The rubber sheets wrapped tight around my bed were soaked with pee every morning when I woke up. I was four years old. I wet the bed every day. And I remember it clearly, getting that first bed. My dad carrying it into my room, replacing whatever cage had previously held me. Now I was free! My own bed! Every morning, my flannel pajamas soaked all the way through with urine and I’d have to peel them off. But I was four years old, I was totally free and the world was mine.
But then school. Then keeping your head on the desk during the naptime. A rap of the ruler on the head if you moved. Punishment. You can’t play on the playground! Unhappy grownups with their husbands cheating on them perversely lashing out on the least powerful beings in their universe. We would all wink at each other in code. Rap! The teachers too smart for us. Punishment for pretending to be free.
Freedom again. Seven years old. Getting home from school. Getting on the bike. Riding until the sun went down. Random women (mom? Babysitter? Grandma?) yelling “Jaaames!” in the distance while I pretended not to hear. The icy sun wasting its last washed out colors of the day on aluminum suburban houses, dark street lamps, the reflectors on my bike, the last moments of my freedom for the night.
High school. I was free of the beatings of junior high school. All the schools in the area blended together. The little kids from the Jewish neighborhood mixed in with our torturers. We were beaten solidly for two puberty testosterone-driven years by kids in plaid shirts, sparse moustaches, the smell of the greasy underneath of cars, hair slicked back and girls whispering about each other’s aborted pregnancies. We were soaked through in hormones and turning into monsters that would’ve been considered unbelievable before the radioactive age. 13 years old and I would’ve gladly volunteered to get any one of those girls pregnant. I would’ve sold them drugs or hypnotized them or paid them every last dollar of my allowance to get them pregnant: tall, blonde, slutty….and a guy in a denim jacket, two feet taller than me would elbow me in my back until I was down on the ground, “don’t fuckin’ stare at my girlfriend.” But in high school I was free to stare.
But 9 to 3 classes. Boring classes. Who cares about Chaucer? Shakespeare the worst. I wish the Bronte sisters had died in childbirth. The most boring writing. Math was ridiculous. All I ever needed ever after was how to multiple and divide two digit numbers in my head. Do you ever need the Pythagorean Theorem for anything. Or an integral. Do I need an integral to get a check in the mail? To convince someone to buy something from me. The periodic table? WHAT!? I had been tricked again. High school was the worst prison. I asked Nadine Davis out. “no way!” I asked Debbie Dreger out. “Not in a 100 years!” and in that moment there was possibility because 100 years didn’t seem so long to me. A prison sentence that long was conceivable when I was that young.
College! Freedom! No parents. Nobody to tell me what to do. No standards to live up to. I could be morally decrepit. I could cheat, drink, girls would finally touch me. I could cheat on the girls who would touch me. But still tests, grades, money, loans, debt. I cheated to graduate college. I stole ramen noodles to eat. I needed somewhere to live so stayed with a girlfriend who wanted to despise me. I didn’t want to work a real job so begged to get into graduate school.
Later, jobs. I was rich on $40,000 a year salary in NYC. I was a lowly programmer at HBO’s IT Department but my answering machine said, “This is James Altucher from HBO.” Girls calling me would think I was a movie producer. I was “from HBO”. But I was in my cubicle. [See, Prostitutes, 3am, and the Best Job Ever] And my boss had a boss who had a boss who had a boss who had a boss who had a boss who had a boss who had a boss who had a boss. And that top guy eventually got fired. By who? God? It was a prison all the way through. I was told “you can’t do that!” when there was something I wanted to do that would improve the company. I did it anyway. “you can’t do that!” when I wanted to start a company on the side. “you can’t do that!” when I would walk into the office of the CEO with him not there (now he’s the CEO of Time Warner) and all of his passwords for every account were in his desk drawer. “You can’t do that!” when eventually I left, escaping for the last time the jail of corporate America.
Freedom! When I sold my first company and made money. A lot of money. So much money I could give $100 tips to cabdrivers because I had nothing less and they had no change. I’d fly helicopters to Atlantic City. I’d buy paintings from my favorite realists without even bothering to negotiate. I bought a 5000 square foot apartment that was a sailboat factory in the 1800s and I rebuilt the whole thing. I was Free. I couldn’t ever be killed. I was a demi-god.
But what a horrible prison housing a horrible person. I was worse than the man in the iron mask. That same 5000 square apartment wrapped around me like a tight cocoon when I went broke, every thread sewn by the caterpillar prison guard another regret, anxiety, tension, stress. INTC had bad numbers. Time to flee? Can I get a loan? My 2 year old daughter the jailkeeper on my life. I couldn’t even kill myself without the threat of ruining hers. So close to the gun range yet so far. Every smile I ever did for two years was a fake. The clown mask painted onto me before the big finale.
Finally! Sold my place. Now I could be a trader. The markets were mine. What freedom! I could wake up, trade at 9:30am, out by 9:35am, the day was done! What a lot of horse-shit everyone else had to put up with, working their plastic jobs at the cardboard box factory. Except for those days when the trade wasn’t over by 9:35am, wasn’t over by 4pm on a Friday night. Wasn’t over until next week and was horribly down. I lived next to a church. I never prayed in my life but I’d go there when it was empty and get down on my knees and say, “please let this trade work out!” Jesus Christ, please let INTC buy ORCL in the middle of a trading halt. Not a great trading strategy.
Freedom from trading! Started a fund of hedge funds. Freedom from worrying about crooked hedge fund managers! I started Stockpickr.com. Freedom from Jim Cramer, thestreet.com, and the cubicle nation on Wall Street! I left and started doing my own investments. Freedom from NYC! I moved upstate. Freedom from marriage! I got divorced. Freedom from all the constraints of every publication on the planet! I started this blog. With its worries about traffic and where can I syndicate and what can I pitch and what can I write every day.
When I write a “top 10” list people say I have too many lists. If I write how I screwed Yasser Arafat out of $2 million people say “link bait”. When I bashed heads with Nouriel people say it was a payback post (it was, and I’m ashamed of it. I demoted the post to the ancient history of 4 days before it was published).
What’s freedom? A cave? Minimal food. The soft touch of love without jealousy or need. Creativity with no self-critique? Breathing as deeply as possible and holding that breath for as long as you want – freedom from the central nervous system that forces you to exhale. A body that sleeps as long as you want. Laughter when you need it, laughter when you create it. Laughter when you tease it out of the people around you. A mountain you can look at but never have to climb. A breeze infused with the smell of toasted starch that whispers directly into your stomach.
None of these freedoms ever existed. The planet itself is a jail. Your body cell block H, your brain the 6’10” cellmate who will rape you at night and leave you bloody on the ground for his friends. The electric wire always ready to shock you back into reality everytime you see freedom within touching distance. Just once, to touch it and taste it. To smell it. But the senses themselves bind you until your funeral.
A funeral where the most delicious sound I’ll hear from my perch in the afterlife will be the weeping of my own two daughters. They never realized how much they would miss me. A life in front of them where they will never be able to talk to me or see me again or laugh at any of my antics. They can’t stop their weeping and what a beautiful orchestral sound that would be.
I’m 43 years old. Thank god I’m still alive. And loving every second of it with more passion than I could ever have imagined.