That could have been me

Like most of the rest of the blogosphere, I was strangely affected by the plight of James Kim and his family, snowbound in a remote mountain pass for eleven days after a fateful wrong turn during a routine family drive. After several days and an intensive search, his wife and young daughters were rescued from their stranded car, ironically just hours after James struck out on foot in search of help. He never made it.

People die every day. Plenty of stories are sadder than this one. What makes some grab at the imagination more than others? In this case, for me, the answer was pretty clear (even before I knew about my indirect personal connection to the Kims — they’re close friends of my boss, Matt): James Kim could have been me. He was a middle-class Bay Area computer nerd, intelligent and nice, with a young family that liked to take long car trips.

My own experience with being underdressed, underequipped, and disoriented in a snowy wilderness was orders of magnitude more brief and less perilous, but I think it taught me well enough not to strike out across open country under such circumstances. But how long could I resist the temptation to go for help when my family is freezing and starving before my very eyes? Superior, self-appointed survival experts all over the Internet are today pompously pronouncing that James should never have left the car. Easy for them to say. I think he showed more restraint than I would have under similar circumstances by staying with the car for as many days as he did. And after all, there are worse ways to die than by hypothermia (the end stages of which can be quite misleadingly pleasant — you get warm and drowsy — learned that in fifth grade from Tunnel Through Time by Lester Del Rey) while heroically trying to rescue your wife and children, as half the online world prays for you.

Reportedly, the Kims took an ill-chosen alternate route to get from Interstate 5 inland to US-101 on the coast. How many times have Andrea and I spotted a more-interesting looking road on the map and said, “Let’s have an adventure!” (We did it on this road once near Half Moon Bay and almost had a wilderness crisis of our own — on dry roads, near the heart of the Bay Area — when we nearly ran out of gas as night fell.)

Having grown up on the East Coast, I know how treacherous even slightly hilly, slightly curvy secondary roads can be in the snow, so I think I’d know better than the Kims did about choosing that winding mountain pass. But with just a few modifications, the Kims’ plight could easily have been the Glicksteins’.

[This secton incorporates text originally written in May 2004 for a similar topic on my high school alumni mailing list.]

I think I understand the need of some to make those pompous pronouncements. I know what drives the desire to blame the victim.

Several years ago I got involved in flying. A big part of what a pilot does when not flying is to talk about flying. And read and write about flying. Specifically, there are a few flying magazines that many pilots read. You’ve seen them on the newsstands: “Flying,” “Plane and Pilot,” “AOPA Pilot,” “Private Pilot,” etc.

These magazines are highly formulaic and the writing is uniformly awful. Every month it’s the same test drive of a cool new plane, the same product reviews, the same reports of what our pilot buddies in Congress are doing for us, and the same fights between local airports and the noise-averse communities surrounding them. There’s no doubt in my mind that every pilot skims right over all that junk to head straight for the monthly column about some horrible aviation mishap (columns with names like “Never Again” and “I Learned About Flying From That” and “Aftermath”).

It’s a truism that there’s a little nugget of fear somewhere deep inside every pilot. The accident statistics are very favorable, but of course it’s the grisly stories that stand out in one’s mind. So pilots morbidly devour every accident story, mainly looking for reassurance that they’re immune to whatever mistake that poor bastard made. Didn’t get an updated weather briefing before takeoff? Idiot. Didn’t do his weight-and-balance calculations? Moron. Didn’t budget enough fuel for getting to his alternate landing site? Allowed an impatient controller to bully him into a bad decision? Didn’t heed the rough sound coming from the engine? I’d never do that.

I feel sorry for the victims I read about in those stories, but I freely admit to playing that blame-the-victim game as I read. Usually the mistakes are simple and understandable. Sometimes I can’t find any difference between that poor bastard and the cautious way that I fly, other than dumb luck, and that’s pretty unsettling. But sometimes the lapses in judgment are so egregious that it turns any sympathy I may have felt into impatience, even anger, especially when there are innocent victims involved.

Maybe this is something like how the Monday-morning wilderness quarterbacks are reacting to the Kims’ story. To me, the Kims’ mistakes fall into the simple-and-understandable category. (All too understandable.) For others maybe they are egregious. Seems harsh to me, but at least I can understand it as a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind.

In recent years, when contemplating my own mortality, I’ve found that it’s not me I worry about (as it was when I was younger), it’s the people I’d leave behind. This was true even before I became a parent but is a hundred times truer now. As long as I don’t die stupidly, it’ll be without any serious regrets. (Well, I would like to know how the Harry Potter series turns out.) But I have a strong stereotype in my mind about what losing a father at a young age can do to a couple of boys like Jonah and Archer. In that stereotype they become sullen, mad at the world, unambitious, even self-destructive. This more than anything else is why I hope not to die. There’s an alternate stereotype, where the survivors pull together to endure the crisis and emerge more tightly knit for their loss. This more than anything else is what I hope for the Kims.

