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A Life Story

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Once upon a midnight dreary

Call me Ishmael.

How can I possibly write anything of interest to you each month when all the best openings have already been used elsewhere? Although I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer to that question, it does inspire an anecdote from my house to share with yours.

Writing a StoryEver since my kids’ semi-tender, semi-youth we’ve had the following ongoing conversation that amuses all of us:

Dad: “What’s the first line to the novel Moby Dick?”

Daughter: “Call me Ishmael.”

Dad: “Ok, Ishmael, what’s the first line to the novel Moby Dick?”

I offer you this gem (of dubious value) for your own amusement… with one caveat. A surprising number of people haven’t a clue to the first line of Moby Dick, and it puts a real damper on the conversation when they sit there in embarrassed silence feeling they have failed a test and have been found wanting in some completely non-understood value criteria. Well, I’ve been there and done that one too – and I’ve been on both sides of the issue to boot.

And this (of course) reminds me of the old James Thurber short story, Bateman Comes Home, which you can find on page 21 of the March 28, 1936 New Yorker Magazine (which is probably just sitting undisturbed on your reading room’s end table just waiting to be rediscovered this very moment, yes?).  Or perhaps not. You can also find it in The Thurber Carnival, which is still in print and even in Kindle format if you’re wondering what to do with some of these lazy hot days of summer.

In Bateman Comes Home, Thurber delivers a scathing sendup of the southern, dirt-poor, salacious, earthy novels of the time. He fills a couple of pages with disconnected drivel including such passages as:

“Old Nate Birge sat on the rusted wreck of an ancient sewing machine, in front of Hell Fire, which was what his shack was known as among the neighbors and to the police. He was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead…”

He ends these folksy ramblings with the sentence “If you go on long enough, it turns into a novel.”

Kids Playing in WaterHa! Exactly! That funny, one-sentence dagger into the heart of intellectual and literary vanity has stuck in my mind for going on 50-plus years now. It’s also revealed some other interesting life truths as age has brought me a different perspective. I’ve discovered — for me and my house at least — that if I string together enough silly Dad jokes, dance lessons, school days, weekday suppers, Sunday night “pizza & a movie” occasions, weddings and funerals, for long enough… it turns into a life.

I have found investing to be similar. What has worked in my life are the basics: get up and go to work, avoid debt to pay for “wants,” live within my means (easier said than done), save today and invest for tomorrow. If you do that for long enough… it can turn into wealth.

It’s hard to get people excited about that as a route to financial freedom, and I hardly expect anyone to write a novel using these habits as a plot outline.

But it still makes a pretty good story.

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