Mike Daisey: The bard of personal finance - at the Public Theater

The glass bowl filled to the rim with dollar bills didn't look like any old tip jar. Resting on the wood table behind which Mike Daisey had just performed his monologue "The Last Cargo Cult" at the Public Theater in New York, the bowl of money seemed to glow.

The green never looked so green. The paper never looked so crisp. It was beautiful, really, the way the bills rested on top of each other. For those of us who worry about paying the bills every day, Daisey's show is a refreshing, laughter-inducing eye opener about money.

One point we all need to hear now and then (especially as we think about end of year charity gifts and buying presents for family and friends) is that the dollar value of money doesn't always matter. This was the meaning of the bowl of money, at least for me.

We had all been handed dollar bills at the start of the performance. At the end of the show, Daisey had told us that the money in our hands was his pay for the evening, and we were free to keep it, put it in the bowl, or add more. Now, the money wasn't that hard to part with, since it wasn't in fact our money. But seeing the bowl fill up, the money inside took on more of an emotional than a monetary value. The full bowl was proof of the bond that Daisey had established with the audience.

Sometimes that's what the exchange of money is about. (Of course, we all had to marvel at Daisey's gamble -- the guy had put his salary on the line.) Daisey's relationship with money is fraught with anxieties, just like our own. But somehow, seeing glimmers of our own pain mirrored back at us was an uplifting experience; let's just say it's good to be able to see the humor of our situations.

However serious a topic he covers, Daisey finds a way to make it hilarious. He voices his annoyance at the people at parties who are always asking if he rents or owns (he rents), making us laugh at the kind of people who ask that. He tells of his utter panic when he is in a car accident in a rental car, for which he has declined the insurance, as well as "the elation of the insured" that overcomes him when he realizes his American Express card will provide the coverage. We feel some of the pain of discovering, at the start of his freshman year of college, that he is poor, at least compared to the students in his dorm, who have mini-fridges stacked on top of each other and walls of CDs. To hear all of these intimate money experiences voiced on the public stage is a great relief.

At one point, Daisey describes money as just a bunch of pieces of paper cut into the same rectangle-shaped size, with no intrinsic value. Now, that's not exactly the way we see it at WalletPop, but sometimes it takes a bard of the stage to give us some perspective on our daily personal finance struggles. Mike Daisey definitely provides it.

"The Last Cargo Cult" runs at the Public Theater through Sunday, December 13, and just may come to a theater near you. See more information at www.mikedaisey.com and www.publictheater.org.
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