Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Uneasy Money, Part I

I had what Dickens once called the worst possible start in life, for a young man: I inherited an ambiguous amount of money. Not so much that I would never have to work -- but enough that I could take my time getting started in life; enough to learn habits of idleness and self-indulgence I would not be able to sustain; enough so that I never felt committed to any particular career path, because I could always train for something else. Enough so that I was well into my thirties before I got a real job.

It fell out strangely. I didn't grow up with money. My father was a highschool teacher. He was (and is), a prudent, shrewd, long-headed man. He took to buying rental properties. He was willing to wait to make his profits; he rented his properties at under the market rate, looking for the good renters, the long-term, conscientious people, and finding them. He wasn't making a lot of money, but over the years the equity accrued. He tended his houses carefully. Property values rose. He was doing well.

Meanwhile, we lived on a highschool teacher's salary, and were well-content -- I was, at any rate. I never expected anything but to have to make my own way. I knew that plenty of kids didn't have three square meals a day and a safe home and a room to share with their brother. I was lucky, and I felt lucky. I took pride in my father's virtually immortal station wagons -- he bought them a couple years old, and drove them so sensibly, and maintained them so well, that they outlived everyone else's. Buying a new car struck us as profligate, a ludicrous waste of money (still does strike me that way, for that matter.)

Then my grandfather, my mother's father, died. Died young, everybody said, which confused me -- I had met him once or twice, and he was a terribly old man -- his hair was quite white. He was sixty-two.

What his death was to mean to me didn't emerge for a a few years. He had been a farmer, and a county-extension agent. He went into business with a partner who was concocting corn hybrids. As a county-extension agent, a farmer travelling from farm to farm on the weekends, he was ideally placed to sell hybrid seed. And they were good hybrids: they nearly doubled the corn yield. The partnership became a prosperous company; the company became a corporation. And then, when I was ten years old, a couple years after my grandfather's death, it went public. And we were millionaires.

My life had changed radically, in the meantime. My parents had divorced, and my mother had remarried. I lived with her and my stepfather. He was a hardworking, hard-drinking engineer. He worked at Weyerhauser paper mill, designing pulp-processing machines, I think. He had bought property on top of a hill at the outskirts of Springfield and built a beautiful house, with his own hands -- designed it all and built it all from the foundations to the roof. Built his own swimming pool. By small-town Oregon standards we were already a wealthy family. Already I was an object of envy, which was ironic, because I was in those years perfectly wretched. But I had spending money, when many of my school-fellows did not. I could buy myself and my acquaintances dr peppers and hershey bars at the corner store. I lived in a big house on the hill, with a swimming pool. I had a treehouse down in an oak grove -- half a mile from the house, but still on my stepfather's property. He built it with characteristic design-sense, structural know-how, and skill. I imagine it's still there, if the grove is still there, resting sturdily on its two-by-sixes.

And now we had money, real money, the kind of money people dream of having. It first presented itself -- suitably enough -- as a worrisome thing, possibly a misfortune. My mother had a talk with me, an uncomfortable talk. We had money. A lot of money. But we shouldn't talk about it. Children of rich families might be kidnapped. People might try to scam us. We had to play our cards close to our chests.

She should have talked to herself: I was secretive and distrustful by nature, and I was already sick of being envied. But my mother had a great capacity for being cheated. She was not a good judge of character. People borrowed money from her and didn't pay it back. She got involved in a big real-estate deal in Costa Rica, and it ate up millions of dollars, but the lucrative resort that was supposed to emerge from the jungle and start raking in money never did emerge. The man she chose to manage her money -- she had an insurmountable aversion to handling it herself -- was a compulsive gambler. I don't think he embezzled any of the money -- he just bet on risky investments and lost, over and over.

This happened over years. In the meantime, we learned to be rich. We went to fancy restaurants. We had a wine-cellar. My mother, who had always wanted to travel, went to Russia, and to China -- she was one of the very first Americans to go to China when it was "opened" by Nixon. She repeatedly redecorated her houses -- she had divorced my stepfather by then -- with exquisite taste. My older brother, who loves fine-quality things, bought beautiful expensive suits, and, when he came into his own money, set about losing it with a single-mindedness that rivalled my mother's.

