Monday, December 30, 2013

Five Things I Hope Go Away in 2014

On any given Tuesday, I can come up with a list of items ranging from annoying to really grating. I've been meaning to post about them before the year was up, but something always gets in the way, namely, my memory. I just forget. Or procrastinate. Or whatever.

But this morning, I realized the New Year was nigh, and, like it or not, I'd be keeping my appointment with destiny, which, in this instance, is the first day of 2014, as opposed to my future interview with Charon, another event inviting procrastination. Today, though, I'll just pop off five things I hope go away, forever, in 2014.

1. Media announcers using the term "gay marriage."It's bad enough when lay people use the term, but for media professionals, it's inexcusable. Whatever else it is, marriage cannot be gay. It's like saying it's red, only worse. Look. What if a homosexual person and a heterosexual person get married? Is the blessed event gay marriage, straight marriage, or what? None of the above, mon cher, it's just marriage. If people of the same sex get married it's...drum roll, please...same sex marriage.

2. Media announcers who say "take a listen." I know it sounds like I'm picking on media professionals, and I am. I mean, come on. You can't take a listen. Aha, I hear my critics say. If you can say "take a look," why can't you say "take a listen?" Bad analogy. You can't say "take a listen" for the same reason that you can't say "take a see." Even NPR announcers use the term, no doubt thinking they can get away with it because so many of them have weird names. But, nyet, nyet, nyet.

3. People who refer to themselves as their dog's parent. Nearly every day when walking my dog, I encounter someone who calls me my dog's daddy. No, I'm not her daddy, and you are not your dog's mommy, and if you indeed are, god help you. You are your dog's owner, unless you live in Eugene, Marin County, most of Portland or all of Boulder, in which case you are you dog's caregiver. "Caregiver" also makes me cringe, but since there's a valid argument for your dog being your therapist, the term caregiver may be okay.

4. People compelled to give countless updates of their diet and/or exercise programs. Going Paleo? Turning vegan? Diving into cardio kickboxing, pilates, Crossfit or whatever? Great, I'm so pleased for you, and I hope it works. I'm doing some of it, too, and here's what I'll do if you will: Not say anything more until it's over. I don't need to know what's on your gluten-free shopping list. One discourse on probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids will do nicely, thank you. And maybe it's just me, but  while daily updates on the NYSE are mildly interesting, the same is not true for your number of laps, reps, or crunchers.

Enough said, right?
5. Rachel Ray. While bringing to mind either the Michelin Man or Pillsbury Doughboy on meth, this woman drives you toward words containing Oy!, as in cloying and annoying. She almost single-handedly ended my interest in the Food Channel, Emeril Lagasse providing the final coup d'gras. I'd assumed she had gone away, perhaps to wherever football ex-place kickers go, but no. She's b-a-a-a-c-k, mugging it up on the television screen facing the exercise machine I flail away on every morning. It's enough to make you quit exercising.

And whatever peeves and irritations you wish would vanish that probably won't notwithstanding, I wish each and everyone all the best for 2014. May you live long and prosper, although there're arguments both ways on the living long part.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Should You See "Inside Llewyn Davis?"

You know the Coen Brothers movies. Sometimes, they're despondent. Sometimes, they're screamingly funny. With "Inside Llewyn Davis," they're both at the same time, and feeling either is really kind of unsettling.

BTW, spoiler alert: I'm going to mention a few events and scenes from the film. Normally, such mentions spoil the plot. In this film, though, it's safe to say there is no plot, at least
in the usual sense.

Plot is character in action, but usually, there are a beginning, middle, and an end. The four days or so in Llewyn Davis' life that make up the film are pretty much of a continuum with no significant change in him.

In fact, the beginning and end are eerily the same. And you have the sense that the way it is now for him is the way it will be forever.

