The Opportunity Costs of Obsession Are Great

“Discretion is the better part of valor,” Paul Miller commented on the wall of on July 16th, 2009, my 25th birthday.  Rob and I had built a 24-foot long, 16-foot wide, two story, biodiesel-powered paddle wheel-propelled boat at the cost of $10,000 and I had announced to the Times Union and Albany Metroland and Don Weeks’ WGY radio show that I would be launching from Alive At Five on our 5th attempt to float from Albany to Manhattan. But though we worked through the night at Nils Backlund’s riverfront property in New Baltimore to repair damage and stop the engine from burning $70 rubber transmission belts and not to rattle apart and spew French fry-smelling blue-grey smoke and bolts throughout the cabin whenever it ran, the damn boat was not functional and, reluctantly, we had to delay our launch (and by reluctantly I mean “in a fit of rage”).

I didn’t know what the expression “discretion is the better part of valor” meant in 2009. But I felt the jist of it, a month later, when the boat flipped over after a spring tide on the banks of Campbell Island, across from Henry Hudson Park, and was a total loss. At that point I really appreciated that she had capsized and broken apart near Albany and not, say, in Newburgh 100 miles from home with me and Rob on board.

Fast forward to 2024 and I am 39 and I have been saying (declaring, crying, gesticulating, emphasizing) that I would be traveling out the Erie Canal, down the Allegheny River, to Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois and down the Mississippi on my second attempt to build and float my own boat to New Orleans. I’ve been saying it and trying it for 18 years at this point. It was on the paper I wrote on July 15th, 2013 as a list of “Things To Accomplish During My Thirties” (I figured if I started the trip before I turned 40, it could kind of count.)

I’ve prided myself on my Obsessive Compulsive Advantage—my ability to work on the same, often tedious, project, for years on end, meeting dead ends and moving backward and approaching the problem again and getting a little further, over and again, until I succeed years later. All it costs me is everything else I could be doing.

The economic (as in field of science) term for “everything else you could be doing” is “opportunity cost.” We live a linear existence and we only get to do one thing at a time. So if you spend an hour watching TV, you do it at the cost of an hour jogging, or calling your mom, or answering emails, etc. If you have $100 to spend, you can spend it on a night out, but that comes at the opportunity cost of paying your cell phone bill, or paying down your credit card, or buying a new outfit.

It is one thing to deploy Obsessive Compulsive Advantage when the opportunity costs are light. For me, they usually have been light. I’ve usually either been working a non-career job or at a career job that treated me the way I treat a photocopier or a pair of sneakers…something that gets used until it is physically crippled or non-functional and then discarded. Often I have been single so there is little to give up as opportunity cost in terms of physical intimacy. (Perhaps I’ve even caused such a state for myself by declaring, at the beginning of relationships with women I really care about, “I just have to tell you I have this project that will require me to take a year away to accomplish it and I must do it and nothing can get in the way of that.”)

Now in 2024, I’ve simultaneously had setbacks that have to receive the priority of my attention, and I have increased the opportunity costs of throwing all of my plans over the last five years to the wind.

At the beginning of the year, in January, on the very day that I felt I had achieved a stride in life, having woken up early with my cats purring and gotten to work early and therefor missed gridlocked traffic, and gotten lots of things done at work, and gotten home and went to the Y and ran, and then practiced singing and then exercised and went to sleep with my cats, I woke up in the night to a big crash and found that a pine tree had fallen onto my 2023 Jeep, my pergola attached to my garage, a canopy storage shed and the 1959 Lyman wooden runabout I had planned to use for my Mississippi boat trip. The Jeep took 102 days to be fixed, the pergola and canopy were destroyed, and I am still fixing my boat even though I had hoped to start going out the Erie Canal the second week of June.

Also my roof is leaking in about 25 places and I absolutely need to replace it before I can leave on a six month adventure and the new roof  will cost $28,000. Before I can fix the roof I have to take down and repair two chimneys on my house for $7,600. I just spent $3,400 to cut down a tree that was hanging at a 45 degree angle over my neighbor’s house and driveway, and to fix some crumbling mortar on my house and make some repairs on my eaves. That is $40,000 in unplanned expenses. And I still have about $5,000 worth of work to do on the boat to get it ready for the kind of long research expedition I want to make, and I haven’t saved any money for a six month journey if I have to quit my job, or gotten a roommate to sublet my apartment and take care of my cats—who poop in my bathroom sink if I am gone for 36 hours, even though they can get outside, and when I come home they meow so loudly that I feel bad for leaving them for a day, a night, and a day.

