David Mamet wrote, “Money buys you things.” As with communication, it is the context of money that gives it meaning. The same words can light up a listener’s life, or bore another to death.
So money can buy food, shelter and clothing; but the same amount can ruin your soul or tear a family apart. It is the instrument of good in one hand or greed in another. Greed has nothing to do with money. Rather it’s the lust for power and use of that power for wasteful narcissistic purposes. Financial reporters should major in psychology—not journalism.
I have a friend who lives in the eastern part of my adopted home state of Pennsylvania amidst the dairy farms, corn and soybean farms, small metal fabrication workshops, lumberyards and woodworkers. Lately, there’s been a burgeoning growth of commuters to NYC, some 50 to 75 miles away, depending on the borough or suburb of their workplace. The region is beautiful: classically bucolic with deep woods, winding creeks and gently high and low rolling hills.
Recently, he told me that the local school system decided to replace the football field in his small town with Astroturf. The cost is incredible, approaching high six figures. That a relatively small school district would allocate resources toward sports and not toward music and painting, is appalling. Everyone agrees that team sports help to build character. But who talked himself into the decision that a rural school would benefit from Astroturf? And, more important, how?
Greed is a particularly tragic sin, because it destroys everything it touches. In Pennsylvania, football has become not merely a religion, but a very big business. However, no state is immune to the disease of the lust for power. A state needs only look to the federal government for inspiration. When a state college football coach earns more than its president, something’s wrong. The solution is to confess and repent the sin of greed.
As usual, the devil finds work for idle hands. It begins, of course, with parents. Some do not instill enough non-materially oriented values. This is one of the reasons Freud disliked the US—it was like a pre-adolescent nation back in his day (the 1920s and 30s). He likened it to an unconscious child: a mass of humanity obsessed with things—more and more things. He also noted that “fun” was becoming a sort of normative state of the American mind. Today, over 80 years later, he’d be horrified.
Second, are the school boards. They argue most of the time, rather than debate the best method to help students achieve an education. Next come the teachers, principals and superintendents. For some their main interests are, first, to keep their jobs and, second, to make them easier to perform. So, what do any of these folks care about the waste of funds used to buy Astroturf? Not much, if anything at all. No one “loves” the ideals; no one takes “ownership” of the kids’ education. Education has become, like football, a business. Check out the textbook industry. It is, in crude business terms, “a gusher”, “a gold mine”, etc. A business, furthermore, in which there are no competitors, save a handful of “charter schools”, religious schools (thank God) and the tiny home-school community.
Think about high school soccer versus high school football. One requires almost no equipment, the other a virtual warehouse of armor. One causes frequent injuries that plague a person the rest of his life. The other involves actually “faking” injuries. Or take high school wrestling. No injuries. Hardly any money required. Hello?
Parsing the Mamet quote, you find that “money” means as much what it is not, as what it is. One expects Mamet, like any great contemporary writer, to expand on the subject, but he limits himself to one pithy sentence. “Buys” keeps it simple—the most obvious verb. Again, he’s focusing on what he isn’t telling you. Which brings us to “you”—keeping it directly personal. This isn’t about the other guy. Money is never about someone else. But “things” is the key: he is reducing money to the medium of exchange for the mostly prosaic things that money buys. Forget about services, or about “material prosperity”, as in Jefferson’s definition of “happiness”. Those days are gone, replaced by a sort—a mild sort for some, stronger for others—of existential Astroturf. Why not spend the money?
It should be noted, at this point, that Mamet is the only writer who is consistently faithful to Freud. He knows his work well, probably read every word Freud wrote. Thus, he knows that Freud evolved from beginning to end. Did he err at times? Who doesn’t? (I fantasize sometimes about an all-night radio show about Freud. I could host it.)
I know several electrical engineers, all working in the many different forms of electrical energy. Electricity is elegantly simple, similar to water but much more powerful. All these friends went to engineering schools, which are fascinating in their contrast, on the one hand, to liberal arts schools, and in their similarity, on the other, to music schools or conservatories.
Here’s the traditional routine in electrical engineering college: every year you take one class with the same teacher. It lasts from 8 am to 3 pm, with a morning break and lunch from noon to 1 pm. The teacher lays it on heavy in the morning and then lightens up a bit in the afternoon, reviewing the morning and setting up the next day. Maybe a surprise quiz, maybe not. There’s no homework; you learn in the class. It sounds familiar because it’s exactly the same routine as grade school. Except now you’re in your late teens and early twenties. There are usually two tests per semester, with the “final” being a pass or fail portal to the next year. Of course, you study at home for the four exams; but, if you aren’t “working” during class, you won’t make it past year one. Engineering schools usually last four years. Some colleges and universities have two year programs that run through the entire 12 month year. They tend to cater both to kids whose families don’t have “four-year” money, as well as to low-income foreigners.
Music education is similar, except you have two or three teachers. It’s not as straightforward as electricity. Also, being an art form based on sensory aptitudes, it is more subjective than electrical engineering. Otherwise it’s the same as engineering: “old school”, so to speak. For instance, counterpoint is a specialty usually taught by masters, steeped in the church music of the Baroque period. You study Bach until you think you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, and then study more. No big money involved, and certainly no greed.
Imagine how public education would be if “grade school” and perhaps, later, the junior high format were used throughout high school and, even better, college and university. Why let the engineers have all the fun? High school could be completed by 16 instead of 17, higher education could be an experience to carry with you to your grave, instead of the odd blend of vacation and high school that most college experiences are now.
Relevance to gardening? All my electrical friends garden, and many of their colleagues at ABB, GE and Bechtel do too. Another thing—many are from rural or semi-rural backgrounds. Agriculture and horticulture are based, like electricity, on a natural system and your mastery and manipulation of it. Electrical engineering is remarkably creative, as, of course, is gardening. Problems, solutions, beginnings, conclusions, new problems, ad infinitum.
Certainly, gardening isn’t “Astroturf”. And it doesn’t involve much money. This is the wisdom of the ancients: money is not “the root of all evil” as is often misquoted. It is “at the root of all evil”—a very different meaning, turning on a simple preposition.
So, as we approach the school year, let’s hear it for the grade school format for higher education in the liberal arts, the “master electricians”, the “master gardeners”. And let’s hear it for playing musical instruments.
As for Astroturf? Why not just rip it up next year and replace it with grass? Then fire the school board. Now that would build character.
P.S. About the blog title: there were few, if any, better, more powerful or dynamic live stage performers than Cyndi Lauper during the late 1980s. Her musical director was Rick Derringer (of ‘Hang on Sloopy’ fame) who also played guitar about 15 feet off to her left side, out of the bright spotlight. ‘Money Changes Everything’ was her extended finale (or was it the encore?). She went on with it for over 10 minutes. What a voice! Already nuts, the crowd went wild.