Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Amen to that.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
For me, the classic tale still elicits an emotional response, especially the versions that come closest to Dickens’ original text. So in that spirit, I offer a couple of photos of our Xmas past, in our home in Connecticut where the holiday really felt like Christmas:
Friday, December 18, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
I’ve been reading John Updike’s last short story collection, My Father’s Tears, interspersing those stories with other things I read, treating them like the little gems they are. Since 9/11 though I’ve made it a point to avoid anything about that horrible day, just because it is so raw in memory. We could see the columns of smoke 50 miles away in Connecticut on that crystal clear day.
So it was some trepidation when I realized that Updike’s story “Varieties of Religious Experience” is about that very day; beginning with “THERE IS NO GOD: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall.” (He was from out of town, visiting his daughter and grandchild at their apartment in Brooklyn Heights.) To get through this story, written from various perspectives (including a woman on the ill fated flight that crashed in PA), I had to continually take deep, slow breaths, just to control my anxiety. Not that Updike capitalized on gruesome details, but there is the constant unreal undercurrent of the lunacy of that day. One knows where it is all going, and if this is what God is all about, anyone’s God, organized religion seems so hypocritical, a crutch or a means of justifying anything. One brief paragraph from the story encapsulates its essence:
Dan could not quite believe the tower had vanished. How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything. Thus was Dan, a sixty-four-year-old Episcopalian and probate lawyer, brought late to the realization that comes to children with the death of a pet, to women with the loss of a child, to millions caught in the implacable course of war and plague. His revelation of cosmic indifference thrilled him, though his own extinction was held within this new truth like one of the white rectangles weightlessly rising and spinning within the boiling column of smoke. He joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism. He had fought this wisdom all his life, with prayer and evasion, with recourse to the piety of his Ohio ancestors and to ingenious and jaunty old books – Kierkegarrd, Chesterton – read for comfort in adolescence and early manhood. But had he been one of the hundreds in that building – its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the color-enhanced stellar blooms of photographed supernovae, only unfolding not in aeons but in seconds – would all that metal and concrete have weighed an ounce less or hesitated a microsecond in its crushing, mincing, vaporizing descent?
I could not get the thought of 9/11 out of my mind Sunday when, for the first time in my life, although I had listened to various recordings in the past, I saw, heard, became immersed in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a magnificent, ambitious undertaking of the Palm Beach Opera, performed at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009
I still think the President could have devoted more of his first year to policies addressing what I called a “new economic morality.” Instead, he had focused more on healthcare, not that that is not also important. But Main Street seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of Wall Street and we are angry. Who truly believes the economic crisis is solved rather than being merely postponed? Let another generation deal with it, the same response of previous administrations. How long can we kick the proverbial can down the road? What kind of healthcare can this nation have if it is bankrupt?
So, I confess, I got caught up in “the dream,” the fantasy that one man, Mr. Obama, could make such a huge difference and in such a short time. I’ve been chastened by disillusion. The extent of my buying into the dream at the time is borne out by an email I had sent to a friend, a mother of a young family, suggesting she read my then recent blog entry. I quote this is below, and I conclude with that entire entry:
“Did you enjoy the inauguration? To me, it was one of those great moments in American history, and I am glad to have been around to witness it and not just read about it. What Obama does with this opportunity, is anyone’s guess but I pray it turns out well for your children’s sake and for those of my grandchildren, if I should be so lucky.
I had an interesting experience the day before the inauguration, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. First, I was plagued by dreams so I got up at about 5.00 am and began to write in my blog. It just flowed as if someone else was writing it. I usually don’t post stuff I write until I have time to ruminate about the piece and do some editing, but that morning was different. So here is what I wrote: http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2009/01/early-in-morning.html
After posting this, I went out for my usual walk as the sun was rising, wearing my radio earpiece. The station was playing the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, “I Have a Dream.” What a magnificent, poignant rhetorical piece, so apt on the eve of this particular Inauguration day. I had forgotten its details (although I watched it live in 1963). So as I walked, I listened, and suddenly in the western sky, with the rising sun, a broad, magnificent rainbow appeared. It deepened during my entire walk and as King’s speech ended it faded (I could get spiritual over this).”
Monday, January 19, 2009
Early in the Morning
It is early in the morning on the eve of President-elect Obama’s inauguration – in fact very early, another restless night. When it is so early and still outside, sound travels and I can hear the CSX freight train in the distance, its deep-throated rumbling and horn warning the few cars out on the road at the numerous crossings nearby.
Perhaps subconsciously my sleeplessness on this, the celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday, relates to the incongruous dreamlike images of the bookends of my political consciousness, from the Little Rock desegregation crisis of 1957, the freedom marches that culminated with the march on Washington in 1963 and Martin Luther King’s historic "I Have a Dream" speech, to the inauguration tomorrow of our first Afro-American President. All this breathtaking demonstration of profound social change in just my lifetime.
Much has now been said comparing Obama to Lincoln. In my “open letter” to Obama that I published here last May http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2008/05/open-letter-to-senator-obama.html I said “Your opponents have criticized your limited political experience, making it one of their main issues in attacking your candidacy. Lincoln too was relatively inexperienced, something he made to work to his advantage. Forge cooperation across the aisle in congress, creating your own ‘team of rivals’ as Doris Kearns Goodwin described his cabinet in her marvelous civil war history.”
The Lincoln comparison is now omnipresent in the press, not to mention his cabinet selections indeed being a team of rivals. But I am restless because of what faces this, the very administration I had hoped for: a crisis of values as much as it is an economic one. The two are inextricably intertwined.
I am reading an unusual novel by one of my favorite authors, John Updike, Terrorist. One of the main characters, Jack Levy laments: “My grandfather thought capitalism was doomed, destined to get more and more oppressive until the proletariat stormed the barricades and set up the worker’ paradise. But that didn’t happen; the capitalists were too clever or the proletariat too dumb. To be on the safe side, they changed the label ‘capitalism’ to read ‘free enterprise,’ but it was still too much dog-eat-dog. Too many losers, and the winners winning too big. But if you don’t let the dogs fight it out, they’ll sleep all day in the kennel. The basic problem the way I see it is, society tries to be decent, and decency cuts no ice in the state of nature. No ice whatsoever. We should all go back to being hunter-gathers, with a hundred-percent employment rate, and a healthy amount of starvation.”
