by Michael E. Berumen, October 2010 (updated June 2017)
Only a handful of people are aware of some of the things disclosed here. Some matters I've kept secret to avoid embarrassment, and, for reasons that will become obvious, I didn't divulge aspects of my uproarious youth out of simple prudence while in "career mode" for the better part of the last 40 years. More importantly, while my daughter was in her most formative and, potentially, imitative years, I thought it inadvisable to share some parts of my past with her. I am no longer concerned about these things, and there's something cathartic about just getting it out and assembled in writing in one place. This hardly constitutes a complete autobiography, recounting every detail of my existence, for my life certainly does not merit such an exegetical treatment; however, it does set forth some events that had an impact on my development, which, in turn, might explain more about who I am to my daughter or anyone else who cares to know. With that said, I am also withholding some things, for I also need to protect the innocent and even my own interests. Maybe I will relate more, someday; but in the meantime, this represents many layers of my onion. I claim that all I have said here is true to the best of my recollection; of course, fallible human beings can never be altogether certain of their recollections.
I was born in 1952 in Long Beach, California at the Seaside Memorial Hospital, which no longer exists. My earliest memory is from about 3 years old, lying on the chaise lounge in the early evening in the backyard of our small, suburban Lakewood home with my biological father, William Sproull, watching the low-flying, noisy, and lumbering DC-3 airplanes on their approach to the Long Beach airport, located nearby. I remember feeling very content and secure, and I can summon that very moment and feeling of contentment and security even now. My father was a young, dashing, insurance executive, and successful in business from a relatively early age. But his success went hand-in-hand with some bad habits, namely, womanizing, gambling, and drinking.
My father had a little sing-song jingle that I couldn't get enough of:
When I was 4-years old, we had a summer rental on Balboa Island, California, right across from the water. Today Balboa is very exclusive, an enclave for the well-to-do, which we certainly were not then. In those days, one didn't have to be particularly wealthy to live on Balboa or the Newport coastal area. I suppose we were at least middle class and my father was definitely an aspirant to affluence and on his way to being successful in the insurance business. I don't remember much about our stay there, other than falling off the outside banister, which resulted in some stitches in my head. I also learned to swim nearby in the Newport Beach Back Bay, where there were classes for kids. My great-grandmother, Charlotte Anastasia Ward, gave my father a part of a section of her farm acreage, which he promptly sold, using the proceeds to buy a tavern on the island. His sale of the property shocked family members, especially my great-grandmother, who wanted him to keep it for the farm income and for his progeny. I recall that the bar had a parachute draped across the ceiling, and that the place reeked of a boozy stench. The business was not a success, apparently, and he didn't keep it for very long, returning to the insurance business.
My father worked for several property and casualty insurance companies, including Argonaut Insurance Company, for which he was a Special Agent. I remember visiting his office in Los Angeles with my mother when I was quite young. Years later when I was in the insurance business myself, I met a fellow who worked with him by the name of Don Zuck. He was a broker with Johnson & Higgins in Century City at the time. My mother had mentioned his name once before as a friend of his, and I came across him quite by accident one day in the course of doing other business with Johnson & Higgins. I asked him out to lunch and he recounted stories about my father that I very much enjoyed hearing. He was apparently quite skilled in casualty insurance as a young man. .
My great-grandmother bequeathed the balance of her farms to my father's lineal descendants, and that turned out to be me, for I was his only descendant. She wisely kept the bulk of the property out of my father's hands. While he may have been skilled in insurance, he was not so gifted in handling his personal and financial affairs. Her daughters, my grandmother and great-aunt, had rights to the farm income while they lived, so I did not control the property until my great-aunt turned it all over to me when I was in my mid-30s in the 1980s. I do not remember my Great-grandmother Ward, as she died when I was an infant; but her unselfish act made many things possible for my family and me. Had the land been given to my father, I am certain it would have been sold and the proceeds would have dissipated.
My mother divorced my father when I was 4 because of his infidelity and raucous behavior. My father thought she was away with a friend for an entire weekend, but she returned to our Balboa rental early, and, with me in tow, she found him asleep in their bed with another woman. As we both stood there, she waggled the big toe on his exposed foot to awaken him. After some verbal pyrotechnics, she packed-up a few things, and we took off in her baby blue, convertible, '55 T-Bird, and went back to our home in Lakewood. I remember the event well, and I recall crying at the time and protesting that I wanted to stay with my father. I saw him only a handful of times after that, before he succumbed to liver failure from alcoholism at age 38.
Many times I stood by our smallish bay window at our house on Ocana Street in Lakewood, anxiously waiting for my father to show up on a pre-arranged visit; and many times he never came, calling my motherto say that something had come-up. Sometimes she'd call him to remind him because he simply forgot about our visit. The last time I saw him I was 11-years old when we returned to California from Arkansas. He picked me up and we went to his upscale apartment on Wilshire Boulevard on the west side of Los Angeles. There was a doorman and it seemed quite posh to me. That afternoon, he was apparently wistful, for he called my mother on the telephone and they had a very long conversation that I overheard, or at least, I could hear him. He was crying and professing his love, repeatedly, and he told her how much he missed her. He was drinking. I will confess to hoping that reconciliation was then in the making, for I yearned to have him back in my life, and I was not entirely bonded with my step-father by that time. It never happened. Afterwards, he got drunk and passed-out for rest of the day and night, which I spent by myself, thumbing through the books he had on hand.
The plan was that the next day we would go to my favorite place, the Pike, an amusement park in Long Beach, where I spent many delightful Saturdays with my grandfather, Noble Sproull. It was a hangout for many young men in the Navy whose ships were docked in Long Beach or San Pedro, nearby. My father worked there in a concession stand for a summer while a teenager. We stopped at a bar along the way, and I sat in the car waiting for him for several hours. I remember the bar, vividly, the Blarney Castle on Vermont in Los Angeles, a place insurance men frequented in those days, and also many years later when I worked in Los Angeles. He finally emerged, soused to the gills with a woman at his side. He kissed the woman, returned to the car, and then we drove to my grandmother Margaret's apartment in Long Beach. My grandmother and grandfather had a nice home on Fashion Avenue in Long Beach for many years; after my grandfather died she was unable to keep up with the expenses (my father used much of her money, I surmise), and she moved into an apartment. He told me to wait outside her apartment, and I sat on the stairway steps nearby where I could overhear him asking in harsh tones my grandmother for money. We never made it to the Pike. My mother picked me up that evening. And I never saw him again.
A few years later, I attended my father's funeral. I was fourteen. There were only a handful of people there, including my mother. My mother was able to round up two of his old friends, much to the chagrin of his aunt and my great aunt, Edna Ward, who had arranged the funeral and wanted only family there. My step-father was also in attendance out of respect. At the end, this once successful and popular man had very few friends. His mother, my grandmother, died only a few days after he did. It might well have been more than she could take to lose her only son, upon whom she doted all of his life, probably to excess. My mother always said he was a mama's boy, and that she had a sick and almost obsessive love form him. A military honor guard was there in recognition of his service during the Korean War, and they presented me with the neatly-folded flag that draped his coffin. I never really knew him, of course, just the things that a child perceives, mixed with both the good and bad things that my mother told me. And some of the bad things didn't really seem so bad to me, at the time... the gambling, womanizing, and carrying-on. My mother always loved my father, that was clear to me even then, and she said as much in old age
I have often wondered how things might have turned out had my parents managed to stay together. I knew when my father died, though, that I wanted to be more like him, or more accurately, what I imagined him to be like... a certain coolness and insouciance being a large part of my romanticized view of him. My mother told me many stories about how he was quite the man about town, even in high school, where she first met him in Vancouver, Washington. Handsome and big man on campus, a ladykiller, she would always tell me. It took several shocks to my system to alter my misconceptions about him. And though it was some years later, I was very fortunate to have found other men in my life who were much more worthy as role models.
My mother, Jacqueline...Jackie...was a beautiful woman, about 5"2", thin, with beautiful, dark, red hair. She was a runway model for several department stores before I was born, but never tall enough to go very far in that field. I remember always being with her as a child, and that she was very attentive to my every need. After her divorce, she had to work, as my father was a deadbeat on child support. and he was always in arrears. For a while, she was a hostess at the Long Beach Country Club. Mostly she worked days and she was home with me at night. I remember occasionally she would have a date with a man who would pick her up, in which case I would be with a baby sitter.
Mrs. Bauer, our neighbor in Lakewood, was usually my babysitter when I wasn't in school. She was a kindly woman and had a large, green parrot named Sam. One day when I was about 6, I was playing with my best friend, Sandra, who lived down the street, and we saw a nearby house with an open window. There were no cars outside, and we inferred that no one was home, so we climbed through the window and proceeded to gather some things that looked useful, mostly from the kitchen, and we filled my wagon. We proudly showed Mrs. Bauer our ill-gotten gains. Being rightly appalled at our criminal enterprise, she promptly escorted us back to the house and made us put back the stuff where we got it while she watched sternly from the sidewalk. Fortunately, there was no one home yet and our malefaction was never discovered.
I only came to know Toni well in recent years. She did not like me as a child, understandably, as I was her successor wife's son. Her daughter and my stepsister, Carole, is only a few months older than me. She is my oldest and most constant friend from the time I was 7, and we shared some similar experiences in our teen years. We live close to one another in Colorado, today, and our families often spend our holidays together. Carole's mother, Toni is a gregarious, talkative woman, full of opinions and critical by nature, and I could easily see that that was never a match meant to be, for although Ozzie could be quite sociable, he was someone who required a good deal of personal space, and he did not suffer criticism or nagging easily. He would never have been able to tolerate her constant chattering.
I should add, here, that Carole's sister and my other stepsister, Diana, was a beautiful child a few years younger, and she used to follow us around like a duckling when we were kids on dad's visitation days. Diana took a turn for the worse when she was in her late teens, and for the rest of her life she had various problems with drugs and mental illness. We found out recently that she was impecunious and homeless, and while crossing the street in Palmdale, California, she was hit by a car and killed.
