It was somewhere east of Topeka and west of Kansas City that dead presidents made my jaw clench so hard I thought my teeth might shatter. Billboard big as day showing the latest lottery numbers somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 million. Jesus key-rist, the stab of angst and disappointment that went through my chest nearly made me drive off the road. Nothing like an unavoidable reminder of what you do not have to put a smudge on an otherwise good day. Fuck that. I don't need the hassle.
I was driving back from a work assignment. The sky, it was blue like the heart of the best day ever. I was feeling good, then this billboard shows up in my field of vision. 70 million in the pot, ladies and gentlemen. All I had to do was play.
The problem, as I see it, is that I need to win.
But I probably won't. That is the odds, especially if I don't play. Here's the thing: I don't need or want four vacation homes, a couple of yachts or a private jet. All I want is to make sure I can take care of my parents now the way they took care of me when I was young. All I want is to make sure that I can provide for my daughter, give her some help to send her on her way when she decides what she wants out of her future. All I want is to make sure I close the gap between more and enough.
All that, and some left over to help Syrian refugees, Ebola victims, and those who have no idea if they even get a next meal. What that billboard did was to make me realize that I am not a rich man. Not even close. I do not live in dire poverty, but seeing those numbers up there in broad daylight brought it all home that I am in a constant race between 'just enough' and 'more needed'. Nothing like a stark reminder of the money economy to smack your head, and your ego, up against the wall as if to remind you who is in charge here.
In broad daylight, the hot sting of tears and gritted teeth, and I am painfully aware of how inadequate I feel due to lack of money. The hot wire wrapped around my heart telling me there is so much more I could do, so many people I could help, if only I was was rich. If only I had money.
They say it is the root of all evil, this shared hallucination of what is valuable, of what we supposedly deem important. I say, it is really the root of all anxiety, and worthlessness, because without it we feel like we cannot accomplish anything. One of my favorite writers, John Thorne, once wrote of the paradox of living in the wetlands and marshes of Cajun country, "Survival is almost always possible; prosperity, almost never."* His succinct phrasing sums up the anxiety of living in the land of not-quite-enough.
Never enough. Never smart enough, fast enough, cunning enough. It is a feeling I wish I could shake, because I know better. I do. Still, the ghosts of dead presidents haunt my waking hours.
*From "Bayou Odyssey", a poignant, scintillating essay in John Thorne's excellent 1996 book, Serious Pig.