DWYL, Year 2: Starting in the Red
The 8th floor of a huge, high-ceiling building just north of Houston Street in Manhattan is a good place to work. My little chunk of it, a sizable room, comes with air conditioning, comfy chairs, a sofa, a whiteboard, a large mirror, an Apple device charging station, a yoga mat, several industrial-chic lamps, a coat hook, two windows that are each taller than I am, three unobtrusive plants, a magazine rack, and a conference table that can seat six. Ordinarily, the space costs $30/hr but it’s free to me from 1:00 to 3:00 PM via Breather, the room-for-rent service.
A psychiatrist I once saw operated in this very building. I dubbed him Dr. Worthless because I am uncharitable that way, especially after a break up. He tried to get me on a strong psychoactive medication and I resisted because my mother had been prescribed that very medication and reacted badly to it. He kept forgetting that I had said no, or kept pushing it on me anyway, and finally I lost my temper. “What, do they pay you or something?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he replied, without blinking.
He also told me I wouldn’t need the pills he did give me because the placebo effect of my carrying them around will suffice to keep my anxiety attacks at bay. The poets sing of placebos: Oh, a good placebo, who can find it? Its worth is above rubies. What would the copay be on an effective placebo? I’d pay rubies, sure.
Month 1 of DWYL: Year 2, is almost over. Year 2 is going to be even more scary interesting than Year 1 was, because Ben, my life partner and co-parent, has joined me in the quest of tying personal satisfaction to professional fulfillment. He has traded one FT, well-paying if soul-sucking job for a combination of two PT jobs, one of which is in what he thinks is his chosen field. I am still freelance. No benefits, no stability. This is, patently, crazy. We share an apartment we really like with a toddler we are crazy about in a neighborhood we love in a city we appreciate surrounded by friends and a smattering of family. Why are we going for more? Are we laughing in the face of the gods, who have granted us so much already? Flying too close to the sun? Are we Unicorns?
Yes. Yes, we are Unicorns who are spending 120% of what we make.
Early on, Dr. Worthless gave me a magic feather: a note he scribbled on his prescription pad that read, “I am an adult and can handle whatever comes along.”
He thought that, mantra in hand, I’d be able to fly using nothing but my ears. Is he still here in this building, trying to con some other twenty-something who’s tired of having weekly meltdowns into taking 20 daily milligrams of an addictive anti-depressant? Should I track him down, once my two free Breather hours in this aerie are up? What would I say? Look at me flying now, doc. Is this what you had in mind?
At least I don’t have an entire childhood of therapist stories to recount, the way Lena Dunham does. My second psychiatrist, a Russian I found via recommendation once I gave Dr. Worthless his walking papers, was better, though awkward. My dad had cancer, again, and I didn’t want him to die. “Well,” said Dr. Russian, in his stilted, uncomfortable way, “pancreatic cancer is a fatal disease.”
I paid him $50 for that.
What costs more in this city, space or time? $50 was, of course, merely my portion of what Dr. Russian received for our sessions. Meanwhile, $1.1 million will buy you a trailer in Montauk, a beach town at the tip of Long Island.
With dark wood paneling, two stuffy bedrooms and an intact 1970s kitchen, the Doughans’ mobile home will almost certainly be replaced. The new owners will be basically buying the land, paying more than 100 times what Mr. Doughan did, for one of the primest parcels in Montauk Shores. It may not be one of the plots directly on the bluff over Ditch Plains, but it is on a larger, 2,000-square-foot lot, with room for a double-wide mobile home and a new deck, a luxury the narrower waterfront parcels, each 1,200 square feet, do not enjoy. The added space can mean a lot to someone willing to pay seven figures for a beach retreat. And the Doughans’ plot still has unobstructed ocean views, out over a plaza in the center of the park.
Apparently that is not the most expensive mobile home in the country: there are trailers going for six-figures in Malibu and Aspen, too. Even to slum it in a beach or ski resort, you have to be rich.
We could have headed that way, maybe. We saved in a moderately obsessive way for years, both of us working FT and living below our means, no fancy vacations or shopping sprees, no cable, shopping at Trader Joe’s and food coops, cooking in bulk on Sunday nights, sharing Internet with our neighbors. We made sure to buy less house than we could afford, in a good, upwardly-trending neighborhood so that values would rise, and at a time when we could lock in a low interest rate for seven years.
We made good decisions, and we were also lucky, and we built on our luck, invested it. This is our first month in the red since Ben finished school. And we’re doubling down: instead of cutting back on childcare, we’re going to start sending Babygirl to the day care she loves full-time. Until now I’ve spent every Tuesday taking care of her and scrambling to get all my work done the night before, the morning after, and during her nap, and I’ve nearly short-circuited from the stress. It doesn’t work. It seems crazy to spend yet more when we’re bringing in less, but doing otherwise was making me crazy. We are going to give this DWYL experiment our all, because that’s the point of trying something, right? With Babygirl in day care, both parents will be able to take on more projects, and hopefully make back what we’ll be spending. If not, it still will have been worth trying.
A is for Amortize: even if we have a few red months, averaged out over the course of the year, we should still be in the black for 2014.
And C is for Calculated Risk. Growing up, taking chances, flying even if you fall. Drawing on savings because that’s what (medium-term) savings are for. Paying for time, for space. Mainlining hope, the cheapest and yet most dangerous placebo there is. Telling yourself, if you don’t make it as a Unicorn, you can go back to being a horse. But first you have to try.