(This post was previously published at goodmenproject.com and includes passages published here at the campfire in an earlier post)
Last week I wrote about the joys of moseying. This weekend I’m taking my own advice, and poking around neighborhood garage sales. I confess that I enjoy this not only for the occasional thrill of finding a great deal on something I can probably live with out but because it’s also a good way to feed my curiosity about people of all stripes that I likely wouldn’t meet any other way.
Here’s another admission, there are times when I employ a somewhat unusual negotiation style. I’ll see a little charm that would make a great addition to my Talking Stick but insist that I’d only buy it if the seller would be willing to increase the price from a quarter to a dollar.
I share this by way of introduction to as Guy Noir from Prairie Home Companion fame calls, “One of life’s’ persistent questions.” What is it worth? I have no doubt that this question has been asked ever since the first Paleolithic hunter considered trading a hunk of spearhead quality obsidian for babysitting services from his neighbor’s cave-dwelling teenage daughter.
What’s it worth? The PBS Antiques Road Show is likely coming to a city near you. You can bring your great-great grandfather’s civil war Colt Carbine, get an appraisal, then buy an insurance policy for it in case it’s lost or stolen. How much is it worth? There’s a price for your car, your watch, your house, your investment portfolio. But what price do you put on a relationship? What’s a sunset on the beach worth? How do you value your time? Your very life itself?
Recently I became aware of the FIRE movement. FIRE stands for Financial Independence. Retire Early. It’s driven by Millennial’s in relatively high paying but soul-sucking jobs, who drastically cut expenses, save and invest a large percentage of their income, and figure out how to retire in their thirties. Maybe you’re one of them. I missed that boat. No sour grapes here though. I’ve always said that retirement is great work if you want it and if you can get it.
Since I’m a storyteller, discovering a great story, one that really speaks to me, is always a treasure, even more so on those lucky occasions when it seems to drop out of the sky and is just the right story at just the right the right time for something I’m noodling over.
One such exciting find was a well-worn copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Gospel of the Redman. Seton was one of the founders of the Boy Scouts in the U.S. although he later withdrew because he thought the organization had become too militaristic. He created his own organization, The Woodcraft League. He was a prolific author, an astute naturalist, and accomplished artist. I lived for several years on a property in Santa Fe that was once part of his College of Indian Wisdom. If you love the outdoors, find his books!
Apropos of my reflections on worth, trade, and commerce, I offer this passage from The Onion Seller, one of the short stories in Seton’s Gospel.
In a shady corner of the great market at Mexico City was an old Indian named Pota-lamo. He had twenty strings of onions hanging in front of him. An American from Chicago came up and said:
“How much for a string of onions?”
“Ten cents,” said Pota-lamo.
“How much for two strings?”
“Twenty cents,” was the reply.
“How much for three strings?”
“Thirty cents,” was the answer.
“Not much reduction in that,” said the American. “Would you take twenty-five cents?”
“No,” said the Indian.
“How much for your whole twenty strings?” said the American.
“I would not sell you my twenty strings,” replied the Indian.
“Why not?” said the American. “Aren’t you here to sell your onions?
“No,” replied the Indian. “I am here to live my life. I love this marketplace. I love the crowds and the red serapes. I love the sunlight and the waving palmettos. I love to have Pedro and Luis come by and say: ‘Buenos dias’, and light cigarettes and talk about the babies and the crops. I love to see my friends. That is my life. For that, I sit here all day and sell my twenty strings of onions. But if I sell all my onions to the customer, then is my day ended. I have lost my life that I love and that I will not do.”
The Onion Seller reminds me of another story, by B. Traven, an eccentric recluse who is best known as the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It was made into an incredibly fine movie by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart. In Traven’s short story Assembly Line, a savvy businessman discovers a peasant who makes marvelous baskets and sells them for a pittance. With visions of riches to come, the man returns to New York, finds a buyer willing to take thousands of baskets, then returns to share the good news with the humble and seemingly naive craftsman.
Much as in Seton’s anecdote, the basket maker refuses to offer a discount. The greater number of baskets ordered the higher the price will be for each one. With deference, but ironic humor, he gives the businessman a lesson in economics and explains how the entire village’s economy would be ruined if he agreed to make and sell thousands.
Everyone would be employed making baskets and so no one would be working the fields. The price of food would go up, and the farmers turned assembly line workers would no longer be able to afford the food they used to grow for themselves. But what is even more important the peasant continues and here I quote,
I’ve got to make these canastitas my own way, and with my song in them and with bits of my soul woven into them. If I were to make them in great numbers there would no longer be my soul in each, or my songs. Each would look like each other and this would slowly eat up my heart. Each has to be another song which I hear in the morning when the sun rises and when the birds begin to chirp and the butterflies come and sit down on my baskets so that I may see a new beauty…
Thanks for taking your valuable time to come this far with me. I hope you feel that it was “time well spent.” If you are so inclined, you might want to check your accounts. The Dow is setting records but how are you measuring your net worth? May treasure and good fortune come to you. May you gather riches however you count them.
May butterflies sit by your side and bless your work. May you see and experience new beauties and marvels every day.