Alchemy and nothingness: a week in review

Go ask Alice

An interesting question made the rounds on social media this week, harkening back to an old Jay-Z lyric: Would you rather be overpaid or underrated? Sounds easy, but so many considerations! On the one hand, Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and a whole bunch of other geniuses died penniless. But they’re household names long after their deaths. So in that context…

Oh, wait. No. Every response to that question essentially amounted to, “lol overpaid duh.”

It’s an obvious answer in retrospect. What good is being remembered long after our deaths if we don’t have a pot to piss in while we’re, you know, alive? The association of our names with great art appreciated for generations? Keep it. Daddy needs a new pair of shoes.

Okay. Well that’s… practical, I suppose. But I’d argue it’s also nihilism, a deeply held belief that nothing matters. And as I typed notes this week to my senator imploring him to vote against a hastily drafted and incomprehensibly mean tax reform bill, it occurred to me he might not care.

My suspicion was confirmed when a reporter asked him if he’d read the bill. He responded that this isn’t the kind of legislation one reads. Maybe I’m giving the guy too much credit, but I’m convinced he said this to see how many heads would explode. Adding $1.5 trillion to the deficit isn’t simply something one reads? I mean, I devour books, and I know a lot of people don’t, and the tax bill is 500 pages of, well, tax code. But maybe at least lie about it? Pretend you did? Deflect the question?

Nope. Proudly and on the record, probably feeling sorry for his constituents who can’t grasp how politics work, he fessed up, without apology. And it was then I understood there’s just not going to be any reasoning with guys like that. They’re nihilists.

They’re also hypocrites and liars and dolts, though sadly those are not grounds for impeachment. But no matter whether you’ve formulated an airtight case to shed light on their deceptions or contradictions, meticulously crafting a tweet that gets tens of thousands of RTs reinforcing your correct hypothesis, it doesn’t matter. They’ll still be stupid when they wake up tomorrow. But they don’t care. They’ll never have to be smart. Because they could buy and sell any of us ten times over. And to them, that’s all that matters. Nothing is sacred. They’re nihilists.

“So what’s the good news, Gohde? Your positive spin on this seemingly hopeless situation?” Yeah, um, about that. That’s pretty much it. They’re rich, we’re not. And money is power. They’re overpaid and we’re underrated and we’ll have to accept this lest we go completely insane.

The squared circle

So let’s change the subject. Alchemy good with you? Cool. I think about alchemy a lot. Daily, even. So I try to read or listen to something new about it every chance I get. On the one hand, I obviously don’t believe it to be a viable undertaking. On the other, I see alchemy in everything.

Cooking? Alchemy. The robots in the novel I wrote? Certainly alchemical. Same with art. I’m not alone in thinking how generally taking raw materials and manufacturing something useful and/or valuable is alchemy, in a broad sense. But that’s not the common perception of this protoscience. For most of us, alchemy is still Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold.

Which brings us to another topic of the week: Bitcoin. I know a couple very happily confused people whose modest investments in the cryptocurrency went through the roof. As I write this Saturday, it’s “stabilized” at $11,000. It was at $900 in January of this year.

Economists are quick to point out Bitcoin has no intrinsic value. Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz states, “Bitcoin is successful only because of its potential for circumvention… It doesn’t serve any socially useful function.” Another expert clarified, “Gold has real value because it’s shiny and can be used for jewelry.”

Did I say we were changing the subject? We are not.

First off, the US hasn’t been on the gold standard since 1971. More importantly for this post, though, is the fact that something shiny, something which can be used for jewelry, is hardly unequivocally valuable.

At this point, I’m obligated to reference Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, in which Michael Caine’s Alfred tells Bruce Wayne a story to illuminate The Joker’s motivations. In so doing, he recalls an episode from his past:

Thanks, IMDb.

Hey, lookie, nihilism in the extreme. But the point remains, assuming you’re not the kind of reader who wants to watch the world burn: What do we value? What in the world do we hold sacred? I’m personally confused as to why something shiny, which can be used to make jewelry, was ever the basis for our economy. And the fact that it’s not today means our dollar is as ephemeral as Bitcoin.

