Ennui the Eighth is in the building.
And so it goes.
Ennui the Eighth is in the building.
And so it goes.
That was my first encounter with Hadley. I held her on my lap the entire time. Having this sunny, beautiful four-month-old niece was a welcome counterweight to my grief for my mom.
The thing about “Aunts and Uncles” is that they’re generational. As I mentioned (“I Wuz Robbed”) I had only fleeting contact with my one aunt and a mere glimpse of my uncle. But I’m an uncle. And my mom and dad had aunts and uncles. Important aunts and uncles, some of whom I even knew!
I never knew my mom’s Aunt Domenica nor Uncle Francesco, but they were a crucial part of my mom’s life. First, there was a double bond with mom’s parents, my grandparents: Domenica was my grandmother’s sister and Francesco was my grandfather’s brother. Not uncommon in small villages in Italy in the early twentieth century. Second, Domenica became mom’s surrogate mother after my grandmother died when Mom was not quite seven. I know little about the extended family other than about “Cousin Joey” – I’m not sure of the exact lineage – but he was the golden child of his generation (our generation). And unbeknownst to me he lived around the corner from me when I lived in suburban Hartford. I found out only after I had moved away.
My dad was awash in aunts and uncles. His dad had a brother, Fred. Don’t know much about him. Their mom, Lottie, died very young (25) and their dad remarried. They had a daughter, Mildred, my grandfather’s half-sister. I knew Mildred. She was larger than life, to a somewhat literal degree. A large woman, she and her husband, Walt, never had children, and I think my sisters and I became very special to them. And such good humor! And appetite! Every day Walt would bring her glazed doughnuts. And a large Hershey bar. All of which she consumed. Must have been health food for her because she lived into her late eighties.
Dad’s mom was the oldest of five. Next in line was Henry Clay, “Clay”, who married Debra Larison, “Aunt Debba”. There is an early home movie that I treasure taken at a birthday party for Clay that included the extended family. Dad panned the camera around the dining room to capture the crowd, and the scene includes me sitting on Mom’s lap. Dad’s father is in the picture, too. And the guest of honor, Clay. They look ancient. It was Clay’s seventieth birthday. (Gulp). I remember visiting Debba on her farm after Clay’s death. I think I was about eleven or twelve. She was as tiny as Mildred was large, but full of life and energy. I don’t remember that it was a special occasion but my sisters and I were joined by some level of cousins – don’t know about degrees and removes but there were about eight of us. We had a great time taking turns riding in or pulling a horse cart around and around her house.
The youngest of the five was Nelson, called “Pete”. He was a noted surgeon at New York Hospital and dad’s mentor as dad followed in his footsteps. Dad lived with him and his wife, Natalie, for at least some of the time he was in medical school. My sisters and I got to know Pete and Natalie quite well. Natalie could be a little sharp but Pete was a gentle soul, very soft spoken. My middle name is Nelson, after him.
As mentioned in “I Wuz Robbed” I do have the great fortune to have nieces and a nephew.
Catherine, the eldest of the bunch, besides being smart and accomplished has genius level emotional IQ. She also was a gifted athlete in her younger days. For two consecutive summers when she was eleven and twelve her parents and her sister Lizzie joined my sister Suzie and her two children, Hadley and Connor, and my sons and me at a family camp week at a “Y” camp In New Hampshire. We all stayed together in one big cabin and had great times all together. I especially recall a post supper game of “Capture the Flag” involving all of the families there. Catherine, who was a near-national caliber sprinter, ran circles around all of the boys to their immense frustration.
Hadley, two years younger than Catherine – the same as my son Tom – is particularly special to me. She was born in the fall at a time when my mother was in declining health due to cancer. Her mom took her to Florida to meet her grandmother in January; the pictures are endearing. When my mom died in early March Suzie took Hadley to Florida again to join me and my sister Barbara. As it happened we arrived in Miami at about the same time in late afternoon and were booked on the same puddle jumper to Naples on the Gulf Coast. That was my first encounter with Hadley. I held her on my lap the entire time. Having this sunny, beautiful four-month-old niece was a welcome counterweight to my grief for my mom.
Connor, Hadley’s brother is two years younger than Hadley. There is a strong resemblance between him and me, so much so that his father’s father remarked on it on several occasions. He has a special relationship with my older son Charlie. And with me, due to our shared enjoyment of genealogical research. Turns out that his father’s family and my family share ancestry dating from the fifteenth century.
And then there’s Catherine’s little sister Miss Liz. Lizzie was born after my Mom died and was still quite young when my dad remarried, so to her my stepmom, June, was truly Gramma. Lizzie was and is Little Miss Spunk. Why she puts me at the top of her uncle list I don’t know, but I’m pleased. Lizzie, like her sister, was an athlete, and an even better one. Taller than Catherine she was a skillful basketball player, but her real forte was lacrosse. She was a third team All-American at Bates. I remember standing on the sideline of a game not far from her opponents’ bench and overhearing the coach instruct her team “whatever you do, stay away from Denver (Lizzie)”. Sound advice.
