Irritating people with power is an unfortunate talent of mine. I’ve burned enough bridges in my life to cross the Mississippi, Amazon, Congo and Nile Rivers combined— at flood stage. In the fall of 1986, I added Jay Michaels to the list of people annoyed with me. Jay was the Executive Director of the California Medical Society (CMA), one of the most powerful organizations in California, which made Jay one of the most powerful people in California. He and I were working together on an effort to increase the state sales tax on tobacco. But ‘working together’ was a misnomer. Jay didn’t like my allies, he didn’t like me, and he didn’t like how I proposed we spend the revenues.
One day I had a phone call from two of his staff members, wanting to take me to lunch.
“OK,” I had responded, more than a little curious— make that massively curious. I also admit I was amused about going to lunch on Jay’s dollar. They suggested we meet somewhere Jay was unlikely to frequent.
“First, Curt,” they explained when we sat down, “understand that we aren’t here. This lunch is not taking place. We’d be fired if Jay knew we were meeting with you.” CMA, apparently, wasn’t paying for the lunch.
Looking back, I think it took a great deal of courage for the two of them to do what they did. They shared several things with me. Although they had reservations about the environmental programs I was supporting, they were totally behind my primary objective for the use of the tax funds, which was the prevention and control of tobacco use. They told me they would be as supportive as they could be, given the circumstances. Just as we were wrapping up, they gave me a warning. I suspect it was their primary reason for meeting with me.
“Jay was talking about you at a staff meeting last week and he smashed the pencil he was holding into the conference table. He hit the table so hard the pencil shattered.”
“He can destroy your career, Curt,” they told me in all seriousness. I laughed; I couldn’t help myself. It wasn’t about the pencil, which was scary. It was about the career. I had none to destroy. Given the worst-case scenario, I would scoot off into the woods. It is what I do to celebrate, but it is also what I do to lick my wounds. In fact, any excuse for taking off into the wilderness works for me.
A few months earlier I had returned from a major wound-licking session of backpacking alone for six months in the wildest places I could find in the western United States. Part of my therapy afterwards was taking on the tobacco tax, doing penance so to speak. The story of how I became involved, the campaign, and the end results of the effort will be the subject of my Friday essays for the next several weeks. Some of the tales I have blogged about before, others, such as the confrontation with Jay, I am writing about for the first time.
So join me next Friday when, suffering from depression, I left my job as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association and fled down the Alaska Highway toward an effort that would eventually become one of the largest, most successful prevention programs in history. I’ll even take you backpacking.