I’m So Screwed

Not to show off or anything, but I have a day job. Every morning from Monday through Friday I put on a pair of pants and toddle off to an environment I like to call “the workplace” to perform the duties associated with “work”. Weekends are pants-optional. I am compensated for the performance of these labors with “money”, or in other words abstract units of value that can be exchanged for goods and services, until inflation kicks in. This money of which I speak enters and exits my life in precisely the same quantity, much like beer through an Australian, but on a much smaller scale. All well and good, except it’s no longer enough merely to secure an income and spend it until the inevitable illness or bear attack claims one’s life, the way it was in Grandpa’s time. Our lives may not last all that much longer than they used to, but modern medicine has figured out how to prolong the dying process by as much as thirty years.

Nothing to worry about, in simpler times. You didn’t have to invent the reciprocating engine, build a woolen mill, or wipe out an indigenous people in order to live comfortably all your days (some folks went ahead and did these things anyway, though relatively few did all three). You could operate a newsstand or sell shoes and get by. Put a little money in the Savings & Loan for old age, smoke three packs of Chesterfields a day, and die at fifty, leaving a modest inheritance, and people would think you did all right. But these days, if one does not wish to suffer one’s waning years in poverty and sorrow, gnawing the marrow out of femurs robbed from the graveyard just to stay alive, one — and I think we all know who “one” is–must have established a source of funding well beyond such trifles as social security checks and pensions, none of which will probably exist anyway by the time I reach retirement age, if I even get that far. Nowadays (and I don’t use the reprehensible word “nowadays” lightly, in company as it is with words like “winsome” and “anyhoo”) if we expect to survive until death, we must not only save and invest-we must also be successful.

Success can be defined as one’s work having exceeded one’s days. If, every day, one makes more progress towards a goal, eventually reaching it, one can be said to have accomplished something. Probably not much, but something. Success is a bigger thing than accomplishment. It is a matter of posterity. A successful person has earned a place in the future beyond his or her own lifetime, whether this is a matter of money alone, or notoriety, or making a difference in the world. Look at Gregor Mendel and his peas, or Jayne Mansfield and her tomatoes: the fruits of their labors live on. John Brown’s Body lies a mould’ring in the grave/ But his soul goes tiddly-pom (I forget the exact words). If we can agree on this simple premise, or even where to go for lunch, then we can also agree that I am completely, utterly, almost exhilaratingly unsuccessful. Which is quite an accomplishment, but it won’t pay for my old age.

When I say, “I am not prepared for retirement” (and I say this at the age of forty-one, the same age that Julius Caesar became Consul of Rome, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, and William ‘Wild Bill’ Shakespeare was writing King Lear and Macbeth back-to-back), I do not mean retirement to an attractive five-bedroom en suite home in a palmy New Mexico golf community for wealthy assholes; rather I mean that I am not prepared to retire under any circumstances, ever. In fact if I stop working for more than about a week and a half, I’m ruined. Experts recommend you should have three to six month’s living expenses socked away against emergencies, in addition to whatever you’re hiding behind the loose brick in the chimneypiece for old age. I have twenty minutes’ living expenses socked away. Even a new belt for the vacuum cleaner would break me at this stage in my life, so the idea of saving money for the semi-distant future is absurd. It’s not that I’ve squandered money-I just haven’t had any. To me, this is normal. I think it’s normal for most guys my age, like hating Phil Collins or having to fart with care to avoid soiling ourselves.

Being clever with investments strikes me as weird. Then again, it’s weird in the same way that a guy who can blow himself is weird: I’m sickened, but strangely envious. I’ve got no knack for the lucrative shell game of investors: short-selling and gamma hedges and partial lookback options and so forth. There was a 401K plan in my past somewhere, but it got cashed out for an emergency. Sold a house at the top of the market, but also purchased a divorce, so broke more or less even. I might accumulate some value from my collection of pre-war nickels, but that’s about it. Anything else is going to my son’s college, assuming he doesn’t get into drugs, knock up his underage girlfriend, and become a drummer, in which case his college money is mine. I’d like to think that Social Security will someday provide me with a little ready money to pay for fuel oil now and then when I’m older and grayer. Maybe even a tin of discount Chinese cat food on Fridays. But the Republicans are intent on strangling social security, and about all the loyal opposition can manage is to insist it get a decent burial. So although I’m more than happy (miserable) to get robbed every year by the federal government for the symbolic purpose of paying for our collective retirements, it’s not much of a comfort. In real-world terms, I’m still on my own.

So how to succeed? I’ve sold screenplays every once in a while, design great big theme parks and resorts and things (that is my day job), but there isn’t much money in either of those things. There’s a reason well-paid writers and artists get on the news. It’s the same reason a lungfish that can whistle Bizet’s Song of the Toreador gets on the news. Still, if I’m to make any progress beyond a few modest accomplishments, which as I’ve established above will not pay for my dotage, I must find a way to be successful within the scope of what I can realistically expect to do, particularly at my age, when it’s no longer seemly to attempt anything impressive. For example: even as we speak (I speak, anyway) I’m working on a television pilot. It’s a great story and it comes with a four-season arc that would take the show into syndication. However, back here on earth, the likelihood of this earning me a single pre-war nickel is extremely small. Then there’s the scheme for peyote chewing gum (“Whiten Your Teeth While You Witness The Sky Jaguar People!”). Heckfire, I could start a theme park of my very own. These things might be a fabulous success, although let’s not kid around about it. I suspect that most folks are in much the same leaky boat as I am: a head full of dreams and a bellyful of maybe-next-time. Which sounds a lot like Social Security.

When I wrote the outline for this essay, I arranged it just like every good schoolboy does: topic, thesis, argument, filler material, conclusion. Unfortunately, when I got round to the conclusion, I didn’t have one. I’m still wallowing my way up flumen fimus without a paddle, unable to think up a cunning method by which I can not merely accomplish things, which was good enough in the old days, but succeed, which is barely enough to get by in the modern age (I seem to have stated my topic at the end of the essay instead of the beginning). In my notes, under the word “conclusion” it just says “punt”. Which, now that I think of it, is my retirement plan in a nutshell.

BEN TRIPP, author of Square in the Nuts, is a hack in many mediums. He may be reached at credel@earthlink.net.

Creative commons copyright 2007 by BEN TRIPP