So, there it is. I have it covered on both ends, generation-wise. With more to come. Catherine and her husband have two boys, Justin and Lucas, and Lizzie and her husband have two girls, Addie and Nola. Further good times await.
So much promise, so little to show for it. One’s potential as a niece or nephew depends solely on the number of siblings one’s parents have. Perhaps some count a spouse’s aunts and uncles as one’s own, but I don’t see it. While relationships with aunts and uncles continue throughout mutual lifetimes the prime time, in my estimation is in one’s youth, well before one could possibly have a spouse. So, let’s start with a head count. Between them my parents had five siblings, all brothers. Uncle and, perhaps, spousal Aunt possibilities abounded.
So it starts with a headcount. Between them my parents had five siblings. All brothers. Uncle and, perhaps spousal Aunt possibilities abounded . . . . Alas
Alas, I think one must refine one’s list to exclude such possible uncles and aunts who are not alive when one is born. Uh oh.
My mom emigrated from a small village in Italy, arriving aboard the steamship Patria in New York on March 30, 1916.*
She was not yet two years old, so she would not have realized that her mom was pregnant. Vittorio arrived, by birth not ship, twelve days later. My sisters and I had never known that Mom had any siblings until just after her death. Going through her possessions my sisters discovered a locket with a picture of two young children inside, Mom and Vittorio as it turned out. But by May, 1917 Vittorio was dead. Bronchial pneumonia as a complication from measles.*
But then, in June 1921, Antonio was born. Mom might not have remembered Vittorio; she was not yet three years old when he died, but she was close to seven when Antonio was born. And when he died, two-and-a-half months later. Tubercular peritonitis. The same disease that would take her mother four months later. Antonio’s death certificate* makes clear that he had contracted the disease in utero. And by surviving him her mother had to bear the grief of his death in her final months knowing that the cause of his death was her last illness.
My dad’s family also knew the early loss of a child. Louis, born in 1923, died that same year of complications from spina bifida. But three sons born earlier survived childhood, my dad (right) and two other brothers, Tom (left), a year older than Dad, and Carl, Jr.,(center) called “Babe”, two years younger.**
But. Tom had contracted rheumatic fever as a child. He recovered, but as a direct result of that illness suffered from a kidney disorder, Bright’s Disease (chronic nephritis). He lived with it for a number of years, long enough to graduate from college and law school at Cornell. After law school graduation in 1938 he studied for and successfully completed the New York bar exam and commenced a solo practice. His mother, my grandmother, served as his secretary. As Dad tells the story, he settled an estate that produced enough of a fee for him to pay off his college and law school debts. And in the fall succumbed to his disease. Not yet 25.
I think my dad never got over losing his brother. I mentioned last week (Memorabilia prompt, “Lost and Found”) that Dad’s mother’s family tradition was to name the first-born son Thomas, so it would appear that in my naming Dad just followed family tradition. But I think there was more to that. I’ve often wondered how it would have been to have known him as I grew up and especially thereafter as a fellow member of the Bar. But it was not to be.
So, then there was one. Babe married, Thelma, and they had two children. Bonanza! An aunt and uncle and two cousins. But there was an estrangement. My Dad never spoke of it. It just was. There was no communication. But I did meet my uncle. I was driving with Dad in my grandfather’s village – I was probably about nine years old – when Dad pulled the car over and an unfamiliar man came up to talk to him. It was Babe. I don’t remember that Dad introduced us. Probably did. And the encounter was brief. And never repeated.
When my grandfather died the summer before my senior year in college I was unable to attend his funeral because of my work schedule, so I missed an opportunity to properly meet Babe, as well as Thelma and my cousins. I remember my mother grousing about it afterwards, belittling them about this and that and the other. And “the penny dropped”. My dad’s hometown, not far from mine, was a small rural community. Thelma came from a small village in the North Country of New York, near the Canadian border. My mom was an Italian immigrant. For a time during World War II, when my dad was overseas, Mom and my sister Louise lived with Dad’s parents for a time, and Babe and Thelma lived in the same town. I have the feeling that at best she never felt welcome and more likely felt resented for her ethnicity, her religion and God knows what else. I don’t know specifics but I do know that Mom had “issues”, shall we say, perhaps many traceable to the loss of her mother and two brothers at a young age and her life with an emotionally distant father. My guess is the estrangement stemmed from her.
So, possible warm and loving relationships with multiple aunts and uncles was foreclosed by circumstance. “Collaterals” damage. But with a warmer ending.
I mentioned my Dad’s death in “Lost and Found”. I had come to his bedside from my home in Chicagoland, flying into Syracuse and renting a car. I was to return the same way. While I waited for my return flight I picked up a local phone directory to see if I could find Thelma’s telephone number. I knew she was in the area because, having taken care of my Dad’s financial affairs in the last years of his life I knew that he sent Thelma a Christmas card each year (thereby helping to confirm for me my supposition about the estrangement). I found it, and when I got home late that afternoon I called her. And we talked for forty-five minutes. I was so engrossed in the conversation that I hung up without telling her about and inviting her to the memorial service we intended to hold the following Saturday, so I called back to do so.
