29 December 2011

This Bloody Sterile Promontory by Doyle, 2011

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines — ktismatics @ 10:19 am

Their giggles and the click of their delicate heels foreshadowed their arrival.

That’s the first sentence from daughter Kenzie’s third completed novel, which she wrote in its entirety in November as a participant in National Novel Writing Month. The title cites Hamlet’s soliloquy from Act 2 Scene 2, with a crucial word added to signal vampiric intent. It’s an entertaining and thoughtful and accomplished novel, excellent to the point where I’ve gone from pride in the kid’s achievement to admiration and even envy at the writing. Here’s a scene from the end of Chapter 1.

“Good evening again, Miss Elizabeth,” he bowed his graceful head toward Beth, “Miss Francisca.” He fixed her again with that gaze that was not intense but was somehow incredibly captivating.

He stood with them, and continued the conversation he had been having with Francisca in the other room. He was still overwhelmingly personable, and it seemed impossible that he had ever conversed with anyone who did not feel they had somehow improved as a person after talking to him. His languorous smiles were unrivaled by any expression either girl had ever seen, they decided separately.

“I believe I’ll take some air in the garden,” he announced suddenly. “The champagne, I’m afraid, is making my head spin.” Neither girl had seen him take any champagne, but they did not give the explanation a second thought. “Would either of you care to join me?”

“Oh, I shouldn’t,” said Beth, casually annoyed. “I just know Georgia will be looking for one of us soon.”

Francisca was not so concerned with Georgia, and replied, “Yes, I think a stroll would be wonderful.” Beth observed the way neither took their eyes off the other, and let them go, strangely pleased.

It was dark in the neatly kept garden, as it was illuminated only by the dazzling mansion. This too was beautiful and pristine, even in its difference from the party. Mr Fenmore and Francisca strolled between trees and flowering bushes, next to classical white benches and statues, still conversing. There was something so easy about the dialogue that passed between them, and Francisca felt that surely this was what she had always thought to be an overly romanticized notion, rather than something real. It occurred to her that there was no one in the world she trusted more in this moment than the refined young gentleman by her side. For this reason, it did not occur to her that it was anything but enjoyably ordinary when he placed his hand on her arm – which resulted in shivers coursing through her – and lightly directed her toward one of the little benches that was dark and far away from the mansion.

“I apologize if I seem forward,” he said, unexpectedly nervous, “but I think I ought to tell you. No, I owe it to you to tell you.” He paused, and she leaned toward him, anxious and anticipatory. He continued.

“I would intend to pursue you. As would a suitor. I would not, of course, be so direct about it…it would be terribly uninteresting if I were to remove all the thrill of uncertainty so soon.”

Her heart pounded loudly, and opened her lips as if to speak as her brow contorted to express confusion and disappointment. It took a moment for her to finally vocalize the word, “ ‘would?’”

Mr Fenmore looked away, clearly frustrated with himself. “I am telling you this because I wanted to assure you of my feelings for you established tonight. But I also feel that it would be improper for me to hint at such sentiments while being unable to pursue them. It would be cruel to you, would it not?”

“But this is cruel to me! Why can you not?”

He stared into the black hedge across the path from them for an enduring few seconds. His face moved slightly a time or two before settling into an expression of determination. With a for-him unusual sentimentality in his eyes and a soft smile upon his finally fully open lips, he breathed, “You smell of tangerines.”

The urges to lean forward to him and recoil in horror kept her immobilized, eyes wide.

“O-open your mouth,” she stammered quietly. He fixed her again with that inescapable gaze for a moment before obliging. She stared.

“I did not know – I did not know that you – that what you are even existed.” It was not an exclamation, merely a statement.

He slowly closed his mouth again, still watching her intently. “This is why I needed to warn you. There would be – well, it’s terribly implausible, and far too early, of course…but…”

She raised her eyes again to meet his. “What do you mean?”

He hesitated. “I cannot lead you on, as we are so different. But surely you feel what I do?”

She nodded. “Yes…yes, I do.”

He sighed and closed his eyes briefly in relief. “We would have to be more similar, if we were to attempt a romance. I cannot return to what I was – what you are – but there is a way. You understand.”

