The (real) value of money

MONDAY, 22 SEPTEMBER 2003

Many people want to be rich for the comfort and security it provides. Many people also want to be rich because they think it will make them feel important, and appear more important to others.

Financial wealth is also conducive to the average person whose life is anchored in the ever-changing cultural quagmire of the socio-economic middle class to be more confident of his or her identity. Money enables a person to acquire the badges the individual needs in order to appear to the world in a certain way. In this way, the individual can tell other people: “This is who I (think I) am, who I want to be, and how I would like to be seen. Here is the visible evidence.”

Wealth is thus seen (perhaps unknowingly) as an easy way to define identity, and continually confirm it – especially by people who do not have a lot of money, and who spend a significant amount of time in environments where money plays a prominent role in the development and display of identity.

… AND AN ACADEMIC NOTE

The above is what can be called an “answer” in the way I described a few pieces back. In this case, the initial questions would be: Why do so many people want to be rich? Is it just about the security of knowing you will have enough to eat today, and tomorrow, and possibly even next month? Or are we also driven by other instincts or motivations?

Most of my so-called answers are nothing more than personal theories. My methodology is also not terribly scientific. For example, I’ll think: “It appears to me that [Person X] is still not convinced of her own identity.”

Then, in the specified case, I’ll continue dusting or wiping away stains on the floor until the next thought enters my mind: “Strange, she’s always been overly attracted to money.”

Then, as I’m standing there with a cleaning cloth and a bottle of lighter fluid in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, the moment of insight strikes: “Is the one thing possibly connected to the other?”

With the latter, I’ll have formulated a QUESTION. Upon identifying the most reasonable and likely ANSWER, I can formulate a THEORY.

Then I will sit down at the dressing table, open my notebook and write something like: “Many people want to be rich for the comfort and security it provides. Many people also want to be rich because they think it will make them feel important …”

______________________

My current life

FRIDAY, 19 SEPTEMBER 2003

I can’t sleep, and I don’t want to be awake. I want to be healthy and live forever, but I don’t want to quit smoking. I want to have enough money to do what I know is possible, but that’s not my current reality. I’m trapped in a life where I’m doing my best, whilst I suffer from the conviction that things are not working out the way I would like them to.

Despite my present condition, my fingers aren’t trembling as I type these words, and no blood is dripping from my wrists. The material I produce is external proof that I am alive, and it is precisely that which motivates me to write. What I produce are documents that state how I live at any time during my earthly existence, and that testify how I feel and what my particular experience of reality looks like.

(This, just incidentally, is why I don’t care too much whether or not my writings will ever receive sponsorship from an established commercial publisher. What does it mean to get “published” anyway? It means someone who arrives at the office nine o’clock in the morning, who greets everyone in a courteous manner, who slides in behind a desk and presses a button on the phone that will make coffee arrive within two minutes, has read my “manuscript” and considers that my words might turn a profit for the company that provides a paycheck every month that enables this person to buy groceries and at the end of the year take the family down to the coast. I can’t help but think of what the playwright says to the theatre owner in the film, Illuminata, “Who are you to decide on the legitimacy of my work?”)

For years now I’ve been trying to convince an audience of zero that I’m not part of this world; I’m just here on assignment. It sometimes feels as if I’m from another time or place in the universe. I – with the particular name in my passport, and with all the numbers that make me legally part of Civilised Society – am supposed to find certain things out, to answer certain questions. And at the end of everything I’m going to report back to those who sent me, and they’ll say: “Good job. Here’s your next assignment.”

I’ve been trying to explain these things to people who say, “So you write, hey? Why don’t you try to get your stuff published?” Or, “Why don’t you write a few short stories or some articles?” How should I explain to these people that cosmic reports are not intended for the masses to read on their way to work or in the evenings when there’s nothing on TV?

