Coffee heat rising

Life Is Short. Eternity Is Long.

So another attention-getting life-shaker just happened. M’hijito called to report that his dad was going in for an angioplasty Thursday evening. Forthwith, though, they decided he needed a quadruple bypass and scheduled him into an operating room the first crack out of the box Friday.

Needless to say, my son was (and remains) alarmed. To say nothing about how ex-DH and his present wife must be feeling. Apparently the surgery went well. But it’s disturbing. Very disturbing.

For one thing, no one expected XDH ever to be anything other than extremely long-lived and healthy. His mother is still living—she’s pushing 100, and the only physical issues she has are macular degeneration that has made her blind and a lifelong hearing problem that has left her stone deaf. Her father lived to the age of 96, quite well all the way to the end. XDH is only 72, same age as SDXB, who underwent the same experience a couple of years ago. Whether XDH recovers as quickly and as completely remains to be seen: he’s nowhere near as fit as SDXB—never has been a fan of strenuous exercise—but he sure does enjoy good food and wine. And he has some pesty ailments that do not afflict SDXB, two of them potentially life-threatening over the long haul.

We are nearing the end of our journey, we who are on the leading edge of the baby boom. Most bypass veterans survive at least five years; the 15-year survival rate is about 55 percent. That, of course, means 45 percent reach the end before then.

And y’know…the perspective from here sure is different from what it was, even five or ten years ago!

Yesterday I shocked a few readers by proposing to spend an outrageous amount on some overpriced dishes. And by admitting this was a want, not a need…but still persisting in a plan to diddle away money on the junk, anyway.

It’s an apparent about-face, of course. This scheme contradicts everything I’ve advocated at Funny about Money. But it’s a manifestation of a new line of thinking that’s been ticking away in the back of my mind ever since that Mayo doc suggested that the current bellyache could very well be a symptom of a cancer that will carry me away in about six months. Should it really be that.

As I was driving away from that meeting, a haunting thought came to mind, one I haven’t been able to shove back under the rug:

I am making myself miserable trying to preserve capital so that I can support myself during some future time when I expect to be miserable.

Over and over, the same question returns: WTF am I doing????? Making myself miserable so I can be miserable? What is that?

I hate teaching freshman comp with every fiber of my being. After I’d taught two sections a semester (just two sections!) for about four years in graduate school, I walked away with the Ph.D. in hand and this vow in my heart: “I will go on welfare before I ever teach composition again.”

And now here I am, approaching the end of my life, and I am on welfare—collecting Social Security. And I’m spending these last few reasonably viable years doing just that: teaching freshman comp.

I loathe it more than I can express. It’s such a waste of time and energy, such a pointless exercise, and so intensely frustrating that it makes you feel every moment you spend on it is simply wasted. And wasted in ways that are not fun. This is not playing World of Warcraft here. It’s not diddling away your time in front of a movie screen. It’s far from playing with New Yorker jigsaw puzzles. It is hard goddamn work, and it is stupefyingly underpaid.

Time wasted: students’ and instructors’.

The students have been over all this ground many, many times. We misapprehend when we assume they can’t write a simple sentence or a coherent paragraph, and they can’t formulate a topic for a diddly little 750-word essay because they were never taught this stuff. Trust me: they have been told this stuff. Time and time again. Among the fine young nimrods who couldn’t even begin to come up with a focused idea for the next 102 essay were two students who have been in my 101 classes…and I know I taught the 101s how to focus an essay topic. You wanna know something? If they haven’t learned this grade-school stuff after thirteen years of K-12 education, they are never going to learn it. It is an utter waste of their time to make them spend another year going over the same old stuff they’ve ignored all their lives.

The instructor spends hour after hour, many of them unpaid hours, devising original and engaging strategies to instill grade-school knowledge and skills into young adults, to no avail. Many more hours are pointlessly spent reading, commenting upon, and assessing piles of student papers equivalent in mass to Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. All of that person’s time, all of that person’s effort, and all of that person’s creativity are just wasted.

So why am I doing this?

Because I’m scared? I am. I’m scared unto paralysis by the prospect of living to advanced old age, utterly alone, and not having enough to provide even halfway decent dotage care for myself.

But of course, there’s no guarantee—or even great likelihood—that I will live into decrepitude. None at all.