And then, too, the opportunity costs of leaving for six months have grown. My cats company makes me sad to lose. I now have a house that I’ve made into a productive and fun space, almost like an extension of my mind and mood…a space that serves as a functional machine. I now have a routine where I eat well, bathe, go to work, exercise, write, and socialize everyday. My family is healthy, my animals love me. For the first time I feel both intellectually stimulated and also appreciated and respected and well compensated at my job. It’s a lot to give up because I said I was going to build a boat and sail down the Mississippi River before I turned 40, when I was 21, and repeated for 19 years.

“Good experiences are a result of wisdom, which is gained from bad experiences,” Benjamin Franklin said. Two lessons I have abstracted (in the sense of “drawn out, as a pattern, from against a background”) over two decades of adulthood are: A) you’re not a failure until you give up. You just haven’t succeeded yet. [It reminds me of Thomas Edison saying he found 999 ways that a lightbulb won’t work before he invented it]; and, more importantly 2) Nobody Cares about your projects and goals.

Nobody Cares is usually a negative thing to say. It makes it sound like nobody cares “about you.” But people do care about you. What they don’t particularly care about is what you are doing.

Example. Two guys get together who were friends in high school who haven’t seen each other for three or four years. They meet up at a bar at 7 o’clock on a Wednesday. One says to the other, “so what are you doing these days for work?” The second guy is kind of embarrassed and says diminutively, more to the beer coaster than to his old friend,  “I’m actually working at a gas station right now…” and the first guy, not even listening, says “Cool, remember that time when Stephanie McCallister wore that skirt to the Spring Fling?” And the second guy perks up, forgetting to ask what the first guy does for a living, and says “Oh my God I forgot about Stephanie McCallister! Remember that time you had a party and she came? And Jake Appleton was so drunk!” People choose to share their time with other people because they like their company, not because they are impressed by their jobs or projects. Honestly, I barely know what any of my friends do for living. Except my friends who are servers and bartenders because I see them do it for several hours every day.

All that is a preamble to announce that, given the setbacks and expenses I have had so far this year, and the fact that nobody really cares (in a good way) I am re-calibrating my goals for this year. My objective now is to go out the Erie Canal because next year is the 200 year anniversary of the canal’s completion and I have been working on a book about it and want to actually travel the canal to experience its scale etc. And my other goals are to get a boat working so I can go out on the river on sunny days. And to have a Half New Years’ Eve Party and to turn 40 and to hang out with my friend from Mexico who is bringing people up the Hudson in September, and to visit Dan in Baton Rouge in October and see Jess in July and to enjoy my family at the holidays and to pay off as much of my loan from the $40,000 of house repairs I need to make this year as possible and to keep my job. And to develop my attic into a functional bar and put a bathroom up there. And to finish a draft of this book I was writing for National Novel Writing Month last November called “Good News, An Asteroid Is Going To Hit The Earth” which is like the opposite of the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up because I’m sick of all the post-apocalyptic drivel that’s out there now and my book has a happy ending because I’m an optimist because I had 17 years of life before cell phones and social media existed.

And then by this time next year I’ll have a working boat or two and not have to make huge repairs on my house and I’ll be in a position to do the trip with less opportunity cost, because I have amended my plan instead of ramming through going-down-the-Mississippi-this-year because I said I would.

That’s the Obsessive Compulsive Advantage of my twenties, mixed with the discretion I’ve cultivated in my 30s.

Here is a picture of all the books on the Erie Canal I’ve read since 2016, plus some other books on New York State history, geology and politics that will probably come in handy. Next year is the 200 year anniversary of the canal’s construction so it will be a good time to put out a book. (I’ve also spent a lot of time in the Legislative Library at the New York State Capitol doing statutory research, and by going out the canal this year I can go to all of the little museums and get more primary sources.)

And here is a picture of the books on the Ohio and Wikipedia articles on the Erie, Allegheny and Ohio, and motors and boat topics which I have read this year:

And the Wikipedia articles I’ve printed but not yet read, which my cats love to sleep on, and which I will have time to read preparatory to my Ohio and Mississippi trip now that I have an extra year:

And lastly, I am happy to report that I wrote this blog post from my writing desk, rather than from a barstool, because delaying my expedition frees up about 15-40 hours a week in planning (more now that I am getting close to what would be the launch date) so I don’t have to cram socializing at bars into my writing schedule after getting home and cleaning and doing boat work… I can kind of spread things out and spend my evenings leisurely writing, petting Jack and Bobby, listening to jazz, laying the the grass, looking at stars, and so on, and so forth…because I’ve freed up time, which gives me opportunity…opportunity to do whatever I want.