Towards the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”, there is a famous often quoted passage which runs as follows:

” Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes  before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter __ tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our hands farther…. And one fine morning _________ “

That extra – long dash at the end of the final sentence fragment has been subjected to much scholarly analysis and interpretation. All kinds of meanings have been read into it. Some critics have even suggested that it represents the end of Gatsby’s own dock, the one where we see him at the end of Chapter 1, stretching out his arms to Daisy Buchanan’s dock across Long Island Sound. They postulate that if ” we run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, we will one day , inevitably, fall off the end of the dock and drown, just as Gatsby drowns in his pool.

When I first read about this interpretation, I thought to myself ” How can anyone read so much into a dash, no matter how long it is? ” Fitzgerald’s writing is often deliberately vague and larded with symbols and it has spawned a veritable cottage industry of analysis and comment. However, this particular suggestion, I thought, was too fanciful, the product of an over active imagination.

Then, by the merest chance, I read a review of Saul Bellow’s collected non-fiction in the New York Times Sunday Review of April 27th.  In the review, Martin Amis reproduces a passage from  Bellow’s ” Deep Readers of the World, Beware’ ( 1959). In it, Bellow imagines the following classroom conversation:

” Why , sir” the student wonders, ” does Achilles drag the body of Hector around the walls of Troy? … Well, you see, sir, the ‘ Iliad ‘ is full of circles – shields, chariot wheels, and other round figures. And, you know what Plato said about circles. The Greeks were all made for geometry.”

” Bless your crew-cut, head” the professor replies, ” for such a beautiful thought. Your approach is both deep and serious.Still I always believed that Achilles did it because he was so angry.”

Amis adds “ Critics should cleave to the human element and not just laminate the text with additional obscurities“.

I couldn’t agree more.

Currency as a Tool

While writing my previous post ( Cents, KidCents and Loose Change) I remembered this story that a friend told me about 1960’s Nigeria…

Nigeria then was no different from the Nigeria of today. The political situation was unsettled, corruption was rampant and money was fleeing the country in large amounts every day. To arrest the flow of capital, the Nigerian government hit upon the idea of having a single denomination for the currency and announced that, going forward, only the one pound ( Nigerian pound) notes would be considered legal tender. The idea was to make large amounts bulkier to handle and thus difficult to take out of the country. The decree had some unintended consequences.Everyday transactions took a long time to complete because the pound notes had to be counted out one by one, then checked and re-checked. My friend’s family ran a general store in Lagos in those days. Everyday , after closing time, they would lock the store doors and the entire family would sit down to count the day’s takings. It would take them an hour and a half, sometimes two hours and more to count it all. After they were done, they would wash their hands and the water would run black from all the dirt and grime on the currency notes.

It was shortly afterwards that they came to America…

P.S Coins stay in circulation much longer than paper currency and are handled by many more people. I wonder how dirty they are !

KidCents is an program initiated by Rite Aid pharmacies to promote children’s health. Under this program, whenever a customer makes a purchase, the cost of the purchase is rounded up to the nearest dollar and the change donated to the Rite Aid Foundation. Since 1994 the Rite Aid Foundation has collected over $ 65 million dollars and used it fund pediatric medical services, research and medical equipment for the Childrens’ Miracle Network Hospitals. It has also donated money for disaster relief.

It is a laudable program that has additional benefits. The few cents collected each time do not seem like much to the customer but they can add up to a sizeable amount in aid of a worthy cause. If not for this program, they wind up accumulating in coin jars or piggy banks until there are enough of them to turn in at the bank and convert into dollar bills. Carrying them around in trouser pockets is a bad idea since the sharp edges of the coins rub against the cloth and quickly make holes. I’ve had that happen to me more times than I care to remember.

It’s amazing how fast loose change accumulates. At one time, I must have had eighty to a hundred dollars in change stowed away in a bag. I could have converted it into dollar bills at one shot but that would only mean I’d start accumulating it all over again with each fresh purchase. Instead, I carry about a dollars worth of change and each time I buy something I get rid of some of my loose change. If the cost of my purchases is $ 7.38, I tender a ten dollar bill and thirty-eight cents in coin, getting back three dollar bills. By dint of this, I have reduced my stash of loose change to under twenty dollars worth.

The dollar is not what it used to be and coins nowadays will hardly buy you anything. The one cent coin, the nickel and even the dime stopped being relevant awhile ago and a single quarter is only useful if you want to buy a gumball. The expression ” one thin dime” has heightened meaning these days, so useless is it. Indeed the only use for change is to pay the bill exactly, because the tax on purchases makes the total an odd figure almost never in whole dollars. Gas stations and stores also use cents to give us the perception that an item priced at $9.99 is a whole lot less than ten dollars. I do wish that we could do away with coins altogether and have prices in whole dollar figures( tax included).

