Monday, August 5, 2013

If I Was a Rich Man [Part I]

"If I was a rich man," sang Zero Mostel on Broadway, and later, Topol, as Tevye, the sad and prideful Jewish village-man from Fiddler on the  Roof, based on Sholem Aleichem's [1859-1916] Tevye and His Daughters [1949].  

The popularity of this song, I've always felt, is due in no small part to the essential fantasy which it expresses, a fantasy which no sensible man in any civilized country in the world has failed to experience. 

As a boy, I remember a game we used to play, which was, to wit: What would you do if you had a million dollars? 

Of course, today, that million dollars, in today's dollars, would need to be $100,000,000 to be a fair representation of the potential power of the money we fantasized about as children (in the 1950's).

As an exercise, let's pretend for a moment that fate had granted us $100,000,000, either via a lottery win, or by some similar vagary.

I think I know how it would affect my life, what I would do with it, and--just for fun--I'll think about all the things I've been denied by the limitation of my financial station. Who knows how much we reveal in our most secret desires? Is it what we fear, or desire, or despise--that most defines what our character is made of? 

Money is the root of all evil, the saying goes, and money can't buy happiness, but it can be a powerful tool for good or ill. Put to good use, money can change the world. Money is the currency of power, the coin of consequence. But it isn't happiness that I think of when I think of great wealth. I think of opportunity, of freedom, of the expression of my feeling and thought.

I must confess that I am a materialist. Material goods and rewards do matter to me, though I find that I am able to deflect my disappointment on occasion when something I want is well beyond my reach.

The things I've wanted in my adult life may seem common enough, but the combination seems to me to have a degree of uniqueness that defines my character. People are described by their desires, and I'm no exception. 

When I was a child--an only child, actually, for 13 years, before my brother Clark was born--my parents harped endlessly about my selfishness, a character flaw they themselves had fostered in me, but which they unfailingly believed I should feel guilty about. "Here, have another cookie, you selfish little brat!"

As a child, I was warned not to covet the possessions of others, and never to steal. I was encouraged to be generous; but charitableness was something that wasn't given much credence in our household. "God helps those who help themselves," was the watchword of my childhood. Take care of your own, and don't ask favors. 

Still, it's a fun game, regardless of one's station in life, to imagine what, released from the limitations imposed by a normal, mostly unprosperous life, you would choose to possess, or to experience, or to bring about through access to wealth. 

The primary decisions in life are often made for us, since we can't choose our parents, or our relatives, or our siblings. We can't choose where we're brought up, or what schools we go to. Those decisions are made for us. And of course, there are all the trappings of culture, ethnic tradition, and class distinction which are the givens of one's fate, at least in our childhood and youth. As we grow older, we may aspire to more freedom of choice, but even that is certainly a culturally determined tendency.

But the rules of this game don't require that we be faithful to our received traditions. If only is a game anyone can play.

Then, without further ado, let's find out what I would do with my entirely unforeseen and unlimited access to wealth!       

Where to live?

If cost were no object, and no duty were required of me except my own enjoyment, I should probably choose not to live in just one place, but several. One of the great freedoms of royalty and the rich, throughout history, has been opportunity to maintain separate residences in different climates or countries (or regions). To live sometime in the city, and some in the country. To live some times in warm climates, and spend some time in moderate ones. To move with the seasons, as some animals (and birds) do. To move to pursue certain pastimes, such as hunting for sport. These are the prerogatives of leisure, because leisure is what allows one to contemplate and speculate about alternatives, or even alternate lives. We can only live one life, but it may be possible to live different styles of life, to appreciate and sample different kinds of existence. Freedom from duty may be no freedom at all, unless one appreciates the things that freedom can offer. One has a duty first to oneself, unless some form of selflessness rules your spirit. 

I've come to covet our "Mediterranean climate" here in California. I dislike long cold winters, and the unrelieved heat of the Northeast and Midwest and South and Southwest in summer. If I were to consider living anywhere else, it would be a seasonal occupation, not a permanent one. What I will say is that the one factor which dictates my comfort is to live in a drier climate. After three seasons in the Midwest (year-round), I determined never to be caught in a place where there was high humidity; heat can be bearable, as long as it isn't humid heat!

