Life is like a dead car in the middle of winter


My car died recently. On the coldest winter day, it suddenly refused to start. Since it had been running fine the day before, I suspected it was not a major issue. It was probably something I could have eventually fixed myself, which was just as well because I didn’t have money to have it towed to a shop, and in any case I tend to view auto shops with a suspicion that makes John Mearsheimer look like Forrest Gump by comparison. However, street parking, a rapidly approaching major snowstorm, and the relentless onslaught of General Winter’s troops caused me to throw in the towel, so I found my crunchy granola stick-shift Subaru a fitting resting place supporting the fine programming of Minnesota Public Radio. It was probably a poor financial decision, but it was so easy. Afterwards, I felt like how Atlas must have felt when he found someone to watch his globe for a bit while he ran off for a bathroom break.

My current theory, developed after I got rid of the car, is that I fouled the spark plugs by flooding the engine while trying to start it, which, if true, would have entailed a disappointingly easy and cheap fix. I think the reason I flooded the engine in the first place is that the spark plugs already had some carbon deposits due to the fact that I rarely drove, and only for short distances at low RPMs. A good old Italian tuneup may have done some good. Basically, as I see it, my car died because I wasn’t driving it much. A car wants to be driven.

My mind wants to be ‘driven’ too, so in this story of my car I see a cautionary didactic tale. The use my mind gets at my job seems to me like the equivalent of your grandma driving three miles to the pet food store in her gold 1998 Buick Park Avenue, and my time spent outside of work is not much better. Am I fouling up my brain with the low RPM demands I place on it? Will I meet a similar demise on the cold, snowy streets of Saint Paul? I was okay with getting rid of my car because it was old and I wasn’t really using it, but I do need my brain to be there.

I often think back to my last year of college as a contrast to my current state. I remember this as a vaguely unhappy period in my life, but also as the time when life felt the most colorful and substantial. I had outlets for creative expression through playing in a band, drawing comics, and writing a weekly column in the college paper. Back then, if you threw a rock, you would hit a person having a creative idea. Classes were easy and fun, and something electric seemed to be in the air. Who knows how accurate any of these recollections are, but the memory of this time in my life still stands out for me as a sort of Platonic ideal.

There are some things I find helpful in my current life, such as writing this blog and meditation. But I’m still looking for that wide open highway, or at least a decent Italian tuneup every now and then.

What I’m most afraid of is that, 10 years down the line, I’ll find that whatever ability I have to be creative will have atrophied, replaced by the ability to be productive. The more the universe resolves the details of my life and blesses me with comfort, the more this fear in me grows. I guess this is another way of saying that I can always find something to complain about. So instead let’s focus on the bigger issues facing society, and I’ll hopefully find ways to take care of myself. Thanks for reading.

Afraid of Powerball

Did you buy a Powerball ticket? The staggering sums involved in this current round are certainly exciting: the jackpot is now at a dizzying $1.3 billion. The odds of winning the jackpot—1 in 292 million. Hoping for the jackpot is kind of like hoping your name will be drawn out of a fishbowl containing the names of every American.

On the other hand, why not play? Buying a ticket is cheap, kind of fun, and hopefully at least some of the money goes to support a good cause.

Imagine winning the lottery and becoming obscenely wealthy overnight. I imagine that winning the jackpot would instantly transform you into that generic stock photo of a man in a suit clutching fistfuls of Benjamins with a victorious smile on his face. However, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that real-life lottery winners tend to lead truly awful existences following the “luckiest day of their lives.”

The worst story I read was about a man who won the lottery whose brother proceeded to hire a hitman to murder him in the hopes of inheriting some of the winnings. In any case, conflict igniting between the lottery winner and family, friends, and even one’s own sense of self seems to be a common theme in these sorts of stories.

If you actually won the lottery, you would probably suddenly be besieged by long-forgotten friends and family members you didn’t even know existed. In every interaction that you had, you would see a financial motive lurking in the background. You would probably no longer be capable of having interactions that you could feel to be genuine, and you would gain a great understanding of what Aristotle meant by his cryptic lament: “O my friends, there is no friend.”

I think suddenly coming across hundreds of millions of dollars would be sort of like turning on god mode for life. My experience with cheat codes for god mode on video games has been that they are only fun for an hour at most, after which the game becomes incredibly boring. Right now, money imposes a great number of constraints on my life. I need to live in a certain location, limit purchases based on price, make career plans, and so on. While all of these constraints are generally pointless and stupid, they probably play an important role in preserving my sanity. I am not sure I would have the strength to live peacefully without these constraints. So I would be able to buy whatever I wanted, do whatever, go anywhere in the world? Reminds me of when I typed in a cheat code in Need for Speed to defeat all of my computer opponents by making them crash. This was admittedly sort of fun, but the canned praise after winning somehow sounded more hollow than usual (if such a thing is even possible).

