Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Banking Thoughts

I’m not sure how banks really function.  I’m watching the Bernanke hearings now on C-SPAN, and I’m beginning to realize that neither the questioners (Senators) nor the witness (Bernanke) seems to know that much more.  Yes, they all profess to be knowledgeable about what happened, and they claim to know what to do in the future, but weren’t these the same people who were around when the seeds of destruction were being planted a few years ago?  It doesn’t give one a lot of comfort.

I never used to give a passing thought to banks, or to bankers.  Then, when the crisis struck, it made me start to worry more about the financial system and the cause of its collapse.  Was it the government’s fault?  Nope.  The government said it was Wall Street’s.  Was it Wall Street’s fault? Nope. You guessed it. Wall Street blamed the regulators. But someone had to be culpable, yet no one wanted to take credit.  Wonder why?

I had been starting to get a little comfortable with our financial leadership a few weeks ago when Time magazine anointed the Fed chairman as its Person of the Year.  But then I recalled an earlier Time cover, Feb. 15, 1999, with photos of an earlier Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, along with Treasury’s Bob Rubin and Larry Summers. 

There were two captions on the cover: “The Committee to Save the World,” and “The inside story of how the Three Marketeers have prevented a global economic meltdown – so far.”  I’m not sure which caption was funnier.  A year later, as you may remember, all hell broke loose as one of our increasingly frequent financial bubbles burst. So much for the Three Marketeers.

Over the decade, the Fed leadership had changed from Greenspan to Bernanke. Yet here was Summers himself, back this time as National Economic adviser.  And Tim Geithner, a protégé of all the aforementioned, took over Treasury.  So our economic leadership has “progressed” from Greenspan, Rubin and Summers to Bernanke, Geithner and Summers.  In effect, the guys who got us here are back in the chicken coop again.  Change you can believe in? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The conventional wisdom is that Bernanke is irreplaceable and should be reappointed in order to assure stability in the financial markets; there is absolutely no one else who can do the job.  Somehow, I find it hard to believe that in a country of 300 million-plus, there is no other person who can run the Fed, that Bernanke is indispensable.  As Charles de Gaulle said, “The cemetery is full of indispensable men.”

Meanwhile, Geithner has his own issues.  Back in the bad old Soviet days, western Kremlinologists used to study photographs of the Politburo to discern who was gaining in favor -- by standing nearer Stalin -- and who was losing.  Those who moved over time from the center to the outside were likely headed for the Gulag.  This White House photo taken last week during Volcker’s visit suggests – based on Geithner’s distance from the President, not to mention the concerned expression on his face – that Cyrillic lessons might be in order.

Or as put it last week:

Many in political Washington immediately suspected that the new ideas reflected a diminution of influence of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House economic advisor Larry Summers, and the ascendancy of former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who has advocated a tougher approach to the “too big to fail” problem for a year or more. In fact, Obama referred to one part of the proposal as “the Volcker rule.” 

Anyway, I’m going back to TV to watch more of the Senate hearings.  I’m dying to learn whether “somebody knows something” or it’s just more of “nobody knows anything.”

But I have recently learned something about the way that banks run their businesses.  They run them strangely.  Even though they’re lending very little to anyone but those with prime credits, the banks seem to be expanding their retail space at a feverish pitch.  At least in Manhattan.  It seems that whenever a street-level space becomes vacant – a not infrequent occurrence these days – some bank snaps up the location.

I just surveyed the area up and down Broadway within three to four blocks of our apartment building, and discovered 10 bank branches, many opened in the last few years.  They outnumber Starbucks in the same stretch five to one.

The good news?  Lots of ATMs.

Broadway & 63rd

Broadway & 62nd

Broadway & 61st

Broadway & 60th -- Home

Broadway & 58th

Broadway & 58th

Broadway & 57th

Broadway & 56th

Broadway & 56th

Broadway & 56th

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Letter from Broadway

Suppose you’re a Broadway producer.  You're backing a show. Not a tourist-friendly musical, not a sitcom-like comedy, but a really serious drama. Troubled longshoreman. Set in Brooklyn. Doesn’t end happily. Tell me, honestly, what are the of odds that you would expect to wake up after opening night to see these quotes from reviewers:

"Theatrical lightning bolt"
"A singular astonishment"
"Exquisitely played"
"Nothing short of remarkable"

It happened.

We attended the opening of A View from the Bridge, a revival of the 1955 play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Gregory Mosher [disclosure – a friend], it stars Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson [disclosure – not a friend] and Jessica Hecht. The experience reminded me of how exhilarating well-written, well-acted and well-directed live theater can be. It also reminded me of why we live in high-tax, lousy-weather New York.

I won't review the play here; it’s above my pay grade. Rather, I urge you to read the reviews by the professional critics, almost all of whom were positive. The reviews ranged from admiring at worst to raves at best. In particular, I commend to your attention those in the Feb. 1 New Yorker, the Jan, 25 Washington Post, and the Jan. 25 New York Times. [The New Yorker’s online review in their digital edition is available only to registered users.] Just to whet your appetite, here is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of John Lahr’s review in The New Yorker:

"Deftly directed by Greg Mosher, A View from the Bridge is a singular astonishment: a kind of theatrical lightning bolt that sizzles and startles at the same time, illuminating the poetry in the play’s prose and the subtlety in its streamlined construction. A View from the Bridge may not be Miller’s best play, but this is one of the best productions of his work that I’ve ever seen.” And that’s just the start.

