Saturday, January 30, 2016

Genworth Financial and its lagging payment "system"

Genworth is one of the largest providers of long term care insurance in the U.S.  Working with them, it appears that they systematically work to delay payments.  At a minimum, they make working with them as an insurer difficult at a time when the insured is already going through a difficult period. Perhaps it seems to be just incompetence, maybe it is due to their unwillingness to hire an adequate work force in order to limit expenses, or it could be done intentionally, although that seems unlikely as it would be so stupid for them to do that as a regulated entity, however lightly the insurance industry attracts regulation.  Stupidity, of course, is always possible.

As a corporation, Genworth(GNW) is performing poorly.  Its stock price of $2.78 as of yesterday's close is at a seven year low, excluding the even lower prices of recent weeks.  The 52 week high was $9.19.  Its S&P bond rating is BBB- and its Moody's rating is Baa1, both basically the same, and while that might be adequate in parts of corporate America it is unequivocally poor for a financial firm.  For fiscal year 2014, the last full year reported, Genworth lost $1.2 billion, and they have had losses in four of the last five quarters.  The losses are partially due to "special items" and "discontinued operations", but even without them the net would still have been negative.  Also, even if part of the losses is from these supposedly non-recurring items, they still reduce capital.

Common equity is twice long term debt totals, but that is not all all the best capital measure for a financial company.  Whatever affects liquidity is, and that is not a current problem based on the limited information there is to determine that, but the stock market is definitely giving investors a warning that all is not well.

With that as background, it can be said that triggering the benefits on a Genworth long term care plan is no picnic.  There is an agreed upon 90 day elimination period during which the insured must show that they are paying for long term care with appropriate invoices and details of care.  After that period, the insurer, Genworth, starts paying.  Getting all of the paperwork done to make this happen was difficult.  It did not help that almost once a month Genworth changed the benefit analyst working on the insured's account.  Finally the policy was up and running, although it was not clear that all past due insured care had been documented well enough for them to cover it.  It did not matter.  The insured and the insured's attorney in fact did not have the time or energy to fret the details.  A payment finally came.

Another came the next month as well after frequent contact with the long term care provider and with Genworth.  It seemed that without the insured's regular involvement, Genworth would have problems.  The benefit analyst once again changed.  There was no payment for the most recent month and filings by the provider have been rejected as unreadable.  That is impossible for details of the invoice, as a Genworth analyst claimed, because they come directly from an online system but it is possible for the detailed written reports by the actual caretakers that are required .  It turns out that the Genworth workers who read the claims can reject an entire batch if  reading just several of a month's worth of reports prove difficult to read.

Also, and this is crucial, Genworth refuses to communicate directly with the agency that is the long term care provider even though they have all phone and fax numbers and names.  They say that they want the insured to stay informed.  So most recently, Genworth rejected a month's worth of claims ending on December 20, sent a letter to the insured dated January 8 which was received Janaury 22(a Genworth agent explained the timing discrepancy by saying they don't have control of their mailroom or the U.S. Postal Service. The insured then needed to contact the provider and Genworth.  To date no claims have been paid since mid-November.  Why can't Genworth send their response to both the insured and the provider as we have repeatedly suggested? Too easy a fix?  Why can't they just fax or call the provider?  Too quick?  Genworth has been given permission to do that.

It is clear from talking to various clerks at Genworth that they are understaffed.  When asked why the benefit analyst assigned changes so frequently, one clerk finally said that "because everyone has so many accounts to work on that they frequently rebalance among analysts to make sure the work is spread around evenly".  When asked why an entire group of claims can be rejected if just a few are illegible, another clerk said that is just up to "the discretion of the team member doing the work and how much other work they have".

There is enough written here.  It feels like this is a class action suit waiting to happen, and maybe that's what the stock market sees, as a suit would surely have the potential to send the company into a liquidity crisis that would lead to bankruptcy.  Maybe that is an extreme comment, maybe Genworth's poor service helps with its liquidity in a way that keeps the financials working, maybe Genworth does better with other clients, but anecdotes do not confirm that, in fact to the contrary.  To be fair, it sounds like the much of the long term care insurance industry is roiled by the same problems.