With four sisters and two stepsisters, I grew up in an estrogen-filled environment and, perhaps as a consequence, I have always felt comfortable in the company of women. I am 8 years older than my sister Tami, and 17 years older than my youngest sister, Cherise. Tami and I were especially close, and we remain so, today. I can well remember the day she was brought home from the hospital. She was my little doll, and she traveled across much of the United States on my lap in our peripatetic days as our dad moved from job to job. I changed many a diaper and administered lots of milk bottles and pats on the back for burping. From a very young age, I did a lot of babysitting whilst my parents were out on their frequent revelries, some lasting until the following day. When I was 10, I had charge of a toddler and an infant (my sister, Vicki) for hours on end.
In my early years, I spent a considerable amount of time with my paternal grandparents. My grandfather, Noble Sproull,worked variously as a newspaper editor and publisher, and as an executive for Kaiser Industries. Some of my fondest memories are of the time we spent reading together in his home library as he puffed away on his pipe, often with a book by Zane Grey or Earl Stanley Gardner in hand. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he turned 60, so I never knew him as I would have liked. My mother always had good things to say about him. My grandmother, Margaret, adored and lavished me with attention. She was a kind and gentle person, and, as I said before, she died only a few days after the death of my natural father, her only child... perhaps of a broken heart.
Edna Ward, my grandmother's spinster sister and my great-aunt, was a graduate of the Cornish School of Music at the turn of the century. It was unusual in those days for a woman to have a college degree. She was a singer and pianist, and she often performed on the radio in the 1930s and 1940s, and she entertained the troops in World War 2 working for the USO. She even played organ in the old silent movie theatres back in the 1920s. She also was very good to me. I spent several summers with her at her home in Santa Barbara, and she sent me to a posh camp in Hope Ranch for several weeks, where I learned how to water ski and use a bow and arrow.
I did not really know my mother's people very well, other than her brother by adoption, Charles Shauman, and her biological mother's sister, Bee DeFreitas. Uncle Charles lived with us for a while, and he later married a wonderful woman, perhaps possessing the finest temperament of anyone I've ever known, my Aunt Ruth. She never had an unkind word to say about anyone; was immersed in charitable activities in the Pismo Beach area, where they lived, and she was always cheerful and upbeat. I met Aunt Bee as a teenager at the same time I met her sister, my biological grandmother and my mother's mother. My wife and I got to know Aunt Bee well when we were young adults living in Los Angeles. She lost both of her legs in an airplane accident in the 1950s. The other passengers in the small plane were killed, and she was stranded in the Tehachapi Mountains in the dead of winter for days before she was discovered by a search and rescue crew. The family lore is that they made a movie based on the incident staring Susan Hayward. She got along just fine on two prosthetic legs, even to the point of being able to dance quite well. She was a devout Christian and spent a lot of time unsuccessfully trying to convert me and providing me with various books that were largely silly. The only one that was somewhat worthwhile was C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.
My mother's biological mother, Mary Hemmert, was a chorus girl who hoped to become big in show business. She gave my mother (and her sister and brother) away as an infant when she ran off to Hollywood. My mother was raised by her adopted mother, Maude Shauman, who was in her late forties when she took my mother, a grandmother's age by the standards of the day. She did not meet her biological sister until she was in her 30s, and she never met her brother, who, I was told, was mentally disabled, and whose twin died shortly after childbirth. I can remember Mary driving up to our house in Westminster, California for our very first meeting in her new convertible Mustang with two poodles. My mother had not seen her since she was an infant. She was quite flamboyant, and in retrospect, I can see many similarities in personality and mannerisms to my mother, though they were never together more than a few times. She later committed suicide by shooting herself, an unusual way for a woman to commit suicide. Her husband, then, was a kind man they called Dutch, and he worked in the film industry.
My maternal grandfather, Maurice Haines, was involved with organized crime back in the 1930s, and he served time in prison in Indiana for several years. My mother corresponded with him when she was a teenager, and she eventually met him as a young adult. I have read a letter that he wrote her while in prison. He was apparently quite gifted, at least, according to what my mother told me the prison warden said. I first met him when we were visiting Chicago, and saw him one other time when he came to our house in Fremont. He was very handsome and charming, and he gave me a silver and gold, western belt buckle, which I have to this day.
We moved around the country a great deal due to my stepfather's ... my dad's (which I started calling him around 12 years old) ... jobs in the aerospace industry in Colorado, Arkansas, Florida, and all around Southern, Central, and Northern California. We lived in 13 different homes, and I attended 14 different schools before I was 16 (including a brief stint at a military school and several parochial schools). I did well in school, despite the many disruptions... though I began to get a little sideways in behavior while living in Orange County, CA, having by that time discovered drugs, sex, and rock and roll. It was the sixties, after all.
With all the moving about the country, I learned to make friends easily or perish.I suppose it might have had an opposite effect on some, making them less social, but I think it is what gave me social confidence, something that had benefits later in life. I never felt uncomfortable with strangers or found it difficult to make new friends, and I have never had any problem moving amongst the various social cliques that kids form. I do envy those who've had lifelong friends from their early childhood, something I have not had due to the near constant moving. The closest to it is a recent re-connection with several friends from high school and college, and a couple of buddies from my Army days.
I do not recall my mother drinking very much alcohol before she remarried. That changed, though, and shortly after she married dad (Ozzie), and she was seldom without a drink in the evenings. She had an enormous capacity for a woman of her diminutive size, much greater than dad's, who would inevitably pass out after four or five drinks. Dad was not a friendly drunk; in fact, that is when he was at his most argumentative and baleful. In contrast, my mother became more maudlin and self-pitying when she drank, often reminiscing about her first marriage, the good times she had with my natural father, and the events of her childhood that she loved to recount. After I married and moved away, I used to get many sentimental phone calls late at night from my mother, who had been drinking. In old age she drank less, but still liked a drink or two each evening. When I became responsible for their affairs, I would see several cases of cheap wine purchased from Trader Joe's on their American Express bill each month. In time, because of his medications, I would fool my dad when we went to restaurants by ordering a non-alcoholic beer. I always kept some on hand at home. My mother would not have been fooled so easily. She never knew of my skullduggery, though, for she wasn't a beer drinker.
My parents went to a lot of backyard parties in the 60s, threw quite a few of their own. I well remember some of those rivalries with the tropical torches in the backyard, South Pacific tiki themes being all the rage in those days. They always had their favorite local bar no matter where we lived. Years later I went to one of them that was down the street from our home in Lakewood. It was called the Rafters, a dark, dingy hole in the wall in a strip mall when I went there.. Wherever we moved, they wasted little time finding the party-crowd, usually people from my dad's work, and occasionally our neighbors. I don't know if they were alcoholics in a clinical sense, but drinking was a big part of their life. I suspect my mother might have been an alcoholic, for she found any social situation difficult without having had a shot or two of whiskey beforehand.
When I was little, my mom was up early and breakfast was already on the table when I got up. She spent a lot of time with me, then, and reading was a big part of our life together. I owe my love of books to her. After she remarried, it became increasingly rare for her to get out of bed much before noon, having stayed up drinking the night before, and if my sisters or I wanted breakfast, we made it ourselves. I even took my sister Tami to her first day of school in Westminster, CA. My mother did cook dinners, though, usually frozen or canned foods, or on special days, hamburgers or hot dogs. She wasn't a very good cook, really, but I didn't know this until much later, especially after having had my mother-in-law's cooking, which was a quantum improvement. At the time, we thought mom was the best cook. My mother stayed up very late at night, and this was when we had our best conversations, with dad sound asleep in bed or on the couch.
As I got older, my mother confided in me a great deal, and she was often unhappy with her life. I think, somehow, she expected that I might be able to change things for her one day. I did end up providing a great deal of financial support for them, especially after dad became disabled due to heart problems, and I've taken them on a number of nice trips, including one to Europe, but I don't think she was ever a particularly contented person. I think she was disappointed at how her life turned out.
I was very religious for a period of time, as much as anything because I enjoyed the rituals...the pomp and circumstance...of Catholicism. I was even an altar boy, and that was back in the days when the Mass was still recited in Latin. I enjoyed the several years of Catholic school that I had (1st-3rd grade and 6th grade), and I was both fascinated by and admired the priests and nuns. For a time, I even thought I might like to be a priest. Alas, I found liked women more, and then there's the not inconsequential problem of eventually not believing in a deity.
Once while at Saint Cyprian's school in Long Beach, I trespassed on the sacred lawn that only the older kids were permitted to set foot on, and for my transgression I was ceremoniously and I was slowly dragged diagonally across it by the ear by a watchful Irish cleric. So much for Christlike forgiveness. No one else in my family was particularly religious, and they were not frequent church goers, although my Great-aunt Edna would sometimes sing in the church choir or play the organ. Ozzie would often attend Mass on Christmas Eve, and sometimes I'd go with him. I don't recall my mother ever attending church other than for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and my first communion.
In my mid-teens, I came across a small book with stories about the Saints, and it inspired me to learn more about several of them, including the Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine. I poured over Augustine's City of God and Confessions, much of which I did not understand, and re-read them much later; and Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, an abridged version, which I found very entertaining, especially the parts about how souls are transmitted. I also read books about the Essenes and the early Christians; the Old and New Testaments; and various, other religious tracts. I abandoned organized religion by the time I was 17, and my belief in god by the time I was 19, by then having read Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian. I continued to be fascinated by religion, though, including Eastern religions, especially Buddhism, and I studied it well into my twenties. One of my favorite classes in college was a seminar on Martin Luther who threw reason out the window in favor of faith, which I think is the only way one could possibly accept Christian dogma. I think for many years that I wanted a reason to believe in a deity, a cosmic purpose, and an afterlife, but I never found satisfactory evidence for any of it, and I have little patience with faith as the basis for such fantastical beliefs.
In addition to my Catholic school experience, I should mention that my mother sent me to the Southern California Military Academy in Signal Hill for kindergarten. It was an all-boys school, and, as a single mother she thought that it important that I have more of a male influence than I was getting. I remember marching around a bit and wearing a uniform, but not much else. The school went up through junior high, and I learned a few years ago that it closed down in the mid-1980s.
