What should we do with our $3 million?

My husband, it turns out, inherited some money. We're talking about just moving to Mexico and drinking.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 3, 2008 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Here's a question I hope you'll address ...

I'm 27. I have a B.A. in English from a decent state university, and I got my master's abroad (Cambridge -- I guess everybody knows that the Latin American studies option is a soft course). I'm not lazy or dumb. In the long term, I'd like to write or do something else creative. But when I went back home after getting my master's, a really strange, movie-ish thing happened. I ran into my high school boyfriend, and we decided to get married almost right away (like, within three days). It was pure love. And two years later, it's still pure love. We're as happy as any couple.

Only after we were engaged did my love explain to me that he had inherited $3 million. (Think medical malpractice to do with his dead dad, not old money.) It wasn't something I could have anticipated or thought out, but now it's our lives.

I've had a very weird time trying to explain to friends, without really saying what's involved, that we do not have to work. And I'm also having a weird time with what I should do with myself. We keep talking about moving to Mexico, but I feel like if we do, we'll just become alcoholics. Meanwhile we watch a lot of amazing Netflix movies, drink beer and go to Obama events.

If there was anything you could do with your life, what would you do?

We're not bad, but we're a little lost.

Lots of love,


Dear A,

You could do good things. You could start a company. Your company could publish books or a journal. You could publish certain writers you met in undergrad or grad school and whose work you thought deserved better recognition. You could publish yourself. You could combine your interest in Latin America, your idealism and your interest in things literary and form a carefully thought-out list, or series, on a topic of contemporary import that is close to your heart. Like, say, something having to do with what you were studying at Cambridge? Say, certain overlooked questions crucial to Latin American policy or Latin American literature, so that if, say, Barack Obama does get to be president, you will have some thought-out positions and names of neglected Latin American writers to offer him on the matter? That would be fun, no?

All of these options are quite within your reach.

Why, then, does sudden money so naturally occasion thoughts of departure to Mexico? We long for a way out, don't we? But why do we assume that the way out is to cultivate a sudden and unaccustomed indolence? Is luxury our only model of serenity? If so, we have been led astray. (I had a feeling we had been led astray!) The way out often is only a way deeper in. Conversely, a deeper way in is often the only way out. And meanwhile and forever, the fervent pursuit of leisure is a sure route only to continuing anxiety. Why is that?

How should I know? I didn't make these things up. I just observe them.

Form a business that does not have high start-up costs. Make a community around it. Offer talented people the modest support and encouragement they need to do great things. There are people writing who do not even know they are great writers. There are people so bewildered by the concentrated machinations of conglomerate publishing that they have no idea what it costs to actually manufacture and distribute a book (not that much, actually). And there are people with convergent interests who need to get together in conferences and talk, preferably in uplifting settings. Hence the need for getaways and conferences.

Say, for instance, you had a strong interest in new kinds of urban design. Say you thought that the future of humanity depends on reinventing new, dense urban aggregations that don't pollute and where one can walk around. Say you wanted to get many of the experts about this, and many of the good architects, together in one place where after a few days they would stop fighting and have some ideas together. Say you wanted to look at the new urbanism in Latin America, and perhaps become engaged in that. This is the sort of thing that having extra money is good for. It wouldn't have to cost you a cent -- you could actually make money on it. But having the capital would allow you to embark on it with confidence. Having the confidence of money allows you to make things happen.

I have many ideas. They don't involve going off to Mexico. They involve saying, Wow, we really could do this, couldn't we! Why not?

So there are many things to do with $3 million besides going to Mexico to become alcoholics -- not that going to Mexico to become an alcoholic isn't cool in its way. Don't get me wrong. But in the end it is so inconvenient. It results in an inconvenient sadness no amount of money can fix.

So I wish you well, and if you would like further ideas, I would be happy to assist you.

(By the way, through the miracle of Google Books, look what my search on Cambridge, "soft course" disgorged: "The Case of the Educated Unemployed," an address by William Henry Rawle to the Harvard class of 1885, in the Harvard College Library bequest of James Russell Lowell, in which he mentions, almost in passing, "A telling argument against an extension of the elective system was that a student would be enabled to choose a 'soft course,' pleasant at the time, but bringing to most of its votaries lasting regret in after-life.")

Money issues? See pp. 44, 47, 81 and 223.

"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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