I haven’t slept well in days. Zeca and I both have bad colds, Miguel seems to have lost the ability to cover himself at night and, on Saturday night, I had those 7 tiny pomegranate martinis and 2 beers. That said, I don’t have high hopes for wit and coherence here. Lower your expectations right now. Saturday night was the Lake Country School auction. I’ve gone to this event for years and always have a fabulous time. I mill about bidding on the silent auction items. I stop by the Marketplace and buy some Lake Country apparel and paraphernalia. I chat, joke and laugh with people I barely know (which is no easy task for an introvert). I feel all bubbly and happy and a part of something bigger than myself. I even start to feel like I am just like everyone else there, like we all have so much in common. Then, the live auction begins.
The big ticket item at the auction this year was a trip for six to a private home in Telluride, Colorado. The trip included travel by private jet, gourmet meals (including one provided by a top chef), private ski lessons, skiing or other outdoor activities and massages. The estimated value of the trip was $14,500 and it was donated by a family at the school. The bidding began at around $3,000 (I can’t remember exactly because of the aforementioned martinis). My friends and I stood in awe as the people around us kept raising their hands and the bidding…$5,000, $10,000, $15,000 – sold for $17,000. Then, five minutes later the family that donated the trip decided to offer another to the second highest bidder, the guy who bid $16,500. In moments, the school had raised $33,500. I could never offer such a trip (let alone, two) nor could I ever afford to bid on such a trip. It is fun to be around that kind of money but it also made me a bit sick to my stomach. Granted, it could have been the pomegranate martinis and all the free pork but I really think it was the wealth.
On the outside, I am a middle class, educated professional but, inside, I am working class just like my parents. My mother grew up poor – didn’t have an indoor bathroom poor, lost everything in a flood poor, three to a bed poor. She graduated from high school and became a typesetter for a printing company. My father owned a small bar in our working class neighborhood. As a kid, I remember a generalized feeling of stress around issues of work, insurance and money but my basic needs were always met. I remember being told that I could not have certain things because we did not have the money for them but those were extra things, not needed things. I never knew that my parents could barely make ends meet. I didn’t know that my mother hocked her jewelry one year to buy me Christmas presents. I didn’t know that she had to work overtime to pay for my guitar lessons. Even though my parents shielded me from some of the hard truths, somehow, that working class experience still shaped the person I have become. Even though I probably make more than my parents made combined, I worry more about money than just about anything else. I worry that we don’t have enough money, that we won’t have enough tomorrow, that we can’t do the things we need to do for our children. Sometimes, for an added twist (and because I am so good at this), I worry that we have too much, that we do too much for our children, that they are spoiled and will grow up feeling entitled. I alternate between an overwhelming sense of privilege and associated guilt and a desperate sense that tomorrow is the day when everything will fall to pieces and I will have to make my children’s clothes out of paper bags and duct tape.
So, it’s surreal for me to stand next to a person who can bid $17,000 for a vacation, seemingly without much thought. I have to force myself to focus on the school. I can’t allow my mind to wander or my working and middle class sensibilities begin to plot an uprising. It’s just too much…too much money, too much comfort, too much ease – just too much. I have to remind myself that the money is for this very special school. I have to think about the values of Lake Country and that those values have nothing to do with wealth and privilege. I have to think about the school’s focus on independent thought and community service. I have to think about my son’s love of his school and I have to reflect on all that it has given him. Then, I can applaud the winning bidders. I can laugh and drink and play Twister – my middle class self all tangled up with the rich.
My sisters and I grew up in decidedly working-class conditions; my parents never made a lot of money. My older sister and I have done quite well, economically, thanks to public schools and scholarships to state universities. We both make way more than our parents ever did. But my sister, while giving her kids more than we had growing up, has made pains to ensure that they understand the concepts of work and value and sacrifice. To the point that I've revised her will so that half of her estate will go to a charity and not to her children. Without making any comment on the accuracy of Matthew 19:24, having money is not mutually exclusive with having values. Nor is money radioactive, such that one gets ill just by spending too much time near it.
Because of the way I grew up and because of the work I do, I can't help but think of all of the other things $17,000 could buy. This is about the money and not about the people. I don't begrudge anyone anything. I am simply saying, wow - this feels weird and I can't help but think of what that amount of money could do for someone who has nothing.