I wear chains that excite the Feds

Melissa and Fraley had folks over on Friday to watch the Presidential debates for a bit. The magical scorecards from CNN entertained us for a bit, though I didn’t see the point of them. “Obama’s up 12 to 8,” Auston would say, tallying the four-faceted scorecards each panelist had. “12 of what to 8 of what?” I asked.

We tried muting the debate and pretending that the candidates were arguing about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (“I have never been a fan of that Shia LeBoeuf vine-swinging scene, and my record is clear on that”), but that didn’t help much. So we put in Idiocracy instead, which is still funny.

On Saturday, I started some laundry, then invited some folks over for gaming. We had an action-packed session, demolishing the Zakim Bridge and a historic house in Salem in the process. Unfortunately, my laundry was still damp by the time we finished, so I had to drive to the Highland Ave laundromat in the pouring rain and buy $10 in quarters.

“You doing laundry here?” the guy asked. “Yes,” I said. Then I took my double handful of quarters, got back in my car (right outside their window), and drove home. That’s probably the most evil thing I’ve done in a long while.

I fought the temptation to stay in on a rainy night and it paid off, as I had a hell of a time at Boston News Net on Saturday evening. I shot the nonsense with Jackie and Jen D., who were working the theater bar that evening, while waiting for the BNN cast to filter out. Once they finished striking their tech-heavy set, I joined them for a quick drink at The Field around the corner.

Confidential sources had told me that Vickie and Michelle B. were hosting a girls’ slumber party at their house, a mere two blocks from my front door. I decided I had an obligation to crash it, so I showed up a little after midnight. “Ladies,” I told them, “I just wanted to offer my services in case any of you need something brought down from a high shelf. Or perhaps any stuck jars that need opening.” They gave me a beer, which was my original goal. Wheels within wheels, my friends.

Sunday was pretty straightforward: I had Gorefest rehearsal, stopped by Marie’s to drop off her leftover Magner’s, then got a grilled cheese from Deli-icious. I got a call back from the apartment manager, after having left a (non-urgent) message on Saturday night. “Is the window still leaking?” he asked.

“Not currently,” I said. “Just when it rains.”

“Okay,” he said. “Is it bad?”

“Not too bad. It’s bound to get worse, y’know?”

“Right,” he said. “You can put, like, a towel or a bucket under it.”

“I have.”

“Right. Well, someone will come by to look at it once the rain lets up.”

“Okay,” I said.

I am me, the universe and you

This media blow got rained on this weekend:

In Bruges: A little too bleak to be really dark, a little too pat to be really funny. But still perfectly entertaining. All of us have spent some point in our lives holed up in some jerkwater town during shitty weather waiting to hear some bad news. My Bruges, per this metric, is Lexington, MA, and no, you don’t get to hear that story. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson play two Irish hitmen, holed up in Belgium after a hit gone wrong, comparing philosophies on life and hope. And don’t worry – some interesting stuff happens, too. This movie will make you guffaw in surprise at least twice and wince with your hand near your mouth at least once.

Paul Newman: The fucking man, that’s who.

Boston News Net: This past Saturday’s show was hilarious. The material’s pretty sharp, but the delivery’s what sells it: everyone in the cast has great wit and timing. They’re holding an election party on the night of the Presidential vote; I may stop in and drink with them.

Road to Perdition: I actually started watching this before hearing the news on Saturday, but I just finished it last night. A really solidly crafted film in every respect – beautifully shot, beautifully scored, beautifully acted. I don’t understand why this movie never took off in popularity. For my money, it should have been the next Shawshank.

The Ole Miss Presidential Debate: I have been doing a fairly good job of quarantining myself from election media, so Friday was the first time I’d heard Obama or McCain speak extemporaneously (should I put that last word in scare quotes? I’ve decided not to; the thought occurred to me).

(1) If politics, in a democracy, is the art of getting strangers to support something that cannot possibly benefit them, then Barack Obama is a very good politician.* John McCain isn’t, by Friday’s appearance and by his own admission: very few people like him or want to work with him. So Barack Obama can peddle shit with a glossier finish than John McCain can; this surprises no one. But that’s not what this, or any, election is about.

(2) Frankly, I’m reassured to know that Obama has no problem – and I mean none – invading former allies at the drop of a hat. Seriously, snap your fingers and airplanes start flying. You think he blurts out “Nuke London” if you startle him out of a sound sleep?

