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.

Getting it Together

So my partner and I are trying to be grownups now (sort of…) since we’re pushing 40 years old.  We decided to work on our health together.

We want to eat healthier.  For me, that means less pasta and more vegetables.  I’m not a vegetarian but my partner is.  We decided to try cooking healthier at home with the aid of Purple Carrot (because we have money).  We’ll let you know how it goes.  We both have doubts but we’re willing to try it.  Other meal prep/delivery services like Blue Apron seemed to have much worse options for vegetarians.

Here’s what we resolved.

He will pay for most of the food and be in charge of cooking it twice per week.  I will make sure we get the food box from the apartment complex’s leasing office (where it will be delivered if we’re not home) before the office closes on delivery day, and be in charge of cooking it once per week.  We will both help cook on all 3 days per week — currently scheduled for Wed, Fri, Sun.  The email comes to me so I can choose if we want to skip a week or pause.

The long weekend of July 4, we will clean the kitchen together so we can start cooking that week.

Also, we might exercise more.  He commits to working out before work 3 days per week, in our apartment building’s fitness room.  I can’t do early mornings probably, but I am considering (at his suggestion) starting with a 30-minute walk 3 times per week while listening to a podcast.

Also I need to look into getting our couch restuffed so it has more back support.

We’re old, Grumpeteers, but we’re working together.  Wish us luck!

Have you done any life-improvement projects with your partner?  how did they turn out?

Where do I get my research ideas?

This year I have been giving an awful lot of talks.  Along with these talks, I’ve been meeting with a lot of graduate grad students during my visit.  A  common question I get when I meet with a group of students (you know, the ones with free time) is how I get my research ideas.  This usually comes from students who are floundering without a dissertation topic.  I thought I’d write up my answer.

  1. First, I get ideas from my contrarian nature.  Perhaps it’s my math training, but I am always looking for a counter-example, I am always questioning statements taken to be true.  My own job market paper topic, in fact, was a reaction from a statement one of my professors had made in a second-year class that struck me as possibly not true and when I looked into it, I found very little research on the topic.  I figured out how to test it better than the one or two previous papers, and voila, an amazing paper.
  2. Another place to get ideas that haven’t been worked on over and over is to think about your own unique experiences.  This can be something as broad as thinking about your own female perspective on sexist things that your male-dominated field takes for granted (ex. all the new research coming out showing that women aren’t irrational, they’re just working under different constraints) or as specific as a public program that not many people know about but you know lots about because your grandfather was on it.  You have lots of unique things that you bring to your discipline.  Think about what they are.  Think about who you know.  Look at the broader world around you and question it.
  3. It is ok to start out feeling like you keep coming up with ideas that have already been done– when I started out, it seemed like when I started the lit review I’d find that the exact paper I wanted to write had been written 10 years ago.  But my next idea had been published 3 years ago.  And the one after that, maybe just out.  Eventually I started coming up with ideas that were working papers.  And then new papers.  You may also find yourself in the situation where you’re half done with a paper and it seems like you’ve just been scooped– but you haven’t been really– it is unlikely your paper is identical to this other one and if it is, you can still change things, pursue different directions, answer some things better, etc. to differentiate it.  You want to be working in a hot field because it means your question is important.  See if you can create conference panels with this other paper.
  4. It gets a lot easier once you’ve gotten immersed.  After you’ve started a project, you start realizing there are huge gaps in the literature– things you really need to know now in order to fully answer your question but that are themselves their own projects.  You’ll also come up with new questions that your project has provided you… if this is true, then why this other thing?
  5. If you don’t do a perfect job, that means future people will fill in the gaps in your literature later!  It’s kind of exciting seeing people do a better job than you did because they are taking your paper as a starting point.  You know, so long as they cite you.

Where do you get your ideas?  What advice would you give current graduate students looking for inspiration?

Part 4 of writing series: Hope

This part’s about treating writer’s block and being more productive.

