March 29, 2013 § 9 Comments
Awhile back, Doug W left this comment on the SAVED page. I’d meant to turn off comments for that page, which, after taking his down, I did. But he raises such fantastic questions, ones that permeate almost every aspect of my life (and, I’m guessing, at least a few of yours’), that I feel compelled to devote an entire post to his comment.
|The unspoken other topic here and in all the recent posts about money is the matter of time. The two have been linked ie either you have the time or the money in a given situation. But what about time in and of itself? How do we experience it? Is really scarce. Is it linear or really cyclical? Is it possible to live in the eternal present in the modern world? One of the most common experiences around a homestead is to become lost in a specific task, to be totally present, and immersed, activities like fencing or cutting wood without any sense of the passing of time.|
I’m not even sure where to begin with this subject, because it’s just so huge and important. As seems to be my wont, I suppose I’ll start with a personal anecdote.
It was 1998 when we first moved onto our property and began immersing ourselves in the many land-based tasks that now comprise the majority of our waking hours. I remember feeling lots of things during this period, but most pertinent to the issues of time and money is that I recall being amazed that anyone (and in this case, by “anyone,” I mean Penny) would so willingly work so damn hard to raise, say, a crop of tomatoes that could be purchased at a grocery store for a price that, if applied to the literal fruits of her labor, meant she was pulling down a coupla bucks an hour. At best. (It is probably worth noting that at this point in my life, I was far more interested in riding my bike and skiing than sticking a shovel in the ground, which seemed to me like a whole lot of bother).
I suppose what I’m saying is that I was still a believer in the adage that “time is money”; as such, I could not imagine exchanging my time for a measure of recompense that, when measured strictly in dollars, could not compete with the commodity market.
It is amazing to me now to consider how many lies and misconceptions reside in that one sentence. For instance, the notion that time is money. There are innumerable ways to dispel this idea, but I suspect the most poignant would be to ask someone with a terminal illness how they feel about it. If you think their thoughts on the subject don’t apply to you, bullshit. All our lives are finite. Some are just more finite than others. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating: Our societal belief that time and money should be conflated is extraordinarily convenient for a commodity market capable of producing (usually crappy) products at a price that makes it compelling to consume, rather than produce.
There is another flaw to this line of reasoning, and it is this: That the labor we invest in producing for ourselves does not have its own value. In other words, that we should consider it a burden, rather than a blessing. The truth is (and this is not unusual), Penny was way ahead of me with those tomatoes. She understood that the hours spent amending and seeding and watering and picking and processing should not be detracted from the final tally, but added to it. In her view, it was a blessing to have the privilege of entering into that relationship with those tomatoes and this relationship had a value that could not be expressed in monetary terms.
The older I get and the more of these relationships I enter into myself, the more I find myself able to, as Doug W suggests, fully inhabit the moments of my life in a manner that entirely alters my relationship to time itself. It’s not that it slows down or speeds up; it’s just that it feels like it’s mine. There’s actually a term for this: Temporal autonomy, which can roughly be defined as the capacity to spend your time in the manner that is most satisfying to you.
If there is any single motivation for how we live our lives, that’s it right there. We want to spend our time (which is to say, our lives) in the manner that’s most satisfying to us. It just so happens that what satisfies us is to be on the land, to have relationships with our animals and our trees and our kids and the ground beneath our feet. Almost every decision we make around issues of money – should I write this article or not? Should I take this speaking gig or not? – are made only after we’ve determined whether or not it will enable us to deepen these relationships. Of course, that’s a over-simplistic way to put it, but it’ll work for now.
Befitting such a long post, I will leave you with a relatively long excerpt from SAVED. And that’s it for today. Because, you know, I’ve gotta get back to work and make some dough.
…the inescapable and somewhat unsettling conclusion remained: Erik’s relationship to time was different from mine, and I say “unsettling” because I was fairly certain his relationship was less dysfunctional. I’d first noticed this more than 6 months before, during that November day I stopped by his house to find him contentedly cutting boards with a dull handsaw. During our mushroom hunt, I’d twice noted it, first when our search continued past the span of time that seemed (to me, at least) reasonable and again in response to my query about the hike from the cabin. There was something in the unhurried nature of Erik’s day-to-day existence that made it feel as if he owned his time to an extent that most of us have forsaken.
