Thursday, August 19, 2010

Four Gates to the City

Every city has its gates, which need not be of stone. Nor need soldiers be upon them or watchers before them. At first, when cities were jewels in a dark and mysterious world, they tended to be round and they had protective walls. To enter, one had to pass through gates, the reward for which was shelter from the overwhelming forests and seas, the merciless and taxing expanse of greens, whites, and blues—wild and free—that stopped at the city walls.

In time the ramparts became higher and the gates more massive, until they simply disappeared and were replaced by barriers, subtler than stone, that girded every city like a crown and held in its spirit. Some claim that the barriers do not exist, and disparage them. Although they themselves can penetrate the new walls with no effort, their spirits (which, also, they claim do not exist) cannot, and are left like orphans around the periphery.

To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through one of the new gates. They are far more difficult to find than their solid predecessors, for they are tests, mechanisms, devices, and implementations of justice. There once was a map, now long gone, one of the ancient charts upon which colorful animals sleep or rage. Those who saw it said that in its illuminations were figures and symbols of the gates. The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love. But they were not believed. It was said that a city with entryways like these could not exist, because it would be too wonderful. Those who decide such things decided that whoever had seen the map had only imagined it, and the entire matter was forgotten, treated as if it were a dream, and ignored. This, of course, freed it to live forever.

— Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

I was fortunate to have Winter's Tale published shortly after I arrived, and while I was still finding my way around New York City. It was a good and reliable guide and map to the overwhelming engine and labyrinth that is eight million souls swarming together on the Hudson River, especially for a poor and naive immigrant from the Western wastes.

Years later, knowing how much I loved the book, my young daughter presented me the very copy I had bought in 1983 for Christmas, having scrawled "For Daddy Love" along with her and her brother's names in colored pen on its cloth cover boards.

One can have worse souvenirs, guides, and ticket stubs from the chief journey of one's life.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

The Amtal Rule

One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character. We can't criticize it, because it is criticizing us. But I must give you one word of warning. When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know, But it is you who are on trial.

— A.A. Milne

One's character, and courage, are tested so many times in one's life, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, usually unannounced, and often without our even being aware of it. I wonder how many of us have failed—or passed—such a test in ignorance.

And I wonder if anyone or anything is keeping score.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Retainers of Fluidity

Of course, it's bad to be a criminal. Everyone knows that, and can swear that it's true. Criminals mess up the world. But they are, as well, retainers of fluidity. In fact, one might make the case that New York would not have shone without its legions of contrary devils polishing the lights of goodness with their inexplicable opposition and resistance. It might even be said that criminals are a necessary component of the balanced equation which steadily and beautifully eats up all the time that is thrown upon its steely back. They are the sugar and alcohol of a city, a red flash in the mosaic, lightning on a hot night. So was Pearly.

— Mark Helprin, Winter's Tale

Yeah, well, maybe not.1

I can think of legions of pasty-faced 20-something hedge fund and proprietary traders who would love to style themselves as something as transgressive and oppositional as criminals. Most, much to their unknowing and likely never-to-be-known chagrin, are just nerdy parasites on the monetary surplus of a fat and lazy society.

Not that I'm judging, or anything.


1 After all, there is a difference between retainers of fluiditity and people who just retain fluid. Q.v. the nebbishes at Goldman Sachs.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Weekend Interlude

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?

— Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

I knew I left that damn corkscrew somewhere.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Another Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

In the random, serendipitous sort of discovery one—okay: me, I admit it; perhaps you never do or have done such a stupid thing in your entire fucking life—makes while skimming about the internet like a mosquito sniffing out carbon monoxide emissions at a picnic on a summer night, your Dedicated Prosodist stumbled upon a clever little site which professes to analyze writing samples and compare them to the style of a famous writer. The site is entitled, entirely appropriately if somewhat awkwardly, “I Write Like.”

Naturally, visions of grandeur, immensely lucrative book deals, and book launch parties best described as orgiastic bacchanals danced before my eager eyes as I cut and pasted a few random paragraphs of prose from these pages into IWL’s magic box and clicked “Analyze.” Sadly, as someone or other once proclaimed about their first sexual experience, the anticipation greatly exceeded the actual event.

First to pop up was that literary barnburner and perennial stalwart atop The New York Times Teenage Girls’ Vampire and Sublimated Masturbatory Fiction Bestsellers List, H.P. Lovecraft. Who?

Well, ol’ H.P. was a primo generator of “weird fiction,” and his
guiding literary principle was what he termed “cosmicism” or “cosmic horror”, the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with sanity.