Only problem is, this cosmic assignment came with a few glitches (maybe I forgot to read the fine print). To properly complete the assignment I had to take on an earthly life form, species Homo sapiens to be specific. And like other Homo sapiens can attest, this means that I walk around with a hierarchy of problematic needs every day of this miserable life. For example, I have to eat, and you can’t eat the same things every day because then people say you’re boring (and that matters, long story). Also, you can’t swallow down deep-fried octopus with vanilla milkshakes every day, because then you’re going to end up with arteries so clogged up from all the cholesterol that you may expire one night on the way to the deep-fried octopus place. One also feels this irrational desire to “spend time” with other people on an almost daily basis. This need can at times become extremely annoying, because most people do not understand my highly delicate task on this little speck of the cosmos.

In addition to the need to spend time in community with others, there is also the desire – that gets worse as the person reaches a certain age – to reproduce with one of usually the opposite sex. To beget children is only the ostensible purpose of this activity, though, because the reproduction is usually accompanied by intense pleasure. It is this pleasure aspect that drives most people nuts until they become too old and they realize they’re no longer in the mood for such frivolous activities.

To convince one of usually the opposite sex to seemingly reproduce range in difficulty from the easiest thing on earth to nearly impossible. And to make the satisfaction of this desire really complicated, there are factors like morality, feelings, expectations, disappointments, and the possibility that seemingly-reproducing-but-really-doing-it-just-for-fun can actually lead to the biological result that is the primary purpose for the activity. And then you’re back to morality, expectations, doing the “right thing” and conventions like marriage.

There are ways to escape, for short periods at a time, this incredibly complex interplay between cravings (of which the sexual is but one) and satisfaction. A whole variety of chemical substances is available from people who usually stand on street corners, or at locations where people hang around for hours at a time to make life more bearable. For millennia, alcohol has also been utilized for this specific purpose. The problem – and by now it should be clear that there almost always will be a problem – is that these so-called narcotics can only be taken in small doses. If these substances are not enjoyed in moderation, it leads to messy consequences such as addiction, and a long list of highly unpleasant activities that one must then undertake to keep satisfying the intensified craving. And was the initial idea not to get away from unsatisfied needs?

So here I sit: I can’t sleep, and I don’t want to be awake.

Sometimes I wish – I don’t know if saying this is even allowed – that I can be done with my cosmic assignment. I wish I could wake up one morning and either be back where I came from, or to be just an ordinary man.

If the latter is the case, I would probably choose to be an office worker …

Truth be told, I wouldn’t want an important position in this office – in this imagined life as an ordinary man. And there should definitely be at least a few people I can call “Boss”. I wouldn’t want to be the one making coffee for everyone, but I would like to drink coffee all the time. And I would like a desk with stacks of paper, and maybe a few stamps.

When the clock on the wall hits five o’clock, I’ll be ready. I will close my windows, turn off the lights, shut the door behind me and joyfully shout, “Goodbye! See you all tomorrow!” to everyone still standing around with coffee mugs in their hands. I will crack a few jokes with my colleagues in the elevator, buy the late edition at the cafe on the corner, and patiently stand at the bus stop waiting for the five-fifteen.

After a twenty minute bus ride and a short walk, I’ll arrive at “our house”. I will push open the front gate and follow the cement path to the front porch.

By the time the mesh door slams behind me, two children will already be pulling at the legs of my trousers, each convinced of their right to be the first to tell me their stories. Then an attractive woman will enter the hallway from the dining room, put the magazine in her hand on a table near the front door and embrace me for a few moments.

We will all wash our hands, and sit down for dinner. I will recite a lovely prayer, and then we’ll tuck away at plates full of rice, vegetables and meat. After dinner, my wife and I will wash the dishes, and I’ll tell her what some or other colleague said or did at the office today.

Then my wife will show me the rose buds in the garden – because it will be spring, and the twilight will be just enough to appreciate the flowers, and to see the neighbours’ faces when we greet each other. After helping the children with their homework, we’ll all watch a little TV.

