Saturday, December 04, 2010


My wife and I just returned home from a trans-Atlantic cruise. For over three weeks we strolled leisurely through the streets of Rome, Florence, Barcelona, Cartegena, and Cadiz. On board the ship my days would begin with a pre-dawn walk on the track circling the putting green and bocce courts. When my walk was complete I’d get my wife and we’d go to the Ocean View Café for the breakfast buffet. One morning it might be eggs benedict. On another it might be smoked salmon or an omelet. For those with hearty appetites there were meats, including roast beef, pastries, roasted peppers or tomatoes, and assorted cheeses. After breakfast I’d stroll along the lower decks and pass by the shops, the casino, the library, and the ever present entertainers. Each night, after seeing the sights, we were treated to sumptuous meals, served by third-world waiters. Then, we’d attend a show. After each show we’d return to our room. The bed would be turned town, with a wrapped piece of chocolate on each pillow, courtesy of our steward, a young man from Indonesia. By 10 o’clock we’d turn in, to be gently rocked to sleep by the waves.

Looking back on it now it sounds absolutely decadent, the stuff that only the Rothschilds, Rockefellers, or the richest of the rich dared dream of just a few generations ago. For my wife and me, middle class Americans, a cruise is now possible. For others like us, middle class might mean a recreational vehicle, a boat in the driveway, a 2,000 square foot home with a downstairs den, or a storage locker across town that’s full of never-to-be-used junk.

Things certainly have changed over the past few generations.

We shared our evening meals with two very nice couples, both from Florida. After an evening of breaking the ice, one of the Floridians mentioned the elections that were going to take place in America the following day. I confessed I had very little interest in the outcome. As the conversation progressed I heard a lot about the dismantling of the American middle class. I asked what that meant. “The fat cats are swallowing everything up. There’s nothing left for the rest of us.” I thought about what I’d heard as I finished my portion of mushroom crusted Colorado rack of lamb. “Really?” I asked. “We’re cruising our way along the Mediterranean, stopping at exotic ports of call. We’re eating steak tar tare, lobster, crème brulee, bananas foster, and washing it all down with the finest wine. We’re being doted on by people from Indonesia, Serbia, Belarus, Colombia, and the poorest corners of the earth. If we want we can go to the casino and drop our cash into machines that virtually scream ‘You’ve got way too much money; let us take it off your hands and redistribute it for you.’ If the truth be known, on some sliding cosmic scale we’re the fat cats and I think the people pampering us know that quite well.”

We couldn’t ever agree, but our conversations about the destruction of the middle class always ended cordially. He still believed that he was living a diminished life because of the fat cats. I was suffering from pangs of guilt and the pains of over eating.

I took a valuable lesson from the dialogue. Class envy, when elevated to an art form, will make one blind to his own wealth and jealous of everyone a rung or two above him.

The trans-Atlantic crossing was quite boring. There’s a lot of water between the United States and Europe. I found myself occasionally going to the 15th deck and looking out at the vast expanse of water all around me. I thought of others who’d made the crossing before Nancy and me. There was her grandmother, who emigrated from Switzerland in the late 19th century. She probably spent her days in steerage, sans the crème brulee. There were the ancestors of African-Americans, who were chained, against their will, in the holds of ships, facing the prospect of being sold to a plantation owner in the land of opportunity. I thought of my Irish ancestors, who made the crossing in what came to be known as the “famine ships.”

I have no idea how we Americans fit into the scales of cosmic justice. All I have on this side of eternity are tantalizing clues – camels trying to negotiate the eyes of needles, parables about the debilitating effects of envy, the deceitfulness of riches, and the proclamation of the first being last and the last becoming first.

Given that, I’m not in the market for another cruise, a boat, a storage locker full of junk, or heart full of envy. I think I’ll be content with what I have.

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