Sunday, March 10, 2013

SPE: "It's Alright Ma"

{For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Stacey gave me this prompt: "Bills to pay."
I gave Kirsten Piccini this prompt: ' "I have found that...imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience." --Steve Martin'}

(To steal an idea from Esquire's Charles P. Pierce, optional soundtrack for this blog post here.)

[In a departure for This Blog, to steal Mr. Pierce's locution, this is a nonfiction piece.]

"Money doesn't talk, it swears."

I open my bank account web site with a hollow nausea in my stomach. It's never a pleasant process, paying the bills. It falls to me because, well, it's my job. I hate it less than my spouse, so I do it. Every household has tasks that have to be done to keep the family unit functioning. Some are merely annoying, some are time consuming, some are physically hard. Like Rita Rudner points out, at some point things become your job, and this is one of mine. Paying bills isn't hard, just mentally exhausting.

The math is simple enough. A second grader can add and subtract. To add and subtract larger numbers, it's simply the same operation, iterated over and over. It's simple, at its core. Money in, minus money out, equals what is left. There are mildly complicating factors- repeating automatic payments for car insurance, gym membership, tuition. But even those complications are locked into my brain with cement- the first of every month is a bad day, the 20th is another rough one. I expect these bumps in the financial road, one anonymous computer talking to another in the night, money disappearing in one place, reappearing in another, teleportation made real, with Mr. Scott nowhere to be found.

I have been paid, throughout my life, in weekly or biweekly installments, each allotment arriving on schedule, my employer deciding my worth and pumping in my lifeblood, each pay period a tiny gust of wind into my sails. Silently, another bank computer blinks somewhere in Phoenix or Boise or Charlotte and suddenly, my account swells, another expression of gratitude for my toil, my aching legs, my ruined feet. Not a lot, but enough. Enough to keep me coming back. Not so little I quit for greener pastures, not so much my employer spirals into insolvency. Just enough.

I've tried to imagine what it must be to be a comedian, or a musician, or an author, sudden paydays interspersed with long, fallow periods where you must wonder, like a stranded sailor, if another breeze will ever blow. I would be rendered insane with the insecurity of it, I think, but then I realize you can get used to anything, so I would probably get used to that. So much of life is what you can endure. And also, you can ask former employees of Lehman Brothers how insecure security can be.

It's the ultimate sin, the final taboo. People would rather show you their genitalia than their bank statement. We don't talk about what we make, my employer reminds me periodically. As far as I know, they have no means to enforce that provision, save perhaps for firing me. And they may do that anyway. To reveal what you make is almost pornographic, a revealing look at you, the way we measure how we're doing, the way we keep score. What you're worth is what someone decides to pay you, period. Nobody wants to show their hole cards. We're all bluffing, pretending we are worth more than we are.

LeBron James is paid a little less than $200,000 per regular season game this year. Someone has that money, and they have decided he is worth it, therefore he gets it. (And if the man who paid it to him didn't recoup the money in t shirts and hot dogs and tickets and foam fingers sold, he surely wouldn't get it.) To paraphrase the great baseball writer Bill James, "Would you rather the owners just keep it?" To argue that LeBron James shouldn't be paid five or ten times what a teacher or a garbage man makes is to argue that the rain shouldn't be wet. It would be convenient if it were, it would be helpful, it would be nice. But it isn't so.

I don't want it to be this way. I'm no Communist- I like buying a meal at a restaurant as much as the next person does. But your worth as a person isn't the same as your earning power. It shouldn't be. People are capable of artistic achievement, selfless devotion to others, acts of greatness and beauty and sensitivity and gorgeous, unvarnished truth. You can't buy a hug (at least, not a sincere one) or a child's laugh or a sunset or the smell of lilacs. Money is not the central value of human life. But when you're balancing your checkbook, it sure seems like it is.

I hate money. I hate the way it makes me feel, I hate the way I can't seem to grasp it. I hate the way I never seem to have enough of it. I hate the way it disappears, the constant feeling of robbing Peter to pay Paul, the constant slippage, the feeling that you are that old plate spinner on a variety show. Always behind, always filled with insecurity. I should be able to manage this, but I can't. It's just math. But the numbers never say what I want them to say, what I need them to say. They never say that I'm OK, that I can rest easy, that I can buy a 5 dollar used paperback without being consumed by guilt, that I deserve happiness, that I am a good provider, that I am making it. The numbers never say that I'm good.

"Money can't buy me love"