Waxingandwayneing’s Weblog

July 10, 2012

Pick a Card…..Any Card (but mine!)

Filed under: Food,The Meaning of Life — waxingandwayneing @ 9:03 pm
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Maybe it’s my age.  I saw something this weekend in San Francisco I have never seen before.  We had breakfast at Plow in Potrero Hill and I was waiting to use the men’s room.  There was a four-top near the bathroom seated with two couples who were obvious friends.  They were just wrapping up their meal as the check arrived.

Each of the men pulled out their wallets and placed a credit card on the check tray.  I assumed they were just going to split the bill.  When the waitress arrived, one of the men said to her, “Take both of these cards and then close your eyes and pick one.  The card you choose pays the bill.”  What is this, Visa Roulette?”  I figured they were just joking.

A few minutes later, the waitress returns with with both cards and just one receipt.  The guy who gave the instructions to the waitress looks at the receipt, breathes a sign of relief, and says to his friend, “Thanks for breakfast!”

Have you ever seen this before?


July 25, 2011

Put a Cork In It!

Filed under: Food,Luxury — waxingandwayneing @ 2:48 pm
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“Would you like to order wine with dinner?”  YIKES!!!!  Most restaurants are confusing enough  to me to have to complicate my decision-making with which wine to select.  Even after passing the introductory sommelier certification at the Culinary Institute of America, I still find all those pages in a wine list to be overwhelming.  And at some of those fancy places, the wine list isn’t a list…it’s a freakin’ 3-ring binder.  Excuse me, but why didn’t someone warn me there would be an assignment to complete before I could get my drink on?  Just give me a Grey Goose on the rocks and let’s move on to the appetizer round:  Wayne-1, Restaurant-0!!

But when you do want to have wine with dinner (hey, the vodka was just a warm-up round!), why can’t you just bring in your own bottle to drink?  Grab one out of your cellar/fridge/glove box or pick up a bottle on your way at your local wine shop/grocery store.  Not only do you save a few bucks (or a whole pile of them!), you get to drink a bottle you know, not some wine the restaurant put on their list that you probably can’t pronounce (do the French have any clue how many letters they waste in almost every word they have ever invented?).

The one drawback in bringing in your own wine is corkage, a word invented by the food industry, loosely translated by a restaurant as, “a fee we charge the asshole who refuses to pay our exorbitant mark-up on the wines we sell.”  After all, why should the patron be allowed to bring in a bottle of wine that sells down the street for $75, when the restaurant can sell it for $300?  Now, I am certainly not denying the restaurant a chance to earn a profit.  Making it in the restaurant business is tough.  But they brought this problem on themselves.  The day they decided to extract a pound of flesh out of us on wine mark-ups (of up to 4 times retail) was the day we decided BYOB was the way to go.  And so, the battle began.  Unable to resist the demand by patrons to bring along their own vino, the restaurant industry invented the concept of corkage as a way to recoup a bit of the lost profits.

The current issue of Wine Spectator (http://www.winespectator.com/)  focuses on restaurant lists.  This issue is appropriately named, “The List”.  Boy, those editors are working overtime at Wine Spectator, aren’t they?  The issue provides a comprehensive listing of the most well-endowed wine collections in the world, including Don Alfonso 1890, located in Macao, only one of 74 restaurants worldwide in 2011 to receive the pinnacle Grand Award from Wine Spectator.  (By the way, they charge a $50 corkage fee.)

Not surprising to any of us, New York restaurants charge some of the highest corkage of any restaurants, further cementing their premise that, regardless of what you order (or don’t order), it’s going to be very, very expensive.  In scanning the recent Wine Spectator issue, Per Se (http://www.perseny.com/) grabs the prize for “What the hell did you say?” with a $90 corkage.  However, I understand Jean Georges (http://www.jean-georges.com/) charges $150 (I couldn’t verify that because they don’t seem to answer their phone.)  So, whether it’s $90 or $150 for corkage, you had better bring in a nice bottle of wine to offset that cost.  In defense of some New York City restaurants, several other “Award of Excellence” restaurants in Manhattan charge just $15-25 for corkage, with Michael’s New York (http://www.michaelsnewyork.com/) charging NO CORKAGE.  They should be shut down for such gauche behavior!

Now, while the amount of corkage a restaurant charges could discourage brown bagging your beverage into a restaurant, I simply do not understand the policy of a restaurant in not allowing you to ever bring your own wine into the establishment.  What is the restaurant saying: “You will never know as much as we do about wine, so just back off” or maybe “Charging you a corkage to open your wine isn’t enough for us to recoup lost profits, so just put down your bottle and no one will get hurt”.