When the folk music era dawned in America, it was pretty much of a coordinating conjunction for the Beatnik Era and The Sixties, a brief moment between Kerouac jazz and Guevara rock, when counterculture people adopted folk music as their societal lens. The few days of this film might even be a metaphor of the few years that serious people were serious about folk music.

The term "serious folk music" almost sounds oxymoronic. The grittiness of the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger protest song era before and after the Great Depression gave way to the saccharine white middle-class protest songs of Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. While most folk music fans were earnest and sincere, that's about all they were. Tom Lehrer used to perform a satirical song, "Folk Song Army," in which "Every one of us *cares*/We don't like poverty, war, or injustice/Unlike the rest of you squares." Folk music now seems pretty much relegated to PBS fundraisers with old Boomers waxing nostalgic. In fact, the film "A Mighty Wind" parodied this notion.

But there was a time when folk music was really good, and really serious. The Coen Brothers recognize this time existed, but absolutely do not kowtow to it or treat it with gushing sentiment. It happened, along with everything else that happened (or didn't) in 1959-1962 or so.

And Llewyn Davis is good at it. In fact, he's very, very good, so good that even modernistas who roll their eyes at the notion of folk music will sit forward in their chairs and listen to him, both for his songs and for his angst-ridden talent. No protesting injustice, this; it's about love and loss among ordinary folk.

Llewyn is a total fuckup in his personal life. He spends his time mooching couches to sleep on for the whole film, and at every stop, he manages to insult his host, and not in small ways. When moments confront him that offer a chance to make the difficult, but heroic, choice, he inevitably does...nothing.

Thus, being really, really good and sincere with his craft does little for him one way or the other. His career is going nowhere, just as is his life. At moments, you overcome your antipathy for this inveterate loser and actually root for him to succeed in some small way. You wish he'd make the obvious choice at hand to move himself forward. After all, a few of his colleagues make choices to advance their musical careers, and he's as good, or better, than they are.

I have to note two remarkable scenes. So broke he can't buy coffee, Llewyn's friend, John, whose girlfriend Llewyn may have impregnated, invites Llewyn to provide backup for a recording gig. Llewyn does so, expressing his displeasure with the song, which contains the gimmicks and goofy lilts necessary for commercial success. He accepts a one-time fee for service, needing the money, and forgoes possible royalties.

In another, he meets with an important folk music impresario and gives another of his stunning and earthy performances. The recording maven doesn't say Llewyn is bad, only that "there's no money in you."

What clings to Llewyn Davis is his realness, his authenticity, to use an overused term. He isn't bad, he's not marketable. Tellingly, the impresario asks Llewyn if he might trim his beard into a goatee and be the third member of a trio being formed of two guys and a woman (gee--guess who that is).

Not that Llewyn thinks a whole lot about an art-versus-commercialism dilemma. To him, he's just himself moving along from point A to point B and hoping something will work out. He does not see himself as any kind of hero, Quixotic or not, nor as an avatar of the true folk musicician standing against a commercial tide.

And so the Coen Brothers treat both Llewyn and his times. There's nothing heroic or brave going on. Everything just is. And there will never be money in the uncompromised quality Llewyn offers. Commercdial accommodation isn't an option, because it never really occurs to him. What makes "Inside Llewyn Davis" difficult for us is that Llewyn makes this choice not as Huck Finn standing against civilization, but as a guy who just does what he does without giving it much thought.

I could say so much more about this film, but I won't. I won't reveal the beginning and final scenes, nor the telling second-to-last scene. Nor will I say anything about a cat and what his name is, nor will I reveal what happened during an interior sequence with John Goodman playing an over-the-hill drug-smacked jazz musician.

This movie is absolutely not for everyone. Coen Brothers films have always straddled the barrier between art and popular films, and this one leans 'way more towards the arty. It's bleak. The central character finds no redemption and has no epiphanies, and if he did, wouldn't change himself. As a viewer, you have to work at finding meaning.

