Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Money

My personal essay, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Money" is just out in Salmagundi's 50th anniversary issue, along with a group of essays on the subject for which I was a guest editor, by Rick Moody, Phillip Lopate and Howard Norman.  Each piece is a striking testament to the elemental, immutable, sometimes harrowing power of money, to its fertility as a storytelling device, and to all the ways it makes us feel and act and think about ourselves, our families, and our place in the world.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Money
by Elizabeth Benedict

In this corner is my kindly grandfather, who liked to say, when
the subject of our not having enough came up, “It’s just money.” In the
opposite corner, a different message from my mother, who longed for so
much: “All you need is money.” When I was eight years old, I showed my
father an ad in The New York Times  for a dog coat at Saks Fifth Avenue
that cost nineteen dollars. I wanted him to be astonished with me, and he
was, sort of. “I wouldn’t pay nineteen dollars for a dog,” he spat.

I too was a small creature who needed a coat now and then -
needed him to buy me these coats, and I could see that he had attached
a monetary value to small creatures and their needs. This is no doubt the
unconscious reason I applied for my first job, at a greeting card store on
 the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at the age of nine. It would take a
few dozen years of therapy to make that connection. At the time, I just
thought it would be fun to be there, with the cheerful women owners and
the colorful decorations changing every month or two with the holidays –
more fun than our apartment, where bitterness and money troubles rocked
around the clock. Early on, I learned that the word itself — m-o-n-e-y
— is loaded, charged with everything human: longing, ambition, power,
comfort, success, failure, disappointment, loss, fear, shame, blame, and
rage. So loaded it might as well be a gun.

In Light Years, James Salter writes: “Life is weather. Life is
meals.” But no, life is money. Money and stories of money. Who among
us does not have a hundred of them? A thousand? Anecdotes, dominant
 narratives, comedies, tragedies, aphorisms, moral tales, and of course
jokes. They come bunched in themes. Wanting money. Needing money.
Feeling foolish for wanting more. Feeling crappy for not having it.
Fighting over it. Having it, then losing it. Getting too much too fast – all
those sad lottery stories that I read and think, I  wouldn’t do that  if I won
$400 million! Anger at those who have too much. At leaders who answer
only to money, who choose money over justice, corporations over people,
profits über alles.

Consider this: It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a
needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. No one says that anymore.
No one even knows what it means, so many people are so fucking
rich – Forbes  counted 1645 billionaires in 2014 – even in places where
everyone used to have the same amount of money or none at all: China,
Russia, India. And there’s this: As a general rule of etiquette, for whatever
that’s worth nowadays, we are not supposed to talk about money, not supposed
to say, “How much do you have?” or “How much do you make?” or
“Want to know what I’ve got?” Not supposed to, but many of us do, living
deep in the age of confession, of Internet aliases, of an endless stream of
TMI. I can click my mouse and learn how much my neighbor gave to a
political candidate. In twenty-five seconds, I can find out how much just
 about anyone’s house is worth, what their real estate taxes are, sometimes
even the size of their mortgage. N+1  produced an anthology, MFA vs NYC,
 about how writers support themselves these days. The contributors skew
young, as editors and writers for N+1  tend to, and in these pieces many
discuss the details of their financial lives, including the amounts of their
 advances and their rents, with a monetary candor we never got from Saul
Bellow, John Updike, or even the king of TMI, Philip Roth.

I learned in high school and college that novels are about money
and status. Gatsby , obviously. Pride and Prejudice –  maintaining the
property, marrying appropriately. Narratives are driven by plots involving
money – because so much of life involves those plots: the wanting, the
needing, the calamities that all this desire brings. Certain dramas – The
Merchant of Venice, A Doll’s House –  reek of money and the darkness of
debt. And then there are movies, noir and otherwise, where the hunger
for money drives more narratives than the pursuit of sex: bank heists,
blackmail, gambling, money laundering, marrying for money. How to
Marry a Millionaire. It’s a Wonderful Life. Bonnie and Clyde. Oceans 11,
12,  and 13.  In the list of symptoms for certain mental illnesses - bipolar
disorder, borderline personality disorder - two of them are overspending
and racking up debt. Does this mean that money is an illness – or just that
it drives us crazy?

