12/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tao and Dow

What is the ancient Taoist story of the old Chinese farmer? He got old because he did not get too happy about good weather, or too sad about bad. Such equanimity prepared him for when his son died.

I am so not into the stock market.

My maternal grandfather, a brilliantly inventive and enterprising man, was encouraged to buy on margin in the 1920s, and when the Crash came, the president of the company where he worked took on his debt, and for 15 years Dada paid it off. At one point he put our house in my grandmother's name to keep it out of the hands of the president.

In about 1949, I was maybe six, and my grandparents gave me and my sister 100 shares of a Canadian oil company, worth a dollar a share. A few years later, it wasn't worth a dime a share.

My mother inherited a good amount of the stock in the company Dada worked for, and she nurtured it. Occasionally, she would open her lockbox and show me the shares with fine engravings of beautiful heroic godlike half-naked men and women. It was a good company, it still is, and the stocks for it rose over the decades and paid good dividends

But in the early 1970s, on expert advice, she diversified, and it was unfortunately into what turned out to be less good stocks. Came the Nixon crash, and Mother had a tenth of the money she had had. If she had not followed expert advice, she would have lost little.

I would look at her reading the stock market pages of the morning paper, and her mood would rise and fall with the stocks. And frankly it took her mind off more interesting things.

One more story about me and stocks. In graduate school, a friend played the stock market. It was 1967, during the Vietnam War, and I went with him to a brokerage house, where the brokers were panicked: there had been a "peace scare," and investors were losing money.

I scratched my head. People were scared that there would be peace (an end to the mass killing of human beings that is war) because it would upset their investment strategies? That is horrible, I thought.

What am I saying?

Maybe study the Tao (pronounced Dow) if you are concerned about the Dow.

Like the old farmer, do not become too excited by good or bad news.

What I mean is, all we have is life. We think we have more, but in the end that's all that matters, our life.

Then the question becomes political: just my life, or all our lives, those 6.6 billion lives alive living this second, your 6.6 billion brothers and sisters.

The Taoists were criticized for always trying to find ways to become immortal. Lao Tse, Taoism's founder, was last seen flying on a dragon off into the beyond.

It wouldn't be bad to live a long life. The Living Theatre made a play, The Yellow Methuselah, which mixed Shaw's Back to Methuselah , and Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound. I saw it in 1984. In one scene, the two founders of the Living Theatre, Julian Beck and Judith Malina, come out on stage with bald caps on and wearing saffron robes. They are people from the future, sages who are 300 years old.

They ask the audience, "Would you like to live to be 300? But what kind of world could you live to be 300 in? And what are you doing to make that world?"

Life is great. Especially since the election of Barack. It would be good to live to be 300, or 120 (which, as of 2004, is the new maximum age for the citizenry that the American Actuarial Association uses in its calculations).

There is another play, a thirteenth-century Taoist play, The Dream of Yellow Millet, which I studied in that graduate school. And this line from it has never left: "And the fools think only of long and short."

I think the markets are best left to the fools thinking only of long and short.

It will not take financial experts to get us out of the mess that financial experts got us into.

They have engineered a system that, nanosecond by nanosecond, restructures itself to benefit only the wealthiest of the wealthiest, and then only the wealthiest of those wealthiest, ad infinitum.

It is now collapsing on everybody.

It will take the homeless and the jobless and peasants and family farmers and poets and philosophers and firemen and cops and comedians and painters and sculptors and scientists and filmmakers and playwrights and nurses and doctors and shrinks and social workers and Nobel Peace Prize winners and mom-and-pop store owners and singers and dancers and architects and hip-hop poets and media pioneers etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., everybody, all 6.6 billion of us, to dream up a way out. Everybody includes even those who got us into this mess in the first place, though they should have dunce caps on, facing the corner, but occasionally asked about what some specific term means, "derivative," etc.

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