Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Market Melt-Up

Buy, buy, buy, -- be it at Target, Walmart or the NYSE. Everything is coming up roses. Does this mean one can "blame" Obama? Surely, FOX will have an interesting take on this. "GOP comes to the rescue of the payroll tax extension!" Or, "GOP forces China to cut bank reserve requirements to spur world growth!" Or, "GOP threat of not raising taxes on the wealthy leads to the better than expected ADP employment report as job creators plan trickle-down hiring." Or, "GOP considering not abolishing the Federal Reserve as the Fed says it is ready to act if USA hurt by any European banking crisis."

Whatever the reason, stock markets are surging, for this moment at least (DJIA up over 400 points as I write this). But in this see-saw, roulette investment world, one cannot imagine what the future will bring, not to mention even 4.00 pm.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Altar of Consumerism

It's become a religion, thou shall pay homage to the God of Black Friday. With unemployment and economic uncertainty persisting one would think that consumers would be hunkering down in their bunkers, but, no, they are out spending in droves, standing in the dark with their faces aglow staring into iPhones, awaiting midnight store openings after Thanksgiving, stampeding into the stores as the clock strikes twelve. Perhaps it is counter-intuitive, $52 billion in sales on Black Friday weekend during hard economic times, but consumers have been conditioned to "feel good" spending, the same kind of feeling that arises from cathartic prayer.

Our Father™ in consumer heaven,
hallowed be your trademarked name.
Your Black Friday come,
your buying will be done,
at the mall and online.
Give us this day almighty bargains,
and forgive us our debts,
and give bailouts to our debtors.
Leading us away from credit card temptation,
and delivering us from debit card fees.

AMEN (there is even an App named for the traditional closing of a prayer -- just pay up!).

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

People our age remember certain moments with such clarity they seem like yesterday. Noon, November 22, 1963 was such a moment as I was passing the Student Union building on Flatbush Avenue, hurrying to class. It was a clear, crisp day. Suddenly, a friend came running toward me. "Did you hear, Kennedy was shot?" Incredulous, I rushed to my dorm to listen to the radio. It was true.

We had tickets for a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that night, one of the few cultural events in New York City that was not cancelled. An unrehearsed version of Beethoven's Egmont Overture was performed rather than the regular program. We filed out, silent, stunned, weeping openly. In quick succession Oswald was apprehended, and while we watched it on TV with others in the dormitory, Jack Ruby assassinated him.

It was a horrific weekend of anxiety, bewilderment, and profound sorrow. Such high hopes for our young President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. These hopes were dashed by what would become the first of other assassinations in the turbulent 1960s, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy.

To have borne witness to them all is almost dreamlike, but Friday, November 22, 1963 is emblazoned in my mind's eye.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Taking One for the Team

Ever since I heard that Hillary Clinton was planning to "retire" I've been thinking, what a waste of skill and experience. My thought was that Obama needs a new running mate, one that can handle the stalemated war of Republican and Democrat ideologues, and what better person than a former, and very effective, Secretary of State. Of course it means true sharing of power at the top, but Obama does not seem to be threatened by that, and as evidence he himself appointed his former rival to the position of Secretary of State.

Today the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece by Patrick H. Caddell and Douglas E. Schoen, both former Democratic pollsters, ups the ante with their article The Hillary Moment, which suggests Obama should actually step aside for the good of the Democratic party so Hillary Clinton can run for President, their argument being that Obama will not be able to run a positive campaign based on his [economic] record and even if he wins we will still be left with a highly charged partisan political landscape, something he will not be able to change. In effect, President Obama should take one for the team.

While I might agree with his difficulty in achieving bipartisan consensus (and that is why I thought Hillary would be the ideal running mate in 2012), I have a problem with ascribing every economic ill to Obama. It is impossible to prove an alternative reality, but if Hillary had run in 2008 and won, we would not be in a much different economic place. And if McCain won, we would have been as equally bad off, or worse ("you betcha" if you know what I mean). After all, the economic problems leading to today were long in the making: regulatory failures, ill conceived Federal Reserve actions, the housing bubble with the attendant rapacity of investment banking firms, Bush tax cuts, 9/11, and ill-chosen wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you live beyond your means for such a long time, it takes years to repair the balance sheet, especially when dealing with one the size of the United States'. It can't be done overnight and it can't even be done in one four-year Presidential term.

