Thursday, February 24, 2011

Change is a Sublte Thing

Just returned from a five state tour of Middle America - Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina.The ostensible reason for going was to attend the 23rd Annual Arts and Crafts Conference in Asheville, North Carolina.

The real reason was that I needed to get away and see things a little more clearly. My daughter would say, "Remove the veil of ignorance." I like to say, "Going to the balcony." Either way, it is a metaphor for stepping away from the field of battle, another metaphor, so that you get a better perspective of who you are and of the people around you.

Your question as to whether I have changed is intriguing. Change is often a subtle thing. We are so easily caught up in the tumult of life's events, that it is difficult to see how life's events affect us. No, that takes reflection which is better left to a time when one has the luxury of a cup of coffee and an easy chair.

Of the people I observed in my travel, there is too much to express in one essay. One thing I can say is that despite the infinite differences, we are pretty much the same. The only real distinction is in one's attitude to life. Perhaps it is best summarized in the statements of two people. The first in Elizabethton, Tennessee I asked, "What does one do around here for fun?" and her reply was, "Just work." The second a woman who left Houston Texas and moved to Cadiz, Kentucky, a town of 2,000. She now volunteers to run a non-profit community art museum, Janice Mason Art Museum. On the current exhibit of art by the local junior and senior high school, she says with heart-felt enthusiam, "Isn't their art amazing." We all struggle to pay the bills, to work out personal conflicts, and search for meaning to the changes taking place. To those who enjoy the process, it is exhilarating, to others, just work.

If I have changed, it is in my appreciation of the little things in life.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hotel California

I mention this song perhaps too much, but Hotel California is one of the iconic songs of the 70's that anyone of my generation has listened to over and over again. Rolling Stones magazine ranks the song 49th on its top 100 list. And Guitar Magazine moves it up to 8th on its list of top 100 guitar solos. The songs lyrics are vague enough to let one put any kind of spin on the words, bringing back the "spirit of 1969" tempered by the disillusionment of the late 70's, and the excess of the drug culture.

"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night..."
Last night my Garmin went blank, I was lost on highway 50 heading west through the middle of Missouri. The Garmin went blank because new highway 50 was not yet registered in the system. I was strangedly paralleling the old Highway 50, now business 50, my car a blue icon floating in grey on the Garmin screen.

It was late at night, I was tired and up ahead in the distance was the sign Motel California. Who could resist? After all, I had to stop for the night.

Monday, February 21, 2011


 (My suggestion is that you should listen to the Eagles' Hotel California while reading this blog. To do so, just clic on this link, Hotel California. The youtube video will appear in a new window, so you can come back, unlike in the song.)

Day three or four, I am not sure for one loses track of time and place on the road.

My overall impression of traveling is a slide show of people and places. The look and the speech of the people varies from state to state, as does the landscape. One sees in Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, then the hollows (pronounced hollars in the south) where weather beaten shacks share space with mobile homes and even newer homes. Judging from the rusted out wrecks of old automobiles parked in so many front lawns that, yes, NASCAR,  is the number one sport in the south. There are also wide open spaces, devoid of people, where the oak trees shorn of their leaves in winter stand tall and straight on the hills like so many whiskers on on an unshaven face. Perhaps the better analogy is one of fingers pointing to heaven as a sublime message of  "He is there." Finally, one comes across the towns and cities whose location often owes itself to the chance that once upon a time someone was too weary to go on.

I too was tired of traveling and so I chose to stop on I-24, just over the border from Tennessee and into Kentucky at Cadiz. The weather finally turned rainy and so it is a good time to pull into port. The name of the town also has a certain appeal to me. Cadiz - it is the Spanish port from which Columbas made his several journeys to the New World. Interestingly, he didn't know that the discoveries he made were "new" and clung desperately to the belief that he had found a short cut to the fabled kingdom of Kublai Khan.

Lost in history is the reason for naming a town in Kentucky after Spain's most famous port.Cadiz is not a port city and only sports s population of little more than 2000 souls. But, by giving it an exotic name perhaps it has enticed a traveler to spend a day and a night or two.

Welcome to Cadiz. What a lovely place to stay. Welcome to the Hotel California. On a dark and rainy highway somewhere on I-24 in Kentucky.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lost in Middle America, Day Two

Lately, I have felt that my life was turning into an endless series of dead ends. Each day I would get up - listen to my son argue about going to school on time; go to work - listen to everyone complain about this or that, it really didn't matter what the argument was about, it was just to complain; then go work out - only to find that my old injury, a bad hip caused by years of running, was not getting any better - I tell anyone now that my leg hurts so bad, that if I was a horse they would shoot me. So it is no surprise that I am beginning to feel and sound like a cranky old man even to myself.

