Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March 31, 2009--John McCain's 70th Day

Driving home from Pilates, perhaps still hyperventilating, I had this waking nightmare—perhaps rather than yesterday marking Barack Obama’s 70th day in office, we had elected his opponent and it was John McCain’s 70th day as president.

In place of Obama announcing his administration’s plans for the tough-love restructuring of Chrysler and General Motors, McCain, with Treasury Secretary Phil (Enron) Gramm at his side, would have been explaining why it was the right thing months ago not to give them any bailout money and that in the spirit of the free market, though they no longer existed--and wasn’t it too bad for all those who owned their cars and worked in their assembly lines (again, that’s the way thing go with laissez faire capitalism)—he was confident that there was some young man (surely not woman) out somewhere in middle America tinkering in his garage—just like Henry Ford—working on the development of a new car that would run on water or carbon dioxide.

“We’ll show those Japs,” McCain would have been quoted as saying on Fox News later that night—Fox being the only surviving cable news network after CNN and MSNBC folded, unable to attract sponsors in the age of McCain.

Then later in the day, at a meeting at the Pentagon, with Secretary of Defense Lindsay Graham (the other Senator Graham) smiling and nodding at his side, President McCain would have been telling us that North Korea was planning to test fire a missile; and that if they did so, as Commander in Chief (an office neither his admiral father nor grandfather achieved) he would not only shoot it down but would also order our troops in South Korea to prepare to again cross the 38th parallel as they did back on October 9th 1950 during the first Korean War. This time, they’d get the job done.

“Too bad,” he would be heard to say later that night on the Sean Hannity show, “that Doug MacArthur is no longer around to lead the charge up to the Yalu River. This time around I’d let the old buzzard cross it and take on those Red Chinese. We can’t have them owning America and in return sending our kids all those poisoned toys. I know what I’m talking about, my friends. That’s straight talk.”

At about 4:30, after a meeting at Foggy Bottom with Secretary of State Joe Lieberman, back on the Straight Talk Express, which he would have insisted on using in place of the presidential limousine, to his usual coterie of adoring reporters, he’d fill them in on what he and his buddy Joe had been discussing.

“You know he just got back from his sixth trip to Israel in the last 70 days and he tells me that the Iranians are about to test fire their first nuclear bomb. A hydrogen bomb. And a real dirty one at that which will also will release biological agents. He swears to me that this is true. I know the Democrats were claiming that it would take them at least five years to make a regular atomic bomb, but Joe says, and he’s a Democrat, that they skipped that step and went right for the big one. Those A-rabs can be really sneaky.

“You know Joe, all he ever wants to talk about is Israel and the Jews. Why you know I even have trouble getting him to come to any meetings on Friday after the sun goes down. And I can never figure out what to feed him for dinner. So here’s what he wants me to do, this is off the record of course: turn Netanyahu loose and let him have the Israelis take out all those mullahs, that pipsqueak Abadinejad—never can pronounce his name—and while they’re at it bomb, bomb, bomb Iran. I’m just making a joke. I don’t mean bomb all of Iran, I mean only their nuclear reactors.”

Back at the White House, Vice President Sarah Palin would be waiting for him. Cooling her heals outside the Oval Office because after she got him elected he doesn’t seem to have any time for her. Always hanging out with Phil and Lindsay and Joe. She even called Cindy at her home in La Jolla to complain. Cindy, still enmeshed in the tax problems on her condo, didn’t have that much time to chat but told the Veep to be patient, wear a short skirt and something tight and then that “old navy tailhook flyboy,” to quote her, would notice her and give her something to do.

“I thought he’d at least let me run energy policy,” Palin whined, “You know, drill baby drill like we do up in Alaska, or at least put me in charge of all those faith-based programs. But if he won’t agree to do that, maybe he could assign someone on his staff to pray with me. Though not that you-know-what Lieberman. He gives me the creeps.”

“Me too,” Mrs. McCain would respond, “I told John he needs some new friends. You know, ones we can take to the country club.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

March 30, 2009--1,000th Behind the New York Times

The first posting was on August 26, 2005. I'm still here and so is this. I hope you have found some of these to be interesting and at times enjoyable. Here from about a year ago, in slightly different form, I reprieve one of my favorites. It's a little long, but I hope you like it.

My Inner Fish

If you require further evidence about the truth of Evolution, come to Florida in March when the Spinner Sharks are migrating.

Last Friday, waiting for the appearance of inspiration in my writing room from which I have an unimpeded view of the Atlantic, they were on full display. Tracking north, following their food supply—in this case I learned, Spanish Mackerel--vast schools of these ancient predators thrashed in a feeding frenzy that roiled the otherwise flaccid ocean.

It was clear even to an uninformed observer why they have earned their common name, “Spinner” (more pictorial than the Latin, Carcharhinus Brevipinna), as they leapt fully from the ocean and as if thrilled to leave their natural home if only for a moment to spin joyously glinting in sunlight. While overhead, ignoring them, circled scores of clamoring gulls and pelicans, which from great heights slammed headlong into the water to gather their share of whatever the ravenous Spinners had left behind.

Even before this riotous display I had been thinking about fish and even doing some reading about them. They are everywhere down here. Not just outside my window and not easy to ignore. There is their sport and commercial side. The Old Dixie Seafood Shop, for instance, just down the road is where fish boat captains bring their catch and the proprietors clean and display them in sparkling ice chests. There’s local Snapper and Red Mullet and Mahi Mahi. Swordfish from the Gulf Stream and whatever Tuna remains after the rest is snatched up by the Japanese fish buyers. The owner’s wife turns the occasional Wahoo into grillable steaks and whatever doesn’t get sold she transmutes into an incandescent salad flavored with just the right dash of celery-seed-suffused Old Bay. And then there are their specialties—Key-West style Conch Chowder and Smoked Marlin. They tell us that the Marlin spread is so popular that they sell 80 pounds of it a week. All from a tattered shack of a shop on an out-of-the-way stretch of, yes, the Old Dixie Highway.

But my reading takes me to very different places—to visit our deeper relationship to fish. Well beyond all the local surfcasting, sport fishing, and the resulting pleasures of the kitchen and table.

I had known from just a dollop of poorly-taught high school biology, when unfettered they still taught Evolution in public schools, that humans are no more than evolved fish. Fish that on a day, eons past, wiggled up onto land and of those that survived in this dramatically new environment then slowly passed along to us many of the physical characteristics that, transmuted, we too casually take to be unique to our own species.

For example, our boney head and large brain case with our sense organs fastened on are vestiges of our fish origins. And the fact that we have two ears, two nostrils, and two eyes set ideally apart, all essential to our survival, creativity, and progress, are also descended from fish, which also carry their sense organs in pairs.

The spines that allow us to walk upright so we can traverse the earth in bounding strides are modified versions of fishes’ spiny innards. All it takes to make that point is to observe what a waiter sets quickly aside after he filets your broiled Pompano. It takes little imagination to see the relationship between a fish’s inner scaffolding and our endoskeleton.

Fins became arms and legs; and our hinged jaw, tongue, and enameled teeth are also from the sea. Fishes’ cranial nerves are not that far from our own. In fact, premeds who struggle to recognize, identify, and memorize their sequence begin by dissecting the skull or chondocrania of Dogfish Sharks. If they do so successfully, as I pathetically once attempted, they discover the Olfactory nerve, then the Optic, next the Oculomotor, after that the Trochlear, the Trigeminal . . . and finally the Vegus. All remarkably similar to what one would discover during the first year in medical school. (Though I opted out before then and cannot offer direct testimony.)

More recent studies of our distant cousins reveal that fish have many of the same social skills that make us, it appears, not-so-uniquely human. Most live in schools in large part so that they can be of help to each other, engaging routinely in acts of considerable, apparently generous fish-to-fish reciprocity.

African Cichlids typically live in groups of ten or more and include a breeding pair and an assortment of helpers. Some of the workers defend their territory, others make sure the nests are cleaned, and still others do the hard work of oxygenating the breeding pair’s eggs. And remarkably, hear this human relatives, these so-called helper fish aren’t even biologically related to those they tend. They apparently do this thankless work so that they can benefit from the security against predators and the food supply made available by their collective behavior.

And fascinatingly, some fish even experience menopause! Was this an evolutionary necessity? And did they need to pass this too along to us? I like my three-dimensional vision, but . . .

Enough reading! I needed to move this research out of my study and into the real biological world to see if what I had been learning in books could be tested and verified. And so, during the Spinner Shark migration season, I took to the beach. With Rona not more than two steps behind. I suspected, to save me from myself.

In my mind it was like entering a scene from Steven Spielberg’s classic Jaws. I could almost hear that foreboding music thumping relentlessly above the muted surf. But unlike in Jaws the beach was preternaturally deserted. No one was standing ankle-deep in water, ominously looking out to sea in search of the fearsome Great White that was ravaging their community. Better the empty beach, I thought, to enable me, undistracted, to pursue my primordial explorations. Sharks I was seeking to be sure, but for what they could teach me or confirm what I had plucked from my reading about our ancestral relationship. This was not to be some cheap thrill from a dime novel or tawdry movie. No, mine was to be the explorations of a budding naturalist.

But wouldn’t you know that the first thing that caught my eye was a single footprint, the only one left behind by the wash of the lowering tide.

“Friday!” I cried out to the startled Rona. “Look,” I pointed in my delirium, “It’s Friday.”

“What are you talking about?” Rona, gasping, asked. She was out of breath from having to trot to keep up with me. “It’s Sunday, silly. I know when we live this way it’s hard not to confuse the days of the week.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean it’s who I mean. Don’t you see it’s just like Friday?” In my excitement the words came out twisted as I pointed again at the quickly eroding footprint.

She passed along the familiar smile of sweet understanding she employs when she finds herself in need of humoring me. Typically, as yesterday, when I was off on one of my fancies, which I have to admit are occurring more and more frequently during our unstructured days. I realized that this was another of those occasions when I allow my literary imagination to distract me from encounters with the “real” world, as Sunday when I was attempting to pursue my new found interest in interspecies transmission.

Enough with Jaws, enough of Robinson Crusoe! I was determined that from now on it would strictly be beach-shore science.

