When does the statute of limitations expire on beginning every conversation—be it with someone I run into on the street, with old friends in far-flung locales, with acquaintances at parties—with: How are you doing? The doing in this case being shorthand for the state and forecast of one’s economic status. The real question is a number of interrogatives bundled together. Are you continuing to make the kind of money you made before the onset of this as yet unnamed financial malaise? (The Great Regression, perhaps?) Have your stocks tanked? Did your employer cut your health coverage? Know anyone who’s been laid off? Are you concerned you won’t be able to retire when you want to? What do you do with the fear (that can mount quickly to paranoia) about your ability to make money in the future?
I know it has to do with our obsession with abstract value—money in this case. As a penurious twenty-something, I never understood the relentless talk of real estate and the stock market at social gatherings. Surely there were more interesting topics—art, books, movies, gossip, travel. Now, as a homeowner and someone who understands my financial well-being is tied to the stock market whether I invest in it or not, I’ll chat for hours about MLS listings and market trends. It’s not that I’ve lost the enjoyment of gushing about the latest book I’ve read, or finding out who’s sleeping with whom—that material is evergreen. Part of it has to do with the fact that I can talk about money with anyone. Regardless of how much we respectively earn or own, or what we do to make our money, we share common ground as wage-earning cogs in the 21st-century economy. It should also be noted that talking about money is a marker of real adulthood (like drinking scotch and having children, those other acquired tastes denoting maturity). Especially since most of us, whether we’re 38 or 62, still can’t believe we’re taken seriously as adults.
It has to do with a threshold point in our lives having to do making money. Once we begin to settle into the routine of jobs, apartments, houses, and things (couches, cars, flat-screen TVs, travel), we need to continue to earn at least as much as we are currently making, and we are usually conspiring to make more money in order to have more or better things. (Even as I write this, overlooking the deck in my backyard, I’m thinking of how I’m going to pay for the pair of Niles OS 7.3 outdoor speakers ($550) that my friend Burt Penchansky at Burt’s Electronics introduced me to recently.)
Our attachment to money comes with uncertainty, however, and this goes back to the “How are you doing?” question. At its core, it’s an existential inquiry: How are you dealing with uncertainty? For uncertainty is the air we breathe currently; it’s the weather that we are all holding our umbrellas against. And while uncertainty can be exciting—think of the delicious thrill of falling in love that owes so much to mystery and suspense—it seems more enervating in this case. This cloud of unknowing negativity is starting to aggravate me.
So I have an idea. Not a solution that will fix the meltdown in the markets or inflate home prices or create five million new jobs. Just a little conceptual frame for dealing with uncertainty. It came to me as I was listening to a recitation of the rising unemployment figures for the umpteenth time. The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor reports that nonfarm payroll unemployment increased to 8.1 percent in February. After I was done mindlessly fretting I started thinking: Well, if 8.1 percent of us are out of work, that means that over 90 percent of us have jobs! Nine out of ten people I pass on the street could be on their way to work, that hub of certainty. (NB: Actual unemployment figures are probably higher than what is reported in the news as the long-term unemployed and those who have simply opted out of the job market are not accurately tracked.)
It’s about where the stress falls. Is it on employment or unemployment? And this is no Pollyanna-ish call for positivity, to see the glass as half full when it is really two-thirds empty. I’m not going to tell you that the plastic bag wound around a tree limb 40 feet up in my yard is a boon because I know that bag isn’t clogging up a landfill or strangling a dolphin. It’s an eyesore, and as soon as I can figure out how the heck to get it down, I will.
It’s about emphasis. There will always be uncertainty. We know we are going to die but not when. But what’s to be done about it? We can’t let it paralyze us. And neither should the economy. In fact, I’m done talking about it. Don’t ask me how I’m doing. I and you and we are going to be just fine. I’m certain of it.
With gratitude to Susan Sontag for the title.