by Jack Cashill
Published in ingramsonline.com - March 2009
Some years back, I found myself scrubbed up in a surgical suite, interviewing a doctor as he extracted a gall bladder from the poor sucker on the table in front of us.
The interview proved useless as we could not see the doctor’s lips move behind his mask—duh!--and the viewer had no way of knowing who was talking. Still, the doctor served up an insight into human nature that has proved valuable in this period of economic instability.
We were shooting a TV commercial about a then newish procedure called a laparoscopic cholecystectomy. As it works, the doctor inserts a tiny video camera into the patient’s abdomen and guides his own instruments by watching them on a video monitor. At the climax of the video, the money shot, this seriously funky gall bladder comes squirting out a hole at the patient’s navel, an image as gross as it sounds.
“We give the patient a copy of the video,” the doctor told me matter-of-factly.
“Who would want such a thing?” I asked.
“You’d be surprised,” he told me. “Some people request multiple copies for their friends and relatives.”
I did not doubt that some people like to navel gaze, but I seriously doubted whether anyone’s friends or relatives wanted to share the experience.
To get the gist of the guidelines that follow, the first ever “etiquette” for the downwardly mobile, just remember that others will think of your “portfolio” the way you think of this fellow’s gall bladder, and it will all begin to make sense.
Rule #1. Keep your portfolio to yourself.
Yes, sure, it is shriveling and diseased. So what? Whose isn’t? With the oddball exception, your friends and relatives want to hear about this no more than they do your latest round of golf. The economy isn’t about you. The Masters of the Universe don’t wake up each morning thinking how they can screw you. Stuff happens, and at the end of the day our kids get all the money anyhow.
Rule #2. Lose the anger.
Unless Bernie Madoff was your broker, you really have no cause to be mad at anyone other than perhaps yourself. For years, you insisted you could outsmart the market. You told us so fairly often. You couldn’t, and the world is run by people no wiser than you are. Barney Frank comes conspicuously to mind here. No one promised us that we, uniquely in the history of the world, would continue to grow richer and fatter forever. We got kicked out of the Garden, remember?
Rule #3. Hold all talk of the Apocalypse.
No one wants to listen to your distinctive insight into the end of the world as we know it. You have no more a clue about the future than my mother-in-law or your average economist. Your friends would rather you get back to talking about cheerier subjects like global warming, nuclear winter, or the Kansas City Royals.
Rule #4. Don’t blame capitalism.
It has been a while since I read Adam Smith, but I do not remember him advising bankers to lend money to low and middle-income people for home loans that they would not be able to pay back. I think that advice was hatched in Washington. And if my memory serves me, although the message came from Uncle Sam, there was nothing avuncular about its delivery. “Deregulation,” me arse.
Rule #5. Get some perspective.
Some years ago, I was flying back from London via St. Louis. On the flight I was reading this epically gloomy book on the siege of Leningrad during World War II. Just as the book was reaching its doleful low point, we landed in St. Louis.
There we changed planes. The fellow next to me on the Kansas City leg had also been on the London flight. As the plane started backing out of the gate, he saw his bag still on the baggage train, jumped up, and demanded that the plane turn around and pick it up. When the flight attendant told him this was impossible, he reacted as if they had left his baby on the baggage train. Still fuming, he turned to me for consolation. A mistake. I was not in the mood.
“Mac, the poor schmucks in my book here are eating sawdust and rats for their Sunday brunch, and you are outraged because, worst case, someone brings your bag to your house a few hours after you return from a European vacation.”
As it happened, his bag had not been left behind. When the fellow saw it being loaded on to the baggage train in Kansas City, he blamed the airline for creating the illusion that it had been. Can you imagine being this guy’s broker?
Rule #6—Share your deeper thoughts.
Once you have given up squawking about your investments or sputtering madly at Wall Street and Washinton, you have to talk about something. I would recommend you switch from CNBC to ESPN or HGTV or the Animal Planet. They don’t run a stock ticker on any of those channels.
You might also take a long walk every now and then. You will notice that sunsets are fully indifferent to equity markets. Even the worst day on Wall Street does not discolor them. At your next dinner party, share your newly developed “Deep Thoughts” with your fellow guests.
If need be, borrow a few from Jack Handey like, “If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.” Even if you make up your own, they would be better received than still another whine about your dwindling wealth.
Rule #7—Don’t count your chips until the game is over.
I had the privilege of growing up around my parent’s poker table. When I was old enough to sit in, I had the etiquette of the game drubbed into my head: play the hand close to your vest, no whining, no weeping, no gloating, no blaming the cards.
The game’s most critical lesson was simple enough: don’t count your chips until the game is over. If you are winning, you will annoy the other players. If you are losing, you will only unnerve yourself.
This larger game is far from over. Keep your cool and leave the counting of chips to the lesser mortals at the table. Although I shy from making economic predictions, I tend to be an optimist, and I will bet my house against your mailbox that no one reading this column will end his or her days eating rats and sawdust.
Who is Jack Cashill?