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.

We still think this is the polite way to go…

DC2 had another birthday.  The in-laws were extremely generous again.

Unfortunately, with DC2, unlike with DC1 (who is the oldest grandkid), they’ve been getting hir (grandkid #5/6) a lot of what we consider to be inappropriate stuff or just stuff zie doesn’t want.  When DC1 was younger, there was always too much, but it was generally appreciated.

We think this is because DC2 has a same-gendered cousin who is about a year older whose parents have, without going into detail, very different viewpoints about uh, bringing up children.  So DC2 has started getting things that DC2’s cousin loves but that DC2 is either completely uninterested in because zie’s not into that kind of tv show, or that we are not interested in because we teach the opposite of those values.

Initially we were just giving the former to DC2 because we were often wrong about what we perceived to be DC1’s interests, but in DC2’s case, we were right–those toys would be opened and played with once and then never again.  The latter we’d send back to Amazon if we could or put in the gift closet for future birthday party gifts if we couldn’t or if it wasn’t worth sending back.  Last Christmas they gave DC2 4 different versions of the same toy (all of which were displayed prominently on hir cousin’s amazon list) and all of which we gave to toys for tots because DC2 wasn’t playing with the figure zie already had.

This birthday when MIL asked what DC2 wanted, I made an amazon list.  DH told her that DC2 is really into Batman and My Little Pony and Powerpuff Girls and Bubble Guppies.  (But did not explicitly say, no, zie is really not into the shows that hir cousin is into.)  And some of those items made it into DC2’s haul this year, but so did unwanted items, and this time a couple of really expensive such items.

Since we make a lot more money than we used to, it no longer bothers me to get a $45 toy that is both age inappropriate and our-values inappropriate.  It just gets saved up for toys for tots come Christmas time.  [It used to get saved for birthday parties (though I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about that since these are things we would never buy for someone), but there’s been a lot fewer of those lately, and when they do happen they’re “no gift” or “give to this charity” parties instead.]

On top of that, when we remove the unwanted items from the gift pile, DC2 is left with a much more reasonable number of gifts.  So it’s not like we want replacement stuff instead of the expensive unwanted stuff.  Just, you know, less stuff.

We don’t know how to bring this up to the in-laws, so we don’t.  Beyond saying what DC2 actually wants, putting together an amazon list, highlighting gifts zie’s enjoyed and not much mentioning the rest, I don’t think additional feedback is really wanted.

How do you deal with extraneous or unwanted gifts?

Ask the grumpies: If you were a supercommittee with superpowers where would you start reducing the federal government budget?

chacha1 asks

If you were the supercommittee, with actual governmental superpowers, where would you start with reducing the federal government’s budget so that we could actually start reducing the national debt without condemning the nation’s poor to starvation, homelessness, and/or death from preventable illnesses and workplace injuries?

Well, the answer to this would depend a lot on how much power said supercommittee had.  Like, does what we say become law?  Does it have to be voted on?  What happens when people protest?  And so on.

Here I’m going to assume that the committee has the power to force through legislation and people just have to lump it, but doesn’t have supernatural powers to change the hearts and behaviors of people.  We make the laws, they try to get around them.  They can’t vote us out.  In any case, some really easy cuts would be to go with evidence-based policy.

Note:  We may not actually *want* to reduce spending when times are bad because even just throwing money out of a plane over a city is better than reducing spending.  So I’ll assume that in those situations the money saved goes to feed kids, fix infrastructure, fund education, stimulate important research, and otherwise fix the economy in ways that are good for our long-term growth.

So easy things:

  1. Phase out the mortgage benefit– this benefit does not encourage homeownership, only overconsumption of houses
  2. Phase out the SS tax cap
  3. Completely eliminate ridiculous agricultural subsidies that are making us fat.
  4. Examine the corporate tax code– this is hard because there’s a lot to be cut, but there is a real worry that corporations will move things overseas, so it’s not just a slam-dunk.  I’m sure more educated folks than I have better ideas.
  5. Go with the Poterba policy recommendations for stream-lining the tax code so that there are fewer loopholes for extremely high earners (this is essentially expanding the alternative minimum tax system)
  6. Make stock earnings taxed as income (or otherwise make it so the Buffett tax hits people who own American stocks)
  7. Cut inefficient military spending, replace it with efficient military spending or infrastructure spending so as not to hurt communities dependent on the industry (possibly phasing out plants)
  8. I’m not so good at foreign policy, but there’s a lot that can be done to decrease our spending in this arena without jeopardizing our national security.  We need more focus on doing things with coalitions rather than unilaterally.  And we do need to help out more like with the Syrian refugee crisis.
  9. Cut foreign policy aid to Israel and possibly to Egypt.
  10. Cut some Medicare spending– allow Medicare better bargaining power, allow outcomes from experiments to influence policy, cut some doctor reimbursement (but not to Medicaid levels)
  11. Allow federal funds to fund abortions.
  12. Add a public option to health care with an eye towards eventually transitioning to single payer health care (this will actually cost money and we’ll have to pay more taxes but it is good for efficiency).