The winners in this economy were not only the capitalists, the real creators of jobs due to hard work and innovation, but the even bigger winners: the financial masters of the universe who learned to leverage financial instruments with the blessings of a government that nurtured the thievery of the public good through deregulation, ineptitude, and political amorality. This gave rise to a whole generation of pseudo capitalists, people who “cashed in” on the system, bankers and brokers and “financial engineers” who dreamt up lethal structures based on leverage and then selling those instruments to an unsuspecting public, a public that entrusted the government to be vigilant so the likes of a Bernie Madoff could not prosper for untold years. Until we revere the real innovators of capitalism, the entrepreneurs who actually create things, ideas, jobs, our financial system will continue to seize up. That is the challenge for the Obama administration – a new economic morality.
It is still early in the morning as I finish this but the sun is rising and I’m going out for my morning walk. Another freight train is rumbling in the distance. I hear America singing.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
It is pure Russo except he steps outside his usual upstate mill towns and makes Cape Cod, California, Maine, and the mid-fucking West his setting. (Words in italics in this entry are quotes from the novel.)
The heart of the novel (for me) can actually be found in the acknowledgments: And finally, my gratitude to my mother, whose recent passing caused me to reflect more deeply on inheritance and all that the word implies. Not to mention love.
Compare that to a quote from the novel: The problem seemed to be that you could put a couple thousand miles between yourself and your parents, and make clear to them that in doing so you meant to reject their values, but how did you distance yourself from your own inheritance? You couldn’t prevent your hair from thinning or your nose from taking over the center of your face. Even worse, what if he hadn’t rejected his parents’ values as completely as he’d imagined. In fact, the protagonist, Jack Griffin, after a lifetime of trying to distance himself from his parents, says to his wife: “Since yesterday, maybe for a while before that, I’ve been wondering…” He stopped here, unsure how to continue, though what he’d been wondering couldn’t have been simpler. “I’ve been wondering if maybe I loved them. It’s crazy, I know, but…do you think that’s possible?”
The novel is about taking responsibility for one’s relationships, for one’s life, reconciling the inner voices of one’s parents. They haunt Griffin throughout the novel until he finally casts off his parents’ ashes into the waters of Old Cape Cod.
Like Griffin, I too was the reluctant witness to [my] parents’ myriad quarrels and recriminations. And like Griffin, I had to tip toe around my mother: …even his most benign comments set his mother off, and once she was on a roll it was best just to let her finish. Their respect for his privacy had been, he knew all too well, mostly disinterest.
As a young boy Griffin adopts a family, the Brownings, during one of his parents’ vacations on the Cape. (The Brownings had offered the refuge he needed, though any happy family would have probably served the same purpose…) During my childhood I sought out other families, any family, to escape from the oppression of my parents (and the humiliation they caused), who were locked in silent, and sometimes violent combat. Griffin writes a short story “The Summer of the Brownings” later in life in an attempt to understand and exonerate his complicity in the relationship: Far from resolving anything, the Browning story probably just explained how he’d come to be the husband and father he was instead of the one he meant to be.
Russo develops a touching counterpoint story to Griffin’s, that of Sunny Kim, a shy Korean boy who loves Griffin’s daughter, Laura, from childhood and towards whom Laura has always shown kindness, even love, but not on a conscious level. Griffin worries about Sunny’s awkwardness and about being somewhat ostracized at his daughter’s birthday party as a child. It clearly reminded Griffin of his own childhood to which his wife, Joy, says “Quit worrying. They’re just kids. They have to figure these things out.” “That’s the problem,” he said. “They already have it all figured out. Who’s cool, who’s not, who’s in, who’s out.” Nobody had to teach them either.
And when Laura’s best friend, Kelsey, is married more than a decade later, and Laura is there with her own husband-to-be, Andy, Griffin watches from afar again: Back at the reception tent, when they finally decided to call it a night, Laura had detached herself from her friends, all of whom still crowded the dance floor, and came over to whisper in her mother’s ear that Andy had proposed during that first dance while they’d been watching. It took Griffin’s breath away to think that in the very moment of her great happiness, his daughter had remembered Sunny Kim and come to fetch him into the festivities. And he felt certain that he’d never in his entire life done anything so fine.
And, finally, at Laura’s wedding to Andy, Sunny comments that Laura seems to be happy and in love, and Russo leaves the reader with the aching truth: LOVE Griffin thought, smiling. Only love made such a leap possible. Only love related one thing to all other things, putting all your eggs into a single basket – that dumbest yet most courageous and thrilling of economic and emotional strategies. ‘I think she is,’ he said, almost apologetically. His daughter was happy and deserved to be. Yet, sitting here in the dark, quiet bar with Sunny Kim, Griffin couldn’t help wondering if the worm might already be in the apple. A decade from now, or a decade after that, would Laura suddenly see Sunny differently? Griffin knew no finer, truer heart than Laura’s but even the best hearts, as her mother could testify, were notoriously unruly. Would some good, unexpected thing happen in his daughter’s life, something that caused her very soul to swell with pride and joy, whereupon she’d realize that the man she wanted to tell first and most wasn’t who she’d married today but the one who’d loved her since they were kids and who once, in the middle of the night, had trusted her enough to share his family’s shame? Would she understand that such trust and intimacy do not – indeed cannot – exist apart from consequence and obligation? Would she understand then what she didn’t yet suspect, that remembering Sunny Kim at the moment of her own great happiness at Kelsey’s wedding last year had been kind and generous, yes, of course, but also an unwitting acknowledgment of something yet hidden from her?
Indeed, as with all relationships, which ones develop as planned? We are after all, at best, improvising as we tumble along life’s journey, especially with our “inheritances” weighing upon us. All families are fucked up, observes Griffin at one point.
His relationship with his mother comes close to mine. He is forced to distance himself and his family from her and when his mother suggested she be the one to accompany Laura on the….College Tour, he put his foot down. “I’m sorry Mom,” he said, managing with great effort, not to raise his voice, but failing to keep the anger out of it, “but you don’t get to infect my daughter with your snobbery and bitterness. All that ends here, with me.” It had been a horrible thing to say, full of the very bitterness he was accusing her of. He regretted the words as soon as they were spoken, but there was no taking them back, nor could he quite bring himself to apologize.
In fact, that was Griffin’s plan all along: With respect to their families, Griffin had hoped to invoke a simple, equitable policy: a plague on both their houses….He had no intention of inflicting his parents on Joy or, when the time came, on their children.
