Be Careful What You Ask For
When I was a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts, I met a young lady who was a freshman at Smith College, located only nine miles away in Northhampton, Mass. She was delightful. Vivacious, outgoing, attractive and with a great personality. True, she was young, but her youthful immaturity and devil-may-care attitude were part of her immense charm.
I was fascinated that this sweet young Smithy showed interest in me, especially since she was everything I was not. Oh, I envisioned myself as having a carefree demeanor and being the life of the party, but I knew deep down that I was really pretty dull. Grinding away at my senior honors thesis in physics. Studying hard to get good grades so I could get into a top graduate school. Worrying about whether I should continue in physics at the graduate level or switch to economics. Feeling guilty whenever I engaged in social activities because I was taking time away from studying.
We dated hot and heavy that spring. That summer, I returned to my hometown, Fremont, Ohio, and worked as the night foreman of the chili sauce division of the local Heinz factory. And working in chili sauce, mind you, was more prestigious than ketchup. She returned to her home in Winnetka, Ill. in the Chicago area, some 300 miles west. We visited each other's homes that summer and I got to know her parents and sister well. Her mother preceded her at Smith and her father was an Amherst grad. Between these lovely parents and their affluent suburb, it soon became clear to me where she had acquired her considerable charm and social graces.
I'd never spent any time in an upscale suburb before, and learned a lot in a hurry. One evening, her Dad took the family and me to dinner at a very nice private club, and I ordered steak. When the waiter asked me how I'd like it cooked, I said, "Well done." The whole family leaned forward at the table and looked at me intently. "Medium?" I responded to their glares, and they all emitted an audible sigh of relief and sat back in their seats.
Nevertheless, I wasn't a total disaster in handling the Winnetka scene. One day we played golf at the exclusive Skokie Country Club. I was never a great golfer and haven't played at all in recent years. But I rose to the occasion that day. The last hole was a short water hole with the green almost encircled by ponds. Behind it was the club terrace with young Smithy, her mother and friends and many others watching our foursome finish the round. The heat was on, and I dropped my tee shot close to the pin and putted for a birdie. The applause was inspiring to this Fremont, Ohio country boy.
That fall, I entered Stanford Graduate School in economics and she returned to Smith, but our romance continued. In fact, the following summer she took a job in San Francisco and we spent lots of time together. She was even thinking about transferring to Stanford. But then came a fateful visit by both of us to my parents in Fremont at the end of the summer.
My mother has always enjoyed cooking, especially preparing dishes that are favorites of our family members. Even now, when I return to Fremont, I can count on a big pot of Mom's delicious vegetable soup. One evening, during our visit back then, my mother served one of her homemade apple pies and young Smithy, turning on the best of her social charm, exclaimed, "Oh, Mrs. Shilling, this pie is wonderful! I must have the recipe!" Mom thanked her for her gracious compliment, but said nothing more.
Now, it's clear, at least in retrospect, that my parents liked this young lady and found her very delightful. But they also saw her as very young and immature. Just fine for short-term amusement. But not up to the standards needed for the long run, at least not for their son.
Their attitude became clear at the end of the visit. I was scheduled to drive back to Stanford, dropping young Smithy off at her home on my way west. As we were leaving my parents' house, my mother handed her a peck of apples with the pie recipe stuck in the top.
Young Smithy seemed unusually quiet and somber on the drive to Chicago. I learned later that she was sweating bullets for all 300 miles. She had never baked an apple pie or baked anything else. Neither had her mother. When we arrived in Winnetka, she and her parents had a long private conference, trying to figure out how to pick up the gantlet my mother had thrown down.
At first, they thought they might be able to avoid picking it up. The recipe called for lard and lard was bad for the arteries, they'd tell me, so they couldn't bake the pie. Then they decided that argument wouldn't be convincing, so she and her mother plunged into the kitchen and hoped for the best.
They served the results of their monumental efforts as dessert that evening. Her father was the cheerleading section and praised it to the high heavens. But all eyes were on me as I took my first bite. It tasted like cardboard.
Needless to say, our relationship ended shortly thereafter. It was probably doomed anyway. But young Smithy's request for my mother's pie recipe proves once more the wisdom of the old saying,
You may get it.
A. Gary Shilling is President of A. Gary Shilling & Co., Inc., a New Jersey-based economic consulting and investment advisory firm. His firm also publishes Insight, a monthly newsletter of economic forecasts and investment strategies.
This article was taken from "Letting Off Steam," a collection of just-published commentaries by Gary Shilling. Available from Lakeview Publishing, 1-888-346-7444.