Archive | January, 2015

Falling arches and other cataclysmic changes

31 Jan

change

With sweat and angst, people struggle for years to change things, then suddenly the mighty fall simply because of changing tastes.

Powerful people and institutions use their power to create systems that sustain and protect them. But these systems always contain elements of their own destruction. They do not defend against the unexpected and the unlikely. So when that unforeseen wave rises, it crashes with the force of a tsunami.

Who could have anticipated that people would turn against McDonald’s hamburgers?

mcdonaldsIn 1994, the restaurant giant had sold 99 billion burgers – an unfathomable number. Then it stopped counting. The film Fast Food Nation cites a survey showing that 88 percent of people could identify the McDonald’s arches but only 54 percent could identify the Christian cross. Financially, the company is larger than the economies of many countries.

Yet the chaos has come.

Days ago, after only two years as McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson announced he would step down. Profits in the last quarter dropped a precarious 21 percent. Sales have pretty much fallen or remained flat at all stores for 13 consecutive months.

McDonald’s didn’t change. We did.

“I don’t know a single person of my generation that eats at McDonald’s,” a man in his early 20s said. “When the older generations pass on, they’ll have no customers.”

People haven’t necessarily forsaken burgers. They just prefer the so-called “better burgers” at places like Five Guys and the Shake Shack, which this week had a highly successful public stock offering.

McDonald’s, with its top marketing pros, is trying to reverse the trend. Ads have changed to show that its food is actually real. Other changes must be in the works. It could turn things around and reinvent itself, but so far that hasn’t happened. If McDonald’s goes under it will leave a giant hole in the global economy. In its wake will be opportunity for others.

We are used to disruptive technologies destroying things like newspapers and video stores, but the technology related to burgers has not changed. Only taste and attitudes have changed.

Can you imagine if this happens in politics?

Political parties usually are quick to adapt. They are willing to give people what they want – or at least provide the appearance of this – in order to survive. Still, quick changes can alter much about the system.

Koch Brothers

Koch Brothers

In a political overhaul, what would happen to the conservative Koch brothers, who announced recently that their political network will spend about $900 million on the 2016 elections – more than the Republican and Democratic parties will spend.

If the political climate takes a dramatic shift, what will happen to this network, its money and its associated power, influence, special interest legislations and the intricate machinery that runs everything and keeps order? What will happen to all the other power networks? What will replace them? Will it be genuine or phony? Helpful or hurtful? Open or closeminded? Peaceful or warlike?

It was reported this week in the New York Times and elsewhere that a majority of the American public, including half of the Republicans, support government action to curb global warming. That news is bound to recast agendas in the 2016 congressional and presidential elections.

What else is coming? Lots, probably.

Young people aren’t buying homes; aren’t buying cars; aren’t living in the suburbs; aren’t using traditional banks. Maybe they will decide to stop using traditional politicians.

On a dark election night, a losing politician was heard to have said, “The people have spoken – the bastards!”

We may be hearing more of this. It’s something to think about as we eat a better burger in the back of a peer-to-peer driving service on the way to a friend’s apartment in the city.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Get me out of this prison!!!!

27 Jan

Another Day, Another Time the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" Another Day-Another Time

Mull over, if you will, these few lines from a Woody Guthrie song:

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

You’ll hear a bit of that tune in a documentary called, “Another Day, Another Time.” The film, embedded below, features mostly folk and old tyme American music. Producer T. Bone Burnett got a bunch of very fine musicians together to celebrate the traditional approach to music, and the movie gives us both on stage and off stage performances.

As I watched it, enjoying every note, I realized a preponderance of the songs were about imprisonment and the destruction of individuals by authority. There were songs like:

  • Hang me, Oh Hang me
  • The Midnight Special
  • The Auld Triangle
  • House of the Rising Sun
  • Worried Man Blues

Spanning decades, these songs continue to touch people, which is why they prevail. They reach something inside us. You don’t have to be a criminal or a con to appreciate them. As I listened to all these prison songs, it came to me that so many of us, whether we have been in a cell or not, must fell imprisoned.

