Monday, August 29, 2011

The Day After

The last couple entries were written awaiting Hurricane Irene, or Tropical Storm Irene by the time she went by us, slightly to the west. There were days of preparation at our marina and preparing our boat, tying redundant lines, striping anything that can fly in a high wind, and preparing the boat for rough seas as our stern is to the south facing the mouth of the Norwalk River, a long fetch. The worst case scenario we learned from Hurricane Gloria in 1985. Although our boat (a smaller one than we now have) was further up the river at a different marina, the southeast wind brought high waves into the river and although our boat did fine on its own, another boat broke loose in that marina and its bow pulpit impaled our stateroom, resulting in fiberglass and water damage.

Our present boat is more than a boat; it is our summer home and we have no other place to go. Luckily, we were able to get a hotel room not far from where our boat is docked so we were hoping we would have easy access when trying to return after the hurricane, even if power is lost and street lights are not working.

The greatest danger beside the wave and wind action is the tidal surge and South Norwalk is vulnerable to extremely high tides. Wisely, when our marina was rebuilt by our boat club, the main pilings took this into account. They are tall, made of cement, and the floating docks were designed to stay on those pilings even in the most extreme conditions. And they were extreme as Irene came blasting up the river near an astronomical high tide. Still, the floating docks were only three feet from the top by the time the water receded.

Nonetheless, we returned to our boat this morning with some trepidation. Did all our lines hold and did any of the horizontal rain and saltwater spindrift breach our hatches and windows? It was with a sigh of relief when we entered the boat and realized that except for some seepage under the door, the boat was in good shape. It took us most of the day putting back everything we had stowed or secured. Although all dock and spring lines were tied tightly with redundancy, it is amazing how much they stretched in the heaving seas. In the placid morning light of this day after they lay limply. Also one of the chocks that hold lines on the starboard side of the cover board had popped three of its four screws, a testament to the constant chaffing of the lines. The ‘Swept Away’ was stern to heavy seas for several hours accounting for this slight damage. Had the chock not held, the lines would have cut into the teak cover boards.

The day after a hurricane or tropical storm --- and we have been in several – always seems to be the opposite side of the same coin, as beautiful as the prior day was treacherous. The photograph below shows damage at a neighbor’s dock, but a crystal blue sky with unlimited visibility. In the background one can see Peach Island, one in the Norwalk Islands and beyond that, some eight miles away, the Northport stacks on Long Island further to the south. Goodbye, Irene, goodbye indeed.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene and Jonathan Tropper

We are hunkered down in a hotel awaiting Hurricane Irene, our boat secured to the best of our ability. So we wait, with our flashlights (as power will inevitably be lost) and enough bread, and peanut butter and jelly to outlast the storm. The storm surge will be the key to our boat’s survival, a sickening feeling having to wait out the next two days and hoping we can return to find minimal damage when the storm finally passes. Meanwhile, it is time to complete an entry concerning Jonathan Tropper which I had started to write before Irene dictated the turmoil of preparing for the storm.

I’m becoming a Jonathan Tropper admirer, a clever and talented writer, with a unique voice, who may deserve to join the company of some of my favorite contemporary American novelists, Richard Russo, Anne Tyler, Russell Banks, Richard Ford, John Irving, E.L. Doctorow, Pat Conroy, and Jonathan Franzen, Ever since John Updike died and as Philip Roth ages, I worry about their understudies, who might fill the shoes of authors dedicated to the craft of writing and the chronicling of American life and The Dream.

I had just finished Russell Bank’s The Reserve, a beautifully written novel but humorless and needed a “pick me up” so I returned to Tropper, having liked his Everything Changes, and was curious whether one of his earlier ones would measure up. I chose The Book of Joe with some hesitancy as it seemed to have all its cultural references to the 1980s, where part of the novel is set, the main characters being in high school and juxtaposed to the same ones today. This is my younger son’s generation, not mine. I’m closer to Updike and Roth’s age, no doubt one of the reasons their writing so resonates with me.

