Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wealth & Money

I did something rather remarkable yesterday, even instructive, if you think about it. I spent a Canadian quarter at the corner store. I'll pause briefly to let that sink in while you catch your breath.

Now I don't know how common that is in other parts of the country, or if it's more a Northern thing, since we are, after all, much closer to Canada. Still, there is a fair amount of Canadian currency in circulation here. When I was younger, some shops would refuse it. Not so much anymore. We spend it and receive it in change quite freely, just like money.

Isn't that interesting?


We hear a lot about wealth these days: the government does not create wealth, we should not redistribute wealth and so forth. If we speak of the wealthy, usually we are talking about people with a lot of money. Yet we rarely hear questions such as: "What is wealth"? or "What is money?" If we are going to concern ourselves with creating wealth, perhaps it would make some sense to know precisely what it is we hope to create.

I do not mean this in some spiritual sense, where we speak of living a rich life. That is a question worth considering, of course, but I am talking about material wealth, and the question remains: what is it? What is wealth?

Note that the word itself derives from the Old English wela: meaning the common good. My dictionary defines wealth as:

1. An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources; riches. 2. The state of being rich. 3. A profusion or abundance. 4. Econ. All goods and resources having economic value.

These definitions seem to focus on material things, goods, resources. This, I think, is correct. Wealth is a property of things. Only things have inherent value.

For example, my house is real wealth. It may not be ostentatious, but it has real value outside of whatever it is worth in dollars. In fact, its dollar value is irrelevant unless I would like to sell it. In the meantime, I can live in it. I can keep my other possessions in it. It has real value. It is called real estate for good reason.

Similarly, my car is wealth. It is 11 years old and has over 100,000 miles. Even so, it has been meticulously maintained and runs well. It does everything I need it to do. It has real value.

Money, on the other hand, has little real value in itself. It is pieces of paper or discs of metal. You can't do anything with it except exchange it for some thing. It is ultimately worth only what you can buy with it. There is something quite arbitrary about it.

Some would argue that money should be, for example, gold, or at least gold-backed. Then it would have real value. This is true to a point, but even here, we have exchanged one arbitrary choice for another. It would still be money, not wealth. Its value would be determined somewhat differently, but it would still ultimately be worth only what you could buy with it. Unless you are a dentist or a jeweller, there is little you could do with the gold itself.

Wealth and money are only loosely related and their points of intersection are often problematic. How do we determine value? Again, consider my car. Its market value is practically nil. Perhaps I could sell it for a thousand dollars or so. This is fine if I choose to sell it. Presumably I would be doing so for reasons that made sense to me, whatever those were. I could sell the car, take my thousand dollars, and call it square.

On the other hand, even a small accident would "total" my car. This would be a problem. I likely could not replace it for the thousand dollars I might receive in compensation. Its value to me as a reliable, functioning car far exceeds its market value. In this case, though I would not, in theory, lose money, I would lose wealth. In reality, I would probably lose both.

Real wealth is not easily measured. It is a property of things that relates to their inherent value to the possessor. This may have little or nothing to do with market values. Money is very different from wealth.


So what is money? We could say that money is a medium of exchange. What is necessary for something to become money? Agreement between the parties. That is all. Think about my Canadian quarter. It is not legal tender in the United States. The shopkeeper would have been within his rights to refuse it. Yet he did not. Neither do I refuse one in change. No one wants to be the last one holding it so it has become money. It is money because we agree that it is.

Think about that for a minute.

But this does not go far enough. It describes what money does. It does not get to the essence of what our money is.

So where does our money come from? How is it created? What does it represent? Important questions, yet ones that are rarely asked, and even more rarely answered. This process is most often vaguely attributed to government. There is an element of truth to this, but only just. It is true that governments print the actual currency we use, but this is not the same thing as creating money. It is also true that the government can create money. However, most of the money in the world was not created by governments. If you want to understand why things are the way they are, you need to understand what our money represents: what our money is.

Money is debt.

Does that sound strange? It's true. All the money in existence today represents debt. It is created by private banks. Every time a loan in made, brand new money comes into existence. Contrary to popular belief, banks do not take my deposits at interest and loan them to you at a higher rate. Instinctively, we know this. When we apply for a loan, we are never told that the bank doesn't have the money. Under the current system, the bank has, in essence, a charter from the government to create money. If a bank loans me $10,000, then $10,000 is created at that moment: $10,000 that did not exist before, backed by my promise to repay it.

Understand this and you will understand how it is that almost everyone, from private individuals, to large corporations, to national governments, seems to be in debt to banks. Furthermore, the bank creates only the principal of the loan. What about the interest? A moment's thought will reveal something startling: more money is owed to the banks than exists in the world.

