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Posted on 2004-03-31 11:04:37 by Denver

Money Comfort

In order to obtain a student ID card at the New School University in downtown Manhattan, so that I can gain access to their library and computer lab and the internet, I have to enroll in one of their courses every semester. The cheapest classes are non-credit one day courses that cost around sixty five dollars. Last semester I registered for the course "How to stand up straight". I couldn't find the classroom on the day of class however. I assume I missed techniques that would have improved my posture with its concurrent implications for my overall stature. This semester I had my eyes on a two hundred and fifty dollar Brazilian dance class but I didn't have the money. Instead, feeling very."practical", I chose a class in the Business and Career Education Department entitled, "Money Comfort". In the New School Spring 2004 course catalog it has the following description-

MONEY COMFORT Instructor: Charles R. Walters, M.B.A., J.D., L.L.M., Registered Investment Advisor, VP Chase Bank

Is your relationship with money adversarial? Does dealing with money leave you frustrated? Traditional financial planning often ignores underlying psychological, emotional, and spiritual issues. This workshop raises awareness of your mind-money connection through revealing exercises and small group discussions. Topics include how money originated, your money history, the money tool, and creating your personal financial mission statement.

I signed up for this class for two reasons. Number one: It was being taught by a guy with some impressive initials. I trust a man with those kind of degrees to have financial wisdom I don't. Number two: I didn't have money and I wanted it. It had been playing hide and go seek with me for a long time. Although I couldn't really characterize the relationship as "adversarial", it had engendered deep feelings of frustration. And I couldn't wait to find out what the money tool was, because that sounded like something I definitely needed. And really, to be honest, the idea of creating a personal financial mission statement got me fired up. I envisioned posting it on my wall above my bed and waking up each morning like those motivated athletes you hear about who chant mantras to themselves as they fall asleep each night "I will run a sub four minute mile, I will make sixty thousand dollars this year.I will run a sixty thousand dollar mile."

And so Saturday morning March 20th at 9am I went to class in Room 517 at 66 W. 12th Street in Manhattan. The desks were arranged in a circle and filled with about a dozen middle aged, professional looking, white people. Everybody was looking at their desk or fiddling with a paper and pen. I felt embarrassed and joined those gazing at the floor. Perhaps because I was a liberal arts major in college I suddenly had a really guilty conscience about attending a class taught by an investment advisor with the title "Money Comfort". I had calculated wrong- I had expected to imbibe some of our Instructor's financial wisdom somewhat anonymously like in a seminar at the Holiday Inn. Yet here we were facing each other like an alcoholic anonymous circle. Goddamit, I thought, I didn't have the same problem with money as these other people! Class began promptly at nine and our teacher, Charles, introduced himself and gave a short history about the evolution of his philosophy on "money comfort". Essentially, he said that he had been a lawyer, and then an investment banker, and finally, a hippy. He took meditation classes and spiritual awareness seminars and he had distilled those teachings down to a core curriculum that he was going to impart to us. He asked all of us introduce ourselves and explain why we were taking the class. I was the first guy on his left so it was my turn. But I had a problem because I couldn't tell them I was taking the course to get an ID card for the computer lab. I had to think fast. I had at least one problem with money; I had none.

"My name is Denver." I began "I.have always had a.problematic relationship with money. I want to make money but I don't seem to really have a way of.making it. (after another longer pause I mumbled shamefully) I think I must be afraid of it."

There was a short murmur of approval. And then I was wracked with self conscious reproval. Oh, I thought, that was horrible. Not very articulate. Not very honest. Not very well thought out. Then the woman next to me started speaking.