She could hardly breathe.

“It does not hurt,” he was no longer looking at her, but staring through the hedge, into the past. “It is, in fact, quite surprisingly enjoyable. Both the initiation and the experience.” He looked back at her suddenly. “Shall I continue?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“The only unpleasantness is at the split second at the start, which feels only like a pin prick to the throat. But then it becomes otherworldly, pure perfection. Make no mistake, it requires that you be drained almost completely, and you will be weak. But then…then you replenish yourself by drinking from me. And then, my dear,” he leaned forward, “we have an eternity of beauty.”

She gravitated forward until they could feel the energy from each other’s skin.

“Dare I ask?” he murmured.

“Dare…and I will say yes.”

“Will you join me, my Francisca?”

She managed only to exhale a confirmation before he was at her throat. He kissed it lightly twice, one hand supporting the back of her head, before piercing the skin with the sharp points he had concealed all night. She made a small sound of surprise, but immediately relaxed, eyes closing, and placed a hand to his hair. Her strength left her, but it was marvelous, just as he had said. Eventually he was all that kept her from collapsing, but she was light-headedly ecstatic to be in his power like this.

Finally, when her heart had slowed almost to a stop, he pulled away and looked back at her. He rose and lay her down on the bench delicately, crouching beside her as she stared back at him, smiling with her eyes unfocused.

“My dear, you could not have made me happier,” he told her, but his voice was different now than it bad been moments before. He ran a finger lightly over her forehead to brush a lock of orange hair out of her face before standing and turning away. She wanted to object, but her mind was blurry and her face numbing.

His form receded cheerfully, smirking slightly, into the darkness. Her field of vision restricted gradually, heart growing fainter, until blackness prevailed and the weak fluttering stopped.

He wiped a stray drop of blood from his cheek disdainfully.

27 December 2011

European Garage Sale

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 10:17 am

Sometimes it seems as though the current global economic battle is being waged not between the 1% and the 99%, not between the private sector and the public sector, but between the owners of the central banks and the owners of other kinds of multinational corporations. The bankers want government spending austerity so they can get their loan money back plus interest. The other corporate heads want government borrowing to continue because, with high unemployment and low wages, the government is now the big spender in the marketplace. It’s no surprise that the Congressional Supercommittee couldn’t come up with a deficit reduction plan: their corporate sponsors don’t want it to happen.

I keep thinking that the bankers and the multinationals will eventually turn to the same page in the playbook. Most importantly, the multinationals would start spending more of their record-level retained earnings on expansion. So far they’ve done this by building capacity in the third world, where costs of labor and land are low. But because these people get paid so little they can’t afford to buy the products they make, meaning fewer sales and smaller profits. By hiring more workers in markets where margins are highest — the US and the EU — the multinationals would refuel those economies where they sell their products at the highest markups. Production costs will go up, but so will revenues. Two business nostrums come to mind: (1) It takes money to make money. (2) Make it up in volume.

With more money being paid to the first world’s 99%, tax revenues would rise even without raising tax rates for the 1%. Then the deficit could be reduced or at least stabilized. Then the bankers would be assured of getting their money. Everybody in the 1% is happy, while also ameliorating the discontent of the 99%.

So why isn’t this happening? Why do the big banks and the big corporations seem to be acting at cross purposes? It’s possible that there really is competition in the marketplace. Individual companies are trying to maximize their short-term profits, even if it means restricting growth which might yield higher-long term profits. But this growth strategy demands a coordinated effort to increase hiring and pay across the entire US and EU economies, a strategy that trades off short-term for long-term payoff. Any company trying to do this on its own will pay the price: higher operating costs for themselves means reducing profits and/or raising prices, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.

The other possibility is that big corporations are saving their retained earnings for the big going-out-of-business sales. When troubled national economies can’t pay back their sovereign debt, then both the governments and the banks lending to them face precarious circumstances. They may be forced to sell off assets in order to avoid bankruptcy and collapse. When that happens, plenty of bargains will be dumped on the marketplace. Big companies holding huge piles of retained earnings will be in the best position to snap up these bargain-basement assets. They’ll spend their profits not on expanding their own businesses and thereby growing the economy, but on consolidating ownership of existing businesses. In other words, maybe we’re witnessing the buildup for the next phase of the Shock-Doctrine acquisition and consolidation strategy of global capitalism.

