Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sepember 12th, 2008: LEH, MER, DFW - RIP

On one weekend this past September, between the 12th and the 15th, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Merrill Lynch suffered near insolvency and was folded into Bank of America, and David Foster Wallace died.

A good deal was written about these three deaths and I read most of it. Like many who sit in seats like mine, the disappearance of the major financial institutions that we dealt with, competed with, or simply looked to for leadership (Bear Stearns had already been dispatched to Davy Jones locker in the spring) lead to my spending much of that week staring in rapt horror at my Bloomberg screen and reading about the tectonic shift in my industry.

Despite the hysteria found in most of the newspapers, the disappearance of some of our continents oldest and most venerable financial institutions was met with surprising ennui among those I know who don't work in the industry. And though the breadth of the repercussions of these failings have become more obvious in the following months of economic recession, at the time a sense of schadenfreude was palpable.

Imagine living in a small town, I said to my friends who felt it was time for finance-types take a fall. Imagine that there were five or six grocery stores in that town from which you could choose to shop, though you probably had your favorite one or two. One of those shops suffered from some kind of contamination (listeria?) in its deli department and a number of customers got sick.

You decide that maybe you'll shop at the other store this week until the local paper gives the all clear. But it turns out they have tainted meat too, since they use the same supplier. The first store goes out of business and you are feeling a little iffy about your other store so you start to cross town for your deli slices when you can. Then, without any further warning, two more stores go out of business. Worse still, the two that still have the doors open refuse to sell to most customers.

In a matter of days, your small town has gone from being careful where it shops to simply not being able to buy food at all.

How long do you think this town lasts?

What would you do if you were in the food supply business locally?

These are life-changing developments for consumers and suppliers alike and require a major rethink of past choices and future plans.

And yet, even while these very personally affecting dramas were playing out in the pink pages of the Financial Times, while friends were losing their jobs, the tragedy of David Foster Wallace's suicide transfixed me.

More learned readers and better writers all weighed in on his accomplishments and what his sudden absence meant for letters, but all I can say is I felt a very distinct downtick in the intelligence of the universe. The strange thing about authors (and DFW had actually written about this) is that the nature of their medium gives the impression of a serious intimacy to the reader; the author, or his characters at least, are literally inside the readers mind. To this effect, I really felt closer to DFW than to many people that I know in real life.

And as often happens when you lose something you really don't know how important it is to you until it's gone. DFW was supposed to have been turning out essays and vaguely promising to follow up his masterpiece novel for years to come. I was willing to be patient. And then, all of a sudden, I found myself scouring YouTube for interviews with him so that I might know him better, and quickly.

To get back to thinking about me: even in a week as surprising as that one, I was most surprised that the death of DFW affected me so much more deeply than those of LEH and MER. Sure, one was a person and the other two simply entities, but frankly none of them had been to my house for dinner and two of them represented (indirectly) my livelihood. DFW never once held out any promise that he would help keep my children in jeans. But he did tell me things that I had never known: things about the tennis, things about philosophy, things about addiction, things about grammar, things about obsession, things about myself.

It has taken me longer to post about it than I had meant, but nonetheless I miss him.

1 comment:

AdrianaIsabel said...

As always, a pleasure reading your blog. As comment I will write the only thing a financial illiterate like me will say: "...give us this day our daily bread" Faith and trust in His almighty mercy. Excellent writing Patrick.