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Saturday, March 06, 2004

Welcome back to my life!

Woke up feeling awful this morning. It was a long night. It had been an early night too, in bed before 8 p.m., instead of watching "Rush Hour 2" with Janna, or being with Larry and Carol and the children on the East side.

I have been unwell since Monday, when I was hit by a turn while doing some xeroxing at Kinko's. What happened? Well, my gut fell out is what happened. This is a "normal" prolapse, nothing to worry about, just get horizontal, push it back in gently, and refrain from exertion until it's over, which usually takes a few days. The pain involved is the useful indicator that things are not back to normal. Normal? Well, usual.

Anyway, this morning there was pain, a killer headache, nausea, weakness. What now? I usually wake up all rested and full of beans, put on the kettle for coffee and the slices of Ezekiel bread to defrost. Today, the idea of eating was most unattractive. I dragged myself to make a cup of coffee, put on a cozy sweater and climbed back into my bed with a big pile of pillows, sipping gratefully.

Nobody can overestimate the magik of a good cup of coffee with a large pile of pillows to recline against (as in "wallow in"). It's almost as good as room service in a first class hotel, even when you had to grit your teeth to make it yourself.

Gone the nausea, the headache, the pain now a manageable muscle ache, the idea of breakfast suddenly become attractive, and here I am, back in bed with the remains of my exceptional second cup of coffee (I normally only have one), feeling that there is, after all, life before death. Hehehe!

There is so much to rant about, I can't get exhaustive about any of it. Randomly, therefore, let my boat drift today.

Martha, who broke the law but actually hurt no one, is to be sentenced June 16. I spent more than half my life on Wall Street. I know where I worked, I had continuous access to "insider" information. I was not held in thrall by fear of the securities laws and their various enforcement agencies, but by some inner sense of honor. I was on my honor, and over the years was able to observe, in a non-judgmental way, that many people in my world, ruled by law, made some game of the whole process: their sense of achievement no doubt came from "not being caught", for outsmarting the system.

At my "grade level", I knew what I made. I also knew that anyone at the same "grade level" made about the same amount, in all probability, barring small discrepancies or variations due to disparities in annual evaluations.

And yet, I saw people at my "grade level" buy country houses and fast cars. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to surmise something was going on not entirely attributable to "overtime", or better performance.

What I am saying is this: Martha is most certainly not alone in New York to have taken advantage of her connections. She got caught, and the clear lesson is not so much to stay on the straight and narrow as to "not get caught". She is being punished for choosing to trust the wrong people.

If you think I exaggerate, will you then tell me how come we are still awaiting (with bated breath, I don't think) the disposition of the TYCO, Enron, Worldcom, scandals, where all kinds of laws were not only broken but more significantly humans beings' lives were trashed, and in the not so distant, but already forgotten if not forgiven past, the Savings and Loans debacle, BCCI, etc.?

Now, we have our wonderful president (and his crew), members of whose family were connected quite closely with some of these old forgotten scandals, this our present president would like to encourage the privatization of Social Security.

Yea, go ye and gamble in the market place and hope you don't land yourself in the future Enrons, Tycos, etc. (Actually, if you are a Republican, you don't need to worry your pretty little head about it at all. Just keep the power in the hands of the Republicans, the neo-cons will make sure there is perpetual war. And if you keep your investments in such things as GE, Dow, Martin-Lockheed, Halliburton, B&R, you know, the defense contractors, you will have a good long-term growth yield to look forward to. Nothing spectacular, no roller-coaster ride as with the dotcoms, but a healthy little nest egg, as your long-term investments benefit from stock dividends, stock splits, mergers and whatnots. You will have to draw your own balance sheet about the real merits of your "long-term growth", the real cost basis of your holdings, as the beautiful children you manage to raise to adulthood through the iffy times of a constantly expanding War on Turr eventually become a part of what your investment has to be, on top of your disposable income.)

After President Clinton left office, there was a healthy surplus which has in a mere three years been transmogrified into an abysmally tragic deficit. Alan Greenspan, Hehehe, says no problem, let's just get rid of Social Security, for the good of the economy, Hehehe.

Well, all you gung ho Republicans, guess what? Someone like the retired partner of a Wall Street law firm, or the retired CEO of say, Disney, will get a Social Security check cut exactly to the same size as a middle management administrator who contributed to the fund, based on the so-called Social Security ceiling base.

