Sunday, June 15, 2008

Remembering My Father

The old man had been an actor all his life and that was a rare thing. What was rare was that he'd never done anything else. He’d never sold shoes, never waited tables while he was “at liberty,” never driven a cab.

Unlike some of his pals he hadn't hung around New York waiting for a big part; never waited to be 'discovered' by some critic or producer who would pick him out of the crowd as Broadway’s newest star. He simply went wherever the work was.

As a young man he was told it wasn't clever career management to leave the center of the theatrical world and go careening around the sticks with some wandering repertory company. Why not pick up some cash waiting tables and bet on the big break?

He'd think about that for a moment and say, “Given the chance I'd rather just go acting.” And that’s what he did, moving across the country to wherever there was work for a journeyman performer with a decent wardrobe and the knack for learning his part quickly.

When acting jobs weren't available he’d direct. He’d go wherever there was a little theatre, community group, or church pageant that needed to be put in order. He taught acting at a museum theatre school, and acted in radio soap operas. But whatever he did he was always a creature of the theatre, a man for whom the practice of his craft was more important than the conditions under which he practiced it, or the fame of the place he did his work.

He lived in a Volkswagen van in the parking lot of a Texas theatre one boiling hot summer because he wanted, he needed, to “go acting.”

As the years rolled by and the casting calls became less frequent he had pretty much decided that he was no longer “at liberty” but simply retired. And that was why, the Christmas season of his seventy-second year, he took a job as a department store Santa Claus. It was another chance to go acting.

He was glad of the work but now the old actor had a problem. He’d been doing a favor for a lady friend and the new job would mean he’d have to stop doing that favor.

The lady had a son, a rising star in the banking business. A nice enough ‘kid,’ as the old actor always called him, but as articulate as a barrel of hair when facing any group greater than one. The actor had volunteered to be the kid’s speech coach and over the weeks a polite distance between the two grew into the closeness of mutual affection.

The young man was sad to think the actor’s new job would interrupt their sessions together, but he was happy for the old man. The job was a nice Christmas present.

“So what’s the part, Coach?”

“It’s a character part. I’m going to do Santa Claus at Bulloch’s department store.”

The kid was well and truly knocked down by this. He was embarrassed for the old actor; at his taking what seemed like a humiliating end-of-the-road job.

“How can you do that?” he asked. “You’ve spent your entire life as an actor, you’ve never driven a cab or waited on tables, or sold socks ...and now you’re going to play Santa in a department store?”

“Ah, kid, it’s a pretty good job. Costume and makeup are provided and I get a private green room. Think of that! Besides, there are no lines to learn, I’m only on for about a half-hour at a time and I get one free meal a day in the employee cafeteria. Best of all, I’m making better than Equity minimum.”

“Well, I think it’s humiliating,” said the kid, who didn’t realize until that moment how much he loved the old man.

“It’s humiliating to think that someone like you who’s worked in the theatre with some of our finest actors has to play a department store Santa. Good Lord! Imagine stuffing a pillow in your costume, wearing those awful fake patent leather boots, the phony beard and ...and...that ridiculous red suit! How can you do that?”

The old actor thought about this for a while, just a little hurt that the kid was raining on his parade.

“You know, I want to give you a little advice. There’s a lesson to be learned here that’ll do you more good in the long run than anything I can teach you about speaking in some bank board room. It’s advice about life, and it’s just as good for bankers as it is for actors. It's all about what you call that ridiculous red suit."

The old actor leaned into the young man until they were practically nose to nose and in a sotto voce growl said…

“Listen, kid, if you want to play Santa Claus, you gotta wear the red suit.”
My father died two years after the Santa Claus gig, his last chance to go acting. The young man is the vice president of a southern California bank.

Originally published in The desert Leaf

Monday, June 09, 2008

Formula One!

It was a little little bit of Sunday heaven yesterday watching Formula One racing.
If you're unfamiliar with F1, take a look at the official web site.

The greatest cars and drivers in open wheel racing compete in Formula One, an 18-contest season on road courses. I watch Indy Car of course, mainly following Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan, but oval course racing seems to lack the challenge and excitement of the road c
ourses and the IRL broadcasts are overloaded with commercials.

NASCAR? I've never been able to get on with it.....Round and round and round and snore.

Yesterday Polish driver Robert Kubica driving a BMW-Sauber car won the Canadian Grand Prix. BMW cars are now first and second as BMW-Sauber closes in on the Constructor’s Trophy just 3 points behind Ferrari.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

A Sweet Deal for US Sugar

I guess the Mott family really needs the money.

CLEWISTON, Fla. — Thousands of workers at U.S. Sugar thought they were getting a good deal when the company shelved their pension plan and gave them stock for their retirement instead. They had a heady sense of controlling their own destiny as they became the company’s biggest shareholders, Vic McCorvey, a former farm manager there, said.

