Tuesday, January 24, 2006

the burden of choice

"I have good news and bad news," the doctor says. "The good news is, you have enough money for the rest of your life."

"And the bad news, Doc?"

"You only have 5 minutes left."

I suppose I heard that somewhere, or maybe I just made it up. The hypothetical patient has one advantage: He doesn't have to decide much. He doesn't have to think about what to do next, how soon to retire, whether they can afford to send the kids to a private college. He doesn't even have to decide what kind of estate planning he's going to do.

But given the choice, most of us would hold on to those decisions. We want to make them, not leave them to someone else (or to outside forces). We want to make things happen, not just watch things happen (or, as the old joke says, "wonder what happened").

That said, there's a part of me that takes some comfort in not having to decide everything; part of me feels a little nostalgia for the days when more decisions were made for me. When I started at my first job, I was given assignments, told what to do. Come to think of it, when I started at my "new" job, now over 3 years ago, I was given assignments too. Take this class; fix this bug (here's how you do it); help these guys build that product. For most of my life, I've followed a path that seemed natural.

Jenny asked me the other day about my career. I told her that I decided maybe a half-dozen times to make a change of some kind. In 1981 or 1982 I told them I didn't want to be a manager. Later I was recruited by (not assigned to) a former boss. Around 1990 I asked to follow a former boss to her new group. In 1993 I initiated a transfer to Japan. There were a couple more, but otherwise my going-on-30 years have been just following along what came naturally.

A few months ago, I was recruited to a "quality team". I said I thought I might qualify for the "mediocre" team, but nobody was forming one of those -- at least they weren't calling it that. But I signed up for it - we are trying to improve the quality of our software products. Especially in this job, I have to decide more what I think ought to be done, and what in particular I want to do. And there is the question of what to do next (this is a 12-month stint).

And at home, I sometimes miss the days when life was simpler. I'd look at the paper and see an ad for a European vacation. "Someday I might be able to afford that," I thought. And that was it! I didn't have to think about it any more. I didn't have to trade it off against what else we might use that money for, because "that money" simply wasn't there -- I didn't have to worry about it.

Here's a dream/nightmare: what if I woke up one morning and decided, or could decide, that I didn't want to go to the office any more? What if the choice wasn't "rent or groceries" -- nor "tuna or chicken"? What if it was, "retire now, or pay estate taxes"?

There is a part of me that would love to leave real estate to our children. We would both love to have the kids near us, and if we can help 'em with housing, that increases the likelihood that they'll be able to live in the bay area when they have families of their own.

But there's another part of me that cries, "Folly! Why burden them with excessive choice? Besides, even if they do live around here (just 15 minutes away, say), they'll have their own lives." When they want their parents' time is now, not after they graduate from college. Well, they'll want us then, too, but not in the same way. It is probably a better idea to give the lovely Carol a new kitchen.

As I think about it, there are many things I want to do, but I don't have time. Some of them require a lot of money; many don't. Besides home improvement projects (some of which require big bucks), there are volunteer opportunities I'd like to take. I want to meet with the brothers in my church family for coffee or lunch, listen to them, help them through their struggles. As you know, I sometimes miss being on the receiving end of this sort of thing; but now it's my turn to give more. What if everything up to our 40s was just warmups? Well, I can't use that excuse any more.

Our church is holding a "Men's Summit" in a couple of months - it's a weekend retreat. I have never gone, because life has been too busy. If I didn't have to go to the office....

Part 3 of my "Why Not Python" series is late getting to the linuxjournal web editor.

Another article -- on how a thinking Christian deals with books like The Nurture Assumption or The Mind and the Brain or The Blank Slate -- is stagnating.

Nearby there is a home for kids aging out of foster care -- they could use some electrical work, maybe some computer work.

Our kids require a lot of shuttling around.

I think I've just about talked myself into it. I'll let you know.

And if you have any advice or insights for me, please leave a comment. Or email me if you have my address.

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