The sour smell of success l Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Mar 27, 2019

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F. Scott Fitzgerald said. “They are different from you and me.”

In an age of aphorisms, where pithy is everything and wisdom has to squeeze into a meme with a funny hamster, this could work. A little obvious, but at least it gets to the point quickly.

Ah, but pithy is the problem here. Fitzgerald actually had more to say, and it was far more interesting.

“They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves ... they are different.”

In other words, these rhetorical very rich people look down on the rest of us because whatever we achieve or experience in this life, we actually have to work for it.

This is a generalization and, of course, wildly unfair. There are many examples of very rich people who got that way by working harder than anyone else. And probably having a decent brain to go with that.

But even nouveau riche folks can’t help but look at life differently, I suspect. I know I would, because I do. On a global scale, most of us are fabulously wealthy, and we act like it.

We actually throw food away, for one thing; the stories about the waste of food in this country are shocking and feel true at the same time.

Although you can go ahead and toss that green thing at the back of the refrigerator that used to be a pork chop. It’s not doing anyone any good.

When the story of what the FBI conveniently called Operation Varsity Blues broke a few weeks ago, I began thinking about these very rich people. It’s a weird scandal (and a disappearing one, already old news), in that the crimes talked about would never even tempt most of us.

Ordinarily we probably wouldn’t pay attention to the woes of the very wealthy, but then we had Aunt Becky to talk about.

Honestly, even though I had kids who grew up in the 1990s and certainly watched “Full House,” I wandered around for a few days asking people who Aunt Becky was. I know now.

And then there’s Felicity Huffman, a stunning actress whom I’ve admired for 20 years, since her performance on the much-mourned “Sports Night.” I never saw “Desperate Housewives” but I didn’t have to. She has the chops.

These were the hooks, among hundreds of names we didn’t recognize and didn’t care about. We make connections with famous people, sometimes strong connections, and particularly those who entertain us.

We’re not stupid, either; we’ve come to expect clay feet on these particular idols, it comes with celebrity. Sometimes we have to drop our affection suddenly (e.g., Bill Cosby) when we get new information, but we generally accept that these are human beings with foibles and flaws.

But this isn’t about a zoning dispute in Beverly Hills in which a couple of the rich and famous get into a spat over a fence made out of gold. This is about Felicity Huffman paying $15,000 to have someone cheat in order to get her child into a good university.

I’m guessing most of us haven’t done this. They are different, as Fitz said.

I’m not going to pretend to be shocked, or outraged. I was just a little surprised by Ms. Huffman (and her husband, the brilliant actor William H. Macy, who doesn’t seem to have been charged but obviously was part of the scheme), just because I’d developed a hazy impression of her.

So she’s a cheater. Parents do bizarre things sometimes.

It’s the $15,000. That’s a number approachable for many of us. We’ll spend twice as much on a car without thinking about it much. While a lot of Americans, apparently, would have trouble coming up with even a few hundred dollars in case of an emergency, nobody gets excited about a lottery prize of $15,000.

I know I’m supposed to be righteously indignant at the rule-breaking, at the cheating, at the damage presumably done to these kids whose parents have high expectations and don’t mind paying for them. I can’t get there. These people are different, wealth and fame make them different, and I understand that.

I don’t care that much.

I just think about the money. I know a guy who got into a prestigious, Ivy League school. He earned that right because he was a brilliant student and a good athlete to boot. His SAT scores were sky-high and underwritten by nobody.

He wasn’t interested in getting rich. Bad things happened, as they do; businesses closed, health issues cropped up, savings got wiped out.

And now he has cancer, serious cancer, a senior citizen on Medicare with a very limited income. I think a lot about that $15,000 now, as his friends attempt to help him and his physicians save his life. That would come in handy when the bills start to climb, as they already have.

It’s none of my business what Ms. Huffman spends her money on. The FBI will do what it does.

It’s just that when these people toss thousands at some goofy dream of social status by proxy, I think a lot about my friend. He worked hard his entire life.

He went to an excellent university, he’s generous and kind, he got some bad breaks, and I suspect that to Aunt Becky, he seems quite different.

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