Here are the other parts of the series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a class.  If you’re my boss or co-worker (or mom), please don’t tell anybody my secret identity  :-) 

The paper is about a topic near and dear to us here on this blog: how to be a more productive writer.  These sections are mostly unedited, but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

Text behind the cut, for lengthiness.  (snerk.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Part 2 of Writing Productivity: Quick starters

Part 1 is herePart 3 is herePart 4.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a class.  If you’re my boss or co-worker (or mom), please don’t tell anybody my secret identity  :-)

The paper is about a topic near and dear to us here on this blog: how to be a more productive writer.

These sections are mostly unedited [they could use it but this is a blog post], but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

In part 1 I talked about what ‘writer’s block’ might be.  In part 2, I discuss its opposite.  It’s behind the cut (for length).

Read the rest of this entry »

Part 1 of a series: Writing productivity

Hey, a series!  Wow, it’s gonna be terrific.  Starring everybody, and me!

Part 2Part 3.

What follows is a series of chunks from a paper I wrote for a thing.  If you’re my boss or co-worker (or mom), please don’t tell anybody my secret identity  :-)

The paper is about a topic near and dear to us here on this blog: how to be a more productive writer.  Stay tuned for lit review extravaganza.

These sections are mostly unedited, but some parts have been snipped out for snappier reading (hahaha!).

Because these are so long, they’re behind a cut.

Read the rest of this entry »

Savings, sacrifice, and the “why” question

Here’s another post pulled from drafts.  Don’t you hate it when you leave notes to yourself assuming you’re going to know what you’re talking about and then months pass and you’re like, you know, you could have just left a link.

This post was initially inspired by a number of other posts happening around the same time period.

The SHUbox had a post, ClubThrifty had a post, and retireby40 had a post, and I really should find them and link to them.  We will see if I am successful.  Spoiler:  I wasn’t.

In any case, my commentary:

Saving for early retirement if you don’t want to retire early and are unlikely to need to retire early is ridiculous.  If you’re worried about being unable to work, then get disability insurance.  Still, worry about job loss because of age discrimination, working in a failing industry, or being forced into management (and thus wanting to quit) is a bit harder, and is a valid reason to save for at least partial early retirement– enough to fund a career change.

The fact that there are early retirement posts about how to handle (early) retirement if you’re not enjoying it and how to emotionally prepare for not going to a job so you’re not unhappy suggests not that there’s something wrong with people in that situation, but that perhaps early retirement was not the right option for them.  One suspects that rather than trying to come up with ways to make retirement less soul destroying, it might be easier to just stay in one’s job.  (A related recent post from Leightpf.)

But early retirement is not the only reason to save.  I really liked Rosa’s comment on this post (here I did myself the favor and actually linked).

we asked people who did save to write down why.. Most people gave the same set of answers – for unexpected expenses, for my kids, for retirement.

A number of people were unable to answer because the idea of not having savings horrified them. Why save? Why breathe?

But one woman gave the very best answer. “For myself.” That’s all. You might not know what your future self will want to do with the money, but the money will be there for whatever it turns out to be.

We save so our future selves aren’t in dire straights in an emergency.  So we have time to focus the time after a job loss on finding a good job rather than the first job that will pay a paycheck.  So that we can quit a miserable work situation without having another lined up.  So that we can focus on a medical emergency and not the cost of said emergency.  So that a car crash doesn’t make us unable to get to work because we can’t afford alternate routes.  Or a slow reimbursement or delayed paycheck doesn’t max out our credit cards pushing us into forced credit counseling or bankruptcy.  Or to get into the fancy nursing home.

We save for opportunity.  So we can take a year off or invest in something or someone important to us without hurting our future selves.

It’s ok to find the early retirement community demotivating.  It’s even ok to find paying off student loans unmotivating.

You don’t actually have to be motivated to save, you just need to save first, and enough that you will be living a reasonable lifestyle in the event of an emergency or job-loss.  Auto-deductions can help you take care of your future self.  So that way your future self will have money when you need it, and maybe even some when you really really want it.

Do you save?  Why or why not?

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