I wrote the bulk of this post about a month ago, but it felt like I was asking the same question I’d posed before — why aren’t multinationals spending their huge piles of retained earnings? — without having any new information to suggest an answer. But now here’s an article from Sunday’s NY Times, offering evidence that big companies are pursuing the strategy of acquiring bargain-basement assets. Big American companies, banks included, are buying European assets in response to the EU’s austerity measures.

The Times article suggests that there are winners — American-owned banks and large corporations — and losers — European banks. But why should this be? As best I can tell, European firms are making good profits despite the downturn in the European economy — just as US firms are thriving in the midst of the US downturn. I understand that the EU is forcing second-tier European banks to disinvest from these assets, presumably in order both to strengthen the banks’ capitalization as a buffer against yet another round of failures as well as to free up more lending capacity to finance economic expansion which might put more people back to work. This policy is decidedly not being pursued by the Fed (or the UK central bank either), which accounts for the American banks’ snapping up these divested Eurobargains. But why aren’t the big European non-banking companies joining their big American counterparts in the feeding frenzy?

One possibility is that the European companies don’t retain as high a percentage of their corporate earnings on the balance sheets. Maybe they distribute larger dividends to shareholders than do US firms. Also, European countries impose higher corporate taxes than does the US, so more private-sector earnings wind up supporting public-sector services. Over the past five years the Dow Jones has grown more rapidly than the German stock market. Maybe that’s because the low US corporate tax rate makes American-domiciled businesses a better investment than European businesses. It’s not as though US companies are intrinsically American, or owned by Americans. In global capitalism the big money moves to wherever it can make more money, regardless of where the owner of that money happens to live.

24 December 2011

A Cronenbergian Christmas Story

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:35 pm

All right, boys and girls, here’s a nice little Christmas story for you all — and it’s true, too!

When we lived in France my wife befriended a couple from her church. An Englishman and a Canadian, they had lived in the south of France for many years following his retirement from some executive post within the then-nascent EU. It’s been about a year since he died of complications of surgery on his leg, a procedure that was meant to improve circulation but that resulted in amputation and sepsis that would prove fatal. She is afflicted with a variety of infirmities that eventually beset us all, but at 89 she lives alone in her apartment on the Cap d’Antibes.

Anne called her today to wish her a merry Christmas. Her voice sounded a bit raspy over the phone, and she acknowledged that lately she has been finding it increasingly difficult to swallow. After performing a thorough examination her doctor assured her that it wasn’t cancer or any other lethal condition, but that there seemed to be a buildup of tissue inside her throat. The doctor was puzzled: Can you think of anything that might have caused scarring down there? And then she remembered.

Long ago, when she was very young, she had suffered from a severe sore throat. You may stay home from school today, her mother told her when the child awakened from a fretful sleep. Stay in bed and rest. It had been only a few minutes since her mother left her bedside when, opening her eyes, the girl thought she saw two ghostly giants standing beside her bed. Tall and dressed all in white, wearing masks over their mouths, these two spectral figures suddenly grabbed her in her bed. One of them placed an odd-smelling cloth over her nose and mouth, from which she struggled mightily to escape. The two giants grabbed the little girl and hauled her bodily down the stairs. They laid her on the kitchen table, cloaked, like the giants, all in white. A third white-clad giant approached. As the other two forcibly held the thrashing girl on the table, the third giant pried open her screaming mouth with one hand. In the other hand he held a knife…

Without anesthetizing his terrified young patient, the surgeon began performing the tonsillectomy. She flailed and shrieked as he carved off slices of the inflamed tissue. At some point in the operation the doctor lost his grip on the scalpel, and it fell, blade first, down the young girl’s throat. He tried but failed to get a grip on the implement, slick with spit and blood. Finally he pulled it loose, blood gushing across his white surgical garb, the girl’s nightgown, the white tablecloth. He stopped the operation then, leaving shreds of the ravaged tonsils still in place.