Making such repairs without doing further damage to the economy means compromise, spending cuts and tax increases, ones that do not further exacerbate the steadily growing division between the haves and the have nots, the one percenters and the ninety-nine percenters.

Expecting Obama to step aside is to concede an imaginary failure, undeserved and such a concession would only feed opposition blathering. And that is where you come in Hillary, perhaps you will consider taking one for the team by agreeing to become Obama's running mate in 2012.

I continue to have high hopes for the Obama presidency in a second term. Hillary, I still hear America singing.
PS: Barry Ritholtz's Presidential Blame & Credit, is well worth reading in conjunction with the above.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

All My Sons at Dramaworks' New Home

Life imitating art, the American Dream laid threadbare, the relationship of fathers and sons, themes of individual responsibility to society, all resonate at the new home of Dramaworks, a complete remake of the old Cuillo Theatre on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, renamed the Don & Ann Brown Theatre. All the credit for maintaining the high quality of Dramaworks' offerings goes to the founders, the Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes, the Managing Director, Sue Ellen Beryl and the Company Manager, Nanique Gheridian. Their vision, dedication, and no doubt huge sacrifices during the formative years of Dramaworks is what gave birth to what is, today, one of the leading regional theatres in the country. Their winning formula, while extremely difficult to execute so professionally, is to focus on classic, award-winning plays, and produce them on a level on par with Broadway or the West End.

We were fortunate enough to have tickets to attend opening night, the first production in the beautifully renovated theatre, now seating 218 vs. the 84 in Dramaworks' theatre on Banyan Street. It was a special moment to be there for the opening, and attend the celebratory reception afterwards with crew and cast. It was reminiscent of the time we attended the Academy Awards and were guests of the Academy when I published The Annual Motion Picture Credits Database.

In designing the new theatre, a special effort was made by Dramaworks to retain the intimacy of the old theatre, still bringing the audience into the production in a visceral way.

In the case of their first play, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, Dramaworks could not have chosen a more appropriate offering, for our times and for their new theatre. The production demands of this play, in particular with its larger cast and two story set, would have been impossible in Dramaworks' former home, both technically and financially.

Furthermore, one cannot help but think of the numerous parallels to real life situations such as the Madoff scandal leaving the family with the shame brought on by the father, or the ignored cries of the helpless Kitty Genovese who was murdered in the neighborhood where I grew up, or the most recent failure of assuming individual responsibility in the Penn State debacle. These themes are played out in life and in art. No doubt Madoff, in the process of destroying countless individuals, thought, as Joe Keller, that he was doing something "for family and for his sons," thus justifying his actions. And how do ordinary citizens become bystanders while their neighbor is being murdered or a child sexually assaulted? Miller deals with similar issues in a play written decades before.

Miller once said "The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out," and what is more American than dreaming of riches and the so called "good life." Some men kill for that, some do it with Ponzi schemes and others with defective parts sold to the government at huge profits which cost American servicemen their lives. Or to paraphrase Balzac, "behind every great fortune lies a great crime."

And part of the "Dream" is living with illusions that try to make life more bearable. The mother, Kate, voices this facet of the play believing that her son, Larry, is still alive and will miraculously return home three and a half years after the war has ended. When Ann Deever, the daughter of Joe Keller's former partner who is now in prison, paying for a crime Joe is also guilty of, questions why Kate still believes that Larry is alive, she answers: "Because certain things have to be, and certain things can never be. Like the sun has to rise, it has to be. That’s why there’s God. Otherwise anything could happen. But there’s God, so certain things can never happen." The drama heightens to the inevitable converging lines of fantasy and reality, when Kate admonishes her other son, Chris: "Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live, that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father."

Dramaworks' production powerfully captures Miller's modern telling of the elements of a Greek tragedy, characters making choices that lead to their own downfall, leaving the audience feeling pity on the one hand and fearing this could be any person, including themselves or their own neighbor. My wife, Ann, was surprised that she didn't cry at the ending but instead we both felt as if we had a blow to our solar plexus. The acting, directing, every element was close to perfection.