This is obviously a story that is "to be continued...", but not here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Trump's absence was welcome

Last night's Republican debate was notable in that it was not dominated by Donald Trump.  As all know, he chose not to participate.  That is a story on its own.  Trump had threatened not to participate if Megyn Kelly, who he calls "biased", served as moderator.  When Fox did not budge on Kelly(good for them), Trump said he would not participate, but everyone wondered whether there was some face saving room there that would still lead Trump triumphantly to change his mind.  Then Fox News put out a sarcastic press release suggesting that Putin and the Ayatollah might not treat Trump fairly either(bad for them).

Candidates can say what they want and they are meant to be covered by the press.  So can individual reporters when giving opinion but not news.  But when Fox put out that press release under their corporate name, they became a news participant rather than an observer or analyst. That was completely unprofessional and for certain had to seal Trump's decision to pass.  He may have done so regardless, but what an unfortunate and out of line move by Fox.

While certainly not as entertaining, the debate itself had its "enlightening" moments, at least to the extent that word can be used to describe anything about these debates.  Not being able to hide behind any excuse that Trump was ruining the dialogue, both Cruz and Rubio came across as lightweights on policy but reasonably capable as debaters to some observers.  Cruz's extreme right wing politics were more transparent, to his credit that he did not hide it I guess, and his unrestrained vitriol(was he abused as a child) showed through often and there was more time for it to be choked down as it was not directed at Trump.  Rubio's constant repetition of the same statements and several of his comments about religion, going so far as to make sure the audience knew that "Jesus Christ was his Lord and Savior" seemed like blatant pandering.  One should not question another person's religion, unless they are using it to promote themselves or abuse others.  Rubio's comment easily falls under the category of  "self promotion" when related to the campaign.

Conservative observers seemed to think Rubio did well, and some thought that Jeb Bush had his best night.  That does not take much.  John Kasich has to be taken seriously within this primary at the moment based on polls for the New Hampshire primary.  He continued to praise himself with enthusiasm and try to make the case that experience counts, a tough sell in this election period.  With Trump not there to remind voters that Ohio's economic good fortune under Kasich is at least partially due to the geographic "gift" of fracking, Kasich seemed more confident.

Among the also-rans, Ben Carson as usual seemed surprised to be asked questions and unprepared to answer them except in the most vague generalities, as he seems to believe that he is above it all. Chris Christie continued to come up with good one liners and promote himself as a Washington outsider who has run a government.  He has no chance in this race but truly wants to be liked by everyone. Rand Paul was a welcome addition back to the debate as he has a definite libertarian point of view that is not going to lead him to the nomination, but he rankles the leading candidates with substantive attacks on their some of their weaker statements.  It is hard to think that they welcome him back.

The impact of Trump's decision to pass on the debate is unknown.  He certainly succeeded in continuing to create publicity for himself, more than any other candidate by far.  Whether his Deadhead like fans will actually vote is the big question("hey, this is my eighth Trump event, what about you?"  "It's just my fifth but my whole family now has hats.  I really liked the one where they served soda and ribs.")    No doubt the polls will give us a mass of questionable information in the next few days.  We await Monday.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"The Money Behind Ted Cruz"

The above is the title of a Bloomberg Business Week article this week(January 25 - 31 issue) that is subtitled "Robert Mercer is one of the wealthiest, most secretive, influential, and reactionary Republicans in the country."  Mercer is the leading quant at Renaissance Technologies, an off the charts, so to speak, successful investment management firm based on Long Island.  His work there has made him billions.

The article is fascinating, as Mercer uses his wealth to support quirky ideas, fringe right wing conservative movements, climate change deniers groups, and strange conspiracy theorists that are falling off the edge of the far right.  He now supports Ted Cruz, so far $11 million of support.  Along with two other billionaires, Mercer is spearheading the support with his two counterparts providing the great majority of the money for Cruz, leading to a total of $38 million in a PAC known as Keep the Promise.  The other two, to quote BBW are "Toby Neugebauer, a founder of a Houston investment firm who now lives in Puerto Rico, and Farris Wilks, a mason, pastor, and father of 11 from rural Texas who became a billionaire a few years ago in the fracking business." This group and several other major donors met with Cruz in Palm Beach in February 2014 to sound him out and plan this financing.