Now, in all probability, such a retired law firm partner, or other captain of industry, has stashed some of his "surplus" income in securities holdings, the honest ones without benefit of insider trading, natch, or other forms of investment available to those who have serious money (real estate, pension funds, tax-fee municipal bonds, treasury bonds, etc., etc.). If you take away his Social Security check, even if it be a "top of the line" Social Security check, he will not starve, and he will most likely still be able to meet his condo payments and his health club dues, and have his yacht refurbished whenever he fancies.

In all likelihood, the same "top of the line" Social Security check of the middle management person will be essential to allow him/her to keep living in the same house, even those empty nesters who have already downsized to something smaller.

For a -- this is just an example -- single parent, who raised children and did their loyal best to give them a good start in life, to wit, some sort of education, there might not be any other source of income, besides Social Security, there might not be any additional "pension fund" check.

Tuff? You betcha! "Should have been taking care of bizzness, saving for a rainy day." Smarmy pants, you sure of yourself, ain't you, you sure you can just have it work out according to plan?

Let me tell you a cautionary tale. It might help you wake up to the fact there is nothing sure in life, except change, and there is no such thing as security in the material world. Here it is.

Some few years ago, the news was made public that Mayor Giuliani in NYC had voted an exceptional budget provision, a one-shot deal, to cover the expenses of a former mayor of NYC, John Lindsay, living somewhere in some old people's home, because the money had run out on him to pay for his retirement home bill.

Ah, the splendors and miseries of those in power! Who'd have thunk it? John Lindsay was mayor in NYC for two terms, as I recall. He was a partner in a prestigious Wall Street law firm, from which he resigned to take up public office, and which readmited him to partnership when his term was up. He even ran (unsuccessfully) for the presidency of the United States on one occasion.

Priviledged? Captain of industry? Educated, smart, well connected, savvy? You betcha. All of these. He was the prototypical Golden Boy, the one with the Blue Eyes, as they say where I come from.

I was appalled by the news. How could this happen?

I asked my old boss over lunch one day. He was quite matter of fact about it. "Oh, didn't you know? His law firm went bankrupt/was dissolved... (I don't remember, to be honest, what the exact nature of the calamity was.) ...and he lost his pension plan."

All of you who feel safer for being "vested" in your pension plan, take heed. When the company goes out of business, even if it just transfers out of town (or as is happening more and more these days, out of the country), chances are very, very high your pension plan will be just another sigh in the wind. You better have your personal Rudy in the wings to absorb the sudden slack in your sails.

I learnt the lesson of insecurity many, many moons ago, when as a preteen, precocious little girl, I listened to the grownups talk over dinner. My father had a small company, and as an Englishman living in France he had to hire a Frenchman to be the legal representative responsible to the commercial authorities. This man's wife was the daughter of a French magistrate who had spent his entire career in Syria, working for the French civil administration.

In those colonial days, the French franc had been based on the gold standard, so a French franc was actually a gold French franc, and its value was based on the price of gold. This old man had paid into his French government pension fund during his entire career in gold standard francs. Shortly after he took his retirement, the gold standard was abandoned by France, and his pension was suddenly paid to him in paper scrip, and what had been a comfortable nest egg for the golden years suddenly became insufficient even for a subsistence existence. At the age of eighty plus, the frail old man announced to his children he was obliged to look for a job if he were not to starve.

Had he behaved like a foolish virgin in his youth? Certainly not, he had been full of foresight, frugal to a fault, his nest egg had been guaranteed and secured by no less an authority than the French government, but it didn't do him a bit of good in the long run, there was no appeal. He still was cast out and became dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Yup, that does include his family. Don't underestimate the disattachment that evolves, inexplicably and imperceptibly, with the passage of time, or the occurrence of certain events, or the combination thereof. "Nuff said.

Those willing to brush up on the reality of economics, in distinction from the Lalaland of Replubican politics, could do worse than brush up on the writings of Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel prizewinner for Economics in 2001. He was for a while economics adviser to Bill Clinton (who was a Democrat, yeah, but had the smarts to pick smarter men to advise him on matters where he was not an expert), a vice president of the World Bank, and is now a professor at the Columbia Business School in New York.

His message? Succinctly put, don't expect too much of an economic recovery, given the "considerable debt" accumulated by the "deplorable Bush government".

