Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mergers & Acquisitions

I’m not sure I’d like to be one of the people featured on the New York Times weddings page, but I know I’d like to be the father of one of them. Imagine how happy Stanley J. Kogan must have been, for example, when his daughter Jamie was admitted to Yale. Then imagine his pride when Jamie made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. Stanley himself is no slouch in the brains department: he’s a pediatric urologist in Croton-on-Hudson, with teaching positions at the Cornell Medical Center and the New York Medical College. Still, he must have enjoyed a gloat or two when his daughter put on that cap and gown. And things only got better. Jamie breezed through Stanford Law School. And then she met a man—Thomas Arena—who appeared to be exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about. He did his undergraduate work at Princeton, where he, too, made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. And he, too, went to law school, at Yale. After school they both went to work as assistant U.S. attorneys for the mighty Southern District of New York.

These two awesome résumés collided at a wedding ceremony in Manhattan, and given all the school chums who must have attended, the combined tuition bills in that room must have been staggering. The rest of us got to read about it on the New York Times weddings page. The page is a weekly obsession for hundreds of thousands of Times readers and aspiring Baizacs. Unabashedly elitist, secretive, and totally honest, the “mergers and acquisitions page” (as some of its devotees call it) has always provided an accurate look at least a chunk of the American ruling class. And over the years it has reflected the changing ingredients of elite status.

When America had a pedigreed elite, the page emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today it’s genius and geniality that enable you to join the elect. And when you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA weds Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna—the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person—college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession—for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.

Even though you want to hate them, it’s hard not to feel a small tug of approval at the sight of these Résumé Gods. Their expressions are so open and confident; their teeth are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture; and since the Times will only print photographs in which the eyebrows of the bride and groom are at the same level, the couples always look so evenly matched. scholar who teaches philosophy there. The remaining marriages on the page are mixed marriages in which a predator marries a nurturer. In this group the predator is usually the groom. A male financial consultant with an MBA from Chicago may marry an elementary school teacher at a progressive school who received her master’s in social work from Columbia.

These meritocrats devote monstrous hours to their career and derive enormous satisfaction from their success, but the Times wants you to know they are actually not consumed by ambition. Each week the paper describes a particular wedding in great detail, and the subtext of each of these reports is that all this humongous accomplishment is a mere fluke of chance. These people are actually spunky free spirits who just like to have fun. The weekly “Vows” column lovingly details each of the wedding’s quirky elements: a bride took her bridesmaids to get drunk at a Russian bathhouse; a couple hired a former member of the band Devo to play the Jeopardy theme song at the reception; another read A. Milne’s Christopher Robin poems at a ceremony in a former du Pont mansion. The Times article is inevitably studded with quotations from friends who describe the bride and groom as enchanting paradoxes: they are said to be grounded but berserk, daring yet traditional, high-flying yet down to earth, disheveled yet elegant, sensible yet spontaneous. Either only paradoxical people get married these days, or people in this class like to see themselves and their friends as balancing opposites.

The couples tell a little of their own story in these articles. An amazing number of them seem to have first met while recovering from marathons or searching for the remnants of Pleistocene man while on archeological digs in Eritrea. They usually enjoyed a long and careful romance, including joint vacations in obscure but educational places like Myanmar and Minsk. But many of the couples broke up for a time, as one or both partners panicked at the thought of losing his or her independence. Then there was a lonely period apart while one member, say, arranged the largest merger in Wall Street history while the other settled for neurosurgery after dropping out of sommelier school. But they finally got back together again (sometimes while taking a beach vacation at a group home with a bunch of people with cheekbones similar to their own). And eventually they decided to share an apartment. We don’t know what their sex lives are like because the Times does not yet have a fornication page (“John Grind, a lawyer at Skadden Arps with a degree from Northwestern, has begun copulating with Sarah Smith, a cardiologist at Sloan-Kettering with an undergraduate degree from Emory”). But we presume intimate relations are suitably paradoxical: rough yet soft, adventurous yet intimate. Sometimes we get to read about modern couples who propose to each other simultaneously, but most of the time the groom does it the old-fashioned way—often, it seems, while hot-air ballooning above the Napa Valley or by letting the woman find a diamond engagement ring in her scuba mask while they are exploring endangered coral reefs near the Seychelles.

Many of these are trans-conference marriages—an Ivy League graduate will be marrying a Big Ten graduate—so the ceremony has to be designed to respect everybody’s sensibilities. Subdued innovation is the rule. If you are a member of an elite based on blood and breeding, you don’t need to carefully design a marriage ceremony that expresses your individual self. Your high status is made impervious by your ancestry, so you can just repeat the same ceremony generation after generation. But if you are in an elite based on brainpower, like today’s elite, you need to come up with the subtle signifiers that will display your own spiritual and intellectual identity—your qualification for being in the elite in the first place. You need invitations on handmade paper but with a traditional typeface. Selecting music, you need Patsy Cline songs mixed in with the Mendelssohn. You need a 1950s gown, but done up so retro it has invisible quotation marks around it. You need a wedding cake designed to look like a baroque church. You need to exchange meaningful objects with each other, like a snowboard engraved with your favorite Schiller quotation or the childhood rubber ducky that you used to cradle during the first dark days of your Supreme Court clerkship. It’s difficult to come up with your own nuptial wrinkle, which will be distinctive without being daring. But self-actualization is what educated existence is all about. For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self- expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.

- David Brooks

No comments:

Post a Comment