Thursday, December 30, 2010

TED's Greatest Hits of 2010

For a long time I felt without style or grace
Wearing shoes with no socks in cold weather
I knew my heart was in the right place
I knew I'd be able to do these things.


— Talking Heads, Houses in Motion


It has been a volatile year here at the Volcano Lair, Dear Readers. The more attentive among you may have noticed that Your Formerly Dedicated and Recently Only Intermittently Industrious Bloggist has been on again, off again in terms of his attention to these pages. At one point, I even announced my temporary retirement from blogging.1 There are many reasons behind this, but if I told you any of them I'd have to kill you. Normally, this would not bother me, but frankly there are just too many of you nowadays to make mass assassination practical anymore.

That being said, it appears that the occasional pearls I have thrown into the pig sty this year have received some attention from readers who are either too bored or too indiscriminate not to read them. Google, in its Infinite Goodness® even tells me how many times each post has been summoned to the screen. So, based on this simplistic stochastic calculus, I offer up for those of you who have not paid attention, those of you who would like to read only my most popular posts, and those of you with an unhealthy obsession with ordered lists [ahem, Joe Wiesenthal] the following five most popular posts published during 2010 at this humble opinion emporium.

Use this list wisely. As my amanuensis and confidential secretary Natasha always says, "A little TED goes a loooonnng way."

* * *

1. The Mouth of Sauron — My take on Lucas van Praag, chief spokesman for the Great Evil Vampire Squid of Markets, Goldman Sachs, and his employer. Excerpts:

This is just not a country where you can use words like "egregious," "febrile," and "chimera" in public without running the risk of being lynched for general asshattery.

And

The Japanese have a saying: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Right now, Goldman Sachs is the biggest fucking nail on the board. And Lucas van Praag is the miniature douchebag standing on top of the nail yelling, "Nyah, nyah! Go ahead, hit me! I dare ya!"

2. On Bullshit — A characteristically moderate and even-tempered response by Yours Truly to the assertion by some of my industry confrères that bigger banks are both better for their clients and less risky. Needless to say, I disagree:

But the point of my previous tirade stands: large, integrated, multi-line commercial and investment banks with fingers in almost every financial pie around the globe do not reduce systemic risk in the slightest. Instead, they comprise both the source and the pathway of contagion for systemic risk and potential breakdown.

3. I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can — Your Friendly Industry Tour Guide explains that, while investment bankers indeed tend to be rather smart individuals, with few exceptions we are not a reflective or introspective race. Viz.:

You will almost never find an investment banker "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." It's just not in their genetic makeup to be reflective, introspective, or speculative in an intellectual sense.

And

Don't look to investment bankers for answers on how we got here. We don't know and we don't care. We take the world as we find it and try to make money.

4. Conventional Wisdom — Derivatives, liquidity, John Maynard Keynes, and Winnie the Pooh. You know, a classic:

Naturally investment banks swelled like a tick on a dog in this environment. Increased liquidity begat increased volume, which begat more investment bankers earning more money for moving value from one pocket of the global economy to another. (Productivity in terms of volume of deals per banker always lags overall market growth.) It didn't matter to them where the money was going, or if it was doing anything truly productive on the way. That wasn't their job to worry about. They just had to make sure the moolah got from column A to column B intact and on time.

And, of course, take their cut off the top.

5. A Client Is Not a Counterparty — I tease apart a recent Goldman Sachs transaction to help illustrate the difference between traditional market making and proprietary trading:

The major point you should take away from the dissertation above is that everything an investment bank normally does in securities markets requires it to put capital at risk. Low-risk, agency type businesses like underwriting and traditional market making lie on the same spectrum as full-blown proprietary trading, if only at different ends.

And

But the blurry line between market making and proprietary trading doesn't mean we can't identify proprietary investing—or, more specifically, acting like a principal investor—when we see it.

* * *

If you're lucky, maybe I'll spit out a few more beauties like these for you next year. But then again, maybe not.

Happy New Year.

1 If you still needed a reason, this rapid reversal should convince you never to trust another word I put on these pages. I am nothing if not mercurial.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What He's Really Thinking the First Time You Have Sex

It's almost year end, so it's just about time for the annual festival of wrap up articles in the financial media. These are published to remind us what happened in 2010, how we are supposed to think about it, and why we should run out immediately and buy that fetching luxury item prominently displayed next to the articles in our favorite mainstream media outlet. I, for one, am thankful the journalists and editors of our crack fourth estate work so selflessly after a tiring year to fill the blank space between Mercedes and Rolex ads with such informative and helpful copy:
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit...

