Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve on Sand Point

It is late on Christmas Eve on Sand Point, and all is quiet. Of the 20-odd houses on the point, only two are lit, mine and my neighbor’s. The other owners are in Florida and Texas and Connecticut and other places in the lower latitudes. It is 24 degrees here now, and the ground is snow-covered, just enough to make it a white Christmas.

Across the tidal river to the north one house has Christmas lights in the windows, and their reflection on the water is picturesque. I have two white stars in my windows, and the lights are on at the front entrance, so that those people across the river have something to look at. To the south lies the Atlantic. You can hear the surf, because it is almost high tide, but beyond the windows there is only blackness.

Earlier, I went to Mass at St. Martha’s, in Kennebunk. I arrived at least 15 minutes before Mass was supposed to start, but I was still too late. The large parking lot was filled, so that I had to park a few blocks from the church. Inside, it was jam-packed, not just in the church proper, but in the adjoining spaces as well. Father Tom Murphy said the Mass, and a red-and-black-robed choir, about 15 voices strong, sang Christmas hymns. Somehow I found a few square feet to inhabit, amid a sea of people, many in wheelchairs. Father Tom’s brief but eloquent sermon, the choir’s note-perfect singing, and the sensation of being present at an Event were all very moving.

Tonight I have been watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas Eve concert. I have seen it before, about a week ago, but it was good enough for a reprise. There is something about a large, well-trained chorus that raises goosebumps on me - but only if there are both male and female voices. I have heard good ladies’ choruses and good male choruses, but only a mixed chorus sounds complete to these ears. And the Mormon Choir is as good as it gets. A highlight of tonight’s concert was a recitation by historian David McCullough, who recounted Churchill’s visit to Washington on Christmas 1941, only weeks after Pearl Harbor. McCullough claimed that Churchill, hearing O Little Town of Bethlehem sung on Christmas Eve, said that he had never the hymn before. I thought that unlikely, so I raced to my library and quickly found the episode in Churchill’s history of WWII, and – as I should have known – McCullough was right. Another of McCullough’s stories illuminated the origins of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, surely one of the best of the Christmas ballads.

Now Christmas Day is only minutes away, so I will wish everyone who takes the trouble to read these scribblings a blessed Christmas and a happy new year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Postcards from the Edge

To judge by its subject matter, Postcards from the Edge is a movie I would not under any circumstances watch. But there it was on the telly, and before I could change the channel I caught a bit of dialogue that sounded clever. And then another bit of bright dialogue, and then a whole scene, and I was hooked. That was about 10 years ago. The other night I watched it again to see if my first impressions deceived me. They did not. It’s a good movie, a little sloppy in the editing, but otherwise a film with one standout scene after another.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship, written by Carrie Fisher, an authority on the subject. The mother, played by Shirley Maclaine, is an alcoholic. The daughter, played by Meryl Streep, is a junkie. (Now you see why it’s not my type of movie.) Three things elevate the film above its story line: (1) Meryl Streep, (2) Shirley Maclaine, and (3) the sharpness of Carrie Fisher’s writing.

The movie takes place in Hollywood, for the mother is an over-the-hill movie actress and the daughter is trying to climb the hill. Say, doesn’t that sound like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher? No, but close. Carrie carries around lots of bittersweet memories about Mom and Eddie Fisher, her dad, who left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor, who left Eddie for Richard Burton, who left…… Some of the memories undoubtedly “informed” Postcards, but Carrie was saving the best stuff for her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, which was just shown on HBO.

In Postcards, Mom advises daughter that she should give up acting in third-rate movies and focus instead on a singing career. The advice is sound, but the daughter is wary: Mom sings, and she doesn’t want to compete with Mom, because Mom always wins. Interesting sidelight: A review of Wishful Drinking notes that Carrie Fisher is a talented singer, though Mom is of course the “name” singer. (Personal note: As an emcee at an industry conference, I once shared a stage with Debbie Reynolds and found her great fun to work with. It is hard for me to believe that Shirley was channeling Debbie in the movie.)

The scenes between Streep and Maclaine are the core of this movie. They are duels dripping with bitterness, and they are terrific. Others flit around the edges of the story: Gene Hackman is just right as a film director, and Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, and Dennis Quaid help out in roles that are inconsequential at best.

It was no surprise to find Meryl Streep delivering another memorable performance; all her performances are memorable. But Maclaine outdid herself. She is best known as a talented singer and dancer, but here was a dramatic turn that was very demanding, and she scored a bull’s eye. At least some of the credit for her bitchy performance must go to Director Mike Nichols, who also directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Elizabeth Taylor as the bitchy Martha.

Hollywood is a very small world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Needed: A Coalition Government

Great Britain has it right: They are tackling the hard times by entrusting their fate to a coalition government. David Cameron is the conservative half, Nick Clegg the liberal half. And they seem to be making a go of it, despite student riots over tuition hikes and assorted other squabbles. The point is, while we’re on the brink of at least two years of deadlock, Britain cannot have deadlock, because both sides are running the country.

It can’t happen here, you say? Don’t be too sure. Erskine Bowles, a credentialed Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a staunch Republican, head a task force studying the mother of all problems, the deficit, and they have just submitted their report spelling out the harsh medicine that is needed. Outgoing Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) are regulars on television, displaying uncommon civility, respect for each other, and great common sense. Either of these pairings would make a dream team in the White House. And why not? It is not constitutionally ordained that the President and Vice-President must be of the same party, and all you would need is a pre-election promise that the two would govern as a coalition. Given the pickle we’re in, it is time to think outside the box.

The political difficulty of tackling the deficit is huge, but that is not the only problem that cries out for a coalition. Here’s another: The politicians whose conservative economic policies we tend to favor are also the politicians most hawkish in matters of foreign policy. In the voting both, we are always forced to choose either someone who will bankrupt the country or someone who is willing to risk World War 3.

It is easy to start a war (just ask George Bush), but it can be devilishly hard to end one (just ask Barack Obama). It’s a much smaller world than it was in 1941, so that in any war involving the major powers, the continental U.S. would certainly be attacked. As General Turgidson said in Dr Strangelove, we would have “10, maybe 20 million killed – tops – depending on the breaks.”

We certainly want to have a first-class military to defend our homeland, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, put China or Russia in a position where they feel threatened. There’s a balance to be struck in foreign relations, and the political chemistry these days makes balance in anything nearly impossible.

The leaders of the coalition that is needed obviously cannot be from the extreme left or right. A coalition teaming, say, Sarah Palin with Nancy Pelosi would never get beyond the first round (but would have high entertainment value). We need grown-ups to put their heads together and plot a course out of this mess. Unfortunately, grown-ups are in short supply in today’s Washington.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Big Bang and Other Noteworthy Incidents

Perceived wisdom has it that the universe began with the Big Bang, which occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, when a cosmic speck inflated to a zillionth times its size in a zillionth of a second. The Big Bang then slowed down and became a small bang, which keeps the universe expanding to this very day. To me, that was never very convincing, as it still left unexplained where the speck came from or what preceded it. Now an astronomer, Roger Penrose of Oxford, says that the Bang was just another in a series of bangs that go on forever. Each universe expands to a point where all the matter is sucked into black holes, becomes infinitely small, and a new Big Bang is generated. Moreover, these bangs leave imprints in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), and – this is the best part – Dr Penrose claims to have found such imprints in data from a US satellite dedicated to studying the CMB. Infinity is hard for us humans to understand, but I find Penrose’s story more believable than a single Big Bang that came out of nowhere.

Stephen Sondheim’s new book, Finishing the Hat, is a very satisfying trip through the first half of the composer/lyricist’s career on Broadway. (A sequel is in the works.) The book contains the complete lyrics of a number of Sondheim’s shows, but the grabber is what the book’s subtitle calls “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” Among the heresies is the author’s trenchant criticism of the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein (who, as is widely known, was Sondheim’s surrogate father and mentor). Sondheim dismisses the lyrics to “All the Things You Are” as just pretty words, devoid of meaning. Which just means that Sondheim, no romantic he, doesn’t get “the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long.” That sort of thing seems tone-deaf and ungrateful, but it doesn’t diminish the reader’s appreciation of the book. For one thing, he reserves his barbs for lyricists who are dead (and therefore unlikely to be offended). For another, he is equally harsh on some of his own lyrics, as he should be. The lyrics for “I Feel Pretty,” from West Side Story, are Sondheim at his worst. But Sondheim at his best is very good indeed, and his explanations of the art and craft of lyric-writing are worth reading.

While we’re on Sondheim, his 80th birthday concert, held at Avery Fisher Hall, is a must-see. I particularly liked the inclusion of so many relatively unknown songs and the finale, with six divas dressed in red each giving a tour de force rendition of one of Sondheim’s classics, the high points being Marin Maizzie’s “It Never Entered My Mind” and Elaine Stritch’s “I’m Still Here.”

The acting troop at the Saco River Grange Hall can be counted on to serve up an entertaining evening of drama, and this fall’s presentation, Shivaree, by William Mastrosimone, was no exception. Jennifer Porter, SRGH’s perennial leading lady, took the title role and was good as always. But the group tends to choose plays (and movies) with downbeat subject matter, and I personally enjoy its musical outings (Always Patsy Cline, And the World Goes ‘Round, An Evening with Jennifer Porter and Friends) much more.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Tone-Deaf President

For someone who thinks of himself as (and at times is) a great communicator, Barack Obama has rather badly botched communications the one audience he needs to mend the economy: the business community. Let us count the ways.