Which is to say I loved it, and need to see it ten or twelve more times before I get it all. You find yourself ready to burst out with a guffaw, but your pulse is restrained by the pathos of it all.

You can't laugh and cry at the same time.

Friday, December 6, 2013

On Shaving: Problem Solved, Maybe

Really. There are some good reasons for men to shave. A bad cold is one. So is corn on the cob. Ice cream cones also come to mind. Imagine any of these excreting their essence on a mustache, and shaving seems like a reasonable alternative.

On the whole, stubble-chic notwithstanding, shaving is awful. Men know this, but most of us do it anyway, facial hirsuteness or not. Why? I'll tell you why.

I don't know. I've been doing it for more than fifty years, and I still don't know. Moreover, this is my third post in ten years on shaving. You'd think I'd have the answer by now.

As a young lad with baby-butt skin, I recall forcing the pitch of my mid-adolescent voice downward as much as I could in the hopes of forcing out some whiskers whose atavistic seeds lurked in the upper layers of my facial epidermis. It was a joyful moment indeed when the first one peeked through the ubiquitous zits. Breathlessly, I hurried to the nearest drug store, bought a can of Gillette shaving cream and a two-sided safety razor, returned to the mirror and whacked off the whisker, along with a zit or two.

No longer a boy, I. My nascent Sean Connery-ness was at hand.

Which lasted until I went to college. A clean-shaven face did not compliment tie-dyed shirts and faded jeans. And beards really pissed off the cranky old VFW guys we did our best to piss off.

Over the years, daily shaving was a time of firsts. Of course, there was the first shave, but after that came the first date, first love, first heartbreak, and so on. As I became older, there was marriage (heading into its 43rd year), first business success, first failure, first miscue, first publication, first child, and so on. You saw your life as a continuum of possibilities.

The first child was followed by a couple more, and the best I can say about parenthood is that it's a time of daily discovery, something you don't control but just sort of roll with, marvel over and learn. The kids move out about the time they get really interesting, but that's as it should be so you can later accept them as peers.

When I'd look into the mirror, the face looking back at me was pretty much the same one it had always been, and life seemed to be a succession of endless tomorrows. Gillette's newly-released double-edged razor should have been the dead giveaway that this supposition wasn't true. While it was marginally better than the old two-sided safety razor, your face still pretty much felt as though it had suffered a sparrow stampede.

It was sometime after the introduction of the triple-edged razor that the face in the mirror no longer looked like the one I'd come to know and be comfortable with. Who was that old fart, anyway? Discomfort with aging begins when you lose control over the gray in your hair and whiskers, followed by the receipt of junk mail from the AARP, which you angrily throw away. When you actually begin reading the AARP junk mail, you begin to sense the fight is over.

And, I have to say, I've been contemplating lasts instead of firsts. Is this the last house we'll ever live in. Is this the last dog we'll ever own. Is this the last car. Have I had my last job. So it goes.

"What do you do when the Grim Reaper is knocking' on the door and you're not quite ready to go?" my father said, once. He was in his mid-eighties and had obviously been thinking about it. Old age, a good friend quipped, is when you finally have all the answers, but no one asks the questions. Point taken, however. My gig with death appears to be something I'll not be able to bug out on.

Not long ago, I read someplace that human beings might be evolution's most successful example. We are born, we produce, and then stay alive long enough to pass a certain wisdom off the the next generation. I, for one, am most grateful for the opportunities to have mentored a few young people. They know who they are, and I'm putting them on notice right now that I had way more fun than they did. They not only helped liberate my Muse, such as it is, but they confirmed my right to exist despite nagging inner voices arguing to the contrary. Chalk one up for Darwin.
People with their mouths open look dumb

As it turns out, young people were the inspiration for the shaving solution, namely, to just not do it very often. These days, I pretty much let it go for two or three days, my inner self-vision something between Hugh Jackman and Edward Snowden, but the reality being closer to a wino.