What is it, after all? A concept. A system. A symbol. A value.
A commodity. A means of exchange. Sometimes an object: coins, bills,
cashier’s checks, plastic cards. It’s protean, it’s elastic, it’s fixed. It’s a
 lure, a comfort, a weapon, all of which gives it a lot in common with that
other cosmic trickster, sex. But it is not optional. You can choose where to
live, whom to marry, whether to be celibate, to shoot heroin or eat flowers,
 but you cannot opt out of submitting to the rule of money, whether it’s
US dollars or Kenyan shillings. It has been so essential for so much of
recorded history – arriving as soon as people produced more agriculture
than they could eat, and had a reason to sell the excess - it’s surprising
that the ancients did not include it in the list of essential elements: fire,
 water, earth, air, money. You are born and sooner or later – directly or
indirectly – it lands on you, a fishing net impossible to escape.

It took until 2000 for scientists to name the study of the effects
of money on the brain – “neuroeconomics” – and among the things they
learned is that the craving for it is located, along with most other cravings,
in the hypothalamus, or the ventral striatum, and the fear of not having
enough is located, along with most other fears, in the amygdala. While using
MRIs to study the brain, a Stanford scientist, Brian Knutson, saw that the
images that caused the most brain activity, more than sex and decapitated
bodies, were those involving money. An article in Forbes reports the MRIs
revealed that “offers of cash caused a surge of dopamine in a tiny piece of
neural machinery called the nucleus accumbens.” George Loewenstein,
a Carnegie Mellon economist quoted in the piece, tried to make sense of
the observations: “According to standard economic theory, money is a
means to an end. When you get money, you shouldn’t experience immediate
happiness. What all the scanning research is showing is that people
get immediate pleasure and pain from obtaining and losing money.” Add
to the MRI data whatever else we learn about money growing up – that
we’re entitled to it, that we don’t deserve it, that Dad ran off with what we
had – and it’s not surprising that it can easily send us over the edge, into
tailspins, fits of rage, revenge, despair, and/or greed that destroy families
for generations. Consider the divorce from hell or a will that ends up in

 Like so many subjects that make us uncomfortable, it spawns
jokes. The best end up in combination with other subjects that make us
uncomfortable: marriage, divorce, religion. 1. Why is divorce so expensive?
Because it’s worth it. 2. Three Jews walking down a road see a sign on
a church: $100 to Convert. Harry decides to go in, and when he comes
out an hour later, his friends pepper him with questions. “Did you get the
money?” says one. Harry is indignant: “Money! That’s all you Jews think

All I think about is money. When I was in my twenties, there
was a joke going around - or maybe a real study — that went something
like, “Men think about sex forty times an hour. Women think about sex
twenty-two times an hour.” Whatever the numbers were. It was funny.
It was true. I probably think about money twenty-two to forty times an
hour. Sex, not so much anymore.

Until I was in my late thirties, I was an ordinary writer-artist-dunce
about money. I lived from book to book and scraped together small piles
from book reviewing, editing, and part-time teaching jobs. During the
time I wrote my second and third novels, I was married to someone who
had more money than I did. I wasn’t cunning about money, but I wasn’t
so dumb as to marry another near pauper, and during that time, I had good
health insurance and a nice place to live. After I got divorced, I made more
money teaching and writing books than I ever had. Later in the 1990s, I
had to take care of my ailing aunt, who had about $150,000 invested in
the stock market – and then my sick mother, who had $30,000 in CDs.

By that time, I owned a few shares of something or other, and
some retirement funds from teaching, and I grilled a wealthy cousin about
how to invest and manage this small fortune. I was serious about it, because
I had to be, and it took a lot of effort to figure out how to make my
 aunt’s and my mother’s money last, without just keeping it in a savings
bank. Then some good fortune came my way – a year-long contract to
write a monthly column for Japanese Playboy –  that turned into two years.
It was a phenomenal amount of money for cranking out a few pages of
silly, soft-core porn once a month. Earning and investing it added to my
sense of myself as a Person Who Knows About Money. I was in charge of three
accounts at Merrill Lynch and became a demon at reading the
monthly statements and calling my broker to discuss rates of return and
who knows what else. I need to call my broker,  I would say to whoever
was nearby. It was thrilling, like Halloween for kids. I could pretend I
was someone else entirely. Sorry, that’s my broker on the phone.