First, he instinctively talks using terms that he thinks will register with his base. That was fine when he was in campaign mode, but once he was elected President, he should have changed his default manner of speech. Calling bankers “fat cats” may have brought knowing nods to his community-organizer public, but business people began to wonder what business he would target next.

They soon found out. He sold his health-care plan by demonizing the insurance industry. If the American people didn’t watch out, he warned, the larcenous insurance industry would steal their socks without removing their shoes.

Next came the pharmaceutical industry, or “big pharma,” as he liked to think of them. (Little pharma is apparently okay, as are little banks and little insurance companies. It is only when a business dares to become big that it invites attack.)

Two weeks ago, on the campaign trail, the President visited a small steel company in the rustbelt to “show and tell” how much he was doing for business. “Without these programs,” he boasted, “Stromberg’s workers wouldn’t have been able to compete with foreign companies or non-union firms.”

How’s that again, Mr. President? Don’t you realize that Apple, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, and most of the fastest-growing companies in America are non-union? Are you tone-deaf? Don’t you understand that your comment, televised on CNBC, was a loud message to business that your heart is still with your base, and your base doesn’t include the most dynamic part of the American economy?

A business-savvy communications adviser could have warned Obama that he was sending all the wrong signals, but there is no such person on the White House staff. There will be cosmetic changes, but the President will have to work much harder to convince business leaders that he really understands the machinery of free-enterprise and entrepreneurism, and that he has been converted to Cheerleader-in-Chief.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wisdom of the Masses

A very long time ago, I put in a month on jury duty. The law was since changed to limit tours to a day or a trial, but back then, jury duty meant getting your employer to give you a month’s leave of absence. This was rarely a problem; in fact, most employers supplemented your court per diem to make you whole.

The most memorable thing about my month’s tour in the jury pool was my discovery that my fellow man, though not always reliable as an individual, was completely trustworthy as a group of twelve. There was something about the gravity of the situation (my tour included a case of homicide) that brought out the very best in man. You come to know your fellow jurors pretty well after weeks of chatting, having lunch together, and swapping stories, and, inevitably, you find that some of them are a bit rough around the edges. But put twelve of them on a jury, and a miraculous thing happens: Everyone assumes a higher dignity, a refined sense of responsibility, a rationality that would have been impossible without the special chemistry of the jury.

That experience informed my attitude about the American electorate. I believe that, no matter how many attacks one hears and how many whackos among the candidates, the American public as a group can be relied on to deliver the goods. The larger the voter turnout, the better the odds. A five- or six-man jury is not as trustworthy as a dozen.

Much is made of voter polarization these days, and many people will indeed vote emotionally rather than logically. But the sum total will, like a jury verdict, be a true expression of the public's best reading of the situation at hand. As a compass, you just can’t beat it.

So let’s not hear any Wednesday morning quarterbacking about how voters were deceived by lies or mountains of evil money. The voters en masse will have done a good job.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Elections

The political campaigns are as poisonous in Maine as they are elsewhere. Some television ads don’t even bother to tell you whom to vote for; they just tell you whom not to vote for. Paul LePage is a candidate for Governor who came out of nowhere to win the Republican primary. He is the mayor of Waterville, and a general manager of a discount retail store. And he is apparently a monster, in the opinion of a woman who pleaded, at the end of a TV ad, “Please, don’t vote for Paul LePage.” She didn’t say who her preferred candidate was; it apparently was beside the point.

This sort of thing is going on all over the country, candidates trashing each other with half-truths, out-of-context sound bites, and the like. Their advertising gurus must tell them negative ads work, but I spent a lot of years running advertising for a fair-sized company, and I don’t know. At some point I think the attackee starts getting a sympathy vote. I don’t know much about Paul LePage, but I know less about the lady begging me not to vote for him.

The robocalls come all day and all evening. I thank God for caller ID, which catches most of them, but every now and then one sneaks through because the number is local and looks innocent enough. “I just want to ask you to vote for….” the voice says before I can hang up. Political campaign are exempt from the “do not call” restrictions, because our politicians have thoughtfully legislated themselves beyond the law.

For Congress, Representative Chellee Pingree is battling Republican Dean Scontras. Chellee is the Congressman who vented against fat-cat Wall Streeters flying around in private jets – until she was seen exiting a private jet in Portland. That doesn’t count, she said, because jets owned by family members are okay. What family member owns a jet? Her fiance, who runs a hedge fund. Oh.

The Maine landscape is now littered with political signs – not just for candidates, but for ballot questions as well. One of the more contentious battles is being waged in nearby Biddeford, an old mill city that has seen better days. Some investors want to site a trotters’ race track and casino (slot machines) in Biddeford, and the City fathers, impressed by the scale and architecture of the proposal and by the money behind it, are all for it. But any major new enterprise in Maine will trigger loud opposition, especially if gambling is involved. Those urging a yes vote emphasize JOBS, while the antis warn that slot machines spell degradation right here in River City.

Since the radio station I depend on for news and weather is WBZ in Boston, I hear the political ads for the Massachusetts candidates, too. Same thing: attack, attack. Governor Patrick, the Democrat incumbent, bad-mouths Charlie Baker, the Republican challenger, and Baker attacks Patrick. In one of the most bizarre examples of the art, Suzanne Bump, Democrat running for Auditor, cites a Boston Globe article in attacking her opponent, Mary Connaughton – although the Globe has endorsed Connaughton! Another Bay State contest to watch is Sean Bileat’s crusade to unseat Barney Frank. If he succeeds, it will be an earthquake to rival Scott Brown’s miraculous upset in the Bay State senatorial contest last year. Needless to say, Barney Frank, patron saint of Fannie Mae, is a favorite target of Republicans across the country.

The polls suggest that an enraged public is ready to make a huge change next Tuesday. (An e-mail titled “A Friendly Reminder” says “Tuesday: Throw the trash out.”) The rage has developed its own momentum, so that many voters will want to be part of a revolution whose nature they’re only dimly aware of. After the celebrating, many voters, and probably many winning candidates, will ask themselves, “What happens now?”

And two years from now, if the economy hasn’t improved, we’ll have more rage, more attack ads, more robocalls. It’s the price of democracy.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Miss Baghdad? Not.

The Vietnam War killed more than 3 million people, uniformed and civilian. The US lost 58 thousand soldiers in a war that almost tore this country apart. Why did we fight? The idea, the politicians (Democrat and Republican) told us, was to keep the country from falling under Communist rule.

Fast forward to 2010, 37 years after the last US personnel were airlifted off the embassy roof in Saigon. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) to cozy up to the (Communist) government in a transparent attempt to buy the friendship of China’s neighbors. The Vietnam government, presumably, have short memories. Napalm? What’s that?

There is a moral here, which is not lost on President Karzai of Afghanistan. Three decades from now, a future Secretary of State may be in Kabul, making nice with the Taliban leadership hoping to lure them away from Iran. If you were Karzai, you would be looking for all the friends you can get – in the Middle East, not in Washington.

The Vietnam tragedy was dramatized stingingly in Miss Saigon, a musical that opened on Broadway in 1991. It is an achingly poignant musical, underappreciated despite its long run (over 4000 performances), perhaps because it lies in the shadow of Les Miserables, created by the same team, Schönberg and Boubill. The essence of the play is stated in the second-act song, Bui-Doi, which is an elegy for the Vietnamese children born during the war and destined to be the dust of life. “They are the living reminder,” the lyric groans, “of all the good we failed to do.”

The parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan are haunting. We are trying to withdraw from Iraq, now a fractious state with sectarian violence still a fact of life. Saddam Hussein’s pistol is mounted as a trophy in the new George W. Bush exhibit in Dallas. Tariq Aziz, a spokesman for the old government, has just been sentenced to hang, despite an appeal for clemency from the Pope. Anbar Province is aboil over control of a natural-gas field. There is still no functioning government in Baghdad.

There will be no musical called Miss Baghdad. Miss Saigon had the advantage of a template (Madam Butterfly) against which Alan Boubill could create a love story about a Saigon bar girl and a GI. There is no template for Miss Baghdad. No one wants to see Abu Ghraib played out on stage.

But rest assured, the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq will be all right in the end. That is the real lesson of the sight of Hillary Clinton clinking cocktails with the politicians and business leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, only blocks from where the last helicopter lifted off, leaving panicked crowds of civilians behind, in 1973.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thoughts While Looking at the Moon

I was looking at the moon tonight, high in the sky over the ocean, and it occurred to me that what I was seeing was exactly what a Roman citizen saw at the time of Christ. Now, if I were able to communicate with that Roman, as we both looked up at the moon, and I told him that in my time man traveled to the moon, landed on it, walked around a bit, and then returned to earth, he would not have believed me. “No way,” he would say (or “nulla via”). In fact, I find it hard to believe, too. Jill had serious doubts and suspected that the whole “one giant step for mankind” scene took place on a huge sound stage in Hollywood.

Now, if we could communicate with a person living in 4000 AD, what would he or she tell us that we would find impossible to believe? That genomic science extended the average life span to 200 years? That we would regularly communicate with beings on other planets? That we would use intelligent holographic “friends” as servants and entertainers? That the dominant transportation vehicle would be personal airmobiles powered by rechargeable hydrogen modules?

Of course, The Time Machine told a different story, in which the eloi were bred as food sources for the morlocks, long after the world as we know it had been destroyed by nuclear war. In the book, the time traveler (George in the 1960 movie) lands in the year 802,701, by which time we in 2010 would be regarded as the equivalent of cavemen. The movie is fascinating, and at the fifth or tenth viewing we still root for George to find his way back to Weena. Unfortunately, the grim future that H.G. Wells paints is at least as plausible as the tomorrow described in the previous paragraph. Mankind does have a way of botching things, even while he pushes technology ahead.

