What is culture for?

I am extremely cultured.  I know history and philosophy and I’ve read most of the classics (and can fake many of the ones I haven’t read).  I enjoy opera and theater (but not ballet or symphony, though my sister loves ballet) and old movies and classical music.  I can swim and play the piano and embroider and cook (though I was never able to get over my complete lack of artistic talent when it comes to drawing or painting or my complete boredom with ballet lessons).  #2 and I can trade Gilbert and Sullivan or PG Wodehouse jokes with ease.  I know which silverware to use at a fancy restaurant (pro-tip:  start with the outermost) and how to pretend I know what I’m talking about with wine.  Sadly I only speak two languages (English and Spanish), but I know enough French and Italian to get around as a tourist or to get most literary references without Google translate (ditto Latin).

I used to think that I had all this culture because my parents were sharing what they enjoyed, and culture was something to make it easier for me to entertain myself.  (And part of this is true– my father is a European immigrant who grew up in a fancy US coastal city, so his love of operetta patter songs is as real as his love for Jacques Brel or the Beatles.)

But a couple years ago I was rereading Penrod, by Booth Tarkington (free on Kindle).  In addition to being shocked by the casual racism and animal cruelty that I did not remember from my initial childhood reading (from my mother’s childhood hard copies), I was struck by a passage.  Penrod, who is established as having been from a middle- to lower-middle- class family, takes ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons.  A public school kid, this is the only time he rubs shoulders with the private school children of the town elite.  His mother wants to social climb.  His parents, I realized, are trying to help him advance.

Recent readers of the blog may also be aware of my current turn to regency romances.  In regencies (and in steampunk), women have “accomplishments”– somewhat useless entertainment skills such as embroidery or harp or watercolors that are class markers.  Wealthy tradespeople could send their daughters to finishing school so as to marry up into the aristocracy without embarrassing their impoverished future sons-in-law.

One of my mother’s refrains has always been, “to make you a more cultured person.”  And “to give you opportunities I didn’t have.”

I suspect that many of these skills and much of this knowledge that was poured into me may have been for the same reason we were pushed into math and science.  To improve our lot in life with the next generation.

But… Penrod was written in the 1910s.  By the time he was an adult, the parlor manners he resisted being taught along with the formal dancing would be archaic.  In Regency novels, the landed aristocracy of the early 19th century would be replaced with the age of industry and business would supplant tenant farming.  Eventually, stenography would be a more important skill for young ladies than the harp.

I always thought, growing up, that once I got to college I would meet people who were passionate about opera and history and so on.  (Note, this is one of the reasons that #2 and I hit it off right away in high school.)  But even though I went to a top small liberal arts college, that was not the case.  I would even occasionally have to explain literary references to professors in college and graduate school.  I did spread my various loves to my friends (especially those with cars!) and in return picked up passions for anime and Asian food.  High school also provided me with nerd culture in abundance adding, for example, the entire Monty Python library to my repertoire.

As an upper-middle class citizen approaching middle-age, I haven’t found my elitist skills to be particularly useful.  They still provide me joy, but to be honest, they are not shared by many people.  I don’t have much outlet for them away from the city.  When I am in a city partaking, I’m surrounded by professionally coiffed white hair.  These elite class markers are markers of a previous generation.

Times change.  Social class markers vary.  The approaching-middle-age elite who we rub shoulders with today are also first generation wealthy and formerly from the midwest.  They are not from East coast old money.  And so, my esoteric knowledge that my mother worked so hard to provide me with, those classics I was forced to read to “be a more cultured person,” were not as useful as the love of math and ambition that she also fostered.  In fact, I’m a bit out of place with them– elitist in many eyes.

But fortunately, even when it is lonely, cultural knowledge still provides personal entertainment.  It still makes jokes more funny and deepens appreciation of even modern media (since people in the film industry who direct and design are remarkably cultured themselves).  So maybe that itself is enough in this ever-changing world.

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Ask the grumpies: How much to spend on a wedding present?

Grad Advisor asks:

A colleague and I co-advised a student who graduated a couple of years ago. The student is now getting married and the colleague and I are both invited to the wedding. The colleague wants to buy a present together and split the cost, which is a great idea. The problem is that the colleague wants to buy three little-ish things that together cost $90 and split that in two. I think that’s too cheap. If we were grad students, sure, that would be a good amount, but we are both grownups with salaries and I think we should be able to buy something bigger. (I haven’t talked with the colleague about this yet as I am not sure what to say.)

How much would be customary to spend in this type of occasion? Someone told me it depends on whether they feed you or not etc. but I find it hard to believe it’s just tit for tat (i.e. I should spend no more than the price of my and my husband’s meal and drink or whatever). So what’s the etiquette?

Miss Manners definitely frowns on the idea of tit for tat.  And there really is no specific etiquette– you don’t have to buy a gift at all if you don’t want to.  I tend to give $50 in cash for friends and acquaintances and $100 in cash to family and close friends (sometimes more depending on the circumstances).  When it’s a friend who has a lot of money already, I just buy something between $45 and $80 off the registry depending on what catches my eye.  But most folks just starting out could use the money more than they can use household items, to pay off the wedding if nothing else.  (About.com has guidelines, as do many other websites.)

Honestly, you can give whatever you want.  At our wedding, we got many large checks from DH’s side for our wedding, and only trinkets from my side.  The difference being the need for social insurance in the two cultures.  If you feel like giving more than $45, then just tell your colleague that you’re planning on cutting a check, and cut the check.  Or if there’s something else you have in mind, tell the colleague you have something else in mind.

The real etiquette answer here is that you can give whatever you want, but you cannot dictate what your colleague should give.

Grumpy Nation, how much do you spend on wedding gifts?  What advice would you have for grad advisor?