Friday would resolve itself again into the day before the weekend because the time I needed to know more about would be the Devonian, the geologic Period during the Paleozoic Era that lasted from about 415 to 360 million years ago when that first fish decided to try its luck on land and seed-bearing plants appeared and spread across the earth. This, I assured myself, was not going to be just another late afternoon 21st century walk on Delray’s beach.

And as if the sea and land could read my thoughts and in so doing generously chose to reveal some of their secrets, I saw right by the margin where the water met the sand edge signs of the kind of earth-shaping forces that carved our Grand Canyon, etched the shapes we see now across our vast western badlands, and put down those sedimentary deposits where the fossil record reveals the exoskeleton and story of those first amphibious creatures that are ultimately our ancestors. A microcosm of geological processes compressed in the brief time it takes for an exchange of tides.

“Look Rona,” I said, pointing, “look at this.”

“What is it this time?” I sensed some exasperation. “What are you pointing at?”

“Right here. Right there. A miniature Grand Canyon.”

“You must be joking. We’re in Florida, remember? Has the sun gotten to you already?”

“I’m not joking. Come here and take a look.” Hands on hips Rona sauntered slowly toward me. “You need to come quickly. The next surge of waves will wipe it away.”

“What kind of Grand Canyon is it that a little wavelet,” there was virtually no surf, “that a little swell of water can obliterate something that took eons,” she was playing with me, “to erode?”

“I’m not saying it’s a real canyon. Only that what took, what, 20 million years for Nature to achieve in Arizona is happening right here now in just a few hours!” Rona was staring skeptically at me rather than at what was in evidence right there at her feet. “I know you think I’m crazy,” she was nodding vigorously, “but I mean it. The same forces at work here are the ones that carved that wonder. Water in rapid motion, with sand grit suspended in it, is etching away at the subsurface right here on the beach just as the Colorado River did its thing out west.” Plaintively I looked at her.

Rona knew these “insights” were important to me so she relented a bit. “Can we move on? It’s almost time for our afternoon drink and I thought we were out here looking for sharks. Not to imagine ourselves onto Defoe’s island, teach Friday English, or search for the origins of the western landscape.”

“I hear you, but indulge me one more thing. I’ll take a pass on the canyon-building stuff--though if you glance directly down on what’s right below the water here you’ll have to admit it looks remarkably like looking out on the Mohave from 35,000 feet.” Rona, with her arms folded across her chest, was now looking at me out of the corner of her eye. Though she wasn’t wearing a watch, she looked at her wrist as if to check to see how much time I was wasting. I knew I had only a few more minutes of her attention.

“I mean see all those shells that you like to rummage around in? Thousands, millions of them that keep getting deposited here with every change of tide. What do you think will happen to them in 10 million years? Limestone, that’s what. They’ll be turned into limestone and in it, as it compresses, paleontologists will, 10 million years from now, find the fossil remains of these mollusks and the bones of the Gulls and Sand Pipers and Pelicans.”

“And me and you too,” Rona muttered, “if we don’t get a move on.”

In an attempt to acknowledge her sense of impatience, I pressed on and said, “But where are my sharks? The earth works business is fine, but I’m on a mission here.” To acknowledge how impossible I was being I smiled, “I’m searching for my earliest cousins.”

As if on cue, right before us, not more than ten yards from the beach, another feeding frenzy exploded as dozens of Spinner Sharks descended upon a school of Spanish Mackerel that had become trapped between the series of shoals which were among the ones I had been claiming were proto-canyons.

We instinctually jumped back to escape this thrashing, though we knew that the sharks were much more interested in their Sashimi earlybird dinner than anything our flesh might offer.

“Look at that,” I cried, “Have you ever seen anything more basic, more natural, more primitive?”

“No comment,” Rona snorted. “It’s getting late.”

“Come on, admit it, this is exciting. Isn’t it?”

As evidence that Rona in fact was enjoying this as much as I, she caught my eye as the light lowered and blew me a kiss, “I do love you. You’re such a boy.” And added, “Yes, I’m excited. I love seeing animals in the wild. Even here in Condoland.”

As we were exchanging air kisses, the mackerel, in a hopeless attempt to escape, had worked their way closer to the beach. Those that had managed to avoid being consumed quivered in just inches of water. Every time a wave slid back to the ocean, exposed to the air, with gills flailing, the mackerel, out of their element, flipped about desperately on the sand, frantically trying to get back into the water though there they would again have to contend with the sharks, which continued to hover, circling darkly in somewhat deeper water.

That is, all but one of the sharks lurked there, waiting for the return of the hapless baitfish. That one, we watched in rapt fascination, was working its way through the channels (my imagined canyons) that had been scooped out by the relentless waves.

The mackerel shivered, huddling closer together as they observed its ominous approach. As it closed in for the literal kill, as it slithered into shallower water, Jaws like, its dorsal fin, pierced the surface. I couldn’t help myself--the iconic music again started up in my head.

It moved in on the first cornered group and snapped up all of them as if it were vacuuming debris from the sea bottom. And then just as quickly it turned to the left where another small school was attempting to scurry. It was so intent on completing its carnage that it ignored the underwater contours and thus found itself beached on a small ridge.

It perched there a moment fully out of the ocean. In the air. And then, wiggling its body from side to side, managed to slide off the mini-shoal and back into deeper water.

Now seemingly safe and scooting to rejoin its mates that still hovered well off shore, as is so common at sea, the ocean’s surface altered. Where it had been quiescent, in that brief time it became roiled by some subterranean force, and the newly-generated waves swept the unsuspecting shark up onto the beach itself, depositing it right at our feet.

In spite of the now real danger, Rona and I did not take even one protective step backwards. Being there for this shark’s crisis took us over and riveted us to this perfect place to witness its final throes. And it would be a lesson from Nature about the dangers of greed and overreaching and survival.

As we stood there looking down at the shark in its final agony, out in deeper water, its mates gave up their gorging and one by one begin to leap from the water, spinning in the air as if to signal that they were there, as understanding witnesses and as a collective biological beacon, glinting in the remaining sunlight, and by so doing generating enough activity and reflective light perhaps to guide their avaricious comrade back to their protective embrace.

But as we peered down at the shark, now fully swept onto the land, ignoring the frenzied leaping and spinning of the others, it looked up at us and we exchanged what must be described as a knowing, inter-species glance of understanding: we recognized its plight as a fellow creature and it seemed to knowingly remind us of our ancestral connection.

Sharks are the earliest of sea creatures, I had read, to have paired pectoral and pelvic fins; and, using these, this particular shark, our ancestral progenitor, worked its way further up onto the strand. I wondered if it had become so disoriented by what had happened that it was placing itself at additional risk by struggling further landward on its protean legs.

While I thus pondered, it looked once more in my direction and, I think with a version of a shark wink, using its four fins again, turned its body toward the ocean and fish-waddled back to from whence it had come. And still belonged.
But where indeed, I thought, did it belong?

For surely, many millennia ago, one of its ancestors had made a very different decision and here we are, having survived to ponder our own origins.

“It’s getting late,” Rona said, pulling me back from my reveries. “We didn’t have any lunch today and I’m getting hungry.”

I knew there was no possibility that I could continue to hold her here. So I said, “Me too.” In fact, I had had enough for one day and was looking for a reason to leave.

“You know the other night we went to that wonderful Greek restaurant. Taverna Kyma I think it’s called. I had a delicious Greek fish, a Lavraki, that they grill on a wood fire. I could go for that again. What about you? You had one too and liked it.”

With a final look out to the ocean where the school of Spinners had retreated, I said, “Kyma’s OK with me, but tonight I think I’ll have the lamb kabob.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

March 27, 2009--Pooped

After all that typing yesterday and some very late nights, I'm pretty much out of gas. Or hot air, as some here would likely say. But I will return on Monday for the posting of my 1,000th blog.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

March 26, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: The Girls Take Stock

“How long has it been?” It was my nearly 101 year-old mother calling.

I assumed she meant how long since we had come to see her. “I don’t know, maybe two weeks.” I was feeling guilty. After all we had decided to spend the winter in South Florida in part to be near her, and had only managed to visit every two weeks or so.

“What are you talking about? It’s been just a few days more than two months. Months, not weeks.” I then knew of course that she was referring to how long Barack Obama has been in office.

Relieved that I was off the hook for not coming by often enough, I said, “I get you. I thought that . . .” I managed to cut myself off before getting into trouble.

“I am glad to hear that, but from what I am hearing about what you have been writing in that blog of yours, you have been giving him a hard time.”

“Well I . . .”

“No ‘well-I’s,’ thank you. The ladies and I think you’ve been unfair to him and we need to talk with you. Face-to-face. So come here for dinner tomorrow night—at 4:30, you know we have dinner at that time, like earlybirds—so we can have a conversation. And from the looks of you last time you were here—how long ago was that?” she couldn’t resist--“you could use a little brisket on your bones. It’s on the menu for tomorrow. They make a nice version.”

“I’ve only been trying to be fair. When I think he’s done something wrong, I . . .”

“Like I said, face-to-face. And not just with me, but with all the ladies.”

“Have you, have they actually been reading . . .”

“You know I don’t have a computer. I keep asking you to print copies for me.” So as to not feel monitored by her, I hadn’t done that in more than six months. “But Fannie reads it every day. Her son gave her an Orange computer . . .”

“An Apple, mom, and Apple computer.”

“Apple, Orange, you’re missing my point. That we want to talk with you. As I said, tomorrow, for brisket. They also make a nice gravy.”

Thusly summoned, with some trepidation, I drove down to Lauderhill last night to have dinner with, to meet with the Girls.”

Over the salad with Fannie, Bertha, Ruth, Esther, and my mother, the Ladies of Forest Trace, before the political talk, first I heard about how thin I was looking and how important it was to eat (“Look how he picks at his food,” Ruth said to Bertha as if I weren’t there.) To exercise (“Walk on the beach. You’re paying all that money to be right on the ocean. So take advantage. It does wonders for you.” Advice from Bertha.) And to get my sleep (“Have you ever seen such bags under anyone’s eyes,” Esther said to no one in particular, “I haven’t seen bags like that since the last time they took us to Publix to go shopping." Everyone, including my mother, laughed at that.)