The real reason I live like an anchorite, trying to scrabble together enough to barely live on so that I can avoid drawing down a very modest 4 percent of retirement savings, is that I’m in the habit of crimping my life for no other reason than to admire the bottom line in a spreadsheet.

In a word, I’m a tightwad.

I allow my life to be constrained to the point of entropy because I don’t want to spend any of my precious dollars. And yes: I am making myself miserable at a joke of a “job” (which is what adjunct teaching is: a cruel, exploitive joke) so that I can live on something well under $30,000 a year so that I won’t have to spend any part of $550,000 sitting in brokerage accounts and mutual funds, which are merrily averaging 6 percent to 8 percent per annum. For chrissake, the big IRA earned ten grand last month! That’s well over half, in one month, of what I earn in an entire year of making myself miserable in the classroom.

This returns us to that question: WTF am I doing?

Maybe I abuse the whole idea of money. Maybe my ex- is right: Money is to be spent. Not admired.

Hence, dear readers, the impulse to spend a little something on myself. On a want, not a need.

Yesterday, more or less in response to Remy’s and Frugal Scholar’s and Mrs. POP’s surprised comments, this whole train of thought came into sharper focus for me. And I realized: I have simply got to stop teaching composition. As endeavors go, it is just too crushing. It’s interfering with my life and blocking me from being able to build a business that I actually do like and that does not feel futile.

But how?

Well, the train of thought continues.

About 18 months ago, a friend in a business group suggested, with a straight face, that I quit teaching altogether for a year or at least for a semester and spend all the time thereby rescued on developing and marketing my editorial enterprise. Naturally, I smiled; murmured sure, sure; and went on about my misbegotten business. I was dead certain that I couldn’t earn enough at editing and ghostwriting alone to make put food on the table.

Recent developments, however, suggest that is no longer true. With a very minimal amount of marketing, a small but steady stream of commerce has come our way.

If I were not distracted with teaching—if I were not preoccupied with wasting the remaining hours of my life—but instead spent those hours on making my business visible to the kinds of people who would hire us and on persuading said people that they need us more than they need whole-wheat bread and sex, we would have more work than Tina and I could handle together. I don’t think that’s a “maybe.” I think that’s an “absolutely so.”

But even if it were a “maybe,” the truth is, at what we’ve learned is the fair rate for our services, I would not have to work anything like full time to earn enough to make up for the absence of teaching income.

Let’s say, for example, I keep the magazine writing courses, which are easy to prep, easy to teach, relatively low in enrollment, and mounted 100 percent online. I dump the spring and fall comp courses. And during the summer, when more skilled and motivated students show up, I teach one composition section. In that scenario, assuming blog income stays steady and my one regular customer keeps paying me to read detective novels(!), I would have to earn only $700 a month to make up the loss of the composition income.

At $60 an hour, $700 represents 11.67 hours of work. A month.

A single customer routinely gives us more work than that.

And does it or does it not bring us back to the eternal question: WTF am I doing?

Before the end of this semester (only 13 weeks to go!), I am going to tell my honored chair that I would like to keep the magazine writing course but drop the spring comp courses. And I will ask him if he would be kind enough to allow me to teach one or maybe two comp sections in the summer. Then I’m going to work on building The Copyeditor’s Desk:

Attend at least two CofC meetings a month.
Take full advantage of all the Chamber’s many marketing and advertising opportunities.
Volunteer with charitable groups that are favored by the local movers & shakers. Get to know these folks.
Join the Better Business Bureau.
Join Local Arizona, a coalition of locally owned businesses.
Start an advertising & PR campaign.
Step up the communication with former clients.
Approach major textbook publishers for project management contracts.
Approach genre publishers in an attempt to get more of them to pay us to read light fiction.

And if that doesn’t generate seven hundred bucks a month? Welp…$700 a month is 2 percent of retirement savings. Somehow I think I can afford it.

Somehow, I think I can afford to have a life.


Still Life with a Skull. Philippe de Champaigne. Public domain.
Proto-composition paper: shamelessly ripped off the Web.

37 thoughts on “Life Is Short. Eternity Is Long.”