(3) People worry about John McCain dying early and leaving Sarah Palin as Commander-in-Chief. Relax. If Death pays McCain a visit in the Oval Office, McCain will defend himself with the venom sac in his left cheek.

* Getting strangers to support something that will benefit them just makes you a good broker. Selling that plan to everyone else? That makes you a politician. “Really, guys, corn subsidies are … um … good for the environment!”

when the law break in, how’re you gonna go?

September 25, 2008: Lawmakers reach nearly reach deal on $700,000,000,000 bailout*

Sadly, we lost Mr. Tambor in the L.A. Water Riots of 2012.

Sadly, we lost Mr. Tambor in the L.A. Water Riots of 2012.

By the time that bright, cold day in April rolled around, I’d been dealing for the monthly Mount Weather Blackjack Game for half a year. I’d been introduced to Mount Weather – the secret FEMA facility in which most of the Bush administration had been hiding – in September ’13. I saved Henry Paulson from a roving mob of battery scavengers while vagabonding through Cincinnati. This was unintentional; in the dark, I mistook him for Arrested Development‘s Jeffrey Tambor.

The guards waved me through the access gate – wearing remaindered TSA uniforms from the summer of ’11 with the silver skulls on the epaulets – and I swiped my access card outside the express elevator. A ninety second ride conveyed me to the sub-basement, and from there a quick walk to the Rumpus Room.

The gang was there already.

“Hey, gang,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

Two hours later, I was sorting my massive stack of chips while Bush tried to talk Bernanke out of buying in for the fifth time. I didn’t know why these guys insisted on playing blackjack, rather than stud poker or hold’em or any game that they had a chance of winning. Maybe the Clinton years had given them an inferiority complex – always on the outside, looking in – and they felt a constant need to stake their luck against The House. I always returned all their money at the night’s end, anyway. They were still using ’09 greenbacks, which wouldn’t buy me a stick of gum on the outside.

“Why do you guys always play blackjack?” I finally asked.

“Bobby gave us the idea,” Bush said, indicating former AIG chief executive Robert Willumstad with a jerk of his head. “We had that Kevin Spacey movie 21 on the DVD and we thought we’d try our luck at counting cards.”

“Really? You’ve been counting cards this whole time?”

Bernanke nodded. “It’s a four-deck shoe, so we worked it out that …”

I shook my head to cut him off. “I always deal out of a seven-deck shoe.”

The room fell silent.

Definitely counting cards

Definitely counting cards

“So you thought I had more high cards left in the deck,” I explained, pouring myself a drink, “than I actually did. So you started bidding more aggressively, because high cards are good for the player. But then you started losing hands – because you were wrong about the future composition of the deck. And then you did that stupid Martingale thing where you double your bet after each loss, which only got you farther into hock.

“And besides,” I continued, “successful card counting is usually done in teams. It doesn’t work if you’re all counting cards against each other. Because then one player’s success is another player’s failure.”

Henry Paulson scratched his head.

“This is the same way you got in trouble with mortgage securities,” I told Herb Allison, former CEO of Fannie Mae. “You thought that there were more high housing prices in the future. You were wrong about the future composition of the deck. And because you were already investing in mortgage securities on credit, you had to keep raising your bets in order to make up your losses.

“And the rest of you …” – here I turned to the former CEOs of Merrill, Goldman, Lehman, Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual – “… all had to keep him in the game. Because if he folded, then all of those bad cards – meaning, all of those toxic mortgage debts – would start coming to your hands. And the process would repeat.”

“Not for me,” Willumstad of AIG said.

“No,” I agreed. “But you wrote credit default swaps – insurance contracts on those bad bonds. These contracts only paid off in the event that the holder went bankrupt. And when lenders started going bankrupt left and right, you owed more money than you could pay.”

“It could have been a catastrophe!”, Paulson exclaimed. “Think about it – trillions of dollars of wealth, vanishing overnight. All because of some greedy bankers …”

“Don’t go blaming us for this!” said Richard Fuld, former CEO and chairman of Lehman. “We wouldn’t have bought so heavily into these mortgage securities if Moody’s hadn’t rated them AAA – as safe as government bonds!”