But then over the mushroom and barley soup, the conversation, if I can call it that, turned to the subject of Barack Obama’s first 65 days as president (“It’s 65 days,” Fannie was eager to point out, “only if you count Inauguration Day as a day”).

“From what Fannie tells me, from what she reads, you are saying that he needs to fire Tim Ginsberg.”

Geithner,” I corrected her.

“Whatever. He too looks like he could use a good meal.” Ruth nodded, gesturing to me that I should finish my soup. “This is not a good idea. Here we have a financial crisis almost as bad as when we were young, before the War, and you are recommending doing something that would distract for weeks everyone on CNN, and can you imagine what they would say on Fox, while all the time people would be losing their houses and their jobs. So he doesn’t look good on television. Everyone agrees he’s smart, Geithner, and we should give him the time he needs to think about what we should do. Didn’t he say that he is more concerned about getting things right that doing it quickly? And what was so wrong with what he came up with the other day? Didn’t the boys on Wall Street get all excited? What happened with the Dow Jones.”

“Which, to tell you the truth,” Fannie slipped in, “if they are happy with his plans it makes me a little worried that old people like us who live on our pensions will be ignored.”

“All they care about,” it was Esther, “is making money for themselves. They couldn’t care less about the rest of us.” At that everyone around the table was nodding in unison. I remembered that earlier in life all of them had been very “progressive,” which for some meant that they were what at the time were called “Fellow Travelers.” Ruth and Bertha had been suffragettes and Fannie had helped organize the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

“The rest of you are distracting me. I'm not finished with talking with my son and now you want to talk about your pensions. No one here is missing a meal, thank God.” The ladies returned to their soup, which was getting cold.

“I know you have told me not to pay attention to the Dow Jones every day. It doesn’t measure how Obama is doing. That it can be manipulated and we have to be patient to let his plans work. At least that’s what you were telling me only two weeks ago; and here from what Fannie says, you want to pull the rug out from under that nice man, Geithner. By the way, what kind of name is that? He’s not Jewish is he?” I shook my head. “So if two weeks ago you were telling me to be patient now you are yourself losing your patience. This doesn’t sound very consistent to me.” She paused, peering at me to see how I would defend myself.

I took the risk to put my soupspoon down and said, “Maybe I was a little premature when I wrote that. About Geithner stepping aside. Since he didn’t seem able to build people’s confidence in Obama’s economic plan. But maybe he was right—he needed the time to think through the details of the plan and didn’t want to speak prematurely.”

“Exactly. Getting it right was most important.”

“And how many days has it been . . .?” It was Fannie again who was keeping track of the count.

“We all know how many, Fannie," my mother shot back, "You keep reminding us every half hour.”

“Well, it’s important to remember that," Fannie said, " With all those people on TV talking about every little thing 24 hours a day, it makes it feel as if it’s been a year. Just the other day they couldn’t stop talking about how on Sixty Minutes he smiled or laughed three times when they asked him a serious question. Can you believe it that while people are losing their jobs they talked all day about if it was appropriate for a president to behave that way. Or to go on the Jay Leno Show.”

“My point exactly,” my mother took over again. “Just before you came tonight, I made a list of everything I could remember about what he has done so far in only 60 days.”

“Sixty-five,” Fannie couldn’t restrain herself from saying, “If you count Inauguration . . .”

“I’m still talking, thank you,” my mother glared at Fannie who was working on buttering her second roll. "First, even before he was president, he got Congress to pass that TARP—that’s what they call it, no? To keep more banks from failing. We can tell you from personal experience what that would have meant. When that happened in the 1930s half the people in Brooklyn lost their jobs and had to eat at soup kitchens.” She pointed at my still half-filled bowl. “And then just a few weeks after taking office, he had Congress pass his stimulus bill, which . . .”

Without looking up, Fannie said, “Twenty-nine days. It was 29 days.”

My mother knew to ignore her, “To create millions of new jobs and to put money into improving our schools, which as a retired teacher I can tell you is most important, and to begin to fix our medical system, which everyone here could use. Look around, everyone is pushing a walker.”

“And that’s just the beginning,” Bertha chimed in again, “On your mother’s list is also his program to help small businesses, to help people refinance their mortgages and help banks get rid of the bad ones, and to do something about gasoline and . . .”

“Remember too,” it was Esther, my mother was smiling as the Girls made the list—she had clearly prepped them—“he also has already announced his new plans for Iraq, closed that awful prison in Cuba, sent Hillary . . .”

“Let’s be honest,” it was my mother correcting Esther in her schoolteacher way, “He announced plans for Guantanamo, he didn’t close it yet.”

“I stand corrected, but he did appoint ambassadors to work on the problems in the Middle East, in North Korea, in Pakistan, and I think later this week he will talk about Afghanistan.”

“And they announced plans,” it was Fannie, “to regulate the banks and hedge funds. Not bad for only, how many days has it been?” She winked at me.

“I think just sixty-five,” I said, winking back at her.

“And then I am hearing that you feel,” It was my mother again, “that Obama might be overloading the system. That he’s put too much on his plate. Not that you’d know about that.” The brisket had arrived and I was picking at it as the gravy began to congeal. “It should be no surprise to you, as a Jewish mother I don’t worry about too much being on anyone’s plate.” Now she was distracting herself. “Obama too, by the way, looks like he could use a good meal. Do you see how thin he is?” I ignored that.

“Here’s how I think about it. You remember how you and your father liked to do jigsaw puzzles?” It was among my favorite childhood things, especially working on them with him. “How on the cover of the box there’s a beautiful picture? I remember once you did one of the Grand Canyon. But then when you open the box there are a thousand pieces all jumbled together, which you can’t imagine will ever fit together; and when you look at what’s printed on each of them, it’s only a tiny piece of the larger picture. But as you work to assemble the puzzle, you have to keep the big picture in mind. Maybe that’s where that expressing comes from—the big picture—from jigsaw puzzles. And when a week or two later you’re all finished, what you’ve put together on the dining room table looks just like what’s on the cover of the box.”

I could see where this was headed. “That’s what I think is happening with Obama. From the beginning he had the whole picture in mind; and then he laid out the pieces, one at a time. And now that he’s almost done doing that they have come together into his big picture for the economy—the jobs, the mortgages, the banks’ toxic assets, help for small businesses—and for health care and education and energy. He is also showing us, at least trying to, how if we want to fix the economy for ten and even twenty years from now we have to do better with energy and education and with medicine. They’re all interconnected. And since they are, and essential to do, he wants us and Congress to work on all of them at the same time.” She smiled at me.

“I understand what you’re saying, and you may be right. I know from his reading of history that he realizes that he probably has only a year to get most of this done. Look at Roosevelt and even Ronald Reagan. They got a lot done quickly, no matter what you think of the details,” she shot a look to Bertha not to say anything about Ronald Reagan. “And by their second and third year in office the both of them had trouble getting anything else done.”

They had lived through FDR’s first hundred days and his subsequent years in office and endured, that’s how they would likely describe it, endured the Reagan years; and it was clear that they agreed with my mother’s analysis, realizing that both of them had been what historians call “transformative presidents.”

“So darling,” my mother was waiting for dessert to arrive, “are you feeling a little better?”

I had to admit that I was. I was even looking forward to my ice cream.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25, 2009--Le Reign of Terror

At the cul-de-sacs of the Ancien Régime of Fairfield, Connecticut, where assorted hedge fund managers and A.I.G. financial products executives live and play golf, they have their own way of experiencing the latest version of Le Disambiguation, the Reign of Terror for the uninitiated.

Unlike in France in 1793, no one in Fairfield has been dragged off to face what was then claimed to be the newest instrument of egalitarian justice, the guillotine. And class warriors who are beginning to show up at the enclaves of the nouveau aristocrats to gawk as much as express outrage are as likely to have a slice of gateau in their box lunches as those dwelling in their faux-stone, faux-chateaux. Up until now, everyone’s been eating cake. The residents from Payard Patrisserie, the visiting masses from Entenmann’s.

According to a recent report in the New York Times (linked below), the first in what promises to be a wave of bus tours to the homes of what sponsors called the “rich and infamous” was a polite affair. The 40 or so folks who showed up at the security gates of the homes of two A.I.G. executives who received (and subsequently returned) bonuses for as much as $6.4 million were not carrying pitchforks and torches. No cobblestones had been torn up. No cries of “Aux Barricades!” have been heard echoing on the manicured streets of Fairfield County.

They were not casual tourists who had earlier in the day visited the submarine base in Groton or the former whaling port in charming Mystic. Rather they were a group organized and sponsored by the Working Families Party, a coalition of community and labor groups and they were there to protest gently and politely. Hardly the way the revolutionary mobs arrived to haul off poor Marie Antoinette.

They respectfully asked well-mannered security guards permission to place in the mailboxes letters that they had prepared to express their outrage. Before doing so, the group’s leader read the text out loud for the reporters gathered to witness their protest—50 reporters from the national and international press who outnumbered the participants.

“They are all about themselves,” intoned Pastor Marcy Huguley, one of the organizers, “The more they get, the more they want.”

Not exactly “Liberté, égalité, fraternité." But what are you going to do—that’s been used already.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

March 24, 2009--Goods & Services & . . . ?

The A.I.G. situation continues to rankle. Not so much the financial collapse of the insurance giant, which is serious enough, but the issue of the bonuses. Even though some of the largest ones have been returned. (See NY Times article linked below.)

When something of this sort so galvanizes the public at all levels it is worth deconstructing. Not to drain the justifiable outrage from the reaction but to figure out why it is causing all this fury.

It is because these bonuses are a genuine, maddening, and metaphoric national disaster.

The genuine part is that A.I.G.’s so-called Financial Products Unit is the one that invented credit default swaps which in turn created (and I use that word advisedly) various forms of easy money and then when that bubble collapsed--and a bubble it was--the economy nearly imploded with it.

It is maddening because the "bonuses" rewarded the very same people who inhabited the FP unit which brought us down. These executives got paid exorbitantly for failing while most Americans worked hard for less and played by the rules, investing their money in IRAs, their homes, and the stock market. And then as a consequence of the felonious shenanigans of financial manipulators such as these got smashed.

