It's the holiday season, and our thoughts turn, naturally, to money.
How much should we spend on gifts for loved ones? How much should we tip our service providers? How much should we give to charity? How much did we make this year? By how much should we prepay our property taxes and state income taxes in order to maximize our deductions while avoiding the alternative minimum tax? How much, exactly, is in the checking account we last balanced in February?
I've had money on the mind for the past few weeks. I've tried to put my thoughts into words, but I've found money is not an easy topic to discuss once you get beyond bland generalizations. So let's start with some bland generalizations:
Money can't buy happiness. Money is the root of all evil. There are some things money just can't buy. Those who seek money are either hapless victims of the rat race who've lost touch with What Really Matters or psychopathic greedheads wallowing in the filthy lucre they've stolen from the poor.
These generalizations are all true, except when they're not.
I've spend most of my life in the pursuit of mammon. I've done okay so far. I don't expect I'll ever be a rich man -- defined as a man for whom work is a hobby, not a necessity. I am instead a working stiff, albeit one who manages to bring home an above-average paycheck.
I work hard for the money, slaving away for long hours, ceding control over my life to others, eating their stress, dealing with jerks, answering to the Man, attending dreadful holiday parties. Then I get to share a large chunk of my earnings with the government.
Although I'm fortunate to be paid more than I'm worth, and although my job can be interesting when it isn't so taxing, I often question why I do this and I wonder whether it's all worth it. I know I'm not a psychopathic greedhead (of course, that's exactly what you'd expect a psychopathic greedhead to say), but from time to time I do feel like a rat in a race who's losing touch with What Really Matters.
Twice in my life I flirted with academia. When I'm in my questioning life mode, I often think of myself perched high in an ivory tower, free to pursue my interests, secure in my tenured sinecure, enjoying summer breaks, winter breaks and periodic sabbaticals, a recognized leader of the cognitive elite who's free to be the eccentric me. It's just a dream, of course, but it's one I often dream.
Or sometimes I dream of stepping out of the rat race, moving to the country, leading the Simple Life, surrounded by nature in all its glory, honest yeomen and cheap real estate while living on a hope and a prayer and minimum wage seasonal work. That dream would, I fear, be a nightmare for my family. And for me too, at least in those rare moments when I'm not dreaming.
My choice to pursue profits would make sense if I had expensive tastes, but I don't. Although I purchased an expensive car, and occasionally dine at an expensive restaurant, those indulgences are mere frivolities I can cast aside without regret. I don't enjoy shopping, I don't care much for material goods, I'm not a clothes horse and I'm not a connoisseur or a collector of anything. If I haven't acquired these tastes by this point in my life, I probably never will. I could happily while away my days in a public library, never changing my clothes, eating out of a brown paper bag, bathing irregularly, and, in short, being a homeless man, except that I'd like a modest little home to return to after the library closed at night.
My choice might also make sense if I was a miser, but I'm not.
Some of my colleagues are pursuing the early exit strategy, living like relative paupers as they fatten their retirement accounts, meting out life by the thimbleful as they count the days until they can begin to live. This early exit strategy doesn't appeal to me; I have a strong aversion to deferring life and a strong preference for living for the moment and finding the pleasure in what's in the here and now, not what's to be. I'm not a complete idiot, though, so I do save what I'll need for a normal retirement.
I often go back and forth like this, ping-ponging my life's choices as I ponder paths not taken.
And then are days, like today, when after reflecting on what money has recently done for me, I'm sure I made the right choice. Here's why:
- Money allowed us to move to Shady Glen, a community in every sense of the word, a Mayberry on the edge of, but thousands of miles away from, the big city. Although I once planned to write more about Shady Glen, I haven't been able to do so out of concern that anything I said would sound like bragging.
- Money allowed us to move our child from a public school to a private school, without hesitating at the cost, the minute we realized the public school was harming our child, standardizing her beautiful mind while sucking out her interest in learning and replacing it with a drone-like facility for standardized test-taking.
- Money is allowing me to try to be the writer I've always wanted to be, free of concern for whether anyone will ever pay me or publish me or advertise with me. I write to please myself. This complete artistic freedom may in fact be a hindrance, but I'm willing to take my chances, satisfied that I'll have no one but me to blame if my efforts fall short of what I expect from myself.
I realize this all sounds smugly self-congratulatory, and it is, to be sure, but tomorrow when a new work project comes out of nowhere and sinks my holiday plans, I'll again be thinking I made the wrong choice, so if you don't mind I'll savor the smug self-congratulatory glow while it lasts.