Sunday, March 31, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 7. Am I the Oldest One Here?

John Howell-Books
Back when I was in college, I worked in the Financial Aid office at San Francisco State University. I was 23 to 25 years old—a little older than a freshman, but still in the freshness of youth. I remember Edith, who worked in the office with me. She was probably 60 herself—a kind, but significantly overweight woman who had probably been great at the manual tasks of office management at one time, but was overwhelmed by using computers. And this was in the mid to late 1970’s.

I don’t want to be Edith, as nice as she was, but it does seem that I’m now one of the oldest people at work. In a meeting, I look around and see no gray heads—I’m it. I’m now older than the head of the company, older than my boss — and for the first time, I’m older than the president of the United States. I’m even older than my doctor (who replaced the one who retired). 

What does this mean, if anything? When I was young, I thought that the older people were in charge — and respected them. Now, although I actually have years of life experience and am more comfortable with myself, I still feel like one of the kids.

Does being in charge make you “older?” Is it an internal decision to be a parent to those around you? I could be the parent of some of my colleagues. My granddaughter is the age of some of my work colleagues’ kids.

After I graduated from college in 1978, I went to work in a long-established antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco. Just to show how things have changed, here’s how I got the job. I met a woman at a party. I took the streetcar downtown to the employment agency where she worked. I sat down and she opened a metal box with file cards in it.

She pulled out a card. “How would you like to work in a bookstore?” she asked. I said, “Sure.” She sent me over there and I was hired and began my first full-time post-college job at John Howell-Books.

The bookstore was owned and operated by Warren Howell, “the white-thatched dean of western bookmen.” He was about 6-6, solidly built, and used to being in charge. His father, John, had established the business in 1912, and designed and moved it into a quaint location near Union Square in 1924. 

Mr. Howell’s right-hand woman was Sally Zaiser, a gracious and highly intelligent woman who was in the Who’s Who of American Women. She managed the accounting, which was done with a pen in a paper ledger. No, we had no computers there—not even a cash register (we had a cash drawer). 

We did take credit cards. We put the card into a metal sliding device and pulled the handle across it. The charge slip had carbon paper in it, so we had multiple copies. We had to call an 800 number to confirm the purchase.

Sally and I got along just fine, although she and Mr. Howell were both conservative Republicans and I was the opposite. It was a huge change from going to college, and Sally was not much like Edith.

In any case, I realize now that Mr. Howell was 65 when I first started working there—and Sally was 63. That’s essentially my age now. But they were what 60-year-old people were like back then, and were in a different role as well. So — age may not bring authority, even if it does impart knowledge and experience.

Things are upside down now, but I’m OK with it.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 6. 50 Years of Reading Motor Trend

One of the good things about getting older is that you’ve had time to do some things for a long time — or a lot of times. For example, I started reading Motor Trend magazine at the age of 10 — that means fifty years of monthly issues. I’ve followed the annual model changes since the 1964s — and visited the showrooms too. With early 2014s already on the road (I’ve tested a couple already), that’s quite a spread.

I’ve been driving since 1968 — and got my license in 1969. That means I’ve got 45 years of experience. That puts me in the middle between the “maniacs” and the “geezers” out on the highway. The former, normally but not exclusively young, typically drive old Honda Civics or Mustangs and dart from lane to lane as they hurry along. I explain this by assuming that they learned to drive from playing Grand Theft Auto on their PlayStations.

The “geezers” are the old folks who occupy the left lane in their Camry or Buick, going 55. Or, they betray their weakened eyesight and degenerated nerve synapses by starting up slowly when traffic begins to move. I’m not sure whether it’s better to be in back of them or in front.

I learned to drive in Driver’s Education in high school, a program that is apparently no longer offered in these times of school budget cuts, How shortsighted!  Today, most certainly, I am not vision or nerve-ending impaired (as far as I can tell). I am not looking forward to moving toward geezerdom in the future. My (younger) wife promises to take away my license gently when and if it’s necessary for everyone’s protection.

When you’ve been around a while you may have been performing a task for a long time. I am about to test my 1,000th car for my auto review column (now a blog, too). It took me 21 years to do that. When you’re 21 years old, you can claim to have eaten breakfast for that long but not much else.

I’d like to think that doing something for a long time makes you better at it. I know that I can write an 800-word auto column first draft in an hour and a half—including research time. I then return and edit it before shipping it off.

I’ve played the guitar since 1967. I would say that I am not much better at it now, since I’ve not worked at it much since the 1970’s. However, starting the bass ten years ago, I’ve now accumulated six years of band gigs and orchestra rehearsals and chamber music workshops, so yes, I’m a whole lot better at that.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 5. Four-Cent Stamps and Nickel Candy Bars

Living to be 60, along with inflationary trends, creates some interesting memories of prices of yore. I remember the purple Lincoln four-cent stamps—and the beautiful commemorative stamps, too. I routinely spent my 25-cent allowance on two comic books—which were all of 12 cents apiece. I remember riding in the car and seeing gas selling for 26.9 cents a gallon.

Of course, money was worth more, too. You got 50 cents an hour for babysitting and that was pretty useful cash. My brother and I would wash Mr. Kramer’s Pontiac LeMans every now and then and split his whopping $3.00 payment. Wow.

As a young man, I earned $1.65 an hour as a bike messenger in downtown San Francisco at the start of the 1970s. I could actually live on that.  A couple of years later, I shared a three-bedroom flat in the upper Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco for $198 a month — total — not each.