No wonder so many feel like it's time to get out the torches and pitchforks.

And the A.I.G. situation is metaphoric because the world in which they worked was the epicenter for the pseudo-economy—creating fictive wealth out of nothing but air. Thus it stands for all that has gone wrong, is wrong with our economy and come-easy culture. Like the most potent of metaphors, it rings true and hits us viscerally, at a level that runs deeper than thought.

Thus we have to come up with a new macro-economic term for this sector of the economy--it didn't produce goods, except things such as $2,000 pocketbooks, McMansion, and mega-yachts; and it doesn't offer services as do nurses, doctors, waiters, cops, and teachers. Maybe we should call it the virtual part of the economy—as in the rest of the virtual world, it seems "real" but in fact is more made up of smoke and mirrors.

Even the Mafia does a more honest, more effective job. Loan sharking provides real cash, private carting removes the garbage, drugs get you high, and prostitutes are an ancient part of the traditional service sector of the economy.

This air-pumped virtual part of our economy is huge. Conservative estimates suggest that by as early as 2006 profits from these sorts of "financial services" constituted a full 40 percent of all corporate profits.

And to make matters worse all the parts of our government don't yet understand this. Congress when it comes to the bonuses is grandstanding, passing confiscatory tax legislation which is patently unconstitutional, while substantially ignoring the underlying issues; Tim Geithner may be smart but is about as politically tone deaf as anyone in recent governmental memory—an out-of-touchness that may doom him even after a 500 point Dow rally; and even Barack Obama is at times too cool, as if this part of the problem is marginal, that it is barely worth paying attention to—it’s a distraction. He may be right about that, but he is missing the political point, which is a huge problem because the politics, the emotion of this is carrying the argument. When expressing "outrage" it appears as if he is reading from a script. A good script, but the performance is generally dispassionate and will further, and ironically, distract us from understanding and dealing with the underlying systemic issues.

If it is a distraction it is a very effective one because everyone is in a rage. From the people I talk to down here--over coffee and in bars--though they understand that the amount of money involved in the A.I.G. bonuses is a blip on the screen when it comes to the total tab for the mess we're in, it rankles them more than anything else that's happened thus far.

It's worse to them than bailing out Wall Street; it's worse than what Bernie Madoff pulled ("That hurt the rich so who cares--they probably deserved it"); it's worse than home foreclosures (that effects still relatively few and "Maybe the people in default got themselves in trouble"); but the bonuses make almost everyone crazy.

If Obama doesn't manage it right, the politics and emotions of it, it could turn out to be the beginning of the political end of his presidency.

Having gotten this off my chest, I am nonetheless feeling confident that the programs Obama and, yes, Geithner, have announced--for mortgages; small businesses; job creation; investments in education, health, energy, the environment, and yesterday toxic assets (all interrelated)—will, if given a chance, be effective in both the short and long run.

Obama's right--we have to fix the immediate problems but also, even more, have to build strong foundations to assure a vibrant future. Part of that requires a fresh look at the true nature of our economy—the goods and services sectors, and the virtual--and in doing find ways to better understand and manage all three.

Monday, March 23, 2009

March 23, 2009--Wicked Witchcraft

This continues to be Green Owl week.

Over coffee a few days ago we got all tangled up about the A.I.G. bonuses and after that, in an attempt to distract ourselves, we exchanged snide comments about the manner in which some in Switzerland take to the hiking trails. Yesterday, we were at it again. This time arguing about one of the most incendiary of subjects—immigration and its effect on the economy. Especially now that that economy is so strained.

If you have been following my Owl encounters, you can only imagine.

“Have you been down to South Florida recently and driven around in those neighborhoods where they live?” This was Stan (not his real name) who before he retired used to work for a bank.

“Isn’t this South Florida?” I tried, knowing where this was heading and hoping to get us onto a different subject.

“I don’t consider it to be South Florida. Here, we have primarily Americans living.”

For this I couldn’t sit still, “Oh really? What do you mean by that?”

“I mean here we have citizens. People who speak English and are willing to work for a living.”

“And what do they in the real South Florida do? They don’t work for a living? Almost all in fact work very hard to make money. And take on a lot of jobs that your so-called Americans are not willing to do.”

“Like I said, if you drive around down there—and if you’d like I’d be happy to take you there—you’d see that fifty percent of them don’t want to work. They only came here to be on welfare. And to take advantage of our schools and hospitals.”

My coffee had gotten cold while the discussion had heated up. I was shaking with frustration, not from too much caffeine. How could Stan, who is otherwise a nice and reasonable guy be saying these kinds of things? In truth, making things up out of his own frustration with the state of the world.

I’m still used to having leisurely breakfasts in New York City, downtown in Soho, where you never have arguments of this kind. Everyone pretty much agrees about all things political, arguing gently mainly about this book or that, that movie or this. All the while comfortable being served and having one’s coffee cups taken away and washed by whomever happens to have had enough paperwork to present to get hired with not too many questions asked.

How nice it is there for all of us. It’s so good to live surrounded by people who agree with you about everything and let you sip your espresso without being interrupted by what so many in other, less-enlightened parts of the country, are concerned about.

Not that I don’t love it at the Green Owl; but some mornings, before I’ve had enough of their very fine American coffee, I’m not ready to be fighting about how large the government should be, who should or mainly shouldn’t be taxed, and how we should build a fence along the border and try to round up and send “home” the 12-15 million illegal (in New York we refer to our restaurant bussers as “undocumented”) immigrants. And yes, put in jail any one who employs them.

“Stan, I’ve got to tell you that you’re not right about this. However they get here they are coming to work. To make better lives for themselves. Like your grandparents, who came here from Italy. What kind of work did they do? You told me once. I think you said your grandfather worked for the Sicilian Asphalt Company, paving streets in Brooklyn. Near where I grew up. I remember them. Not your grandfather, but those guys. Gangs of them. And you know what, none of them seemed to speak English. They all spoke Sicilian. But their kids, every one of them, learned English on the streets and in school. Their parents were eager for them to. That’s why they came here in the first place. Just like today. How many kids whose parents snuck across the border don’t want to learn English? I’d say none.”

“That’s not true. They only want to speak Spanish. I’ve been to some of those demonstrations that they have to protest immigration policies and all I see are flags there from Mexico and the rest of those countries. I’ve never seen any of them carrying American flags.”

“I’ve seen that too and it’s not my favorite thing. But the other day, Saint Patrick’s Day, right here on Atlantic Avenue, did you see all the Irish flags? And on Columbus Day what do you see? Italian flags. And on Israel Independence Day? This doesn’t mean that the Irish or Italians or Jews aren’t good Americans. It’s just that they’re also proud of their backgrounds.”

“But they all speak English and are willing to work. Not live on food stamps and hang out on street corners. Like I said, I could take you to see this with your own eyes. More than fifty percent are not willing to work.”

“Stan, if I did some Googling and came up with the real numbers about unemployment, and if Steven is right,” it was Rona, the voice of reconciliation, “would you change your mind?”

“I know the numbers, but if you find others of course I would change my mind.”

So shortly thereafter we went home and did some research. From the Pew Research Center, state of the art for data of this kind (report linked below), we quickly found the following:

• Until late 2008 when unemployment began to rise rapidly, non-citizen Hispanics had lower unemployment rates than whites, blacks, and Hispanic citizens.

• During the last quarter of 2008, a small gap of less than two percentage points opened between non-citizen Hispanics and other categories of workers.

• But, compared to other groups, a larger percentage of non-citizen Latinos 16 and older were still in the work force.

So much for Stan’s numbers.

We forwarded the report to him but haven’t as yet heard back. We’ll see if he shows up at the Owl this morning—I should hurry and post this so we can get there.

My guess is that he will be there but will remain unshaken in his beliefs.

As Harvey, who was there yesterday but uncharacteristically didn’t participate much, as he said we’re having another of our periodic witch hunts, looking for scapegoats on whom to blame our most frustrating problems. That like in the 1690s at the heart of the matter is fear about the future. As then, the economic future.

I didn’t know that much about what came to be called the Salem Witch Trials and so I did a little research about that too. Harvey is right.

At the end of the 17th century, increasing family size fueled disputes over land between neighbors and within families, especially on the frontier where the economy was based on farming. Changes in the weather or blights could wipe out a year's crop. A farm that could support an average-sized family could not support the next generation, prompting farmers to push farther into the wilderness to find land. As the Puritans had vowed to create a theocracy in this new land, religious fervor intensified and added tension to the mix. Loss of crops, livestock, and children, as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes and bad weather, were typically attributed to the wrath of God. Explanations for this needed to be found, sacrificial victims on whom to blame things needed to be identified. And they were:

A hundred-fifty were arrested. Twenty-nine were convicted of witchcraft--a felony. Nineteen were hanged, fourteen of these were women. Six others died in prison.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20, 2009--Day Off

I'm typed out and so will focus on the beach. Blogging resumes on Monday.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

March 19, 2009--Freezing Your Pettuties . . .

I was planning to take the day off. I’m all typed out, what with all I’ve been writing about the economy and Tim Geithner and how Barack Obama needs to get all fired up if he wants to survive and ride the populist swell of anger and outrage that is sweeping the country over those unconscionable A.I.G. bonuses.

Yes, it’s true, as a sort of distraction, or straw in the cultural wind, I threw in a posting earlier in the week about the One Taste Urban Retreat Center where women who live there, every day at 7:00 AM, during what they euphemistically call “morning practice” are stroked to orgasm by a group of male volunteers.

I got a lot of, I hope, faux grief about it that day from folks at the Green Owl who have come to expect more from me. (Or at least that’s what they said to my face.) In defense of myself I said I was just trying to have some fun and it was, after all, reported in the New York Times, the paper of record. I didn’t make it up. I was just reflecting on the passing scene. Sometimes it isn’t pretty.

But back to today. As I said, I was planning a well-deserved day off when one of my Delray friends began to pepper me about a piece in the Times that Rona asked me to pass along to him. About hikers in the Alps in Switzerland who go trekking around, even in winter, wearing nothing but snowglasses and sunscreen.

