The parallel of talent

It’s easy to hate money from far away. I’ve done it for as long as I can remember. I’ve said many bad things about it, but mostly when it couldn’t hear me. I know it’s wrong. There must be good money somewhere. If I’d grown up around money I might have understood it better, but as it happened, I didn’t. My parents and their parents were mathematicians and composers and teachers. They didn’t care much for money. They cared about talent. They understood money the way they understood plumbing—they used it, but they didn’t really know where it came from or where it went. They worked for their money and viewed the whole affair as an unfortunate necessity, something that had to be done so they could do other things. It was just how life was.


“Money doesn’t grow on your father’s back,” my mother once said when I was still a kid.

I had wanted some toy but now the mental image of my father with money growing like leaves from his back was instantly more engaging.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Money is hard to come by,” my mother answered.

This didn’t make sense to me. There was a lot of money at the bank. All my father had to do was to get some. I’d seen him do it before. He didn’t have to grow money on his back or anything like that. He could just fetch it.

“Why can’t he go and get more money?” I asked.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“What do you think he’s doing right now?”

“He’s at work.”

“Yes. Doing what?”

“Getting money?”

“No,” my mother sighed, “he’s working.”

“Why?”

“That’s how he gets money.”

This didn’t make sense to me either. There were many people who didn’t seem to work much but got more money than my father. Up the street lived a man who had a boat and stood around on his lawn in the afternoons with a beer in his hand, while my father was still at work, getting his money. This man didn’t work at all. Perhaps my father wasn’t doing it right. Perhaps he was doing the wrong work.

“Why isn’t Dad a doctor?” I asked.

“Your father’s too smart to be a doctor,” my mother said firmly.


Years later, as a teenager, I got into an argument with my father about money.

“One day I’m going to make money,” I declared. “Not like you, working. I’m going to make it.”

“Is that so?” he said and looked up from the book he was reading. “Doing what?”

“I’m going to manufacture money,” I said. “Of all the jobs you can have, making money must be the best one. When people ask what you do, you can say, I make money.”

My father took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes the way he did before he tried to teach me something.

“Are you going to work at the Mint?”

That was not what I’d had in mind.

“No,” I scoffed. “I’m going to make paper money, you know, but counterfeit, and real good.”

“I see,” my father said as he cleaned his glasses. “Real good?”

“Yeah!”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“I dunno,” I waved away his question. “Just think—stacks of money!”

But my father wasn’t thinking about stacks of money.

“Never mind that it’s illegal to print your own money,” he said and gave me a level stare. “To forge money takes great skill and technical knowledge. How are you going to do that?”

“I’ll just do it! Just think—”

“How?”

It was obvious that he couldn’t see the stacks of money I was looking at.

“How exactly?” he stipulated.

“What do you mean?”

“For example,” my father said in his lecturing voice, “printing money requires precision. Right now, you cannot even write in a straight line. How are you going to do that?”

“I’ll do it then, not now.”

“How? Where’s it going to come from?”

“What?”

“Where will your respect for precision and effort come from?”

“Why must it take effort?”

My father put his glasses back on and pushed them up his nose.

“Good things do,” he said. “Look around this room—the clock, the microwave, the table, the glass in the windows—these things took talent to invent, and years of hard work to perfect.”

I could see where this was going.

“It doesn’t have to take long,” I objected.

“Meaning?”

I won’t be spending all my time making money. I’ll be home more often than you.”

It was unfair to say that, but I wanted to hurt him. My father looked away and straightened from where he’d leant with his hands on the table between us.

“Perhaps I’m not as talented as you are,” he said.


But talent is no more than a food stamp in the world of work. I know that now. And in case I forget, I’m reminded often.

“Are you going to work today?” my seven-year-old daughter Annie once asked me.

“It’s Friday,” I said. “Of course I’m going to work.”

“But you went yesterday?”

Her question surprised me, especially as it was the same one I often asked myself.

“Why must you go again?” she added.

