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coupling

Dollars and Nonsense

I can blow money on silly purchases. As long as I’m just blowing my own money.

(Illustration by Kim Rosen)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Patrick McVay
March 16, 2008

The early 40s can be a time of great upheaval in a man's life, as he becomes susceptible to emotional turbulence that can seriously impair his judgment. The typical example finds a middle-aged man on the brink of making an ill-conceived purchase that could resonate for years, plunging his marriage into a dark period that can only be remedied by winning the lottery. And even though he is aware of this outcome, he'll buy that regulation-size pool table anyway and take up every inch of the newly finished family room with it.

My wife and I have devised a way of decreasing the likelihood that this kind of malady will wreck our relationship. By contributing most of our personal incomes to a joint fund, we can both keep a small share for ourselves. Any irrational purchase is thus confined to the periphery and can only do so much damage. Having my own money helps when I suddenly come down with an acute case of spring fever in December, rendering me incapable of tearing myself away from the computer screen until I have converted my hard-earned dollars into Red Sox tickets.

But even with this protective scheme in place, I sometimes need guidance from a voice that can cut through the murk with unreserved frankness, alerting me when I'm about to make a financial decision that defies basic logic. Case in point: Not long ago, I had a sudden, mysterious urge to blow a chunk of money on a very large toy. Perhaps I sensed myself rapidly aging and was trying to turn back the clock. Maybe it was that my dog had just died, putting an end to an era in my life. Or maybe I just smelled spring in the air. All I know is that I felt compelled to buy a motor scooter.

I recognized the signs of the affliction and immediately brought my wife up to date on my thinking. It helps to know early if this kind of thing is going to trigger divorce proceedings. "I'm going to get a scooter," I announced offhandedly. I didn't want to give the impression that I was asking permission, but I was prepared to reconsider if she burst out laughing.

She didn't. There was barely a whiff of surprise in her voice, let alone what I expected – utter disbelief. I was suspicious. Maybe she was pondering a similar dumb purchase. But that idea was patently absurd: The most outlandish thing my wife buys is ice cream with actual chunks of fruit in it. Unlike me, she has no favorite Scotch or urge to bang on drums.

I felt oddly disappointed. Didn't she care enough to command me not to buy the motorbike? Didn't she worry that her young son might soon have a maimed or dead father? It was true that I had been commuting 15 miles to work on a bicycle since the early 1990s, so maybe she was thinking, incorrectly, that a scooter couldn't be much more dangerous. So I called her bluff, moving forward with my plan by going to dealerships and checking out models on craigslist, eventually settling on one that I actually wanted to buy. I e-mailed my wife to give her one last chance to tell me what a self-absorbed ass I was being, but she was unflappable. "My dad had a similar 42-year-old crisis and bought a moped," she replied. "No one ever used it."

So it wasn't that she didn't care. She just didn't believe I was really going to ride the contraption, so why not humor me a bit until I got wise and sold it off to some other knucklehead?

She drove me to Belmont, then got out of the car to look at the vehicle that was about to take up space in her garage. It was in perfect condition, with a mere 550 miles that a physician in his 50s had put on it – further proof that mature adults in our chilly climate are hard pressed to ride a thing like that. I slung a leg over the seat and hopped on, and from the raised eyebrows and peculiar smile on my wife's face, I'm sure that I looked ridiculous. But that was OK. It was my own money, and if I wanted to look ridiculous, that was my business.

(And, anyway, she said it was OK.)

Patrick McVay lives in Boston. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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