I mentioned Bertrand Russell's book on Christianity earlier. Here I should state that his work has been of particular importance to my intellectual life. Perusing the post library when I was in the Army, I came across a little book called The Problems of Philosophy, by Russell. This book had more influence on me than any other, for it sparked my interest in philosophy, and it opened a whole new world to my imagination. What is more, I discovered that Russell was also a renowned mathematician, which made me like him even more. I have always had a bias favoring mathematical minds. In short order, I read his History of Western Philosophy and his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, which I more or less understood. Eventually, I picked up his Principles of Mathematics, but it was highly technical and much too complicated for me to understand. I read that a couple of years later, as I did the Principia Mathematica, once I had mastered the elements of logic and had a more advanced grounding in mathematics and number theory. In any case, while in the Army, and inspired by Russell, I read philosophy voraciously, including as many of Russell's multifarious works (he was a prolific writer) as I could get my hands on, along with the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Kant, and many others,which I would refer to many times again over the course of my life.
I'm an introvert by nature, using the technical definition, though I don't have a shy bone in my body. I'm an INTJ on the Jungian/Myers-Briggs personality inventory, which I've taken many times, so it just might be nearly right. But I'm not high on the introversion scale, and I suspect there are many moments when I might properly be considered to be an extrovert. I like to be with people and I enjoy social intercourse, though not for extended periods; I require solitude and time for regeneration. Books and mathematics were my principal refuge from the press of life as a child, and that remains the case, today. I must have time to be in my own head, and with my own thoughts, or I become disagreeable. I am capable of extreme focus to the exclusion of nearly everything else, and I deal with interruption very poorly. Some find this characteristic annoying. Nothing is as restorative to my psyche as spending a few days--alone-- in a remote spot in the woods or at the seashore with something good to read and a pad and pencil. I like conversation and conviviality. But I need an equal amount of time to be by myself.
It is difficult, no, impossible to give an objective account of one's own personality. I can at least say I am comfortable in my own skin and self-confident about my abilities, perhaps even more than I should be. Sometimes this can be interpreted as arrogance by others. I am egotistical, I think, but not especially self-centered or egocentric, in that I believe I am generous and that I am by nature empathetic. I do not see the world as revolving around me and I am able to uncouple my interests from my thoughts and my actions with others. But I am certainly not without self esteem. As a youth, my self-confidence, coupled with impulsive tendencies, led to occasional trouble. There is substantial evidence to show that the part of our brains that controls rash behavior develops more slowly in males, reaching physiological maturity only by the early to mid-twenties. I think I might have been more impulsive and less risk-averse than most youngsters, and despite my analytic abilities in other areas, I did not always prejudge the consequences of my actions, or worse, I tended not even to care. The unfortunate result was that this caused others to suffer more than was necessary when I was younger. This tendency diminished greatly as I grew older.
From a social perspective, my most problematic traits and, at the same time, my greatest virtues, are that I am energetic, organized, and very inclined to control my environment, insofar as that is possible, rather than let it control me. I make plans and I execute them. I am very happy to let others lead when I think that has greater utility, and I can be a good, loyal follower. However, I also like to be in charge when I think that will produce a better result and, I will readily confess, that this has often been the case. I'm not especially competitive, though, for I don't spend much time thinking about myself or my status in relation to others, and "winning" a contest, besting another, does not drive me. I have never measured myself by comparison to others. Achieving my goal does matter, and I do not rest easily until I have finished what I set out to do, without regard to what others desire or achieve in relation to any particular measure. And as I do not compare myself to others ... and I suppose this is a fault of mine ... I am not especially concerned about what others' opinions of me might be, and I have assumed it didn't matter. This eventually would be a source of difficulty for me in the politics of corporate life.
I'm a compulsive planner, an organizer, and a doer. I manipulate my environment to the best of my ability in order to make myself comfortable and realize my ends, which may or may not comport with what others want. These are consistent with the attributes of a typical INTJ. These traits have served me well, but that also can sometimes result in unintended conflicts. Some are more casual about life, more accepting of things as they find them, and less apt to upset the apple-cart. I am not this way. I have few "Zen-like" tendencies; indeed, I am even inclined to be contemptuous of such a sensibility. I don't want to go with the flow or be "at one with the universe," as it is; rather, I want it to be the way I think that it ought to be. I know this characteristic can be off-putting to others, so I do try to manage it for the sake of more harmonious relations. I am more easy-going than I was as a youth, but I doubt that anyone would describe me as passive or a "go along to get along" sort of fellow.
One of my virtues is that I am driven less by feeling and more by principle than many people are, and I have an abiding sense of duty. My principles were not of a high order when I was young, and other than having a certain sentimentality towards those I loved. I did not have much of a sense of duty. That I acquired after some difficult experiences in my mid-teens and then in the military, and perhaps also as a result of my study of philosophy, probably in about that order of importance. I came to believe that fulfilling one's duty is important ... carrying out one's obligations sometimes trumps what is in one's own personal interest, or what would seem to be in one's own interest, or to take a more Socratic view, that duty is ultimately in one's interest. As I've aged, in my personal conduct I have not been driven as much by utilitarian concerns as I have by rules that I have adopted, rules that might be rooted in a kind of abstract utilitarianism (e.g., survival of the species), but that are more deontological in nature from a practical perspective.
My mind constantly races, I am often preoccupied, and I have difficulty changing my thoughts away from whatever is concerning me until I have fully analyzed, digested, and resolved the problem facing me. Then ... and only then ... am I able to devote myself fully to other matters. This is a useful trait in the intellectual pursuits I enjoy the most, but it can cause other problems, for it is difficult for me to set these things aside as other things arise in the natural course of daily life. This can on occasion cause others to think I am detached, indifferent, or even aloof, when, in fact, I am simply unable to switch gears mentally. I have never slept as much as most other people, even as a child. There is too much living to do that requires being engaged. If I could dispense with sleep, altogether, I would, for it has always seemed to me to be a terrible waste of time.
My capacity for extreme focus, for concentrating on the matters at hand, has had some practical applications outside of intellectual pursuits. I learned to fly airplanes from my dad, who was active in the Civil Air Patrol when I was 11, living in Searcy, Arkansas. Our most exciting event was looking for a missing woman in a Piper Cub, overflying the woods surrounding area. She was murdered, and her mutilated body was discovered later by hikers.
Eventually I became instrument-rated and learned aerobatics. My wife, Carol, and I owned an airplane for a number of years, and we derived great enjoyment from it. I miss both that and my motorcycle (she made me get rid of my last bike when our daughter started eyeing it!). I loved motorcycles and rode them from the time I was about 12 ... and I nearly killed myself on two different occasions. Only in my forties did I start wearing a helmet, after they passed a law in California requiring it. I liked the wind in my hair and the sense of freedom one had.
I had a couple of close calls in my flying days, but perhaps the worst was when Carol and I were flying up to the Monterey Bay area to spend Thanksgiving with our close friends, Clay and Nicki Yokota, who lived near San Francisco at the time. We were over the coastal mountains in a violent thunderstorm, unusual in California, with severe up and down drafts and zero visibility. My alternator went out, which meant that the battery would no longer recharge, making certain vital instruments useless, a very bad thing to occur under the best of circumstances, but especially in poor weather conditions with zero visibility. The radio, depended on electric power, which could go out in short order with a dead battery. I could manage the plane's attitude and general direction without the electronic instruments, but without a radio, I'd be on my own, and receive no guidance out of the mountains and to an airport. The tower at nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base helped us get to the closest airport in Santa Maria, where we safely landed in less than minimum visibility. My other alternative was to land at Vandenberg, in which case my plane would have to be hauled off by truck, for emergency landings of private aircraft were permitted at a government installation, but, curiously, not allowed for take-offs. Once landed, one could only remove the private craft by truck. We chose to take our chances, and with vector and altitude guidance from Vandenberg, we landed safely, the runway becoming visible only in the last seconds of flight. We had the alternator replaced in Santa Maria in a matter of hours. Carol was an indispensable co-pilot, helping me with the charts and radio on the bumpy ride. The weather soon cleared and we got on our way to Monterey without further mishap.
Dad was mechanically gifted, and if there is such a thing as a mechanical genius, where hands, eyes, and mind combine forces to shape materials in a way that is at once useful and aesthetically pleasing, surely he was an example of it. His ability to figure out how things work and to precisely manipulate physical objects is unmatched in my experience. It is no coincidence that he was a flight engineer in the Army Air Corps on a B-17 in the 40s. He flew milk-runs in-and-out of France and Germany during the occupation immediately following the war. He should have been a surgeon, for he could do anything with his hands ... fix anything, build anything. He built a homemade airplane, a speedboat, rebuilt auto engines, added rooms to a house, made furniture, carved things, sewed, and he could do any kind of electrical or plumbing work. He had a vast collection of tools for any occasion. I did not have nearly his skill, but I helped him with cars and learned enough to do much of my own work on my first cars. Our cars never went to outside mechanics. Today's cars are well beyond my know-how, but there was a time when I was relatively self-sufficient with cars of a prior era.
I loved to spend time with my dad when he wasn't angry or hitting me, which was quite often. I had lots of welts and bruises in my younger years, from belts, knuckles, and other objects, and I endured a few bloody noses at his hands. In the early years, he didn't like me very much. In fairness, though, I was a handful. I was another man's child; a mouthy know-it-all; very active, perhaps even hyperactive; and a show-off. In time, especially after I entered the Army, he treated me as his own, and I think, no, I know, that he did come to love me. I think my relative lack of fear of pain or confrontation resulted from his abuse. It could have worked out differently, and does for many, but fortunately for me, it didn't. I am not the worse for it.
