Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

The Wealthy Magpie

"All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: that I am nobody but myself". ~Ralph Ellison

I asked the Super Shuttle driver yesterday at dawn where he lived in our metroplex.
He said Coppell, a well-to-do suburb just north of the airport. I asked him how he liked it there. He said, "It's not the small town it used to be when I moved there". Then he went on to explain how lots of people with lots of money had moved into Coppell. "They think they're better than me, because they have a lot of money. But you know what? They're not better than me".

I like to pride myself on being about as free of material vanity as anyone. I live a comfortable life, but it's always been important to me not to be owned by my things. I've never bought as much house as I could afford. My last three cars have been a huge old used Ford Crown Vic, well aged before I got it, a peppy Geo Metro, which restored my faith in self-acceptance and three cylinder engines, and an old Cadillac my Oklahoma cousin Brett (a gem of a man) found for me for 3,000 dollars in Dallas and drove across the desert to Los Angeles. It was great driving that boat down the Santa Monica Freeway. Luxury cars would part like the Red Sea, convinced that anyone willing to drive that monster was oblivious to worries such as potential fender benders. It was like having a "get out of traffic, free" pass. It's too bad I kept bumpimg up against poles in those parking garages designed for
Yugos. Even though gas was an expense, my overall cost of operation was a song, and
I laughed every day, so to speak.

Nothing reminds me that all my self-congratulation about "living gently instead of with extravagance" is brought up short by the reality of shopping for a new car. First, let me say that I am not criticizing anyone for buying anything in particular. I tend politically to the left, but the "feel guilty about buying something you can afford" notions that some well-meaning would-be lefties have are just not among my viewpoints. Folks who can afford something can buy something. I'm not into "guilt by possession of something nice" so much. Instead, I like to think I cultivate the virtue of living simply and somewhat unattached to things like luxury.

But then the comparison sets in. As I've written before in this journal, one of my very favorite cars was my Geo Metro. It was a modest, tiny thing, but it was paid for in full, and I drove it many a mile. I might drive it yet today, except my folks offered me a well-used Crown Vic with fewer miles on it. I thought I'd need a big car for clients to ride in during my new phase of practice (this really has not come to be the case very often).

Though I loved my under powered econo box, I notice that I think "what would people think" about the car I choose. Left to my own devices, I would spend less money on a car, and just get the least expensive sedan I can find with auto and air conditioning. I love to drive, but I don't love the "automobile" experience of driving. I love the "point A to point B" and "look at the fields of flowers" aspects of driving. But I find that I worry that if I get a modest car, it's possible that people will think less of me. If I showed up at the office in a Kia Rio, for example, would people imagine I'm a cheapskate? They might be right.

I'm not saying that this means I will necessarily change my behavior because of these thoughts. I'll still buy what I want, big or small, different or indifferent.
Life is just too short to be controlled by these fears. I admit, though, that I have these fears, and I wish I did not compare myself to other people, ever. I'll revise that last sentence a bit. I'd like to learn from other people how to act more graciously, do more kindnesses and live life with poetry and science. But I don't want to cringe inside because I'm overweight and they're not, or because I live in a tract home in a dreaded subdivision instead of a Victorian frame colonial, or because my musical prowess stops at the kazoo and a half-fluence with the autoharp, while everyone else is down at the local guitar center meeting Eric Clapton and John McLaughlin and playing Fenders.

I always find somehwat repulsive people who imagine that they are much better than other people. I'll never forget that woman we knew slightly who married a C minus list film actor. She had had a life prior to settling down into her work setting which could charitably be described as difficult and non-elite. She seemed like a quite good egg, working for a trade magazine, very down to earth. But she managed to fail to invite a lot of people who had been her friend to her wedding, because she feared that her friends were not "up to" her second-rate-movie-starring fiance's set of friends. She absorbed her snobbery through the pores. I remember similarly a dear woman who is a friend of mine, who fretted that her friends were not up to her fiance's "people's" standards. Her fiance's folks were not "elite", just well to do but minor real estate money. But she was so worried, in a show of snobbery. The wedding went fine, though, and she was gracious, so it all worked out.

I love Los Angeles. It's one more place that's home to me. But it is a place where some cliques of folks essentially declare themselves better than other people on the basis of utterly superficial things. In Dallas, the superficial is not forgotten, either, of course. But at least in Dallas the "can do" mentality, that sense of building businesses through hard work and genius, is what tends to get worshipped. In Los Angeles, the worship among a few isolated pockets of very rich people can be things you can get from a bottle or under the knife. Of course, in both cities, the key is to ignore those folks.

