Monday, July 30, 2012

Maybe You...

"Whaling Wall"
Maybe you...

...have been to too many dinner parties lately, where guests seem excited about discussing what the Federal Reserve might do next.

...think it's strange that, when Mitt's handlers told him to visit the "Whaling Wall," he confessed to them that he had never liked Nantucket.

...wonder why, all of a sudden, Nixon and Carter have begun to look better after all these years.

...have been worrying that lobsters have become as plentiful as Sabrett weenies, polar bears now need to learn how to swim long distances between ice cubes, and why the new word for corn in Iowa-nese is "dust."

...have experienced a 401TKO, a roller-coaster EKG, a job search DOA, a tuition SOS, a rejection letter from AARP.

...have three generations of interns living in the same house and none of them went to medical school.
A Stack A Day...

Or perhaps you...

...have realized there are fifteen more weeks of presidential commercials, thirteen more days of Olympic coverage, only a matter of time before the next banking fiasco, and a lifetime filled with Kardashians.

...been thinking the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Aunt Jemima, Mother Goose, Mr. Clean, Betty Crocker, or  the other shooter on the grassy knoll could prevent your healthcare premiums from going uppity-up-up.

...have been taking an aspirin in the morning, a Lipitor at night, viagra in the evening, a double to make  you tight.

...have been perplexed, thinking Roger Clemens didn't, Monica wouldn't, Tom Cruise couldn't, Kim K shouldn't.

...wonder if there are really are no coincidences, if God actually does play dice with the universe, or if a stitch in time doesn't save nine after all.

The Intouchables
If any of these symptoms seem familiar to you, or might be happening to a friend or loved one, then do not wait  to pass Go, definitely use that Get Out of Jail Free card, even bypass Free Parking...

...and go see The Intouchables at a cinema near you. Now.

Maybe you...just need a break.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Do Bronze Have More Fun?

Vroom? Hah!
Say you want some revolutions? A couple of weeks ago, I was stopped at a traffic light in Greenwich CT, Land of A Thousand Hedge Funds, in my red jeep, which I have driven since 1996, The Little Jeep That Could.

Stopped next to me on the right was a guy in a low-slung yellow Ferrari.

I revved my engines twice, mightily. The guy looked over. I revved the four-cylinder engine again.

Cracked the guy up.


"Glass" House
Talk about living in glass houses! In his retirement from banking, Mr. Sanford Weill has apparently decided to take up slapstick comedy. This week, in a tune up for his Vegas act, he opined that maybe creating Banking Super Malls, like his own CitiCorp, wasn't such a great idea after all. Having been in the front lines to smash the Glass-Steagell Act, in order to combine his own Travelers' Insurance with Citi, he now appears to be "clawing back" his position.

Did anyone on the Congressional Entertainment Committee listening to "Sandy" think to ask: "Based upon what amounts to your admission of total failure and ineptitude, do you have plans to return some of the many $millions you "made" as a result of merging all the small financial bits into one big unworkable hulk?"

Now that deserves a good laugh.

Listening to Weill say that we should re-re-do banking regulations is like listening to Babe Ruth claim that the home run was probably not such a good idea after all.


Really Bronze
Do Bronze have more fun? The last time that Olympic gold medals were made completely of gold was in 1912. Today's "gold" medals must be plated with at least 6 grams of gold. "Gold" medals are actually 92.5% silver.

Silver medals are also 92.5% silver.

Bronze medals are all bronze, which is to say, copper and tin.

Friday, July 27, 2012

How I Became Famous...So Far

august etc.
1. Before I became a blogging tycoon, famous humorist and clever police reporter, I employed a beginning writer's* trick: I wrote haiku. Actually, I wrote a lot of haiku, averaging about one a day for a year or so. I even joined the Haiku Society of America and read their magazine, Frogpond.

