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Thursday, January 20, 2011


At a recent masters swimming meet I chatted with a woman who had graduated from the Sorbonne. She had majored in philosophy, and had read many of the ancient philosophers in the original Greek and Latin. She spoke a total of six languages. She didn't boast about any of this; I coaxed it out of her. She was actually quite reserved. (At least that's how I preferred to interpret her iciness.)

There was something old-fashioned about her attitude which I found appealing: she was one of the few people I knew who still seemed to value learning for its own sake. It's a somewhat anachronistic attitude. These days even the most elite colleges tend to be looked at by their students as trade schools: how can I best leverage this education to get into med school, or get a job on Wall Street or at a consulting firm? You rarely meet people who still see an education as an end unto itself.

It's an attitude that bespeaks a certain refinement.

But it also occurred to me that the quality of refinement, which striving families used to put such a premium on, has much to do with how useless one's chosen activities are. (There is something grandly, gloriously useless about being able to read Plato in the ancient Greek, a language one can not even use on the streets of Athens today.)

My mother came from a family in Japan that was well to do, at least until WWII wiped them out. When she was young, she learned to play the piano and do calligraphy. She wasn't a good enough pianist to make money from it, but she was good enough so that whenever she would play, people would see that she was good. She never made any money off her calligraphy, either. But both skills are the kinds of things that an upper class family in old Japan would have valued, because they demonstrated that their daughter hadn't had to spend her youth working in a rice paddy. Both skills are, to use the old-fashioned term, "genteel."

The practice of foot binding in China, so rightly regarded as crazy today, was a more direct manifestation of this drive. It was only done to upper class girls, and it was done to illustrate that the family was so upper class that their daughter did not even need to use her feet much, as she had servants to attend her every whim. Crippling one's daughter's as a way of showing off may seem particularly self-defeating, but that was why it was done.

When my mother's mother was young, she was actually carried around on a palanquin by four sumo wrestlers. That's pretty much the ultimate status ride -- way, way outdoing the fanciest Mercedes. A palanquin may not be as comfortable, or as fast, and it certainly doesn't have the same kind of amenities. But for pure cachet, it can't be beat.

I usually find refinement in women appealing (if it's unaccompanied by spoilage). If performed well, useless skills can be admirable. They can demonstrate dexterity, or will power, or intelligence. (What better way to demonstrate your intelligence than to speak six languages?) But it goes beyond that in some undefinable way. Maybe such skills say something about character as well; I'm not sure.

In our country today, there is still a class divide between the usefulness of things that girls do. Lower middle class girls learn to cook, sew, and do laundry (as well as get pregnant). Upper middle class girls go to Amnesty International meetings, raise awareness for fashionable causes, and go to field hockey practice.

The boys are no different. Lower middle class boys, at least from rural areas, grow up hunting and fishing; upper middle class boys go to lacrosse practice. Lower middle class boys learn to drive tractors, or trucks; rich boys learn to maneuver golf carts.

When you think about it, it's the lower middle class that performs all the necessary and difficult functions in our society: they drive the buses, grow the food, fight the fires, and form the backbone of the military. The upper middle class mostly does things to try to feel good about themselves (like write a blog).

Conclusion: lower middle class men are more admirable, but upper middle class women are still somehow more appealing.

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