15 July 2018: The Nature of Things
Not long before the kickoff of the World Cup Final, I wandered up in the steaming heat to my favorite local pub in Paris with subterranean expectations of finding my usual spot on its narrow side terrasseunoccupied. With a resigned sigh I saw that all the tables had predictably been relocated to the main terrassestretching out into the street in front of a couple of jumbo TV screens. About to turn on my heel and sulkily go home, I caught a fleeting glimpse through the swarming crowds of my little table sitting alone, almost forlorn, it’s one battered wicker chair empty.
“Hooray!” I shouted. “Out of my way!” I shouted again as I aggressively shoved and elbowed my way through the thickets of fans. The chair groaned and almost tipped over as I threw myself into it. White-knuckling the sides of the table defensively, I bared my teeth and snarled like a wolf protecting its pups.
“Are you sure you want to sit here?” asked the remarkably affable waiter. I stared at him incredulous and speechless because it was the very first time since living in France I had received immediate, friendly service anywhere. Normally you wait, and you wait, and you wait until you’re gradually infected with a nagging suspicion that you’re at imminent risk of dying of old age.
“Um… yes… absolutely,” I stammered finally. “Thank you!”
“But you can’t see the game from here!”
“I know. I don’t care,” I said with a wave and ordered my beer. I didn’t either, especially as I was inwardly siding with Croatia after the French had uniformly foamed at the mouth cheering on Croatia in its semi-final tilt with England. No, I was more interested in watching the crowd, bedecked in French flags and faces garishly painted in bars of blue-white-red, watch the game. That was the novelty I was expecting (even though I was also distracted by following a riveting Wimbledon match on my phone), i.e. studying masses of French people in a state of intoxicated joy and national pride. Who knew?
Towards the end of the match, when French victory (you rarely see those two words in such close proximity, do you?) was all but assured, I heard a radio blasting For the Love of Money.* The source was a 250,000€ hunk of elegantly chiseled red Ferrari snaking slowly through the increasingly turbulent crowd, now interminably chanting “Allez les Bleus!”, its jewel-encrusted driver insistently leaning on the horn and high-fiving people through the sunroof. Observing this intently I noticed a young man, innocuous enough at first blush, discreetly dragging a key fist along the side of the car. This act of vandalism was in vain however. The keys didn’t make so much as a scuff mark and I can only imagine that’s because Ferraris are painted with some other-worldly liquid steel emulsion which renders them immune to the slightest abrasion, even from nuclear blasts.
For some reason, as I picked my way home through the ever-accumulating party detritus and half-blinded by smoke bombs, I kept thinking about the attempted keying. What was the motivation? It wasn’t racial as both driver and keyer were white. I concluded it was simply an expression of anger and disgust directed by the keyer against an arrogant rich bastard flaunting a toy worth more than he was likely to earn in 10 years. “If I can only ever dream of driving around in a car like that then I’m going to attack the dream you have the nerve to live,” I guess the thinking goes when consumed by envy for that which is forever out of your reach.
I have more faults and weaknesses than a supercomputer could enumerate but I’m extremely fortunate to have never in my life been seized by this insatiable appetite to ravenously gobble up material things, all the while coveting those I don’t have the means to acquire. Apparently having been vaccinated against this soul-destroying disease at birth, I even resented the modest car I bought out of sheer necessity to get to and from work back in the 90s. Sure, after driving it home all shiny and new, I spent about 5 minutes admiring it parked out front rubbing my hands together maniacally muttering “It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.” But once I sat down and calculated that more than a quarter of my monthly take-home salary was going to be pillaged by the bank, the real owner of the car, insurance, gas, and maintenance, I found myself unconsciously making a key fist as I again stared out the window at my new possession, this time with untethered loathing.
Three years later, in ’97, I was driving a rented motorcycle across a Greek island buzzing like a junkie as I watched the dusty late-afternoon sunlight splinter through soft clouds and litter the turquoise ripples of the Aegean with shimmering globules of gold. I had quit my job, sold my millstone of a car, and run off with the proceeds for a 2-month long rampage, er I mean tour, through Europe. Now THAT was a worthwhile way to blow money. Breathtaking, unforgettable experiences. I vowed there and then to never own a car again: total hassle to maintain; shit for the environment; shit investment, halving in value the moment you drive it out of the lot; stupidly expensive; and totally unnecessary if you are willing to use the two legs God gave you and live anywhere with half-decent public transport.