“What do you have to say about that, big shot?” My friend is not always subtle, though I knew he was only having fun at my expense. “After that piece about those San Francisco gals I bet you’ll have a lot to say about those Swiss folks. This should be right down your proverbial alley.”

“But I’m tired. I’ve got a headache, what with all these credit default swaps to think about. And worrying about Tim Geithner’s job. I have nothing to say. I’m out of gas.”

“That’s my whole point. I’ve been feeling for a while that you’re beginning to run out of material. What ever happened to that fun Steve who used to write about gun shops and $4,000 pajamas? And what happened to those delightful Ladies of Forest Trace? I miss hearing about them. I hope they're all right. [They are]. With the exception of that attempt at being funny the other morning, it’s been all grimness from you. You’ve got to lighten up once in a while. That’s why I think that article Rona asked you to send me should perk you up, so to speak.”

I always pay attention to his advice, he’s smart and at heart a good guy, and so I took a closer look at the Swiss buff-hiker piece, thinking I might be able to make something of it.

I don’t know about you, but take a look at it--it’s linked below—since I may be missing something. In spite of the four-column-wide picture of a couple of guys wandering around on a glacier just in their Vasque boots (shot from the rear of course), there not much in the story to sink your teeth in, so to speak.

Again, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found things Swiss to be boring—watches and cuckoo clocks and skiing and fondue and, well, numbered bank accounts—and the more I tried to find something in the story that might hint at a shift in the cultural landscape or something funny or titillating to write about, the more I read about the flap about nude hiking, because that’s what it’s turned into in Switzerland—a flap—which of course is half the point: how they managed to turn something this playful and ridiculous (it’s COLD out there in the Alps) into a serious matter, the more I pored over the article the less interesting it seemed.

Including what the Appenzeller Justice Minister said, the well-named Melchior Looser. About how he is confident he can come up with a statute that will make these transgressors cover up. If this were happening in America, I’d immediately want to get a special prosecutor appointed to see if Herr Looser’s been paid off by lobbyists from North Face or Gortex.

He, among others, is saying that Switzerland is not vast like Canada where wandering around in the wilderness without a stitch would be OK since how often would you bump into and offend another, clothed mountain climber? “Here,” in tiny Switzerland, Markus Dörig, a spokesman for the local government said, “you meet other hikers every few minutes. It’s very bothersome.”

But maybe that’s the point—meeting other hikers. I’m not sure the Swiss do eHarmony or JDate so what’s so wrong with trying to find love in the mountains in this way? By—how can I put this—showing off your assets. Seems very clever. Very Swiss.

I ran this by my Owl friend and he shot back, “Have you ever seen what cold weather does to your assets?”

To this I had no reply. And so, as I was intending, I’ll take today off and get back to blogging tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

March 18, 2009--Tea Party

Again, yesterday at the Green Owl.

We arrived late and the only two seats available at the counter were up front right by the cash register. The one compensation for sitting near such a busy spot is the chance to say hello to those arriving and departing.

We were schmoozing with Harvey about the recent Shuttle launch—among other things he’s the area’s resident expert on all things involving space flight—when someone we hadn’t seen for a while showed up to place a take-out order.

He was sputtering under his breath as he approached the counter as if talking to himself. Though a few others who wander in are famous for holding these kinds of phantom conversations, we had never seen Tim (I’ll call him that) do that or so agitated.

“Are you OK?” Rona, the solicitous-one asked.

“Those sons-of-bitches,” he muttered, not to her or anyone in particular. But then he caught himself, noticing Rona nearby, and said, “Sorry. Pardon my language. It’s just that I’m besides myself.”

“What’s going on? You seem so upset.”

“I’m more than upset. It’s those A.I.G bastards. Again, sorry. This is no way to be talking with a lady present.”

We had always known him to be very well mannered. “No problem, Tim. I know what you mean. Their behavior is outrageous.”

“It’s worse than that if you want my opinion. It’s criminal. If I had done at my job what they did at theirs, I’d be looking for a new line of work. Even though I always had to work my ass off I never ever even heard of bonuses!” The veins in his forehead were visibly throbbing. I was hoping he ordered decaf. He didn’t need any more stimulation.

“Me too,” I offered, trying to calm him down, “None were ever available to me.” I was concerned that he would give himself a stroke.

“And can you believe it the people getting the biggest bonuses all work in the division that came up with those derivatives that bankrupted the company. And I heard on the TV this morning that though those bonuses we supposed to be ‘retention’ bonuses,” he snickered, “at least eleven people who got them have already left the company.” He spit as he spoke, “Some retention. They took the money and ran. Bastards!”

He looked sheepishly over at Rona to see if she was upset with him. She had by then gotten off her stool and reached out to touch his shoulder. He leaned close and whispered to her, but loud enough for me to hear, “You know what we need?” She shook her head. “Another tea party. That’s what we need. And I’m not kidding.”

I only wish Tim Geithner and his boss would come down to the Owl one morning and hang out there. Because they’re not getting it. It would help them get the tone right when attempting to respond to the emotion that is running rampant about the A.I.G. bonuses. (Or minimally read the attached New York Times article.)

Geithner yesterday came up with his version of a plan to recover the money—not from the individuals who got money that they didn’t deserve (except perhaps contractually) but from the company: dun A.I.G. itself, he is said, for the $160 million. As if that’s at the heart of the problem.

It’s not that the company stole that money, which after all is peanuts compared to the real money A.I.G. itself stole, but they gave it to so-called executives who didn’t deserve it.

To people who should have been fired for bankrupting the company and this country and cost each of us thousands of dollars.

Geithner should be beating the drum about how outrageous this is and how we need to figure out ways to get the money back from those specific incompetent individuals. Even the hapless Congress is doing better in this regard!

Geithner is approaching the practical and political problem as if it’s about the money, when it’s, duh, about the outrageous rewarding of individual employees. It’s about corporate behavior that symbolizes what was allowed to go wrong in the pseudo-economy since Ronald Reagan’s time. About the consequences of irresponsible deregulation and unbridled greed. And how this artificially advantaged financial manipulators at the expense of hard-working people.

We have to deal with and expiate what’s making those working people like Tim so justifiably crazy. Geithner doesn’t begin to get that

And, sad for me to say, neither, it yet appears, does President Obama.

Yes, he is a better speaker, but it is not a good thing that the public is now wanting to know “What did Obama know and when did he know it.” We know the last time a president was questioned in this way.

We now know the “when”--that he learned about the latest round of bonuses last Thursday. But he did not say a word about this until Monday when he slipped in a few dispassionate comments before announcing his small business initiative. And this seemingly only after his surrogates on the Sunday talk show circuit failed to quell the rising public ire. Then, when Obama spoke to the nation on Monday, he didn’t even look into the TV camera and express his outrage directly to us—as usual he was shifting his head side to side, like at a tennis match, while reading from his teleprompter.

I like his calm, his Hawaiian cool—it shows he is not rattled by all the crises swirling around him and this has the affect of helping to keep the rest of us calm—but when it comes to the bonuses, he is effectively tone deaf.

He doesn’t seem to get it that for almost all of us who are truly scared about what is going on with our jobs, our savings, and our economic future, those of us who don’t have a clue about the meaning of credit default swaps or mark-to-market accounting, getting millions of dollars in bonuses when they are to say at the least not deserved, is an emotional lightening rod.

And unless Obama can react to the rising anger less reluctantly and more passionately, there will in fact be a tea party. One that he will not be leading.

He needs to remember that we enthusiastically elected him to bring about change. About this, he needs to do the

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March 17, 2009--Morning Practice

For millennia men have been brilliant at figuring out ingenious ways to get their rocks off. From the establishment of patriarchical religions that feature inventive ways of keeping women in their place to encouraging multiple sex partners—wives and concubines—to, in contemporary times, the refinement of the sex business so that it now features Internet porn and “gentlemen’s clubs” where, for a generous gratuity, you can get your lap dance after watching your poll dance.

But in a world of gender inequality, women have, as in so many other fields, encountered a sexual glass ceiling. So maybe it is good to learn that they now have the One Taste Urban Retreat Center to go to receive their daily orgasm.

I am using language here as carefully as I can, without any intended disrespect, because at One Taste in either San Francisco (where of course it was founded) or in New York (where there is a now a franchise) women who are in residence receive their daily orgasm from the men who also live there.

There is no hanky-panky going on at One Taste, no sexual relations (to quote Bill Clinton’s carefully crafted legal definition). Rather, according to the not-so-staid New York Times, every morning before everyone trots off to work the following occurs:

At 7 a.m. each day, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation — “OMing,” for short.

(See article linked below—sorry, only very discreet photos included.)

At One Taste this is called “morning practice” and the couples “research partners.”

Couldn’t they have come up with better ways to describe this? These euphemisms sound so boring and clinical. “Orgasmic meditation? Come on. And maybe they should call “morning practice” something like “circle jerk.” But, then again, that’s what we guys call our equivalent, though for the most part we have to service ourselves. What self-respecting woman would ever want to participate in something so gross?

But I am fascinated by the male “research partners.” Knowing men as I unfortunately do, what self-respecting male would sign up for this unremunerated task? In fact, it appears that they have to pay a fee to live in the One Taste loft. (By the way, what’s with the “One Taste” name itself? Sounds to me more like a fringy Bay Area health-food restaurant.) What dastardly acts have these men committed that they feel the need to expiate their guilt in this self-sacrificing way?

The again, maybe I’m being too cynical. Perhaps they are just good guys who recognize how exploited women have traditionally been. Or that they are the vanguard of the next version of the post-gender New Male. This I can get with.

One final thing, though, that I can’t get. Tantalizingly, just mentioned in the Times piece, with no details whatsoever, is a report about what is going on at the satellite New York City One Taste Center. There, one of the instructors (they need instructors for this?) reports that most of her “clients” are married Orthodox Jewish couples from Brooklyn.

Now, I’m from Brooklyn, and I am Jewish. So I know Brooklyn and I know the Hassidim who live there; and nobody, not even the New York Times, will ever convince me that those women with their long dresses and sheitels are going to lie on the floor half naked while some guy from the Village gets them OMing. No way. At least while their husbands are around.

