Auntie Fatcat's

Sit down, have a cookie, and chat for a spell.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Going to Disneyland

My name is Beverly, I'm thirty-seven years old, and I've never been to Disneyland.

As a child, I learned about Disneyland from several lucky, lucky kids I knew who had been there. They described a magical place full of nothing but rides, games, toy stores, junk food, fireworks, parades, and cartoons come to life--in short, kid heaven. The address of my fantasies quickly moved to southern California.

Alas, my parents' idea of a good, affordable family vacation tended to run more along the lines of car trips to visit relatives. Looking back, I was far from deprived. We got to go some cool places, like visiting my cousins in Colorado, and I got sent to every sort of camp imaginable: church camp, Girl Scout camp, 4-H camp, sports camps--yes, even band camp. All of these experiences probably provided at least some of the fun and a great deal more educational value than a trip to Disneyland. But I was still jealous of my mouse-eared friends.

Eventually I got over this by deciding that Disneyland was for babies. In college, caught up in newly discovered ideals about corporate greed and cultural sterilization, I even bragged about never having been there. By the time I developed the financial ability to go, I had convinced myself that Disneyland was not for "my kind." We were intellectual and sophisticated; our vacation spots would offer fabulous museums, amazing artistic performances, and historical character. And when our brains got full, we could always shop in darling little mom-and-pop boutiques and dine in a nice bistro.

A funny thing happened, though. An increasing number of people I had already firmly designated as "my kind" turned out to be big Disneyland fans. And they kept wanting me to go with them. Every time I'd say, "Nah, that's not really my sort of thing," they'd point out that I do, in fact, own and enjoy a number of Disney movies, or that most of the rides aren't designed to induce vomiting. They'd start speaking of the place in the same hushed-yet-excited tones that my childhood friends had used, and I found myself thinking, "Well, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. But I don't really care if I go or not."

Enter my friend Kathy. When my other friends said, "Let's go to Disneyland," they meant, "If you organize a trip to Disneyland, we'd love to tag along." When Kathy says, "Let's go to Disneyland," she means, "Unless you stop me, we're going to Disneyland." I haven't stopped her, so it looks like this October we're going to Disneyland.

Part of me is still nervous that I'll find the whole thing too busy, too cheesy, too tacky, too much. But if I get overwhelmed, I've decided to think of it as anthropology. I can explore and analyze an American pop-cultural icon while secretly finding out what kind of place could inspire grown, intelligent people to the excitement of children. At the very least, the next time I'm accused of being an elitist intellectual snob out of touch with the mainstream, I'll be able to say I've been to Disneyland.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Stuff We Don't Talk About: Politics & Taxes

I’m always surprised when I meet a smart, compassionate Republican.

This isn’t because I assume everyone who disagrees with me must be a selfish dumbass. I’ve known a number of intelligent people who opposed me on a variety of topics, and I’ve learned that other people are right disappointingly often. Most of the time, when somebody with brains disagrees with me, that’s my clue to look at the issue more closely. Even if I turn out to be right, chances are I’ll learn something.

Smart, compassionate Republicans confuse me because it seems clear that the vast majority of people are better off when the government follows traditionally liberal policies, particularly in tax policy. Maybe I’m missing something somewhere, but I can’t see much of anything in the Republicans’ anti-tax sound bites that isn’t strictly manipulative propaganda.

Republican politicians often try to bribe voters with tax cuts. Paying less is good—until you look at the ramifications of cutting taxes. First and most obviously, lower taxes means less revenue for the government. While I won’t try to argue that the government spends all its pennies wisely, I’m willing to bet it usually runs about as well as any real-life large organization can—at least as efficiently as most large corporations, which have their own tendencies toward Dilbert-style fraud and waste. And if “making government smaller” would necessarily make it more efficient, then Republicans ought to be arguing for breaking up Microsoft and Time/Warner/Everybody instead of screaming bloody murder that antitrust lawsuits jeopardize megacompanies’ ability to do business effectively. After all, seems like “what’s good for business is good for everybody” is the Republican Party mantra. So if we’re “running the country like a business,” growth is good, right?