My dad liked guns and hunting, especially deer hunting, and hunting with him was particularly special, for we got along best then.. For some reason, he was more patient towards me when we were away from home, and especially in the wilderness. Then it seemed I was the boy he wanted. I loved the outdoors, still do, and I miss those days we had together. I did not like hunting at all, and I found fishing boring; but I liked tromping around in the woods and the mountains with him, the crisp, early mornings, and the campfire at night. He taught me to shoot and I got pretty good at it, though the few times I had an opportunity to kill something I would purposefully miss the target. In the Army I had the highest marksmanship rating, "expert," with both the M-14 and M-16 rifles. Killing a beautiful animal never appealed to me. Fortunately, we seldom came home with anything. On the rare occasions we did, I could not eat his quarry. I have never owned a gun or rifle until recently, when my daughter designed an engraved stock for an M14 replica memorializing the Vietnam era, which I have hanging on my wall. I have no ammunition and I have no intention of ever using it.
As an aside, I should mention here that many of my countrymen's gun fetish seems to me to be the height of foolishness. I doubt the Second Amendment is being interpreted correctly by the courts and the gun industry, and if it is it should be abolished. There is no reason for a private citizen to own a military-grade weapon of any kind, and I see no reason to own a handgun. The incidence of accidental and intentional homicide and suicide in this country is appalling when compared to other industrialized, liberal democracies, and the reason is quite obvious to any thinking person. The gun industry and fetishists have turned logic on its head by saying it is because there are not enough guns. The obvious correlation in any rigorous empirical analysis and comparison to other countries is that there are too many.
One of my dad's occasional amusements when I was still in grammar school was to tie me up tightly like a mummy with a roll of masking tape, from head to toe, thereby immobilizing me. This was terrifying to me, and I felt as though I would suffocate (I was probably in no real danger of that), and I would beg him not to do it. He got a good laugh out of it, and there is more than just a hint of sadism on his part. There were other instances of this, for example, when he would hide a realistic but artificial human skull in my room at night to frighten me when I was only 8 or 9 years old , or lock me out of the house in my underwear in the Colorado snow (it would only last a couple of minutes). With that said, I do not want to give the wrong impression, and on the surface, it may sound much worse than it really was. In time I became used to and immune to his pranks and slightly sadistic tendencies. It did not break me, and, I don't even think it affected me greatly over the long run, and certainly not in my own conduct with my child. It's much more complex than I can possibly convey in words.
Things are seldom black-and-white in human relationships. My dad could be very strict, even mean, and physically brutal when I was young; however, he also had many admirable qualities and he could be very giving. I learned a great many things from him. He always put food on our table and provided a roof over our heads. He was a hard worker, and for a period of time, he held down two full-time jobs to support his burgeoning family; he would always do what he had to do to make sure we lived decently. We never had much money, for my parents spent it just as quickly as they got it, but he always managed to earn enough to ensure that we did not suffer. We were decidedly working class from an economic perspective, and ignoring the Mexican aspect, we were what some might even call white trash in terms of our cultural sensibilities.
The violence inflicted on me by my dad ended a few months before I went into the Army, by which time I was physically much larger than dad. He was arguing with my mom, I stood in-between them, protectively, and he raised his hand towards me and I intercepted it, lifted him up, and tossed him several yards onto our large white sofa. He was unhurt, but shocked, and I said a few things, and we never had another argument after that. I left the house shortly thereafter and went over to a friend's place, thinking I was no longer welcome, and he went looking for me later that night and asked me to come home. As I grew older, as I said before, he showed greater respect for me and we became much closer. But as a kid, while I no doubt yearned for his approval and love, simultaneously, I also feared him. I did not look forward to his coming home from work on many nights. Perhaps, as a teen some of my risky behaviors resulted from some of these early, in effect, immunizing experiences. I suppose it could have made me a more reticent and cautious person; but whatever the underlying causal factors, and they may have been entirely different, even genetic, that certainly was not the result.
My mother was a frustrated thespian, and she had always longed for a life in show business, much as her mother did before her. She wanted the same for me. When I was 12, she signed me up with a talent agent... Mary Grady ... who was the real-life mother of one of the sons on the TV series, My Three Sons. My mother tried to teach me to sing (she had an excellent voice) with very little success. Against my will, I tried out for a couple of parts, including the role of Eddie Munster on the television series The Munsters. Later I tried out for a part in a stage production of Peter Pan. I hated this kind of thing and, eventually, my mother gave up the quest. If I have any talent on stage it is in public speaking, or so I'm told, but certainly not as an actor. I took drama in junior high school and I enjoyed that, though, and I was a hit in several plays, one in particular where I played a beatnik (with a fake beard) in a comedic ghost story, and it served me very well with girls.
Prior to my teens, I read a great deal of fiction, especially the works of Defoe, Dickens, Twain, and Verne. My favorite book of fiction, then and now, is Dickens' Great Expectations. I also liked Bible stories written for children. I also enjoyed dictionaries and my children's encyclopedia. One of my prized possessions is my Grandfather Sproull's large Unabridged Webster's Dictionary, which my grandmother gave to me after he died. I don't recall when I learned to read, exactly, but my mother says that I was quite young. I spent a lot of time working out arithmetical problems and enjoyed various puzzle books while in grammar school. I also liked Superman comics and Mad Magazine. Around 11 years of age, I began to enjoy reading about science and technology. Popular Mechanics was one of my favorite things to read, and I was overjoyed to get a subscription as a birthday present.
When I was in 6th grade, living in Arkansas, I got a chemistry set and a microscope, and I spent a lot of time following the experiments in the instruction book, making various messes around the house, and finding bugs and things to examine up closely. I remember dissecting a frog while it was still alive. Dr. Rogers, about whom I'll have more to say, had given me some old surgical instruments, including some very sharp scalpels. I told him I was thinking of becoming a medical doctor. When in a sudden moment of revulsion I realized the full extent of my cruelty to the frog, I put the poor creature out of its misery. The thought of it haunted me for many years. I hoped if frogs were in heaven that he would forgive me. I started learning algebra and geometry around that time, too. By the time I was 13, I was exploring the periphery of the calculus, though my knowledge of it was quite superficial and scattered until a few years later. I would eventually become reasonably proficient with partial differential equations, and several years before I had a formal class in the subject.
The other instance was only partly voluntary (I could have refused), and it occurred with an older man who picked me up hitchhiking in East Los Angeles when I was 14. He took me to his house and gave me some liquor, and while I knew full well he was attempting to manipulate me, I was curious and went along with his desire to "massage" me. He had a little machine that he attached to the back of his hand,. After he was done masturbating me, he wanted me to hang around and for me reciprocate, but I told him I needed to go and wanted him to take back to where he found me. Instead he pointed me to the bus stop on Whittier Blvd. and gave me the money to get back to Grandma Jeff's house on my own. I was very ashamed at the time, and I spoke to no one about it. As a teenager in the ‘60s, I took every opportunity to have sex with girls, and I had a lot of it. As the father of a daughter, I very much regret my casual attitude towards it, then, and I think my sometimes cavalier outlook was insensitive and hurtful to others; for once I had my way, I was generally on my way to find someone else.
I mentioned Grandma Jeff...short for Jeffe, or "boss" in Spanish. Her real name was Simplicia. She was dad's mom, a widow of many years. I did not know his father, who I'm told was very stern and had brutal tendencies, which probably explains dad's abusiveness. She, on the other hand, was a very kind woman, and incredibly industrious, always cooking, cleaning, gardening... doing something, a bundle of energy. I well recall the marvelous Mexican feasts she would whip up on a moment's notice for family dropping by... enchiladas, chiles rellenos, chile verde, and sopaipillas. She lived with her two old-maid sisters, Adela the aforementioned Aztec, and Tana, in the barrio of East Los Angeles. Their small three bedroom house was nicely appointed and the yard was meticulously maintained.
Grandma Jeff spoke barely a word of English, and our communication consisted of my poor Spanish and lots of gesticulations, with occasional translation help from dad or Aunt Adela, who spoke perfect English. Jeff moved from El Paso, Texas to California after her husband died and when my dad was still a teenager. I spent a lot of time in East LA visiting Jeff on the weekends ... and in the area I stuck out like a sore thumb, a blond, blue-eyed kid ... but I got on well with the other neighborhood kids, including some of the older, low-rider gang members who were amused by my presence. I even had an East L.A. uniform for our occasional visits: chinos, a t-shirt, and slicked- back, grease-laden hair.
Beginning at a young age, I was tested and retested with various standardized tests, and, because I did well, each new school I attended seemed to be fascinated with me. I even spent time with some researchers from Stanford specializing in IQ. I scored very high on both the Binet (Terman) and Weschler tests. While considerably higher than what is generally described by folks who deal in such matters as "genius" level, rest assured, I'm no genius. Richard Feynman, whose reported IQ is significantly lower than mine, was in fact a genius. Louis Armstrong was in fact a genius. It's a much misused term, I believe, as is the case with the overused term, "brilliant." Such creative intelligence that leaps beyond the ordinary cannot be measured or predicted by these kinds of tests. At best they might predict how one will do on other tests or in school. I simply had a certain kind of cleverness and a good memory for the facts that were important to me. One of the more unfortunate things to occur in my life was to be deemed--and repeatedly told--I was a genius and exceptional starting at an early age ... for in my youth I believed it to be true, and, as a consequence, I had a distorted sense of my own capabilities.
This seems like a good juncture to say that I think that emotional stability is far more important and useful to an individual than having great intelligence as it is typically defined, and certainly insofar as one's own happiness is concerned. Of course, high intelligence of the creative variety can be more useful to society, as a whole, than any one person's contentment. But for the self-centered purpose of one's having a successful life ... personal happiness, getting along with one's peers, satisfactory family relations, doing well professionally... I think a healthy emotional state is far more valuable. Intelligence, when taken alone, can be overrated, and it is not sufficient to lead a productive and satisfying life. It is of course helpful to have a certain amount of intelligence from a practical point of view, but it does not seem to me to be the sine qua non of contentment.