But journalism is a competitive business nowadays, resembling nothing so much as a high-speed game of musical chairs (where the internet calls the tune), so we should not be surprised that some practitioners are early out of the gate. Today's contribution to year-end gun-jumping comes from The Wall Street Journal. There, Dana Cimilluca and Anupreeta Das report the absolutely gobsmacking news that Wall Street firms are deeply engaged in their annual brawl over M&A league table rankings.

Now, if you are like me, Dear Reader, you are absolutely shocked, shocked that this hoary old chestnut still merits the time of day, much less seven column inches. This tale is older than dirt, and dustier than Cher's bustier. It was already old and dusty over three years ago when I took respite from my busy schedule of rapine and slaughter to pen an explicatory aperçu to a lament by Dennis Berman on the topic at the same broadsheet.

At that time, Mr. Berman did pen a couple of bons mots worth repeating:

The [M&A league] tables have become home to the most petty and wheedling impulses of the industry's most-respected institutions, which are rabid about staying high in the rankings. If you want to understand the Street at its absurd best, watch men in Rolexes grub for credit for deals they barely worked on for clients who probably won't pay them.

Cimilluca and Das offer comparatively little in the way of insight in the current piece, other than a few reported nuggets on AIG and other deals where credit is being contested. Missing from their piece, and from Berman's 2007 article, is an explanation why Wall Streeters act so petty over league tables. Indeed, watching entitled plutocrats scratch and claw over billions of dollars of profitless business may indeed engage the disinterested observer's sense of humor and/or schadenfreude, but I suspect many of my Dedicated Followers would in fact like to know the reasons behind it.

So, in the spirit of selfless public service for which Your Bountiful and Beneficent Correspondent is so widely and aptly known, I offer up a few select nuggets from my prior piece which should shed some illumination on the subject. (In consideration of those Long Faithful Readers who may have read the original piece in full, and those new readers who have something better to do than to wade through my fulsome juvenilia, I have chosen to edit my remarks to the meat of the matter. All of you are welcome.)

I quote my earlier self:

M&A league tables, in contrast, are and always have been a farce. There are no uniform reporting requirements concerning advisory roles or fees for M&A transactions. In order to be given credit for advising on a deal, all a bank has to do is persuade a client to confirm to the reporting services that it worked on it. No real work need take place, and no real money need change hands. Hence, you get examples of highly-discounted or no-fee "services" being "performed" by five, six, or eight otherwise totally uninvolved banks solely in order to claim credit for a big or high profile deal. It is not unheard of or even rare for a bank to deliver a last-minute "fairness opinion" for no fee at all in order to get full credit for "advising" on a $30 billion transaction.

But if, as Mr. Berman reports, everyone knows these league tables are crap, why does Wall Street spend so much time and energy gaming them?

Well, for one thing they are good recruiting tools. All those eager university and business school graduates who are aching to rub shoulders with John Mack, Stan O'Neal, and Henry Paulson What's-His-Name are massively impressed by league tables that show which of their preferred future employers has bragging rights in particular business areas. ...

Second, the published league tables, which tend to appear in the general financial press every quarter and often with higher frequency in the i-bank trade rags, are a nifty form of free advertising. Who, I ask you, does not like free advertising?

But third—and perhaps most surprising—at the end of the day investment banks spend enormous energy and real money on league table positioning and presentation because their customers want them to.

[That is your cue to ask why.]

M&A, for most companies, is a rare thing, a once in a lifetime event fraught with all sorts of terrors and confusions. Furthermore, it is not trivial to say that every M&A situation is truly different, so even if you are in the minority of corporate managers who have actually been involved in a deal, it is almost certain you will not be completely prepared for the next one. Lastly, very few corporate executives are capable of judging the quality of advice given to them in the course of a deal, since (a) they usually cannot figure out exactly what is going on in the room at any particular time and (b) the outcome of any deal depends on an extremely complex interaction of numerous factors, only one of which is the skill of their advisor.