The one cent coin in particular deserves to be retired since it costs the government more to manufacture it than the coin is worth. Twenty years ago, I remember meeting a man who was collecting all his pennies because he felt that the rising cost of copper would make pennies worth a lot. By then, he had already collected two giant glass jars full of pennies, probably about five hundred dollars worth. The jars weighed a ton and it was not easy to move them. I wonder how many jars of pennies he has now. However many they are, his “profit” when he decides to cash them is not going to be as much as he thinks.

I really should not be moaning about the loss in value of our coinage because in other countries like India, Italy and South Korea ( to name a few) the problem is more acute. In India, years ago shopkeepers would give you a sweet in lieu of change because they just could not stock enough five and ten paisa coins to make change for customers. And South Korea! I was watching a South Korean TV serial recently and the hero made a dramatic gesture at an auction. He bought back a coffee mug that his wife had donated and paid the whopping price of thirty million won. Thirty million won!! ( GASP). In fact, the exchange rate is approximately 1100 won to the dollar, so what he paid, in terms we can understand , was actually about $ 27,000. Still a princely sum but not anything like 30 million.

But to get back to KidCents…it is a good idea, a smart idea but I wonder what Rite Aid does besides collecting and disbursing the funds. It would be nice if they were to make match whatever they collect from customers.

The Ideal Community?

Roseto, Pennsylvania was an unremarkable town in the foothills of the Poconos until it shot to prominence in the 1960s. A resident noticed that few people in Roseto showed signs of heart disease and hardly anyone under the age of 55 died of a heart attack. Even in people over 65, the rate of heart disease was only half that in the neighboring communities or in the nation as a whole. This was big news because heart disease was, at the time, the leading cause of death in America. Two doctors, Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn, began a multi-year study of Roseto residents to determine the reasons for this anomaly.

They eliminated all the known causes of heart disease, one by one. First, they discounted environmental factors and access to medical care. The water supply and the healthcare system in Roseto were no different from those in neighboring towns. Next, they discarded genetic factors: Rosetans were healthier than their relatives elsewhere in the country. Nor was diet a factor. The people of Roseto, all immigrants from Italy, had long abandoned healthy extra-virgin oil as a cooking medium; they used lard and indulged in fat-laden salamis, sausages,hams and eggs and they smoked inveterately. After many years of study, the two doctors concluded that the reason for the good health of Rosetans was the town’s supportive community.

To understand this, it is necessary to know some of Roseto’s history. Roseto was founded by a group of men from Roseto Valfortorte in Apulia in southern Italy, who came to America to escape the grinding poverty that had been their lot. Here they labored as peasant farmers for the landed gentry, in slate quarries and, in the case of a fortunate few, as stone carvers. They founded a town on a cheap, open piece of land on a hillside and named it Roseto after the village they had left behind. Their numbers grew as they married girls from the old country and started their own families. Life was very hard as they were shunned by the Welsh, English and Slavs from the neighboring towns. They worked at the most menial jobs, digging holes , throwing out rubbish etc and earning as little as eight cents for 10 hours of backbreaking work. As a result, they became an ethnic enclave , speaking a regional Italian dialect and distrusting the outside world. By dint of hard work and frugality, they eventually prospered. They grew their own food, bought locally and even made their own wine. Families worked together, ate together and members of the community looked out for each other leading to a sense of security and freedom from stress. There was co-operation instead of competition; everyone in Roseto dressed alike and lived in modest homes. This emotionally supportive environment, the two doctors concluded, was the reason for the good health Rosetans enjoyed.

With time, as young people went to college and left Roseto for better opportunities, things changed. People wanted bigger homes, bigger cars and the sense of community eroded. A follow-up study in 1985 by the same two doctors found that the health and mortality of people in Roseto was indistinguishable from that of everyone else.

So what are we to conclude from this? That pre-1960 Rosetto was the ideal community and one that we should emulate ?

Not really.

For one thing, such a community is, necessarily, insular, suspicious of outsiders and opposed to new ideas and change. Rooted in the past, it is comfortable only with perpetuating the old way of life and is resistant to progress. Not only is such a mindset untenable in today’s fast- changing world, it is bad both for locals and the nation at large. It is very limiting.

