Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Santa Clause I know and love

'Twas the day before the big day,
And all through the planet,
Bloggers were still kvetching,
Despite the urge -- for once -- to just can it.

Tattered socks dangled from the furnace,
while young 'uns waited most earnest,
Visions of video games jostled their heads,
While mom and dad stocked up on their meds.

A grumpy old father suddenly thought,
a better notion of Christmas couldn't be wrought.
"Santa's never been to a gym, let alone on a diet,
He couldn't make it through my garage, and it's bigger
than a Hyatt!"

Mom fretted over the poor, overworked reindeer,
stuck forever in traffic;
Their shiny SUV still wreaking
highway havoc.

Dasher hadn't dashed in many a year, Prancer and Vixen
were forever stuck in second gear.

Comet was downsized out of a job,
while Cupid was avoiding the holiday mobs.

That left Donner and Blitzen, always on the run,
still whining that Disney's dwarfs had all the fun.
(Not to mention much more colorful names.)

The elves had been on strike for many a day,
making it easy for old St. Nick to be led astray.
They'd been out for but an hour,
when a thirsty Rudolph suddenly muttered,
"I need a whiskey sour!"

The lead reindeer hung a right on this cold winter night;
After all, it wasn't too far to the next liquor bar.

Just a few sips of booze caused this crew to snooze.
And so when Santa awoke, in his red suit bespoke, he simply said,
"I won't shed but a tear 'cause there's always next year."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

What handicapped parking says about our culture

A few weeks ago, when a friend brought up the subject of the Steve Jobs biography, he said, "I know why you hated the book." Really, why? I wondered. "He parked in handicapped parking spaces." Well, that wasn't why I thought the book was mediocre (I didn't hate it; see my previous blog post), but it did get me thinking more about what he said, and the more I thought about it, the more it got me to this rant, which is especially timely as we are deep into the holiday season.

The media raves are all about charitable giving, of course, and I applaud that, but what's missing is the charitable giving of a different kind -- that from the heart that has nothing to do with money. Just ordinary small acts of decency.

As many of my friends know, my wife has been courageously fighting back against the effects of a debilitating stroke that occurred eight years ago while we were on holiday in the South of France. It has taken its toll on my personality, much for the worse. My anger and frustration are way off the charts, far too often. And the guilt is immeasurable because my suffering palls in comparison with hers, every day. I have no right to feel worse than she does.

I'll admit it. If a few years after our family dynamic changed forever, if I saw Steve Jobs' Mercedes in a handicapped space and my wife and I needed the spot, I'd have gone way beyond ballistic. I'd have taken a tire iron out of my trunk and smashed every single window. Then I would have made sure that every fender, every quarter panel, the hood, the trunk, and so on, would have been unrecognizable, when he reappeared with his Smoothie from the health food store. (You're thinking, "Is Doug mad yet?" I'm just getting started.) If his widow does anything with her huge inheritance, she can start by thinking about the people whose lives are affected every day by those little blue signs that her genius husband so cavalierly ignored.

We Americans constantly complain about how we're treated in foreign countries. Particularly, I've had to listen to my less-enlightened relatives prattle on about how "the French hate us." They hate us because we act privileged and boorish when we visit their country, that's why. But when it comes to treating the disabled, they're a lot nicer than we are. Trust me on this. Whenever I've wheeled Meg through a European airport dragging two suitcases strapped around my waist, someone has never failed to offer to help. In the U.S., nobody ever offers. Zero. We're lucky to find a Sky Cap in a U.S. airport. In fact, it's sad to say that I feel like it's a miracle when someone holds a door for us. (The big exception? N.Y.C. bus drivers, who unfailingly and uncomplainingly, arrange the handicapped seat and strap in the wheelchair.)

In France, where parking is chaotic to the point of laughable, the irony is somewhat delicious for Meg and me. The French park illegally everywhere, on sidewalks, the wrong way on one-way streets. They appear to continually ignore every single parking restriction except one: they do not park in handicapped spaces without a wheelchair placard. When we were at the supermarket in Vence a few years ago, we pulled right next to the entrance. I hung out our state-issued placard (honored just about everywhere in the world), and Meg read the sign for me. Instead of threatening with a huge fine, it read, roughly translated, "If you take my space, take my disability."

So this holiday season, think about something nice to do for someone who can't do it themselves. It might go a lot further than merely writing a check. (And God help you if I find your car in a handicapped parking space without a placard.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yet another reason health care is bankrupting the nation

Yesterday I took my wife to Rusk Institute, part of NYU's vast medical center, for a rehab evaluation. These visits have been ongoing since her stroke more than eight years ago. We've been to Rusk countless times, and when we checked in she was asked to put her hand on a data reader. For 10 minutes or so, the frustrated receptionist tinkered with the system, and finally began asking her for personal data. This was the third time she has had to go through the drill of filling out the forms. And it's all because of their high-tech "Patient Secure" system.

