On the fifty-six

I’m traveling on the 56 train back to Vermont after spending three days and two nights in New York City.

This was the first “business trip” I’ve ever taken. I went down for a conference on Distressed Investing. The first time I’ve been away from my family for more than one night.

Rachel and I got up early Sunday morning so I could catch the 8am out of Springfield, MA. (I didn’t order my ticket early enough to catch one out of Vermont on the busiest traveling day of the year.)

It worked out, though, because it gave us some time to be together without the kids, uninterrupted, while her parents stayed with our sleeping children.

On the way down we listened to Krista Tippet’s “On Being” program in which she interviewed Belá Fleck and Abigail Washington. At one point Abigail tells a story of leaving Vermont, ultimately headed to China to study law. I forget the exact details, but from what I remember she had planned to stop off at a Bhuddist Center in transit, and to play a few shows the following week (she’s a banjo player/singer). She says she meditated for five days (not straight), and that it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Just being still. Pushing all her anxious thoughts to the side. Letting go.

On the fifth day, I think, she had this experience where she actually got lost in the meditation. She just remembers coming back to herself, unsure of how long she had been meditating, the room was empty, her shirt soaked from tears.

As she tried to make sense of what happened, she realized she had finally let go of something. Some hurt. Some pain. Some burden that she had been carrying for a long time. And now it was gone. And she felt free.

A week or so later she played a show in Tennessee, I think, and was recognized by a record label who wanted to sign her to a deal. “I was finally ready for it,” she said.

*        *        *

On Sunday night I went to bed at 9pm. I felt tired, but couldn’t fall asleep right away. Maybe it was the bed. Ultra smoosh-y and thus, ultimately and ironically uncomfortable. Maybe my mind was too full of GSE drama from dinner.

So I turned on another podcast. This time an interview Rob Bell conducted with Jill Rowe of Oasis (not the band), a Christian non-profit organization that, among other things, goes into failing schools to help turn them around.

It was so inspiring to listen to. Their approach, so humble. So refreshing. And she (Jill) seemed so free. So simple. So trusting in God to accomplish something that seems so impossible in a situation where the students and teachers feel hopeless it could ever improve. A long term labor of love.

As the interview finished and I settled in to the “squishness” of the bed (as Annie puts it), I couldn’t help but contrast turning around failing schools (a completely and purely noble pursuit to me) with the content I’d be hearing about the next day. Attorneys and financial professionals discussing the complex nuances of turning around failing, multi-billion dollar corporations. Failing schools in failing, broken, poverty-stricken communities contrasted with being in the center of one of the financial capitals of the world.

*        *        *

On Monday morning, before the conference started, I took a walk in search of a good New York style breakfast, and bold coffee.

I had been walking up and down dimly lit streets when all of the sudden I turned a corner into Times Square, and felt like I was in the middle of the apocalypse. You know that feeling you get while watching an apocalyptic movie of some sort, just before the tsunami, asteroid, or atomic bomb hits, there is this moment of intense silence that makes you feel your emptiness. Your alone-ness. Your need to hug someone close to you. To absolve all hurts and pains and discord between yourself and everyone.

That stark, punch to the gut sense that everything has been laid bare and you can see what is real and what is not. That feeling that everyone is now fully aware of the futility of wealth, fame and pleasure, and that they should just huddle together with their loved ones.

Then the disaster hits, and the previous silence is enveloped by a new, sound shattering silence. A chaotic, and stunningly beautiful destruction.

It was the light contrasts, I think. Something ominous about the light of the Square being brighter than the faint, pre-dawn sky above. An inverse silhouette it seemed. A moment of such infinite and timeless surreality that even a master like Dali, I think, would struggle to capture it.

Window-full buildings, blindly raising their spires against the rhythms of heaven and earth. This feeling that all the noise, money, and power were clambering for artificial superiority over the subtle softness of the natural world.

In my hurried, plan-less attempt to find this ethereal hole in the wall, New York style breakfast, I found nothing of the sort, and landed at Pret. A decent, though half-hearted attempt at a robust breakfast sandwich. The coffee was fine. And I made it back in time, suited and tied for the 7:30 continental breakfast. I poured myself some more coffee, and did my best to mingle with folks several notches above my pay grade.

*        *        *

The conference lasted till 5:30pm with an extended, plated lunch break in which I got to talk to a few of the media representatives, an attorney, and a judge’s clerk.

As I looked around the room, observing valuable connections being made, It occurred to me that I’d never been in a room with such wealth. Not just wealth of financial and legal knowledge, but actual net-worth.