Mergers and acquisition advice is an archetypal example of what Charles Green over at The Trusted Advisor calls "complex intangible services." M&A advice is hard to deliver, impossible to evaluate ex ante, difficult to evaluate ex post, and embedded in a deal process where the criteria for success are multifaceted and highly variable across deals. It is widely viewed as expensive, although at around 1% of aggregate deal value (and declining as a percentage the larger the deal gets), M&A fees are trivial in relation to the value at stake, whether you consider that value to be the future health of the company, the reputation and personal financial condition of the senior executives involved, the net worth of the company's shareholders, or the lives and livelihoods of its employees, vendors, and other stakeholders. This is one reason why everyone pays what in absolute terms look like obscenely large advisory fees even as they complain loudly about having to do so. As many an investment banker has asked a reluctant client during fee negotiations, "You wouldn't pick your brain surgeon solely on the basis of who offers the lowest price, would you?"

[Now for the money shot]:

[But] unlike for many other complex intangible services like accounting, law, and consulting—where a client has a good chance of being able to "test drive" its advisors before it hires them—potential consumers of M&A advice are thrown back on two primary sources of information to use in choosing an advisor: public brand or reputation, and what the investment bankers tell them. Now, most corporate executives are clever enough to perceive when they are being sold, and most investment bankers are pretty effective salesmen and women, so being able to point to some sort of external validation of a bank's skills and reputation is a valuable thing. (Remember how no-one used to get fired for picking IBM? Well no-one gets fired for picking the #1, 2, or 3 M&A advisor, either, even if the deal goes completely pear-shaped.) Hence the continued reliance on published league tables.

The fact that these league tables are widely known to be manipulated does not dissuade the average client, either. You can argue that the fact that a bank is able to persuade big clients to give it public credit for work it has not done is a pretty good indication of decent client relationships and persuasive negotiating skills, both of which are important M&A advisory skills in their own right. And, the mere fact that i-banks so obviously scrap, struggle, and expend copious resources they could otherwise use in their main business trying to reach and stay at the top of the industry league tables month after month is reassuring to clients that the bank in question (a) has surplus resources to devote to an apparently noneconomic activity and (b) cares about its reputation. This is analogous to what naturalists would call a marker of genetic or reproductive health: the same reason peahens look for the gaudiest peacocks with the most energetic courtship dances, even though such activities and energy expenditures on the part of the male are wasteful and even dangerous from a pure survival perspective.

Finally, it is important to remember that investment banking is at its core a network business. Investment banks' skills and capabilities derive from the extensive personal and business relationships of its professional employees, and this is arguably the most compelling value proposition any investment banker brings to a client. What better way to demonstrate the strength of your network, and the extent of your connectivity, than a league table showing how many deals you worked on and how many clients you served? Even if some of them are fake.

So there you have it, children: investment banks scrap like toddlers over league table rankings because, at the end of the day, their clients want them to. After all, investment banking is a service business. And the client is always right, n'est-ce pas?

* * *

Notwithstanding my potshots at the Journal and its confrères above, I fully understand why the financial press has to trot these silly league table articles out on a regular basis. For one thing, the investment banks would scream bloody murder if they didn't get their quarterly free advertising. For another, most people who read the financial press couldn't care less about understanding Wall Street and its silly rituals and business models. They just like to imagine Lloyd Blankfein and James Gorman locked in a mud-wrestling match at a dive bar in Hoboken over who gets bragging rights to the #1 slot in 2010 M&A. Good fight stories sell newspapers.

Finally, just as in those highly successful infotainment marketing vehicles known as women's magazines, it does not do for a periodical to demystify a recurring topic like sex or league tables by explaining it too deeply. For if you do, who will buy the next issue to read the same reheated crap all over again?

By the same token, what woman really wants to know that the true answer to the question posed in this post's title 1 is:

"How soon after I'm done can I go home and watch the football game?"


1 And, no, I did not make that question up. I strive for authenticity in everything I do. It is the genuine article.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

H.R. 4173

One Hundred Eleventh Congress
of the
United States of America

AT THE SECOND SESSION

Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday,
the fifth day of January, two thousand and ten


An Act

To promote the financial stability of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system, to end ‘‘too big to fail’’, to protect the American taxpayer by ending bailouts, to protect consumers from abusive financial services practices, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


* * *


"At pet stores in Detroit, you can buy
frozen rats
for seventy-five cents apiece, to feed
your pet boa constrictor"
back home in Grosse Pointe,
or in Grosse Pointe Park,

while the free nation of rats
in Detroit emerges
from alleys behind pet shops, from cellars
and junked cars, and gathers
to flow at twilight
like a river the color of pavement,

and crawls over bedrooms and groceries
and through broken
school windows to eat the crayon
from drawings of rats—
and no one in Detroit understands
how rats are delicious in Dearborn.