In his book Discretionary Time: A New Measure of Freedom, Robert Goodin points out that time is both inherently egalitarian (everyone has access to the exact same 24 hours per day) and inherently scarce (no one has access to more than 24 hours per day). Goodin talks about “temporal autonomy,” which is the ability to make choices regarding how one’s time is passed. Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend our time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth, and it struck me that Erik’s unhurried, almost languid temperament suggested a particular confidence that could only evolve from an abundance of temporal autonomy. Or, put more simply, from the certainty that he could damn well do what he pleased, when he pleased.
For a moment I probed my memory, but I could not recall a single instance when I’d heard Erik worry or even wonder about the time. And I thought how interesting it was that watches have become such a symbol of status in our culture that people are willing to spend thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on a little clock to ride on their wrist. Perhaps it was merely the jeweled aspect, the diamond-studded bezels and gold-striped bands, but I couldn’t help wondering if it was also something in the auspicious display of the timekeeping mechanism itself, as if reminding the world that the bearer’s time is so very valuable as to demand such royal carriage. And then an irony struck me: If one’s time is so damn valuable, why in the name of Rolex would anyone allow a clock to rule it? Viewed in this light, being beholden to a clock could be seen not as you owning your time, but as your time owning you.
It occurred to me that unlike most of us, Erik does not compartmentalize his time; he does not seem to differentiate between the hours spent in pursuit of a paycheck and the hours spent in pursuit of either mushrooms, a finished cabin, or a pair of dumpster’d sneakers. He seemed to understand more clearly than anyone I’d met that there is only one thing human beings truly own, one thing that cannot be claimed by others: time. Furthermore, he seemed to respect the rather uncomfortable truth that none of us can rightly claim to know how much we own. As such, he seemed determined not to convert his unknown quantity of time—in truth, his life, for how we spend our hours and days is, of course, how we spend our lives—into a commodity, to be sold to the highest bidder.
At first, I struggled to square this with the languor he applied to so many of his tasks. For who would spend hours cutting boards with a rusty handsaw but someone who felt as if time were very much on their side? If Erik were really so cognizant of the true value attached to the ticking clock of his life, would it not behoove him to at least get a freakin’ Skil saw? But the more I observed him in action, the more convinced I became that I had it exactly backward. Indeed, it occurred to me that Erik had an absolute respect for time, to the point that he was able to exist inside any particular moment with tangible contentment. He understood that the value wasn’t to be extracted by rushing to get to the next project, but rather by truly inhabiting each and every moment he was fortunate enough to experience.
February 27, 2013 § 4 Comments
I would like to add a brief addendum to what I wrote yesterday regarding kids and money.
In short, I believe there is tremendous value in having your children bear witness to a certain amount of struggle, if only because I’m pretty well convinced that struggle is foundational to the development of both character and gratitude. This is particularly true when kids are allowed to be part of the process of resolving struggle. I do not want Fin and Rye to grow up immersed in the expectation that life should be only plenty, and that they are entitled to the many comforts and conveniences that even we, in our embrace of patched-together rural rusticality, avail ourselves of.
The key, I suppose, is finding the correct balance between struggle and struggle, between something that is occasionally hard, yes, but also in a strange way uplifting, and something that is merely grinding and dispiriting.
And believe me, if I knew exactly what that balance looked like, I’d shouting it from the high hills of Cabot, Vermont.
February 26, 2013 § 8 Comments
Yesterday, I received this comment/question:
I’m not sure if this is the appropriate place to put this question, but my husband and I are just starting the ‘when are we going to procreate’ conversation, and we think that we need to gather some info about how much kids really cost. We don’t have any friends with kids who live our kind of home-steady life, but I know you just wrote a whole book about money. Did you talk about money in the context of kids? Any chance you have some thoughts on the topic that you’d be willing to share here? My husband is specifically worried that if we don’t buy land and build our little cabin before having kids, we’ll be renters for the rest of our lives.
Goodness me. Where to begin? First, to the question of whether or not SAVED includes a discussion of money in the context of kids, the answer is absofreakin’lutely, although there are so many aspects to the intersection of these two life-defining forces, I can’t really say that anyone in particular is going to find the answers they’re looking for. I know that’s not much of a sales pitch, but hey: At least it’s honest.
