Monday, August 30, 2010

The Perversity of Dad's New Car And its Impact on the Porsche of Robin's Dreams

"PhotoShopping is too sophisticated for this dream. We will get to the Porsche in a minute ...

My father only ever purchased one new automobile. But I didn't know, until he grew very old and began to tell the unvarnished truth, why that Oldsmobile was so unusual.

It was a 1959 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight and he bought it the same year we bought our new house. The house I'm living in now.

Dad with his new car, in front of his new house.

It was a pretty car in its day. Long and lean, like my Dad, conservative, as he was, but with a dash of red around the whitewalls and a splash of red on the interior trim that gave it a certain panache.

Unfortunately, it was a beast to drive and a bear to ride in.

It had no radio, no heater, no automatic transmission and no power steering. With its size and tonnage, even Shirley "Cha Cha" Muldowney couldn't have turned it on a dime, even if she had thrown her entire body weight into it.

When we were children we just laughed about its eccentricities and shivered in the back seat on cold mornings. But, since he still owned the beast when we began learning to drive, we discovered, at nearly two tons and nineteen feet long, it was somewhat difficult to steer for a one-hundred pound girl with her mitts on the tiller.

When my father was almost ninety, he finally explained why he bought such a ridiculous car. He had seen an ad in the paper for a new Olds '88 with an advertised price of--I don't know, let's say, $2000. And when he went into the dealership he said that was what he wanted. The $2000 Olds '88 in gray and white with the red upholstery trim. He had the cash in his pocket (probably in his checkbook) and was ready to go.

Car salesmen being what they are, they showed him just what he wanted on the showroom floor. But the cost was--let's say $2799. "Why does it cost that?" asked my father. "The ad said $2000."

Well, it turns out the radio, the power steering, the heater and the automatic transmission were extras, hence the difference. The old "floor mat excuse" if you know what I mean.

My father did not brook fools lightly and said he would buy the $2000 model in gray and white with the red upholstery trim and nothing else would satisfy him. The discussion went on for some time with "neither mercy nor quarter," as Mr. Churchill said about the Battle of Britain.

Finally, the salesman ceded defeat. In order to fulfill my father's expectations, the dealership had to send to Detroit for a Special Order from the factory. The UAW guys on the production line are probably still laughing. I believe this is called Pyrrhic victory.

Later, on a trip home from Lake Tahoe, where we had driven for the day to "play in the snow," my toes didn't thaw out 'til Livermore. I was ten years old and can still feel the frostbite. When I was in television and did live reports in the snow my toes always froze first.

And then there was the time my older sister went to the store for our mother on the day after she had received her driver's license. About 1/2 mile from home, she remembered she had forgotten the list Mom had given her. She stopped the Olds and attempted to turn it around and head back for home.

When we next saw her, she was weeping. In attempting to turn the Olds, she had cranked the wheel and it had taken her about five passes to get the battleship going in the opposite direction. She had accidentally taken the neighbor's mailbox with her, post, flag, and all.

Dad was disgusted--any nick on a vehicle was grounds for a one-way trip to an orphanage--so, he and my sister apologized to the neighbor, dug him a new post hole, and erected a new mailbox for him. Neither my sister nor I ever drove the car again, preferring to use our Mother's little Chevy Impala which was slower and smaller but had less chance of causing us to be disinherited by our father and allowed one to listen to the Beach Boys as one drove. My sister, by the way, has never recovered from this trauma and cannot go near a mailbox, still, without breaking into a cold sweat.

Enter the dream car.

Eventually, my father rid himself of the Oldsmomonster and bought another dream car. This one was a genuine beauty. But, he bought it used and restored it, which kept any charges of conspicuous consumption at bay from his John Knoxian ethos. Once again, when he was very old and blabbing the truth all the time, he told me he really enjoyed driving the Jaguar XKE because it had so much power people looked at him when he pulled away from a stop sign. Vanity! I didn't know until he almost died that my father had any. Who would have known? He was so quiet most of his life. Unless you came home and told him you had just knocked over a mailbox with his Olds.

Friends who knew my parents late in their lives have mentioned to me several times that my father always wanted a new Cadillac but that Mom would not let him buy one. I have corrected them on this. Dad wanted a new Cadillac, but he would not allow himself to buy one. He just couldn't allow the car salesmen to "win."

What Mom often told him, especially if I were in the room was: "You might as well just buy yourself one, Ashley. When you die your daughter here [nod toward RC] is just going to buy herself a Porsche with your money!"

And Dad would look at me with an enigmatic smile.

I do hate proving my mother right: but don't you wonder what Dad would say if I did it?

I'm thinking of ordering one in Racing Green. You know. Special Order from the factory.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Up Next: My Dad's New Car and How It Changed My View of the Automobile Forever (Not to Mention Froze My Toes)

The 1959 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight was almost as long as our garage and is the only new car my father ever allowed himself. But he ordered it from the factory and if the car salesman is still alive who took his order, I would bet he remembers it to this day.