Under the current system, the way a government can create money is to take on more debt. A government, in practice, has no control over the money supply. Private banks determine how much money will be available and to whom. It is often said that the banks aren't lending because the economy is bad. Almost precisely the reverse is true: the economy is bad because the banks aren't lending.

There is an even stranger corollary to this. If all debts were paid, there would be no money. The system is absolutely dependent upon the creation of debt based money in ever-increasing amounts. If this process stops, the system collapses.

Does this explain anything?


Are there any alternatives? Of course. Remember my Canadian quarter? What is necessary for something to become money? Agreement among the parties. That is all. If money can literally be based on debt, it could be based on something equally abstract, such as wealth. How we might answer this question is the province of politics. But before we attempt an answer to this question, we need to absorb the answer to the first: What is money? Under the current system, money is debt and debt is money. This is not a political opinion, just a fact.

Maintaining such a system makes no sense.

When we see the state of the world today, it might appear that those in power have the wrong answers. This is true, but it does not go far enough. The problem is deeper. The problem is systemic and any real solution will first have to recognize this.

The problem is not that we cannot find an answer; the problem is we are asking the wrong question.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, May 30, 2011


WWI Cemetery in Verdun Royalty Free Stock Photo

I really didn't belong there. I wasn't supposed to ride that far. I'd crossed two main roads and a highway. I wasn't even in our city anymore. My mother would have had a fit. Well, I thought, what she doesn't know won't hurt me. I leaned my bike against the chain link fence and climbed over.

The old cannon sat rusting in the vacant lot beside the American Legion. I'd been dying to get to it ever since I'd first noticed. Tucked away in an overgrown corner, it menaced North Main Street. I crouched behind its shield, peeking over the flap. The breech was rusted shut. No matter. North Main Street was the road to Berlin, each passing car a Panzer, and I was Audie Murphy. Now Jerry would get his.

Incoming! I shouted orders to my imaginary platoon. Down! Get down! Eeeeeeeee - BOOM! Quick, load, LOAD! I sighted along the barrel. Ready - FIRE! BOOM! One down, men. Here comes another. RELOAD!

No cap gun could compare. This was the real thing.

The real thing.

I felt his eyes on me before I saw him. The Legionnaire stood by the flagpole, lighting a corncob pipe. He nodded and gave me a casual wave. He wasn't going to kick me out. I waved back. The battle raged on.

Sure is a hot one today.
I whipped around. He had come up behind me. If it had been Jerry I'd be in big trouble. Up close, he was slight, but with the straight back and square shoulders that mark so many military men. He had a commanding air: a man that even street punks like me reflexively called "sir."

Yes, sir
The afternoon sun slanted in through the overgrowth. For the first time I noticed the heat. A cicada buzzed somewhere overhead.

That's a World War II 105mm howitzer you're playing on. You know that?

No, sir.

You like history?

Yes, sir.
He nodded approval.

Know anything about World War II, son?
I told him some things I knew. He nodded again.

I was there, son.

Really? Were you a general?
He laughed.


Maybe I'll be a general someday.


You really fought in World War II?


What was it like?


Did you kill anyone?

He paused and stared at me. Silently, slowly, he drew on his pipe and exhaled. The blue smoke hung motionless in the stillness and heat. No cars passed. The cicadas seemed very loud. He looked off into the distance. He looked at the cannon. He looked at me.

You know what I hope, son?

No, sir.
He gestured toward the Legion building.

I hope some day we close this place down.


I hope some day we don't have any members anymore and we can close down. We're the only organization I can think of that wants to go out of business. That's the truth, son.

Um... I don't understand, sir.

I know you don't. Just remember what I told you. Got that?

Yes, sir.

Been nice talking to you. I've got to be getting back now. You have a nice day. And son?

Yes, sir?

Remember what I told you.

He turned and left, trailing the scent of Captain Black. For some reason I didn't feel like playing anymore. I pedaled home slowly under the reddening sun. All the way, I could hear his voice in the back of my head. I can still hear it now.


Respectfully Yours,


Monday, May 16, 2011


Part nine of my Nana stories. - Cricket

During the last year of her life, my grandmother took to wearing her class ring: Boston University, Class of 1936. I do not know why. I never knew her to be nostalgic for her college days. One day she put it on and left it. I felt the obvious question would be unwelcome.

That last summer, she kept a copy of Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle-Stop Cafe always among her papers. She was a chronic reader, but it was a little unusual to see the same title remain for long. When we cleaned out her apartment, I absently picked it up, and saw that she had marked this passage.

"Now, you ask me the year somebody got married... who they married... or what the bride's mother wore, and nine times out of ten I can tell you, but for the life of me, I cain't tell you when it was I got to be so old. It just sorta slipped up on me. The first time I noticed it was June of this year, when I was in the hospital for my gallbladder, which they still have, or maybe they threw it out by now... who knows. That heavyset nurse had just given me another one of those Fleet enemas they're so fond of over there when I noticed what they had on my arm. It was a white band that said: Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode... an eighty-six-year-old woman. Imagine that!

