Adventure: The Mandala

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"Who are your friends who don't need to work and what are they doing with their lives?" I like to eavesdrop.
Me walking on an elephant.

One of my favorite things in the world is eavesdropping on the conversations around me. I figure if you are talking THAT loud then most likely you want me to hear what you have to say. I’ve been doing this since elementary school and these overheard bits and bites always find their way into my journal. I just had another session while eating Chinese at a restaurant in Portland, Maine. It was a doozy.

“Who are your friends who don’t need to work and what are they doing with their lives?”

This was the entire conversation. A man and a woman over orange beef, lobster wontons and Thai style margaritas. If you are bored, just know the ultimate answer to this question was “Not a whole Hell of a lot,” but it’s more complicated than that. But what should be stated up front was the couple didn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward their friends who for one reason or another didn’t find themselves needing to work, and this is an important part of the story. Just because someone has money and chooses not to work doesn’t mean they are a terrible person. I’ve always found wealth hating to be a waste of time. And it should be stated that this couple was in their 30s, so NOT talking about old school wealth, but more likely children of old school wealth who inherited their financial standing through parents or grandparents. According to the stories I overheard, not one of their friends worked to gain their status, they just seemingly had it handed to them.

As they went down their list, a list that was quite long, most of the time the answer danced around someone who was just kinda puttering around, dabbling in one thing then another then another. Not one declared a life mission and ran with it. This might seem odd or depressing to you but I think the reasoning behind this is more complex than you might imagine. Let me explain my theories.

First, most people with money want one thing; more money. They spend copious amount of time trying to make more cheddar. They watch the stocks and financial markets, they have advisors, they trade as a family so-to-speak with mother or father passing information to son or daughter and back again. They are also fearful of losing their money, far more than people who never had money in the first place. They love lawyers and find offense at nearly anything that comes close to being a slight of any kind. And they are defensive and suspicious of almost everything. Wealth comes with a cost that doesn’t revolve around dollar signs.

When I moved to California in 1996 I met my first “Trustafarians.”

Young, white kids of privilege who masqueraded as contributing members of society. There were some cool people in this crowd who frankly weren’t hurting anyone but at the same time they really didn’t do much of anything other than take trips to Bali and Australia, spend day after day at the beach while smoking copious amounts of the herbage. They had mandala tattoos and wore all the right jewelry and were all decent surfers. But a lot of them ended up in rehab. Idle minds and ample time. Never a good thing.

"Who are your friends who don't need to work and what are they doing with their lives?" I like to eavesdrop.
Scene of a future parking lot.

Often they would profess a trade but upon further questioning it was apparent that their trade was a strategic hobby, and always something popular and cool, wait for it, wait for it, like photography. My first few months in SoCal it felt like every “trusty” I met was a photographer but none of them had done any assignment work or had anything published. They had a print or two on their wall, invariably a landscape, but that was about it.

Another interesting and albeit somewhat maddening trait was that they all had some sort of tax shelter boondoggle in place. They rarely if ever paid any real taxes. This was a system passed down by and controlled by their parents who probably learned it from their parents. And this entire process was justified under “Well, it’s not illegal.” Tax loopholes for the wealthy are well known and well documented here in America, and if I was in that position what would I do? I’d be booking first class to Bali right now with a headband and fleet of Buddha bracelets just like Johnny Depp.

Another interesting thing about this lot was that they all spent a lot of time trying to NOT look wealthy. They knew their 1% status could be viewed positively or negatively depending on the company, so often times they dressed like hippie/homeless folks, but countered with brand new Land Rovers. As a photojournalism student with an anthropology minor, I felt like Pierce Brosnan in Nomads. Discovering a tribe within a tribe. A tribe that feinted poverty while spending a grand a day on cocaine or travel or cameras or maybe even green, metal suitcases……..

But here’s the thing. Understanding who you are and finding a purpose in life can be a very difficult thing to do, especially when you grow up with a silver spoon. Choice can be crippling. There is no heightened sense of purpose or panic when you know the safety net exists. Dabbling is often the quickest form of postponement. In fact, a few months ago I had dinner with the heir of a massive American fortune and she joked about this very thing, about her “art phase,” and her “photography phase,” and numerous other phases. Now, her phases came with attention from the world’s best photography curators and art curators, and their museums, but ultimately they still proved to be phases.

I’ve been around enough wealthy people in my life to know that sometimes with wealth comes numbness. Not all of my wealthy friends fit this category, however. In fact, I know several people who dwell dangerously close to the billionaire realm who are in attack mode on a daily basis while doing philanthropic work worldwide. They have an insatiable curiosity, drive thirty year old cars and would never waste time on expensive vacations or lounging around. They would also give you the shirt off their back. Again, it’s easy to express jealousy in the form of contempt but that’s not a smart play. Are there total shits out there, of course, but just ignore those folks because they rarely do anything of meaning anyway. (Other than help get truly evil people elected which is one way they assure themselves of keeping their wealth.)

"Who are your friends who don't need to work and what are they doing with their lives?" I like to eavesdrop.
What could make this scene better? Me.

So, as I sat eating my tofu buns, I listened to the couple describe the pursuits of their non-working friends. I kept waiting for the “She is volunteering in Detroit or Delhi,” or “He is hook-kicking election deniers,” but alas I was left waiting. Person after person was just “hanging out,” hitting the hot dinner spots, surfing the web and buying shit. No real plan, no real passion. I was reminded that money doesn’t bring contentment or happiness although I would like to volunteer for any experiments currently running in this field. What must it be like to wake and face the day with no direction or burning desire to see what lives around the bend?