Round about nine or ten o’clock we’ll say “Goodnight”. I will embrace the children one at a time and lovingly kiss them on their foreheads. I will make sure they settle down properly in their cosy beds. I will draw the bedding up to their little chins, give each one a final peck on the nose, and walk to the main bedroom a happy and contented man.

A quarter of an hour later I’ll be lying in bed next to my wife. I will take her tender, warm hand in mine, put my lips near her cheek and gently whisper, “Remind me some day to tell you about my previous life …”

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To be part of something bigger

[In case some references are confusing: By September 2003 I was seriously considering leaving Taiwan for a town in South Africa’s Gauteng province called Bronkhorstspruit.]

TUESDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 2003

I will start this piece with a fact: There are things in this life that are bigger than any single individual.

Now, everyone should already know that their entire existence is dependent on things that are bigger than them, that they could indeed not even have come into existence were it not for the fact that there were people before them, all of whom were also dependent on things bigger than they were. Everyone knows these things, right? Everyone knows there are things bigger than any single individual!

My original statement, still amazingly profound despite the fact that everyone knows it, clearly needs a little red pepper to give it sufficient kick to be the focus of an essay.

(Two weeks later. Wednesday, 17 September 2003. Small hours of the morning.)

Regardless of whether you consciously think about it or not, everyone belongs to the Bigger Picture in some or other way – that includes the psychologist, the philosopher, the poet, the preacher, the Hells Angel on his Harley Davidson, the member of the Mafia, the inner city gang member, the president of a large company, the peasant in China, the hobo in the alley, and the politician blabbering into the microphone. Most people have a reasonable idea of how they fit into the Great Puzzle, even if they don’t have the right vocabulary to formulate an intelligent thought on the subject.

The way you fit into the Bigger Picture is like a passport you could show to a cosmic immigration officer who wants to know, “Who are you?” This “passport” contains information on the species to which you belong (“Mr. X falls under the species Homo sapiens and should not be viewed as a household pet”), your age, and your name, or names (the one your parents gave you, the nicknames your friends call you and/or the name you have chosen for yourself). It contains information about where you were born, where you went to high school (if you ever got this far), and whether or not you attained a tertiary qualification (and if so, where). It also contains data about your likes and dislikes, your talents, your interests, what you’ve done with your life so far, what you still want to do with your life, your dreams, your ambitions and your failures. Other relevant information includes whether you consider yourself a member of any religious community; if so, what particular religion, and even what sub-sect or denomination. Where you live, what socio-economic class you can be placed in, whether you are married or not, your sexual orientation, whether you have children or not, and what you do on a daily basis to survive, are all further particulars that determine your individual cosmic code that makes you a “legitimate” part of the Bigger Picture. Another determining factor is associations, which include family, friends, acquaintances, business partners, even enemies (“ABC is the son of EDF, husband of GHI, father of JKL and MNO, best friend of PQR, business partner of STU and archenemy of XYZ”).

Two final thoughts deserve mention: You need to know as much as possible about yourself and you need to be this person who emerges from all the bits and pieces of data to be able to legitimately claim to yourself and before others the Unique Cosmic Code that makes you a part of the Bigger Picture.

To not know “who you are” and with that how you fit-in-and-belong to the Larger Reality is to feel alienated from the environment in which you find yourself. This lack of membership, this failure to belong, leads without many exceptions to one or more of the following conditions: loneliness, a sense of isolation, quite possibly anxiety, and an aggressive attitude towards your environment and the people with whom you are in daily contact.

Imagine the following situation: Bob X from B. Town meets John Z at a barbeque. John Z introduces himself as “John Z from Pretoria” and holds out his hand. Bob X smiles politely, shakes John’s hand and introduces himself as “John Z from Pretoria”. The real John Z will probably shoot a quick and somewhat annoyed smile in response to what he’ll assume was an attempt at humour, but he will quickly move on to the next group when he realizes that Bob X is quite serious – the latter is convinced that he, too, is “John Z from Pretoria”. Later that evening Clare K from Cape Town introduces herself to Bob, and once again he replies with genuine sincerity that he, too, is “Clare K from Cape Town”.

