Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street’

Circus Maximus

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

hattybirfday

Clowns drawing by Todd

“I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important.” Roberto Benigni

After over a hundred years as the premiere circus in America, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will present their final performances in May of 2017. High operating costs and declining ticket sales made continuing the massive operation unprofitable. With the phasing out of elephant acts due to ferocious criticism from animal rights groups, ticket sales dropped dramatically.

Elephants, it seems, were a big draw. As a boy, I was in awe of those huge animals, but I especially liked the acrobats and tigers, and most especially the clowns. The last time I went to the circus, the aforementioned Ringling Brothers etc., I was in my late twenties and the clowns were bad, save for one. Bad clowns are like bad movies. Intolerable. But a good clown, a great clown, is definitely the high prince of the circus.

In the circuses I attended, clowns were mainly used as filler between acts—emotional relief from the tension of worrying about performers falling and breaking their necks or being mauled by lions. As the lion tamer and her big cats departed, the clowns came running into the ring to keep the audience distracted while the trapeze artists climbed to their swings high above.

Sometimes the clown acts were full of slapstick and pratfalls, sometimes they featured adorable dogs doing things to confound their clown masters, and once per performance, the alpha clown would perform a longer scene, not filler, but a star turn.

That last time I went to the circus, the alpha clown was a big fellow wearing an old floor-length coat, his face painted to express overwhelming sorrow. He entered dragging a rickety little wagon in which there stood a massive book with a black cover, nearly as big as the clown. And trailing behind the rickety wagon was an old hound wearing a little clown hat, his face as sad as the clown’s; and this hound was dragging a long rope at the end of which was tied an enormous pencil, four-feet-long and as thick as a man’s leg.

The audience laughed when the clown and dog and book and pencil first appeared, but as the clown and dog made their slow and ponderous way to the center of the ring, the audience fell silent. At last the clown stopped, and with what seemed to be every ounce of his strength, he wrestled the massive book out of the wagon and opened the heavy cover to reveal a blank page. Then he trudged past the pitiful hound to the pencil and dragged that pencil to the book.

Then he began to scan the audience, and after a short infinity, his gaze fell on me in the fifth row. I held my breath as my girlfriend nudged me and whispered, “Why is he looking at you?” Then my brother elbowed me and said, “He’s looking right at you.”

And then the clown hoisted the pencil onto his shoulder, placed the tip of the pencil on the blank page of the book, and made a gigantic check mark. Then he dropped the pencil, closed the cover, lifted the book into his wagon, and slowly dragged the wagon out of the ring, with dog and pencil following.

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus. That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.” Charles Bukowski

Speaking of circuses, OxFam recently reported that eight men, most of them Americans, have more wealth than half the people on earth. Eight men have more wealth than 3.6 billion people. A billion is a thousand million.

“Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” H.L. Mencken

And still speaking of circuses, Donald Trump is now President of the United States. There were hundreds of events around the country protesting his inauguration. At many of these anti-Trump demonstrations, people carried signs saying Trump Is Not My President. What did those people mean by that? Were they from countries with presidents other than Donald Trump? I don’t think so. I think they were saying Trump was not their president because they didn’t vote for him and they don’t like him.

“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.” P.T. Barnum

I think there is something dangerous about denying that Trump is our president, just as I think there is something dangerous about portraying Obama as something he was not. The eight years of Obama’s presidency set the stage for the election of Donald Trump, and the details of that stage setting are what we need to investigate in order to effectively react to the enthronement of Trump.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016, Obama approved the dropping of 26,171 bombs in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. And every Tuesday, according to the New York Times, Obama selected the targets—men, women, and children—to be executed by missiles fired from drones.

Under Obama, more than 14 trillion dollars of public money was transferred to the coffers of Wall Street. Fourteen trillion dollars. A trillion is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

I think if that 14 trillion had been spent on improving the lives of all Americans, rather than enriching the top few percent, Trump would not be our new president. I think if Obama had pursued peace as aggressively as he pursued war, Trump would not be our president. And I think if Obama had really been the environmental president and vigorously promoted solar and wind and wave energy production rather than funding coal and oil development, Trump would not be our president.

But until further notice, Trump is our president.