2. You think that I could make that up? Here's one of the later haikus:

some cups
seem empty
a long, long time;
still cups

3. It may come as no surprise to you that I soon discovered that making a living as a haiku-ist was going to be challenging. So, I began writing short, somewhat humorous essays. Blogs were just beginning to be big at the time, so I posted-published the essays, later adding pictures, and I've now posted over 400 of these. Here's an older one from September 2010:

4. While I was developing what turned out to be my "quirky" voice and style in the essays, and potential employers were finding all sorts of creative ways to ignore my entreaties, I still had some time on my hands; so, I made collages. Actually, I made lots of collages, over a hundred.

pool boy
In the beginning, at the suggestion of a very talented friend, I pasted, matted and framed pages from my illustrated notebooks, which I'd been keeping/making for years. They looked pretty good, so I began making some from scratch, using tear sheets from magazines and stuff I had lying around my office.

Some of the collages turned out to be four-panelled haiku-like stories, like August Etc. above, which now hangs in a friend's house in Maine

5. I sold some of the collages, had a small showing at a local wine shop, and a designer asked  me to make some for the newly-designed student center at one of the finest boarding schools in the land.  As far as I know, they are still there.

6. While I enjoyed this time as a visual artist, especially making things with my hands, once again it became clear to me that earning enough from collaging was nearly as hard as earning as a haiku-ist.

too small to fail
It was about this time that the editor of a very fine local newspaper published one of my style essays and actually paid for it. My career as a regular Life & Style columnist was born. Later, I added police reporting to my portfolio. Police language is a staccato form of storytelling. In fact, it closely resembles...haiku.

7. Recently, as some of you know, I've launched a new phase of my writing career with a long story in a large daily newspaper owned by an infamous media-billionaire. I've discovered that one way he stays a billionaire is that he takes a really, really long time to pay free-lance writers. Just when you think that check or direct deposit is in the mail or on the digital-wire, they come up with a new set of forms to fill out. This particular media mogul likes to rave against government waste and bureaucracy, and yet, he has created a byzantine accounting bureaucracy of his own. As far as I can tell, his paper has not yet hacked my phone. Caveat Scriptor.

Suffield Academy/Senior Room
I much prefer my regular editor's immediate payment system at her Little Paper That Could**.

8. My team (I acted as Managing Editor/Publisher) is about to submit a final version of a book called Manursing Island Club: The First Hundred Years to the designer and publisher for a private printing. We worked on it for over a year. It looks really good: strangely, almost as if a haiku-ist, collagist, essayist, humorist had a hand in its creation.

After that...another book about...dunno yet. I'll think of something.

*Technically, the author was not a beginner, having tried his hand at free-lance writing some years before. While many writers have used the haiku method to get started, the author wishes to thank Gail Sher for reminding him of this practice in her book, One Continuous Mistake.

** The Rye (NY) Record

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fly Us To The Moon, Please!

Sputnik I
When I began high school in September 1962 (true!), students had two choices of modern language: French and German. Additionally, after regular class time, the school offered classes in Russian.

German? Russian? Yes. On May 25, 1961, JFK had made his "man on the moon" speech and launched a national commitment to learning science and technology. At the time, understanding German was critical to learning about rocket technology, among other things. If you don't believe me, just look up the name Werner Von Braun (or Einstein).

Why was Russian offered?

Today, it's difficult to explain the impact of something called Sputnik I and the Russian space program upon our national consciousness at the time. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I into outer space on October 4, 1957, and suddenly our national confidence that only we could do the impossible was shaken if not entirely shattered. All we had to do was listen on short wave and ham radios to the satellite's "beep,beep" as it made its 96 minute trip around the globe. Talk about start-ups! Sputnik was Apple, Google, Facebook* and more, wrapped and tied up with a totalitarian red ribbon.

Later, as America's own space adventures went from folly to flop, the Soviets shocked us once more. On April 12, 1961 they put the first human, Yuri Gagarin, into outer space, where he made one full orbit of earth before returning safely home. Boom! The cold war began to heat up fast.

Why do we bring this up now? We bring it up because post-war America was cruising along in the Fifties: creating unprecedented national wealth, building our cities, and dominating world events as Russia and the rest of Europe dug themselves out of the remnants of war and its deprivations. Our cities had been untouched, our industries had been humming along (thanks in part to many women having"manned" them during the war). We were mostly having one big party after another.

