Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A History and The Nature of Choice

Growing up, my parents had one car for most of my life. My Dad rode the bus to work or walked if my mother needed the car. She was homebound on days he took the car. This was at the same time most high school students had their own cars. My father was a lawyer. He taught law school for a few years, worked for the State and then went into private practice. He and my mom were married with three children before they purchased their first house at nearly forty years of age.

We took three family vacations my whole life. Two of them were to Chicago. For the third, my dad left the choice up to us kids. He gave us a certain mile range to choose from. Needless to say, Hawaii, the Bahamas and Washington, DC did not fit the criteria. He ended up choosing, since we couldn’t make a decision based on his parameters. We went to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I remember having a good time.

In high school, we all had summer or after school jobs. We were given lunch money and our school clothes and a few extra items were bought for us each year. Everything else we paid for. I remember being in awe of a friend who was handed money to take us both to the movies. It was tough to decide between entertainment and wardrobe. I have to admit, I loved sitting home in my cool clothes and going out in old ones.

Dad encouraged me to study harder. I didn’t really care about academics at the time, but he said, “You want to have options. If when you graduate from high school you only get into one school, you have no choice. You always want to have has many options as possible to choose from.”

When I finally did graduate, I got into more than one school. I got to make a choice. Dad helped: If I wished to go to a non-Catholic school, I paid for it myself. If I chose a Catholic School that fell into a certain range of tuition, he would pay for it. While I had been creating options for myself, he had been creating options for both of us. He put himself in a position to affect my decision and also to increase my educational opportunities. I learned later this was his plan all along. His main priority was to send us all to Catholic College. Any extra money we had, he chose to put away for this purpose. Having the finances allowed him to set parameters again. I chose the Catholic route. I have never regretted that decision.

Needless to say, we were not given a car in high school or college. I was not even allowed to buy my first car until I could afford both the payment and the insurance. I was finally in a financial position to make this choice after college graduation. Again, I took my dad’s advice: “A new car always becomes an old car. Eventually it is just a payment; get the cheapest one you can find.” I did: A green Toyota Tercel. I have to admit I loved everything about that car, even the fake leather seats that cracked in the Texas sun.

After less than a year at my first job out of college, I made another choice. I wanted to be a teacher. I moved home and enrolled in a local land grant college to get certified. I worked part time jobs until my semester of student teaching when I was forced to live off of my student loans. My parents offered me their home, but no financial help. My car payment and insurance and all other expenses were left to me. I even paid my own phone bills.

After certification, I had another choice. I was offered a job at the public middle school where I had done my student teaching. I was also offered a job at the local Catholic high school, my alma mater. The public school job paid more. I loved the junior high and my co-workers. But I had gone to Catholic schools my whole life. I felt the need to give back. I took the lower paying job.

I was married at age twenty-five the summer after my first year of teaching. (You can read about that choice in another post.) My husband had made some choices of his own. He had studied the Classics in undergraduate and went on to study Literature at the graduate level. A year into his studies, he decided teaching literature was probably not the best means to support the large family he hoped to have some day. He took the LSAT and was accepted into Vanderbilt Law School two weeks before I met him.

My husband had two years of law school left after we were married. I found a job at another Catholic High School in Nashville, and we lived on my very meager salary. We chose an apartment away from campus because it was cheaper. We only had the Tercel, so I drove him to school early and he stayed there until I was finished working.

When he graduated, we had another choice to make. The salary for lawyers on the coasts was much higher than in the mid-west. He went to undergraduate at Colgate in New York and had the potential for a much greater client base in New York, Boston or DC. I wanted to be close to my mother who had become a widow three months before my wedding. We chose the mid-west. We would make the same decision again if given the chance.

We moved into a wonderful apartment not too far from the Plaza. It was one of those old brick buildings with large white columns and balconies. It was charming and in a not so safe part of town, but we loved it. I continued to drive him to and from work daily.