But Tropper deals with such universal truths they transcend generational provincialism, certainly the mark of a good writer. My high school years of the 1950s had the same raw pulsating teenage angst, sexual urgency, and social vulnerability, the very ones portrayed by Tropper at Bush Falls High, their Cougar basketball players revered, and everyone else in a subordinate role. Teenagers can be the most sadistic humans on the face of the earth, something Tropper well understands.

Events concerning my 50th high school reunion brought home the fact that the caste system had hardly changed. It was amazing to me that the long bridge of 50 years hardly mattered. It was back to the clickish high school years as if no time had passed at all.

And Tropper poignantly captures this feeling in The Book of Joe, using Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel experience as a very loose outline. Wolfe’s novel outraged the residents of Asheville and had Wolfe returned (actually, there is a fictionalized version of his return written by Asheville native and playwright Sandra Mason which we saw several years ago in Asheville), he, too, would have been vilified as is Tropper’s Joe Goffman who leaves the small fictional town of Bush Falls, CT, somewhere north of New Haven. He writes a novel about the town and it becomes a sensational best-seller, thanks in part to his agent. He tells all in thinly veiled fiction, even his most private sexual fantasies concerning his best friend’s mother. He finally returns 17 years later as his father has had a stroke and he now has to confront his family and former friends and high school hell raisers, the love of his life, and even the mother about whom he had fantasized.

Tropper writes terrifically believable dialogue and it is not surprising that he is also a screenwriter and a couple of his novels are in the process of being adapted for the screen. The Book of Joe is a fast read, poignantly tragicomic. Sometimes his writing reminds me of Joseph Heller’s special gift for ironic humor.

I was surprised by how engaged I was in the world of this thirty-something protagonist, a world more inhabited by my sons, but universal truths never change.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Goodbye, Irene, Goodbye

The irony hasn’t escaped us. One of the reasons we live on a boat on the Norwalk River (CT) during the summer is to leave the oppressive weather in Florida, including its hurricanes. So, when Irene was said to be a direct threat to Florida last weekend, I authorized our house minder to put up the remainder of our shutters and to secure the house for possible hurricane conditions. No sooner than they were up, the National Weather Service revised its path projections and over the last few days these has evolved into nearly a direct hit where we have our boat docked. This is not the first time a storm diverted from our house to the vicinity of our boat, the last one being Floyd. I could become paranoid about being a hurricane magnet.

While we have been able to stay on our boat past storms, this one seems to be more ominous, especially with the added tidal surge while there is an astronomical high tide. So we’ll be moving off the boat Saturday and going to a hotel on high ground, securing our “summer home” to the best of our ability with additional lines and fenders and stripping all canvas.

We’ve had a few calls from friends in Florida, joking (to the point of uncontrolled laughter) that we should return where it is safe from hurricanes. There is some truth in this as Floridians are better prepared, but the suggestion borders on a little Schadenfreude, not intentional I know. One even suggested I take the boat out of the harbor and anchor it off one of the Norwalk Islands, to her mind a simple solution to tying it up so compulsively. Ha. I can imagine explaining that to the insurance company.

So, preparing for the worse, and hoping for the best, and also hoping our hotel (only ten minutes from the boat and 90 feet above sea level) doesn’t lose power, but we’re ready for that too, totting flashlights, batteries, and books.

Good luck to all in what might be the worst hurricane I’ve been in since Wilma (in Florida) and Carol (in Sag Harbor when I was a kid). As lovely and as calm as the eyes of those storms were, I need see no more.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What To Do?

If I were a Tweeter I'd be retweeting these two links. I've mentioned Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog before. He has a measured view of the markets, and politics, not a raving bull or bear. And I've also mentioned John Hussman's Monday morning entries published in The Hussman Funds site. He has been criticized as a "Permabear" which is unfair as he looks at long economic cycles and he has been spot on long-term. His analysis can be technical and hard to follow for us lacking a PhD in economics, but well worth reading.

