Obama. McCain will need to relax, be more gracious, finish more of his sentences, and lighten up a bit if he’s going to do well in the next one.

But the next debate on the docket is the Vice Presidential debate and that one should be a hoot and a half. Joe Biden with his hair plugs and his Aunt Blabby mouth is always entertaining and at the other podium we have this peppy little unknown quantity from the Great White North, Governor Sarah Palin. She’s a terrific speaker when she’s scripted and she’ll be facing the original loose cannon. Can she ad lib with the best of them? I can’t wait to see what happens.

Friday, September 26, 2008

America’s Challenged Economy: Today's Troubled Tally

Federal regulators seized the savings and loan company Washington Mutual after the markets closed last night and negotiated the sale of WaMu to J.P. Morgan Chase Company. Regulators didn’t want WaMu to fail, which it was apparently about to do, because it could have cost the FDIC $30 billion, and the FDIC has just $45 billion in its coffers. Here’s the troubled tally so far ...

WaMu: Failed, seized by regulators, forced into shotgun deal with J.P. Morgan Chase. Some parts of the S & L to be operated by the federal government. Lehman Brothers: Failed last week. American International Group Inc: Feds spent $85 billion to take over last week.
Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley: Sunday, the government approved “emergency measures” to “stabilize” these two investment banks. IndyMac Bank: Pasadena, California bank failed in July, second largest bank failure in U.S. history (largest was last night with the failure of WaMu). Taken over by FDIC and now operated as the IndyMac Federal Bank. Deposits covered by FDIC but failure has drained FDIC’s coffers. And don't forget Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, now in federal hands. Together these two mortgage giants hold $1 trillion dollars in mortgage holdings. Actually no: you the taxpayers are holding onto that bag.

On a somewhat brighter side, and just about anything would be at this point, in Florida, we had our first cool night last night—down to 64°F—in six months. It meant we could click off the air conditioners and open our windows and as we listened to the birds chip and the lawn mowers hum we could just hear the sound of Congressman John Mica (R-Florida) hollering “I told you so” all the way from Washington D.C.

To explain: when Congress Approved the bill in 1999 that repealed key provisions of the Glass-Steagle Bill—in place since the great Depression—and thus enabled banks to invest in speculative securities, Congressman Mica was one of just 86 members of the House who voted against the bill. He said then that even if the Republican leadership put bamboo splinters under his fingernails, he wouldn’t vote for this “modernization plan,” as it was then labeled. Turns out he was right in his opposition to the repeal of Glass-Steagle. Turns out this repeal is one of the reasons for the mess we’re in today.
Give credit where credit is due. Rep. John Mica looks good on this one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The President’s Speech, the Bailout Bill, and the Debate

What the Last Twenty-Four Hours Have Told Us:
What the Next Twenty-Four Hours Will Tell

Reporters and commentators on television are still scratching their heads over McCain’s move yesterday to suspend his campaign. But McCain is a true Washington insider with friends on both sides of the aisle and in the halls of K Street (where the lobbyists have their offices.) If he was willing to give up the opportunity for what is known in the business as “free TV”—meaning the debate offered him precious time on television he didn’t have to pay for—we can be sure his sources are telling him the potential for economic meltdown right now is very real. One of the reporters covering his campaign, Carl Cameron of Fox news, indicated last night that McCain now believes that if the bailout package (now called a "rescue" package) does not appear to be on track by Thursday night (that’s tonight), when the markets open Friday morning there will chaos. And if the stock market is tanking, McCain did not want to be seen debating political views in Oxford, Mississippi, while Americans were sitting at home in shock, wondering what was going to happen to their savings.

There are other clues we’re facing more than the average trouble ahead. President Bush is a lame duck with only a few months left in office. There are no political reasons he has to do anything. He’s a man who has given very few oval office speeches to the American people and his discomfort giving them is palpable. (Last night he was even doing something with his hands on the podium that was making a noise on the microphone, a nervous tic that made me nervous watching him.) What would persuade him to make such a speech now, using alarming phrases such as these:

“Without immediate action by Congress, America could slip into a financial panic and a distressing scenario would unfold.” And: “We’re in the midst of a serious financial crisis. Our entire economy is in danger.”