I love this photo because the sky is gray and white as is my father's hair, as is the car--with that dash of red on the whitewalls.

My friend Steve-the-car-guy insists I tell you the tale and how it relates to my unfulfilled dream of owning a Porsche (for starters you could put a Porsche in the trunk of the Olds, so it is bound to be easier to drive.) So shift into neutral, put on your brakes, and check this space!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mom and Dad Still Dead but Remarried

The good news is that Mom and Dad are married again. The bad news is that the correction was made, not with the help of the people at the Smallville County Courthouse when we told them in person their record was wrong and who responded by looking at us as if they were cast members of the original Night of the Living Dead. No, the correction was made by one of the few remaining live people in Smallville (and he may be living in India): the IT department of Smallville County responded to the correction my sister made On Line.

Whew. Now if we could just make our rental slums, I mean homes, in Smallville disappear as easily as that technical error on our parents' marriage license that had my father marrying my fourteen-year-old Aunt Ruth (who was a witness) instead of Aunt Ruth's sister, my mother (who was the bride) my sister and I could go to our graves happy women.

Going to our graves sooner rather than later is beginning to look better and better. At least to me.

But I have to clarify all my beneficiaries before I go go go.

Speaking of beneficiaries:

My father had about $80,000 of deferred compensation set aside by the City of Palo Alto when he retired, and in those days the money was invested with Golden West. By the time he died, thirty-five years later at the age of ninety, there was $1848.66 in his deferred comp fund (known as a "457 plan") and it was/is with Nationwide Retirement Solutions. My sister and I have applied for it repeatedly, and Nationwide has given us a long list of excuses as to why they cannot send to his heirs this money he earned.

I had filled out their beneficiary form five times--and had it rejected five times--before I Googled "Nationwide 457 Scam" (just a hunch, mind you, but it was a good one!) and read various articles about how these Nationwide 457 funds have been used all over the U.S. (Alabama was mentioned several times) for all kinds of golf tournaments, wine tastings and kickbacks.

The list of things that would have mortified my father--the misuse of his 457 funds, the con man/manager who turned his two rental houses into slums, and the sad news that the daughter he was convinced would immediately buy a Porsche when he died being forced to use her inheritance to instead re roof a slummy Smallville garage--gets longer every day. But the word mortify actually describes what happens to your body after you are dead, so I guess Dad is okay after all. Beyond all this. Zoomed way past the mortification stage.

It is the living who must clean up the mess.

List of things to do:
1. Don't Defer any Comp. If someone is to misuse your money it might as well be you.
2. Don't buy rental homes one thousand miles away.
3. Don't turn rental homes one thousand miles away over to Bernie Madoff's cousin.
4. Don't waste money on will. Nobody pays attention to a will, especially after you die.
5. Leave house clean-up and paperwork to heirs.
6. Check marriage license carefully if ever marry again. (Possibly marry in India where all IT experts reside?)
7. Don't marry again.
8. Change name and take 'round the world cruise.
9. Leave remaining estate paperwork to Sis.
10. Figure out how to "take it with you."
11. Buy Porsche. Dad expected it!

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Former News Anchor is Slum Landlord! Details at Eleven!!

My sister and I have just returned from a trip to Hades. We didn't think it was going to be like that when we flew into a small town in the Pacific Northwest this weekend to take a look at two rental properties we had inherited from our father. Smart man, our father. Good investor. We were even planning to meet with a lawyer in this little burg to help us form an Limited Liability Corporation so we could have a little business that would go on collecting the profits from these fine properties. Hah! The weekend didn't quite develop as we expected--real estate wise or otherwise. For one thing, there is now a question about our parents' marriage. But first the story of the houses ...

Our little home in "Smallville" could use a coat of paint. Or ten.

My sister and I knew the real estate we inherited in the Pacific Northwest wasn't going to make us rich. Prices in the small town, where our mother and father met, are not high. But the rent had been coming in steadily for thirty years. We figured, what the heck? We would take a look at what we had and then keep the rent on coming.

My father bought the homes in about 1978, spiffed them up and managed them himself until a decade later when he was in his early seventies. Then, he found a management firm to handle the properties for him. He had depreciation and a small, steady income from them. His home was a thousand miles away, but he paid a manager, so all was well. Or so he thought.

Sadly, in the last ten years of his life, my father was not one hundred percent well. He wasn't in nursing care until the last few months of his life, but, for a decade, his formidable acuity and his ability to check the rental statements, decreased over the years. Our mother never understood them, and didn't care (and didn't want our help.)

Long story short: After my father's death, I analyzed the data and noted that in some years the expenses on the little rental homes exceeded eighty percent and that, even to my limited experience, didn't seem right. When my repeated questions were not answered by the "Bonanza Rental Agency" (not its real name) my sister and I hired a new management company.

This weekend we flew to "Smallville" (not its real name) to meet the new manager.