I guess I’ll start with a little story. Fin was born in January, 2002, right in the messy midst of constructing the addition to the humble shack that had served as shelter for Penny and me for the previous half-decade or so. He was born at home, and I clearly remember a hurried attempt on my part to tidy up the construction zone in preparation for the midwife’s arrival. This was to be her first visit to our home, and since I already sensed that she didn’t like me all that much, I wanted to make a particularly good impression. (I should note that this is entirely out-of-character for me, but what can I say? I was about to become a father; I wasn’t thinking too clearly)
So whilst Penny was laboring in the unfinished upstairs bedroom (which is to say, there was a bare room with a mattress on the floor on which we slept, so we called it a “bedroom”), accessed via a set of unfinished stairs (which is to say, there was a ascending set of wobbly rough plank treads, so we called them “stairs”), I busied myself humping the table and chop saws to the basement and consolidating the various piles of debris. Anyway, the midwife arrived, took one look around the place, and said “Well, you’ve certainly got a long ways to go.” At which point she proceeded to park herself in a rocking chair and drift off to sleep in the middle of the damn doorway to the bedroom. Every time I sucked in my gut and squeezed past her chair on my way to bring Penny something or other, I felt like tickling the tender insides of one of her big, snoring nostrils with a knitting needle. Needless to say, we retained the services of a different midwife for Rye’s birth.
I suppose the point of this story is to note that beyond being warm, fed, and clothed, kids need ridiculously little. Fin was born into a construction zone, with few of the assumed conveniences of contemporary American life. His first nights were spent in between Penny and me, on a mattress in an otherwise bare room. We had no kitchen counters, no shower, and in many rooms, there was no drywall. But he was warm, and well fed, and we held him constantly. It was plenty.
Over the years, we have worked to maintain our boys’ modest expectations regarding material goods. This is not to say they don’t have stuff; they do. But they rarely get new stuff, and the sheer quantity of what they own pales in comparison to pretty much every other child I know. We have been vigilant, if not militant in compelling our parents to comply. They simply are not allowed to give them toys or other baubles. The rules are: homemade, books, or music. Otherwise, they can pretty much forget it. Regarding clothing, I literally cannot remember the last time our boys got anything that wasn’t handed down, made by Penny or a grandmother, or came from a thrift store. Actually, that’s not true: About two months ago, Penny bought them some socks at the annual Darn Tough factory sale. I think she paid $1.50 per pair.
Look, kids are expensive, there’s no question about it. Relative to most, our kids are cheap keepers. We grow most of our own food, we don’t spend much on stuff, and they generally don’t ask for things, ‘cause they know they ain’t gonna get it, anyway.
But of course that’s not the whole story, because certainly there are expenditures. Right now, between music lessons and Fin’s wilderness school, we’re shelling out a couple grand annually. Not only that, but by choosing to educate at home, in the absence of distractive technologies such as television and other digital entertainment, we allocate enormous quantities of time to the boys. If we were of the mind to equate time with money… well, then we’d probably have the priciest offspring in town. Thankfully, the lie that time is money is one we got wise to some time ago.
Look, without knowing the gritty particulars of someone’s financial situation, it’s hard to know how to advise them. And even then, it just seems so damn personal. Really, who am I to say?
To which I will add only one more thing: I don’t know anyone who wishes they hadn’t had kids because the little buggers are too expensive. Doesn’t mean these people don’t exist, only that I haven’t met them. And if I did, I sorta suspect we wouldn’t have much in common.
February 4, 2013 § 10 Comments
I grew up in Enosburg, Vermont, which, as some of you may know, is far enough north that an Enosburgian might rightly enough consider someone from Cabot a flatlander. We lived in a two-room cabin: No running water, no electricity, no plumbing. The cabin sat a good quarter-mile or maybe more off the dirt road. This was before the Subaru era and, true to type, my folks drove a VW beetle. So in winter, we skied in. That’s how I learned to ski: Not as sport, but as transportation. I’m glad for it now, but I can’t say I was particularly grateful for it at the time.
My father wrote poetry and edited poetry anthologies and probably did some other odd jobs that don’t come to mind; for a while my mother milked cows on a farm up the road. I played in the dirt. There was very little money. We might have even been poor, although I certainly wasn’t making such distinctions at the time.