If only we could
communicate, if only
the boa constrictors of Southfield
would slither down I-94,
turn north on the Lodge Expressway,
and head for Eighth Street, to eat
out for a change. Instead, tomorrow,

a man from Birmingham enters
a pet shop in Detroit
to buy a frozen German shepherd
for six dollars and fifty cents
to feed his pet cheetah,
guarding the compound at home;

and a woman from Bloomfield Hills,
with a refrigerated Buick
wagon, buys
a frozen police department Morgan
for thirty-seven dollars
for her daughter who loves horses.

Oh, they arrive all day, in their
locked cars, buying
schoolyards, bridges, buses,
churches, and Ethnic Festivals;
they buy a frozen Texaco station
for eighty-four dollars and fifty cents

to feed to an imported London taxi
in Huntington Woods;
they buy Tiger Stadium,
frozen, to feed to the Little League
in Grosse Ile;
they buy J. L. Hudson's, the Fisher Building,

the Chrysler Freeway, the Detroit Institute
of the Arts, Greektown,
Cobo Hall, and the Tri-City
Bucks Roller Derby
Team. They bring everything home,
frozen solid

as pig iron, to the six-car garages
of Harper Woods, Grosse Pointe Woods,
Farmington, Grosse Pointe
Farms, Troy, and Grosse Arbor—
and they ingest
everything, and fall asleep, and lie

coiled in the sun, while the city
thaws in the stomach and slides
to the small intestine, where enzymes
break down molecules of protein
to amino acids, which enter
the cold bloodstream.


— Donald Hall, Poem with One Fact 1



1 Donald Hall, "The Town of Hill," David R. Godine, Boston, 1975, pp. 13–15.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

A Cautionary Tale

Women with hats like the rear ends of pink ducks
applauded you, my poems.
These are the women whose husbands I meet on airplanes,
who close their briefcases and ask, “What are
you in?”
I look in their eyes, I tell them I am in poetry,

and their eyes fill with anxiety, and with little tears.
“Oh, yeah?” they say, developing an interest in clouds.
“My wife, she likes that sort of thing? Hah-hah?
I guess maybe I’d better watch my grammar, huh?”
I leave them in airports, watching their grammar,

and take a limousine to the Women’s Goodness Club
where I drink Harvey’s Bristol Cream with their wives,
and eat chicken salad with capers, with little tomato wedges
and I read them “The Erotic Crocodile,” and “Eating You.”
Ah, when I have concluded the disbursement of sonorities,

crooning, “High on thy thigh I cry, Hi!”—and so forth—
they spank their wide hands, they smile like Jell-O,
and they say, “Hah-hah? My goodness, Mr. Hall,
but you certainly do have an imagination, huh?”
“Thank you, indeed,” I say; “it brings in the bacon.”

But now, my poems, now I have returned to the motel,
returned to
l’eternel retour of the Holiday Inn,
naked, lying on the bed, watching
Godzilla Sucks Mount Fuji,
addressing my poems, feeling superior, and drinking bourbon
from a flask disguised to look like a transistor radio.

Ah, my poems, it is true,
that with the deepest gratitude and most serene pleasure,
and with hints that I am a sexual Thomas Alva Edison,
and not without collecting an exorbitant fee,
I have accepted the approbation of feathers.

And what about you? You, laughing? You, in the bluejeans,
laughing at your mother who wears hats, and at your father
who rides airplanes with a briefcase watching his grammar?
Will you ever be old and dumb, like your creepy parents?
Not you, not you, not you, not you, not you, not you.


— Donald Hall, To a Waterfowl 1



1 Donald Hall, "The Town of Hill," David R. Godine, Boston, 1975, pp. 10–11.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Merry Christmas, Baby

Merry Christmas baby
Babe you sure did treat me nice
Yeah! Merry merry merry Christmas baby
Babe you sure did treat me nice
Gave me a diamond ring for Christmas
And now I’m living in paradise

Oh! I’m feeling mighty fine this morning
I’ve got good music on my radio
Hey baby, I’m feeling mighty fine
I’ve got good music on my radio
I would love to hug and kiss you baby
While you’re standing beneath the mistletoe

Santa came down the chimney
About half past three
He got all of these presents that you’ll use
See, I’ll help you put on these

Merry merry merry Christmas baby
Oh! you sure been good to me
I haven’t had a drink this evenin’ baby
But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree

Hey! Merry merry merry Christmas baby
I’ve got good music on my radio
I said, merry merry merry Christmas baby
I’ve got good music on my radio
I would love to hug and kiss you baby
While you’re standing beneath the mistletoe


— B.B. King, Merry Christmas Baby1


Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy holidays.