One could guess that this is far from what the supporters of the Citizens United ruling would lead to, or maybe it was.  Citizen United, seriously flawed as it is, was advanced with the thought that major corporations and known supporters of and participants in the U.S. economy should be allowed to wield more influence in the political arena. That has not happened for the most part.  What is described here about the Cruz support has, and it is far more alarming than having GE, Goldman Sachs, Apple, Walmart, or other mainstream corporations give more to candidates.

As readers may have noted, Bloomberg Business Week has become required reading here with each weekly issue looked forward to almost as much as The New Yorker.  That's an exaggeration, but BBW is read thoroughly each week.  The article discussed here is worth reading as we get into the teeth of the primary season in presidential politics.  The financial underpinnings of Cruz's campaign are not remotely broad based or mainstream.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


We were trapped in our house here on the western North Shore of Long Island from very early Saturday morning until late Sunday afternoon due to 30 inches of snow in the immediate area.  That's a huge amount of snow, all coming down in a 20 hour period.  Fortunately the predicted high winds did not arrive and there was no ice storm involved.  That means that there was no good reason for power to be off in our area, and for once it was not.  Our Sandy inspired generator did not need to kick in and since it has not been serviced in almost five months, that's a test we did not miss.

We had company.  Two of the caretakers that work here were also trapped here.  A more than adequate amount of food had been planned in advance, but just for us.  Always maintained supplies of cereal, oatmeal, pasta, Rao's marinara sauce, couscous, and Progresso minestrone soup(add tabasco to taste, and dashes of cumin and fennel pollen) supplemented what we had.  It was fine.

The storm of this magnitude was a surprise.  Generally speaking, I discount the dire forecasts of the weathermen, as they are rarely right and seem to be designed to keep television viewers staring at pictures of reporters being rained on, reporters valiantly hanging onto a railing as they speak, or reporters standing in water or snow up to their knees.  They want viewers.  With Jonas, as this storm was called, the forecast for our area was first 8 to 12 inches of snow, then a final 12 to 18 as the storm hit.  That would have been tough.  30 inches was almost impossible.

Others were taking the storm more seriously than I was the day before.  Grocery store shelves were depleted, as in empty, when looking for basic items.  There were no Thomas's English muffins of any type when we went, after we grabbed our carton of eggs there only one left, and prepared food entrees were in short supply, meaning only the least desirable were left.  One thing on our list that was plentiful was Tide. As a friend noted to me, people were not worried about doing their laundry.

At the time, I attributed this panic buying just to "Sandy trauma".  Little did I know.  In fact Sandy was the last storm that came in far beyond any forecasts.  The 2012 Sandy hurricane was forecast correctly as extremely large and dangerous.  What was completely missed until the day two before was that a major storm coming down from Canada in an easterly direction would conjoin with Sandy to create the monster that it would become.  Many people, including us, will never forget that experience and now Jonas has reconfirmed the fear.  Some in the house will no doubt be watching or listening to weather forecasts intently and often for the remainder of the winter.

After badgering our spoiled, lazy, and not too bright(a reliably bad combination) snow removal contractor to finish the job on our driveways(he would only remove the snow in front of one garage door at first as it was "too hard" to do more.  I suggested that he and his compatriot get out of the cab of their plow truck and use a shovel. He replied, looking astounded, "Shovel?"), we are set. Surrounding areas are not and driving is dangerous as many two way roads are practically speaking just one lane and any intersection without a stoplight is difficult due to high piles of snow on all sides.

We were lucky with this one.  If the worst part of the experience was just the realization of being trapped, less food choice, and eating a supposedly fiber healthy but faux English muffin that tasted like baked sawdust, that's a wonderful outcome compared to Sandy, which keeps coming back to our minds in times like this and always will.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"10:04", a "novel" by Ben Lerner

This book was published almost a year ago but it has just come to my attention.  If it had then, it may not have seemed like something that would have been of interest as Lerner's first book, "Leaving the Atocha Station", did not catch me.  Two tries, months apart, and that highly acclaimed book could not be finished although on the second try I did make it halfway.  "10:04", on the other hand, grabbed me from the outset and was done in two days.

