That’s Ian Holm there, above.
It’s not my new house mate, who I’ll get to soon. He’s central.
Ian Holm is a great actor, maybe best known for playing Bilbo Baggins in the three “Lord of the Rings” films. Prior to that, he played Polonius, in 1990, in the Franco Zeffirelli film version of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The film’s best known for being one of Mel Gibson’s first forays into “real acting.”
But my clearest memory of the film comes from Polonius. I’m not sure why. The first time I saw the film, I’d never even had a credit card. I didn’t experience my first one until five years later, when I entered college with one, having promised myself I’d never use it, realized I needed books for class, took the card to the college book store, paid for the required books with terrifying ease… and realized I was in trouble.
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
That’s the line. Hamlet. Act I, Scene III.
But I’m not here to speak about credit card debt. Or rather, to write about it. I’m here about borrowing and loaning with people we know. Not faceless credit card companies. But friends. Family. Lovers even.
I remember, I confess, feeling some bafflement at the line, when I heard it in the film. Yet it stayed with me. Why? Fascination with stuff? Money? The value I placed on friends?
Also, Polonius seemed… hurried. Rushed. Almost confused. Desperate to convey wisdom before his son departed on a journey. He may not even have been reliable as a giver of wisdom, given his lack of charisma. But as a father his love shown clear. He meant well. And he had something important on his mind.
So what was it?
I want to start with a story.
About a year after the release of that cinematic version of “Hamlet” in 1990, I found myself in the summer of 1991 filled with rapturous eagerness about the coming release of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Scheduled for release in September, almost tragic because it meant the dawn of a new school year would interfere with my newborn, newly-opened obsession, I set about figuring out how to get one, on release.
I did not have a job, at that age. Being only about 14 at the time, I hadn’t yet gotten that far. Soon after I’d spend the summers on my uncle’s Christmas tree farm, in part to pay for games, but in the summer of 1991 I was SoL when it came to self funding.
To the rescue came my grandmother Margaret Stone. A wonderful woman who lived through the financially traumatic Great Depression, she volunteered to help.
My reaction, at first? Joy and gratefulness, of course.
How did she agree to help? Work. Not a gift, but work. I was to spend some of the summer doing some labor on her home, her fine Richmond VT home that she occupied even after the 80s death of my grandfather Fred Stone but before age and infirmity forced her to move to a smaller home. I remember, at her request, painting the deck. I don’t remember other tasks, though I’m sure there were some. And, know you, this was a home that rested on a foundation located an hour and a half away, by car. A distance almost as far away as September seemed, from June.
That, of course, would be the normal reaction to the onset of summer vacation, for a junior high student about to enter high school. But a boy who loved videogames, with the release of the “SNES” imminent, could not be expected to have a normal reaction.
She gave me the money in advance, I believe, so that I could pre-order the console, complete with its pack in copy of Super Mario World. Again: joy and gratefulness.
Then my grandmother had me do some work. And, to my dismay? I found my emotions beginning to do funny things to me, as time went on. I started to feel… resentful. Of the debt. Even of her. Why was this? I realized it was because I already had all the reward, and was, in a sense, working for nothing. I’d been given my pay, in advance. I felt icky, in the resentment, but feelings, as they are wont to do, ruled the roost.
As I recall, my grandmother did not make me work off all the debt. I think the total bill for the SNES came to about $200. Easily the most expensive thing I’d ever worked for or even owned. But my grandmother ended up giving me much of the money as a gift.
Maybe she sensed the problem. And, like any grandmother, she wanted to spoil. The idea of being resented by a grandchild was anathema.
Why do I bring this up?
First off, I’ll also bring up how, even very recently as an adult, I’ve experienced the same problem. I consider myself a normal person. I even consider myself a good person. But, a few years ago, when I was out of work and in debt, having just made a critical rule-reading error with PayPal credit, I found myself with no way to pay back a soon-due high-penalty loan of about $3000.
My girlfriend, who luckily is still my girlfriend, agreed to help. Of course I felt joy and gratefulness at the time. A short period of time.
But very soon? The stink of resentment began to waft out of me, from somewhere. She became “a creditor.” I already had everything, and could only look forward to having to separate myself from my precious job-earned money, chunk by precious chunk, for a long time to come.
I pretended I wasn’t feeling it. To me. To her. I tried not to think about it. I felt a huge pull to… delay. I wanted her to remind me when it was “that time of the month,” no menstruation pun intended. And I didn’t feel, things from her point of view. At the time, I’m not sure I had any clear experience I could call on of being in a position similar to hers, of being a creditor to someone I cared about.
But now, because of my desperation to make a good impression on my new house mate, a nice young man of 21 who’s a full smoking age younger than me. A full selective service age. A full high school graduation age.
Part of my desire to please? A lack of a circle of friends. Then someone comes along who just… lives inside a circle, leaving only the “of friends” part out, and it seems easy. Like shooting fish in a barrel.
So I’d just gotten a deal on, yes, a videogame system. New. An XBOX One, exponentially more powerful than a Super Nintendo. I got the deal as part of a “bundle” that included a 43 inch Ultra HD television, a Vizio LED backlit LCD TV, highly reviewed for that old tech style. Saved about $300 in theory. But I only wanted the TV, having too many games yet unplayed for older systems (makes it hard to choose to play any, a problem SNES scarcity never allowed me to have, round about ’91). So I chose to sell the XBOX One. Which meant, possibly, unpleasant shipping and eBay fees.