We recently had this experience at a hidden gem of a restaurant last Saturday night in, of all places, Stanton, California.  For those of you not familiar with Southern California, Stanton is to Beverly Hills as Cabramatta is to Sydney.  Not exactly, but you get my drift.  The restaurant, Park Avenue Restaurant (http://www.parkavedining.com) is truly an oasis on a boulevard of spa stores and massage parlors (two activities that seem to go hand-in-hand!).  I urge you to never visit the restaurant, as they already have more business that they can handle.  The food is fresh and tasty, and will undoubtedly change your opinion of Stanton and force you to relocate to Cypress or Midway City.  Depression will soon set in.  But….back to the wine.

Toting along a great bottle of Rose, perfect for a summer dinner outside in the garden at Park Avenue, I cheerfully opened the door into the restaurant, only to be abruptly told by the hostess that outside wine is not permitted.  “Huh??”, I replied.  “Why is that?”  Her reply was bizarre, obviously some corporate spin meant to fool most people as sounding reasonable.  She said that their insurance carrier no longer allowed them to have guests bring in their own wine.  Now, I may not be the quickest pot of water to boil, but I do know a thing or two about business (http://primemarkgroup.com/).  Perhaps what the insurance company said to the owners was something like, “Your profits are lower than they need to be.  Find ways to increase your margins.”  If that hostess said that me, I would have at least thought they were being honest.

Not surprisingly, our waitress was pushing the house wine, produced by their Executive Chef, David Slay.  Now that’s how you increase profits!!  Our dinner guests  suggested we try the Pinot Noir, which we did.  It was just OK……passable…..obviously with nice margins for the restaurant.  Not allowing me to bring my own wine in and pay a reasonable corkage was just plain silly and unnecessary.  I suggest Park Avenue take their lead from some of the big boys, like Michael’s, who not only allows outside wine, they charge no corkage.  Imagine the goodwill that engenders!  Otherwise, I just say, “Put a cork in it!!”

July 13, 2011

Six Days In New York City

Filed under: Luxury,Travel — waxingandwayneing @ 8:02 pm

Six days in New York City! What a great city!  If you are planning a trip to New York City—and why wouldn’t you?—here are some suggestions for a short trip.

The Ride from JFK:  A cab ride to Manhattan from JFK is a flat rate of $40 plus tolls.  Instead of riding with the masses, arrange for a car service for a lower cost.  I use Dial 7 Car & Limousine Service, Inc. (www.dial7.com).  Their prices start at $40 total.  You can find $3-$5 coupons online that will make your fare even cheaper.  I have used Dial 7 four times now and have only had great experiences.

Hotels:  New York City is an expensive city for hotels.  However, there are very nice hotels for competitive prices.  We were looking for hotels on the Upper Westside to be somewhat close to our daughter who was living off-campus near Columbia.   I would recommend checking out hotels before you settle on a time to go.  We like to stay away from the large chains and stay instead at boutique hotels.  We originally stayed at the Park79 Hotel.  Forget this place, unless heat and hot water are not important to you.  We checked out after one night and moved to the 6 Columbus Hotel (http://www.sixcolumbus.com/index.php?page=6columbus), which is owned by the Thompson Hotel chain of boutique hotels.  It is in a great location, across the street from The Shops at Columbus Circle, close to so many great spots.  I would also highly recommend The Lucerne Hotel (201 West 79th Street, New York NY 10024, 212-875-1000, www.thelucernehotel.com).  Unfortunately, they were sold out one of the days of our trip.  We like to use Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) to get opinions of those who have already stayed at hotels we are considering.  Just remember, these are just the opinions of others.

Food:  New Yorkers love to eat out.  And there is no shortage of restaurants.  Here are some of the places we ate at:

