Last week, I made my first trip to Haight-Ashbury since I moved here. Haight-Ashbury is the neighborhood where my artsy, hippie self would be living if I was not frantically trying to purge all signs of my artsy, hippie self so that I can feel more at home in marketing. Kidding…I think.
I was actually there on business-related-business–attending a reading of Dear Money by Martha McPhee who’s a good friend of a business partner.
Dear Money is the story of a novelist, India Palmer, in New York City who appears to be successful but is actually struggling (because after all, a novelist without a “struggling” is like kind like a hot dog without a bun.) India has won several awards and published four books, but ultimately, she needs more money.
She meets a bond trader who assures her that anyone, including her, could learn to be a bond trader and decides to accept his offer to train her. She lands on Wall Street in the eye of the real estate storm and manages to become quite wealthy–if only a shadow of her former self. McPhee read several passages from the book–and in the span of an hour, not only did her work resonate with me, but I was convinced that she has woven a carpet of our current collective conscious.
The larger theme seems almost too big to tackle: money vs. art, but McPhee’s prose and story were both buoyant with immediacy and mine fields of nuance. It hit me at first when she describes India watching her husband and her wealthier friend’s husband digging a sand castle. Both men are fit, enthusiastic and handsome. But as they stand up, India notices that her own husband seems have to become more sandy and more mussed up by the endeavor. McPhee doesn’t say it, but that fear–that fear of shabbiness, of being honest in polished world–is a thousand times more potent and urgent than the abstract reality of accumulated wealth.
She subtly nailed something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, especially since leaving my New York–and my own aspirations of artistry behind. Even money and art are not really about money, or art. The diverse struggles for affluence and recognition all stem from a deeper need for safety, participation, community, and reason. “Dear Money” is a term for a situation when a loan is difficult to obtain, or interest rates are absurdly high, due to lack of resources in a particular country. Dear Money, at its heart, is about a culture in which there never seems to be enough of anything to go around, and nothing seems attainable because the cost of building it–emotional, financial or physical–is just too great.
McPhee highlighted that herself at the reading, when explaining that she had to stop writing her book when the market crashed because India traded in real estate and the real estate industry was…well…you know. She said that she picked back up four months later when she was finally reminded that, “I wasn’t writing about money.”
The whole thing reminded me of how, when we first got to San Francisco, I was fretting aimlessly to my boss that I thought no one in the whole city was going to like me and I was going to have no friends.
“Listen,” he said. “Remember the story about Allen Ginsberg’s psychiatrist?”
“When Allen Ginsberg first got to San Francisco–he worked in advertising–and he was really good at it, but he was starting to feel really unhappy. And he starts seeing a psychiatrist who asks him, ‘What do you want to do?’ And Ginsberg says, ‘Well, all I want to do is quit my job and write poetry.’ So the psychiatrist asks, ‘why don’t you?’ And Ginsberg says, ‘because I’m afraid of being old and poor and alone with no friends.’ And the Doctor says, ‘Allen, you’re a charming man. You’ll always have friends. If you want to write poetry, write poetry.'”
“You just hired me to do marketing,” I told my boss flatly. “I hope you’re not telling me to go write poetry.”
“The poetry is not the point,” he explained in a way that was almost believable. “What I’m saying is, you’re charming. You’ll always have friends. You’re going to be fine.”
But so few of us can ever believe that. For almost everyone, the money, or the poetry, or what-have-you, is just too “dear.” Dear Money has captured that battle–the one for “fineness” or something greater–in a way that causes us to look beyond the obvious and into the ambiguous.
And speaking of marketing…Check out Martha McPhee!