Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
After a world-class competitive eater, a second-tier presidential candidate, and a penitent Hollywood pedophile, I'm the day's final guest on Dawn Patrol. Every Friday morning ends with a segment called "Your Money Matters." I'm about to be interviewed by Shaun and Dawn Kramden, two right-wing nutcases who don't know a stock from a bond. Shaun is a retired NFL Pro Bowler whose off-field exploits gave new meaning to the phrase "tight end." Dawn is his trophy wife and on-air quarterback, but her qualifications in personal finance seem limited to her ability to negotiate a good prenuptial agreement. After asking me if I'm comfortable in The Hot Seat (her term, not mine), she walks to her whiteboard and segues into her introductory monolog.
"Tao Jones is a new breed of financial advisor—the Zen Capitalist. As you can see, he carries no Valentino briefcase. He wears no Armani suit, no Brioni tie, no Gucci shoes. In fact, no shoes of any sort! A former Wall Street wunderkind—"
She pronounces it Wonder Kind, and I keep smiling.
"—he has left the world of leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers to go down a road less traveled. He is now the spiritual leader of a brokerage account existing only in his own mind, and in the portfolios of millions of gray-haired flower children who toke on his every word."
She checks the electronic cue cards programmed into her Yphone while the camera cuts to me. I wonder if it's taking a tight shot of my bare feet, pedicured for the occasion. I consider them my finest physical asset.
"In its five years of non-existence, The Carma Position has virtually outperformed every mutual fund in America. Tao Jones is the bane of big commission brokers, who regard him as a fortunate freak whose good fortune will soon run out. In the meantime, savvy investors pony up to hear his monthly pronouncements—the next one to be made in Greenville, South Carolina, later today. Sorry, folks—it's been sold out for months! Is he your go-to financial guru, or just a geek in a blue bathrobe? You'll find out on Dawn Patrol!"
During all this puffery, Shaun has been sitting at the Plexiglas command center, flexing the shoulders of his own Armani suit and tugging at the knot of his own Brioni tie. His florid complexion makes me think of an overripe tomato just about to split its skin. Now he stands up and ceremoniously pulls out Dawn's own red leather chair. He's a foot taller than she is, even in her formidable shoes. He stoops over and kisses the back of her neck as she sits down. Booty and The Beast.
When we come back from commercial break, I adjust the angle of my shaved head so the reflected light shines right into her eyes. To her credit, she doesn't blink, flinch, or even raise her phone in a defensive gesture. She remains on her original angle of attack. But today, I will be the Blue Baron to her stilettoed Snoopy. Curse this stupid whore!
"Tao, what would you say to those who call The Carma Position just a glorified index fund supplemented by a series of lucky guesses?"
"Yeah," Shaun says. "Tell us about that."
I place both hands in the Prayer Posture without moving my head or even refocusing my gaze. "The Zen Capitalist is indifferent to market fluctuations, to short-term gains and losses. He knows they are both part of the same grand illusion."
"But how can you account for the remarkable accuracy of your investment advice?"
"Those who claim to understand the Dow do not understand the Dow. Only those who do not understand the Dow understand the Dow." Now I redirect the reflected light from the crown of my head toward the camera lens and smile a bit more broadly. "I do not understand the Dow."
Shaun merely shrugs his massive shoulders, but Dawn keeps trying to shoot me down. "Is it your meticulous market research? Your detailed knowledge of corporate America after two decades on Wall Street?"
"All of us have seen a prospectus." For the first time, I stare into her stare. "But how many among us have ever read a prospectus?"
She coughs guiltily and keeps going. "Warren Buffet has praised your advice to Baby Boomers nearing retirement—diversify broadly, avoid toxic derivatives, and keep your emergency money out of the market. But he questions the necessity of your monthly adjustments to The Carma Position. He says you can't keep cherry-picking those losers forever! What would you say to Warren if he were with us today?"
"The stock you never buy may be your best purchase." I close my eyes in tantric meditation. "Mr. Buffet has always known the Dow, because he knows he has never known the Dow."
"That's deep," Shaun mutters. "That's Tom Brady deep."
We're running out of our allotted time, so Dawn unsheathes her teeth and moves in for her final attack. "Tao, your selloff recommendations have been remarkably—some would say suspiciously—lucrative for a number of years. You never seem to get burned! Have you ever been party to insider trading? To illegal activity of any sort?" She raises one of her resected eyebrows. "Can you show us what's really underneath that blue bathrobe?"