  • Fatty Crab (2170 Broadway at 77th Street, (212) 496-2722, www.fattycrab.com):  This Malaysian restaurant came highly recommended by the New York Times.  The restaurant had a great vibe and some very tasty food.  We particularly liked the vegetarian steam buns, the whole Branzino (grilled in banana leaves), and the braised duck.
  • The Eatery (798 Ninth Avenue at 53rd Street, (212) 765-7080, http://www.eaterynyc.com):  This restaurant was recommended by the concierge (usually not a good way to get quality recommendations for food since most concierges get kickbacks from restaurants they send guests to) for a quick dinner before theater.  We have learned the hard war to avoid restaurants near the Theater District.  The Eatery was actually quite nice (in spite of a Zagat food score of just 19).  The Chicken Paillard with roasted vegetables, seared and crusted rare tuna, and the macaroni and cheese were very passable.
  • Bread Bar (11 Madison Avenue at 25thStreet, (212) 889-0667, http://www.tablany.com) How can you go wrong with a Danny Meyer restaurant?  This Indian restaurant is actually two restaurants in one:  Bread Bar, serving the more casual Indian street food menu and Tabla (upstairs), serving two prix fix menus.  Tabla/and Bread Bar are merging into a single menu at the end of October.  I have eaten three times at Bread Bar, and have never been disappointed.  The staff is very knowledgeable with the menu and is very happy to help you “design” your dinner.   They offer a variety of naan and chutneys that is a meal in itself.  We ordered a bunch of dishes and shared them family style.  I would highly recommend the halibut ceviche, green tomatoes, chicken tika, and black pepper shrimp.  They have a very extensive wine list, offering many wines by the glass.
  • Kefi (505 Columbus Avenue, between West 84th and 85th Streets, (212) 873-0200, http://www.kefirestaurant.com):  I ate at Kefi in September and had to return on this trip.  The restaurant seems a bit small when you first walk in.  However, if you eat downstairs, you will see just how large this Greek restaurant really is.  Both times, I have had such friendly servers who truly made it seem like we were eating at their house….their very large house!   What to eat? Start with the soup.  Their standard soup is a fresh vegetable soup is a clear broth.  The night we ate at Kefi they also had a fish soup, made with a stock from swordfish, and included fish balls made of the swordfish and rice.  Not in the mood for a full-on dinner, we ate on the lighter side, enjoying the Greek salad, chickpea/eggplant sandwich (think of a Greek-style falafel), and grilled sardines.  If you think of sardines from the cans, these are from a higher level.  Whole, fresh sardines are butterflied, seasoned, and grilled skin-side down.  The sardines take on a smoky flavor and are moist, without the typical oily taste of sardines.  Kefi offers a very nice selection of Greek wines.  The sauvignon blanc/Semillon blend was light, pairing nicely with our food.
  • Recipe (452 Amsterdam Avenue, between 81st and 82nd Streets, (212) 501-7755, http://recipenyc.com).  This tiny 25-seat restaurant in the Upper Westside has a sister restaurant next door called Land, serving Thai food.  Recipe offers a fairly safe fare, but does it very well.  For such a small place, the menu was rather wide.  For starters, we had tasty mussels served bouillabaisse style, grilled calamari on white beans, and vegan butternut squash soup.  The main courses were perfectly cooked, including the steak, duck, and whole dorade.
  • Levain Bakery (167 West 74th Street at Amsterdam Avenue, (212) 874-6080, http://www.levainbakery.com):   If you are looking for a mid-day sugar fix, Levain is a must-stop.  Go there for the freshly baked cookies, particularly the walnut chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, and (my favorite) dark chocolate peanut butter.

Museums:  New York has so many great museums, many of which I have yet to visit.  On this trip, we went to the Museum of Modern Art (for the Money Water Lilies and the Ron Arad show), the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum.  Four museums in six days may sound a bit arduous, but we didn’t spend too much time at any museum, because art overload occurs very fast for me.  Other museums to check out are the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum (where A Night at the Museum was filmed), the American Folk Art Museum, and the Frick (where you can see some frickin’ cool art—sorry!).

Getting Around:  For those of you who think “public transportation” is taking a taxi, try the subway in New York City.  OK, you have probably heard how barbaric and unsafe the subway is.  As long as you are smart about taking the subway (travel with someone else, avoid the subway after 11PM, and never go to anywhere sketchy), you will be fine.  My middle daughter gave me a primer on which trains to take (“Dad, you need the 2 Express, not the 3 Local, ok?”), and how to read the transit map.  If the weather permits, join the throng of other New Yorkers and tourists and just start walking.  New York is a great town to walk and is now even safe as the taxis have been taught that it is bad PR for the city to run over pedestrians.

Getting There:  From the Los Angeles area, there are numerous airlines that fly to any of the airports near New York City.  The most efficient airline is Jet Blue, which flies out of Long Beach to Kennedy.  Unfortunately, it is no longer the low price leader.  Recently, I have flown Virgin America, which sells one-way tickets out of Los Angeles to Kennedy for $109.

