Monday, September 29, 2008

Rest in Peace, Howard

My friend Howard died.

Since I wrote that piece, Howard was transferred to a hospice. I had one last conversation with him while he was there. He said he had little pain and the hospice staff was wonderful. His son had a birthday party for him, his 62nd, and he was very moved by the many friends and relatives who were able to attend. We said our goodbyes and I was so stunned by this dreamlike exchange, I asked to call again. I called at the appointed time but his phone was on do-not-disturb. I called again in a few days but was told to contact his family. And that is when I learned what I was afraid to hear. My good friend had passed.

His son will be establishing a web site and a charitable foundation for his father. His many sculptures will be on display and when on line, I’ll communicate the web address.

Rest in peace, Howard, I’ll miss you so.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

"What Years of Neglect and Lack of National Policy is Creating"

Although this was intended to be more of a personal journal, the recent political scene and financial crisis have interceded, and I’ve been somewhat consumed by these events. Their tentacles wrap around one’s personal life. It is hard not to obsess over our country’s future, and the world our children and grandchildren will inherit. Although I have referenced other writers and their opinions in these pages, most are my own.

But sometimes you come across something that just says it exactly as it must be said. In these rare cases it is best simply to pass it on and that is what I am doing here. I’ve mentioned “Trader Mark” before, a young man who is running a “virtual” mutual fund in the hope of starting his own. He provides a running commentary on the logic behind his trades and the portfolio and he usually intersperses those with social and economic commentary as, in the long run, these things are all related.

Here are links to two recent articles which says it better than I ever could – how the rest of the world sees our economic struggles and how utterly beholden we have become to economies we used to consider third world. The subtitle of the first says it all: “What Years of Neglect and Lack of National Policy is Creating.”

Interesting Reactions Worldwide - What Years of Neglect and Lack of National Policy is Creating
Views of the U.S. from Abroad

Friday, September 26, 2008

Political Cynicism

Here is one way to define the concept. Lead our country to the brink of economic disaster. Have the very administration which brought us there propose an emergency $700 billion “fix” to provide liquidity so our economic circulatory system does not seize up, the plan proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, with our President finally making a speech to the nation in which he warns of the dire consequences of congress not acting immediately. Congressional hearings immediately ensue, with the Democratic majority buying into the need for action. Both sides of the isle agree to the basic principles, including oversight protection, and we are told a deal is imminent. But wait, the Republican presidential candidate returns to Washington, on his white horse, his pearl handle pistol at his side and suddenly there is no agreement. A dangerous game of chicken unfolds: “If the Democrats and the President want the plan, let them pass it” the Republican choir sings. Heads we win, tails you lose. America or politics first?

PS Washington Mutual was just closed by the US Government, the largest failure of a US bank.

Monday, September 22, 2008

This “fundamental” is whining…

After Senator McCain declared the fundamentals of the economy were strong last week, he first defended his comment by saying that by “fundamentals” he meant us workers (first time I’ve been referred to as a “fundamental” – sort of makes me feel important) and then, finally, after the heavens opened up and Bernanke and Paulson rained down reality on the economic picture he not only conceded that a crisis had begun, but he also said the following at the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce: “We've heard a lot of words from Senator Obama over the course of this campaign…But maybe just this once he could spare us the lectures, and admit to his own poor judgment in contributing to these problems. The crisis on Wall Street started in the Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling, and he was right square in the middle of it."

Huh? The political rhetoric from both sides has sometimes made me sick, enough to make me wish that Michael Bloomberg was running on a third party ticket, but McCain’s claim is so egregious I just can’t be silent.

To blame Obama while McCain has been in Congress for 26 years and was one of five United States Senators comprising the so-called "Keating Five" scandal during the 1980s is just plain unconscionable. He was also the former chairman and a present member of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce (although this committee does not have responsibility for the financial services industry) and until just last week has been an staunch advocate of deregulating financial markets, particularly supporting Senator Phil Gramm’s bill in 1999 which deregulated some restrictions on the financial services sector. Gramm has become a lead economic advisor for McCain’s presidential run, the same person who called us “fundamentals” a bunch of whiners, and the only economic problem we have is a “mental recession” (which he naturally blamed on the media, a favorite tactic McCain et al are using). In 1999 Obama was in the Illinois Senate and a Senior Lecturer teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School (as an aside, read the interesting article on his teaching years from yesterday’s New York Times

So how exactly is Obama responsible for the present economic crisis?

Friday, September 12, 2008

And the presidency goes to….

Why bother having elections? Seems like we could have a version of the Academy Awards decide the winner – the party which takes the most Oscars wins the election! This way we can recognize what has become central to the election process: mass media persuasion. No longer will we have to bother with the real issues, which have become subordinated to personality and presentation.

“And the Oscar for the best sound bite goes to…”

As Main Street’s political belief is manipulated by the images created by Madison Avenue types, let the big award of the evening go to the slickest national convention, with the supporting awards going to the best TV ads that pander to the emotional issues du jour. Special categories can go to the bloggers and the most forwarded email. As a bonus evening of entertainment before the awards, let MSNBC square off against FOX News with Jerry Springer as the moderator – the candidates themselves would not even be needed!

The electorate’s decision now resembles a consumer decision, not decided on the merits of the “product” but instead on brand image, carefully manipulated by focus groups and emotional advertising. It seems that the entire process has gotten out of hand. How about banning political advertising (and thereby also saving $millions) and solely determine national elections by a series of debates?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

That Infamous Day

9/11. It has been seven years but it seems like yesterday. We all remember where we were at that moment. The only comparable moment in my life is where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated.

