Thursday, March 12, 2015


Most of my retired and retiring mid-life friends and family believe that being able to buy a house is no big deal, that traveling to Italy, Bali, or ski trips to Colorado are no big thing, that, in fact, it's just part of what "people" do. It's as "natural" as breathing or brushing your teeth.

The self is big to them. They are all about "taking care of oneself," of "self cherishment" as the Dalai Lama says, of saying no to anything that smacks of having to compromise or be inconvenienced. They believe that they deserve -- or are owed -- comfort, beauty, space (lots of space), nice new cars (that don't break down), the best clothes, and they devote themselves to cultivating taste in wine, food, bed-and-breakfasts, vacation hot spots, and youth-promoting therapies.

They are all about organic, yoga, natural, paying others to do the craftsman's work on their homes, and fine living. They only ride the best bikes and only ride them for them for exercise. (I share that extravagance.) They live with nature surrounding them, sweeping landscapes of mountains, sky, exotic flora.

They don't, as they say, have much skin in the game of making a living. They don't have to risk much or try very hard. "Rich men's sons, like blue horses, seldom win races," comes to mind out of a novel I read decades ago.

They have forgotten what it feels like to live paycheck to paycheck.

They don't suffer much either, if you take away all the neurosis, all the mother and father issues where they didn't get enough coddling or pampering.

They don't like to hear about income inequality or the struggles that many of my students have to simply attend class after work, taking care of family, getting across town on a bike or bus.

But their sons and daughters are feeling some of the pinch of finding comfort in the widening gaps between haves and have nots. The me me system is coming home to roost. 

They are smart, smarter than I am, in the ways of stocks, hedge funds, real estate, and how to beat taxes with loopholes and exemptions. They know how to make the system work for them rather than against them. They set the system up to serve them. They pull the levers and money pours out.

They are practical, healthy, beautiful, well-adjusted people, the kind of people you like and want to be around. Police smile politely at them and they can shop anywhere and not be followed around the store or pulled over because they look suspicious. They live the life I wish I could live, and part me envies them, hates them, wants to trade places with them.

Who wouldn't?

You'd have to be a fool to always be juggling the papers, reports, reviews, letters, meetings, and thankless tedium of teaching rather than live the rich life of the epicure, the gourmand, the connoisseur, the genial wit who sees everything as an irony because he or she is not obliged to take part in grubbing for basic needs.

They aren't hedonists. They don't choke on excess. They are far too refined for that.

More they just set themselves apart as vaguely "better" than others, even in their political views, their generous giving to Public Television and GreenPeace and the Nature Conservancy.

They bother me because they are me, the me I have run away from. I don't want that complacent smugness. I want to do something. But everywhere I turn I see them in their new Subarus and Priuses, their Patagonia fleece, their white toothed smiles.

They do not go beyond the pale. They are civilized. They take more than they give. They are under my skin.

Of course, they, like all of us, are hypocrites. They talk a good line about environment but drive and consume with abandon. Cutting back or working to change things is for other people. They are human and they are afraid deep down. They know more than they let on or admit. In actions they care only enough to get what they want and then the hell with everyone else.

Do not trust them and do not depend on them. They will hurt you if they feel threatened. Hurt you bad.

So just watch them for now, the lucky ones, the innocent ones, the ones who have never been hungry, the ones who have never given their last bit of food to a friend they loved as much as themselves.

I am stuck with them until I can let them go. They are my teachers of what it is like to be white, middle class to affluent, educated, articulate, and blind to the pile of humanity on top of which we sit.

Is there freedom to be found in facing that fact? Does one become whole when he or she becomes as much his or her brother or sister's keeper, as he or she is the keeper of one's own well being? 

I guess it's there to find out and there's no time like the present.

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