This feeling of a death spiral into a miasma of sameness is a big part of why I took this car trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Sure, there is an Arts and Crafts fair at the end of the trip, located at the Grove Park Inn that provides the raison d'etre for leaving Wichita. But surely there is more to it than mica lamps, copper house numbers, and pottery. There is universal need to get away, to recharge the batteries, to reflect a little, and look at life through a different set of eyes.

Traveling by car provides that means of self-examination. A lot of writers have done it. Famously, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America,  John Steinbeck, with death literally knocking on his door, traveled with his dog Charlie in a motor home looking one last time for America and not liking what he found.

Then there was that great series of reports by Charles Kuralt whose On the Road segments for CBS News Sunday Morning show always struck a heartwarming chord. Kuralt hit the road in a motor home for 15 years before parking pen and home for the last time. Sadly neither Steinbeck nor Kuralt are with us any more, and so it is hard to know where to turn to when one wants to find real stories of real Americans in small towns.

I find that the first thing you discover when you travel is serenity. There sitting in the car with over a thousand miles of road ahead of you, you take a deep breath and count to ten before you exhale. The car wasn't a motor home, but it was a GMC Yukon with a front seat like a barcolounger, and a back that in a pinch was big enough to nap. Seated comfortably in my Yukon, all those petty squabbles pop and disappear like soap bubbles. And the routine of life's boredom is broken - drive where you want, stop when you are tired, get up when you want. This reminds me of Rousseau's famous saying, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Travelling breaks those chains and frees the traveller from any responsibilities. Of course Rousseau was speaking of class distinctions and social conventions, but the idea is the same.

Of course life is not perfect on the road. If it was everyone would hop in a cars and hit the road. No the reality of life creeps back in as you travel. John Steinbeck observed that the isolation of travel is the greatest burden to bear. Charles Kerault was lucky enough to get paid for travelling and every Sunday, he put all of his thoughts together in a broadcast to an audience that only wished that it could do for a living what Charles did.

The other great rediscovery that one makes travelling is that life is not an endless highway of beauty. Mixed into the scenic mountains, lakes, towns, and forrests are the blemishes that like real life remind one that you have to take the bad with the good.

This is day two of my trip and I am following my presumably inerrant Garmin dirrection finder. I plugged in the destination Grove Park Inn in Asheville, and off I go across eastern Missouri. The trip across Missouri is roughly 6 hours in a straight line using I-70, but driving the southern route on Missouri Highway 60 is a different story. Muntains and stop lights, twists and turns make for a much longer trip. I keep looking at my Garmin and wonder if all the twists and turns can possibly be right. We have to trust the big computer in the sky don't we? After all didn't Watson the computer just beat Ken Jennings and that othe guy who doesn't like to talk much on Jeopardy. I have alsways loved the comfort of having a map in hand and I still stop at each Welcome Center to get a new state map. But is Garmin a sign that Welcome Centers are a thing of the past. Google and iphones after all, like Watson, possess more information than all of the humans manning the collective Welcome Centers of all 50 states.

The Mississippi River beckons me and Garmin points me on, directing me to follow Route 60. Strangely though, at Charleston Missouri, I find that I am down to a two lane road. Off in the distance though I see the tall iron towers of the bridge that spans the Mississippi, and so I drive on, trusting Garmin, and ignoring all the signs that disaster looms.  These signs include one small reference to a detour that I didn't fully read speeding by at 75 miles an hour. Only after I recognize my error do I recall that the houses on this last few miles to the bridge have all become dilapidated, the gas stations all shuttered and closed, the road less travelled and less cared for. No, we are all blinded by our pursuit of success. We single mindedly drive on and ignore all the warnings that, only later, were so apparent.

Image from Wikipedia.

I will bring this story to a quick end. The bridge on Route 60 crossing the Mississippi from Missouri to Cairo, Illinois was closed and shuttered. Garmin the computer in the sky is not infallible after all. Funny, I was travelling to get away from all those dead ends at home and still I find one. The moral, I guess, is that you deal with life as it comes at you. You can't escape life by traveling, you just see it from a different perspective. If I had Garmin to yell at, or a highway worker to complain to I would about the misdirection or lack of signs. No, the only person I have to complain to is myself. And that gets one nowhere, like the place I am at.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lost in Middle America

It is day one of my cross country journey from Wichita, Kansas to Asheville, North Carolina. The first part of the journey is a familiar path along Highway 400 in Kansas, past Augusta, Beaumont, Fredondia, and on to Baxter Springs where the old Route 66 briefly cuts into Kansas before veering south into Oklahoma.