There are two things about that society that are worth adopting. First, the close knit nature of the community. Second, its egalitarian outlook. Unfortunately both are very difficult , if not impossible, to develop in today’s America. Communities are not stable; people are constantly moving around in search of jobs, better opportunities, bigger homes. It is difficult to develop a sense of community and belonging when people don’t stay in one place. Also, competition has became the norm as we constantly seek to keep with the Jones and even go one better than them. In the Roseto of old, people believed that flaunting wealth would attract malocchio ( the evil eye) and bring harm to their families. Today, people are not constrained by such beliefs and strive to accumulate and spend as much as they can. Recreating the mindset of old Roseto in which the well-to-do helped out the less fortunate is well nigh impossible, as desirable as it may be.

Surprisingly, in todays America, there are some limited environments which do function like the Roseto of yore. They are the Active Adult ( Senior Citizen) developments which are proliferating as America ages. In such communities where residents are either retired or contemplating retirement, people have more time for each other. Freed from the tensions of the workplace, people are kindlier and more relaxed, more supportive of each other. There are less opportunities for competition. Houses come in a limited range of models and, at this stage of life, no one is contemplating additions. There are fewer opportunities for flaunting wealth and even the desire to do so lessens. Supportive communities, a relaxed environment and egalitarian attitudes… doesn’t that sound like the ” Roseto effect” ?
P.S If you live in an Active Adult community is that your experience too ?

A Good Cup of Coffee

One morning last week, I found we had run out of milk and had to go get some. I passed a Dunkin Donuts on my way to the supermarket and was amazed at the long line at the drive-in window. It stretched from the drive-in window at the side of the building, round the front and spilled over from the approach lane onto the road itself. There must have been at least twenty cars idling as the drivers waited for their turn for a morning coffee and a donut (or two?).

The sight reminded me of the time before I retired, a time when I too used to wait in line for coffee. Only, I used to get my coffee at a cart parked in front of my office building in Manhattan. That coffee was both a pleasure and a necessity. A pleasure to smell, and a pleasure to drink at my desk before the office day started. With it, I usually had a buttered roll or, very rarely, a donut. This ” breakfast” assuaged the strain of the long commute and got me ready for the day ahead.

Seeing those people waiting in line for Dunkin Donuts coffee got me thinking about why we prefer a particular coffee. Some swear by Dunkin Donuts coffee, others opt for Starbucks, still others have a particular food cart they go to. What makes a particular brand of coffee a favorite.

I have a theory, ridiculous though it may sound.

Over the years, as I changed office buildings and got my coffee from vendors at different carts, I realized something about the taste of coffee. The taste you want is the one you get accustomed to. When I first started work I used to get my coffee at a Chock Full O’ Nuts and I thought it was the best. Then I moved to another building and had to get my coffee from a cart. I didn’t like it at first but after a week it seemed like I’d always been drinking it. When I tried Chock Full O’ Nuts again, the coffee seemed “different”. The experience was repeated every time I patronized a different vendor. Initial dislike soon changed to complete acceptance.

No doubt, that is why aficionados of Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donut coffee swear by their particular preference and can’t do with anything else. Me, I don’t drink coffee regularly these days and haven’t built up any brand loyalty. I stay away from Starbucks because of their exorbitant prices and I’m not one for flavored coffees. When we were in Vegas a few months ago, I had to get coffee at a Starbucks because there was no other option and I was stunned at the prices. Dunkin Donuts where I go occasionally is more reasonable and I usually have plain coffee.

Incidentally, further to this theory of liking what you get accustomed to… Because I usually drink coffee from take-out containers, I find I don’t like to drink it from the heavy mugs that it comes in at diners. I wonder if my theory applies to other things too. I like Red Stripe beer because of its ” crisp” taste. But do I like it because of that or because I got used to it and measure all other beers against it. And what’s with single malt scotches? Does my brother-in-law like MacCallans because of its distinctive taste or because he is used to it? I will have to pursue this with him next time we meet.

I have just finished doing my taxes and I can feel my blood pressure spiking. This is one activity that makes my blood boil. It’s not that I mind paying taxes; I know they are necessary to keep things going. Nor is it that I’m put out by the unfairness of the tax code ; I know I have to live with it. No, what drives me nuts is the complexity of the tax forms and the difficulty of filling them out.
Each April as I wrestle with the taxes I get the feeling that a bunch of CPA’s are looking over my shoulder waiting for me to make a mistake. They know it’s only a matter of time before I do. How can I not? Consider the instructions for the Qualified Dividends worksheet.
Subtract line 5 from line 6. If zero or less than zero, enter -0-
Subtract line 6 from line 1. If zero or less than zero, enter -0-
Enter the smaller of line 1 or line 8.
After filling out these numbers , many of which result in a zero, and after going through four more lines I wind up on line 16 with the same amount I started out with on line 1. Why? Why? Why the distinction between qualified dividends and ordinary dividends? Dividends are dividends… make them all the same and spare me these calculations which make my head go round and round.

