Friday, December 25, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 25, Dave Griffith: On Eula Biss's On Having and Being Had

It’s four days before Christmas and I am on hold with Visa prepaid gift card services--I have been had.

My dad sent me a $100 gift card for Christmas, and when I go to use it at Ho Ping, the Chinese restaurant near my house, the card is declined. When I return home, I call the number on the back of the card to see what’s going on and discover that the balance is ZERO. Someone on St. Catherine St. in Phoenix has registered the card and used it to purchase exactly $100 worth of stuff from Amazon.

The first person I talk to, after being on hold for over an hour, and enduring Muzak versions of Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” and a suite of jazz-fusion monstrosities I can’t quite place but remind me of Sting circa Dream of the Blue Turtles, complete with Branford Marsalis-esque sax licks (think “Love is the Seventh Wave” and “We’ll Be Together”), is a guy who doesn’t even let me explain what has happened: Sir, your name doesn’t match the name registered to the card, so you’ll have to take this up with your dad. Before I can say anything else he hangs up.

I call back hoping to talk with someone more helpful. This time I’m connected almost right away to a woman who, when I explain what has just happened, falls all over herself apologizing. She promises to connect me to someone in the fraud department. I wait and wait. Don Henley returns, followed by Sting, and then some MIDI-composed smooth jazz that sounds like the music that plays on a non-stop loop on the in-house TV channel of hotels: music for liminal spaces.

This all wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t for the fact that I could really use that $100 about now, having blown my Christmas budget, despite telling myself that I wouldn’t; that I would be responsible this year, but, dear, sweet, infant baby Jesus, this year...Don’t we all deserve just a little bit extra?

I tell myself that if my heart were in the right place, I would be consoled by the fact that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that no amount of money or gifts can assuage the restlessness I feel; that Jesus is Alpha and the Omega, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor.

But I feel very far from Jesus right now, even throwing-the-money-changers-out-the-Temple- Jesus, as I quibble with an “Ambassador” from US Bank’s Prepaid Gift Card division about whether or not I have sufficient proof of ownership to qualify for them to issue a reimbursement, something that I am certain they can do with one keystroke--one second there’s zero money and the next second, magically, there’s one-hundred of these things we call dollars available for me to spend.

This also wouldn’t be so terrible if I weren’t, while on hold, finishing the last twenty pages of Eula Biss’ Having and Being Had, a collection of vignettes on a wide array of subjects revolving around money, consumption, the economics of making a living as a writer (and mother), Capitalism, and, ultimately, the value of making and doing things that no one has asked for; things that have no clear or agreed upon worth.

The book is a hardback, which I mention because it feels like a luxury. It is the only hardback book I bought for myself this year, as my book budget had to be slashed due to the fact that when I changed jobs two years ago I took a significant cut in take-home pay. But I am a genuine fan of Biss’ work, which is how I justified the purchase, meaning the $26.00 dollars was worth it to me. It was a price I was willing to pay for the pleasure and edification I felt awaited me. I also saw it as an investment in a writer I admire--a concept that Biss interrogates throughout Having and Being Had. She spends an entire section of the book meditating on the complicated feelings she has about the Guggenheim Foundation money she received, a relatively small sum, a tiny fraction, really, of the interest the Guggenheim fortune kicks off every year, but a sum large enough, Biss writes, to allow her to buy a house in Chicago and buy out her classes at Northwestern for a year.

Biss’ complicated feelings about the provenance of the Guggenheim fortune endears her to me even more. I’ve been a fan ever since 2009 when I read her Notes from No Man’s Land, a book that I was drawn to because of a single essay, “Time and Distance Overcome,” a meditation on the strange and awful intertwined history of the telephone pole and lynchings in the U.S. I return to this essay again and again because of the way that it causes me to grapple with both the wonderful ingenuity of humans and our sinister capacity for evil, a theme that dominates my own work.

Gift card fraud is, of course, laughably benign in comparison to the evil of lynching, but I am allowing it into this appreciation of Biss’ book because it is a Capitalist nightmare. Imagine that a thing you have purchased with your hard-earned money suddenly, magically, disappears, or is discovered to be counterfeit, leaving you not only with nothing to show for it, but also feeling duped, ashamed, had.

Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift, a book on the economics of art and creativity, spends an entire chapter on these kinds of nightmares. Hyde, who Biss cribs from numerous times in Having and Being Had, analyzes folks tales in which a gift, often food, transmogrifies before our very eyes because the protagonist, often overcome by ingratitude, greed, or fear of want, fails to share the gift they have been given.

In one tale, a man sitting down to eat a roast chicken sees his father coming and hides it in order to avoid sharing it. After his father leaves, the delicious chicken transforms into a large toad that leaps and attaches itself to the son’s face. For the rest of his days, the son must feed the toad or else it begins to eat his face. In another tale, a trio of daughters depart their mother one by one to seek their fortune. The mother bakes each of them a loaf of bread, offering them either a small portion and her blessing or a large portion and her curse. The two older daughters who both choose the large portion are bent on hoarding their share and so when they encounter a mother quail and her hungry brood they angrily send them away. These daughters meet very strange and cruel ends, but the youngest chooses the smaller portion and, as you might guess, shares what little she has with the quail family, and, in the end, saves her sisters.

Hoarding a gift is the cardinal sin, according to Hyde: the gift, whatever it is--food, a work of art, a natural talent to make things--must “circulate,” as it is only in the sharing of a gift that it can truly grow and nourish the receiver, as well as an ever-widening circle of people who are also touched in some way by the gift.

My dad once accused me of not being grateful for the sacrifices he and my mother made in order to put me through college, so perhaps the several hours of hold time that I have endured over the last two days trying to reach someone--anyone--in fraud services who can restore the value to the card, is a kind of purgatory.

Maybe purgatory is the better metaphor here for talking about Having and Being Had. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of self-reflective class consciousness bordering on purgative self-loathing. In vignette after vignette Biss and her husband (also a writer), and a revolving cast of friends and colleagues who are artists, economists, and historians, attempt to define what exactly what we mean when we say “The Economy” or “Capitalism.” Over drinks with work friends, while watching masons fix the chimney, while watching her children play on the playground, while riding a bike, while touring an art museum with her friend--bored and irritable children in tow--Biss frets and agonizes. She knows that she is complicit in a system that runs counter to her values, a system that exploits and penalizes the poor, all but ensuring that the wealthy remain wealthy and the indigent indigent, and yet she sees no way out.

As she sits with a TIAA Cref financial planner, she admits that she wants to find a way out of this system, but also that one day she wants to be able to retire, and the only way that will be possible is if she stays in this game, contracting herself out to an exclusive and wealthy institution that sees her value not so much in terms of her abilities as a writer and teacher, but in terms of what the market determines she is worth. She reveals early on that she makes $20,000 more a year than her husband because she received a competitive offer of employment from another university. In this way, the market behaves like a suitor who only becomes attentive when a competitor enters the picture. It is a system of evaluation where appreciation, respect, commitment, and investment in a relationship are not motivated by admiration but by a fear of loss.

It is nearly midnight--I have been on the phone since 7 pm--when I am finally told that someone from Fraud Services will call me back in the morning. I hang up and try to finish the last few pages of the book before falling asleep, but it is a struggle to keep my eyes open. The hours-long vigil waiting for an Ambassador to answer has worn me out. The words investment, interest, dividends, precarity and scarcity dance in my head, and then another word intrudes: Advent.

In the secular sense it means arrival, emergence, appearance etc, but in a Christian context the word is full of expectation, pregnant with meaning, literally a word to describe the season of waiting leading up to the moment when the Word is made flesh. Biss’ book is not invested in this upper-case “n” Nativity--this is the baggage, the freight, the meaning (the value?) that I bring to the reading of her book as a cradle Catholic, and which I am encountering at a particular crossroads in my own journey as a writer, parent, and spouse.

Biss is more interested in the lower-case “n” nativity of Capitalism, and so offers glosses of many scholarly works on the subject, but they do not broker as much emotional power or clarity as the sections she devotes to idols like Virginia Woolf and Joan Didion, whom she clearly both admires but also cooly regards because of their wealth.

Likewise, with each vignette, as I learn more and more about Biss’ struggle to remain faithful to her values and the experiences that have shaped her relationship to work, money, and art, I find myself becoming consumed by judgement. I become impatient with the scenes of conversations about Capitalism over cocktails. I become consumed by pecuniary details, like the $2,000 bicycle she owns, or that she begins one section with the sentence, “We’re driving through the mountains of France talking about affluence.”