  1. I know the feeling. My beloved big brother who died 3 weeks ago( just a few weeks short of his 31st bday) was always telling me to be just responsible enough and not to live my life so at the end I would think back and say, “What a waste.” It really makes me rethink all the things I’ve been doing as far as working. Luckily, I work at a good company that told me to take as much unpaid time as I needed. And big bro was kind enough to leave a decent amount of money for my 3 remaining siblings and myself. Enough to pay off his remaining bills, my student loans, wedding costs(that he was supposed to be a part of), and have plenty left over. As much as I would be willing to have life as it was a month ago and not have another dime or gift from him, I now have to go on and live the lessons he always tried to teach me. So splurge a little. You can’t take it with you.

    • @ Allie: I’m so sorry about your brother…and so young! These wrenching changes and losses often make us rethink our own lives, a painful way to gain insight. But there it is. I hope your wedding goes well, and brings you to a long and happy marriage.

  2. Your tales of part-time teaching make me even MORE frugal–so I won’t have to do it. Teaching comp is miserable, more so when you’re underpaid.

    There MUST be ways to do it more efficiently: one instructor in my department (with a ne’er do well husband and a few kids) teaches FIVE sections of 101, PLUS an overload, PLUS a few U of Phoenix courses, PLUS works in the restaurant she and husband own. And her students are OK–or just as OK as anyone else’s.

    No telling about lifespan. My grandfather lived to be 99. His son–my father–died 8 years after, at 80, just 3 days before he was scheduled for minor surgery (his death had nothing to do with the surgery issue).

    • @ frugalscholar: LOL! We’re scared frugal!

      Yes, my old best friend used to do that: an interminable number of comp courses and an overload. Ugh! You know, she was never, ever without a stack of papers to plow through. We’d go over to her place for dinner, and while we waited for the food to cook and afterward while we watched the kids & the dogs play, she’d be sitting with a pile of stoont papers on her lap. I don’t know how she could bear it.

      Tina teaches for the UofPhoenix. That’s relatively easy: they courses are canned, so you don’t have to spend unpaid hours writing or updating a syllabus. Course prep is basically done for you. The courses are even more mickeymouse than the typical lower-division course in a public college. They train you to score the writing papers and give you canned responses or encourage you to write your own. Their adjunct “instructors” are really more like TAs, relieved of much of the work we would normally consider part of a faculty member’s job.

      I guess your longevity just depends on whose genes you inherited and how hard you’ve been rode…

  3. INNTW… If Not Now Then When?
    Grab the bull by the balls, and let ‘er rip with the Copy Editor’s Desk. You’re much too experienced to be beating proper comp into young numskulls, especially when you’ve got a fallback.
    Just a thought …

    • LOL! Truth to tell, I enjoy the young people. They bring a breath of fresh air into one’s life, and often a dose of wackiness. But in terms of “career,” such as it is… You know, I spent most of my time at GDU teaching upper-division and graduate students, and in the final five years a large part of my job entailed mentoring graduate students.

      Now that I’m in my dotage, having to go back to facing down 19-year-olds who don’t want to be in your class, don’t understand why they should be there, are convinced you’re wasting their time, and are by and large right about that…jeez. It really is frustrating!

  4. Brava! You can do this. And I would bet that your health will improve as soon as you lose the comp courses. Work stress is terribly hard on one’s health.

    • Writing is notoriously underpaid. The revelation, however, lies in the amazing discovery that corporate executives, unlike publishing management and academic administrators, imagine professionals should be paid like professionals. That’s quite a revelation, and it holds out the possibility that one could make a living wage at this bidness.

  5. Woo hoo!! Sometimes it takes us a while to talk ourselves into change. (Boy, can I relate to that!) Perhaps you’ll even get the point where you may feel like you an take a vacation (gasp!) while you’re still mobile and fairly nimble, eh?

    • What would be exceptionally lovely would be just to earn enough so I could live like an ordinary nun, rather than like an anchorite. A little bit of budgetary breathing room would be nice. Very nice.

  6. What a wonderful post today. Do it immediately.

    I can almost guarantee you will have a fantastic new lease on life.

  7. Focusing on The Copyeditor’s Desk sounds like a much more enjoyable (and potentially profitable) route! I hope it will prove to be a wise decision. It sounds like it will make for a better quality of life, for sure.

    Your posts about budgeting on Social Security scare the hell out of me, I have to admit. 3 of my 4 grandparents lived past 90 (2 are still living), so that heritage and other factors mean my spot on the actuarial chart is placed well out. Fear is definitely a motivating factor of getting my retirement savings under control. At some point in later life, though — particularly if one has saved as diligently as you have — it must be time to start spending.

