Something pretty great happened last week. Great, unexpected, awe-inducing, and more words that describe an event so completely out of left field that almost a week later I am still shaking my head and asking myself, “Really? Did that happen?”
I will tell you about the thing that happened later. A few people reading this already know about the thing that happened but, shhhhhh! No spoilers! We’ll get to the thing that happened but first I want to talk about greed.
Let that word sit in your brain for a second. What images and feelings does it conjure up? Do you imagine a king on a pile of money? A Wall Street banker in a suit that is worth more than you make in a month? A model in a gold-encrusted penthouse in New York City?
Do you see yourself? Can you imagine yourself as greedy?
I couldn’t. Until it happened.
When I see wealthy people acting like greedy jerks—and, yes, #notallwealthypeople—of course I am disgusted but my disgust is tempered by understanding. It is easier than you think to become a greedy jerk.
That’s not true. It is easier than you think to become greedy—jerkiness is a separate animal.
Greed is not just about money. We can be greedy with affection, opportunity, knowledge, time and much more. You need only watch toddlers surrounded by toys, fighting over that one toy that they both MUST have, to know that greed is hardwired into our brains—we are greedy long before we even know what money is. And if we feel we’ve worked for something, that we’ve earned it, that we deserve it, then greed can dig in its heels and refuse to share our toy with the other kids, no matter how many toys we own.
Most of us learn about money management from our parents—whether they try to teach us or not. My parents grew up in poverty and worked hard to escape. Luckily, they existed in a golden age of prosperity, a magical bubble when lack of education was not an obstacle to a good job and the cost of living had not yet zoomed past the average income. They were good savers with a goal: buckle down and acquire wealth.
And then my dad’s younger brother died.
My dad used to tell me the story of how, walking out of his brother’s funeral, he turned to my mom and said, “If we want to go on a vacation, we’re going on a vacation.” That event changed everything for my parents. While they never wasted money or were frivolous with their spending, they also did not deny themselves the pleasures of a family trip to Disneyland, a new car now and then, some of the “trinkets” Mom adored, or home renovations. Mom, in particular, was a stickler for the “new”. Her daughters would never wear secondhand clothing!
I grew up not in wealth, per se, but in prosperity. My “normal” was that you buy new clothes when you want, go on vacations when you want, buy toys when you want, and eat as much food as you want. I was never included in discussions of money or finances. I was not required to do chores or given an allowance. I did, at least, understand that a good job and hard work was a necessity but I left home at the age of 18 with virtually no money management skills.
I am lousy with money. With the exception of a brief period between the time I left my first husband and the year I started making really good money as a stunt person, I have always been bad at saving and delayed gratification. So when I did start making oodles of money, I was a prime target for greed.
You know how you hear about lottery winners who are broke within a year? Crazy, right? I used to think that too but now I know better.
Managing money, budgeting, financial planning and discipline, these are all skills that, for most of us, must be learned and practiced. Think of it this way: If you have no knowledge of canning, drying or preserving food, not to mention the tools for those tasks, what would you do if someone dropped off dump truck load of fruit and vegetables on your doorstep? You’d eat some, put some in your fridge, and give the rest away. Some of it might even go rotten but what are you supposed to do about that? The person who understands how to preserve large quantities of food, however, they would get to work making sure such a bounty lasted them for years to come. Money is no different. If you don’t know how to preserve it, if you lack those tools, you will waste it.
I was 28 when I had my breakout year in stunts. Almost overnight I went from making just above poverty level income to six figures. Then I met Fred, who was much more established than me in the business, and thus made even more money. Eventually I moved in with him and rented out my little condo. For the first time since leaving home at the age of 18, I had more money than I needed.
If you had told 18-year-old me, the young woman who often had to raid her spare change jar to make rent, that one day I would be frivolous with my money, she would have told you to get stuffed. But there I was with my dump truck load of fruits and vegetables and not a can or jar in sight.
I wasn’t greedy in the sense that I refused to share my money. Quite the opposite. I loved buying things for people, treating people for dinner, surprising Fred with a night in a luxury hotel room, etc. It brought me so much joy to finally be able to buy my family nice Christmas and birthday presents. I loved giving to charities, sponsoring friends for fundraising events without a second thought, hiring local business people for housecleaning, lawn maintenance, and other chores we could afford to not do ourselves. Where greed kicked in—and greed is insidious this way—is that I started to believe the money would never end, I started to believe I deserved what I had, and I started to want…more. Like the Queen song I had once belted out at the top of my lungs, I wanted it all, and I wanted it now! I was drunk on money.