That would explain the scarring, her doctor told her.

22 December 2011

Mr. Potter’s Christmas Bonus

Filed under: Culture — ktismatics @ 6:52 am

The EU central bank has loosened up its low-interest lending to second-tier banks, charging them very low interest rates and accepting as collateral lower-grade assets like mortgage-backed securities. It’s those very same securities that caused the banks to fail when the housing bubble burst, failures from which they were bailed out by the EU central bank while home mortgage borrowers were allowed to drift in the wind — just like in the US.

The EU central bank is not extending additional low-interest loans directly to troubled governments like Greece and Italy. Instead the 2nd-tier banks will continue financing those governments’ budget shortfalls. Those banks will borrow euros at, say, 1% from the central bank and then lend those same euros back out at, say, 3 or 4% to Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, the EU will impose austerity on the member governments to ensure that the second-tier banks collect their profits.

If the governments can’t keep up with their loan payments — and there’s no reason to believe that their precarious situation will improve any time soon — will these second-tier banks fail? That doesn’t seem very likely given the precedents. What’s more likely is that the central bank would again bail out the banks with more cheap euros, using as collateral the already-existing government securities that the governments aren’t able to pay back. Meanwhile, the Greek and Italian citizens must continue to pay usurious rates to investment bankers while themselves being subjected to government austerity and high private-sector unemployment and decreasing wages.

Here in the US, the Democrats in Congress are purportedly fighting tooth and nail for a temporary extension of the payroll tax reduction. This isn’t a tax in the usual sense. Part of it is an insurance premium that finances Medicare: you pay in now so you can get low-cost healthcare after you’ve retired from working. The other part is a retirement investment program: pay into Social Security now so you can live off the principal plus return when you’ve retired. Both components of the payroll “tax” require that the employer match the worker’s contribution, making it a small but vital part of the employee’s total compensation package.

Reducing the payroll tax accomplishes three things: it undermines two self-sustaining government programs for older people; it reduces employee pay; it increases ready cash available for workers to spend now. Who benefits? Companies and their investors, who get increased consumer spending from their workers while actually decreasing their paychecks. Who loses? Workers, whose financial security at retirement is severely compromised.

Thanks, Democrats. And as part of the “compromise” to gain the necessary votes from Republicans, the Democrats dropped the tax increase on millionaires — this after Dem senate leader Harry Reid already scrapped the tax rise for those making between $350K and $1M because, Reid reminded us, that kind of pay isn’t really high income in today’s economy. Boehner will fold on the payroll tax cut, Democrats in Congress are braying about the Republican Speaker of the House. Of course he will: it’s in the best interest of his constituents. The only debate remaining is whether Congress and the President will make this windfall for employers and investors permanent rather following the usual Washington playbook of staging an ongoing series of  brinksmanship throwdowns  over short-term extensions.

14 December 2011

But Now I Might Be Mistaken

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:32 pm

Here’s a nice convergence. This afternoon I was editing this paragraph from the first chapter of my book:

Pleased with his work, Bud strolled to the drinking fountain as Dave bit into the second verse hard. “Nice story, man,” somebody said, slapping Bud on the shoulder. Bud turned around: it was the burly mustachioed guy who looked like a ZZ Top roadie. Just before Bud’s turn this guy, who also happened to be The Amazing Dave’s brother, had read an excerpt from his newly-published fantasy novel, something about a knight with magical powers challenging a vampire at his castle. “Yours too,” Bud lied.

That got me thinking about ZZ Top. I clicked onto the Wikipedia page for Billy Gibbons, the guitar player for the band. “He is noted for using an old five pesos Mexican coin as a guitar plectrum, and use of pinch harmonics in his solos.” I Youtubed the ZZ Top song La Grange, which features extensive use of the pinch harmonic technique on the second and last guitar solo, kicking in at about the 2:30 mark. Here it is:

So anyhow, about an hour later I took a walk. On the home stretch coming up the hill a car with Vermont plates pulled over to the curb. “Excuse me, sir,” the young guy driving the car asked me, “but could you possibly give me directions to La Grange Circle?” “A haw haw haw haw,” I growled in reply. I explained about ZZ Top and the song I’d just listened to. He nodded. I told him I wasn’t sure where La Grange Circle was, but that if he took a right at the top of the hill there were a bunch of little roads branching off to the right, one of which might be La Grange. “I’ll find it eventually,” he said. “And keep rocking that ZZ,” he shouted out the window as he drove up the hill.