I recall an aphorism that I saw hanging on the wall of a Buddhist temple: “Being different from everyone is worrisome; being the same as everyone is dissatisfying.” I can imagine the worry of having less money than most people, and I can imagine the boredom of being comfortably in the middle. But I’m curious about the dissatisfaction of being fabulously rich. I read about one lottery winner saying that he wished he had ripped his ticket up after finding out that he was a winner. On the other hand, some people don’t seem to mind being rich at all. I get the sense that people who toiled for years to gain their wealth tend to be better adjusted to the Uncle Pennybags lifestyle. Things you get for free usually end up being horrifically expensive; I have heard this said by multiple wise people, and it has been my real experience as well. And it seems that lottery winners often end up paying for their free millions with the most precious things imaginable: family, friends, and the unappreciated privilege of being “just like everyone else.”

Not that any of this matters, but it’s interesting to think about. Did I buy a ticket, you ask? Not a chance. I think it’s a waste of money, but I do admit that a small, irrational part of me is afraid to win.

The dismal pseudoscience

What is money? We all know it’s a gas, a hit, and a crime, but what is it really?

If you use banking like most normal people, than I guess money is little bits of data somewhere as an abstract representation of paper money that is attributed to you. Paper money has value because most everyone that you meet will agree that it is valuable. In the past, paper money had a predetermined value of a certain amount of gold, but this is no longer the case.

Gold is also a thing that people agree is valuable. It is valuable because there isn’t very much of it in the Earth’s crust, and it is shiny.

All it would take for a briefcase containing a million dollars to become a worthless box of scratchy toilet paper is for everyone at once to stop believing that money has value. Basically the same thing could be said for gold, but at least gold has certain important industrial applications.

The more I think about money, the more it seems to be not a real thing. After graduating from high school, I worked in a store to save money to go traveling. I withdrew $1000 in Benjamins to bring with me on my trip, and I remember being disappointed that so many fairly unpleasant hours of labor could be reduced to these ten tiny pieces of paper. I am comfortable with the concept of money because I have grown up with it, but I can’t help but think that it often fails the “sniff test.”

While I cannot substantiate any of the claims I am about to make, it seems to me that money, perhaps because it is not “real,” can behave in strange, perhaps even supernatural ways. For instance, although it is a basic fact of money that spending it leaves you with less, I can’t shake the feeling that losing money brings more money to me through other channels. And I don’t mean this in the “you have to spend money to make money” sense, which refers to money explicitly spent with a certain return in mind. The phenomenon I refer to is not logical at all.

For example, I once had a large amount of cash stolen from me. I hung up my coat somewhere, and while I was away, someone took the wad of bills that I had left in my coat. Soon afterwards, I got the money back, but not from the thief. Completely out of the blue, I was given a cash award for artistic activity from my college. I was not a particularly artistic person, and I had never even heard of this award, so this money was completely unexpected. The cash amount of the award I received was exactly the amount of cash that had been stolen from my coat pocket.

I’ve seen this phenomenon work in reverse as well. I once bought a cool looking calculator for a few dollars at an estate sale, but later found out that this model of calculator was being sold for almost a hundred dollars on eBay. Naturally, I jumped in on the action and sold the calculator. A few days later, I received a speeding ticket, and the fine was uncannily similar to the amount I had sold the calculator for.

In a more general sense, I seem to always have enough money, and yet I never have as much as I would like. This is unchanging. What changes is the scale of my income and expenditures, which somehow always seem to cancel each other out.

Money leaves you, but then the exact amount that you need comes into your possession. Money comes to you, but then you are obligated to pay out almost all of it for unexpected uses. Although there is no way I could ever prove this, my intuition strongly tells me that it is true. Deepak Chopra writes of money being a sort of energetic flow. If you hold onto it, it withers. The only thing to do with money is to circulate it. Spend, receive, and repeat. Making this flow more voluminous is what we refer to as wealth. It has nothing to do with having a large amount of money sitting untouched in your bank account. Although you could dismiss this idea as hogwash without any possibility of rebuttal, it is nonetheless consistent with my experiences.

It is my suspicion that certain people intuitively understand the energetic force of money and ensure wealth for themselves. Although I’m not sure of the workings of this energy or even of its existence, I definitely plan to be more attentive to the esoteric workings of money. If you find all of this incredibly stupid, then I guess I have nothing substantive to say to convince you otherwise. It would definitely be reasonable to focus instead on boring stuff like gaining marketable skills and paying into your 401(k).