Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ghost of New Year’s Future?

If you read only forecast for 2010, let it be this one by James Howard Kunstler who writes a blog, Clusterfuck Nation. While I hope things will not evolve as badly as he speculates, he may have the direction right, the ephemerality of the “recovery” from our duct-tapped economy, government’s complicity, and our lack of moral fiber as a nation to do the right thing. “We're a nation of thugs and louts with flames tattooed on our necks, who call each other ‘motherfucker’ and are skilled only in playing video games based on mass murder.”

Amen to that.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

And to All a Good-Night!

How many times does one have to see a version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to say “enough?” Never, I say, as every generation can find it’s own version, just as Hollywood always seems to find another way to rework the story. Today, the tale could be a morality play about our financial times, Scrooge being played by a Wall Street Banker du jour, Tiny Tim by a child lacking health insurance, Bob Cratchit by someone in foreclosure, while the unemployed gather beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Past or present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve could play the ghosts. I pick Paul Volcker for the Ghost of Christmas Present, as he seems to see things the clearest. Naturally, Bernie Madoff must play the part of Jacob Marley wearing his chains forged of Ponzi links.

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:

And this one from Florida Christmas Present, where it will be 80 degrees and one of the high points is the annual Christmas Boat Parade. It’s a Humbug, I say!


Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Publishing Roulette

Unfortunately this is not the first time that I’ve said something negative about my industry. I am particularly bewildered as to how some giant trade publishers seem content to play Russian Roulette, thinking they can stem the tide of the migration from print to digital by simply going into a hissy-fit and refusing to issue e-book editions until the hard cover edition has had several months in the market without “competition.” Their failure to recognize that their industry’s economics is of no concern to the marketplace is another nail in their coffin. Strong independent publishers have an opportunity to pick the bones of behemoths such as Simon and Schuster and HarperCollins who, along with Hachette Book Group, have announced their intention to delay the publication of e-book editions until their higher-priced hardcover editions have had several months in the marketplace. “Each publisher voiced concern that the popularity of cheap, $9.99 e-book best sellers available simultaneously with new hardcovers endangers the publishing industry's future.”

Instead they should be embracing the policy of “any-time-any-place” publishing – delivering the goods to the consumer whenever he/she wants it and in any form. There may have to be price disparities for different formats. Certainly the more a title is aimed at the consumer (trade), rather than at someone who needs information to do a job (professional), the digital edition price might undercut the hardcover. But do they really think that they can control the digital tsunami? The only thing endangering “the publishing industry’s future” is the misguided policies of trade publishers themselves.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

God, the Ninth, and Nine-Eleven

How does one reconcile the destructive events of 9/11 with the creative force of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony both coming into being in the name of God? As Friedrich Shiller’s Ode to Joy concludes -- the basis for Beethoven’s massive choral addition to the symphonic form -- “Do you sense the Creator, world?/Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!/Beyond the stars must He dwell.” And no doubt the hijackers on that fated day believed they were performing a sacred duty for their “Creator.”

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.

Long ago in a college music history/theory course we reviewed Beethoven’s 9th and I had a copy of the score. It was the most complex piece I had ever seen, the orchestration for different sections being a mystery as to how everything can be brought together in one coherent entity. Four well-known opera soloists and four different choruses joined the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra. There were hundreds of people on stage. If there is a God, he/she/it is embodied in that Symphony, the purest ethereal expression of reverence and joy I have ever witnessed. Could it be that the same species that concocted a 9/11 could create such a masterpiece, and written by just one man who was deaf as well? So, for me, those are the bookends of this first decade of the 21st century, the infamous, wanton destruction of life and normalcy at the beginning, and beholding Beethoven’s intensely spiritual 9th Symphony at the end, contradictory undertakings in the name of “God” and mankind.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Paul Volcker: ATMs beat Masters of the Universe

Here is a little news item that made its way to the top of my Web pile this morning, Paul Volcker telling like it is ( Ben, are you listening?) at a business conference of financiers in Sussex, England yesterday that their industry's "single most important" contribution in the last 25 years has been automatic telling machines, which he said had at least proved "useful". By implication, all those wonderful products those financiers dreamt up over the same period were “less than useful.” He than concluded that riskier financial activities should be limited to hedge funds to whom society could say: "If you fail, fail. I'm not going to help you. Your stock is gone, creditors are at risk, but no one else is affected." (Ben, are you listening?)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pull Up! Pull Up!

Like many people, I feel disillusioned by the first year of Obama’s Presidency. This is probably more my problem as he is a mere mortal and inherited so many crises, long time in the making, deeply ingrained, that he would have to be Superman, flying around the world to turn back the clock of time, to undo faulty foreign policies, reconnect the dollar to some form of the gold standard, change the unrealistic long term promises of Medicare and Social Security, roll back the deregulation of our financial institutions, and I could go on and on, but you get the picture of, perhaps, a society in a spiraling decline. Despite our cries of “Pull up! Pull up!” the ground closes in.

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:

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 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

That Old Russo Magic

Two years ago I explained why Richard Russo’s work so profoundly resonates with me, his portrayal of fractured families marching to a similar drum beat as my own. We respond most strongly to works of art that strike a chord of intimacy. At the time I was reading his Bridge of Sighs. I expectantly awaited his next novel, which recently was published, That Old Cape Magic.

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.