The hangover was a killer.
Greed is also infectious. I worked with a small group of people who made as much, or far more, money as I did. Stunt people are by nature a bit arrogant. You have to have some degree of that quality to do a job with a 100% injury rate and where the possibility of death is omnipresent. Stunt people also tend to be highly competitive. Combine those qualities and you end up with a group of people not only pushing each other in training but also playing a game of one-upmanship with grown-up toys. And when you’re a newcomer trying to fit in, you jump right into the game with both feet.
There was one exchange that has stuck with me across the years. Two of the most A of the A level stunt people told a story of how they had stopped for dinner while on the road. The restaurant was mediocre and the wine list was dismal (by their standards). They ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon because that was closest thing to decent champagne on offer. It was also the most expensive bottle on the menu. The waiter responded enthusiastically. He asked them what they were celebrating. One of the pair responded, “Because we’re thirsty.” And when they told this story we all laughed—silly waiter.
I laughed because I was desperate to fit in. I laughed because the way they told the story was funny. But when I look back I see clearly how this was one big step down the path of greed for me. I’ve been that waiter. I’ve been the person who can barely make rent for her shitty apartment that she shares with two other roommates while some entitled, wealthy prick makes a snarky, derisive joke at her expense.
Greed re-shaped my “normal”. I started to believe that poor people in North America, for the most part, just weren’t trying hard enough. I started to turn a blind eye to the role luck and timing had played in my life and the privileges I had enjoyed as a middle class, able bodied, heterosexual, English speaking, white person. Most of all, I lost touch with the person who had been that waiter.
It all went away, of course. If you’ve been reading these Coconut Chronicles for any length of time you know that life in the post-stunt world, has been a series of ups and downs. I’d like to tell you my experience made me better with money. It didn’t. Well, maybe somewhat better but I think I will always carry a little piece of my parents and their belief that life is too short to deprive yourself of pleasure with me until the day I die, especially since neither my mother nor my sister lived past the age of 57. And I still like treating the people I love and supporting other artists and charities, even when I know I can’t afford it—that may be the one aspect of my former glory days that I can’t let go of. But I did shake the greed.
Oh, man, it feels good to be free from that.
Greed is insidious, infectious and cancerous—it eats away at you from the inside. I can say, with complete honesty, that no part of me feels I “deserve” any material thing any longer. I see money for what it is: stress relief. That’s it, pure and simple. If you can afford to pay your bills, buy food, pay for necessary medicine, keep a roof over your head, and access reliable transportation to get you where you need to go, then most of life’s biggest concerns are covered.
I need very little to be happy these days.
Which is why the thing that happened on Thursday still has me in a state of shock.
My crazy, wonderful, loving, goofball of a husband surprised me with a new SUV.
We’ve been a one vehicle household for years, until I took over my dad’s 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue when he died. The Olds is sure nothing fancy but I loved having my own wheels again and I loved that each time I sat in that car I thought about my dad. At no point did I feel like I needed a better car, or a new car. As long as the Olds was running, I was happy.
It’s kind of cute! (And it’s for sale)
I know why Fred bought me this new SUV. I know how happy it makes him to treat his wife after years of financial uncertainty and I adore him for it. The SUV is red (he held out for a red one because he knew that’s my fave vehicle colour)and shiny and full of bells and whistles. Every time I get in, I feel like I’m borrowing someone else’s nice new car. It doesn’t feel real. I think it’s going to be a while before it sinks in that it is mine.
This is the second new vehicle I have ever owned and the difference between the two experiences is stark. When I bought my new truck, I wanted to show it off to everyone, I wanted to shout from the rooftops that I had money and could afford a new vehicle. This time, I feel almost a bit embarrassed, a bit guilty, like this is more than I need or deserve. Surely there are many, many more people who deserve this car more than I do. What I want to shout from the rooftops is that I love my husband for even wanting to do this for me. The SUV is nice but it’s his love that is valuable—priceless—to me.
What I am also feeling is vigilant. I don’t want to take this for granted. I don’t want to ever be that person again, the one who laughs when the fortunate mistreat the people they see as beneath them, the one who thinks she’s special because she has a shiny red truck, the one who complains about people on welfare abusing the system and wasting her precious tax dollars. I do not want to be greedy. Not today. Not ever.
I love my husband. Not because he bought me an SUV but because he is the kind of man who wants more than anything to see his wife happy. I love my husband because after almost 19 years together he can still surprise me.
I do still want it all.
Friends, family, love and fulfillment, I want them all and I want them for all of us.