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