Worth

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

1.50

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” Stephen Stills

I have my piano tuned once a year. I used to have the beauty tuned twice a year, but that was when a good tuning cost sixty dollars and I was making much more money than I make now. My last tuning cost one hundred and forty-five dollars, a ten-dollar increase over last year, which was a ten-dollar increase over the previous year. Barring a bank error in my favor, another increase in the tuning fee will force me to go to once every two years. Is my piano tuner being greedy? Not at all. He’s keeping pace with the real rate of inflation, not the fake one our government reports while they funnel trillions of dollars to the Wall Street criminals to keep the global Ponzi scheme going.

“I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down.” Stephen Stills

Today I went to the nursery to buy a few six-packs of vegetable starts. I bought a six-pack of petunias, a six-pack of basil, two lemon cucumber plants, a purple penstemon, a small pineapple sage plant, and a packet of arugula seeds. Total: 27.69. Are the folks at the nursery being greedy? Nope. They’re keeping pace with the rising cost of everything else.

“There’s battle lines being drawn, nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” Stephen Stills

My credit card bill came today. I like to guess what the total will be before I open the bill and I guessed it would be next to nothing. Oops. I forgot that a few weeks ago I purchased two pairs of shoes from REI, a new pillow (my first new pillow in thirty years) and a Giants sweatshirt, having worn my previous Giants sweatshirt into a frayed remnant. Total: Three hundred and nineteen dollars. And all those items were on sale. Am I being ripped off by the commercial enterprises of America? No. They are simply riding the roller coaster of Ponzi-created inflation until The Big Pop, after which anybody with ready cash will find things cheap, indeed.

“Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep, it starts when you’re always afraid, step out of line, the man come and take you away.” Stephen Stills

Having recently completed the writing of Ida’s Place Book Three—Rehearsal, the third and longest volume of my massive fictional opus set in a mythical version of Mendocino, I evaluated my cost of manufacturing the first two volumes at Zo, the one and only and most excellent copy shop in Mendocino, and came to the conclusion that if I hoped to break even on this latest publishing adventure I would have to sell Book Three for twenty-four dollars, and that’s assuming I eventually sell seventy copies of the goodly tome.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to ask that much of my readers, so I set the price at twenty-two, which is the unprofitable price of Book Two. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I join my piano tuner and nurseries and REI and pillow and sweatshirt companies and the post office and shipping companies and mailing envelope manufacturers and oil companies and vegetable growers and muffin makers and pharmaceutical companies and web masters and dentists and lawyers and doctors in raising my prices to keep pace with inflationary reality? The short answer: I’m a doofus. The long answer: I’m a conflicted doofus.

“Three characteristics a work of fiction must possess in order to be successful: 1: It must have a precise and suspenseful plot, 2: The author must feel a passionate urge to write it, 3: He must have the conviction, or at least the illusion, that he is the only one who can handle this particular theme.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Yesterday in the post office, a woman who looked vaguely familiar approached me and said, “The reason I’m not buying your Ida books is we’re spending all our money remodeling our house, so we’re seriously tightening our belts and only spending money on essentials.”

Before I could ask her to tell me her name, she continued, “We went to San Francisco last weekend. We just had to get away. Stayed at the Mark Hopkins. Glorious. God, the restaurants. I gained five pounds. Speaking of which, want to get some lunch? Trillium has a pork loin to die for. I went with Cal yesterday, we skipped salads and got out for under seventy. And that was for both of us.”

“The only sensible ends of literature are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and, lastly, the solid cash.” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Before I began making a living selling short stories and novels, I felt alone in the world, save for a few fellow artists I consorted with. But then something happened to let me know I was not so alone. A cartoon ran in The New Yorker, and shortly thereafter several dozen people sent me the cartoon. Who were these people? Friends, friends of friends, former friends, and friends of my parents.

In the cartoon, a well-dressed man is showing another man his opulent estate, They are drinking champagne served by a butler. A massive Rolls Royce is parked in front of a baronial mansion. A gorgeous woman in a bikini is sunbathing on a chaise longue by a large swimming pool next to a tennis court. The man is saying to his guest, “There I was in a cold water flat trying to write the great American novel when it suddenly occurred to me, why not write the great American extortion letter?”

Were all those people who sent me that cartoon trying to tell me something? I think so. But I’d rather write novels. Speaking of which, Ida’s Place Book Four—Renegade is underway.