“Like this is our fault!” shrieked Ray McDaniel, former CEO of Moody’s. “Those brokers bundled junk mortgages together into a single package that looked like a safe investment. If they hadn’t been after those thousand-dollar commissions …”

Angelo Mozilo, former CEO of Countrywide Financial, made a jerk-off motion with his leathery hands. “Puh-lease. What, am I gonna be the guy who turns down some poor schmoe from getting a home? When he can just go to a competitor down the street and get the same no-income, no-assets, adjustable-rate loan? Let the FHA investigate me for discriminatin’ against blacks and Hispanics and what-not …”

The shouting rose to a general din.

“Guys, guys,” I yelled, “no single one of you takes the blame.”

“Exactly!” Paulson squealed. “Because I solved it.”

“None of you take the blame,” I continued, ignoring him, “because the problem isn’t personal. It’s institutional. Suffering never comes from a few people conspiring to do evil; it comes from a million people with no incentive to do good.

Everyones entitled to their piece

Everyone's entitled to their piece

“Consumers had no incentive to be honest about their loan applications – not with loans available that didn’t even require you to state income. Lenders had no incentive to be honest with the consumers – not with the new lowered standards for credit. Brokers had no incentive to investigate the loans that they bought from lenders and bundled into tradable securities – not with the heavy demand from investors. And investors had no incentive to question the riskiness of the securities they bought – not with the generous rate of return they were seeing.”

As I spoke, I dealt cards from the deck to everyone still sitting at the table, punctuating each sentence with a face-up card.

“No one had an incentive to look,” I concluded, still dealing. “Everyone was looking the other way. And that’s when the train hit.”

I dealt a final card to James Cayne, ex-CEO of Bear Stearns: the grinning Joker.

“Did I leave that in the deck again?” Bush asked, peering over Cayne’s shoulder. “Shoot. Always forget that one.”

“The Professor’s right,” Paulson said, sidling up behind me and clapping me on the shoulder. “It’s silly to talk about who’s to blame. That’s all in the past. Especially since I solved the credit crisis with that massive bailout.”

We solved it,” Bernanke insisted. “And a fat lot of thanks we got for it, too.”

“Have you seen what it’s like upstairs?” I asked. “People are burning dollar bills to heat their homes. Typhoid’s sweeping through the Midwest. I have yet to meet someone who’s traveled more than ten miles from their home in the last year. You didn’t solve shit.”

“Obviously, it’s a time of hardship for the nation,” Bush admitted. “After the 2008 election …”

“Don’t blame this on him,” I interrupted, referring to Bush’s successor. “This is only partly his fault. You’re the ones who gave the Secretary of the Treasury absolute power – power that couldn’t be questioned in court – to control the economy. Given the idiot he appointed, this is only common sense.

“You started this when you spent seven hundred billion dollars – more than the budgets of the Departments of Defense, Education and Health & Human Services combined – to buy up bad mortgages. You sank seven hundred billion dollars into investments that would never pay off. Where would you get that $700,000,000,000 from?”

“New Treasury bonds,” Bernanke offered.

“But who would buy them? Treasury bonds are supposed to be a riskless return, but you just sank seven hundred billion in the same shit that crippled Stearns, Lehman, Merrill, Goldman and Fannie Mae. So since those debts are never going to pay off, the only way to honor those bonds is by printing worthless paper.

2008 Greenbacks - Collect Them All!

2008 Greenbacks - Collect Them All!

“Why do you think mothers stuff their children’s jackets with dollar bills? Why do you think customers at bars buy their drinks six at a time, before the price goes up at the end of the evening? How is it I can make a living gathering five dollar bills off the street, stitching them into a wallet, and selling the wallet for more than the currency it’s made of?”

They didn’t get it, of course. They never got it.

“Inflation,” I said, trying not to scream. “Inflation on a level that’s making Mugabe laugh at us all the way from the Hague. Inflation that bankrupted everyone on a fixed income – including the huge generation of Baby Boomers. Inflation that penalized savers and rewarded borrowers, turning America into a nation where everyone was in debt to everyone else. Consumers borrowed from corporations, corporations borrowed from banks, banks borrowed from the Treasury, and the Treasury just kept printing money to oblige.

“You returned America to serfdom. Nice work, guys.”

My voice had grown hoarse from lecturing, so I took a sip of my drink. A muffled pounding slowly filtered into the room from seven stories above.

“What’s that?” Paulson asked.

“Oh,” I said. “I might have forgot to lock the door behind me. Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Bernanke said. “The guards will protect us.”

