Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Thing With Money

One funny thing about the worldwide economic crisis (yes, I actually found one thing) is that I find I am as unruffled about it as, I imagine, Warren Buffett. And all because I occupy the opposite extreme of the material wealth spectrum: while Mr. Buffett floats high above the hullabaloo on account of his being the second richest man in the world (second to his close friend Bill Gates) with a net worth of $41 billion, I am swimming waaaay below the ugly debris on clear blue waters on account of my being the second poorest to—oh, I don’t know--the sewer rat?

It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, even if it may come off that way. But, you know, I am very careful to refrain from self-pitying thoughts because I do live in a very poor country. Which means that, much as I can’t afford certain things at the moment (like a Chai Latte at Coffee Bean), there are many, many people—millions, in this country--who can barely afford to feed their family. That picture in my head usually steers me away from the door marked This Way to Complete and Utter Despair.

That’s why I don’t. Despair, that is. I don’t despair the fact that I have no bank account, no savings, no insurance, no credit card, no regular income and that I’ve been mooching off my parents for the past year. In fact, I take an almost perverse pleasure and a weird sense of achievement that I am actually bereft of the things I supposedly cannot live without. My life has been pretty basic but I am very grateful that I do have what I need right now: I eat three meals a day, I have my own room, I have family to share things with and who by now know enough when to leave me alone, I can write in peace. 

Food, space, company, solitude, a form of expression—sounds good to me. I want to say I’m doing fine, that I’m actually quite content, but I’m almost sure no one is going to believe me (No credit card? Come on, how can you be content?) I’m thinking, If I were not me right now, I wouldn’t believe me, either. So I won’t even try to convince anyone here.

I just want to marvel at how I got to this point--the point where money has little to no say in the decisions of my life.

It’s not that I hate money or that I’m afraid of it, as a friend once assumed. I just suspected it was overrated, over-hyped, like sex with a Latino lover (not that I’ve had one—I promise to get back to you on that when I’ve had that experience. Oh, that would be so nice…). 

Anyway, like I said, it was just a suspicion. There was just something about how people tended to go on and on about how things weren’t possible without money—lots of it—that made me question its supposed overwhelming power. I know it’s important—I won’t take that away from money—but I felt that people were giving it way too much importance, assigning it such a central role in their lives that I just didn’t think it deserved. People were waiting for it—via a winning lotto ticket, a one-time-big-time deal, an “unexpected” windfall—with the ardor of the faithful awaiting the Second Coming of the Messiah, as if to deliver them from the “quiet desperation” and monotony of their lives. “As soon as I have the money…”, “Magkapera lang ako…” I hear people—smart, educated ones—say all the time, as if only by the arrival of The Money can their lives finally begin.

I couldn’t buy into that thinking because, for one, I was impatient to begin my life. I didn’t want to have to wait to become a millionaire to start writing my books, making my films, staging my plays, traveling to all those countries I wanted to visit. I wanted to start doing all those things NOW. Not later, not after I’ve worked my way up the corporate ladder or saved a sizable amount of money or raked in returns from investments. Now.

I was gripped by a sense of urgency, by a painful awareness of time’s passing, to bother so much with whether or not I had enough material resources. There was so much I wanted to do and I was aware that I was given exactly the same number of hours a day as everyone else. While I could negotiate or work harder and longer for more money, these strategies just didn’t work with time. There was just no way to make more of it. The only realistic thing, actually, was to make the most of it. It became pretty clear to me that between time and money, the former was just infinitely more valuable, if only for the fact that it was non-renewable—once it was gone, it was gone forever.

I decided early on that I was going make the most of this valuable time, to spend it only on things that mean something to me. Which meant that, if I could think of five other things I’d rather be doing, no matter how much I was getting paid to do whatever it was I was supposed to be doing at the moment, then I’d just drop the whole thing.
And so it seemed (or seems), to my friends and family, that I didn’t—or still don’t--care about money, that I dismiss it, that I am not realistic or grounded enough to bother with it. Which just isn’t true. I do know money is valuable—I mean, how else am I able to pay for my books, my travels, my movies, my tea, my, um, bikini wax? It’s just scary how people have confused it to be the most valuable thing, how they’ve ceded so much of their own personal power to it, driving themselves to the ground for it. 

