Word of the day

Apparently embarrassed about my download speeds, my cable company sent me a Wi-Fi extender. I didn’t ask for it, but hey, it’s free.

The box arrived without an ethernet cable, which I needed. Buying a cable felt wasteful, and it would have made this Wi-Fi extender considerably less free.

So I took to the internet and I found Free Geek, an organization in Portland that refurbishes tech and provides it for low or no cost to the community. I biked over, pried open my backpack, and a nerd tossed in about eight feet of category five. Yee haw.

Eckhart Tolle says there is no such thing as the past or the future. He suggests we experience these as ideas in the now, as remembrance or projection, because only the now is real. The past and the future are phantasms, experienced only in an unterminating series of nows, happening now, and now, and now.

As I biked away with the cable, I had a similar mind-clearing thought about free. Is there such thing as free? Just because I’m not paying for this ethernet cable, that doesn’t mean no one did.

The pithy anagram TAANSTAAFL reminds us that someone always foots the bill for a “free lunch.” But who is the who that pays? It seems there are three characters in this play:


If you invite me over to your house for a dinner party (and you should), I will probably bring a bottle of wine. For you, this is free vino, but it was paid for by me. This is also known as a “gift.”


At that same party, guests will enjoy appetizers, dinner, and maybe even dessert, all without pulling out their wallets. It would be absurd, insulting even, to try to pay for dinner. It doesn’t feel quite right to call dinner a gift. But whatever it is, it’s paid for by the host.


As I pedalled through Portland, I realized that it’s We that pay for everything else. That’s all free means: “We’ve paid for it.”

You can pop into Costco, jam a morsel of Kirkland cheese in your mouth and sprint right out, but somewhere in the bowels of Costco HQ an accountant ensures that you and I will cover that cheddar somehow.

Every free trial is subsidized by we who opt-in. Free parking is parking you don’t pay for today; but of course you’ve already paid for it. We’ve already paid for it. That’s the only reason it can be be free.

Everything in life that is free is because of We. Roads and highways, emergency services, public schools, public parks, the military. We all pay for it through taxes.

Television is free because we are affected by ads. Your favorite social media network is free for the same reason.

The sun and the stars, the trees and the wind may seem costless, but only a moment’s reflection will remind you that these are no more free than the month’s first Wall Street Journal article or 8 seconds of water at the airport. Some combination of We have paid the way.

Our minds are free to think and dream and express ourselves and worship however we want, thanks to a duty paid long ago. And one we will continue to pay through effort, organizing, and protest. The old adage says “freedom ain’t free,” but of course it is, because we’re paying for it, ain’t we?