Particularly at 8:50 am. Because who other than Bill Ackman of Pershing Square Holdings walked into the room for the Fannie & Freddie Reform Roundtable.

There’s no way to really tell what the net worth of such a room was at that hour. My monetary conception begins to break down after one billion, anyway. What’s interesting, though, is the way people act in those settings. The way they change. The way I change.

There is a clear and distinct regard among us for those present who offer the most in terms of a valuable buisness connection.

I felt it not only in the way I viewed others, but in the way others viewed me. I didn’t have much, if anything, to offer by way of connections or knowledge. So the conversations I initiated would sometimes sputter out quickly. Not every time. Sometimes I’d ask questions about family and children that would extend things. Or how they got where they were vocationally.

*        *        *

I hadn’t known much about the Fannie & Freddie (F&F) narrative before this weekend. My boss and I sat down for dinner at Bill’s Bar and Burger, surrounded by a surprisingly full Sunday evening crowd. It was noisy, and I was tired. I didn’t feel like carb loading with a burger and fries, so I opted for the chicken cobb salad, which was excellent.

The F&F drama is a multi-layered, onion like story, I soon realized as he explained things to me. To summarize (to the best of my ability), F&F went into conservatorship immediately after the mortgage-backed security meltdown, sometime in 2008. F&F had over-estimated their losses (which they didn’t realize at the time), and it looked like they were headed towards bankruptcy. So the treasury took them over via conservatorship virtually overnight. (Fact checking may be needed – this is just my recollection of the four or so hours of facts I’ve accumulated over the last several days.)

In layman’a terms, the government “took them over,” then lended them 187B dollars to cover their supposed deficit.

Well, as it turns out, once F&F realized they overestimated their losses in 2008, in 2012 or 2013 they were able to re-adjust losses from the previous years and start posting ridiculous, unprecedented profits. They ended up paying back the treasury something like 260B to date. But the treasury says they still owe the 187B. (Strange math.) Understandably, the shareholders are a bit perturbed by this fact, and the document known as “the third amendment” has allowed the treasury to sweep all F&F profits up indefinitely, and still say they owe 187B back.

Anyway, it is an interesting narrative, which like all complicated stories has various sides, perspectives and biases.

After the conference I had the privilege to join six others at an upscale club around Central Park. (A pay-for-membership in order to overpay-to-eat kind of deal. I had a peak at the final bill and “wow” is all I can say.)

The conversation revolved around the details of the F&F story, and questions as to how the new (Trump) administration and his appointments to certain heads of government, (particular if Steve Mnuchin is tapped to head the treasury) could aid in the resolution of these shareholder suits, ultimately bringing a large return on their investments.

While I could make sense of most of the conversation, there were more than a few concepts, terms and names that were lost on me.

Either way, I did know for sure is that my lamb chops were tender, fatty and delicious. And expensive.

Two-and-a-half hours later, by 9pm, the conversation was wrapping up. The facts had been hit from every angle. All the new insights had been shared. Connections had been reignited and re-soldered. There was renewed purpose and vision in their united cause as common and preferred F&F shareholders.

*        *        *

This morning I attempted round two at coffee and breakfast. I packed up my bags early, wanting to get some time in for reflection. Or possibly record a podcast. When I checked the weather, however, I saw it was going to rain all day. So no opportunity for a leisurely stroll around Central Park and finding a nice bench to settle into for awhile. I checked for good breakfast spots around my hotel, and lo and behold, around the corner was Angela’s Sandwich Shop, which looked reasonably priced and provided just what I was looking for: a hearty, heart stopping breakfast.

I stepped in and ordered their two egg, bacon, home fries, toast and coffee special for $6.95. And it well worth twice that.

I got my umbrella back out and decided to head towards La Colombe on my way to the train, because no trip to NY (or Philly) would feel adequate had I not stopped in at the finest coffee shop in the world.

As I walked south from central, stepping over puddles and tipping my war-torn umbrella left and right to avoid collisions, I couldn’t help but ponder all the tensions, nuances, and complexity of the last few days – the intertwinededness, if you will – of wealth and poverty, discrimination and diversity, arrogance and humility, concrete and abstract, free-markets and government regulation.

New York and all it represents is a monstrosity too big to tear down and reinvent from the ground up. As is all of modern society. Though I desperately may want to at times.

It seems that each side depends on the other for its survival. The poor (for the most part) need the rich for jobs and security. The rich build their empires on the backs of the poor.

They depend on each other, but also avoid each other. The rich want to remain segregated from the poor (I’m thinking of some extremely blunt comments that I heard this weekend), and the poor want to tax the rich and over-regulate their economic activity. They want redistribution.