Overall:  Six days is about my maximum length for a visit to New York City, although I do think it would be fun to rent an apartment for a month or two and pretend I was a New Yorker.  The pace is frenetic, but the vibe is so alive, it might be worth it.  The markets are so well-equipped to accommodate the busy residents who want to eat great tasting, prepared foods.  Most restaurants deliver.  Even the street food is somewhat tasty, I am told.  Try it and let me know what you think!

Caffe Ibis

Filed under: Food,Luxury — waxingandwayneing @ 7:53 pm
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The American love affair with coffee continues to grow, sparked by the advent of Starbucks and its many competitors.  In spite of these purveyors pushing drinks laced with enormous amounts of syrups, creams, and foams, they have been successful in sophisticating our palettes and expanding our knowledge of coffee.  Coffee is no longer a generic food; it is now defined by growing region, roasting method, and depth of flavor.  Coffee is a complex, multi-categorized item, much like wine.

I recently met the owners of Caffe Ibis Coffee Roasting Company, which has taken coffee to a new level of distinction: “Tripled Certified Coffee”.  The first of the three levels is organic. Sure, we have been able to buy organic coffee for some time.  That is no longer that rare.  But why is organic important?  Well, first of all, if you don’t mind consuming pesticides and other nasty chemicals, then never mind.  If, instead, you care about the environment and your health, then drinking organic coffee is a must.  Corporate farmers, who bought up land in coffee-producing countries, brought with them an arsenal of bad chemicals, including synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and nematocides, all negatively impacting the local ecosystem.   A coffee bean is not protected from the effects of these chemicals and neither are you!

Much of the poisons used in farming washes into the water system, eventually getting into our bodies.  According to the Smithsonian, “On a global scale, more than five billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used annually for agricultural purposes, forest and rangeland management, and disease control, as well as in homes, and on lawns, gardens, golf courses, and other private properties.”  Organic products don’t require these toxins.

The second level of certification is fair traded.  For the past several years, we have seen fair traded coffee (as well as tea), supporting farms that promote positive business practices, including treating their workers respectably.  One of the coffees sold by Caffe Ibis is from the Cafe Femenino Coffee Project, a cooperative of at least 464 women coffee farmers who sell their coffee as a “women only” produced product.  This effort allows these women to improve work and living conditions for female coffee workers in developing countries, who are often abused at an alarming rate. I think that is a really cool project for Caffe Ibis to support.

The third level (one I have never heard of before) is “Bird Friendly”.  Caffe Ibis seeks out coffees that have been certified as “Bird Friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (http://nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationAndScience/MigratoryBirds/Coffee/lover.cfm).  Such certified producers must produce both organic and shade-grown coffee.  Shade grown coffee is becoming less common.  Before the days of big business in the coffee farms, all coffee was shade grown.  Then in 1972, some science nerd misfits invented hybrid varieties of coffee trees that yielded much higher production quantities.  All these profit minded idiots wanted was more beans, feeling that pumping up the yields would produce better coffee.  (I guess they never studied the work of wine growers, who learned that lower yields actually produce better wine.)  These hybrid plants produced much high quantities of smaller beans, making the harvest easier.  These new beans also didn’t need protection from the sun.  These new trees, however, are not only bad for the land, as they promote ground runoff, they are also bad for the migratory birds, which need shade to rest and live.  The proliferation of the corporate producers has made migratory bird populations suffer, negatively impacting the ecosystem.  So while you are enjoying your cup of ordinary coffee, imagine that poor songbird without a place to land.  You can be so insensitive, at times!

But, with its triple certified coffee, Caffe Ibis is able to distinguish itself as one of the most responsible coffee producers around.  And, here’s the real kicker.  They make great tasting coffee. Go figure!!  The flavors are deep and intense, with the natural oils very evident even in the smell.  Based in Logan, Utah, Caffe Ibis roasts its coffees at high altitudes and in cool climates.   This process takes longer than traditional roasting, resulting in its deeper flavor.

Where can you find Caffe Ibis?  Many Whole Foods Markets carry the brand.  You can also buy Caffe Ibis online at https://caffeibis.com/.  Taste some really delicious coffee that truly makes a positive difference in the world.

October 24, 2008

Proposition 8

Filed under: Ramblings — waxingandwayneing @ 4:20 pm

A few weeks ago, I met a couple of young adults who were canvassing the neighborhood to determine how people would vote on California’s Proposition 8, the “California Marriage Protection Act”. I freely explained that I was in favor of Proposition 8–not because I would ever discriminate against gays or lesbians–but because I felt it was time to say No to the re-defining of marriage.