“Well,” I sighed, “they pay me to be there five days of the week. It’s like school is for you.”

“But you’re big,” Annie frowned. “Why can’t you finish your work on Monday and get all your money?”

For a moment I toyed with the idea of telling her that I was actually far too busy to work. There were many things I wanted to do around the house, and a long list of personal projects. But I knew that she’d agree and then I’d have no way to explain why I was going to work again.

“Do you like it?” Annie asked before I could say anything.

I put on my jacket, gave her a hug, and opened the front door.

“No,” I admitted. “Not really.”

“We can do something nice later,” she suggested as I started down the steps.

I turned to look at her.

“That’ll be good,” I said. “I’ll stay home tomorrow.”


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What you can do with a hundred million dollars

When I was a teenager and so covered in pimples that I knew everything, I argued with my mother about money.

“One day,” I announced, “I’m going to be rich.”

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“What do you mean, what does that mean?”

“What’s rich?” she asked.

“I’m going to have a hundred million dollars,” I declared.

“What can you do with a hundred million dollars?”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “What do you mean, what can I do? One hundred million dollars!”

My mother lit a cigarette and wrote something on the back of an envelope.

“Here,” she said.

She’d written $100,000,000.

“What’s this?” I asked and tossed the envelope onto the table.

“It’s a hundred million dollars,” she said.

“It’s not,” I sneered. “It’s a stupid envelope with a number on it.”

“Well,” my mother said as she sat down at the table, “if you had a hundred million dollars in the bank, it would look just like that. A stupid number on a piece of paper, or a screen.”

“I know—” I began.

“Just having that money is what’s stupid,” she went on. “If you don’t use it, you might as well not have it.”

It began to feel as though my mother was going to talk me out of my hundred million dollars.

“I know—” I said again.

“Why do you want it?” she added.

“So I can buy stuff.”

“Ah,” she mused, “stuff. What kind of stuff? Things, or experience?”

“What?”

“A car is a thing,” my mother said, “just like money is a thing. A drive is an experience. What do you want?”

“I want my own car,” I said.

“To look at, or to drive?”

“To drive,” I conceded.

“See,” my mother said, “you don’t really want a car, just like you don’t really want a hundred million dollars. You want what you can do with those things, not the things themselves.”

“Somehow you’ve done away with the hundred million dollars,” I complained. “I don’t like that. I want a hundred million dollars.”

She got up and came around to my side of the table.

“You already have a hundred million dollars,” she said calmly.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes,” she said. “You just don’t know it. Would you like to see what I mean?”

“Can we just talk about being rich?” I groaned.

“Close your eyes,” my mother said.

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

I closed my eyes reluctantly. I could hear her move away from the table and open a drawer a little way off. Then she returned.

“Keep them shut,” she instructed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m blindfolding you.”

She wrapped a strip of dark cloth around my head and secured it in place with something else. I couldn’t see anything.

“There,” my mother said when she’d finished. “Now you’re blind.”

“And?”

“And here’s a hundred million dollars.”

She retrieved the envelope from the table and placed it in my hand.

“You’ve been struck blind,” she said, “in exchange for a hundred million dollars.”

“It’s just an envelope,” I said.

“Imagine, OK?”

She moved away and lit a cigarette. The flick of her lighter sounded metallic now that I could only hear it.

“What now?” I asked.

“Now we wait,” she said.

“What for?”

But she didn’t answer me.

“Where are you going?” I wanted to know as she began to walk away.

“I’m going downstairs to work,” she said. “You don’t have to. You’re rich, remember?”