That weekend as my sisters and I and some of our children gathered with my step siblings and their families I hoped to finally meet Thelma. My sisters and I stood to one side as people entered, and it turned into a kind of receiving line. A woman I did not know, a contemporary, approached. “Tom, I’m your cousin Linda.” We hugged immediately and hung on to one another. Linda and I saw one another a number of times thereafter, and I continued to be in contact with Thelma, by cards, Christmas gifts and the like. But at Linda’s urging I left the timing of a physical reunion (reunion? The first time can’t be reunion, can it?) with Thelma. Linda told me that her mother had taken it very hard to be denied a relationship with her nieces and nephew, and needed some time. So I just waited. Until the day Linda called to tell me Thelma had died. Denied once more.
But although I never had the nephew experience I succeeded in uncleship. I enjoy the great fortune to have three nieces and a nephew, who I thoroughly enjoy. And the privilege of being a favorite Uncle. (Thanks, Lizzie)
– – – – – – – –
* The scope of genealogical materials accessible online is astounding.
** There is an astonishing resemblance between my son Tom and my Dad, between my son Charlie and Tom, and between my nephew Connor and Babe.
Here’s the thing about memorabilia: it’s not just a matter of collecting. You have to remember where you put it. I always knew I had a bunch. Somewhere. Mostly, if not entirely about stuff from years ago, I think. Prep school stuff. And . . . . What else? I can’t remember the last time I gave it any thought, let alone looked through any of it. Having moved a lot in the last thirty years the box (boxes?) were well traveled. Now, just where were they? Our home has a basement and an attic. Had to be in one or the other, right? So off I go.
And looking at how the dates fall I realize that it’s September 1979. Charlie was born Thursday September 27, 1979. Charlie and his mom came home from the hospital on Sunday the 30th. The day the picture was taken.
And, there in the attic, stashed behind suitcases and space heaters lie two boxes. Both bearing labels “Tom’s Car”. Sounds promising. In fact, one looks very familiar, a box that originally contained a waffle iron. I peer inside. Bingo! And I remember about “Tom’s Car”. That was when I was moving from Chicagoland to Lake Placid. My wife was going to remain in Illinois while I settled into the house I rented and undertook my study for the New York Bar and the relocation of my consulting business.
I decide to investigate the less familiar one first. There is what appears to be an address book on top. I realize immediately, upon opening it, that it was my dad’s address book. I thumb through it. Clearly, he had been using it for quite a number of years. As I go through the alphabet I see page after page of familiar names. Not that I knew all of them, necessarily, but I remember my dad speaking of them. I see that the entries for my sisters Barbara and Suzie include the names and dates of birth for their children. And when I get to mine I see entries for my sons. Certainly, the book dates from at least 1979. And I chuckle at the multiple address entries for me over the years. And names of what are now ex-wives.
Next up is a notepad. As I open it the top two or three sheets fall out. Although my dad was a physician his handwriting is easily parsed. As I skim his notes – “moving to L.P Thursday Laura staying home temporarily” – I realize that these are notes he made of a call from me. I used to call him every Sunday, usually late morning. I looked at the top of the page: “Tom 10/17”. OMG. That’s October 17, 2004. I was in Chicagoland. In the wee hours of the Thursday morning hence Dad would suffer a stroke. I would get to his bedside late that afternoon, while he was still conscious and be with him in the wee hours of Friday when he passed away. So, these notes were the last “installment” of what were likely weekly notes. I hadn’t called Dad after that Sunday, and by the time I arrived he was unable to speak. So, in a very real sense these were his last words “to me”. And I have them.
Prep School Stuff (Featured Image)
Returning to the waffle iron box I discover that most of the contents relate to my prep school years. Summer reading folders. Concert programs. Football programs. Football clippings.* A third place medal from an interscholastic track meet. And a pristine athletic letter. I had more than one; don’t know which one this was. I flip through the clippings, recalling the games. Scanning a program from my senior year I see the name of a teammate, Buzz, my best friend. A bit undersized for football but he was a sprinter with surprisingly good hands. We referred to him as our Secret Weapon. Sadness overtakes me. I had not stayed in touch in the last twenty years or so, and I discovered to my chagrin this winter that Buzz had passed away last fall. Complications from dementia. And I realize that as I write this, Thursday the 28th, that today is the day scheduled for a memorial celebration of his life to be put on by his sons in his small village in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. The get-together was cancelled due to Covid. Hope it will be rescheduled.
Many pictures, including a number I don’t recall seeing of my dad and his brothers and cousins. And then a picture of me holding an infant. Charlie, my first born. I was thirty. And had hair. As did Charlie. Looking more closely I recognize the room as the small bedroom of our first house, the one I had used as a study and that would now serve as Charlie’s room. I’m sitting at the desk. I notice the calendar in the background. Hard to make out but I can discern sufficient detail to realize that it’s a September page. And looking at how the dates fall I realize that it’s September 1979. Charlie was born Thursday September 27, 1979. Charlie and his mom came home from the hospital on Sunday the 30th. The day the picture was taken.
And then, just before I close up the box and this trip down memory lane I see a small newspaper clipping preserved alongside pictures of my sister Suzie and me as young children. And I laugh. And laugh.