Danger, crisis, panic, distressing. I have not heard a president use these words in my lifetime and believe me, since they know that financial markets across the world are listening to every word they say, presidents do not idly use these words. Watching the president last night, and seeing McCain’s action of yesterday, I can see that they are worried. Not a good sign.

Another clue. I opened my paper this morning and read that a Chevy dealer, headquartered in Florida, with 13 dealerships nationwide, just closed its doors. All its doors. Everywhere. Bill Heard Enterprises, according to the report in the Orlando Sentinel, is one of the top-selling Chevrolet dealerships in the nation, with 2007 revenue of $2.13 billion. That’s billion, with a “b.” And all the dealerships just closed down and sent almost three thousand employees home. There may be other reasons for this, but the company included “the crisis in the banking and financing sectors” as one of the factors in the shutdown. What it means is that credit is so tight right now, or so uncertain, dealers are having trouble getting the financing they need to bring in new cars, not to mention getting the financing customers need to buy them. That’s impossibly tight credit.

Taken all together these things I’ve mentioned are just tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. But if you’ve lived long enough I think you can make a few assumptions from the clues:
Washington isn’t sure what to do: but leaders know that something has to be done and done quickly.

Savvy Washington insider John McCain isn’t sure what to do, but he knows he has to try to help accomplish something, or he’ll look like a very clueless candidate for president. Senator Obama clearly doesn’t have McCain’s sources: but even he has now decided to return to Washington.

Businesses like car dealerships don’t know what to do; but we know that in recent years they'd sell a car to anyone. When dealerships are having trouble finding the capitol out there to do that, it is a time when we can fairly use the overused word “crisis” and get away with it.

Watch what happens between now and 8:00 PM Friday when the presidential debate is scheduled to take place. If the presidential candidates don’t go to Oxford, Mississippi, big things will be just around the corner: and those things are going to be big, bad, bears.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Candidate John McCain Makes Another Surprise Move: Will the Debate Go Forward on Friday?

I wonder if Barak Obama will wake up one morning and wish he had attended Annapolis or one of the other service academies. John McCain may have graduated near the bottom of his class, but it appears he absorbed quite a bit of intelligent strategy between accumulating his demerits at the Naval Academy ...

When John McCain chose Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate he took everyone by surprise. His action created a new political star and caused a dramatic change in the discussion surrounding which team would best govern this country. It was exactly what McCain intended. He was running against an opponent who represented a "first." McCain's unorthodox choice produced another first and made Obama's vice presidential choice look dull and predictable.

Now, as McCain suspends his campaign and returns to Washington to get back to his first job as a U.S. Senator and be part of the negotiations on the big congressional economic bailout bill, he appears to once again have taken his less experienced opponent by surprise. A startled Obama said this afternoon at his press conference that he planned to attend the debate. At 5:10 EST the Presidential Debate Commission said the debate would go ahead as scheduled. So what will happen? Will Obama show up and face a McCain surrogate? How about Barak Obama facing Sarah Palin? Now there’s an idea that has to have come from the mind of one of the Naval Academies smartest and most notorious pranksters!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The War in Iraq and Afghanistan

Our Morale Needs a Moral: A Task for the New President

For the third time in several years a member of my family is serving in harm’s way in the Middle East. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan
since the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center. What this means is that I’m pretty much like everybody else in America. We all know someone in our family or neighborhood who has put his or her life on the line in this war on terror.

But something is missing. I keep asking myself what I can do. I’m not a soldier, I’m a civilian and I want to be a part of the fight too. I look around me and I see my friends and neighbors driving their SUVs to the grocery store, getting fat eating pizza and burgers, debating the war with one another, blabbing on television about the presidential candidates, and generally acting as if nothing at all is going on out there. Acting as if our sons and daughters in uniform aren’t dying. I’m just as guilty of this. It calls to mind a prayer Eleanor Roosevelt said she carried with her during World War II:

Dear Lord
Lest I continue
My complacent way
Help me to remember
Somewhere out there
A man died for me today
--As long as there be war
I then must
Ask and answer
Am I worth dying for?

For obvious reasons I don’t identify my relative who is serving in Afghanistan except by the nickname “Lt. Dana.” She sent me the following email recently. I read it as I had just returned from shopping.

"Today we finally have a break in our op tempo. We need it. We lost two more of our own this past week. The most difficult aspect of that for me (because my interaction with the operators is minimal, I usually know of them, but don't know them well personally) is going to the ceremonies and watching grown tough men - the toughest, breaking down and crying, or standing there and trying not to. It is upsetting and infuriating."