“I don’t think so. I paid them off on the way down here. As stocked as you’ve kept your bunker, there’s one thing you can’t provide them.”

“Porn!” Bush said, striking his palm with his open fist. “Curse our fundamentalism!”

“But who is it?” Paulson asked. “Who could want to hurt us?”

“Well, that’s the thing of it,” I said, palming the smoke bomb I’d hidden behind my belt buckle. “Remember how I said Treasury bonds used to be a riskless investment? The kind of investment that was typically only bought by large institutions looking for absolutely safe places to store money? Like pension funds? Like the New Jersey local of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees’ pension fund?”

“Oh, hell,” Bush swore, fumbling for his cyanide capsule. “It’s the Teamsters!”

“Wait!” Paulson yelled, sweating and grabbing at the deck of cards scattered across the table. “What do the rest of us do?”

“I don’t know,” I said, dropping the smoke bomb. “Bail out?”

* I’ve had this post on the spike since Tuesday; I’ll miss the news cycle if I wait any longer. We all know the bill’s going to pass.

you’ll never guess the things that I do; I’ve had the devil ’round for tea

Those of you who either know my schedule or recognize the pattern of my updates might wonder why I haven’t told you what I did on Sunday yet. The answer: I’m waiting for video evidence.

Two of my current steps in the hopeless battle against time:

  • Haggling. If I want to step outside the usual paycheck-to-paycheck grind, I need to start rejecting the first price offered to me. This doesn’t work with chain stores – whose employees don’t have leeway to negotiate, and don’t care enough about the store’s bottom line to try – but works somewhat with small stores. I’ve been trying in small doses over the past few days. Saving money isn’t the issue here: it’s getting in the habit of saying, “No, I want it for less,” and not feeling like an asshole.

  • Swimming. I took some days off for the cold / allergies I’ve just now overcome, but I hit the pool again this morning with a vengeance. Doing the half-assed breaststroke that I do for sixteen to twenty lengths does a number on my shoulders and chest. I see more and more people in the pool every morning – experienced swimmers, usually, with caps and goggles and impressive form. Every now and then I feel silly, in my board shorts and bare eyes and leisurely pace. Why am I taking up a perfectly valuable lane?

    But I kick that thought aside earlier every day. Everyone exercises for their own reason, and I have mine. I could probably swim faster or more efficiently if I tried, but it’s not worth my effort to try. That’s not what I’m after. I slip into the heated pool an hour before anyone expects me at work, push off the wall, glide my hands quietly just beneath the surface of the water, and I think, Fuck you, time; I’m winning.

diamonds from sierra leone

Dear Hollywood,

Please get uncut diamonds right just once.

I know you want to portray a secret world of rich people above the law, who use easily portable assets to hide their wealth. And, for some reason, negotiable bearer bonds aren’t as sexy as they once were. And that’s fine.

But please, just once, I would like you to get uncut diamonds right. Uncut diamonds do not sparkle. They do not glisten under a penlight gripped in the teeth of our sweaty hero. They do not look anything at all like regular diamonds. They look, to the untrained eye, like rocks.

Diamonds are Forever got this wrong. Blood Diamond got this wrong. Even Out of Sight got this wrong, which offends me even more because George Clooney has this terrific line to Steve Zahn in the first act of the movie, about how uncut diamonds look just like rocks, and yet at the end of the movie, OH LOOK, SHINIES.

The only form of entertainment media I’ve ever seen get this right was an episode of Pointman, a forgettable UPN action-drama starring Jack Scalia. Seriously, Hollywood. When Jack Scalia is your moral compass, something has fallen horribly awry.

# # #

I’ve started taking melatonin as a cold cure.

Now before you roll your eyes and start dialing Poison Control, read the rest of this: when you have a cold, you need healthy sleep more than anything else. So about an hour before bedtime these past two nights, I’ve taken 5 mg of melatonin to coax me into easier and deeper sleep.

I’ve taken stuff that makes me drowsy before: Benadryl, NyQuil, massive amounts of alcohol. But melatonin doesn’t make it harder to focus so much as it creates a general heaviness. Your limbs react just a little more slowly to your commands, and you just prefer to sit rather than stand or move. Imagine being put under by the world’s slowest hypnotist.

