Fragility Grows with Peace

I’ve noticed over the years of following business and the trading of financial instruments, that there is an obvious pattern followed in virtually every area of study. 

It should come as no surprise that there is an increase in the fragility of every system over any period of time when there is relative stability.  This pattern seems to exist in most every area of study I’ve come across.  The fragility will increase at least until it matches the current level of stability of the environment, and then become exactly as fragile as that environment will allow.  It will also become more fragile over time such that eventually even the smallest increased deviation from the stability will wreak havok on the participants in the system.

There are 2 required components for an environment to follow this pattern:

  1. The environment must have a probability of a volatile event occurring that is not a common occurrence and that does not come in predictable intervals
  2. There must be an advantage for participants in becoming more efficient should the event not occur

When these two requirements are met, all it then takes is time.  Naturally, there will be a randomly occurring period with no event occurring that exceeds either the memory of the participants or the usual frequency of the event, and the fragility cycle begins.  The longer the stability lasts, the more destructive it will be when it occurs.

An example is supply chains.  When times are tough and unpredictable, supply chains are robust and have excess capacity to compensate for uncertainty.  When times become peaceful and (apparently) predictable, supply chains become lean and exacting, with little warehouse space needed as shocks to the system become less frequent.  After years of this, they become so efficient, they will often be “just in time” and have little excess capacity or any sort of buffer in case of disaster.  They become so efficient and fragile that it can move from an inventory that can last last months without resupply, to a handful of days or fewer.  In theory, with perfect efficiency, and also perfect fragility, there is no inventory and the goods arrive at the moment they are sold.

This makes sense to me because in a peaceful yet competitive environment, with short term payouts, the excess capacity within the supply chain and the excess inventory sitting in the warehouse lower profitability.  Efficiency and lean systems win out competitively in stable times.

The same thing happens in evolution.  When a species is evolving without much change to its environment, it will evolve more and more specialized to that environment.  For example, birds or plants on an isolated island near the equator would be expected to be less evolved towards change than those with natural predators and changing seasons.  Over time their specialization and fragility will both increase such that they can make the most of their unchanging environment.  This fragility should increase over time until the species become “perfectly” evolved in their environment and utterly unable to survive in any other.  Eventually, with almost any change to this environment (the addition of a predator for example, or a change in climate, or the loss of a single food source), the evolved fragile species will go extinct as it cannot adapt quickly enough and has become too specialized. I wonder if some major historical extinction events are more likely after disproportionately long periods of stability in the environment.

The impact of this should be as follows: if we have a system with unpredictable volatility and chaos, with large intervals of peace in between, we should expect many systems that become highly specialized during those peaceful periods will fail when volatility arises.  Additionally, those systems that are adapted to a volatile environment and are unable to become more efficient to take advantage of an unchanging one, should gradually fail over time against those leaner and more specialized systems once peaceful times return.  The longer the peace time lasts, the more efficient and the more fragile everything related to it becomes, until even a tiny shock will destroy the system.

We see this happen also with bid/offer spreads and stock volatility.  When volatility declines, bid/offer spreads decline, as market makers need to be competitive with their spreads, but not so competitive that volatility runs them over.  In lower volatility (peaceful) times, the tight spread will continue to make money and most of the opportunity in wider spreads will be missed.  They start taking on risk that will lose should volatility increase.  This will work for them up to the very moment there is a volatility spike.  When volatility suddenly increases, we will see the market makers with the tight spreads get run over and lose consistently, until spreads are widened.  Many will go out of business, as their business model evolved to a market condition that no longer exists.

Imagine you are able to sell lottery tickets, and each ticket has an independent, 1 in 1 million chance, of winning a million dollars.  Each ticket should have a fair value of $1.  Say you sell 1 ticket a day for $1 each, and are required to pay should any ticket hit the lottery, paying $1 million for every ticket that hits the lottery.  Day after day, you sell your one ticket and collect $1, and nobody hits the jackpot.  You’re feeling pretty good because the likelihood anyone hits the jackpot is incredibly slim on any given day.  You don’t even bother to save the money, but you just spend it as years go by and nobody hits the jackpot.  Eventually, you start selling them for less than a dollar and start selling more tickets.  Day after day, you collect money and feel no risk.  Even though your expected value is now negative, since fair value is $1 and you are selling the tickets for less than that, you still appear to be making money day after day as long as nobody hits the jackpot.  The chances of anyone hitting the jackpot are small.  So far so good, until someone, or maybe multiple people, eventually hit the jackpot.  At which point you lose a fortune and “blow up” and are completely unable to pay and are out of business.  This analogy is what is happening when environments are peaceful with regular and unpredictable future shocks that occur with rare frequency.  These are by far the most common environments you will come across.