All of this coincided with the crazy rise in the stock market, when
millions of other dunces like me behaved like little John D. Rockefellers,
reading the financial pages, and becoming part of the “investor class,”
along with bus drivers, janitors, and high-flying high school students.

On a dinner date with an economist in 1999, trying to sound wise in the
ways of money, I said that I had “made some money in the stock market.”
Maybe he’d have some stock tips for me. Maybe we could swap. “That’s
not hard in this market,” he said drily.

I took the insult without flinching and did not regale this serious
 man with stories of my stock market hijinks. They had taken place in
the preceding months, on occasional visits to the apartment of my dear
friend – let’s call her P. She came from a working class family who knew
just enough to save well, and P. had recently inherited her share of the
savings. In the spirit of the times – which, if you recall, were frenzied
with the promise of a market that had no upper limit – she had gotten
into the habit of day-trading large quantities of stocks. I was trading
much smaller amounts, in less risky ways, but I got into the spirit of it
myself. P. is a serious person, but has a zany side too, and when we got
together for dinner, we talked about our investments – and all the money
we were making – with a feverish excitement and much out-of-control
laughter. We would often end up at her computer, where we did copious
amounts of research about the stocks we were planning to buy the minute
the market opened, so that we could sell them at huge profits later that
 day, or perhaps the following week. “I think I’ll buy two thousand shares
of this one,” she might say. “At what?” “Now it’s $4.50. It opened this
morning at $3.90. If I can buy it at $4.50 and it goes up two dollars, I can
make $4000 in a few days. Maybe I should buy four thousand shares. If
I sell the BQE – how much have I made on that?” “What’s BQE?” “It
 went up twenty dollars in the last two weeks.” “Why didn’t you tell me?
I would have bought some! What kind of company is it? Tech? Biotech?
Something else?” “Who knows what it is. If it goes up, we like it. If it
goes down—”

We laughed at our antics until we cried, laughed at what we
knew to be our hysteria, at the absolute insanity of what we were doing.
We played it like a comic routine, as though there were an audience. We
were Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory. We were – as it turned
out – Thelma and Louise about to nosedive into the Grand Canyon. Had
I explained all of this to the economist, I’m certain he would not have
laughed. He wouldn’t have cracked a smile, the prig. And he would have
told me this was a bad idea. Come to think of it, based on what little I
mentioned, he did say something along those lines.

My friend made a fortune and lost it. She got out with her shirt
intact but somewhat tattered. I lost a few buttons on my own. Whatever
I did – not that I can remember, because I’ve tried pretty hard to repress
the details – didn’t hurt my aunt’s and my mother’s fortunes, only my
own, but not permanently. There was a stock I should have sold when it
was worth $20,000, and then suddenly it was worth $6000. There was
another – and another and another – but my only huge regret was selling
200 shares of Apple that I’d bought for about $60 each in the mid-1990s.
If I had never sold it, and it had just split and split again over the years, it
would be worth a great deal today – I try not to calculate how much – and
I would not be scrounging around doing what I do, which is both working
very hard and worrying about money. It’s just money, after all. Right?

At the same time, I’ve had a peculiarly privileged life in the way
of some artists and writers who have had an occasional hit, followed by
years or even decades of what might be called “belt-tightening,” what a
writer friend calls “the period when I had to buy the small eggs.” For a
short while in the 1990s, I owned a house on Martha’s Vineyard with my
first husband, and even though year-rounders on the island are some of
 the poorest people in Massachusetts, the image of those who live there as
loaded dies hard. It was difficult to say where I lived when I lived there
without people looking askance at me, as though I had just flown in on
my private jet.

During many periods since then, I have rented houses on the island
through friends for far below market rates, and occasionally in winter.
Fifteen years ago, I became friends with another writer in a winter rental.
She soon left the island and moved to a semi-feudal estate in the English
countryside, where she rented the gardener’s cottage – which happened to
have no heat – on this vast property. A good number of our phone calls and
emails in the years since then have been about how broke we are, which
could often send us into peels of self-mocking laughter and regret, faux
and otherwise, that we had spent our lives as writers. Some of the laughter
was that we lived as the idle rich do, having met on the Vineyard and now
chatting away in the middle of the day, she on her estate and I in a tony
Manhattan apartment (never mind that I was renting a room), when not
living with my boyfriend-who-became-my-husband near Boston. In one
such desperate conversation, she said, “Our bohemian lifestyles would
be much more endearing if we were thirty years younger.”