There it is, bold as brass. My birth merited a news article. And what an encapsulation of dynamics! The headline. And the final sentence that discloses both the reason for the headline and for the emotion. First son? My sisters Barbara and Suzie were born in 1947 and 1948, and I in 1949. Within twenty-three months of one another. My parents had wanted six children but the war put a crimp in that plan. Post war they were making up for lost time. And then I was born. The article doesn’t mention my given name, Thomas. In the tradition from my dad’s mother’s family, the first-born son is Thomas. Like Dad’s older brother, my namesake. (More about him in next week.) But for that tradition I think there was a high probability that I might simply have been called “Quits.” ‘Cause that’s what happened.
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* The player at bottom left in the large clipping at the bottom of the featured image collage is me. My “Boston” contemporaries may recognize the name of the teammate next to me whose picture is obscured: Pete Varney.
. . . . . . . . .
John’s comment prompts this additional bit.
November 1965. A grudge match between my school, Deerfield, and our local arch rival, Mt. Hermon, who were the home team. Mt. Hermon was on a seventeen-game winning streak. We came into this, the last game of the season with one loss. Sometime in the first half, the Mt. Hermon science building, immediately behind the field on the visitors’ (our) side of the field, went up in smoke. The game continued, in large part to keep the five or six thousand spectators away from the fire. We won. An iconic photograph (not this one) showing the two teams on the field and the fire ablaze in the background, became the AP Sports photograph of the year for 1965. I recall going to a convenience store in my hometown the following Thursday, Thanksgiving, and seeing that photograph on the front page of the New York Daily News.
Actually, my memories of the game are vague. I did not play. I had taken a shot to the head the previous week and was sitting this one out, in what would now be known as a “concussion protocol”. That doesn’t account for me vague memories (I think). I do remember, vividly, coming out of the locker room for the second half and seeing monster flames pushing through the roof of the building.
In 2015, the fiftieth anniversary of the game, NFL Films produced a twelve-minute piece, “Playing With Fire”, about the game: https://vimeo.com/146402208
Like any compelling story about recipes, this one starts in the DP Department. Remember “DP”? In the days before it became IT? In the realm of main frames? And FORTRAN and COBOL? Me neither. Except for one experience. Trust me; this is recipe-relevant.
(Mom) was drawn to challenging recipes. With mixed results. Her sardine pie became the stuff of family legend, firmly anchoring the bottom end of the results scale.
In 1975 my employer thought I would benefit from some instruction in systems analysis. We were attempting to automate several processes that seemed to defy automation, and I foolishly observed one day that there just had to be an automated solution. So, I was sent off on a five-day program at Aetna to learn some basics.
At the outset the instructor talked to us (there were just two of us, as I recall) about what computers do. He made the point that computers run programs, of course, and that programs were simply series of steps. The computer, he said, can do only two things: execute a command and move to the next command. So, he posed the question: what’s the simplest example of a “program”? We chumps were stumped. Why, a recipe, he said. (Told ya.)
Obviously that experience has remained in my day-to-day consciousness, my RAM, if you will. (I did pay attention during the course.) And it is so true. And useful. There is no food preparation, even the most exquisite, sophisticated and complicated concoction, whose recipe is other than a series of steps. That fundamental tidbit made me feel that I could do anything, from a culinary perspective. Didn’t say I could do it well, necessarily, but do it? Yes, absolutely.
So, recipes. Of late I have made good use of the internet to find recipes. Recall my story, “Hot Hot Hot” (the Super Bowl prompt). My chili started with an online recipe. I have quite a collection now, primarily for a slow cooker. And all quite good, at least to my taste. But when I think of real recipes I think of family recipes.
It starts with the small floral print metal box that my mom kept her recipes in. She typed the recipes on the backs of 3×5 cards, using her trusty Royal manual typewriter. The box had seen better days, and many of the recipes also showed signs of some aging. It might give an impression that Mom was carrying on a long family tradition. Not so.
My mom was a native Italian, emigrating with her family in 1916. Alas, she was only seven when her mother died, and despite living with an aunt and her family outside of Pittsburgh, she never learned traditional Italian cooking the way most natives do. After she married and began establishing a household she plunged forward to learn. She was drawn to challenging recipes. With mixed results. Her sardine pie became the stuff of family legend, firmly anchoring the bottom end of the results scale.
In time she became a good cook; her meals were always tasty but nothing fancy. Her forte was baking. And most of the recipes in that little box were baked goods. I mentioned the sour cream chocolate cake in my Flagrant Flashbacks story (The (Very) Deep State). I also remember a tiered Christmas tree cake she used to make from a recipe she found in Holiday magazine in 1952. As I discovered, it’s a bit involved – it’s basically a wedding cake formulation – but worth it. I blew away a Yuletide dinner party with it. But it’s two other family recipes that, well, take the cake.
The first we (my sisters and I) know as “Hershey tops”. This is an oatmeal bar cookie that’s topped with melted Hershey’s chocolate and chopped nuts. An absolute Christmas cookie must. My sister Barbara has mom’s original recipe card, noteworthy because Mom added the helpful addendum, “(10¢ now)”, to the required three Hershey bar ingredient. Goes to show how old the recipe is.