I know that she, of all people, is aware of how this comes off. She writes in the notes at the end of the book that this book came, in part, as the result of keeping a daily diary of things that discomforted her. Despite this admission, I still judge, though I know it is not my place to question how others live their lives, spend their money, conduct their business--and yet it is nearly impossible not to. In the same way it is impossible for Biss’ step-mother, in the last pages of the book, not to question why she is allowing her child to purchase a supposedly rare Pokemon card for $7. Whole packs of the cards are only $3, so why would you allow your child to make such an obviously foolish decision with his allowance? Biss replies: “It isn’t really his money unless he can use it in the way he wants…And making mistakes with money is one of the best ways to learn how not to make mistakes with money.”

Making mistakes with money is a game I know too well. I feel like I have been playing it for most of my adult life, but the mistakes are not so much squandering money on collectible trading cards (although, looking around at the shelves of unread books I have purchased because I felt a certain professional and clubby duty to own them, I feel attacked). The mistake I fret and agonize over, especially in these moments as I nervously check my account balance and wait for an Ambassador from the Fraud Department of the Prepaid Card Division to answer, is whether or not I should continue to write, or, better put, whether I can continue to afford to write.

This is not a question raised in Biss’ book, though she does worry over the worth of her writing. Her sister says to her, in a conversation that I imagine playing out in thousands of households and over Zoom calls this Holiday season: “I don’t believe that you think what you do is worthless...I just mean financially worthless.”

This comment, as with so many of the vignettes in the book, touches off an associative string of memories and quotes from other writers about about the wages and rewards of art, leading her to say, in return, to her sister:

Women shouldn’t have to work for nothing...and neither should artists, but I feel the way some women once felt about the Wages for Housework movement--if I were paid wages for the work of making art, then everything I do would be monetized, everything I do would be subject to the logic of this economy. And if art became my job, I’m afraid that would disturb my universe. I would have nothing unaccountable left in my life, nothing worthless, except for my child.

Reading Biss’ response gives me courage and hope. There is in this, and countless other moments in her book, a subtle but crucial difference being made between work and labor. “Work,” Hyde writes, “is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus--these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify.”

The things on Hyde’s list of things at which we labor are: getting sober, mourning, “writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms.”

This is what I needed to be reminded of after hours of waiting, hours of time wasted, hours which I could have been reading or writing, or preparing for the upcoming holiday by baking or wrapping presents.

In the morning, I awake feeling cynical, but I resist the urge to call back. I try to go about my day, checking last-minute items off my list, wrapping gifts for my children, cleaning the fridge of weeks-old leftovers that have begun to smell, but I am consumed and invested. I want justice. I want satisfaction. I want to make certain that the time I have spent will pay off. As a distraction, I take my dog-eared copy of Hyde’s The Gift from the shelf and return to the passage on the distinction between work and labor. For years, I have read and re-read this book, consulting it in the same way that some consult the Gospels or the I-Ching.

In the ancient world, the sabbath, a day devoted to rest, was considered a time for labor, for attending to those things that are “dictated by the course of life”; things left undone in the rush of the work week. I read for a long time, but nothing happens, nothing changes. The phone does not ring; the gift card before me on the kitchen table is still worthless, though I can sense a small change working within me. Hyde’s words strike me different this time, filtered as they are through the experiences of someone else. I feel a creeping sense of peace: attending to rituals secular or religious is labor.

Later that afternoon, just when I have given up hope, the phone rings. It is someone from the corporate headquarters. The person on the other end wants to help expedite the claim process. She says there are so many notes in the system that it’s hard to decipher what is happened. She asks me to tell her how all of this started.

What I want to say is that it’s ok--let’s just forget about it. I want to say that I have allowed myself to be distracted, allowed myself to be cut off from the vital flow of the spirit that moves among us. I want to say that we are all slaves to mammon. I want to say that the nativity--whatever it is that we are seeking the origins of--offers us a glimpse of the moment when history diverges, a moment where we can see--split-screen--the before and after. I want to say that we are all being offered in this season a glint of choice, an opportunity to navigate back to the headwaters where we can start over again. But instead, I say, “Well, how much time do you have?” and she says “All the time in the world.”

Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He lives in South Bend, Indiana.