We put off home ownership until two months before the birth of our first child. We had paid off my post-graduate school loans and saved much of my salary after we were both working. It was not the home of many of the lawyers with whom he worked. It was not even the house the banks said we could afford. It was the payment we decided we could afford. We still had his law school loans and were a one income family. I loved that house. I loved the neighbors and the neighborhood. I loved that it was in Missouri. So, we only had one bathroom and two and half closets. It was worth it.

We finally bought a second car when our second child turned one. Prior to that, I drove Chris to work or stayed at home on days I did not wish to get out with a baby on cold mornings. It was the first and last used car I bought. It was much cheaper than a new car, but I still find the security of a five year one hundred thousand mile warranty worth the extra monthly expense. It blew up on me one hot summer day on a trip to my grandparent’s house. We traded it in before it was even paid off.

We got the dreaded mini van just as number three arrived. I need to say at this point in our lives, we did not have cable, internet or even a TV made in the current decade. When number three was just one, we decided to adopt a child. All extra income went to this endeavor. It took a lot longer than we expected, almost two years from beginning to end. But it was worth it. I love that little girl, even when she cuts her own hair and says, “NO!”

I said I loved our first house, and I did. But with six people and one bathroom it got a bit complicated. When I found the boys going behind the girl, it was time to make another choice. We had hoped to wait until all the law school loans were paid off, but we reviewed finances to decide if it was possible to do it a year early. We decided to put the house on the market and see what happened.

The goal was to move into a bigger nicer house in our current area. Like the parameters my dad had set for the family vacation, we were shooting for Hawaii. We could find the same size house in perfect condition OR a bit bigger dump for a mere two hundred thousand more than our current house. To get bigger AND nicer put us at about two hundred over our budget. We had to adjust. We decided to go more urban. We found a beautiful house near the art museum and decided we would buy it if ours sold. For once in my life, I decided to do a little research. I found on a national registry that a vile child predator would be living three doors away. That obviously ruined it for that house and actually did it for more urban life in general. Then our own house sold.

We needed to move. Not to the suburbs, please not to the suburbs. “Find us a house!” My husband commanded. “There is nothing we can afford.” “Then change your criteria.” “I don’t want to.” “The market is dropping; we will never get this price for our house again. If you want to move anytime soon, it needs to be now. Find a house.”

So, I changed my criteria. I looked across the State Line. I looked in the suburbs. I found a house. We bought it. It was a wonderful house with plenty of bathrooms, but I had wanted to live in the City. I didn’t want to be in the suburbs. But you adjust. I was able to move, I actually had several options in the suburbs. It just was not exactly what I had hoped.

I have come to love our new location. My kids are happy and my life is much easier. It was a trade off. Suburban life has its perks as does urban life. You can’t have the best of both worlds unless you are a millionaire. And I am not. Even being a millionaire requires choices. Not every decision is based on finances, though many are.

As I read through this post, it seems to be the history of choices made by a pretty fortunate gal. And, in fact, it is. I think of the choice made by my fourth child’s biological parents. They chose to abandon her near a military facility in China where she would be found. What criteria did they have to change? What were their options? What were the consequences of not abandoning her? What were the consequences of leaving her near that gate? And what of our newest child who we have yet to meet? He will be from Ethiopia where many children are given up because family members can not provide for them. Will his parents have chosen to part with their child in order to insure he does not die of starvation? What kind of choice is that?

The nature of choice is that we have to work within the parameters. We would all choose the mansion in the perfect location, the Mercedes, the Harvard education were it not for parameters. Would anyone choose to abandon or give up a child without parameters? Would one know it all girl make the best choice for her college education?

Sometimes we set the parameters, sometimes others set them for us. Sometimes they are set by the forces of nature or a communist government. As my dad told me, the goal is always to have as many options as possible from which to choose. Whenever we can, we create our own options. When we can’t, we make the best choice we can.

And what exactly does this mean about the nature of choice? Somewhere across the ocean in Ethiopia and China, the parameters were set. Someone was forced to choose between two terrible options. And those choices are my children. What in the world can that possibly mean?

1 comment:

  1. You didn’t get a car or big allowance in high school? Hmm. Trust me, these things are overrated…