Concrete Jungle

Thinking About Money

It’s April in Minneapolis, when forecasts for a rain/snow mix materialize as sweet, simple, snow-melting rain; when highly localized sandstorms mark the progress of the street sweepers trundling along on their civic spring cleaning; when the dog sits obstinately on the path beside the pond to stare, transfixed, at a red-winged blackbird singing in a bare tree; April, when people’s thoughts all turn to one thing: money.

Federal filing deadline not withstanding, thinking about money has no season. It’s a year-round pursuit. I’ve been thinking about money in the office; thinking about money on my yoga mat; thinking about money on my bike downtown in rush hour traffic a foot or two from passing cars when all I want to do is feel, for the first time since morning, the sunlight pouring from the bold trapezoids of sky.

My paternal great-grandmother, Banga, used to say, “It’s only money. It only buys things.” And this is true, confoundingly true. It is a universal, nearly tautological, theory of money that applies, when you really think about it, to a startlingly small number of actual situations. It’s true, as long as you still have plenty of money to buy other things with, and as long as it really is “only money.” But money is almost never only money. In fact, most of the thinking we do about money isn’t really about money at all.

The first thing most of us think about when we think about thinking about money is the stress caused by not having enough. There’s another essay to write about the fraught definition of “having enough” and the challenge of living within our means and defining ourselves by non-monetary measures of success. But for everyone some of the time, and for about half the people on the planet almost all of the time, not having enough money is a fact of life. And I feel confident that Banga was not including groceries, rent, heating oil, medical insurance, or college tuition among the things money “only” buys. She knew her audience: other comfortably middle-class people for whom stress about money was not synonymous with stress about basic necessities. Money is “only money” when you have enough of it. But even then, it usually isn’t.

Banga died when I was six, so it was my grandmother, Grammie (also known as “Mimi”), who told me, “It’s only money. It only buys things.” Grammie had her own corollary to her mother’s ideas about money. When I visited her in Maine (where she and my grandfather lived on oceanfront property purchased for $10,000 in 1959), there was a house she couldn’t pass without telling its story. It had belonged to a man who owned a marine construction business; when he died, he left it to his son, which caused a rift between the son and his mother, the widow. Now the two no longer speak to each other. “Isn’t that terrible?” my grandmother always asked, rhetorically. “To let something like money get between family?”

Of course Grammie wasn’t really thinking about money when she told the story of the widow and her son—she was thinking about family. Keeping our family happy and intact was the most important thing in her life. She sent out a daily email with everyone’s whereabouts all over the globe, and I truly believe she spent more on family dinners and airplane tickets than she did on groceries. A rational choice theorist might say every relationship has a price that will break it. But I don’t buy it. When the widow and her kid both chose to value a house more than their relationship, they weren’t locked into a transaction with only two possible outcomes. The choice wasn’t the value of one or the other, it was to let money be a factor in the first place. As my grandmother knew, there’s nothing that says families have to get along and stick together. I think the idea of cutting a family member the way you cut a cheapskate friend exposed the structural weakness in the entire foundation of her worldview. She could bring us all together, but she couldn’t make us love each other. We had to choose that on our own. And the choice, in the end, is never about money.

But I’ve been thinking about money. Just money. Not needs. Not things I want but don’t need. Not my relationships.

I’ve been thinking about money because I have more of it than I used to. My maternal grandmother, Grandma, died a year ago, and from her I inherited a portfolio of securities and a stake in the family farm: 500 acres near the Ohio River in western Kentucky. We sold the farm last year and I’ve had some decisions to make. I decided early on to make those decisions myself. So I read some books. From The Intelligent Investor, I learned that when you own stocks and bonds you are basically in a relationship with a bipolar imp named Mr. Market, prone to drastic and irrational mood swings. When Mr. Market is feeling high on life he’ll offer to buy your property for way more than its value, and when some random thing makes him temporarily blue, he’ll sell you anything for much less than it’s really worth. The intelligent investor knows the real value of what he owns, regardless of what Mr. Market thinks. The opposite of the intelligent investor is the speculator, and I got about halfway through the book when I realized that unless I made reading prospectuses my full-time job, that speculator was me.

