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Family Cruise: Paul on Money

MONTE CARLO, Monaco - I just may be the poorest person on this ship.

I'm so poor I wrote "X" on the customs declarations form that asks how much U.S. cash I'm carrying.

I'm so poor I felt pain buying a $7.50 Rock of Gibraltar snow-globe.

Once I lost my money clip and turned scarlet when the attractive concierge at the ship's front desk confirmed, "The one with $5, sir?"

I drew some comfort in comparing what I own to people in other parts of the world—those with little more than their bodies, which have shockingly little value.

The stories of my shipmates' liquid pocketbooks never cease to amaze me. One man budgeted $80,000 to wager in the ship's casino over the course of the world cruise. A woman at my dinner table spent $10,000 on a pearl necklace in Hong Kong. In one sterling week, rumor has it the onboard jewelry shop made $400,000.

I try to digest such lavish expenditures, but ultimately fail to understand the decisions behind them, chalking it up to yet another thing I do not comprehend about people four times my age.

But when the ship docks in Monte Carlo, I find myself surrounded by such an exorbitant amount of money that I have to look deeply into my own soul.

At first, I fear getting arrested for "not wearing any designer clothes in public," or perhaps, "failure to yield the right of way to a Mercedes." Surely just by being me, I'm breaking a multitude of Monte Carlo laws. I feel out of place. "Tourist," the residents who pass must surely think.

My generation never had a chance to learn cautious consumerism. Advertisements bombarded us on our cereal boxes, between our cartoons, and even subliminally, during our movies. All along we bought the idea that there's a better life available than the one we're living. Rap music taught us to "chase the paper" 'til we "straight-up dropped" our first Benz. Teen magazines taught us that the coolest fashions were always the newest ones. Reality television taught us to socialize with our favorite products close at hand. With the launch of Internet shopping, every second became a time to spend.

And we did, amassing credit-card debt that we'll be paying off years after graduation.

But for what?

After seeing my 12th red Lamborghini and my 60th multi-million-dollar yacht, I lose my sense of estrangement. These people have seized the "better" life promised by advertisers, but they don't seem any happier. They seem bored. They seem silly—grown men and women still playing with toys.

Two filthy-mouthed European 20-somethings talk about how wasted they got last night. A model picks her wedgie while exiting a Maserati. A man in a tuxedo drops a scallop from his lips.

If Monte Carlo illustrates the supposed pinnacle of life, and its people are still spending to acquire an even better life, then doesn't that mean there can ultimately be no "better" life? Money breeds fantasy.

The better life, the best life, is the one we're living now.

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