Saturday, January 22, 2011
Chains of gold
There are people who like to pick up the check. Some insist on it. I presume it's a kind of dominance game to them. See how superior I am? I have lots of money and I am generous! (Bow before me.)
I have often paid the tab for a meal with a friend and sometimes I reach for the bill without even thinking of it. I claim, however, that the habit has developed innocently. While I take turns with many of my friends, others are more routinely my guests. For example, one friend was raising a small child as a single parent. We fell into a routine of my taking them out for a meal each weekend. We all enjoyed the visit (unless the kid acted up, of course) and I could readily afford it. Another friend developed health problems and employment difficulties and began to drop out of a regular lunch group we both attended. To keep his company and restore him to our social circle, I began to treat him. (And others step in when I'm not there; we like him to stick around when he can.) And then there was the case of the penurious grad student, which is a condition many of us might recall.
You get the picture. My “generosity” is an act of enlightened self-interest. It provides me with more opportunities to hang out with good friends who I might otherwise see less often. There's no demeaning noblesse oblige about it at all.
Or is there?
I'm re-examining things and I'm just a little uncomfortable. Am I really as discreet and unobtrusive as I imagine myself to be? Certainly I don't wave cash or a credit card in the air. I don't lunge across the table when the server sets down the bill. I don't play the seigneur.
This examination of conscience is prompted by my brother. Since his older brother (yours truly) “ran away” from home, it has fallen on him to manage our parents' financial matters. No, Mom and Dad aren't incompetent to handle their own affairs (though their rationality is suspect in matters of medicine and politics), but their doughty local son already manages the entire family business and may as well, therefore, take on the relatively minor additional job of looking after their affairs.
And that is why he called me.
“What are you going to do with your check, Zee?”
“I don't know. I guess I could shred it.”
An exasperated pause.
“I would really prefer it if you didn't.”
“Why not? I don't need any money from Mom and Dad. I didn't ask for anything and I don't want anything. Am I supposed to feel beholden?”
My brother doesn't like it when I talk like that.
“Look, Zee. This has nothing to do with your disagreement with Dad, okay? Our folks have an estate plan and it's my job to follow through. Each of us gets a tax-free gift from them each year in a scheduled distribution. It kind of screws things up when you don't deposit your share.”
“I just stashed the thing without cashing it. That's all. I didn't go out of my way to cause anyone any trouble. I just find it somewhat irksome that Dad ignored my request to leave me out of it. Why don't they give more to our kid brother, huh? He's a single parent with young kids now. He could actually use it, right?”
“It doesn't actually work that way. All four kids are getting the same amount according to the estate plan and all you're doing is messing up the calculations. It's your money. You can do whatever you want with it. Give it to our brother, if you want. Do anything. But I'd really appreciate it if you'd let me clear it from the books.”
Hmm. I do rather owe the guy. His presence next door to our parents has relieved me of the standard eldest-son responsibilities. I have no desire to further complicate his life, even if I suspect that our father is dispensing largess at least in part to demonstrate his dominance. He's been a check-grabber all his life, even at dinners where someone else issues the invitations and has acted as host. It's a kind of game with him, demonstrating his overweening generosity. There are worse vices.
Observations such as these have caused me to grow up into a person who suspects that everything comes with strings attached—even (especially?) gifts from Mom and Dad. I'm sure you pity me now. Such problems I have, trying to decide whether to accept lumps of unneeded cash. Such a big favor I would do my brother, cashing the checks he sends out to his siblings.
I pondered the matter. My brother did say I could do whatever I wanted with the unrestricted gifts. No strings? Really? Ideas began to form in my head.
So far in recent weeks I have endowed a new student scholarship and made preliminary arrangements to boost another scholarship endowment to sustainable levels. I sent a few bucks to Roy Edroso of Alicublog and Gary Farber of Amygdala (and perhaps you should, too; thanks, PZ, for bringing their plight to my attention). I've contributed to a few liberal causes and a few liberal politicians. (Barbara Boxer may have never gotten my father's vote, but she got a few of his dollars.) And my baby brother's children are getting better-than-usual presents from their Uncle Zee.
Now if I can only maintain my air of discreet insouciance.