United States of Anxiety
The floods, the California wildfires, and the violence in Chicago are nothing compared to what the slow-motion disaster of a crumbling economy is doing to us. A personal account of a breakdown.
When people ask me why I sold my house in Madrona last month and moved to a rental apartment on Capitol Hill, I say, "Because the economy is going to tank." But that's not exactly accurate: The economy has been tanking since last August. I just sense that things will get much worse before they improve. When I call my brother Paul, in California, he insists, "There will be a depression in two years like nothing we've seen before." Paul is a bankruptcy lawyer. He's very busy at the moment making money off other people's bad judgment and bad luck. And, being Irish, he has a genetic tendency to catastrophize.
Can't you feel the tension rising? We're in the middle of a major cultural and economic shift. Tension is rising with the cost of gas and food. Gas has doubled in price over the past year and food costs are intimately connected to transportation costs. Food banks are coming up short against increasing demand in cities all over the U.S. Jobs are less certain, school and home loans are less abundant, credit-card companies are less aggressively marketing to us. We are selling large chunks of major financial companies to foreign countries. Last December, Morgan Stanley sold a $5 billion stake in its investment firm to the Chinese government. General Electric recently sold its plastics unit to a financial entity of the Saudi Arabian government for $11.6 billion. Anheuser-Busch just got a $46.3 billion buyout bid from a Belgian beer company called InBev. What's more American than an ice-cold Bud on the Fourth of July? The number of Europeans buying condos in Manhattan doubled in the past year; the weak dollar has made real estate on both coasts a bargain for foreigners.
Tension is also rising, literally, with tornadoes and floodwaters bombarding otherwise peaceful Iowa and the banks of the Mississippi threatening to spill over, while at the same time, hundreds of wildfires are ravaging northern California and an intense heat wave is burning southern California. Violence is on the rise in several urban areas where poverty is rampant. One weekend two months ago, there were so many shootings in Chicago—36 to be exact—that the Chicago Sun-Times called it the "weekend of rage." I keep reading in local newspapers and hearing gossip about Seattle existing in a precious, protected economic bubble—and of course, we are doing better than, say, Miami—but you don't have to look very hard to find people who are tapped and edgy.
The gruff man from Everett who patched the cracked walls in my house a month before I put it on the market said, "If the damned media would shut up, everything would go back to normal."
More and more people are tapped and edgy. And they should be.
Everybody has a theory about the future of the economy, or a theory about why the American infrastructure is crumbling. It's easiest to pin the failing economy on the blundering George W. Bush, who has become our misery mascot. Or on SUVs that suck the oil fields dry, or arrogant meat eaters who kill by proxy politely in their kitchens. One of my friends blames the fall of the American empire on a tax structure that favors the wealthy and deconstructs the middle class. Barack Obama blames the Iraq war. Then there's blaming corporate greed, which is like pinning responsibility on a nameless star in a hardly visible solar system; big money moves in abstract glyphs around us. Corporations change shape and eat each other so quietly. Daily stock-market numbers read like charts of tides.
In the end, we could get down to blaming ourselves and our own greed but that is a primal and tricky affair. We don't seem to be biologically wired for moderation. Our primitive, sometimes inarticulate emotional systems often trump our reasoning powers. Or we can just as easily unconsciously use our brains to elaborate theories to justify how we deserve everything we want. We're hungry, humans. We like pretty, aromatic, tasty things. We use things and the promise of things to attract each other. We prefer pleasure, and we like our pain meted out in controlled doses.
We get outraged at one-dimensional Enron executives, but forgive less-conspicuous, less-ravenous acts of greed. Think how weird it gets. A single person can appear righteous when he drives around in a $30,000 hybrid car or uses green building materials to construct his $2 million house or to fix up his 15th rental property. But a double-income couple with five children who buy a three-bedroom house beyond their means because they need it are easily, publicly made to seem irresponsible and greedy. And what about the poor guy who spends most of his income on lottery tickets? Isn't he just part of the same continuum of greed, the same restless hunger to be filled, as the woman who invests all of her time and energy amassing a fortune in the stock market?