While I can acknowledge that my readers gamble with their sanity each time they read something here, and I concede that my clotted prose can often be fairly described as “weird fiction,” I am nonetheless saddened that IWL’s first approximation of my prose was to an author whose estate will have been lucky to have sold more than 25 copies of his back catalog in the past 24 months. This was not a good start toward the classic mahogany runabout I was planning to put my book royalties toward.

The next block of text I analyzed returned the far more satisfying result of Vladimir Nabokov, who at least has the advantage of titillating the adventurous and scandalizing the stuffy. But the comparison was unfair, since the prose I chose to analyze was selected from my recent panegyric to dirty old men and their lust for nubile, underannuated lolitas. Even I have to admit that is cheating.

So I collected another few paragraphs of a more general nature and plugged them into IWL’s black box. Here the result was more interesting, if no more supportive of my hopeful visions of a mailbox groaning under the weight of obscenely large royalty checks. The famous writer whose reputation IWL so cavalierly chose to permanently damage by association with Your Lowly Solipsist’s feeble emanations was none other than David Foster Wallace. Poor, sad, suicidal man.

I am not familiar with most of Mr. Wallace’s work, although I did enjoy his trenchant-graduation-speech-turned-excessively-short-publishing-event Water over the course of 15 minutes spent waiting for a pre-ordered copy of X-Men No. 3,274 to be delivered from the Classic Literature section of Barnes and Noble. I am sure his other work likewise merits the frabjous praise heaped upon it by all and sundry, but I am an important investment banker, with limited time. I’ll just wait for the Cliffs Notes version of Infinite Jest to come out.

Although, I have to admit I admire Mr. Wallace’s program and turn of phrase, if Wikipedia reports it aright:

According to Wallace, “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.”

I might say the same about what I try to accomplish here, imperfectly, on a very occasional basis.

* * *

That being said, I just plugged the preceding paragraphs into IWL’s transmogrification device, and out spit H.P. Lovecraft again.


© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ooh, Shiny!

Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife—chopping off what's incomplete and saying: "Now it's complete because it's ended here."

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Well, that's a bloody relief.

I just unplugged from Twitter. I think my heart rate and blood pressure both dropped twenty points apiece.

I've been threatening to do so for some time now, whining and tweeting out loud about quitting for weeks, in between launching one or more of my trademark multi-tweet treatises on some-fucking-thing-or-other. My Twitter followers have made terrific fun of me for it, and justifiably so. But as I have explained in these pages before, I naturally tend toward the ADHD side of the consciousness spectrum. Twitter's automation of a never-ending stream of bright, shiny bits of information, opinion, trivia, and minutiae is tailor made to drive me to paralyzed distraction. It's terrific, enervating fun.

Which would be fine, if I were truly independently wealthy, lounging on a luxury yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean with a bevy of scantily-clad confidential secretaries and barrels of ice-cold champagne my only competing distractions. I could handle that. But shit, homies, I have a job, and a family, and two pathetic excuses for dogs to take care of. Twitter is just too fucking distracting. At least for me.

So I am gone. Vamoosed. Outta there. Never to return, until and unless I win the lottery or convince a particularly recalcitrant client of mine to sell his massively overpriced company for a very large pot of money, of which I will commandeer an appropriately modest, yet obscene percentage. "Fuck you money," as they call it in the trade.

Those of you Dear Long-Form Readers who have frequented my irregular emissions on Twitter as well as these pages are welcome to remain and enjoy the more substantive fare here. Although I did recently threaten to withdraw from blogging as well, the time commitment to this forum is far more manageable than the daily drain of watching Twitter on the off chance someone one might say something ridiculous or amazing. As well as the competing temptation to lob 140-character bon mots, aperçus, or word bombs into the stream whenever I feel unjustly overlooked or neglected.

But you'll get over it. The electronic mailbox associated with this account remains in effect, should you care to communicate in a more personal and direct fashion. And, really, admit it: you're not gonna miss me that much.

The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.


Not that anything I have tweeted to date constitutes greatness, mind you.


© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thank You for Smoking

Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ' ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

— Sappho, LP, fr. 130, trans. Anne Carson

“Why is youth so terribly unmerciful? And who has given it permission to be that way?”

— Smiles of a Summer Night

Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd resigned this evening, allegedly in response to an internal investigation about sexual harrasment. While the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, “it did find violations of the company’s standards of business conduct.” Given the obfuscations and protective smokescreens inherent to corporate PR doublespeak, this tells us exactly nothing. I am sure the legions of well-paid internal and external counsel beavering away in darkness to quickly settle and bury any real or purported wrongdoing will make sure we never really find out.

But Mark Hurd’s real or alleged guilt is not my subject this evening, Dear Readers. Rather, it is a larger and more persistent question. One which I believe many of you, like me, have pondered from time to time over the length of your lives. That is:

Why is it that powerful men cannot seem to keep their dicks in their pants?