Yuri Gagarin
Does this sound familiar to you? Does this sound something like the 1990's, when we were all working, all building wealth, at least on paper, the Soviet empire was crumbling, and the new Chinese form of capitalism was in infancy? We won the big one! Party down!

Then: the internet bubble burst, 9/11, Afghanistan I, Iraq, Afghanistan II, Too Big Too Fail, and assorted mind-numbing banking calamities, corruption everywhere, a political left-right standstill, and our current presidential campaign, Zzzzzz.

Which brings us back to JFK's speech to Congress just a month after Gagarin landed back on earth. Here's the important part of what he said that usually does not get quoted:

"I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified the long range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment."

JFK was talking about the space race and he famously went on to commit us to landing a man on the moon by "the end of the decade." We did that on July 20, 1969.

But, it doesn't matter what his subject was. Maybe you don't give a hoot about getting to the moon. Maybe you think that was a waste of time and money. Maybe you're not a Democrat and don't admire JFK one little bit. Maybe you're a Martian sent to report in advance of our next rulers (please hurry)!

It doesn't matter. What matters is what he said, when he said it, where he said it (he was asking Congress to do something), and, most importantly, how he said it. Imagine if he had asked all the pollsters and consultants if he should commit to actually accomplishing a goal within a specified time with the whole world listening?

Now, we've lost that national confidence to do something insanely great together as Steve Jobs might have said. Something bold. A BHAG**, Big Hairy Audacious Goal!

Will somebody please stand up in front of us and challenge us to do something truly, outrageously, insanely, intergalactically great without first asking a thousand experts?

We're tired of being strapped in while standing still. Fly us to the moon. Please. We're begging.

* Ed Note. Why do we use those companies as a comparison? In 1958, As a direct result of Sputnik's success, the U.S. started something called ARPA, Advanced Research Projects Agency. Later, it was ARPA-NET itself, which formed the basis of the internet, as developed by Xerox Parc, where Steve Jobs eventually visited.

**Lately, I've been working with Amy Cuevas Schroeder and her DIY Business Association. She recently asked me what my BHAG for the year was...and it got me thinking.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Summer Road Trip

Alone in the back seat,
parents up front,
grandparents or friends
in a house that creaks
and smells like ancient comic books
and warm maple syrup.

Like driving up to Maine,
and back,
on the coastal route,
in and out, out and in,
town after town,
rock after rock,
breaker after breaker,
white paint, white paint, white paint,
fog here and there.
Tee-shirt, sweater, fleece;
Tee shirt.

The sticky leather seat,
mom’s god-awful music.
Are we there yet? No!
Regular choir up there.
Sun melting the dash.

Plates sighted,
even Wyoming.
Capitals all named,
Even Frankfurt.
Really gotta go now!

Stop for lunch:
Pairs of old people
Fish, fish, more fish.
Lobster, crab, squid.
Orangey hot dog, please.

Back on the road.
How much longer?
Soon! Says front seat.
Soon is a very long time,
Nearly as long as
“Almost there.”

More coast between
towns now.
Remembering this one.
Packed parking lot near boats.
Quick, find a space: unpack the stuff,
run for tickets, down the steep dock,
board the mail-boat.
Past Boats in the harbor,
into light fog.

Clang of lines approaching island,
Before we see it.
Climb the dock, walk up the sandy path,
pulling the carts;
fishy smell, welcoming gulls.

Are we there now?

When are we going home?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

London: Enter The Athletes, Please!

Albertville '92 Opening
Shocked, shocked once the startling revelations surrounding the security, or, more precisely, lack of it, as the London Olympiad approaches* (Quick: does anyone know the actual opening day? Thought not.). British pols love to bask in the klieg lights as they pummel hapless bankers, regulators, and now security firm execs. Like our own Congress-persons, MP's never miss a chance to have someone make even them look competent by comparison.