On Sept. 11, 2001 we were on our boat in Norwalk, Ct., a clear somewhat breezy day with a deep blue sky. We had the TV on and, in complete disbelief, the tragedy unfolded before us all.

Although some fifty miles away, we could see the smoke drifting south from the Twin Towers. To this day I still feel that sense of incredulity. Did this really happen here? My son, Jonathan, had been interviewed only a couple of weeks before by Cantor Fitzgerald, on the 102nd floor of One WTC. They lost 685 employees on that fateful day. Jonathan had taken another job. Is it merely coincidence and accident that governs life’s outcomes? Or Shakespeare’s more cynical line from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

My older son is the poet of our family and this is what he wrote on that very day. One line in particular resonates: “If Hell opened up, and swallowed my life, it could not compete with what witnessed, I.” May we never forget:

By Chris Hagelstein

Terrorist troops and bodies strewn
in Twin Tower screams, destruction loomed.
News stations on a journalistic mission
under our Flag's lost transmission:
America's Death.

Judgement of Religious Decree
driving Boeing bombs with air fuel
circulating vultures from above the sea,
smashing their prey
on this plain sun-filled day.

Television digital debris rained on video,
Looping the same sequence of carnage.
The surgery of media controlled the flow
but the State of Blood remained unknown.

Prayers beneath each citizen’s eyes
were blessed wells now, for those who died.
No ceremony or speech could render a conclusion:
Those wired images played seemed like an illusion.

An Eye of some god was seeing us All
for each one's Blindness, was another’s Call,
and in the skies above Manhattan, masked in smoke
exhumed old gods of hatred and hope.

If Hell opened up, and swallowed my life,
It could not compete with what witnessed, I:
Buildings falling and heroes crushed:
As day burned to night
and life --- to dust.

Still, yet, in my hearts dismay,
Born here, I stand, no less bleeding
than those who survived this day:
For America is my body and my sea
executed on the stage of history.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


I spoke to my good friend Howard last week. At the end of June we had breakfast with him outside Washington on our drive up to Connecticut from Florida. Although we had not seen him for several years, probably since I left my job some eight years ago, we wanted to visit and lend our emotional support to what he was facing: lung cancer.

He had had successful surgery to remove a tumor sometime last year, but in a routine follow-up, they found a spot on his other lung, one that would be best treated with a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. When we saw him he was completing radiation and was beginning the chemo. Although he had lost weight, he said if it were not for the diagnosis, he felt completely fine. That he wouldn’t even know he was battling cancer and undergoing radiation. He was hopeful – and so were his physicians – that this would go into remission.

I’ve known Howard since 1976. We were both in our early 30’s, working in publishing, he at a company that bought the company I worked for.

Howard and I learned we were very much alike: compulsive workers, driven to build our businesses. Initially I suppose we viewed each other with some suspicion; unconsciously playing a workplace version of the childhood game, steal the bacon. But over time we became collaborators, particularly as Howard had migrated to the role of corporate development, so we were sort of symbiotically attached. We worked on acquiring and developing product, my making the basic argument and Howard putting the right corporate spin on things in terms of format and presentation, particularly after after a large foreign publishing firm acquired our companies.

Interestingly, Howard did not come from a business background. He was trained as a graphic artist and he was a very good one. He made the creative demands of that endeavor transferable to his corporate role. A perfectionist, he was not satisfied unless the documents he produced were done so with clarity and conviction.

Simply put, he made me look good. I remember in particular a proposal to greatly expand our reference book program. This entailed abrupt shifts in both product and market. I supplied the basic information and projections and he pulled it together into a cogent, persuasive proposal.

We shared similar working habits. He was the only person I could call if I got into the office at 6.30 am and find him at his desk. We got into the routine of checking on each other when we got in, not only a game of one-upsmanship, but a way of connecting personally. It was also a venue for reciprocal corporate insight – we seeing our parent company from two different perspectives and trying to divine logic and motives.

He was married when he was young too and his wife coincidentally was born on the same month, day and year as me. His artistic training was also being put to good use as his avocation, carving wildlife figures from balsa wood, and painting them to life-like perfection. I was touched when he gave us two of his works, the only ones he said he had ever parted with from his personal collection, a Manatee and a Koala bear. They proudly hang on the walls of our home in Florida.

When I retired and began consulting, Howard did as well. We joked about maybe collaborating as consultants calling the company the “Two Steins,” as both of our last names end in “stein.” Given his corporate development skills Howard had to turn away work, and since has had the luxury of picking and choosing the work he wants to do.

There was tragedy in his life though. His beloved wife developed MS and Howard made the decision to care for her at home himself. This was no easy task, emotionally and physically, as her health steadily deteriorated. Several years ago she passed away. My admiration of how he and his son faced this tragedy knows no bounds.

I was shocked when he told me that he was going to undergo a radical operation to remove a portion of his lung which proved to be cancerous. He faced this challenge with his usual fortitude and optimism, putting his trust in some of the best surgeons in the Washington area, convinced that he will beat this and recover.

The operation turned out to be more challenging than he imagined and he confided that he could never go through it again. But the operation was successful and they said he would only need a six month follow-up Cat scan.

But the scan revealed there was a new growth on his other lung, something surgery could not deal with; instead, radiation and chemotherapy was the recommended course of action. This brings me back to our brief visit with him on our way up from Florida.

About a month ago, only a few weeks after seeing him, I was stunned by a call from his son to tell me that he was back in the hospital and they had to discontinue the chemotherapy as it so seriously weakened him. Since then he’s lost the use of his legs and he is still in the hospital. The hope is a rehabilitation program might be feasible or he might have to go to a nursing home.

Howard said on the phone, “We've known each other too long for me to sugar coat this. My life is over as I’ve known it.” I anxiously await some good news.