And what’s with all these decimals? Multiply Line 3 by 92.35% (.9235). Why? Why not make it a nice round 90% (.90) or even 95% (.95)? It’s cruel to make me deal with decimals to the fourth place. As I tear my hair out in frustration, I feel that somewhere out there the rotters who came up with the tax code are cackling with glee, giving each other high fives and going ” Gotcha!” I am convinced that the tax laws were devised by accountants with only two goals in mind. One, to tie poor schnooks like me in knots and two, to make themselves indispensable.

What we need is a simplified tax code. And , by simplified, I mean one that’s really simple. One that will take a high school graduate only five minutes to fill out his tax return. It’s easy to come up with such a code. Only I wouldn’t entrust the job to our lawgivers. Every time they simplify the tax code, they make it twice as complicated and double the number of tax loopholes.

If I could, I’d like to sequester our lawmakers in their offices and make them do their own tax returns. They would have access to all their documents and a simple calculator and all the time they need to figure out their taxes. No TurboTax. Of course, until they finished their returns, they would not be allowed any food or drink. What’s that you say? Cruel and unusual punishment? Well, OK… they could have all the water they wanted to drink , but no going to the bathroom until they finished their returns. Still think it’s cruel? Well, maybe so but , at this moment, having just struggled with my own taxes, I’m not feeling too kindly towards them. Two days of this and they would be ready to throw in the towel and agree to let me devise a new and improved Tax Code.

My tax code would be simplicity itself. All income would be taxable. No distinction would be made between earned income, dividends and capital gains. Income is income. Why allow preferential rates to investors? There would be only three income groups. The lowest group would be taxed at 10%, the middle one at 25% and the high income group at 35%. Since there would be no phony write-offs, and entire incomes would be taxed, there would be no scope for the boondoggles available to high income filers. Heck, even though the top rate was only 35%, we would probably be able to balance the budget the first year itself.

There would be other benefits to my Simple Tax Code. Everyone would be able to do their own taxes in a matter of minutes. There would be no need for professional tax preparers or $ 1000/hour tax lawyers. CPA’s could use their skills to keep the books instead of dreaming up ways to beat the tax code. So many of them would be out of jobs that they could use their skills to proper use. Since they all are very good at math, they could be put to work teaching our high school students whose math skills are among the worst in the developed world.

The essence of my code is its simplicity. Without write-offs and deductions, there are no opportunities to exploit loopholes. The only deductions allowed under my code would be for dependents, say $ 2,000 per dependent. The more I think about my tax code, the more I like it. It’s a stroke of genius, if I say so myself.

Of course, human nature is such that no sooner a law is promulgated, people try to find a way around it. In the case of my tax code, people would soon figure out that the only way to put one over would be to increase the number of dependents. They would try to emulate the Duggars, that couple in Alabama who have nineteen children and counting ( and their own TV show besides). In no time at all we’d have a population explosion and added strains on the social services. I could limit the number of dependent exemptions to two or three but that would result in a big howl that the government was infringing on reproductive rights.

My tax code would work like a charm … for about nine months.

Doing Taxes…. Grrr !

The phoenix is a legendary bird that, towards the end of its life, builds a nest and sits in it. It then bursts into flame spontaneously and is reduced to ashes, nest and all, only to emerge young, fresh and ready to begin a new life. In many ways, Las Vegas is like the phoenix. Each time we have visited it, and we have been there four times, it has appeared new, different and more colorful than ever.