    • There’s no way in hell you can sustain a middle-class lifestyle on Social Security. Unless living in a trailer park appeals to you, IMHO if it looks like that’s your fate, your best strategy may be to seek some kind of alternative lifestyle…maybe something involving a “tiny house” or getting as much off the grid as possible. The idea of developing a not-too-physically strenuous craft that can generate a second income appeals quite a lot, too.

  8. I think it may be just a matter of perspective. You currently have $550,000 invested in a variety of businesses that are generating a 6 – 8% annual return. If you were to take $18,000 from your IRA next year (a little over 3%) to “invest” in your own business (i.e. pay yourself to grow The Copyeditor’s Desk), all you would need to make is an additional $150 each month (10% of the monthly $1,500 you’re taking from your IRA) to beat your current 6 – 8 % IRA return even with the tax implications.
    I know it may seems counterintuitive that taking money from your IRA under these circumstances actually makes good financial sense, but the math is correct. Investing in yourself makes a lot of sense at this point in your life.

    • @ Pat: That’s a very interesting insight!

      Just spent the better part of the day studying exactly how I’m going to pull this off. Because the S-corp owes me three grand and because it is generating an income now, it looks like enough cash is already sitting there to keep me out of the classroom for at least a semester and very probably for an entire academic year. If I can build a market for the little company during that time, I’ll have a good shot at making this work.

  9. I just wrote something about toxic environments and how money tends to happen when you try to rid yourself from them. I’m sure there is some of that going on here, given how toxic departments can be to adjunct workers. It’s definitely worth the risk to leave the “sure thing” comp teaching. You won’t have that drive, you won’t have the aggravation and the stress. Consider what your own time and health are worth as you’re making your calculations — not just your gas mileage.

    • @ Budget Glamorous: Well, many academic departments are toxic to their full-time faculty and staff as well as to their slaves and peons. That is true.

      Interestingly, this department is not. The chair is the best administrator I’ve ever come across, and weirdly, his faculty behave as though they were happy. The other day I was chatting with a full-timer who’d been there for 15 years and who spent a half hour rhapsodizing about how much she loves her job. Can you imagine?

      It’s really not the department or the faculty or even the feckless job. It’s the pointlessness and fraudulence of the whole freshman composition project itself. If you haven’t taught students to write a coherent paragraph and a more or less competent paper by the time they’re 19 or 20 years old, you have failed. And you never are going to teach them. By freshman year, there’s really no point in wasting their time, your time, and the taxpayer dollars on this fruitless endeavor.

  10. I’ve been interested in the comments. One reason I am frugal is so I can opt out of doing things I don’t want to do: example=summer teaching.

    This post started out as “I want Heath dishes” and ended with “I hate teaching comp.” Would quitting the teaching job so cheer you that–if necessary–you would feel ok about NOT buying the dishes?

    As the child of a self-employed father, I must say that success is far from guaranteed. BUT a 4% drawdown plus social security plus your $150/mo blog income should be enough to get by.

    Your biz may or may not thrive. If you were less stressed/unhappy, you may have less desire for stuff. If your biz thrives, of course, you can have whatever your income will allow.

    • @ frugal scholar: Yes, it was a little labyrinthine as blog posts go, wasn’t it?

      And how true it is that a large portion of small businesses fail to fly.

      The Copyeditor’s Desk has existed about five years, and it’s been incorporated for almost three. This year, now that we’ve discovered who our real clientele is and how much they’ll pay, it has started to do surprisingly well. After a day of number crunching, I can see that if it doesn’t fly, not much harm will be done. There’s enough in the business to support me for about a year even if we never earn another penny, and if push comes to shove, I can always go back to the classroom. Or better yet, become a greeter at the Walmart. 😉

  11. I agree w/others: Implement your plan. Do it now.
    I had a similar “scared to quit” situation: I should have stopped the apartment management job long before I did. The last year was particularly stressful re job plus school plus MSN Money gig.
    I had enough to live on. I had savings. But I was afraid. Looking back, I want to shake myself.
    Don’t look back. Look forward. Quit the job and economize in other ways if you must. Keep us posted.

