I was planning to review my 2018 predictions, which were AWESOME, and highlight some new ones for 2019: peak Apple, the coming spin of AWS, smart cameras, retail trends, and the best and worst tech stocks for the year. Covered some of that on last week’s Pivot. But today,
Instead, I want to write about kids and economic insecurity.
Before my parents split, our household wasn’t economically anxious, but stressed. My mom and I were always on edge, fearful we had committed a crime against humanity anytime we spent money. My dad was raised in depression-era Scotland and, understandably, has a fucked-up relationship with money. Whether it was ordering a shake at Baskin-Robbins, buying steak, or discussing a vacation, spending money was verboten.
At 88, my dad and his wife were planning to move into an assisted living facility. If I were more famous, it would have been the subject of a TMZ story: “Successful Prof Vacations in the Alps While Dad Wallows in Trailer Park.” I convinced my dad and his wife to move into a nicer place with relative ease by offering to pay for it. The incremental cost of living in the Toyota (vs. Yugo) of retirement homes was a real stretch for them. By my calculations, this profligate spending meant they’d run out of money when they hit 154 years of age. But this is money we’re talking about, and there’s no way they were going back to the dark place of scarcity.
We’re at the tail end of a two-week ski trip that went a week too long. We’re in Courchevel, which is a bad Aspen, and I hate skiing (there, I said it). However, each year we put our kids on skis so they can be competent skiers and so that, when they’re teenagers, we can trap them for several hours on a mountain and force them to spend time with us. I’m pretty sure, and hoping, golf and skiing won’t exist in 50 years. But I digress.
It’s the end of the trip, so I’ve been given a reprieve to stay in our hotel room to work. We are staying in a Six Senses property. I’ve determined the sixth sense is the ability to charge five-star prices and deliver three-star service. Our room looks like Elle Decor was commissioned to make over Bag End, Bilbo Baggins’s home in the Shire. It’s claustrophobic — few windows, and I can touch the ceiling. But our cave has Taschen coffee table books, a Bosch stove, and Barbara Barry pleather chairs.
Yesterday, my 11-year-old returned from skiing, and I knew something was wrong. As a rule, both sons reflexively announce themselves whenever they enter a room with a question or bodily function (“Can I watch TV?” “Where’s Mom?” Belch). But … silence, until he was in front of me. He’d been crying.
“I lost a glove.” More tears.
“That’s ok, it’s only a glove.”
“You don’t understand, Mommy just bought me these. They cost 80 euros. That’s a lot of money. She’s going to be angry.”
“She’ll understand, I lose stuff all the time.”
“But I don’t want her to buy me another pair, they were 80 euros.”
Easy for me to be empathetic here. My son’s tendency to lose stuff is likely inherited. My ex-wife said if my penis wasn’t attached, we’d run across it in SoHo on a card table next to second-hand books and a script of Goodfellas. I (no joke) don’t carry keys, as … what’s the point?
So, I got this. We agree to retrace his steps. Along the way my mind races: is this a life lesson? Would buying him a new pair be coddling? I look down, he’s crying. And instantly I’m nine again.
After my folks split, economic stress turned to economic anxiety, always there. Gnawing at my mom and me, whispering in our ears that we weren’t valid, that we’d failed. Our household income was $800/month. My mom, a secretary, was smart and hard-working. Soon, our income increased to $900/month, as she got not one but two raises — the munitions in the battle of me and her against the world. I told my mom, at the age of nine, that I didn’t need a babysitter, as I knew we could use the additional $8/week. Also my sitter was a religious freak who, when the ice-cream truck came by, gave each of her kids 30 cents and me 15.
“It’s Winter, You Need a Jacket”
Said my mom, so off to Sears we went. We bought a size too big, as my mom figured I could go two, maybe three years with this jacket. It cost $33. I’m pretty sure, on an inflation-adjusted basis, apparel prices have come down 80-90% in the last 40 years. Anyway, I had my jacket. Two weeks later, I left the jacket at my Patrol 42 (Boy Scouts) meeting, but I assured my mom we’d get it back at the next meeting. We didn’t.
So, off to JCPenney to get another jacket. This time my mom told me the jacket was my Christmas present, as we wouldn’t have the funds for gifts after buying another jacket. I don’t know if this was true or if she was trying to teach me a lesson. Likely both. Regardless, I tried to feign excitement at my early Christmas present, which, incidentally, also cost $33. OPEC is no match for the cartel of outerwear manufacturers and department stores in the seventies. Sears and JCPenney have been so shitty for so long; the better news story is not that they’re going out of business, but why it took this long.
Several weeks later I … lost the jacket. I sat at home after school, in fear, waiting for my mom to come home and absorb another body blow to our already economically feeble household. I heard the key turn, she walked in, and I told her:
“I lost the jacket. It’s ok, I don’t need one … I swear.”
I felt like crying, bawling really. However, something worse happened. My mom began to cry, composed herself, walked over to me, made a fist and pounded on my thigh several times as if she were in a boardroom trying to make a point, and my thigh was the table she was slamming her fist on. I don’t know if it was more upsetting, or awkward. She then went upstairs to her room, came down an hour later, and we never spoke of it again.
Economic anxiety is high blood pressure. Always there, waiting to turn a minor ailment into a life-threatening disease. Kids who live in low-income households have higher resting blood pressure than kids who live in wealthy households.
The myth that increased minimum wages would wreak havoc on local economies has proven to be bullshit. Privilege looks in the mirror and sees nobility, embracing the rationalizations of supply and demand, trickle-down, and a Hunger Games approach to capitalism. As a result, the “wealthiest” nation is the same place where 44% of children live in low-income households, and 45% of food stamps recipients are kids. The downside of a core belief that, in the US, “anybody can be successful” is a toxic resentment of people who aren’t successful, as it’s their fault their children are on food stamps.
Meanwhile, back in the Alps
A dad and his one-gloved son have been walking for 30 minutes in 8-degree weather. I attempt to take advantage of his weakened state and break into song about how things aren’t important, but relationships. In the midst of this bad Hallmark Channel scene, my son stops, then sprints to a small Christmas tree in front of the Philipp Plein store. The same store where the day before, his 8-year-old brother tried to convince his dad to buy him a 250-euro hoodie with a bedazzled skull on the back. On top of the tree, in place of the star, is one blue boys’ glove. A good, and creative, Samaritan found the glove and placed it within eyeshot of any boy searching for the electric blue accessory.
My son grabs the glove, sighs, holds it to his chest, and visibly feels a mix of relief and reward.
I’ve spent the first 50 years of my life pursuing money and relevance. The money makes me feel less insecure and ticks several instinctual boxes, including the need to provide for your family.
I’m trying to be more focused on moments of engagement with my boys and strengthening relationships. Listening, disciplining (bad at this), and trying to make thousands of little investments of affection and patience. Trusting/hoping when I’m old, upset, and feeling helpless, I will see my sons and feel a mix of relief and reward.
Life is so rich,
P.S. Yesterday I lost my sunglasses, today my Visa card.