"My name is Maureen. I'm here today because I have been through a lot. I've let my concerns about money dictate the emotional carriage of my life, the highs and lows, the success and failures of my marriage, the quality of my relationship with my loved ones, all of these things have been poisoned by the overriding financial concerns that are pressing down upon me daily, hourly. I want to achieve some kind of money comfort."
Sunlight filled the windows. The class exhaled deeply. And so it went around the circle, each student portrayed a different aspect of how money- the lack of it, their shame at having never addressed it - had made their life miserable. John, a sixty year old former stock broker with a beer paunch, had lost his job recently and was reconsidering his relationship with money along with his wife Franny, who was sitting next to him. Franny was a red head who was about a hundred pounds overweight and who had recently "switched careers" from administration to "being an artist." We all knew what that meant. The last woman in the circle was Laura, a dark haired brunette with thick bifocals and a nervous laugh. She was here today because she was about to get married to a man who thought about money constantly while she herself had never in her life worried about it. She was in denial, she admitted, and she thought she out to come to grips with money in some way. Everyone nodded in agreement.

"I want everybody to give me some synonyms for money." Charles said, "No word is the wrong word. Anything you can think of. And I'm going to write them on the board."

He had three different colored pieces of chalk. People hurled words at him-

Power..Time...Respect...401K...Retirement...Luxury...Stocks...Oil wells...Bankruptcy...Cash...Bills...Ruin

He wrote the negative words in red chalk, the positive in blue, and the neutral ones in white.

"You see," he remarked after we spat out over a hundred and fifty words, "These are the lenses through which we view money. We have a lot of different connotations for it. We have our positive and negative words we use and we also have our neutral, technical words we hear on CNN. I'm going to leave these words on the board. Now I want you to break into pairs. Those of you who know each other already, it's fine to partner with them."

I had no choice in my partner. Maureen was the only classmate sitting next to me. We pulled our desks around so they faced each other. She was forty-five years old with a faded blonde dye job.

"Now look at your partner, I'm going to have you ask them this question on this sheet that I'm handing you and when they answer, I want you to say 'Thank you' and repeat the question. And keep doing this until I ask you to switch positions."
He handed me the piece of paper. On the sheet in twelve point type was the question WHY ARE YOU AFRAID OF MONEY?
"Okay, we can begin." Charles said as he turned on a ghetto blaster he had brought, and Chopin's Etudes begin percolating under our thoughts at a warm decibel level.

"Why are you afraid of money?" I asked Maureen.

"I'm afraid of money because I don't know how to keep it. I don't know how to save it. It eludes me. I, I, I've never really had any. I don't think it's that important. And yet, it's always on my mind. It's driving me crazy." She paused. An extended pause.

"Thank you" I finally said, and then repeated- "Why are you afraid of money?"

"I'm afraid of money because I don't know if I'll ever have any. I walk down Park Avenue sometimes and I look at all those people eating grilled fish and drinking cocktails and I DON"T KNOW IF I WILL EVER BE ABLE TO DO THAT."

"Thank you." I whispered, "Why are you afraid of money?"

"I'm afraid of money because I married someone who isn't concerned about money. He isn't afraid of money and I'm the only one who is. I'm really afraid we'll never have any. But I don't want to be afraid of it. I don't think it should be that important."

"Thank you. (embrarrased, I repeated the question once again) Why are you afraid of money?" I asked her again. And again. And again. After ten minutes of this brutal line of questioning Charles Walters asked us to stop and switch partners. Maureen was slumped over her desk, totally defeated. I felt as if I had just let the air out of her soul. And then it was her turn.

I began with my father.

"He always told me I needed to make money. I'm afraid I'm never going to make enough." I knew the question and I didn't know how I was going to come up with ten minutes of answers but I didn't want to end up in a emotionally wrecked heap like Maureen. I was pacing myself.
Again and again she came at me with the same dreaded line.
"I'm afraid of money because my instincts have never been geared towards it...Because I don't know how to make it. I'm afraid of it...It's the unknown....the abstract...the allse-er...God?"

"Thank you. Why are you afraid of money?"

"I'm afraid of money because I spend time doing everything but making money and I feel guilty about activity related to money."
Everything was coming off like a question mark. Like I didn't really know how I was afraid of money. After about six or seven minutes I was exhausted. I looked at Maureen, wanting to continue, wanting to emotionally impale myself on my fears, but I couldn't do it. I was a coward. Finally, Charles blew the whistle.