I remember once someone from Kansas City said to me at a function "I've heard Dallas is a town in which it's impossible to break into society". I could tell by this comment she had been exposed to folks from our local rich areas, the Park Cities, which indeed have an "old money" social arrangement. But I told this woman quite simply that although there are two such cliques in this area--one in Highland Park and another in north Dallas, in which the "movers and shakers" exclude folks vigorously, the rest of us just live in the suburbs and completely ignore them. As I type this, though, I sense that while my words are right, they have a tone of defensiveness, and I have an emotion or two of "I hate it that some folks think they are better than other folks".

I find that sometimes I am bad about applying "snobbish criteria" to say that snobbish people are no better than they should be, as the old expression goes. The town in which my parents live and in which I finished high school is a fine place. But a few kids I went to high school with somehow imagined that they were an elite kind of royalty. It was an odd thing, in hindsight--in a small town of 15,000 in a generally not wealthy state, kids imagined that their social standing was so high they could look down on other kids sometimes. But I noticed that sometimes I looked down on those kids not just because they were not egalitarian--but also because their claims to royalty were ill-founded. The kids in question might be from "new money" or "not real money" or from other folks whose blood is not blue even in the best circumstances. But I think it was (and is) immoral for me to even apply the criterion. When you buy into class distinction at all, aren't you committing the sin you hate in others? I personally think anyone who lives within their means and is nice to people is as rich as anyone. So why do I err and stray?

One thing that has changed in my profession since I became a lawyer is the deference which law firms pay to the "elite" nature of one's law school. This is not a factor for me, because after five years or so, when one has learned the trade, it all fades away. But kids on the internet message boards have to worry that if they don't get into a "top" law school, they ought not go.

I wish I could report that those kids are entirely wrong, and that all law schools have the same hiring record. But the reality is that if one graduates from Harvard Law one is pretty much "made" for a first job, regardless of grades, while at George Washington one will have good chances but not perfect chances and at Roger Williams law school people with weaker grades have to really struggle a bit in some years to find that first position. In the "boom" times, the median income for Cal graduates (Boalt Hall) law school topped 100,000 dollars, while the median starting income for Texas Wesleyan graduates ran something like 35,000 to 40,000.

I think that a fair point can be made that there are differences in the quality (in terms of grades, LSAT, ribbons for "good works") of the applicant pool in elite law schools versus run of the mill law schools, which gives rise to some justification for differences in hiring. But the reality is that there is not that much difference between one JD granting institution and another. I have litigated against Harvard lawyers and against lawyers from Thomas M. Cooley law school, Michigan's lightly ranked commuter university, and let me assure the reader that the judge really doesn't care what school you're from, and the lawyering is not really that different. There really isn't much difference between lawyers based on school attended, but there is a great deal based on how smart and hard working the individual lawyer might be.

Yet an entire cottage industry of snobbery has arisen as to law school admissions.
Fervent kids wail that they don't get into the right school, so their lives must completely be changed, and they can't achieve their dreams. The reality, of course, is that most of us in life graduate from the State U. or from lesser law schools, and the vast (vast, vast) majority of those who do earn a pleasant living. It takes a few years to really "get going" in practice, but it can be done. You have the same challenges wherever in the food chain you fall--because even if you graduate from Harvard and get a prestige job, you're going to have to prove yourself before you're ever going to make partner. You'll just make a lot more money while you do the proving.

It's insidious, though, isn't it--this comparison? My shuttle driver told me his only child, a daughter, is studying forensics in Texas Tech, going pre-med. Instantly, in the back of my mind, I thought "that means she couldn't get into
University of Texas or Texas A & M". In Texas, as in many large states, we have a pecking order of college admissions, and UT and A & M are now very hard to get into. Tech is a great school in the high plains town of Lubbock, birthplace of Buddy Holly, but it tends to be the place people go who just miss having the SATs and GPAs for the "name schools", but whose grades entitle them to an admission somewhat elevated from the "lowest common denominator" schools.

But you know, in life, it almost doesn't matter. I have never found that the fact that my law degree came from a commuter school in Arkansas has ever kept me from working on the coolest cases, or doing sophisticated legal issues. Among my friend and acquaintances, I know many people in a world of discplines who went to State U type schools, or obscure "third tier" private colleges, and had the greatest careers. Yet some people need to sort the Vanderbilt graduates from the Texas State University graduates. I hope I may be forgiven for any such mental sorting I do.

In passing, I'll mention that I am perpetually puzzled that academia, which should be the least snobbish, actually encourages and promotes these distinctions, as a marketing tool. They may sign letters condemning the US News rankings, but nobody is more rank-conscious than supposedly "liberal" and "egaitarian" institutions of thought. By almost any measure I am a liberal myself, but I can't stand snobbish liberals (for that matter, I can't stand smug and snobbish conservatives, but I expect more of those whose politics are like mine).