Now if the government gets less money and can’t get significantly more efficient, it has to make up the difference. The George W. Bush method for handling this appears to be running up massive deficits and pretending it will all magically get better sometime far enough in the future that we don’t need to worry about it now. In the real world, the government usually bridges the gap by gutting public services. Raise your hand if you like having fewer cops, firefighters, teachers, food inspectors, animal control officers, garbage haulers, librarians, maintenance guys for roads, parks, and utilities, and similar folks taking care of things for you. When these budgets get slashed and these people go home, we citizens end up doing without or paying out of pocket for private security, private tutoring, road tolls, park fees, and so on. It’s like going to a restaurant where you used to be able to get spaghetti and meatballs with a salad for $10 and finding out the spaghetti is now $8, but they want $2 for the meatballs and $3 for the salad. Sure, nobody’s gonna make you get the meatballs and the salad, but if you do you pay more and if you don’t you get less. Either way, you can’t honestly say you’re better off.

I’ve heard Republicans argue in favor of “a la carte government,” insisting that people who use more services should pay more. Unfortunately for this theory, the heaviest users of government services are the folks who can’t pay more. All the fatcats like me already opt for premium private services whenever we can, because we’ve got the cash to blow and want better quality than the cost-cutting government can provide.

So what happens when you vote to cut taxes? If you’re poor, you don’t see any refunds (because you don’t make enough to pay much in taxes anyhow) and you get screwed out of the public services you depend on because you can’t pay the use fees for private ones. If you’re middle class, you get a couple hundred bucks back, but end up paying that and more to make up for public services you lost, or else you do without. If you’re rich, you get back a wad of cash, keep using your private services like you always did, and walk away tsk-tsking that the government sure doesn’t provide much value anymore and maybe we should cut taxes again. (And if you think rich guys are chomping at the bit to use their tax refunds to create good-paying jobs for anybody in this country, I’ve got a Medicare prescription “discount” card to sell you.)

So it’s clear the poor and middle class, the vast majority of citizens, are better off without Republican tax cuts, thank you very much. But I’ll argue even we fatcats would do well to remember that our wealth relies to some extent on the overall success of the U.S. economy, and it’s hard for the economy to do well when too many of its own citizens can’t afford to buy the products it produces. Even with Wal-Marts providing cheap, imported sweatshop merchandise (thus helping Americans outsource their own jobs), average folks are accumulating huge debts in record numbers. It won’t be a happy time for the banking system when more and more of them default, particularly if the dead-broke government defaults along with them. Don’t think it can’t happen.

Finally, while our own kids may be privately educated, the kids whose public education we shortchange now will later be the idiot adults we have to deal with every day. You know, the ones who give us incorrect change, enter the wrong data on our credit reports, misfile our medical records, miswire our electrical systems, repeatedly screw up tasks for which we’re forced to employ them, and—fate have mercy—vote Republican.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Good Folks: Dr. Philip Nordquist

From time to time, I plan to regale you all with tales of some of the wonderful people who have influenced me. This year, one of my two favorite professors, Dr. Philip Nordquist, is retiring from Pacific Lutheran University after a long and storied career teaching European history to undergraduates. I originally wrote this essay for a memory book about his career, but since I didn't get around to doing this until some time after the request went out, I'm not sure it's going to make it into the book. So I thought I'd post it here, where it can kick off my Good Folks series.

My Life as a History Major in Business

At the end of my freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University, I decided to major in history. Almost everyone I knew immediately asked what I planned to do with a history degree. “Teach, I guess,” I answered, knowing this was what they expected to hear. A nagging voice in my head pointed out that a girl who hated digging up obscure research materials and who became nauseous at the thought of speaking in front of more than five people might not be the best choice for a career in academia. But I had my reasons for choosing history, and the primary one was Dr. Philip Nordquist.

I met Dr. Nordquist when he taught my first class in PLU’s innovative Integrated Studies program. I can’t remember the course title, but the class covered most of Western thought and culture from the Greeks through the beginnings of the Enlightenment. Immediately afterward, I started looking for ways to work his other classes into my planned English major. When I discovered that switching to history would let me take his classes and have him for my advisor, the deal was sealed. In the end, I only got to take two more courses from him: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But the lessons I learned from him then were among the most memorable of any I took away from my college years--and among the most useful in my later work as a game publishing company’s executive editor.

