Monday, September 15, 2014

Kirsten and The Richest Man in Babylon

When we first returned from Portland, I seemed to have slipped right back into my old Denver scene. We had changed, I had changed and Denver had changed. I will, for the sake of good manners, leave the Denver changes out of this. Suffice it to say, I had changed.

There were the obvious changes: the birth of my son, the publication of Dysphoric Notions and Undertakers of Rain, namely. I had grown in the time that I was away from Denver. And I had a certain level of confusion as I tried to slip back into my old Denver life.

I started to work at the restaurant where I'd been in the interceding years between Tucson and Portland. I was delighted at the prospect of working with old friends. They had changed too in my three year absence. And to be truthful, this is not really about them or the restaurant were we all worked. No, this is about a new friend I met there. This friend, Kirsten, was not part of my old Denver set. Rather, I met her when we rolled back in. Kirsten and I had a fresh friendship slate with no past, no former frame of reference, just a new beginning.

I could list off all the great Kirsten traits like how smart she is, how dedicated to math and physics and the technical (not to mention difficult) subjects she studies in school. I could mention her circle of friends who are all interesting and cool. And I could mention that Kirsten is well over six feet tall and she wears heels which is sexy because of her confidence. I like Kirsten a lot. Yet this is all beside the point.

One day last autumn, we were working and especially boring shift. A boring shift means ample time to talk. I had asked with a mixture of curiosity and need of hearing her voice what she was studying in school. I tried to keep up. She's very fucking smart, as I've said. Then, I noticed she had a copy of The Richest Man in Babylon by George S. Clason. “What does this have to do with physics?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said. “One of my professors love it, it's extra credit.”

I often saw her with The Richest Man in Babylon. I suspected that this book was not a priority for her. She was, after all, mired in heavy subjects and Mr. Clason's book was extra credit.

Yet there was something haunting me in the spine of this book as it sat on higher shelves at work, the higher shelves only Kirsten and I could see. I always figured that The Richest Man in Babylon was one of those stupid books that a stupid adult gives to you when you're young because it's supposed to impart wisdom in cliché axioms. Books people give you when you're young: The Prophet, The Alchemist, The Little Prince. Although I enjoyed one of these books (I won't tell you which one) for what it was, I have to ask: why give a young person a book at all? If anything, the book that did it for me was not nearly as obvious or in-your-face. For me it was Walden, which was much more real. Thoreau says that age is not such a great teacher as youth. How true. And I will say it, like I've always said it, there is nothing I can teach a younger person, and there is nothing I would endeavor to teach because it's better to go learn it for yourself. Whatever it may be.

Where does that leave me with my friend Kirsten and The Richest Man in Babylon?

Truth is, I had a copy of The Richest Man in Babylon many-many years ago. In the early 1990s I was fresh back from the Army. I was a volatile young man, as all young men who just come home for war are. I came back into civilian life here after being gone for a couple of years. I worked. I got an apartment. I got a girlfriend. Regular stuff. The girlfriend was a high school friend and I had loved her for years. I'm not sure what she saw in me. I figured our time together was going to be short lived.

Her mother fixed me up with a better job. A job working in the office where she worked. Her mother looked out for me, and I realize now it was because she was really looking out for her daughter. She often dispensed with subtle advice, or subtle financial hints. At one point, we walked through a house that was for sale—anyhow, we were too young. I often got the feeling then like I have the feeling now, that she didn't like me very much. In fact, I think she didn't like me at all. Perhaps her kindness was all because she secretly feared that I would become a permanent part of the family. I guess I knew, or at least felt, something that she did not. Long story short: it was her, the mother of a girlfriend who gave me that copy of The Richest Man in Babylon.

In 1993, or possibly a year on either side of it, I tried to read The Richest Man in Babylon. I tried. It was nothing I could focus on. And at this time of my life, like my new young friend Kirsten, I was in college, working full time and The Richest Man in Babylon was not a priority.

I don't know what I was on that warm summer day a few months ago that made me pick up a copy of the book. Perhaps it was because it was in the bargain bin. Perhaps I was feeling nostalgic of my friend Kirsten or for former people of a former time, who knows? I picked up a copy, took it home and put it on the shelf.

I read the book yesterday.

Here I must say that there is something funny about it. Typically, this is a book given to a young person by someone who is older and “wiser”. Twenty years ago, this was true of me. But now, here in 2014, I came to The Richest Man in Babylon from young people, my friend Kirsten and my former self''s recollection of it.

The book is completely cheesy. It's written in this art, thou, thine sort of language. It's episodic and fable like. It's preachy. It's a silly book. However, I read it in one sitting. If I found the presentation absurd, the concepts are anything but. I mean, here is a book with downright practical advice. Here we have a patriot giving us a detailed way to make the good ol' fashioned 'merican dream come true. Within the pages of this slim volume we are taught to save, to invest wisely, to plan for the future, to pay off all debts and to take care of our family. Everything described in the book is exactly opposite of the current trends in America today. Perhaps many people avoided this book because it was given to them by someone older and wiser. Perhaps it's just not fashionable to read a book with Babylon in the title because Babylon is too close to Bagdad and that just ain't American. Who knows?

The one impression I got from the book, the one thing that made the price of the thing and my time reading it is this: Babylon was the richest city of its time. And it was the richest city because its citizens were rich. Here it's suggested that the city was so powerful because the individuals were powerful and successful. The numbers became the sum.

It's an interesting thought here in 2014, USA, when we consider how financially irresponsible most of our countrymen are, how impoverished our neighbors have become and the fact that our government, local, state and federal is worse off than bankrupt.

What would George S. Clason have to say about things now?

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