Sunday, April 26, 2009

Snake Oil

Layered with years of exhaust from the adjacent freeway, the Holiday Inn stood like a symbol of another time. A time when the hotel was fancier before other more modern and pricier hotels took up space. Now it was old, but still a place where a nice enough conference room could be procured at a cheaper rate. It looked exactly like the recession we are experiencing.

A tall, slender woman, a former runway model whose face had been re-sculpted a few times guarded the hall’s door. Her fake blonde hair hung stylishly, but thinly over her shoulders. Her practiced, automated role of greeter further entrenched her as an aging Barbie doll.

What was I doing there? Why didn’t I leave? I registered and found a seat in the second row. The audience members spoke to each other quietly, or sat there waiting. There were probably a hundred people.

The announcer introduced the day’s speaker as someone with fantastic teaching skills. He told us how fortunate we were to have him lead the workshop. I guess not all audiences are so privileged. I was expecting to learn how to become a more informed investor so I was encouraged. Not that I had much to invest. But knowledge could only help which was the reason I decided to give this whole thing a chance.

This teacher looked as if he wore a hair piece. He had the man-in-his-50’s paunch. He took off his suit jacket sweating profusely after only five minutes. When he turned to walk away, I could see the cellulite through his pants’ material. He spoke rapidly about candle sticks, blue and red lines, and making money. He wanted us to think of him as our “daddy.” Huh?

He introduced his wife, the aging Barbie doll, who strolled down the aisle and onto the stage, smiling, thrilled to turn her feet just so to show off her black boots. She wanted to instruct the “ladies” about how to have the shallowest relationship as possible. She told us to know what’s in all his accounts, keep him thinking the new outfit was old, make him feel that she will be the beneficiary of all his assets when she divorces him or he dies—whatever comes first. But most importantly, take control of the finances by learning the stock market. It was if she was having her own mini Norma Rae moment. She threw her shoulders back, head up, obviously proud of how inspirational she was. She nodded in triumph and marched off the stage.

The teaching, a review of stock market trends, the current downturn, the optimism that things will turn around started to fade into an infomercial. When Mr. Daddy told us the techniques that initially were shown to us to convince us to come to the workshop were not of much use, everything became clear.

When he showed us a tricky technique instead, he didn’t want anyone to ask any questions. But someone really wanted to know if it was legal. Mr. Daddy could not give a definitive answer. This type of scheme was a micrometer shy of a scam. And I had a thought—maybe the recession we’re in now is because such manipulations and street-fair magician illusions are one big reason everyone has lost so much of their 401ks.

Towards the end, husband and wife gave us the price list for their training course--$24,000. They wanted to make clear that the course was on sale.

I put away my notebook, told the registrars to erase my name from their lists and left. I had to think long and hard about why I was that desperate to get as far as I did and waste a Saturday on such nonsense. Luckily it was a rainy day.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lessons from the Past

Fall 1978

I recall a moment the afternoon before the evening an aunt of mine died of colon cancer. I had spent the previous couple of weeks visiting her while trying to come to a decision about a boyfriend of mine. Every day I woke up and greeted her. She was always wide awake, her colorful scarf around her head, her fingers working as fast as possible. She wanted to finish as many granny squares as possible for an afghan she wanted to leave for her son.

I wanted to open the windows, even though it was November. She wanted them closed along with the curtains. I searched around for that neurotic kitten that would ping pong off of the walls and land up on the curtain rod waiting until the perfect moment to leap onto anyone who sat in the chair next to the couch.

The odor that permeated the apartment was like a dense, stagnant swamp. When her skin, once so creamy, turned to a dried, dark mustard tone, she agreed to put down her crochet hook and check into the hospital. She did this for our comfort mainly.

That afternoon, I had to make my seven hour drive home; I had to return to my job and her immediate family needed to have her to themselves. On the way out of town, I stopped by the hospital.

Gingerly, I sat on the side of her bed trying to help her brush her teeth. I couldn’t figure out why having a clean mouth mattered any longer. I was 18. I was in a worry over a boyfriend.

My aunt saw me wince and move to help her in a helpless kind of way when she moaned in pain. She held my hand.
“Do you have any questions?” she asked.
“The questions I have, you can’t answer yet.”
She smiled. Her bones were about all that were left of her body.

When there wasn’t anything else that could possibly be said, I stood up to leave, shoulders back, strong for her. I had always said to people, “See you later.” But I gently squeezed her hand, set it down beside her and said, “Good-bye” hating the sound of it. I made it down the corridor, down the elevator, but as soon as I entered the restroom off the lobby, my tears released uncontrollably.

I always wondered if she would have been here longer if she would have insisted on telling her doctors of her symptoms or if the doctors knew what questions to ask a soft-spoken woman who cared so deeply for her family, but was too shy and embarrassed to speak of her body.

By the time she did speak up, it was too late.