The first time we visited Las Vegas, in 1987, it was much smaller than it is today. Despite the flashing neon signs, it appeared seedy and somewhat tacky though it tried hard to be glamorous. We were staying at one of the smaller hotels on the strip and I don’t remember much. It was a novelty to find that no matter where you wanted to go on the main floor you had to go through the casino. I was not tempted but plenty of others must have been.
We went to Vegas twice in the nineties. The first time we stayed at the Monte Carlo , the second time at the newly built Mandalay Bay. This was the period when Vegas decided to promote itself as a family destination. There were plenty of kiddie attractions including circus acts at the Circus Circus, hotel rooms at give-away prices and dirt cheap buffets ( all-you-can eat, $ 9.95). It must have worked for a while because the casinos were crowded. In between our two visits, Vegas transformed itself as older casinos were torn down and new supersized theme structures took their place. There were new entries to the Vegas scene such as the Paris( with its scaled down but still impressive Eiffel Tower), the Luxor pyramid, New York, New York with its replicas of famous NY attractions such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, the Excalibur, the Venetian ( with gondoliers plying their craft in the “Grand Canal”) and the beautiful Bellagio with its “dancing fountains”. And then there was the MGM Grand, awesome for its sheer size; it had 4,000 + rooms. Rooms and buffets were not as cheap as Vegas tried to attract the well-heeled crowd. Many of the restaurants were helmed by celebrity chefs such as Joel Robuchon and the stage shows too were more sophisticated.
When we went to Vegas last December, it had changed once again. There were even more large casino-hotels such as the Aria where we stayed. Frontage on the Strip is limited, and therefore at a premium. Some of the older hotels had been torn down so that new ones could take their place. Another big change was the replacement of pedestrian crossings with overpasses. The aim was to ease the car traffic on the Strip and it did alleviate the problem considerably. However, traffic is so heavy that it still took us twenty minutes for our taxi to go from the Wynn to the Aria. It also made it difficult for pedestrians who wanted to walk the Strip. I always try to walk around a city I am visiting; it’s the best way to really experience it. In Vegas it wasn’t easy. From our hotel, I walked to the ends of the Strip, to the north one day and south the next; it took me over an hour each time. Climbing up to the overpass and down again each time I had to cross a street was tiring. It was also unpleasant because all the panhandlers park themselves there; every few steps on the bridge there was one. I really wondered how much ( or rather, how little) they collected. There were just too many of them and, besides, vacationers in Vegas are not inclined to be charitable. Perhaps it is the high cost of staying and dining in Vegas or perhaps they want to save their money for the slots. I was happy I went on my walks though because I really got to appreciate how different the casinos were and to get a close-up look at their charms.
Yet another change this time was the tourists in Vegas. Fully forty percent of them were mainland Chinese. There were all kinds: groups of young men , families with young children, honeymooners and gaggles of young women. I suppose it was a reflection of the changing world order; in the seventies it was the Japanese , now it is the Chinese who have the disposable incomes and the yen to see the world. Las Vegas has a glamor and glitz that Macau cannot match and, on one trip to Vegas, Chinese visitors can experience New York,Venice, the Pyramids, Paris etc. Many of them were wide-eyed at what they saw; their chief activity was to take photos of themselves framed by Vegas attractions, so that they could show their folks back home.
The celebrity chef syndrome has reached new heights in Vegas. Practically every chef worth his salt has to have a restaurant in Vegas, sometimes more than one. Bobby Flay, Emeril, Giada de Laurentis, Todd English, Gordon Ramsey are only some of the marquee names I noticed. Naturally, the meals they put out are not cheap. We ordered tasting menus at two of the restaurants and prices ran between $125 and $150 per person, not including drinks and tip. I must say that the meals were awesome.
So were the shows. The entertainment scene in Vegas is dominated by Cirque de Soliel which was staging shows at no less than seven of the casino-hotels. We saw ” Le Reve ” ( the Dream) at the Wynn; it was created by the founder of Cirque de Soliel for his friend Steve Wynn and it was spectacular. It is about a girl who breaks up with he lover and is visited by a dream with angels, devils, butterflies, jesters and other fantastic creatures. Finally, she wakes up and is re-united with her beloved. The action takes place in a circular pool where the water level is raised and lowered to create elaborate tableaux. The performers are clad in unbelievably colorful costumes as they splash and cavort in the water, diving, swimming and posing to create an unforgettable spectacle. For the finale, one of them is raised into the rafters and then drops feet first into the water sixty feet below. The show is beautiful, it is scary, it is indescribable. BTW, some of the other shows were headlined by performers we thought had long since retired; remember Donny and Marie Osmond. They are still going strong.
As ever, Vegas is best at night. Driving down the Strip is one way to experience it. Another is to sit in your hotel room and look out the window at the millions of lights and the rivers of neon. Someone remarked that Vegas uses more electricity than the entire Indian state of Gujarat. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Three days , maybe four, are about as much as I can take of Vegas. Vegas is exciting, it is gaudy, it is excess personified, it is enjoyable. But, in the harsh light of day, as you head out to the airport you realize that Vegas is an oasis in the desert, a mirage, a dream. Time for the real world.

Golden Ripples

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