The first house was so bad I actually started to cry. It hadn't been painted in twenty years. The siding was peeling and the window trim was worn and rotted. The house needed a new roof, immediately and so did the garage. The yard was a mess and the garage, in addition to the horrible roof, looked as if it might collapse at any minute.

I had to have a cup of tea to settle my stomach after I saw the back door.

The second house was a little better--but not by much. Especially the air conditioning. What can I say? My father and mother would have been beside themselves. They were meticulous about everything they owned and always vowed they would not own a rental house they could not live in themselves.

Somehow, I can't picture my mother living with this AC unit, much less the curtain fabric.

For twenty years my ethical parents paid for maintenance that didn't take place. All that money charged to them over all those years went somewhere: but it didn't go into the homes.

We slithered into a coffee shop nearby to talk. We must have looked shaken, because the waitress, a sweet-looking girl with her hair in a braid, asked us what was wrong. We told her. "It wasn't Bonanza Rental Company," she asked?

Guess everybody knew but us.

Sixty-six years ago, my father and mother came to this courthouse to take out their marriage license. For many reasons, this was an emotional trip down memory lane for my sister and me.

But the day got even worse and we didn't think that was possible! We stopped by the county courthouse to see if our Grant Deeds had been filed (you have to do that when someone dies and you inherit property.) The paperwork had been sent back to us several times because we were a penny off on the check or we forgot to put a page number on something. We asked a lady named Kathy to check her computer to see if, this time, the deeds were filed okay.

Kathy had hair as tall as the courthouse tower and wore white lipstick like Morticia Addams.

"Nah, I sent them back to you," she said. "Your check had your old address on it and we can't accept that."

Okay. My sister and I looked at each other. We were wondering when we could catch the next bus out of Smallville.

But perky Miss Chapman, (that would be me) said: "Hey, let's look up Mom and Dad's marriage license." You have to understand, to a family historian, this is what passes for fun.

My sister looked at me as if I were a two-headed alien.

The dilapidated-looking man at the County Courthouse desk looked up Mom and Dad on the Smallville County computer. "William Ashley Chapman?" he asked, after waiting several minutes for the ancient computer to cogitate a bit and go back in time six decades.

"October 1, 1944?" We nodded again.

"Yup. William Ashley Chapman married Ruth Elaine L____ that day," he said and looked up at us, expectantly. Ruth is our aunt. She was the maid of honor at our parents' wedding. Even the record of their marriage is fouled up. For us, there is no joy in Smallville.

"I'm getting out of here," my sister muttered.

Me? I can't wait to call my Aunt Ruth and tell her the news.

She has been married to my Uncle Joe for sixty years and they have ten children. Now, she has two more she didn't know about!

And her newly-discovered daughters own two really bad-looking rental homes.

Hey, I can made you a good deal on a prime piece of property in Smallville.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Making "The Office" Habitable

The "office" with a few, new added splashes of color.

The office (bedroom number two at the home I inherited) was looking pretty droopy: a mass of file boxes, electronic equipment, electrical cords and two beds with dreary old bedspreads.

Since I bought my new MacBook, I WiFi'd the house and use the Mac on a desk in the kitchen/family room where it is convenient, and the light is nice all day. The MacBook came with a wireless printer, so I don't even have to have the printer in sight. Add the iPhone--which serves as a mini computer for checking email and doing other quick Internet chores--and I found myself not going in to the office very much. It grew dusty and gloomy.

I knew it would look great with a new coat of paint, as it has chair rail moulding around the room. But I'm in the middle of refinishing the floor in bedroom number three, and since one gaggle of workmen in one room at a time is enough for me--I haven't gotten to this room yet. In the meantime, I thought I would try to brighten it up with a few simple things that wouldn't cost much money and cost me even less in the time and stress departments.

First I cleaned the room--amazing how much that improves things--put away a lot of the paperwork, tied up the electrical cords and put them behind furniture pieces.

Then, I bought two new white bedspreads--cotton Matelassé from Portugal, on sale. Cotton is wonderful. Cool in summer, warm in winter. Cotton Matelassé bedspreads will wash easily in a home machine, soften over the years, and last forever. The best ones come from Portugal and the two I found on the Internet immediately improved the look of the maple twin beds I inherited.

I had two needlepoints completed from the months my father was ill--nervous energy sped them along, but I didn't know what I would do with them. They were traditional in pattern, but the colors I used were weird and not my usual sunny ones. White lilies on a dark brown background? (Death on my mind, or what?) My own first initial done in pink and dark cranberry with two slightly satanic-looking clowns forming the humps in the "R"? Heaven and hell swirling around in the subconscious, I guess.

Anyway, my niece brought me an ethnic rug from Afghanistan--something she picked up during her tour of duty there with the military and I had already put the rug in there. And I had a textile from her Peace Corps years in Uzbekistan in there too. So, what with my strange needlepoint pillows and the Near Eastern textiles, I thought I might have the beginnings of an ethnic theme going in there.