Independently of each other, we had followed Grace Paley’s
advice for writers: Keep your overhead low. We do not redecorate. We
do not build additions onto what property we own. We shop in thrift
stores and drive ancient cars. We are both happily married to extremely
nice men whose financial contributions are necessary but not sufficient
 to maintaining our lives of genteel poverty. We do what writers do who
don’t have secure teaching jobs or wealthy spouses or trust funds: we get
by, more or less, on our wits. For ten years, my friend was on a handsome
retainer with a management consulting firm, and though she had never
 been either an employer or an employee, her job was to write management
training programs. One day she complained to me about how inconvenient
it was for her to have to show up in the company’s office – once a year. I
 tried to explain to another friend how funny this line was to me, but this
friend, who endured a more ordinary struggle to make ends meet, looked
at me with something near contempt. Living with this much uncertainty
and insouciance – but also a weird confidence that someone would appear
before long and pay us a lot of money to ghostwrite a book or edit a paper
on desalination plants in Saudi Arabia – is hard to explain to those who
don’t have the constitution to live this way.

At one point, my friend in England and I had an editing company
that we promoted on-line. Over a period of several years, we got a total of
three inquiries from men with names that sounded made up and who had
ideas for projects that were as colorful and off the wall as their names. Biff
Ziff (not his real name, but somewhat like his real name) wanted my help
writing a book about the psychopathic Mob killers who used to eat at his
restaurant – and which he claimed that Steven Spielberg wanted to read
when it was finished. After I told him that I didn’t think I was the right
 person to help him – because I could tell he didn’t have the money to pay
me up front and had no idea what it meant to write a book – I called my
friend in England. “My fear is that if I see Steven Spielberg’s next movie
is about this guy and his restaurant,” I told her, “I will shoot myself.” She
assured me that I had nothing to worry about. And now – four or five years
 later – my friend and I are not nearly so desperate. In recent years, things
have picked up: one of us inherited some money and the other has a new
business that’s more lucrative than Biff Ziff-like projects. Yet now and
then, I’m slightly sad that we don’t laugh as much as we used to about
being destitute.

Thinking about money as much as I do, several years ago I decided
to pull together an anthology of personal essays by writers on the
subject. The publisher I approached felt that because I’m not a “money
expert” – a Suze Orman, I suppose, or an “Adam Smith” – they couldn’t
promote such a book the way they wanted to, and I shelved the idea. But
of course I am a money expert, having applied for my first job at the age
 of nine at the greeting card store, and having known exactly how much
money my father made that year - $4000.00 – and how much our rent was
– $375.00 a month. When I didn’t get the job, I got another, walking the
dog of a woman in our building every day before school for twenty-five
cents a walk. I used the money to buy pajamas for the summer camp my
parents sent my sister and me to, for which they borrowed the money
from my grandparents, and the purpose of which was to send the children
away so they could “save the marriage.” What more does anyone need
to know about money than that – along with all I’ve learned in the years
since, including the art of investing and losing money while laughing

It can often feel like money is the only thing that matters in our
lives, and of course it matters immensely – because money equals food,
clothing and shelter. And so much else. Even though I’m not as financially
 fragile as I have been for much of my adult life, I still think about money
going to sleep and waking up, getting dressed and cooking dinner. That’s
me, I thought, when I came across this line in Penelope Lively’s novel
How It All Began:  “She walked to the bus stop, thinking about money.”

When I was in my twenties, I took a shower one morning and
wondered how I’d pay my rent two months later, and when I got out,
the phone rang. It was an editor I didn’t know saying that he’d pay me
three thousand dollars to interview a country singer for a magazine that
promoted a tobacco company – Philip Morris. I said yes in a flash. How
 could I have said no? This was a story I told myself and others about how
I managed to live the way I do: I took a shower and the phone rang – and
there was money.  Years later, in my stock-buying days, another friend
convinced me to buy some shares of a tobacco company. I did, but sold
them a day or two later when I realized I didn’t want to make money – or
god forbid lose money – on Big Tobacco. It would have been harder than
explaining that I lived on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t think the magazine is
still around, but if it were – I have thought this through, believe me – and
if an editor called me again with a juicy offer, this time I’d say no.

All you need is money.

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