GUILDFORD: Ladies, a general welcome from his grace
Salutes ye all; this night he dedicates
To fair content and you: none here, he hopes,
In all this noble bevy, has brought with her
One care abroad; he would have all as merry
As, first, good company, good wine, good welcome,
Can make good people.
William Shakespeare, “The Life of King Henry the Eighth,” Act 1, scene 4
I have been asked recently to contribute some guest posts to other blogs, and that is a remarkable thing when I consider how little I’ve worked on this one. I stopped writing here last year when my rôle at work expanded and I made New York City my main residence. These were both enormous related undertakings. Since we moved, my husband and I haven’t joined a UU congregation. I guess that means I’m a lapsed Unitarian and a lapsed Catholic now, but despite avoiding two faiths I’m still ordering only one omelette for myself at brunch on Sunday mornings.
There are reasons I feel “lapsed” but I do still care about the direction of Liberal Religion; I do still live with a fair amount of bigotry because of my financial advantages; I do still want to make smaller obstacles of large differences. As part of reactivating, let’s start with calling out differences. I asked my longtime friend Margie, a terrific writer and a professional interrogator, to be my interviewer. We did this via a few Facebook chats and I’ve edited her questions and expanded on my answers since, to make our ramblings more readable.
What are you looking for?
You and I have different class backgrounds. Would you agree you’re squarely from the middle of the middle class? (Who are you calling square?) We’ve had our share of conflicts because of that. Could you ask a few questions that highlight those differences concretely, maybe with class markers we have observed about each other, and I’ll try to answer them. A fellow blogger has posed two philosophical/ethical questions to me that I’ll answer in another post or posts. I’d like something that’s less of a struggle.
I think I get what you want. We could talk about food and the Thanksgiving holiday. Do you remember the first time we went shopping together?
Yes. We were one month into our college freshmen year. We went clothes shopping with two others, who started to do their own thing, leaving us. It was the first time that we really didn’t click. Everything I held up or thought I’d try on you shot down for being too expensive. A lot of that, though, was on sale and I was really aggravated trying to figure out what price points weren’t considered expensive by you.
You called everything I picked up “chintzy.” I was this close to calling you a bitch and going home. But then we went to lunch and you paid for your bourbon chicken with an American Express. That clued me in on how something was going on besides our taste in clothes.
Oh no. Seriously? (Completely serious.) I’m sorry. So here’s the thing: You and I had already bonded over both being recent graduates of Catholic female-only high schools. We were both wearing the Zooey Deschanel “Elf” haircut. (Shut up! …OK, wait it’s true.) We had discovered that we both are middle children in our families whose parents were still together. I think we can be forgiven for thinking we had the same type of background.
We had a huge intense college kid talk that night about it. It’s amazing how definite you see things when you’re 18.
We went out with your father during study week before Christmas, remember that? I was kind of terrified of the restaurant. I knew you had better manners than me. How did that happen, the manners?
Necessity. My parents and my grandmother entertained at home often, and it was a big part of my growing up: learning what could be said at dinner and what had to wait until a private moment after (for instance, a biggie was no asking for permission slips to be signed or for things we wanted or needed in case the answer might be no.); learning how to set the table and clear it quietly; learning how converse nicely with the person sitting next to you even if you were mad at her for cutting your doll’s hair. When I was young, it was torture. But it was also so that whoever might be joining us didn’t go home with tales of spoiled brats. Now I see the training in traditional table manners as partly being for my protection.
Want to see something funny? Check out “The Book” which got passed around my siblings, well before we were teenagers. I almost never went to a friend’s house for dinner until college, mostly because I was an unpopular kid but also because dinner time was a big deal at home.
That first summer I knew you, I went to visit you and [a mutual friend from the same town] and I was just as terrified and uncertain about totally normal things while staying at his house. Two-liter soda bottles, do I pass a glass or ask for the soda bottle to be passed to me? Salad dressing in the bottle on the table—I remember eating salad dry because I wasn’t sure what to do.
I don’t think that I have better manners than you. I think we learned good etiquette mostly through osmosis, for the situations we were regularly in, and my situation was usually much more formal. It left me confused in informal situations. Your mother once told me I have a stick up my ass when I was at your house and she wasn’t wrong. I didn’t know you don’t eat a muffin with a fork when it’s given to you on a plate. I knew you didn’t if you ate it off a paper napkin. Rules, bae, rules. We know the ones we know and don’t know what we don’t.
What’s the best thing about being rich, besides not looking at price tags?