I would never support discriminating against gays and lesbians in the workplace.  Nor would I ever condone the denial of visitation rights in the hospital by a partner.  Contract law fully allows acquiring property, etc.  These should all be protected and provided for under the law.

When Proposition 22, a ballot measure defining marriage in California as between one man and one woman came up for a vote, It passed with 61% percent of the vote.  This past May, California’s Supreme Court overturned this voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, saying gay and lesbian couples could not be denied marriage licenses.

The action of the Supreme Court to reverse the will of the people angered many and caused the current Proposition 8 to be placed on the ballot in November.  This in turn has outraged the gay and lesbian community, who are attacking Proposition 8 as the first proposition in California to remove civil rights.  All Proposition 8 attempts to do is place the decision back into the hands of the voters.  Shouldn’t the people be allowed to make decisions like these?

I was asked by some of the supporters of Proposition 8 to allow them to film me for a You Tube video on the proposition.  If you would like to see it, here is the link:


The last thing I would want to do is be portrayed at being unfair or discriminatory.  I feel that matter is rather simple.  Let’s have the courage to say “No” to certain things, even at the risk of offending certain people.  For too long, we have said “Yes” to everything, so we would avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.  We have built a society defending the rights of the “last American”.

Another good argument for the Pro-8 position involves the importance of legal definitions.  If you want to sell wine called “Champagne”, you have to comply with the rules.  The grapes must come from the Champagne region of France, in accordance with the Appellation d’origine contrôlée certification.  If you decide to not comply with the rules of making champagne, you cannot call it Champagne; you have to call it something else.

Dictionary.com defines marriage as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.”  If you want to change the definition of marriage, it is not longer “marriage”.  Call it something else.  It’s that simple.

October 16, 2008

A Toe in the Water

Filed under: The Economy — waxingandwayneing @ 8:09 pm

You would have to be near dead to be unaware of the wild fluctuations in the stock market over the last two weeks.  From the session high to the low, the major indices have seen unprecedented movement on intraday activity.  Fundamentally, how could a 1,000 point swing be justified in one day?  What news could possibly spark a recovery from a huge loss in the same day?  “Oh, we meant to say our sales were UP 50% not down 50%….sorry!”

I think someone is messing with us.  Or several someones.  Clearly there is money to be made in the recent market declines, but when do you get in?  When do you even dip a “toe in the water”.  I almost did last Monday.  I thought the market had bottomed and was ready to rise.  In fact, Monday showed nice gains and the turn looked strong.  But then Tuesday was weak, followed by a an even more dismal Wednesday.  Now today, the market is up 401 with another large intraday swing.  What gives?

The bottom line is that no one really knows.  The financial news hacks are trying to sound smart, which daily proves to be difficult.  The technicians try to argue for support at various trend lines, but have difficulty trying to advise in a market unconcerned about charting.  After all, the entire system is collapsing!  This week, earnings once again became a basis to measure stock value.  Go figure!  The optimists who tried to drive the market up earlier were met with the reality of corporate performance in the presence of a recession.  (You mean, we now have to be concerned with how these companies actually performed?)

This is no market for the timid.  I do know that there are bargains out there to be had.  Many company have been unfairly hammered.  But, just when I think it is time to allocate funds back into the market, the market falters.  With the beta as high as it is now, waiting is prudent.

With the FDIC insurance now at a higher level of $250,000, our cash is safe.  Please don’t be one of those imbeciles who withdraws your cash because you think there will be a bank run.  Measure your risks based on facts, not on illusion.

My advice is to stay liquid for awhile longer.  I would want to see an established recovery in the Dow showing at least 5 up days.  If you feel that toe is getting dry and needs to be dipped in the water, then invest slowly and knowledgeably.  Earning 3% on your cash is a lot better than losing half of it on a stock play.

October 13, 2008

Tightening the Belt

Filed under: The Economy — waxingandwayneing @ 2:50 pm

With the economic news getting worse by the day, most Americans have finally realized that the “Buy Buy” days of yesterday have now gone “Bye Bye”.  Fueled by unrealistic liquidity over the past several years, the American consumer has been on an artificial shopping spree, accumulating merchandise they didn’t really need or certainly couldn’t afford.  It now looks like the party is over.  Hallelujah!

Last week, Stephanie Rosenbloom of the New York Times reported that, “Sales at some of the nation’s best-known retailers fell by double digits in September, highlighting the rapid deterioration of the economy and raising fresh questions about how many of those chains can survive.  Retail analysts and executives said they had not seen such a rapid slowdown in consumer spending since the nation’s last deep recession, in the early 1980s.”