The second is the recipe my sisters and I know by the name my Mom used for it: “Gramma’s Brownies”. It’s a terrific recipe. I never really knew my grandmother (my Dad’s mother): she died when I was two. I’m told that I played on her bed, to her amusement, in her final months. I’m also told she was quite the chocoholic. Clearly a genetic trait, given my Dad’s and my liking for chocolate. The brownies were – and are – delicious. And quite simple. But they aren’t brownies. At least in name. My Dad knew them by his mom’s name for them: Chocolate Indians. Don’t know the origin. But a good cookie by any other name will taste as sweet. And the associated memories are sweeter still.
Here I go again. Just two weeks ago, in response to the Pandemic prompt, I wrote a piece that focused on uncertainty. One of the comments thanked me for my analysis of the crisis in “highbrow economic terms”. I noted that during this crisis I’ve let my highbrows grow. They’re still growing. And once again my topic is uncertainty. Because, after all, isn’t superstition just a tool for managing uncertainty?
Seems to me that Covid-19 has set the stage for the emergence of new superstitions.
Now, perhaps, many or most of us associate superstition with bad juju: broken mirrors, black cats, walking under ladders, the number ‘13’ etc. But superstition abounds in “positive” situations, too. Venture into a casino and check out the people at slot machines. Many seem to hold amulets in one hand while they pull the handle with the other. Or they grip the handle in unusual ways – fingers only; thumb and two fingers, etc. Presumably all in the belief that such little things give an edge. And sporting events? Fuhgeddaboutit. Lucky shirts. Hats. Fully in evidence in the crowds watching the event live. And the people watching on television at home? Still more, probably many more, emboldened by the supposition that what one does in one’s home goes unnoticed. McDonald’s created an ad that ran last year during football season featuring a fan, alone, seated on a couch, watching a game. His team is doing well; the doorbell rings, it’s GrubHub or some other delivery person with the fan’s McDonald’s order; the fan starts to rise to answer the door, the team’s fortunes suddenly reverse; he quickly sits down and those fortunes shift positive; then up, bad and down, good. Finally, he just calls out “it’s open” so he can remain seated for the sake of his team.
And moi? But of course, but I’ll not reveal my secrets. Who knows what spies be among us?
But back to the bad juju. Like coronavirus. Has there been a more threatening and uncertain time in our lifetimes? One that affects the broad population? Certainly, the Vietnam War qualifies, but the threat then varied more than a little based on gender and socioeconomic status.* The Cuban missile crisis threatened us all equally, but that terror passed in a matter of twelve or so days. Coronavirus has been rampant for as many as six months and there’s no sign of abatement. And the nature of the terror is evolving, both in the ways that the virus attacks its victims – bilateral pneumonia, and then clotting threats and then inflammatory reactions – and the demographics of the victims – first the elderly and medically at risk, now children. Seems to me that Covid-19 has set the stage for the emergence of new superstitions. But what will they be? I think the only certainty in this uncertainty is that such superstitions will embrace acts and rituals of absolutely zero empirical utility. Mask type? Color? Pattern? Dietary do’s and don’ts (as modulated by rolling scarcities of foodstuffs)? Video habits? Stay tuned. Or not.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
* Of course, family and other loved ones suffered upon the death of “their” soldier; I’m limiting this to the direct risk of death.
When I first saw this prompt I thought, “yeah, good one. I’ve got a whole bunch.” But now? Can’t think of one. The prompt mentions that perhaps even the thought of a particular aroma might trigger a memory. Not for me. Nada. Zilch. I’m still sure that I do have several specific aromas that I associate with events and people and places. But I’ll be damned if I can remember even one of them. And it dawns on me: there is something about the association, within me, that keeps it locked away in some inaccessible recess of my mind. And it will take actually experiencing that aroma again to summon it forward. So be it.
But getting back to fragrant flashbacks, while no such aromas come to mind, I can conjure tastes.
It makes me think about touch-tone phones. And telephone numbers. Nowadays with our various devices most of us have numbers in our contacts app. Open the app, scroll to the right entry and “connect”. Or tell Siri to call Barbara. Same result. Even on landlines, many if not most phones have the capability for storing at least a handful of frequently called numbers. But it was not too long ago that, generally speaking, one had to rely on one’s memory, or a directory, to get the number. Not me. Not necessarily. If you asked me, “what’s Stan’s number?” I wouldn’t be able to tell you. But I could punch it into the keys every time. There was something in “sense memory” that made it happen. I just tried it again and I punched in a number I’m sure was right. Of course, Stan is no longer at that number. But I knew it was right. So much for what our lizard brains can do.
But getting back to fragrant flashbacks, while no such aromas come to mind, I can conjure tastes. Doesn’t seem to follow that I could do one but not the other, but there it is. And two come to mind immediately.
In grade school the PTA sponsored an ice cream social each spring. Each student was issued a small portion of vanilla ice cream in the familiar Dixie cup container. With a small wooden “paddle” of a spoon. The memory of the taste of that ice cream mingling with the “taste” of the wooden paddle is vivid. So, too, another taste that I’ll admit sounds peculiar.
