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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

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Leaves Impressions

When the Czech language was resurrected from the deep comma inflicted upon it by the oppressive milieu of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its rescuers decided to increase its allure among populace by making it as colorful as possible. As part of the linguistic face lift they ditched the traditional Latin based month names and created new ones - a set that was more evocative and based on the native roots. For the month of November they aptly chose the moniker leaves-fall. And that indeed is a prevailing natural theme for this time of year.

The visible end of the growing cycle is a reminder that the Earth is entering its winter orbit. The living organisms are readying themselves for a long slumber and as the trees are shedding their foliage, another leaf-based entity reclaims its prominent place in our lives: a book. Sure, there are no laws of physics that would prevent you from reading in Summer as well, but somehow those long cold dark nights make more fitting backdrop for your favorite tome than the star studded skies of August. Nothing is more conducive to eager page turning than a warm blanket and a smell of hot chocolate sprawling in the air.

There is another growth cycle that is coming to a halt these days. It pertains to global economy. Many are realizing that the dynamic expansion that we have come to worship in the past few decades was a false idol. As the leaves of once self evident platitudes are falling down from the tree of economic theory, they lay bare the stark truths behind the myth of perpetual growth. When you look at its most vocal apostles, you find financiers, you find media moguls, you find mighty tycoons and corporate aristocracy, the ones who reap disproportionate benefits from outsourcing the labor overseas, the ones who have vital interest in shaking the dressed up carrots in front of myrmidons of consumerism. But when you turn around and look at your average working family, you find them making the same meager wage as they were thirty years ago despite all this phenomenal success. Competing globally with armies of nameless teenagers slaving away in Asian sweatshops can wreak havoc on the middle classes in developed countries.

Look out of the frosted window - the King and the Queen standing barefoot by the railway tracks, bowing to a passing train.

I saw a documentary about Amazon Indians last week. These folks lived happily in harmony with Nature for eons, their cable subscription rates held steadily at zero, and yet the sincerity of their smiles had not been diminished by the conspicuous absence of status symbols. Many civilizations thrived without a license to exploit our common and very finite resources.

This is not a call to abandon technology and progress. Rather it is a case for reevaluation, recycling and return to simplicity. We don't need to expand our GDP by 20% every five years to be happy. We don't need to plunder the world's environment just to squeeze the last droplets of an increasingly inaccessible oil from the ground. We don't need to stampede electronics stores in a hogging frenzy every Black Friday. We can lead perfectly fulfilling lives just by maintaining our homes, our gardens, our towns and our relationships. Take care of what we have rather than pursuing a different fad every year. Depth rather than breadth should be our goal.

I came across several books recently that look at our present world from a similar perspective. They are not about the risks of unbridled growth per se, but each in its own way illuminates the global craziness our society has succumbed to. If you have some reading time during the coming Holidays, I recommend them to your attention.

Matt Taibbi: Griftopia
Ellen Brown: Web of Debt
Roger Hodge: Mendacity of Hope
Jonathan Chait: The Big Con
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine

Despite the seemingly dry subject, these books read like a thriller, and present enough food for thought to eclipse even the most opulent Thanksgiving fiesta. You may end up disagreeing with some of their conclusions, sometimes strongly so, but hey - that's what thinking is all about. Reading stuff you agree with is a waste of time.

If you care about the course our society has embarked upon, each of those page turners will leave a lasting impression on your mind. Much like the leaves on the concrete pathway to my apartment, whose dark silhouettes were still there - clearly imprinted - long time after the leaves themselves were blown away.

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Bring back the pillory

One day I will open the door to my bathroom and find a pink wolf there, taking a lavender bubble bath in my tub. And I'll be fine. After reading newspapers for the past 3 years, nothing can surprise me any more.

Just last week, Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of the fallen mortgage giant Countrywide, managed to avoid civil fraud and insider trading charges by magnanimously agreeing to a $67M settlement with SEC - of which large chunk will apparently be paid by the Bank of America (which acquired Countrywide in 2008).

