Tuesday, February 12, 2013

my misspent youth.

It's a bit longer than your typical blog or online article, but this 1999 essay by Meghan Daum is absolutely worth the read.  In it, she tells the story of her long romance with, naturally, the glamorous New York City and her dreams of working there as a writer.  It sounds like a familiar tale, but what is unique here is her frank discussion of youthful entitlement, debt, dreams, and living beyond one's means without even realizing it.  I found her distinction between a desire to be rich and a desire to live whimsically to be simultaneously funny and haunting.

 A shorter excerpt if you're in a hurry or need some convincing:

"Even when I got older and began to run into my financial problems, I never had a conscious desire for a lot of money. I was never interested in being rich. I just wanted to live in a place with oak floors.  In what emerged as the major misconception of the subsequent twelve years, I somehow got the idea that oak floors were located exclusively in New York City. This came chiefly from watching Woody Allen movies…To me, this kind of space did not connote wealth. These were places where the paint was peeling and the rugs were frayed, places where smart people sat around drinking gin and tonics, having interesting conversations, and living, according to my logic, in an authentic way...
(My college years) expanded my sense of entitlement so much that, by the end, I had no ability to separate myself from the many extremely wealthy people I encountered there...Like the naïve teenager who thought Mia Farrow's apartment represented the urban version of middle-class digs, I continued to believe throughout college that it wasn't fabulous wealth I was aspiring to, merely hipness.”
And a bit later, when she decides to go back to school for a graduate program in writing:
"If there is a line of demarcation in this story, a single moment where I crossed the boundary between debtlessness and total financial mayhem, it's the first dollar that I put toward achieving a life that had less to do with overt wealth than with what I perceived as intellectual New York bohemianism. It seems laughable now, but at the time I thought I was taking a step down from the Chanel suits and Manolo Blahniks of my office job. Hanging out at the Cuban coffee shop and traipsing over the syringes and windblown trash of upper Broadway, I was under the impression that I was, in a certain way, slumming. And even though I was having a great time and becoming a better writer, the truth was that the year I entered graduate school was the year I stopped making decisions that were appropriate for my situation and began making a rich person's decisions. Entering this particular graduate program was a rich person's decision…
For me, money has always, truly, been ‘only money,’ a petty concern of the shallower classes, a fatuous substitute for more important things like fresh flowers and 'meaningful conversations' in the living room. But the days when I can ignore the whole matter are growing further and further apart."

Frankly, I found this a good reminder for myself, as a member of a generation who values world travel, "experiences", boho chic, and cool jobs at offices that feature beer on tap and bouncy balls for chairs.  It isn't that any of those things are inherently bad; rather, there is a danger that we may mistakenly believe we are not actually living beyond our means, simply because our end goal isn't to to be wealthy.  Meghan Daum offers a bitingly funny reminder that whatever it is we're after, be it fabulous mansions or simply fresh flowers and chippy paint furniture (or perhaps even something less materialistic...) we should--and cannot--pretend money is no object along the way.

I'd be interested to hear any thoughts you might have on the article.

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