After 9/11 we saw how deep was the reservoir of American patriotism. The next president must do two things if we are to successfully pursue this war on terror. He must tap into this reservoir and give us a clear reminder of why we fight. And he must show us all what we can do to help. For the morale of all of us we need a moral reason to go on and for the morale of all of us we need to know that this fight is so important it can’t go on without the help of the American people.

Winston Churchill did this so well. In 1940, when the French threw up their hands and let Hitler walk into Paris, Churchill told the world; “We shall fight on forever and ever and ever …” He used a wonderful word in describing Hitler: he called him “wicked” and in so doing was not only correct in his assessment, made it clear what England was fighting against. “Hitler is a monster of wickedness,” he said. “Insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder.” Then, he took it a step further and told the world what England was fighting for.

"The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world … we learn that we are spirits not animals, and that something is going on in space and time and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty."

I was talking with a friend of mine last year when he was in town from New York. He was rabid in his anti-war sentiment and said to me: “This is Bush’s war!” No, I said to him it isn’t. Because George W. Bush, for good or for ill, is not the president of only those who like him. He’s the president of the United States, and the soldiers fighting are soldiers of the United States. And in that moment I realized that this young man had not yet heard a reason to embrace the cause of fighting these fanatics who would be the first to eliminate him for having the independence of mind to disagree with the leaders of his country.

I don’t know if we’re fighting terror in the right place or not. But I know these extremists are out there and have to be fought either on their home ground or on ours. I know they hate me because as an American woman I can drive and vote and go to restaurants. I know they hate my country because of the very tolerance and freedom of choice we have to debate the conduct of our nation’s war on terror. I hope the next president, whoever he or she is, will find a way to lead us all to a clear understanding—or reminder, if the tapes from 9/11 aren’t enough anymore—of who we are fighting and why we are fighting them. And then ask us all for some kind of sacrifice to help out, whether it’s walking to work once a week or car pooling or buying war bonds or donating time to our USO. Please ask us all for something, because the sacrifice of our troops is so great we need to believe in our hearts that we are worth dying for.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Movie Review: “In Search of a Midnight Kiss”

Here is an indie film that has received terrific reviews from critics including the New Yorker and Salon, so I went to the local art house cinema, the Enzian, to see what was described by critic Roger Moore as “ … a bittersweet, romantic ride …” that was going to “restore my faith in romantic films.”

Not even a little bit. The plot, what there was of it, was a boy-meets-girl cliché with a “meet cute” that involved an ad on Craig’s List. Wow, there’s an innovative concept. In the course of this film, the boy meets the girl, loses the girl, and wins the girl, another not-even-slightly unusual concept. The fact that most of this takes place while these two people are wandering around the streets of Los Angeles smoking cigarettes and wearing bad clothes was trying enough. I checked the time on my cell phone a lot during this part of the film.

But worse than that was the language, which I found really offensive. It was neither witty nor original and was only what I can imagine would be a twelve-year-old boy’s concept of what might be funny. Oh, and a lot of the “jokes” were obscene and really nasty, too. Obscene language can be very funny; but to do so it has to surprise you, at least a little bit, and this was just a constant stream of vile descriptions of bodily functions and sexual acts. I think language like that is bad writing.

We’re supposed to be rooting for our couple, Wilson (played by Scoot McNairy) and Vivian (Sara Simmonds) even though he’s a loser, whose favorite entertainments are smoking his bong, eavesdropping on his roommates having sex, and abusing himself to a picture of his roommate’s girlfriend. Vivian is Wilson’s love interest, and she’s a lost soul who pops prescription drugs, drinks alcohol out of a paper cup, chain smokes and takes pictures of lost shoes (How artsy! How endearing!) all the while carrying the baby of her abusive boyfriend. I think the actors playing these parts did the best they could with the material. Sara Simmonds is really pretty and cries very well when called upon to do so, but she looks like she’ll have at least three chins by the time she’s thirty so I don’t think we’ll be seeing much of her. Scoot McNairy was the closest thing to charm I found in this film, but his haircut was so bad I had a hard time telling what he looked like.