While that particular circus plays out, we also read of American and Australian athletes being held captive without food or drink for over four hours. No, not due to a security problem, but by a confused bus driver experiencing his first day on the job in a city with which he lacked familiarity: London.

If that seems far fetched to you, it should not. I vividly recall the early days of the Olympics around Albertville, France, when our group tried to travel by hired bus from Courcheval to Meribel. As the crow flies or skiers ski, this would have been about 6km, but as the bus lurched to and fro on steep, icy Alpine hills, it became perhaps four times as long. The driver took one wrong turn after another, and then needed to back down the steep inclines and somehow make hairpin turns with that fifty-foot long toboggan on wheels. In reverse.

Barcelona '92
Our driver was indeed French, but, as I recall, he was from Bordeaux. It was his first day driving in the Savoie. Thereafter, I kept to one of the group's rented Renault Espaces, for which I had little competition, since it had a standard shift on the column, and nobody had bothered to ask our "guides" if they knew how to drive one. They did not.

Anyone familiar with how the Olympics are organized, financed, operated, and then quickly abandoned can tell you that the stories coming out of London are average stuff. Boosters from Salt Lake City to Athens get the bright idea that the Games could be a boon to the local economy; unsuspecting citizens think it's a far-fetched idea and pay little attention; soon, politicians, boosters and unions see the possibilities of big payoffs; by some miracle and more "favors" somehow the effort wins Olympic Committee approval; the banks with no skin in the Games line-up to organize the debt load.

Then, the fun begins until the bill comes due for taxpayers. Oh well.

Atlanta '96, Ali
I travelled to Barcelona in the spring of 1991, more than a year before the Olympics would open there. Catalonians were chuckling about the prospects for finishing all the work and falling down with laughter at the thought of keeping to budget. Somehow (bribes and quadruple overtime) they got it done. Same in Atlanta and Salt Lake City (purportedly, Mitt came to the rescue). Sydney might be the exception; that city ran the finest games by far in my experience.

What about Athens? Are you kidding? Holy Moussaka!

But don't lose heart; all of this junk fades into the background when the athletes from all the nations march into he stadiums for the Opening Ceremonies; and a small jeune fille rises up from the ground on a pedestal, higher and higher singing La Marseillaise; the archer shoots his flaming arrow to light the torch; the aged and shaking gold medal winning boxer climbs the many steps to do the same.

Anyone who has been there** will tell you, these are some of the finest human moments you will ever experience. Trust me, every one is thinking: damn the cost and corruption.

And we must keep in mind that journalists are the natural enemies of the Olympic machine, which is so inherently dependent on the co-conspiring machines of politics and finance. It is the media's job to point out everyone's shortcomings (except its own), especially politicians, financiers, and giddy local boosters.

Opening Ceremony Box, Sydney '00
But, even they cannot diminish the athletes' finest moments, or even their most tragic ones. Both remind us of just how wonderful we can be, alone and together, and just how vulnerable even the fastest, strongest, bravest of us might be in the wrong moment.

The sooner the athletes enter and silence everyone else, the better for all of us.

* Friday, July 27

** The author attended Opening Ceremonies at Albertville & Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Hot Dog! A New Banking Idea

Wimbledon is Wimble-done. Baseball's All Star break is broken. Woody Allen is dumping Paris for Rome for this summer's fling. Penn State is morphing into the State Pen.

And, yet another bank managed by bespoke morons, HSBC this time, has been slammed: for laundering money for a series of baddies and might have to pay $1Billion fine (ho-hum). And...wait for it...another commodity futures trading company has "misplaced" $200Million of customer money, while its founder lived like the King of Cedar Rapids (can this really be done?), and regulators are shocked, shocked, shocked.

Welcome to the heart of summer, where the weather is hot, the economy is not, and we'd like to get the "folks" in charge into a boiling lobster pot.

Fenwick, CT By 2nd Tee
We could use a nice summer shade photo right about now, couldn't we?