So let's see how it works: in his last 5 years, Mozilo made about $450M while engaging in rather dubious if not outright predatory business practices. For comparison - when say Toyota messes up their carburetors, they have to recall all of them, but when Countrywide messes up their mortgages, the CEO gets rewarded and investors (or taxpayers) are the ones who carry the losses from faulty products. During the S&L crisis two decades ago, Bill Black meted out thousands of indictments for white collar crimes and the clanking of handcuffs was heard all over the lower Manhattan. Now we give the perps a slap on the wrist in the form of a laughable fine and that's it. How about clawing back all ill gotten gains and then imposing the fine on top of that? Seriously. How is an ordinary citizen expected to obey the law in the face of such mockery?

It feels pretty sobering, when you run across older newspapers and find articles singing accolades to the bold captains of a new, sizzling hot industry - the subprime mortgage lending. You would think they are up there with Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. And yet - few years down the road - those same idols are suddenly defrocked and unmasked as mere schmucks with expensive bow ties. What kind of message it is sending to our kids is not hard to imagine. Will the future business leaders follow the new entrepreneurial equation?

FF - FF = FF

(financial fraud - funny fee = fat fortune)

I have an idea: why don't we bring back the pillory!

Imagine the jolt we'd give to a tourism industry in New York, if all the upper management of investment banks caught in crooked and shady deals had to serve a couple of days locked up between two wooden logs strategically situated on the Times Square. What innocent bystander would not want to throw a rotten agricultural product their way or at least proffer a heart felt verbal admonition spiked with blinding profanity.

This should be better than reality TV. And on a weekend, we could throw in a stylish tar and feather show, just for a good measure. Poetic justice at its best. Wanted TARP? Sorry buddy, but here is a tarpaulin tuxedo for ya.

Hey - that sounds like an actionable idea.

Paging Eric Holder... Helloooo?

The Audacity of Betrayal

When I saw the six story parking garage at the West Falls Church subway station packed to capacity with a motley crowd of private vehicles on late Saturday morning, I understood that Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity down in DC won't suffer from an audience dearth. And the signs of attendance cornucopia just kept coming. A massive line for train tickets wound its way from the vestibule through the covered highway overpass and out into the parking lot. The outbound platform was more crammed than the groupie section at a U2 concert and people density in subway cars approached values previously detected only at rush hour Tokyo. I was one of the lucky few who managed to get on board. Fortunately, a natural born leader with obvious recent exposure to high energy pancakes emerged in the middle of the crowd. His imperative commands kept our spirits up and united us against the hordes awaiting on subsequent platforms: "More defense to the second door!" - "Hold the line, people!" - "When the door opens everybody look mean!". Starting with East Falls Church station, not a single mouse managed to squeeze into the car.

The rally itself was way overdue. The level of political lunacy in this land reached levels that would have sent Emperor Nero running for cover. Or for binoculars. Either way, the system has become so profoundly unresponsive and mired in money that most reasonable people are turning away in disgust. No real campaign finance reform in the offing, no civil discourse to be heard anywhere inside the beltway, both parties caught in bed with big corporations, and worst of all - in a world where truth is too complex to belong to just one ideology - no willingness to compromise. In an effort to stem the onslaught of extremism and entrenched partisanship, Jon Stewart called upon the shrinking pool of rational citizenry to come together, to show support for moderation and sanity and to vote wisely. But it wasn't enough.

Despite some partial victories, the governing Democratic party took the most severe beating since FDR lost 72 seats in 1938. President Obama even used the word "shellacking" during the press conference the next day. The hope crowd had become restless. The tsunami of change changed its colors. And there was a reason for it.

There was a clearly defined moment last year when Obama had to choose unequivocally between Wall Street and Main Street. He had a rare and unique opportunity to right our economic ship. But at that pivotal moment, he sided with the powerful.

