Hidden Wealth?


It’s a hobby of mine, to look for taken-for-granted suggestions of wealth and privilege that are rarely acknowledged as such.  I’m teaching a class about digital literacies (and of course, digital distractions) so had clicked through to this review essay about books on distraction and came across this about the author of one of the books:

At any rate, Bailey turned down a couple of job offers after college to spend a year researching and blogging about productivity.

via Don’t Distract Me – The New York Times.

I’ve been trying to find out more about him but can find only that he’s a “business school graduate” and that mention is every article — he turned down “lucrative” job offers.

From his on-line writing, it’s clear that he had a good computer, the capacity to choose to work some 20 hour weeks (as part of his productivity experiments), flexibility to commit to exercise and meditation, space to work, and good food.

I think of how few people could possibly imagine turning down (let alone getting) “a couple of job offers” to live comfortably and to pursue an interest like this – – that he has since turned in a book and career and publicity tour.

Ambitious? For sure.

But why not simply mention why he was able to take a year off to position himself in these ways?

Sherlock and Social Class

I’ve been catching up on the BBC’s Sherlock series, and without giving anything away, there was a point in last night’s binge-streaming where, even though it was clear from the Netflix menu that there were many more episodes, it appeared as if All Was Lost for our hero.  Without saying too much for those who have not yet indulged, gravity seemed very obviously to have done Sherlock in for good.

And of course there were more episodes.  That’s not a spoiler.   So what happened?

The writers are teasing the audience by playing out various possible scenarios.  SPOILER:  I’ll try to be vague, but do jump down the the Education and Class point below if you’re concerned.

In one scenario, a huge team of co-conspirators had been waiting in the wings to seamlessly put everything in place and then disappear from view.

One possible scenario included a huge cushion, invisible to almost everyone, in place at the key moment and then whisked out of sight.

So before this gets too obvious, let me get to my point.

The Education and Class part:

Earlier in the evening, I’d been at a dinner with a group of great people.  One young woman was describing with some awe  a project at work.  The details were amazing.  The scope of the work was impressive.  The location where this will all be is perfect.  The rare opportunity for this young woman to stretch her professional wings was clear.  The whole venture was obviously a pretty big adventure.    So I finally asked: “Who’s the client”.

My young acquaintance  described a woman who had recently moved here from the East Coast, who has some success in an arts field and is now opening an innovative small  business in that field.

“She’s just going for it”,  my young friend said, and around the table there were thoughtful nods, and not a few quiet sighs (including mine) as we thought about how we never did just “go for it”.

The young woman’s husband honored the quiet for a few seconds and then said,

“And of course there’s her husband who works for [major local tech company].

And the young woman added “yeah, and he’s no older than me”.

So social class (or at least the possession of wealth) operates a whole lot like that teaser in the Sherlock episode I watched last night.  It seemed so clear that Sherlock was all alone out there.  There was no other obvious explanation.   And it’s only by digging a bit more deeply, asking questions, refusing to believe that what actually happens there before our eyes, lifting the curtain in the possibility that the power of the wizard is overblown — only then does wealth and  social class becomes visible.

What looks like someone bravely “going for it” in ways that we might never be brave enough to do may actually be the tip of the iceberg of a complex system of support that ensures that we’ll survive, that having a huge cushion makes it easier to leap, that while it’s great fun to watch all of this unfold on a TV show, it is less fun to share in a moment of quiet self-doubt around a dinner table as people wonder why they didn’t just “go for it”.

Sherlock tends to gloat.  Much of this is deserved.

But he *knows* that the difference between himself and others is the big blue cushion that was in place.

The wealthy sometimes aren’t that self-aware.

What Is It That I Want?

This article about a young family’s new cabin on a nearby island in last Sunday’s style section troubled me, but I had a hard time articulating exactly why.  It’s not that these features on lovely homes built in the region must contain social critique.   And I knew that I did not want to write snarkily about this family because I want to stay focused on the structural and not on individual choices.

It’s just that on Sunday morning, I saw the figures scratched in the margins of the paper version on our kitchen counter adding up the construction costs for such a home (he who shares my daily paper knows about these things), and then there were the talks on our walk in which we totaled up the costs of the land, building, furniture, appliances  (likely something close to a million dollars, for all its “simplicity”).  I knew that my unease was not just straightforward jealously, though in these past few weeks of a major life transition of elderly, ill relatives who have no money, we’ve been increasingly conscious of those who do seem to take their wealth for granted and the deep social distance between our families and such friends and colleagues.

So on that walk on Sunday morning as we added up the land, the building materials, the two designer sofas, the commercial grade appliances, the solid black granite bathtub, and the boarding of horses, we kept asking “so what is it that we want?”.

In the end, I think that it’s the narrative of this piece that I find most troubling:  That a young woman, pregnant, heard a speaker warn against the harm of “nature deficit disorder”, and horrified, set out to create an oasis in nature where her soon-to-be-born son would thrive.

Yet clicking through the website today of the speaker that spurred her to “snag” 10 acres of land on a bucolic island, I find that his work is grounded in the vision of creating a movement toward  *all* children having ample access to nature.   This family’s (recently remodeled) main home is near one of the largest and most popular parks in the city.

So I think that I’m more clear about what I want, several days later.

I want people to own their wealth and their desire for privacy and luxury and not frame these things within narratives of saving one’s children from harm that might come to them otherwise.

When someone can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a very private second home on an island when one’s children are still very young,  I want  –for once  — for these people to say “we have been very lucky to inherit” and/or “we’re very lucky to earn so much more than others who work just as hard, and to not have student loans,  even though we’re still at early points in our careers, as so many others now do.

I know what I do not want:  Narratives in which the wealthy are held up as model parents who upon hearing of the dangers of the modern world, “go right out” to provide acres of weekend woods for their children; narratives that invite us to admire their paint colors and beautiful windows and solid black granite bathtub without asking too many questions about how it is that relatively young parents can ensure that their child has access to acres of his own private salamanders, and especially not to ask too many questions about how all children might have room to grow and thrive, as that speaker that night several years ago likely advised.

That may well be too much to ask of style writers, but not of those about whom they write.