On its merits, the play’s 14-week run would probably sell out. The presence of film star Johansson, making her Broadway debut, assures it. Booking a big Hollywood or TV name is almost a de rigueur casting techniques to assure high Broadway attendance. Well, imagine my surprise (I’m rarely impressed by film stars’ performances on the stage) -- she does well. She more than holds her own. Johansson, in her brunette wig, has attention paid to her.

[For you Arthur Miller fans who recognize my sly reference to “attention must be paid” from Death of a Salesman, I’m not the only one trying to show my cleverness. Ben Brantley in the Times slips this into his review: “There’s no question of not paying them the attention that Miller demands.”]

But it’s Schreiber who is in a class by himself. He has to be considered one of the fine theatrical actors of our time. In A View from the Bridge, we may look at Scarlett, but we’re fixated on Liev. “Schreiber is nothing short of remarkable,” says The Washington Post.

Go see it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

10 Things I Think I Think

(I think I'm stealing the title from Peter King, the excellent NFL sportswriter for Sports Illustrated. His weekly column, Monday Morning Quarterback, is a must read for football nuts. One feature of MMQ is “10 Things I Think I Think,” which I think I have appropriated. I hope that my mentioning his column and furnishing the link offsets my brazen theft.)

1.  I think that the next important election after today's in Massachusetts is the mayoral election on February 6 in New Orleans. Many of you already have February 7 marked on your calendar as the date of the Super Bowl. But as much as residents and ex-pats hold dear the Saints, the city’s real Super Bowl will be fought a day earlier. After eight years of Ray Nagin’s administration (he’s termed out), a new mayor will be elected on February 6. (If no one receives a majority, a runoff will be held between the top two finishers 30 days later.)

Even before Katrina, New Orleans was suffering. A major cause of so many of the city's problems has been the incompetent and often crooked leadership at the local and state levels. This unfortunate tradition was initiated in the early 1930s by Huey Long. Many disciples and wannabes in the subsequent 80 years have perfected it.

The good news for New Orleans is that the time is now ripe to change its attitudes of victimization (the storm did it), impotence (we can’t change the political system), and despair (it’ll never get better). Time to change from laissez les bon temps rouler to make the good times happen.

It’s now February 7. A new mayor is elected (maybe a good guy?). A new Super Bowl champion is crowned (maybe the Saints?). Who knows? As Rick said at the end of Casablanca, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

2.  I think I know why go to the opera. In recent months, Donna and I have begun to make up for the time we missed during the first half of the Met Opera season. Three productions of the six we have seen recently stand out: Il Trittico, The Tales of Hoffmann, and Carmen. The latter two are new productions this season; Il Trittico was revamped a couple of years ago.

All three share wonderful singing, engaging stories, and first-rate staging. Much of the staging improvements stem from the Met’s recent policy of engaging theatrical directors to rejuvenate the repertory. Il Trittico was reconceived by Jack O'Brien (Henry IV, Hairspray); The Tales of Hoffmann by Bartlett Sher (The Light in the PiazzaSouth Pacific); and Carmen by Richard Eyre (former UK National Theatre director, Mary Poppins).

Other indelible memories: The remarkable performances of Patricia Racette and Stephanie Blythe, each performing in all three parts of Il Trittico, and especially Racette’s heartbreakingly moving Suor Angelica. Anna Netrebko’s fabulous portrayal of Antonia in Hoffmann. And Elina Garanca’s very, very sexy Carmen (shown).

3.  I think I’d like to ask the question, What If? A few years ago, I read a fascinating book entitled, What If? Historians were invited to write essays on what-if scenarios: What if Robert E. Lee humbled the Union? What if the Spanish Armada triumphed? What if Napoleon won at Waterloo?

My question is, What if we hadn’t rescued the banks in the 2008-09 bailout?

I'm still skeptical about the rationale for the banking bailouts. We were emphatically warned by our financial leaders that unless these inefficient, incompetently managed, too-big-to-fail banks -- many of which bore responsibility for the economic collapse -- were infused with hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money, it would absolutely -- no doubt on their parts -- result in a new great depression and the end of the world as we know it.

I'm skeptical of their absolute assuredness.  These people who in late 2008 and early 2009 forecast these visions of total gloom and doom -- the Geithners and Summers and Paulsons of the world -- were the very same people who in mid-2007 were offering these rosy-scenario forecasts:

“…There has been a marked improvement in global economic performance, with strong growth, relatively low inflation, and less volatility in both growth and inflation. This seems to have reduced concern about future fundamental risk, in terms of the potential damage of future shocks and in the ability of governments and central banks to both avoid the policy errors of the past and to competently manage some daunting longer–term policy challenges…

“Changes in financial markets, including those that are the subject of your conference, have improved the efficiency of financial intermediation and improved our confidence in the ability of markets to absorb stress. In financial systems around the world, the capital positions of banks have improved and capital markets are becoming deeper and playing a larger role in financial intermediation. Financial innovation has improved the capacity to measure and manage risk. Risk is spread more broadly across countries and institutions…

“These changes in economic conditions reinforce each other. The long period of relative economic and financial stability has reinforced expectations of future stability, reducing implied volatility and risk premia, increasing comfort with higher leverage, and encouraging flows of capital into riskier assets…

“The dramatic changes we’ve seen in the structure of financial markets over the past decade and more seem likely to have reduced this vulnerability. The larger global financial institutions are generally stronger in terms of capital relative to risk…”

Timothy Geithner, May 15, 2007
[emphasis added]

A year later, all hell broke loose.