"Alright everybody, time for a break. Let's take fifteen minutes and meet back here at say, eleven fifteen."

"You wanna get a coffee?" Maureen asked.

We took the elevator to the ground floor and Maureen began to relate the facts of her predicament. She and her husband had lost their jobs in the technical services industry three years ago. She had trained herself to become a freelance magazine writer and her husband had not bothered to find a job. Instead he had started an import business that made no money. Then she had helped him get a job writing marketing material for a friend of hers but this turned out to be very unprofitable as well. Meanwhile, they had lost their house in the suburbs and moved into an apartment in Yonkers. They lived hand to mouth and she was so angry at him, she wasn't sure how much longer the marriage was going to hold.

"I feel exhausted just telling you this." she said.

"Yes. It's okay. You don't have to." I tried to assure her. After we got coffee she asked me what I did and I paused, debating whether to tell her about my fruitless graduate school degree or my current state of unemployment, but before I could say anything she cut me off-

"We have to get back! We'll be late for class."
We hurried back to the room to find Charles Walters spreading magazines around the center of the floor. House and Garden. Cosmopolitan. Glamour. Rolling Stone.

"Okay everyone." He clasped his hands together, "I want all of you to pick up a piece of cardboard and a glue stick and scissors here at my desk and select a few of these magazines and you're going to make a collage."
This garnered a somewhat tepid response from those of us who had come back from the coffee break. I noticed that one guy, a thirty-something with a goatee, was gone. Charles put music on, a Bach harpsichord piece, and picked up a book.

"I want to read you a quote from one of my favorite thinkers, Joseph Campbell. He says 'In life, what is that we as humans are looking for? We are looking for the experience of being alive.'"
He shut the book.
"Okay, now I want you make this collage about what you value in life, and I want you to assume that you have all the money in the world. Okay? What would you still value? Got it? "

"Yeah, yeah" we mumbled, "We got it."

"Okay, let's begin." There was a mad scramble for the Glamours and Cosmos in the middle of the floor. I sat coolly at my desk and waited for the crowd to disperse. Was this a joke? He was giving us supermarket checkout stand magazines to express some eternal value system? We were supposed to think about what we really valued by pouring over fashion magazines? I was twisted up. Conflicted. Had I become the type of cynical New Yorker for which I was always chastising my friends? Just make the damn collage Denver, I told myself. I walked over and picked up the scattered remains; a House and Garden and copy of an old New York Times Sunday Magazine. Flipping through the pages of these publications I saw pictures of Lexus sedans, SUVs, vacation spots on faraway islands, and beautiful home decorations. Gardens with carefully trimmed topiary. I finally found a small picture of the Marx Brothers and cut that out. In the New York Times Magazine there was an article on an Islamic school in Afganistan. I cut out a picture of a teacher at the school, a serious looking sheikh with a long grey beard. I ripped a liberty bell out of an advertisement and glued it on the Sheik's chest. I arranged them on the cardboard so they were fighting each other- the Marx Brothers versus the Muslim superhero-the Liberty Sheikh. The irreverency of modern democracy versus the stern tradition of the east.

"Let me read you something from Emerson, probably my favorite philosopher," Charles droned on in the background. Everyone was furiously ripping and cutting into their magazines, gorging on the print advertisements of twenty first century America. No one was listening. Twenty minutes later Charles called a halt to our activity and asked us to present our work to each other. I was first. I stood up nervously.

"Hi, this is my collage. I like the Marx Brothers. Heh heh. So I put them on there. (No Marx Brothers fans in the room) And this a Sheikh. He's got a liberty bell on his chest. I went to Philadelphia a few months ago and I saw the Liberty Bell. It was really a great experience. (I smiled and scanned the room. No big fans of the Liberty Bell either) So anyway, the Sheikh is Muslim and, I, guess I just value that we have another culture in the world that we should, uh, all try to understand better. I kind of have them fighting here. See? The Marx Brothers versus the Liberty Sheikh. It's like east versus west. You know? (No, they didn't. Or they didn't care.) Okay. Well. That's it. Thanks."