    • @ Donna Freedman: I remember that post. And as a matter of fact, it was pretty inspiring…set a similar train of thought in motion on this end. Guess you’ll never know if something is gonna work unless you try it.

  12. It has been quite a while since I last checked in here, and what an interesting post this was. I am so interested to read about what others about my age are doing as they begin to see options to full-time, 9 to 5 work.

    If you’re already collecting SS, I say, go for it. Life is too short to do something you so obviously detest.

    Since my layoff in 2009, I’ve survived on freelance/contract and part-time work and yes, unemployment benefits which are due to run out very soon. You’d be surprised how little it takes to live on month to month, especially if you’ve paid off your mortgage. It only takes a couple of good clients who give you regular work.

    Again, I say, GO FOR IT.

    • @ fern–

      Well, I’ve been out of work since 2009, too (what is that: a watershed year???), and I do know what it costs to live in my (mercifully paid-off) home. Considering that I live in a large city where taxes are high (when they’re all taken together) and it’s impossible to get around without a car, I probably live on about as little as one can without being truly, certifiably deprived. And I’m mighty tired of it!

      The wager is that I can come up with as much as or even more cash flow through the business, the easy-to-run online magazine writing course, and a tiny drawdown from retirement savings than I’ve been earning with I job I really don’t enjoy. We’ll see…hope it works!

  13. I am happy to jump on the bandwagon here. You DESERVE to be happy! You are talented enough and obviously have enough drive to bet on yourself.

    With this new found thought of freedom can’t you just either look for another teaching job or DEMAND a raise? Think about it if they say no or if you don’t find anything you are in the exact same position (betting on yourself).

    • @ Evan: Hmmm…. We’ll have to get you over here to help market this deserving business of ours!!

      LOL! There are no raises in adjunct teaching. Universities and college districts set a flat rate that they’ll pay per course. There’s no seniority, no raises for extra merit, no nothin’. It’s purely take it or leave it. And when you reach a certain age, you’re not going to get another job. Hell, i couldn’t even get hired to drive the tourist train at the city zoo! 😀

  14. I don’t know if this is viable, but ever since April left GRS, I’ve been thinking that JD needs a new editor. Not sure how much that pays or anything, but it might be more fun than freshman comp. Might be worth shooting an email about.

  15. This is a little off topic, but I wondered how on earth you are earning such high returns on your investments? There must be considerable risk involved? My returns are pathetic.
    And yes, I say try this new direction out. You will still be tied to the college by working summers etc., so if it doesn’t work, maybe you can again pick up the comp classes if you need to? With that to fall back on, the risk manageable.

    • Hi, Barb–

      It’s not consistent, and of course some months I lose my shirt. But overall the average has been in that vicinity.

      My financial managers have the money in a widely diverse spectrum of investments, mostly blue-chips, mutual funds, and corporate bonds. The big IRA holds 63% stocks, 25% mutual funds (Fidelity Balanced, John Hancock Floating Rate Inc. A, and T. Rowe Price Int’l Emerging Market Bond), and 7% in corporate bonds, plus a little money in cash.

      There’s a brokerage account for non-tax-deferred money; 7% of that is in stocks (Siemens), 32% is in a mutual fund (Vanguard Short-Term Investment Grade), and 61% in cash. This is their most conservative — I think they figure it’s the chunk of dough I’ll go to first, after I cash out the whole life insurance policy.

      And then there’s a Roth IRA; 26% of that is in stocks (Banco Stantander Brasil S. A.), 50% in mutual funds (Templeton Global Bond Advisor Class, and 24% is in cash.

      The cash figures in all of these shift around as the guys buy and sell securities.

      It’s Stellar Capital Management here in Phoenix (602-778-0307); you know who I am, Barb — tell ’em I sent you. As for the rest of you, ask to talk to John Reimer — he knows who Funny about Money is. 😉

  16. An eye-opening post. I’m trying to spend on the present & spend on self, while saving for retirement. It’s a tough balance! I alternate between thoughts of seizing the day and bag-lady syndrome worries. There is a way to balance both, right?

  17. In your next post you mention quitting teaching all together,a nd you know, I defintiely agree that you shoudl drop that comp course. It sounds like the bane of your existence and life is just too freaking short for such a thing! I might do the magazine writing course for another semester and see if you’re not a TON happier with just that course. But any decision you make, you’ve got a ton of online dudes supporting you!

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