So I ask, why should I believe that their 2008-09 forecasts were right any more than I should trust those 100%-wrong forecasts they made in 2007? The one phrase sticking in my mind that best characterizes our financial leaders’ soothsaying ability is that of screenwriter William Goldman (who was referring to those running Hollywood): Nobody knows anything.

4.  I think I know why I feel conflicted about the NFL playoffs. The Saints are my hometown team, the Jets are my local team, the Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and I went to the same high school (in New Orleans), and the Vikings quarterback is almost as old as I am. Actually, I'm not conflicted. I can't imagine anyone not cheering for the Saints -- the hard luck team of a hard luck city. So that's why Mardi Gras, listed on calendars as falling February 16, instead will come nine days early this year – Feb. 7.

5.  I think I know why I continue to be dumbfounded by NFL owners’ disdain for their fans. They ask their fans to pay thousands of dollars for seat licenses in order to pay thousands of dollars more for actual seats. They demand taxpayers to subsidize building construction. And then, in one case, they build a $1.6 billion stadium (Giants/Jets) with no roof – either fixed or retractable! Is it a mystery why more of us choose to avoid traffic jams, cold weather, raucous crowds, and all the other costs and indignities associated with attending a game in person? Instead, we’re lounging comfortably at home, watching HDTV telecasts with drink and remote in hand.

What’s that Aesop fable about the goose that laid the golden eggs?

6.  I think we are not returning to Pyongyang in April. Two years ago, Donna and I traveled there as part of a New York Philharmonic group that was invited by the North Korean government. One of the highlights of the trip from the was my opportunity to get free of the tour and my ever-present minder for a couple of hours and join up with the energetic James Kim, founder and president of the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and to visit the campus that was then under construction. Kim, a South Korean who holds a US passport, has built a technical university, mostly privately funded, that promises to be an island of relative freedom in that most despotic and Stalinist of governments. PUST will conduct classes in English, use English textbooks, have an international faculty, and allow Internet access. There is no other place even remotely like it in North Korea. If it succeeds, could it make a difference?

A big opening ceremony is planned in April and Dr. Kim graciously invited us to attend. But having been in North Korea once, my initial reaction was, been there, done that. Why do it again? Or as expressed (in a different context) in the lyrics of a song by Stephen Sondheim, I Never Do Anything Twice:

Once, yes, once for a lark
Twice, though, loses the spark

Once, yes, once is delicious

But twice would be vicious

Or just repetitious.

Someone's bound to be scarred

Yes, I know that it's hard

But, no matter the price

I never do anything twice.

I subsequently received another invitation from Dr. Kim, this time to participate in a future international conference in Pyongyang at his University.

We’ll see.

7.  I think I’ve now seen it all. Who was Shakespeare? The vast majority of Shakespearean scholars are convinced that the works attributed to Shakespeare really are written by the man from Stratford-on-Avon. But quite a few luminaries, from Sigmund Freud to Charles Dickens to Mark Twain to contemporary Shakespearean actor and director Mark Rylance believe otherwise. The leading rival to the Stratford man is the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. But others have their constituencies: Christopher Marlow, Francis Bacon and William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby. These four have been around, and debated, for centuries. Nothing new here.

But now, another contender has entered the fray, courtesy of a recent issue of The Oxfordian. A quite offbeat contender, at that. Not only a woman, but a Jewish woman. Indeed! Amelia Bassano Lanier, born in 1569 into a family of secret Jews, became the mistress of a cousin of the Queen Elizabeth I and...

Well, if you're really interested in Amelia and how she may have authored Hamlet, King Lear, the sonnets, et al., you can read all about her here and here.

8.  I think I that I couldn’t care less about Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien. And I can’t imagine that anyone else would, other than media people who write about media people for other media people. I have to admit, though, that there is one interesting late-night personality, Craig Ferguson (left), who’s on even later (12:35 PM, after Letterman). Scottish born, Ferguson is wacky, irreverent, quick, and amusing (to us, anyway). And if you're like us, the only way you'll ever see him (and the only way we watch anything) is via DVR.

9.  I think I'm confused about what's PC and what's not. I understand and accept that there are no waitresses anymore, just servers. No more stewardesses, just flight attendants. And no actresses, just actors. At least, judging by those female performers in the theater whom we know, they all refer to themselves as actors. Fine. Except now it’s awards season in Hollywood.  And what do we find? The last bastion of acceptable -- indeed, necessary -- use of the word actress.

 “And now, the award for Best Actress goes to…”

10.  I think one of the more fascinating visual websites is this one about snowflakes, posted by Kenneth Libbrecht, a Caltech physics professor. More than you would ever want to know about snowflakes. I mean, everything about snowflakes. And with remarkable snowflake photos.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Rory Stewart Follow-up

On my January 4 post, Rory Stewart -- Remember This Name, I suggested that this 37-year old wunderkind was headed for the highest levels of British government -- maybe even the highest. (No, not king. Just prime minister.)