Signed and numbered copies of Ida’s Place Books One, Two, and Three are available from Todd via his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

Worlds Collide

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

worlds collide

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2013)

“There are only two emotions in Wall Street: fear and greed.” William Le Fevre

In search of good chicken for our once-a-week intake of animal flesh, I saunter into our magnifico Mendocino Market across the street from Mendocino’s blessed post office, my basket laden with the latest edition of the admirable Anderson Valley Advertiser, and I find the lovely little market and deli in the midst of a calm before the inevitable lunchtime arrival of legions of tempestuous teenagers and loquacious locals and inscrutable turistas.

Jeff, the jocular and unflappable co-master of Mendocino’s finest sandwich shop, has a few moments to wait on me, and as he rings up my purchase of four superb legs and thighs, he shares the following story.

“So yesterday, this guy comes in and I know he’s somebody famous, an actor, I’m sure. I’ve seen him on television. Has to be him, but I can’t think of his name. And then he uses a credit card to pay and his name comes up: Timothy Geithner.”

“Wow,” I effuse. “ Former Secretary of the Treasury, master criminal, and most definitely an actor.”

“I know,” says Jeff, smiling. “Amazing.”

“What did he buy?” I ask, guessing Timothy purchased a few bottles of expensive organic wine.

“Couple of chicken salad sandwiches,” says Jeff, nodding. “On a road trip.”

“Wow,” I say, “Timothy Geithner. God of the one percent. Stood right here and handed you his credit card.”

“Yeah,” says Jeff, chuckling, “we’ve got this Recession Special I was going to tell him about, but I decided not to.”

“Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.” Aldous Huxley

Thinking about Timothy Geithner buying sandwiches in our very own Mendocino Market, I try to imagine being so powerful and important that the President of the Unites States would appoint me Secretary of Anything, but my imagination fails me. However, I do have a vivid fantasy of shopping at Corners and bumping into Timothy Geithner in front of the broccoli and saying to him, “How could you? Have you no conscience?”

And that fantasy and the questions I asked therein, remind me of Obama’s recent appointment of billionaire Penny Pritzker to be Secretary of Commerce, which reminds me of my encounter with Penny’s father, Donald, at a fundraiser in Atherton, California just a few months before he died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-nine while playing tennis at a Hyatt Hotel in Honolulu, the Hyatt Hotel chain being one of several corporations owned by the Pritzker family, Donald the CEO.

Believe it or not, I met Donald Pritzker at the very same gathering where I met Daniel Ellsberg. What sort of gathering was this? And what was I doing there? I’ll tell you. The year was 1972 (Penny would have been thirteen at the time) and Daniel Ellsberg had recently become very famous for leaking the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and thereby seriously messing with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and the ruthless rulers running the Vietnam War. I happened to be friends with a guy, a zealous anti-war activist, who had convinced his mother, a minor Pritzker, to host a private fundraising soiree for Daniel Ellsberg, who needed funds for his ongoing legal travails and anti-war activities. When I heard about the soiree, I begged my friend’s mother to let me attend so I could listen to the great hero, and she said, “I’ll need kitchen help.”

So I donned white shirt and bow tie and black slacks and showed up at the snazzy Atherton digs at the appointed hour, at which point it was decided I would ply the crowd with champagne and hors d’oeuvres before Ellsberg spoke and then manage the groaning tables of food and carve the roast beef after Ellsberg spoke. And while he spoke, I could listen from the kitchen with the swinging door propped open a few inches.

There were about twenty people in attendance on that sunny afternoon, the females outnumbering the males two to one, everyone in attendance fabulously wealthy. The women were dressed elegantly, the men wore suits and ties, and the accents of these loud-talking folk were predominantly Chicago from whence the Pritzker clan sprang, though many of them had relocated to California. I remember being struck by how handsome and strong all the women were, and how nondescript the men, and whether it was true or not, I concluded that this clan of Jewish siblings and cousins was a powerful matriarchy, the men mere sperm donors.

I also remember being keenly aware that I was serving people who were used to being served and that I was invisible to them because I was a servant. I had met a few super wealthy people in my life, and it was my impression that extremely wealthy people were void of humor, but I had never before been in the company of so many wealthy and resoundingly humorless people. Or so it seemed.

After the preliminary wining and dining, everyone took a seat in the large living room and Daniel Ellsberg rose to speak. I positioned myself at the kitchen door where I had a view of the daring whistleblower, and just as Ellsberg began, a short bullish man rose from his living room seat and came charging into the kitchen.