I spent most of my junior high time in the school library, exempt from classes (doing college-level math) except for physical education, wood shop, and drama. There were no formal advanced- placement programs in those days, and they didn't know quite what to do with me. I relished being an autodidact and not having to take many classes, and I learned how to impress teachers and administrators to continue my special treatment and curry their interest... periodically I would wow them with a bit of highfalutin physics, or a quotation from Goethe or Voltaire, and that would usually suffice. However, this became more of a problem in high school. My "abnormality," and others' somewhat distorted perception of me, also encouraged a growing sense of autonomy and self-confidence, and, at the same time, with the unsettling death of my natural father when I was 14, and my increasing alienation from my parents (perhaps exacerbated by some pretty severe beatings and their constant drinking), I began to rebel and get into trouble..
I opted for more thoroughgoing juvenile delinquency when we moved up north to Campbell, California, a small suburb outside of San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1966. I went downhill quickly at that point. There's not much in the petty crime arena that I didn't try. But things turned more serious when my friend Skip and I robbed a donut shop (I was the lookout, he was the robber... no gun, mind you, he faked it... with a face mask) when I was 15. He was apprehended while running away, and he later told the police about me, and they showed up and arrested me at my parent's house later that night. I spent several months in juvenile hall and, thankfully, after a year of probation, my record was expunged or I never would have received my security clearances in the Army. Oh, and I also stole a car, hubcaps, stereos, credit cards, gas, and shoplifted, among my other delinquent activities in this phase of my life. My time under incarceration for the robbery was a transformative event for me. I was lonely and scared, and I vowed then to never return to such a place and to fly straight and narrow. But even before that catalyst for reformation occurred....
At age 14 in the summer of '66 I became a chronic runaway, leaving home for weeks at a time, ending up in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco as a hippie ('67), and later off of Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, amongst other wanderings, hither and thither. I took LSD, mescaline, hashish, weed, uppers and downers in the 60s, in addition to other revelries and debaucheries. After hitching car rides throughout the Southwest, I hopped a train in Flagstaff with my old Orange County friend, Jimmy Yates. We were caught and arrested (the cops called us long-haired hippies, queers, and such, in what appear in retrospect to be an attempt to scare us straight) and taken to jail, whereupon, we escaped through open window in the station's public men's room when an officer sent us to wash off fingerprint ink. Growing increasingly frightened as fugitives from the law, we returned a few minutes later (after hiding in a washroom at the gas station down the street), meekly entering through the front door, and the embarrassed and angry officers promptly assigned us to a cold and dank drunk tank with no seat or toilet, just a drain hole in the center of the cell. They sent us home separately the next day by Greyhound bus (our parents wired the money for tickets), but I got off in Santa Barbara and ran away again! Once I returned home a few weeks later, my mother took me to Agnew State Hospital, a mental institution, to be examined but they didn't admit me. Whatever was wrong with me didn't qualify me for the insane asylum. I enjoyed the attention, though.
It was the heyday of Haight-Ashbury when I lived in the Bay Area... the Age of Aquarius, hippies, flower power, and the psychedelic era. I ran away and stayed in the area for about 2 months before heading off to Southern California. The streets were full of kids, many of them runaways like me, with the scent of incense and patchouli oil wafting through the air; girls in colorful granny dresses with flowers in their hair; and long-haired boys with beads and Beatlesque, wire-rimmed sunglasses. We "crashed" in Fillmore tenements, behind bushes in the parks, or at the pads of generous strangers. It was a very libertine environment, a big adventure, and no one gave much thought to tomorrow or to practical concerns beyond having a good time, getting high, and finding some food. I doubt that such a lifestyle would have been as tolerable in the cooler Bay winters, though. When we weren't panhandling for money or stealing food (so much for faux love and peace, for living in the Haight was often at the expense of another's property), we could earn money doing odd jobs arranged by a local youth center. One really didn't need much to get by. I learned later that my parents heard from a neighbor that I went there, and they apparently spent a day with my sisters riding around the area looking for me. The entire thing was frivolous, meaningless, irresponsible, unproductive, superficial, juvenile, conforming, occasionally risky, and, to be sure, a lot of fun.
I held many different jobs as a kid. I always found a way to earn money. I've been a paper boy; mowed lawns; worked in car washes, a toy store and restaurants; groomed dogs; and cleaned out horse stalls and dog kennels. I was not averse to hard labor, but I seldom stayed with anything for very long.
I got along well with all the various cliques of my era: jocks, brains, hippies, surfers, cruisers, popular kids and unpopular kids. As I mentioned before, moving around as much as I did helped me feel more comfortable with many kinds of people, I don't know; but I never had a problem insinuating myself with a particular group, and I moved amongst the various coteries with relative ease. I seemed to have all kinds of friends. I was the smart kid who could function on the street, and I was big enough so that no one picked on me. I didn't look for fights, but I had my share of them, too, and I will confess, I rather enjoyed them, for there was something viscerally gratifying about the surge of adrenalin and the sheer physicality of the thing. I didn't have a fear of pain, and perhaps beatings from my dad, which any kid was unlikely to match, helped in that regard. My last physical altercation occurred while I was serving in the Army in Germany. I had been drinking at our local hangout, the Rosarium, and a staff sergeant disparaged my friend, Bill, and that set me off. By that time, I had begun with my study of Kung Fu. I had the better of him right away before my friends broke it up, and, since he outranked me, I was very lucky that he didn't get me into any trouble. He accepted my apology the next day, and thereafter we became friendly with one another.
Shortly after my time in the San Jose juvenile hall, my parents moved us to Fremont, CA in the East Bay. With the concurrence of the school district, having done well on some examinations, I started Ohlone College before turning 16. After little more than a year of high school, I had perfect SAT scores 800/800 (1600 max in those days), and I had instant celebrity in our town, having made the newspaper. I hated being at Ohlone, and I soon dropped out. It is unpleasant being that young and having no one else in college wanting to hang out with you. I barely shaved and a couple of years makes a huge difference at that age. This left my mother to deal with the authorities, who came to our house on at least one occasion, as I was still under the age that California law required one to be in school. I would re-enroll and then not show up again. I found part-time jobs, and I spent much of my time at the library and in my homemade laboratory doing experiments. My regrettable life of crime was over by the time we moved to Fremont, and other than my truancy, I was a model child, and thenceforth I led a life of relative, though imperfect, rectitude.
With my mother's permission, indeed, with her encouragement ... I enlisted in the Army two weeks after turning 17. It was the height of the Vietnam War, but I was lucky and I was not sent there. Because I did well on some tests, I was trained to encode and decode encrypted messages. After cryptography training, most of which was in Fort Gordon, Georgia (outside of Augusta), I was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas working in a clerical capacity for a brigade commander. It had nothing to do with my training. After I turned 18 in 1970, I was scheduled to go to Vietnam and even reported to the Oakland depot for assignment there. They called a bunch of us out one morning and told us we were being reassigned to Germany. This was the time when troop reductions were beginning.
The balance of my military service was as a "cold warrior" in Germany, where I was assigned as a cryptographer o a small American unit on a German military base in Bavaria, located outside a village called Hemau, which was not far from the beautiful, walled, medieval city of Regensburg. This was one of the most beneficial periods in my life. Indeed, the Army was a critical part of my maturation, and because of my specialty, I had the good fortune of being surrounded by slightly older, well-educated men who were role models. Our unit had maybe 25 or 30 men at any given time, and our barracks on the German installation were vastly superior to what would have been my lot on an American facility. I even had a private room for most of my time there. We were a NATO unit in charge of Honest John nuclear missiles. The Germans maintained the missiles themselves, but the Americans managed the nuclear warheads. Only the Americans had access to them. I worked in the S-2 area and was responsible for all the classified materials and encoding and decoding messages. An officer and the S-2 senior enlisted man were required to authorize the release of the missiles once the order was given, and I was responsible for decoding the messages that would come from the Commander and Chief via the Emergency Action Message System. Imagine, an uneducated 18 year-old and former juvenile delinquent with such a responsibility. It defies reason, but it is true.
My best friend at the time, only 4 or 5 years my senior, was a young lieutenant named Bill Baldwin, and his influence was instrumental to my development. He was single, and though he was an officer and I was an enlisted man, our unit was small enough that fraternization was not an issue. We had four officers, and all of them went to prestigious military schools. Bill was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute. I called him "sir" throughout, except when we were intoxicated after hours and away from others in our unit, and I followed all the appropriate protocols at work. We managed to have a lot of fun traveling together in Europe. Over the course of my tour of duty, Bill and I went to Switzerland, Austria, Holland, England, and France, and throughout West Germany (the nation was still split into East and West then, and because of the nature of our work, we could not even visit Berlin, let alone another Eastern European country then allied with the Soviet Union.
While I was in Germany, I met a young beauty named Lucia, whom I nearly married. She was a student in Regensburg, and her family owned an appliance store in Hemau. I recall my mother being terrified at the prospect of my bringing a German girl home as my wife at such a young age. As it turns out, Lucia did not want to come to the U.S. and I didn't want to stay in Europe, so we parted ways. She was very bright and spoke English flawlessly. Lucia's instruction in the German language made my later study of it in college all the easier for me.
Lucia's older sister's boyfriend was from Africa, a Marxist, and a professor of political philosophy, and I remember having some interesting discussions with him. I picked up a few writings by Karl Marx as a result of those discussions, including The Communist Manifesto, and it all made a certain amount of sense to me, so I decided then that I was a socialist. It wasn't until several years later, after reading Marx's masterwork, Kapital, and then various critical works by the likes of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others, that I came to realize that nearly everything Marx had to say about economics was utter nonsense. He completely misunderstood pricing, among other things. Moreover, the labor theory of value, on which much of his theory rests, and his concept of surplus value, are completely mistaken. He remains, however, an astute observer of history, and his insights about the darker aspects of social institutions and industrialism remain instructive and relevant.
My knowledge of physics at this time was rudimentary, at best. I had a basic understanding of Newton's laws and the fundamentals of non-relativistic gravity, aided primarily from my study of the calculus, as well as a smattering of knowledge about electromagnetism and optics. I read a compendium of Einstein's fundamental papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and special and general relativity. My Army associate, Jackie Miller, had an advanced degree in physics, and he helped me to understand much of it; special relativity was a brilliantly simple insight, and the mathematics is not especially taxing. It is a different story with general relativity, however, for neither Jackie nor I had sufficient grounding in non-Euclidean geometry, and as a consequence, I was unable to grasp it fully (insofar as that's possible) for several years to come.