There’s probably a lot I’m forgetting.  In my work office I have a chart of government spending, but I don’t have one off the top of my head here.

How did you learn how to handle making meals?

Specifically, I mean the entire process of procuring and preparing food.

DH’s relative’s household is currently having trouble because the wife in the family got brain cancer, had brain surgery (has an amazingly good prognosis, considering) and can no longer do all of the stereotypical wife things that she had been doing.  That leaves DH’s relative and remaining 3 kids at home completely helpless when it comes to meals.  She did all the menu planning, grocery shopping, and cooking.  Since she got sick, they’ve been eating a lot of rice and beans because they’re income limited and that’s all he really knows how to make.  He also has to work overtime to pay for everything so it’s not like he has a lot of time and ability to put into the process.  He says he’s pretty terrible at it.

He does have three teenage kids at home who are perfectly capable of taking on some of this work.  Which my DH suggested.

So with the relative’s permission we sent the kids a copy of our favorite easy to use cookbook for beginners without a lot of money (unfortunately Faster! is out of print) with instructions to double the recipes, along with a giftcard from Walmart (which is their local grocery store) for $100.  To give them practice menu planning with a budget.  I don’t know if it will do any good, but maybe it will.

I learned how to use grocery circulars for sales, how to build up a pantry, and how to comparison shop at a very young age.  My father would take me to the market and show me the process he went through.  I learned cooking from both my parents and have a repertoire of both of their weeknight meals.  At a slightly older age I took over cooking a few nights a week and once I got a driver’s license I was in charge of a portion of the grocery shopping.  (Before then I would occasionally be sent on my bike or by foot to get missing ingredients if necessary.)  I experimented with recipes and menu planning during long boring summers.

DH never really learned how to shop or cook until he married me.  In college he spent one year on the meal plan and then survived the remaining three years with a combination of eating out at cheap restaurants (usually Schlotzky’s and Pizza Hut) and getting free day-old bagels from the bagel place next door to his dorm.  After marriage I showed him how to comparison shop because when you’re living in a city and using public transportation, shopping requires muscle.  At first, I did most of the cooking, but one day when he asked me to make (my father’s) chili for him, I realized that that was probably something he should learn to do himself.  So I taught him.  Then he taught himself more.  Then he took a cooking class to get better knife skills.  Now he’s a better chef than I am.

We’ve been teaching DC1 to cook, and when I remember I try to show hir how to comparison shop even though we don’t really do that much anymore (we have our favorite brands and can afford them).   Being able to eat cheaply is pretty freeing, especially when you’re starting out and so much of your disposable income is going to food.

How did you learn how to procure/prepare food?  Do you do it the same way that you learned?  If not, what has changed?

August’s mortgage payment and rejiggering the emergency fund

Last month (July):
Years left: 0.666666666667
P =$1,175.46, I =$38.94, Escrow =$812.79

This month (August):
Years left: 0.5833333333333333
P =$1,180.12, I =$34.29, Escrow =$812.79

This is the first time in a long while that we’re not saving up for something big.  DH may lose his job, because jobs aren’t guaranteed, but he’s not planning on leaving his job any time soon.  I’m not eligible for leave for another 5+ years.  There’s not really any reason to hold onto large amounts of cash.  Certainly not the 84K that we ended up having in savings before we left for Paradise.

DH’s salary is also substantive enough and year round enough that we don’t really have a long unpaid summer like we used to.  I think we will be spending more than his take-home pay in the summer, especially since that’s when a bunch of our big annual bills come due (mostly insurance), but there’s a big difference between being a little short and having literally no summer income.  We don’t have to have quite as big a chunk come May as we used to.

On top of that, we were paying a year’s tuition of daycare and/or salary in September, about a month before we got paid so we needed money for that as well.  We’re no longer doing that because DC1 is going to public school and we no longer trust daycares to not go out of business.

Previously I mentally partitioned our savings account into “summer expenses” for the 3 summer months without income, “DC1 tuition”, “DC1 summer camp”, “DC2 daycare”, and “emergency fund”.

This year I’m going to try something different.  I’m going to try to maintain 21K in savings all year round and call it the “emergency fund”.  I won’t save extra from each paycheck for summer expenses leading to a gradually increasing savings amount.  I’m just going to have 21K in there.  I will allow it to dip below that during the summer, but I’ll try to keep it above, say 14K.  If DH loses his job or something, then we’ll sell some stocks, but otherwise 21K should get us through until the next paycheck(s).