I sat down. A smattering of applause. Failure. I didn't follow directions. Or I didn't have enough things on mine. Everyone else had found a lot more items. Maureen stood up. Her piece of cardboard was covered with baby seals.

"I don't know if you know about this, but baby seals are being slaughtered by killer whales. Decimated. And they way they are being killed is horrifying. The whales don't just eat them. They pick them up, they throw them through the air, and they toss them back and forth to each other. Like a beach ball. The seals are still alive as their skeletons are crushed and mashed to pieces. I love seals. And I will always value the diversity of species on this planet. Especially marine life. I love the sea."
It was effective. People understood. We gave her a big hand. When it was John's turn he stood up and walked to the front of the class room.

"I didn't put too many things on here, I know we weren't supposed to choose things that cost a lot of money. That wasn't the point of this exercise. And I'm a guy who's at the end of his fifties so I've come a long way in what I value and why. And that's why I put this on here."

He flipped over his board. In the center was a large advertisement for Viagra.

"It's important." he said.

"He doesn't need it!" Franny stood up and shouted from the back. "He doesn't need it at all!"

"I also included this picture of Mike Ditka," John continued, "He's a football coach and a very serious man. He's tough. He's not going to take any shit from anyone. And I think that's a valuable quality."

There was a confused murmuring as John sat down and Franny took the turn after her husband. I expected to see some of her artistic preoccupations. Instead there was a large picture of pasta primavera from a Lean Cuisine advertisement mounted next to a giant stalk of broccoli.

"I have a problem with food," she began. "I go back and forth, fighting my weight, but I love pasta primavera, I love broccoli. And I will always value these things. I also love Fran Drescher. The Nanny. And that's why I have her here on the top."
I clapped for that one. I've always had a crush on Fran Drescher. For one fantastically splendid moment I imagined she was teaching our class. Then I heard his voice.

"Okay class, thank you for those wonderful presentations. Before we wrap up I want to remind you that we need to use the right side of our brain more. We need to find new ways of SEEING money, not just in the way that we use it. Everything is made of energy. Think about that."

Everyone looked at each other, confused.

"Okay, now I want to ask everyone to stand up."

People slowly began pulling their bodies out of the desks.

"I want to ask you to gather in a circle and take ahold of each other's hands."

He punched the ghetto blaster. The opening strains of Andrew Lloyd Webber's opus "Starlight Express" began seeping into the room.

I looked at Maureen. Slowly we shuffled together and reluctantly I gripped her left hand. I felt Charles's fingers on my left palm. Maureen and I made a fist on the right.

"We are not alone." Charles whispered, "We have a whole community around us. Can you feel the energy? Now close your eyes and listen."
I felt the sweaty palm of Charles and the limp, squishy tendons of Maureen. I heard the jerk and honk of city traffic mixing with the strings and synthesizers of Lord Andrew. Then, suddenly, the muscles in Maureen's left hand pulsed and jerked. She squeezed my hand with a death grip and then relaxed it limply. I guessed that she had not held another person's hand in many years.

I kept my eyes closed. The song was one of Lord Andrew's longest, most epic pieces. When it finally ended people threw down their hands and ran to their desks.

"It's so hot in here!" one lady exclaimed. She had torn off her sweater and was throwing it into her bag.

"It's burning up!" Another lady cried as she ran towards the doorway like her hair was on fire. I backed slowly towards my desk, retrieved my pen, folder, and coat and started towards the door, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I had no money tool, no personal financial statement. I didn't care.

"Anybody want supplementary reading materials come see me at the front." Charles waved his hand in the air. I slid into the hallway and caught a waiting elevator. I saw Franny and John approaching the classroom doorway, I gripped the ballpoint pen in my hand tightly as I frantically clicked the "Door Close" button and began a slow descent to the streets of Manhattan.
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