"The FCC would not approve." My first memory is spinning inside me like a fiery prayer wheel, filled with my father's bright beard, a field of crackling kudzu, and my own primal screams. But in the eternal present, my smile never wavers. "The SEC would find nothing of interest."
Now the giant monitor beside us displays a caricature of my freckled, chubby cheeks above a red kerchief, next to the faces of Phineas T. Bluster and Clarabell the Clown. Shaun stifles a snicker, but he lets his wife do the talking. "Tao, skeptics in the world of financial services refer to you as Dowdy Doody. What are your final words for them?"
"I have no final words. The Dow that can be told by the closing bell is not the eternal Dow."
"So there you have it—straight from Tao Jones, Zen Capitalist, the last hope of every ex-hippie seeking a secure retirement! Until tomorrow, I'm Dawn Kramden."
"And I'm Shaun Kramden."
"And this," they say in unison, "is Dawn Patrol!"
Shaun gets on his feet to give me a tentative right hand—perhaps influenced by me being wider than most of the meatheads who tackled him in his previous life. Then Dawn leans sideways, across the translucent command center, to offer me a more vigorous handshake. I calmly accept it, for the Tao is never vindictive. Only when the cameras are off do I remind her she will be Dawn Kramden after tomorrow as well as before tomorrow.
I am known by many names. The Buddhist Buffett. The Blue Chip Monk. The Sumo of the S&P 500. To cynics, I am The Barge in the Bathrobe, The Portly Pundit, or The Dimpled Blimp. Or, because of my boyish, beardless face and my perpetual smile, Dowdy Doody. But mainly I am known by the name my parents bestowed upon me at my birth, nine months after The Summer of Love.
But I hardly knew Flower and Power. Power died in my infancy, after his final attempt to prove kudzu's hallucinogenic qualities. My cradle was collateral damage in that experiment. An ER intern, too clever for her own good, listed the official cause of my father's death as "exotic asphyxiation." Fortunately, I was sent to a different hospital, where I formed my hypertrophic scars before I was returned to our commune, deep in the Dark Corner of upstate South Carolina: Dharma Pharm. A moonshiner's sanctuary, morphed into a community of self-enlightened souls propagating Acapulco Gold. It had a dubious reputation in the adjoining mill villages, Baptist churches, and gated enclaves of textile executives.
Those were the Days of No: I Can't Get No Satisfaction, Hell No We Won't Go, no computers, no Internet, no Facebook, no text messages, no bras, no affordable long distance telephone calls. My countercultural mother, busy bankrupting her own ditsy, dysfunctional parents in northern California, knew nothing of Power's death. By the time she'd hitchhiked back to Dharma, my father's body had been recommitted to the remaining kudzu, and I was recovering from my wounds. My face, hands, and feet were the only things left untouched by my father's failure. As a toddler I was told that after one catastrophic attempt to change my diaper, Flower decided to abandon Dharma to pursue The Grateful Dead.
So I became a ward of the non-state, passed from couple to couple, from tepee to yurt during my early childhood. But by the time I was in the fourth grade, America had contracted Saturday Night Fever, and Dharma was empty except for its founding brothers, Adam and Steve. They reassumed their surname, Shapiro, which became mine as well. Previously, on my school records, I had been simply Tao Tao—or, as my tobacco-chewing tormentors on the playground of Dark Corner Elementary would pronounce me, Doo Doo.
As I grew older, I became a mathematics prodigy—a favorite among my classmates from gated communities who wished to ensure their admission into the college of their choice. I was in considerable demand as a tutor, in which capacity I visited many of their remarkable homes, filled with the wonders of indoor plumbing. Enlightened by Reaganomics, I'd come to believe what every American adolescent believes: that his parents, and everyone associated with his parents, are bottomless sources of stupidity and embarrassment. I did everything I could think of to get Adam and Steve to expel me from Dharma Pharm. I called the Greenville County Sheriff's Office to insinuate their cultivation of illegal substances. I reported their dubious wastewater protocols to the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency. I joined the Young Republicans. I hummed the theme song from Happy Days at the most inappropriate moments during Family Meditation Hour.
But they didn't legally disown me until I told them I was "going green" and declared my Business Administration major during my second semester at Bullpen College. Then, as an emancipated minor, I received a full scholarship for the rest of my higher education. I graduated summa cum laude and debt free, ready to buy if not conquer the world.