When I remarried, my mother turned against my new wife (who she did not “approve” of as Griffin’s mother disapproved of Joy). This devolved into a cold war, my having to keep my new family safe by trying to break off any contact with her. Still she pursued us with invectives, accusations, chronicling hurts I was not even aware of, such as when my two-year old son (from the unapproved second marriage), said something innocent about “a punch in the nose” and my mother was outraged that we did not correct his “misbehavior.”
My father’s death became a catalyst in the war’s escalation. My “legal inheritance” was the contents of his desk and when I went back to my old childhood home, where my father had barricaded himself in my old bedroom in the attic, I went through the desk with my mother hovering over me to ensure that nothing “valuable” was taken for my younger son, the son of the “bad wife.” One thing led to another and before I knew it she was screaming obscenities at me and I rushed to my car promising I would never see her again and would never return. I left with my father's penknife, my only "inheritance."
I made good on my promise for many years, avoiding any contact with her. Those were among the our most peaceful family years, not something I was particularly proud of, but necessary – as Griffin felt, protecting his family from bitterness and derision.
One day I received a Valentine card from her – at my office to avoid acknowledgment of my new family -- and began to get calls from her there as well, which always started off in a strained pleasant way and moved quickly to strident tirades. I was forced to write her a letter to put an end to that. Richard Russo, if you are reading this, feel free to incorporate any part in a future novel and thank you for understanding us Griffins of the world.
Towards the end I made an effort at some reconciliation. My sons were now grown so they no longer needed to be protected. When we saw each other, we tried to avoid discussions of the past. After she had suffered a stroke and then a broken hip, I went to see her, alone, in an assisted living home. She was despondent and subdued and I knew she felt that her life was near its end. I walked her wheel-chaired, frail body in the garden. She patted my hand and her last words to me were, “you were always a good boy.” Three days later she was gone, almost exactly twenty years after my father. Since then “I’ve been wondering if maybe I loved them. It’s crazy, I know, but…do you think that’s possible?”
The last picture of my mother and myself before she died.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Remember that name, Copeland Davis.
Earlier in the year I was inspired to write about the Florida Sunshine Pops orchestra. And, I’ve written before about jazz performers who are in a class by themselves, both those who are well known and those who work mostly in local venues, performing mainly for the love of the Great American Songbook.
The other night we attended the first of the Florida Sunshine Pops concerts for the season, which was a tribute to Richard Hayman and the Boston Pops. Hayman was the principal arranger for the Boston Pops for some 30 years, and today at the age of 89 is still active as the conductor of the Florida Sunshine Pops. Also, as one of the original members of the Harmonica Rascals he can still play a mean harmonica! His arrangements of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film scores are legendary.
This first concert of the season had a special guest performer, someone we’ve seen before, Copeland Davis, whose prodigious talents as a pianist inspired a standing ovation at the end of his first piece with the orchestra, Didn’t We? He brings a rare mix of gifts to the keyboard – first abounding warmth that shines through his presence on the stage, but, foremost, his ability to fuse blues, jazz, pop, and classical in one piece. I have seen some great jazz pianists and the only ones I remember having this ability are the late Oscar Peterson and Claude Bolling. At one point in his performance, in the middle of an arpeggio, Davis turned to the audience, slyly smiling, as if to say, “look, Ma, no hands!” I will go out on a limb and predict that Copeland Davis is destined to go way beyond the Florida market. Although his You Tube performances were not recorded under the best conditions, depriving him of the showcase he deserves, here is one I loved:
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
I buy most of my books from Amazon, frequently from their partners which costs nearly nothing, except shipping. It is sort of ironic as this can undermine prices on their Kindle, but given my interest in the physical book itself, the Kindle is not for me. I’m not a Luddite, but there is nothing like handling a printed book.
When we were recently in Asheville, we made our regular visit to Malaprop’s, one of the great remaining independent bookstores. They usually have a good selection of autographed copies and a couple of years ago I bought Russo’s Bridge of Sighs there. I was looking for Russo’s new novel That Old Cape Magic. Disappointed they didn’t have one this time, I sought out the next on my list, E.L Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. It is the best Doctorow novel I’ve read since Ragtime and the World’s Fair.
Reading an autographed copy has its drawbacks. No turning back corners to be able to find favorite passages. No reading on the beach. Handle with care. After reading, it belongs under glass like a museum piece.
The book itself is beautiful, printed on antique eggshell paper with a deckle edge, set in the Caslon type face, an old style face in the same family as Garamond, the classic crispness of which almost cries out to the reader to savor every word. And Doctorow’s writing is of museum quality too in its stark clarity and beauty. There are four main characters in the book, the brothers Homer and Langley Collyer, New York City, and Time (or the passage of the same).
Homer is blind but he is the one who can see truths as the book’s narrator and in various parts of the book is the one who leads the sighted. “People my age are supposed to remember times long past though they can’t recall what happened yesterday. My memories of our long-dead parents are considerably dimmed, as if having fallen further and further back in time has made them smaller, with less visible detail as if time has become space, become distance, and figures from the past, even your father and mother, are too far away to be recognized. They are fixed in their own time, which has rolled down behind the planetary horizon. They and their times and all its concerns have gone down together.”
A “Theory of Replacements” obsesses Langley, his older brother. “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.” Consequently, Langley lives his life collecting newspapers, categorizing stories, preparing what would be a “perpetual newspaper.” “He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need. For five cents, Langley said, the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example. The reader will always be up to date, and au courant with what is going on. He will be assured that he reads of indisputable truths of the day including that of his own impending death, which will be dutifully recorded as a number in the blank box of the last page under the heading Obituaries.” Langley devolves into an antisocial eccentric, hoarding everything he finds, including his newspapers.
Doctorow’s story is somewhat based on the real life of the Collyer brothers who lived in New York City but it only serves as a loose sketch for the canvas of this tour de force. An odyssey of people, representative of time’s passing, drift in and out of their home, inherited from their parents, people from the depression, to WW II, to the Vietnam era, and the flower generation. While the brothers wage war with New York, the utility companies, and their neighbors, their home slowly degrades as time has its way and they withdraw from life itself.