"When I got back home, I told my friend Mrs. Otis, I guess the only thing left for us to do is sit around get ready to croak.... She said she preferred the term pass over to the other side. Poor thing, I didn't have the heart to tell her that no matter what you call it, we're all going to croak, just the same...

"It's funny, when you're a child you think time will never go by, but when you hit about twenty, time passes like you're on the fast train to Memphis. I guess life just slips up on everybody. It sure did on me. One day I was a little girl and the next I was a grown woman, with bosoms and hair on my private parts. I missed the whole thing."

Wiping away a tear, I gently placed the book in my box.


And so the story ends, as all stories eventually must. Is it a true story? Yes and no. My grandmother was complex, and loving her was no less complicated. I believe that each person who knew her knew a different woman. That was who she was. All I can say is this is my story.

This is our story.

I cannot tell the truth about my grandmother because I do not know it. Though I was as close to her as she ever allowed anyone to get, she shared with me what she chose and took the rest with her. That was who she was. Yet I like to think that she gave me herself as best she could. That will forever have to be enough. She loved me from the beginning. I loved her until the end. We loved each other as we were and that is enough.

That is my truth.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Long Goodbye

A repost: part eight of my Nana stories.

I have some misgivings about reposting a story so recent. If I could simply move it from its original place, I would. Since I can't do that, I am reposting this story here, where it belongs. I beg your indulgence just a little while longer. - Cricket

We were creatures of habit. Our lives were marked by ritual. Our days followed the same comfortable patterns, from hello to goodbye. It was our way.

Thursday was our day. Every Thursday I would make the trip to my grandmother's to do the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning. Perhaps I would bring her to one or another of her many appointments. It was routine but never boring. It was a ritual. It was our way.

Appointment days were always a little risky. They were unpredictable. There was always the chance of confusion or delay. The shopping, cooking and cleaning remained to be done after. Nerves could become frayed.

One day, I brought Nana to the opthalmologist. Her pupils were dilated for the exam. She left the office wearing the oversize sunglasses provided, feeling surly. I helped her to the car. We began the drive home in silence.

Why have we stopped? she snapped peevishly.

I began to laugh. Her irritation was palpable.


I stopped because there's a huge yellow dump truck right in front of us. You really can't see it?

She paused, then laughed herself, about as hard as ever I heard her laugh.


My twenty-ninth birthday fell on a Thursday. No matter. I made the trip to my grandmother's. We kept our rituals: the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning. We kept our comfortable patterns. It was our way.

When it was time for me to go, she remarked casually that she had something for me. It was part of the ritual: as if it had almost slipped her mind. She rummaged through her papers and handed me a card. I received substantially the same card every year, inscribed with her good wishes and love. It was a ritual. This year, however, would be different.

I'm sure she watched my brow furrow as I slipped the card from its envelope. It was not a birthday card. It was a thank you card. With trepidation, I opened it and read:

Dear Christopher,

I am thankful that you are my grandson. You have been the joy since the day you were born. I wish you Life's choicest blessings. You deserve the best.

Thank you, Christopher, for all the happiness you have given Grampa and me all the years of your life. Happy Birthday and Many Happy Returns of the Day.

Who loves you?

Your Nana (that's who)

I looked up. Her eyes searched mine for what felt like a very long time. Finally, I managed a small nod. She looked away, satisfied. There was nothing to be said.


Our days followed the same comfortable patterns. From hello to goodbye, we kept our rituals. It was our way. The only difference was one of awareness. Thursdays came and went. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year's. Thursday.



Your birthday's coming up.


Let's have a party.

A party? Where?

Right here.

No, no... we couldn't.

Why not?

She had no answer.

The family was invited. Our daily telephone call became twice daily as we planned the menu again and again: a vast antipasto, meatballs, sausage. Bread would need to be baked. Sauce made. We debated the merits and defects of every imaginable shape of pasta. Of course, there must be plenty of wine, and only the best coffee. Cake and pastry were ordered. Ingredients were purchased.

I arrived early on the day. It took two trips to bring it all in. We set to work and finished with a little time to spare for a celebratory glass of wine. We sat and enjoyed the fragrant kitchen.

The family arrived. The wine and conversation flowed. Dishes were passed up and down the table. Plates filled and refilled. Nana encouraged us all to eat far more than was good for us, playing gracious hostess one more time. The table was cleared, the coffee brewed. She was duly serenaded and opened her gifts as I served dessert.

I had given her my gift when I arrived: an African violet. It was another ritual. She would accept nothing else from me. Don't put flowers on my grave. Give them to me now. African violets. And so I did. It was our way.

