Poor In the Head
February 4, 2013 § 9 Comments
I grew up in Enosburg, Vermont, which, as some of you may know, is far enough north that an Enosburgian might rightly enough consider someone from Cabot a flatlander. We lived in a two-room cabin: No running water, no electricity, no plumbing. The cabin sat a good quarter-mile or maybe more off the dirt road. This was before the Subaru era and, true to type, my folks drove a VW beetle. So in winter, we skied in. That’s how I learned to ski: Not as sport, but as transportation. I’m glad for it now, but I can’t say I was particularly grateful for it at the time.
My father wrote poetry and edited poetry anthologies and probably did some other odd jobs that don’t come to mind; for a while my mother milked cows on a farm up the road. I played in the dirt. There was very little money. We might have even been poor, although I certainly wasn’t making such distinctions at the time.
Then my father took a job down in Montpelier and we moved. This was beginning of my family’s ascent into the middle class, and when I say “middle class,” I mean the real middle class, not this bullshit idea that someone making a quarter million bucks a year is somehow middle class. At least not in Vermont, they ain’t.
Now there was a bit more money, although again, it wasn’t something I was thinking about or perhaps even aware of.
I mention all this not so much to tell my tale (although, if you’re at all interested, you can read more about this history in SAVED), but to briefly consider how my current relationship to money was forged by my childhood.
The truth is I am grateful for having grown up without a lot of money. This is not to say I did not grow up privileged, because of course I did. I grew up with the skin color of the majority race of my nation and I grew up speaking the majority language of my country. I was raised in a family that provided me the freedom to explore my boundaries. All of these things have likely provided opportunities for me that might not have been there for me otherwise. Indeed, in a strange way, I consider the fact that I did not grow up with much money to also be a sort of privilege; I suspect that such an upbringing impressed upon me that money is only one way of meeting my family’s needs.
A while back, when the so-called fiscal cliff was dominating the drivel that passes for news, I heard a segment on NPR in which they were interviewing folks of varying income levels, trying to determine what constitutes “middle class.” One of the interviewees, a pleasant sounding fellow from (if memory serves) California admitted to pulling down $450,000 annually. Did he think of himself as middle class, the interviewer asked? Why, most certainly, he said, and furthermore, he often felt as if he didn’t have nearly enough money, in large part because no matter where he looked, there were people with more. So much more. He chuckled as he said this, as if even he knew it was ridiculous. But still, he said it.
For a just a moment, I am ashamed to admit, I felt a flash of anger. 450 large per year and you want more? What a selfish, ungrateful asshat.
But then I realized something: This man wasn’t wealthy. Not even close. He was poor, and he was poor in the most self-destructive, tragic way possible. He was poor in his head. And once I realized that, I didn’t feel anger anymore. I felt sympathy.