Despite the fact that tension and uncertainty make me feel physically itchy, I have some sense that the credit bubble popping might drop some unexpected and pleasant surprises on us. As the economy crumbles further under the weight of stacked illusions, we're going to have to keep finding more creative ways to adapt. That might make us more interdependent, more connected to one another. I mean locally and globally—the world is becoming so intimate. We're going to survive by unsettling one another's lives a little more.
We have reached the end of what author Philip Cushman in a 1990 article in American Psychologist called the "post World War II empty self" era. Cushman writes about the change in America from the Victorian era of saving money and restricting impulses (sexual and otherwise) to the consumer self who is "soothed, organized, and made cohesive" by being filled up with food, objects, and celebrities. Cushman blames psychology and advertising as tools of the financial power structure that created the consumer self by preying on humans' abiding feelings of insecurity and doubt. Credit made us more interesting and glamorous and more competitive with one another even if the things we purchased never did deliver the promised redemption of saving us from our limitations.
Maybe our next incarnation has to do with coming to terms with our repressed and twisted American ideas about money. The way we culturally hold money is much like the way we used to hold sex in the 1950s. Maybe someone should do an intensive Kinsey-style study on the money habits of Americans. We can't talk openly about the subject. It's charged with more shame and self-consciousness than sex. I tend to be kind of quirky and secretive around money, even from myself. I make arbitrary limitations. Like the other day, my friend found me a really good deal on a car, but I said it was too soon. I want to want a car for a while longer before I get one. I have to have a whole game in my head around it. Suspended desire makes getting something more interesting.
Money is all wrapped up in psychological intrigue for me. I'm slow. I ponder. My old girlfriend always had to push me to buy things I basically needed. Jackets, hair products, towels, whatever. She was always trying to get me to put money into the house, too—fix up the floors, put in new window coverings—but I didn't see the point. It seemed arbitrary. We had fights about it, and later when we'd finally get a rug or a new set of speakers or something, and she was exhausted from the effort, I'd be happy. But that didn't make it easier for her the next time. Maybe I like the process, the whole narrative of being pushed. I want money to buy me a good story. Ikea furniture, or even walking into Ikea, makes me feel like a confused cow and sick to my stomach. It's like being in a poorly written romance novel full of flat, dowdy characters. Nothing symbolic, nothing mysterious.
I think I'm some kind of aesthetic monk. In my family, this is called being Swiss. My mom comes from dairy farmers. They're scrappy and kind of cheap except when it comes to the handful of things they're passionate about, like Herefords and chocolate and opera tickets and plastic surgery. That's why I would be fine living in a tree house with the collected works of Sigmund Freud. I got all excited a few weeks ago when I visited a friend's house. It was very small and full of beloved objects from her years living in Paris. "I love this house," I said. She said, "Trisha, it's kind of a dump." And I said, " What are you talking about? It feels like Paris in here." It wasn't a knockoff of anything else; it didn't have that inherent money-injected anxiety of needing an audience to confirm its beauty. I have another friend who fills her much more elegant home with weird portraiture paintings from estate sales like she's making her own chorus of ancestors. That's nice, too.
Money doesn't motivate me. But that's not quite true, because I'm also obsessed with it: understanding it, monitoring it, ticking off economic changes like I'm an earthquake's catfish. When I was selling my house, I followed the real-estate market until I could feel the pulse of it. Then I liked calculating out how much money to put into fixing it up and bargaining out the sale price, even though it was tense and made me have to pee a lot. If I'm going to buy a car, I have to do the same calculating thing. I circle around a long time. When I'm ready, I hunt out the salesman I want to buy it from and court him or her before the bargaining phase. What the hell. I know that's kooky. What's worse: I think it's entertaining.