It goes on and on. I’ve gotten used to spending two dollars for a cup of coffee (just the regular kind). Gas is more than $4.00 a gallon at this writing. I’m also used to earning the equivalent of around $45 an hour, too. I’m doing better, and the economy has, well, inflated.

This means that in my six-decades-old mind, things are supposed to cost a particular amount. While I can deal with four-dollar gas, sometimes a shirt at 75 dollars seems like just too much. But an iPod, which didn’t exist when I was growing up, can be whatever the price should be—there’s no basis of comparison. I do remember buying vinyl records at $2.98 at Long’s Drug Store and 45 singles at Earl’s Music in Concord for a whopping $1.00. By inflation’s standards, that single would be something like $8.00 today, right? You can buy a song on iTunes for 99 cents today, so some things are actually getting cheaper.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 4. I Remember That

If  you're old enough, you know him instantly.
There is an advantage to being around a while. I am old enough to remember when particular and significant things happened.

My wife and I were watching Meet the Press recently. At the beginning, they roll a collage of changing faces of historical persons in black and white. I recognized everyone. Someone who was 20 probably wouldn’t know anyone. On the show, Tom Brokaw spoke, as a guest. Boy, he looks old, but I remember his youthful face delivering the news. Heck, I remember Walter Cronkite in the 1960s with his pencil mustache, and trademark “And that’s the way it is…” Walter who?

There are painful memories, certainly, including assassinations —the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and others in the 1960s, Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978—right at the same time as Jonestown. John Lennon’s sudden murder in New York in 1980.

More pain—the Vietnam War, and its protest movement. The Draft. The 1968 Democratic Convention. Nixon’s  election as president and crushing McGovern in ’72. Watergate ending it. Chernobyl. Biafra. 9-11.

There have been many good and or interesting things too. People still talk about the Beatles. I saw them play on the Ed Sullivan Show and got my first Beatles album for my 11th birthday. I took a walk down Haight Street in 1967 with my dad and it changed my life (not his—he was an elderly 40 at the time). I have nearly 50 years of musical memories starting in 1964 with the aforementioned Fab Four and running through the 70s and 80s. The 90s — not so much. Today, I listen with experienced ears, and some of it I like, while some of it bounces off.

I remember when if you left the house, you were off the grid. No one had cell phones. There were phone booths everywhere, and for a dime, you could call someone else—at their house or job—but you were out of touch. Some may look back at that time nostalgically.

I remember when you waited until the news came on or even to the next day’s newspaper to find out what happened. The 2012 election was the first time that I didn’t even see a newspaper the next day. I had the facts online before Election Day had even ended in California.

Is it important for people to know about these events, to give them historical perspective? Or is it just one way that younger people are different—in not having that experience? Only time will tell what is truly relevant to today’s young people and what will fill their memories when their odometers hit 120,000.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Zero to Sixty, Chapter 3. Through College with a Typewriter

Some people laugh when I say I got through college with a typewriter, but it’s true. Graduating in 1978 means I was finished before the Apple II and IBM PC were available. But I didn’t know any better, and my portable typewriter was about the size of a laptop, except that it was around two inches thick (and had no cord).

It’s not just the typewriter, though — it’s what you had to go through to write an acceptable looking paper.  We had correction tools — whiteout and typing tape to blank out your errors. But what if you found the mistake after the paper was out of the carriage? You’d have to very carefully try to realign it and type the new letter. If you left out a letter, you’d try to re-do the word. At some point, you’d have to retype the sentence—or the paragraph—or the whole damned paper.

It wasn’t just the mechanics, but the whole mental method of working. Today, you can type in whatever you want, move it around, save it somewhere and revisit it later, send it in an email for review, share it on Google Drive with others interactively, or view it on your smart phone. The creative process is no longer linked to materials—or location. If you want to revise, just do it. Insert that paragraph. Cut and paste away. 

I don’t think I could go back to typing.

Another huge change, for anyone seeking information, is the rise of the Internet. We assume that we can access anything from everywhere today, so it’s easy to forget that in the “olden days,” we had to:

1.       Get down to the library, assuming it was open 
2.       Look through the card catalog (a wooden case comprising lots of little drawers full of cards) 
3.       Write down the book name and number on a slip of paper with a stubby pencil
4.       Take it to the desk and wait in line (and hope the book was even there) 
5.       If the book  was available, take it to a table (if open) and look through it manually for some relevant information (the book could be way out of date)
6.       Write down the information in a  notebook or on a 3 x 5 inch card 
7.       Repeat as needed

What a chore that was. Today, you can grab anything online. But, is it accurate? Is it authoritative? It’s certainly easy to plagiarize. I expect that Wikipedia is a common source of research papers today, and that information is contributed by volunteers! It may be fast, but being effortlessly obtained, is any of it soaking into the students’ brains?

This could degenerate into an “I walked five miles in the snow to school” rant, so I’ll stop. I love the Internet, and use it regularly in researching topics and also enjoy the ability to link directly to my sources. That way, I don’t need to rewrite, unless I want to, and I can show the reader where the information came from.

Of course, with access to practically everything in my left front pocket, I don’t have to memorize phone numbers anymore—or addresses, or anything, really. As long as I have my phone and it has battery power, I’m fine. But I’m just a little nervous that I’m putting my brain itself in the cloud. That’s not something comfortable for most 60-year-olds, I’d wager.