The recent gyrations of the market, Dow up 400, down 500, up 200, down whatever seems to signal that we are in uncharted economic and investing waters. The Fed's zero interest rates feed the fire of uncertainty. No longer is there the opportunity of having a "balanced" investment portfolio of stocks and bonds as the latter yields nothing. In fact the zero yield is adding fuel to the gold market as there is no longer an alternative cost (loss of interest) holding the yellow metal.

Hussman's recent write up makes two interesting points and then his very long piece elaborates: The reason we are facing a renewed economic downturn is that our policy makers never addressed the essential economic problem, which was, and remains, the need for debt restructuring. There are two one-way lanes on the road to ruin, and these - in endless variation - are unfortunately the only ones on the present policy map:

1) Policies aimed at distorting the financial markets by suffocating the yield on lower-risk investments, in an attempt to drive investors to accept risks that they would otherwise shun;

2) Policies aimed at defending bondholders and lenders who made bad loans, which they now seek to have bailed out at public expense.

Ritzholz writes a "slightly" lighter piece, with a list, A Decade of Punditocracy, Pathetic Edition. It shows how some policy makers and prognosticators drive with a rosy rear view mirror. I love the first on the list, George W. Bush, June 17, 2002: “Now, we’ve got a problem here in America that we have to address. Too many American families, too many minorities do not own a home. [...] Freddie Mac will launch 25 initiatives to eliminate homeownership barriers.”

So what is one to do? I still believe that well chosen dividend stocks held through thick and thin is part of the answer. This week's Barron's gives some valuable information on this topic, citing S&P's Howard Silverblatt's screen: Silverblatt has provided a substantial list of companies as a starting point for dividend investing. It's not a buy list but a screened set of stocks meeting certain criteria. It's available at At the site, click S&P 500 Monthly Performance Data and then Dividend Starting File, at the bottom of the menu. Again, it's merely an interesting place to start.

Chances are that AAA firms such as Johnson & Johnson, Exxon, and Microsoft will survive, no matter what the economy might do, and one is paid to wait. Balance that with some Treasury Inflation Protected securities, and perhaps gold, and even cash, and wait out the market turmoil (it may be a very long wait). The key is to buy any of these on weakness and make the mix appropriate for one's own investment needs and risk tolerance.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Fed Speaks

The Federal Reserve’s press release covering its recent meeting begins “Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that economic growth so far this year has been considerably slower than the Committee had expected. Indicators suggest a deterioration in overall labor market conditions in recent months, and the unemployment rate has moved up.” Later, it continues, “the Committee now expects a somewhat slower pace of recovery over coming quarters than it did at the time of the previous meeting and anticipates that the unemployment rate will decline only gradually toward levels that the Committee judges to be consistent with its dual mandate. Moreover, downside risks to the economic outlook have increased.”

Its main action point is that the nation’s economy is “likely to warrant exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate at least through mid-2013.” Talk about telegraphing what it probably already knows: the economy seems to be slipping into recession once again and the Fed is helpless, meaning continued high unemployment, no remedies for the real estate market and homeowners with mortgages under water, and continued low returns on any savings. And these conditions are not temporary: they are expected to last two years (and unless Congress ever learns to function again, they will last much longer). Imagine, three year Treasury notes (no longer AAA which is another farce from S&P, the folks who brought us triple A-rated collateralized debt obligations) now yield less than a half a percent!

Where this is all likely to end is anyone’s guess, including the learned economists at the Fed. The volatile markets are reflecting that uncertainty. Buying dividend paying stocks may the best option for income, but any severe recession could leave those stocks vulnerable, jeopardizing the return of capital. That seems where the Fed is leading the individual investor.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Endeavors

One of the benefits of living on our boat in the summer is being able to finally get to some postponed reading and catch up on local theatre either in Westport or NY and the last few weeks reminds me that so much of what we read or see in the theatre often serves as historical guideposts, snapshots of different periods of cultural change. I recently picked up John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I first read when it was published in the late 1970’s. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reread the novel other than I had forgotten much of it and always liked Irving’s quirky self-reflective story-telling, so much about the process of writing itself. I had forgotten how much the role of women’s rights plays in Garp, such a major issue in the 1970s. Irving playfully toys with the issue, satirizing it to a great degree, reminding me of my first business trip to Australia in the 1970’s when a Sydney taxi driver lectured me about the evils of women’s rights and, in particular, the role that Americans had in exporting those dangerous thoughts to Australia. I wonder whether Garp (or Irving) might have agreed with the accusation at the time.

