Reclining in a chair at Odegaard Library at UW. It’s 10:58am. I just got done getting an injection for a clinical trial I’m doing at a major cancer research center here in Seattle that will pay me gross amounts of money. I feel apathetic right now. I feel lazy. The only thing I want to do is go to Chipotle and get a burrito bowl with cheese and sour cream and the tortilla on the side, but I can’t afford it. Instead, I’ll go home and eat the pasta leftovers from yesterday, the pasta I made with onion and carrot, doused in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with freshly ground sea salt. It’s not a terrible option. My life is not worse for not being able to go to Chipotle.
I check the balance of my Charles Schwab account. Eleven dollars and one cent. I’m waiting to get my first payment from Leapforce, the semi-awful company I work for doing search engine evaluation, but they’re net 30 which means I might not get paid until the end of this month. And my first check from my main job doesn’t come until April 26th. And interpreting, somehow, I don’t even think this is legal in the state of Washington, is something like net 60, which means I won’t get paid by them until sometime in May. Which means that of all the work I’ve done since I got back from Europe, of all the three jobs I’m working, I haven’t gotten paid a single cent. Which means the balances in my checking accounts are getting lower, and lower, and lower. And I’ve had to become more frugal. It’s a victory when the bus driver gives me a transfer that lasts for longer than it should and I don’t have to pay several bus fares in one day. It’s a victory when I go to Trader Joe’s and get samples, which I’ve been doing almost every day. It’s a victory when I see my friend H driving by in his car, give him fist bump, and then walk home and see a compost bin full of bread and grab one of the loaves of sourdough and then eat it with my pasta. All these things are victories. Life, right now, feels like a victory. I know I might sound somber, but things are actually pretty good.
I did have money. But I didn’t consider it my money. It didn’t feel right to have it. So eventually, I gave it back. I gave it back because I wanted to be forced to work, and that’s exactly what happened. Within a few weeks of arriving back from Europe I had found a solid, part-time job, and figured I could supplement that with medical interpreting and Leapforce. And then there was another job offer, this time from Booking.com, to be a customer service representative in Spanish. The job was effectively a call center. But it felt like the right thing to do. It felt like I should take the job. I could see worlds opening before me, international travel, meeting all kinds of interesting people, getting transferred to the office in Bogota, living, living, living! But then I thought, How will I manage that with the other job. How could I do both jobs at once. I’d essentially be in a cubicle most nights of the week until 11:00pm or 11:30pm. I’d never do anything. I’d never go surfing.
But at the same time, I knew these were lame excuses. You have to pay to play. After the interview I got in the car with my friend M and she had me completely convinced. “Do the job,” she said. “You know it will be good for you. You know it’s the right decision.” And I fully agreed with her, of course. I felt like I should do. But I didn’t WANT to do it. I really didn’t. And after we parted ways the resistance started to kick in, and within a few days I knew there was no way in hell I was going to take the job. Too much work. Too much commitment. Too much unknown.
People think that because I travel to weird places and don’t know where I’m going to sleep the next night I have no fear of the unknown. They’re completely wrong. That, for me, is the known. That’s what I’m used to. Taking a 40-hour a week job, having to sacrifice my freedom, having to do something I don’t want to do, that’s the unknown for me. And ultimately my fear of the unknown was stronger than my desire to better myself or expand my horizons. I wondered if I would regret not taking the job at Booking. I do, a little bit, but those regrets fade every day.
Of course, my plan wasn’t to use the money I used to have until I gave it back. First I had to decide whether I even wanted to accept it. But it was a fairly large sum, so tantalizing to just be offered that kind of money, so I deliberated on it and eventually decided to accept it, even though something deep inside me told me I shouldn’t. I ignored this voice. The older you get, the better you get at ignoring the little voices telling you what to do. The better you get at rationalizing. I think some of the most “mature,” “responsible” people I’ve ever met are actually just people who have learned to ignore this voice completely, and always do what is “smart,” always do what is “rational,” always do what is “right.” These people are so boring. They surround themselves with other people who do exactly the same thing, and this way they can constantly make each other feel better about it. But this little voice is the only thing we have. It knows what to do. It knows which path to take. And if you ignore it for long enough, it eventually just shuts up. It doesn’t talk to you anymore. And then maybe, maybe, a mid-life crisis can come along, or some other dramatic event, and save you. But maybe also you’ll just be too far gone.