But I think that it's good sometimes to confess sins. Let me confess that I
am snobbish in each of the following ways:
1. I am not as open minded as I ought to be about other peoples' reading choices.
2. I am not as open minded as I ought to be about other peoples' musical and
artistic tastes.

These two items upset me, because I devote a lot of my attention to railing against just this kind of snobbery. It's like being an anti-smoking crusader who takes a puff in a back alley twice a week.

3. I sometimes am intimidated by people who are much more successful materially than I am
4. I sometimes am intimidated by people who are much more attractive than I am,
in particular women of a certain beauty and grace
5. I often am imtimidated by people who are, in my estimation, much more cool than I am--people who write better or sing better or play a mean guitar or can paint like dreams. In particular, I am often intimidated by people who seem to me to "have it all"--great artistic talent, genius, drop-dead gorgeous looks, and a certain "I can't say what" charisma that translates in my mind into great magnetism attracting other people to them.

It's not that I'm a quivering mass of jelly. I am a mass, but I don't quiver.
I am day to day perhaps one of the more contented people you'll meet. It's not that my life lacks challenges. If we met, and I told you all my secrets and shortcomings, I'm sure you'd think I have my requisite set. I like to think I journal a lot of those secrets and shortcomings. But I notice that although I am happy in virtually every way, I'm impressed when someone drives a new Jag instead of my old, dear departed Crown Vic, or when someone vacations in Europe when I am more apt to vacation domestically. I am particularly impressed by those men who "have it all"--brilliant writers, with a gorgeous significant other, personal beauty, and a life in which they make media appearances and travel.

I do the the story of the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem "Richard Corey", a charming aphorism about the man who "glittered when he walked" who nonetheless went home and put a bullet through his head. I can think readily of one many I know and like who "had it all"--a top job in his profession, a wife of beauty and grace he'd attained after years of somewhat old fashioned pursuit, and a life that was both bohemian and "perfect". He left his wife, because he was so unhappy with himself.
The thing that makes life work is not a certain kind of success. Let me tell you as a man who knows a variety of folks that while money is nice, it is not a solve-all for life's problems. Even the "do gooder" sometimes looks up with weariness from sainthood and says "my God, I'm unfulfilled".

But knowing all these things doesn't make me instantly reform. I try to be the least comparison motivated people, but I still make mental notes I find sinful.
I'm not saying it's wrong to have tastes or differentiations in life. I am certainly not saying it's wrong to succeed or strive. I dislike that kind of tear-down outlook a few folks have that any success must be a gyp or conspiracy.

But I must tell you I have known the corrosion of jealousy, and it's distracted me from my five year mission. I remember an old post-punk song with a Star Trek theme. It went "We are on a five year mission--and Spock's gone off without permission".
That's the way I feel. When corrosive inferiority or acidic involuntary snobbery creeps in, it's as though my logic has departed.

Damned rock. You push it up the hill. It rolls back down the hill right over you.
But the thing the gods hid from you is that if you just stop pushing up the hill, and start hiking the lowland meadow, you can have the most amazing life. You see, the gods really didn't mind that you showed a little hubris. They just want you to realize that in addition to the mountain tops, there are some great grassland prairies at sea level.

I think sometimes the magpie is the wealthiest bird of all. He finds a piece of aluminum-colored Wrigley's chewing gum wrapper, and is convinced that if he puts that shiny thing in his nest, he will have a luxury home. It's such a fatuous thing, to live with so much and feel so non-rich.

I tend to dislike "love yourself" statements, because I wonder if one should not be out loving animals on death row in pound shelters, or people who need houses built or problems solved. But I do see that this corrosive comparison is so detrimental to me doing as much as I should in so many aspects of my life. I am not a prisoner of my things or of the longing to have the non-material things others have. My mid-life has very little of the "want, need, get" caveman instinct that others seem to face, although I suppose I am not free of my share of longings and daydreams.

It's a curious thing,though. I do pretty darn well at being non-materialist and content with being the weird person I am. I don't worry about so many things that so many people obsess about. But even so, I have a cancer growing in me, and it's called Envy, and I'm damn well going to chemo it out of my life. If that means I have to even love myself, so be it. I'll give that a try. Maybe it's like methadone for my corrosive side.

I love to revel in going down my own path. But if I am going to revel, I've got to stop looking at roads not taken. Who cares if I'm driving a Yugo? The scenery is still awfully nice.

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