DH = Dear Husband
DD2 = Dear Second Daughter
Margaret Atwood’s Payback: Mills & Mickey Mouse
“There’s a widespread folk motif about magic mills and their habit of not stopping. A poor peasant acquires a hand mill that goes by itself and grinds out anything you ask it to, and so he becomes wealthy; but someone else gets hold of it, and starts it grinding some desired substance – in Grimm’s Fairy Tales it’s porridge – and then can’t turn it off, so the house and then the street fill up with porridge, dreadful thought. This plot is very close to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice motif that you may last have glimpsed in Walt Disney’s film Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse playing the apprentice and the unstoppable robot taking the form of a broom and a pail of water” (Atwood 109).
There were several parts of Margaret Atwood’s book Payback that I read out loud to DH. This bit about mills and Mickey Mouse was an eye-opener for us, and it has now become a part of our lingo. We have found that a reference to Mickey Mouse and his broom encapsulates the stuff of chaos in any facet of our lives that gets out of control. At the end of July, when DH was fevered, in pain, stressed, and – as it turned out – hours away from emergency gallbladder surgery, his business phone kept ringing. New clients, questions, orders – things that are usually welcome for a self-employed man – became demonic agents of relentless torment. “This is totally Mickey Mouse and his #!@&* broom,” he grunted. (The expletives were free flowing right about that time.)
I had seen Fantasia years ago, so I knew what Atwood was describing, but I watched that particular segment again on Youtube. Mickey Mouse, an apprentice to a sorcerer, has the job of fetching water from a fountain in two pails. He carries the pails to large vat in the sorcerer’s cavern, dumps them in, and then goes back again to fetch more. It’s a big vat and a laborious effort, so when the sorcerer leaves, Mickey tries on the old man’s magic hat in hopes of making his job easier. The magic works, and his broom starts to tote the water. Mickey Mouse happily kicks back, but before too long, the vat has overflowed, and the spellbound broom cannot be stopped in its course – back and forth between the fountain and the vat – and the whole cavern is flooded. Mickey resorts to his axe and chops the broom into splinters, stopping the thing at last. But then each splinter becomes a separate broom with the same mission, and the flooding intensifies. What started as an apparent blessing becomes a curse.
Debt & Mickey’s broom
There is much about the reality of our debts that is illustrated by Mickey Mouse and his broom. Our mortgage for instance, feels endless – like poor Mickey’s tired trips back and forth from the fountain to the vat. Monthly payment after monthly payment after monthly payment . . . year after year. Then there are the financial curve balls that we have to deal with. They seem strategically planned to undermine our journey out of debt – just as Mickey’s efforts to destroy the broom are countered by the onslaught of an army of brooms. From frequent irritations like van repairs, to random hits like the emergency U.S. medical bill in July, every step of our progress has met with an obstacle.
There is another aspect of our debt that is illustrated by the story of Mickey Mouse and his broom, but unlike our mortgage, which is already set in stone, and those financial curve balls, which are beyond our control, this one is within our power to handle. It’s the force of our inner toddler – the insistent voice shouting, “I want it NOW!” We’re getting the itch to buy.
After fourteen years, a household shows signs of wear. I’m noticing stains on our carpet. The piano is out of tune, and its bench is cracked. The furniture in our family room is visibly worn. DH keeps talking about getting a sectional sofa and a flat screen TV. My wardrobe is in dire need of sprucing up. Today DD2 said to me, quite sweetly, as we got ready to walk the dog, “I want to sign you up for What Not to Wear.” (It’s a reality TV show about unsuspecting people whose friends and families set them up for expert fashion make-overs. It always ends with a party and happy tears.) DH and I have no shortage of material wants.
Mickey’s inner toddler
Mickey deals with his inner toddler – the one who says, “This work is so HARD!” – by sneakily putting on the sorcerer’s magic hat. We, of course, have the option of taking out the credit card. Abracadabra! We could have it all! But we know the curse that will result, and we’re committed to another strategy. I’ve been working my way out of mortifying discretionary fund debt for over half a year now (see “Discretionary Money: His and Hers”), mainly by taking on the house cleaning, for which we used to pay $100 every two weeks. I’m essentially there now. Not quite, but really close. So in October, I plan to buy some clothes. I have a young colleague who can dress like a model on a dime, and she’s agreed to be my coach. She’ll take me on a bargain shopping spree, and I’ll end up looking like her. All I have to do is drive where she tells me to go and buy lunch. Furthermore, DH and I have agreed that as of October, we will share the cleaning, and that $100 every two weeks will go towards a mutual discretionary fund. We can gradually save for a sectional sofa, a flat-screen TV, a repair for the piano bench, the services of a piano tuner . . . The thing is, we’ll pay cash.
Delayed gratification is a tough habit to acquire, but we’re psyched. Our past choices have us grinding out payments that we can’t turn off. Random mishaps strive to derail our progress. But DH and I are facing our inner toddlers and saying firmly, “You’ll have to wait.” Mickey Mouse can keep his magic hat and his broom. We’re not going there.