Financial markets themselves become fragile.  Once again, over time, and without any crashes, they become more efficient and leveraged.  Eventually participants become so leveraged that even a small drop will wipe them out and cascade into a major crash.  When housing goes up year after year for 20 years, people start believing it will remain that way forever.  They leverage themselves more and more, putting down less money and speculating at higher priced purchases, until even the smallest drop in the market will cascade into defaults.  The likelihood of a spectacular crash increases dramatically. 

The idea that “this time is different” exists because of periods of peaceful environments that convince people they will last forever.  Because the timing of the upheaval is rarely predictable, an event that usually happens once every 10 years, may happen twice in a single year and then go 50 years without occurring, causing spectacular destruction due to its irregularity and the long peaceful time where everything becomes fragile to the eventual shock.

We can also see this happen with governments.  The longer the period without war or social upheaval, the less capable governments are to handle extreme events.  If you go years without war, the quality of your standing army declines as the government becomes more efficient by spending money elsewhere and reducing the budget of the standing army, essentially becoming more fragile.  Eventually the people of the nation feel any spending on an army is wasted money.  They will believe war is a thing of the past and wipe out their preparedness.  We can see an example of this in how most of European nations currently spend less as a percentage of GDP on national defense than at any time in history, while existing under the Pax Americana.  Do they think war will not come again?  Do they think that their borders will never again be at risk of invasion?  Perhaps they are right, but if history is any indication, war will likely at some unknown future time, come again to their borders and they will not be prepared for it due to decades of peace.

Think of hurricane/flood insurance.  If hurricanes are random yet somewhat regular events, you would expect insurance to remain with generally steady rates, all other factors being equal.  But it doesn’t.  Instead, insurance is highest when a hurricane has just taken place.  It then drops down over time until it reaches its lowest level just prior to the next hurricane, after which it then skyrockets.  This is because, during the peaceful period, the insurer and all competing insurers drop rates over time when nothing has happened, and as people expect lower rates when it appears to rarely flood in their region.  The rates follow the demand and recency of the event.  A homeowner in a flood zone where it hasn’t flooded for 20 years isn’t thinking a flood is likely, even if it happened approximately once every 15 years prior.  A homeowner who just had their house destroyed by a flood is almost certain to pay the price for insurance even if the event is rare and has an equal percentage change of happening in a given year.  And all of this thinking and pricing will occur without any change whatsoever to the actual frequency of flooding.

This evolutionary flaw, if it is indeed a flaw, has a terrible impact if there is an equal chance of something happening every year, and that chance is low.  When a system becomes less volatile, the pace with which efficiency increases is slow and can take years to evolve, not immediately wiping out the less efficient and less fragile participants.  Peace breaks out slowly.  But war or other volatile events happen in an instant.  There is no time for evolution or adjustment when movement in a system goes from peaceful to volatile.  It destroys those not prepared in a flash.

It means every few years or decades, we will have an event that will completely wipe out an industry, a government, a financial institution, or a species.  How do you convince someone to make less profit and be less efficient than their competitors, year after year, for an event that happens once every 10 years, or once every hundred or even 1000 years?  If we knew we were unprepared, as a species, for a meteor strike that will happen as a 0.05% chance every year, we must not allow ourselves to become so fragile with our species over time that it makes us extinct.

How many of us still own a land line for a phone?  Land lines are far more robust than our cell phone systems and create a redundancy that costs money every year.  Most of us have dropped them by now, as if complete dependency on our cell phones makes sense.

How many of us, (people, governments, companies), are prepared for a once in 500 year solar?  One the size of the flare in the 1800 would likely destroy all electronics on the planet.  How many live in a major city and have less than a few days food supply in case of an unforeseen emergency?

I am as guilty as anyone, I have no landline and it doesn’t bother me.  But it should.

