Sunday, December 14, 2008

Disastrous 2008, and the Need for Simplicity

Madoff. Blagojevich. Paulson’s bumbling of the bailout funds. Predatory lenders. Ted Stevens. Detroit’s Big Three Dinosaurs. Credit-card lifestyles. College funds and retirement savings going up in smoke. George W. Bush, and an Iraqi journalist who can’t aim a shoe. The news has given me a headache. The relentless scandals, the unseemly corruptions, moral responsibility in our culture in tatters, our economy shedding jobs quicker than Ocistar sheds his hair. The news in 2008 has often been a series of financial and political disasters.

We don’t trust our financial institutions to help us manage our money; instead many of them are out to sell you what will do you harm, to nickel-and-dime you with a barrage of fees, or to outright rip you off. We don’t trust our political leaders, who seem at best out of touch, or already sold-out to the highest bidder, or stupid and unapologetic and even proud of asserting that the fiascoes of their own creation aren’t really that bad, or are akin to ‘natural tragedies’ in which no one is truly responsible for anything.

It would be a miracle not to be depressed during the holidays during such a year, but I am not. I am indeed worried, I am cautiously hopeful about January 20, 2009, but I am not depressed. Why? Because I have always tried to keep my life simple, or at least as simple as I can make it given living in New York, and having a wife and two boys, and a stream of bills to pay every month, and so on. Here’s how I have kept it simple, and how those choices have helped me during these difficult times.

I take care of my family. That means, when my children come home from school, I am there to answer their questions on their homework, to help them discuss school issues, to cook dinner for them. Every night, before they go to sleep, my wife and I kiss our children goodnight. I rarely go out by myself, and the upcoming AWP conference in February 2009, in Chicago, will be that rare time when I travel without Laura and the kids. I like being a homebody. Perhaps I am not popular with those writer-friends who are constantly recounting their late-nights at poetry readings, or who are in residence at far-flung retreats, sequestered from their families, productive yet solitary. But that’s okay. I know who I am, and I love being with my family.

My wife and I spend only on what we need. I wear Gap pants, and about half of them have holes above the back pocket where my laptop rubs against me when I lug it around the Upper Westside. In our living room, we still have my speakers and Laura’s stereo receiver from college: we just attended our 25th Reunion at Harvard! We do have nice things --high speed Internet, an iMac, MacBooks-- but we tend to keep them forever, and we do spend on books. Hundreds of dollars on books. The kids’ bookshelves are double-stacked. We are not fancy people. We are book people. We love to read. We often do it together.

We have saved money. We do it every month. Laura and I have done it for over twenty years. We invest mostly in index funds, domestic and international, and the small portfolio of stocks I own I have owned for years. I have done my own research on these companies, years of reading annual reports and 10-K reports, and listening to analysts’ discussions with management. Saving and investing in this manner is laborious, and you can’t brag to your friends about what ‘hot stock’ you have found, because we don’t invest in hot stocks. We don’t day-trade. Indeed, we have ‘paper losses’ during the vicious bear market of 2008, but since we did not enter at the peak of the market, we will survive financially. I invest every month what we can spare for investing, and I invest wherever stocks have fallen the most. I am a contrarian, and I keep it simple.

This way of life has allowed me to make steady progress on my goals, and has kept me from making big mistakes. When the world seems to be shattering to pieces, I am still reading and I am still writing. Living a simple life, when you have friends pursuing the next million, or the next accolade, or the next conquest, requires having a sense of who you are. The night is cold outside, the wind from the Hudson River whistles through the canyons of buildings in Manhattan, and this hot cup of Red Zinger revives me for another day.