Thursday, May 31, 2007

Home-Cookin' and the Economics of Intimacy

Unfortunately my microphone is on the fritz, so I'm not going to be able to podcast (which was taking forever and stopping me from posting anyway.) I'll try blogging for the time being and bring the podcast back once I can find equipment.

Home Cookin’ and the Economics of Intimacy

There's nothing quite like a home-cooked meal. In age when it’s usually more efficient to just buy food and plop it on the table, there’s some something that drives us to take extra time and make food with people that we love. We’re used to thinking about relationships as emotional things, but they also have a certain sort of economic functionality. Every time we make dinner together we engage in a sort of emotional economics, at once exchanging goods, services and intimacy.

Relationships matter. In business they practically matter more than money. Take another look down the frozen food aisle and think about the sheer number of relationships that went into each item. (insert bit about love in the frozen food aisle.) Whether in business or politics or entertainment, webs of relationships play a huge role in defining our world, and power tends to go to those who can build and maintain those relationships effectively.

There is a catch to all of these powerful relationships. Getting all of that stuff done tends to put a hamper on any sort of emotional intimacy. It's not that we're not allowed to feel things in our professional relationships, we're just not allowed to feel anything that might get in the way of transacting business. It's not always pleasant, but succeeding in any sort of professional environment means knowing how to take emotions out of the workplace and dump them somewhere more suitable.

That's part of why having a personal life is so important. At the end of a long day you can step away from all of those productive, emotionally dry relationships and cut loose. Our friendships and romantic relationships may not be raising any third quarter profits, but they let us explore a range and depth of human emotion strictly forbidden in relationships that have serious work to do.

And emotions, after all, are kind of the point. We spend all of that time slaving away in a professional environment in large part because we need money to spend on our loved ones. In a very big way we are hard-wired to be social creatures, and we sustain and fulfill ourselves by forming rich, loving relationships with the people around us. In these small communities of family and friends we are liberated from the harsh dictates of economic production and can focus on creating another sort of value. We can have fun, we can fall in love and we can have the sorts of experiences which make life a lot more meaningful than an earnings statement. Relationships, in other words, can either be emotional or they can be functional. They can't be both.

Or can they?

Let's head to the kitchen. There my sister is making mashed potatoes, I'm prepping some mushrooms and my friend Poonam is mussing around with sauce. Amy and Alex ring the doorbell with some wine, and when we finally sit down at the table we have, well, something of a paradox.

There's no doubting that the few hours we just spent together had some tangible economic value. Between the farmers market, the convenience store and the cheap wine isle, the three course meal we're about to enjoy put us back around five bucks each. In raw economic terms, the labor that we put into preparing our food increased it's value from five dollars to the roughly fifteen dollars (with tip) that we each would have had to throw down for dinner, wine and dessert at a restaurant down on Valencia St.

Of course added economic value seems like a fairly harsh way to talk about what all of us experienced as a couple of friends getting together and having a good time. As we were increasing the value of all of those mushrooms and spices we in some intangible way increased the value of our relationships with one another. We all had fun, we all got a little bit closer to one another and there was no rigid professional creed keeping the meal in check.

Of course, we could just go out to eat. It’s almost always easier and faster to skip working with your friends and just buy things with them. After all, spending money together is at the heart of how we think about intimacy, from the classic date (dinner and a movie) to the classic family vacation (a hotel in Disneyland.) If all you care about is having fun with people you care about then money (if you have it) is the way to go, it’s just that stable intimate relationships are about a lot more than just having fun. There is a point where spending money on your relationships with people just doesn't make them any better. I'm reminded of my recent trip to Disneyland, where at least a few frazzled parents and kids seemed to feel like, as much as it had been custom engineered for optimum family fun, the most magical place on earth could stand to be just a little more magical. On some level parents paying to have their kids entertained aren’t really getting any closer to them, and kids being paid to be entertained won’t necessarily feel loved. Separating economics and emotion can be incredibly convenient. Worrying about making money all day at work and then going home to spend it on the people you love works pretty well, but there comes a point at which you simply can't squeeze any more love out of money.

Speaking personally, there something missing, something hollow in relationships where all we do together spend money. On some basic level, I like to have other people around because they make my life better. Don't get me wrong, spending money with other people, whether I'm eating out or shopping or seeing a movie, tends to be more fun and more meaningful than just spending money by myself. If I couldn't spend money with other people, or show off the things I had bought with it or talk about the movies I bought tickets to money beyond what I need to survive would probably lose a lot of its point. Still, I've become extremely fond of those moments when relationships are both intimate and functional, when the people I love and I can be more than just conversationalists and co-consumers.

Disneyland has nothing on the magic of building something together, especially when that thing and the process of building it makes both of your lives better in some measurable way. When love takes a role in the economics of my day to day life it's, well, around in a way that some romantic abstraction of love never seems to be. I don't need roses and a candlelit dinner to get in touch with love in my life, it's there when I shop at my friend's convenience store on the corner, with the people I design websites with and talk about the news with and learn to bake bread from. At the end of the week, learning how doing things and feeling things can complement one another means that I get to do a whole lot more of both.

1 comment:

Marie said...

DJ! Bring back the podcast/posts, please? I really miss hearing/reading your thoughts!