I was thinking the other day, apropos nothing much (you know that kind of thought you have when lying in bed between waking and sleep) and realized how strange our sleep arrangements were when I was little.
You see, my parents believe mortgages happen to other people. So when they got married, my grandparents converted what used to be the “storage” portion of their house into a shotgun apartment which my parents rented until I was seven and they’d built their house, into which we moved at that time.
This is why when I was little I thought windows were “posh.” We didn’t have any. The height of my ambition was a veranda. (Having now rebuilt two upper-floor porches from scratch, I’m okay, really.)
The floor plant of the house was as follows: Living room/mom’s “office” for meeting with clients, into which daylight came from two glass panels on the front door.
Mom and dad’s room (3/4 of that width, with a window cut up top to get a little light from the living room. (Not super effective.) And a hallway, large enough for a row of chairs and enough space for an adult to walk past.
Past mom and dad’s room, the space widened again, and there was a single bed for my brother and a very large bin-cabinet for mom’s work supplies. After that there was a kitchen the width of the apartment and about twice as long as the living room (I’d say about 14 ft? but I’m remembering with a child’s eyes.)
We pretty much lived in the kitchen. Mom worked at the kitchen table most of the time, and cleared it only for meals. The radio was in the kitchen and was the main form of entertainment in the house. Dad brought his typewriter from work, and worked at the kitchen table. I learned to type (and write) at that kitchen table. Mom’s knitting machine (a way to supplement money between big jobs. Even local farmers payed to have a sweater knit a winter, even if sometimes you had to undo the previous sweater (developing holes) and redye the wool.) was against the wall across from the sink and stove. My earliest memories of reading were of scrunching on the floor next to the knitting machine and just going away in my mind. Oh, the kitchen door had glass in it too, but this being a Mediterranean climate, in all but the coldest days, the door would be open for more light.
You will notice there was no bathroom. That’s because the bathroom was outside grandma’s kitchen door. And it wasn’t an outhouse, but a full bathroom, with sink and shower. It just was outside. I don’t know how much of this was because the walls were thick stone and almost impossible to pierce/plumb, or how much because great grandma thought bathrooms were dirty and should be out of doors.
Anyway, what I realized is that I had (at least) three sets of memories: one of my brother sleeping in the 125 grams (1/2 of a quarter kilo. The word for quarter and room is the same in Portuguese. Yes, my family is like that.) Of me sleeping in the 125grams (particularly when I started school, about a year before we moved out.) and of me sleeping either in my parents’ room with mom, or upstairs with my cousin Natalia.
So I lay there and put them in order. The apartment was adequate, though not wonderful when my parents had only my brother (about nine plus years before I was born.) There was a curtain to give him some privacy, and he had a little “not quite bedroom.”
Then I was born. Fortunately when I was born, my dad worked outside town, so I simply slept with mom, except on weekends, when I was turfed out to my grandparents’ and slept with my cousin Natalia (14 years my senior.)
Dad came back home when I was about 5. At that time my grandparents had partitioned off a bedroom off their large, second floor family room, for a visiting relative. My brother was sent up to sleep in that room, and I inherited the 125 grams (at any rate he was six one at that time, and the little childhood bed, even with all the additional patches at the bottom that grandad had made over time, was not particularly safe for him.) So when I started school I had my own “room” of sorts.
Note I had to reason this out and pay attention to things like my brother’s surgery at sixteen, when he was laid up in grandma’s spare room.
All of which is not to tell you how terrible my childhood was. It wasn’t. Heck, grandma’s backyard was a kingdom and I ruled it as queen. Also, I wasn’t aware of being poor (we weren’t for the area. The neighbors sharing a wall with my parents’ apartment were raising six children in the same space arranged similarly, cut out of the house of the farmers’ next door. Mom was raised in a smaller space with four siblings.) Our diet could be eccentric, mostly because mom lived in search of the cheapest meal, so they could save more money for the house, but when I went into school I was one of better fed kids there. I’d have been one of the healthiest too, except for my screwed up auto-immune. We had plenty of books, even if sometimes I had to go dig in the storage buildings for them. Sometimes my paper was rationed because I used a sh*tton of it writing and drawing, but then dad’s godfather who owned the general store across the street found in his attic a pallet of composition books that had been there probably 50 years. They’d long since been written off, so instead of selling them, he gave us the lot. Those books, with yellowed pages and gengivitis-pink covers lasted me for my purposes till highschool. I wrote my first “novels” in them. And I had toys aplenty. In fact the only lack of my childhood was people to play with, since I was by far the youngest in the family and my brother, the next youngest, had modeled his amusements on our older cousins. This is probably why I make up stories (it was so lonely. It started with imaginary friends) and why I started to read very early and read a lot. It’s a weird upbringing for a kid, but not bad.
What I was thinking about, lying in bed, though, was that these days if one of my kids tried to get married and rely on that type of arrangements for living, I’d hit the roof. “Wait, you don’t even have a bathroom? You’re going to share the single bathroom with a family of three? And it’s OUTSIDE?”
Unthinkable, right? As is “Tell me again how this apartment doesn’t have running water, and first task in the morning is to bring in a bunch of it in gallon jugs! Is this even up to code?” And “Wait, you wife is going to run her small business out of the kitchen, meet clients in the tiny living room, and store her stuff throughout the house, including kids rooms?” You know what the verdict would be: “You guys can’t do that, that’s slum conditions. CPS will be down on you like a ton of bricks.”