And I can tell you, folks, this system is so secure, nobody -- not even hospital personnel -- can access it.

The thing just doesn't work. While she was in therapy, I did an informal poll of the various stations where there were hand-print sign-ins, and every single person behind the screen sighed and said, yes, the system is full of glitches. Patients have to keep moving their hand around, and it takes several tries to "read" their palm, if at all. NYU staffers are justifiably frustrated with the system because the medical center likely spent millions to implement it and who knows how much more? to train their personnel. And now the wasted labor due to redundant paperwork is adding even more bucks down the tubes.

NYU medical announced this system earlier in the year with great fanfare, and their literature promises "fast registration for future visits." That's a joke. Sorry. I get very crabby when I see huge IT investments going south. If I were on the board of the med center, I'd be having a stern talk -- or worse -- with the chief technology officer.

The technology is supposed to be 100 times more reliable than fingerprinting; the palm reader supposedly records a portion of the patient's vascular system, which is unique. I can understand why the powers that be shied away from a fingerprint system -- too many patients would opt out due to perceived paranoia about privacy.

But it's obvious that this technology's time has not yet come. It's likely that the NYU hierarchy knows of the problem, but they're hoping it's one of those "let's work out the kinks" situations.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Steve Jobs's bio and what nobody is really talking about

I've just finished Walter Isaacson's book on Jobs, which yielded surprisingly little new material about one of America's most controversial and ruthless businessmen. First, we were all well acquainted with the dark side of the Apple cofounder's persona. That he threw tantrums and belittled less-than-stellar work by employees was well known for decades.

What I didn't anticipate was how closely he tried to shape his image. Beneath that gruff, insanely strange exterior lurked an amazingly manipulative fellow (and I don't just mean his exhortations to spur his employees to make the products "perfect").

He apparently granted Isaacson access to the last two years of his life simply because he believed he was something of a chosen one. The author previously wrote books about Einstein and Benjamin Franklin and Jobs apparently thought he'd be a natural third choice in a series about great Americans. This says at least something about Jobs' out-sized ego, if nothing else. But Franklin, Einstein, and Jobs does not quite have the euphony that he had hoped for.

Was Jobs a genius? Hardly. The term is bandied about in the book so often that the hype begins to hurt your eyes. He was an inventor in that his name is on numerous Apple patents, but he never did any of the heavy lifting. Jobs was a demanding taskmaster, and had a brilliant eye for high-tech product design. Sure, he actually was a tough, in-your-face negotiator when he had to step up to other ego-manical businessmen like Disney's Michael Eisner. He knew how to make a deal, often to his company's advantage. He had tremendous drive; he was able to re-invent his career after being ousted from his beloved company and laying an egg with a stillborn computer with a miniscule market.

Where Isaacson really falls short is that he fell for Jobs's long, subtle con. He was given "access," which meant "more than 40 interviews" in the course of two years. This means he probably had many informal conversations that were perhaps on the record but not very revelatory. There are precious few direct quotes resulting from these talks, so either Isaacson was shy about turning on his tape recorder or taking notes in full view of his subject, or Jobs was incredibly boring and utterly without deep insight during his most expansive moments. Of course, geniuses are allowed to be dull (in some cases, it may be required). But they usually are deep thinkers. Jobs had few deep thoughts, at least within the pages of this book. Mostly, he's shaping a superficial narrative feeding his legacy. Oh yes, he tells Isaacson that he doesn't expect to read the book until it's published, as if that were to ensure that the result would not be a hagiography that no reader would take seriously.

One of the biggest shortcomings of this effort has to do with Jobs's personal fortune. Reportedly, he left an estate of $8.2 billion, which puts him in the pantheon of the very rich. Isaacson had almost no interest in where Jobs wanted this money to go after he died. Yes, he does say that Jobs was not known for his philanthropy. But he never poses a direct question about it. Why not? If Jobs had no desire to give it away, then this should have been made clear. Or, if he had plans and didn't want to disclose them, then that, too, should have been reported. I'm not sure if this makes the biographer look worse than his subject, but it's certainly a critical element in his life that demands some sort of explanation.

Maybe Jobs really wanted this to remain secret so we would think he's a cheap son-of-a-bitch, only to have his widow set up a foundation to give most of it away. If that's the case, and Isaacson knew it, then he's done a disservice to his readers. If not, he's been had.

The reviews of this first detailed look into his life were largely positive, and I'm still wondering why nobody has taken the work to task. Even The New York Review of Books had a tepid analysis.

A word about my personal literary food chain. If it's a book I'm likely to keep (Ron Chernow on George Washington, for example), I buy the hard cover. If it's a book I want to read but am not in a hurry to do so, I wait for the paperback. If I'm anxious to read it and am fairly certain there isn't a place for it in my library, I download it on my Kindle. At the very lowest priority -- a book I'll read but will never keep -- I borrow a copy. I'm glad the Jobs biography I read just went back to the New York Public Library.