Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Remembering the Millionaire

Remember John Beresford Tipton? Michael Anthony? In the late 1950s, television's The Millionaire featured stories about ordinary folks who received a cashier's check for one million dollars. The check, issued by the wealthy Tipton, was delivered by his earnest assistant, Michael Anthony. Each recipient signed an agreement never to disclose the donor's identity except to his or her spouse.

Some of these stories had happy endings. The money helped people improve their lot, realize a dream, or get treatment for an illness. But what I remember is that most of their lives got worse. Turning up with sudden unexplained wealth made others suspicious, jealous, or even vengeful. As the Michael Anthony character explained each week, Tipton made a hobby of observing human behavior. I came to believe that he was more curious than generous, and that perhaps he expected the worst.

My mother always pointed out that money cannot buy happiness, and eventually I came to understand that happiness comes chiefly from one's way of looking at life. But I also know that sometimes a little money can make life easier, or more fun.

Peter and I play the lottery. Two actually. We buy a single ticket twice a week for the Power Ball and Mega Millions. When we started 20 years ago, we promised ourselves that ours would be a success story. We know what real happiness is. We make good decisions about money. We wouldn't let a jackpot ruin our lives. I still think that's true, despite whatever complications might come along. I doubt, for example, that he'd turn in the winning ticket and disappear with all the cash.

When we started out, I really just wanted to win the minimum jackpot, which was then $5 million before taxes, so I could retire early and we'd have some retirement security. Now the minimum Power Ball jackpot is $20 million, and besides, I'm already retired. This requires thinking a bit more creatively.

I used to say I'd buy an extra set of season tickets to the ballet--two seats for my friend Carol and me and the two in front of us to keep the view clear. Peter has simple wants: he'd have his sweatpants custom-tailored.

We figured we'd keep our comfortable little house, but joked that we'd buy out the next-door neighbors and use their (nearly identical) house for storage. And of course we'd hire some help...someone to clean, someone to help with yard and garden work, and a driver so we'd never again have to get into a stone-cold car. Peter doesn't like travel, but we did think we might keep a warm-weather condo somewhere, maybe New Orleans. Once Abby married and had children, we added new goals: we'd help Abby and Eric pay off their mortgage and set up college funds for the kids.

You can see a theme here. Basically, we've always thought in terms of keeping our lives just the same, but with a few new conveniences.

All the talk about last week's record $540 million Mega Millions jackpot got us thinking again. If we won, even the most conservative investment could provide a very nice living for the rest of our lives, and Abby's, and the grandkids.' With that much money, Abby suggested, she might want a new house with a big kitchen where she could do her cooking and baking in comfort. Peter and I could plan for a time when we might not be able to negotiate the stairs in this house, finding just the right (and slightly posh) one-story place.

Then, too, if we won big money we could support our favorite charities more dramatically. We've put nearly 25 years into saving, restoring, operating, and raising funds for the old State Fair Carousel, now known as Cafesjian's Carousel. We have a hundred volunteers every season, but we don't know how we'll replace our own commitment to the leadership of the organization (not at all a glamorous preoccupation, just a very demanding one with some intangible rewards). So if we won big we'd probably make it a priority to endow an executive director position.

I'd also give something to Macalester College, where I worked for 28 years. A room in the new fine arts facility, for example, or an endowed professorship. I admire anonymous donors, but in this case I wouldn't be one; I'd want my name--or Peter's and mine--memorialized on the campus where I worked for such a long time.

When we started playing the lottery, we chose a set of numbers based, like so many other folks, on our birth dates. For the power ball we chose a number associated with the carousel. Because we play the same numbers every week, we didn't dare NOT buy a ticket. We told friends, only half-joking, that if we didn't have a ticket and our numbers won, we'd have to kill ourselves. If we're every having to choose between lottery tickets and food or medicine, of course, all bets are off. Literally. But in the meantime it's fun to play, and fun to imagine.


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