At about the same time as the annual ice cream social our family used to join with close family friends for picnics. My mom frequently made an out-of-this world sour cream chocolate cake with buttercream frosting. The picnic version would be a sheet cake, not a layer cake, but no matter. This was a picnic, of course, so we ate on paper plates. With wooden implements. The paper plates of the time were a bit more substantial than those available now, I think, and they stood up well to all manner of foodstuffs. While these picnics featured customary picnic food, ours also included tossed salads dressed in oil and vinegar. Mom had a kinda heavy hand with the vinegar. So, the paper plate would absorb a bit, and there it would sit. And with no substitution of plate, the cake portion would follow, right on top. Now the thought of the melding of a vinegar taste and a chocolate cake taste might seem, well, revolting, but trust me: it is divine. Especially with a wooden picnic spork. I can taste it now.
The coronavirus pandemic engendered a global financial meltdown orders of magnitude greater than the 2007-2008 debacle. But the two share a fundamental feature: uncertainty.
The first question is, “what if we’re wrong?” The second, larger question is, “what if we can’t know?”
Last time around I was still consulting in the financial services area, and one of the enormous issues was the valuation of securities. The upheaval in the markets made it problematic to assign values to certain classes of securities, and valuing those securities was instrumental in facilitating transactions of all kinds. For instance, a mutual fund offers and redeems shares every day, and the offering and redemption price is determined by the aggregate value of the securities held by the fund. If securities are overvalued, an investor redeeming shares is overpaid at the expense of continuing shareholders; if undervalued, the redeeming investor is underpaid and continuing shareholders reap a windfall.
I am an attorney, not a financial analyst, and while I have significant training in economics I am no expert. But through years of advising clients I had gained sufficient knowledge and experience that in the 2007-2009 period I found myself on several panels presenting programs on hard-to-value securities. My panel colleagues were financial analysts, and they offered useful advice about development and use of various “models” to determine an agreed value to these hard-to-value securities. I was always bemused by their presentations because each implicitly suggested a level of definiteness that was entirely unwarranted. Being unafraid to be the skunk at the garden party I offered criticism, and suggested that in these situations one should factor in an uncertainty “haircut” (discount), because the level of uncertainty in the process was material. I never had any takers but my point stands: we have to acknowledge – and deal with – the fact of uncertainty.
And boy do we have it now. Many unspoken words hang in the air -“when?” and “what if” and the like. When will there be a treatment, when will there be a vaccine, when will reopening occur? What if the economy is slow to recover? What if job losses persist? Etc. The simple answer to each is the right answer: We. Just. Don’t. Know.
So it falls to us to learn to manage the uncertainty.
At a “micro” level, we already know how. Or at least have ways of coping. For example, one of the earliest effects of the emerging pandemic was that store shelves were quickly emptied of toilet paper.* Game theory demonstrates this is a no-brainer. In a decision-making situation, or game, we intuitively look to see if there is a dominant strategy, a “move” that is better for us regardless of what our “opponent” does. We have a choice: make no change in our supermarket behavior or acquire and hoard tp. Ideally no one changes his/her behavior. Store shelves remain stocked in ordinary course. However, from my perspective, if I make no change and others go the hoarding route, I am at a loss.** If I, too, hoard, along with everyone else, I at least get my share. And if I alone hoard while others do not change behavior I can buy a lifetime’s worth, but no worry, no “best if used by” date applies. So regardless of what “you” do I am better off if I hoard. This is a familiar result in game theory: the societally preferred result is disincentivized. But this “micro” phenomenon is of only passing interest to me. It’s managing the “macro” level of uncertainty that’s of interest. And here game theory is of no use.
I believe the “macro” uncertainty issue presents at least two distinct but interrelated questions. As we experience uncertainty we make certain assumptions to attempt to manage the uncertainty, e.g. “well the coronavirus pandemic will be in the rear-view mirror by (pick a date)”, and “the economy will be on an even keel by (pick a date)”. The first question is, “what if we’re wrong?” The second, larger question is, “what if we can’t know?”. Larger because the question addresses the crux of the matter: we do not like uncertainty and want to feel that any period of uncertainty is finite, that there will be an end. But now apply the first question.
I wish I had a solution, or even useful practical advice to deal with macro uncertainty, but I don’t. But I do have a perspective. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, in his daily briefings, has several times mentioned the question he most often hears, “when will be back to normal?” His answer: we’re not going back to normal. We need to take the lessons of this pandemic emergency and reimagine our futures. There will be a new normal. I believe that one of the linchpins of the “new normal” will be an acceptance of uncertainty. As I tried to tell my panel colleagues those many years ago, by all means pursue measures to reduce uncertainty but let’s not put too much faith in our conclusions.
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* What is it about toilet paper? Is butt-wiping somehow a primal activity that must be safeguarded? Or are we just collectively full of . . . something?
** Of course, there is an apt colloquialism for my situation here, but decorum precludes direct mention.
Reader’s note: This story has nothing to do with Covid-19. Nor hell. But it does relate to vacation. Two of them in fact. And it does contain song references, Suzy.