Homer is a gifted pianist, the artist in the work, clearly Doctorow’s voice and sensibility. Homer has had one true love in his life, Mary Elizabeth Riordan, who, like everyone else in the novel, transits through the Collyer home never to return. She was his “prompter” in a silent movie theatre, whispering the changing scenes on the screen in his ear so he could play the appropriate music, his only job when he was younger. Then, she becomes his piano student and finally she leaves, becoming a Sister and a missionary in far away places, Homer occasionally receiving a letter. She is apparently murdered in Central America. Homer laments, “I am not a religious person. I prayed to be forgiven for having been jealous of her calling, for having longed for her, for having despoiled her in my dreams. But in truth I have to admit that I was numbed enough by this awful fate of the sister to be not quite able to connect it with my piano student Mary Elizabeth Riorden. Even now, I have the clean scent of her as we sit together on the piano bench. I can summon that up at will. She speaks softly in my ear as, night after night, the moving pictures roll by: Here it’s a funny chase with people hanging out of cars…here the hero is riding a horse at a gallop…here firemen are sliding down a pole…and here (I feel her hand on my shoulder) the lovers embrace, they’re looking into each other’s eyes, and now the card says…’I love you.’ ”
And as at the end of a silent movie the lens slowly closes and Homer cannot “see to see.”
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
That sets the macro economic scene, which has been compound with the crisis of the last couple years. More recently investors have flocked to riskier assets as the Fed has flooded the markets with liquidity and driven interest rates to nothing. Unless the real economy grows substantially, this has to end badly when the Fed reverses course. For this reason, Gross believes asset prices might be peaking.
Gross is certainly one of the more literate, philosophical money managers around, and his prefatory remarks set the stage in that venue. As one who is about Gross’ age, I identify with his feelings about being “Everyman.” I suspect he has read Philip Roth’s novel of the same title, but that’s another matter.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I have selected some salient points from the speech and post them here. If you read these, go to the entire speech, as quotes out of context cannot convey the full measure of Einhorn’s well-reasoned arguments. While his value oriented investing style will remain his approach, the current crisis has convinced him to include gold in his portfolio, something most value investors find antithetical.
I wonder what he thinks about the rise of the Dow to more than 10,000, a sixty percent “recovery” from its earlier lows. Late last year I had posted a summary of the Wall Street Journal’s headlines all of which were decidedly negative, the perfect contrarian indicator. Now, the market is being bid up with talk of green shoots and improving earnings. An anecdotal observation regarding the latter is the recently announced “improved” earnings (that is, a positive comparison to expected earnings, not normalized ones) of many of the Dow’s major components seem to be accompanied by a shortfall in revenue, in other words earnings that come as a result of cost cutting, particularly layoffs and hiring freezes. Corporations cannot sustain earnings growth without revenue growth and the latter cannot happen while real unemployment rates stubbornly remain in double digits leaving the consumer on the ropes.
The illogical exuberance of the market lately is in lock step with the dollar’s decline as interest rates have also disappeared into a black hole. Stocks have just become another commodity, with a more limited supply than the government’s ability to manufacture dollars. As the headlines of almost a year ago signaled a bottom, perhaps the recent introduction of the Porsche Panamera, a $133,000 four door sedan with a 500 horsepower twin turbo V8 that can reach 60 mph in a mere 4 seconds – the perfect car for the bailed-out gang on Wall Street in this energy-challenged age – foreshadows a new bubble.
Here are some salient points from David Einhorn’s speech (Value Investing Congress David Einhorn, Greenlight Capital, “Liquor before Beer… In the Clear” October 19, 2009) which should be read in its entirety here:
* As I see it, there are two basic problems in how we have designed our government. The first is that officials favor policies with short-term impact over those in our long-term interest because they need to be popular while they are in office and they want to be reelected. …. Paul Volcker was an unusual public official because he was willing to make unpopular decisions in the early ’80s and was disliked at the time. History, though, judges him kindly for the era of prosperity that followed. Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly “do whatever it takes” to “solve one problem at a time” and deal with the unintended consequences later.
* The second weakness in our government is “concentrated benefit versus diffuse harm” also known as the problem of special interests. Decision makers help small groups who care about narrow issues and whose “special interests” invest substantial resources to be better heard through lobbying, public relations and campaign support…. [A]t some level, Americans understand that the Washington-Wall Street relationship has rewarded the least deserving people and institutions at the expense of the prudent. They don’t know the particulars or how to argue against the “without banks, we have no economy” demagogues. So, they fight healthcare reform, where they have enough personal experience to equip them to argue with Congressmen at town hall meetings. As I see it, the revolt over healthcare isn’t really about healthcare, but represents a broader upset at Washington.
* The financial reform on the table is analogous to our response to airline terrorism by frisking grandma and taking away everyone’s shampoo, in that it gives the appearance of officially “doing something” and adds to our bureaucracy without really making anything safer. With the ensuing government bailout, we have now institutionalized the idea of too big-to-fail and insulated investors from risk. The proper way to deal with too-big-to-fail, or too inter-connected to fail, is to make sure that no institution is too big or inter-connected to fail. The test ought to be that no institution should ever be of individual importance such that if we were faced with its demise the government would be forced to intervene. The real solution is to break up anything that fails that test.
(As a follow up to this last point, see today’s New York Times article: “Volcker’s Voice Fails to Sell a Bank Strategy: The former Fed chief said the giant banks must be broken apart and separated from risky trading on Wall Street, a view not shared by many in the White House”)
* Over the next decade the welfare states will come to face severe demographic problems. Baby Boomers have driven the U.S. economy since they were born. It is no coincidence that we experienced an economic boom between 1980 and 2000, as the Boomers reached their peak productive years. The Boomers are now reaching retirement. The Social Security and Medicare commitments to them are astronomical. When the government calculates its debt and deficit it does so on a cash basis. This means that deficit accounting does not take into account the cost of future promises until the money goes out the door.
* [T]he Federal Reserve is propping up the bond market, buying long-dated assets with printed money. It cannot turn around and sell what it has just bought. ….Further, the Federal Open Market Committee members may not recognize inflation when they see it, as looking at inflation solely through the prices of goods and services, while ignoring asset inflation, can lead to a repeat of the last policy error of holding rates too low for too long.
* I subscribed to Warren Buffett’s old criticism that gold just sits there with no yield and viewed gold’s long-term value as difficult to assess. However, the recent crisis has changed my view. The question can be flipped: how does one know what the dollar is worth given that dollars can be created out of thin air or dropped from helicopters? Just because something hasn’t happened, doesn’t mean it won’t. Yes, we should continue to buy stocks in great companies, but there is room for [another] view as well. I have seen many people debate whether gold is a bet on inflation or deflation. As I see it, it is neither. Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Gold did very well during the Great Depression when FDR debased the currency. It did well again in the money printing 1970s, but collapsed in response to Paul Volcker’s austerity. It ultimately made a bottom around 2001 when the excitement about our future budget surpluses peaked. Prospectively, gold should do fine unless our leaders implement much greater fiscal and monetary restraint than appears likely. Of course, gold should do very well if there is a sovereign debt default or currency crisis.