The yet-to-be called British election is still perhaps four months away, but the assumption in the British press is that this first-time candidate for M.P. in the "safe" constituency of Penrith and the Border will be elected and will become a national force. Just read these excerpts from a remarkably adulatory 2,500-word piece published in today's Guardian:

"...Among the ranks of all the new ­parliamentary candidates on offer, from all parties, Stewart is blessed – or cursed – by standing out as being by a long way the most extraordinary..."

"...Whether Cameron will be able to listen to someone as honest and unusual as Rory Stewart is unclear. How Stewart will deal with the realities of life in Westminster is anyone's guess. That he will be Britain's most fascinating and most watched new MP is not in doubt..." [Emphasis added.]

The Guardian article is a good read.  And soon, in this country, there will be another good read -- The New Yorker is working on a profile of Stewart.

It's reminds me of the drumbeat crescendo that accompanied another politician, a young American, as he rose in a relatively short time from near obscurity to President. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Letter from the Rialto

No, not the Rialto from The  Merchant of  Venice. [Shylock:  "What's new on the Rialto?"] No, this is a letter from the New York Rialto -- Broadway.  Here are my comments from our recent play-going:

Finian’s Rainbow Music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Yip Harburg, starring Jim Norton, Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson. Originally performed on Broadway in 1947, this production originated at New York City Center Encores, a treasure of a series that revives four neglected musicals every year.

Finian’s Rainbow offers one of the great Broadway scores of all time: How Are Things in Glocca Morra, Look to the Rainbow, Old Devil Moon, If This Isn’t Love, Necessity, and many others.  Sure, the plot is dated and creaky. Leprechauns, pots of gold at the end of rainbows, bigoted senators who turn from white to black to white.  But tell me the last opera you saw that didn’t have a creaky libretto? 

 The sad news I have to report is that because Finian’s Rainbow is not a rock musical, and because there’s no film star in the cast to bring in the masses, the show closes this Sunday. We’re attending the closing performance, and we’ll be shedding tears of joy and sadness as the curtain drops.

Perhaps my love of the show stems in part from the fact that Finian’s Rainbow offered me the only stage opportunity in my life.  (I exclude the trombone solo I played in our high school band concert.) In 1955, I appeared as third sharecropper in a production of the Ventura County Light Opera Association. We played the entire circuit – Oxnard, Ventura, and Ojai. In mid-run, I was promoted to second sharecropper, and given one speaking line. I decided right then to retire from show business, at the top.

A Little Night Music A revival of the Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler classic from 1973. Directed by Trevor Nunn, it stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, who not only performs admirably as Desirée but also brings in the crowds.  Also starring is octogenarian, but ever young, Angela Lansbury. She once again gives a treasure of a performance. This production originated at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, transferred to the West End, and is now performing to sellout crowds on Broadway. The sole holdover from the Menier production is Alexander Hanson, as Hendrik, and he’s outstanding.

But the real star of the show is, of course, Stephen Sondheim, whose music and lyrics in A Little Night Music are nonpareil.  Consider this snippet. The older Fredrik, unsuccessful thus far in consummating the marriage with his very young wife, considers strategies to get her into bed. One approach he mulls:

 “Which leaves the suggestive,
But how to proceed?
Although she gets restive,
Perhaps I could read…

“In view of her penchant
For something romantic,
De Sade is too trenchant
And Dickens too frantic,
And Stendahl would ruin
The plan of attack,
And there isn’t much blue in
The Red and the Black”

Nightingale  Lynn Redgrave starred in a one-woman show at the Manhattan Theatre Club.  For an hour and a half, she captivated the audience with a story she wrote herself about her relationship, real and imagined, with her maternal grandmother. Now that may not sound on paper like the recipe for a thrilling evening, but in the theater, with Lynn Redgrave performing, it was just that. To see a master actor perform on a bare stage by herself and to entrance the audience – that’s is a rare treat.

Hamlet  A sold-out run that starred Jude Law in the title role. Directed by Michael Grandage (artistic director of London’s  Donmar Warehouse), we thought it was a good Hamlet, but not a great one. In fact, arriving home from the theater, I ordered from Netflix two film versions of Hamlet: Kenneth Branagh’s and Laurence Olivier’s.  Watching those two brilliant, yet very different, versions of the Shakespeare classic were sublime experiences. Watching the Jude Law performance was a good night at the theater.

Next to Normal I’m sure this has happened to you: You wake up in the morning and say to yourself, I’d really love to see a musical tonight about bipolar disease and electroshock therapy. That’s actually what this musical is about. Doesn’t that sound like a hoot?

Well, Next to Normal may not be a hoot, but it’s a very good night at the theater. The show was first presented at the off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre (full disclosure: Donna is a board member), where it was quite good.  It’s improved further since then. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of rock musicals, but I must say this show did manage to succeed, to evoke emotion, and to entertain.

The Royal Family Written by two theater and literary giants of the last century, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, imagine my anticipation at attending this revival of a comedy about a theatrical dynasty modeled after the Barrymores.  Unfortunately, the anticipation was not rewarded. The humor of the 1927 show didn’t quite survive the eight decades to the one we saw at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

God of Carnage Yasmina Reza wrote it and Matthew Warchus directed it.    For us, it didn’t succeed. Her earlier big hit, Art, with Alan Alda, was a huge success, and I found it quite entertaining. God of Carnage is also a huge hit, even with its second cast. But the best way I can describe it is that to me it seems to take sitcom-level comedy and put it on stage.  Example: If vomiting onstage gets a big laugh the first time, be sure to vomit a second time. If throwing a vase full of tulips elicits laughs the first time, do it again. Above all, when in doubt, have the actors scream, or even better, screech.  The capacity audience loved it.  We didn’t.