By the end of the evening everyone, except perhaps Bob X, will be convinced of the fact that Bob is in big trouble. Why? Because you have to know who you are to survive and to function in an environment outside institutions for dysfunctional people.

* * *

What do these insights have to do with whether I’ll go back to South Africa early next year, or stay in Taiwan? Everything.

If I’m “Bob X from B. Town”, I want to introduce myself as “Bob X from B. Town”, and I want to be convinced of what it means to be “Bob X from B. Town”. I also want to know if “John Z from Pretoria” feels good about what it means to be “John Z from Pretoria”, I want to feel good about who I am. And if “Clare K from Cape Town” introduces herself to me, and I come to the realization during the course of the conversation that follows that she is convinced that she’s not “Linda Q from Johannesburg” and she also does not want to be Linda Q, then I want to know deep down that I display the same belief about myself.

Am I currently convinced of who I am? Am I furthermore convinced that “Brand X, formerly from Taiwan and Korea, but now from B. Town” will be able to proudly recite his Cosmic Code at church meetings and sport gatherings? Or is it more valuable to me to maintain my membership, for now, to a group of people who live … outside?

(Still Wednesday, 17 September 2003; late afternoon.)

So, it seems that I’m currently experiencing one hell of a Bronkhorstspruit backlash. Fair enough, I did not spend seven years in the Far East to just suddenly jump on a sentimental bathroom mat one day, and whilst the mat flies out the door, to wave at everyone like some crash course Zen guru and say, “OK guys, I’m buggering off then … come fry some meat with us in Bronkhorstspruit!” No, this whole idea should be pelted with rotten cabbage and old eggs like any other plan. If the plan does get up the next morning and, with a cabbage leaf still clinging to its forehead like an uncombed strand of hair, appears on the porch and declares, “I’m okay! Howzit?!” then I know, I’m onto something.

I did wonder what has caused the backlash against B. Town. As I dusted off and packed away my fitness equipment, I went through the list of things in my mind that would fill my life as “Brand-of-Bronkhorstspruit”: my commercial projects, visits to the local supermarket, barbecue and dessert with the family, and of course my writing. I could even consider registering for an academic course or two in fields in which I am interested, including the Chinese language.

I asked myself what the difference is between this list and what I’m doing now. Obviously the environment plays a vital role in one’s experience of everyday life, and Benevolent Light New Town in the Mountain of the Phoenix is unquestionably a more stimulating environment than Apartments on the Edge-of-Town in Bronkhorstspruit. But how important is it really when you do your calculations at the end of the day?

Ultimately it was the image of me sitting in my apartment, writing, regardless of where in South Africa, that made an internal alarm go off. My identity as a writer is of utmost importance to me. It is to a large extent who I am. It is what I do. It’s not just a noble and meaningful occupation to pursue, it’s a life that inspires me to get up in the morning and to face the environment outside my front door – wherever in the world that environment may be.

I took my seat at the dressing table, ready for a bout of serious contemplation. Then it hit me: More than ninety percent of everything I put on paper in the past five years has to do with my life in self-imposed exile! My identity as a WRITER, at least at this stage of my life, is an irreplaceable aspect of my COSMIC CODE, and WHO I AM AS A WRITER, IS INEXTRICABLY INTERTWINED WITH MY LIFE ON THIS ISLAND!

Who am I, in other words, if I’m not “Writer in self-imposed exile in Taiwan”?

(A creepy Japanese thriller in the local theatre later …)

“Through brilliant detective work, the Internal Service has confronted the prime suspect, and by using outstanding interrogation methods forced him to plead guilty. It is thus my humble privilege to announce to the nation that the culprit is … the Writer! The Writer, ladies and noble gentlemen, is the one who has infiltrated and polluted the People’s morale and willpower with … ANXIETY!”