I believe it’s these feelings that keep such songs with us and inspire new ones.

Johnny Cash is famous for his “Folsom Prison Blues,” where a man convicted of killing someone “just to watch him die” longs for freedom and is incensed every time a train filled with free people passes near his cell. The song is so convincing many believe Cash served time in Folsom. Not so. He wrote the song while in the Air Force, stuck at a base in Germany and longing to once again be his own man.

So the song was a metaphor for him, and for us.

Why do we feel this way? Where do our shackles come from? More important, how can we get rid of them?

Although Woody Guthrie wrote about the imprisoned Worried Man, he also wrote “This Land is Your Land” – which joyfully describes a vast, beautiful country and the unfettered right we have to travel it. In the documentary, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson do a number called “I Hear Them All,” and combine it with “This Land.”

They received the loudest applause when they sung this Guthrie verse:

There was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said “Private Property”

But on the backside it didn’t say nothin’


This land was made for you and me.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we, too, focused on the back of the sign. Our minds have put us in prison. It is up to our minds to get us out. The freedom and expression of music will help, as will the film, “Another Day, Another Time.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Greek gods knew our shortcomings, especially how greed numbs the brain

25 Jan

zeus-greek-mythology

A new piece of furniture was coming in, so an old piece had to go out. It was a beat up bookshelf filled with dusty volumes. As I removed them, I noticed Homer’s “Odyssey,” which I had not read.

So I cracked it open, not knowing that a passage would foreshadow a later incident.

The early pages had much to offer, and I made these three observations:

  • It’s nice to live in a world where gods favor noble pursuits, but since even heroes can lose the favor of gods, Greek mythology really is no different from real life.
  • Odysseus had a son, whose teacher and counselor is named Mentor. Now I know where that word came from.
  • In one scene, the gods sit around complaining about humans. Zeus says, “Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man.”

Two days after reading this, I saw both ignoble qualities on vivid display.

They appeared in a news item about a woman whose acquaintance I had made and whose mansion I had visited. The article said she and her family had been arrested and charged with $20 million in insurance fraud.

According to the grand jury, their home had been set ablaze not once but three times. After the fires, and after four burglaries, the woman would claim loses of millions in jewels and other valuables.

That’s enough to draw suspicion. Nevertheless, 25 days before the last fire, the coverage on jewels in the home was increased to $11 million.

The news report said investigators seized six Ferraris, two Rolls Royces and millions in other assets. They also found jewels on which claims had been paid.

Now that’s folly.

Among those arrested were the woman’s daughter, who was a former district attorney, and her second husband, a former deputy sheriff. The first husband was a foreman of some sort. She apparently worked as a clerk in her daughter’s law office.

The lot of them must have given Zeus a headache.

I first met the matron at a charity event held at her house. It wasn’t one of those grand old houses. It was one of those incredibly large new houses. Snobs and old money, of course, cast aspersions at such dwellings, but it nevertheless was amazing to look at. The owner, not being the Katharine Hepburn-Philadelphia Story type, fit in with the place. She was a rough and tumble political type with a voice like Marge Simpson and hair so big it needed its own room.

I attended the event with a portrait artist. Our hostess took an interest in the artist and asked about commissioning a painting. It was explained that the portrait might cost between $10,000 and $15,000. The homeowner never followed up with this particular artist, but later hired someone to paint a ceiling mural that had family members looking down from a heavenly perch. I’m not sure what she paid for the mural, which burned, but insurance records show she sought to collect $950,000 on it.

I try to think the best of people but couldn’t resist speculating that when this woman talked about the portrait with the first artist, she had something in mind beside art. It could be that a portrait didn’t quite fill the unstated need. Indeed, upon reading the full story behind the arrests, one might conjecture that insurance fraud was at the root of everything this women did, that it was a firm mindset and an inescapable preoccupation.