* For years, the discussion has been that our deficit spending will pass the costs onto “our grandchildren.” I believe that this is no longer the case and that the consequences will be seen during the lifetime of the leaders who have pursued short-term popularity over our solvency.
On the lighter side of things, here is something I caught at Westport Now, the online newspaper that covers Westport, Connecticut, where I worked for so many years. Our first office was built on the site of an old New England lumber yard, on the Saugatuck River at 51 Riverside Avenue, and I recognized the building, the one on the left, in Westport Now’s recent photograph, the same fall colors ablaze as I remember them nearly forty years ago…
Thursday, October 15, 2009
In Asheville, we visited with our friends, Irene and Pete, who also relocated there from Florida a few years ago. They now have second thoughts about having made the move while sometimes I have had second thoughts about moving to Florida from Connecticut. Perhaps one’s preference boils down to a whimsical perspective on the moonrise.
Returning to Florida, we were greeted by a few unwelcome notices, thanks to the economy and new county and local “budgets.”
Unlike the federal government, which can run deficits ad infinitum, state and municipal governments can’t print money and must have a balanced budget. So far so good. During this Great Recession, with declining receipts from sales and property taxes, they must either cut budgets or increase revenue. After years of bloated budgets, thanks to the chimerical prosperity since the last downturn, any cutback would have to be drastic to align itself with reality. The path of least resistance is to find ways of separating the taxpayer from his money in a stealth-like fashion.
Case in point, we returned to multiple notices of a speeding ticket (made out to me, although my wife was driving) from our neighboring community, Juno Beach. This ticket was issued by an automated camera in the back of a van operated by LaserCraft, a company in Georgia. One is instructed to send the $125 fine to Georgia; probably LaserCraft getting the majority and Juno Beach the smaller share, but a small percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing.
This is the most nefarious kind of revenue raising tactic, with the taxpayer being forced to pay a fine without being able to face the accuser (there is a $50 fee to file an appeal, one you are warned you are sure to lose). Non-payment results in being turned over to a collection agency, with all the attendant credit history ramifications. The “evidence” is two photographs of our car clearly showing it in front of and behind other cars in a lane so presumably every car received a ticket. Desperate economic times dictate desperate tactics for municipalities, and this is one of the worst. Lest one thinks that this is typical FloriDUH and it can’t happen here (wherever that might be), if Juno Beach gets away with this (there is a suit in court to overturn this), other cities will surely follow and why not automated cameras on Interstates as well?
Then, as our Florida home is our primary residence, it is “protected” under the Save our Homes act, the property tax increase one year over the next being capped at 3% or to the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less. Read the fine print – that is during good times only. Palm Beach County property market value has decreased so much that it has simply frozen or reduced the “appraised value” of homes (thereby staying within the 3% cap), and increased the tax rate to take up the slack. (From the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser: A property's assessment could stay the same or go down but property taxes could go up any given year because of millage increases levied by your local taxing authorities). Why bring a budget in line with the economic times when it is easy to pick the pocket of the taxpayer? PBC tax rate will increase 15% over last year.
We are told there is no inflation, that this is a deflationary economy. It is true that there is no investment return to be found on our woefully declining US dollar, and no doubt there is asset deflation (e.g. homes), but consumer inflation is alive and well, the manipulated CPI not reflecting the real rise in the cost of living. Unemployment continues to grow (albeit at a declining rate) and until there is sustained employment growth – real growth – the recovery forecasted by the market is suspect (it’s time to “party” as the Dow passes 10,0000, Leo Kolivakis writes in his Pension Pulse blog)
Bottom line: if you want job security, retirement and health insurance benefits, work for your local government.
Welcome Home Taxpayer!.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
It was mid morning when we walked into the lobby of the Sultanhan Hotel in Istanbul after a 10 hour overnight flight, the beginning of a land/ship tour of the region. Another couple, obviously American and about our age, were checking in as well. We smiled at them; they smiled back. My wife said, “Are you in Istanbul for the Greek Island cruise?” “Oh, sure” I said to myself, what are the odds? “Yes,” they replied and before I knew it we had arranged dinner plans for later that evening.
Although we hadn’t slept much during the flight, after unpacking and getting organized, we took a typical tourist double-decker bus tour of this complicated, energetic city, the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque predominately perched in its center, and the Bosporus River isolating the western part of the city in Europe and the Eastern part in Asia. We were looking forward to the following two days when we would return to see those major sites in detail and even take a boat tour on the Bosporus to the point where Europe and Asia almost touch.
That night we had dinner with Stuart and Gloria, a little younger than we, but retired as well. Stuart said that he was looking for a word that might describe a vacation by a retired person (who is already on a permanent vacation). I suggested “recation” so if you see that word used, you now know its derivation!
After a lovely Turkish dinner on the rooftop of our hotel, with a view of the Blue Mosque glowing in the distance, we returned to our rooms exhausted, hopefully to sleep, getting ready for a demanding day of touring. Following a restless night, we awoke to rain (we were told it never rains in Istanbul!). Naturally we hadn’t packed an umbrella so we were left to “caveat emptor” on the rainy streets of Istanbul.
Soon after buying our knock off ‘Burberry’ umbrella and underway again, we noticed a young Turkish man was walking alongside us on the street. “Hold onto your pocketbook” I telegraphed to my wife, but he said, in polite, broken English “Hello, where are you from?” Maybe it was our sleepy fog, but we replied honestly and added that we were trying to find the Hagia Sophia, as the windswept rain made it difficult to get our bearings. He respectfully suggested that we visit the Blue Mosque first – which we admitted was our second destination – further explaining since it was the period of Ramadan that by noon we would not have access to the Mosque due to the frequent calls to prayer. He said he would take us there, to a “special entrance” but he would “appreciate it” if we would briefly visit his shop nearby after we see the Mosque. So there’s the catch I thought. If it were not for the rain, we would have gone on our way, but we said sure and true to his word, we avoided the main entrance which was mobbed with rain soaked tourists, and instead escorted to a rear stairway –still crowded but at least moving briskly up and into this back entrance, whereupon we were required to remove our shoes.