I'll spend money easily when it comes to education or books, or anything that's related to a kind of investment in depth, but I could give a shit about having expensive sunglasses, or whether my old car has seven or eight dents in it and smells like a dog. It's getting worn out in its temporary way. It's a car. And when I'm done with that car, like all the furniture I was done with from the house I just sold, I'll probably just give it away or sell it cheap to someone I know. I spend more money on plants than clothes.
I have a safe-deposit box, which I adore. I like that it's in a special room at the bank. I like that it's a secret and you can sit in a little stinky-carpeted room and look at the contents. I like that I'm part of some secret invisible community of people who come and go from the speakeasy of the bank vault. It satisfies my latent paranoia, and my need for mystery, and it's kind of archaic. Like looking in the Oxford English Dictionary for the microscopic history of a word using a magnifying glass. Same strange, scientific feeling. This is one more inherited Swiss trait, the love of the safe-deposit box. When my uncle died, I had to go and empty the contents of his box, which was in a San Francisco bank. At the time, I didn't even know people kept safe-deposit boxes anymore. Now, my uncle—let me tell you—was a genuine kook. I don't hold a candle to him. In his narrow metal box he kept his baby teeth, his mother's gallstones, and a long lock of his mother's hair from when it was still light brown. It scared the shit out of me when I opened it, like stepping by surprise on a grass-covered grave. I even got out of my chair. Then I sat back down and my horror turned to fascination.
For the record, I don't keep body parts in my box. Just papers.
All of us have intimate and convoluted relationships with money that get entangled with the way we relate to ourselves and to other people. It's an uncomfortable process, exploring the nuances of what money means to us—owning the paradoxes of being cheap in some ways, impulsive and extravagant in others, fearful, irrational, arrogant, judgmental, desperate, calculating, hungry, narcissistic, dependent, easygoing, careless—all of the things we are.
There is some confusing equation involved in the basic capitalist notion that I am a functional object who is trying to improve my sense of value by adding pretty or useful objects to myself. "Value added"—what the hell has that term come to mean? You hear it everywhere. It's become part of educational assessment, like the student is an object to add value to. You can go online and read about nonprofits that deliver value-added services to clients who apparently become more value added by using the services. Then there's adding value to objects by how they are packaged so that they further enhance our lives. Wired magazine reviewed the lamest value-added products last year to underscore the absurdity of the whole concept. Among the lamest were H2Om, a bottled water imbued with music to calm you; BigOx, oxygen pressed into colorful cans to help you breathe better and give the mitochondria in your cells a lift; and lemon-flavor-enhanced Aqua Ice cubes in sealed trays, because plain ice isn't quite enough.
In all of this, aren't we losing the intrinsic value of just being an awkward human being who wants to eat a half-decent burger and drink a glass of water? It drives me nuts, especially because we're heading into the straits of value-diminishing times. If my whole function is to acquire and consume, and my means to consume and my ability to consume are diminished, then who am I? I'm an empty shell with some designer furniture that I'm still trying to pay off. I'm a clothes hanger with a stupid grin and a God in the closet. I'm bloated and bored, and too out of my own body to know that I'm numbed out and half dead. This is where the American business model of modern living has led us—to this place where we fall apart, and try to fix ourselves by filling ourselves with not-yet-broken things that are getting so damned expensive that it's harder to get enough of them or to not notice that the pleasure they give is getting thinner.
I am just talking about myself. I am talking about being a product, a product among products, an American. It is tricky; we have been so well sold to ourselves that we consider our access to potential debt as a kind of twisted freedom. We are of money, from money, made for money. From here, if I magnify out into the billions and trillions—all the couches and sweaters, all the guns and Hummers, all the corporate lunches, and Aveda conditioners, and doughnuts, and iPods, and George Foreman grills, and domain names, and DVDs, and erotic-sounding perfumes that smell bad, and billowy white drapes, and ottomans, and avatars, and pine-shaped air fresheners, and chicken Caesar salads with dressing on the side, and martinis and designer martinis, and tricked-up bikes, and DIY knitted socks from recycled yarn, and farmers' market organic lettuce, and songbird-loving coffee from some South American farm where no one gets exploited, and Prada purses, and knockoff Rolex watches from Hong Kong, and cupcakes with purple frosting, and comic-book art, and lapsang souchong tea in a plain white cup, and flowing blouses that make someone look pregnant unless they're already bone thin, and Che Guevara T-shirts, and fashionable Fidel Castro–style caps, and all of the other things that have been bought on the illusion of keeping us whole and special—then I feel closer to the idea of America's debt, close enough to feel its anxious breathing.
