Embarrassment of riches 


There are two pieces of paper, one in my wallet and one sitting ignored on a diner counter. By themselves they aren't worth jack. But I'm convinced that, like the triangles in "South Park," when brought together they could infuse each other with magic.

One is a newspaper containing the winning Lotto numbers; the other is my ticket for the $76 million jackpot. I can say, "I know I'll never win," but that is a bluff -- you don't stick out your mitt unless you want to catch the ball, and you don't buy Lotto tickets because you're so cocksure you're a loser. So screw the phony stoicism. I'm not Spock, I'm not Gandhi, and I care if I win. But for now I just want what's in the space between the ticket and the paper -- the anticipation, the vinegar-laced candy of "not yet," that will let me wonder a little longer.

At a loss

At a loss

Ever have anyone blow the match out just before you light your cigarette? That's what Gwen does to my plans for wealth. "You wouldn't be any different from how you are now," she says. I want to turn into a jet-setting, diamond-dripping, silicone-sculpted, San Tropez-tanned, entouraged, paparazzied cipher, coached in the malnourished narcissism that passes for a hedonistic life, smothering my Neely O'Hara fits of raging emptiness with another Prozac shooter, and oh my, isn't it time to pop off to Mallorca for the squid races? Leave it to Gwen to supersoak my dreams of operatic self-destruction by reminding me I'm lying. Gwen could spot a load of crap in a plowed field from a cruising aircraft. I secretly make her my investment czar. But aside from that smart move and a few vague indulgences, I wouldn't know what to do with that much money. I'd be as useless as those people whose computers turned into $2,000 clocks.

Most people give you the Rikki Guest Head Swivel and say, "Hell, I know what to do with money." Yeah, and you could fly a 747 because you can drive a Ford Escort. If wealth were a solid state you wouldn't see people like MC Hammer go broke a heartbeat after their flash of success. If success were easy, everyone would do it, and do it better.

Monty Python once did a sketch pleading for help for one of the world's most misunderstood minorities: the extremely wealthy. These poor fortunate souls, laboring under the burden of so much cash, had problems the rest of us could not even begin to understand. It was a good joke because it was so ridiculous. Which, of course, means that it has now become a reality. There is a support group of sorts for the rich -- started by someone named Mogil, no less.

Money for nothing

Chris Mogil and Anne Slepian started Impact Project eight years ago to help people cope with the sudden appearance in their lives of money -- inherited, won, married or earned. Having been blessed with a bang themselves, the pair behind the nonprofit group know the pitfalls of having your dreams come true.

"I was a working stiff all my life," says Ruth Ann Harnisch in a phone interview from her 59th-floor Manhattan apartment. An Impact volunteer and "recovering journalist," Ruth Ann went from a reporting job so low-paying she qualified for food stamps to a six-figure income to becoming the wife of a wealthy man.

Apparently, the mines buried in the field of green include guilt, the resentment of friends, and the feeling that you're supposed to be idle and purposeless because you can be. Also, you might not give any money away for fear of being screwed out of all of it, not do any good with it for fear of being screwed out of all of it, and not enjoy it for fear of being screwed out of all of it. "Some people have a fame-shaped hole" in their souls, Ruth Ann says, "some have a money-shaped hole," driving them on with an ache that might be wonderful but will never be as fulfilling as a "a meaningful, purposeful life filled with loving relationships." That is, a real life.

"I would never pretend driving a BMW is not more fun than driving my old clunker," she says, having lived the adage that she's been rich and she's been poor and rich is better. But doing something that will involve you rather than indulge you is key to not ending up the wasted cripple I imagined I'd be, dumb enough to throw away something we all dream of because I wouldn't know how to take some control of it. Ruth Ann's greatest recent joy was not one that Robin Leach would describe like a lecherous race-caller; it was helping build a Habitat for Humanity house. Mogil says it's the creative use of money that can help you do good, not just do well.

If I were to win the jackpot, I'd call Impact (800-255-4903; $35 for a one-year newsletter subscription). After all, I'd be so busy jetting from the Vanderbilts to the Rockefellers that I wouldn't have time to make sure the charities of my choice were on the level and the companies I'd invested in didn't run sweat shops. Impact does that kind of research. They can make you into a foundation or show you how to give just enough so the basic needs of one more kid will be met. But first I have to go put those two pieces of paper together. You'll know they matched if this column lacks a last line.

Damn.


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