This phenomenon is so trite, prevalent, and persistent that I will not insult your intelligence by drawing attention to the myriad examples from our recent or distant past to illustrate it. I will just presume that if you have not been in a coma since the age of three you probably have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. Of course, I am talking about the sexual peccadilloes of men who are normally married, as opposed to the theoretically less objectionable rutting about of unattached and uncommitted men. You should also assume I am focused on powerful men. Naturally, a man with social status, economic wealth, or political power will have a lot more opportunity to fool around with members of the fairer sex, since so many of the distaff gender find such attributes to be catnip in a man. Poor, lowly, impotent men—I will assert with little fear of contradiction—are probably just as eager to do the nasty with attractive women as the big boys. They just get a lot fewer chances, and no-one in the gossip pages seems to care if they succeed.

* * *

Now those of you now reading who expect a lengthy, well-reasoned and well-documented treatise on the sociological, anthropological, and cultural sources and reasons for extramarital cheating among married men in positions of power will be sorely disappointed (as well as clearly lost, having stumbled upon the wrong blog site). But I can offer a few simple observations based on personal experience and observation.

For one, unlike what I remember believing in my callow youth and the apparent beliefs of many youngsters under the age of 30 today, getting older does not leach out physical desire or interest in sex from married adults like an inconvenient stain.1 If anything, the decreasing frequency and opportunity for thrilling sex with an exciting stranger tends to make it that much more attractive to anyone not sporting ice blood in his veins.

Second, the relentless approach of age, infirmity, and death assumes a greater and greater reality and presence of mind as one ages. Most young people below the age of 30 simply cannot comprehend—on a visceral, emotional level—the ineluctable fact of their approaching decrepitude and eventual obliteration. This lurking thought grows slowly in one’s mind as one ages, hiding in the shadows but never forgotten, and it begins to affect almost every aspect of one’s behavior. For men, fear of death can make one grasp at youth, and excitement, and beauty in a desperate subconscious bid to stave off the Reaper. If the man happens to be wealthy, famous, and powerful, likely he will be surrounded by plenty of pliable young females delighted to indulge his self-deception.

But third—and, in my opinion, most important—men do not lose the need and desire for romantic love any more than do women when they age. If anything, it gets more poignant and compelling than when they were young. The young man—like the young woman—yearns for love, and pines for it, but deep in his bones he just knows that he will find it. He assumes it is inevitable. The older man knows, from long experience, that he may never find such love, or, if he has had it, experience deep, compelling romantic love ever again. If this realization does not turn him bitter, it will make him all the more susceptible to the real or imagined siren call of Eros. Stir in method, and opportunity, and presto!: peccadillo in a glass.

* * *

But don’t take my word for it. Go watch Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. And read Pauline Kael’s review of the film, if you need further convincing that romantic love gets no simpler, no less poignant, and no less powerful when you are old and married. In it she quotes a Swedish film critic, who wrote that

“... Smiles of a Summer Night is a comedy in the most important meaning of the word. It is an arabesque on an essentially tragic theme, that of man’s insufficiency, at the same time as it wittily illustrates the belief expressed fifty years ago by Hjalmar Söderberg that the only absolutes in life are ‘the desire of the flesh and the incurable loneliness of the soul.’”

Then perhaps in the future you will not sneer quite so readily at old men besotted with sex, making themselves ridiculous in the pursuit of romantic and erotic love, no matter how powerful they may be. Perhaps you will remember the words of another old man who also clung desperately to youth and love and was obsessed with sex well into his dotage. There is wisdom and magic in them.

O but there is wisdom
In what the sages said;
But stretch that body for a while
And lay down that head
Till I have told the sages
Where man is comforted.

How could passion run so deep
Had I never thought
That the crime of being born
Blackens all our lot?
But where the crime’s committed
The crime can be forgot.

— W.B. Yeats, A Woman Young and Old: V. Consolation

Glukupikron, indeed.

1 Although there is a very long, semi-serious tradition in Western culture—disputed violently by many women, natch—asserting that married women lose interest in sex disproportionately more than husbands. This trope is neatly illustrated by one of the favorite (and most popular) jokes of Mrs. Dealmaker herself:

Q: What's the difference after sex among a prostitute, a mistress, and a wife?
A: The prostitute says, “Did you enjoy that?” The mistress says, “Did you enjoy that as much as I enjoyed that?” And the wife says, “Beige... I think I want to paint the ceiling beige.”

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jezebel Spirit

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ...

Do you hear voices?

You do. So you are possessed.

