In 2016, I Prepared for an Uncertain Future
Things fell apart, and now I need to be ready to help.
Last year, in looking forward to 2016, I eschewed concrete goals in favor of something more ephemeral. My aunt, dear to me like a parent, was dying of cancer, and I was spending a lot of time with her as she resolutely lived her last days as she had lived so many before: reading, talking with friends, listening to jazz in her modest, book-cluttered apartment. To live a life like hers seemed, at that moment, a more worthwhile goal than any mortgage or 401(k) or similar ant-rather-than-grasshopper measure of long-term laying-up of supplies. Old Robert Burns told us what happens to the best-laid plans of mice and men, and I figured I’d rather get comfortable with the limitations misfortune might impose than squander my days in building a wall to keep misfortune out.
Ironically, my aunt’s death in the spring allowed me to do more hedging against the uncertainty of the future than I’d ever managed before. I inherited enough money from her to pay off her debts and my debts and still have a down payment for a house left over. I also inherited her IRA, which won’t fund the yacht-based retirement in Puerto Rico that I clearly deserve, but will cover the retirement I actually want: pastries and coffee from the Puerto Rican bakery in the morning, rum from Puerto Rico in the afternoons, and a house in Hartford with a porch where I can sit and consume those things and be old.
Still, for most of 2016, I have tried to keep my focus on the non-financial things. After paying off all those debts, practically all of the remaining money is sitting in the bank untouched. My big splurges during the year were a new electric bass ($475), repairs to my aged stand-up bass after it had a run-in with a visiting toddler ($1,000), airfare to Chile ($1,400) to visit an aging relative, and marrying my girlfriend in our living room in front of friends and family ($400 for the food).
All of those expenditures feel in keeping with my goals, because they helped me create and deepen relationships: I spent a lot more time this year playing more kinds of music with more people than I had before. My wife (a graphic designer and artist) and I spent more time and energy collaborating with other local artists and building coalitions to share funding and create opportunities in our impoverished city. We took my kids to more concerts, more informal jam sessions, more museums. It felt like a slow, steady building of strong bonds to people and community. All the time, I had in mind how my aunt had lived and the things she had prioritized — friendships, creativity, intellectual inquiry — and I tried to make those things central.
And then the election happened, and none of that felt sufficient. I said that in 2016, I would be open to things falling apart. Now they have fallen apart. Does that seem alarmist from a person who a year ago was reflecting calmly on the inevitability of disaster? So be it. To have goals that are more philosophical than financial should be an obligation of privilege.
And if I was privileged before my aunt died, I’m downright prosperous now: I started with a middle-class salary, a post-graduate education, modest living expenses, and whiteness; now I’m also debt-free, beginning to be prepared to stop working some time before I die, and able to buy a home on good terms. I’m also surrounded and supported by strong relationships. My 2016 was about making my life simple and sturdy, and owing mostly to the good fortune of having had grandparents who were white in 1940, it happened.
My 2017 has to be the next step: infusing the choices I make with a focus on keeping things from falling apart for other people. What will that look like? I have a few starting ideas:
- We are buying a house in Hartford, not in the suburbs (I would be a big hypocrite if I did otherwise). Blessed as we are with financial resources in a modest real estate market, we are trying hard to buy a house with space that we can open to the public for free cultural events and community activities.
- I will try to make art, not just for art’s sake, but to support larger causes.
- I will be in the streets in support of causes that help people less fortunate and more subject to repression than I.
- I will donate liberally to those causes.
It should not have taken the election of Donald Trump for me to make helping less fortunate people my ordering principle. Things were already bad for a lot of people a year ago, not just far away, but in my city and in my neighborhood, and I was already in a good position to help. But in 2017, I will not make any excuses for myself. I hope you will hold me to it.
Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut, but his writing here definitely does not reflect the views of his employer. He writes Rambling Man, the Billfold’s advice column about trying to make a living a doing the best you can.
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