After I accepted the money I didn’t use it. I continued to work. I traveled around Eastern Europe and wrote a book about it called Snowflakes in Lviv. It was a fairly terrible book. But it was a book. And then I came home for a little while, but after reading a book titled What Should I Do with my Life, or something to that effect, I decided I needed to move somewhere and commit, commit to at least a year of living somewhere. I chose San Sebastian, Spain. I wanted to be somewhere that satisfied the following conditions: Spanish-speaking, had surf, had a climate similar to Seattle’s, and was a decent-sized city. San Sebastian, or Donosti as it’s called in Basque, satisfied all those requirements perfectly. Sure, people speak Basque there, but a lot of people don’t. The language you hear most in the streets is Spanish. If you walk into a store they’ll greet you in Basque but they won’t be offended at all if you don’t speak it. I had an apartment for 400 euros a month with a balcony across the street from the beach. I would wake up in the morning, walk to the living room with my laptop, the house was silent because my roommates had either gone to work or, in the case of my Eithopian-English-Italian roommate Kara, still asleep, and put my laptop on the table to get ready to work. If there were waves I would go for a quick surf first. I’d check the waves from the living room window, put on my wetsuit in my room, wax my board while sitting on my bed, and walk down the six flights of stairs to get to the entryway where’d I’d squeeze through the door, careful not to ding my board, and head down to the beach. I was, of course, a stranger in the line-up most of the time I was there. But by the end of my time in San Sebastian I started to get a few head nods from some of the regular surfers. Not full on head nods, not “hi’s,” but simple, almost imperceptible twitches of the head after making eye contact to signify, “I’ve seen you before. It’s OK that you’re here.”
After two months in San Sebastian I gave up. I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore. I still hadn’t touched the money I’d been given. I was working online doing search engine evaluation for a company called ZeroChaos, getting paid 15 dollars an hour. I wasn’t supposed to work outside the US, but I started doing it anyway and they never said anything. Fifteen dollars an hour might not sound like a lot, but most of the world is cheap. In most of the world, 15 dollars an hour is a fortune. Spain is certainly not an exception. Spain is cheap. My room was wonderful and, like I said, cost 400 euros a month. The food in Spain is cheap (as long as you don’t eat out), the wine is ridiculously cheap, and surfing, when you have a break right in front of your house, is pretty cheap too. What more could you really want? Well, you could want friends. I knew going to San Sebastian that it would take awhile to make friends, and that until I had friends I wouldn’t be that happy. That’s why I had to force myself to stay there for a year. But I didn’t do it. I gave up. I got bored. I got lonely. I got sick of going to the same coffee shop by myself and writing. I got sick of surfing by myself, even though there were other people around me. I got sick of not having real friends. My roommates were sort of friends. There was a girl from Barcelona, and most nights we’d smoke hand-rolled cigarettes in the living room and talk about whatever. She was studying costume design. I think she might’ve liked me at one point. One day we decided to go ice-skating together, and it was a little bit awkward. We had had a little bit of a falling out. I don’t even remember what happened, now. I only remember that we spent almost every evening sitting in the living room smoking cigarettes with me possibly eating yogurt, and then all of the sudden we barely talked. But then slowly we started talking again, and I mentioned there was an ice skating rink over on the other side of the town, and we went one day together, on a random weekday afternoon, and I spent the hour we were there blazing around the rink as fast as I could on the rented skates which weren’t very sharp, I spent elementary school in Minnesota so ice skating still runs in my blood, and meanwhile she was teetering around, always on the verge of falling, but with a big, semi-strained smile on her face. I still have one picture of her from that ice-skating session. The picture is blurry, she’s holding on to the railing, and smiling a real smile, not a strained one. Behind her the ice is blue and white and the lights are bright.