As a child reared in a hunting and fishing family, I grew to appreciate the intensity and nervousness that comes from a sunrise of promise.

Unable to sleep the night before as my Ruger Red Label sat oiled and choked in the corner waiting for that door to crack and my father to come in saying “Dannel, time to go.” The sound of the truck tires leaving pavement and hitting the first dirt of the day, and finally the silence as the engine was killed, dawn a faint glow on the horizon. There was work to be done. I get goosebumps just writing this sentence because of the electricity those missions contained in their DNA. The pointers and retrievers hitting the ground with rapid breaths pumping from their nostrils, like live wires waiting to be set free. Legs soaked from dew, eyes and ears alert for a rattle or burst of a covey wing.

When I was still young my parents sat me down and said “We know you are going to leave the first chance you get.” Apparently, my curiosity was running rampant even back then. And I did leave. I was privileged too. I went to college, had $100 spending money per month, and bought these odd briefcases of Carnation Instant Breakfast Drink to save money. (The strawberry was insanely good.) Compared to most people in the world I was living pretty. Looking back on it now, I realize how well off I was, but more importantly, I realize how lucky I was to know the clock was ticking and that I needed to have the foot on the gas.

I work for Blurb but I spend early mornings, nights and weekends on Shifter, YouTube, Discord, projects, reading, learning, experimenting and more, and I do this without searching for a sounding board. There is no financial payoff. These are things I just need to do. I recently asked a group of students what they would be doing if they didn’t have to work. The answers ranged far and wide. When I was asked the same question my answer was “The same thing.” Only minus the Blurb part if I was being honest because it’s difficult to work for Blurb while doing cocaine in Bali. All jokes aside, I’d be doing much of the same thing I’m doing now. Curiosity is dangerous but so is spicy food before an overnight flight. Once you allow curiosity to roam free there is no “hanging around.” There are no empty calories. There are fewer and fewer phases, if any, because your inner tractor beam is locked on even with thrusters at full reverse. Like an artist tattooing their hands and neck as a symbol of “There is no turning back to the mainstream world.”

But the ultimate morsel of this post is that I too am just as flawed as the next person, and because I’ve never experienced the reality of not needing to work I can’t say what would happen if I were to be greeted with this reality. Would I take my foot off the gas? Would I linger like a bad cold? I can say “No, never,” but that would be a fabricated future based on a bad data. I just don’t know. So, after reading this you should know to be careful when around me. What you say is being recorded for the world to see and hear. And if you are someone who doesn’t need to work, good on ya. See you at the beach, on the weekend.

Comments 5

  1. You raise an interesting question: what would one do if coming into money that allowed one to stop working.

    I do the Euromillions Lottery, which means buying a five-euro ticket each week that gets me into the game on Tuesday and Friday nights. I use the same set of eight numbers every time, thus ensuring that I dare not quit or change the numbers, because should I elect so to do, you can be sure (bet?) that that’s the time when my turn to win would arrive. However, I quite often win the price of a coffee…

    That said, the game gives me hope each week and allows me the pleasure of dreaming your question. An interesting thing is that the proposed use of the still imaginary wealth, probably tempered by age as much as by anything else, has changed dramatically over the years.

    First to go was the status car, followed by the yacht, the latter lesson learned from our close friends who had, amongst other things, owned an Italian 82ft power yacht, and who ended their boat ownership with an even longer motor-sailer in the 90ft + zone. She reached a health point where it was impossible for her to board from the dinghy, and so keeping the thing moored out at sea meant she couldn’t access it any more. (It had too much draught for the local marina to cope.) The husband died shortly after they bought the boat, but she kept it on for a while out of a sense of loyalty to his project. Were my wife still alive and I twenty years younger, I’d perhaps view the yacht thing differently. Frankly, having my Submariner stolen from me by a young Romanian woman, right in the street, has taught me that even the slightest signifier of once having had a buck or two to spend is a dangerous thing, especially when you get old.

    I would not buy another camera, however much, on different levels, I still find photography interesting. When the kind of work I used to do – and fought so hard to get into – hardly exist anymore, and I probably lack the physical stamina to do it if it did, what’s the point? Substitute photography eventually sickens the soul; for how long can anyone fool themselves that it’s about cameras and focal lengths? Nope, for me and, I’d imagine, many other serious shooters, it ain’t about hardware, it’s about subject. Lose that and you’ve lost the point of it all.

    Houses. I have lived in my own house, complete with studio, garden and enough space to park up to five cars (not US ones!) and no longer feel any desire to buy a new one. I even find my apartment too big to handle comfortably by myself, and the thought of having a woman in once a week to clean it fills me with horror. Ownership is fine when you are younger and have somebody with whom to enjoy things; on your own, much loses value. A house, to be safe today, requires huge security, and locking myself out a couple of weeks ago showed me just how easily a competent thief could enter my space. The more you have the more you can lose. Maybe the very rich know that only took well. Perhaps, tax rules aside, that’s part of the appeal of places like Monaco: you are surrounded by others as rich or richer than yourself, so maybe less need to worry about the neighbourhood going to the dogs.

    I still hope I win, though!

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  2. “Take your place, on the great Mandala”, Peter, Paul and Mary song, pretty much sums it up. Like Oppenheimer and the Gita, play your role, one’s no better or worse than any of the others, but it is YOUR role.

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      Unless your role is helping some douchebag get elected. That’s a hard one for me. One of my uber wealthy friends is a one of the largest contributors to a certain politician who who he knows is an anti-semite, racist, fear monger with zero knowledge of anything or anyone but this also means the same guy cut all remaining financial crime indictment strings, so my buddy can do whatever he wants. That’s a role I’m not cool with but yet there it is.

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