12 December 2011

My Levitation Experiences

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:03 am

When I fly in my dreams, usually I flap my arms rather than gliding through the air. Lately though I’ve just been levitating. Sometimes it doesn’t work very well: I have to concentrate very hard, lift an arm or a leg off the ground, nearly will myself into the air. That effort gets me up only a foot or so and for only a few seconds before I sink back down again. At other times I just pop right up there, hovering at the ceiling or high in the sky, to the astonishment of onlookers. In these successful levitations I am able to concentrate my attention on my body in such a way that it just seems to release itself from gravitational constraints. I enjoy it.

7 December 2011

The Word Never Made Flesh

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:54 am

I’ve been editing the latest novel. The first draft is short and it will stay short, but even as I finished writing I knew it would need to be plumped up a bit in places. Here’s a textual implant I stuck in there this morning. The main character, name of Bud, happens to be a fiction writer (yes, I know). He’s burned out, no longer wants to write. Now he finds himself embarked on a weird sort of Pilgrimage that may or may not re-inspire him and rekindle his authorial passion. After I’d read the first draft through I jotted this in my notebook:

So, somewhere in the Pilgrimage Bud has to arrive at the realization that he is like other writers, that all books have already been written.

It’s an integral part of the authorial burnout: Bud has come too late to the party; there is nothing new to be written under the sun. Do I implant this idea as part of a conversation that Bud is having with somebody else he encounters on his travels? Or is it a thought that takes shape inside Bud’s head? I decided to try making it an observation of the third-person narrator, who for the most part never intrudes in the story. Here we find Bud, early in his voyage, climbing a Mediterranean mountainside trying to reach a set of railroad tracks perched halfway up the ascent. I’ve included a bit of context before and after the implanted paragraph.

…Bud came upon the charred and tumbled remains of an old cottage, the stub of its lichen-encrusted stone chimney rising from the undergrowth. At this partial clearing Bud slipped his pack off and uncapped the water bottle. Turning around he could see that he’d made significant progress. Below, the sea curved around him, framing an almost primeval landscape showing no sign of human settlement. From here the terrain got steeper, the mountain now looming above Bud, though at this acute angle he could not see the railroad tracks.

It might have been on just such a trail, clambering up from this same Sea, amid the ruins of some other forgotten civilization, that old blind Homer leaned on his staff and listened to the gods tell their tales, their voices sometimes whispering, sometimes booming across the mountains. Or perhaps he had been reclining on his island seaside terrace drinking orange juice and eating pastries as the gods recounted their adventures and intrigues with words carried on the waves and the tides. Even then the stories were old – was there ever a time when a new story could have been told? The men and women in those tales acted strangely, at times with heroism, at other times with cowardice and treachery – perhaps only a blind seer could discern the hidden presence of the trickster gods who with such casual self-assurance took possession of the mere humans swarming in their midst. And what of those who listened to the stories? They would enter into the lives of the characters, the kings and their wives and sons, the mariners and the warriors, the sirens and the lotus eaters, until the listeners in their turn became possessed. Was there ever a time when someone could be different from everyone who came before? Even Homer wasn’t Homer – it’s just a name, collectively assigned to those anonymous cover artists who retold the tales that had been told to them, back and back into eternity past. Every teller of tales, and every listener too, is possessed by the blind spirits of wraiths, demiurges of the word never made flesh.

The trail kept going, kept climbing. Bud had to start using his hands now, grasping at boulders and shrubs and roots as he scrambled his way up the mountainside…

1 December 2011

Dollar Sale at the Fed

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:21 am

The Dow Jones rose 4% yesterday. From the NY Times:

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of Canada and the Swiss National Bank, trying to bolster financial markets as the euro zone grinds on, announced that they would reduce by about half the cost of a program under which banks in foreign countries could borrow dollars from their own central banks, which in turn get those dollars from the Fed… The move is intended to free up liquidity and ensure that European banks have funds during the sovereign debt crisis… It was unclear even after Wednesday’s move whether banks would loosen up lending or whether the market enthusiasm would last… The dollar fell against an index of major currencies. The euro rose to $1.3433 from $1.3328.