And so we entered the Blue Mosque, which is the national Mosque of Turkey, built in the early 1600’s, combining Islamic architecture as well as Byzantine elements. The interior is striking with its ceramic tiles, stained glass windows, chandeliers, crafted marble, and of course the amazing sweep of the carpeting on which hundreds of worshipers turn toward Mecca in Muslim prayer. The crowds were maddening though, so we soon made our way out through the exit, putting our shoes back on, and sure enough our “guide” was waiting for us.
We dutifully followed him (a deal is a deal) to his rug store nearby, which turned out to be a pleasant experience and we learned a little about the making of beautiful Turkish rugs, and were served some of Turkey’s famous hot apple tea…. a welcome drink on such a wet day. Although we made it clear that we were not in the market to buy a rug, they were respectful, and hoped we would “recommend” their store and so after a 15-minute detour, we amicably parted.
By then, the rain had cleared and we were on our way to the Hagia Sophia which was built as a basilica in the sixth century, survived fires and earthquakes, but after Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in the 15th century was rebuilt as a Mosque. It is now a museum and a testimony to the civilizations that built and rebuilt the structure.
From there we had a typical Turkish luncheon at a sidewalk café and began our walk to the Grand Bazaar where you negotiate your own price in the oldest covered market in the world – built before Columbus discovered America. The shops go on as far as the eye can see. And in spite of the shop owners clearly wanting to part you from your money, we left with the feeling that the people were friendly. In fact, everyone we met in Istanbul was wonderful.
That night we had a date with Stuart and Gloria for dinner again, this time at a very popular fish restaurant, mostly frequented by locals – which we were told offered the freshest seafood, “Easy to get to” our hotel receptionist assured us, marking it on a map that was not very detailed, “in walking distance.”
So the four of us started off, arm in arm, umbrellas overhead as the rain had returned once again. Most of our search was along ancient cobblestone streets and it was getting to the point, in the rainy darkening night that we were thinking we were entirely lost and perhaps getting into a section of town tourists should avoid. We began to ask people on the street where this restaurant might be but they generally shrugged their shoulders, until one gentleman -- more or less in sign language indicated he was going that way and he will take us. After silently following him through a labyrinth of back and twisting roads we began to wonder, even be concerned. Ten minutes later, with the restaurant not in sight, we were thinking of breaking off from him, but he kept waving his arm as we followed behind. And sure enough he led us to our destination; where we tried to offer him a thank you tip but he resolutely refused our gesture of gratitude. He was simply being a Good Samaritan.
It was an atmospheric outdoor restaurant, with an overhead awning. The rain had stopped but later during our dinner the rain became intense and waiters had to hold up the awning with broomsticks to keep everyone dry. It was an experience. No way did we want to venture back to the hotel on foot so they called a cab. With Ramadan services finished for that day, the streets were now crowded with worshipers who could finally break their day long fast to eat and drink.
The next day we were scheduled to board our cruise ship at 1.00 pm, although the ship was staying in Istanbul that night, so we devoted the morning to seeing the Topkapi Palace. Our son had been there the previous summer and warned us to get there early, as the crowds by mid morning would be swarming.
This was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years, that period ending in the mid 19th century. We entered the Imperial Gate and toured the Imperial Treasury and its collection of enormous and breathtaking jewels and then the mosque in the palace where an Imam was chanting from the Koran, it being translated into English on a screen. No doubt the most interesting part was the Harem where the sultans’ families were housed, the Courtyard of the Sultan's Consorts and the Concubines, and the privy chambers.
After a light lunch at the Palace overlooking the Bosporus River, we made our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags and taxi off to the ship to meet our friends, Ray and Sue, who were arriving later that day from Connecticut and joining us on this trip.
We boarded Oceania’s ‘Nautica,’ a relatively small ship of some 650 passengers and looked forward to our friends’ arrival. By the time they finally boarded late in the evening, we heard one of those “thank-God-it-didn’t-happen-to-us” stories, hours on the tarmac, repairs to the plane, missing their connection in London, having to be rerouted. We finally had a late dinner in the main dining room, an elegantly appointed space in the stern of the ship. Since we would be in port until 3.00 pm the following day, allowing for a final day to see Istanbul, Ray and Sue took the city tour and we boarded a small boat for a cruise on the Bosphorus, where we could view the entire city from the shoreline and work our way up to the point where Asia and Europe nearly connect. The tides were running strong. Small fishing fleets were on the river as well. The water had debris as flooding only a few days before we arrived had inundated Turkey. Stuart and Gloria were on the same tour so we were able to reconnect, take some photos of one another and enjoy the scenery together.
We returned to the ship to prepare for our departure, a cruise that ultimately took us 2,272 nautical miles, to Kusadasi, Rhodes, Delos, Mykonos, Santorini, Katakolon, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Crete, and finally Athens. The trip was all the more remarkable as while we learned about the development, conflicts, and ultimate demise of ancient civilizations, I was reading John Updike’s Self Consciousness, the closest he ever came to writing a formal memoir. So, juxtaposed to the colossal sweep of civilizations over millenniums, I listened to the introspective musings of a solitary man, both concerned about a core element of our lives, the ephemerality of existence, and our need to make sense of moving from nothingness to nothingness as we attempt, as individuals, and as civilizations, to mark our place: we were here.
Updike: “Those who scoff at the Christian hope of an afterlife have on their side not only a mass of biological evidence knitting the self-conscious mind tight to the perishing body but a certain moral superiority as well: isn’t it terribly, well, selfish, and grotesquely egocentric, to hope for more than our animal walk in the sun, from eager blind infancy through the productive and procreative years into a senescence that, by the laws of biological instinct as well as by the premeditated precepts of stock virtue, will submit to eternal sleep gratefully? Where, indeed, in the vast spaces disclosed by modern astronomy, would our disembodied spirit go, and, once there, what would it do?”
Kusadasi, our first port of call, is the gateway to Ephesus, an archaeological site in Turkey that has the remains of an ancient city that can be traced back to 10th century BC. Here we saw the two-story Library of Celsus, remains of temples, the city’s shops, and its theatre, which is considered to be the largest theatre from the ancient world. Ephesus was also the home to Paul and one of the birthplaces of early Christianity.
The Ephesus terrace houses are perched on a hill. Here the wealthy lived during Roman times. These are under cover and archeologists are putting these homes back together as a giant jigsaw puzzle, but they have constructed walkways so one can tour this site without interfering with this continuing work. Mosaics on the floor and frescos on the walls as well as the remnants of the homes’ heating and sanitation systems are a time capsule from the past.