Then my father took a job down in Montpelier and we moved. This was beginning of my family’s ascent into the middle class, and when I say “middle class,” I mean the real middle class, not this bullshit idea that someone making a quarter million bucks a year is somehow middle class. At least not in Vermont, they ain’t.
Now there was a bit more money, although again, it wasn’t something I was thinking about or perhaps even aware of.
I mention all this not so much to tell my tale (although, if you’re at all interested, you can read more about this history in SAVED), but to briefly consider how my current relationship to money was forged by my childhood.
The truth is I am grateful for having grown up without a lot of money. This is not to say I did not grow up privileged, because of course I did. I grew up with the skin color of the majority race of my nation and I grew up speaking the majority language of my country. I was raised in a family that provided me the freedom to explore my boundaries. All of these things have likely provided opportunities for me that might not have been there for me otherwise. Indeed, in a strange way, I consider the fact that I did not grow up with much money to also be a sort of privilege; I suspect that such an upbringing impressed upon me that money is only one way of meeting my family’s needs.
A while back, when the so-called fiscal cliff was dominating the drivel that passes for news, I heard a segment on NPR in which they were interviewing folks of varying income levels, trying to determine what constitutes “middle class.” One of the interviewees, a pleasant sounding fellow from (if memory serves) California admitted to pulling down $450,000 annually. Did he think of himself as middle class, the interviewer asked? Why, most certainly, he said, and furthermore, he often felt as if he didn’t have nearly enough money, in large part because no matter where he looked, there were people with more. So much more. He chuckled as he said this, as if even he knew it was ridiculous. But still, he said it.
For a just a moment, I am ashamed to admit, I felt a flash of anger. 450 large per year and you want more? What a selfish, ungrateful asshat.
But then I realized something: This man wasn’t wealthy. Not even close. He was poor, and he was poor in the most self-destructive, tragic way possible. He was poor in his head. And once I realized that, I didn’t feel anger anymore. I felt sympathy.
January 31, 2013 § 14 Comments
So just a few days following my uncharitable comments regarding those who capitulate to their innate cowardice and flee the heart of Vermont winter like sad little rats slinking into the protective shadows, I found myself wanting, more than anything, to get the hell out. Just a day or two, and it didn’t even have to be somewhere warm… just somewhere different (at my lowest point, even New Hampshire would have sufficed), somewhere where an inch of rain wasn’t about to fall from the sky, bringing ruination to my daily ski and painting the whole damn place with an ugly brush. Everywhere, piles of cow shit and dog crap and all the small bits of detritus we never got around to picking up in November. There’s nothing like a hard rain in January to make our little farm feel dingy and ragged and sad, like some bassakwards, backwoods hovel where the father spends his days in a sprung recliner, intermittently snoozing off the prior evenings drunk and raving about the gubmint, while the wife stirs a pot of rendering lard on the cookstove and the children run feral through the woods, trapping and skinning small, fur-bearing animals. Wait a second…
As feared, I awoke this morning to transformation; the bulk of our pasture is now bereft of snow, and while there is a sort of crumpled, maudlin beauty to the faded browns that dominate the landscape, it felt as if I carried the weight of all that rain on my shoulders. I got the woodstove hummin’, made coffee, and shucked into my jacket for chores, the whole time wishing, pathetically, that we’d made so many different choices, choices that would have afforded us the freedom to simply close the door behind us and leave. No animals. No wood heat. More money. And all that.
Once outside, I smelled something at once familiar and strange, and for a moment I struggled to place it. And then I knew: Earth. The ground. I fed the pigs first, then the cows, and by now the sky was light enough that from the height of our land, I could see across the valley, to the patchwork of fields and forest that comprise Morgan and Jen’s farm and Lynn and Roman’s hayfield, where in five months we’ll be mowing and tedding and raking and baling and throwing bales until we literally shake from fatigue. I know it sounds strange, but for a second, I swear I could actually feel that fatigue, the memory of it stored somewhere in my synapses, and I stood there for a moment and let myself sink into it.
And that was it. That, right there, was the escape I needed. I came in from chores with the rain pattering my shoulders and smearing into the remaining patches of snow. I landed a boot in a pile of dog shit and then, on the very next step, slipped on a patch of ice and fell on my ass. Fifteen minutes prior, it would’ve made me curse my sorry life. But now, all it did was make me laugh.