We must maintain some excess capacity and inventory in the face of everyone who looks shorter term and sees an immediate benefit to being more efficient.  How do you convince someone to stay prepared and pay that expense when the event is unlikely to happen in their lifetime?  I don’t know the answer, but we must figure this out if we are to survive as a species.  We are so effective in our economies that we become fragile and efficient faster than ever in history, and as a result, we are less prepared than ever before to handle a shock in any environment.  Because wars, supply chain shocks, and negative environmental events have happened with less frequency lately, we are more interconnected than ever before and we risk a shock to one environment causing cascading shocks in all environments, creating a greater fragility than ever before as all systems become more dependent and correlated to one another in

A Most Magnificent Day

Today is an incredible, extraordinary day.  Today, God will descend from his throne in heaven and will present you, dear reader, with an award.  The angel’s trumpets will sound, the clouds will part, and with indescribable majesty, the Lord will appear before you.

What brought about this remarkable turn of events, you may ask?  You may ask yourself, “Why am I being honored above all others by the Creator of Absolutely Everything?”

My good friend, all of this is happening because you represent the culmination of mankind’s reason. 

Your beliefs are correct, not just in this moment, but for all time.  There will be no further advancement in the search for truth and justice.  You, my ever present companion, are not just correct, but you ARE CORRECT, and your lack of doubts in what you believe is completely and utterly justified.  When you speak with absolute confidence, how can anyone not agree with the Truth you speak?

I know, we always laughed at the absurd beliefs of the past.  Every age has considered the beliefs that came before them to be brainless and short sighted.  Until today.

That lightening came from an angry diety?  Foolish!

That the smallest particle of matter was an atom? Morons!

That slavery as an acceptable state for some humans? What a load of crap!

That women are property?  Idiotic and brutish, how could anyone have ever believed that!

But now… now we finally have come to the truth, or better stated, YOU have come to the truth.  Whether 100 years, 500 years, nay, even 10,000 years from this day, people will look back on you, dear reader, and remember that this was the day someone finally got it right for all time.  When you speak with certainty of your rightness, when you dismiss the arguments of those around you without considering it may be you who is wrong, for the very first time in, well, EVER, that certainty is 100% warranted.  No need to update your beliefs, for YOU ARE RIGHT.  Hence the heavenly reward, God descending, and all that jazz.

Or…

Maybe… just maybe…

You should consider the possibility that your most firmly held beliefs will look exactly as halfwitted by those who come after you.  Perhaps what is so obvious to you as the truth, will be shot full of holes by those who have more knowledge and experience who come along later.

Maaaaaayyyyybe… you should be open to possibility of EVERY SINGLE ONE of your beliefs being proven wrong, and should look to improve and challenge them at every turn, always looking for a more beautiful argument as to what you should believe, ever evolving, ever growing.

At least those who will laugh at you in the future will themselves be laughed at in turn.

But go ahead, accept your reward and put your head back in the sand.  After all, God did say you were right…

Didn’t He?

Fable of the Gods of Desire

Ages ago, in the year 2021, there lived a child with an extraordinary power.  His name was Jimmy, and he could see the gods.

Now these gods, well, truth be told, they weren’t the all powerful beings of legend, those that periodically raped and pillaged the mortals below.  They didn’t turn into swans, or blow up volcanoes, or come up with creative punishments for prideful humans and such.  Rather, these were the gods of human appetites.  These gods did nothing, but eat.  The more appetites men and women had, the more they ate in a gluttonous feast, their desires supplying dish after dish.  Jimmy quickly realized his power wasn’t nearly as cool as it sounded.

The gods lived in a cave at the edge of town, and Jimmy didn’t visit them very often.  When he did visit, one of the lesser gods, the God of Tour Guides and Tourist Traps (who represented the desires of many to get the minimum of culture with the maximum of pictures), would take Jimmy on a tour of the cave with his little blue flag sticking out above his backpack, guiding the way.  As a lesser god, he was required by the other gods to take a break from his meals, as who would be better suited to taking Jimmy around?  Certainly not Forbidden Lust or Road Rage, a laughable idea.