And yet, when and where I lived, it was solidly middle class. A little below my parents’ means, since they were saving to buy a house outright, but not, you know…. alarmingly low. If anyone had reported us to the equivalent of CPS, the social worker would have laughed herself into stitches. There were people living much worse. We had cement floors in the kitchen (not beaten Earth) and electrical light throughout. And I pulled through my constant illnesses, was doing well in school, and my brother made it to college (even in my time that was rare for village kids.) It would be viewed, now, as someone complaining of living in a small but adequate home.
And that’s what this is all about. I’m sick and tired of the whining about “inequality” as though that means anything. It’s a sanctifying of envy, is all it is. As it is, my family was pretty wealthy compared to our neighbors, partly because my mom squeezed every penny till it screamed, and kept the house sparklingly clean. So we lived like people richer than us, while a lot of the local craftsmen who made a ton more lived in filth and misery, with six or seven kids crammed in the same space we had. They got a ton more meals out, pastries on the weekend and “bought wine” (as opposed to the one you grow yourself) though.
Sure, right now there are people so wealthy I still can’t imagine their circumstances (let alone my little self who dreamed of windows imagining their circumstances.) But I fail to see how their being unimaginably wealthy hurts me. We have a bathroom per person, right now, and a powder room to spare and I have room for my hobbies that mom could only dream about for her job. And we’re not exactly wealthy. (We’re not poor either. Though we might be if the kids don’t graduate and support themselves soon.)
But thing is, I’m not taking money from anyone living in conditions similar to what my parents lived when I was born. (No one lives in the same conditions. Not if CPS catches them.) I make my own money. I don’t take it from the poor. And the people above me, save for those that ally with government to get the tax money, aren’t making money off me. They’re just making money.
I think the left has a fundamentally broken understanding of economics. They believe in a fixed pie, in which the only way to get rich is to steal from others. In that kind of system inequality is a problem, because the people at the top are rich at the expense of people at the bottom. But that’s not what we live in.
The only system in which their fantasies are true is the one that suggest to “cure” our inequality:A top down, controlled economy, with bureaucrats in charge.
Thing is, my friend Nicki grew up in the Soviet Union, under one of those systems designed to stop inequality. Not only were the common people unimaginably poor (the village would seem like a bit of paradise to them, what with one family per house, and each family growing most of their own food in the backyard) but the party members lived almost like our current one percent, and yep, on the backs of the poor.
In communism and socialism, the only way to live well is to exploit others. And boy, do they ever. Some of the world’s wealthiest people are children of “great leaders”.
And in OUR country there is enough interference, mind you. See where I said above that my parents would have been denounced to CPS if they tried to do what they did then, now and in the US (or even in Europe.) And yet, fifteen years of sacrifice allowed them to build a house beyond the dreams of their parents’ (particularly mom’s parents) and to send two kids to college. And then to have my brother build a house beyond THEIR dreams. If the government had forced them to move out of that little (and relatively cheap) apartment and rent a real one, in one of the highrises then coming into the village, they’d probably never have been able to move out.
Rage, if you must, at bureaucrats who make your property not your own, and force people to live in ways that much wealthier middle-class people think acceptable. That does, probably, rob wealth from the poor, in the long run.
But stop worrying about inequality. What does it matter to you what your neighbor has? In college, (or even I, at professional meetings) my kids found out we were Job-poor. We’re not of course. But I’m a writer, which means work/payment is irregular and can’t be counted on. Also, though we have a mortgage, we partake my parents’ madness in the at consumer credit is something that happens to other people. (We should take out a small loan and do some work in the house — we bought it short sale and it needs stuff done — and then pay it off, instead of saving for the work. But my dad’s last words to me, as I got on the plane to the US after my wedding, were “don’t run up debts.”) So our kids were raised buying clothes at thrift stores, and without a single European vacation. OTOH they each had their own computer from age 3, and we did buy them materials/books for whatever interested them at the time. So, in a way we were richer than their rich friends.
And note, at no time did our way of living have anything to do with how billionaires live. Who cares how billionaires live? How does their being very well off affect you? Do the people who are much worse off than you get a vote in how you live?
And what precisely would it do to take people’s money away and give to those below them in conditions? Remember where I said the people in the village who made more money than my parents lived far worse, because they never saved for better housing (or kept the one they had clean?)
Make the most of what you have, and stop hankering over the unimaginable riches of the super-rich.
The poor we shall always have with us, but the poor in America live better than my parents did, middle class and working as hard as they could, long ago and far away, and we live better than my parents ever did.
The rich we shall always have with us, even the super-rich. In the middle ages, inequality was if anything greater, as the poor lived close to animals. But their kings — except for ceremonial and power — lived worse than our wretched poor. And going back further, Solomon in all his glory couldn’t get piped in hot water, or food warmed instantly in a microwave, or aspirin to manage the headaches he acquired from his multitudinous harem.
You can’t eliminate the super rich. Even vast revolutions don’t manage that. They just replace them and the source of their wealth. You can’t eliminate the poor. As Venezuela is proving yet again, the best you can do is make everyone poor.
Let everyone do what they want to and can do with their own. And keep your mind off other people’s business.
If you must have fantasies of being super-rich, have those. But don’t bother thinking that you’re not that because others are.
Envy is poison that corrodes the soul. Work for what you want. No one has ever stolen your success. Only you can blight your own life.
If you don’t think about it, the problem of inequality goes away. That means it’s not a problem.
Go tend your garden.