There is no record of Roman or Greek literature speculating on life 2000 years in the future. That’s too bad, because it would be interesting to read where Plato or Aristotle imagined mankind was heading. In their wildest dreams did they ever envision flying machines carrying hundreds of people across the oceans? In the night sky I see their flashing lights, just as I see the far off moon, and it all seems hard to believe, even today.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thank You, Readers

Yesterday, this blog recorded its 10,000th "hit." That's a small number, compared with many blogs by celebrities. but its a big number in my league. I'm also floored by the number of countries represented by the total - evidence, I guess, of the world-wide popularity of search engines. Anyway, to all who have clicked their way through the literary beachcomber, thank you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cogito Ergo Sum

Philosophy joke: René Descartes entered a restaurant in Brussels, was seated, and after a while a waiter approached and asked him if he would like an aperitif. “I think not,” said Descartes.
And disappeared.

Does the fact that we think really mean we exist? It’s a good question, and I wish we were spending our time arguing about existential matters instead of quantitative easing or politics. The political discourse is getting heated, if you haven’t noticed, and it often centers on philosophical niceties worthy of a Descartes. In Massachusetts, a candidate for auditor, of all offices, tries to explain away her claim of two Massachusetts homes on tax returns by saying one was her principal home and the other was her primary home. In Maine, a Democratic congresswoman known for lashing out at Wall Street fat cats who fly around on private jets is seen exiting a private jet on a local runway. The jet is owned by a hedge-fund operator to whom she is engaged, the Congresswoman explained, flying on a private jet is okay if the plane is owned by a family member, and fiancés are family members, sort of.

The Barney Frank who was such a rabid cheerleader for Fannie Mae when the lender was making crazy loans doesn’t exist. The Barney Frank who now exists says that mortgages should be given only to buyers who can afford them. So in January, this January, Fannie launched a program that allows first-time home buyers to put down $1,000 or 1% of the purchase price, whichever is greater.

Or how about this return to insanity: In the first half of this year, credit card companies sent out 84.8 million offers to American subprime borrowers, up from 43.7 million a year ago.

I think, therefore I qualify for a mortgage or a credit card.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

All About Eve

I watched All About Eve the other night, and I was just as fascinated by it as I was when I first saw it, at least a dozen watchings ago. Joe Mankiewicz’s script is still music to the ear, and the performances are all legendary. It is the best acting Bette Davis has done, and the same is true right across the cast, from Anne Baxter to Gary Merrill to George Sanders to Celeste Holm to Hugh Marlowe. None of them ever equaled what they left behind in Eve. It is hard to believe that there is any film-lover who has never seen All About Eve, but of course there are, and to them I say: Get a copy by hook or crook, and be prepared to see just how good a movie can be.

Eve is Eve Harrington, a fiercely ambitious young would-be actress. Margo Channing is the reigning queen of the footlights, and Eve is a Margo wannabe. Bill Sampson is a successful director and Margo’s boyfriend. Lloyd Richards is a playwright, and he and his wife Karen are among Margo’s small circle of friends. Addison Dewitt is the most powerful drama critic in town. Minor characters flit around these luminaries, among them Miss Caswell, played by Marilyn Monroe before she was Marilyn Monroe.

The plot traces Eve Harrington’s devious journey to the pinnacle of Broadway stardom. The script sparkles with such lines as “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” and “It’s time to tell the piano it hasn’t written the concerto.”

Sam Staggs’s excellent book, All About “All About Eve” correctly notes that half the cast would be forgotten today were it not for their roles in the movie. Bette Davis, 42 at the time, was considered washed up until she played Margo – a role she seized when an injury sidelined Claudette Colbert, the studio’s first choice. Bette had already logged a string of hits that would ensure her lasting fame, but the same was not true of Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter), who won the title role. Gary Merrill, today remembered (if at all) for his role in 12 O’Clock High, had an undistinguished film career until Eve, as did Anne Baxter, Hugh Marlowe, and Celeste Holm. George Sanders, who perennially played British upper-class gentlemen (though he was actually born in Russia), deservedly walked off with an Academy Award for his portrayal of the venomous Addison Dewitt. Margo and Addison are in fact the juiciest roles in the movie, with one commanding every scene she’s in and the other providing the emotional climax of the story and the resolution of the plot. Gary Merrill and Bette Davis were an item during the shooting, and the two married as soon as they could shed their spouses. This was life imitating art, and the on/off-screen romance adds another dimension to one’s appreciation of the film.

But the real star of All About Eve was its writer and director, Joe Mankiewicz. His script attracted and motivated an excellent cast, and his directorial style drew from each a once-in-a-career performance. This in spite of the fact that tempers were often raw. Bette Davis and Celeste Holm managed to play best friends on screen even though they detested each other and never spoke to each other away from the set. It was Mankiewicz who kept them all pushing to achieve the great film they all knew they were part of. For this was no surprise hit; each week, when the rushes were viewed, everybody was surer than ever that All About Eve was a special film.

And it was, and is.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Our $90 Billion Salesman

From “The World This Week” in the current issue of The Economist:

“The Obama administration has announced plans to sell Saudi Arabia arms worth as much as $90 billion over the coming decade, in what would be America biggest-ever weapons sale.”

Did you notice something strange about that news release? The seller is identified as “the Obama administration.” We have come to the point where the Government can make a sale (or not make a sale) for $90 billion dollars’ worth of hardware. That’s a lot of hardware and a lot of paychecks and a lot of commissions for someone. Come to think of it, the aerospace companies don’t even need salesmen any more. The sale is closed when the President says “okay.”

Here’s what Dwight Eisenhower said as he was leaving the presidency in 1960.

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Arms manufactured in the United States may be found in every corner of the earth. Some of these arms, if past experience is any guide, will one day be used to kill Americans. We are in fact the world’s largest supplier of weapons of mass destruction. And as other countries cut their arms budgets, our role will get even larger. The military can’t stop it. When it tried to kill a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Congress overruled it; too many jobs were at stake.

Increasingly, the U.S. is the go-to enforcer, because erstwhile allies are quitting the game. Great Britain proposes defense cuts of 10 to 20 percent. Germany plans to drop its draft and cut its armed forces by a third. Today’s “coalition of the willing” is shrinking fast. Meanwhile, as if Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t enough, hawks in Washington press for greater U.S. military involvement in Yemen and Somalia. It is hard to see how this lunacy will play out. President Obama, who probably wishes he could disengage, can’t, any more than he can close Guantanamo. The military is trapped in wars it cannot win. Congress, which deserves the public scorn it gets, keeps funding weapons systems the military doesn’t need.

Eisenhower saw in the military-industrial complex “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” And Dwight Eisenhower was no pacifist. He led the Allies to victory in Europe and was regarded as a bona-fide military hero. One can only wonder what he would have thought on reading a press release for a $90 billion-dollar arms sale – issued, not by Boeing or Northrup or Lockheed, but by the President of the United States.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Our Vicious Economic Circle

My favorite economist, A. Gary Shilling, has been recommending the long Treasury bond for so long that some gurus have dismissed him as a Johnny One-Note. But the results, had you followed his advice, would have been spectacular. If you had invested $100 in a 25-year zero-coupon Treasury bond in October 1981 and kept rolling it over each year to maintain the 25-year maturity, your $100 would have grown to $16,695 in June 2010. Meanwhile, had you invested $100 in the S&P500 at its low in July 1982, you would now have $1997 (including dividend reinvestment). So much for financial advisers who tell you that stocks always outperform bonds.

Okay, the doubters say, so Shilling has been right for the last three decades, but now interest rates are so low that they can’t go any lower. Not so. The long bond is still yielding about 4%, and if it drops to 3% it will generate a healthy capital gain – even healthier if you buy a zero coupon bond, as he suggests, and roll it over. Gary has been forecasting deflation for years, even writing a book or two on the subject, and he is not changing his tune a whit.

What does all this mean for the U.S. economy? Here’s the problem: Our economy was, as everyone now sees, a house of sand, built on too-easy credit. People bought houses they could not afford, ran up credit-card debt they could not service, and lived a life style impossible to sustain. Meanwhile, a huge retail infrastructure was built to service that easy-credit lifestyle (see my blog post “Overmalled,” dated October 29, 2007). Everyone now realizes that, but what does it mean for the future?

The only way to resuscitate the U.S. economy quickly and painlessly is to restore the very easy-credit environment that brought us down. Some members of Congress are in fact advocating that approach (they would not admit that, of course), and the President and his economic team have come perilously close to the line, maintaining that a “cold turkey” approach would trigger catastrophe. But once you start pushing banks and others to relax loan standards, it’s a very slippery slope – greased, moreover, with the politics of mid-term elections.

Levering was great fun; delevering is no fun, but it must be done. So people will not rush to the malls but will build their savings, because they are, understandably, worried about their futures. Investors will increasingly avoid most stocks and look for dividend-paying securities, the safer the better.

And underlying these realities is another, more serious problem: We have a President who has made clear his distaste for the business of business, especially big business. Bankers are fat cats, the drug companies are dishonest, insurance companies are crooks. Notwithstanding all the Presidential rhetoric glorifying the small machine shop or the corner hamburger joint, it is companies who hire people by the thousands that make the difference. And this President doesn’t inspire their confidence.