I remembered a shop in Palo Alto filled with textiles from Tibet--actually from exiled Tibetan workers in India. (Tibet is presently under the harsh control of the Chinese. Google "Dalai Lama" for more on that controversy.) And I thought I might find something at the Tibet shop that would to speed along my decorating.

Indian quilt in traditional cotton fabric.

It was there I found two Indian Calico quilts for the foot (feet?) of the beds: they are beautiful, hand-stitched, and the price was unbelievably reasonable.

The quilts don't match but that is part of their charm.

My niece tells me the below-one-hundred-dollars-each-price means the workers are probably handicapped children who get three cents an hour. She knows whereof she speaks as she's an intelligence expert on that part of the world: but I remind myself that India is, at least, a democracy (unlike China--from whence comes almost everything else we buy). And I don't think I help the Indians/Tibetans in need, if I don't buy their goods. Ah, the moral perils of shopping amidst a sea of globalization.

Hand quilting makes the Indian textiles imperfect and especially beautiful.

Work made by hand is so rare in this age of machines. I think each quilt is a work of art. I hope by buying them I actually helped someone. Because the person or persons who made them certainly helped me. Their work is a gift that traveled to me through both time zones and ages and--in a room that by necessity still features modems and printers--brings a simple Eastern beauty into my home, halfway around the world.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Saluting Actress Patricia Neal

Patricia Neal with Michael Rennie in a promotional photo from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Neal died last week at the age of 84.

There was something special about Patricia Neal on film. Her life was difficult and much written about. But when she died, a week ago, America lost an irreplaceable talent. She was one of those stars who seemed to have been born with an inner light.

And she had that wonderful voice: the husky alto surrounded by a little Southern sugar that made her round her vowels as if she loved each one of them personally.

In her obituaries you will read about her challenging life. The affair with the very married Gary Cooper. Her later marriage to the writer Roald Dahl, whom she supported with her film career as he turned out James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. How her son suffered a brain injury. How her daughter died of measles. And how she, at the age of 39, suffered a stroke that almost killed her. How her husband stayed at her side as she recovered. And how, when she had recovered, Dahl left her for her best friend. Oh yes, and tucked in there amidst all that, she won an Oscar for her role with Paul Newman in Hud (1963).

The events of her life were almost too much for one lifetime to hold. But what she left us are her wonderful films and if you want to see the best of them, here are a few of my favorites:

A Face in the Crowd (1957) This acidic film, written by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, stars Andy Griffith in the most un-Mayberry-like role of his career. But it is Neal who stars as the film's conscience. She is beautiful and natural as the eager young producer who discovers a talented hustler and makes him a television star. We truly believe she is first seduced by his charm, devastated when she is betrayed, and crazed when she finally faces the evil she has helped create. It is a troubling, thoughtful film and Patricia Neal, with her grace and talent, helps to keep it from teetering over into melodrama.

In Harm's Way (1965) Directed by the tyrannical and creepy Otto Preminger, Neal is one among a cast of many talented actors, including John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, Paula Prentiss, Carroll O'Connor, Dana Andrews, and Tom Tryon--to name just a few. But in her scenes with John Wayne there is a sexual energy that jumps off the screen. In one, all she does is take off her shoes and it is very provocative! Wayne worked with practically every beautiful actress on the planet, but with Patricia Neal he was well-matched. This is a good film about the Navy in World War II, as well.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) You have to pay attention to catch her in this one. The film is dominated by the glamorous Audrey Hepburn and the vapid George Peppard, with Mickey Rooney wildly over-the-top as a cartoonish Japanese landlord. Neal--the cynical older woman--is the only realistic character in this much-acclaimed film based on a very silly story by Truman Capote. Besides Neal, the best things about this movie are Hepburn's clothes and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River." But I have to admit: Neal, fashions, and Mercer make a very appealing film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Not a favorite of critics, this turned out to be one of the most iconic science fiction films of the 1950s. Director Robert Wise is a big reason the fantastic story works and Patricia Neal is another. And although she said the entire cast thought the whole thing was "... hysterical! Absolutely hilarious!" this is a really good movie. And you don't want to be the one person in America who has never seen her cowering in front of that giant space robot in the silver suit, screaming at the top of her lungs and saying: "Klatu. Barada. Nicto." This movie--which actually has a very thoughtful and timely message, believe it or not--is now woven into the fabric of our culture. Much to her surprise, I would guess, this is probably the one film she made that will never be forgotten.

I've left out quite a few that you may want to see. She's absolutely gorgeous with Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead (1949), Ayn Rand's polemic about collectivism. But the story is so laughable and there is so little logic to the plot: I'm not a big fan. But it is a good-looking film, I'll say that. And when she watches Gary Cooper working at his drill-baby-drill, it is tough not to miss the symbolism, as it were. You also might want to see Hud (1963), the movie that won her an Oscar for Best Actress. She is, as usual, terrific in it. But I find the story dreary and unpleasant, in spite of hunky Paul Newman. And I always feel that I have to get the Texas dust out of my socks when I've watched this thing. I don't know if it is her best film. But she deserved to win an Oscar for something: and that is how Hollywood works.