If it takes a recession to sober up the American consumers from their drunken buying binge, then so be it.  No longer able to borrow on their home equity lines or credit cards, and worried about losing their jobs, consumers are starting to adopt responsible spending habits, e.g., “Can i really afford that?” or “Do I really need that?”  Go figure!

Jan Hoffman wrote a nice piece for yesterday’s Sunday New York Times entitled, “The Frugal Teenager, Ready or Not”.  She discusses the shock to teenagers being forced to do without all the luxuries they grew up with.

“When Wendy Postle’s two children were younger, saying “yes” gave her great joy. Yes to all those toys. The music lessons. The blowout birthday parties. But as her son and daughter approached adolescence, yes turned into a weary default. “Sometimes it was just easier to say, ‘O.K., whatever,’ than to have the battle of ‘no,’ ” said Mrs. Postle, a working mother who lives in Hilliard, Ohio, a middle-class suburb of Columbus.  This year her husband’s 401(k) savings are evaporating. Medical bills are nipping at the couple’s heels. Gas prices are still taking a toll. Mrs. Postle recently decided that although she and her husband had always sacrificed their own luxuries for Zach, 13, and Kaitlyn, 15, the teenagers would now have to cut back as well.”

Ms. Hoffman writes about the indulgent behavior of parents…eager to please their children and avoid arguing.  So many kids “were raised in comparatively flush times by parents who believed that keeping children happy, stimulated and successful, no matter the cost, was an unassailable virtue. A 2007 study by the Harrison Group, a market research firm in Waterbury, Conn., found that nearly 75 percent of parents caved in to their children’s nagging for new video games, half within two weeks.”

So, having raised a generation of adolescents trained to get whatever they want, whenever they demand it, we are now having to turn to these kids and say, “No”.  Cutting back is not only prudent, it is imperative.  Mom and Dad simply do not have the money.  Shocking or not, you had better tighten your belts.

What will be most interesting with this economic diet is to see the impact on personal identity of children, as well as adults.  No longer able to afford that designer handbag, sports car, or the week-long rental in St. Barts, consumer will start to suffer from luxury withdrawals, followed by deflation of the ego.  Having previously identified themselves from material goods, people will struggle to define themselves in the absence of these possesions.

It will probably shock many consumers that their personalities are vapid without toys.  What else is there to talk about?  For others, the cutting back mode might yield interesting personas, able to relate to others on a deeper level.  The optimist in me imagines more people reading thought-provoking books, listening to NPR, attending a lecture at the local community college, or volunteering time at a local non-profit.  There are so many things to do that do not involve spending money, but that do yield meaningful enhancement to the person and contributions to society.

The next few months (or years) are going to be tough for so many.  As you tighten that belt to the next hole, take a deep breath, realize you are not alone, and seize the chance to be a better person.

September 25, 2008

Standing on Their Shoulders

Filed under: The Meaning of Life — waxingandwayneing @ 10:44 pm

We spent the last eights days travelling around New England, seeing so many great spots in Portland, Maine, central Vermont and New Hampshire, Boston, Nantucket, Providence/Newport, Rhode Island, and southern Connecticut, on our way down for week of insanity in New York City. We met a lot of very nice people, ate too many meals of fresh and seasonal foods, and saw a plethora of extraordinarily beautiful nature. The leaves are changing (actually, they are returning to their true colors as they lose their chlorophyll) and the air is starting to feel like fall. If this trip was just for the people, food, and beauty, it would have been enough. But there was so much more.

As we drove and peddled through the various towns and hamlets along the way, it was impossible to miss the history oozing from this area. We saw Plymouth Rock, Lexington, the Touro Synagogue, the mansions in Newport, quaint colonial settlements, Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown, and the Starbuck homes of Nantucket. We rode on the same paths travelled by the very people who created America, the brave pioneers who left the comfort of their homes in foreign countries to build new lives in a strange land. We particularly were moved as we walked through a number of very old cemeteries to read the various tombstones, memorializing the lives of generations of families, consumed by war, accidents, or sickness.

To see fresh flowers on grave markers of people who died in the early 1800’s or to visit towns with their welcome signs indicating their beginnings, marker s, e.g., “Founded in 1737”, you start to feel so small, so minor when measured with the perspective of all those years. Living in Southern California, where a house built in the 1950’s is considered old, allows us to feel our lives are really important. Travelling through New England, you realize how many generations came before us and contributed so much to enable us to enjoy the lives we live today.

