Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Favored By Good Fortune's Hand

Sometimes, in the depths of my private thoughts, I lose perspective and get whiny and bitter. I watch a lot of the Food Channel, and I see these amazing homes and kitchens and ovens (e.g., one of Ina Garten's three houses if you count the apartment in Paris), and I feel what you could only call jealousy. Starting a new job a year ago meant a precipitous drop in the number of vacations days I have, which is yet another prod to my occasional sense of resentment. I could go on, mostly about monetary things (in a sense the vacation days issue is a monetary thing). It doesn't help that I have taken to reading the business section of the NYTimes more thoroughly than I used to (I've concluded that the desire to read the business section is genetically linked to the appearance of grey in your beard or hair), and at least half the articles seem to be investment advice that assumes from the getgo an amount of investment capital that's 10 or 100 or 1000 times what I would ever be dealing with, at the very minimum, with a subtext that this is not exceptional. (If it weren't for the Suze Orman show, where real actual people tell Suze their financial situation -- as opposed to the investment bankers and business executives the Times cares about -- I would think that I was living in abject poverty.)

But, you know, all this is nonsense. And it's not just nonsense from a financial standpoint, it's complete nonsense from the viewpoint of looking at what I have and what I want and what I experience. I've been meaning to write about the sense of good fortune I feel when I set back and look at things over a glass of wine (and the fact that I can afford wine on a nightly basis is in itself incredible good fortune), or for that matter when I look at things with anything remotely approaching a clear-eyed perspective. But how can you write about that without sounding like Pollyanna or, more accurately, Pangloss? Then a brief exchange with bconn in Seattle last weekend made me think it wouldn't be such a bad idea, for myself anyway, to write this down.

What I said to Brian was that my employment history, regarding financial windfalls and rewards, was one long series of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. What I meant by this was that every company I've worked for (there have been relatively few lo these past three decades) had, on paper, extremely generous profit-sharing and stock reward plans. All of which, in the years before my employment, had provided fine monetary benefits to their employees (at Wang and Teradyne and Cray and SGI). And yet I, myself, have never managed to see any of these benefits. Well, once in 1984 I got a profit-share check at Teradyne that was non-trivial in 1984 dollars, but that's it. SGI's bankruptcy in particular cost me not just hope and stock options but serious monetary losses in their employee stock purchase program (which seemed a good deal at the times of purchase but turned out to be the equivalent of taking all the money out of my checking account every now and then and burning it).

When I said this, I wasn't specifically thinking comparatively of mutual friends of mine and Brian's who themselves have reaped some major financial rewards from being in the right place at the right time (although it often happens that people in this position -- not my friends here, let me make clear -- will usually convince themselves that it is not luck but their own skill and planning and talent, which is such nonsense I'm surprised people don't turn on the spot into a pile of steaming poop when they say this). But Brian pointed out to me that the people we know who have come into this sort of windfall aren't actually happier than me. Which does cut to the chase, because he's quite right in so many ways. And that's really a subset of my larger considerations here.

This is where Pollyanna and Pangloss come in. I live in a fine and comfortable space; what would a fancier house or even a bigger kitchen get me? My days fill with things and people I'm passionate about; what does anybody want from their days that would surpass this? I work hard and long, but I have a decently paying job that allows me a huge amount of what you might call intellectual freedom and control over my days; this ain't chicken feed. What is it that I would want that I don't have? More time with my friends, maybe, but if that's my goal there's much I can do to get there that has nothing to do with having insufficient vacation.

And my gosh, over the last thirty years I have had the extraordinary good fortune and experience to visit and develop friendships in many towns and cities around the country and, for that matter, the world. Although it took a huge amount of extra work on my part in countless ways to arrange this, for a while I was able to travel regularly to places I wanted to go -- as part of my job. I've been to Australia twice. I've been to England and the Netherlands in recent years, to visit friends. I've eaten fancier meals than most. In some key ways the fact that I've gotten out and indulged myself a good deal has come at the cost of a steadier financial position, but it's hard to believe I could or would have wanted to have arranged a different balance.

Ok, that's Pollyanna and Pangloss and Hallmark sentiment. And you know, even when I write this out in all its obviousness there remains a part of me that's a bit skeptical about the comfort of my declining years. I sometimes picture myself, old and doddering in the streets, singing this traditional song:

Come all you jolly good fellows, I'll sing to you a song
It's all about them shanteyboys and it won't take me long
For it's now that I regret the day, while I'm working out in the cold
Save your money when you're young, me boys, you'll need it when you're old

I'll just have to hope that when you walk by you'll put a dollar in my cup. Or that my Red Hat stock will be worth something.
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