January 29, 2013 § 3 Comments
Yesterday afternoon at about 3:45, I snuck outside and stepped into my skis. Snow was falling, and it was the best kind, both thick and soft, and moving through it was like moving through one of those half-dreams you have when you’ve woken early and drifted back to sleep. Everything had a muted, insubstantial quality: Every color a shade of gray, every sound absorbed by the thickening layer of snow. Even the ground lacked its usual certainty.
I skied for an hour or so, first down in the woods below the house, and then into Melvin’s upper field. At one point, I skied along a length of barbed wire fence, many times repaired and restrung, dozens if not hundreds of posts representing thousands if not tens of thousands of blows with a maul, never mind the countless hours spent felling and honing lengths of cedar. I am always comforted by evidence of rarely seen and even more rarely heralded labor, which feels to me like a refutation of all the dishonesty that dominates our contemporary economic landscape. Perhaps it is merely my naïveté, but I can’t help viewing such efforts as evidence of a live well lived, a life that is full of the honest contentment inherent to a day’s hard labor, the sight of a fence made straight and true and the muscle-bound memory of that maul being lifted over and over and over.
Of course, I know all too well (having done it) that one can spend a day pounding fence posts, the whole time cursing the rocky soil, the high, hot sun, the blisters swelling and oozing, the damnable cows who will one day find the weakest section and waltz through as if it were nothing more than a whispered suggestion. But the truth is, I think, that even these days matter. Even these days – hard as they may be, interminable as they may seem in their unfurling – are the building blocks of satisfaction. And satisfaction – or contentment, or whatever you want to call it – is the foundation of a good life. Not simple happiness, which is nice and all, but something more complex, something that encompasses a broader range of human experience.
• • •
Regarding my recent posts on money, it occurred to me that I should maybe back up a bit and talk a little about why it felt important to me to explore the issue, rather than bullin’ and jammin’ right into the gritty details (bullin’ and jammin’ being something of a specialty of mine). So, in no particular order, here are some reasons I wrote SAVED in the first place.
1) Money is a defining force in almost everyone’s life, whether they are rich or poor. It defines how we spend the majority of our waking hours, and it often defines where we live, and therefore, whom we associate with. Who we call our friends. In many cases, whom we choose for a life partner. A high percentage of our day-to-day interactions involve money. And yet, how many people truly understand where it comes from? What it represents? Why it works (or doesn’t work) the way it does? The juxtaposition between money’s impact on our lives and our societal lack of understand regarding its mechanics is fascinating to me.
2) I am simply curious about my own relationship to money and how it impacts my life.
3) Just as I wanted to better understand the mechanics of money, I wanted to better understand the mechanics of my friend Erik’s life, Erik being the fellow who lives quite happily on $6k annually. How does such a life actually work? And why would he choose such a life in the first place? Part of what made Erik’s story so compelling is his obvious contentment and the richness and depth of his community, along with the tremendous beauty in his life. Do these things correlate to his monetary poverty? If so, are they the result of his relationship to money, or has his relationship to money evolved out of these factors?
4) Is it possible that the accumulation of money actually weakens our connection to others and to the natural world? If so, how and why?
5) What is money? I mean we all know that even a one hundred dollar bill is useless without the societal agreement that it’s actually worth something. So is it possible that money isn’t even really a thing, but an agreement?
6) How might what I learn about money and from Erik define the balance I strike in my own life between the accumulation of money as a safety net for an unknown future, and my increasing awareness that how I spend my time is how I spend my life? In other words, what am I actually trading for the “security” of accumulated monetary wealth?
And with that, I will shut up about money for a while and return to my regular habit of revealing the deepest secrets of the universe. Thank you for reading.
January 28, 2013 § 6 Comments
First, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and candid comments relating to “Relax.” Keep ‘em coming. There are many issues to navigate when thinking about money, and it often seems to me as if there are few clear solutions. I just spent a full 18 months thinking and writing about the subject, and my ideas are still evolving.
However, there are a couple of things I’m fairly certain of (as of today, anyhow):
1) There is nothing inherently wrong with money. However, the nature of contemporary money, which is really just credit (if that makes no sense to you, well, you’ll just have to buy my book), is that it conveniently externalizes the majority of the true costs associated with the production/consumption of just about everything we purchase. It does this by facilitating globalized trade in the context of a economic system that rewards cost-cutting and profit-making (I think it’s called “capitalism”). Money is extremely powerful in its capacity to do either good or bad in this world, and I believe that we should assume the responsibility of acknowledging its impact and doing what we can to make choices that emphasize the good. Of course, pretty much every piece of consumer marketing ever produced is designed to ensure that we don’t think twice about how we spend. Or, as is increasingly common, is spun in a way to make us feel good about our consumption; witness the “greening” of some of the most inherently destructive industries ever invented.
