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First payday was last Tuesday, the 20th. Starting a week and a half late impacted it, but at more than double the weekly dole it was still sizeable, at least for me.

Over time, my relationship to payday has changed. Never clutching and scrambling through each day to the desperate relief of its golden horizon, it’s always felt like a present. It has always been nice to have.

In high school or college I can remember it having more desperation out of anger: how much of my precious life must I give up to the heartless machine to buy its products. So much more to see and do besides stand in a plain shirt and nametag with a broom, wandering store aisles, looking busy when my mind was very busy with stories and ideas and dreams far beyond this dumb little town. I could do real things.

The exchange felt lopsided to an insulting degree. It, as much as my mother, made me cheap. To get so little for such self-deprivation–how could you part with a dime? When payday came in those days I stood in line at the bank, as you did in those days, and filled out a little slip and walked it to the window, as you did in those days, for the honor of giving the bank your money so they could charge tiny fees for getting it back, as you still do now. And the pile built and with it a sense of security, not so much against any one thing but against the feeling of loss. To have a little gave you a sense of having much, and the great yawning height of infinity that was muchness. 

That is a dangerous road. That our entire productive economy is fixated on pressing that button of perceived loss–the hole in the muchness that you inevitably know–is more than unfortunate. It has made us all sick. Some people can’t buy enough to fill that hole, and others can’t save enough. The great faiths have relegated the former to easy sin; making the latter a virtue doesn’t make it any less the sin’s mirror image.

Finally turning this around in middle age has been shocking and easy. My ex worked on me for years and was successful in getting me to understand cheap is not the same as frugal, and I am thankful for that. It was surprisingly hard to buy name-brand refried beans or sugar when the store brand was a dime less, but I was able to do it, sometimes. I could spend money here and there, though it could still be paralyzing when faced with more than one choice and amounts over a hundred bucks. Fifty or less became easy.

The last few months have tested this. Only savings sustained me in Hawaii, and the rationalization that I was earning buckets of points carried only so far. You’re not spending money, you’re enabling experience. You have enough. Remember enough. I didn’t feel the crawling ants of dwindling while out there, but there were times I wondered. I could do without ice cream in the land of eight dollar ice cream.

Since returning the fiscal acceleration had its own gravity. Yes, the hospital needs its money. Yes, the cat should see the vet. Good brakes and front suspension are wise. But these things add up. Yes, these things are temporary and to be expected from time to time, but sitting at someone else’s kitchen table makes this pointed.

This first modest payday is a financial petit four: small, pleasant, not quite cute but hinting at substance. It’s enough I would swoon in high school and plenty respectable to the me of now who boggles at $10 for toilet paper and a roll of paper towels. It sits in the checking account and the online account balance is comforting to read. It is added to the pile, like everyone else’s pile, reaching up toward the empty infinity above.

Not so much the money but the presence of money, and the reasonable assurance of its continued, scheduled presence into the future, is what satiates. For others it may be survival, but I think more it is that sense of grounding, of permanence, of the trust that the universe works with predictable reciprocity. I put in, I get back. There’s no free lunch and somehow something is gone off the top, but most comes through. You can count on it. It’s when you can’t that people stare at the walls and can’t get out of bed. That is why jobless men kick the ground or pace late at night. They publicly worry about money because that is fashionable, but deeper is the sense of upending. Even if they hated something they had it, and now it is gone. What’s the response when the object of your torn affections evaporates?

Is the problem lack of goals? People are given shiny things to want but not much to aspire to beyond Retirement’s vague fear. The Economy, our great lord, is bloated and sickened with decades of mindless want directed toward nothing in particular. We have been driven to want things that are unsatisfying even as they become more attainable; we are told to pay no mind to the increasing cost of staples. Now everyone worries about bread.

Didn’t we all want to be rock stars? The job was temporary, a thing to get started, pay rent. Now we are in the system and need its comfort as much as we told ourselves it was keeping us down. We ended up with the problems our parents had, just as we deeply suspected but would never admit.

I don’t want to need it. I am not sure I need to want it, a different thing. But it is coming and it feels worth what I give up for it now, and it feels good to see it there in black and white.


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