I cleared the remains of the party to the indistinct murmur of something classical from the radio. It was late. She was visibly tired. She caught my eye and held it for what felt like a very long time. Then, she smiled and gave me a small nod. There was nothing to be said.


Thursdays came and went. Valentine's. St. Patrick's. Easter. Thursday.


She had her first heart attack just before my thirtieth birthday. There would be two more. Eventually, she was moved to a cardiac ICU in Boston, very nearby. I went to see her.

Hi, Nana. How are you feeling?

She thought for what felt like a very long time. She finally spoke.

It's not easy, dear.

I managed a small nod. I sat down. We kept our rituals as best we could, even there. We were creatures of habit. It was our way. I'm sure we talked about something. A nurse came in.

You need to go, dear?

It was not really a question. I kissed her goodbye and turned to leave. At the door, she called me back.



Who loves you?

I love you too, Nana.

There was nothing more to be said.


My telephone rang that night much too late for good news. It was my mother.

Christopher, I just wanted you to know that Nana's organs are failing.

Is she going to die tonight?

Um... well..

Never mind. I'm leaving now.

It was the same room, yet it seemed strangely different. Dials and displays provided the light. An oxygen machine hissed softly. My grandmother lay sleeping, still and silent, almost as pale as her bedsheets. She did not stir. A nurse touched my shoulder.

We have her sedated. She should be comfortable.

How long?

I don't know. Maybe an hour? I think she can probably hear you.

I nodded. She left.

Hi Nana. It's me.

She did not stir. I stood for a minute, fingering absently my grandfather's rosary in my pocket. Her hair was out of place. I smoothed it with my hand. The oxygen machine hissed softly. I watched her final heartbeats being traced in green light.

Somehow, I had thought it might come to this: just the two of us, standing at the gates of eternity. Perhaps she could hear me, but she didn't need my words. There was nothing to be said. I pulled a chair to the side of the bed and took her hand. She had loved me as I entered the world. I would love her as she left it. The time for words had passed. Love was all we had left.

Perhaps it was ten minutes. Perhaps fifteen. A monitor sounded a soft alarm. The nurse returned.

She's gone.

I nodded.

Things began to happen very fast. Bright lights were switched on. Staff moved briskly in and out. Is more family coming? Yes. Then we'll leave her here for now. Can you take this? Yes. I was handed a small envelope with my grandmother's ring. Would you like us to remove the machines? Yes... yes, she wouldn't want them. I stood to the side as the room bustled with activity, then grew quiet. The lights were dimmed.Once more we were alone.

I stood for a minute, fingering absently my grandfather's rosary. Her hair was out of place, Once more, I smoothed it with my hand. Then, as you might kiss a sleeping infant, I leaned over and kissed her forehead.

Goodbye, Grandmother.

There was nothing left to be said. She had no more need of me. I left to wait for others who might.


At her funeral, the priest directed a question to the grandchildren. If you could describe your grandmother in one word, what would it be? There was an awkward silence. He had no idea what a difficult question he had asked. I could feel many eyes on me. You're supposed to be so bright... answer that one. But I had no answer, and I refused to desecrate the moment with a lie.

The priest finally broke the silence. Well, I would say that your grandmother was a woman of faith.... It was a stock answer, I suppose, and it served his purpose. Yet it was inadequate. As he continued on, all I could think was Yes, but....

The question haunted me for several days. If I could describe my grandmother in one word, what would it be? Many words came to mind, yet every one was Yes, but.... I did, however, finally manage to answer the question, at least for myself. My grandmother was complex. That is the only word that does her any justice. No other word will do.


When we cleaned out her apartment, I was given my choice of her possessions. I have the following:

A pair of eyeglasses
A wooden cane
A costume jewelry bracelet
A battered aluminum pot
Three pairs of scissors
Two wire whisks
Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle-Stop Cafe, in paperback.

These would all be quite worthless to anyone else, I'm sure, but she would have understood their significance. Except for the glasses, all these items are still in regular use. I think she would have approved of my choices.


Did my grandmother want it that way? Did she wait for me before she left? Did she choose to share her final moments with me alone? I do not know. Knowing her, maybe.


My grandmother did not leave me money or property but, as she left this world, she gave me a final gift, wrapped in a lesson. Her gift to me was a life lived completely, from beginning to end. She was complex, and loving her was no less complicated. Quite likely, I am the only person who can say about her that, when we parted, there was nothing left to be said. That is enough.

And there lies the lesson. It is not easy. It is not easy living; it is not easy dying. The best we can do is try to live our lives completely, from beginning to end: to love one another, and to live in such a way that, when we part from those we love, we can know one thing in our hearts.

There was nothing left to be said.

Respectfully Yours,