I felt this deep sense of respect for all those people—not just the famous ones—who devoted their lives to building this country. Certainly we have strong feelings for the Founding Fathers who decided that a united group of states was worth struggling to create. But what about the ordinary men and women who came here to begin anew and build better realities? The ones who plowed farms, built bridges and roads, and opened general stores did so without any recognition or fame. Had these people behaved insularly, without any regard for the future, our country would not have flourished.

This trip has reminded me so deeply that we are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. We so seamlessly cash in on the dividends earned from the efforts of people we will never know.

One of my college roommates recently contacted me after he read a few of my blog entries. He pointed out the relevance of “Why Are We Here”, an examination of how bereft of importance our lives have become, as we live from day to day, week to week, year to year without regard for meaningful contributions. So consumed with consumption, so focused on the “here and now”, we rarely stop to think about what we are leaving as our legacies, what role we will play in making our world a bit better than when we inherited it.

So travelling around in New England has given me a nice gift. I have a new appreciation for yesterday’s heroes who lived their lives with a conscious feeling for the future, with the knowledge that the positive impact they made in their communities far outweighed any recognition of their efforts. Better lives for their children more than justified their personal sacrifices.

Perhaps we can start to live our lives with these principles in mind. Let us work to define who we are by how we improve the lives of those around us, by the deeds we do to build a better tomorrow. Let us find ways to live more simply—consume less of everything—and leave more for those not here yet. And let us be ever conscious that those yet unborn will one day need to stand on our shoulders. How strong and broad will those shoulders be?

September 20, 2008

Cruel and Necessary Punishment

Filed under: The Economy — waxingandwayneing @ 9:04 pm

In my last blog, I shared with you my anger over the economic situation our financial executives have forced us into over the past several months. Years of abusive business practices aimed solely at the enrichment of these so called “experts” have now resulted in the need for the federal government to inject billions of dollars of equity into institutions and provide hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout funds to buy up the troubled loans of banks. Congratulations to you stewards of our trust….thank you for taking our money and enriching yourselves to unheard of levels creating a failed financial empire that we must now fund.

Why be critical of business failure? Most people in business do not succeed. It is hard to form a business that will grow and generate a profit. So why be upset when these corporate managers find themselves running illiquid entities? Two reasons: Greed and the lack of remorse.

According to Reuters, the executive of Fannie Mae, just one of the players involved in this financial debacle, were incredibly well-compensated for being crooks. Daniel Mudd, president and chief executive officer of Fannie Mae, received more than $14 million in compensation from Fannie Mae in 2006 and more than $12 million in 2007; Robert Levin, chief business officer, received more than $9.5 million in 2006 and more than $8.4 million in 2007; Stephen Swad, chief financial officer, was handed more than $4.8 million in 2007; and Stephen Ashley, chairman, received more than $500,000 in 2007. This level of compensation is commensurate with success, not for breeding failure. If the money they were paid is fair compensation for the work they did, then let me have a job application. If you won’t hold me accountable, then I will take the job. I can do what they did working just a few hours a week.

So what about the failed investment banks? Lehman Bros., run into the ground by its executives after 158 years in business, rewarded their brain trust handsomely for finding a way to end a legacy. Chief Executive Officer Richard Fuld took home $34.4 million in 2007, while J.M. Gregory, Lehman’s chief operating officer at the time, made $26 million last year, according to the March 5 proxy. Thomas A. Russo, chief legal officer, earned $12.1 million. C.M. O’Meara, chief financial officer, made $3.7 million, and Ian T. Lowitt, co-chief administrative officer, was paid $4.9 million. According to Lynn LoPucki, a bankruptcy law professor who teaches at Harvard University and the University of California, “Bankruptcy law allows recovery of compensation paid to insiders if the company didn’t receive reasonably equivalent value”. It is strongly believed that lawsuits will be filed to recover the compensation from these executive criminals.

This is really simple to me. If I hire a professional painter to paint my house and the work is shoddy, I get my money back; I didn’t get what I bargained for with this individual. You don’t do your work, you don’t get paid. These executives did shoddy work and now need to pay us back: Matter closed.

The second reason I am so irritated at this situation is the lack of remorse of these executives. Have you heard any of them simply say, “I’m sorry”? Have any of these pompous managers issued any apology for what they have done—for the mess they created? If they have, I haven’t heard them.