All My Sons has the largest cast we've ever seen in a Dramaworks production, ten highly capable actors, some of whom are Dramaworks veterans. All were excellent, but the especially heavy lifting was done by Kenneth Tigar (Joe Keller), Jim Ballard (Chris Keller), Elizabeth Dimon (Kate Keller), and Kersti Bryan (Ann Deever). Their performances were amazing, physical and emotional, resonating with the full force of Miller's words. One wonders how these actors can sustain such emotional levels and then do it again the next day!

The remainder of the cast supported the leads with fine performances: Cliff Burgess (George Deever), Nanique Gheridian (Sue Bayliss), Dave Hyland (Frank Lubey), Kenneth Kay (Dr. Jim Bayliss), Margery Lowe (Lydia Lubey), and Kaden Cohen alternating with Leandre Thivierge (Bert).

The production was directed by another Dramaworks veteran, J. Barry Lewis. Lewis used the larger stage, as well as the lighting and the set, to bring out the best in his actors. I would imagine if Arthur Miller was sitting next to us he would have turned and said," this is precisely what I had envisioned."

The meticulous stage settings which have characterized Dramaworks' past productions, endures now on a larger scale -- a much larger scale in fact, a two story house on stage and its backyard -- thanks to the scenic design of Michael Amico. We felt as if we were sitting in the backyard of Anywhere, Midwest, USA. When the play opens the audience is drawn to a fallen tree, one that was planted in memory of the Keller's son, Larry, which now lies toppled by a storm in the night, a symbol of another encroaching storm that culminates in the powerful dramatic resolution. The scenic architecture perfectly connects the audience to the play, the same kind of intimacy that characterized Dramaworks' productions in their former venue.

Congratulations Dramaworks, the crew and cast, and best wishes to you all in your new home.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I've written about my old "home town" before. I lived in downtown Brooklyn and in Park Slope for almost eight years before moving to Manhattan and finally Connecticut. But Brooklyn was a special place for me, where I went to college, met my first wife, and had a son. To the right is a picture of Chris and me on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade in 1965.

So it was no wonder I picked up the novel Brooklyn by the Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín. It is a coming of age novel about a young Irish woman, Eilis Lacey, who immigrates to the US soon after WW II, settling in Brooklyn -- in fact near Fulton Street where I lived. There are similarities to the work of Henry James, contrasting the old world to the new, and written by a man about a female protagonist -- a remarkable novel well worth reading. One cannot help but contrast Brooklyn to James' Portrait of a Lady. Eilis having to make choices of suitors as did Isabel Archer.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street called Bartocci's, but it might as well have been the old Abraham & Straus also on Fulton Street. What Eilis is told by the bosses' daughter the first day of work embodies the essence of the American immigrant experience: "Brooklyn changes every day...New people arrive and they could be Jewish or Irish or Polish or even coloured. Our old customers are moving out to Long Island and we can't follow them, so we need new customers every week. We treat everyone the same. We welcome every single person who comes into this store. They all have money to spend...You give them a big Irish smile."

Eilis is the reluctant immigrant at first, being sent to America by her mother and sister so she could have a better life and employment which was then so difficult to find in Ireland. She knows no one there except a Priest who sponsors her. Eilis finally embraces the experience (falling, she thinks, in love with an Italian boy, never being quite sure) before she finds that she has to return to her home for a few weeks (don't want a spoiler in this brief synopsis so will leave it at that). Her old home in Ireland now seems foreign to her but over the weeks she begins to feel that she cannot leave (thinking she is now in love with someone else). It is now Brooklyn that is feeling foreign although she has put down deep emotional roots there.

The resolution is somewhat surprising but Eilis is constantly reinventing herself for whatever situation. One can imagine what it must have been like for an immigrant, especially a young woman, to make her way in a strange land after WW II. It can stand with Gish Jen’s novel about the Chinese immigrant, Typical American

Tóibín skillfully takes the reader on Eilis' journey, a truly unforgettable portrait and lovingly rendered by the author.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Home, Again

I usually write something about returning home after a summer on the boat and traveling but never got around to it this year. All hell broke loose upon our return, having to do some landscaping after another typical brutal hot Florida summer finally killed some of our original plantings, and, then (after committing to the landscaping), finding a leak around the eaves of the roof which revealed the roof underlayment was decaying (thanks, again, Florida!). While we could patch and fix for the next couple of years, ultimately the roof will need replacement. It would be only a matter of time before water encroaches the living space. So, now that new plantings are in around the house, we are starting a new roof. Bad planning.

