The Joy Menu #35: Money

Your author decodes a family culture; what it purchased and what it cost.

Dear Creators,

Last week, the IRS sent me a letter asking for $20,000 and the first thing I thought was: I need to ask my father about this.

It’s intimidating: 14 pages, numerous codes, twelve boxes to check. And the fine print “If you do not agree with this decision…” buried like a body with no headstone.

It’s an error; I’m sure of it. But it brings up all range of fears and frustrations, helplessness and anxiety.

I spend days calling and emailing accountants, none respond. I Google, I read, I worry. I tie myself in knots. I’m unable to compartmentalize this swell threatening to crash the shore and wash away my savings and stability.

My father looms behind the wave. Or is it his absence?

I can write about bodies, about jail, about grief, about death — but money? Money is difficult. 

Money is full of conflict and shame; money brings up judgement and money exposes differences deeper than politics or religion. Perhaps because money is at the root of both.

Perhaps I’m being vague. Perhaps on purpose.

My father buys himself a new computer and seems eager to give it away. “Did you need a new computer?” he asks us all. “You can take it if you want and I’ll use yours…” 

When he buys his first smartphone, he immediately gives it to my mother and goes back to using the same flip phone that’s been sitting in his car’s cup holder for years. 

At one point, he gives his new car to my sister to drive to college, and goes back to using the old Camry we’ve been driving for nearly two decades.  

On visits home, he foists a dozen tubes of toothpaste into my hands. I take them, though they’re an orange flavor I find foul. “Do you need floss?” he asks, handing me twelve sealed boxes of smooth “cool mint” he’s purchased in bulk. “Socks?” he says next, and opens a drawer overflowing with thick white balls. Days later, when I’m packed to leave, I bring them back, washed and rolled. He makes a face. “Keep them.” 

He’d easily strip off his shirt and pass it my way if it seemed a better fit (it never would have been; I have one of his shirts now and it’s easily twice the size of anything I’d wear). He’d happily wander home naked knowing one of his kids was dressed.

Now, I think: Was he generous to a fault? Generous in a way that ended up being a kind of burden?

Then, guilt: what a thing to say. What a thing: difficult to express, complicated to articulate — without sounding ungrateful, sour, selfish, cold.

Generous to a fault. Like loving someone too much? 

I’m 16. 

I approach him in his chair, sit on the edge of the coffee table facing his smile. He holds a hand open next to his face, as if to give a high-5, but I know to thread my fingers through his. To let him squeeze my hand.

“Joop,” he says. This is my nickname. Or one version of the nickname I’ve had for as long as I can remember.

I ask him if I should get a summer job. School will be letting out for summer. I’m excited, and nervous, and have fewer summer activities lined up now that I’m older.

“What kind of job?” he asks.

“Any kind, I guess…” I list some friends who’ve gotten jobs, or who are already working. “Something like that. A normal summer job.”

“It’s not worth it,” he says, and shakes his head with finality. “You be a kid, study, play. Focus on your music. Let me be the one who works; I’ll pay you not to.” 

Am I sad? It would be an exaggeration to say I am. 

I could have pushed, made a fuss, gotten a job anyway. My sister did. But what 16 year-old would choose work over the easy path when that path is parent-approved and includes sleeping in?

How do I explain this with critical insight while also clarifying the absolute love I have for him, how completely safe he makes us feel, how absolutely taken care of, coveted, covered, held, affirmed, free.

Another example:

When I move to New York, I get a job at The Strand. 

I’d been told it was difficult. They rarely hired. The employees were unionized and stayed there for decades. They made you take a literature test before you were even granted an interview. 

I go in on a lark and ask at the front desk. They send me upstairs, where a bookish fellow gives me a small library pencil and a skinny slip of paper with ten book titles and a multiple choice list of authors’ names.

My parents mortgaged our family home to send me to college; I studied literature and I studied hard. It did the trick. I passed the test with a perfect score, admitting me into the hallowed halls and a crisp $7.50 an hour (full time only).

