Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sociological moment

Recently Jeff and I went to my cousin's very posh wedding on Cape Cod. At the rehearsal dinner, the main course was whole lobsters, antennae and all. Most of us didn't have a clue how to get at the food inside the shell. The bride stood up to demonstrate, holding her lobster tail aloft.

"You grab it like this - and you crack it like this - and then you pull the meat out."

So we poor bumpkins were educated in the haute cuisine of Cape Cod. But of course, lobster is only posh food because we think it is. If we went to a wedding in some other culture and saw the bride cracking crustaceans open with her bare hands, we'd think they were barbarians!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Two reactions

Last week I finished up work at Oxfam to start social work school. I met with HR to wrap things up, including the contributions they made to my 401(k). When I was first hired, I explained to an incredulous HR worker that I didn't want to take the money, but she said that was impossible. (I also tried refusing a salary, but that was even more impossible.) So when I met with HR last week, I mentioned how frustrating it was that I was forced to take money that I would rather Oxfam keep. The woman looked at me cooly and said, "Oh. Are you independently wealthy?"

It's the thing I think my coworkers have been wondering all along. They all have access to the database records stating that Jeff and I gave Oxfam about $40,000 last year, more than my annual salary. Two people living on less than one salary? Surely we had some advantage they didn't?

Well, other than having a husband who majored in computer science, no. I sputtered, "We're normal people with normal salaries. We just think it's really important to help people." I'm so frustrated when people believe giving a lot of your income is something only other people - rich people - can do.

So that was the nonprofit. Meanwhile, Jeff had gotten a job offer and was trying to negotiate a higher salary at the technology company where he works. The vice president of his department finally asked, "Why is the pay raise so important to you?" Jeff explained that we want to give as much money as we can. In the end he not only got the raise, but help from the vice president in getting it in forms that made sense (cash now rather than retirement savings which we can't give away for decades). The vice president also said he would consider giving more himself.

So there you have it. The worker at the relief and development nonprofit assumes people give away money only if they have a huge surplus. The worker at the technology company questions the need for more money and totally accepts the idea that you wouldn't want to hoard everything for yourself. Go figure.