As she found success in this preoccupation, did her inner levels of greed and folly increase?

Seems like they did. I might add that after each blaze, investigators found cans of flammable hairspray near the fire’s point of origin, and a security system showed the owner left the house shortly after each fire started.

Does greed also dull the imagination?

The artist and I actually saw this woman again shortly after one of the house fires. We felt so bad for her. We commiserated and consoled her. How unfortunate, we said.

Zeus must have been laughing, as well as planning the coming denouement to yet another sorry episode in humanhood.

Let’s end with Homer.

“Of all creatures that breathe and move upon the earth, nothing is bred that is weaker than man.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

She’s the first this, he’s the first that. But why?

18 Jan

Bess-Myerson

Bess Myerson died recently. The new stories about her said she was the first Jewish Miss America. They didn’t explain why.

If a Man From Mars visited Earth, he might come up with these possible reasons:

  • Jews aren’t pretty enough.
  • Jewish culture prohibits women from entering pageants.
  • Jews hadn’t heard of Miss America.

If he possessed special powers of insight, he might get closer to the truth and say: Jews don’t become Miss America because some people don’t like them.

While the Man from Mars might say this, the many obituaries on Miss Myers did not.

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson

This defies the journalistic tenet to never leave questions unanswered. Reporters sometimes even explain things most people know, like who O.J. was, or that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. But when reporting on “firsts,” they avoid the truth. Maybe they just don’t know how to say it.

The stories almost always include a sort of wink and nod or a code that we all are supposed to understand — mainly that certain groups of people receive unfair, unjust, discriminatory treatment, which makes awards and honors difficult.

I did see one article that tried going deeper into the “why” of Bess Myerson. Writing in the Daily Beast, Emily Shire said:

Kat Dennings

Kat Dennings

“What perhaps affected people more on a day-to-day basis were the pervasive anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews were cheap, weak, big-nosed, swarthy, and ugly little creatures.”

But she considers other reasons as well, saying that Jews make up only about 2 percent of the adult U.S. population and statistically are long shots. She also suggests that the Jewish-American emphasis on education and intellectualism could be keeping Jewish women off the runway.

Still, she points out that there are scores of Jewish beauties in Hollywood, which ain’t Harvard. She mentions Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones. She could also have included Alison

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Brie, Kat Dennings and Scarlett Johansson. There are so many web pages devoted to “hot and sexy” Jews that it’s hard to believe they comprise only 2 percent of the population. At the bottom of this post is a video on Playboy magazine’s top picks.

It could be argued that the strong Jewish influence in the movie industry permits bombshell Jewesses to become stars, while the Miss America pageant is without a similar tradition of semi-inclusiveness.

Alison Brie

Alison Brie

It’s a shame we can’t talk about such things and get to the heart of them.

Shortly after Bess Myerson died, Edward W. Brooke III passed away. His obituary said that in 1966 he became the first African-American popularly elected to the United States Senate. It didn’t say why.

But I think we all know the reason. Cheers to us.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Something I recently learned

4 Jan

Rockefeller-finger

Former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a presidential candidate and the grandson of one of the most successful capitalists in history, once commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera, a Marxist, to paint a fresco in the lobby of the RCA building in Manhattan. In that fresco Diego included a portrait of Lenin.

Rockefeller’s father, thoroughly embarrassed, had the artwork removed. With the money left over from the commission, Diego moved to other locations and painted the fresco over and over until his money ran out.

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

This incident is documented in a book by Richard Norton Smith called, “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller.” It also is shown in the 2002 Selma Hayek movie, “Frida.”

For younger readers who may not remember Rockefeller, he was the first divorcee to seek high office. He may or may not have been the first nationally known politician to die (at age 71) while in bed with a woman who was not his wife.

A Republican, Nelson was a big government spender and probably would not be accepted by his party today. He possessed enough courage and arrogance to flip the bird to a news photographer, as shown in the photo above.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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