“Phone,” he barked at me. “I need a phone.”

This was Donald Pritzker, red-faced and pissed off, and this was 1972, long before the advent of cell phones. So I directed him to the phone on the kitchen wall from which he proceeded to make call after call, buying and selling, cursing and commanding, threatening and cajoling—running his empire—while in the other room Daniel Ellsberg spoke about the ongoing atrocities being committed by our rulers and our armed forces in Vietnam. What a disconcerting dichotomy!

Despite the proximity of Donald’s torrent of vitriol, I managed to focus on what Ellsberg was saying, and I realized he was speaking to his audience as if they had never heard of Vietnam and knew nothing about the war that had been going on for almost a decade, which may have been largely true. These were not people troubled by distant wars. Indeed, they were prime beneficiaries of a most successful imperialism and a booming economy.

Halfway through Ellsberg’s talk, Donald Pritzker snapped his fingers at me and said, “Coffee. I need coffee. With sugar.”

I prepared his coffee and set it on the counter next to him as he growled into the phone, “You tell that sonofabitch he’d better come through or…”

He was purple with rage, the veins in his neck swollen, his knuckles white as he clenched the phone in a death grip—not a happy person.

I returned to my post at the kitchen door just as Ellsberg finished his talk and asked, “Are there any questions?”

No one said a word. Not one of the handsome women and non-descript men raised a hand, and Ellsberg stood there for a short infinity, looking very sad and tired. Finally, the hostess, the mother of my friend who had arranged for me to be present at this strange soiree, leapt to her feet and cried, “Eat, eat, eat!” and the Prtizkers rose to begin their feasting.

  “There is only one way to endure man’s inhumanity to man and that is to try, in one’s own life, to exemplify man’s humanity to man.” Alan Paton

I think of Timothy Geithner and his wife driving south on Highway One, enjoying their excellent chicken salad sandwiches from the Mendocino Market and superb lattes from the GoodLife Cafe, just, you know, having fun being far from the madding crowd, enjoying the view of the shining pacific and the passing fields rife with mustard flowers and the cerulean sky dotted with puffy white clouds. For just a little while, a rare little while, Timothy and his wife forget all about the millions of less fortunate people who are, in essence, paying for Timothy’s fun. Yes, for just a little while, Timothy might be anybody.

Protesting 101

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2011)

“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

You will recall the famous line from the movie The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” and how, until the little dog opens the curtain and reveals the fraud, Dorothy and her friends do, indeed, ignore the man behind the curtain and remain riveted on a false idol projected on a large screen obscured by smoke and fire. I remind you of this cinematic moment because it brilliantly captures the current cognitive conundrum confronting contemporary crusading consortiums, most notably the much-heralded occupiers of Wall Street.

I have carefully skimmed numerous articles by people criticizing the protestors for not having a clear and unifying agenda, and skimmed other articles praising the protestors for not having a clear and potentially divisive agenda. These articles reminded me of my involvement in the protests against the invasion of Iraq in 1990, and my involvement in protests against the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003 following the event known as 9/11, and how almost everyone involved in those protests paid no attention to the men behind the curtains, and insisted on railing against idols obscured by smoke and fire—the George Bushes, Senior and Junior, and their more public allies.

Wall Street, and by that I assume the protestors mean the for-profit financial system of the United States symbolized by the financial district of Manhattan, is not the cause of our current economic crisis, nor will Wall Street provide the cure, just as the Bushes did not cause the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The cause of our current economic, social, environmental, and political crisis is, in my opinion, our collective infatuation with false notions of reality. One such false notion is that most of the money in America is concentrated on Wall Street and that if only those greedy billionaire bankers and amoral stock traders would give a chunk of their money to our government, then all our problems would be solved. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since only a few short months ago our government gave those bankers trillions of dollars.

“Let’s form proactive synergy restructuring teams.” Scott Adams

I admit to active cynicism about systems that focus on attacking symptoms rather than dealing with underlying causes. My father, a medical doctor, had heart surgery late in his life and I was his nurse for some weeks after what turned out to be a nearly fatal and wholly ineffective bypass procedure. One of my jobs as his nurse was to make sure he took a mind-boggling array of drugs several times a day, twenty-three different medications, each purveyed by a pill of a different color, shape, and size than the other twenty-two pills.