The first thing I noticed about Dr. Nordquist’s teaching style was that he always addressed his students formally. While it took me a while to get used to being called “Miss Marshall,” it did eventually teach me that demonstrating respect for those under his authority encouraged us to behave respectfully as well. Later on when I used this lesson in the business world, I found it also encouraged my subordinates to respect themselves, which made them more eager to contribute their ideas and energy.

Back in Integrated Studies one day, we were discussing the nature of the soul and whether animals had souls. Thinking of my beloved cat, I argued passionately that there was no reason to believe they did not. Dr. Nordquist heard me out and then said, “That was an interesting argument, Miss Marshall. If I may ask, are you a vegetarian, and are those leather shoes?” This taught me to consider all of the ramifications of a line of reasoning, not just the ones I was interested in at the moment. I have no doubt this helped me make better choices in my life and work.

As a straight-A perfectionist, I used to get very frustrated that Dr. Nordquist kept giving me A-minuses on my papers. I knew the same level of work had always earned me As before, and still did in my other classes. When I finally asked him about it, he said, “I know you can do better. And so do you.” Initially, I considered this a lesson in going the extra mile—the good being the enemy of the best and all that. But later on in my work life, it came back to me as a lesson in the importance of maintaining high standards even when it seems nobody notices the difference. Eventually, the CEO of my company credited my insistence on high editorial standards for our products as one of the things that shaped the company’s direction and made it successful.

On the first day of his Renaissance class, Dr. Nordquist went around the room and asked us all to state our majors. After each student answered, he mentioned how developments in his or her field of study influenced or were influenced by an event of the Renaissance. I walked away with the best lesson a writer or editor can learn: to discover the underlying interests of my audience and tailor my words to them. I can’t tell you how many times knowing this made the difference in my ability to explain or persuade effectively in writing.

When I took Dr. Nordquist’s class on the Middle Ages, my friend Dave Howell signed up as well. Dave had always had trouble with history classes; he just wasn’t able to focus on memorizing dates and names and places. But Dr. Nordquist often presented his lecture material in the form of stories that illuminated both the forces at work and the personalities involved. To this day, if I ask Dave about the Investiture Controversy, he might look at me blankly. But if I mention Henry IV waiting outside Canossa for Pope Gregory to forgive him, a light goes on and he remembers the whole thing, investiture and all. This taught me that the best way to present complex and possibly dry information is to turn it into a story about people--which proved very helpful in such endeavors as getting my departmental budget increased.

So yes, I chose to major in history--not because I wanted to teach or even had any idea what I would do with the degree, but because I knew I would learn the most from the best teacher, whatever the subject. And I was right. Though I know I disappointed Dr. Nordquist by choosing offices and meeting rooms over lecture halls and libraries, I hope he knows that the time and attention he lavished on me was not in vain. As he taught me, no matter what sort of work we end up doing, history most definitely teaches us something.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Making the Bed

My grandmother always used to say that there are only two good reasons to leave the house without making the bed: 1) it’s on fire, or 2) the contractions are less than five minutes apart. As a kid, I thought she was nuts. Why make it when you’re just going to mess it up again every night?

Flash forward thirty years. My husband and I are watching the episode of Friends in which Richard catches Monica remaking the bed because he did it wrong. As she explains that he has failed to tuck the sheets in properly and turn the bedspread so the pattern is facing the right way, I point to the television and scream “Yes! Yes!” Rick grins indulgently at me and says, “It figures that Monica would be just like you.”

How did this happen?

My friend Linda’s blog recommends the Flylady website, which offers housecleaning and organizing tips. While I don’t think the Flylady system is for me, she does have some useful ideas (meaning stuff I was already doing anyway). One of them is the idea of designating one little spot in your home that you always keep perfectly clean, tidy, and as it should be. That way, when chaos reigns around you and you get discouraged, you can look at your inspirational spot and tell yourself you’re not a failure because you at least got that one thing done properly.

Flylady suggests using the kitchen sink as your inspirational spot, but I find this too easy for a lazy fatcat like myself. (All it takes to keep your sink perfectly clean is to eat out all the time, which is tempting enough already.) Besides, there’s no place to sit in my kitchen, and I can’t really see my sink from anywhere else, so I can’t lovingly contemplate its sparkling beauty. No, I’m all about the bed.

