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Psycho Babble in the Board Room
February 29, 2016
Brightness, that’s how I would describe it. A kind of preternatural brightness is now, in the middle of February, suffusing the city of Los Angeles where temperatures have risen into the nineties in the inland areas as I hear them called on the radio. I’m talking about the kind of brightness that might cause you to reach for your sunglasses indoors. What is this, the fire next time, the light reported by those who return from near-death experiences, flash of the apocalypse?
These thoughts crossed my mind and remained there as I left my too-bright house one morning last week for an annual appointment with my financial advisor. Shielded with hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, white linen shirt, windshield visor in the down position, air-conditioning, and half-frozen water bottle, I arrived at the high rise in Pasadena, just that much further inland than my Silver Lake house, on time and in pretty good shape. But though I know how they work -- it’s one of those where you have to punch the floor you want ahead of time and maybe choose which side you’re on -- I fumbled somehow and got on the wrong elevator, but was instantly taken in hand by a scantily dressed secretary in stiletto heels who saw me off cheerfully, “Don’t worry, you’ll get there!”
The place is cushioned, cotton-wrapped, like a cancer center, with small dishes of outsize peppermint life-savers scattered about discreetly. A jar full of pens at the reception desk. Is it OK to take one? All smiles, all affability, my advisor F escorts me down a corridor of closed doors and into his soundless office, just as bright as it is everywhere else, but it’s a glassed-in, muted brightness in spite of floor-to-ceiling shadeless windows on two sides. Before we have time to settle ourselves, a young man, a good ten years younger than F, very done-up in shades of blue -- airbrushed, that’s the look -- bursts in, introduces himself. Exuding energy and enthusiasm, he hands me his card, just in case, he almost whispers in a theatrical aside, I might want to get in touch with him after my meeting with F. Although I’m sure it has been practiced and rehearsed, there’s a kind of rushed suddenness to all this. I wish now I had declined his card as well as my permission for this new manager spy to listen in, to take stock as it were, of F’s performance and my profitability as a client. But, “Ah, very high tech,” was all I could manage before Mr. Mc slipped, without a click, out the door.
I remembered four or five past meetings with F as somewhat flossy but, in the main, cordial, business-like, superficial, over in an hour, dominated by computer screens and printouts of pie charts.There was a general sense of upswing in the market, in F’s career, in my assets. But this year the market is down, distinctly down, at the very least highly volatile. But in the atmosphere described above, on the 8th floor (high for Los Angeles, sitting as it does on a fault waiting for the Big One) the truth that NOBODY KNOWS is hard to accept. They must seep in somehow around the edges, those crucial things F and I would like to know, like how long and in what condition I’m likely to live. With no firm grip on these, how can he advise me, how can I evaluate his advice?
I can immediately see that F is taking a new tack. He’s better prepared than he was last year, lined paper pad and pen are his implements, nothing mechanical, and he wants me to tell him about myself. How am I feeling, what’s been going on with me? What do I do all day? Dangerous ground in any conversation. I offer a few details about lack of tutoring jobs, far-away children, nothing false, but in no way close to my true state of mind, nor different from what I told him last year, though, quite naturally, he has forgotten. I should ask him about his children, does he have two or three? I can’t quite see through the glare on the professional photograph of his prosperous looking family on the otherwise empty bookshelf behind his desk. And besides, I don’t want to be here all night.
F has a new mantra: “Thank you for that.” If I compliment him on his amazing ability to write upside down, he thanks me for that. If I say I spend my time pondering the exquisite compression of emotion in Shakespeare’s sonnets, that I often repeat to myself certain opening lines like When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes, that the alliteration in When to the sessions of sweet silent thought makes me swoon, he thanks me for that. In fact, I do not drop these quotations into the conversation, but simply mutter that I read a lot.
We do manage to establish that my ailments are chronic, not life threatening, that I am in disgrace with fortune, that he wants to sell me an annuity while persuading me that I have chosen this option myself. Of course I should value lifetime guaranteed income over liquidity. Of course I don’t want to be a burden to my children. But what if I said I’d rather blow it all now on travel, clothes, and re- upholstery, would he thank me for that? In the end, eager to escape, I agree to consider the annuity idea. He’ll send me some papers to sign.
I came away full of anxiety about my finances, about our performance, F’s and mine, and whether it satisfied our unseen listener. Could F’s job be in danger? Does the fact that his background may be Indian or Egyptian have a bearing? Guardian angels are everywhere watching over us, in the grocery store, on the telephone; our behavior is scripted, robotic. Well past seventy, I was carded at a restaurant in New Mexico. Company policy. The new script at my local Trader Joe’s goes like this: “And what exciting plans do you have for the rest of your day?” Caught off guard the first couple of times, I now have my responses ready: tryst with my lover, bank robbery, espionage. Murder? The young man who installed my refrigerator begged me for a good report, stood over me while I checked the right boxes on his tablet. Entirely dissatisfied with Time Warner Cable, I don’t want the customer service guy to suffer. Is there anything else he can do for me? No, no, he’s been perfect, he’s made my day. Has He done everything possible to solve my problems? Absolutely! (Lately a highly positive word, though I can hear in the background Hamlet’s negative How absolute the knave is in the gravedigger scene.) Give them all top numbers, 10s or ones, whatever the code. Would I like to be chained to a desk all day listening to irate and possibly irrational complaints?
It’s all very sticky, gummed up: we are canny, controlling, grasping, manipulative, complicit, innocent, helpless, ignorant, and pathetic all at once. It’s only the twenty first century form of the old dance between appearance and reality, sincerity and hypocrisy, that is new. Here are the closing lines of King Lear: The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say / The oldest hath borne most: we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long. So speaks the Bard through one of his characters (whether Albany or Edgar is in dispute). But Shakespeare the man played it very close to the chest, choosing outlandish or imaginary settings for his plays, never naming the so-called dark lady. NOBODY KNOWS is what we’re stuck with: will the snowpack be replenished, why have predicted El Nino rains bypassed Los Angeles, is the market in freefall, or will it recover and when, who are we, what shall such fellows as we do crawling between heaven and earth? The promised annuity packet sits unopened in my to-do pile as the succession of bright days continues.