It is a stream of consciousness narrative that is, on the surface, about a man in his early thirties who has some success writing.  After a short story of his is published in "The New Yorker", he gets a sizable advance to turn it into a novel.  That not even begins to say what this book is about as it has multiple stories about multiple people, almost all separate apart from their impact on the mind of the main character. From the outset the style seemed so real as to be autobiographical and most of it actually appears to be as the book moves to a close.  It could be called an autobiographical novel, not a new concept, but so well done here.

The setting is primarily Brooklyn and Manhattan, with a side trip to Marfa, Texas.  The closing coincides with Hurricane Sandy, and the cover depicts that event that had a major impact on so many.

The writing style pulls one along easily, although Lerner at times sent this reader to the dictionary to understand unfamiliar words.  The writing would have still been compelling without some of those words and remained so with them.  The book has so many aspects that writing a comment that describes it as a whole is impossible here.  There are pages that are almost stand alone as having unique interest, and observations that are notable come from out of nowhere frequently.

Each to his own, but "10:04" seriously worked here.  

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The early primaries are almost here

The political news here in the U.S. is focused on the February 1st Iowa caucuses and the February 9th New Hampshire primaries.  The following comments are on possible outcomes and, based on these unpredictable races thus far, may have little currency beyond today.

The caucus system in Iowa provides a completely different system than primaries, and it is unclear whether the various polls can be more or less accurate in this type of race.  One could think less. Looking at the Republicans, at the moment Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are clearly at the top of the polls for Iowa. Cruz is leading with the, in Iowa, particularly important evangelical vote. Trump is leading with the Trump voters, a diverse group politically with a common attraction to Trump's intuitive style and unrestrained bombast.  There is a thought here that the caucus system favors Cruz. The evangelicals are fired up and will get to the caucuses at the right location and on time. The Trump voters will plan to show up, but if they are tired and Jeopardy comes on they may just stay home.  Candidates with the possibility for a surprise third or fourth place showing are Ben Carson and Rand Paul.  If Marco Rubio shows up in the top four it would not be a surprise, but if he does not it would be damaging to him.  Any decent showing by Chris Christie or John Kasich would be boon to their campaigns.  Jeb Bush appears to be an also ran in popularity, and unless he has a much more significant organization than is apparent he will continue lag everywhere.

In New Hampshire, Trump has consistently maintained a large lead in the polls.  "Live free or die." As a primary, with votes finally decided after walking into a private polling booth, any events in the coming week that turn out to be meaningful have the potential to quickly change the results reflected in the polls significantly.  Could Trump have a bad hair day? Could Romney endorse Kasich?  Who knows?  Anything less than a win would be a poor showing for Trump.

As to the Democrats.  Clinton has had a far more organized campaign for months in Iowa, but Sanders gets much more enthusiastic crowds at rallies.  Will organization override the energy of people under 45?  The big question here about Clinton in general is whether she is likeable?  Are her controlled mannerisms and the appearance of a perpetually entitled approach to a campaign be her downfall again. Her knowledge of issues and debate presense have been exceptional, but are they what counts in this 2016 election season?  That is a comment not just for Iowa but for her entire campaign.  Her must win early state is South Carolina but a win in Iowa would be an exceptionally good start.  New Hampshire has been a good state for the Clintons over the years but her campaign has been busy sandbagging for the last month based on Sanders' New England home area "advantage".  Polls suggest that he does have a benefit from that, but will the practicality of New Hampshire Democratic voters who want a Democrat as President eventually win the day?

Lots of questions...