For most of us, the bed is the part of the house where we spend the most time. It’s also the biggest thing in the room, so if it looks nice it makes the room as a whole look tidier. Even if you’re a control freak like Monica and me, it doesn’t take long to make it. You can do it in the morning as soon as the last guy is out of it (cats don’t count), and it’ll probably stay done all day, unlike the sink. And then you have this nice, big, flat surface on which you can spread out other things, knowing that you won’t be tempted to leave them out past bedtime.

But the best part of making the bed is that it’s all for me. Only people who have pajama rights (meaning people I allow to see me in my pajamas with no makeup and scary bed-head) are going to see it either way, and they mostly don’t care. So when I’m folding the top three inches of the sheet back over the blanket and tucking everything in tight, I’m telling myself that my own pleasure is worth the effort. Making the bed every day means acknowledging every day that it’s a good thing to take as much care with the tasks I do for myself as with those for other people.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lovingly contemplate my bed.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Stuff We Don't Talk About: Money

“So, by this time tomorrow,” said my friend and top boss Peter as we were sitting down to lunch, “you’ll be a millionaire.”

I knew, of course, that Wizards of the Coast’s shareholders had voted to sell the company to Hasbro for $325 million. I also knew how many shares that $325 million would be split among, and how many of those I owned. But I’m really not good with math, and until Peter said that, I hadn’t realized that my share would have seven figures in it.

“I guess so,” I said, distracted by attempts to do mental long division.

“What are you going to do with it?” Peter asked. “Promise me you won’t give it all away.”

“Ha ha, of course not,” I replied.

Actually, I thought giving a good part of it away sounded quite nice. I knew I didn’t need that kind of money. Wizards had been growing like mad for several years, and as one of the original employees I had risen with the tide to a significant place in the organization. I was earning a salary roughly twice what I had, at age 21, calculated to be the most I would ever need to make to live comfortably. Since then I had learned to define “comfortably” significantly more comfortably, but I still wasn’t prepared for the idea of being like the little Monopoly guy with the top hat and striped pants.

My mother comes from German Calvinist stock, folk who believe shit happens because you didn’t work hard enough. My father raised me to be a good liberal, firm in the belief that shit happens because greedy rich guys hoard more than they need. I decided to keep working hard, live comfortably off my salary, buy a few cool things, and squirrel the rest of that big check away in the bank until I could figure out what to do with it. Gifts and charitable contributions would figure prominently.

Then two things happened.

First, it turned out that Hasbro had some different ideas about how to run Wizards. My job, once stressful but fun, had become mostly just stressful, and I was getting tired. Though I still loved working with many of the people at Wizards, that alone couldn’t lift my spirits. I came to the conclusion that the joys of my job had meant more to me than the money, and nearly all the joys had left the building. Calvinist ancestors forgive me, I wanted out.

Second, the nice men at the bank had stopped laughing long enough to inform me that you can’t just plop that kind of money in a savings account; you have to invest it in stocks and bonds and financial instruments with a probable rate of return above the inflation rate, or else you effectively lose money. So I let them invest most of my money. Then Bill Clinton left the White House, the stock market crashed, and I found out how you lose money even more effectively.

There’s nothing like needing more and having less than I planned to make me sit down and do serious math. I figured out how much I’d need to keep living at the new “comfortably” level, take care of my extended family, and plan for my own golden years. Then I threw in what I thought was a reasonable cushion against further investment losses, family catastrophes, or other unforeseen expenses. Then I looked at the total.

Gee, being a millionaire ain’t what it used to be in old Monopoly Man’s day.

So my philanthropic dreams will have to wait. I still want to give away a big wad of cash someday, and if my investments do better, my planned-for catastrophes fail to materialize, or I find another job I can love, I’ll be grinning ear to ear as I write the checks. But in the meantime, I can settle for more modest grants: a house for my folks, a college education for my sister-in-law, school clothes for my niece, cheap loans to friends and siblings in need of houses, debt relief, or business startup costs.

Don’t worry, Peter; I’m still going with the new “comfortably.”

Friday, January 07, 2005

Pivot Questions

My favorite thing about Inside the Actors Studio is the list of questions that host James Lipton asks each of the guests toward the end of the episode. It’s called the Pivot Questionnaire, named after Bernard Pivot, who apparently used it on some French show a while back. Since we’re in the “getting to know me” phase of this blog, I thought I’d take a crack at answering the Pivot Questionnaire myself. (I’d love to hear any of your answers, too.)

