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Originally published Friday, September 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

A nagging compulsion to move up or get left behind

The richest girl I knew growing up lived in a house with a swimming pool out back. This was a notable luxury in a small Snohomish County...

Newhouse News Service

The richest girl I knew growing up lived in a house with a swimming pool out back. This was a notable luxury in a small Snohomish County town full of modest homes, with backyards more likely to sport a dog on a chain than a shimmering, tiled pool.

This pool opened my mind to the idea of disposable income, of buying things you don't need and your neighbors can't afford. It was like meeting the devil himself, in a swimsuit and a smile.

I've been running from that devil ever since. He's not impressed by swimming pools anymore. And as wealthy people find new ways to stretch my imagination, neither am I.

The richest girls I knew in college came from bigger cities than mine, places like Seattle and Bellevue. They had beach houses and ski cabins, and their parents owned companies rather than worked for them.

One of these girls, a friend of mine, liked poking fun at my hometown.

She called it white trash, which confused me. I thought of my town as middle class, and white trash as the slightly smaller town up the road.

These girls said other things that boggled my mind. "The cabin's getting redone," for example. Or, "My parents are back in Europe." They talked as though second homes and regular foreign travel were part of ordinary life.

Over time, I believed them.

After college I worked on luxury yachts for a while, and the devil worked beside me as a deckhand. It was a world of white carpets and crystal carafes; of fresh flowers, insured jewelry and gleaming teak rails. Some of the yacht owners flew in private jets. Others merely flew first class.

To my surprise, they didn't seem happier than regular people.

This oddly comforting idea made working as their servant tolerable. And it sustained me later on, living in downtown Seattle during the dot-com era and watching people in their 20s become millionaires.

One morning, for example, a rumpled guy who lived in my building announced in the elevator that he'd struck it rich.

"Now I can move out of this dump," he said.

He stretched lazily and adjusted the ball cap over the horns on his head. That day I saw my beloved First Hill condo through his eyes: dark hallways, shabby laundry room, dingy mail center and all.

I started poring over the real-estate section and want ads soon after. It wasn't an obsession or anything. Just a nagging need to move up or get left behind.

Portland was still semi-affordable at the time. So I moved to Oregon, bought a house and spent a solid year gloating about owning a washer and dryer. The ability to do laundry at any hour, without coin-op, was a significant improvement in my quality of life.

Then the devil stopped by with a welcome basket and a little gossip. The neighbors have central air, he said. The people down the street have a landscaper. The couple across the way buy gourmet cheese at Zupan's for $12 a pound. They also use doggie day care, their bathroom is tiled and their wine collection is amazing.

I almost cried myself to sleep on the futon couch.

My parents did their best to inoculate me during childhood against feelings of greed and envy. My father explained that many people who live high on the hog are actually swamped in debt. Or they've saved nothing for old age. He was a tax accountant, so he had some authority on this.

My mother did her part by ignoring me when I begged at various ages for a canopy bed, a horse, a cockatiel, a waterbed, designer jeans, a yellow Volkswagen bug and a perm. I explained to her, in detail, how my life would improve with each of these items. She barely looked up from her newspaper.

Turns out my parents were more interested in what we kids needed than what we might have wanted. So they gave us a college education, a work ethic and all of the love they could spare.

Most of the time, this was more than enough.

But still the devil trails behind me, flicking his tail against the neighbor's fence.

He follows me into open houses in fancy neighborhoods, where I stare at the sunken tubs like a child seeing the ocean for the first time. He admires the Audis on the freeway, then sniffs at my car. He asks why I don't at least get cable.

I tell him every Sunday, after he hands me the real-estate section, that a $1.3 million Irvington stunner would not mean a better life; it would mean more housecleaning. In response, he reads aloud a story about the erosion of the middle class and looks at me pointedly.

He loves selling the American dream as a scarce commodity. He loves hinting if I don't try harder to be rich, I'll end up poor.

This is why we have the same conversation now as we did 25 years ago, next to the swimming pool of a girl whose face I barely remember. I tell him I'm blessed with everything I need. He laughs and says, in a voice as old as money, that's not enough.

Susan A. Nielsen, former editorial writer and columnist for The Seattle Times, is an associate editor at The Oregonian of Portland. She can be contacted at susannielsen@news.oregonian.com

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