In March 2009, the financial world was teetering on the brim of collapse. Citibank stock traded under a dollar. Receivership was the word of the day. At that moment, Obama could have nationalized the banks - fire their upper (mis)management, restore their balance sheets and return them to business without onerous debt. In one fell swoop, he would have scrapped the greedy and corrupt culture, let the compulsive gamblers pay for their sins, and start anew with a clean slate. But that opportunity had been squandered. Not only have we bailed out the very people who created the mess, we have also relaxed the accounting standards so they could go right back to their risky shell games. No wonder that fat bonuses are flowing again while the little guy is left with spare change he can barely believe in.

Sanity 101: you don't turn your back on people who voted you into office.

On the surface, it might seem that Joe Sixpack does not have to be concerned with the world of high finance. But in reality he does. Money does not grow on trees, and all that hard cash we squandered on our beloved financiers is now missing somewhere else. It cannot be used to create new jobs, to educate population, to support the safety net, to invest in future technologies and to improve our aging infrastructure.

Obama has originally billed himself as a champion for the little guy, but his actions sing a different tune.

1. You have to look no further than his economic team to see where his allegiances are: Tim Geithner, the Wall Street darling and staunch proponent of the "something for nothing" philosophy, and Larry Summers, neo-Keynesian wizzard and the father of derivatives deregulation, were two pillars of Obama's bridge to the better economic future. Both firmly believed that no taxpayers' sacrifice is big enough to save the profligate financial industry. Obama's main sin, however, was reappointment of the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. His inflationary policies have been steadily eroding budgets of lower and middle class families. They are the ones who will be the first victims of the soaring prices of commodities, directly resulting from the central bank's money tampering. Obama had many other options among the Fed officials, but at the end he chose the man who - among other things - relieved banks of toxic assets that they created and foisted them upon taxpayers who became the reluctant bagholders. Finally, Obama did not find courage to throw his support firmly behind Elizabeth Warren - the true champion of the little guy and a thorn in the side of the Wall Street crowd.

2. Financial and Health reforms were caricatures of sprawling corporatism and written mostly by insurance/pharmaceuticals/banking lobbyists. Big banks are still too big. Risky trading is still allowed. Various banking functions have not been effectively separated. The firms that operate the stock market still freely invest in it for their own gains. Can we imagine a Superbowl game where one of the teams delegates the referee? Yes, we can.

3. On Obama's watch, the inequality between rich and poor kept growing wider and wider. This is the most telling sign. Political posing, sermonizing and grandstanding can divert only so much attention. At the end, you learn the truth if you simply follow the money. If he stood for the little guy, the wealth gap would be getting narrower, not wider. And besides the dire consequences for Obama's core constituency, the income inequality is also a drag on the overall economy as rich people usually park their money in non productive assets. Gold bubble anyone?

There is a simple message hidden behind these technical issues. When an enemy stabs you in the back it hurts. When someone who claims to be your friend does the stabbing, it hurts tenfold. But contrary to the conventional political wisdom, people remembered. And they voted accordingly. The sooner Obama understands that he has to rein in the arrogant banksters, the better chances of re-election he will have.

Liberal movement has plenty of smart and vocal spokespeople: Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Matt Taibbi, Michael Moore, Arianna Huffington - to name just a few. Now if only we had a president that would lend them his ear. At 5% interest if need be.

jj

The Unbearable Heaviness of Being

Watching a movie in a completely empty theater is a strange experience vaguely evoking a post-apocalyptic seance. You get all the trappings of a bustling social venue, but none of the people; only a sequence of images on the silver screen and their acoustic spirits. Last week, when I went to see Robert Duvall's last movie Get Low with two of my friends, I finally got to observe it first hand. And maybe it was for the better. The movie was quite personal, in a way reading handwritten letters used to be, so I was glad that I did not have to watch it with a horde of strangers.

On the surface, the plot was a rather plain story from 1930s, revealed with an imaginative camera and impeccable sense for authenticity. But underneath the main narrative lurked something much more precious - Robert Duvall's subtly encoded message for the posterity. In that regard, it reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky's last movie, The Sacrifice, which was also a personal manifesto as much as it was a work of art.