What is your favorite word?
I actually keep a list of words I really like. The winner right now is toothsome, but there are a couple dozen runners-up, including widdershins, torpor, lachrymose, callipygian, and thews.

What is your least favorite word?
Like most editors, I despise utilize. It’s just use with a cheap suit on.

What turns you on?
Intelligence, more than anything. I prefer my intelligence in a nice emotionally stable sauce with a side of moral integrity, but even the plain stuff smells good to me.

What turns you off?
Willful stupidity. People who aren’t very bright but still try their best don’t bother me (much), but people whose brains have rusted shut invoke my desire to smite.

What is your favorite curse word?
For everyday usage, nothing beats the f-word. (I’m not normally so delicate, but I know my mom’s gonna read this.) I also like the old medieval swears, like God’s wounds or God’s balls. The really best swears, though, are Catholic swears, like my friend Lisa’s jumping Jesus cows. It doesn’t make enough sense to be blasphemous, yet it’s quite satisfying to say after you’ve just sneezed while brushing your teeth and gotten toothpaste all over the cat. Believe me, I know.

What sound or noise do you love?
My smaller cat purring herself to sleep at night. It’s very comforting, particularly when my husband’s away.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The hacking sound that means another round of “Find the Cat Barf” has begun.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d enjoy being a philanthropist--at least, I’d enjoy the part where I get to identify worthy causes and write them big checks. I’d probably be less good at raising and managing the funds, though. Any conversation that includes terms like financial instrument and equity assets tends to make my eyes glaze over.

If that didn’t work out, I think I’d make a pretty good advice columnist. My column would be something like Miss Manners, but instead of solving etiquette dilemmas, I’d help people sort out effective ways to say difficult or emotionally touchy things. Like how to tell your boss you deserve a raise, or how to persuade your spouse that having your in-laws over for a whole week is not a good idea, or how to answer questions like “Does this make me look fat?” I think I could handle that, and it’d be fun to see what kinds of questions people would come up with.

What profession would you not like to participate in?
Anything that involves making split-second decisions of life-or-death importance. Military, law enforcement, medicine, air traffic control, any of the sort of things they make movies and TV shows about because they’re so inherently fraught with drama. I can handle either weighty decisions or light-speed decisions, but not both at once.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I think all of us, in our hearts, want to hear the same thing: “I always loved you best.”

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


Last night on Inside the Actors Studio, Morgan Freeman said that when Clint Eastwood directs, he never says “Action!” or “Cut!” Instead, he says “Anytime” and “Well, that oughta do it.”

I’ve been thinking for some time that it would be cool to start a blog, but I’ve been afraid to say “Action!” What if I don’t have time to keep it up? What if I get engrossed in blogging and neglect all the other stuff I should be doing? What if all my friends and family (see, I’m not kidding myself about who’s gonna read this) get offended and/or bored and decide they don’t love me anymore?

Doing something new always brings out the irrational panic in me, even though I’ve got plenty of evidence to show that my fears are unfounded. My friend Mike ( manages to keep up his blog despite having both a full-time job and a small child, neither of which is an issue for me. My husband Rick ( posts infrequently, but always makes me think. My best friend Linda ( doesn’t try to post deep, important thoughts every day, but periodically shares recipes, advice, links, and other useful stuff. Even my 70-year-old father, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, has a blog ( They have all survived the experience, and everyone still loves them. (Some people probably love Mike even more since he started blogging, but then, he’s awfully clever and interesting.)

So a few months ago, I decided to go ahead and do this. But I waited for the right time. I thought maybe I’d write several entries first, so I could have backups for days when I didn’t have time to write. I’d write about deep stuff that would take too long to write about on a normal day, and then say “Action!” when I got a week’s worth of important thoughts lined up. I’d start on the deep stuff when my houseguests went home. Or when I had all my holiday prep done. Or when the holidays were over. Or when I got over being sick.

I’m still not really ready to say “Action!” But if you all are willing to bear with some fits and starts, and a mix of important and not-so-important stuff, I think I can say “Anytime.”

Well, that oughta do it.