The Understudy Written by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Scott Ellis, and starring Julie White.  Here’s the bottom line:  Anything Julie White is in I will enjoy, even if the script is modest (as this was). But Julie White is one of the great stage presences. Her Tony-winning role in The Little Dog Laughed was an all-time theater treat.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lapham's Quarterly

Print media blues Given the declining fortunes of the print media – closures, layoffs, and the inexorable competition from electronic media -- who in the world would be crazy enough to start up a new print publication? Lewis Lapham would, that's who.  A couple of years ago, this grizzled and honored veteran of the journalism world eschewed conventional wisdom, created a not-for-profit publishing organization, and decided to fulfill a life's dream.  That dream is now Lapham's Quarterly.

Lapham’s Quarterly devotes each issue to the exploration of a single theme. Since its start in 2008, the nine issues published so far have been devoted to:

Crimes and Punishments

What Lapham’s Quarterly Tries to Accomplish
The best way for me to describe this unusual magazine is to select these excerpts from the LQ mission statement:

Published four times a year [which makes sense for a quarterly], each issue of Lapham’s Quarterly adopts and explores a single theme. Each is created with an aim to help readers find historical threads, say, from Homer to Queen Elizabeth I to George Patton, or from Aesop to Edith Wharton to Joan Didion. New essays from writers such as Stanley Fish, Fritz Stern, and Andrew Delbanco then knotted each theme together.
A typical issue features an introductory Preamble from Editor Lewis H. Lapham; approximately 100 “Voices in Time” — that is, appropriately themed selections drawn from the annals and archives of the past — and newly commissioned commentary and criticism from today’s preeminent scholars and writers. Myriad photographs, paintings, charts, graphs, and maps round out each issue’s 224 pages.

Lapham’s Quarterly’s modus operandi assumes that valuable observations of the human character and predicament don’t become obsolete — that the story, say, of an ancient Syracusan prison camp reverberates millennia later in the gulag of Siberia. None of the texts runs to a length longer than five or seven pages; others to no more than five or seven paragraphs (a telegraph to President Eisenhower from the parents of the Little Rock Nine, a love lyric of Sappho). With text enhanced with full-color selections of art, Lapham’s Quarterly draws not only from traditional sources such as literary narrative and philosophical commentary, but also from history’s underutilized scrapbooks: letters, diaries, speeches, navigational charts, menus, photographs, bills of lading, writs of execution.
Cicero made the point fifty years before the birth of Christ that, “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.” Lapham’s Quarterly recognizes and promotes Cicero’s notion that to know our history is to know ourselves; that, indeed, we have nothing else with which to build the future except the lumber of the past. By maintaining a keen focus on a single theme in each issue, LQ endeavors to reclaim our oft-forgotten history and to present it to a widespread audience. Issue by issue, Lapham’s Quarterly seeks to forge men and women from Cicero’s children, to spread a love of history to anyone who picks up a copy.

Who is Lewis Lapham? 

For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon known as Lewis Lapham, he was editor of Harper's Magazine for three decades. He is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H. L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. A native of San Francisco, Mr. Lapham was educated at Yale and Cambridge.

He has also produced a movie, The American Ruling Class, that asks the question: Is it better to rule the world, or to save it? The cast includes cameo appearances by the late Robert Altman, James A. Baker III, Bill Bradley, Harold Brown, Hodding Carter III, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Ehrenreich, Vartan Gregorian, Samuel Peabody, Pete Seeger, Lawrence H. Summers, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., William Howard Taft IV, and  Kurt Vonnegut.

Finally, to round out his reputation as a maverick in the world of literary arts, Lewis is a leading exponent of the theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward DeVere, is the real author of all those great Elizabethan plays and sonnets, not that imposter from Stratford.

Parting Thought

You could do far worse than turn off the football playoffs and curl up for a few hours with a copy of Lapham’s Quarterly. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Letter from London: Theatre

In November, Donna and I spent eight days in London.  For the first seven days, we attended the theater every evening. Of the seven shows, two were must-sees, one was well worth a visit, one was in tryout stage and too early to judge, and then there were three others. To wit:

The Habit of Art  Written by Alan Bennett (what more do I need to say?), this new play at the National Theatre exemplifies that rare combination of excellent acting, writing, and directing. The story revolves around an imagined meeting between W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths) and his former collaborator, Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings). It may be too “British” to transfer to the United States (even though “History Boys” did, and very successfully), so I suggest that you see it on your next trip to London.

After the curtain, Donna and I were waiting outside the stage door for a car that we had arranged. She spotted one of the actors standing nearby. We introduced ourselves to him. He was Elliot Levey, who played the part of the author of the play within the play. There was a thirty-minute stretch in the play where only the Auden and Britten characters had lines; the "author" of the play within a play sat in a chair at the side of the stage, script in hand, immobile.

We asked him, “What do you do to alleviate the boredom of sitting for a half hour with nothing to say or do?” He said, "You were the couple on the left side of the fourth row, weren't you?" We were blown away. He memorizes the audience! And the Olivier Theatre at the National is a big space.

So next time you’re in the theater, remember, while you’re watching the actors, they’ll be watching you. No talking, no yawning and no checking your watch.

