Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Money Talks

I was brought up with the understanding that the discussion of money has no place in polite conversation. You don't ask how much something costs, you don't leave the price tag on a gift and you don't ask how much someone makes. Of course, nowadays where nothing is private and casual is the new formal I've allowed myself to fall into some of these monetary discussions that were once verboten. I suffered through the "starving artist" comments after getting my bachelor's degree in theater, mostly because I was neither starving nor an artist for the most part. I spent the bulk of my artistic years in the city working as a bartender and server making good money so I usually let the ramen noodle jokes roll off my back. As well, I became accustomed to the tourists sitting at my bar asking questions regarding what I paid in rent, how much it cost to ride the subway everyday and if groceries were more expensive here. I answered because I knew they weren't being rude (usually), just curious, and they typically prefaced all their queries with "if you don't mind my asking".

But asking a few innocent questions is not exactly where my issue lies. What I would like to know is when did it become appropriate to make judgment calls on a person's career choice based on the salary it provided, especially when two people are mere acquaintances? Allow me to elaborate. As I said before, I went along with all the starving artist jokes that were thrown my way, mainly because there is quite a bit of truth behind it. Most people who are performers know that they may never make a living in their art and many are proud to be "starving artists". The same cannot be said for other career choices - veterinary nursing, for one. I recently found myself in a conversation (with someone in the very same veterinary career choice as me, no less**) who, after hearing that my first degree was in theater and my second was veterinary nursing, made the comment, "Wow, you picked two careers where you won't make any money." Now, first of all, I had known this person for maybe a full three hours up to this point. Second, while I'll concede that the theater career was bound to leave me destitute, the veterinary nursing pays a decent living wage. No, I will never buy a winter home in Aspen or a Mercedes with my salary but I'm not likely to be living in a cardboard box on Houston Street, either. Later, I mistakenly added that I may one day get my masters so that I can teach, a remark that was again greeted with an observation about my hypothetical salary. At this point I realized that I was talking to someone who valued money above an interesting, challenging career and I left it at that.

But the conversation stuck with me and the more I thought about it the more annoyed I became. Why must this country place so much emphasis on money? Why am I laughed at because I want to work in a field that will probably never pay me six figures? I did not choose my career based on the amount of money I could make. If that was my plan I would have majored in international business or chemical engineering. I chose my career because I was interested in it, because it was a growing field with a lot of opportunities and, most of all, because it made me happy to go to work. After shaking margaritas for so many years and being miserable, that means a lot. So I will happily take my modest salary, I will drive my Ford and maybe one day have a cozy three bedroom house, I will take vacations to places where I can stay with friends and shop at the Gap instead of Gucci. But I will be happy.

**Incidentally, the person I was conversing with is headed off to veterinary medical school, leaving us veterinary nurses with our so-called meager paychecks. Said person believes he will be making six figures in no time although the average median salary for a veterinarian is roughly $80,000. Good luck with those student loans!

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