Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday ramble

I didn't make it to work this morning; I was on my way, on the metro, when I fainted and hit my head on the way down. I came to within a minute to the sound of people saying that someone had fainted, and it turned out that someone was me. An ambulance had been called by the time I got out of the train, but (before I realized that I'd hit my head and was bleeding) I wasn't sure I wanted to get in it; I wanted to go to work. Once I had realized what had happened--there was a dent on my head and blood coming out--I decided to go to the hospital to get checked out. One thing that did not factor into my decision was cost; I knew my insurance would cover most if not all of the trip, and it did. No one should have to make a decision about essential medical care based on cost. A friend of mine recently fractured his leg very badly in a freak accident; without insurance, his bills would be in the hundreds of thousands. That's enough to wipe most people out financially.

I don't know what 'percent' I'm in in the way of access to health care. Today I made a needed trip to the emergency room that was affordable to me. Yesterday, I partook in a health fair at work--the health care came to me, at no cost. I got my skin tested--something I'd been meaning to do and never got around to; I got my bone density tested--something I'd never bothered to do before, and the results amazed the doctor who explained them to me even before I told her that I didn't eat dairy. I got my cholesterol, glucose, and blood pressure tested--all fine--so I knew what to benchmark against when the latter two were taken again this morning. As I did this morning, I experienced a sense of injustice: I was grateful for the care I was getting, but I wanted everyone to have access to it. At the fair yesterday, I saw the range of employees--groundskeepers, security guards, technicians--and thought it was awesome that they had access to the same screenings. I hoped their counterparts at other institutions did, too.

***
Since we're talking about class, sort of, let's talk about David Brooks' much-mocked column.
Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.
Let's start with this excellent point: it's always a good idea, especially in this day and age of dietary restrictions, to consult people about where you eat together.


And let me first say that I don't entirely disagree with the overall point that Brooks is trying to make; but I do think he's making it poorly and sloppily. I don't agree with this:
American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”


What is American upper-middle-class culture? Is it defined by income? Education level? Bloodline? And if it is, what's the cutoff? He seems to be referring to the upper 20 percent, which is a large swath of people, to which I think I belong. I have no idea what any of that shit means--never heard of soppressata or capicollo in my life.

I don't quite disagree with this:
In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.


Although that's always been the case. But what are those class barriers and do they matter? They're not, per se, barriers to income. Plumbers, carpenters, etc. can do very well financially. More so than teachers or nurses, who require non-vocational education. And again, I disagree with Brooks' examples:
To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.
I went to a (free) barre class once. I felt different, for sure; I was the only one in there without a pedicure. Was that a class thing? Was it in any way a marker of a community I aspire to belong to? Nope. Pilates tastes? Really? Oh and I can't fucking stand David Foster Wallace. Or Junot Diaz. Intersectionality comes down to a human rights issue; it's not a matter of signalling.

There are markers of belonging within my community, but they're not correlated with income. I was chatting with someone who may or may not have outearned me when he emphasized that he "definitely" had a passport. Nobody I know feels the need to declare the fact that they have a passport; it's a given. More than a third of Americans have a passport but only a fifth or so travel abroad regularly. How does that 20% overlap with the top 20% income bracket overlap with the 20% higher education bracket?

There are languages of belonging that I distinctly do not speak; I've particularly noticed that among people who went to an elite set of private schools and insist on name-dropping from them. Does not speaking that language block me from anything that actually matters? (No.) There are languages of the ultra-rich (the 1 percent, not the 20 percent); would I feel out of place among people who talk cavalierly about their latest four-figure handbag? Of course. I recoiled when my most recent ex talked about stuff like that--and he was just talking to me, so it wasn't a matter of feeling left out. It was a matter of being disgusted by excess in a world of need. I get drinks sometimes with friends of friends who frequent the DC tasting menu scene, which doesn't interest me at all. It doesn't bother me that I don't belong.

There are languages of belonging, and food is definitely one of them, but what do these languages stem from? Not language and not necessarily education. Years ago, I got together for dinner with a bunch of friends, including one who had a PhD and who (I happen to know) out-earned me. She was about to ask for flatware but before she had a chance, everyone around her started masterfully manipulating their chopsticks. I saw it register to her that she had a different food language. But the one that everyone else was using wasn't closed off to her. We all have that moment at some point; I certainly did. Your operating, working assumption is that people are more or less like you; you figure they have a passport and know how to eat with chopsticks (or if you don't, you figure they don't).

I have a master's degree and a passport. I feel more comfortable in a diner than in a pretentious establishment. Contrary to the above-linked twitter thread, there is no restaurant so 'working-class' that I feel out of place there. Although I have known people who are uncomfortable in such places, they're douches and they're not representative. My ex of years ago was horrified at ReStore and hoped he'd never have to shop there. A former friend in another country was visibly out of her element in what seemed to me an entirely normal shopping center that for whatever reason struck her as low-class. She really wanted to think she was better than the people shopping there. She did not, for what it's worth, have a higher degree (and she wasn't American or in America).

Over the last few years, I've heard (for the first time) foods like lentils and cabbage, which I grew up eating and eat to this day, described as 'poor people food,' a term as nonsensical as it is offensive. Meanwhile, arugula, the supposed green of the elite, is the easiest thing to grow ever. As this excellent review notes, there's “a poor person’s idea of a rich person.” It follows that there's a poor person's idea of what a rich person or even middle-class person eats? I know of high-level government officials whose dinner of choice is a burger (and not a high-end one), and not just when they're pandering.

Are these stereotypical, often-imagined differences an obstacle to upward mobility? Are actual differences an obstacle to social mobility? Is that regional? Is it more so in New York than DC? And at what level of education and/or income would those barriers kick in? These--income, education, region--are among the terms that have to be clarified with more precision in order to have a conversation about class and upward mobility. And let's not forget intersectionality: how do these experiences differ by race? By national origin? Goodness knows there's a lot I didn't learn from my parent, including how to eat with chopsticks.

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