Saturday, March 7, 2009

On the Use of Money

Since coming back from culinary school, Madelaine has been looking for work, but of course this may be, historically speaking, the worst time to be unemployed in at least two generations, if not more.

As I watch people lose their common sense along with their money, I can hear Lynda intoning softly, "I told you so" in the back of my mind. As a child of The Great Depression, she not only related (often) tales of the difficulties that even good, honest and willing-to-work individuals faced, but she, like so many of her generation, believed that such conditions could return--would return--because the whole economy, contrary to our belief that is based on solid principles and safe practices (thanks, in fact, to the Great Depression), is actually based on nothing more than peoples' collective consciousnesses. As such, the 'economy' is nothing more than a flimsy fiction that can be rent asunder by the slightest breeze of doubt and or the vagaries of the market.

So, she spent her life being cautious, saving money, saving paper towels, saving the soap from hotels and the sugar packets from cafeterias. She was careful about every dime. No, make that every penny, and never once did she feel secure, as if she had enough to weather the inevitable downturn. This was difficult for me to understand and, quite honestly, it drove me a bit crazy from time to time. Lynda and I could disagree about many things--art, religion, philosophy--but we fought about one thing only: money. The disagreement was so fundamental that, in spite of reaching a comfortable compromise when she came to Austin to live near us, we still sparred from time to time about the value and use of money, both in her life as well as ours.

Quite simply it came down to a difference in the perception of what money actually was to each of us, or, to be more precise, what it was to be used for and how often. Because of her conditioning during the bleak years of her childhood and early adulthood, Lynda was deeply inclined to save as much money as she could, in every way she could. But, because she was by nature a generous and caring woman, she also wanted to use her money to satisfy and make her family--specifically my father, Bill--happy. The contradiction between her innate desire to be generous and her conditioned response to money led to some considerable misunderstandings between my parents, and, even, me as I got older and, not surprisingly, to some rather unpleasant arguments and feelings of guilt all round.

On the other hand, in spite of Lynda's obvious inclination toward saving, I felt more inclined to emulate her desire to be generous, and use money as a means rather than an end. Consequently and ironically, I thus grew to adopt the notion that money was put here for us to spend, and that while we should be careful and certainly not spend more than we have, the basic role that money played in our lives was to improve them and make them more enjoyable.

Certainly, this is how I felt that Lynda was, in reality, using her money, though the inescapable conflict that she was undergoing made it seem often as if she was loathe to spend any of it, especially on herself. Indeed, she was loathe to spend it, but spend it she did. In a testament to her character and love for her family, her resolution to her internal conflict about the role of money was a good one for us, even if it did torment her. The fact of the matter was that she spent whatever money came her way on her family. It was as simple as a bag of groceries, she would often say.

She was frugal, yes, but she rarely denied us anything, and never anything that we needed, only those things we thought we wanted. Never did she let us go without good, fresh food or clean sheets or clothes. We were taught to restrain our urge to buy things we knew we didn't really need, and a result I have discovered that there are many things that I think I want and therefore somehow need, but eventually, there are only a few things that I really need or want, and there are even fewer that I actually need.

It's not just that I am older and wiser now, or even that as the economy gets worse I have less money, but I have way too many things in my life already, and spending money to get more makes less and less sense with each day and each purchase that fills the trash can with plastic and another drawer or counter top with something in or on it. I guess that eventually, we reache the point where, even if there is enough money to buy another thing, we simply no longer want it.

Quite simply, it's common sense. Money loses it's importance as we get older, and the things we own become far less precious than the moments we have left.

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