How about Europe? Lots of Americans have vacation residences in France, or Italy, or Greece, or Great Britain. I think if I had to choose, I'd have a base of operations in a Berkeley brown-shingle east of the University, and perhaps a vacation home in the south of France. Designing a home has always been a secret wish, and I got to experience part of that dream when we worked with an architectural firm to build the house we did in 1991, where we still live. But getting to live, say, in a Maybeck house, would be just about the best. We could rent vacation places in New England, or in New Mexico, or New Orleans, or Aix in France, so there'd be no necessity to own places in all those locations. I suppose that modesty of ambition is a reflection of my satisfaction with the destiny I've been given. I grew up in the Napa Valley, and I must admit that there some very attractive places to live there, along the east and west sides of the valley, but I need to be a bit nearer to the cultural centers. The quiet life is fine, but only for short stretches. I'd love to visit London and New York and Paris and Venice, but no need to spend more than a couple of weeks at any one of these places at a time. One wants the ease of movement of the country without the congestion and bustle of the city. Close enough to visit, without having to suffer the consequences. 

Pictures of a recent Maybeck house that came on the real estate market

What to drive?

I've always coveted the Morgan. There's really no question, it's a "toy car" built for the pleasure of the driver only. And at about $135,000 a copy at present, it's not a cheap proposition. But its storied history, and its abiding commitment to the tradition of its basic design, and its attention to fine detail, has always evoked a romantic response in me. I've never been much interested in the engineering side of automobiles, but I like the performance and ease and lively style a hand-crafted car offers. You'd have to garage this baby, and confine your use of it to purely recreational uses, since it's a prime target for vandals and thieves. And you'd want a good, reliable mechanic to keep it purring. (I still own, by the way, a candy red 1973 Alpha Romeo Spider convertible, which has been in mothballs in the garage for 30 years. God knows if I'll ever bring it out and have it reconditioned. Probably not. It shames me to think of it.) 

   A current model Morgan convertible

From a practical point of view, I suppose I'd want a car that was roomy and unpretentious, for errands or just going to the opera or out to eat or to browse the bookstores. I'm not a great fan of luxury sedans, and the standard models--from Mercedes or BMW or Aston-Martin, even the legendary Rolls--always seem a bit cramped to me. I suppose a British Rover would do the trick, though there is a social inertia against them around here--they're regarded as examples of ostentatious bourgeois pretension. 

What about other material goods?

I wouldn't mind a closet-full of handmade shoes. When we visited London, I ambled in John Lobb's shop, and inquired casually how much a bespoke pair (with lasts on file) might run me. This was in the late 1990's, and they said then about L2500. Today I see that John Lobb shoes, pre-made, can be had at "better shops" in Europe and America, but the styles seem unoriginal and not particularly distinctive. 

I have very large feet (size 15) so finding decent looking footwear has always been a challenge for me. I also have always admired the Victorian style of shoes for me--that is shoes where the sole is unobtrusive, and not pointed (but rounded). A rounded toe doesn't squeeze your toes, and since I possess what are unceremoniously referred to as "duck feet" this is what I seek. This example happen to be of Italian design, and may be a bit narrow in the toe, but it begins to approximate what I like in a shoe--understated, sleek, and not "blocky," but with a more rounded toe. A shoe that is so well made and comfortable, that you hardly notice you're wearing it. 

Once upon a time, owning nice suits was something I thought worthwhile, but suits are for people who need or desire to move in formal circles, and formality is a discipline and duty which to me no longer signify the freedom of true wealth. Bankers and lawyers and stock brokers and diplomats and legislators and corporate officers have to wear suits, so it's less of choice than a requirement, and requirements aren't freedom. Back in the 1980's, I used to have my slacks and sport coats and shirts made to order, and it certainly helped my image at work. But when I left wage-earning employment, it seemed to take the steam out of dressing up. Today, I get to wear pretty much what I like, and comfort plays a much larger part of what I do now than it did in those days. I still like plaited trousers, but Mephisto sandals are now my footwear of choice, and loose shirts that I don't have to tuck in if I don't want to. And ties--I still have about 200 ties, many of the Scottish clan variety. They were fun, but a nuisance to tie every morning. I'm happy to be free of them, as they sit unused in my closet.

