Is It Simpler to Be Rich?

Written by Andrei Codrescu

We struggle for a paycheck. We succeed in our careers. We wish.   Would it be easier to be rich?" Would we be happier?

There is no end to instructive humiliation when you think that you've got it made.

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Right after I got another office for my expanding small-press publishing empire, I was bouncing cheerily across the manicured greens of my neo-Georgian campus, twirling my impressive ring of keys. I ran into the university president, who was carrying the 50 extra pounds that came with his office and walked as if the broom of the legislature to which he answered was stuck firmly halfway up his behind. When he had been my colleague in the humanities, he had been not only lighter, but sprightlier.

"Look," I said, twirling my keys faster, "I can barely remember all the offices I have."

With a glint of malicious glee, he reached into his pocket, below the globe of his presidential belly, and extracted a single key. "I only have one," he said.

I crashed into the green. Of course. Power was reductive. He only needed one key. Someone more powerful, the governor, let's say, probably used no keys at all. Doors opened noiselessly before him. The invisible machinery of power worked quietly to keep the man's life simple. He probably used no money either. Or credit cards. A simple flourish of his pen was sufficient.

The encounter set me thinking. The amassing of wealth and privilege has no other ostensible purpose than to simplify life. While the flunkies toil, the great man lies on the beach. If that were the case, wouldn't one be already ahead of the game if one stayed poor and free?

I remembered my days of wine and roses. I had not a penny, but oodles of time. My memory presented me with a nostalgic photograph of a casual youth capable of picking up and leaving anytime, going anywhere, needing no more than a two-week job to go on a two-month vacation. My chosen profession, that of poet, required no more than a nub of pencil and a napkin.

Isn't Rich Simpler?

I had no need of tools or machines. I was free as the wind, like the Algerian superintendent of my first apartment in New York used to say, whenever I asked him how he was: "Libre comme le vent! Libre comme le vent!"  Free like the wind. Louis was my guru. His answer was my motto.freedom to think 

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Under this idealized photograph, there lay, however, a darker reality that my memory could not hide for long. There were long periods of gloom in those days. Eating Campbell's chicken soup and canned beans for weeks was not great. Keeping myself from making a commitment to the woman I lived with, had its uneasy reality, too.

Going Greyhound and hitchhiking led to encounters with psychos and pneumonia from standing in the rain waiting for a ride.

My fellow poets were a grungy bunch who would have sold their mothers for a drink, if their mothers had not disowned them long before. The lovely apartment Louis presided over was in a building without a lock on the front door.

Junkies and drunks threw up and slept in front of my door. People with money, even if they were just middle-class, were our object of derision and hatred. We blamed them for everything that was wrong with the world, especially with our diet.

Twenty years later, I never expected to find myself among them. Back then, if presented with the bourgeois alternative, I would have said that I'd rather commit suicide than live in a suburb with 2.2 kids.

I never expected time to roll over my generation with a blanket of prosperity the likes of which I never imagined. This blanket did not roll over me, exactly, but enough of its affluent coziness caught me to put some flesh on my bones and twirl my keys. I said some flesh, not 50 pounds. Please.

In any case, I have often thought about throwing it all away, and regaining simplicity. Poverty. The woods. A monastery. Anything. The more responsibilities I acquired, the more pristine my fantasies of the simple life became.

Isn't Rich Simpler?

Everyone I knew, if they didn't have the good taste to die young, went on to pile up complexity, and to dream, simultaneously, of simplicity. The older I got, the more connected I became, and the more disconnected I wished to be.making decisions 

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What do your possessions mean?

The direct proportion of reality to desire didn't vary. Some of my acquaintances, shoved by circumstances and shrewdness to the top of the good life, actually took off for the woods, the country and the monasteries, and endured blessed and selfish simplicity until either boredom or a phone call recalled them to the real world.

Take Stanley, poster-child of American affluence. In the late '60s and early '70s he followed several Indian gurus who appeared to him to have the answers to his existential and spiritual restlessness.

He quickly rose to the top of each guru's organization, edited the newsletter, set up the school, streamlined the holdings, and got the dining room in order.

When he was done with the gurus, he founded one of the first Silicon Valley companies to go public in its second year. His company persuaded him to retire shortly thereafter because his creative restlessness got in the way of business. He took his $1 million or so yearly payoff and brooded for six months on a houseboat in Sausalito.

As soon as he could stand the simple life no longer, he founded another company, hit it big again and was retired once more. He then went to medical school and studied alternative medicine at the same time.

Now he lives on an estate in Mendocino County and has no telephone or computer in his octagonal glass library, where he sees selected patients scheduled by one of his three (nearly) invisible secretaries.

His patients arrive by private plane or helicopter at a discreet little airport he has had built 10 miles from the house. I visited him once and he actually asked me:

"What are you doing to simplify your life?"

"Stanley," I said, "with my salary, I can't afford to simplify anything."

Neither can he, apparently. Not totally, anyway. He still has patients.

The only man I know (but not very well) who has managed to create a lovely island of simplicity in his life is a billionaire I'll call Jed.

Jed is one of the most cheerfully idiotic human beings I have ever encountered. He's more gleeful than the university president, more blithe than Louis, and certainly much richer than Stanley.

Jed has reduced the complexities of his life and empire to the point where he can spend six hours a day shooting potatoes. Yes, he stands on the parapets of his mansion and wields a heavy-duty potato shooter that can hurl sacks of Idaho potatoes into the serene lake that stretches from his manse into the distant mountains.

"Jed," I asked him, "how many potatoes a day can you shoot?"

"On a good day," he said, with all (or the same) seriousness that had doubtlessly aided him in making $3 billion, "I can shoot up to two sacks."

I had a conversation once with an engineer who makes microprocessors.

"Isn't it wonderful," I said, "how much more elegant and simple our technologies are getting?"

"Yes," he said, "but the technologies needed to make these simple and elegant technologies are getting more and more complex."

Indeed. With the exception of youth, for which simplicity comes as easily as breathing, the technologies needed to make us simpler are getting mind-numbingly complex. It takes a whole village one year to provide a dippy with an hour of sheer, unmediated idiocy. ("Dippy?" digital hippie.)

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Andrei Codrescu (The Road Scholar) publishes the online cultural journal, Exquisite Corpse: a Journal of Letters & Life, from his English gardens in the Deep South.

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