She was an intelligent actress in the days before actresses began to look and act like plastic dolls. We are very lucky to have the legacy of Patricia Neal's films.

Patricia Neal

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Remembering VJ Day: How Ordinary Men Saved the World

Capt. William Ashley Chapman showing off the pyramidal tent that was his home from the Battle of Okinawa through August 1945. When he was very old he wrote me in a funny letter: "We have here [at home] a lot better stuff than is found in any canvas tent. It is more trouble to go to the bathroom though."

This weekend marks sixty-five years since Japan surrendered to Allied Forces in the Pacific. Victory in Japan Day marked the end of Japan's strange and horrible dream of world conquest.

My father, Captain William Ashley Chapman, was there on a tiny island called Ie, across a small strait of water from Okinawa, Japan. Late in life he said there was no celebration on VJ Day among the soldiers. "Just a lot of relief."

Capt. Chapman on Ie, 1945

This is the first such remembrance day, of that remarkable time, that my father has not been here to mark. Col. William Ashley Chapman finally surrendered to his own peace in March of this year. In life, though he never once said so, he was one of the millions of ordinary American to whom we owe all the blessings of today.

The end came on August 14-15, 1945--depending on where you were in the world. In spite of it, on August 14, my father and his men were back in a slit trench as Japanese pilots bombed Okinawa. ("What was that you said, Sir, about a surrender?") That night, American Thunderbolts, flying out of Ie, shot down two more Japanese attack planes.

The momentum of a war, apparently, takes some time to halt.

Captain Chapman with his men on Ie. Behind him and to the left you can see the pyramidal tents they lived in. And behind that you can see the strait of water between Ie and Okinawa and some US ships at anchor there. Behind them to the right you can see a US military cemetery with white markers topped by an American flag.

So it wasn't until August 19, 1945, that my father stood on the runway at Ie, with the other American soldiers, and watched in silence as two Japanese Betty Bombers landed on their airstrip. The Mitsubishi planes, nicknamed "Bettys" by the GIs, were a real curiosity to the Americans, who had seen them only in combat. Per the instructions of General Douglas MacArthur, the Bettys my Dad saw that day had been each been painted white with a large green cross.

A few weeks later, my father was witness to history in another way. He and his men were ordered to board ships for Sasebo, Japan, where they were to rebuild and maintain a damaged runway, as the Occupation got underway. Sasebo is just across the bay from Nagasaki, where the atom bomb was dropped that ended the war.

A half century later, I found an old scrapbook kept by his mother and there, amidst the torn and crumpled pages, I found an undated article from an Alabama newspaper that described what he had seen there. The article was headlined: "Homewood Boy Visits Scene of Atomic Bomb Destruction," and reads in part:

"Captain Chapman, now stationed at Sasebo in Japan, wrote as follows [the article says in quoting him]: 'We drove down to Nagasaki. In the area close to where the bomb went off everything is leveled to the ground. The stench of the dead is still present ... Anyone who had the starting of a war in mind should see Nagasaki and I believe he would change his plans.'"

He and the men and women of his generation did not ask for this mission. America, in fact, did everything it could to stay out of the war that the Axis nations were brewing up in their terrible cauldron.

But when it had to be faced: they faced it. Calling them heroes almost trivializes what they did. They were not heroes. They were ordinary Americans who did a job that had to be done. My Dad served for five years. And he, like all the others, was thrilled when it was over. "I'm like President Roosevelt," he would say. "I hate war."

"EXPECT TO BE HOME SOON DON'T WRITE FURTHER" my father telegraphed my mother on November 9, 1945. "WILL CONTACT YOU ON ARRIVAL. ALL MY LOVE DEAREST. ASHLEY." So many guys were sending wires home, the operator got only one of my Dad's initials right and misspelled his last name. But it arrived at the right house anyway.

And who were these men? These battle-hardened conquerors?

"What was it like there?" my mother asked my father as he stepped off the train.

"Aw. The Japanese kids were really cute," he said. And then he kissed her.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

What Have You Heard About Hurd?

The woman at the heart of the latest Hewlett Packard scandal was the star of this little entertainment feature. This is a family blog so I couldn't even show you the covers of some of her other greatest hits.

The biggest topic of conversation out here in Silicon Valley--and on the business pages of the world at present--is this: what did Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd do, exactly, that got him fired from the largest technology company in the world? There are something like 2.6 Billion shares of HP stock circulating these days and when you multiply that by the minus-seven-dollars-per-share this thing has cost HP stock in the last week, you can imagine that this is more than idle curiosity.

The company says it investigated Hurd's relationship with a woman called Jody Fisher, and concluded there was no sexual harassment, as she originally claimed. And it can't possibly be some kind of mistake he made on his expense reports with regard to Fisher, the disputed amount of which the company says is between $2000-$20,000. That's the kind of cash one local reporter noted that a guy like Hurd "carries in his shoe."