When she’d gone I sat at the table and tried to imagine that I’d closed my eyes on purpose because I was concentrating on a problem. My father had once pointed at the clock on the wall when it was exactly noon and asked me what the time would be when next the hour and minute hand were on top of one another. I thought about this until I got to the point where I knew I had to divide twelve by eleven, but I wanted to make a drawing to see exactly why. After a few minutes I tried to move about but it felt as though unseen spikes would pierce my eyes. I kept going toward the stairs, but I couldn’t do so without covering my blindfolded eyes with one hand, leaving me only one hand to feel around with. I found my way back to the table and sat down again. Even though I’d known this kitchen my entire life, it was now a place of strange sounds and narrow spaces. There were red-breasted weavers in the tree outside the window. I listened to their chirping and tried to imagine that I could see out the window, right through the blindfold, but it was hard and I couldn’t keep an image in focus for more than a fleeting moment. I wondered what the colour red sounded like. I could hear the traffic in the street behind our house, and a dog barking for a moment, far away. To sit at this table without the blindfold is to be a part of these things, but blindness had crystalised me as something separate. I desperately wanted the blindfold off, but that would’ve given in to my mother, and so I just waited.

“Being rich isn’t so great, is it?” she said when she returned. “Even for twenty minutes.”

It had felt like an hour.

“Would you like to see again?” she asked.

I mumbled that I’d like to. She carefully took off the blindfold and for a few moments I blinked in the dazzling light.

“The hundred million dollars,” she said and held out her hand.

I gave her the envelope.

“By tonight—” she remarked as she lit a cigarette, “or tomorrow—you’d have happily paid a hundred million dollars just to see again. A hundred million dollars just to have what you’ve had all along.”

I felt shallow and ungrateful and so I said nothing.

“And?” my mother asked after a few moments.

“I see,” I said.

She smiled to herself.

That’s what you can do with a hundred million dollars.”


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An evening out of oddness

Everyone is someone else’s weirdo. When I first came across this quote I instantly knew it to be true. It had to be. Somewhere on earth there had to be someone who would take me for a weirdo, surely? In fact, there was probably someone who’d rank me as the number one weirdo they’d ever come across. I imagined the sort of person who’d be weird enough to think me weird, smiled to myself, and forgot about it.


Years later I rented a small apartment in Cape Town. It overlooked Beach Road, just where the Mouille Point rocks met a seawall and a raised esplanade that curved away to the west and the distant cliffs of Lion’s Head. From my window I could smell the salty air and the snags of kelp that sighed in the water just beyond the rocks. Gulls wheeled overhead and cormorants sheered across the waves in their thousands at sunset. It was wonderful. Yet, I was miserable. My life was a failure and there was no defence against this charge. Entered into evidence were two damning exhibits—exhibit A, money, and exhibit B, my girlfriend. I had no A and too much B. I wanted it to be the other way around. There was lots of money everywhere but I couldn’t seem to get my hands on any of it. Every month I sank further into debt. My girlfriend—let’s call her Daphne—was sweet and loving, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she was fast becoming a permanent souvenir of what was supposed to be a brief affair. She wasn’t the right one for me. Daphne was loyal, too, and as I grew poorer, she became more adamantly attached.


Every day, in the early evening, I went for a walk along the esplanade so I could fantasise about money and getting rid of Daphne. I imagined winning the lottery and coming home to catch Daphne in bed with Donald, a swarthy guy she worked with. I hated Donald for reasons I couldn’t name. Catching Daphne in bed with him would’ve made me jealous, no doubt, but the next day I would’ve clutched my winning ticket until I felt better. As I walked along, I scaled down my fantasies. Winning the lottery wasn’t going to happen. The odds were against it, especially since I never bought a ticket. What if I helped an old widow to cross the street and it turned out that she’d lost her only son, whom I resembled? We’d talk every day and she’d end up bequeathing her house and considerable fortune to me. There was a house in Bantry Bay that I really liked, but there was no old widow living in it. Every time I toyed with this fantasy, there were no widows around. They were as hard to find as Daphne was difficult to get rid of. Like the lottery, the widow wasn’t going to happen. But daydreaming was seamless and as I walked along, I peered into the places I passed, wondering who the people were that lived in them, and how I could by some miracle of luck displace them. Most of the sea front along my walk was built up, save for a few short stretches where the original beach houses still held out against progress. One house in particular was interesting. It was small and had the date 1899 embossed on the gable of its awning. And in it lived a weird old woman.