Loud cries of shock are muted, as usual, without an ounce of civility. The inspector continues as if he has just cleared his throat.

“After further investigation into the motivation of the writer, it came to light that he has followed the past few weeks of negotiations in deep contemplation. By Monday evening, he was convinced of what he had only suspected at first – that he was going to lose his job in the Planned Return To The Home Country; that he was going to get fired, terminated, get the axe, forced to go on early retirement. The writer realized that if he was going to bite the dust, he was not going to eat alone.

“Fortunately, our State is decidedly leftist and highly liberal, so the Chief Open Mind was immediately called in for repairs to the writer’s morale. And of course, noble and polite members of the public, to assure him that he is an irreplaceable part of Our Noble State! After all, we won’t be able to formulate a proper purpose for our existence without the profound material that our sensitive and angst-ridden Foot Soldier Number One in the Battle for the Soul so often throws in our faces!

“So, long live the Writer! Long live Our State! Forward Warriors for Our Struggle! Now, if I can just find those cursed keys to liberate the Writer of his handcuffs …”

* * *

To be part of something bigger than the single YOU is a need that is central to the human experience of life. It is one of the primary reasons why people are attracted to religion, especially the institutionalized version of it. It’s the reason why people prefer to be part of a group rather than to be alone. It’s the reason why people are patriotic. It’s one of the reasons why people support a particular sports team. It is also one of the reasons why a new member of the Hells Angels will appear in certain clothing, and swing a chain at motorists rather than shooting them with dry peas through a straw – the latter choice of weapon will not qualify him as part of the group to which he wants to belong; same goes for riding around on his steel stallion in a suit with a white shirt and a red bow tie.

Because people need to be part of something bigger than just the individual who he or she is in his or her skin, people define their identity – their “cosmic code” – to a large extent according to the groups to which they belong, whether it’s a company or organization for which they work, a fan group of some sports team, nationality, being part of a family, active participation in some or other subculture, or a combination of all the aforementioned.

Relationships are a fundamental aspect of this system of identity-by-association, of knowing who you are by knowing how you fit in through membership to something bigger than yourself. Relationships confirm membership: “You’re one of us.” Relationships reduce anxiety: “I’m not the only one.” Relationships confirm identity: “Here’s Bob X! He knows me better than I know myself.”

Relationships also sometimes keep an individual hostage when a person is manipulated to conform for the sake of membership to the group. Sometimes relationships destroy faith in good things. Sometimes relationships lead to destruction of what is good. Sometimes the stubborn maintenance of a relationship – for the sake of the benefits of membership, or presumed benefits in some cases – leads to the death of the self, or to the death of others.

But relationships are mostly good. In many cases relationships lead to a more enjoyable experience of life. Relationships strengthen when the individual is weak. Relationships provide comfort. Relationships create new life. Relationships are irreplaceable in the quest for belonging to the Bigger Picture.

It can furthermore be speculated in this piece that I, the Author of Pieces, am experiencing a serious lack of defining relationships.