2) This is hardly original thinking, but I also believe that the most pure form of wealth is measured not in how much you have, but in how little you need. SAVED is based largely on the life of a dear friend who lives on about $6k/year, and one of my goals for the book – beyond simply making the point that one can be happy in the absence of much money – was to examine how, precisely, his life works. How his personal economy works (an interesting aside: The Greek root words for “economics” have nothing to do with money), how he manages to survive and even thrive in the context of such deep monetary poverty. I tried very hard to avoid romanticizing his life, or to let him off the hook from his inevitable dependence on others. Because the fact is, I’m pretty sure you can’t get by on six grand a year in 21st century America without, as Joe Cocker would put it, “a little help from [your] friends.” Still, it is fascinating for me to consider how most of us have exchanged our dependence upon one another for dependence on a commoditized economic system, an arrangement that gives rise to cute little phrases like “too big to fail.” In many ways, this is an enormous convenience: Being dependent upon one another is messy and humbling work, and there are times when it’s a real blessing to simply hand over a pile of dough and be absolved of all those complications. But make no mistake, it’s still a form of dependence that in many ways ultimately leaves us more vulnerable and even less connected to others.
I’ll leave you with another short excerpt from SAVED.
When we settle our debts via monetary exchanges, we extinguish any lingering obligation. True, it may at times feel inconvenient or even uncomfortable to feel indebted to someone, to “owe them a favor.” But this discomfort arises only from the illusory wealth of money, which has largely absolved us of the need to rely on others and likewise, to have them rely on us.
It was through this accounting that I fully and finally began to understand how it was that Erik viewed himself as being not frugal but rather downright rich. Because he views assessments of his prosperity in much the same way he views his economy: as being about more than money. He doesn’t have many of the things money can buy, that much is irrefutably true: no car, no iPad, no television or cell phone. His life is bereft of anonymous goods, purchased with anonymous dollars, created by hands made anonymous by distance and cultural divides. In this regard, he is poor and, to the extent that one views these goods as desirable and even essential, perhaps even pitiable.
But the more time I spent with Erik, the better I understood that any measure of prosperity based on the compiling of generic goods, no matter how technologically alluring or promising of convenience and comfort, was at best an example of half-done math. The world is awash in these homogenized items; the prosperity that comes of owning them is a homogenized prosperity, no amount of which can fill that void that comes of the disquieting realization that perhaps we are becoming homogenous, too.
The allure of these manufactured goods is built on story after story: First, and almost always, the once-upon-a-time story that they will somehow free us to live the life we truly want to live, a life that always seems just beyond our reach, like the rainbow’s end, or the proverbial carrot on a stick. Often, this story is rooted in the premise that contemporary technological marvels – faster computers, talking cell phones, wireless freakin’ everything – will not only simplify our lives, leaving us with more free time to spend with loved ones or engage in the leisure time activity of our choosing, but will usher in a new era of abundance for all. Increasingly, however, the leisure time activity of our choosing seems to be engaging with the very technological marvels that promise more leisure time. In 2010, Americans set a record for television watching, at thirty-four hours per week; that same year, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that teenagers spent fifty-three hours each week immersed in digital media. A new generation is already on the hook.
January 25, 2013 § 21 Comments
In a bit less than six months, my next book comes out. It’s called SAVED: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World. In full candor, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this title, which does not really covey the complexity of the issues the book explores. On the other hand, there’s a certain truth to it that I appreciate: On some level, I do feel as if through the process of writing SAVED I was saved from much of my angst over money and furthermore, that I have evolved into a world view rooted in an appreciation of the immense non-monetary wealth surrounding me.