You are a believer, born again and yet you hear voices and you are possessed.

Okay. Are you ready [unintelligible] ?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha.

— Unidentified exorcist, New York, 19801

Consider, Gentle Readers, a simple game:

It is an auction, with any number of participants, the object of which is to win a single, unadorned one hundred dollar bill. If you win the auction, you get to keep the money. (No tricks, I promise.) Bidding starts at a minimum of one dollar, and topping bids must exceed the prior bid by no less than one dollar, in even, undivided dollars. There is only one additional rule: the runner up in the auction must pay his or her last bid to the auctioneer, as well as the winner paying the winning bid. So, for example, if the winning bid is $10, and the next highest bid is $9, the winner will pay $10 and collect the hundred dollar bill, and the runner up will pay $9 and receive nothing.2

So, here we go. I am holding in my hands a crisp, new, freshly-issued one hundred dollar bill. Genuine U.S. currency, guaranteed legal tender for all debts, public and private. The opening bid is one dollar. Only one measly dollar to walk away with a crisp new hundo. Who will start the bidding?

* * *

I wonder how many of you raised your virtual hands. Contrariwise, I wonder how many of you recognized the trap for what it is: a slight variant of Martin Shubik's rational choice theory experiment, the Dollar Auction.

It is an odd sort of game, but one which leads to all sorts of interesting outcomes and associated implications. For some of you may have realized that once you make a bid, you are committed to a losing escalation. Sure, at the beginning, the prospect of winning $100 for a bid of $1, or outbidding a competitor to win it for $10, sets your rational utility-maximizing (i.e., greed) glands salivating. Eventually, however, you realize that you are trapped in a losing battle. If another person bids $50, you or someone else have to bid $51; otherwise, you will spend $49 and get nothing. All of a sudden the prospect of a risk-free gain of $51 begins to look like an unavoidable loss of $49. Surely you should just bid $51 yourself, right? But then your equally rational competing bidder does the same, and you are back to the races. Sadly, the escalation doesn't even stop once the high bidder reaches $100, the true value of the bill at auction. For then the underbidder faces the prospect of either bidding $101, and losing a dollar, or not counterbidding and losing $99.

Depending on how loss-averse the participants are, or how much utility they derive from inflicting greater losses on their competitor than they suffer themselves, there is no theoretical upper limit to how high bidding can go.

I have seen this auction played out in an academic setting in front of a diverse group of businesspeople for a $20 bill. The winning bid?: $50, before the business school professor running the auction took pity on the bidders and cancelled the experiment. This same professor later told us he had run a dollar auction like mine for $100 among a group of hardened, financially savvy investment bankers. The result there?: $1,000 and counting, before he cut it off. Apparently, some of the bankers in the room became truly incensed when they were not allowed to continue their mutually assured destruction.

In fact, one of the only ways to participate in such an auction and win is to bid first and not face a counterbid. In other words, you can win if you are by far and away the most aggressive, greedy, competitive, and stupid of the auction participants. (For if you are not stupid, you will think through the situation and realize that bidding second puts you at the mercy of the idiot who bid first, with no clear loss limit in sight. The only reason you might bid is if you refuse to allow the stupid guy to walk away with $99 worth of risk-free profit. But that can be a rather pyrrhic lesson to teach.)

* * *

Now I share this thought experiment with you, Dear Readers, because I think it illustrates an illuminating dynamic in many competitive socioeconomic situations. The dollar auction is simplified, and simplistic, but the win-at-all-costs motivation behind it can be witnessed in human activities as widespread and diverse as mergers and acquisitions, proprietary trading, simple auctions, and herding behaviors of all kinds. Even, I would argue, in the winner-take-all competitions of the human heart.

What is the solution? I have no fucking clue.

Greed is a mercurial and Protean thing. So is fear. Bottle them up in one part of the human psyche, and they will only reemerge in different form elsewhere.

The principle of exorcism is simple: an exorcist suitably skilled can expel an evil spirit from the victim it possesses, but he cannot destroy that spirit. That, presumably, is for God alone to accomplish.

* * *

Come out, grief! Come out, destruction!

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ...

1 As sampled by Brian Eno and David Byrne in "The Jezebel Spirit," from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Listen to it. It will spook the crap out of you. Highly recommended.
2 For you cleverboots, there is another rule: no bidding consortia. You're in this one alone.

© 2009 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Rich Are Different than You and Me

The best thing I have (re)read all afternoon:
The girl gave him a look which ought to have stuck at least four inches out of his back. It didn't bother him enough to give him the shakes. At The Dancers they get the sort of people that disillusion you about what a lot of golfing money can do for the personality.

— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye

There is more.

© 2010 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.