Friday, January 22, 2016

"La Rafle"

Last night this French film from 2011 was watched here.  It was an exceptionally well done story, based on larger facts about atrocities in Paris after the Nazis took over the city in 1940.  Usually films about German barbarism at that time do not focus on Paris.  In fact it is mostly the opposite in film and in books, with the theme almost always being about how normal Paris continued to operate, with their restaurants and nightclubs unfazed.  Brasserie Lipp, across Boulevard St. Germain from Deux Magots, became the busiest restaurant in the city with their giant steins of ice cold beer and their weiner snitzel, chocroute, sauerbraton,  sausages, and kartoffelsalat.  The German invaders enjoyed Paris and the control that  they exerted there.  Most Parisians did not enjoy the control but they adapted.

There are films and books remembered here about Nazi atrocities in Germany, in Warsaw, by their awful allied brownshirts in Vienna, and around the rest of Europe.  "La Rafle" tell the true story about Nazi atrocities in 1942 Paris.  Apparently at Hitler's direct order during his visits there, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood was systematically rounded up in the early morning hours, entire families,people were beaten and abused and then shipped off to the Paris hippodrome where they were held for days with little food or water.  Eventually they were shipped off to a concentration camp.

It seems that Hitler wanted to make a point to his elderly puppet Petain that he must be strict and show that he was strict by requiring the French police and army take care of this task.  That's the set up.  The acting was first-rate, at times exceptional, especially Jean Reno, and somehow the film had its bright points while ultimately being mostly heartbreaking.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

"I Like Killing Flies"

Last night this documentary about a small Greenwich Village restaurant was watched and enjoyed.  It was made in 2004 but was new to us.  The restaurant was Shopsin's, and it was well known here through the writing of Calvin Trillin who lived nearby the restaurant on Bedford Street(hey Yun Jae). The choice was long ago made not to go there, as it was clearly a neighborhood restaurant and I did not want to be an eavesdropping tourist from midtown or Long Island.  Only a New Yorker would have such a thought not to intrude.

Anyone with any experience in Manhattan will enjoy this short film.  Anyone without experience in Manhattan should enjoy this film.  Kenny Shopsin is a world class New York street philosopher that most will recognize.  His advice is precious even if crude.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"Preparation for the Next Life"

The first novel by Atticus Lish is nothing if not unusual.  It was recommended to me by a friend in no uncertain terms.  Published in late 2014, it was on numerous best book lists for that year and won the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction in 2015.  That was somewhat alarming and it spoke to how isolated we have become in the last year or two due uncontrollable events.  How could I not have known about this book?

"Preparation for the Next Life" is written in a staccato like style of verbal and physical description. The intensity of the writing in describing downtown Manhattan Chinatown, downtown Flushing, Queens and its Chinatown, and what I can only think is Jackson Heights, Queens and its miasma of cultures within multiple blocks of each other is almost overwhelming.  Lish creates a collage of sights and sounds that go on for extended rants, maybe the wrong word but that's what it felt like.  The effect was exceptional, and I recognized from my own incessant walking of days past the areas so well described if not explicitly mentioned.  He does not try for realistic perfection in these descriptions, but the images are true.

Apart from the descriptive nature of the novel, it is the story of two people living on, hanging on to, the fringes of society.  Zou Lei is an undocumented immigrant from Chinese central Asia, half Han, half Uighur, working menial jobs in restaurants and generally not even accepted by fellow Chinese because of her background.  Skinner is a PTSD and physical wound damaged Iraq war veteran having served three tours and being incompatible with the country that he now lives in.  They become an unlikely, incredibly needy, and loving couple of sorts, supporting each other but unable to provide or understand all that each needs.  

As the story moved toward an ending, it became almost painful to read.  It made me anxious.  That rarely happens here.  It was troubling but it also speaks to the power of this novel.  It was finished yesterday morning but there are thoughts still going on here.  Read with caution, and that is a positive comment.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Clemson is the choice here

Tonight's national championship game in college football will be the first college football game watched here this season.  I am looking forward to it and actually have a favorite.  That is Clemson for now, although when watching a sport I have been known to change my mind during a game.  I don't think that will happen tonight.  There is no reason for me to like Alabama.

Here's the rationale, with roots in my distant past.  From 1968 to 1971 I taught tennis at Camp Carolina in Brevard, NC.  It was a beautiful place owned by the Reynolds family of Richmond(Reynolds Wrap among other products).  The camp had counselors from many colleges but two historic providers were Clemson and Davidson.