Then a few weeks ago we saw Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Westport Country Playhouse, portraying two heterosexual couples vacationing at a home on Fire Island, in the middle of a gay community. It is a play that is constantly on an uneasy edge, the problems of the two couples acting out their aberrant behavior contrasted to the high-spirited, better adjusted gay community, off stage. But central to the play is the paranoia of how AIDS was thought to be transmitted at the time, symbolized by the couples’ dramatic fear of going into the pool (on stage) -- an obsession of twenty years ago when the play was written. Nonetheless, the play is still a compelling tragicomic drama and wonderfully staged at the beautifully restored Westport Country Playhouse.

A twenty year leap forward brings me to reading Jonathan Tropper’s Everything Changes. Here is a very contemporary novel by a thirty-something author about relationships between fathers and sons, and male female relationships. Tropper’s idiosyncratic characters (in particular, the protagonist’s father) at times reminds me a little of Richard Russo’s and Anne Tyler’s. Trooper’s writing can be very funny but sensitive at the same time. These are the two paragraphs that grab you and pull you into the novel:

Life, for the most part, inevitably becomes routine, the random confluence of timing and fortune that configures its components all but forgotten. But every so often, I catch a glimpse of my life out of the corner of my eye, and am rendered breathless by it. This is no accident. I made this happen. I had a plan.

I am about to fuck it all up in a spectacular fashion.

It was quite a contrast reading Anita Brookner’s Strangers, perhaps the most interior novel I’ve read in some time, most of it taking place in the mind of the 72 year old protagonist, a retired banker and confirmed bachelor, who feels he may be missing something not sharing his life with a woman. By chance he meets one of his old lovers (he hasn’t had many), now aged and frail, but one for whom he thinks he still has feelings. He also meets a woman on a flight to Venice, younger than he. Much of the novel is a debate (in his mind) of the advantages or disadvantages of being with one or the other or neither. Brookner’s writing is timeless, meticulously exacting, set mostly in London, but a London that seems to exist merely in some recent time. It is also about aging and finding meaning in life after a lifetime of work:

His reading now was confined to diaries, notebooks, memoirs, anything that contained a confessional element. He was in search of evidence of discomfiture, disappointment, rather than triumph over circumstances. Circumstances, he knew, would always overrule. Those great exemplars of the past, the kind he had always sought in classic novels, usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him. In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. Proof, if proof were needed, lay in the fact that his presence was no longer sought, that, deprived of the structure of the working day, he was at a loss, obliged to look for comfort in whatever he could devise for himself. His life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Finally, yesterday, we saw the NYC preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical, Follies. This is a show I failed to see when it opened in 1971 or any of the revivals and have been waiting, waiting for the opportunity. Sondheim is the last surviving composer of another era. Talk about historical markers. This is Sondheim’s tribute to various eras of Broadway’s past and it has some of his best known songs, too many to mention, including one that is perhaps my very favorite, Losing My Mind.

This new Broadway production, coming via the Kennedy Center, is spectacular, the kind of show no longer written for Broadway. It was Sondheim’s first musical as both composer and lyricist and every line, every word is delicious. The Broadway production includes some of Broadway’s luminaries, Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Elaine Page. Each brings the house down with some of Sondheim’s most iconic numbers. The juxtaposition of their ghosts from eras past is particularly evocative. Here is a two and half hour production which seems to pass in minutes, portraying innocent and happier times past, lost loves, regrets and heartbreak.