But if one was the picture-perfect-postcard of a vacation the other was the photographic negative from which it was printed.
This is the story of two vacations, three years apart. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times.” An exaggeration and plagiarism (sorry Chuck). But if one was the picture-perfect-postcard of a vacation the other was the photographic negative from which it was printed.
Nancy and I were lake and mountain people. I still am. Early in our marriage Lake Winnipesaukee was a favored vacation destination. (See “O Say Can You See?” – Fireworks prompt). That year we planned our first post-honeymoon vacation and, not surprisingly, rented a cottage on Moultonborough Neck on Winnipesaukee. The first Saturday of August we packed our VW Beetle to the gills*, strapped the Sunfish we borrowed from her parents on top and took off from Connecticut. I suspect the laden vehicle looked like an ant carrying a full-size potato chip.
Driving carefully, the car was a tad unstable due to the Sunfish, we made our way north. Our check-in time was 2pm, but we arrived early, around 12:30. We stopped in Meredith, where the realtor’s office was, and discovered that a restaurant/diner that Nancy remembered from her youth was still in operation. We stopped in and had lunch, including their renowned milkshakes. And they were “milkshakes” the way most of the country knows them, with ice cream. They weren’t sissified “frappes” as they are called in much of New England. This was New Hampshah fer Crissakes.
After lunch we picked up our key and headed toward Moultonborough Neck. It was a beautiful day. We stopped in Center Harbor to buy groceries and continued down the Neck until we reached our cottage. Calling it “humble” was certainly no overstatement, but it was fine. We settled in. The next day, Sunday, dawned sunny, warm and humid, but being at the lake, that was just fine. That evening we had a brief thunderstorm, which cleared the air. Monday was bright, blue and breezy. We had a grand time sailing. And thus began a string of almost uninterrupted beautiful days. Mornings as we made breakfast and got the day going we listened to the radio. It was a top 40-type station with periodic newscasts, useful because this was the week that culminated with Nixon’s resignation. Their playlist was of a length that during the two weeks we heard the same songs a number of times. One, which we particularly liked, “Please Come to Boston” (Dave Loggins, right Suzy?) became our favorite and later a touchstone to this vacation.
Over the course of the two weeks we swam and hiked and ate. And ate. Having the constitutions and metabolisms of twenty-somethings coupled with abundant exercise made it possible. We took some side trips, including one to Wolfeboro on the lake to our north. Wolfeboro had a locally renowned bakery, the Yum Yum Shop, that featured, in August, a pie made with wild blueberries. Beyond compare.
Of course, into each life some rain must fall, and the first Friday we had rain. But we needed to do laundry anyway. And there was much to read about in the news – this was the day Nixon resigned. The rest of the vacation unrolled. The only downer was that we discovered that the Sunfish had developed a crack in the hull and was unusable in the second week. But truth be told, toward the end of the second week it all seemed a bit like too much of a good thing.
Same first two weeks in August and same cottage. Everything else much different. Over the two weeks there were two bright sunny days, the Tuesday of each week. We had a couple days of rain. But much of the time the prevailing condition was a strange admixture of haze, mist, humidity and just-not-very-nicedness. We still swam but there were no real tanning opportunities. We went to Wolfeboro. And we read. And read and read. One other big difference from our earlier sojourn: we had a dog, Stitch, a yellow Lab. Retrievers gotta retrieve, and on the good days we threw a canvas training dummy off the dock for Stitch to retrieve. He never grew tired of it. On the second nice Tuesday we went for a long hike that was quite an adventure. We decided to try Mt. Tripyramid. Now, “mountains” in the northeast would be laughed at elsewhere** but it was between 3 and 4 thousand feet in elevation, typical for the region. We discovered when we reached the top that there was, unfathomably, no real view. I guess that was consistent with the overall tenor of this trip. But Stitch had a great time. The trail was about 11 miles round trip. Stitch, off lead, darted and dove all over. Shortly after we started our descent he disappeared. We weren’t sure what to do but decided it best to keep going, calling to him all the while. When we were about halfway down he suddenly appeared, running up the trail toward us. We reached our car at the trailhead and another hiker approached. She said she was glad to see us with Stitch. Turns out he must have thought we were ahead of him and he ran all the way to the trailhead and then turned around and ran back up until we met him. Must have done eighteen miles in total . One tired puppy dog, who just stretched out in the back of our Toyota Corolla wagon and slept the rest of the day.
Oh yeah. That year’s song was Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain.” I wonder now why, at the time, Nancy and I didn’t create parodies appropriate to those two weeks, e.g. “So Much Rain” and “Down the Drain.” All in all, these two weeks were not at all like 1974. But a vacation is a vacation.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled Covid-19 programming.
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*Yeah. I know Beetles don’t have gills.
** Years later, different circumstance (and different wife). Returning to our home in the Adirondacks from a vacation in the Low Country of South Carolina we stopped for gas in New Jersey. At the time (and I think it’s still true) New Jersey did not permit drivers to pump their own gas, so all stations were “full serve”. I chatted with the attendant filling our tank, who was clearly not native-born, and mentioned that we were headed from coastal South Carolina to our home in the mountains in the Adirondacks. He looked surprised and asked, “are there mountains in New York?” I said yes, and asked him where he was from. “Nepal.” I revised my answer.