Shilling was right; deflation is here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow

One day in 1934, Joseph Shadgen asked his 12-year-old daughter Jacqueline what she had learned in school that day.

“We learned that the United States is 158 years old this year.”

“How do you figure that?” her father asked.

“Because the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776,” Jacqueline answered.

“That is not right,” Joseph said. Joseph, an immigrant from Luxembourg, knew his American history. “The Declaration of Independence was just that – a declaration of an intention. Nothing happened in 1776 to create a country. The United States was born the day it elected its first president, George Washington, in 1789.”

Jacqueline was unconvinced, but later that year Joseph’s arithmetic led him to conclude that the United States would celebrate its 150th birthday in 1939, five years hence, just enough time to plan Joseph Shadgen’s big idea: A New York World’s Fair.

The 1939 World’s Fair, remembered, if at all, for its iconic trylon and perisphere, drew 45 million people to its Flushing Meadows site in 1939 and 1940. When it was conceived in 1934, its theme was The World of Tomorrow, but by the time it opened, World War 2 had already begun. Thus the title of James Mauro’s excellent new book on the Fair is Twilight at the World of Tomorrow.

Joseph Shadgen’s big idea was taken over by New York’s banking and political movers and shakers, and especially by a larger-than-life promoter named Grover Whalen. The World’s Fair turns out to be a metaphor for life in the United States in the 1930s, and all the headline-makers are on hand: Albert Einstein, Charles Lindbergh, Franklin Roosevelt, Fiorello La Guardia, Superman, Batman, and even Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Pavilions showcased the visions of tomorrow as promised by GE, GM (“Futurama”), DuPont, Con Edison, RCA (television) and other industrial giants. Country pavilions included some, like Czechoslovakia and Poland, whose homelands were swallowed up while the Fair was in progress. Noteworthy factoid: When Grover Whalen’s initial sales campaign was sputtering, the two countries that gave him his breakthrough sales were the Soviet Union and Mussolini’s Italy!

Another nugget: The Flushing Meadows site chosen for the Fair was a huge ash heap known as the Corona Dumps, and its proximity to the more posh neighborhoods on Long Island led F. Scott Fitzgerald to call his new novel Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires until an editor persuaded him to change the title to The Great Gatsby.

The book is well written, meticulously researched, and fascinating to read, especially if you are old enough to remember flying into LaGuardia and seeing the skeleton of the old perisphere, stripped of its gypsum, decades after all the other traces of the World’s Fair had disappeared, looking eerily like the Statue of Liberty in the last scene of Planet of the Apes.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War, by James Mauro. Ballantine Books, $28.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Unintended Consequences

When President Obama returns to his office from Maine, he will sign an 800-page financial reform bill, which will be proclaimed (by him) as the most far-reaching and beneficial financial legislation in at least 50 years. You have to give the man credit. He has tackled some of the most pressing issues of our times, boldly and full of self-confidence, without much help from the Republicans. They are his bills.

But 800 pages is a lot to read – bigger by far than Gone With the Wind – so we have to assume that the President hasn’t read it, but has left that to staff, and therein lies the rub. It would be nice to believe that the economic gurus have vetted the document and were satisfied that at least it would do no harm. But, grading the bill for the Wall Street Journal, Henry Paulson says “there are too many unknowns as to how the regulations will be applied.” Harvey Pitt, an accounting heavyweight and a former SEC chief, grades it an F. Pimco’s Bill Gross, who manages more money than almost anyone, gives the bill a D+. Nouriel Roubini, an economics superstar these days, gives it a C+. A few are more generous, but among experts who may be assumed to have read all or most the bill, the reviews are poor. If it were a Broadway play, the closing notices would have been posted.

Okay, so whom did the President rely on to go through the 800 pages, subparagraph by subparagraph? Let me guess. Not Rahm Emmanuel, certainly. And probably not Tim Geithner, whose plate is full. How about Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, or rather their staffs? Frank and Dodd are hard workers, and we assume their staffs work even harder. It’s a political deal, after all, sewed up (barely) with the help of Scott Brown and the two senators from Maine (now we know why Obama flew to Bar Harbor rather than the Gulf Coast for a quick vacation). Let’s acknowledge that the President knows how to pull the right political levers. But does that guarantee that the legislation is sound? No.

To begin with, who told the President about the possible unintended consequences of this bill? Who laid out a scenario under which the legislation would not prevent another financial collapse but would in fact precipitate one? President George W. Bush relied on the neocons surrounding him to draw up a plan to invade Iraq. The case for invasion was a “slam dunk,” they said, but where was the voice telling him all the things that might go wrong – no WMD, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, civil war – and the far-reaching consequences. (One assumes that Colin Powell was such a voice, before he was sacked.)

The finreg bill is not as bloody as Iraq, but Afghanistan is getting there, and one can see a coming collision between the President’s deep desire to pull out and the militarists’ demands for victory. Whichever way he leans, there will be unintended consequences, and they won’t be pretty.

Nor will the unintended consequences of financial regulation. The hordes of new committees and their lawyers and a tidal wave of new regulations could strangle the economy just when the first faint flickers of a recovery are on the horizon. I hope that President Obama has put his new bill through a stress test, but I doubt it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Schumer the Almighty

From a story in today’s New York Times on the antenna problems experienced by some users of Apple’s new iPhone 4:

“Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, wrote an open letter to Mr. Jobs on Thursday demanding that Apple give customers a ‘permanent fix’ for the problem at no cost.”

Chuck Schumer’s power knows no bounds. Private companies, sovereign countries, all are under his thumb. He doesn’t ask; he demands. His latest domain is the business and technology of telecommunications technology.

What next?

“Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, commenting on the quality of Raisin Bran, demanded that Kellogg’s increase the number of raisins in each package of the cereal at no cost to the customer.”

“Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, charging that some orange juice cartons labeled “Lots of Pulp” did not in fact contain lots of pulp, demanded that a Government commission be established to set pulp standards for orange juice.”

“Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York demanded that the Miami Heat immediately trade LeBron James to the New York Knicks.”

“Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York demanded that Japanese and Korean auto manufacturers close their Southern U.S. plants and move them to Buffalo.”

“Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York demanded that polling organizations revise their data to reflect what he maintained was the American public’s overwhelmingly positive opinion of the U.S. Congress.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blogs Available in Book Form

Tides in the Affairs of Men, a new collection of these blog postings, is now available for sale at (Search under book title.) The new book contains material published over the past 2-1/2 years, including most of the essays from Sand Point Chronicles, which will no longer be sold. The first two collections, Searching for Joan Leslie and Lines from the Beachcomber, will still be available.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Inside Information

We are in the late innings of a Congressional push to enact financial reform, based on the notion that the game has been rigged and that we need to change the rules. That’s no doubt true, but I wonder about the process. Reform is needed, but who’s watching the reformers?

Let me explain. The courts are clogged these days with insider-trading cases, the assumption being that those who buy or sell stock with the advantage of material information about the company are illegally profiting by these actions. The alleged profiteers are usually securities analysts, hedge-fund managers, or others working for financial institutions or publicly owned companies.

The cases are rarely open and shut. On Wall Street, rumors are thick as flies at a garbage dump. Harry passes a story along to Joe, who passes it along to Steve, who buys 10,000 shares and scores a direct hit. Or maybe not; the story may be spurious, so he loses his shirt. Of course, if the story comes from the company’s chief financial officer, that’s another kettle of fish, but that’s very, very rare; most CFOs are too smart to act so foolishly.

Inside information flows through subterranean channels. The financial press is one such channel. Reporters have access to many insiders at trade shows, press conferences, etc. A fragment here, a fragment there, and the cat’s out of the bag.

But the biggest conduit for inside information may not be the financial world or the press, but the thousands of bureaucrats who regularly have knowledge of information that’s worth millions to any stock trader. The stories with the biggest impact on stock prices often originate at some government agency. Think of the opportunities. You work at the Food and Drug Administration, and you know that in a day or two the FDA will report that a new drug, potentially a blockbuster, has failed a phase 3 test. Or you work at the Justice Department or the Federal Trade Commission, and you know that the Government will file suit against such and such a company for illegal trade practices. Or you work at the FCC, and you know that a pending sale of TV stations will or will not be approved.

For that matter, members of Congressional committees regularly sound off on CNBC and have a built-in opportunity to attack a company in the course of a televised hearing. Most of what they say is just political grandstanding, but they have the power to move the market, and only they and their aides know in advance what they will say.

I don’t know of any such malfeasance, but that’s the point. Is it possible, in this era of rampant corruption by elected officials, that the entire federal regulatory apparatus and our Congressional watchdogs are squeaky clean? Or is it possible that a torrent of inside information flows from the corridors of federal power to trading accounts in the names of girlfriends, brothers-in law, friends of friends, and others outside the monitoring zone?

If there had been one or two front-page stories about such leakage, I would not be so suspicious. But if there have been such stories, I missed them. And so we are left with the politically correct conclusion: Wall Street is filled with crooks, and the Government is filled with honest people who work hard to protect us from the crooks.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What Price Privacy?

No better illustration of the confused state of public discourse these days is this: At a time when everyone is worried about identity theft and loss of personal privacy, the same everyone is also using social networking sites like Facebook to tell everyone everything about themselves. “Look at me” or “Listen to me” seems to be the new universal mantra.

There was a time, not too long ago, when privacy was a mark of decorum. There were certain things you just didn’t tell others unless you knew them very well. Women were especially discreet, in dress as well as in conversation, and a gentleman would never betray a confidence. I am not talking about characters in Masterpiece Theater. Ordinary people like my parents valued privacy in the 50s and 60s.