I’ve seen how easy it is to be paralyzed by a lack of money, to believe that nothing worthwhile can be achieved without it—and it was an idea that I just couldn’t ram down my throat. My mind and my whole body strongly resisted this notion. I wanted to know for sure whether my suspicion about money’s overblown sense of importance was true, and the only way to know that was to go and live my life with it only on the sidelines, kicking it out of the way as much as I could.
Of course, I may have overdone it. (No bank account, no savings, no insurance, no credit card, no regular income…Ok, so I have overdone it.) But I just needed to make sure that money was in its proper place in my life, that it played a supporting role in it rather than the lead, that it wasn’t front and center. I needed to make sure I was calling the shots, telling it what it can do for me instead of the other way around. In that sense, I can say I was successful. Very, very successful. I had systematically removed myself from the complex financial network, where I felt like a fly trapped in a spider's web--left the world of the regular job and its regular pay, cut my credit card as soon as I paid off all my debts, stopped paying for my insurance altogether (never mind if everyone said it was sayang), closed my bank account. Financial crisis, you say? Shouldn’t one have finances, to begin with?

There is another thing, too: Sometimes, I think people use money as a scapegoat—a convenient thing to point a finger at when their courage fails them. They can hide behind “Kailangan kasi kumita, eh” for not doing the things they dream of doing. It seems more acceptable, I guess, than “Takot kasi ako’ng sumemplang, eh."

This is not to say I am above being driven by fear. My friend Cecilia, fond of trying to read people, declared to me once, after fixing me with the unsettling penetrating stare of a manghuhula, “You don’t have any fears.” She sounded awestruck. I said, “Everyone has fears, Cecilia” as my mind quickly ran through its “Fear” file. Then she gasped, and I could almost see the light bulb switch on above her head. “Money!” Her eyes grew large and questioning. “You’re afraid of…money? Why?”

I explained to her that it wasn’t money I was afraid of—that it was people’s perception of money that scared me. It was so potent, I worried it might infect me one day. Later that night, I dug deeper than that and realized that my real fear was the idea that, if I wasn’t vigilant enough, something—including money--could actually hold me back, could keep me from going after the things that I want. I was afraid of being weighed down, of feeling trapped in a certain kind of life the way I had seen it happen with other people just because they bought into the notion that they absolutely cannot live without certain things. And that fear was strong enough to make me hack away at potential shackles around my feet.

The first to go, as it happened, was money.  

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

That Damn Vampire Movie

I’m perhaps one of two people in the world who hasn't read Twilight. (The other one being my dad). At least, that’s how it felt to me yesterday when he and I found ourselves in a theatre full of 12- and 13-year-old female fans of the book series, the first of which has been turned, ala Harry Potter, into a blockbuster movie. The girls were squealing, writhing in their seats and clutching one another in impossible-to-suppress kakiligan. My dad would laugh out loud every time they did that. These kids knew all the characters; they whispered their names in recognition the second a new character appeared onscreen. It was as if we had stumbled into a book club, except that the book was projected onscreen.

Much as I would have wanted to keep my been-there older-woman composure, it was hard not to be carried away by the highly charged youthful romantic energy in the darkened theatre. I was with girls who had probably not been kissed yet (although I wouldn’t really delude myself about that) or, at least, have not yet had their heart stomped on, kicked around and left in the dust by a heard of African elephants; their greatest loves—and the attendant greatest heartbreaks--were still ahead of them. They were still at that stage where everything is possible—yes, even the idea that they could be swept off their feet by a gorgeous, brooding vampire who would be heroic for them. Before I knew it, I was squealing along with the girls, clutching my dad’s arm whenever I got sooo kilig, aaaaaaah!--and he was laughing at me.

Throughout dinner last night, I couldn’t help dissolving into fits of kilig-induced girly giggles, causing the grown-ups (my dad, my mom, my sister) around the table to give me pointed looks. But even as my body was shaking with giggles and the grin on my face was beginning to make my face hurt, I was thinking, What’s going on? Have I perhaps lost it? I felt like…ah, shet. I felt like a fucking teenager.