No wonder we are a nervous country. Our torn laundry, and our particular pathology around money, is hanging on the clothesline for everyone in the world to see. Other countries have their own dirty laundry: Japan's crashed stock market that it's still climbing back from and France's suburban riots over access to work and opportunity. But we're the country that has still been offering up the illusion that a person can pull herself up by the bootstraps and participate in the dream.
So what has a home become in all of this? And what is the American dream of owning a home—which was a promise among promises, a kind of birthright we were told we were entitled to? Owning makes good sense, right? It shows stability and maturity. Ironically, the image of stability has become more important than actual emotional and financial stability. When that uncle of mine died, he left me money specifically earmarked for purchasing a home—that's why I had one. His probate lawyer, who also represented people who wanted to leave all their money to their pets, said, "Now you can live in your dream house." The concept baffled me. The only dream house I could conjure was an Airstream trailer in Pozo, California—which is to say, a home in the middle of nowhere, a home that I could relocate if need be. Suddenly I had access to a dream that wasn't necessarily my own, but was an existing pressure in me, a family pressure, a cultural pressure. At the center of my deepest doubt was an object, a house, that had been placed in me, and I had to find it externally.
So I started to look for "a dream house."
I looked at 100 houses. Fortunately, as the child of two real-estate agents, I have the gene that helps me find a great house. Plus I have, as I mentioned, that obsessive, restless need to search while I home in on the perfect purchase. I just lack the other requisite gene that makes me want to live in the house I find. I picked a house that my uncle would have loved and that the woman I was in love with would have loved, and did love. And I loved it, too, but it always felt like a shirt four sizes too big. I was more attached to the image of what owning that pretty house made me, as if it stood for me and I could hide my insecurities in its rooms. At that point, I didn't recognize my insecurities as being market hooks or triggers or whatever I'm beginning to understand that they are now. I wasn't big on reflecting at that point. I just felt driven and tense. I thought something like: I have to have this house. It's me. The girl will love it. Maybe I'll leave the kids' pirate fort up in the backyard because it's quirky.
I picked a house with a territorial view in a coveted neighborhood; it had good bones. Most of all, it was very private: a real urban retreat. There were 36 steps up from the street. A friend of my girlfriend's referred to it as "the ziggurat." Initially, that was funny; later, that became symbolic of everything that was disconnected and wrong about living there. What first seemed like a retreat became a kind of citadel. Plus, in order to stay there, I had to live beyond my means, which I could have kept doing by juggling around equity loans and going on medication for the extreme anxiety it caused in me.
But just the money acrobatics didn't cap it. What capped it all in the end is that I ran square into my own isolation. I was working at the time, working at a job that involved listening to people talk about feelings of loneliness and emptiness all day. Being in proximity to those dark feelings, which I was trying to avoid in myself, was disturbing. Then my dog died of acute leukemia. He was young. It was a freak thing, like a tornado or a Midwestern flood, both dreadfully slow and sudden at the same time. It continued the process of unraveling me; it exposed the void I was trying to inhabit. The false dream house seemed to grow more ominously large and lonely. Next, my relationship fell apart, but not in a dramatic way. Like the economy, it had been crumbling for a while and left us stumbling around for words. We just looked at each other one sad day and knew it was over. After all that, the house was just an empty thing I'd awkwardly wrapped around myself.