As with many of the archeology sites we saw on this trip, one civilization replaces another, one layer on the other, the inevitable rise and fall, and it makes one wonder about our present “American civilization” – is it in its waning years as a political and economic power?
Updike: “…my first books met the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say: I, who seemed to myself full of things to say, who had all of Shillington to say, Shillington and Pennsylvania and the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America to say, and who had seen and heard things in my two childhood homes, as my parents’ giant faces revolved and spoke, achieving utterance under some terrible pressure of American disappointment, that would take a lifetime to sort out, particularize, and extol with the proper dark beauty. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea – this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of ‘the Battle Hymn of the Republic’ seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the honing of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.”
Thursday, September 3, 2009
As Malanga states: “What would Tocqueville or Weber think of America today? In place of thrift, they would find a nation of debtors, staggering beneath loans obtained under false pretenses. In place of a steady, patient accumulation of wealth, they would find bankers and financiers with such a short-term perspective that they never pause to consider the consequences or risks of selling securities they don’t understand. In place of a country where all a man asks of government is “not to be disturbed in his toil,” as Tocqueville put it, they would find a nation of rent-seekers demanding government subsidies to purchase homes, start new ventures, or bail out old ones. They would find what Tocqueville described as the “fatal circle” of materialism—the cycle of acquisition and gratification that drives people back to ever more frenetic acquisition and that ultimately undermines prosperous democracies.”
Malanga’s full analysis of the topic is well worth reading.
On the eve of President Obama’s inauguration I wrote “The winners in this economy were not only the capitalists, the real creators of jobs due to hard work and innovation, but the even bigger winners: the financial masters of the universe who learned to leverage financial instruments with the blessings of a government that nurtured the thievery of the public good through deregulation, ineptitude, and political amorality. This gave rise to a whole generation of pseudo capitalists, people who “cashed in” on the system, bankers and brokers and “financial engineers” who dreamt up lethal structures based on leverage and then selling those instruments to an unsuspecting public, a public that entrusted the government to be vigilant so the likes of a Bernie Madoff could not prosper for untold years. Until we revere the real innovators of capitalism, the entrepreneurs who actually create things, ideas, jobs, our financial system will continue to seize up. That is the challenge for the Obama administration – a new economic morality.”
I still await that new economic morality.
Meanwhile, since the National Debt passed $11 trillion in March, the markets have moved strongly on the upside, led by the financials, anticipating a recovery from the Great Recession. I see little difference in the general shape of our financial institutions other than the federal government (uh, we the taxpayers) standing ready to bail out any deemed to pose a systemic risk to the system. As of the end of August the National Debt now stands at $11.8 trillion, so over the next several weeks that will undoubtedly pass the $12 trillion mark. That’s $1 trillion in additional debt in only 6 months. I make this observation in advance as this blog will go silent for several weeks while are traveling overseas.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Such are the ironies of life, a reversal of immigrants flocking to American shores in pursuit of employment and a richer, happier life.
For years Gish Jen’s Typical American (Houghton Mifflin, 1991) had sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I first heard about the novel from a PBS program NOVEL REFLECTIONS ON THE AMERICAN DREAM, but it was the recent extended stay of my son, Jonathan, in Shanghai that led me to finally read the novel, and to better understand the Chinese, and their assimilation into American culture. Also, I did business with the China National Publications Import Export Corporation and was impressed by their selection and importation of books we published over the years so I was curious about Jen’s novel.
I expected a story about what it means to be a foreigner in a foreign land, especially the vicissitudes of being Asian in America soon after WW II, and while there are those elements, it reminded me more about the misinterpretation of the American dream, the illusion of prosperity being the definition of a meaningful life.
What does it mean to be, or become a “typical American?” The Chang family is at first derisive of their concept of the “typical American” until they begin to desert their traditional work ethic, moral groundings, and family loyalty as they become “typical Americans” themselves, enduring a tragedy to bring their values back into balance.
This is not a conventional story about immigrants, but, instead, is a very well written novel about what freedom and responsibility mean in relation to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in a land that “promises” no limits. Or as Ralph Chang discovers: “What escape was possible? It seemed to him…that a man was as doomed here as he was in China….He was not what he made up his mind to be. A man was the sum of his limits; freedom only made him see how much so. America was no America.”
And the writing is wonderful: “And then there was another pain too, quieter, weightier, its roots in what everybody knows – that one day a person looks back more than forward, that one day he’ll have achieved as much as he was going to, loved as much as he was going to, been as happy as it was granted him to be. And that day, won’t he have to wonder – was it enough, what he’s lived? Can he call that a life and be satisfied?”
And isn’t that the essence of the dream, and of any culture?
Saturday, August 15, 2009
“Finally, the death in January of novelist and critic John Updike must not go unremarked. The last two novels in his tetralogy about the fictional Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom -- Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) -- capture the world of work as few novels have. If the Toyota dealership in which Harry flourishes (in Rich) and then sees destroyed by his son Nelson's cocaine habit (in Rest) does not quite make him a conscious capitalist, it comes pretty close. The four works together, including Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux, are also the closest thing I know to the great American novel.”
It is hard to accept that our greatest and most prolific writer is dead. I am presently reading Updike’s short story “Personal Archaeology” from his last collection, My Father’s Tears, which begins, “In his increasing isolation – elderly golfing buddies dead or dying, his old business contacts fraying, no office to go to, his wife always off at her bridge or committees, his children as busy and preoccupied as he himself had been in middle age – Craig Martin took an interest in the traces left by prior owners of his land.” It is a perfectly crafted story about the passage of time and our place in the continuum. More on that story and the collection later.
Friday, August 14, 2009
You can’t go home again. There are certain memories you should put away in the museum of your mind, leaving them perfectly preserved in their protective cases.
In a sense, the many days we spent boating to Block Island have become such a treasure. Perhaps that is one of the reasons when we last left the Great Salt Pond of Block Island a few years ago, I suspected we might never return. Not having gone back, that sense of not wanting to revisit what had such an impact on our lives, has been reinforced with each passing year.
Those were our adult to later middle years and now, with our children grown, and with the rigors of boating becoming more challenging as we age, not to mention the explosive expense of fuel and dockage, Block Island is now just a wonderful memory.
For us the journey began in our little 28’ boat in 1984 -- ‘Spindrift’-- equipped with not much more than a compass and a VHF so our ninety mile trip from Norwalk, CT through the infamous “Race” with its frequent fog, turbulent water and numerous fishing boats to navigate around, into the Block Island Sound, exposed to ocean swells, and finally into the Great Salt Pond of Block Island, was an adventure. We relied on compass headings and visual sightings of certain buoys, zigzagging our way there.
