What retirement account?
I know, these sorts of expenses and worries about how to pay for them are a part of life—the retirement account angst especially strong these days. I also appreciate that my husband and I—both still employed—are in a better financial situation than friends, who have taken heftier pay cuts and even been laid off.
Still, I can’t escape this sense of head-shaking bafflement: Weren’t things supposed to be better at this stage of my life? More settled? More secure? I can’t help but wonder at the choices I’ve made, the roads taken, and not taken.
I don’t think I’m the only one out there experiencing this bafflement, or sense of self-doubt and regret. This experience is typical of mid-life, as well as of uncertain economic times.
In any event, this experience fuels a very potent (in more ways than one) story I’ve recently become engrossed in. It deals with a mild-mannered suburban father named Walter White. With a $43,000-per-year salary as a high school chemistry teacher, he is struggling to support his wife, pregnant with an unplanned baby, and 15-year-old disabled son. They live in a modest ranch house and have two cars.
The story starts with Walter trying to supplement his income by moonlighting as a cashier at a car wash. Cashiering at a car wash is something of a come down from the promise he showed earlier in life, when he was working as a scientist for a top research lab. In fact, former colleagues, who were never as naturally gifted as he was, have taken a formula he helped devise, patented it, and become millionaire entrepreneurs. No wonder Walt doesn’t find his 50th birthday something to celebrate.
Then, Walter receives some staggering news: he has lung cancer, and it’s at a stage where it’s likely to spread and kill him within 18 months. His family nags him to seek treatment from the best oncologist in town, who unfortunately is not covered by their HMO. So, he needs to come up with thousands of dollars, out of pocket, to pay for treatment that will probably not work in the end. Meanwhile, he’s worried about leaving his wife and kids destitute.
Walter comes up with a daring solution—one that is suited to his unique professional training and to the volatile person he's been hiding inside. He’ll cook methamphetamine and begin selling it. Since Walter is a very talented chemist, he manages to cook the purest, potent crystal anyone has ever seen. He also shows amazing ingenuity and enterpreneurial cunning. When he finds it difficult to obtain sufficient amounts of pseudoephedrine (which comes from cold medications) to cook several pounds a week, he, the genius chemist that he is, immediately figures out a way to chemically bypass the “pseudo—based” formula and cook an even more pure, potent crystal—one that makes him a legend in all of the Southwestern United States.
Yes, I’m talking about the AMC TV series Breaking Bad, which I’ve recently discovered and whose episodes I’ve been burning through—in the same way I would burn through a really good novel. The Emmy Award-winning, critically praised show takes us into the dark, violent world of meth labs, dealers, and drug cartels. But like my other favorite TV show, Mad Men, it unearths the dark side of this American dream we all cling to. Breaking Bad is about family and marriage and struggling to keep up with a decent, prosperous, secure middle-class life. It’s also about the consequences of choices we make.
Breaking Bad is a show for our times. With Walter feeling like he needs to “break bad” to pay his medical bills and to set aside a nest egg for his family, you sense the desperation that a lot of Americans might be feeling right now, with fears about the economy and the debate about the future of health care.
The great Bryan Cranston plays Walter White. Cranston also portrayed Hal, the devoted husband and father in another show about a suburban family struggling to stay afloat in the American middle class, the wonderful comedy series, Malcolm in the Middle. Cranston’s Walter White is an edgier version of the Malcolm in the Middle dad.
“I have spent my whole life scared, frightened of things that could happen, might happen,” Walter says at one point. “Fifty years spent like that, finding myself awake at three in the morning.”
But that was Walter before his diagnosis. Post-diagnosis, something erupts inside some him. Facing a death sentence, the rules—or fears—by which he lived no longer apply. In fact, the death sentence gives him a new focus and determination. Maybe he becomes the person he was meant to be. As he explains: “You know, ever since my diagnosis, I sleep just fine. I came to realize that fear, that’s the worst of it. That’s the real enemy.”
What’s the moral to this story? Look forward to a diagnosis of terminal cancer so that you can become more real? No, I'm not saying that. Also, I won’t turn to cooking meth to pay for a new kitchen floor. Walter's decision to cross over to the dark side comes with lots of stress--a level that I could not live with. The murder victims--some his--pile up as the episodes continue. His marriage also grows strained as he tells lie after lie to hide his second job as a drug kingpin. I'm not a very good liar; I certainly couldn't hide a second job.
But maybe I can take a lesson from Walter White about not living behind fear. I’ll have to give that some thought, and maybe overcome my fears, to put that new approach to life into practice.