I choose this route not because it is quicker. It's not. In fact the route though Kansas City along I-35 and then east on I-70 saves an hour on this 17 hour trip. But I wanted to stop in Joplin at Sandstone Grove. This 35,000 square foot Mansion, just off I-44 as you enter Joplin from the south, is an interesting mix of outdoor sculptures, water fountains, and home accessories of all nature.
Garmin's direction finder took me along I-44 east until Springfield, then onto Route 60 across southern Missouri through the small towns of Middle America. These small towns like Cabool survive on a variety of activities including farming and tourism. My first day's journey came to an end half way thourh Missouri at Willow Springs. This example of Middle America is home to less than  2,147 inhabitants, 97% of whom are white. According to Wikipedia, " The racial makeup of the city was 97.02% White, 0.37% African American, 0.84% Native American, 0.28% Asian, and 1.49% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.07% of the population." Let's see, in real numbers, this means that Willow Springs hosts 80 blacks, 18 Native Americans, and 8 Asians, along with 21 Hispanics.

It is hard to make conclusions about any snapshot of a city. Stereotypes often interfere with our ability to see life clearly. Willow Springs is not the cast from the movie Deliverance any more than the blacks, Indians, Asians, and Hispanics are outcasts, intoxicated, Chinese restaurant owners, or gardeners. No Willow Springs is a hard working community where I imagine people get along a little better than in most cities because they have too. Friendliness is not a foreign commodity. It is part of the soul of Middle America. A place where change doesn't come as quickly as elsewhere, but where American values remain as strong as ever.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Origin of the Financial Crisis

"The financial crisis that has been wreaking havoc in markets in the U.S. and across the world since August 2007 had its origins in an asset price bubble that interacted with new kinds of financial innovations that masked risk; with companies that failed to follow their own risk management procedures; and with regulators and supervisors that failed to restrain excessive risk taking."

From The Origins of the Financial Crisis
Martin Neil Baily, Robert E. Litan, and Matthew S. Johnson,
Brookings Institure, 2008

In hindsight it is always easy to understand a crisis. In the case of the financial crisis of 2008, the rise in housing prices exceeded the owners ability to repay the mortgages.

But there is also a  more fundamental cause to this crisis. It is is innate human tendency to believe in anything that exalts our own sense of worth or self. Humanity wants to believe in esoteric ideals of kindness, value, goodness, and progress. These ideals are embedded in our religious concepts, our family values, and our political system. Trust in our fellow human beings is an essential part of the social organization. Without these ideals political and economic systems fail and mankind degenerates into a paranoid state of fear.

Thus, it is not surprising that in 2008 a crisis developed in global financial markets. Individuals and the market suspended their rational minds in the hopes that economic prosperity, ushered in by Ronald Reagan's presidency and the fall of Soviet Communism, would continue indefinitely. This crisis is not a singular historical event. As economists and historians remind us, a recent parallel was the Great Depression of the early part of the 20th Century. But, that economic disaster was by no means the only historical incident in which the irrational exuberance of investors exceeded the value of goods they purchased. There have been several economic crises since the stock market crash of October 1929. Likewise, the historical evidence is that markets operate in cycles of boom and bust as investors leap into a market boom in order to take advantage of profits only to find that their speculative judgments are just that, speculation and not rational judgments.

Companies fail to follow management procedures because of the opportunity for profit. There is no disincentive for managers to avoid excessive risk taking other than the potential for corporate bankruptcy. But such a risk is born not by the manager, but by the corporation. And all too often, a corporate manager has previously feathered his own nest before the death knell of economic doom sounds for the company.

Regulators and supervisors also fail to restrain excessive risk taking. Either they are too often beholden to the managers, or themselves part of a system that rewards short term advantage over long term survival. Congressional over site plays an important part in regulating economic behavior. After all, Congress establishes the rules by which corporations play. The history of Congressional action from 2000 on reveals that Congress not only ignored the signs of instability in the market, but itself played an instrumental role in fostering loans to individuals who had no business borrowing, and to banks and corporations who lent money to such individuals. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack failed because Congressional leaders permitted bad practices.

Is financial crisis inevitable? Perhaps it is because we are all driven to succeed, and we all have a disincentive to question our own judgments when events suggest that success is just around the corner. But perhaps we can lessen the risk of failure by creating better oversight of risk management, by increasing the risk to the decision makers, by separating regulator from corporate management, and by increasing the turnover in supervision so that new eyes and new ideas review the conduct of others. A little sunshine goes a long way to brighten the day.