It occurs to me that if I weren’t lazy and if rates weren’t so low, it would make a lot of sense to put that 21K into a 9mo CD or into a three month ladder of CDs that come due.

Where did I get the number 21K?  Well, mostly I just pulled it out of my posterior region, but IIRC, it’s about 3 months of expenses (when we’re not living in Paradise) when we’re living large and then some.  It is also enough to cover pretty much any major emergency other than a car purchase.

What will we do with the rest of our income?  No idea!  Maybe we’ll figure something out next month after everything has settled down.  Right now I’m leaning towards lumps to a taxable Vanguard account, but first I will need to drive my car for a month to see if it needs to be replaced.

What are you all doing for an emergency fund these days?  Does how much cash you have in savings change over time?

What happened when I complained about my low salary

And by low, I mean low compared to similar and some worse-published (men) in my department and field. (I am making more than the non-research active people in my dept).  I am still incredibly privileged and my salary still leaves me a little shocked.

Still, even if I’m making more money than I ever dreamed of as a child, I should still be paid fairly.

And I wasn’t.  So I complained up and down in my annual review.  I talked about my cv and the work I do for the dept and the fact that although I have never gone on the market, people ask me to apply to schools.  I complained about how my (male) colleague who used to have the same salary that I did whose cv is similar to mine (but not quite as good) is making quite a bit more than I am despite his never having gotten an outside offer.  I mentioned the fact that I’m making less than our new hires straight out of grad school, even though all the male associate profs are making quite a bit more.

So my chair and dean talked and they agreed.  They noted that although I didn’t have the lowest salary in the dept, I’m in the bottom 20%, and I noted that of the people making less than me, none of them are research active.

They can’t give more than 10% raises a year without something extraordinary happening.  So they said I get 10% this year and if I complain again they will do their best to give me 10% next year.  If I want more I would need to go on the market because they are allowed to match outside offers.  He also mentioned that I was one of two women in the dept with this complaint and she would also be getting the same deal (pretty sure the other one makes just a little more than I do and also has an obviously better cv than the above-mentioned guy).

So where does this put me?  After the first raise I’ll *still* be making about 7K less than the male colleague mentioned above is making this year.  Presumably he’ll get a raise this year as well.  So I’ll still be behind.  But 10% is better than 3% (is better than 2% is better than 0%).

I probably should go on the market, but I’d prefer not to.  Still, I’ll probably actually look at the listings this year even though I usually don’t.

So… is there a moral?  Well, sometimes complaining works.  If it doesn’t work, then it might not be a place worth staying.

Income/wealth inflection points

On a previous post I note that it’s easier to spend money on things when you’re making say, 300K per year compared to 100K per year, not that I would know about the 300K from personal experience.

In the comments this got into a discussion of how life would be different at different levels of income.  And something I said was that although I have a good idea of how our lives would change were we making 250K/year, I don’t actually have any idea how life would be different between 250K and 300K.  Based on our current income, I can’t really fathom how life would change past like 250K.

Of course, in graduate school, I couldn’t fathom a joint income of 100K/year or more.  At like 90K, all our money would be accounted for and we’d have no worries.  Anything higher than that just didn’t register.  But within a few years after getting real jobs (and a house and kids) it became pretty obvious what more we would do if we were making a combined say, 200K/year.  These days I can understand 250K/year (even if we’re not making it), but I’m not sure how much more than that we would need to make for our lives to change.

Obviously at some point we’d have enough to buy a house in Paradise and we might move there.  (In fact, with 250K/year, we’d be able to buy a house in paradise so long as we either had job security or savings after we sold our current place.)  At some point we could have a highly paid personal assistant to just deal with life details.  And at some point we’d have so much it would be irresponsible not to set up a charitable foundation.  But when does that happen?  At what income?  At what wealth level?

Completely unfathomable to me.  I get upper middle class now.  But I don’t get “rich”.  (But I’m willing to accept funding to try it out!)

What’s the infimum in the set of money that’s more than you understand?  (Or do I mean maximum in the set of money that you do understand?  Help me miser-mom! … I think they’re the same.)  That is to say, what’s the inflection point in money where you’re like, well, I know how my life would change with $X, but how would $X + Y be different from just X, I have no idea.  Or more concretely, what’s the number for you that you would say, well I know how my life would change if I were making $250K, but I don’t have any idea how $300K is different from $250K.  Do you have multiple of these inflection points or are you short sighted like I am?  Are they based on income or wealth or both?


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