And it wasn't an affair: both the woman involved, her legendary attorney Gloria Allred, and Hurd himself have agreed there was no sexual relationship between Hurd and Fisher (italics mine), whose career as an "actress" has led her to star in such films as "Blood Dolls," "Sheer Passion," and "Body of Influence 2."

And yet, in a company which must have one of the most proficient sales and marketing departments on the planet, this woman says she was hired as an: "Outside consultant ... involved in preparing profiles of customers to help advise Hurd on people he would meet at high level sales meetings."

Gee, one might imagine the President of HP Marketing, not to mention the receptionist at their Palo Alto office who could pull up a guest list on her Compaq, might manage to pull off a feat like that.

But the weird obfuscations just keep on coming. Jody Fisher added that she: "Worked on high level customer and executive summits" held in the U.S. and abroad.

And yet something about her "consulting" and "advising" and her "profiles" at those "summits" was so radioactive it led the HP Board of Directions to settle an undisclosed amount of money on Fisher and use the Nuclear Option on its most successful CEO in many years.

And that is all we know.

With regard to that I will tell you a story about a man I know, called Stephen, a native of China who grew up there during the years of its most strenuous censorship. In one party newspaper, when Stephen was a teenager, he read what was meant to be a derogatory article about how the evil American CIA attempted to garner information about China by reading between the lines of its publications. It said the bungling capitalist spies combed the Chinese press for information left in and left out, for names mentioned and then excluded, for euphemisms used and then abandoned. Ha! Ha! Said the publication. What silly, corrupt Americans!

My friend Stephen was an intelligent fellow (I know this because he got out of Communist China and now runs an entire pavilion at Disney) and said reading this article turned on a light bulb over his head. He thought the CIA sounded pretty smart and from then on he began reading his official Communist China publications in exactly this way. "It is the only way I really learned what was going on in China," he said. I told him that this same device had been of invaluable help to me in deciphering the Washington Post.

So now, I read these words "marketing," "consulting," and "advising Hurd on people he would meet" and put them together with Fisher's background and career and I put them all together in my magic blender and whoosh! Ipso chango! I begin to form a scenario in mind about what happened.

I think is it possible she may even have brought along some friends to these high level sales meetings.

What do you think?

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dealing With Hurt

Ernest Hemingway writing in Kenya, from a photo in the Library of Congress.

Probably the most famous quote in the English language on the subject of life's hurts--outside the Bible--comes from writer Ernest Hemingway and he knew quite a lot about such things, having hurt a lot of people in his life who often returned the same to him. In A Farewell to Arms (1929) he penned the lines we've all heard so often:

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

I often think about that phrase: " ... and many are strong at the broken places." Because, as ones lives on beyond the dreams and illusions of one's youth, one begins to wonder how many more broken places will there be? And how many more can one survive? Is life like the stock market, and after things have been down long enough will the uptick begin and all kinds of wonderful dividends accrue? Seven years of plenty after seven years of lean?

The answer is, of course, that we never know. My father was--in general--an optimist. He set aside bad events and worked, instead, with the goal of good things happening always before him. My mother was a pessimist and believed that life doled out only evil, sorrow, and pain. One must always be prepared for it, she believed, because no matter how good things might be at the moment, something bad was always bound to be just around the corner. And it was odd she felt that way, because her life was filled on the whole with the least amount of bad luck I've ever known any person to have. And my father--on the other hand--who lost his father when he was fairly young--had had to face much more in the way of life's sorrows. The difference in their cases was not in what happened to them--but in how they looked at what happened to them.

And yet, there is the absolute of painful events. Like Ronald Reagan's character in the 1942 film King's Row, we awake from our anesthesia one morning to find our legs gone and in a panic call out: "Where's the rest of me?" When I lost my husband, it was something like that. In retrospect and with the benefit of many years of perspective, I realize now it was not the loss of the person himself that caused the terrible wound, but the loss of the illusion of security I held, which has never entirely returned.

Robin in Washington D.C. where a piece of her life was excised but is still partially visible.

The loss of both my parents this year was not like that loss at all. Both of them had lived long, productive, and relatively happy lives. My mother was pessimistic until the day she died--a pessimism that was her own form of happiness. Since her earthbound life--filled with the gifts of beauty, money, a loyal family, and a devoted husband--had to her been such an incredible drag--she looked to heaven as a release from her vale of tears. My father was happy until the very day he died--looking at this world as the home of ice cream, pancakes with hot syrup, loving grandchildren who worshipped him, and fairly tolerable children who would have been somewhat better if they had been sons, but oh well. Days before he died he was still imagining himself building a steam engine and taking a trip to Goodwater, Alabama to visit his Uncle Ashley's grave.

My father, William Ashley Chapman, and his sister Helen Chapman Parkinson, when he came home on leave to Homewood, Alabama in 1944.