Then something happened. Candidates for office were expected to disclose their income tax returns, and peccadillos were fair game for reporters. All this was in the name of fair disclosure. A senator who cheated on his wife would cheat on his constituents, the story went, and those 1040s would enable us to know whether someone was a crook. Suddenly we felt entitled to know everything about office-holders and candidates, whether or not the alleged facts were relevant.

Now the revelations have hit the digital fan, and there is no turning back. Worst of all, the public is getting in on the action, in its search for 10 minutes of fame. Anybody can be an American Idol or put his or her face and voice on YouTube. Tonight’s news told of young girls who were lured to meetings (and, in some cases, to their deaths) by on-line pedophiles. Identity thefts are rampant. Did you know that copying machines have hard drives? How many tax returns and other documents are waiting for someone to mine that data? Do you really believe your credit card and social security numbers are secure?

Last night I placed about 15 books in an on-line basket. Then I read the privacy policy of the merchant, who ran a network of bookstores, each of whom would have access to my credit card number. I didn’t buy the books.

I don’t care about Governor Spitzer’s hookers or about Barack Obama’s tax return. If the hookers meant Spitzer was malfeasant, well, there are people whose job it is to find that out, and Barack Obama is entitled to the same privacy as I am with respect to his tax returns. (One of the Kennedys – Ted’s son Joe, I believe- once suggested that everyone’s tax return should be a matter of the public record, but we’re not there yet, thank God.)

I am not on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or any of the others, and I stonewall the many invitations I receive to join the crowd. Of course I do have a blog, and that inevitably causes some loss of privacy. I will have to think about that one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Snow Cake

Alex Hughes had a fling with a girl named Rebecca a long time ago. A son was born of that fling, a son Alex never knew. Then, years later, he found out, and he arranged to meet his son for dinner at a restaurant in London Alex had never married, and there would probably be no other children, so he waited for his only offspring with great anticipation. But his son never came. He had been killed by a motorist while crossing the street. An enraged Alex found the errant driver, hit him, and knocked him down. The motorist died, and Alex was sentenced to several years in prison for manslaughter. He serves his time and is released, but the totality of the experience leaves him a desolate man, with little to live for.

Desperate for some kind of closure, Alex searches for Rebecca and finds that she is living in Winnipeg. So he sets out for Winnipeg, not by the most direct route, but by flying from London to Toronto, renting a car, and setting out overland for Manitoba.

All this takes place before the movie opens. You will find it out, piecemeal, but I am not spoiling the story by telling you that much. The movie is called Snow Cake. It was made in 2006. It was written by Angela Pell and directed by Marc Evans. And almost nobody has ever heard of it.

Which is a shame, because it’s an engrossing, well written, brilliantly acted story about what happens to Alex Hughes on the way to Manitoba. To tell you more would be wrong, because it is a story best appreciated when you don’t know what’s coming next.

The leading roles are played by Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver. Emily Hampshire is memorable in a key supporting role. The movie cost petty cash to make and was filmed in about a month. In the era of mega-movies, Snow Cake reminds us that a good story, well acted and well written, need not cost a fortune. The corollary is that a $100 million movie without a good story well told can be a turkey. Some years ago, as we left the theater after seeing Titanic, Jill summed it up thus: “There were 1500 people on that ship, and they couldn’t find a story better than that?”

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Strange Times

Here’s the deal: You buy a one-year Treasury bill that will pay you $100,000 at maturity. It costs you $99,952 (T bills are prediscounted). Your broker charges you $60 to execute the transaction. Since the fee exceeds the interest, you have actually lost money for your trouble.

Or try this: You invest $100,000 in one of Fidelity’s government money market funds. After a month goes by, you check your account and find that in return for the use of your $100,000 you have earned the grand sum of one dollar.

Now you see why, despite the dreadful economic numbers, the stock market keeps climbing. There are, for most people, only three reservoirs available for storing wealth: stocks, bonds, and real estate. Real estate, long regarded as a sure-fire investment, is now poison. Bonds pay next to nothing unless you accept high risk or go long-term. So it’s back to the stock-market casino. The CNBC anchors tell you that the economic numbers are not dreadful at all, ignoring (1) the unemployment rate, (2) the national debt, (3) the budget deficit, and (4) the balance of trade.

There is another reason for the Dow’s ascent: If you are a wealthy European, do you really want your money sitting in pounds or francs or lira? No, so you buy dollar-denominated assets. You tell yourself that your wealth is safe in the U.S. because the U.S. is too big to fail. (Where have we heard that before?)

Buying stocks of good companies is not stupid. If you are worried that eventually runaway inflation will eat you alive, consider this: If you buy one share of Apple stock, you own one 910-millionth of the Company. Now, assuming that Apple doesn’t have to sell more stock ($23 billion in the bank says they won’t) you will still own one 910-millionth of the Company no matter what happens to the dollar. So, in a sense, Apple is an inflation hedge. The same can be said of other companies that have strong balance sheets and good growth prospects. Alas, there aren’t many companies that make it through that filter. And remember, some respected economists say that deflation, not inflation, is the more likely danger.

These are strange times, the strangest I’ve seen in a half century of market-watching. The federal government is selling zillions of short-term bills and notes at zero cost. Banks can get almost as good a deal, thanks to the Fed. Borrowing at less than 1 percent and lending at, say, 6 percent is nice work if you can get it.

It reminds me of an old joke about the fellow who shows up at his school’s reunion in a private helicopter, much to the surprise of his classmates who remember him as the dumbest kid in school, especially in mathematics.

“How on earth did you amass such wealth?” one classmate asks him.

“It was easy,” he answered. “I make these gadgets for 1 cent and I sell them for 5 cents, and you’d be amazed at how that 4 percent adds up.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Clarence and Melissa

a short short story

Clarence looked up from his New York Times and asked, “Melissa, must you sing during breakfast? It’s really quite annoying.”

“Sorry, father,” Melissa said. Melissa was 19 and a sophomore in college, home for the Christmas holidays. She had been singing a popular song unknown to her father (or to most people of his generation). In fact, Melissa’s knowledge of the lyrics was spotty, so that at key parts of the narrative (if there was one), she drifted into “la la di dum dum.” Clarence’s objections could be summarized thus: first, her voice was flat or sharp (he couldn’t tell which, but he suspected it was both, if such a thing were possible); second, she sang everything fortissimo, if not fortississimo, which was like getting a generous helping of bad food; third, her repertoire was limited to songs written in the last six months. no Kern, no Rodgers, no Gershwin. If he asked her who wrote a song she was singing, she would say something like The Bad Boys or Crazy Red Poles or The Hairy Grape.

One should add that Melissa was very serious about her singing. At college, while she had the good sense not to enlist in the glee club or one of the many a capella groups on campus, she did join the Dramatic Club, where she had small parts in their undertakings. In The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, she played Algernon’s manservant Lane, a role recrafted as a female for this production. In these efforts Melissa was quite adequate, because she was given no opportunity to sing. But she enjoyed singing, more than she enjoyed anything else in life.

Clarence was a patient man, and his outburst at breakfast was unusual. Clarence’s wife had died the year before, and he had not yet learned how to be both parents. Clarence was still in his forties, an age that invited thoughts of exploring new social frontiers, but there was no hurry. His work as a lawyer kept him busy, and then there was Melissa, an only child. Beautiful Melissa, with her mother’s eyes.

“I’m sorry to be sharp with you, Melissa,” he said. “I know you like your music.”

“Maybe we could do something musical together,” she said. “You know, go to a concert, maybe.”

The word “concert” struck terror into his heart. He knew what young people meant by concerts, and it was not Rachmaninoff. Still, it was an opening he could not resist,

“Sure,” he said. “Pick something out and we’ll go.”

And so it was that father and daughter went to a concert give by a touring group of Irish singers, 20 in all, young men and young women, singing Celtic and contemporary pop songs. Clarence was greatly impressed by their musicianship, and Melissa was so taken with the concert that she sang two or three songs over and over as they drove home.

“That was a very good show,” father said to daughter. “Didn’t you think so?”

“Oh, yes, Dad. I’d love to join a group like that.”

“Well,” he said doubtfully, it probably takes a lot of time, which is something you don’t have much of these days.”

“Not during the school year,” she said earnestly, “but summers I could find time. This summer I’ll look for some job where I can sing. What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Clarence said guardedly. Maybe you could try out for something in summer stock. On the Cape, maybe.” It wouldn’t do to discourage her from singing, but he might encourage her to study acting. Or set design or costumes or props. Anything but singing.

And so, after Clarence talked to a friend who summered at Chatham, he found a friend of that friend who knew the man who ran a summer theater on the Cape, and Melissa was taken on as an acting apprentice. She was ecstatic about her good fortune and above ecstatic when she was given a nonspeaking part in The Most Happy Fella, the first production on the summer’s schedule. Actually, she told her father on the phone, she was a member of a crowd, but they all were to join in a chorus of “Abbondanza!” She was going to SING! Hearing this, Clarence hoped the chorus was a large one.

Clarence drove down to the Cape for opening night, and noted that Melissa’s singing was not only drowned out but that she was positively aglow on the stage. Was it fatherly pride, or was Melissa the most involved person in every scene, reacting with intelligence and energy? Maybe, he chuckled to himself, she was born to be the greatest actress-in-a-crowd-scene who ever lived.