Today was a special day, for Jimmy was told by Sam (for that was the God of T.G. and T.T.’s name) that he would get to see the strongest, fattest, and greatest of all the gods in existence.  The one who could easily best the other gods in battle, the one with more power and more food at his exquisite banquet table than the rest put together.  None of the other gods would speak his name for fear of attracting his attention.

They walked down the vast hallway littered with the consumed bones of desire.  They trotted past Jealousy, whose angry, shifting eyes never watched the piled up cakes on her table, but instead the greasy chicken fingers on Office Affair’s plate.  Past Pride, the most massive god Jimmy had ever seen, yet who would barely eat from the highly stacked plates of steaks, for fear that his position of power might be overtaken.  Finally, they reached an enormous gold door, and here they paused before entering.

Quietly, ever so quietly, Sam whispered HIS name into Jimmy’s ear.

“Today… we will visit the greatest god of all.  His existence strikes fear into all of our obese hearts.  Today, we visit The God of Assigning Homework.”

Jimmy was surprised. 

“W-w-w-w-Wait a sec.” Jimmy stammered.  Then he asked his next questions in quick succession.

“He’s greater than the seven deadly sins?  Greater than Pride?  Is that even possible?!?  And homework, aren’t we pretty much done with homework by the end of school? You’re joking.”

“I couldn’t be more serious.  Every man and woman on Earth feeds the God of Assigning Homework.  Saints and sinners alike set plate after plate on his table.  His room is twenty times larger than this entire hall housing all of the other gods, and either his bulk or his food fill every square inch.”

And then Sam went on to explain.  You see, the God of Assigning Homework was fed whenever anyone gave someone else homework.  Every friend that wanted to share in his joy and told his bestie, “You must watch this new show!” Yet if the new show wasn’t watched, the friend would be disappointed.  Every wife that told her husband to mow the lawn.  Every single time someone gave advice, and expected or insisted it be followed, another platter was served to the God of A.H.

 “You have to break up with him, he’s a loser.” – stack of pancakes for the God of Assigning Homework

“You should call your Mother more often… give her a call tonight.” – Two tacos down the gullet.

“See you at 7.  Don’t be late.” – Whipped cream shot into the mouth, straight from the can.

“You need to apply.  Let me know when you’ve sent out the resume.” – Loaded baked potato.

You see, fair and attractive reader, there is no end to the desire to give homework.  While some people may not be impacted by pride, or wrath, or suffer from lust, everyone from the smallest child shouting “Look at me!  C’mon Mom, look what I’m doing!” to the expectations of the Dalai Lama to use better judgement, assign homework to everyone around them without a second thought.  Even the boy scouts say “Do a good deed every day.”  They don’t suggest doing a good deed, they assign it.  Most feel self-righteous and proper when giving homework, especially to those they love most.  The best of friends and the closest of families do it all the time.

The door was largely soundproofed, but there was a vague crunching sound, with the occasional ketchup bottle squirt noise, coming from beyond the barrier.  Something black and pudding like in consistency had squeezed its way under the door and into the hallway, under pressure from the other side.  Jimmy watched wide eyed, as it was suddenly sucked back under the door with a great slurp.

Jimmy ran.  He ran harder and faster than he had ever run before.  He pumped his small legs as fast as he could and he ran from the hall, forgetting to give Sam so much as a thank you.

After Jimmy was no longer in sight, the God of Tour Guides and Tourist Traps returned to his small space at the banquet and commenced eating.  No one in memory had dared open that golden door, but the fear that someone might was almost enough to put him off his appetite.  Almost.

Bistro Les Amis – Spring St and Thompson St

“I’ve decided that from now on, I want my food to be so delicious looking, that people regret their life decisions that led then to that moment of not having ordered it.”

Today I took a break from my SoHo wanderings at my favorite French Bistro, Bistro Les Amis, to people watch the tourists on Spring Street. It was a bright and chilly afternoon, and to fight the natural sleepiness of this tine, I enjoyed an expresso martini from the shelter of the absurd outdoor covid seating (with a heat lamp and a TV playing a fake fire at my side).

The waitstaff recognized me as I arrived, one of the few patrons who, in a desperate attempt to keep the restaurant alive, had continued coming by throughout the pandemic. I love this place. Fortunately, they are expected to survive.