Sweet Charity  Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon, choreography by Bob Fosse, the show premiered in New York in 1966 starring Gwen Verdon. The current revival in London is at the Menier Chocolate Factory on the South Bank.  

This tiny six-year-old theater has nurtured a number of shows that have moved on to the West End and Broadway, including the sublime “A Little Night Music,” now on Broadway.  If there is any justice in the theater world, “Sweet Charity” will move on to a larger theater in London and I hope to New York. A most enjoyable evening. Wonderful songs and dances on a postage-size stage.  Go see it.

Speaking in Tongues  This play is a revival by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell.  Unfortunately, it closed. But should a revival or transfer occur, see it. To whet your appetite, how's this for a structure: In the opening scene, two couples are having affairs in a sleazy hotel, not knowing their spouses are doing the same at the same time in the same hotel. Moreover, different characters speak the same dialogue in unison for long stretches (Robert Altman, anyone?) Then, in the second act, these four people play entirely different characters.  Confusing?  Well, it all comes together, eventually.

The intensity of the acting can be gleaned from this piece that appeared in the London Times a few days after we saw the show:
Gerard Earley was so impressed by Ian Hart’s performance [in “Speaking in Tongues”] that he got to his feet to applaud. Ian Hart was so unimpressed by Mr Earley that he ran from the stage to scream threats at him.
Ignoring the appeals of John Simm, his co-star, the actor lunged at Mr Earley, whom he accused of talking during his performance.
When Mr Earley protested that he had not been talking Hart launched into a furious rant and had to be restrained by ushers. Hart, who says that he does not enjoy the relationship between performer and audience, could now face police action.

Remember what I wrote earlier: the actors are watching you. So no talking. En garde.

The Power of Yes Prolific playwright David Hare was commissioned by the National Theatre to create a play that would aid our understanding of the financial crisis. What I don't understand is how such a talented playwright can produce such a boring evening of theater. My recommendation?  No to “The Power of Yes.”

Marilyn and Ella We saw what is essentially a workshop production of a play with songs. Anything involving Marilyn Monroe and Ella Fitzgerald can't be uninteresting, and this wasn't. Written by Chicago playwright Bonnie Grier, now a UK resident, the show celebrates the poignant friendship between the two icons.

La Cage aux Folles  From the Menier Chocolate Factory, this production moved to the West End and is headed for Broadway, where Kelsey Grammer will star.  Not our favorite musical.

The Priory The Royal Court Theatre is another incubator of shows that are often dramatically worthwhile and end up as commercial successes as well. It disappoints with this lightweight comedy.  But in fairness, maybe the second act that we didn’t stay for was better than the first act that we saw.

War Horse  When we saw this production on an earlier trip to London, we were astonished by the remarkable puppetry of the full-size horses that were the core of this play. The setting is the time of World War I, when millions of horses were killed in battle. The plot is modest -- boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy regains horse.  But don't let that stop you.  The horses' performances are visually stunning, and even evoke strong emotional reactions. The play originated at the National, is now on the West End, and will transfer to Broadway.

Some Coming Attractions

We’re planning a return trip to London within the next few months to see some of the new shows. Our starter list:

Jerusalem  A comedy starring Mark Rylance, a transfer from the Royal Court Theatre to the West End.  Opening soon, it’s gathering lots of buzz.  But anything that Mark Rylance appears in goes on our must-see list, even if it's only to watch him read the telephone book. 

Enron  Also from the the Royal Court Theatre, “Enron” is moving to the West End and later to Broadway. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like the opposite (in terms of entertainment) of “The Power of Yes.”

Mrs Warren’s Profession  George Bernard Shaw and Felicity Kendall.  That’s enough for us.  Also, it’s at the Donmar Warehouse, a theatrical treasure. We can’t remember a production there that has disappointed us.

Red  A play about Mark Rothko.  Think "Sunday in the Park with George" without music and with Rothko playing Seurat.

The Misanthrope  Moliere and Keira Knightley.  How bad can that be?

A helpful source: The online London Theatre Guide is a treasure of information.  Also, there is a link on this site where you can sign up for their weekly email letter on London theatre.  Well worth getting, and free.   

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Maitake Medicinal Mushrooms

I remember it well. It was the fall of 1992. I was a guest at the Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. During my round of golf, a member of our foursome noted my limping and my apparent pain. He asked me about it. I told him that I was suffering from osteoarthritis in both knees and was slated for bilateral total knee replacement. After which he said, "Boy, are you lucky. A friend of mine had exactly the same condition and also had an operation scheduled.  But he heard about a special Chinese herb, started taking it, and immediately felt so much better that he canceled his operation."

Well, that was enough for me. I immediately got the ordering information for the herbs, sent off my check, and ended up with an herb supply that would last me a year.

As soon as the herbs arrived, I started taking them, and like my golfing friend’s friend, I immediately felt better. In fact, the pain had disappeared – mirabile dictu.   I felt absolutely great and was about to cancel my operation.

That was when my secretary said to me, "I can’t help noticing that your speech is starting to slur. You're also beginning to take naps every afternoon. You may want to see a doctor."

So off I went to see a neurologist.  He subjected me to a complete neurological examination, and found absolutely nothing wrong. He couldn't account neurologically for my slurring or napping. I was about to leave his office when he asked me, "By the way, have you been doing or eating anything different in recent weeks." I told him that nothing in my daily regimen had changed, nothing that is, other than taking some herbs that helped get rid of my knee pain.