It’s worked fine for me so far: I’ve slept the night through without sitting bolt upright to hack out phlegm (as I did on Sunday). If anything, I’ve slept too efficiently. I find myself slowly waking at 6:00 AM or so, and have to force myself to sleep another hour. At that point I re-enter REM sleep and I’m groggy when the alarm clock goes off. A friend of mine from the public library I used to work at in Maryland would call this a “fat cat problem” and shake her head unsympathetically.

she never been to texas, never heard of king kong

On Friday Mariateresa, one of my dearest friends in the world, had a 5-hour stopover in Boston en route to Paris (her final stop being Trieste). I picked her up at Logan and drove her down to Faneuil Hall, where we had lunch at an outdoor cafe. “I haven’t had lobster in so long,” she cooed. Yes, it is possible to coo with a mouthful of lobster; MT can pull it off.

Finding myself with an early evening, I rescued Marie C. from her office and drove her back to Davis Square. We ate Chipotle and watched the last few episodes of Hustle S1. Let me again express my amazement at this Swiss watch of a show – how it consistently and precisely pulls off things that the average movie can’t get right half the time.

Saturday I got up early, threw my BC Superfan Alumnus tee on over a long-sleeved shirt, and joined Greg W on the subway. When we changed over at Park St, a person of indeterminate gender sat down across from us. If female, she looked an awful lot like Meat Loaf; if male, he couldn’t quite pull off the Sesame Street T-shirt he wore. This person rode until about the Warren St. stop on the B Line, then got off.

Saturday was perfect grilling weather and Casey had acquired some choice franks and burgers, courtesy of Hilltop. We lounged about on the lawn just outside the Robsham parking garage, drank beer before noon, and talked about BC’s recruiting prospects. “I’m excited about Emory Blake,” Serpico volunteered.

“Emory Blake?” I asked. “Didn’t he write a series of moderately successful pulp novels in the 30s? Like The Spider or Air Aces?”

The BC game turned into a nailbiter when quarterback Chris Crane failed to capitalize on UCF’s ineptitude. When he wasn’t throwing balls into the stands – seriously, two consecutive goal-line passes never even broke the plane of the end zone – he was tossing picks left and right. We developed a sudden but lasting fandom for Montel Harris and backup QB Dominique Davis. The final score, 34-7, does not indicate how close the game was after the first half.

Later that evening, I met Michelle, Victoria and Grace at the Burren for a quick drink. Michelle’s been a big booster for her goddaughter’s soccer games, apparently, and Grace has started working out again. Or trying to. Meanwhile, if Vickie does anything other than work 90-hour shifts at Fenway, I haven’t heard about it.

information vegetable, animal and mineral

On Friday, I stopped myself as I emerged from the shower, mid-toweling, to wonder just what I was singing to myself. Then I realized: the Frogs’ chorus from Aristophanes The Frogs, set to the opening theme of HALO. Some days I wonder if I’m crazy enough to make it as a writer; Friday was not one of them.

# # #

I straddled the fence on whether or not to buy a Canon Powershot SD1100 for a while. I have decided not to, for at least one month, partly because I want to train myself to use a camera more. I’ve owned a digital camera for years now, and my cell phone can take pictures, but I still rarely use either. So I want to get myself into the habit of snapping and uploading interesting pics to supplement these posts. Expect more images in the weeks to come.

Also, partly because I have no money this month.

# # #

An unexpected raincloud broke over Cambridge on Sunday night. As I came out of the Davis Square T stop, I bumped into a small crowd of people huddled under the stone overhang. A disheveled man with a neck beard ranted about “the Milky Way, and all these stars, all just spitting on it … fuck you, motherfuckers …” Nobody looked at him.

You think that guy saw those first spattering rain drops and started rubbing his hands with glee? Maybe he busted out some classic material – stuff he’d been saving for a captive audience, like the Everett drunk tank or folks waiting to cross at a light. Must’ve made that man’s week.

# # #

I’ve stayed pretty true to my pledge not to read the news, so expect no posts on the subject of the Bush administration’s nationalization of the banking industry. I want to keep my blood pressure low. If you really want to read what I think, then you can just look at any post I’ve written on the subject of economics for the last, oh, I don’t know, EVER.

(Incidentally, apologizing to Ron Paul for calling him “crazy” would be big of you right now. “Sure, Ron. The Federal Reserve’s a massive conspiracy designed to devalue American currency and keep big banks afloat. They’ve got dictatorial powers. Okaaaaaay, big guy.”)

(By way of example: sorry, Ron)