Random security thought

As I was reading a passage earlier from “The System of the World” (volume 3 of Neal Stephenson’s amazing Baroque Cycle) about 18th-century Londoners taking precautions against highwaymen, a thought struck me: when my credit cards expire, I dutifully cut them up and discard them. Why not instead use them to populate a decoy wallet? That way if I’m ever mugged, I just hand over the decoy wallet containing a few expired credit cards, a few bucks, and maybe a phony driver’s license with a false address.

Eh, I’m not really paranoid enough to put this together (not to mention carry two wallets all the time), but if you are and want to use my idea, more power to you.

(Even better: learn magic.)

East is east and west is west

…and when it comes to varieties of Entenmann’s cakes, never the twain shall meet.

When I lived in New York (now more than half a lifetime ago, egad), my two favorite varieties were “Thick Fudge Golden Cake” and “Filled Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake.” But when I went to Pittsburgh for college, those cakes could not be found anywhere; nor (as I later discovered) are they available in California. This despite the fact that many other Entenmann’s varieties are available nationwide.

As if I have nothing better to do with my time, recently I decided to investigate. The Entenmann’s website sent me to the Entenmann’s distributor for the California region, an outfit called Bimbo’s Bakeries USA in Fort Worth, Texas. (That’s the second thing I’ve run across called Bimbo’s having nothing to do with actual bimbos, which is two more than I would have expected to find if you’d asked me.) I sent a polite and eloquent letter inquiring about the unavailability of these varieties in regions other than New York.


Sometimes, achieving a satisfactory outcome required persistence. My mom had it in abundance, as dozens of public-relations officers learned over the years to their occasional dismay. One of her favorite tricks, when on the phone with some peon who was trying to stonewall her or brush her off, was to say dismissively, “You obviously don’t have the authority. Let me talk to your supervisor.” The peon caved in to my mom’s demands nine times out of ten, just to prove her wrong.

In such ways did my mom eventually adopt the moniker “Superpest.”

When I was growing up, my mom was the undisputed champion of writing letters to companies, both to complain and to praise. In those good-old-days of corporate public relations, she almost never failed to receive both a polite, personalized reply and a handful of discount coupons for the company’s products, if not outright free samples. And very often, if the letter was a complaint, the company fixed the problem, e.g. by sending a refund.

These are no longer those good old days. The reply from Bimbo’s stated: “Those varieties are not available in your market.” Yeah, I know, that was kind of the point.

I was planning to look into the matter further, but (a) I do have better things to do with my time, and (b) started selling Entenmann’s products from Gristede’s in New York! So now I can get my old favorites again. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Now if only I can find good Italian ices

Alone again, finally

Last night was the iPost Christmas party at the four-star Hotel Monaco in San Francisco. Our friend Laura brought her niece Amelia to our place for a sleepover with Jonah and Archer. (She’s right between them in age. We joke that Jonah and Archer will fight over her when it’s time to choose a date for the prom.) This freed up me and Andrea to go to the party (in formal dress!), drink more than usual, hang out with folks until all hours, then retire to our room upstairs (on iPost’s dime) and spend the night completely alone. For the first time in over four and a half years!

Naturally we worried about how the kids would handle their first night with neither parent. We needn’t have — they both did great.

We knew it would be wonderful to spend a completely grown-up night, but it exceeded even our high expectations — as did Laura and her magic touch. (It’s Laura we adore-a. It’s Laura the world needs more o’.) And you can do a lot worse than spend an elegant evening being treated like royalty in the gorgeous Hotel Monaco (another eye-popping Kimpton hotel — we’ve stayed at their Argonaut and their Triton too and have loved them all).

Now the question is: Is this the shape of things to come? Or will last night have to tide us over for a few more years?

Words to live by

When my dad was in his forties he loved a book by Jules Feiffer called Tantrum, about a middle-aged man named Leo having a mid-life crisis. His life has too much responsibility and too little fun and he throws a tantrum, willing himself back to age two! He spends most of the rest of the book looking for someone willing to pamper and baby him.

A new edition of that book was among the gifts from my dad when I turned forty myself recently. It’s witty and well-observed, if a bit depressing. You don’t have to be having a mid-life crisis to appreciate it.

In one scene, two-year-old Leo encounters an authentic two-year-old at an airport. Having by this point in the story suffered several rejections — everyone’s got their own problems (which is more or less the whole point of the book) — Leo bitterly tells the other boy, “If I knew at your age what I’ve learned with grief since… don’t thank me, just listen,” and then offers this advice:

  1. Get the grades, but don’t trust what they teach you.
  2. Don’t tell them what you’re thinking; they’ll use it against you.
  3. Never be rational if you want to have your way.
  4. Ignore logic; it’ll cripple your spirit.
  5. Look out for abandonment by your loved ones.
  6. Don’t be horny after marriage.

Then, as the other boy walks away to board a flight with his family,

  1. Don’t mature! Mature people do the shit work!