But accepting that I shouldn’t do anything but use dollar-cost averaging to buy and hold low-fee, broadly diversified index ETFs didn’t stop me from thinking about money. Oh no, the kind of thinking about money I’m talking about isn’t the kind of productive, purposeful thinking we do to make a decision. It didn’t matter that I had no intention of selling once I’d bought my funds. I became not only a speculator, but a spectator, entranced by the antics of Mr. Market. When I jump on my bike after a day at the computer, eager to experience some non-virtual reality—the adrenaline of navigating traffic, the fresh air and the sky between the buildings—my head fills with numbers before I am out of the parking lot. There is always a mild sense of stress associated with this line of thought, but nothing I can identify, and certainly nothing I can add or subtract, no specific problem to solve or decision to make, just streams of numbers, vague concepts about the market, a piece of advice I’d read in the paper, my own theories about the affect of climate change on Minneapolis housing prices.

My thoughts about money are somehow more engaging than the concrete world around me, even though the money doesn’t even seem real to me. I don’t think of it as dead presidents I can bring home in a duffel bag, or as the goods and services I can exchange it for. The inheritance is a large sum of money for Liz and me, but it isn’t a life-changing sum. We could easily spend it in two or three years simply by adopting a lifestyle one or two income brackets above our own. I have no doubt there is a privileged, subconscious plateau of security that possession of this money gives me. But I don’t consciously feel much different than I did in the Peace Corps, when I lived on $150 a month, or in grad school when I lived on $12,000 a year. I had to make smart decisions with my money then, and when I did, it was enough. The only difference is that now, in addition to the income I live on, I own a number that lives on the internet, one I have to tend so it can grow.

The money is concrete in one particular way: it’s a measure of my responsibility and cleverness. If I spend it down, I’m frivolous. If I fail to grow it, I’m a fool. It is an extraordinary gift that I feel incredibly fortunate to receive and terrified of screwing up.

It took me a surprisingly long time to recognize that my thoughts about money are almost completely abstract. I think that’s because the abstraction in my head wasn’t all that different from my generally abstracted relationship with the world around me. As a kid, I carried books with me whenever I went and used them to escape a world that seemed ninety percent of the time to be boring, random, and callous. Books made sense and engaged my brain completely. I lived in them more fully than I did in the real world. Adults used to think it was amusing that I whipped out a book whenever I had a few minutes to kill. But I was just an early adopter.

When I see someone poking their phone at the checkout line, I can’t help but think that it isn’t just the bookworms and D&D geeks actively choosing a virtual world over the real one anymore, the virtual is steadily encroaching into ours. In hindsight, I first experience this on September 12, 2001, when the explosions that had seemed like digital effects on CNN the day before left me in tears when I saw them in the old-fashioned newsprint of The Cavalier Daily. Now I belong to a virtual book club where I talk face-to-face in Google Hangout with my brother in Richmond, Virginia. It’s like I’m looking at him through a window, except if we feel like it we can “put on” fake glasses and humorous cartoon mustaches that track with our faces as we move.

Liz told me recently that babies like playing peek-a-boo because they don’t have object permanence, the intuition that the world is one coherent place so things that disappear and reappear aren’t magic. Maybe it’s because I’ve been seeing the world through my puppy’s eyes, but once I learned that object permanence was something it was possible not to have, I realized mine has been slipping. A typical example is from a night Liz and I were using a rubber toy to lure Matilda to jump in bed and go to sleep. She was having none of it. First, she tried to reach it from my side, then from Liz’s. I was startled when Matilda disappeared around the foot of the bed and re-appeared exactly where I expected her to, as if her universe perfectly matched up with my own.

