Monday, March 27, 2006

What God Thinks of Money

"It is generally agreed, that few men are made better by affluence or exaltation."
~Samuel Johnson

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."
~Dorothy Parker

As a lot of you know, I live in a community where a lot of rich people make their home. Marin, once the bastion of hot-tubs, hippies, free love, and pot, has become the bastion of Land Rovers, the noveau riche, love of money, and $200-a-bottle-pinots.

Now, I don’t have anything against rich people, per se. A number of them are actually very good at what they do, which, as far as I can tell… is being rich. No, but seriously. If you look beyond the number of dollars these people have in their bank accounts, which is more than the number of used test strips that would be found if I did a massive sweep-up of the house (now… that’s easily several million), some of these folks are actually pretty damn nice people. Some of them just don’t talk to me, so I have no idea whether they’re nice or not. And some, well, I know in their hearts they have the potential not to be obnoxious. But sometimes….

When I was growing up, my family didn’t have tons of money. No private schools or Ivy Leagues for this girl! But neither were we in dire poverty. My parents were both college professors. We had a big (and old, and in continual need of repair) house. We had more money than many people, but less than quite a few, in our working-class, farm town of Sycamore, Illinois ("where life offers more"). A lot of my friends had parents who worked in factories, as waitresses or mechanics, and on farms. Many of these kids said to me, “You have that mansion. Don’t say you’re not rich. Of course you are!”

Truth be told, the house had been a money pit from when my parents bought it back in the late 1960s, for a steal. No one wanted it. The house, built in the 1860s, had been until late owned by hippie Satanists who took the Rolling Stones’ exhortation to “Paint it Black” literally. There were The Shining-esque black-and-white tiles throughout many of the rooms, and surely REDRUM had been painted on the mirrors at some point. And even when my parents had fixed the worst of the problems, an old house from the 1800s continually has things go wrong. Plumbing never works quite properly, since the house wasn’t designed for indoor plumbing. The list goes on.

The point is, we weren’t rich. Not in any traditional sense, or at least not like people around here. (I realize of course that everyone reading this is rich compared to 90% of the world.) But still, I was taught from a very young age never to talk publicly about money. In my house, you'd sooner talk publicly about your bodily functions than about money. Until recently, I believed everyone had been taught the same.

I have taken this advice to heart all my life. When my book sold and people kept asking how much it had sold for (because, don’t ya know, we authors all make a million bucks right out of the gate), I told exactly three people: my husband, our accountant, and my shrink. Talking about money is plain rude.

However, some rich folks around here have apparently never heard that news. Once in awhile I will hear, and be embroiled in, the most obnoxious conversations. These are people who are well aware that there’s a class difference between us. So... Are these conversations rude, or merely clueless?

Here’s an example. A woman told me how sorry she felt for the man who supplemented his university professor income by working summers at an exclusive resort. “Of course, I know why he works there. It’s so his children can be members,” she said. “You know that’s tens of thousands of dollars, and they’d never be able to afford it otherwise.” (She, of course, belongs; she'd been discussing all the details of the resort and all the activities her children were involved in there for the last forty minutes.) I had to fight from breaking up into laughter because if we had a spare ten thousand dollars lying around, we wouldn't be joining no resort. We'd be shipping checks to Visa.

Someone else once explained to me how her husband and she had had “quite a little laugh” over the fact that she’d written a $10,000 check to a friend and “forgot” to tell her husband. “But he never even noticed!” she said. “Not until we did the books at the end of the month.”

Oh. My. God. If I had written a $10,000 check to a friend and “forgot” to tell Phil—I guarantee you he would notice. And that would NOT want to be a conversation you'd like to sit in on. (I did realize the morning after speaking to this woman that what I truly needed to do was put in an application to be this person’s newest, bestest friend.)

Is it just me? Or is this obnoxious? Maybe I'm too sensitive, or jealous. I know from talking to trusted people that my reactions to others are more about ME than about THEM. Ms. Resort or Ms. Big Bank Account can't make me feel two feet tall if I don't let them. But...

My daughter brought me a precious goody the other day as we were driving in the car. “Mom,” she said, as we were behind a particularly ostentatious Land Rover, a car that I find obnoxious since there are no grassy savannahs or elephants, tigers and antelope in Marin County. “Are Land Rovers vulgar?”

I almost pulled the car over and kissed her. Yes, dah-ling. I said. Yes, they are, QUITE.

That was almost as good as the one where she rushed into the office telling me she had found a great way to get everything shiny in the kitchen. Hey,I thought. She’s finally getting the whole clean-up-after-yourself thing! “What did you use, honey?”

“Bacon grease!”

I sometimes wonder what is the difference between the rude, uncouth rich and the graceful rich, who never mention money, who invite us over to share what they have and enjoy coming over here to share what WE have, even though it isn't nearly what they do. People who don’t make a big fuss over their possessions or drive big, gas-guzzling cars. People who don't discuss what's in their bank account or, more to the point, what so effortlessly flows out of it, except to generously write checks to charities and scholarship funds... and mark them "Anonymous."

My old theory was, the “new” rich were rude and the “old” rich were polite. But many of the most graceful rich people I know are self-made millionaires. So, that’s not it. I wonder. What is it about a plentitude of money that makes one talk about it so much? Is this not-talking-about-money a Midwest thing? Maybe I should lighten up when others discuss what’s in their wallets and bank accounts? Should scientists study the brain of the graceful rich and try to genetically engineer the other type out of existence? Does bacon grease make the Land Rover run better?

But dah-ling, I must be going. This discussion has become so very… vulgar.