Meanwhile, our minds are riveted by the exciting debate between the candidates for...hold on...we haven't even gotten to the conventions yet! Holy Inaugural! We still have a full sixteen weeks to go. How will we stand all the excitement? Will we get a rational explanation of how the Affordable Care Act resulted in a 40% increase in premiums in just two years for those suckers who actually have insurance?

Where is Herman Cain when we need him? You're right, better not to ask.

Summer. One of my banks, Chase, has raised the possibility that I might partake of their VIP suite at the London Olympics. I responded by reminding them that their London office recently won the Gold Medal in bad hedge bets, losing perhaps as much as $6Billion! VIP Suite? Are you kidding me! Close it down and concentrate on banking basics, like addition, subtraction, and multiplication.

Manursing, DG & Mom '62
These are the same dweebs who are offering me, as a wonderful client, to perhaps be eligible for free tickets to US Open tennis. Free? Yes, to anyone opening an account with a minimum $25,000 balance. That kind of free. Can someone please put these people out of their misery?

Do they really think anyone with 25 Large burning a hole in their linen pocket would pay that to sit in the nosebleed customer seats in Ashe Stadium, while Chase's own execs and families party in the company suite...paid for by customers' and taxpayers' dimes?

Good time for beach photo.

Where is Willie Sutton when we need him? Old Willie, the best-est bank robber of his era, who succeeded up the bank robber ladder without even getting an MBA. When asked why he robbed banks, he surmised, "Cause that's where the money is."

Yes, Willie, but it begs the question: why is it still there?

Need a loan with that dog?
I'm beginning to think that, if we can choose from among dozens of cuisines at food trucks in towns and cities all around the country, why can't we have truck-banking? I'd just as soon trust my money to Dave of Dave's Dogs, parked across the street from the JP Morgan building in Greenwich (conveniently true). Dave sticks to business, making a delightful & honest "Perfect Dog*." Dave's idea of a derivative is getting sauerkraut from cabbage.

Truck-banking: an idea whose time has come?

Or, maybe I just need to sit in the shade for a while.

* The Perfect Dog: Sauerkraut, chopped onions, relish, mustard.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why Are We Laughing?

Someone recently branded me as a humorist and I have no serious argument against that claim, or even a funny one.

It does make me somewhat worried about my trip to France in the fall, where I will be asked to fill out an "occupation" line on a customs & immigration form. The French are not really very funny, although they do have a near monopoly on irony. Perhaps I could list myself as "ironist," instead of "humorist," which, contrary to what most Americans might think, does not mean I work in a laundry; it just means I might be funny in a very French sort of way.

It happens that humorists do not wake up every day immediately thinking funny thoughts. Some days it takes me hours to have even one funny thought, particularly days on which a college tuition is due, until I realize that the entire idea of college is funny.

When my son was a baby, I use to walk him in his stroller early in the morning by Beekman Place near the East River. Sometimes we would see one of America's best literary humorists, Kurt Vonnegut, on our strolls. Mr. V. was a very tall man, who walked two very small dogs. He not only looked funny doing this, he looked downright ridiculous. I always thought he liked starting the day being a little ridiculous, because it helped him write about other ridiculous things.

When I get stuck for ridiculous ideas, I read the business section of an otherwise sober national newspaper of record. Reading banking stories now is like watching a double feature of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers. MF Global can't find $2Billion of customers' money; JP Morgan Chase loses $2B in a series of bad trades, make that $4B, or maybe closer to $6B; Barclay's will pay $450Million for their share of rigging Libor, the rate on which $350Trillion in various kinds of loans are based.

Talk about funny!

Here's another one. A man named Johnson of Duke Energy thought he was going to become CEO of of the company after its merger with Progress Energy. Immediately after the $39B merger, the new board elected a Mr. Rogers, former Progress CEO, as the new, new Duke CEO. Are you still with me? Mr. Johnson will now receive $44Million from this sort of public utility to exit and not say bad things about Mr Rogers's "neighborhood,"  the company that canned him on his first day.

BTW, Duke lists "nuclear assets" in its energy portfolio, which would be really hilarious, except isn't.