In an attempt to shake off the excess romantic teenager vibe I seemed to have carried with me out of the cinema, I popped a “grown-up” DVD into the player—Then She Found Me, a movie written, directed and starred in by Helen Hunt, who plays a 39-year-old woman whose husband leaves her. I thought, OK, that should sober me up with a dose of reality.

But, no.

Soon after her husband (Matthew Broderick) leaves her, a stressed-out yet utterly adorable single dad (Colin Firth) comes into the picture. And so there I was again, screeching and writhing and kicking in my seat like a freak—Aaaaaaah, he’s so cuuuuute! I had no excuse this time. There were no more teenaged girls around me. I had to face the fact that, yup, all this silliness was just me now. All me.

I would have thought that after more than a decade of being in relationships and having my romantic notions knocked about by the daily reality of being with another person and trying to work it out, I would no longer feel this excited about the possibility of falling crazy in love again. I mean, shouldn’t my attitude about love and relationships by now be a flippant “Yeah, sure, OK, why not?” Haven’t I earned—and learned--such sobriety? Why do I still suspiciously sound like that high school girl who fell madly in love with the character of Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves and said, “I want a man just like that”, and honestly believed someone exactly like that would saunter into her life? Why did I sit in that dark theater, cheering on Edward (the vampire) and Bella (the human) with the fervor of someone who felt personally invested in their love story? Why did I beam as Helen Hunt got her happy ending with Colin Firth as if it were my happy ending?

Surely, by now, I should have already outgrown all that teenaged optimism and romanticism, right? I’m not young and wide-eyed and innocent, anymore. I no longer have the excuse of youthful inexperience and ignorance to believe the cliché notions about luuuurve.

Having some kind of romantic crisis after watching a vampire movie was the last thing I had expected when my dad and I, the most film-crazed members of our family, left everyone at home and headed for the neighborhood mall’s cinema. But there I was, leaning back in my chair in the living room after I’d finished with the Helen Hunt DVD, pondering my situation, feeling a sensation that seemed like fear except that it was accompanied by something resembling…stubbornness

I was afraid that I had not changed at all, that I had not learned anything from my experience with being in relationships for the last fifteen years, and that I would throw myself at the next one with the same all-or-nothing (a.k.a. kamikaze) attitude. At the same time, I felt stronger—and in fact, more militant—about my mindset. Instead of experience tempering me, sobering me up, I felt emboldened by it even more. Sure, experience showed me that love and relationships can ask impossible things from you, but getting in the ring every time, slugging it out for all I’m worth also showed me that I can do the “impossible”.

“You can get good at what you need to to serve what you believe in,” wrote Po Bronson. And, man, do I believe in big things. Yeah, like loooove. ;) And I believe you don’t shrink it, you don't make it small and insignificant just to match what you think of as your current capacity—you have to expand your capacity to make more room for it, rise up to it, get good at it, do whatever it takes to be as big and bold as it is. We never really know what we’re made of until we’re tested, until we pull ourselves out of our comfort zones and throw ourselves into the deep end. Frankly, I don't know a lot of things that are worth all that trouble. 

As I sat there in my chair, absent-mindedly swirling my cranberry juice in a long-stemmed glass as if it were wine and listening to Dave Matthews serenade me with Joyful Girl, this truth rushed to me: I will always be that girl who skipped the prom in high school just because she had an idea in her head about what that night should be like for her—and if it couldn’t be that, then she’d rather have none of it. They can have their prom. I had not outgrown that girl at all…nor, I suspect, will I ever.

It was really nice to discover that, no matter how many legitimate reasons I have for being otherwise, I will always be that idealistic, romantic girl who would hold out for the real thing—for the thing that was real to her. Because she had decided long ago that nothing less is worth it.

I had to smile at Dave Matthews. His timing was perfect. “Would you prefer it the easy way?” he sang. I shook my head. “No? Well, OK, then, don’t cry…”

Funny what a seemingly harmless teen vampire movie can do to make someone like me feel hopeful and scared and strong and right all over again--like one of those wide-eyed, too-excited-to-keep-still 12- or 13-year-olds I sat with in the theater whose first kiss was still ahead of her.
But then, maybe I should just leave those blood-sucking creatures alone and admit that this may just be me. All me.