So, the basic physical laws of the universe have started taking me by surprise. It seems inadequate to blame something as mundane as routine, but the fact is, my life requires very little attention anymore. I move from station to station at the same time each day: bed to couch to Loring Park with Matilda to office to yoga studio back to office to MCAD to apartment to bed. The biggest source of variety in my life is now the internet. I can predict what I’ll find around every corner in a three-mile radius of my apartment, but all I have to do is hit Refresh to encounter a brand new idea from people whose minds I love: Chris Forsberg, Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, Bill Simmons, Alex Speier, John Cassidy. And because I love how they think I find myself caring about the things they think about: Shavlik Randolph’s plus/minus, the Hastert Rule, Bipartisan Think, The Ewing Theory, Daniel Nava’s OBP, John Maynard Keynes. I’m pretty sure my idea addiction started with the 2012 presidential campaign. For a year and a half the internet was swimming in analysis that tied all the random news of the world into a single, thrilling narrative: Would this help Obama get re-elected? And by offering a running score, Nate Silver transformed the election into the longest-running, highest-stakes, spectator sporting in the world (narrowly bumping off the India-Pakistan Test Matches).

The scary thing is that the older I get, the more skilled I become at distracting myself: calibrating just enough challenge into my life to create the satisfying, necessary feeling of purposeful forward motion, but making the challenges easy enough that there is no feeling of friction, stasis, hardship, or frustration. I think I may now have the power to make my whole life slip away without my noticing. But when I do stop and look around, confront the world with questions instead of assumptions, experience boredom, feel confused—I get the nagging, impatient feeling that I’m doing something wrong, I’m leaving something undone. If the 538 blog is a hearty intellectual meal, E*Trade is junk food, a tub of peanut butter cup ice cream that I can’t stop dipping into, and reality is a cheap apple, sweet as cardboard in comparison.

Even riding my bike in heavy traffic at dusk, my mind cycles back to the recent past and retrieves an open-ended issue, a smooth channel of mild worry that my thoughts can flow into. And away from what? The directionless universe? The fear of annihilation? Sailors have the best words for it, the constant, crushing feeling of motionless now: becalmed, the doldrums, in irons. The stifling Sargasso Sea of the present.

In the 1830s, before we knew the world was just one giant buzz of atoms and bonds, distortions in space-time, a slow-motion explosion, my Trigg ancestors loaded all their shit on wagons and followed the Wilderness Road through the great forests of Virginia and over the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. They settled a few hundred acres and passed them on for the next 180 years. My grandfather, a high school science teacher, raised cattle until he was too sick with Parkinson’s. One snowy night they found him lying outside the barn in his pajamas. He was trying to check on the cattle, but they’d already been sold. My grandmother rented out the land for soy and corn in the last ten years of her life, and when she died the land passed to her three children, five grandchildren, and great-grandchild. No one wanted to sell. My mom and her siblings loved the farm. All of us liked it and were proud of it. And we all agreed good land is a scarcer resource than money. If even one of us had been a farmer, we might have found a way to keep it.

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We sold at a good price to a farmer who wanted to stake his son in the same profession. I got the final check last week. It’s impossible not to recognize the arrow of the universe in this transaction. I inherited soil, rock, and hardwood windbreaks, a handful of ponds, some wild turkeys (though not the mineral rights, my great-grandfather had to sell those off in the Depression) and I turned it into a number that lives in my computer.

For almost two hundred years my ancestors’ livelihood was tied to land and weather. In April they thought about how dry the winter had been, whether the river would flood, when to put the crops in, how the cows were calving. I’m lucky. My life is more financially secure than I have any right to hope for. I have a marketable skill and a good job. When I inherited a piece of valuable land, I didn’t need to turn it into medical bills, mortgage payments, or a new transmission. Weeks go by when I don’t have to make any decisions at all. I don’t have to think about much of anything if I don’t want to. And I realize now that when I get distracted by thoughts of money, that’s exactly what I’m doing: thinking about nothing. If I didn’t have an E*Trade account, it would be some other open-ended, irreconcilable source of mild stress.

There’s something in me that doesn’t want to engage the world, that would rather observe than participate, and rather ignore than observe. It’s been bothering me for a long time, and is bothering me more than ever on these first warm days of April, when the dog yanking the leash towards squirrel, towards duck, towards stick, towards sparrow reminds me just how much there is to be entranced by and just how short a time I have to be entranced.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.