Monday, March 16, 2009

March 15, 2009--A.I.G. Rant

In the Green Owl Early last week I was having coffee with Bob. He would describe himself as a “regular guy.” After military service he went to work for a telecommunications company, moved around a lot, and about ten years ago retired from AT&T. From his navy days he still sports a brush cut; he keeps himself fit; and has a pretty good, secure pension.

Like the rest of us, he’s been hit by the decline in stock values but is still comfortable. Bob was and is a good saver and shrewd investor.

After a few perfunctory hellos and chit chat about the weekend basketball results, he leaned over close to me and poked his finger almost into my chest to let me know how worked up he was about the government and all the bailouts. “If the government would only stay out of things, we’d be fine. It’s not their business to interfere with the economy.”

“Don’t they have to, Bob?” I said, “If they don’t get involved won’t everything come crashing down?”

“Tell me one thing the government‘s ever done right. Katrina?” He snorted. “Iraq?” he scoffed again. “They’re making a mess in Afghanistan, and so you think the same people who made all these messes can fix the banks?” He looked at me.

“Who’s gonna pay for all this?” Adding more half-and-half to my coffee, I didn’t respond. I knew where this was going. “I’ll tell you—you and me.” With that he actually poked me.

I instinctively lurched back on my stool, almost toppling over, and since I didn’t have a good answer for him I averted my eyes and resumed concentrating on my coffee. But, without looking up, still I tried, “One thing I can tell you, Bob, is that we’ll pay either way—if we continue to bail out the banks and if we don’t.”

“How’d you figure that?” he asked.

“Well, we’re already paying for the initial bailout money and if the banks and A.I.G. go bankrupt we’ll pay for that too by further declines in the stock market, the free fall in the value of our houses, and when we see our 401(k)s continue to shrink.”

“And where will all that money come from? Please don’t tell me from the Chinese.”

“From them, too. They’ll keep buying our T Bills. If they don’t, the ones they already have will go down in value. They too have to protect their investment.”

“I’m not buying any of that. What the government’s doing is running the printing presses day and night. You mark my words, soon it will cost $25 for a cup of coffee here.”

We went back and forth about this, with his ire more and more directed at A.I.G. “Why the hell did we give them any money in the first place? Who cares if an insurance company goes out of business.”

“They’re more than an Insurance company,” I tried to say, “They’re also a version of a bank. I think they’re the ones that invented those credit default swaps, which . . . “

“I know all about them. I’ve been reading up on the situation. I don’t care what they invented. Enough is enough. I say let them go.” I resumed saying nothing. “To make things worse, they’re a French company aren’t they? So let France bail them out.”

For his central argument and raw emotions I had no adequate response, though I did try to correct his assertion that it is a French company. But my attempt to defend what the Bush and now the Obama administration have been doing were to no avail. I wasn’t even able to convince myself that what I was saying made any sense.

And now, a week later, I am convinced that that defense, call it an explanation I was attempting to offer last Monday for the government’s action no longer pertains. I am tempted to say that after learning on Sunday that A.I.G., which has thus far received $170 billion from the US government—let me correct that, from us—has continued to blithely pay out bonuses to its executives. When they are done with the current round in March 2010, these bonuses will add up to at least $450 million. (See linked New York Times article for the details.)

When he learned about this, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was outraged and called A.I.G.’s chairman to complain. After all, because of the bailout, the U.S. government now owns 80 percent of the company’s value and the Treasury appointed the current chairman. So the government should have some leverage in the situation.

The chairman did agree to reduce some of the bonuses, but not all the way back to zero. Quite the contrary. He informed Geithner that almost all of them are contractually obligated. There is nothing anyone can do about that—a contract is a contract. And further, they are necessary to keep top performers from leaving A.I.G.

Well, I’ll tell you what can be done. I know that I am speaking emotionally, but what we the people, our government should do is unilaterally break the contract. If we can go to war unilaterally, we can break contracts that way.

And then let the people who claim they are entitled to the bonuses sue. Let them go to court, publicly identify themselves, tell us where they live, and then try to convince the judge—and the America people why they deserve the money. Not salary money, but bonus money.

Let them make their case. Especially those who worked in the credit default swap unit who are in line to get most of the bonus money. The very division that was central to bringing down the company and the U.S. and world economies.

And, though I know it’s not his thing--to express populist anger--I want to see my otherwise cool president on TV, not his surrogates, without his teleprompter, look straight into the camera and tell us how outraged he is and what he plans to do to quell his and our fury.

Friday, March 13, 2009

March 13, 2009--Sardines

My father had a joke for almost every occasion. His sardines joke is about as good a statement as any I’ve heard regarding the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. It goes like this:

Lewis Brown (actually, as my father told it, it was “Mr. Schwartz,” but all things considered I here prefer “Brown”), Mr. Brown calls his friend Sam Rogers and says, “Sam, do I have a deal for you. I have a warehouse filled with thousands of cans of sardines. Since you’re my friend, I’ll let you have them for only $10,000.”

Rogers agrees to buy them and two weeks later calls his friend William Green. He says, “Bill, do I have a deal for you. I have a warehouse filled with sardines, which, since you are my friend, I’ll let you have for just $15,000.”

Green buys them and soon after that calls his friend Harvey Scott. He says to Harvey, “Since you're my best friend, I have a wonderful deal for you. I have 500 shipping containers filled with tins of sardines which I can let you have for only $25,000.”

Scott sends him a check and a month later goes to the warehouse to see his sardines. While there, he decides to taste them. He opens a tin and discovers that the sardines have spoiled. So he tries another can. Same result. He thinks maybe these are an exception and so he tries sardines from three other containers. All are spoiled.

Upset, he calls his friend Bill Green who in turn calls his friend Sam Rogers who then calls Lewis Brown. “Lew,” he says, “I just learned that all the sardines you sold me are rotten. What’s going on?”

Sam says to him, “What did you expect. These are not eating sardines; they are buying and selling sardines.”

Get it? Just like much of the current economy. These are not real mortgages; they are buying and selling mortgages.

And, down here in South Florida, these are not condos to live in, but rather buying and selling condos.

Take Icon Brickell, for example, which is not a religious shrine but rather a $1.25 billion 1,646-condo real estate colossus on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami. It was built by the tycoon Jorge Perez as his real estate piece de resistance, but is languishing virtually unoccupied in spite of its 28,000 square foot fitness center and two-acre pool deck with its 12-foot-high limestone fireplaces. In spite of its majestic entrance, which is adorned with one hundred 22-foot-tall columns sculpted, at the cost of $15 million, to resemble the monumental moai statues on Easter Island.

The Icon is basically uninhabited because it was not meant to be inhabited. Like my father’s sardines these condos were built to be flipped. According to the New York Times (article linked below) only 30 of the 500 units that were ready for closing in December have closed.

And so, to quote Jack McCabe of McCabe Research and Consulting, “It could very much be that his masterpiece will also be his downfall.” Which could serve as the coda for this era.


I am not a fan of the Daily Show or Jon Stewart, but have been applauding his criticism of CNBC, NBC’s so-called financial news network, especially Stewart’s attempts to hold Jim Cramer of Mad Money accountable for his errant stock predictions and shenanigans. How he and his CNBC colleagues have been complicitous in puffing up the financial bubble which exploded recently, wiping out the life savings of so many who did the right and conservative thing with their finances.

If you didn’t see the Daily Show last night, where Cramer was Stewart’s guest, it is required viewing if you want a glimpse behind the veil of how these financial “journalists” are effectively in bed with the leaders of the industry they purport to cover.

You can see the interview via the link below. Be sure to watch all three parts.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009--The Art Bubble

What’s wrong with this story?

Harvey S. Shipley Miller still chuckles about the day a few years ago when he called Larry Gagosian to buy a Cy Twombly drawing for a collection of works on paper for the Judith Rothschild Foundation. Mr. Miller explained that other dealers had been flexible on price—the pieces were being acquired by a charity, after all, and ultimately would be part of a collection in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“He wouldn’t budge,” Mr. Miller recalls. “So I said, ‘How about $100,000 off?’”

No, Mr. Gagosian replied.

“How about $25,000 off?”

“Nope, I can’t do it.”

“O.K., Larry,” Mr. Miller said, exasperated. “How about $1.00? Can you give us a dollar off?”

“Well, no,” Mr. Gagosian answered. “I’ll tell you what, though,” I’ll buy you lunch.”

“I said, ‘No thanks; I’m on a diet.”

(The full story can be found in the New York Times article linked below.)

The Judith Rothschild Foundation’s mission includes—

A grant program that focuses on encouraging interest in recently deceased American painters, sculptors, and photographers whose work is of the highest quality but lacks adequate recognition. The grant program is dedicated to ensuring that the work of these under-recognized artists has meaningful opportunities for public viewing and critical reassessment.

Larry Gagosian, of course, is the owner of America’s, perhaps the world’s, most successful gallery of contemporary art. His stable includes Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, and Damien Hirst each of whose work he sells for seven and eight figures. As a result, Gagosian is among the wealthiest and most powerful dealers.

So one would think that when approached to be a little charitable, especially in this of all times and for a cause that you think might appeal to him, he would take a little off the price. To quote him, “Well no.”

If you want to get a glimpse of what Gagosian is about, if haven’t looked at Twombly’s drawings recently, you can via the Gagosian Gallery’s website. Most look like they were done by a kid in kindergarten. An untalented one at that who is likely to get left back. They sell for millions.

If you think I’m being nasty, read how Wikipedia describes them:

His best-known paintings of the late 1960s are reminiscent of a school blackboard on which someone has practiced cursive e’s—or (for his paintings of the late 1950s and early 1960s)--hundreds of years of bathroom graffiti.

As I think about Dante’s Inferno these days and who among our contemporaries might be assigned to the 8th or 9th circle, of course Bernard Madoff comes to mind as do a gaggle of banking, insurance, and brokerage house CEOs. But I am also inclined to reserve a place there for Larry Gagosian. Maybe in the 2nd circle.