When I get truly desperate for a laugh, I read the front page. Sure enough, yesterday we learned that about 70 brilliant students at NYC's elite Stuyvesant High School were caught cheating on recent statewide exams. They shared test info by cell phone. Here's the funny part: their "punishment." The scam's ringleader might be suspended or have to go to another elite school, and four others might also be suspended. All of the students will get to retake the test on which they cheated. There are no criminal charges pending.

PS On Wall Street
Well, I suppose that's what we should expect from a school named for a guy who met with the native population on Wall Street and "bought" the city for twenty-four bucks worth of glass, the city's first great real estate scam.

Why are we laughing?

I suppose the reason is a collective fear that, if we took all of these things seriously at once, we might have to replace our current bewildered amusement with a sense of honest moral outrage.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Are We Happy Yet? LOL@Monticello

"...We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."



Are you feeling happy yet? LOLThomasJ@Monticello.

We're not talking about summer weather happy, or that acceptance letter to Harvard, or your newest app kind of happy. We're talking about the Big Happiness, National Happiness, possibly even Global Happy.

A man named Nick Marks has written a book called The Happiness Manifesto. No, I am not making it up. What makes us happy, or, in Nick's term, builds National Accounts of Well-Being?

-  a sense of individual vitality.
-  undertaking activities which are meaningful, engaging and make us feel competent and autonomous.
-  having a stock of inner resources to help us cope when things go wrong and be resilient to change beyond our immediate control.

Dear Nick, all fine and dandy, but have you considered getting some friends and colleagues to talk to, who are not college professors or living in geodesic domes in New Mexico? Because, Nick, out here, beyond the Faculty Moat, in the villages and among the common villagers, we use a different list. And, on that list, at the tippy-top, not just on one list, but on every villager's list is the same source of Big Happy:

1. A billion. No, Make that Two Billion! More than enough moolah to protect us from those central bankers and economists in suits who are busy getting a sense if individual vitality, while undertaking activities which are meaningful, engaging... and make us feel completely incompetent and totally dependent on them. Yikes.

Tennis Whites
Happiness. What were T. Jefferson & The Brotherly Loves thinking Happiness was 236 years ago? A tankard of cider? A complete setting for eight of Paul Revere silverware? Chasing Sally Hemmings into the ....ahem!

Meanwhile, here's a list of other things that might make us happy today:
2.   Waiters who will not say "No problem" even once during our meals.
3.   A six-week presidential campaign without commercials.
4.   Healthcare statements composed in real English/Spanish, which don't scare us like Norman Bates in Psycho.
5.   Banks that hire people who know how to count really really well.
6.   Wars lasting less than ten years and costing less than a trillion. Make that two trillion.
7.   A Sabrett in every pot, a vehicle smaller than our neighbor's, a house that floats, mayors who need the salary.
8.   An end to the entire concept of the thing known as "college."
9.   Interesting, but imperfect children.
10. Amusing, yet decidedly imperfect parents.

You see, Charlie Brown, Happiness is not just a warm puppy, although, admittedly, that is still a very nice thing. Happiness, it turns out, is a complicated idea. Even a warm puppy must have a home, food in the bowl, affordable trips to the vet, someone to understand when he makes a "mistake" on the new carpet, and someone with a steady income to keep the whole happy warm-thing going.

Our age may be more about discovering many things that, in the end, do not make us happy: seemingly perfect candidates for office, reality TV, our drive to make heroes out of the dorkiest set of dull billionaires in history, having Einstein's brain (Google) but none of his whimsy, and photo apps. Just to name a few.

Delta Blues
Let's by all means raise the flags, fire the cannons, strike up the bands, parade around the greens, recite the Declaration on the podiums, celebrate Life, Liberty and...wait for it...the PURSUIT of Happiness.

There it is. It is the pursuit that counts. TJ & Co made no promises. The finding part is still up to us.

I'm betting that we'll find it lurking in the details, and in being helpful to  someone other than ourselves in their own pursuit.