I felt like I couldn't stay there; but I also wasn't going to get the opportunity to just walk away unscathed. In order to sell a house, you have to make someone else covet it. You have to take yourself back out of it and make it into an empty object of consumption for someone else to invest a self into. The relationship between the seller and the buyer is formal and made awkward and angular by that formality. There is no direct communication; everything is herded and corralled and legally bordered by real-estate agents and mortgage companies so that you don't get to pass on discoveries and stories as you pass along the object to the next owner. There are contracts; there is a mutual acceptance of illusions. It all seemed desperately disappointing.
Every nook and cranny of the house needed to be fixed or touched. The basement needed to be dug out, the upstairs bathroom torn apart. Walls had cracks to be fixed and then needed painting.
For four months, the house was full of unfamiliar, curious people from the suburbs and the islands. My precious privacy was turned upside down. Within a small window of time, my bathroom was being gutted by a guy who lived in a yurt on Vashon, and there were two burly men, like the grave diggers from Hamlet, digging out my basement with shovels and discovering all these cool artifacts like glasses and health cards and combs and toys and old bottles. It was fantastic, really: Being unsettled became equated in my mind with being alive.
I started to feel like I was as much under construction as the house. My sense of self was all mixed up in the house as a reflection of my being okay in the world. I had to decathect myself (if to cathect is to fall in love with or to invest one's whole being into, in a Freudian sense) from the hardwood floors and the appliances. It was strange to finally be fixing up the house as my old girlfriend had always been pushing me to do, knowing all the while the improvements weren't going to benefit me.
All of that was fine and abstractly beautiful until there were problems with the sewer system. Then I was filled with an overwhelming, generalized limbic dread. I mean, if we stick with the house metaphor, then having to scope out, clean, and repair old sewer pipes was kind of like mucking around in the root-bound hollows of my own unconscious. Not a pretty place. My deepest doubts were like golems, like root-balls and shit. I hated it. I further resisted the vision of all the private sewer pipes joining together under the street into one larger, collective sewer. I have never seen the insides of my own intestinal system, but if I imagine that I were made of clay instead of tissue and someone was pushing a camera through me, the repulsion factor and the grip of the stomach would be about the same. It is strange that we all share a foreign, wormlike core. That was way too much for me, except that even the sewer experience was lifted by this joke-cracking plumber who made fixing clay pipes seem like bowling. There are people who show up in crises and lead you through really uncomfortable places, people like hospice workers, anesthesiologists, midnight taxi drivers, and plumbers.
What I'm describing here is an existential crisis: a bunch of seemingly solid things, including my sense of myself, crumbling. What was emerging was less numb and more interesting, less isolated and more vulnerable to the rising tension in the air. I gave away most of my furniture on Craigslist, which brought more intriguing visitors from the suburbs. I liked helping strangers carry heavy meaningful things down the ziggurat staircase and then away, strapped with bungee cords to shiny trucks. I was reentering a world of incongruities that I had shut out. Where I used to embrace isolation, I was now becoming obsessed with the idea of relationship and being in the center of more chaos. I moved to an apartment on a very busy street. There's a construction site next door, which makes me tense and happy simultaneously. I continue spending my days hearing stories of emptiness and loneliness, but I'm not trying to hold myself apart from that anymore. If it is possible to feel more like a human and less like a functional object among objects, that's what I feel.
That is my microcosmic experience of what the country seems to be undergoing. The infrastructure of our collective American illusions is breaking down, but on some level that is only conceptual. Money is conceptual. It acts like a hormone or a dopamine trigger. Once the mortgage crisis ends, there will be a crisis of credit-card defaults, a crisis of car-loan defaults. There are going to be some pissed-off people who feel betrayed, and some deflated people who feel completely worthless—both are defenses against an impending feeling of emptiness.
I realized yesterday that my tax rebate check, which may never find its way to my new apartment, seems more like a cry for help from the government than an act of assistance. It is a last-ditch, shortsighted attempt to prop up the illusion of a way of life that can't be sustained on a national—or a personal—level. It's enough to buy something pretty or pay one ledge off a big credit-card bill. It's enough to make the heart slow down, just for a second, before the backhoe loader next door starts crashing around again, taking dirt out of a big hole and piling it somewhere else.