If you like fast paced movies glittered with special effects - this motion picture would not be your cup of tea - but if you are into finespun and deep reaching psychological probes, go for it. At one point during the movie I genuinely wanted to leave the theater and only having two friends with me made me stay. But at the end - equally genuinely - I was strongly tempted to ignore the empty auditorium and start applauding. That's how unusual and contradistinct this flick really was.

Get Low is a movie about conscience and its circuitous odyssey through the labyrinth of human mind. At first, it is barely audible, but as the story progresses you can hear a distant rumble behind the thick walls as it makes its way onto the surface. The missive is crystal clear - the forces of conscience may be weak and slow, but they are patient and persistent. They are like turfs of grass pushing their way through a layer of asphalt on an old road. It may be hard for the conscience to be heard through the insulating crust of human soul, but as the life nears its end and the hour of reckoning approaches, its voice tones up and eventually prevails. Duvall's dubbing of this voice is convincing and devastatingly pure.

Needles to say, it was a timely chosen intimation. The steadily deteriorating social and economic conditions of the past two years have shaken the common man and his belief in humanity and greater good. By illuminating the innermost skirmishes of day to day battles with one's past, Get Low shows how cathartic the eventual victory can be. I hope the Wall Street gazillionaires will get a private screening. They might learn a thing or two.

Sadly, in their brave new world conscience is no longer a predominant force. That distinction would go to its spaced out cousin - "con science".

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

When I was in High School my arts teacher had a mild obsession with pointilism. Georges Pierre Seurat was her idol and on the very first class she made us study, analyze and imitate his famous painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte". For the rest of my life, I have had that image indelibly burnt onto my retina - pretty benign and unremarkable on the surface - just a bunch of easygoing Parisians relaxing among trees on a gently descending grassy slope next to a nondescript body of water.

Seurat, who painted it when he was 25, believed that dabbing the canvass with the brush tip brings colors out better than traditional strokes. Perhaps. But the painting's strength lies really in its underlying mood rather than in its technical innovation. The symbiosis of water, lawn, trees, blue skies and picnic accessories fills the scenery with a glow of unusually self-contained and tranquil disposition.

Every now and then, Sundays are just like that. No pressing issues on the foreground and crystal clear skies in the background.

Bunch of guys I used to play soccer with organized a little picnic at the Fletcher Boat house area in DC this Sunday. It wasn't exactly easy to find - the itinerary involved an unexpected and devilishly sharp turn from the Canal Street that was navigable only for Mini Cooper owners or persons above the laws of physics - but after I ran through a long and narrow tunnel, not unlike a rabbit hole, I discovered a hidden gem. A wooded meadow with plenty of picnic facilities and easy access to the Potomac river. Being separated from the mainland by the Ohio - Chesapeake canal, the area could easily pose as an island.

While the organizers readied spicy sausages for a caloric attack and a volleyball net for the subsequent defense, I took a short walk down to the lazy river. As I wended my way through groups of independent picnickers strewn all over the lawn, I realized that I am in the middle of the Georges Seurat's painting. The happy and carefree mood of the picnickers was the dead giveaway. Colors have instantly awoken from their slumber and in a donnybrook of a carnival dance spilled onto the palette - the green tones of the lawn and the trees joyously intertwined with the blue hues of the water and the sky.

Right then and there, all the worries and concerns of the work week were seized and handcuffed by my senses. Imagination spread its picnic blanket and vision became so viscous I could have poured it into a tea cup like honey. It felt as if my whole life had melted. Time itself had slowed down considerably. Those same wheels of history that I saw spinning wildly just a few hours ago on Meet the Press were now purring quietly like a dozing kitten.

As I watched the shattered image of Sun glittering on Potomac's mercurial surface, I spotted the true message of Georges Seurat amidst its reflections. Every so often, we have to make a Sunday jaunt to the island of La Grand Jatte and unhinge the soul from the body. Let it float.

Just to regain our sense of purpose. To refocus our internal perspective. To rebalance our poise. To restructure the debts accrued in the previous week. And in the process - to peck a few dots of beauty on the canvass of our consciousness.

ss

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