One morning, five days after his surgery, as my father was surveying the great mass of pills he was about to ingest, a quizzical frown claimed his face. “Hey, wait a minute,” he said, holding up a pale pink pill, “I was only supposed to take (name of drug) for two days following surgery.”

“Good,” I said, eager to eliminate one of the four pink pills in the mix. “Let’s discontinue that one.”

“Only…” My father’s frown deepened as he held up a dark green pill, “I was taking (name of second drug) to counteract the side effects of (name of first drug), along with (name of third drug) because (name of second drug) is extremely dehydrating, so…”

To make a long story short, I called the surgery center, put my father on with a post-operative consultant, and a half hour later my father’s ingestion regimen was reduced from twenty-three to fourteen drugs, and three days later from fourteen to seven, but only because my father was a medical doctor and had some understanding of why he was taking which drugs for what reasons, not because the medical system was designed to take good care of him.

Now…along with thousands of people camping and marching on Wall Street, imagine millions of people all over the country protesting in front of hospitals and medical clinics to demand that American doctors stop behaving as American doctors are trained to behave and start behaving in more humane and comprehensive ways, free of the control of insurance companies and amoral pharmaceutical companies that extort trillions of dollars from people who feel powerless to resist them. Oh, wait. That would mean insurance companies would have to be kicked out of the medical process, and the pharmaceutical companies would no longer be allowed to charge criminally high rates for their drugs. Oh, wait. That would result in a Single Payer healthcare system covering everyone in America, a not-for-profit system paid for by an equitable tax system. Oh, wait. That would mean changing the current system of county, state, and federal taxation. And to do that, we would almost surely have to change from a two-party system to a parliamentary democracy wherein if the Green or Pink or Blue Party gets five percent of the vote, they get five percent of the government. Oh, wait. That would be, like, democracy.

“In some cases non-violence requires more militancy than violence.” Cesar Chavez

I pose the question: what would Martin Luther King Jr. say to the Wall Street protestors if he could speak to them today? I think he would congratulate them for their zeal and courage, and then he would ask, “What are the boycott components of your protest?”

And when he learned that the protestors did not have a boycott strategy, he would say, “So why do you think that these people in positions of power over you will change their behavior if you do not pose a threat to their profits and comfort? Out of the goodness of their hearts? You are naïve.”

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi

On a more personal but entirely related note, I just turned sixty-two, so in lieu of a big paycheck from the corporate-backed cultural mafia, (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but another year has gone by without my winning a MacArthur Genius Award) I applied for Social Security. And soon, barring total economic collapse, some six hundred dollars will be deposited every month directly into my checking account by the government of these United States. However, in order to receive that vast sum, I promise not to earn more than eleven hundred and eighty dollars a month, else I will be deemed too rich and therefore undeserving of such lavish government support. Let’s see, eleven hundred and eighty times twelve is…fourteen thousand dollars a year. And the official poverty line in America is…

To clarify: I have agreed with the government adjudicators that if I earn barely enough money in a year to pay for grossly inadequate health insurance, I will forego the six hundred a month; which brings me to yesterday.

“Irony is jesting behind hidden gravity.” John Weiss

So I’m standing in line at the Mendocino post office, one of my favorite places in the world, a place threatened by evaporation through governmental retardation and corruption, when the woman ahead of me in line turns to me and says, “I read you in the AVA.”

“Oh,” I say, ever cautious about what that might mean. “Well…good. I hope.”

She nods minimally, which I take as a kind of approval if not a compliment. Then she says, “So are you gonna go join the protestors?”

“Where?” I ask, looking out the window. “Have they made it all the way to Mendocino? Far out.”

“No,” she says, glowering at me. “Wall Street. Los Angeles. San Francisco. They’re having protests everywhere. You could write about it.”

“Oh,” I say, certain now that my interlocutor has no sense of humor, “you know, I would be there already but I suffer from a fear of traveling. Even going to Fort Bragg is extremely stressful for me.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, grimacing sympathetically. “I have a friend who has the same thing. That must be awful for you.”

“Well, fortunately, I don’t really want to go anywhere, but I’ll tell you this, when the protests come to Mendocino, I’ll be there with bags of homemade gluten free cookies for my comrades. And we will occupy Main Street until those people give us what we want.”

“Main Street?” she says, horrified. “Why Main Street? And…which people? And…what do you want?”

“Everything,” I whisper conspiratorially. “For everyone.”