The next summer, the summer after her junior year, she returned to the Playhouse, and was given small parts in all five productions - two musicals and three straight plays. The leads were all taken by members of Actor’s Equity, and one of them gave Melissa the name of a voice coach who summered in Hyannis, and soon thereafter Melissa was singing scales at the home of the coach, a woman of Wagnerian proportions and an intimidating demeanor.

“You want to sing for a living?” the woman asked incredulously.

“Yes, I do, very much,” said Melissa.

“Mmmmm.” the woman said. “Your voice is strong. But it is also flat.”

“Flat?” Melissa said, as if her questioner were speaking Swahili.

“Flat. It is, to be blunt, painfully flat.”

“Can you teach me to sing?” Melissa asked urgently, so urgently that the coach was moved.

“I will give you two lessons. Then we will decide.”

In the life of every success there is a moment that serves as a hinge of fate. If it swings one way, opportunity follows opportunity. If it swings the other way, there is nothing but failure and frustration. Melissa’s hinge swung providentially when Madam Domine said, “I will give you two lessons.”

At the first lesson, Madame Domine taught Melissa to sing softly. Her normal voice was loud, and her natural flatness was amplified a thousandfold. “When we eliminate the flatness – if we can – then you will learn to modulate. And then, and only then, can you open up again."

Melissa worked – hard – all the next week, on exercises she had been given, and at the second lesson, Madame Domine was startled to hear the flatness all but gone. She was witnessing the triumph of determination over nature. The girl’s ears and vocal chords were the same as they were the week before, but where there had been noise, now there was music. The coach was intrigued – no, challenged, just as Henry Higgins was challenged by Eliza Doolittle. The lessons would continue.

By now you must have guessed the ending of our little story. Melissa graduated from college and then moved to New York to start her assault of Broadway. While at home, she rarely sang, and she did not mention her voice lessons to Clarence, who attended several plays at the Playhouse, mostly straight plays in which Melissa had small parts.
He realized that her ambition burned as ardently as ever, and he bankrolled one summer’s expenses in New York. By the end of the summer, he was sure, she would return to Boston, a sadder but wiser Broadway Baby.

But Melissa’s voice had lost its flatness and was now strong and true and ready for prime time. There were auditions, but not many before the word got around: Here was a comer. First, she was an understudy to the second lead. Then she won the lead in a road company of She Loves Me, scheduled to open in Boston. By this time she had told Clarence about her voice lessons, and he was mildly interested. Now she phoned him to say there would be two tickets at the Colonial box office in his name on opening night, and that she was playing THE LEAD!

Clarence brought along a woman who was an attorney at his law office, and they settled into their fourth-row seats. On stage, Melissa was dazzling, and by the time Amalia Balash (her character) sang “Dear Friend,” tears were rolling down his cheeks. Later, when her unmiked voice filled the theater with “Ice Cream,” he was dumbfounded. Where did she get that voice?

After the show, in her dressing room, he repeated the question. “Where did you ever get that voice?”

“Is that your way of saying I was pretty bad before?”


That’s okay, Dad, I know I was awful. But I had two things that made all the difference. I must have gotten them from you and Mom.”

“And they were?”

“Determination and persistence, Dad. Without them, talent isn’t enough. With them, a little talent can take you a long way in this business,”

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Day the Dow Dropped 1000

At one time today, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 1000 points. Then it rallied and finished the day down 300-plus. Several factors were listed by the evening pundits: the situation in Greece, a couple of glitches (including a trader’s entering an order for a billion dollars when he meant a million!), and general market nervousness. The three Gs, we'll call them: Greece, Glitches, and Gloom.

First, Greece: The TV screens were filled all day with scenes of phalanxes of Athens policemen facing off against mobs, made up mostly of public-sector union members. When a government is threatened with bankruptcy (as Greece surely is) and must resort to an austerity program, public-sector employees are high on the cut list, because their unions have demanded and won outsized pay and benefit packages over the years.

In this country it is no different, and when the federal government and the states bite the bullet and declare their own austerity programs, the public-sector employees will take to the streets. (The private sector, presumably, will be at work.) The new governor of New Jersey, squeezed by his State’s miserable finances, spells out the stakes: A 49-year-old public-sector retiree in New Jersey will get $3.8 million in pension and health benefits despite having paid only $124,000 for them. “Is that fair?” he asks. The unions no doubt would answer with a resounding “Yes!”

General Motors illustrates where such largesse leads you, but if you don’t sell cars, you don’t have a job, whereas you will always need teachers, policemen, firemen, and social workers. Only maybe not so many of them, as Greece will now find out.

Glitches: Computers are a wonderful thing, but is the power to buy or sell a million shares at a click of a mouse a good thing? Trading regulations have not caught up to technology, and until it does, we need circuit breakers. Remember them? It used to be that whenever the Dow fell by 250 points, all trading was stopped for some period of time (10 minutes, I think). We are in an era where speed is all. Today's Times has a long article bemoaning the fact that a Red Sox – Yankees game averages about 3-1/2 hours. So what? The game starts at 7, and 10:30 is hardly an ungodly hour to head home, especially if the game is exciting, as most Sox – Yanks games are. Similarly, would the world end if it took 10 seconds to trade a stock, rather than a microsecond?

Gloom: It is true that most stock-market traders are worried. They are worried about their jobs, about the chance of terrorist attacks, about the national debt. But underlying everything they are mindful that their government is not on their side. The President rails against “fat-cat” bankers, dishonest insurance companies, and Wall Street bonuses. Watching Congress questioning the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, etc. is like watching the lions devouring Christians. The starting assumption in most public debate these days is this: The people managing your money are a bunch of crooks, and we’re going to get them, by gum.

If you have money to invest and believe this, you will not invest it in the stock market. You will put it under your mattress.

Life is still comfortable for most people in the United States because of the flywheel effect. For decades – from the Second World War to about 1990 – we had the most productive, enterprising, dynamic economic engine in human history. That engine is still spinning, but it is slowing down, like a flywheel deprived of its power. Unless we quickly resuscitate the risk-taking spirit and start cheering for those who create wealth instead of beating them up, the flywheel will stop, and Washington will resemble Athens.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rally 'Round the Beach, Boys

An epidemic of paranoia has broken out at Goose Rocks Beach. The disease is familiar to everyone who owns oceanfront property and everyone who does not but wants to share in the pleasures of the seashore. “The beach belongs to everyone” goes the chant, and it is taken up one year in Long Island, another year in Nantucket, and another in New Jersey. This year it is Maine’s turn.

It began when about two dozen beach-front owners, noting that their deeds defined their property as extending to the low-water mark, claimed the right to eject trespassers from that part of the beach they owned. “Nonsense,” said the Town of Kennebunkport, “people have been walking Goose Rocks Beach from end to end for many decades, and the beach is now public by prescriptive easement.”

In olden times, when Maine was part of Massachusetts, the public was said to enjoy the right to walk, fish, fowl, and whatever else passed for recreation in the seventeenth century – in the area between the high and low water marks. The Town dismisses any such constraints, holding that modern beachgoers should be free to indulge in such twenty-first century pursuits as Frisbee throwing, picnicking, and volleyball.

Wherever the War of the Beaches is waged, the press stands ready to frame it as a holy war, a battle between the privileged few and the deserving masses. For law firms, of course, the few and the masses are just so many billable hours.

The paranoia is especially virulent in these contentious times. What at core is a rather prosaic legal point – whether deeds trump long-standing usage or vice versa – has turned into a crusade, with the crusaders marching under a banner emblazoned with SAVE OUR BEACHES. One side paints pictures of fences sprouting up and down the beach and KEEP OFF signs on the beautiful sands of Goose Rocks. The other side warns that if the beach is surrendered, hordes of drunken teen-agers will converge on Goose Rocks at spring break, with dune buggies not far behind.

A crucial battle will be fought in June, when the Town will vote to approve (or not) a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees to flight the 25 property owners. This is a considerable sum in a Town whose population is about 3500. With appeals, it could become more considerable.

It all reminds me of a 50s novel, Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, by Max Shulman. The fictional town of Putnam’s Landing is chosen as a missile launch site, splitting the community into the hawks and doves of the day, and ending with an accidental (and hilarious) launch of an ICBM. The book was very funny, the movie (with Paul Newman) less so, but the idiocy of extremism is as ridiculous at Goose Rocks today as it was at Putnam’s Landing a half century ago.

For the record, I live at Goose Rocks, but not on the beach front. As I see it, both sides have reasonable arguments. And when the smoke clears and the lawyers have been paid, nothing will have changed.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

American Political Idol

At the prodding of my children, I recently watched American Idol and Dancing With the Stars, and I can report that both are (1) not as good as the younger generation claims and (2) not as bad as I had feared. Much is made of mediocrity on these shows, and the occasional talented performer is treated like The Second Coming. Most of the judges understand that they are there to feed the audience frenzy, either by overhyping the singer or dancer or by delivering a deserved panning (boos and hisses from the performer’s claque).

The shows are enormously popular, and, since they are relatively cheap to produce, ring the cash registers at Fox and ABC. So mine is a minority opinion, but that’s okay; I am often out of sync with popular taste. Some say it’s a generational thing, and that could be true.

I will have to admit that the format of American Idol and Dancing With the Stars is interesting and may be applicable to weightier subjects.

Like, for instance, politics.

Consider the possibilities. The Republican Party, wishing to field the strongest presidential candidate in 2012, has each candidate deliver his or her best stump speech before a panel of judges, all eminent political consultants.