After 17 years of selling junk bonds to underwrite corporate shenanigans and my own reconstructive surgeries, I knew it was time to give up. Bundled derivatives were becoming Schrodinger's Box. Nobody knew if the cat were alive or dead in there. But if you ever tried to find out, you'd certainly kill it, along with the entire American economy. I told my bosses I didn't want to be around for the funeral.
During the 2008 financial crisis, I was safely incommunicado, sitting on a mountain of precious metals and professional vindication. But my personal security on Grand Cayman Island was less fulfilling than I had hoped. Li Ka-Shing was not an especially stimulating neighbor. Eventually I realized my life's mission was to save my parents' generation from their former selves—to atone for their fiduciary sins. As my good friend Parker J. Palmer would put it, my own deep gladness had finally met the world's deep need.
On my pilgrimage back to South Carolina, I found my biological mother working as a greeter at the newest incarnation of the big-box retailer I had frequented in my youth. Despite the words on her faded volleyball visor, she was no longer pursuing The Grateful Dead. She sat in a motorized wheelchair, provided by the Department of Social Services, paid for by garnishments from her weekly salary. I submitted her resignation on Good Friday and supervised her move from public housing to the nearby Belladonna Assisted Living Center.
While I was inside the gated Belladonna community, I met Mr. Ted Dickey, a member of the governing board of the ALC. He invited me to his palatial home, where we enjoyed tea with his charming wife, Leah. After we exchanged our success stories—mine in high finance, his in low publishing—he encouraged me to write a book. Retirement Investing for Mental Defectives. He also suggested I change my name from Tao Shapiro to Tao Jones, and that I put aside my Bullpen College jacket, at least for the cover photograph. My trademark blue bathrobe was actually his idea. I owe a great deal to Mr. Dickey.
I sit, center stage, on an elevated platform, in the Siddhasana Pose. The audience is brimming with Baby Boomers who've paid 500 dollars a seat to behold me. Most of the men have shaved heads. Most of the women have long, loose hair the color and consistency of a janitor's string mop. Nearly everyone is wearing a blue bathrobe identical to my own. No electronic devices are permitted in the auditorium, so every pen and pencil is at the ready. At 3:00, my personal assistant, Tiffany Beegle, ceremoniously locks the doors from the inside. Then she returns to the stage and begins reading, in alphabetical order, the corporations currently comprising The Carma Position. She speaks in a practiced monotone, pausing for ten seconds after each company's name.
I've preselected five Bad Carmas, as I do every month. Of course, I've studied their NPVs and their P&E ratios, but I could probably pick names out of a singing bowl and let the inertia of The Carma Position do the rest. To avoid even the appearance of impropriety, I own no individual stocks or even mutual funds. I punctually return all the Porsches and Ferraris and Quattroportes delivered to Carma Enterprises by favor-currying CEOs, and I put all of my personal money into Treasury bills. By now, I probably own more of them than the People's Republic of China.
I keep my hands motionless until Tiffany gets to the first Bad Carma—Alianthus Motors. I slowly turn my palms down, as the audience ommms and scribbles. I make the same movement when she gets to American Drug & Sedation, Peregrine Cruises, PornoCopia, and, finally, We B Knives.
The Carma Position is widely diversified, so the whole process takes about 50 minutes. "The Tao has spoken," Tiffany pronounces, after she has read the name of the last company aloud. But, in truth, I haven't said a word.
The doors are unlocked, and everyone dashes outside to their waiting Yphones with their InstaTrade apps, so they can Sell Higher and Buy Lower than anyone else in America.
Tiffany and I are relaxing in the back half of a stretch limo, on our way to the Belladonna Assisted Living Center. As I sip herbal tea lightly sweetened with honey, I behold the glittering black gown sheathing her remarkable legs, slender as those of a drawing compass. She's been with me for more than a year—longer than any of my other personal assistants, who usually take advantage of a generous severance package soon after I decline to sleep with them. She calls me TJ, and she's hopelessly addicted to The Shopping Channel on her LiveTV app. At the moment, she's buying a pair of Doumi shoes, which she'll have FedEx'd to our New York headquarters, where she has her own apartment. Larger items get shipped to a mini-storage unit, her fringe benefit of choice. I smile while she fiddles with her Yphone, entering her credit card information. She still thinks of money in instrumental terms, not as intrinsic value. For her, shopping is both the deepest gladness and the deepest need. She is still young.