The martini arrived and was that incredible combination of sweet and delicious, with enough caffeine to bring life back to my tired brain. It was perfect, served with a bit of froth on top just as I enjoy it best. Of course, no drink may be served without food these days (we must keep up appearances), and so, after a bit of fumbling in deciding what to order, I fell back on my default, FRENCH ONION SOUP. God, I love that salty, cheezy, messy soup. Incredible.

The whole experience lasted maybe 20 minutes, barely enough time to get some on my shirt (yet I succeeded!). This is the nature of the good life. A beautiful afternoon, with a handful of locals amidst swarms of tourists, reminding me that the lifeblood of my city continued to flow despite the direst of predictions. I could not have enjoyed it more. And yes, I do pick at and eat some bits of cheese caked on the side of the little pot, long after the remains of the soup have cooled off and the dish is done. After all this time, it’s hard to grow past one’s barbarian roots. I’m not certain I wish to.

Buvette – 42 Grove St

This past week I had the pleasure of dining outside at Buvette for the first time. It is a small French bistro, reminiscent of a Parisian outdoor cafe, situated on Grove St in the West Village. I ordered a pastis, and because we have absurd food and drink laws in this pandemic, I was required to order a dish as well. I settled on the French Onion Soup.

To begin with, I never set foot inside. The location on the street, just a few steps from 6th Avenue, with the outdoor dining, was wonderful. I highly recommend this spot when wandering the Village streets. Service was French (the waitstaff was present, but not attentive), the tables were small and clean, but the atmosphere, it was perfect. Some customers actually wore berets (hah!) The people watching was spectacular, with all the many weirdos and bizarre characters who make the village their home out in full force wandering the streets. The tables were filled with locals.

The author enjoys a pastis at Buvette

The pastis (I prefer it with lots of water and a fair bit of ice) was delicious and added to the very European feel of the spot. The food was a mediocre French onion soup with a piece of cheese incrusted bread on top, rather than the usual melted cheese across the top of a pot. I’ve had a ton of french onion soup in my day, and this wasn’t for me. But I wasn’t there for the food or the service. I was there for the leisurely stop on my way through, and the perfect cafe stop to enjoy an afternoon with my brother. For this, it excelled. 10/10. I would go back any number of times for the drinks, and while my soup left me wanting, I’ve heard the rest of the dishes are amazing. Perhaps this pandemic will force me to try another. Drop by for a drink and you won’t be disappointed.

Quarantine Haiku

In the small hours of the night, I’ve composed a quarantine haiku that pretty much sums it up as my mind slowly turns to quarantine mush.  Ta-da!  Another day had passed and someday, hopefully soon, I will once again connect with the wonderful people around me.  Today was not yet that day.

 

Distracting myself

No more than existing alone

You son of a bitch

A fast lane favor, just for you!

I hate getting cut off when I’m driving.  Everyone does. I even get angry when I see a driver cut in front of a truck in the space the trucker has left in front of him to brake safely.

But I once read that if you imagine a good reason for why the other driver did what they did, you’ll feel better.  Maybe they are rushing to the hospital, or to be at the bedside of a dying loved one before they pass.  Maybe the person who cut me off is not a total bastard, but is trying to follow the rules of a serial killer in a Saw movie and had no choice.  Well, it’s true, it does make me feel a little better to give them some selfless excuse.

But what about those drivers in the fast lane that drive at the same speed as the slow lane traffic, people you can never pass?  What’s their excuse?  What can I tell myself to bring down my road rage?

I have the answer and this is my gift to you.

The slow driver in the left lane is driving straight to the lowest circle of hell.  These are their last moments on Earth before they are eternally damned and they want this time to stretch out as long as possible.  Would you deny them their final moments in the sun before they are damned for eternity?  By going slowly in the fast lane, they have figured out how to extend time interminably.  I feel pity for these poor souls.  Even if they weren’t damned before they drove slowly in the fast lane, they sure as f*ck are now.

Grouchy Potatoes

“Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” (Dante, The Inferno)

 

WARNING:  Those gentle, fainthearted souls who live in blissful ignorance should not read on, lest they lose their precious purity and discover themselves dragged down into despair, never to regain their beautiful innocence.