The old woman was bandy-legged and stooped like a question mark. She wore a shawl and a head scarf from which a hooked nose protruded. She also had a gnarled walking stick like a witch in a picture I once saw. If she was a widow, her husband had died on purpose. Sometimes, at about the time I was out, the old woman left her house, shuffled across Beach Road and exercised her two cats along a stretch of the esplanade. The cats were on leashes, like dogs, and strained against them. As the woman struggled along, the cats weaved across her path, braiding their leashes.

“Pavel! Yakov!” she once called out to the cats as she passed me where I stood. “Stop pullingk!”

It was an arresting sight, this weird old gypsy with her canine cats. Who was she, I wondered. Why did she speak in English to her cats when she was obviously from somewhere in Eastern Europe? How could she afford a house by the sea when I didn’t have a blue cent to scratch my arse with?

Her walk took her along the first stretch of the esplanade, near her house. Sometimes I was there at the time she came by and then I’d stand at the railing and pretend not to see her. Pavel and Yakov attracted much attention, of course, but I tried to watch the old woman instead. The cats were weird because she was weird. As if staggering along was not difficult enough, she often stopped, fumbled in a bag she had slung over her shoulder, took out a small notebook and wrote in it. Then she nodded to herself and shuffled along.

The best place from which to watch her was where the seawall curved inward above a tiny beach. Here I could look out to sea and still see people along the esplanade. When the tide was high, the waves rolled into the wall and dumped pebbles and bits of kelp onto the esplanade. I leaned out over the railings as far as balance allowed and tossed back into the water the pebbles that the sea had rejected earlier. I used them two at a time, like clay pigeons. It was a mindless pastime, but as it was exceedingly difficult to hit the first pebble with the second, it gave me something to do while I waited for the old woman. It also gave me time to practice my breakup speech to Daphne.

“Daphne,” I’d say as a picked up two pebbles, “it’s better this way.”

Then I’d toss the first pebble in a gentle arc and try to hit it with the second. When I got it right I did a little dance, I think, but I cannot now remember. The gratification of success was instantly lost, and so I’d start all over again.

One evening, just as the two stones collided in mid-air, there was a hand at my arm. I turned to find the old woman peering up at me. She had a dark moustache and three stout hairs that grew between her watery eyes. She was even weirder up close than she’d been in the distance.

“You,” she croaked, “must be de maddest perr-son I khav evor seen.”

She gripped my elbow while Pavel and Yakov strained to walk on.

“Tell-a me,” she continued, “do you khav strange dreams?”

I was lost for words. As I searched for something to say, she ran her tongue over her lips in anticipation.

“Y-yes,” I stammered at length. “I do.”

“Aha!” she wheezed and steered me away from the railing. “Tell-a me evoryting!”

Her hobby, she said—her passion—was people who were mad.

“I was psycholgist,” she explained.

“But—but I’m not mad,” I said.

“Aha!” she wheezed and held up a bony finger.

She stopped and dug the notebook from her bag. The cats strained forward and she handed their leashes to me. Then she opened the notebook to reveal a list of times and dates. She poked at it with her bony finger.

“I khav written down times you stand khere,” she testified and waved at the sea, “throwingk yourself away.”

I looked at the scrawled writing as she flipped the pages but I didn’t really see any of it. As we stood there in the fading light, I had what I’m sure was an out-of-body experience. I could see us clearly, as though from a vantage point beyond the railing, over the water. I saw the old woman and the notebook in which my oddness was recorded. I saw myself standing beside her, holding the leashes of her cats, held by the arm like a naughty boy. I could see Daphne sitting on my sofa with her feet tucked beneath her while she read a magazine. I could see into the apartments along the beach and into the lives of those who lived in them. And I could see, for the first time, how all of us were equal before the changeless sea.

“But I’m not mad,” I said again.

“Aha!” the old woman wheezed.


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