The tennis staff in 1968 included myself, Charlie from Clarksdale, Harvey from Louisville, Jeff from Atlanta(who eventually would become coach of the Davidson tennis team), and Hoak Sloane, the former long time coach of Clemson's tennis team.  He seemed elderly at the time but he was probably  just in his '60's as he got out there on the courts and played with us.  He particularly liked teaming up with me in doubles, and we aggravated other heavy hitters with our constant returns, with many of Hoak's being lobs.  That's one of my connections to Clemson.

The other is that one of my father's best friends took textile engineering at Clemson and worked at Dan River Mills with him.  As I was growing up, he and his friend Charley's main connection was an interest in stereos and electronics.  This was in the days before everything needed could just be bought off of the shelf.  My father built his own small speakers that could fit discreetly into our small house, in the living room and dining room with wires running under the floor in the basement. Charley, being an engineer, made his own amplifier as well.  When my father was in his 80's Charley was one of his last few friends, and no one could have been more genuinely loyal.  After the Mill had been sold to an Indian company, they would drive out to the main site, sit in Charley's car, and watch the giant plant being demolished day by day.  Charley had known Hoak Sloane in the 1940's.  That's the other connection of course.

Not having a good football reason to have a favorite, this is more than enough.  Go Tigers.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Global equities have shock decline in the first week of 2016

Equities were consistently down country by country, product area by product area, market cap from big to small, and highly rated to lowly rated in the first week of 2016.  The phrase "across the board" fully applies.  What is happening will take some time to shake out.

That something like this is happening in the first week of the year is no big surprise, but this year the impact is dreadful.  From approximately November 15 of any year until year end, institutional equity market trading is significantly influenced by portfolio positioning, the need to manage perception of that positioning, tax management for the year closing, and the balancing of gains and losses to give the best possible appearance to investors.  Once the new year opens, all of those concerns are off the table and unbridled trading based on expectations, research and, more now than ever, perceived trading trends that can get magnified by volume, each of those attributes are now running the books.

There are today some major events that are driving trading.  Those seen here are as follows:

---Credit liquidity - with the rise of trouble on the not so distant fringes of the high yield market, fixed income investors are unsettled.  They know that smaller players in the commodities and materials sector could be coming under greater pressure, and they know that weakness in one area can pull liquidity from other sectors that are less severely affected.  With the Dodd Frank bill adoption of the restrictive Volcker views in some market making areas, the big financial institutions will now be much less of a backstop for the system in a crisis.  With rates already pressed so low and bond buying by central banks at some point reaching a limit, there is less of a cushion should weakness trigger a broader market selling. What happens in that event is the question.

---Regional economic downturns - the focus of most financial media coverage is on the big powerful broad regions, meaning China in particular for good reason, but Europe and the U.S. as well of course. There are regional economic downturns underway that relate to these blocs, but they are less discussed.  One is the southeast Asia decline that is underway, and throw into that South Korea as well.  Companies in those countries trade heavily with each other.  They are certainly impacted by what is going on in China, but they interact with each other in a significant way.  The region seems to be slowing down and the currencies are lagging in a major way over the last quarter.  Other regions subject to decline underway now are Russia and the Middle East.  Europe is pressured by the migrant crisis and its impact on state services and tourism, while winter sets in and the strong dollar tourism boost may diminish at just the wrong time.  These regional undertows are not trivial.

---Commodity price declines - it is not a secret that commodity prices are declining broadly, but the extent of the declines is becoming alarming.  China was leading a rise in global demand for everything.  Producers of oil, metals, and agricultural products all built up capacity, much of which is coming on line now.  Producers need to cover the cost of their investments so they keep producing even as prices decline.  It's simple to explain but it is not simple to fix this deflationary trend.  It hurts, or will hurt, corporate profits, lending flows, and future capital investment.  This can happen gradually or it could happen in a disorderly way.  Investors are concerned.

---Global political uncertainty - this is always somewhere on the table, but with recent events in the Middle East it is more urgently watched.  This kind of unknowable concern cannot be traded, but it can slow down investment and it can add caution to what would be a more efficient trading world.

