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Monthly Archives: September 2011

From the Bode Museum, Berlin

This summer, it seemed, was different.  Certainly for me, on a personal level, it provided a sharp change.  For one, I decided to quit my nice cushy first-ever job, as a “Distinguished Professor” at Korea’s Yonsei University.  It was about as easy as you could imagine, more or less a casual day’s work per week for around 7 months of the academic schedule, decent enough pay in a place one can live quite inexpensively, plus a fat discount at a first-rate hospital.   I’d been there four years and for a complex stack of reasons I decided to call it quits, though they wanted me to stay.  Somewhere else I’ll write some of it, but the real seeming problem was that security doesn’t fit me well, and having it seemed to act as a damper on things I seem to care about more.   So I canned the job, the pay, and am back on the tight-rope at 68.

I took a planned trip to Europe, the only really compelling reason for which was to join up with my wife, Marcella, and have some time with her.  I had a week in London, and then met up with her in her hometown, Matera, down in southern Italy.   A few days after arriving, in a gentle way, she said she’d like to part ways.  It wasn’t at all what I wished to hear, though I’d inwardly known it would come some day, some how, for some reason.  Marcella is 34; I am 68.  In the back of my mind, when I’d said OK for her to go off and do a scholarship thing in close-by Potenza, back in December, I seem to have understood that being back home, among people more her age, in the comfort of her own culture, it was likely she’d feel the urge to stay.  And seems I was right.   And I understand only too well:  it’s what she needs for her own life, to step out on her own, gain her self-confidence, learn that she is able to survive, enjoy, live on her own.   I needed the same thing long ago, at a much younger age, and it is something I certainly understand.  And, perhaps, after this many spins around the sun, I see love can be given many tints, and I love Marcella and see this is what is right for her.  I’ll manage, no problem.   We – Marcella and I – still love, just in another way.  She’s in Madrid now, doing her internship at the Filmoteca Espanol.  We talk almost every day.

Constable cloud study at the V&A, London

While the USA got a roiling spring and summer of hyper-tornadoes, torrential rains, heat-waves, and now hurricanes – all somewhat “normal” except it seems now on steroids – in Europe it was another story.  A summer – the 2nd one in a row – that more or less wasn’t.  Instead, where I was – in southern Italy, a brief stay in Rome, then Berlin and Paris and Brussels and Amsterdam and back to Paris – it was mostly rainy and overcast, and generally a bit on the cool side.  In all of July and August a fistful of sunny days, a few warm, but mostly wet and cool – it usually felt more like autumn than summer.  Naturally people complained at this change in the seasonal expectations, though had it been a sizzling August as once seemed the normal, they’d complain about that too.

Back in Korea friends reported, as did the news, torrential monsoon rains that flooded the center of Seoul – rains that never stopped and tropical-style heat to go with it.  They too complained about the summer that wasn’t.

Joplin, Mo., springtimeMid-west America, spring 2011Gangnam, Seoul

In the broader world – in Europe, in the USA, and everywhere connected to them – the summer was one of a kind of roller-coaster economic thrill ride, though one almost guaranteed to run off the tracks.  While the politicians and economists tried to put a good face on it, between the lines one could read panic:  it seems not only did America and some parts of Europe (the PIIGS) go out for a few decades on a plastic spending binge they couldn’t pay back, so did everyone else.  And it seems the same dubious money was shuffled from this bank to that, to shore up the same bad deals.  Now the chickens are home to roost, and the big boys of France and Germany are quivering as their banks are deeply exposed to the debts of Greece, Italy, Spain and all the rest.  And behind them, so are America’s banks.  So once again, mimicking 2008, there is a vast rustling in the back rooms as the Bilderberg crew try to keep their “market” system cranking against all evidence.  They built a house of cards, one which for the most part the public bought into, and now that house is collapsing.

On a close-up personal level that means my little stack of Korean Won just shrank about 6% in the last week as the undercurrent of lousy news about Korea has hit “the market.”   Like their brethren in the USA and Europe, Korea’s biggest  construction firms went out on a limb, over-built on spec, and now as property prices are headed south, and there’s a surfeit of apartments and offices, those big chaebols are dancing near bankruptcy.  And the Won caves with them.   So my little savings stash takes a hit – thing is I’d expected it.  Any money can just go poof in a second since the money in and of itself is a pure abstraction: when the social contract as to what it means dissolves it even makes for lousy toilet paper.

And so globally the extravagant decades of the recent past are closing down, the $5 coffees, and designer nouvelle cuisine, the vacations in the south Pacific, the second homes, 3rd cars, and endless “credit” are all together shriveling, and neither our politicians, nor those who ran up their personal debt (heavily encouraged to do so by their friends at the bank) know what to do.   So unemployment, foreclosures, and other economic unpleasantries, along with the natural corollary, social tension and anger, are the consequence.   And this – in Europe, in America – becomes a political explosion.

Unhappy GreeksUnhappy ParisiansUnhappy BritsUnhappy Italians

Unhappy American on Wall Street

It was, it seems, an unhappy summer – the gloom of weather reflecting the political climate, whether in the relentless rains of Asia, or the cool gray of Europe, or the torrid heat of the US.   A summer of discontent.  Of course in other parts of the world it was perhaps different: the Arab spring bled, literally, into the Arab summer as the revolt against Gaddafi and Assad carried on, one with a rather heavy assist from NATA/USA (lots of oil there), and the other with limp words (not much oil).   The uncertainty of a rosy future seems to have seeped into the global consciousness, a sense of impending doom pervading the landscape.  Or doom is far too heavy a word – rather the happy-go-lucky excesses of our immediate past seem challenged, and perhaps for many the idea of dumpster-diving seems impossible after a decade or two of costly cups of coffee, or flipping houses, or whichever had become a seeming norm.  Staring into the future from that vantage point, there doesn’t appear to be one.

Wall Street protestors

Minimally reported by America’s corporately owned and controlled press (especially television), there have been in the last week protests at the altar of our holy church of the market, Wall Street.  While merely an outward manifestation of the current economic squeeze, this is but the harbinger of what will doubtless come about as our grand house-of-cards-and-illusions system collapses in on itself.   For the moment fear rules – a carefully cultivated and purposeful fear, stoked in the last decade and more by the hidden hands of real power.   It is the fear that you, like your neighbor, may lose your job, or your house may be foreclosed, or that some other most tangible material economic truth may smash your illusions.  So one hunkers down, does not speak, hopes the storm will blow over….

Yemeni protestor

But it will not harmlessly – to you, or I – blow over.  It is like the lull of the phony war at the end of the 1930’s, when Europe deluded itself and then fell into a cataclysm of war.   We like to think we “learned the lesson” – of the Great Depression, or of how something like WW2 just couldn’t happen again.  We like to think “adults” and learned persons now run the world.  A look at America’s Presidential candidates should be enough to disabuse even the most stupid person of such thoughts, but it is not so – today a look at the world’s “leaders” should be enough to prepare one for the worst.   The future’s crystal ball seems occluded, and what hints the present gives tilts towards the negative.  Whatever tomorrow holds, it seems likely to be worse than today.   Small wonder the summer seems glum.   Winter is approaching.

Future’s wake