Ten years later, in ’07, still steadfastly car-less but becoming increasingly sick of flushing my money down the toilet every month on rent, I became a homeowner for the first time when I purchased a condo in Montreal’s Plateau district. Unlike the car, this time my Gollum-like pride and possessiveness lasted the duration. I certainly didn’t like the taxes, the condo fees, the maintenance, and my ghoulish neighbors who would call the police if I so much as farted an octave too high after their snotty-nosed little instrument-torturing brats had been banished to bed at sundown. Nevertheless, it was my home, not some wasteful contraption to deliver me from A to B, and I adored it.
Another ten years later, in ’17, it was time to move to Paris and I sold the condo. Although that was a very tough horse pill to swallow, the profit-taking sugar-coated it plenty sweet enough to go down. I pooled the proceeds from the condo sale with those already invested in the market and realized that, over time, the returns from my portfolio would match or beat most conventional real estate investment. Not to mention I was now liberated from all the attendant hassles of homeownership. My wife and I resolved not to buy real estate again until such time arrives, if ever, that we’re done moving around and traveling and find that idyll, if it exists, to permanently put up our feet and peacefully grow old (or older in my case).
In any case, by far the most liberating process I undertook in preparation for the move to Paris was purging virtually all of my moveable material possessions. I’m not just talking about tossing the mountains of junk that inevitably pile up year after year living in the same place (yes, it is JUNK, you pack rats – you know who you are!) Realizing I had never once gone through them, I also tossed boxes full of pictures taken in the medieval era of analog photography which I had enlisted pack oxen to cart around my whole life. This included tossing all the pictures, reams of cards, letters, etc., of and from exes, the gunpowder residue of broken relationships that for some reason people, including me until then, preserve as if happy pictures and words from long ago at the bottom of a box in storage might one day sooth the painful memories that have mostly faded away anyway. It also included giving away almost all of my books because it suddenly occurred to me that, for most of us, it’s neither intellectual nor cool to build an expansive personal library. Unless you plan on reading them again, what is the use of hoarding books that do nothing but collect dust on multiplying shelves and bookcases when other people could be reading them?
As I sat on the floor of my empty condo on the eve of moving to Paris, here was the sum total of my belongings in ascending order of monetary value:
- Small box containing my old dog’s ashes
- About fifty old photographs
- About ten favorite books
- Clothes (most of which a hobo wouldn’t be caught wearing)
- Wedding ring
They say that when people lose their homes and all their possessions in a devastating fire, they undergo a short-lived phase of acute grief which is quickly followed by a euphoria-inducing sense of total emancipation from not just their material things but the past itself. This is precisely how I felt but minus the grief phase as I had deliberately set my own bonfire alight and gleefully watched it burn. During those last heady days in Montreal, I felt so unencumbered my feet barely seemed to touch the ground as I Gene Kellyed my way through the streets. So much so, I resolved to maintain the high and stick to that bare minimalism for the rest of my life.
So far, I have been successful. Apart from furnishing our apartment in Paris with basic IKEA fare that will be sold or given away when we move on to the next destination, I have added nothing to the list above. I did replace my aging PC with a very expensive MacBook Pro to complement my very expensive iPhone. The computer and phone I’m willing to spare no expense on because (1) they (or rather the clouds they access) literally contain my entire life (contacts, calendar, notes, documents, photos, music… EVERYTHING) and (2) I spend most of my waking life on them when not traveling. And that is the third thing I’m willing to spare no expense on: traveling. I have no issue bleeding money to expand my repertoire of experiences, but I will not do so on things. Those bothersome, wasteful thingy-things!**
And don’t get me wrong. I love money. I’m not ashamed to say it and I’m currently enjoying my progress becoming a day trader in the stock market. I have never believed all the bullshit that money ultimately makes people unhappy.*** On the other hand, there is no doubt poverty always makes people unhappy, often violently unhappy. There’s no imperative to get rich, of course, but in the unlikely event I ever do find myself rich one day, I will never want to own a big house. Why? Because I’ll never need one, I don’t want to have to fill it full of junk (I repeat: it is JUNK, you pack-rats!), and I don’t want to have to maintain it. And I’ll certainly never buy myself a Ferrari or anything like it. Not only because I’ll never need one, it’s gangsta showing off and when you’re gangsta showing it off at the next World Cup final, someone less fortunate than you will inevitably be approaching it/you with a key fist… or worse.
* Old classic by the O’Jays: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcrppevM46Q
** I confess I intend to add an e-reader to the list but only so I can electronically borrow books and not have to bother with physical ones any longer.
*** Not sure why I’m suddenly reminded of this classic quote from English footballing legend, George Best: “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds, and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”