First, ladies and gentlemen, we will hear from that bombshell from Alaska, Sarah…..PALIN!!! (enthusiastic applause)

Palin does her best frontierswoman speech, punctuated liberally with homey touches and unflattering references to Harvard.

Judge 1: I knew you had it in you, Sarah, but you really hit it out of the park that time. A big YES! (ecstatic screams from the audience)

Judge 2. I think you need to work more on that accent, Sarah. You sounded too much like a Midwesterner. I’m afraid it’s a no. (loud boos)

Judge 3. Well, Sarah, you got my vote. That story about looking across the Bering Strait at Russia did it. A big big big YES! (hysterical cheering)

Now let’s hear our second contestant, Senator John McCain.

McCain: My friends, this country is in trouble. The country is bankrupt my friends, and yet our President has been saddling our children and grandchildren and their friends with a huge new entitlement. My friends, it’s time for a change. (and on and on in this vein)

Judge 1: (is caught by the camera, snoring)

Judge 2. Senator, that was the best I’ve ever heard you, and it was still terrible.

Judge 3. I think you need to liven it up, Senator. Maybe you could do a soft shoe, or do some rope tricks, like Will Rogers.

Now our final candidate for tonight, Mike Huckabee!

Huckabee: I’m going to sing a little tune I wrote on the way over tonight, and I hope y’all like it. (sits on a stool, plucks guitar)

(singing) You are my sunshine, my only sunshine
You’ll make me happy by choosing me
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Oh please give your vote to Mike Huckabee.

(wild, uncontrolled cheering from the audience)

Judge 1: Well, that says it all, Mike. A huge, huge YES!!! (more cheering)

Judge 2: I thought your singing was awesome, and you sure could play that guitar. And that song was the catchiest tune I’ve ever heard! (crowd yells “yes!”)

Judge 3: You just blew me away, man. I got all choked up when you sang that song. Mike, you are the greatest. (audience erupts, singing chorus of “You are my sunshine”)

Is that a show, or is that a show?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Politician

The President touched down in Maine today, presumably as a “let’s be friends” gesture to Senators Collins and Snowe, two Republicans seen as possible allies in future political battles. Then it was off to Massachusetts, to share a “video op” with Governor Patrick (up for reelection this year) and to raise funds for the Bay State Dems. Officially, it was a swing north to survey the wreckage from the recent rainstorms, but Rhode Island, the hardest hit State, was not on the itinerary.

Does all that sound cynical? Well, I’m sorry, but there is no other way to put it. Barack Obama, whom I once praised as a latter-day Cicero, has shown himself to be just another pol. “I don’t believe the American people want to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat,” the President said today in Portland. Okay, Mr. President, we get it, we get it: The insurance companies are crooks. This follows the following stump statement: “I didn’t come down on the side of the banks and financial institutions; I came down on the side of the people.” We get that, too: Bankers are not to be trusted, because they are conniving “fat cats.”

Since the President is too smart to believe all that, a cynical reading is the only possible explanation. He demonizes banks and insurance companies because his pollsters tell him that’s the best line these days and it is much, much safer than talk about the deficit or Afghanistan or Netanyahu or the unemployment rate.

The thing he is missing, I think, is that when a businessman hears the President attacking banks and insurance companies (with gusto!), he takes it as an attack on all business. The President just doesn’t know that he sounds as if he has it in for the entire private sector – the sector he needs on his side if we are to mend our economy. He doesn’t get it, because, alas, this President has never run a business. Or even worked for a business.

Or take his speech the other day on reforming student loans. He bemoaned the fact that students too often graduate from college handicapped by a heavy debt load. So, said the President, he is riding to the rescue, capping a graduate’s annual repayment to 15 percent of his or her income. But, he added, if the graduate goes into public service - if he becomes, say, a politician or a community organizer - the cap will be set at only 10 percent. What kind of message does that send to the private sector?

But, to return to the point, this is a political animal, pure and simple. The timing, the self-deprecating humor, the over-all level of oratory is pure music, and you have to admire it. But when you listen to the lyrics, you understand that this is a committed leftist, dedicated to shifting as much power as possible from the private to the public sector. One hopes that the economy survives the assault, but the issue is in doubt

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Centrist President

“I don’t trust him.”

Those were the last words I heard from my wife on the subject of Barack Obama. They were not the words of a woman who was politically naïve. They did not derive from the distance between his eyes, much less the color of his skin. They were the words of a serious student of the political process, a woman who kept a copy of the Constitution by her side for ready access.

She had made the point before. As she saw it, he was a masterful actor, playing the part of a centrist, because it was the only way he could be elected President. But she heard enough tip-offs to convince her it was all an act. Being much less politically savvy than Jill, I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And I was bowled over by his oratorical skill, which, I thought, would enable him to lead a divided nation. Jill, on the other hand, held that once he was in the White House, we would see the real Obama. She was, as usual, right as rain.

Barack Obama’s historic victory convinced him and his team that the country had declared itself ready for a leftward swing. It was a watershed event, he reasoned, signaling that people were fed up with the excesses of capitalism and ready to yield more control to Washington. But the election was not about that at all. Barack Obama won because he was not George W. Bush. And George W. Bush wound up a pariah, not because he was a capitalist, but because he allowed himself to be maneuvered into invading Iraq, and all the terrible baggage that came with it. The people who orchestrated the election of Barack Obama were the neocons behind the WMD fiction. Without them (and a pliable President), the White House and Congress would still be in Republican hands, because we are still a center-right nation. Nice going, Dick Cheney.

Now it is the evening of President Obama’s great victory on health care. No one is talking much about the centrist President now, about the great healer who will unite a fractured country. The atmosphere is poisonous tonight, and people are angry. The President may well feel that by November the acrimony will be forgotten. He may be right, especially if the economy improves. But if it doesn’t, he will confront a Republican Congress with one thing on its mind: payback.

One thing is sure: Jill saw right through Obama the Great Centrist, Obama the Great Orator. He fooled a lot of people, including me, but he couldn’t fool Jill.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Chess, the Musical

One night in early 1986 I found myself in London’s West End, looking for good theater. A marquee announced a musical called Chess, and I, a musical theater fan and a chess player, was hooked. A review posted in the ticket lobby gushed that one of the show’s songs, “I Know Him So Well,” was one of the finest book songs the reviewer had ever heard. That reeled me in.

The show was – I strain to be kind here – passable. The setting was a world chess championship, the protagonists the current title holder, an obnoxious American, and the challenger, a Russian. You have to bear in mind (1) that the Cold War was in full flower in the 80s and (2) that the memory of the famous championship match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer was still fresh. The political overtones heightened the drama of that match (which Fischer won) and cried out for a theatrical treatment.

Tim Rice, who had collaborated with Andrew Lloyd-Webber to give the world Evita, tried to talk the composer into a project based on a chess championship match between an American and a Russian, but Lloyd-Webber was deep into other projects at the time, and passed. Rice then (in 1981) joined with half of the (then dissolving) Abba team, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, and a musical called Chess started taking shape.

The problem, as I remember it, was a clumsy book and an inadequate score. (“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln….”) The staging was another minus. The stage was dominated by a large chessboard, tilted at an angle, which managed to upstage the actors. Only two songs were memorable: “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well.” Rice should have waited until Lloyd-Webber’s calendar was free.

The show ran in London for three years, but was still a financial and critical failure. Still, the basic idea was good, and Rice sat down to rewrite in preparation for taking Chess to Broadway. One good song (“Someone Else’s Story”) was added, and the character of the American was softened. The massively rewritten Chess opened in New York in April 1988 – and died 68 performances later, losing millions.

So why am I telling you about such an all-out floperoo? Because it has resurfaced again, this time as a so-called concert version, staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall and available to Americans on DVD. And it is very, very good.

First, don’t let the words “concert version” fool you. This is a huge production, with a philharmonic orchestra, a large chorus, dancers, and rear projections to suggest Italy (Act 1) and Thailand (Act 2). The cast is topnotch, notably Josh Groban as the Russian and Adam Pascal as the American. The music has been greatly improved over the years, or maybe the original was better than it sounded; that orchestra and chorus may have made the difference.

Rice hasn’t forgotten the touches that made Evita so riveting. Who can forget the tableau of the Buenos Aires upper class, gliding en masse from one side of the stage to the other while denouncing Peron’s mistress? In Chess, a group of “old boys” at the British embassy cluck their displeasure at all the asylum-seekers cluttering up their offices. And a character called “The Arbiter” serves much the same purpose as does Che in Evita.

Some plotting weaknesses still show, especially in Act 2, and the song “Someone Else’s Story” is inexplicably given to the Russian’s wife rather than to his girlfriend. But these flaws are outweighed by the effect of what is, over-all, a dazzling production.

Rice is rumored to be planning another go at Broadway, but a Chess on the scale of the Royal Albert concert would be financially impossible in New York. My suggestion is to grab the DVD, because Chess will never be this good again.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

China's Great Leap Forward

Barack Obama is confronting the same problem that all his predecessors confronted: He knows too well what the long-term solvency of the country demands, but he can’t act, because our political system won’t allow it. The majority rules, and the majority wants to live on the cuff, because that’s the way it has always worked, and if President Obama told us the hard facts – that we’re broke – the voters wouldn’t stand for it. So we are treated to the same old “the richest country on earth ought to be able to give everyone___________.” You fill in the blanks.

