I could not go so far as to say that I’ve never tried to keep up with the Joneses, but my unorthodox lifestyle choices have always given me the upper hand in that my rules for the game in which we were competing were always different and subject to immediate change. By me. When you’ve never lived, as a straight white middle class parent, in a neighborhood with another of your kind nearby it makes turning on that part of your brain which needs to compete very hard. It’s possible that my combination of competitiveness and contrarianism would always have ended up in some kind of similar circumstance; winning by running down an empty path.
In this era when middle aged white males are self destructing at record rates I think my contrarianism has had a very positive, if unintended, outcome; I’m not mourning the loss of the American Dream because I never believed in it. I remember my apartment in Jerez de la Frontera, the balcony opening up to the street, the light well in the center; and that became my ideal for a living space. The white picket fence around a suburban home never had a place in my imagination.
Fulfilling my dream was easy because for my peers it constituted a nightmare, and at the dream store nightmares are 50% off. Even back in the 80’s getting a 1,200 sq foot condo with a 300 sq ft “hobby room” and indoor parking (a space we rented for cash) for $79,000 was a good deal. Walking to work or taking the bus from time to time was not anything that any of my peers wanted to do. Being surrounded gay couples and retirees on one hand, and minority families on the other made striving or competing difficult; like being given a javelin and a croquet mallet and finding yourself on a tennis court.
As I age my aspirations for retirement don’t involve warm weather climates, golf, or bus trips to a casino; I’d like to ditch my car, putter around in the garden, walk to something interesting now and again, and have enough money to eat and keep warm. I’ve always believed in lowering the bar for success. In business I would always recommend keeping expenses to a bare minimum so profit can be realized with even modest sales. In real estate, buy so low that only disaster could wipe out your principal. In aspirations, aim low and almost never be disappointed.
Norman Vincent Peale said to shoot for the moon and so even a miss would land you among the stars. Leaving aside the issue of relative distance, if you’re so primed for life on the moon, however, that landing among the stars feels like failure then depression is a likely outcome. I stand by my assertion, despite many contrary claims, that the American Dream of the 50’s is as accessible now as it was then, the issue is that the expectation has now outsized the ability of even the world’s largest consumer economy to satisfy it. If we were content with a 1,000 square foot homes, camping vacations at Lake Richie Cunningham, bowling, one car in the driveway, the occasional dinner at the rotary club, and sending the smart kid to college, we’d be fine. 5,000 sq ft homes, yearly vacations to Hilton Head, 5 cars, skiing in the Rockies, dining out every night, and sending even idiots to 4 year Sandals Resorts of higher learning was never anything but an aspirational fantasy created by Robin Leach.
I can’t imagine a scenario where I get the pension I’ve been promised. I hope I can get 30% of it. I think we could live on that with a chunk of personal savings and the potential transformation of my home back into the rooming house/apartment building/medical office it was during the first half of the 20th century.
If it turns out, of course, that my vision of the future is overly pessimistic, and somehow the State of Connecticut comes up with 65,000-75,000 of un-inflated dollars to give me in my golden years then I doubt I’ll react to it by jumping off a bridge. I call b.s. On the whole self help, goal setting, “The Secret”, aspirational conglomerate. I’ve never written down a goal in my life, I’ve usually taken the easy way, and rarely put myself at great financial risk. I don’t work hard OR play hard and yet I live in Victorian Mansion, have summers, weekends, and holidays off, travel to Spain now and again, and never have to ask anyone else to pick up the check at dinner.
Aim low, young man, aim low. If you focus on how little you really need to be happy, it’s amazing how much you can have.