His sister, my Aunt Helen, was very much like him. For the last two decades of her life, she lived with MS, but she never complained about it, continued to travel, visit relatives, play bridge, go to church, call me, remember the birthdays of family members, and make dinner for her husband--until some of those things became impossible. At that point, stuck in a wheelchair, she did all the work of arranging to sell their house, pack, and move the two of them into assisted living--so her husband who had a PhD but was unable to boil water--wouldn't starve. Once securely there, she made friends with everyone, continued playing bridge and going to Bible readings, helped everyone fill out their tax forms, which she and my father both loved to do for no reason anyone on this earth can understand: and then one day about a year later, got sick and died, as efficiently and without complaint as she had lived. Just like my Dad. They were both practical and cheerful and if they had wounds they carried around they did not discuss them nor expose them.

For myself, I sometimes think I was built with overly sensitive nerve endings. An advantage for a creative person. A disadvantage in interpersonal relations. I inherited my father's genuine optimism and am always devastated when people behave insensitively towards me--no matter that people the world over behave this way all the time.

Thus, when I was hurt by a friend this week, it caught me off guard, as it always does. Like my father and his sister--whom I suspect simply chose not to expose their hurt, and also chose to go forward with optimism--I've always been good at appearing not to mind. But it doesn't mean it is true. People have the astonishing idea that I'm self-sufficient, happy, and immensely successful. Aren't they silly.

But, that is my best--and only--defense. For the rest of the Hemingway passage I quoted above is as true as the first part and reads like this:

"But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms (1929)

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Monday, August 9, 2010

My Garden Path

I have found a great deal of peace this summer in my garden. Each day, I have made myself take at least an hour--sometimes two--away from the paperwork and sorting work that comes with loss, to sit quietly reading in the shady garden at the back of the house.

After just a few minutes, a sound or a broken twig will make me look up from my book and I will see, emerging from the suburban quiet around me, the life of the garden. A hummingbird flits over to the purple agapanthus and whirs about the blooms, drinking in their syrup. A blue jay splashes in the birdbath where I put the residue from my watering can. Two squirrels chase each other up and down the adolescent redwood tree in the yard next door. A chickadee bounces across the lawn, so busy at its work it does not seem to notice me.

I had no unfinished business with my parents when they died and this has helped to bring me the peace I feel this summer. I moved across the American continent to be closer to them as they grew fragile. I set aside the needs of my own life for that short time, to make sure their lives were the best they could be. In that time I resolved nearly all of the nagging issues that had troubled me in my relationships with them. What I could not resolve, I forgave.

They had always been impossible to please. But in this one case, I pampered them both and pleased them both as I forgave myself for my own imperfections.

My father was not ready to die. He had three or four terminal diseases, but he had kept himself in such incredibly good condition all his life that neither his body nor his soul were ready to make the transition to the next life--even though he was ninety years old. He fought it very hard those last few weeks. So much so that when my sister said to him, "Heaven is near!", thinking to bring him peace, he replied: "Gosh, I hope not!"

He was in hospice when he fell into a coma and it broke my heart that I could no longer speak to him, or cheer him as he went quietly into himself to go on about his journey without me. That was the hardest week of my life.

But in our last conversation, I knew he knew how much I loved him. When he saw me that morning he said: "Hello Robin! How are YOU feeling today!" as if he were thrilled to see me and as if I were the patient and not he. He saw I was wearing his Auburn sweatshirt so he moved his hands in the little "Hold That Tiger" dance they did at Auburn football games. He hadn't eaten his breakfast that morning, so I found a dish of ice cream and I helped him eat it and he smiled and said "Yum yum. That is good!" I held his hand as he dozed a while and then he awakened and looked at me and said "Robin, I am so sick. Robin I am so very sick." It was the only time he admitted to me with despair in his voice that he had guessed his time was short. It was his goodbye to me, for just minutes later he slipped into unconsciousness.

I don't think about these sad times so often as I did in the spring. Watching the garden come to bloom this summer--the garden my father worked in every free hour of his life--has been a comfort. He nurtured it and it gave back to him in return. The neighborhood children and pets would see him there, raking leaves, pulling weeds, mowing the lawn, washing his car, and they were drawn to him. He made friends with all of them and people still stop in their walks around this neighborhood to chat with me about him.

And now the peace he nurtured in the garden has come back to me. The wildlife and I are soothed in its shade, warmed by its sun, brightened by its blossoms and calmed by its sounds--the sounds of life that continue on into eternity.

My father in his garden.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Something There is That Doesn't Love a Wall And Wants it Down ...

I awoke this morning to find that the Himalayan tree in my front yard had been behaving badly. Since it is one of the most beautiful features of the house, and since one expects beauties to suffer a little temperament, we are somewhat used to this. Branches will crash down from time to time.

But this time the cedrus deodara took out part of my fence, and that is a no-no. Plus, my niece was visiting a few days ago and had parked her car in exactly the spot where the limb came down this morning: we were lucky she wasn't still here today or her pretty new Prius would have gotten smooshed.