That was it. He immediately connected the dots. I wasn’t taking herbs; the “herbs” were narcotics. That experience led to my skepticism about the medicinal value of any herbs, botanicals, or unproved pseudo-medicines. (I did go through with the bilateral total knee replacement, and the knees have been pain-free for 17 years.)

Flash forward to 2009. Donna became a patient at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). We learned that among the many resources available to patients, Sloan-Kettering has an Integrative Medicine Service (IMS) that complements the mainstream medical care at the hospital. One particular IMS resource that interested me (given my earlier “herb” experience) was the access to professional information about over-the-counter products and unproven cancer treatments. And in our discussions with the IMS staff of possible complementary therapies, there was one that they were highly enthusiastic about -- maitake mushrooms.

But first, if one does a general Web search for herbs, botanicals, and other such compounds, the claims made online or enough to make one believe that there is nothing that can't be cured. But as it turns out, very few of them have any scientific basis for the claims, any studies, any clinical trials. There is simply no proof of efficacy.  The information is anecdotal.

It turns out, however, that there is one really outstanding Web source of information about these compounds. It is on the MSKCC website and called About Herbs, Botanicals and Other Products. Among the useful information provided for hundreds, maybe thousands, of the of these products is a clinical summary, purported uses, constituents, mechanism of action, adverse reactions, herb-drug interactions, and lab interactions. I would suggest that you don't put any of these purported cure-alls into your mouth until you've researched them on this website.

Now back to the maitake mushroom.  According to the MSKCC herbs website, “The maitake mushroom has traditionally been used in Japan and China as part of the diet and to treat cancer… In laboratory studies, maitake extract was able to stimulate various cells and factors in the immune system. Studies in animals show that it also slows the growth of certain tumors and lowers blood glucose (sugar) levels.”

The maitake mushroom is one of the few of these over-the-counter products where scientific research is underway to test its anticancer effects and its possible strengthening of the immune system. Phase I and II clinical trials are underway at MSKCC. The results so far show only that it’s safe. Whether it has therapeutic benefits will be learned later, in Phase III. But there is already a high level of enthusiasm around the hospital about the possible benefits of maitakes, particularly with respect to its strengthening of the immune system.

Besides their being safe, I've been reliably assured that if you take maitakes you won't slur or nap.  However, I can't promise the latter won't happen from reading this blog.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Checklist

I made a New Year's resolution. (I am still in that New Year's resolution mode.) My resolution was to read more books this year. So I started off with “The Places in Between,” by Rory Stewart; followed by “Robert Altman,” a biography of the filmmaker by Mitchell Zuckoff; and then “The Checklist Manifesto,” by Dr. Atul Gawande.  Now, you might ask, how did I read three books in the first six days of the year? Well, I actually cheated, starting during the 2009 holiday season.

The Polymath

The author of "The Checklist Manifesto" is a rather remarkable individual.  He’s a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston specializing in endocrine cancer. He’s rather prolific contributor to The New Yorker, where he’s a staff writer focusing on medicine and healthcare.  He’s a MacArthur Fellow.  He’s an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.  He leads the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery Saves Lives program.  He’s published three books.  He’s a frequent television guest. And he’s also the father of three children.  (Where did he find the time?)

Now who would ever want to read a book about checklists? Can you think of a more mundane topic to write about or read about?  A book about a piece of paper? The answer is, I wanted to, and not only did I enjoy it immensely, but I'm willing to bet that you will, too..

Just having finished the book, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Dr. Gawande at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center yesterday. And then last night, he appeared on Charlie Rose.

Why Checklists?

The checklist was created to help skilled people deal with complex situations.  It’s not about their ignorance, it’s about their ineptitude.  As he writes in the book, “In a complex environment, experts are up against too many difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can mold themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them.”

Aviation Checklists

The concept of a checklist is probably most associated with aviation. It started being adopted by military and civilian pilots in the 1930s in order to deal with the increasing sophistication of aircraft. 

Some 45 years ago, when I learned to fly a Cessna 150, the checklist looked something like this:

Eight checklist items for takeoff, four for cruise, four for pre-landing, and five for approach. Twenty-one items to make it less likely I land in the Hudson River.  Just for fun, I went online and found Boeing’s checklist for its 777. In principle the big jet’s checklist is the same; just a few more items to check off.

BTW, for the good of society, I retired as a pilot after accumulating a license and 100 hours in the air.  It was not my calling (as the tower at Teterboro kept reminding me when I too often drifted into the Newark traffic pattern).  There was no checklist item to the effect of  “Are you drifting into the Newark pattern”?

Surgical Checklists

In aviation, checklists are mandatory, and over eight decades have been a major contributor to the incredible safety record of commercial aviation. But until recently, checklists haven't been widely adopted in surgery for a variety of reasons, the most likely one being that many surgeons have not been convinced of their value. What surgeon would feel it's necessary to be questioned by a nurse in the operating room before, during and after a procedure with such questions as: "Has the patient confirmed his/her identity, site, procedure, and consent”?  Or, "Is the site marked?" Or to “confirm all team members have introduced themselves by name and role.”

The person who kick-started the surgical checklist was Dr. Peter Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins critical care specialist.  That brainchild has led to a recently completed worldwide study by the World Health Organization. What prompted the interest in checklists by Dr. Pronovost and the WHO?