It's a long drive from the downtown auditorium to Belladonna. As usual, we get stuck in I-385's rush-hour traffic near the North Pleasantburg Drive exit. Despite the horns of the SUVs and the snorts of the 18-wheelers, I doze off. The next thing I hear is Tiffany saying, "We're there, TJ."
I open my eyes and see her marvelous cheekbones and her adoring gaze. She asks me if the Tao is up. Then she licks her lips shyly, and she touches the sleeve of my robe with her slender, perfect fingers. I gently remove her left hand, before it can go any farther, and return it to her Yphone. "You cannot know the Tao," I whisper. "No one can know the Tao." Tiffany sighs, as she has sighed so many times before, and refocuses upon The Shopping Channel. She is nothing if not persistent. But she is unaware of the fate imposed upon me by Power and Flower. As always, I will enter the building alone.
I visit Flower whenever I return to South Carolina. Twice a year. There are no televisions in Belladonna Assisted Living, because the mental health counselors have decided the news they provide is too depressing. There are, however, portable DVD players with a strictly monitored catalog of films determined to assist the living of those who, like Flower, require special assistance. Decades of pursuing The Grateful Dead across America have given her a keen appreciation for music better seen than heard. These days she can't hear very much anyway. At the moment, she's watching the once-live NBC holiday production of Peter Pan in her lap.
"Hello, Flower," I say. I tap her wrist to get her attention.
"Tao!" she exclaims from her new wheelchair. She pushes the pause button on the DVD player to freeze Allison Williams in midair. "I knew you'd visit your loving mother!"
The Tao is not vindictive, but sometimes it's hard to resist. "Yes, Flower. You know the Tao."
She tells me she's proud of me, and she reaches up for the top of my shaved head, rubbing her arthritic fingers against my late afternoon stubble. She knows nothing of my success in the financial world, and she thinks, from my appearance, I have actually become a Buddhist monk. Although her doctors suspect she's not suffering from senile dementia, they aren't entirely sure. They have even less knowledge of her younger years than she does. As usual, she tells me I have to forgive my father.
"That's impossible," I smile. "He isn't here."
"You have to understand." Her voice sounds like a malfunctioning trash compactor. "Adam and Steve didn't like children. Dharma had embraced zero population."
"Zero population growth," I tell her.
"And you weren't a zero."
"Thank you," I say.
"Your father adored you, Tao. But he thought we'd betrayed the planet. While I was in San Francisco, he decided to become The Fire Sermon. He was seeking atonement. Kudzu will transform everything on earth. His final words."
I remind her Power had already passed away when she came back to the East coast. I speak slowly enough so she can read my lips.
"He left me a note. Inside the prayer wheel." She nods at my bare feet and at my blue robe with approval. "I'm glad you're accepting your karma, Tao. He loved you. I love you. I finally see who you really are." She tugs at my belt before I can pull away. Fortunately, it has merely a decorative function. As it falls to the hardwood floor, she informs me my body is just an illusion.
Love of money, they say, is the root of all evil. But my parents prove a different truth: The evil of love is the root of all money. Without what they had convinced themselves was love, The Carma Position would not exist. My life, as I know it, would not exist. I would not be a billionaire bundle of scar tissue, one big cicatrix from the tops of my shoulders to the bottoms of my shins. I might be a Buddhist monk, or I might be happily married to Tiffany Beegle.
While I reattach my belt, Flower wonders where my wanderings will take me next. I tell her, truthfully, that I'm on my way to a small city in Arkansas, to finalize arrangements for low budget meditation centers across the United States. I don't tell her their name will be Sam's Wholesale Prayerhouse. I don't tell her they will be seamlessly integrated with investment counseling services for lingering survivors of The Summer of Love. I don't tell her they are likely to double my own net worth within ten years. But when she asks what their color will be, I point to my robe, and she happily informs me blue is tranquility, purity, healing, ascension—even though the Peter without a peter in her lap is a bright, bright green. She frees Allison Williams with her PLAY button, she spreads her own wobbly wings beyond her wheelchair, and she reminds the entire cosmos that she's flying.
"So am I, Flower." My deep gladness is once again meeting the world's deep need. In the Prayer Posture, I feel my smile growing as I describe the kaleidoscopic logo on the Carma corporate jet to her deaf, determined ears.