Have fun!

1 YouTube soundtrack courtesy of @juanviejo. Thanks, Jon.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

We Get Mail!

From the mailbox:1
From: [Redacted]

To: The Epicurean Dealmaker

Sent: December 13, 2010 2:24 AM

Subject: I need advice way more that the other slobs who write you

TED,

I found your commentary through ftalphaville which [I] read as part of an Investment Banking class (ridiculous I know but it sounded interesting when I was registering for classes), at my small liberal arts college. I don't read your stuff to learn about the industry since you aren't actually a great source [Ed.: Hmph] and that being completely ignorant of banking practices is obviously not a significant barrier to entry [Ed.: We're beginning to dislike this yahoo]. Rather, I like the access to poems, books, movies, and vocabulary continuously used in [your] posts. What I'm curious about is how you developed your cultural literacy [Ed.: Beginning to feel slightly mollified...]. It seems like there has to be a better guide to the humanities that the New Yorker [Ed.: Now there's a sensible fellow]. I've looked at your list of books on Finance but I'm more interested in what you would recommend for general life.

Thanks. Hopefully [it] hasn't been Mark Madoff writing this stuff for the past couple of years.

[Signature redacted]


* * *

Dear Redacted:

Your suspicion is correct: I am not Mark Madoff.

That being said, I must say I think your stated quest to better yourself intellectually and culturally is somewhat quixotic and self-defeating, given the fact you have already indentured yourself to the blinkered worldview of the socialists, communists, Marxists, and professional malcontents who no doubt hold the curriculum and teaching methods of a small liberal arts college such as yours hostage. Show me a female professor of Comparative Literature and Gender Studies at your school who has shaved her legs once in the past 15 years, and I will hold out slim hope that you have a passing chance to wrest your intellect free from the New-New-Anti-Canon in which you are being indoctrinated and learn to think for yourself.

You may understand my caution as the natural perspective of an individual who was schooled at a time when Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hemingway, and a baker's dozen of other Dead White Males were not viewed as constructive rapists, intellectual imperialists, or empty, brainless dictation machines for the magical ur-texts of their corrupted, patriarchal social milieus but rather as a pretty impressive collection of clever fellows quite talented at pushing words around on a sheet of paper. Sadly, my worldview is completely bereft of understanding or subtle appreciation for the finer points of Crypto-Columbian Transvestite Literature from the sub-Amazonian basin from 1953 onward. In other words—as your professors will gleefully tell you—I am a complete idiot.

Nevertheless, I am unapologetic in my advocacy of Dead [insert race or ethnic persuasion here] [insert gender or sexual preference here] authors from what is now disparagingly known as The Canon. Notwithstanding some of the very valid accusations about context, bias, and socially-driven contingency which professors and theorists of literature have made against these individuals and their texts for the past few decades,2 I contend these works have undiminished interest and value for every thinking person. Why, you may ask? For the same reason these works and these authors have survived the great winnowing of poor, mediocre, and near-great authors and works over centuries of Western (and other) civilization: namely, they are great fucking writers.

Quality matters. No matter what age, pedigree, or recommendation comes attached to a work of art, if it is lousy, I don't read it. And neither should you. Life is too fucking short for bad writing.

* * *

On the other hand, I do not recommend you become a snobbish consumer of art, either. I find no-one so tiresome and uninteresting as a person who contends that only a certain kind, type, vintage, or source of art or writing is "worth" reading. Bullshit. Read it all, and make your own decisions. But keep an open mind, and look for new material, media, and artists using the only criterion that really matters: is it any good?

By the same token, do not sneer at entertainment value. Why should you look down upon a book, or a movie, or a photograph you find beautiful or entertaining, even if it has no "deeper" artistic content?3 I do not enjoy reading mediocre novels, but I enjoy the crap out of some mediocre movies (as well as some good ones). Does that make sense? Is it consistent? I don't know, and I don't care. That's just how I roll.

So, as you may now see, I am pretty close to an omnivore when it comes to art and literature. The real limiting factor to my consumption of and familiarity with art is simply the time to enjoy it. Because of that, I read and reread a lot of classic fiction, some poetry, and quite a bit of nonfiction. I watch current release and back catalogue movies. I develop favorites, and I revisit them often. That, combined with a pretty robust associative memory, allows me to harvest these materials for the blog posts you enjoy (!) here.