Along with my Maybeck house, I'd love to have a fine rose garden, though I doubt I'd find the time to care adequately for it. That would mean hiring a regular gardener. I've never liked the idea of servants. My wife grew up in a family that had a regular house servant, but that was "more trouble than it was worth" unless you absolutely can't find time even to wash the dishes or make the bed. To be able to walk in the garden in the morning or late afternoon, or even to sit and read in one, is one of life's chief pleasures.   

Let's see, then. I'm no fan of motorcycles or boats or planes, thank you very much. I don't require a luxury box at the local pro football or baseball stadium. I practice enough armchair athleticism already. 

I think I should like to have a fully-stocked professional cocktail bar at my disposal, with a wine-cellar broad enough in its range of selection to satisfy any food pairing. Would I want own my own winery, or my own wine label? I think not; that's a profession more than a pastime or an avocation. My own tastes run to fine books, but owning things like books permanently is no more than responsible stewardship, since we're all just custodians in the end. I might find it amusing to own a few of the rarest modern first editions, like jacketed copies of The Great Gatsby, or The Maltese Falcon, or a signed Catcher in the Rye. But once you've had things like this, there isn't much you can do with them. Unlike paintings, which you can put on the wall and look at regularly, it's difficult to imagine you'll be reading your favorite literary possessions repeatedly, instead of just picking them up and handling them. A couple of nice Morandi etchings would be nice in the study, perhaps a small Durer. But great paintings belong in museums, not in private homes where they're like rumors or memories of lost gold. 

Things. What are things really worth? It begs the question. We can savor and celebrate them and bask in their presence, but we can't take permanent care of them. No matter how much love we may lavish on objects, in the end we're never more than temporary custodians of things. It was reported that Bing Crosby always insisted that he never wear the same pair of socks twice, always a new pair. I think his "used" ones got donated to charities, which brings me to my next category: philanthropy.

Since I no longer believe in public (governmental) support of the arts, private philanthropy, or support of the arts or research or education is important to my world view. For a long time, I've thought that if I had the means, I'd want to create a private scholarship fund for students in the humanities--but not for the new wave of cultural studies. I think I'd most want to encourage students of traditional classic literature (Greek and Roman), which once formed the basic curriculum of the British university system in the humanities. I was an English major in college, so supporting studies in literature, history and creative writing would be high on my list of preferences. I wouldn't want it put in my name, either. I'd want it to be "anonymous" so the beneficiaries wouldn't personify their benefactor. Grants, say, for 2-3 years, to support a graduate degree program proposal for a deserving applicant. 



chris miller said...

I have a customer at my music shop who, before he lost his job and then his wife, hired members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform chamber music in his
living room and then invited a few friends to come over and join him. I got into one of the last concerts -- and sitting five feet away from a virtuoso violinist has been, so far, one of the most thrilling moments of my life

So given a hundred million, I'd build a small auditorium - with attached art gallery - and then hire people to throw concerts and curate art exhibits -- with myself, of course, having a seat near the front.

BTW -- I would charge admission to the concerts -- but only about $10.

Curtis Faville said...


Once, years ago, a friend of mine had a roommate named Michael Lorimer. He was largely unknown at that time, but has since established a considerable reputation for his guitar playing.

One morning, after breakfast, Michael took out his guitar, and played the whole of the guitar parts for Rodrigo's Concerto de Aranjuez three feet away from me. I felt as if I were holding my breath for 20 minutes.

Live performance--especially in intimate settings--can be a revelation.

Thanks for the comment.

Testing said...

If I were a rich man, it's subjunctive.

Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for the comment.

Yes, and I've had this argument elsewhere on the internet.

The subjunctive works if the conditional instance is purely speculative, i.e., if what you're proposing is a possibility for consideration.

But using WAS is the affirmative expression, not an either/or proposition. I.e., if I was or was not something or other. One can say "if I was not" but to say "if I were not" is awkward, because "were" is meant to signify propositional impartiality.

Grammar is not a science, it's a descriptive system of observable practice.