I know a lot of people will disagree with me on this since “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” was the winner of Best Film at the Florida Film Festival this year so I do want to say something nice about it. I liked the opening shots and the theme that was outlined there: it is true, people don’t like to be alone on New Year’s Eve and crave the touch of someone they care about as the old year passes away. But try to see the rest of this movie without looking at your watch. Bet you can’t.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Tapestry of Our Lives

I just returned from my high school reunion—we will not be crass and say which one. In spite of my fears, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had in many years.

I was afraid to go, which surprised me. I remember going with my father to his fiftieth high school reunion (still haven’t had that one, thank goodness!) of the Shades Cahaba High School Class of 1937 and as we stepped out of the car he said to no one in particular: “You know, I feel a little scared.” Here’s my father who survived four years of World War II, built a house, learned to sail, joined a flying club, went through the harrowing task of raising two girls, not to mention spending umpteen years with my mother, and I thought to myself: How could this man be frightened of a little thing like a class reunion? What a silly girl I was! As my own reunion of middle-aged classmates approached I too began to feel what my father had felt—scared. And I did what I always do when I’m worried about things like that—I hit the gym. It cheered me up and and I sure hoped it would tighten my thighs.

I feared the reunion would be one of those events where everybody looked at everybody to see how fat so-and-so had gotten, how many wrinkles he/she had, or how stylish (or lacking in) were his/her clothes. I thought I would have to confess to the numerous real and imagined failures in my life, or, worse yet, that they would just be writ large right there on my mug. I thought people would just be waiting to nudge one another and say: See, I told you she wouldn’t look that hot.

And yet, from the moment I got out of the car and spotted my first classmate I never felt that way for one minute. I instantly quit worrying what people thought about me and almost as if a different self was at the helm of the S.S. Chapman, I began concentrating on my old friends. The strangest thing happened when I looked them: as I recognized each classmate the years melted away and we were children again and all the sorrow and worry of being an adult melted away too and I was able to relate to each one as I once had—without the barriers and jealousy of adults and with the friendly curiosity of a child.

I can’t speak for everyone, but this seemed to happen to many of us. The boys—I call them that because they seemed to be that at the reunion, to me—stared at me longingly and confessed to long-forgotten crushes. Some remembered the days we walked home together from grammar school, and pointed out that other boys had been my favorites. Girls giggled together again about tricks they’d played on each other and the boys. It was a miracle of time travel and I wish Albert Einstein could have been there because he would have seen that universal time warp thing he was always pondering. Maybe Einstein was in my class and I just didn’t recognize him—he looked so young?

I wasn’t completely blinded by the light. I saw that some of the boys had filled out a little and that the girls had changed hairstyles, but it just didn’t seem relevant. “Do you remember that house that burned down in the hills that night? My Dad drove us up there and we stood outside the car and just watched it burn. I don’t think I’d ever done that before, and I know I’ve never seen anything like it since,” I said to Brian, whom I had known since junior high school. “I know that house,” he said. “I remember my Dad sold them the lumber to rebuild.” Remember when? Those were the two most popular words at the reunion.

I saw my junior high school boyfriend, and bumped his shoulder with mine. “Hello, love of my young life,” I said. He gave me a sly smile, and a very nice hug. When we were young he was tall and fair haired, and now he was even taller though his hair was white. Still very handsome, too. And even better than that, he heads a foundation in the Pacific Northwest. Helping others. I had such good taste when I was young.

People hadn’t changed very much. The smartest guy in the class became a successful lawyer and lives in Beverly Hills. Where else? Another class scholar now heads a library on the East Coast. The class cut-up is now a judge—and who better to understand the unique characters that come before his bench? The class quarterback, always a charmer, is a successful dealer in commercial real estate. Heck, I’d buy a building from him. The brainy eccentric is a Silicon Valley V.P. who wears a beard and is part of one of those California cycling clubs. In high school, he drove a Chevy Corvair, and I think that was pretty much like riding a bicycle, wasn’t it? The serious girl, who studied harder than most of us, is a school teacher. The nice guy who helped me struggle through trigonometry is an engineer in the solar energy business. The boy, who always discovered too late that a dog had eaten his homework, went to work in the family business and was finally able to muddle through.