The truth is, however, that I have not fully quit worrying about money. This reality was brought into distressingly sharp focus this week, with the arrival of a statement from the holder of my dormant IRA account, to which I have not contributed in many, many years. In fact, I’d forgotten the damn thing even existed, and given the paltry sum it represents, it might as well not. At some point about a decade ago, Penny and I made a conscious decision to fully commit to our long-held belief that our best “investments” would be in our land and infrastructure, the retirement of our debt, and time spent with our boys. Any money that might have been squirreled away as a safety net for an unknown future has instead been spent on things like fruit trees and soil minerals. Two greenhouses. A pond. Our last mortgage payment was three years ago, and we carry no other debt. Our primary vehicle is a 17-year-old Subaru. (Not so long ago, Penny picked up a hitchhiker. He got in, twitched his nose, and said “This car smells like the farm I used to work on.”) Over the past decade, I have steadily earned less and less, to the point where we now live on just under $30,000 per year. This allows me a degree of autonomy regarding how I spend my time that has become unusual in contemporary America, and for this I am enormously grateful.
Nine days out of ten, I feel good about our decisions around money. I truly feel as if I have quit worrying about money and become the richest dude in the whole cotton pickin’, dangblam world. But on about every tenth day, I get a little panicky. Yeah, we have some savings, but it ain’t much. And yes, I have enough work lined up that I can claim job security, at least for the next six months or so. Hell, that’s more than an awful lot of my friends and neighbors can claim. But still: The nature of my work means that I am responsible for maintaining my income flow. Once one project ends, there are only three people I can rely on to find the next: Me, myself, and I.
I’ll leave you with this short excerpt from SAVED and ask, if you’re interested in sharing, about your relationship to money.
Yet I cannot deny a certain degree of resentment that money – or a lack thereof – commands so much of my attention and generates the overwhelming majority of the strife I experience. I cannot help feeling somewhat bitter that, no matter how hard we try, no matter what deprivations we endure (and there have been plenty, I assure you), Penny and I remain beholden to the monetary realm. I am bothered by the fact that for the majority of my adult life, I have fretted over money. And then, ridiculously, I fret over my fretting: Why have I allowed myself to worry so much? I have never gone hungry, or spent a night unsheltered from the elements. I have never even been at risk of these things. Most of my worry, I have come to realize, has emerged from a place of uncertainty and fear. Not over the present, mind you, or even the medium term future, but over the belief that I should be accumulating monetary wealth in preparation for an unknown future. Why? Because it’s what I’ve been told I must do; it’s what we all have been told we must do. And so we collect the nuts, trading our time – which is to say, our life – for them, and squirreling them away and then worrying about whether or not they’re squirreled in the right place, at high enough return, to enable us to live the life we someday hope to live.
January 4, 2013 § 2 Comments
Whilst writing my forthcoming book SAVED: How to Break the Spell of Money, Live Well, and Change the World (how’s that for thinkin’ small?), I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. It’s a fantastic book, if at times a little intellectually dense for a simple fella like myself. Still and all, I highly recommend it.
In The Gift, Hyde talks about the “catalog of possible lives”, as defined by the consumer/commodity economy.
“The excitement of commodities is the excitement of possibility, of floating away from the particular to taste the range of available life. There are times when we want to be aliens and strangers, to feel how the shape of our lives is not the only shape, to drift before a catalog of possible lives, staring at the glass arcades of shoes that are sensible and shoes for taking a chance, buses leaving town and the gray steam railway depot where men and women hurry by with their bags.”
What Hyde doesn’t mention, but what I believe is implicit to the book as a whole, is that the “catalog of possible lives” can include so much more than what the consumer economy offers. I’ve spoken of it before (here and here) in the context of stories – not written stories, but life stories. I am fascinated by how the stories we tell ourselves about wealth and happiness and acceptance and security are so often the stories we are being told to tell ourselves. In other words, they are the stories contained within Hyde’s “catalog of possible lives”, those which make us subservient to the commodity consumer economy.
To be sure, the entities at the helm of this economy are enormously skilled at writing themes of beauty and freedom and need into the stories they’re selling, to the point that we manage to convince ourselves that, for instance, buying a new car for the improvement in fuel mileage it offers represents some sort of forward-thinking progress, conveniently ignoring the fact that the energy embedded in the construction of our shiny new machine will never be offset by marginal efficiency gains. Likewise, we ignore the often-toxic rare earth materials (and not inconsequently, the environmental and social devastation wrought by mining them) contained within every piece of digitized seduction Apple puts forth. Or maybe we don’t ignore it: Maybe we know, but that knowing withers in the face of our desire to gain the social acceptance and so-called connection such devices promise. (And yes, I’m writing this on an iMac). For our children, we buy toys of amazing detail, realism, and technological prowess, believing the fallacy that these toys encourage imaginative play, when in fact the best way to develop a child’s imagination is to give him a stick and an afternoon without schedule or expectation.