While waiting for him to receive his just desserts, the good news is that his art bubble too is bursting—auction prices are down and many of the hedge fund managers who fueled the run up in prices (Damien Hirst, for example, not too long ago sold a diamond encrusted skull for a cool $125 mill) are so desperate for cash that they are asking Gagosian to dump some of the goods he hustled to them when times were good; and as a result prices on the art resale market are plummeting.

As the folks who brought you the Great Recession say, it’s all about supply and demand. Sometimes that works out just fine.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

March 11, 2009--Harvey, This Kool-Aid's For Me

Harvey is a friend I look forward to seeing mornings when we can sit side by side over coffee at the counter in the Green Owl. He’s a lifelong Republican and about as smart about things as anyone I know. And I don’t mean just about things Republican.

The other day he said he had been reading my stuff and thinks I’ve been imbibing the Obama Kool-Aid. It’s not just that he disagrees with most of what Obama is about, and what I’ve been writing—he respects all that as I do what he has to say—but rather that I’ve lost my critical capacities when it comes to things Obama.

So this one’s for you, Harvey—

If I could advise Obama about what to do to help turn the economy around and begin to solve the underlying structural problems, I’d tell him it’s time for his Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, to say he needs to leave office so he can spend more time with his family.

Geithner is undoubtedly an incandescently smart and hardworking fellow, but in the parlance of the day, he may not have the chops to get the job done. Much of which involves building confidence among investors, consumers, and even bankers.

Beyond his smartness, the case for Tim Geithner, in spite of his personal tax problems, was that as head of the New York Fed, and earlier while working for Larry Summers during the Clinton administration, in spite of the fact that in both of those roles he contributed to the problems we now face, the case for him includes that since he knew how we got into this mess, since he wants to redeem himself (ditto Summers from his time at Harvard), he will be able to devise a roadmap to take us back to a better macroeconomic place.

But to cite Paul Krugman from his recent column in the New York Times, rather than taking the bold and necessary steps to get us out of our national and global quagmire, Geithner has decided to “muddle though.” All the while, Obama’s political is likely to be spent down on other controversial but important issues—stem cells research and healthcare and education reform, among others.

In our current circumstances, the most important cabinet position is Treasure Secretary; but from the ideas about what to do about the credit crisis as well as from his public performance—performance as well as policies are needed to restore confidence—Geithner is not getting it done. In fact, he may be contributing to the problem.

Further worsening the situation, there is so much on Geithner’s plate—he is also heading up the panel of advisors who have to figure out what to do about the auto industry—that he needs to be able to assemble a team of Deputy, Under-, and Assistant-Secretaries of the Treasury. Thus far, according to the article linked below from the Times, it appears that none are in place. A few have been nominated but no one has been confirmed by the Senate, in part because some have had ethical problems of their own; and that, after Geithner’s own lapses, makes their confirmations complicated. He is thus trying to function pretty much on his own with an assortment of official and unofficial advisors.

This is not a good thing. And it’s time for an early-course correction.

“So, Harvey, please pass the half-and-half for my coffee. No more Kool-Aid for me this morning.”

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

March 10, 2009--Behind the "Washington Post"

Call me ill informed or out of touch, but until last weekend I thought that the Washington Post was part of the east coast liberal media establishment. I assumed it was the Washington Times that was the right wing newspaper in DC.

But then someone send me the attached editorial from the WaPo, titled "George W. Obama," and I was so shocked by its silliness and, worse, mean-spiritedness, that I took a closer look at the Post and the columnists it features. And though, as a liberal, I like that the New York Times publishes David Brooks' columns on the op-ed page, and though most times I disagree with him, at least he has a brain and makes a good case for his views.

On the other hand, the Post's stable of columnists, and many of their editorial writers, are right out of the conservative wingnut school. Featured are Robert Kagan (who was instrumental in bringing us the war in Iraq), Charles Krauthammer (who has repeatedly called for us to bomb Iran from his Post perch at the as well as from his seat at Fox News), George Will (the WaPo's David Brooks), and Michael Gerson (George W's chief speechwriter) among a smattering of more moderate and left-leaning columnists. But the Post's editorials that I have been scanning have been tilting more and more to the right. All well and good, but not what I, in my naïveté, had been thinking.

Take this Jackson Diehl, the Post's deputy editorial page editor, who wrote the "George W. Obama" rant.

It’s actually more of a ramble that touches on Rush Limbaugh, the recent healthcare summit, and bipartisanship; but the section that Diehl seems to feel justifies linking Bush and is brief enough to quote in its entirety—it amalgamates Bush and Obama by claiming that Obama, like Bush, in spite of their rhetoric, during their individual crises (9/11 and the recession), did not call on all of us to sacrifice. Bush told us to shop and Obama:

Warned the country that fixing the huge problems in the financial markets and housing and auto industries would require a historic effort. "None of this will come without cost, nor will it be easy," he said. "But this is America. We don't do what's easy.

We do what is necessary to move this country forward."
Minutes later, Obama spelled out what he proposes this to mean for 98 percent of Americans: "You will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime. In fact, the recovery plan provides a tax cut . . . and these checks are on the way."

So much for summoning the country to sacrifice. Obama has been no more willing to ask average Americans to pitch in, even once the recession is over, than Bush.

Let’s talk for a moment about those 98 percent of Americans who Diehl claims are not being asked to pitch in or sacrifice.

Who in America has been hit hardest by the Great Recession? The two percent of Americans who are wealthy and used to be worth $20 million and are now struggling to get by on just $10 million? Those who had three or four homes and now may have to make do with only two? Those who have to take their kids out of Ivy League colleges and send them to state U’s? Others who won’t be going to St. Barts this winter? I feel for them, but really.

Or is it most of that 98 percent who have already been clobbered? Who have already sacrificed jobs, seen the equity in their homes implode, perhaps been foreclosed on, lost their health care benefits, seen the value of their 401(k)s cut in half, not been able to send their kids to even a community college, can’t afford to buy a used much less a new car, are doing all their shopping at Wal-Marts, and are scared to death that things for them will get still worse.

Yes, Jackson Diehl, Obama should be asking more of them. It’s these people’s fault that we are in the situation we’re in. It’s not true, in spite of what the radicals and socialists are saying, that they’ve been taken advantage of by government cynicism and incompetence or corporate shenanigans and unbridled greed. If the middle class and poor hadn’t taken the bait and mortgaged themselves to the hilt we wouldn’t be in this fix.

So, since it’s their fault, since we’re all equally in this together, we should also ask them to pitch in and sacrifice. If we’re going to ask those making more than $250K a year to pay a little more in taxes, why shouldn’t everyone else be required to do more?

To quote Diehl quoting Barack Obama from his address to Congress and the nation, “But this is America. We don’t do what’s easy.” But in Jackson Diehl’s America we kick people when they’re down, especially if the powerful and rich are primarily responsible for their being down in the first place.

So maybe he got the title to his editorial wrong. I prefer—“George W. Diehl.” That sounds about right.

Monday, March 09, 2009

March 9, 2009--Daylight Spending Time

This business of springing forward an hour in the spring (and the equally mnemonically falling back in the fall) appears to have been the brainchild of Benjamin Franklin, who thought that by having a little more daylight in the evening people would not have to burn as many candles. Thus, in a manner of thinking, DST from its inception was an energy saving idea.

So how have we been doing in regard to conserving energy since DST, or as it was called--Summer Time, began to be widely phased in since the 1940s?

In 1975 a federal government study showed that Daylight Savings Time reduced the nation’s electricity usage by a small but significant amount. By about one percent a day. This was because less electricity was used for lighting and small appliances.

The amount of energy people used was found to be related to the time when they went to bed at night and got up in the morning. Most electricity and other forms of energy were consumed in the evenings when families were at home cooking and watching TV and such. So by having more evening daylight less energy was used.

And though in the spring and summer the 70 percent of the population who woke up before sunrise used more energy than if DST were not in effect, the savings from less use in the evening more than offset this.

Thus, case closed, it’s a no-brainer—Daylight Savings Time is a good thing and maybe it should even be extended. Actually, a few years ago it was when we were required to move our clocks ahead earlier in March than in the past.

In our current energy conservation way of thinking, one would expect that some voices would be raised to add an extra hour so that we could save even more daylight and in the process use less electricity.

Actually, the opposite is true.

Some are calling for its elimination, claiming that if you think about this in a nationwide or a worldwide way, if you add up all the BTUs we use when we move clocks ahead an hour, we may actually be consuming more energy than if we left them alone.

Since the 1970s the population has shifted south to warmer climates and thus when considering energy savings you have to take air conditioning into consideration. Longer, hotter day-lit evenings cause families to keep the AC on longer and we know how energy consuming that is. Also, moving south even just a thousand miles, as here in Florida, means living closer to the equator, where there is always 12 each of day and night, which in turn means that days are longer in the winter and spring and shorter in the summer.

Then since 1975 when the feds did their study many more women have joined the workforce which means that during the day, when they had been traditionally home working as homemakers, less power is being used. On the other hand, more energy is consumed at their work places.

To make things even more complicated, when DST came into widespread use it was left to each state to decide whether or not to institute it. Not all did. Even today Arizona and I think Hawaii as well as Puerto Rico do not move their clocks around—they stay on Standard Time all year long. (Which is another reason John McCain lost the election. Think about it—how can you claim to be about the future when your state is stuck back in time?)

And since Indiana didn’t opt to begin DST until 2006 it became a contemporary laboratory to see how much energy was saved by the switchover. It turns out to be not much. In fact, since 2006, counter intuitively, Indiana has seen its energy consumption rise by one percent. (Read linked New York Times article for the details.)

This may not seem like a lot, but one percent here and one percent there adds up. And there are other social costs as well—increased pollution emissions from this increase in energy use it is estimated will cost the state about an equal amount of additional money, not to mention the effect on the environment and the health of citizens.

I don’t pretend to know how to calculate the implications of all of this but know for certain that, unlike in Franklin’s day, we stocked up on candles recently not just to put more romance into our evening dinners but because at this time of year we are moving into power-failure season and will need them to supplement our flashlights. Which makes me wonder how much electricity we’ll be saving during those energy saving blackouts.