And while I’m at it, here’s the TV… which I didn’t even keep, because I decided if I was going to upgrade, I wanted a better one. An LG OLED, new tech 55 inch.
Anyway. At the time, I just needed to get rid of the XBOX One, and both wanted to avoid fees for a heavy thing, and to “make a new friend.”
Sell to my new house mate. And I’d be nice! I’d be so generous he’d KNOW I was a good guy. I’d just give it to him, saying he could pay me when he wanted, and charge him a lot less than a new one would cost. Less than $300. Boy would he love me! I felt a nagging worry, but hey, he seemed nice, and my semi-landlord had vouched for him, as did her 35 year old Down Syndrome son who also lived in the house and who knew him from work.
So I had hope. Faith. What could go wrong? I knew what the warning signs would be if something were to go wrong, though. Signs he was avoiding me. Saw me as unpleasant. Not talkative. In essence, seeing me as not a friend because I was “a creditor.” Who would want to be friends with a credit card company?
And indeed he did pay me about half, fairly soon, after only failing to pay me that half when he said once or twice, over a period of about a week.
And to be fair, I went out of my way to say I didn’t need him to pay me back fast. I wanted to be so nice! To make him love me! I was probably generous in a way that could cross the line to creepy. Can’t be too nice with people or it’s worse than being mean. Can’t, ever, look needy. Cardinal sin.
Another point? I offered to be the one to spend my time, money and effort to take control of the shared house goods stuff. You know. Toilet paper. Laundry soap. He said I’d just have to ask and he’d pay me a bit.
Side note: with young people, you never know how much they’re still used to… living with parents, and having “the people who live with them” be “the people who take care of them and give them money.”
Anyway, he hasn’t come to me to say anything about the other half of the money. And, though I asked him once about money for a big discounted order of toilet paper, to which he said he didn’t have his wallet with him, he hasn’t come to me, though I leave my door open, unlike him.
His friends seem more interested in talking to me than he does. They know I gave him a videogame system… but they aren’t in debt to me. Different outlook.
I haven’t tried to talk to him, but I do see clear signs that he seems maybe like he hopes to not run into me. To not talk to me. Like he wants to get through the room without me stopping him for anything when he passes. Possible avoided eye contact. Who wants to part with their money, for no reward? He has all the reward already, and has acclimated to it. The thankfulness, in practice, has maybe worn off. Now there’s just the pain remaining.
The worst part? The worst potential outcome?
I don’t even feel like it’s the prospect of never getting the money back. Of him, say, vanishing, of having his feelings convince me that, really, why would I need the money? Look at my amazing TV!
Well, I go out of my way with time, money and work, to do something nice, with no reason to trust him, but trusting anyway. A major generous gesture.
And my reward?
I become… someone to avoid. Someone he doesn’t want to be friends with, as a result, when maybe he would want to be friends if I hadn’t been really generous.
Money messes with heads and hearts. God, the examples! Destroyer of relationships. Of romantic partnerships. Of marriages. Now, of course, I sympathize tons for my girlfriend, who so generously loaned me $3000. And I feel, what… shame? Shame. Shame that I could let myself be so blinded by the tricks money and debt play on the mind and the heart.
But life is about learning. I didn’t lose my girlfriend. But will I lose the friendship of my housemate?
Even as I write this, he’s walking back and forth from his room to the bathroom, in clear view outside my bedroom door. He could say hello. He could acknowledge me. But, very likely, he hopes to just be allowed to mind his own business.
I can think of all sorts of things to say. Ways to start.
Some would be wise and true, but likely condescending. Threatening even.
“I worried from the start that you’d start to seem like you were avoiding me.”
Then every time he passed by he’d feel obligated to acknowledge me in some way, to not give the impression, and it would become a chore. Inorganic.
“I want to tell you a story about my grandmother and the summer of ’91….”
“Is this my reward for spending my time, money and work?”
“I’ve realized I’m paying 14% credit card interest on the money I’ve loaned you, so I have to make myself a bother and be that person who chases you for owed money.”
“Bet you don’t have any interest in giving me your money for no reward, eh?”
“Could you tell me when you plan to pay me that remaining $150? And if being in debt to me makes me unpleasant to you, we need to get this out of the way and then do our own toilet paper and laundry soap.”
Almost anyone would lie to some of that. Even to themselves.
“Oh no I don’t have any problem with you.”
They might feel threatened as I try to peel away denial.
Obviously, I need to just start simple and non-threatening. Part of me wants to write a long email or FaceBook message. But then, even if they were short, he’s replied to only one of the several friendly FB messages I’ve sent him since we friended each other. The worrywart in me sees trouble. But then so many people hate written communication, and see no social faux pas in ignoring such communication, even if the same words ignored in a face-to-face would be a major faux pas.
Part of me feels like the only way to “not be unpleasant” is to… never say anything. But, if he’s like me, I could imagine his feelings slowly convincing himself that maybe I don’t WANT the money. I could imagine him moving out, having… forgotten all about it.
Money does that to minds. I’m sure money has made YOU stupid.
Somehow I’ll work it out. Maybe I’ll even report the end result to you, my imaginary audience that I never feel exists in reality.
Debt. I have it over others. Others have it over me.
Moneymoneymoney…. Those green presidents are our real community, separated as we are from what we are evolved for. They are our support. We love them. And love is blind.
But that’s another subject for another blog post.
Even in death you can teach me wonderful things.
Do me a favor? Never stop. To be (helpful) or not to be (helpful). That is the question. The former, please. My girlfriend will thank you, in her prayers.