Self-Indulgence and Survivor’s Guilt

Dearest Rachel –

Among the many reasons why I wish you were still here, you could remind me of some of the things we did together back in the day. I have mostly vague recollections, and the occasional sharp image or phrase, but that’s about it.

Sometimes, the only way I can remember when something took place is by what we brought back from those places. Like the Greenville Music Festival that we attended with a fair number of the SingleMinded group back in the day. Unlike Cornerstone, which we attended on a daily basis because it was a (relatively) quick drive from your parents’ home each day, we had to get a motel room for this one – and that took some doing, as there wasn’t much in the way of hotel space in that little corner of Nowhere, Illinois. So I don’t recall if we took Daniel with us, or left him with my folks for the long weekend (at least, I think it was a weekend – I doubt I could have swung that many days off back then, new as I was on the job).

Anyway, the reason I recall it being in 1994 is because both Steve Taylor’s Squint and Randy Stonehill’s Stories came out that year, and I do recall them both being there, playing music from both of their new albums. In fact, I’m pretty sure we got our copy of Squint signed by Steve Taylor himself, as I’d been following his career and buying his music since I was a senior in high school.

I can’t recall what you said to him when we met him, but I recall telling him how “I don’t know why you’ve been away,” (he’d not put out an album since 1987’s I Predict 1990) “but I’m glad you’re back at it.”

I also don’t recall what, if anything, he said in reply; I know he didn’t explain his long hiatus.

The reason I bring up Taylor and his music is that, despite either leaving him behind with my folks or only half-heartedly tending to him at the motel and on the midway, Daniel really took to it (along with the likes of Sam Phillips, but that was a little later on). One of the more interesting offerings on this album was what he referred to as ‘a rock opera in three small acts’: Cash Cow.

I want to point out that I never saw this video until I was looking for this clip on YouTube just today. I’m not sure whether Daniel would have embraced this wholeheartedly (like he did with so many of Tally Hall’s strange offerings), or if he would find this as creepy as all get-out. I’m pretty sure Steve was going for the latter vibe in creating this.

What always struck me was the final (spoken) lyric of the doomed cow cultist. Those three fatal little words: I. DESERVE. BETTER.

It’s an attitude that America – and capitalism itself – was built on. Our nation runs on a river of money, and it is dissatisfaction that opens the sluice gates. If that sounds like I’m condemning it, like so many people are wont to do these days, I’m not. It is the acknowledgment that we could do better, coupled with the constant desire for more, that drives innovation and progress. The moment we are satisfied with our situation as a society is the moment we stagnate and stop.

That being said, is the most unsatisfying way to live on an individual basis. To never be happy with what you have, to never be content, to never be able to say “I have enough,” well… that’s when you’ve moved from using money as a tool, to considering money as an object of desire, an end in and of itself. And that’s what you shift from amorality to immorality.

And of course, there’s always the flaw of saying “I deserve better.” Really? What do we, as flawed human beings, truly deserve? Do we have a right to anything? To make sure, the declaration of independence claims that we have the rights to life, liberty, but not to happiness itself. We only have the right to pursue it – whether we obtain it or not, well, that’s nobody’s credit (or fault) but ours. And we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness; oh, it might improve our bargaining position, but that’s no guarantee.

I mention all this because I occasionally notice that I am prone to bouts of self indulgence from time to time. My most recent such indulgence, in fact, arrived on our doorstep this afternoon (praise Amazon!) while Kevin and I were gaming.

Once upon a time, this was the sort of thing I would check in with you before doing (and you would do likewise with me in most cases in turn). But these days, there’s no one to confess to, as it were. Why, I haven’t even told Daniel about this – although I expect he’ll enjoy the green apple flavor, when I mix it with the SodaStream seltzer.

And I suppose it could be argued that this is a relatively small indulgence, monetarily speaking. And it is, no doubt about it. Especially considering everything that has filtered down from your grandparents, your parents, and ultimately from you yourself. All of you were supposed to enjoy what had been saved up for those rainy days yet to come… and you never really got a chance. It’s the sort of thing that leaves us with no small twinge of survivors’ guilt.

So much of it started with your grandfather, who was supposed to take over the family brewery business – and studied business in college expressly for that purpose – only to have everything closed up by Prohibition. And upon the repeal, his father didn’t bother to re-open, leaving him to fend for himself. As I recall, he worked for the SEC in its earliest days (because that only existed as a reaction to the Great Crash of ‘29). Made a good living at it, in fact. But, having been burned before, he saved up prodigiously, to the point where his coworkers asked him about it. I will never forget the response you quoted him as saying: “I don’t want to pick sh** with the chickens.” Not sure what it means, but it was certainly memorable.

And you certainly didn’t have to. Because barely a year into retirement, he died of a heart attack when you were four years old. And he didn’t get to enjoy all that stuff that he saved up.

Although in fairness, it allowed your grandmother to live fairly well, and be very well taken care of well into her 90s, long after her mind had left her. Indeed, it continued to grow, even as your folks were taking care of her at a local Macomb nursing home.

When she passed, they set us both down at the table in the cottage on the island that year, letting you know the legacy that you had been left. They made it clear that you wouldn’t be allowed to have it until you were at least thirty, but you would be a fairly well-off lady one day.

I found your dad’s question to me rather odd: would I be upset at the fact that you would be worth more than I was? Now, why on earth would I think that? I mean, I suppose there are guys whose self worth is tied to their ability to be the breadwinner of the family, so perhaps they would find than somehow emasculating. But honestly, I thought that to be kind of silly. Appreciate what you have, no matter the source.

Sure, I feel bad for your grandfather not being able to enjoy it to its fullest. But the same thing goes for your parents, who actually complained that they couldn’t spend it as fast as it continued to accumulate. Given their penurious ways, that’s not saying much. You had to be so forceful with them in order to get them to accept full-day live-in nursing care after your dad’s first stroke in December 2016. Considering he passed only three months after that, your timing couldn’t have been better.

And while we expected to continue to deplete it to care for your mom, especially since now the care became a 24 hour a day situation, there had been enough saved up. Now, whether she was enjoying any of it, well…

So, when she did pass away in 2019, and it all fell into your hands, sure, we resolved to be responsible with what you’d been left. And that was to apply both to wise investing and deliberate charity. We’d invoked the promises of Malachi 4 in the past, and saw no reason not to continue on a larger scale going forward. It may not have been what your parents – or grandparents – would have deemed wise or prudent, but you and I had our priorities, and would meet them on our own terms, casting our bread on the waters, and waiting for God to have it bear fruit.

In the meantime, we would enjoy would have been left to us. We would be the first of three generations to do so, and we thought we had all the time in the world to actually take full advantage of our good fortune. I could retire, we could travel… we had no need to deny ourselves anything, and still be saving and investing alongside our occasional indulgences.

But then Covid hit, and we couldn’t do much. We consoled ourselves with the fact that there would be time enough once everything blew over.

It’s blowing over now, honey… depending on who you listen to. Only, now it’s just me and Daniel. And the realization that you still didn’t get a chance to enjoy everything that was left to you. We waited for so long to be able to do everything that we wanted to, and now that we can… We. Can’t.

And every expenditure, every trivial folly that we spend money on, it’s just one more thing that I wonder if you would’ve enjoyed, and I’m so, so sorry you’re not here to do so.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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