The tree was a small shrub when my parents bought the house a half century ago. In fact, there were two small deodara that framed the end of the driveway. But over the years, the one on the side adjacent to the front lawn got all the water from the lawn sprinklers and the other was gradually dwarfed by it. The landscaper must not have known that these ancient trees have a lifespan of at least a century and can grow to enormous heights or he wouldn't have thought of planting two of them as one would have--and has--been more than sufficient.

The deodara on a quieter day in a photo I took looking out from the house toward the street.

The cedrus deodara is a native of one of the most beautiful regions of the world: the Vale of Kashmir. Kashmir borders modern Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India and its beauty, they say, is so great that those countries and many other conquerors have fought over it for millennia. There are forests of deodara there where the people of those lands believe sacred spirits dwell.

Looking up into the deodara's branches.

Their mystical belief is easy to understand when one looks at the tree that dominates our house. Not only is it enormous and stunningly beautiful and brings a cooling shade to the dwelling: its branches appear to spread out above us in a protective embrace.

But it does have its moments.

William Ashley Chapman, posing with a branch from the deodara in 2004.

In the winter of 2004, my parents sent me the photo above of one large branch that fell and blocked the entire street after a wild Pacific storm blew through town one night. It took several days to clean it up and my father posed more than once with the cedrus detritus.

My father at the age of 84 was not able, for the first time in his life, to do the tree-clean-up work himself. He and Mom hired someone to take a chainsaw to the mess, which stretched all the way to the house next door, which is behind my father in the photo.

The work must have taken place in spite of the Sabbath, because my father, in both these pictures, is dressed for church.

The tree that spreads its limbs above us, from the mystical land where the spirits dwell, is a temperamental creature. Like the multi-armed Hindu goddess Kali, it represents both beauty and danger.

Both scientists and theologians tell us that energy is never born and never dies--it simply changes forms. Thus, the branch that once cooled this house in summer will now have a new life--warming it in winter--as firewood. Thank you o sacred tree! (Just don't take down my fence, next time you feel like acting up.)


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Monday, August 2, 2010

Preparing for the Big One With a New Gadget

My new emergency radio.

Ever since that big earthquake we felt on Easter Sunday in Southern California (a 7.2 on the Richter Scale, centered in Mexicali), I've been reminded how vulnerable we all are in California to the next Big One. I've tried to take simple precautions: I've been careful, for example, not to set things around the house where they would fall on my head in a quake.

And I've secured the two-hundred-year-old clock from my father's family to both the table it sits on and the wall it leans against. (During the Loma Prieta quake in 1989, my parents reported that it flew across the room, landing on its back and cracking its wooden case. That was lucky: the glass in the front was undamaged.)

The clock that survived the Loma Prieta Earthquake. It still shows the big crack at the back of the case where it fell.

People who have never lived in an earthquake region think earthquakes must be the height of danger. Actually, many more people are killed in automobile accidents, industrial accidents, hurricanes, and from things like influenza than have ever been killed in earthquakes.

But, since I lived through three hurricanes one summer in Central Florida, I have come to realize that the difficulty with a big emergency, like a hurricane or a quake, is not so much the event itself. It is the aftermath, when none of the usual systems are working. Until you have had to live for a time without potable water coming from the tap, and electricity working at the flip of a switch, and cold food and ice always available in the refrigerator, you have no idea how difficult this can be.

That is why emergency plans always warn us to be prepared to live without these things for at least 72 hours, which is the time it takes for FEMA and other government agencies to safely begin response and recovery.

With this in mind, I've bought myself the dandiest little emergency radio you ever saw! It is made and designed by Etón Corporation, which I have learned is the company that now produces most of these things. Mine is called the Microlink FR160 and it is only slightly larger than my iPhone.

The size of the new radio, compared with my coffee maker. Yes, I know the percolator is ancient. But it makes such great-tasting coffee, I can't make myself get rid of it. If only it were solar powered, like the radio!

The Etón has a hand crank that charges the battery and a solar panel that will do the same. It also has an emergency light, and a plug for both a headset and your phone charger. During the hurricanes I lived through, most of the cell towers were out of action for the first couple of days, so the phone charger plug may be superfluous: but you never know. Did I mention this amazing invention cost just $22? It was designed by a company right here in California (Palo Alto, to be exact) (but unfortunately, made in China).

The small hand crank is easy to use and 90 seconds of cranking gives you almost an hour of battery time. The radio has AM, FM, and Emergency bands.

The solar panel means you can leave the radio outside in the sun during the day and you will have about five hours of battery time. That little black button turns on the radio's light

How Silicon Valley will survive for several days without the ability to text, send email, and Google, one can only speculate. But in Florida, when Hurricane Charlie brought down every single power line for miles around, plus all the cell towers, I found my battery-powered radio to be my lifeline.

I'm hoping this handy little Etón Microlink FR160 will do the same if I have to face an earthquake emergency in California of similar proportions. I certainly hope I won't. But my father helped write my hometown's emergency plan: so I'm required, like the Girl Scouts, to be prepared.

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