I, however, wanted nothing to do with any of it. Inherited capital was anathema to me. I wavered between calling myself an anarchist and calling myself a socialist, as a teenager and as a young man, but if there was anything I was sure of, it was that the power over other human beings conferred by having money, particularly unearned money, was monstrous. I cultivated indifference to it. I wore my tattered jeans and t-shirts. The money wasn't just in my family: some was put in my name. But I contemplated giving it away when I came of age.

I came of age, and somehow I never quite got around to giving it away. I was busy going to college, for one thing. We had sobered up enough to change to a trustworthy money manager, by then -- he did all the money stuff. I had only very vague ideas of what forms the money took, whatever I happened to see on papers that I had to sign. I apparently owned two-thirds of a Taco Time. I owned stock in something that was eventually to become Enron. There were mutual funds and bonds involved. It was all completely unreal to me. Art was real. Literature was real. The liberation of Eros was real. Money, on the other hand, was a hallucinatory non-object that had floated into my life out of nowhere. Surreal.

But as time went by, fear hardened in me. I was very timid socially, from the start, and I had been terribly inept at sports in school. (This was mostly because I was a year younger than the other kids in my grade, and had never practiced them; but if I knew that then, I didn't believe it.) The very little physical work I had ever done I had done very badly. I was slow. I had no initiative. Burned into my memory was the only time I ever went strawberry-picking -- this was a common summer job for kids in Oregon, and one day I went with a friend. I still recall vividly the manager coming by that morning, looking in my flat with its handful of berries, and praising me for my swiftness. I was flustered and confused. Was she mocking me? I knew I was going slow, much slower than anyone around me. She was gone before I realized what had happened -- she thought I had already picked a flat, and started on a my second. I was mortified. It was lucky that I didn't have to work because, I thought, I simply wouldn't be able to. Who ever would hire me?

I imagine most young people have similar misgivings. But most young people have to go to work anyway, and so they soon learn that someone who's responsible and steady and has some common sense doesn't have to have great skills or great speed or great initiative to be worth hiring -- that they're not actually so spectacularly incompetent as to be unable to make a living. But I never learned that. I shone in college: I was a brilliant student, really. Graduate schools were anxious to get me. Teachers had always adored me. But I knew I could never make my way in the real world. The money I had despised and ignored gradually, imperceptibly, came to seem absolutely necessary.

But there's one thing you can count on about money -- if you despise and ignore it, it will go away. Grad schools offered me full scholarships and handsome stipends, but I ignored them. I went to my first-choice school, and paid out-of-pocket for it. Well, after all, it was an investment. Everyone said that.

Six years and no finished dissertation later, with a wife and a daughter and a son on the way, the world was looking quite a bit different. I ran the numbers repeatedly -- I was good at numbers -- and no matter how I ran them, they said the same thing. If no money came in, we'd run out of it. Not right away. Not even soon. But we would run out.

It's a bit comical to me, now, to recall how bizarre this fact appeared to me. To most people in the world, this fact makes its appearance quite early and remains part of life's scenery from then on. But it struck me as preposterous. And I had become very skilled at ignoring money, by this time, so I kept on ignoring it. But it was a nightmare behind me, an impending unacknowledged disaster. I had managed to get into my thirties, and I had no resume. I had an M.Phil. from an impressive school, I knew three dead languages and a couple living ones to boot; I could decipher both a medieval Latin manuscript and the Anglo-Saxon jottings in its margins with some confidence, but there was only one job that qualified a person for. Teaching. And I hated teaching. I was terrible at it. I had the skills to be a brilliant student. I was a gifted listener, very good at discerning the drift of a teacher's thought and falling in with it.

But a teacher can't just listen. A teacher has to speak. Develop topics and put them out there, regardless of whether people agree with them or show interest in them. And this, I found, I simply could not do. I froze. I watched fellow graduate-students whom I privately thought far less bright than I was become prize-winning teachers. They had the confidence to do it. I did not. There are few experiences more humiliating than failing, abjectly and unequivocally, in full view, at the front of a classroom. I fled. Back to Oregon. I had to start over, somehow.

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