When I finally get around to it, I use an electric, a device I've pretty much eschewed over the course of my shaving career. They always made my face feel as though the whiskers had been sanded off. But the product has improved, as of late. Either that, or I just don't really give a damn. And I follow up with as good razor shave at east once a week.

All of which is to say, what's the point? I was pretty sure there was one when I started this post out, although for the life of me, I can't recall what it was. Maybe there isn't one. More and more these days, that's pretty much how it's all turning out.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Two Rules on Nelson Mandela--for Everyone in the World.

Rule Number One

Rights are seldom, if ever given to those who don't have them. They must be taken.

Rule Number Two

If in doubt, refer to Rule Number One.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Who Got the Money?

In 1987, the savings and loan scandal was about to hit full stride when the stock market crashed one fine October day. Something like $500 billion in wealth was lost, which my father didn't buy for a second. "If they lost $500 billion," he reasoned, "who got the money?"

I did a lot of mental gymnastics over this. Clearly, no one person, place, thing or entity got the money that was lost. Still, shareholders watched their investment values evaporate. If they lost all that money and no one got it, was it ever really there in the first place?

She had a pile of dough before the crash
Fast forward to 2007. The housing market tanked with the stock market following shortly thereafter as the world financial system failed big time. American homes lost, on average, 30% of their value. Lower-end homes lost even more. "Underwater," a term only real estate industry nerds once knew, entered the common vernacular.

How much money was lost by mostly middle-class homeowners? This Wall Street Journal post says $7.38 billion. Worse--because of leveraging--people lost 55% of their homes' value.

If they lost it, where did it go? Who got the money? If no one got it, is it fair to say that the money wasn't really lost, since it never really existed? After all, saying a house is worth $X, even if an appraiser is saying it, doesn't mean it really is, right?

Well, it turns out that someone did get the money.

For some time, I've been perplexed by the enormous number of cash sales in the real estate market. Yes, investors are buying up deals, and yes, Baby Boomers selling homes are using the equity to by downsized ones. But that didn't explain everything. I wrote about it a couple of times on The Rookie's Guide to the Real Estate Galaxy.

But my WTF moment really struck when I read an Inman News article noting that lenders were avoiding short sales and taking the foreclosure route instead. A short sale used to cause a 10%-20% hit, but foreclosures resulted in an average 35% writedown, so short sales were preferred. Moreover, state law changes and the MERS scandal added time and uncertainty. Why the switch in preference?

Turns out I far underestimated investor cash sales. The Blackstone Group, under the moniker Invitation Homes, has spent $7.5 billion buying up foreclosed homes across the U.S. through November. It bought 1,400 such homes in Atlanta in a single day! It's now the single largest owner of single-family homes in America, more fully explained in this Tomgram story by Lauras Gottediener.

Who is the Blackstone Group? It's among the largest private equity and investment banking groups in the world, owning names like Hilton Worldwide, the Michael's craft store chain and Biomet, to name a few. Who owns Blackstone? It's institutional owners are a who's who, not just of major mortgage lenders, but a Dalton Gang of names caught up in a rash of still-ongoing civil actions resulting from the housing and mortgage crisis: Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley, among others.

While Blackstone just released its first bond offering whose proceeds are paid by the renters of homes it has purchased--not securitized mortgages, mind you, but securitized rentals--its intent is to hold the properties until values return to their former levels. And Blackstone is just one of several such firms buying up foreclosed homes.

Someone did get the $500 billion lost in the 1987 crash. It was the investors who just waited around for stock prices to recover, which they did.

In 2013, it's not the investors, i.e. homeowners, who wait things out until prices recover. They're wiped out. Instead, it's the lenders who loaned the money in the first place and who, through the filter of Blackstone and others, are paying themselves back via the foreclosure process and then taking title to the homes, collecting rent from the people they foreclosed on, and ultimately recovering the entire lost wealth when prices recover.

That's who got the money. Theirs, and yours, too.