“Everything has an end, but a sausage has two.” So sayeth Papa Kulz, protagonist of a second-year German reader I studied years ago. Retirement is certainly an “end”, and I had two so perhaps my retirement is a kind of sausage.
First there was the retirement that wasn’t, observed by many, and then there was the retirement that “was”, observed by almost no one. And midway between them was a short-circuited retirement, a retirement that “wasn’t” also observed by almost no one. The end.
First there was the retirement that wasn’t, observed by many, and then there was the retirement that “was”, observed by almost no one. And midway between them was a short-circuited retirement, a retirement that “wasn’t” also observed by almost no one. The end.
But perhaps you would like something more than the Twitter version.
I retired on March 29, 2002 at age 53. More accurately, I was retired that day, a Friday. Good Friday. Good? Ha! Truth was I was pushed out. I referenced, it briefly in There and Back Again a couple weeks ago, but here’s the skinny.
I had been CEO of a subsidiary of an investment management conglomerate, head of the institutional line of business for the parent and a member of its management team. I was in Chicago. The other members were in Hartford, the parent’s location. I had taken over two years previous to clean up a mess left by my predecessor in Chicago that resulted in an SEC enforcement action. A great challenge that I embraced and succeeded in pulling off. But now friction had arisen between me and the Hartford folks. Just after New Year’s I was summoned to Hartford where the parent CEO made it clear that I was to leave.
The financial terms of my departure were negotiated, including participation in an early retirement plan to push a part of the cost onto the pension plan, and an end-of-the-first-quarter date was agreed. The experience was surreal. I had no intention of true retirement but I found myself an unwilling participant in a shadow play orchestrated by Hartford to make it look that way. The management committee planned a farewell party for the last week of March in Hartford, and on the eve of that occasion, from Chicago, I had a contentious phone call with the head of HR over the final details of the financial agreement. I told her I was not interested in making the trip without appropriate assurances that we had wrapped everything up, and she promised me that all was in order.
I arrived in Hartford next day to find that she had misled me. I believe she was trying to demonstrate for the CEO just what a great negotiator she was, and she was trying to wring some concessions from me. I was furious. I marched down to the CEO’s office, found he was unavailable, and told his assistant to relay to him that we had no deal and that I was headed back to Chicago. He came to Chicago the next day and we settled everything in five minutes. That was Thursday the 28th. But the retirement celebration fell victim to circumstance.
I left the next day with no fanfare. If this was retirement it sure didn’t feel like it. That Sunday, Easter Sunday, my wife and I entertained our company auditor’s engagement partner and his family, good friends, and we made a bit of an occasion of it, but that was it.
As I reported in There and Back Again, my subsequent efforts at reemployment failed and I embarked upon a solo consulting venture.
In midsummer 2010, after seven or so years of consulting I was worn down by the effort of growing a business and said to my wife one morning, “you know, I think maybe I’m done. Maybe I should just call it a day and we live a simpler life in South Carolina” (where we had purchased a home with an eye to retirement). She snapped, “don’t you think you should talk to me first?” to which I replied, “I thought I had just started that very conversation.” She turned on a heel and walked away. Next day she announced that she wanted a divorce. And that was that.
The reality of a late-in-life divorce is the scrambling of finances and financial plans. I had to set aside any thought of retirement and get back to consulting. Which I did.
By 2017 I had recovered financially, pretty much and decided to begin to wind down my business. By the end of the year I had informed my clients that I would wind up my practice at the end of the first quarter of 2018. As February turned to March I began the process of winding things up, looking to close up shop on Friday March 30th. By coincidence this was Good Friday again, or as I viewed it, Very Good Friday. By Thursday of that final week all tasks had been completed, but I felt it appropriate to stand by just in case a client had a last-minute question.
The reality of solo consulting is just that: you’re it. There are no work buddies. No water cooler around which to gather and shoot the breeze. So, on that last day, there I was, by myself. My partner, Barbara, was away visiting her daughter in Texas. Precisely at 5 p.m. she sent me a text, purely of celebratory emojis. I responded, “you can say that again”, which prompted her to send a fresh batch of the same emojis. And that was it. Anticlimax.
I won’t pretend great disappointment. I had finally retired, after all. But it made me think of a retirement, years earlier that seemed to me the epitome of a grand farewell.
When I moved to the Adirondacks, in the fall of 2004, the head basketball coach of the University of Vermont men’s team, Tom Brennan, had just announced that this would be his final season. He had coached there for twenty years or so, and had done well. Several conference championships and trips to the NCAA tournament, the so-called “March Madness.” But he had never won a tournament game. That final season his team did well, and they found themselves in the tournament. This time, however, they pulled off a monumental upset of highly-ranked Syracuse. They went no further, but that was enough; Tom had his tournament win.
Now the University of Vermont is in Burlington, which is also home to ice cream purveyors Ben and Jerry. In honor of Brennan, they produced a limited-edition special flavor for the local market. The flavor? Retiremint. What a way to go!