In the process of getting four different estimates I've become an expert in roofing, underlayments, attachment methods, and tiles. Metal roofs are the vogue now in Florida, but I think they are ugly on some homes, including ours which has a Mediterranean look. So we are going with a Spanish "S" concrete title and 3M's Polyset roofing system. While the expense is substantial, the new roof will be beautiful and with hurricane protection to 150 mph.

So between landscaping, roofing estimates, the round of obligatory medical appointments, and volunteering to be the pianist during visitors' hours at a West Palm Beach rehab center, it's been a busy period. Nonetheless, there is always time for some good literature and in that regard here are two I finished at the end of the days and while waiting for appointments.

Ethan Canin's Carry Me Across the Water, is a gem, beautifully crafted with multiple converging story lines. The child of a Jewish immigrant makes his way to America with his mother, leaving behind his father who stubbornly stays, not believing what was coming, when the Nazis finally prevail in the 1930's.. His mother ultimately settles in Brooklyn, remarries the devout Hank Kleinman, from whom our protagonist August Kleinman derives his surname.

But the novel begins with Augie in his 78th year, a widower and father of three children, a man who pursued the American Dream through hard work, taking chances, and surviving WWII, the latter playing significantly in the novel. When Augie was a soldier he came across a Japanese soldier in a cave on one of the Japanese islands who has his own story, one that August becomes part of at the end. Meanwhile, after the war, August Kleinman becomes wealthy (a prevailing theme in Canin's work -- the juxtaposition of rags and riches).

Canin skillfully navigates multiple time lines, effortlessly leading the reader back and forth from Kleinman's childhood, to his long marriage to Ginger, often talking to her internally as he steers himself through those narrow cave passages when he was a GI, to his building a successful brewery in Pittsburg, and finally his declining years as he tries to make sense of his relationship to his middle child, Jimmy. During a visit with Jimmy and his wife and grandchild, he makes plans to go to Japan to find closure, for himself and for the family of the Japanese soldier. In the process, he is reconciling himself to his own mortality ("And the end is getting nearer. I know that. Don't think I can't feel it. But I don't give up. That's just Augie Kleinman. I always thought I had a secret that when the end came I would be ready for it -- that the grave would be a relief. But it turns out it's not that way.")

As with all fine pieces of literature, the characters are real, and their conflicts familiar. It is the way of life and Canin captures it poignantly.

In an earlier posting on America America by Canin, I said, "sometimes I felt I was reading a novel that was indeed designed by a teacher, but a VERY good one" (Canin teaches at the University of Iowa's writer's workshop)." Carry Me Across The Water is another example of a carefully executed piece of literature, a novella in length but packing meaning and emotion at every turn of the page.

I landed on this novel after more hilarity from the pen of Jonathan Tropper, enjoying his How to Talk to a Widower, cut out of the same mold of the others I've read by him, Everything Changes, This is Where I Leave You, and The Book of Joe. How many times can an author pretty much cover the same ground, the searching-thirty-something male adrift in a sea of Jewish family foibles and suburban females, married and unmarried and divorced or soon to be divorced, sexual predators at times. Here our protagonist is now Doug Parker who becomes a local newspaper celebrity writing a column about his status as a widower and his twin sister Claire's designs for him to snap out of his long-standing grief. Meanwhile he has to negotiate his younger sister's impending marriage, his father's erratic behavior from his stroke, a child from his deceased wife's first marriage, and his mother's matchmaking, not to mention the women who stalk him and, finally, the woman with whom he finally falls in love again.

In spite of Tropper covering well worn territory, he never seems to let it go stale and his humor never fails: "My parents may behave like they were abandoned in Greenwich and raised by WASPs, but when it comes to preparing meals, we are once again the chosen people." OR "I would come and sit on the lawn beside her grave and make halting attempts at one-sided conversation, but I just couldn't make myself believe there was anyone listening, and even if I could, talking to the grave never made any sense to me. If there's an afterlife, and they can hear you, shouldn't they be able to hear you from anywhere? What's the theory here, that talking to the dead requires range, like a cell phone, and if you go too far the call gets dropped?"