With continuing troop reductions, I was eligible for early release with college admission, and so I was honorably discharged in early 1972 after 31 months of military service, and at the grand old age of 19. I was a year older than most of my college peers and with nearly three years in the military under my belt.
I returned to college in the spring of 1972, at which time I also began to dabble in radical politics, including a stint as political education officer of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (I did not go to Vietnam, but I was a "Vietnam era" vet, and that seemed to be sufficient) and I hung out with some hardcore radicals. I had dinner with Caesar Chavez, the farm labor leader, with my friend, Jinny, a card-carrying communist and organized labor supporter. I was the Democratic Youth Caucus chairman for my area in the '72 campaign when George McGovern ran against Richard Nixon. I was also involved in student politics and president of the philosophy club. With the recommendation of several professors, the Ohlone College administration appointed me as the student representative on a committee charged with overseeing the campus police and more specifically, the use of criminal justice majors as trainee adjuncts to the police force on campus, which was controversial at the time.
During this period, I applied myself to schoolwork at Ohlone and later at California State University, East Bay (formerly Cal State Hayward) with great seriousness, taking a very heavy load of classes and immersing myself in learning all that I could. I loved college at this time, and I took full advantage of all it had to offer. and I completed my undergraduate degree summa cum laude in 3 years. The GI Bill freed me up from having to work full-time, and I had some part-time positions, including working the graveyard shifts as a security guard at the local FAA facility in Hayward, a perfect job for doing my studies. By student standards, I was well-heeled, and with the help of a roommate, I was able to afford a nice apartment. I decided, then, that I was best suited to live a life of the mind, consciously cultivated an intellectual image, and I set out to become a writer and college professor. My wild days were largely behind me, that is, with the exception of an active interest in pursuing relations with the opposite sex.
My principal interests in college were mathematical logic, physical sciences, and philosophy, and in the latter case, I was especially interested in analytic philosophy and the philosophy of science. Several of my professors took an interest in me, but particularly Dr. Eugene Mayers, who headed up the Department of Philosophy. He thought I had some talent for philosophy and was very encouraging. He introduced me to the works of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, which have been very influential in my thinking, though my appreciation for Rawls increased only later and, in large part, once I had acquired a better understanding of Immanuel Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and the importance of impartial rationality. For a period of time, I thought I was a libertarian (a la Nozick), but I soon concluded that was a pipe-dream world, much like Marx's communism, or for that matter, all Utopian schemes, be they anarchic or statist in nature.
Three very important things occurred in my intellectual development in this period. My courses in deductive and inductive logic opened up a new world for me, and they gave me the essential tools for pursuing my interest in philosophy; the philosophy of science; and the foundations of mathematics. I added considerable depth to my understanding of science, especially physics and astronomy, and this was of inestimable value in forming both my scientific and philosophical outlook. And it was in college that I developed what was to become a lifelong interest in both history and economics.
There are opponents of liberty on the right and left, and I find very little comfort in so-called "moderation," when often enough that is merely an encryption for for going along to get along and standing for nothing. I think ideologues of all stripes, on both the right and left, have much more in common than they ever would care to admit, which is that they have an underlying emotional requirement for others to believe as they do, indeed, insisting on conformity and converting the non-believer is often more important than the principles they espouse. Facts and reason actually have little to do with their view of the world, for evidence and logic contradicting the received orthodoxy seldom dissuades the ideologue. They also share a need for an overarching system to explain everything, and evidence does little to shake their belief when it does not conform with the system they've adopted on faith, be it Christianity or Communism. As much as anything, it's a matter of temperament and a kind of Utopianism. In this sense, political dogma is very similar to religious belief.
To encapsulate my only overarching political principles, I believe that each political issue must be analyzed pragmatically, on its merits, and with an eye to optimizing individual liberty, while simultaneously minimizing the worst risks for the least among us, insofar as that is possible with the broad consensus of the governed, and without undue sacrifice of one segment of society to benefit another. Liberty must always have precedence, in my view, and society ought to be very restricted in limiting an individual's liberty in order to suit or benefit another. John Rawls' principle of impartiality, a Kantian idea, seems to me to be the only morally satisfactory way of restricting liberty, in the relatively limited number of instances that this is permissible. I have set forth my views on this in detail in my writings on ethics and economics.
Towards the end of my undergraduate work, I met my future wife, Carol Kearney, in 1975 at a nightclub in the San Jose suburb, Campbell, a place with live music and dancing very popular with young people. She was attending the state university in nearby San Jose, where she lived at the time. I was unable to get her to go home with me that night, so I asked her out on a date for the following week. I had the good sense to get her address and phone number, and I sent her yellow roses with the German expression on the card, Vergessen Sie mich nicht (forget me not). I only later learned she didn't care for yellow flowers; but I thought red roses a little to forward at the time. I picked her up in my old '52 Lincoln and she proceeded immediately to tell me how to drive, and she hasn't stopped doing so to this day. "Quick, get out of the "only lane," she said. It took me a bit to figure out exactly what that was, meaning in her parlance move to the left out of the turn lane. Our first date was to see Santana in concert, with a then little known band, Journey, as the opening act. That was the only "expensive" date we had then, and thereafter we'd cavort in Golden Gate Park, ride around on my motorcycle, or hover over coffee and tea at Sambo's coffee shop for hours on end. It didn't take long for me to fall in love with her, and we married in early 1976 shortly after I moved to Los Angeles for my new position with Pacific Life.
A beautiful woman with a million-watt smile, intelligence, and an outgoing personality, Carol came from Irish stock on both sides of her family, with, family lore has it, a smattering of Cherokee, and she grew up in a decidedly normal way with both of her parents, Joe and Sarah Kearney, and a younger sister and brother, Cathy and Steven. Carol was born and reared in the small farming community, Lodi, CA, located in the uppermost part of the San Joaquin Valley. Her mother was a nurse and her father worked at the General Mills plant just a few blocks from where they lived. Both of her parents were hardscrabble people, accustomed to privation and backbreaking work, whose families migrated from the Dust Bowl in Texas during the Great Depression when they were young. They managed to provide their children with a great many advantages that they did not have. Carol is as loyal, normal, straightforward, and as strong a person as I've ever known, and, for whatever reason, she liked me then, and, even knowing me as well as she does now, she continues to care for me.
We started out with a very small apartment near the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles with a Murphy bed. Given my experiences living in cars, men's rooms, tenement housing, parks, tents, and stoops, it wasn't so bad! Our entertainment was bicycling around MacArthur Park, walking around the seediest parts of Hollywood to watch the people of the night, and going to inexpensive movie theaters. With very little money, we still managed to have a lot of fun. Later we traveled many places in the U.S. and abroad... usually without reservations and taking each day as it came. She was a career woman in the computer field until her mid-thirties, at which time we wanted to add to our family. Our daughter, Anastasia, came along in late 1989. She is our pride and joy, the center of our world, and she has grown into a lovely young woman. She was graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history. Her area of emphasis was African-American history. Anastasia was married to a Colorado native, Craig Knoll, in 2015. Craig grew up in Fort Collins, and we are lucky that they settled near us.
In 1975, I joined Pacific Mutual (now Pacific Life) and moved to Los Angeles. My intention all along was to pursue an academic career, but as I was about to marry, I needed to earn some money, first. Several times in those initial years at Pacific Mutual, I was nominated for an academic scholarship and approached for opportunities for advanced study. I had established a small academic reputation, it seemed, and no doubt owing to Professor Mayer's tireless promotion of me behind the scenes. Becoming increasingly accustomed to an income that I could never earn in academia, however, I remained with the company and worked there for nearly 30 years.
I rose to head up one of Pacific Mutual's major business units after stints in sales, research and development, and marketing. My specialty was group employee benefits. For a period I was involved in pension and profit-sharing plans and group insurance, or more specifically, group life, health, and disability insurance, all products sold to employers of a certain size for the benefit of their employees. After a few years, our retirement products were spun of into a separate division and I specialized in group insurance products for the balance of my career. In due course I would become responsible for the national group operation for large employers.
Though I benefited from the employer-based health insurance system, towards the end of my career I came to believe that it was an inherently flawed system for a several of reasons, not least of which was that health care economics works differently than other sectors with the so-called backwards-bending supply curve, and with the belief that health services ought to be a basic prescribed right in any civilized and economically advanced society. Our system was more expensive than any other industrialized nation's as a function of GDP, and yet, our health care outcomes and mortality rates were among the worst. For some time I have believed that the only sensible solution is a single-payer insurance system, one along the lines of Medicare for all citizens, perhaps with some additional cost sharing for more affluent individuals.
I left Pacific Mutual when someone was promoted to the top job over me, and it was just as well. It was a good company when I was there, and I was treated well from beginning to end, and I have many fond memories of working there. Several people were important mentors and influences in my early business career, and perhaps none more than the late Gene Lyons, who hired me and, as much as anyone, was a father figure to me. My closest friends over the years and today are people with whom I worked at Pacific Mutual back in the 70s. In addition to Gene, of particular note would be my friends the late Clay Yokota and Warren Clark.
Clay and his wife Nicki were the first people Carol and I befriended in Southern California after moving from the Bay Area. Before Carol arrived in Los Angeles (I was hired in November 1975, and we were married a few months later in late February the following year), Clay and Nicki took pity on me as an undernourished bachelor and had me over for dinner at their apartment several times. Since then our families have spent many holidays together and we've taken vacations together, including a memorable trip to Mexico City in 1984 following a company event in Guadalajara. We even knew one another's parents and siblings, and there were plenty of times we had large gatherings with members of our extended families. I worked for Clay for nearly a year early in my career, and later he would work for me for nearly twenty years. Other than Bill Baldwin in the Army, until Clay, as an adult I really did not have any close male friends, and Bill and I drifted apart after our service. Clay was a constant my life, indeed, both Clay and Nicki were in the lives of my family. It was a devastating loss when Clay died of a rare form of cancer in 2012. While Nicki still lives in California, we continue to see her and their son Christopher (who is like an older brother to our daughter) on our periodic visits to California and their visits to Colorado.