After my first week in the “Internet department” (wandering the store in search of books ordered by online customers, an entirely analogue system meant to find stock that half the time had already been sold), I calculate how many weeks more it would take me to pay my rent (3) and how much I’d have left over to, say, eat ($500) and I write it up in an email to my father.

“Quit,” he tells me after seeing my math. “I’ll pay you the same to stay home and write.”

Perhaps you’re picking up on a pattern?

When my writing hits a wall, I move home. It’s going nowhere, no one will publish it any more, and I can’t figure out how to make it into a living, let alone for it to be a life. I stay in my childhood bedroom. 

I’m 29. 

I turn to him for help. “It’ll work out,” he tells me. “It always does.” 

What, exactly, does ‘work out’ mean?

Rather than liberating me, rather than facilitating the flight of my gift, I am confined to a failure which feels double: both at the task at hand (the writing; my passion; the dream), but also at living up to the gift he’s given me

The license to dream, and the support to pursue it without distraction, limit, restriction. 

Who in this world is so lucky? And what to do with the detritus of this luck once its squandered?

What to do with freedom which becomes burden? 

I try to break the impasse, again and again. 

It’s difficult to explain a culture (ask an anthropologist), still more so when that culture is your own, when you’re raised in it, never question it, take to it as water to a fish, sunshine to a tree. 

In some families, money is partitioned. It’s owned. It’s distributed. 

In ours, it’s fluid. It exists, but as a collective force. As a way of facilitating family, it seems to belong to us all (even though only our parents are earning it).

I don’t know where this culture originates; though I understand it comes from him.

“I’ll take care of it.” Him.

“Don’t worry about it.” Him.

“I saw you had to get new tires; I put the money in your account.” Him.

“Come visit us; I put money in for tickets.” Him.

“How much was it? I sent you twice as much.” Also him.

Are love and money one currency? Two sides of the same high-value coin?

For my father, money is an extension of a kind of overreaching love — a desire to do whatever can be done to facilitate ease, joy, happiness, peace, fulfilment, expression, life for his children. To hold up those he has created; to promote those he’s raised; to generate belonging, to maintain safety; to build stability. For us. His kids.

Once, with glee, he calculates the wild sum he’s spent on our various studies, travels, college degrees, masters degrees: tuition checks, plane tickets, room and board plans. “Do you think it was worth it?” I ask, guiltily. He looks at me as if I’d asked if it was worth it to breath.

He is a man who remembers his father mailing cash in envelops from South Africa to Tel Aviv so he’d be able to start again; his mother’s beginnings at a bar with no proper floor; the dented Chevy he drove until he had three kids; the career he re-started at 35 which paid less than graduate school cost.

In one of our last conversations around the kitchen table in California, he mentions working in a factory in Chicago when he first arrived from Israel.

“You worked in factory?” I ask, bemused and surprised. 

“I was an immigrant. I needed work.”

“But I thought you were in school?”

“I worked at night and went to school in the day.”

You be a kid, study, play. Focus on your music. Let me be the one who works.

I’ll take care of it.

I’ll pay you to stay home and write.

If he could, he did.

It never would have occurred to him to not. Why else was he working?

When my father accepted his death, began to see it with glassy eyes as a thing that was coming, real and concrete, he found deep pride in many things: that he’d raised three kids, who were healthy, good people; that we got along, that we visited; that his relationship with my mother had been long and happy and filled with joy. That he’d sent us to school. That he’d sent us on trips. That we lived the lives we wanted.

And while he worried about my mother (“Take care of her, OK? She needs you,” he’d say to me time and time again that last year), he also felt deep satisfaction that the life insurance policy he’d spent years paying into would, when he was gone, be paid out in full.

It gave him a kick. A simple jolt of hard-earned pleasure.

It was a final bet, hedged. A final investment, vested.

Don’t worry about it. It’ll work out. It always does.

Onward toward creative joy,