Besides the humor, there is Tropper the astute observer of human nature and of the suburban scene, reminiscent of Updike and Cheever in some ways: "...moving out to New Radford [the suburban setting someplace in Westchester] had meant becoming friendly with a different sort of man than my younger, drunker, wilder single friends back in Manhattan.....[They] were all husbands and fathers either on the cusp or already descending into the tide pool of middle age. These men were all adrift in an alien landscape of mortgages and second mortgages, marriages and second marriages, children, child support, affairs, alimony, tuition, tutors, and an endless barrage of social functions. And all of their living had to be squeezed into those few hours on the weekends when they weren't working their asses off to pay for the whole mess. I'd always assumed that the people who lived in those fancy houses in the suburbs were financially better off then I was, and only once I'd joined them did I come to understand that it's all just a much more sophisticated and elaborate way of being broke."

Furthermore, Tropper always finds a way to tug at your heart, and although he treads familiar ground, I say, bring it on.

So, our roof odyssey has begun, the ripping and banging reminding me of a giant dental procedure, and while I've made some progress with my reading list, the stack of books grows. The pictures below track the first couple days progress on the roof. If only I could read that quickly!


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Corporate Governance Gone Wild

Here is something for the Occupy Wall Street crowd to get specific about: CEO salaries have become obscene. Even new shareholder "say on pay" rules have not reversed the tide, shareholders being led by management's "recommendations" like lambs to the slaughter.

By 2009 the average CEO pay at S&P 500 companies was $9,246,697, including salary, stock and option awards, bonuses, pension and deferred compensation and other compensation (like the use of the corporate jet, when reported).

Compensation for these so called "job creators" has risen to 262 times that of an average worker by 2005, up from 24 times in 1965, about the time I entered the work force with my first job in publishing at $100 a week. If I had learned my ultimate boss earned 24 more times than myself, I think I would have understood, but 262 times? Today it takes the average S&P 500 CEO one working day to earn what his/her average employee earns in an entire year.

There are two issues that get wrapped around these facts for the Occupy Wall Street crowd. First how did salaries get so far out of balance? Then, why would a flat tax or any kind of reduced income tax at these lofty levels help the economy and create jobs?

Here is but one anecdotal example which helps address this issue, Eugene M. Isenberg's (the CEO and Chairman of Nabors Industries Ltd., a Bermuda registered drilling rig contractor) severance package of $100 million. (See the Wall Street Journal's A Very Rich Adieu for Nabors CEO)

This nifty package comes after compensation of "almost $750 million since 1992, including the value of his exercised stock options, according to Standard & Poor's ExecuComp," So that's about $850 million paid to one person over about twenty years, or about $43 million year after year after year. Meanwhile, "the Nabors stock has underperformed the S&P 500-stock index for the prior one-year, five-year and 10-year periods".

It is unclear whether the corporate jet is included in the compensation figures. "Records of Nabors-operated jets have shown frequent stops in Palm Beach, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and New York, places where Mr. Isenberg has homes. A Nabors spokesman said previously that the company had offices in Palm Beach and Martha's Vineyard and that Mr. Isenberg is frequently in New York on business." Guess there is a need for off shore drilling offices at some of the most upscale neighborhoods in America.

This is but one example of corporate governance gone crazy, Boards rubber stamping their approval of insanely generous compensation packages for CEOs, justifying their actions based on the (wink, wink) peer review system. Hey, look at these other overpaid executives at competitors, we have to keep up with them! Meanwhile (wink, wink), Board of Director positions are in theory subject to shareholder approval, but in practice management has played a major role in selecting and retaining board members. Board compensation of S&P 500 companies is now $234k per year for a few hours work each month and frequently they serve on the Board of more than one company. This compensation package is up 10% from the prior year (how many average employees received 10% increases last year?). So reciprocal scratches of the proverbial back have to be commonplace. Shareholders and Occupy Wall Streeters, unite!

Then, is it reasonable to tax someone who "makes" $43 million a year at a higher rate than his/her average employee making (in this case) probably less than 1/500th of that salary? You bet it is. And is this executive, competent though he may be, creating more jobs because he is taxed less than he ought to be? No way. Innovators and entrepreneurs create jobs, foremost example of course being Steve Jobs, and they are not primarily motivated by compensation and are they are not deterred from their calling by taxes.