The nicest reunion of all was reconnecting with my friend and grammar school rival Lisa. She disappeared off my radar in high school—we must have each run with a different crowd. But there she was at the reunion, a tiny, lovely, gentle person with something positive to say about everyone. When we were young, we were the two fastest runner in our grade and I remember keeping my distance from her--just a little bit for fear--what?--she would guess the secret of my speed? As if I knew what it was! I found a picture of us as ten-year-olds at a cowgirl party and we pored over it with laughter identifying the other miscreants. “There’s you,” she said, “in your signature scarf.” My signature scarf. What an observation for my quiet friend to make about me the girl who always liked dressing up. I bought a Prada bag to carry at the reunion, just to help boost my confidence. I guess Lisa could have predicted that.

One boy I’d known since childhood sat down on the second night of the reunion and told me how he’d had a heart attack at 42 and how, unmarried at that point, he feared he would die before he’d had a chance to live his life. And then he met Marie from our class--not a at a class reunion but through his work in Sacramento. She was a girl so quiet he had never known her in school. I don’t think any of us really knew her. And Eric and Marie fell in love and were married and now, he said, whatever time he had he knew he was lucky. He looked thin, but he smiled and I could see he was happy. I expect him to be there with Marie at the next reunion.

Of course I’m going.

Hello to My Classmates

(Ignore the "Read More" on videos.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Growing up in California: The Story of a House

Almost everything new comes from California, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the trend to tear down houses (often purchased for seven figures) and build bigger ones on the same lots began in the Golden State. When I learned that this had happened to the California house of my childhood, I wrote this piece for the Los Altos Town Crier.

They have built a new house at 918 Echo Drive. They tore down the original—or most of it anyway—and the new owners are putting up one of those beautiful, multimillion dollar mansions that people have become so used to in California’s Santa Clara Valley. To my sister and me, who grew up at 918 Echo, the change is almost unbelievable.

My father built our first house on that lot himself. He worked a 40-hour week at his engineering job in San Francisco, and then, every Saturday and Sunday from 1948 to 1950, he came to Los Altos with an Army buddy and the two of them spent two full days as home builders. While the house was going up, my father, my mother and my sister Kimberly lived in rented rooms in downtown Palo Alto—a place my mother still refers to as “Denman’s Dump.” In those days you took what rentals you could find: apartments were very hard to come by in the first years after World War II.

My parents had really wanted to buy a house in Palo Alto, but it was an established city and prices just seemed too high. My father, an officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the war, had experience building things now and decided he could do it again in Los Altos. My mother reluctantly agreed.

“It seemed so far out in the country,” she says today. “I was worried I would be lonely out there so far fom everything.” The San Francisco Bay Area is now wall-to-wall people. Los Altos turned out to be a charming enclave in a sea of sprawl. But that was all in the future when my father picked up his hammer and started framing the house at 918 Echo.
The entire project—land, plans, materials and labor (mostly my dad’s) The house was completed in time for Christmas. I joined the family and moved in just few months later.

It was such a pretty little house! Stained red with white trim, it was bright as an Amish barn. The used-bricks that made up the front porch, the wide chimney and the fireplace were rescued from an old building in San Francisco.

It was a one-story, two-bedroom, one-bath home with a dining room off the living room and another room off the kitchen we called the Green Room, which served as our den. It was in the Green Room that we placed our first television set and it was here my sister and I watched the Mickey Mouse Club and learned to dance watching American Bandstand. The couch in the Green Room was a hide-a-bed that pulled out for the use of visiting family members who were nice enough not to mention the lumps.

The backyard was divided into two sections. The first was a landscaped garden that really belonged to my mother. In it she planted pink ivy geraniums along the walks and brightened the dry California ground with her white, pink, and lavender flowers. On the back porch, she rocked me in her lap and read to me in the soft sunlight.

From the porch you stepped down onto a concrete patio where we ate outside in the summer on our red-stained picnic table (made by my dad to match the house) and where we held our birthday parties. The patio was surrounded by a well-tended lawn, mowed by my dad with a non-electric, non-gasoline-powered push mower. It made a whack whack sound that was soft on the ears.

At the far end of the lawn, Mom and Dad planted a line of cherry trees and pink oleander that screened the landscaped yard from the service yard behind it. The service yard was the province of my father, my sister, and me. Dad built us a swing set in the service yard with a teeter-totter, parallel bars, and a sandbox. In order to avoid fights over who got to use what and for how long, the set included a kitchen timer nailed to a post that was immediately dubbed the “turn timer” because we kids used it to time our “turns.”