______________________

Thirteen minutes on a Saturday night

SATURDAY, 13 SEPTEMBER 2003

Sit down at the dressing table in the living room. Put the cup of Med Lemon down on a coaster and pull a cigarette butt out of the metal thing in the ashtray designed to more effectively snuff out cigarettes. Fold your right leg over your left leg. Pick up the cup and blow on the contents. Whisper-sing, “I’m in hell without you!” Blow two or three times more then take a sip. Remove the second last cigarette from the pack of Nat Sherman Naturals, take the yellow lighter and light the cigarette. Blow out the smoke then blow a few bubbles. Transfer the cigarette to your left hand, get a grip on the cup and blow on the contents. Take two or three sips. Put the cup down. Transfer the cigarette to your right hand. Pull on the cigarette. Throw your head back and blow out the smoke. Blow another bubble. Look at your poster of Vladimir Lenin. Tap into the ashtray. Stroke your right foot. Blow a few bubbles. Transfer the cigarette to your left hand. Take the cup, blow on the contents then take two or three sips. Put the cup down. Sniff. Rotate your foot in anticlockwise motions. Sit back. Transfer the cigarette to your right hand. Pull on the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Blow bubbles. Gently massage your right foot. Look at the Korean poster under Lenin that says, “Deconstructing Toward Creation.” Pull on the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Blow bubbles. Swallow. Thump your ankle with the palm of your hand. Transfer the cigarette to your left hand. Pick up the cup, blow once, slurp two or three times. Put the cup down. Look at the statuette of Confucius on a nearby bookshelf. Transfer the cigarette to your right hand. Tap the ash. Pull on the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Blow bubbles. Massage your foot again. Rock back and forth then say aloud: “I think of death every day. Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about death. When Charmain said it to me the other day, I laughed.” Stop rocking. Place the cigarette in your left hand. Now you want to blow a bubble, but you pull on the cigarette instead. Blow out the smoke. Now blow a bubble. Pick up the cup, blow on the contents, then slurp; slurp again then put the cup down. Transfer the cigarette again. Try to gently brush the ash off onto the metal thing in the ashtray then tap it off after a few seconds. Sit forward. Tap your feet to the rhythm of a tune in your head. Pull on the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Caress your foot again. Sniff. Swallow. Move the cigarette deeper in between your fingers, take the cup at its handle then take a sip. Take a bigger sip. Put the cup down. Put the cigarette in your left hand. Rock back and forth again. Pull on the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Blow bubbles. Pick up the cup, take two sips, and put the cup down again. Sniff. Tap the ash into the ashtray. Stick your big toe in the air. Wiggle your toes. Take the last … second last puff of the cigarette. Blow out the smoke. Pick up the cup and take a sip. Put the cup down. Scratch your head. Break wind. Blow a bubble. Take the last puff of the cigarette. Blow the smoke out. Snuff out the cigarette in the metal thing. Take another sip of your Med Lemon. Slide your feet into the blue plastic sandals. Get up. Walk down to the studio. Press the spacebar. Sit down. Double-click on the Microsoft Word icon. Wait until a document entitled “Document1” appears on the screen. Click the Maximize button. Place your fingers on the keyboard and type: Thirteen minutes on a Saturday night.

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Creative, fulltime

MONDAY, 4 AUGUST 2003

Why were the Beatles “larger than life”? Because they did what they liked and what they believed in. And because they spent most of their productive time on it, their abilities were exponentially sharpened.

The fact that their creations – their particular type of music – was in demand at the time certainly helped. But the fact remains that they engaged themselves, on a full-time basis, with that which they felt most strongly about, that in which they truly believed. As a result, they reached a level of artistic ability any talented, creative person can achieve if he or she busy themselves with what they like most, for the greater part of what is considered a normal workday.

Proper marketing and the talents of other people also played a pivotal role in their commercial success. But if the individual members of the group had to put in eight hours a day at some factory in Liverpool and then work on their music in the evenings – after dinner and a little TV, not even the best wizards of marketing would have been able to sell their necessarily more mediocre work to the masses.

The Beatles were thus as extraordinary as they had become because they succeeded in an ideal synthesis – creative excellence and commercial success.

———————-

[For readers who insist on technical accuracy it should again be emphasized that the Beatles’ story worked as well as it did because what they had spent most of their time on with such passion and enthusiasm had commercial value.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for everyone to spend the biggest part of a “working day” on that for which we save our greatest passion and conviction because we still need money. And if what we spend most of our time on – masterpiece or no masterpiece – can not occasionally be traded for cash, we still need to do something else for the sake of physical survival.]

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