We have known Warren and Jenny Clark nearly as long, and he was my boss for over 10 years. As he was promoted, I followed suit in the positions he held for a time. He left Pacific Mutual for other opportunities, and I eventually took over his position as head of the sales operation. Only a few years older than I am, Warren and I quickly established a close working relationship and a friendship that never interfered with our ability to work together as boss and subordinate. We have several interests in common, not least of all music, and we continue to see one another whenever we can, though he and Jenny now live on the East Coast in Connecticut. As with Clay, we knew Warren and Jenny's parents. They had three boys, one of whom died tragically as a toddler from a drowning accident. I well remember driving them to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles at illegal speeds while the helicopter whisked the boy from a hospital near their home in La Canada. We kept vigil with them at the hospital and were there when the little fellow passed. We have known his other two boys since they were babies.
Aside from having surrounded myself with very capable people in the course of my management career, I think my major business accomplishment was taking Pacific Mutual into the self-funded and stop loss market in 1987. I conducted careful product design, pricing, and market research in this highly-specialized field, and launched what would become Pacific Risk Management Services, one of the nation's largest and, arguably, its finest purveyor of stop-loss products for self-insured group plans. Our method of distribution was the key to its success, and it relied upon a formidable, highly-qualified network of third-party plan administrators. Pacific Mutual enjoyed considerable profits on this line of business for many consecutive years.
Pacific Mutual sent me to Stanford University's Graduate School of Business for their Marketing Strategies program in 1989 and then to the Stanford Executive Program in 1991, essentially a crash MBA course for senior managers. The latter required us to work all day and much of the night, even on weekends over the course of a summer. At least half of the participants were from abroad, and my experience there was interesting and intellectually challenging. In particular, I enjoyed the graduate course on economics, one that focussed a great deal on global issues.
While at Stanford, I made friends with one of the students, Eddie Mugabe, a handsome playboy from a South African homeland. Turns out that he was the son of the homeland's tribal chief and President, and though black, his father supported the apartheid regime in Pretoria, no doubt in order to hold onto his own sinecure. His father apparently controlled some of the diamond mines and was very wealthy. Eddie was the Minister of Economic Development. He had living quarters in many major cities throughout the world, including nearby San Francisco, where he housed himself instead of the dorms where most of us stayed. He'd show up at each of our Friday evening parties with a different beautiful woman on his arm. Eddie invited Carol and me to come to Africa several years later, all-expenses paid, but we declined because our daughter was too young to go, we didn't want to leave her behind, and we also had some reservations about being hosted by a beneficiary of that awful regime. His father was eventually overthrown, and some years later I read in the Stanford alumni magazine that Eddie died, but I never knew the cause.
In 1993, I was selected by the Self-Insurance Association of America and my company to represent the insurance industry before a U.S. House of Representatives committee considering health care reform. President and Hillary Clinton had proposed a series of sweeping reforms which our industry mostly opposed. I have since come to believe that the industry was mistaken, and that the administration was more correct. I had on several occasions already worked with state-level politicians and with various regulatory agencies, but this was the first and only time I participated in a congressional hearing. I was there as an "expert" witness on self-insurance. It was an interesting experience, and one of the things I remember is that the politicians were often talking to one another, moving about, and generally not paying much attention to the testimony offered by representatives of the various interest groups. It was not televised, and I suspect it is far more typical of what occurs, and a far cry from what one sees when the cameras are rolling. I was disgusted by their arrogant, impolite behavior, and it cemented my general distrust of the political class.
During this period, I was interviewed by various major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, and I appeared on several television broadcasts dealing with health insurance reform. Once I was interviewed on a business show called "American Spotlight" out of Chicago for a half-hour segment on group employee benefits. I remember the host, before the show, seemed kind of shy and retiring, hardly what one would expect of a television broadcaster. He spoke softly and almost seemed to be something of a milquetoast. When seated at the table, however, after the director counted down and the cameras started rolling towards us, he was transformed. He seemed to grow a couple of inches in his chair; his chest seemed larger; and in a booming, deep voice that belied my earlier impression, he said "From Chicago, Welcome to American Spotlight on Business." If you're not used to it, with all the lights, cameras, and make-up people sidling up to you to brush your face with some powdery stuff, it can be rather intimidating. I developed a new respect for "talking heads," even if they do use a teleprompter (as he did), for it's not as easy as they make it look.
I also spoke before a number of civic and industry groups on the issue of health insurance reform. One of the most memorable talks I gave was at the Richard Nixon Library, in Yorba Linda, where I also had occasion to meet several men on the board of the library who knew President Nixon quite well. One fellow went to school with him at Whittier College, and he told me a couple of interesting stories, including how Nixon dutifully helped a handicapped student up the stairs each day at Whittier College, as the building did not have elevators. Reviled by many, and a failed president, Nixon did have some good qualities. His life is like a Shakespearean tragedy in many ways. Like most of us, he was neither completely good nor completely bad, and certainly not the monster I thought him to be in my youth. With that said, I believe he ought to have been convicted and jailed for very serious crimes against his country.
There was a time when I thought I had a chance of becoming CEO of Pacific Mutual; indeed, I was talked out of leaving for several more remunerative opportunities, including the presidency of a smaller but successful HMO. That same company was purchased by a larger entity down the road, and I undoubtedly would have made out like a bandit from the acquisition. When my boss announced his retirement, we both thought I was the likely choice to replace him. But the chairman thought otherwise, and he chose another who I believe was more compatible with his requirement for acquiescence. I was never the most politik of people, sometimes to my detriment. I was diplomatically told to think about what I wanted to do, and of course, that was a hint that I should take my leave, which I did with a nice settlement. I was treated well from the day I arrived at Pacific Life to the day I left, and many opportunities came my way that hardly seemed possible when I first joined the company. I have no regrets.
I think I was at least a satisfactory businessman and manager. I have been told this by others enough times, but I'm fairly immune to flattery and even suspicious of it. All the same, I think I did okay, and for the most part, I also enjoyed my business career. It also informed my outlook on authority and organizations and their inherent dangers, and I have become increasingly skeptical about both public and private authority, those people and organizations who seek to arrange the lives of others. And while I remain a supporter of free markets with limitations, primarily because of my views on private property and liberty, I am under no illusions about corporate beneficence or efficiency. People confuse the efficiency of markets with that of individual players in it, when they are really quite different. The vast majority of businesses fail. In any case, whatever business success I had, I am mindful that luck played an important role in it ... simply being in the right place at the right time with the right people, though I think I did a couple of worthwhile things, especially in the product development area.
It seems appropriate to mention the milieu of the business world when I entered it, for it is very different now. In the mid-seventies, the WWII and Korean War generation occupied most of the key middle and senior management positions, and not surprisingly, there was a decidedly military-like sensibility about hierarchy, loyalty, and working and playing together. The abstract notion of "company" took on a special significance and had an almost nationalistic or tribal aspect, then. There was much more drinking than today, both during and after work; indeed, play and work, whether in the office, restaurant or bar, and on the golf course or even vacation, were more seamless and without clear-cut boundaries. One's associates were a kind of extended-family, and family played a greater role than one would ordinarily find today. The corporate wife, especially, was an integral adjunct to one's climb up the corporate ladder. And perhaps most significantly, there were relatively few women outside of clerical and administrative positions, and the handful with positions of responsibility were a determined, thick-skinned lot, having had to tough it out in a very male-dominated world.
The advent of women in positions of authority certainly forced a different kind of ethos in the workplace, in many ways, a more responsible one, and certainly a fairer one. At the same time, loyalty to and from the company also diminished, and it was the end of the stereotypical company man, the "up-the-organization" man in a gray flannel suit, one that came into prominence in the late 40s and early 50s. It was the ascendancy of the individual superstar, the technocrat, and many of the traditional corporate mores and ties that bound employees and company together began to unravel. I don't lament many of these changes, for some of those loyalties were misplaced, and there were many destructive and unfair practices (especially to women and minorities). But some things, notably the growing egoism and unbridled compensatory practices, and the increased power of human resource departments and concomitant demise of hands-on management, were for the worse. It was a mixed bag, then, as it is now; but my main point is that the corporate world is now very different than when I began my business career.
I was tired of insurance and business, and I did not pursue the several opportunities that came my way after leaving Pacific Life. I decided to focus on scholarly pursuits, and even considered going into academia. After writing my book, Do No Evil, I established a consultancy and lectured on ethics before various business and academic groups. While I enjoyed this for a time, I grew restless, though, having been in business and in a senior management positon for so long, I came to miss the action and the decision making, and I decided to get into something completely different. I ended up buying a security company, Four Star Private Patrol, Inc., with several hundred employees. I thought at the time that it was not a capital intensive business and largely consisted of variable costs depending on short-term contracts. It seemed respectable enough as a business, and I thought I understood the finances in my due diligence. With a seemingly competent senior staff in place, I even thought I might have a more gentleman-farmer's type of existence with high-level strategic work and management of a small number of direct reports. I was deluded. Not only did I end up working more than I wanted, I discovered I had been deceived in several ways on the financials, that there were improprieties on payroll and workers compensation in relation to the law, and that the business required a great deal more attention than I anticipated.
I finally got the company in good standing with the law and financially tractable, and I did have several top-notch senior managers that made the management aspect of the job pleasant. We had a number of very large new home construction companies as clients, and by 2008 the industry was collapsing with the financial crisis, and we lost some of our big payers. By 2009 I was ready to retire in earnest, and so I sold the company to another firm. Being out of the security business was like taking off tight shoes, a relief. I did not like the security business, and I discovered much that I did not know about the ballyhooed small-to-medium sized business world as it is often depicted in chamber of commerce propaganda. There are more unseemly shenanigans than meets the eye, much more than in the big business world from whence I came, and where there are whole departments devoted to compliance. It is just less noticeable in the particular, though in aggregate, it is an immense problem given that most people are employees of such businesses. Among other things I am referring to cheating on workers compensation, overtime compensation, benefit programs, and withholding for Social Security. I saw much of this among my competitors who did these things to undercut competitors and optimize profits ... indeed, I even had to correct some malefactions in my own company.