 

It has been almost a decade since I was visited in my dreams by the creatures of deepest Hell.  Only now, with the passage of time, have I mustered the courage to bring their evil to light.  When I close my eyes, I see them as I did that first day they revealed themselves in my nightmares.  In future writings, I will tell the story of each demonic being I came across in the darkest nights.  For now, I will list them here, though I recommend against speaking any of their names out loud, lest you invite their evil into your home or heart.

I remember them marching past me, and it all started with Grouchy Potatoes, the herald of Evil.

My visitors on the first night were as follows:

Grouchy Potatoes

Shifty Carrots

Silver-tongued Chick Pea Hummus

Flippant Parsley

Brutal Sprouts

Greedy, Snarky Tomatoes

Angry Corn (loose, not on the cob, I recall the Corn as if this all occurred yesterday)

Selfish Peas

Murderous Leeks

Arrogant Mixed Nuts

A Single, Slovenly Pear

Bloodthirsty Clementine Oranges

Strangely, there were also a handful of dishes, including some Boorish Cole Slaw and Malevolent Pizza.

My terror knew no bounds and I lay frozen in my bed.  There was no hope, no respite, no future, only death and destruction.  In that moment, I feared for my immortal soul.  My life was worth nothing in the face of such monstrosities.  The only saving grace was that they utterly ignored me as I cast my gaze upon them.

Little did I know the second night would bring the leadership, the C Suite, the royalty of Hell’s demons to my sight.  I only list them here as I hope their very existence will lead you, dear reader, away from dark paths and into the light.

The first whose aura made me quiver in fear was Saul, The Apple of Doom.  While his origins are lost in the mists of time, many believe he came to exist through the unnatural combination of a Red Delicious and a Granny Smith.  I stifled a scream and briefly lost all awareness when his savage visage came into sight.

When I came to, when I saw what followed, only then did I know there was no escape.  Directly behind him were the Four Asparagus of the Minor Apocolypse:

  • The White Asparagus of Hopelessness
  • The Green Asparagus of Despair
  • The Purple Asparagus of Unwelcome Advice
  • The Canned Asparagus of Crushed Dreams

After came a procession I can barely bring myself to recall.

The Okra of Cruelty

The Chick Pea of Temptation (aka The Seductress)

The Celery Stalk of Mankind’s Downfall

The Twin Chives of Decay, Robert and Allen

The Summer Salad of Darkness

The Kumquat of Weak Willed Hedonism

The Dried Fig of War

and finally, at the end of the procession was Alexander, the Red Potato of Harshest Rebuke.

As they travelled before my eyes, surrounded by bushels of haughty rice pilaf, madness overtook me.

I fear my dreams are prophetic.  If so, our world’s demise is assured.

 

The Fable of the Mask Maker

I really enjoyed the concept of this fable I wrote, but had a tough time writing it.  Mostly because I didn’t want it to be too long.  I think just about everything worth saying can be beautifully fit into a few paragraphs at the most, and most of the words beyond that should have been edited out.  This is especially true for a parable or fable.  Neither you nor I came here to read a novel, so I hope this isn’t too long for either of us.

The fable of the mask maker

Some time ago, there were two sisters, both in their early teens.  Perhaps you know of them, perhaps not, but this is the story of Ann and Kate.

The sisters were very close in age, and they lived in a large city with their parents. Both had close friends and, because they were young, they were both in the process of discovering who they were.  They had dreams and fears of what the future held.  They both wanted close friendships, they wanted to make their parents proud, and, like many young women their age, they wanted to fit in with their peers.

One evening, they were both invited to a masquerade ball.  It was to be a grand event, with many friends attending and numerous people coming from out of town.  Everyone was going to be there.

When the invitations arrived, their Mom gave them some money and sent them to the mask maker, telling them, “Picking out the right mask is very important.  You get to choose who you will be the night of the ball. Because people won’t know who you are, you can choose to be anyone or anything you want.”

The girls were excited and ran to the mask maker’s shop.  When they entered his store, they found all sorts of masks that were perfect for a masquerade.  The girls could choose to look like high society ladies in Venice, or have cat’s faces with whiskers, or have steampunk gears on their cheeks, or anything else they could imagine, both plain and fantastic.  The choices were so many, they were overwhelmed and had a terrible time deciding.  Their parents had suggested a traditional masquerade mask, while their friends had said they were going with masks based on a popular show of the time.  They even had suggestions for each other, but each sister had to choose a mask for herself.  The choosing process was difficult, but finally a decision was made by each of them, and they brought their money to the mask maker sitting behind the cash register.