One thing I do know, I’m typing this in the dark, am half asleep, and have to wait an extra hour to get my coffee.

Friday, March 06, 2009

March 6, 2009--EggBuckMuffins

Plan to get on line early Tuesday morning at your local Starbucks because that’s when they will roll out their new breakfast menu.

For a nickel less than four bucks, you’ll be able to get your egg and bacon sandwich, either a cup of oatmeal or coffee cake, and of course coffee.

At Starbucks? All for the price of a Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino? What the hell’s going on here? First McDonald’s starts serving lattes, next Dunkin’ Donuts begins to make fresh espresso, and now Starbucks is about to offer up its own version of an Egg McMuffin.

This only proves how messed up the economy is. There’s no way my Starbucks would see itself in competition with McDonald’s or, worse, Dunkin’. But here they are. It’s come to this.

We all know the story—a couple of teachers and a writer started Starbucks in one small storefront just off the Pike Place Market in Seattle in 1971 where it sold robust coffee—just coffee, no Frappuccino-ey things—in actually crockery, not paper, cups. Coffee with real flavor. Not that watery stuff that passes for java in the typical diner.

Word spread, people lined up, and before too long there were more than 16,000 stores in the US and in 44 countries around the world, employing 172,000 baristas, among others.

An incredibe American success story. And all basically about fancy coffee.

Now, with sales declining, they not only have closed 1,000 stores and laid off thousands of workers, but from this report about breakfast food items, they are scrambling to retain their old customers, who are now more cost-conscious, and attract new ones, who in the past wouldn’t have thought to set foot in a Starbucks, thinking it to be too yuppified and expensive. (See linked New York Times story for more details.)

So Starbucks set its “food development team” to work to create two breakfast sandwiches. And over a year of hard work and experimentation they came up what we will see unveiled next Tuesday.

You may wonder what took so long? It should have been a piece of cake--first of all, they had the McMuffin to inspire them; but even with that prototype to poach, they quickly concluded that they didn’t want their version to be so shiny and perfect-looking. So factory-made. Even though, to be realistic and to bring it in for under $4.00, they also had to, truth be told, manufacture it in central plants, freeze it, and ship it out to all the however-many Starbucks would ultimately remain after all the sad contracting.

They needed to mix the eggs and Parmesan cheese in huge vats, pour the results into tins, bake them, freeze them, and then truck them to distribution centers where they would be assembled in a way that would make the concoction look freshly made in order to appeal to Starbucks’ discerning customers.

The first sandwich the team came up with had its problems. Like its progenitor, it too appeared manufactured. So back to the drawing board they went. Rather, back to the baking tin, which they refabricated so that it would have an irregular shape—sort of like the look of a real egg.

On Tuesday we’ll see how things turned out.

But there is a further problem—let’s call it cultural. Up to this point Starbucks, including through its extravagant pricing (after all, their basic item is a cup of coffee in a paper cup), has wanted to appeal to a version of an elite clientele, to distinguish itself from the neighborhood hash-house. Now they need to lure some of those folks from across town.

How will the two mix? Starbucks doesn’t plan to stop offering their $4.00-a-cup confections, but how will they manage to make their traditional latte-sucking Liberals and their new Joe-the-Plumber customers comfortable sitting side-by-side?

If Starbucks manages to pull this off then maybe, just maybe Barack Obama can get Nancy Pelosi (from California where there are 2,500 Starbucks) to make nice with John Boehner (from Ohio, where there are many fewer Starbucks) so that they, in a bipartisan way, can work and play well together.

OK, I know, I’m dreaming.

I guess I must be over-caffeinated.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

March 5, 2009--Snowbirding: The Great Recession

South Florida has experienced many booms and busts. All associated with real estate.

Back in the 1920s, especially during the frenzied year of 1925, thousands of real estate agents and hundreds of thousands of delirious speculators fanned out over the region, some buying and selling the same properties many times over during the course of just one day.

And then the bubble burst. Houses fell into disrepair, the swamps reasserted themselves over the recently drained land, and people were thrown out of work. It looked like Armageddon. Hope about the future was extinguished. Seemingly for all time.

But recovery came in the 1950s and then again things collapsed, but not with the same fury. And even today, though old-timers here evoke memories of past times, things are not nearly as bad as they were years ago.

Real estate is still at the heart of the problem, but this time compounded by how inventive speculators commodified real estate—taking inflated mortgages and inflating them further by turning them into derivatives, financial instruments that were bundled together and then cut up into a version of shares which they then sold around the world to the greedy and gullible.

While so-called “values” of properties soared, there was no apparent problem. No one was calling in any debts. It appeared that there was no limit to how high things could go. But then, as we know, the reckoning came and these puffed-up instruments began to implode upon themselves. So here we are.

And where I am is at the epicenter of the Great Recession. Bernie Madoff ran his ponzi scheme from just up the road in Palm Beach, but his more-than-willing “investors” range up and down the Treasure Coast and reach right down here into Delray.

Bernie is the poster boy for the Great Bubble that was our economy, but his 50 billion dollar scam is just a blip on the economic seismograph. Sure we should beat up on him and direct outrage in his direction. We do need to have an emotional outlet to express our rage. But let’s not lose sight of how this actually happened—how our government, regulators, bankers, brokers, and our own intoxication with the possibility of riches are responsible. And be sure to talk to people here so as not to avoid encountering some of the human costs of this national binge. A toll that twice-daily beach walks cannot erase.

Take Rita, for example. Though not her real name, we encounter her frequently at one of our favorite restaurants where she is a waitress. She is a coil of energy and optimism though to keep things going for herself and her son—to be able to make her mortgage payments, put gas in the car, and food on the table—she has to work three jobs, seven days a week.

I have never heard her complain, but she understands what’s going on and knows it isn’t her fault. She never refinanced, though tempted, to take any equity out of her house to spend on an easier or more fun-filled lifestyle. Rita has always been one to keep her head down, make sure her kid goes to college (he is in his second year at Palm Beach Community College and himself works two jobs), and try to save a few dollars for her, as she puts it, “old age.”

Barry had an interesting life. Originally from Pennsylvania he ran off to the army while still a boy and served for a decade mainly in Asia. After his discharge, under the cover of working for an American business with an office in Hong Kong, he was in fact a spy. He claims nothing James Bond-like ever happened to him, but he was and is a good guy who believes devoutly in his country and did everything they asked of him. Maybe one day he’ll tell me more of the details since I suspect he hasn’t told me the full truth about his exploits.

After leaving the service, he did a bunch of things, ranging from a stint in telecommunications to another selling insurance. He never married and was always a good saver. Now in his early 70s, with a mild heart condition, he has seen, like so many, about half of those savings evaporate. He never did anything wrong when it came to money. In fact, he did all the right, conservative, diversified things his accountant and lawyer advised.

So now he worries about his future. As he put it the other day, “To tell you the truth, I probably don’t have all that much of a future. My doctor tells me my condition could worsen tomorrow and I’d need a big operation and then most likely have to move into assisted living. I have a nice apartment but who could sell it at this time. I’m alone. My wife died years ago and I don’t have any kids. So I’m on my own. If I need it, how will I pay for my care? I did a lot of crazy things in my day—especially overseas—and never was sacred. Now, I’m terrified.”

Then there’s Kathryn. Also native to the area, she worked for the same furniture company for 26 years. Never missed a day and was highly thought of by the owners. About a month ago she and three other long-term employees were called to a meeting with their boss. To say the least, they were nervous. But they were relieved to learn that though times were bad—of course they knew that—their jobs were not in jeopardy. They were relieved to hear that and to relieve their tension went out together for a drink.

That was on a Wednesday. Two days later, Kathryn and her colleagues were called back into the supervisor’s office and told that that this would be their last day. In fact, it would be necessary to leave immediately. Someone would help them pack their things. And, oh yes, in addition to unemployment the firm hired a job counseling service to help them, at no cost to them, find another job.

That was it. Nothing more was said. Not a word about what had happened between Wednesday and Friday.

Kathryn is not only worried about herself but about her mother who recently had a series of strokes and now requires regular medical attention and in-home nursing. She does have long-term care insurance but its lifetime limit is about to be reached. Kathryn knows that as her only child she will be on the front line until . . .

Murray’s also got problems, but of a very different sort. He’s in the scrap iron business. He divides his time between Chicago and Delray. He’s done well. He’s the first to admit that. And he’s also the first to admit that he’s a big spender. Too big. . He’s a car guy. Murray has four very expensive, vintage cars. He has a compulsion about them. Two up there and two down here.

The problem is that he has big loans on all of them and is having trouble making the payments. His business is still good but has fallen off some. And as you might imagine from his thing about cars, he’s a high roller and speculator. The bottom has fallen out on that part of his little empire and thus he is cash poor and in danger of losing one or more of his cars. He’s thinking about selling one or two them, to consolidate, and maybe that way manage to hold onto the other two. But the market for cars of this kind is also soft. With a smirk he calls it “trickle down.” How when the larger economy gets into trouble it trickles down on almost everything, including his old cars. He tells me that if he could vote again, this time he’d vote for Obama.

Finally, there’s Tommy. He owns a tow truck and up until recently was doing pretty well. He’s a great guy, honest as the day is long, which is not always the case in his line of work, and thus has a loyal clientele. But some of his regular customers—for example, a taxi feet with which he has a contract—are hurting and cutting back on taking care of their cars. Thus, when one breaks down, they just let it go since business for taxis is way off. Or if a family that has two cars has one that needs a new transmission, they figure out how to make do with their other car since they don’t have the money for the repairs. And thus don’t call Tommy to tow them to the shop.

So now at breakfast, where Tommy usually has bacon and eggs and potatoes and toast, I notice he’s been cutting back on his order. Yesterday I noticed he didn’t have any bacon or a side of hash browns.

But like with Rita and Barry and Kathryn and Murray, I don’t sense any anger from him—though that would be understandable—or any feeling of despair or entitlement. He and they know this area’s history and are patriotic to the core and thus believe that America’s best days are still ahead.

Even if they’re wrong about the country’s future, they know something else--how to work hard and survive no matter what comes their way. They’ve seen it; they’ve done it.