As I analyzed the practices of these failed executives, I began to see the similarities between them and drug dealers. Motivated by greed and unconcerned about the consequences of their efforts, both these financial executives and drug dealers prey on society as leeches, providing no benefit to anyone but themselves. Getting people to get hooked on drugs or mortgages they can’t afford creates an artificial economy.

So, my solution is simple. If a police bureau arrests a drug dealer, they can seize his property and use those assets for the benefit of the agency. Money, cars, houses are all fair game for seizure. Ill-gotten gains must find a new owner. Let’s make these financial executives subject to the same rules convicted drug dealers face. Make them return all of the money they were paid to do their jobs. Let’s also force them to return assets they acquired during their tenure—the cars, the houses, all of the perks. If they refuse, fine. Then send them to prison for at least 10 years. And not the country club facilities we sent the Enron or Tyco boys to. Make them room with Bubba, who can teach them a thing or two about screwing others.

If we fail to aggressively deal with these crooks, then we are permitting future criminals to repeat these egregious acts. Would you deal with a misbehaved child by letting her off from bad behavior without administering punishment commensurate with the act? I would hope not. Then why deal with adults differently? It’s time these bad boys were put in time out—permanently.

September 18, 2008

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Filed under: The Economy — waxingandwayneing @ 10:08 pm

In the 1976 film, “Network”, actor Peter Finch expresses his outrage over being fired and ends up firing up a nation similarly frustrated over life’s inequities.  Declaring to the country, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”, Finch becomes the unwitting spokesman for a frustrated populace.  An apathetic public is energized by a television anchor pushed beyond his boundaries.

How much outrage must we feel before we say, “Enough is enough?”  With the events of this week–the bailout of private investment houses and the injection of massive amounts of precious capital into the financial system–isn’t it about time we feel the need to open our windows and shout Peter Finch’s mantra?

I am not critical of the intervention taken to stave off a probable collapse of the financial system.  Although you cannot blame the surgeon for amputating a gangrenous leg, you should be upset that the patient’s situation got to that point. Far-reaching measures are needed to address such a serious situation, yet anger is still a valid emotion that the matter occurred.  When will we en masse express the viceral frustration with these buffoons for getting us into this mess?

These so called “experts” promoted these financial programs with such cavalier recklessness and egotistical bravado, enriching themselves along the way to previously unheard of levels.  Mortgage executives and investment agencies created a lending environment that required a limitless level of mortgage loans to feed an insatiable demand for collaterlized debt securities.  The result of this unbridled demand caused loan origination standards to abandon the basic principles of lending:  Can the borrower and will the borrower repay the loan?  Instead, the system took on the strategy of a drug dealer–interested only in getting others dependent on his product than in the long-term detriment of dependency.  With mortgage brokers popping up on every corner with the sole purpose of feeding new loans to a thirsty investment community, we all sat back and watched the market get strung-out and compromised.

So, instead of stopping the flow of drugs, I mean loans, that should never been made, so many of us looked the other way while unqualified families became homeowners, driving up real estate prices to unsustainable levels.  Real estate brokers made fat commissions for deals that sold themselves, while mortgage lenders paid fees to poorly trained producers so happy to bend rules and fabricate financial data to just close those loans.  Others along the way also enriched themselves from artificial means, yet none as much as the investment house executives and quasi-government agencies.

These selfish fatcats knowingly seized upon a vulnerable marketplace.  Veiled behind the premise of providing a necessary flow of funds to the lending community, these executives promoted a system that provided them with massive amounts of compensation for the generation of assets they knew would eventually be found out to be grossly overvalued.  Instead of stopping the practices that lead to these realities, these crooks cared primarily about the short-term and their growing wallets.

My solution is rather simple.  Now that the government has decided to use our funds to bail out the system, we must do what we can to return to the basic premise of any business transaction: the matching of risk and return.  This week, many people have criticized the imbalance of the current financial debacle, with the public sector now absorbing the risk, while the private sector enjoyed the profits.  I recommend that we make all of the executives of the affected financial institutions pay back all of their compensation, since they feel no willingness to absorb the effects of the risk they created.  Those executives unable or disinclined to repay the benefits they realized should first be paraded down Main Street–make them feel the shame of what they have done by publicizing their names in newspapers–and then sent to prison.

If you think this sounds harsh, then enjoy your life of complacency.  Remain silent as the big boys continue to screw you without permission or regret.  If you are as pissed off as I am, then get up, walk over to your open window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  Then, after you scream, send an email to your congressional representative and share your outrage.

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