On Saturdays, Dad put on his old clothes, raked leaves, trimmed hedges, and mowed lawns, then made a rubbish pile of clippings in the service yard that he burned. Imagine how non-ecological we were! The air was so clear and the population so low, it never occurred to anyone we might be polluting the air.

There was a grape stake fence between our backyard and the empty lot next door. If you were on the swing and got it going high enough, you could see over the fence and beyond the empty lot to the purple hills of the Coast Range. If it was late in the day, you might see the smoke rising from the Southern Pacific and Peninsular Daylight, the train that ran along the tracks where Foothill Expressway is now. When you saw the train, you knew it was after 5 p.m. and time to go in to dinner. The S. P. & P. Daylight ran just once in the morning, taking commuters to San Francisco, and once in the evening, bringing them back home to the Santa Clara Valley. In the summer, if you were out playing in the yard near lunchtime, you knew it was midday when you heard the noon whistle from the canning factories over by the Bay. I don’t know when they stopped blowing that noon whistle, but it was a handy timekeeper for us kids.

There was a vacant lot next door to us that we turned into a baseball field each spring. And in the summer, everyone in the neighborhood harvested the apricots from the trees in the lot for jam and pies and the dried ‘cots we all made back then. If you had told me that someone else really owned the fruit from those trees, I would have been surprised. I thought the apricots on every vacant lot in town were fair game for all comers.

Because of the vacant lot we occasionally had an invasion of gophers into our front lawn. My father cared for that lawn with such diligence that any gopher entered it at its peril. I have a clear memory of him standing one evening at dusk in the front yard of our house, his .22 rifle pointed down at a gopher hole. Imagine the calls to any suburban police department today if someone saw a crazed Army veteran aiming a loaded rifle at the local wildlife in his front yard! “I really didn’t like those gophers,” says my father.

One evening, we were eating dinner at the kitchen table and I accidentally dropped my fork. So did my sister. Mom and Dad looked at each other and my father said, “Let’s go outside for a minute. Just leave everything where it is.” We walked out the front door and stood in the yard as the low summer sun twinkled through the leaves of the apricot trees.

“What was that?” I asked my father.

“That was an earthquake,” he said. “Nothing to worry about. Just an earthquake,” and we went back inside and finished our dinner while Dad explained what an earthquake was.

After ten years in the little red house, my mother began to have a yen to own the house across the street. It was much larger than ours, with a huge living room that had a beamed ceiling and a fireplace that covered one entire wall. It had a country kitchen and—get this—two bathrooms! What luxury! It cost $30,000 or three times the price of our first home.

My Dad bought the new house for my mother and we moved across the street. It was a lovely house, but I never thought it was as nice as our first home. We no longer had a dining room so my mother sold her dining room set. I had always liked the way 918 sat perched above the road, and we were now on the low side of the street. But our new house was grander, and it was nice for my sister and me not to have to share a bathroom.

More than forty years later, my parents are still living at the “new” house on Echo Drive in Los Altos, California, surrounded by what is now called Silicon Valley. My father stopped mowing the lawn himself just a few years ago and now the gardener uses a power mower and a noisy leaf blower on the day he does the yard. From the picture window in my Mom and Dad’s country kitchen you can still look across the street to the house my father built. At least you could until the tear down.

I’m hoping the new owners of the house I grew up in will enjoy living there. Los Altos may be surrounded today by Silicon Valley and its thousands of employees, but it is still a great place to live. The new family will have advantages we could not afford: I suspect no one there will ever have to share a bathroom, and I know no one will ever again have to sleep on a lumpy hide-a-bed! It goes without saying that there are no longer any rifle-toting gopher hunters hanging about on the front lawn.

But there won’t be a handmade picnic table in the back, nor a Dad-made swing set, complete with “turn timer.” And you won’t be able to see the smoke from the S.P. & P. Daylight against the hills or hear the noon whistle from the factories over by the Bay. There won’t be a vacant lot next door just the right size for baseball, nor free apricots for all on the nearby trees. So the new owners have a big job amidst the wealth that surrounds them. They will have to work hard to make their big new house as nice as the little red house was when the Chapman family first moved in those long years ago. It was a small house, it is true. But it seemed liked a mansion to us.

Monday, September 15, 2008