As such, it is a personal strategy. It may not work for you. But let no-one tell you there is only one right way to approach art or literature, or one culturally-approved list of acceptable works to enjoy.4 Develop your own list, and your own approach, and tell the rest of us to take a hike. I, for one, will not take offense.

Sincerely,
TED5


1 Guaranteed transcribed as received verbatim, save for a few minor grammatical corrections necessary to render the message comprehensible to anyone in possession of a brain before 1985. As Joe Pesci said in My Cousin Vinny, "Yoots."
2 Which, frankly, if they have any merit, have only enriched a sensitive reader's appreciation of the texts in question. Art is about layers, Onion Boy, and—generally speaking—the more layers the merrier. I think a lot of textual criticism is nonsense, but I also think a lot of it is quite insightful and interesting.
3 Are you sure there is none? Have you looked carefully enough for it? I wouldn't be so quick to judge, if I were you. Just an FYI.
4 For those of you who really want a list, here's a quick, unsorted one that I might start from, if I were in a magnanimous mood. It's not comprehensive or complete, but you could do worse, in my opinion, than to consult these heavyweights: T.S. Eliot, Conrad, Yeats, Tolstoy, Dante, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Chandler, Montaigne, Austen, Joyce, Cervantes. The list—and, frankly, even the books that comprise it—is less important that what you make of it, so enjoy.
5 It occurred to me, after I published this, that I did not address your question regarding the source of my vocabulary. One explanation is that it comes from long reading of fiction and nonfiction works (like those above) which use such language, an early immersion in Latin in high school, and—I am not immodest to admit it—a prodigious memory for such things. The other, truer explanation is just that I'm a freak who loves and collects words. There is no training for that, just therapy. It's called blogging.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Holiday Interlude

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


— William Carlos Williams, This Is Just To Say


Happy holidays, everyone. Peace, comfort, and joy to you all.

Be safe, and be kind to each other.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

All Aboard!

"You seek a greeaat fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the fortune you seek.

"But fust ... fust you must travel, a long and difficult road. A road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs ... wonderful to tell. You shall see a ... a cow ... on the roof of a cotton house. Ha! And, oh, so many startlements.

"I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto ... your salvation."


O Brother, Where Art Thou?


There's a scene in the 1989 Steve Martin movie, Parenthood, which has always bothered me. In it, the spunky, slightly addled, naturally adorable grandmother wanders into an argument between Steve Martin's character, Gil, and his wife Karen, played by Mary Steenburgen. Gil and Karen are arguing about the unpredictability of life, and Gil complains that he hates it. Grandma interrupts delphically that she loves the wild, terrifying, unpredictability of roller coasters, which she considers far more interesting than merry-go-rounds, which just "go around." For a ham-handed Hollywood metaphor, the scene is neatly done, and the moviegoer is duly prepared for the subsequent scene when Gil's youngest son demolishes the school play and everyone lives happily ever after.

Now, I like Parenthood, but I have always found the life-as-roller-coaster metaphor facile, ridiculous, and untrue. (Perhaps my hostility is informed by the fact that I dislike real-life roller coasters, too.) Life is nothing like a roller coaster. Life, no matter how terrifying or benign, does not run on fixed, immutable tracks in self-contained loops; loops which have been engineered and maintained to prevent the very premise upon which their entertainment is based—elemental fear of falling, death, and oblivion—from ever occurring.

Real life is not engineered1. Real life does not return you to the place whence you embarked. Real life is not predictably scary and thrilling. Real life is not predictable at all. I can look back upon my decades of life and recognize something which looks a little like a roller coaster in the rear view mirror: ups and downs, highs and lows, rapid shifts of speed and direction, sickening drops and exhilirating plunges. But I cannot see the track ahead, and I know no-one else can either. There is no fundamental reassurance that I will return, safe and sound, to the place where I started. There is no guarantee my ride will even continue beyond my next breath.

It is our minds which provide the narrative to our lives, the structure and shape to which we cling and try in our blindness to assign meaning. For what is the point of our journey? Why are we on this track, with these people, at this time? What will it matter that we have even passed this way before?

Who knows? Perhaps Grandma is right: we should just close our eyes, hold on tight, and enjoy the ride.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


— T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"


1 Or, if it is, all evidence of its engineering, and the Engineer behind it, is hidden from us, only discoverable explicitly through the non-factual means of faith. I do not wish to get into a theological dispute here, but I think you follow my meaning.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.