Now that many U.S. Sugar workers are reaching retirement age, though, the company has been cashing them out of the retirement plan at a much lower price than they could have received. Unknown to them, an outside investor was offering to buy the company — and their shares — for far more. Longtime employees say they have lost out on tens of thousands of dollars each and millions of dollars as a group, while insiders of the company came out ahead.

Corporations loved these plans (ESOPs- Employee Stock Ownership plans) if for no other reason than that they allowed them an alternative to defined benefit plans. There were corporate tax breaks as well and owners could sell their otherwise illiquid stock to the plans. US Sugar took its stock off the public market when the ESOP was created in 1983.

Nearly 95 percent of the country’s 10,000 ESOPs (Employee Stock Ownership Plans) are now at privately held companies, like U.S. Sugar. Because their shares are not publicly traded, there is no market price. So workers cash out shares without knowing what the price would be on an open market.

You can read the whole story by clicking here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

American Fascism and The Corporate State

While you’re waiting patiently for the official announcement that our Primary ordeal is over, let me suggest some reading: “America’s Democratic Collapse,” by Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Chris Hedges.

Here are some excerpts:

We have watched over the past few decades the rise of a powerful web of interlocking corporate entities, a network of arrangements within subsectors, industries, or other partial jurisdictions to diminish and often abolish outside control and oversight. These corporations have neutralized national, state and judicial authority. They dominate, for example, a bloated and wasteful defense industry, which has become sacrosanct and beyond the reach of politicians, most of whom are left defending military projects in their districts, no matter how redundant, because they provide jobs. This has permitted a military-industrial complex, which contributes lavishly to political campaigns, to spread across the country with virtual impunity.

The corporate state, begun under Ronald Reagan and pushed forward by every president since, has destroyed the public and private institutions that protected workers and safeguarded citizens. Only 7.8 percent of workers in the private sector are unionized. This is about the same percentage as in the early 1900s. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called "near poverty." Our health care system is broken. Eighteen thousand people die in this country, according to the Institute of Medicine, every year because they can't afford health care. That is six times the number of people who died in the 9/11 attacks, and these unnecessary deaths continue year after year. But we do not hear these stories of pain and dislocation. We are diverted by bread and circus. News reports do little more than report on trivia and celebrity gossip. The FCC, in an example of how far our standards have fallen, defines shows like Fox's celebrity gossip program "TMZ" and the Christian Broadcast Network's "700 Club" as "bona fide newscasts." The economist Charlotte Twight calls this vast corporate system of spectacle and democratic collapse "participatory fascism."

How did we get here? How did this happen? In a word, deregulation -- the systematic dismantling of the managed capitalism that was the hallmark of the American democratic state. Our political decline came about because of deregulation, the repeal of antitrust laws, and the radical transformation from a manufacturing economy to a capital economy.

End excerpts

We are the victims of a slow motion coup d’etat.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Top Down, Bottom Up

I’m fairly sure that when primary postmortems are held that simple phrase, “Top Down, Bottom Up,” will summarize the difference between the Clinton and Obama campaigns. There is considerable anecdotal evidence that, here in Arizona at least, the Clinton campaign passed over some canny local pols, preferring out-of-state organizers.

Whether that was true and whether, or to what degree, that was the case at the national level will have to wait for scholarly analysis.

Another expression, “That was then, this is now,” pretty neatly summarizes another mistake by Clinton campaign strategists: The nature of political action and political organizing has really changed since 1993. It’s not perfectly clear to me that the campaign understood the power of Web 2.0, and the nature of bottom up campaigning that makes possible.

The Obama campaign clearly did---not too amazing in a campaign run by and for a seasoned community organizer.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

What Makes Clinton Run

There are two fairly obvious emotional engines driving Senator Clinton’s continued scramble for her party’s nomination: She desperately wants the job and she fervently believes that Senator Obama can’t beat McCain.

Only a political naïf would fault her for wanting the job and devoting herself passionately to its pursuit. If you don’t believe you deserve to be President, if that desire isn’t the hot center of your emotional life then you probably shouldn’t run. Passionate ambition is the sine qua non of a political life.

The Clinton problem, however, (and the reason so many people dislike her without being able to quite say why) is that her ambition is so painfully obvious. We much prefer our candidates to appear at least a little reluctant to shoulder the awful burdens of public service---but willing to do it, of course, out of devotion to the public welfare and as the result of a great spontaneous groundswell. Oh, Yeah.

On the question of Obama’s ability to beat McCain I can only comment that he was able enough to beat one of the cleverest political families of recent times. In my judgment he will be more than able to handle McCain.

Did the Clintons misjudge how good a politician Obama is? You bet. Far from being some sort of misty-eyed novice dreaming an impossible dream he was (and is) a political street fighter and community organizer trained up by some of the wiliest attack dogs in Chicago Democratic politics.

It makes those of us who learned our politics in the Chicago wards of the Daley organization smile .

For a revealing backgrounder on Obama click here.