Each age in my life has had a few surprises. When I reached middle age, for instance, a mini-me suddenly appeared in my brain. The little guy was a stalker who watched me closely, especially when I was doing adult things.
I would be attending a cocktail party for members of the University’s English Department, for instance, the women in evening dresses, the men in coats and ties — all very grown-up, you know. I’d be standing there, a cocktail in my hand listening to an intellectual blowhard go on about postmodern something-or-other, when I would sense the presence of 13-year-old Kent in my head. “Damn,” I would think, “What are you doing here? I thought I had left you behind a long time ago.”
But there he was, my adolescent juvie self from the old days in Compton, CA, mocking my pretentiousness, dissing my airs: “What’s that in your hand, some kind of fancy-schmancy drink? Bud Light no longer good enough for you? You think you’re so hot. You’re not, Mr. Professor. You can’t keep up. Besides, you look like a walking and talking cliche, with your eggshell-blue shirt, striped tie, tweedy jacket, and leather elbow patches.” (He got me there. I was proud of my tweedy jacket with leather elbow patches.)
That bratty second self was awakening my insecurities, turning me into a kid among adults. I was suddenly not really adult enough or good enough to stand around shooting the breeze with hyper-educated academics. I remember one guy who told a joke at one of these get-togethers that started with “So Socrates and Chagall walk into a bar….” I joined in the laughter at the punchline, but I didn’t get it.
I’m reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story in which a guy becomes suddenly aware of his skeleton. “My god,” he thinks, “I’m walking around with a skeleton inside me.” And I would think, “My god, there’s a smart-ass kid stalking me from within.”
But old age has produced the biggest surprise when I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that I was rich. I had never been rich before. When I was younger, I wanted a Porsche 911, the best-looking car ever made. I also wanted a BMW opposed-twin motorcycle. But I could afford neither. (I drove an old Dodge van and rode a Honda scooter.)
I could see myself in the driver’s seat of that Porsche, cradled in soft leather, flicking that short-throw gear shift into third, feeling the wheels bite into the asphalt and push me back into the seat. That unrealized Porsche left a small ache in my heart.
Now in my old age, I drive a 16-year-old Prius (with 206,000 miles on it) and it suits me to a T. I can afford a Porsche 911 now, but I don’t want one. That’s being rich, isn’t it? To buy whatever you want.
I think some of my old lectures on the Greek stoic philosopher, Epictetus, must have finally made sense in my old age and become a part of my mindset. “Wealth consists not in having great possessions,” Epictetus wrote, “but in having few wants.” I don’t suppose it’s a coincidence that Epictetus’s message resembles the messages of two other great philosophers, the Buddha and Jesus. When three great teachers agree, one ought to take heed.
I never was much of a clotheshorse, but now with Epictetus as my guide, I buy my clothing at Goodwill and at a used-clothing place called Value Village. And I dress better than I ever have in my life. In middle age, I could never in good conscience buy an expensive cashmere sweater for myself, but now at Value Village I sometimes come across an almost brand new cashmere sweater for ten or fifteen bucks. That’s all I wear now: cashmere sweaters. I’m rich. Macy’s and Nordstrom, go suck eggs.
Our house is full of furniture. I have a fondness for the stuff that’s been around for a long while because it’s been around for a long while, but I’m particularly fond of the furniture I made myself. I‘ll stop every now and then and look at a maple display cabinet I made 40 years ago and remember how hard I worked to join the top and sides with hand-cut dovetails. My furniture is now more meaningful than it’s ever been and it leaves me satisfied, not wanting more or anything different.
I now buy anything I want. Isn’t that a good definition of being rich?
There’s no telling, of course, how all of this will turn out. All the good luck in my life could turn on me when it’s endgame time. But if my luck holds, here’s what’s going to happen: One fine day, with Marie and Bob the dog looking on with concern, the sun shining brightly outside, I will leave this plane of existence and land softly on the other side, wherever that is.
Sure, that’s the ticket. I’ll finally be sitting in the catbird seat. I deserve that. My wife Marie and Bob the dog can vouch for me. I dry the dishes and take out the trash without fail, and I tell Bob that he’s a good boy at least five times a day, and I take him for walks in the dark, rainy Oregon evenings.Published in