Monday, September 15, 2008

In praise of fortune cookies and hibiscus

Really, how much bad news can we take? In what felt like a heartbeat, Merrill Lynch was sold to Bank of America. Lehman Brothers teetered, then filed Chapter 11. The huge insurer AIG's fate is uncertain. The wonderful writer, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide and was found dead in his apartment, last Friday, the day after 9/11. Hurricaine Ike ravaged homes in Galveston, Texas.

Four members of my extended family work for Merrill or Lehman. Many---most---of my friends' husbands work for Merrill or Lehman. Thank God (and I'm hoping there is one), my kids are healthy.

The creative writing class I'm supposed to start teaching this Monday night at the JCC in Manhattan ( has only four students enrolled, and I need six to run the class.

I didn't know David Foster Wallace at all, and have to admit, I never finished Infinite Jest, but I loved the fact that he was writing, and overwriting, and churning out funny, clever observations on this country and the state it is in. Wallace's premature, tragic death, coupled with the seriously bad news coming from Wall Street, has my head spinning.

How does one keep sane?

I'm trying to figure that out. I used to write for Business Week in the Eighties and Nineties. I covered retail and tobacco, and it was a heady time to be writing about both. The department store chains---RH Macy & Co., Federated Department Stores---were all merging. They loaded up their balance sheets up with debt, tried to wring some savings out of their combined companies, and then tumbled into bankruptcy. The tobacco companies were more successful. Despite the lawsuits, people kept smoking, domestically and overseas, and since it's legal (if reprehensible) to sell and smoke cigarettes, it's a solid business to be in. So the one thing I took away from covering those industries was: Don't take on too much debt, and sell something that is legal and addictive.

Since I'm in no danger of merging with another family, and gave up smoking in 1984, here is what I'm trying to do to stay sane:

-- Start the day with a large cup of strong coffee. Thank you, Starbucks, for being an addiction and a luxury that I can still afford. End the day (occasionally) with a glass of wine. Cheap, white, refrigerated and after dinner is perfect.

--- Purchase a new bottle of Scotch for my husband. (We ran out last night.)

--- Attempt to get six or seven hours of sleep.

--- Run 4-5 miles outside with my dog, who is invariably faster and happier than I am, but is still willing to pull me along. For both of us, fresh air and long runs up the hill are key.

--- Kiss my kids and not yell at them for not fully understanding that there is a serious financial meltdown going down in this country. My 12-year old sort of gets it and wants to know more; my almost 8-year old just knows that everyone he knows is stressed. He wants to start his own "big" company and make a lot of money, after he launches his acting career. Godspeed.

--- Do not check my Blackberry every fifteen minutes to see what the bad news is.

--- Read something other than The Wall Street Journal and business section of The New York Times. (Last night, I read The New Yorker profile on the trials of Cindy McCain. I was glad, yet again, to read about her life as a sort-of-single mother, her father's beer money, her drug addiction and her recovery from it. It was a total guilty pleasure, and after I finished it, I moved on to the trials of the Agnelli's in Vanity Fair.) Since both articles had been written weeks ago, there was no mention of the Fed, investment banks, billion dollar bail-outs or bad real estate investments.

These are my distractions. The reality is, life goes on and kids can't come home to a crying Mommy. Yesterday, my neighbor and I walked our dogs and our youngest sons to school. The tension in the school yard was palpable. We all live near the school, and the school is near the train station, which means there's a good chance that most of the adults in the schooyard, and/or our spouses, commute to the city. Some of us were dressed for work, some were dressed to work out. We were all struggling to stay calm and cheerful for our children and ourselves. We looked at each other, said hello, smiled wanly, kissed our kids goodbye and walked back into our day.
The same dynamic existed at pick-up. We gathered in the schoolyard at 3:00, and watched as our little boys happily ran ahead of us, their knapsacks bouncing on their backs, as Tom, the genteel and lovely gray-haired crossing guard, smiled and waved us across the busy street.