My business experience convinced me that while unfettered markets, with few exceptions, are the most efficient means of distributing finite goods to the greatest number, individual businesses are by no means inherently efficient. Indeed, most businesses fail within a few years. One of the great myths is that business is more efficient than government. Some are, to be sure. Most are not, however, because most fail, There is a large confusion among the general population and many who should know better about the economic utility of markets versus the efficiencies of individual businesses. What is more, a large enough number of businesses are corrupt enough to turn heads if it were more generally known. I don't want to overstate the case, for plenty adhere to the rules, too; but it is good to minimize monopoly and cartels, and to optimize plurality, both to lessen the power of any given business or allied businesses over our lives, and also to give consumers choices. There is a dark side to capitalism, health care being a notable example, and laws and social programs are necessary to smooth its rough edges, treat citizens fairly, and compensate for its deficiencies, and also to protect people from predatory and untoward practices.
Gene Lyons, my aforesaid friend and mentor, and I have had several adventures in business together, but also in backpacking, boating, and river rafting. As I mentioned, he hired me at Pacific Mutual, and he was several levels above me until he retired in the early 80s as head of our business unit. I eventually would hold the same position that he did as head of the group employee benefits operation. Gene, Warren, and Clay and remained a very tight-knit group throughout the years, notwithstanding several changes in career and geographic location, and Gene was the acknowledged paterfamilias of our foursome. Carol and I were also both very close to his wife, Jane, who passed away several years ago. Jane was one of the most sophisticated ladies we ever knew, and we two working class kids learned much from her about social customs that would prove useful to us in our corporate lives, conventions of propriety and conduct that we were not exposed to growing up. Many of the most important things that I know about business and management I learned from Gene over the course of many years, even after he had long left Pacific Mutual. Outside of my academic life, he is the most influential man in my adult life, both professionally and personally. We were close friends for nearly 5 decades. Gene passed away at the age of 89 in 2017.
Some years ago, Gene and I took an 8-day river rafting trip down the Colorado River. The Little Colorado, an azure, warm-water river running perpendicular to the icy-cold Colorado, seemed especially inviting for some body-surfing in the rapids. The rapids were strong and there were many rocks. I mentioned my occasional impulsiveness, already; well, Gene had the good sense to get out early, whereas I continued down the river and ended up banging into a large rock, feet-first... thereby, permanently damaging my leg by destroying the lymphatic valves below the knee due to the impact. It's mostly tolerable, but occasionally it results in a great deal of pain, and I am now much more susceptible to infections, so I've become a bit of a germaphobe.
Since I can remember, I have been rather obsessive about putting my thoughts in writing. Writing and mathematics are my principal therapies. However, as I grow older, higher mathematics has become increasingly taxing. I wish I had done some of the work I am now doing when I was younger and brighter. Some of my earliest writings consist of bad poetry. I have no talent for fiction, though on occasion I have attempted it. What I like to do is explain and analyze things, especially of a philosophical or scientific nature. Other than some original syntheses of other people's ideas, I have done nothing particularly remarkable in my work. If I have a talent in scholarship, it is in analyzing, understanding, and then expressing the ideas of others, with an occasional insight of my own. I am also fascinated by the aesthetics of the English language: its rhythms, its cadence, its sounds, and its power to inspire and illuminate. Few things are as elegant as a well-crafted sentence; I struggle to do what Shakespeare could do repeatedly and with apparent ease: write a perfect one. Every once in a while I am pleased with something I write, but not very often.
I have been a registered Democrat since I first voted in 1972, though I've voted for a few Libertarians, Republicans, and Independents over the years. There's not much I like about either political party, but I dislike the Democrats less than I do the Republicans, whose party has been co-opted by zany religious people, corporate welfarists, and assorted unlettered people. The Democratic Party has been overrun by various special interests, trial lawyers, and statists, and you can put the economic knowledge of most of its leaders in a thimble. The Republicans aren't any better on economics, despite their reputation for it. Indeed, their real claim for success is in marketing, not finance. Most businesses fail, people forget, and doing business, even doing it very well, is not the same as understanding economics. And in any event, by almost every measure, Republicans have had the worst economic results. Thus, I contend, on the whole, the Democrats are less corrupt and not as dangerous, but only as a matter of degree.
I have come to distrust government a great deal, indeed, institutions more generally, though they are at once socially necessary and unavoidable. And politicians of all stripes, people whose vocation is to tell others how to live, are highly suspect to me. First and foremost, I am a proponent of liberty, freedom from restraint, and I accept democracy only reluctantly, as there is no good alternative. I am suspicious of majoritarian rule. I am, I suppose, an elitist. And the older I get, the more elitist I have become. With that said, I am also suspicious of smart people, particularly intellectuals who believe they know best how others ought to live. It is simply a fact that, on average, most people are not particularly bright, and I would prefer that they not be involved at all in arranging my life. On the other hand, smart people are sometimes more dangerous when they hold power, and we seldom know this beforehand, so there is little reason, perhaps even less of a reason, to trust them. Would-be philosopher kings and populist politicians have caused much more grief and destruction in history, especially in the last century, than any hereditary monarch. That is not an argument for monarchy, but an argument to not to take any system for granted as being perfect or foolproof. One hopes, mostly, to get lucky with our leaders, and every once in awhile, we do. But it is probably a good thing that most politicians and presidents, on the whole, are of middling talents. Great men often entail great costs.
Other than boxing, I've never enjoyed following sports very much, that is, with the exception of occasionally watching games with my friends for social conviviality. However, I did enjoy participating in sports as a kid. I was a decent swimmer and surfer, and I did a stint as a lifeguard. I also tried my hand at football in Pop Warner, school, and the Army in divisional programs. I played at Ohlone College for part of a season, but I lost interest. I was neither gifted nor inept in athletics; I was always able to hold my own. I never stayed anywhere or with anything long enough to excel at anything, other than perhaps kung fu, which I took up as a teenager and continue to study and until recently, periodically taught. I started with white crane kung fu, but in later in life took up wing chun kung fu, the species taught by grandmaster Ip Man, whose student was the famed martial artists and actor, Bruce Li.
I never gave much thought about physical fitness for its own sake or for its obvious health benefits. I was always active as a youth, and things just seemed to take care of themselves. I was lucky to have a strong constitution and I didn't incur any obvious health problems. But relative torpor in my 30s took its toll on my physique, and especially after my river-rafting accident. I decided to correct this state of affairs after a difficult and prolonged bout with the flu. I figured that I wouldn't be able to survive such an illness in old-age, which had not arrived, but was definitely on the horizon. As a consequence, I embarked on a program of more rigorous exercise and calorie-counting and was able to regain control of my fundamentals.
If I could have any one gift, I think it would be the gift of musicality. Artistic genius is probably what I admire the most among the varieties of human achievement, even more than science. While science has prolonged our lives and gives us the means of understanding our world, satisfying in and of themselves, other than family and friends, I think art is what makes life most worth living. While I love music, all the major genres, the fact of the matter is that I have no real musical talent. As I mentioned earlier, I learned to play trumpet passably as a kid. I got to the point of being able to punch out a few Herb Alpert tunes. Having the ability to read music, I taught myself to play piano, and I could manage to get through an abbreviated version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata at the height of my powers. I had no natural ability and it seemed I could not improve, so I gave it up in my twenties.
Sometimes I think some of the events in my life have been stranger than fiction, and I marvel that some of them have even occurred. One of the more unusual things in recent years is that I was actually the inspiration for a bit of fiction, "The Pope of Pontification," a short story written by my late mystery-writer friend and former colleague, Leon Barnes. The main character, based on me, is a consulting detective (in the tradition of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter brother!) helping a more traditional gumshoe. He plays the pivotal role in helping the latter to solve a murder case (without moving from his chair!) by rejecting the either/or logic of the law of the excluded middle, and by using the more indeterminate principles of so-called "fuzzy logic" in analyzing the evidence presented to him. The piece was published in a collection of short stories, and Leon gave me a copy inscribed with a nice dedication, which I cherish.
It is difficult to sum up one's life, but I think it might be accurate to say that I have had some dark moments, many more bright ones, and throughout, my life has seldom been dull. Perhaps the banality of a humdrum, lackluster existence is what I have sought most to avoid. I took a great many unnecessary risks earlier in my life, and I was lucky to have come through them all, mostly unscathed. It is interesting how only in retrospect are we able to see the importance of events that seemed ordinary or unimportant when they first occurred. In my case, encountering the right people at the right time has made all the difference in the salutary outcomes in my life. I am much more content today, with relative stasis and more tractable levels of excitement; yet, I continue to feel that I should have done more worthwhile things than I have, which, I suppose, amounts to a kind of vanity. Perhaps my most important accomplishment is being present and available during my daughter's formative years. As for competency as a parent, only she can really judge. Parenting is not something for which one can ever adequately prepare. But at the very least, I began with a pretty good idea about what not to do.
I hope to write more one day. There is more to say. In the meantime, I'll close with this: we are more than the sum of our genes and experiences, for in the course of our lives we also make choices about the future as rational beings with a common-sense understanding of right and wrong, notwithstanding our baser inclinations or antecedent experiences. At some point we own our lives, and we are solely responsible for our actions. The past need not be prologue, and we need not be slaves to our dispositions or desires. I cannot justify or excuse some of the things I've done, and I have no one to blame for them but myself. If I could live my life over again I'd like to do some things very differently, that's for certain. My biggest regret is that along the way I've hurt some people with my bad behavior. I've also had a full life and much of it has been rewarding. I have been very lucky, to be sure, and, from time to time, I should like to think I've also managed to do the right thing.