So what does that mean? What is the “program” by which world banks are able to borrow dollars? All I can figure is that the “program” is to borrow dollars from the source of dollars, namely the Fed. If the Fed reduces the cost to the banks of borrowing dollars — i.e., by lowering the interest rate it charges — then the Fed can expect demand for dollars to go up. How does the Fed meet that demand? By printing more dollars: that’s why the dollar is also called a Federal Reserve Note. So this move is an indication that the Fed is prepared, based on increased demand, to expand dramatically the supply of dollars in the world economy.

Why will easing access to dollars alleviate the debt crisis in Europe? Because most of the lenders of last resort for the Greek and Italian governments aren’t the European central banks but the money markets, which lend short-term for higher interest rates. Evidently most of the money markets are majority owned by Americans and deal in American currency. The money markets aren’t limited to investing only their depositors’ money; they can also borrow, using their deposits as collateral, just like any other financial institution. If the money markets spot a high-yield lending opportunity like, say, a European government that’s been cut off from its usual cheap source of funds, they borrow low in order to lend high.

What if the borrower gets in too deep and can’t pay back the loan? This is what happened when the housing bubble burst. Solution: get a bailout. Have the Fed print more dollars; the banks borrow from the Fed for cheap; the money markets borrow from the banks for cheap. Then the money markets can prop up their balance sheets without having to sell their “toxic assets,” which in this case are the debts owed by the Italian and Greek governments. Then make sure that the borrowing governments pay back their loans: impose another round of austerity, expand government-owned production, whatever it takes. Just make sure that those governments don’t do like Iceland and Argentina and default, telling their lenders to go fuck themselves so they can dig themselves out of the hole and start over, deploying what Paul Krugman calls the “bankrupt yourself to recovery” model.

But that’s next year, and it’s not a sure thing. For right now, the money markets have access to more cash that they can lend at high interest rates to those same governments. Will it help right those floundering ships, or is it throwing good money after bad? We’ll worry about that later, say the money market managers. Of course it’s their call whether they’re going to continue lending to Greece and Italy, or whether they’ll pass on their own lower borrowing costs to their debtors. The stock market is betting that they will: bank stocks were the biggest gainers in yesterday’s trading.

If the “program” works, there will be a lot more total dollars in worldwide circulation. That means that any individual dollar is worth less, and so the dollar sinks against other world currencies. That means that the price of purchasing American goods goes down relative to goods produced in other countries, which should signal an expansion of production among other US industries, especially since they too can borrow dollars more cheaply than before. The devaluation of the dollar also means that American workers will cost less for employers to hire, so maybe domestic unemployment goes down. The flip side of that coin is that the American worker’s paycheck will have less purchasing power, an effect achieved not by cutting the amount of dollars being paid out but by cutting the value of those dollars. But it’s far from a sure thing that business expansion will happen in America, since third-world workers will still be cheaper than their American counterparts even after devaluing the dollar. And devaluing the dollar is also likely to mean an increase in domestic prices for goods and services, which might further suppress consumer purchasing within the US.

So this big banking move should enhance the position first of banks and then of other businesses that do a lot of business in American dollars. It might increase US employment while simultaneously decreasing the real income of American workers. And Greece and Italy might still decide they’d rather not pay back their enormous and crippling national debts, thereby collapsing the balance sheets of the money markets and second-tier banks that continue lending to them. So we’ll have to wait and see.

There’s one thing we can be sure of though: the central banks will always survive, because they can always crank up the printing press to make more money for themselves. There is one move that would pull the rug out from under the sure thing: the national governments that borrow from the central banks could decide to tell those banks to fuck off and start printing their own money. Argentina did it, and so did Iceland, and their economies and governments are doing fine. What if Greece and Italy did it? What if the US did it?

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