The first couple of years of venturing to Block we tried the docks at both Champlain’s and the Block Island Boat Basin, the advantage of the former being its salt water pool that our then 8 year old Jonathan loved, and the latter their floating docks – easier on and off the boat and no rafting (boats tied together, strangers trouncing across your boat to get to the dock).
Here I must detour in the story of our Block Island days. At this time we befriended Ray and Sue who have a son about the same age as Jonathan. Then we were at the same Marina, Norwest Marine in Norwalk. I briefly mentioned Ray in my article on Crow Island but I failed to mention how critical he has been to the story of our boating life.
Ray was my boating mentor, and there could be no better one. Ann and I have joked that if we were marooned on a desert island, he would be the one person we would want at our side. Give him a roll of duct tape, rope and a few other materials and he will build you a cathedral. In boating you can find yourself in unpredictable situations and Ray has frequently bailed us out. One time we arrived at Block taking on water because one engine’s muffler had burst and in the infinite wisdom of the boat manufacturer, this was below the water line. No problem for Ray, who immediately sized up the situation and decided to temporarily plug the exhaust with a large plastic coke bottle, a perfect, secure fit, stopping the leak until we could replace the muffler.
Continuing the story, my friend John was flying over to Block where he had left his boat with his wife Cathy and their two children, and he said, no problem, picking up a replacement muffler and between Ray and John, the repair was made, a perfect example of boating camaraderie and cooperation.
Ray showed us the path into Crow Island, long before the GPS made it a more accessible destination and it was there that our families spent countless weekends. Due in large part to his encouragement, in 1985 we bought a 37’ powerboat, and as a much younger man, I fearlessly took our new ‘Swept Away’ all over the Long Island Sound and its ports on Long Island and Connecticut sides, plus Newport, Cuttyhunk, Edgartown, and Nantucket for several summer vacations in subsequent years.
We cruised to those ports without Ray and his family as by that time he was convinced that there was only one port really worth going to, settling down for his summer vacation on their 44’ ‘Rascel’, at Block Island, and, specifically Payne’s Dock.
So, on our way back from one of our more distant ports we would stop at Payne’s to visit for a few days and, gradually, like Ray and Sue, we found ourselves spending more and more of our vacation time at Block until, we too, found ourselves going there for our entire summer vacations.
Payne’s is an enigmatic place, a community like no other we’ve visited on the water. It’s not just a dock, but an ongoing event, the same boaters showing up at about the same time, and settling into routines as mundane as hanging around waiting for the coffee to be made at the top of the dock, ordering a few or more of the homemade donuts we lovingly referred to as “sinkers”, sitting around the ancient wooden picnic tables sipping coffee in the frequently fogged in morning, to the evening libations at rickety Mahogany Shoals. Payne’s rafts boats during the crowded weekends but always seems to be able to match up compatible boaters. To watch Cliff Payne and his “dock geezers” move around boats, slipping them in and out of tight quarters was to watch a comical, sometimes nail biting, but effective chorography.
One weekend our older son, Chris, surprised us by biking 75 miles from Worcester, MA to the Block Island Ferry at Point Judith, RI, arriving with enough energy to join us and friends at Ballard’s in Old Harbor for lobster and then we all danced the chicken. Chris clucked and flapped his wings, none the worse for wear after his long bike ride.
After morning tasks, our families would dinghy to the eastern side of the Great Salt Pond, leaving our little boats, cross the Corn Neck Road causeway and settle in at Scotch Beach on the Atlantic Ocean for the day. Block has been called the Bermuda of the north for good reason, the water crystal clear, the waves perfect for body surfing which the kids did most of the day (OK, the adults too when we could grab their boards). Then, back to our boats, shower, and its cocktail time and pot luck dinner on someone’s boat.
We called fluke fishing at the mouth of the harbor “meat runs” as we were sure to catch that night’s dinner. Again, Ray was the leader of the pack, both in organizing those fishing parties and filleting the fish like a surgeon, squeezing every drop of edible fish leaving the waiting seagulls disappointed with the remnants tossed off the dock after surgery was completed.
Then there might be a “cook off,” the ladies preparing the fluke different ways, or sometimes as teams. To watch my wife, Ann, and Ray’s wife, Sue, cook in the galley was exhausting, pots, pans, plates, being passed back and forth in tight quarters, those beautiful, sun baked faces, flush with a cocktail or two, we expectantly awaiting the outcome of their culinary skills. Frequently, meals were served to accommodate an entire boatload of friends, everyone balancing plates and drinks in the cockpit. These feasts continued night after night, always with high praise heaped on the amazing kitchen crew!
Once we went tuna fishing off of Block. But I was the “accidental fisherman,” mainly going along to photograph the activities. The party thought it might be a good joke on our way back, after everyone had caught a yellow fin tuna in the 80 pound range, to watch me try to reel in one, using a stand-up belt (no fighting chair on the boat). They laughed as I struggled with the reel and the belt kept falling to my knees as my waist was too small, but I had the last laugh as I finally reeled in a 200 lb blue fin tuna. I couldn’t lift my arms for hours. Most of the tuna was sold at the dock at Montauk but we filleted one for ourselves and grilled it on the dock at Payne’s that night.
When not cooking up, we would pile into one of the cars that one of the family’s brought over on the ferry (this became the main means of transportation to the beach after our boys turned driving age), and went off to one of the many joints on Block Island, ending up at the one and only Ice Cream shop, which brought us to the Old Harbor, where the shops were. And when not at the beach, there was always a bike ride around Block, challenging because of its steep hills.
At one point we figured out ways of staying longer at Block, leaving our boats and families, taking the short flight to Westerly Airport where we would leave a car to commute back to our Connecticut offices for a few days to attend to business. On a couple of occasions we charted planes to Bridgeport Airport to attend to business, stretching out our Block Island stays.
Over the years we became part of the Payne’s “family.” Our son Jonathan thinks of Block as a second home and many of his friends are from the Block Island experience. At first Ray’s boat and mine were in the “pens” with easy on and off via our transoms, but later we went to the end of tees, our transoms facing each other. In our last boating days at Block we were rafted to Ray’s boat, the one they live on now, their 56’ ‘Last Dance.’
While our own boating lives have changed considerably these last few years, Block Island remains the prized destination in our boating memory.