There is no view here about what will happen near term.  By any historic measure of recent years, we should certainly expect to see a bounce back in equities in the coming week but whether it will be meaningful or just volatility driven, is something that is not clear, if it materializes at all. Fundamentals in the U.S. economy remain unchanged, as in relatively positive with some modest erosion based on global events, but the guess here is that investors will be focused on discrete buying and selling, as my little retail hand will be, and waiting for some kind of  "all clear". By the time that comes, opportunities will have been missed or hopes will have been crushed. Why did I once like this?    

Friday, January 08, 2016

"M Train"

This latest book by Patti Smith was just read here.  Based on reviews skimmed, the book promised to be very different from her National Book Award winning "Just Kids" of 2011.  As opposed to a linear autobiographical approach to a period of time, "M Train" was thought to be the musings of a poet in the current day and maybe not something that would interest me.  I could not have been more wrong.

Wednesday, my usual night routine of piling up the pillows on the bed and settling in for a good read was underway.  Two books were already partially read, one somewhat demanding for late night and another becoming somewhat tedious.  "M Train", untouched, was in the pile as well, so why not.  The musings of a poet could be relaxing.  Propped up on the pillows at 11:30pm book in hand,  I did not move until 1:15am, 160 pages into the book, which was finished at lunch on the next day.  The book is a series of essays tied together by a Greenwich Village cafe where Smith spent her morning's writing, thinking, and drinking coffee for ten years, whenever she was in her place across 6th Avenue in New York and not traveling.  Once into the book, it is obvious that the cover photo is perfect.

Reading the book was just a matter of letting it flow.  I did not need to be familiar with all of the writers and poets that animated Smith's writing and activity.  In fact, many were familiar, some forgotten for years.  Where had I even read the name B Traven in recent decades, or seen someone write glowingly about "Black Spring" as I would have done circa 1970.  How many writers could be found who, looking for their next book to read, were frustrated to find that they had read all of the books in Henning Mankell's Wallander series(hand raised here).  Smith's travels to obscure places solely for the purpose of literary exploration, or meeting with writers that the beat generation adored, or laying amulets, significantly sourced stones, notes, or flowers on the graves of those that she had admired, these are captivating.

The many photographs throughout the book, taken by Smith, may seem somewhat quirky, definitely minimalist.  What they really are is personal, a sharing by the writer.  They add significantly to the book in a way that is cumulative.

I was completely taken with her humanity and her normalcy.  Her prodigious talent and wide ranging literary interests did not deter her from anything that she wanted to do, be it watch Horatio Caine in CSI Miami(clueless here), any episode of Law and Order Criminal Intent, or, when traveling to Europe, taking couple day layovers at a small Covent Garden hotel to eat room service and watch British television crime programs.

It's a disarming thought, but how many times could I have walked by her or seen her in the Village as I tramped about Manhattan for so many years.  Despite seeing her in concert several times, she is not a person that would have been recognized, just as she would have wanted it to be.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Those "dangerous" food antibiotics

Having experienced some stomach distress over the past week, nothing severe but nothing anyone would want to hear about, I read with interest a January '16 Consumer Reports article on antibiotics in food.   There was a table listing major chain restaurants and whether they allowed food with: one, "antibiotics for growth promotion", two, "antibiotics for disease prevention", or three, "other drugs".

With a few variations marked by asterisks, all major chains allowed all of the above with the exception of Burger King which bans antibiotics for growth promotion(must have found a way to make a Whopper without that),  Panera Bread, which bans all three categories, and notably Chipotle Mexican Grill which also bans all three categories as well.

Looking at Chipotle's current disaster, it could seem to some that their focus on purity was somewhat premature.  As to Panera, their menu is not as fresh produce and meat oriented, lots of prepared meats, as that of Chipotle which must rely on regional vendors.  As a big Chipotle fan, this has had an impact.  Why go back until this has all settled down. Whatever is in Gonzo's burritos, they seem healthy and taste exceptional, and an extra ten minute drive is worth the trouble if it means little or no perceived risk.