Sleeplessness: Money

by Jeff Oaks

Nowadays I wake up early, around 2 or 2:30. I usually get up and pee, lurching through the dark house like the villain in a slasher movie. When I pee, my back is to the dark well of the stairs, and I always think about someone coming up behind me and killing me because I’ve seen too many slasher movies. A few friends and I were talking just the other day about how we all grew up watching one apocalyptic movie after another–The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, movies about earthquakes, about deadly insects, about nuclear winter, about computers taking over and killing us, about apes taking our place after we kill ourselves. Are we surprised now that we expect to die at any minute, at every minute? Haven’t we been preparing ourselves to expect it for a long, long time? When I stop peeing, I stumble back through the same dark, back to bed. The dog hasn’t moved. I slide back in under the covers. He lifts his head and puts it down on my calf or ankle.

This morning, unable to go back to sleep, I pick up the iPad and look at my retirement account. I’ve just received my inheritance, my half the proceeds of my mother’s estate, and I’ve spent the last couple of days thinking about what to do with it. Last year, I heard a radio show financial advisor who said: 1) Pay off anything that charges you interest–credit cards, loans, etc. 2) Set aside an emergency fund of at least six months living expenses. 3) Start a retirement account 4) Do something fun with some small part of it, if you can–a vacation, a gift you wouldn’t have bought yourself otherwise. I’ve done the first (goodbye car loan!), will set up the second, and according to this morning’s calculations, I’ll put a certain amount in my retirement account. The rest I need to split between some house repairs and some much needed updating of my wardrobe, which has been stuck in the same world for the past ten years or so.

The one thing I was reminded of today was a thing the financial advisor forgot to say, thinking perhaps that the caller would automatically know to do it: when you pay off a loan, you should keep paying that payment but into your own savings account. Duh, I said to myself, but I had already been thinking about nice it would be to have that $270 a month car payment to play with again! I was already back to the idea of getting to play with (read: be able to waste) some extra money every month. Between the car, the dog, and trips down to visit my mother, the past few years money has been pretty tight, and I have not had much money to spend outside a few things I consider psychically or professionally necessary (car trips to friends’ houses in the summer or for Christmas, flights to AWP, books, and cups of tea at cafes where I often work). It’s a very nice life, but it has had limits. And it requires me to be careful in planning out my money every month, which I have been.

But it’s not like I’ve really been let off the leash. I’m reminded of an early Campbell McGrath prose poem in his fantastic first book, Capitalism, wherein a poor family wins the lottery and uses it only to buy ATVs or Jetski’s, instead of investing in the kids’ education or changing their lives in any long term ways. I can’t have everything. I have to make choices.

I’m also reminded that the reason this money can come down to me is because my mother worked her whole goddamned life to save it. She sold two houses, she lived extremely simply and alone for decades, she cleaned other people’s houses and added up other people’s numbers and typed up other people’s letters and accounts, and put aside small amounts over decades. She schemed in her last five years all the possible ways to lessen the bites governments would take out of it, so they’d be something to leave to us, to ease our own lives. I want to honor all that attention and passion and energy she spent. It was in many ways her great creative work. I don’t want it to be for nothing.

So, I’m going to buy a new iPad, because I’ve found I like to write on one. And because it’s going to be a tool in the next few years as I learn more and more about digital composition and multi-media design. My present one I’m giving to an old friend who did me a great kindness when I had to disappear from work.

Then I’m going to think about where I’d like to go for a vacation. The last time I had some money, I figured out how to live in London cheaply for three weeks. I walked around that city I love maybe more than any city I’ve ever been to. I rode the tube. I went to museums, gardens, sat out in the sun, browsed bookstores. I stayed in student dorms and had a wonderful time. It’s tempting to repeat that, to just go and be a wanderer in an easy city. I’m also thinking, though, how much I’d like to go somewhere near the ocean and just look out into it. After all the anxiety and sadness and weight of the last two years, I think I’d like to lie down in the sand and just listen to the great breathing of the sea in which none of these thoughts made a bit of difference.

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This afternoon I reread this and think “so many people would love to have this problem.” Maybe I shouldn’t even write about it. Maybe it will sound ignorant to my friends who are being crushed by various debt loads I’ve been lucky enough to avoid. The issue of money is so fraught with issues. I say this to two friends who wander into the coffeehouse where I’m writing this, and they both say no, it’s important to write about things like this. One of them lost her father early. This is a kind of money with weight, with history. It’s like a trade you didn’t want to make–your mother for this money–and now you have to deal with it, she says. To do something with it is to do something with the loss. They’re both smarter in their mid-twenties than I was certainly. And then when I ask a friend of mine at the next table what generation her iPad is, she tells me she bought it when her grandmother died. She needed to give herself something in the moment that would keep the whole world from falling down. She’s noticed that this is something she does. “If, say, the plumbing goes and I have to pay X amount of money for repairs, I will also buy myself a pair of nice shoes, because as long as I’m spending it, I might as well give myself something nice as well,” she says.

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