Points of View
Rossoff & Company’s Points of View is a forum for industry experts, leading finance professionals and senior Rossoff & Co. professionals to provide insights and commentary on current news stories, financial market themes and industry dynamics.
TALES OF COVID-19
The Wine Store Appreciates Your Business
Every two weeks we make the run to our local wine and spirits shop. We load up on vodka, gin, vermouth, reds and whites. When the lockdown began, we were relieved to hear that the wine store was considered an essential service. It’s a mental health thing, we were told. Anyway, we call in the order, give our credit card number and schedule a pick up. Valerie, our wine lady, has the box ready at the front door. We walk in, pick up the box, walk out – never coming near another human being. Wearing our masks and rubber gloves, of course. Excellent social distancing. Anyway, last week, we place the order and arrive on time for the pick up. Inside the front door is a box, but it has a roll of toilet paper sitting on top of it.
I see Valerie at the back of the store and ask her, “Where’s our box, Val?”
“That’s it, in front,” she says.
“But, it has a roll of toilet paper on top.”
“Yes! That’s our way of saying thanks. A free roll for every order of a case or more!”
“Ah, very thoughtful. See you in two weeks.”
Covid 19 has a way of making us focus on what’s really important.
The Firm Has a Cocktail Party
We’ve been working from our homes for the last two months. We talk to each other a lot and have plenty of conference calls, but no in-person contact, of course. The senior partner takes his HR responsibilities very seriously and worries about morale and cohesion. So, he decides to organize a virtual cocktail party. We get our Zoom invites with instructions to bring our cocktail of choice – alcoholic or non. The time is set for Friday at 6:00pm – this is a real party.
Attendance is not mandatory, but just about everyone shows up. We have a small firm of 40 people, so the group is not too unwieldy. Senior partner dutifully calls us out one by one, giving each some screen time, drink in hand. It was nice to see the folks and everyone was pretty jolly. There was lots of bad hair and very casual dress. But – and here’s the punch line – all the guys had newly grown facial hair: beards, ‘staches, goatees, sideburns and weird patches. There’s something about a quarantine that’s makes a man go to seed. And look pretty silly.
And yes, yours truly had a nicely trimmed full beard with some white highlights. The mature Sean Connery look, I think.
Three Generations in the House
We’ve all been here together for seven weeks: grandparents, kids and grandkids. It’s a rich, family environment. We cook, eat together, clean up, play games, debate, watch movies together, read books and discuss them, and exchange the latest info about the pandemic. And everyone takes turns tending to the grandkids: a four year-old and a two year-old. The grandkids are a lot of work, I have to say. I forgot what this was like. Two little boys, they fight constantly, cry a lot and demand attention. Cute as hell and we love them to death, but they’re work.
Fortunately, the grandparents are not the responsible party. A recent episode at lunch illustrated this vividly. I’m sitting next to Johnny, the two year-old. In between bites of macaroni and cheese, Johnny turns to me and says, “You a poop!”
Now the parents, sitting nearby, have to intervene. “Johnny,” they say, nearly in unison, “that’s not nice. You can’t call people that. Especially at the table when you’re eating. Tell Papa you’re sorry.”
I totally understand. I probably made the same speech to my kids, including the son sitting across the table from me, when they were little. The parent is the responsible party, responsible for the moral education and proper socialization of the children. They want them to grow up to be the polite, respectful, socially responsible people they are. This calling people “Poop” has to be nipped in the bud. Don’t disagree with their parenting technique in the least.
On the other hand, I’m not the parent. I did my duty – times four – and now, I’m retired from parenting. So naturally, I respond to little Johnny as any grandparent would. I turn to him and say, “I’m not a poop, you a poop!”
He responds, “No, you a poop!”
I answer, “You a bigger poop,” and it goes on like this for a while.
The parents just roll their eyes and shake their heads. Socialization set back weeks, months, years. How long do we have to live like this?
Now, this story is just another illustration of an old adage: why do grandparents and grandchildren get along so well? Because they have a common enemy.
How Much Shakespeare Can One Man Take?
My wife is a highly intelligent, superbly educated, well-read person. With all this time isolated at home and little social life, she has decided we should do something together that’s intellectually stimulating. We’re going to read Shakespeare. Haven’t done that since college and it will be good for us. In addition to reading, we can watch the plays on TV and attend some lectures she found online. Oh boy.
The curriculum will include the principal history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III. This is English history from 1377 to 1485: 7 English kings, the War of the Roses and over 100 years of near constant civil strife. I didn’t expect it, but I quickly became engrossed. The plays depict political struggle, war and personal drama on an epic scale. The underlying theme is power – how to get it, how to keep it, how to lose it. We follow the players as they scheme, maneuver, contend and grapple. Stratagems are hatched, conspiracies are plotted, master strokes delivered and blunders committed. The results are often brutal and never bring peace or satisfaction to the players. Shakespeare takes us into the minds of the antagonists and lets us hear their thoughts, passions and fears. And, we get moments of comic relief, many centered on the character of John Falstaff.
The original sin that sets off this century of turmoil is the deposition of Richard II by Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. Richard is a weak king, makes some mistakes and is unseated and killed by Henry. Henry then spends his entire reign embroiled in civil war, for the simple reason that he is never considered legitimate, having usurped the place of a rightful king. He is resented by the English nobles, many of whom are tempted to think that if Henry can be king, why can’t I? This question of legitimacy haunts the action throughout this series of plays and makes all the rulers miserable, save Henry V, who doesn’t live long enough to suffer. The characters are depicted with enormous depth and are given some of the great lines of English literature.
John of Gaunt, on his deathbed, muses about his beloved land: “This blessed plot, this earth, this England.”
Falstaff, a volcano of the Anglo Saxon vernacular, belittles a rival: “Thou whoreson mandrake, thou art fitter to be worn in my cap than to wait at my heels.”
Prince Hal, now Henry V, rouses the troops before Agincourt: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
Richard III bares the tortured soul that fuels his evil: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
The message of the plays is clear: if you seek power, prepare yourself for a life of isolation and pain. In the words of Henry IV: “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.” Worse, if you are unable to establish and maintain legitimacy, your reign will be one of constant struggle and strife and most likely end in your destruction.
After spending time with the Shakespeare histories, it’s hard not to reflect on our own politics over the last three years. Don’t we have a leader who is considered illegitimate by many? He was declared as such, day one, either by virtue of a Russian conspiracy or by his flouting of all political norms. The “Resistance” began the day the President took office. We have conspirators – the lovers Strzok and Page; a self-righteous poseur -- Comey; a demagogue with a Shakespearean name -- Trump; and a cast of fools and bumblers -- Avenatti, Daniels and Cohen. We’ve even had ghastly scenes: children in cages and the torture and destruction of Paul Manafort. We are denied the high-flown language, but we do have a Twitter screed from Trump – a constant wail of pain. And we did watch Kavanaugh nearly break down in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Politics is always a rough sport, but Shakespeare shows us that when the legitimacy of the ruler is in question, the game turns acidic. As Shakespeare might say, chaos is loosed upon the world.
Shakespeare is hard work and exhausting, but worth it. Now, I think I’ll relax. Maybe try some Bertie Wooster.