This may be obvious by now, but I believe strongly in the quiet activism of personal choice, and I often wonder what the world might look like if we stopped listening to the stories we are told by the consumer economy, and started writing our own stories. What might the world look like if we stopped believing the prevailing-but-largely-unacknowledged cultural belief that the choices defining what we experience, how we feel, what we value, and, in a sense, who we are, can be bought?
I have enormous respect for the people I know whose view of themselves and the world around them is not dependent on the catalog of the possible, as defined by the consumer economy. And I can’t help but notice how these people strike me as the most contented folks I know. They are all, to varying degrees, bereft of the items contained within the pages of the aforementioned catalog, and to the casual observer, they are likely to appear as simply poor. Many of them labor long, hard hours at tasks affording little, if any, recognition beyond their small community of friends and neighbors.
So yeah, these people may be poor. But is it possible they are also wealthy? I’m pretty sure we all know the answer to that.
December 10, 2012 § 5 Comments
The fellow who works on our 17-year-old Subaru (with some frequency, I might add) is named Shon. Shon did a lot of fighting when he was younger, some of it in sanctioned boxing rings and some of it, he tells me, in dive bar parking lots in the pre-dawn hours. He looks like a fighter; he’s compact and wiry and angular and just plain tough looking. Like most good mechanics, he seems to subsist on a diet of convenience store snack foods, cigarettes, coffee, and whatever petroleum products are absorbed through his skin. He is always moving fast, and I’ve never known him to take a sick day. He is fantastically skilled with Subarus, and has a knack for keeping them on the road long after many mechanics would have suggested moving onto something newer. Or, at the very least, something that didn’t make a racket from the top end of the motor. “Ah, hell, that’s just your valves,” Shon told me recently, when I’d inquired about the clattering ruckus under the hood. Cigarette smoke swirled around his head. “Run it.”
This is what I truly appreciate about Shon: He gets it. He has sized us up and he gets that we are more than willing to deal with a degree of uncertainty in order to keep our vehicle expenses to an absolute minimum. Often when I bring our car down for some unavoidable repair, he puts me to work. “Grab that impact driver and take the front wheels off,” he’ll tell me, while he attends to some other wayward motorist. Always, our final bill reflects whatever small contribution I’ve made to the completion of the task. He is incredibly generous, perhaps to a fault. Indeed, I know he’s only just getting by, and there are times when I almost have to force money on him. I want him to succeed. Hell, I need him to succeed.
In my advancing age, I am becoming increasingly aware of the power of the gift, and I know that what Shon does for us is in many ways a gift, although I don’t know that he’d put it in those terms. He’d probably just call it helping us out, the same way he helps out lots and lots of people with troubled cars and questionable financial resources. But still: It’s a gift, and the more I become aware of the power of gifting, the more comfortable I am with both accepting and distributing gifts. Occasionally, I take things to Shon: A steak from our freezer, or a pound of bacon, and he is always appreciative, always sure to remark on how much he enjoyed him.
But more often – and I believe this is the real power of gifting – I think of Shon’s generosity when I am considering what gifts I have to offer to the world at large. I guess the contemporary term is “pay it forward,” and I believe it is most possible when people’s view of the world is that it is an abundant and generous place, rather than a scarce and stingy one. Shon reminds me that the former view is one that can thrive in a community of interconnected and interdependent people. And the latter view? It’s the one that corporate America would most like you to adopt, for it keeps you running the treadmill of money and consumption. Of fear.
To be honest, there are times when we question to wisdom of running old cars. It is a not insignificant nor inexpensive hassle, although (knock on wood) it’s been a while since we’ve been marooned at the side of the road. But here’s the real question: Would I rather make my payments to the finance arm of a car maker, in exchange for the convenience of driving a vehicle that does not require Shon’s frequent intervention? Or would I rather make my payments to Shon and, through the passing on of the gifts he bestows upon us, into my community of friends and neighbors?
When I think of it like that, it’s about the easiest damn decision I’ve ever made.