Being able to help, and being able to do that with some of the most interesting, accomplished people. Because I have something to offer, people who can’t afford to waste time will spend time with me. I’ve met some of the most influential people in the world and been able to learn from them. I can access celebrities and business and intellectual and government leaders a lot easier by being generous with what I have and serious with what I do with it. That’s not the cynical “buying a Senator” thing. I’ve never hired a lobbyist or even donated to a political campaign. What I mean is that if there’s something worthwhile truly that I want to accomplish, I have a much easier time getting in touch with people who can make it happen.
People assume that having money means not knowing who your friends are because so many are friends of your money and not of you. That’s true if you have an immature sense of self and low confidence. (Like Trump?) Yes, like every Trump I’ve ever met. I keep promising in this blog I’ll talk about Acquired Narcissistic Disorder. But back to friends—I can smell the sycophants a mile off. What it really means at times is you have the freedom to think differently about things and can, therefore, meet very interesting thinkers and do-ers for your friends.
At the moment, I personally give money to a few select charities and causes outside of what our family foundation does. I have plans to dissolve a trust in a few years and create a charitable foundation from those funds. I have been able to meet other charity founders, to sit on the board of a charitable institution, to get advice and mentorship at high levels. That’s pretty awesome.
What’s the worse thing about being rich?
I can’t always be honest about where I live or what I do for work because people are so often bigoted. I am willing to talk about the class divide but not in percentage terms. Even if we someday forge a more egalitarian society, I’ll still probably be at the top end. 1% is a lot of people, and each 1% having its exact 1% share of the wealth isn’t a realistic goal. I hate being cagey about where I live or come from, or how much of my life I reveal. I hate that I’m very frequently told I don’t deserve or didn’t work for anything I have. I hate that it’s assumed I’m greedy, or a criminal, or exploiting someone, or all of the above. I really, really hate that people think I don’t make sacrifices in my life to provide for others because sacrifice is the essence of love.
I really appreciate that you’ve hung in with me and sorted through all the times we’ve crossed swords and argued over these kinds of issues and misunderstandings.
We just had Thanksgiving. I know you cooked for your family. You should get specific about it. What is a rich chick’s Thanksgiving like? What were you thankful for?
We had eleven people in our new apartment in New York. My household (me, my husband, my cousin), my parents and siblings, my father’s cousin and his wife and daughter, and his sister and brother-in-law. I made a very ordinary meal: a few appetizers I found on some creative blogs; pumpkin soup and a tossed salad; a 26 lb turkey, stuffing, buttermilk mashed potatoes, roast mixed veggies, steamed green beans; a few pies, some homemade cookies, chocolates that one of the guests brought, and coffee and tea. My aunt and uncle brought the wine, which was very good and from past experience, I can safely assume it was also very expensive. I served the buffet style on the kitchen island, and people brought their bowls and plates to the dining room.
We don’t do the “gratitude check-in” because it takes a long while and because honestly, I find it uncomfortable. We had a short moment of silence which my husband concluded with Wesleyan preacher W. T. Purkiser’s statement, that “Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.” Washing up was a team effort of our generation but I did the lions’ share. The only “outside” help I had this year was the cleaning service on Wednesday.
You really have to talk about your aunt after dinner.
My aunt married a European and has lived in his country ever since. My cousin who now lives with us is also her niece, and when she went through a difficult period, she lived for a time with our aunt. Since I began hosting Thanksgiving, she’s come every year, and we’ve become closer. She really enjoyed Thanksgiving this year. After dinner, we were in the gallery of my house, away from the others, and she launched into a series of praises. She covered the food, how well I cook, how nicely I take care of her mother’s silver, the way we’ve decorated the new apartment, and so on.
It became more personal. She described how much my cousin has matured in the three years she’s lived with us. She tried to credit our mentorship for that, but that’s truly a tiny piece of how my cousin has advanced herself. She had tears in her eyes over this and I finally realized she was trying to say something about herself, and not really about me, via this torrent of compliments and I was quiet. Then she handed me some money “to help pay for the dinner,” which was really our pleasure, something I look forward to doing, and which cost maybe fifteen dollars a head at the very most to prepare, which makes it almost certainly the cheapest dinner party I’ll have all year. “But you young people are just starting out, let me help.” I didn’t need it and pointed out she’d flown across the Atlantic to eat it and also brought the wine. “But I want to, and what else is there?”
Ouch. I don’t know what the right currency is to express what was passing between us, but it’s not dollars. I wish I did know. The cash, seven hundred-dollar bills, is in my silverware chest until I figure out what to do with her Thanksgiving offering. I’ve been soliciting ideas. Margie thought you should be included. My aunt is a good lady. Together, let’s amplify her gesture.
Photo: Frontispiece, Tiffany’s Table Manners from Teenagers, Walter Hoving, 1963. Image retrieved from an eBay listing.