There are about 234 million inpatient operations performed annually around the world. In the United States it's about 50 million. While surgery is overwhelmingly successful in its role of healing patients, there are always risks of complications and even death. Major complications from surgery range worldwide from 3% to 17%.  That’s a lot of complications – surgical-site infection, unplanned return to operating rooms, pneumonia and death.

The role of the checklist is to make sure that the surgical team -- surgeon, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other operating room personnel -- make absolutely sure that the basic safety items are adhered to. Without the checklist, these items are almost always remembered. But the operative word here is "almost." Forgetting a single list item -- e.g., "has antibiotic prophylaxis been given within the last 60 minutes?" -- can result in infection or worse.  Just as forgetting to set the takeoff trim on an airplane can have dire results.

The WHO Experiment

In 2007, the World Health Organization designed a 19-item checklist intended to be globally applicable and to reduce the rate of major surgical complications. The worldwide test was initiated in eight hospitals. Between October 2007 and September 2008, eight hospitals in eight cities participated: Toronto, New Delhi, Amman, Auckland, London, Seattle, Manila, and Ifakara, (Tanzania). Patients in these eight hospitals represented a variety of economic circumstances and diverse populations.

About 4,000 patients were enrolled in the program. Data were compiled for three months without use of the checklist, and then for the following three months with it. The results are remarkable.

The Astonishing Results – Double-digit Improvements

The rate of complications -- surgical site infection, unplanned return to the operating room, pneumonia, death – fell from 11% to 7.0%, a decline of 36%. The drop in the death rate alone fell from 1.5% to 0.8%, or a decline of 47%. And these improvements were noticeable in hospitals ranging from those with the most crowded conditions (e.g., the Tanzanian hospital with 124 beds per O.R.) to the least stressed (e.g., the University of Washington Medical Center with 17 beds per O.R.).  From those with the most modern equipment and highly skilled staff to those with the least.

Let's apply the outcomes data from the WHO test to the 50 million inpatient surgeries performed in the United States annually. Without use of surgical checklists, 5.5 million patients would encounter surgical complications. With universal use of surgical checklists, the number of complications would fall to 3.5 million patients.

With regard to deaths from surgical complications, the number would decrease from 750,000 per year to 400,000. Now 400,000 deaths is not something to be proud of, but saving 350,000 lives -- from following the procedures on a single sheet of paper -- is impressive.

Small Efforts, Big Payoffs

Consider, now, what we’re talking about, and what Dr. Gawande is proselytizing and writing about. Remarkable improvements in patient outcomes have been effected not from massive federal programs and not from biomedical research breakthroughs. They have resulted from methodically paying attention to the simple things, the very simple things that allow planes to fly safely and allow patients to undergo surgery with fewer complications.

The response to the article published in the January 29, 2009, issue of the New England Journal of Medicine has been encouraging. Many state medical societies have begun recommending the use of surgical checklists, and more and more hospitals are adopting it on their own.  And France has just required its adoption for all 8,000 hospitals in the country.

The book is more than numbers. Dr. Gawande is as talented an author as he is a skillful surgeon.  Those of you who read his New Yorker pieces are well aware of his ability to gracefully describe complex topics.

I Don’t Like It, But Use It on Me

Here’s one anecdote from the book: More than 250 staff numbers -- surgeons, anesthesiologist, nurses and others -- filled out an anonymous survey after three months of using the WHO checklist. In the beginning, most were skeptical. But by the end, 80% reported that the checklist was easy-to-use, did not take a long time to complete, and had improved the safety of care.

Nonetheless, some skepticism persisted. After all, while 80% were favorably disposed, there were 20% who did not find it easy to use, thought it took too long, and felt it had not improved the safety of care.

Then the staff was asked one more question. “If you're having an operation, would you want to checklist to be used?"

93% said yes.

Back From the Dead

Another:  The opening chapter describes the case of a three-year-old Austrian girl who fell into an icy fishpond. After a 30-minute search, rescuers located her and pulled her from the pond bottom to the surface they then raced her to the hospital. Her lungs were filled with water and debris.  Her body temperature on arrival was 66 degrees.  Her brain function had ceased. She was gone. But -- the hospital was prepared.

There had been previous hypothermia victims in the area served by this small Alpine hospital, and all had died in the hospital.  Either the required people weren’t there in time, or the equipment wasn’t available, or the sequence of procedures wasn’t followed.  So the hospital set about to create a checklist to make sure that in the future everyone and everything was in place, and that everyone knew what to do when. By using this homegrown checklist, the girl in the pond was in effect brought back to life.  She is now a completely normal five-year-old girl.

Oh Well, Nobody’s Perfect

My one fault with the book: In his almost unbounded enthusiasm for checklists, Dr. Gawande goes one step too far in suggesting its universality. He illustrates convincingly how effective checklists are in the aviation and construction industries. But not leaving well enough alone, he claims -- based on a single paper by an academic -- that checklists would work well in the venture capital industry as well. Now venture capital is something I know something about (as opposed to surgery). My reaction after 15 years as a VC trying to sort out good ideas from bad, talented entrepreneurs from the ordinary, and great ideas from the mundane -- the checklist won't work here.

Having just written this, all of a sudden I'm worried.  I’m beginning to sound like a skeptical prima donna: "I don't need no stinkin' checklist."