I bought a roundtrip ticket from Madrid to Seattle. I went home for a month. I think I got seasonal depression. Then I got on the return leg of my trip to Madrid, spent a night there, and then flew to Morocco to meet up with my friend and other friends for his 30th birthday. We spent a couple weeks in Morocco. It was wonderful. They’d rented a beautiful little villa in the town of Taghazout, just north of Agadir and close to some of the best waves in Morocco and, for that matter, some of the best waves in the world. At night we’d hit the streets like a little gang, eating a crepe at the crepe stand that catered to tourists, going to one of the popular restaurants in town that had cheap pizza and tagines. At night, my friend S and I would usually watch an episode of Orange is the New Black before going to sleep. We’d cook communal dinners together, drink tea the way Mohammed, the manager of the property, had showed them how to prepare it. Every day we’d pile in the rental car, all the boards on top, some of them rented, my green board that I might’ve called Wendy, my friend H’s board name Steve that we constantly made fun of because it was tiny and hard to surf. And then we’d head to one of the spots, Boilers, Anchor, Banana, or somewhere else. One day we drove up to Imsouanne to check out the wave there, rumored to be one of the longest waves in the world. I only got one good wave, but it was the longest wave I’d ever gotten. It was probably waist high. I was pumping the entire time. There was section after section and with each section a mounting excitement and when I got done with the wave I screamed, but the scream was also tinged with a bit of sadness because I was pretty sure no one had seen the wave. My legs were burning. On the way back we drove through rocky fields with thorny trees with goats standing on the branches, nibbling at the tender upper leaves.
And then Morocco was over and I was on my own again, and I flew to Belgrade. My flight was actually to Zagreb, Croatia, but I got off in Belgrade because I’d never been to Serbia before. My goal was to write a book, and that’s what I did. I wrote 1,000 words five days a week for over two months, and eventually I had a book that was around 50,000 words long. I called it Snowflakes in Lviv because I stayed for three weeks in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, a wonderful, gorgeous, quaint, alive city, and one day I was lying on the bed in my private room at Post Hostel, a new hostel with exposed brick walls, comfortable duvets and friendly staff, and I had the song “Requiem” by Mozart on, the full 55 minute version. I was curled up next to the radiator, feeling the heat, and outside great big snowflakes were plummeting towards the earth, and they looked like creamy specks against an off white sky, and I lay there, just lay there, listening to the music, watching the snowflakes, enjoying the warmth.
The trip ended in Berlin, where I saw my friend C, my cousin M, and walked across Templehofer Feld on a beautiful April day. At this point, though, I was ready to go. I was ready for the trip to be over. It didn’t even feel like the same trip, the one that had started in Belgrade and taken me through Romania and into Ukraine and Poland and then into Germany. Now it just felt like I was on sort of an aimless vacation. I was in that kind of purgatory where you know you’re going to go somewhere and being in that other place is all you can think about to the point where it compromises your ability to be present in the place where you are. I was drinking a lot of coffee. I was taking a lot of walks. My cousin and I went out one night to a wine bar where you could drink as much wine as you wanted and then just pay at the end, and I got mildly drunk. It was the first time I’d ever hung out with him in my life. I still feel like I don’t know him. I’m glad I saw him, but I still feel like I don’t know him.
I’m getting hungry, sitting here at Odegaard. The library is full of students. Somehow my login still works, but only at the computers here. I tried it at Suzzallo, the “graduate” library, but it didn’t work, which means I must be among the hordes of undergraduates who are involved in whatever it is undergraduates do. I, of course, was an undergraduate once, but I don’t remember doing much schoolwork. I majored in Spanish, which is probably one of the easiest majors UW offers. The longest paper I ever had to write was four pages. The standards were incredibly low. The Spanish I learned was not so much at UW but mostly during a pair of study abroads in Spain and Mexico. And most of the learning in those came from a series of conversations with particular people. In Spain, it was a young dancer girl who I used to watch TV in the afternoons with and smoke Chesterfields. In Mexico City, it was a girl named Juliana who I’d get tacos with several nights a week and with whom I spoke exclusively in Spanish. Because of these two girls, my Spanish skyrocketed. Which was maybe what made the Spanish major so easy at UW. Maybe it was easy because I liked Spanish.
I’m slowing down now, and getting hungry. I really want Chipotle, but unless some kind of miracle occurs I won’t be able to have it. PayPal! Maybe I have money in my PayPal account! I’m pretty sure I don’t, but there’s always a chance. But no, my balance is $0.00 in “all,” currencies.