The master artisan told them, “You have made some excellent choices!  There are no wrong decisions to be made here and these are among my best work.  Let’s see what you have picked out.”  Ann had selected a stunning mask, the face of a character from the most popular show in town.  It was the mask of the heroine who was loved by the audience.  She was certain that this would be accepted by all of her friends and that she would fit in perfectly.  She knew many would be wearing the same face the night of the ball and she drew comfort from this.  Kate, on the other hand, had found a more unique mask, that of the face of an exotic merchant of the stars.  This mask spoke to her heart, but though she had always been drawn to becoming a star trader, it was neither the traditional mask her parents would have picked for her nor one that would be popular or common at the ball.  Ann was quick to point this out to her.

As he took their money, the mask maker said, “Because my masks have to be able to fit any face, the fit is never perfect.  When you dance and enjoy your party, remember that your mask may slip off from time to time.  When this happens, just remember, if you keep in the character of your mask, nobody will notice that it has slipped.  You can put it back into place as if nothing has happened.”  The sisters thanked him and left with their prizes.

The ball was everything Ann had expected, though a bit bland and predictable.  She saw her friends, many of whom wore the same mask she did, and they all enjoyed the drinks and dancing.  They watched the other partygoers, sometimes with fascination, and commented on everyone who attended and what they were wearing.  As teenage girls sometimes do, they often had biting remarks for those who were not well dressed and for those who didn’t see the wisdom of picking a mask others could easily recognize.  But this pettiness was kept to a minimum and they enjoyed each other’s company. 

Throughout the night, Ann worried that her mask was slipping off and kept fixing it.  Even when it had not moved at all, she kept adjusting it and feeling it to make sure it was in place.  It was a constant distraction and by the end of the night, she could focus on little else, always worried that if it slipped off, someone would notice and she would become the object of ridicule.  But fortunately, that never happened, though there were a few close calls.  By the end of the night, Ann, fully exhausted with the mask and the ball, was ready to leave.  All in all, she had a good time, or at least that’s what she told her parents the next morning as she wondered what had become of Kate, who she had lost track of early in the night.

When she arrived at the ball, Kate was nervous.  Her mask was different from everyone else’s and she could tell right away that this singled her out.  Though she loved the star trader’s mask, she wished her sister and her friends would love it too, would accept it.  But they didn’t, not at all.  They laughed at her choice, they poked fun at how poorly she fit in.  And so Kate had to forge out on her own and make new friends.  She feared the coming “I told you sos” from her parents, friends, and sister, who would never have worn such a mask and were either embarrassed or worried about her choice.  Nonetheless, Kate wore her new mask and carefully followed the mask maker’s instructions.  She kept in character so that if her mask slipped, no one would notice.  She made a number of new friends that night and met many interesting people, but it was a very difficult process.  She wondered to herself, “Why must it be so hard to meet new people, to make new friends?  Why do my friends judge me so harshly, why do they mock me?”  But by the time the evening was over, she barely noticed the mask at all, she was so fully enjoying herself.  She danced the night away and everyone commented on the remarkable star trader in their midst.

When the night was almost at an end, Kate saw herself in a mirror and admired the beautiful mask she still wore.  It was perfect.  She raised her hands to take it off, but when she put her hands on it to remove it, she touched her own face.  In a moment of clarity, she realized the mask had fallen off hours before.  Her face had become that of the star trader and she could never again return to the comfortable life she lived before that night.

A Little Bit of Oscar Wilde

Sometimes, instead of uplifting, life-affirming quotes and stories, instead of depth of thought and greatness of character, there’s nothing quite like a shallow, brilliant mind to make you smile.  At least it’s that way for me…

Well, here’s a bit of Oscar Wilde.  He had lots of brilliant thoughts, and I’ve done my best not to reproduce any of those thoughts here.  I pulled these from Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast, a thin, little, awesome book.

 

“Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious.  Both are disappointed.”

“Bad art is a great deal worse than no art at all.”

“Life is much too important a thing to ever talk seriously about”

“The secret of life is never to have an emotion that is unbecoming.”

“Murder is always a mistake.  One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.”