Another one of his pronouncements:

"Neoliberalism is an unhealthy economic system. It generates poverty. It is dogmatic and unjust. It threatens democracy."

My own take is the following: The United States is a Republic, not a Democracy. The word Republic has for its root "res publica", Latin for public matters or affairs. The confusion comes when people take "res publica" as being synonymous with "public good", as in for the good of the general public, but it's not necessarily so, is it?

A Democracy is a governance by people selected and elected to represent the wishes of the greater number, in accordance with what they have chosen as a desirable lifestyle goal. No matter what, in a large group of men, there will always be a tug of war between those of contrary opinions, between those who want the windows open vs. those who want them shut, between those who turn down the thermostat vs. those who want it maxed up, etc. The main reason for this is that most human beings function entirely in reaction to the perceptions of their six sense organs (eyes, nose, ears, taste, touch, and the integration and evaluation of incoming messages by their individual minds), without regard to the fact that for instance, in a matter of color, standards may be very different for those who are color blind, or those who don't like purple or a certain shade of green.


So? Well, "stylistically" it may be OK to be a Republican, but you'd better wake up and smell the reality of where it's taking us all, whatever our preferences may be. The tub is leaky, no matter who the captain will be, we will all of us be spending a lot of time bailing out the slops if we want to avoid sinking. Also remember the lesson of the Titanic: there are never enough boats for the survivors at best of times, and the scarydest bastards will not wait for the heroes to bring their wives and children on board, they will put out quietly before anyone notices the ship is even going down, they won't even bother to fill their early boats to capacity.

What is being done in the dark right now will eventually be done in full daylight. At high noon the truth will be revealed clearly for all to see. It will all be a matter of public record, but it won't necessarily translate as public good.

You want to be all excited about Man walking on Mars? Let's hope by then Man will still be able to walk the Earth safely. Or will your feet not touch bottom in humongous flood waters, or will they be blown off by landmines?

"Hurah! We are developing better landmines?" What kind of nonsense are you enthusing about? Would that be landmines that never explode, or that explode more easily? That maim less, or kill more swiftly? Oh, they are just easier to detect? By whom? You mean, the smart will be safe, the dumb will be dead, get smart quick or die? Will they be part of a game of chance or a game of skills? Like "Minesweeper" that comes on all our computers nowadays, along with Solitaire and Free Hearts?

"Was there water on Mars?" What's your problem? Are you bored, or something? Will there be drinking water for all on Earth, by the time you find out? Oh, wait a sec, there'll be manna from heaven for the righteous? Sorry, I forgot about the Tooth Fairy (or is it the "Truth Fairy"), the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas, come on, faith moveth mountains, we all know that.

"You want a genuine Mars rock on your coffee table?" Did you know the Bedouins in the desert of Morocco already have thousands of them, without interplanetary space travel, just by getting down off their camels and stooping down to pick them up off the hot desert sands? Not kidding. Scientific fact. And you know what? Those rocks flew all the way from Mars all by themselves, the result of formidable collisions on Mars with interstellar meteorite showers. Could happen again any time. Just hope you're not doing the exotic trip, riding camelback with the Bedouins in the Moroccon desert, when it happens again. Just as in Western Africa, south of the Sahara, you can pick up tektites for free, that is Moon stones, as in stones from our very own Moon, that fell down to Earth at the end of similar catastrophic events. (I remember reading about a dog once, who was killed right in front of his owner by one of these falling tektites. I wonder, too casually I'm sure, whether the dog had time to yelp.)

We Earthlings are just a bunch of greedy children, eating together at the big family kitchen table in our parents' house, and Mum divvies up the food equably to each kid, but each kid is googling enviously at the other kids' plates to see if perchance anyone else might be getting a choicer morsel.

* * * * *

Oh, I was going to forget to comment on the Passion of Mel Gibson. It appears (he has it on authority) that the Devil is a Woman. Some people might be tempted to add: "And I know exactly where She lives."

Proof again that based on the six senses, one man's fish is another's poisson. Or, in other words, that one's man's poisson is another's poison.

You got it wrong, Mel. Ask me. I know. Clearly, the Devil is nothing but a regular, opinionated, prejudiced, confused, evilthinking, evilspeaking, evildoing, man.

Nichiren Daishonin said it best. Hell is not a physical place. Hell is in the heart of a man who despises his mother and hates his father. It's no good looking for it anywhere else. And it's no good looking for the Devil anywhere else, either.
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