Hot, Soft Cash.
The last month and particularly the last week I have been haunted by money. I’ve both begun reading the truly excellent Hatred of Capitalism, and have left my job and am going to graduate school. I can’t stop thinking about money.
I’ve always found money a mystifying way of making a world. At a family party when I was five, I spoke to my cousin, then a Stanford undergrad, about why we couldn’t barter? Why not trade things? It seemed so odd to use this external entity when, as I so earnestly believed then, we all had something of value we could offer in exchange. I remember how intense my cousin’s reaction was. She pulled other family members into the conversation. I felt as if what I’d said was both profound and incredibly stupid. It was the first time I heard the word “socialist.”
Many years later, my undergraduate education at a ‘liberal’ California university formally presented communism and Marxism to me. There was passion, kinship and possibilities for the world that felt expansive and interesting and beautiful. Yet that coating of profundity and stupidity in relation to capitalist alternatives never disappeared. My professors were always arming us with rebuttals to the attacks they knew we would be confronted with by family members and other friends, the majority of whom would scoff at the classes and that type of study as romantic at best, pointless, or simply ‘socialist’, that world again, imbibed with its own pejorative connotations.
I soaked the justifications of these professors in. I repeated them to myself over and over, highlighted and devoured the literature and readings with a kind of hunger and desire I had never in my life directed toward anything else aside from romantic love. I hoped, wanted that desire to replace another that existed equally: my love for everything money buys. I’ve always sought out beautiful clothes and experiences, comfort and luxury, simultaneously hating money and finding it confounding, all the while working often multiple jobs to earn it, never expecting it to be just given. I’ve opened my hands wide to bring it in and have doled it right back out. Closet full, room full, bookcases full, makeup, iPods, iPhones, computers, fine dining, good wine, cars, trips all over the world. Concerts. College tuition. I’ve bailed several people out at the risk of needing to be bailed out myself.
Several days ago, I became a heap on the floor of the bathroom realizing I may end up with hardly any of it. A blurry calculator has taken the place of my mind, continually adding and subtracting figures, projecting the losses and gains of a life I haven’t yet lived. I am aware and could write of the fact that many Marxists and/or anti-capitalists don’t see money and the material pleasures of the world as having to go hand in hand. The beauty of theory, though, slips to the side in light of this fact: movement in the world necessitates I have certain numbers strung up in a line. The bind that is thus created, that I can only feel free by being tied to something that gives it to me, is one I dream of finding a way to burn.
I emailed this to someone I care for very much. She, too, has had to stare money down when it threatened its leave and a seeming destruction. Money is a liquid not a solid, she wrote. It isn’t whole. It slides in and right back out. We can’t really ever trap it.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been watching season 4 of Breaking Bad. I started the show again and it’s proven an oddly synchronistic choice. On the one hand, it presents a stereotypical capitalistic failure: a brilliant, hard working chemist is relegated to being a poorly paid high school science teacher and (initially) due to a cancer diagnosis, is only able to adequately care for himself and his family by cooking drugs. But it also shows something more interesting, exactly money’s liquidity, how fast it flows in and out of a life, of the people and things it sweeps in and floods away. The character Skylar, wife of Walter White, the infamous meth cook ‘Heisenberg’, sucks the air out of plastic bags filled with stacks of cash and slides them under her tiny New Mexican home. It’s perfect–she’s trying to line her foundation with it, to use it as the support that will help hold them up. But the money, of course, doesn’t stay there for long. As anyone with a lot of money knows–whether earning it via illegal or perfectly legal streams–the more you get, the more expenses arise, the more holes appear that need some cash to fill them. And so, within a matter of ‘days’, Walter finds himself under the house, almost empty plastic bags surrounding him, certain that enfin his life is about to crumble.
But like all TV series, and truly like all lives, that isn’t exactly what happens. Things do fall apart. Hammers come down. But life keeps on. New streams open and the liquid pours in. And then drains out.
I don’t mean to be simplistic. I’m not trying equate a dramatic television show with ‘real’ life, or to arrive at the conclusion that it’s okay the world works this way because that isn’t true, nor is it what I think. The brokenness of the cultural and global financial system has inflicted injuries that are very real and very painful. I believe with utter conviction that the way our world currently operates in relation to money is unsustainable and wrong.
But the way to move has to be to learn how to swim in spite of its current, to find a way to get where you want to go even in the pull of the tide. On another synchronistic note, I read a piece by David Foster Wallace being circulated by, of all publications, the Wall Street Journal. It’s from a commencement speech he gave to Kenyon College shortly before his death in 2005. It is typical of DFW’s essays: both intense and light, self-deprecating and profound, its subject against the world but desperate to find a way to exist within it. He’s writing about how to make it through the day. The piece begins with this anecdote:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
He returns to it in the final paragraph:
None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
That mantra has floated into my brain and keeps repeating, so I’ve asked it to stay–not only as I think about money, but while atop and often under this strange, strong sea we’ve all, for some reason, taken sail upon.