Some people in other countries have grown up wanting a system like ours, but now they are not so sure. Maybe, they are thinking, China has got it right. They have the fastest growing economy on earth, but....their government is COMMUNIST! You know, the system that says the state owns all the land and the means of production. The system that says “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

Well, not quite. The new breed of Chinese communist is shopping for Mercedes and BMWs in Beijing showrooms, while America is giving “cash for clunkers” to prod people to buy new cars with money that comes from the U.S. government, which borrows it from…..China!! What’s wrong with this picture?

For a quarter century, from roughly 1960 through 1985, we had it made: The transistor (Bell Labs) begat the semiconductor industry (Fairchild, Intel, TI, Motorola), which begat the computer industry (IBM, DEC, H-P), which begat the personal computer industry (Apple, Compaq, Dell). I was there, and it was a wild ride, a once-in-a-lifetime high.

The chief perceived threat in 1980 was Japan, and there was widespread anxiety here about the Japanese obsession with quality. They took what American quality gurus had taught them and then raised the bar. If anybody was looking for other threats, there was Korea, and possibly Taiwan. Nobody, but nobody, was thinking about China. China? You’ve gotta be kidding!

I’m sure a lot of books will be written about China’s leap into high-tech, but here’s my take: Like many others, I had visited our sales offices in Singapore, Taiwan, and pre-1997 Hong Kong often, offices that were staffed by expatriate Chinese, and in my dealings with them one distinguishing characteristic stood out: They were all capitalists down to their bone marrow! The Chinese were deal-makers, whatever government was in control. And it occurred to anyone who thought about it that if the government in Beijing ever decided to adopt a market-based economy, it would need a very short runway, because they had a billion born capitalists ready to roll, The decision was made around 1980, and within a relatively short time the Chinese machine was airborne.

It remains to be seen whether Chinese capitalism can coexist with centralized control. But I believe (and have heard this echoed by Chinese in Beijing) that there is no turning back. Economic liberalism breeds political liberalism, especially now that the Chinese people have a taste of market success. Only two outcomes are possible: (1) The Chinese authoritarian government will soften and eventually be indistinguishable from our government (which has been drifting leftward, in case you haven’t noticed) and (2) The Chinese leadership, feeling threatened by an increasingly assertive, increasingly acquisitive middle class, will try to force the genie back into the bottle, leading to widespread instability. I don’t know which option will prevail, but I would probably bet on (1). Things are going well in China today, and Hu Jintao doesn’t need to rock the boat.

And he doesn’t have to worry about getting this or that bill through Congress. He doesn’t have to fret about filibusters and blue states and red states. When he decides that something makes sense for China, he just does it, making a few phone calls to get his ministers on board.

Meanwhile, when Barack Obama decides that something makes sense for the United States, he has to deep-six it because it won’t play in Chicago or on CNN, and he could never get it through Congress anyway,

Democracy is messy, but people will put up with the mess – as long as they are winning.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Too Many Papers, Too Little Time

For a span measured not in years but in decades, I have been a subscriber to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. Good newspapers all, each deserving of more time than there is in my day. (I know, when you’re retired you’re supposed to have oodles of free time, but I don’t.) And they’re getting pricey, because their business model, based mostly on advertiser revenue, has broken down. I don’t mind paying for value received, but paying for newspapers that I don’t read is just plain stupid. So something has to go. But which one?

The New York Times is still a fine newspaper, though it no longer deserves its “All the news that’s fit to print” mantra. “All the trends that are fit to print” would be more like it. The Times sponsors or co-sponsors polls, and this leads them to tell us endlessly about – us. It is as if the Times newsboy is shouting, “Wuxtry, wuxtry, read all about rising discrimination against women!!” Or middle-aged mid-western factory workers. Or the plight of the uneducated or the poor or the needy.

And the Times is becoming more provincial. Today, while most of page 1 told us that New York’s Governor has an aide with a shadowy past, news about a political assassination in Dubai was given one column on page 4.

The Times still has a good crossword, especially toward the end of the week, and it has by far the best sports coverage of the three publications under review here. Its Arts section is very good, reflecting the fact that New York is still the cultural capital of this country. Its financial pages are so-so and can’t compare with the Journal’s. The decision to drop TV listings, made years ago, was a mistake,

The editorial page features some very good writing, notably the columns by David Brooks, surely one of the best political writers around. Of the op-ed crowd, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins write more for entertainment than for enlightenment, Tom Friedman has taken up a cause (energy), and this is his blessing and his curse. As for Paul Krugman, the less said the better. He does have a Nobel Prize, but unless you are as ardently liberal as he is, you will skip his columns, for the writing is tendentious.

The paper’s main editorials are strongly, often passionately, a mirror of the Democratic Party’s platforms, but their extreme positions are no more fanatical than those of the Journal. Most of the times I just hurry by the editorials of both papers without reading them.

The Wall Street Journal has improved dramatically since Rupert Murdoch took it over. It now covers world news even better than the Times. Having feet on the ground in Yemen and Beirut and China and Venezuela costs money, and the Journal is ready to spend it. Indeed, you will find out more news from more places on the planet in the Journal than you will in the Times. Ten years ago, such a statement would have been impossible.

The Journal, however, does have its problems. The biggest one is the three-page editorial section, called “Opinion.” Except for a token moderate, the franchise seems to belong entirely to the American Enterprise Institute, whose members apparently have total access to the pages. They – John Bolton, Frederick Kagan and other neocon exiles – beat the war drums as hard as they can, but no one in Washington, I devoutly hope, is listening.

The Journal’s drama and movie critics are excellent, and the weekend paper is a particular treat, with Peggy Noonan and the not-to-be-missed de gustibus column.

The paper is trying gamely to mount a sports section, but so far it is a waste of space.

Carps: The Journal’s Friday edition contains a good crossword puzzle, but it is not designed for the eyes of mere mortals. The same editor who is responsible for those teeny squares must be the culprit who reduces the excellent Pepper and Salt cartoons to microscopic size.

The Economist is by far the most literate and the most insightful of the three newspapers. Yes, it has a week to prepare each issue, but it is still impressive. From the often witty cover to the in-depth stories from all over the world to the technology quarterly surveys, there is too much to feast on, but I leave the accumulating back issues on the coffee table with promises to myself that I will return to this or that story.

The Economist is of course a British publication, so it devotes a fair amount of space to Old Blighty, but I’m probably more interested in this material than I am in Governor Patterson’s cronies.

The newspaper (as it calls itself) is organized by geographic sections
(Middle East and Africa, The Americas, Europe, etc) and by subject matter (Science and Technology, Finance and Economics, etc). The constant is the quality of the writing. In this, it leaves the Times and the Journal in the dust.

What the Economist offers is information of value, presented by masters of exposition. That, and not crosswords or fiery editorials or lifestyle columns, is what I look for in a newspaper. So I will drop the Times and the Journal and give each week’s Economist the time it deserves. As for the rest – sports, movie reviews, stock-market news – I’ll pick that up on television or the internet, thank you.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

John McGlinn and The Song

John McGlinn was an orchestra conductor and musical archivist. His lifelong passion was a quest for the original orchestrations of musicals, some well known, others long forgotten. He was, in fact, a musical archaeologist, rummaging through old warehouses and attics in search of history. In 1982, McGlinn made his biggest find, in an abandoned warehouse in Seacaucus, NJ - the original orchestrations for Showboat, the 1927 Kern-Hammerstein production that arguably was the most significant musical of the twentieth century. “It was like finding Tut’s tomb,” he said at the time.

McGlinn’s special mission was to find the original versions of songs written by Jerome Kern, regarded by many as the inventor of the American popular song. Many of Kern’s songs were written in collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II (best known today for his later collaboration with Richard Rodgers). The Kern-Hammerstein partnership produced, in addition to Showboat, two other hit shows, Sunny and Music in the Air. Then, in 1939, the masters gave us Very Warm for May, which featured what I believe is the best love song ever written, “All the Things You Are.” The original orchestrations for this song were among the treasures that John McGlinn saved from obscurity.

The melody line is harmonically inspired. If you are in the mood for a dissertation on the song’s chord progression, you can go to with a piano within reach. The bare-bones melody line doesn’t begin to explain the song’s appeal; it’s the harmony that raises the goose bumps, and that is why McGlinn’s discovery was so important.

The lyrics are Hammerstein at his best. “You are the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long” may not seem special if you have never spent a lonely winter in Maine, but trust me, it rings the bell, as does “the breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song.” That’s the kind of writing that drives would-be writers like me to desperation.

In 1990, the Boston Pops Orchestra devoted an hour to recreating songs from old Broadway shows, and they put that “Evening at the Pops” in the hands of guest conductor John McGlinn, proving that there is justice in the world after all. Luckily, I taped the program, so I can report that the beatific smile on McGlinn’s face as he conducted spoke volumes about his love for these orchestrations, especially the grand finale, the original Russell Bennett orchestration of “All the Things You Are” - just as the opening night audience heard it 50 years before, said hostess Kitty Carlisle-Hart.

The song is a double duet, with one couple singing the verse (rarely heard today), expressing frustration at their inability to “let my heart find its voice,” followed by the other couple’s all-out declaration of love. In the show, the hit song was sung by the foursome early in the first act, then reprised twice in the second act, suggesting that the producers knew where the gold lay. In the Pops concert, the two couples were joined by the Tanglewood Chorus. Talk about giving a great song its due!

Very Warm for May, despite a huge cast, lots of talent (June Allyson, Eve Arden, Vera Ellen), and the creative energies of Kern and Hammerstein, lasted only 59 performances. But it did leave behind a song that will live forever.

And John McGlinn must still be smiling – from above. A heart attack took him last year, at age 55.