(I’m broad-stroking, I realize.)

The more complex society is, the more money you can make. Complexity requires specialization. And people pay a premium for specialization. They pay when people have the ability to spot arbitrage opportunities in the nuances.

While I find the narrative of all this economic complexity interesting from a story perspective, I also find myself repulsed by it all. Maybe repulsed isn’t the right word. Maybe more like disinterested. Why?

Maybe it’s summed up in a phrase spoken to me recently, “Follow the money.” A phrase intended to help inform some initiatives and business goals I’m working toward with this company.

It’s a phrase, especially after this weekend, that makes perfect sense if you are trying to build your business. If you are trying to make money.

If you could’ve seen that room at 8:50 when Ackman walked in. That dinner at the upscale club. Money was the current that flowed through our veins. The glue that bound us together. The love that united us.

“Follow the money.” It makes perfect sense, yet is also utterly confusing to me. Utterly sickening. It feels completely backwards. Upside-down. Money drives everything. But should it?

I have no alternative solutions. Nothing to propose. How could I? I don’t have that kind of mind.

Only questions.

Like, “How does one live in this tension? How does one live between the necessity of wealth and capitalism and it’s futility? Between complexity and simple, trusting faith?”

*        *        *

On the way up I read the first three chapters of Paul Hessert’s Christ and the End of Meaning. In it, he is attempting to show that the crucifixion simply doesn’t make sense (he is not denying the crucifixion, to be clear; just pointing to its weakness and the way Jesus made himself poor, so to speak, to make us rich), by expositing Paul’s idea that “wisdom” and “signs” break down at the crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:22–25). As I understand it, he is saying that meaning is precisely found in the embrace of non-meaning. That if we are always searching for meaning and significance, we will never find it. I don’t have the energy to go into it further, so here are a few quotes:

Christ crucified is not meaning to be known because it is the breakdown of meaning. (26)

God must be found in the absence of power and in the absence of meaning. (29)

Faith in Christ crucified means giving up the kind of justification of life that realizing one’s potential would offer. There is thus a direct correlation between faith as the surrender of the claim to divine power and “Christ crucified,” which is the absence of such divine power.

Similarly, “Christ crucified” is not a principle that satisfies the search for wisdom by becoming the key to the “meaning” of life. If it were satisfying in this way, only deep cynicism could result, for then the key to the meaning of life would be the tragic frustration of life’s unselfish motives or a glorification of suffering for its own sake. And if such cynicism is forestalled by resurrection also interpreted as wisdom, then life’s “meaning” would be the rosy promise that “every cloud has a silver lining,” no matter how dark the cloud is – scarcely commensurate with the weight of the Gospel.

Resurrection is not the restoration of what has gone before, something anticipated in the natural rhythms of life, but the abandonment of that kind of expectation in the faithed certainty of new life beyond the point where “possibilities” leave off. Forgiveness is not an adjustment in the balance of one’s good and bad deeds but the end of that kind of calculation altogether. And the reign of God is not the realization of human political hopes but the end of the present order along with its possibilities. […]

To faith is to live without power over the future; and that surrender of power over the future is precisely what “Christ crucified” entails. To “faith” is to be “crucified with Christ.” (31)

New life beyond the possible. The end of calculation. Perhaps that is it. Perhaps this is how to “make sense” of the nuanced complexity and tension.

But again, it is not really a “making sense” at all. It is so much more. It is a “letting go.”

What if both “sides” were to let go? What if I were? Would the distinctions begin to fade between the sides in my mind? Would I then begin to see the “solution” in synthesis, rather than antithesis?

More and more this “letting go” seems central to living well. To living fully. Letting go of wanting to find meaning in life. Letting go of everything that cannot give me life.

Again, the tension. The “knife edge” we all must walk on between both sides of meaning and non-meaning. Embracing the present, being “now here,” while letting go of past and future, aka, being “nowhere.”

*        *        *

I’m three hours from home now. Soon I will see my loved ones. Ones I’ve missed so dearly and intensely over the past few days. I will hug them, embrace them, kiss them, and be warmed by their love. I will lay aside the complexity of the last few days. And if it’s cold, we’ll build a fire in the wood stove, observing the nuances and beautiful complexity of the flames as they dance around oak, beech, and ash.

Home. Where real lifeblood flows. Where the electricity of filial love pulses through, comforting, relieving, and restoring. Where money means nothing, and only serves the greater good of provision of nourishment and shelter, which bind us together even further around table and hearth.

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