I’m realizing now that I got massively confused. When I left Spain after living in San Sebastian, I didn’t buy a roundtrip ticket. That was a different trip. The year before Spain I lived in France for two months with a woman named F who rented me a room two blocks from the beach in Seignosse, near Hossegor, and after living with her I walked the Camino de Santiago, the Camino del norte, 500 miles from Irun to Santiago de Compostela, and then I flew to Madrid and back to Seattle, and that trip, that was the trip where I bought the roundtrip ticket and came back after a month of seasonal depression in Seattle and met my friends in Morocco and then eventually went to Belgrade and Ukraine and wrote the book. But after San Sebastian something different happened. I went home to my parents’ house in Washington State and I decided to quit my job. I still hadn’t used a penny of the money I’d been given, but I decided I was going to quit my job and become a writer. I was going to go to Latin America, first Mexico and then Honduras for a volunteer gig my nurse friend and sort of ex was doing, and then onward, probably to Colombia, and maybe even further on. The idea was that I’d eventually run out of money. That was the point. The point was to run out of money and be forced to either become a legitimate writer or starve. Of course it failed. I sold my book online, and it was mildly pathetic. It wasn’t a great book, so only my friends and family bought. One girl I didn’t know bought it, a girl who’d been following my blog through a few years, and that was flattering. But deep down I knew it wasn’t that great, so I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t sell much. Plus, my marketing campaign wasn’t exactly effective.
Of course, in my head I knew that if things really got bad, if I was really destitute, then I could use the money. And I think on some level I knew all along that was exactly what would end up happening. But I did give it a decent go. My money ran out completely on the island of Chiloe in southern Chile. Or actually, Chiloe is where my money got low. My money got law so I bought a tent and a sleeping bag and went to a smaller island called Puqueldon where I planned to sleep on the beach and maybe even live off the land till I was able to start making money from writing. And although I spent some wonderful nights on the beach, the rain eventually drove me indoors. I started to sell the book, and made about 100 bucks. But at this point I knew it was over. I knew I wasn’t going to really risk it, to risk true destitution to make myself become a writer. So I made my way to Santiago, and that’s where I started using the money. I splurged for a first class overnight bus from Temuco to Santiago, it cost 50 or so dollars and had entertainment, food, and a nearly lie flat seat, and then when I was in Santiago I went to my favorite coffee shop, Colmado, and got a delicious latte, and then I spent 200 bucks on Alaska Airlines to get enough miles so that I could fly business class home to Seattle and have a lie-flat seat there, too. When I went to the airport in Santiago I was exhausted after not sleeping that much on the overnight bus from Temuco and having to kill the day walking around the scorching city, but since I was flying business class I was able to go to the LAN lounge where they had a multitude of drinks and snacks and I was even able to take a warm shower. But it was, of course, bittersweet. I had given up. I was now living on money I hadn’t earned but rather money that had been given to me. It didn’t feel good. I didn’t feel good about myself. And I knew that the money wasn’t the problem and I still know that to this day. If someone gives you a large chunk of money it shouldn’t ruin your life, or ruin who you are as a person. And it didn’t ruin my life, of course. My life was fine. It was great. From an outside perspective, it was great. But there was something gnawing at me that was related to the money. Something wasn’t quite right, and I knew that eventually the only solution would probably be to give it back. So that’s what I did. A month ago, I gave it back, and that’s why now I have $11.01 in one of my checking accounts and why I can’t go get Chipotle and why because I still haven’t gotten any paychecks I’ll probably have to ask someone for a micro-loan in the very near future.
But, as I was telling my friend G today, I’ve noticed something recently. As my checking accounts inch their way towards zero something curious has happened. I haven’t gotten sadder, but actually happier. And it’s made me realize that when people say that “Money doesn’t buy happiness” they’re only talking about half of the story. This is what I’ve learned: that when you need something, and you buy it, that’s good. That’s fine. But when you buy something you don’t need not only does it not bring you happiness, but it actually makes your life worse. Spending money on things you don’t need, in other words, being wasteful, doesn’t bring happiness but actually brings sadness. It lowers your quality of life. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If I had the money right now to buy my friends and myself a surf trip to Indonesia on a boat in the Mentawai Islands, I think that could bring some legitimate happiness. I don’t need that trip, but it would bring happiness. But most things, most things we buy that we don’t need just make our lives worse.
So at least I’ve learned that. Maybe I haven’t internalized it, but at least I’ve learned that. And now I’m going to walk home, eat my leftover pasta, and sit on the couch.