Back in the late 1990s, when I worked at a bookshop, a local poet — the late, great James Liddy — brought in a stack of his chapbooks to sell on consignment. I pulled out the paperwork and explained how we keep 40% and will issue a check at the end of each quarter for —

“No.” James shook his head. “I don’t want to do all that. If you sell any and see me at the pub, just buy me a pint of Guinness, alright?” He bade me farewell and left the store.

My fellow bookseller, John Malloy, overheard the interaction and was in awe. “That is how the US economy should work, Brent: Poetry for pints. Poetry. For. Pints.”

Fast-forwarding two decades, John remains absolutely right. Bartering that which we hold dear makes perfect sense. Perhaps it’s not fit to be the backbone of our economy, no. But what even is this money stuff, man? Just give me a rug that really ties the room together and I’ll be happy. Or something.

The Bible has a bunch to say about money, none of it good. God gave my guy King Solomon all his riches because Sol didn’t ask for any, which caught God off-guard (no easy feat). He wanted wisdom, and God gave him that, too. “For the love of money is at the root of all evil,” Paul tells Timothy. Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes — they all got the memo: Money is the worst.

Conversely, Aristotle Onassis would later say, “After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.” Ted Turner agrees, adding, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” Hashtag nihilism.

That’s the mentality we’re resisting, though. Because if life is a game and money is how it’s scored, most of us will never win. These old white guys see it as “winning,” as I’ve stated previously. So why even play the game of life?

But here’s what this week, and James Liddy, and Alfred Pennyworth, have taught me, anyway. 1) Money is an illusion, 2) people’s lives aren’t a game, and 3) the ephemeral has value.

Things are bad, guys. Nihilism feels like a comfy default setting. But here’s what I’ve got: While I was on IMDb, I looked at Gordon Gekko’s quotes from Wall Street, and they read like Oliver Stone wrote them this week rather than a full 30 years ago. The more things change, the circle of life, etc. The rich will always be winning, in their minds. But there’s something to be said for being underrated. The key is to identify and hold close that which you value.

It’s hard when healthcare and education are so very valuable (oh and also essential), and those things might become much more difficult to access. But there’s something to be said for family, friends, and wisdom. When everything was falling apart online last night, I put my phone aside and picked up James Gleick’s brilliant biography on (big ol’ alchemist) Isaac Newton, reading about all he overcame. And I felt better. “I’m okay now.” Being present, being okay in the moment, not worrying about the unknown… These are essential for sanity. Newton ended up rich, sure. And things don’t have to be as hard for us as they’re making them for us, no. But.

But I’m reminded of a scene from a show I’ve always hated, “The Honeymooners.” Jackie Gleason’s Ralph was — naturally, horribly — berating Audrey Meadows’ Alice. “I’m the king. You’re nothing. I’m the king, and you’re nothing. You got that?”

“Yeah,” Alice answered sardonically. “You’re the king over nothing.”

[Takes long pull of strong coffee] You don’t need me to tell you you’re not nothing, dear reader. So if all these rich guys are telling you you’re nothing, be an alchemist. Make something out of your nothingness. Art, a family, a home, whatever you want, as long as you’re not hurting anybody else. Go full Rumpelstiltskin on their asses.

“They don’t want you to eat breakfast,” DJ Khaled reminds us, illustrating my point. “So what we gonna do is we gonna eat breakfast.” I just love this sentiment so much.

Point is, nobody can predict the future. Otherwise we’d all be Bitcoin millionaires. (I know that’s not how it works, that’s not how any of this works.) This bill — not yet a law — would make things really, unnecessarily challenging for so many of us moving forward. But at the very least, each of us can find what’s valuable to us. Not them. Breakfast, for example. And that should be of comfort. Love what you love, no matter what they say. Don’t let go of it. And know there’s no happiness — or even true value — in bright, shiny objects. But as someone who sees worth in pieces of cardboard with photos of baseball players on them, I don’t have a better basis for a monetary system. But maybe don’t get wrapped up in it.

It’s temporary. These Millennials are ruining napkins, sure, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. The not-too-distant future looks bright. And if I had any money, I’d bet on Robert Mueller to take a few of these awful people down. Patience, okay? Even one of my favorite dudes, LeBron James, got ejected this week for the first time in his 15-year career. A clear sign the tide is turning. No man is infallible. WE TAKIN’ OVER.

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