When we got home, I noticed that the hibiscus tree on our front porch was almost dead. Only one flower was blooming, and it was on top of the tree, blooming away from the house. Many of the leaves were yellow. The pansies in the pot near it were withering too. When we walked into the kitchen, I saw that our 14-year old Sub Zero refrigerator was both leaking water and refusing to make ice. It had started to leak water and refused to make ice last week, but I cleaned up the water and decided to ignore the ice block. When my husband came home, he drank the last of the Scotch, and complained that he had to chip away at the ice block with a knife, much to our almost-8 year old's amusement.

The bad news had to stop. So this morning, after drop-off, I put our dog Roxy in the car and drove to Starbucks. I stopped in at the nail salon to make an appointment. Even in this crappy economic climate, I still need a manicure (don't I?). I have a bar mitzvah to go to Saturday morning, I can't show up with chipped, claw-like, overgrown nails. The salon was busy, to my surprise and delight, and I saw a woman I know whose husband is at one of the banks in distress. She was getting her hair done and reading a magazine. It occurred to me that vanity is only three letters away from sanity. I smiled at the back of her head.

I bought my grande skim latte, left the team of Starbucks baristas a $1 tip, and headed back to my car. Then, I decided I needed to do one more thing---something, anything---to lift my spirits. I would go into the fancy women's clothing store where I have a credit and buy pajamas. Yes, I have pajamas but most of them are worn out and I was tired of walking my older son down to the busstop, worrying that I might be in danger of mooning the bus driver. I walked into the store, where I bought some beautiful things, last year, before I'd ever read the words, "sub-prime loans." I announced I had a credit so that none of the saleswomen would jump up and pay attention to me. I immediately went to the back of the stores to find pajamas. There, hanging on the rack, was a pair of black flannel pajamas. They were covered with pictures of smiling, pink-and-blue Russian nesting dolls. They were marked down 45% to $36 (a lucky number). I quickly tried them on, drew down from my credit and got in the car, where Roxy was waiting for me, napping next to the open window.

When we got home, a tiny bit of good news trickled in. The Sub-Zero repair man called me back, on both my home and my cell, to sayd he could come today. Yippee! The hibiscus tree had miraculously sprouted three more yellow flowers; there was at least one more flower budding on a low branch. A couple of my writing students from last year emailed to say they were coming back this fall. Jose, who tends our outdoor plants, left a message, saying he could replace the hibiscus by early October.

I decided to stick my hand in our bag of fortune cookies. In August, we went to a tiny fortune cookie factory in Chinatown, in downtown San Francisco. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Berkeley denizens who know San Francisco as well as I know my hometown, led us down alley ways until we reached the fortune cookie factory. The factory was really a small store-front, and in it were two older Chinese women, calmly sitting in front of a conveyor belt, expertly folding flat shees of dough into fortune cookies and slipping fortunes inside them. There was a charge to take the women's picture, so we passed on that opportunity, but we did buy a big bag of fortune cookies to bring home with us. Now and then, I take out a cookie and see what my fortune is. There were a few fortunes just floating around without cookies. The one I put my hand on said---and I kid you not, "The stock market may be your ticket to success." We can only hope.


  1. Laura, I LOVED this!!! I especially loved the line about your dog being invariably faster and happier than you. The whole piece was a total pleasure to read. You make misery so fun! xojulie

  2. I found your blog through Marci Alboher's blog - and I'm so glad I did. I don't have children but the shared concern of how do we keep sane when all the news is bad was such a great read. Love your humor and honesty. Thanks. I'm a new fan.

  3. Sorry, I don't get it. I assume it's a joke that is eluding me, but how is vanity three letters away from sanity? E-G-O? Help me out here...

  4. Cindy McCain's recovery from drugs is one inspiring story. She serves as a model to those people are into drugs that indeed it is possible to change, and be free from the addiction.