If You Can’t Be With the One You Love

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
– Ernest Hemingway

The way I’ve always told the story, my first romantic faux pas came in the sixth grade. It was early fall, before new friendships had begun to overtake the holdovers from elementary school. A year earlier, a French girl named Flourianne had moved into White Bear Lake and was deposited into my class. She sat near the window on the far side of the room. That was convenient for me since I could always pretend I was looking out the window when she caught me staring. That happened a lot. I don’t remember much about her except she had enormous brown eyes and her wavy hair was a half-shade lighter than her eyes. She made odd faces – she would bite her lip, say, or open half her mouth and puff out her cheek like a chipmunk. I mimicked those faces under the impeccable assumption that being more like her would make her like me. I wonder if I had the presence of mind to relax my face when she caught me looking.

But that was fifth grade. The next fall, I was sitting alone in what must have been communications class. (It might seem irrelevant, but it’s odd to me that I can’t place what class that was. We had seven periods per day, and it wasn’t history, math, science, gym, or “industrial technology” or whatever euphemism we used for shop class.) Whatever class it was, we were given time to work on a project, and when I looked up from my work a girl named Crystal was hovering over me. She was smiling. “Hi Steve.”

“Hi?” I answered skeptically. (I always answer skeptically.)

“You know my friend Flourianne?” I looked over at her. She was staring at us and, of course, biting her lip. “She likes you. Do you want to be her boyfriend?”

Somehow in that moment I devised a sort of convoluted logic that, looking back, seems reserved for online political debates. Rather than thinking “I like her, she likes me, let’s do this,” I thought, “They found out I like her! How did they find that out?! Now they want to shame me and make fun of me for it. I can’t let them.” So I apologized and shook my head.

It’s only recently occurred to me that impulse – to acknowledge an attraction and then be ashamed of it – has been with me ever since. (Perhaps it runs deeper. Maybe I am similarly ashamed of any ambition, any desire that requires an action and a vulnerability. For example, whenever someone has asked what I want to do, what sort of job I want to have, I feel that same pang of compunction.) If I get to know a woman and find her attractive and get a sense of potential compatibility, there is an unreflective voice telling me, “You must never let her know.”

The psychologist Joseph Burgo writes extensively about shame. Shame of this kind is what he would call “basic shame.” “Upon birth,” he says, “we human beings are intensely vulnerable and reliant upon our mothers and fathers to help us grow.” He contends that our development is contingent on how they respond to our needs as we grow, and we are born with an intuitive set of expectations about what those responses should be. “(Donald) Winnicott referred to this genetic inheritance as a ‘blueprint for normality.’” When our parents diverge from that blueprint, we have an innate sense that our development has gone awry. “Instead of instilling a sense of intrinsic beauty, an abusive or traumatic environment leaves the infant with a sense of internal defect and ugliness.” Burgo finishes with a gut-punch of a cold read: “At heart, the experience of basic shame, often unconscious, feels like inner ugliness, the conviction that if others were truly to ‘see’ us, they’d recoil in scorn or disgust.”

That would be a deeply discouraging place to stay, like a country that is always overcast but never rains. I have known people who have found themselves in such places and purchased emotional real estate; I intend to only be passing through. In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brene Brown says that shame damages “the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” Perhaps I have no control over that primary urge, that self-assigned axiom telling me to feel ashamed for wanting. But I can stop and see the overwhelming evidence that I am loved and that I am worthy of love. That people who have truly seen me haven’t yet recoiled in scorn or disgust. That the people who care haven’t abandoned me. Shame is not an inevitable conclusion. It is an artifact from a society that died out long ago. All that’s left is to put it behind glass and marvel at how far we’ve come.

Hemingway

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Some Simple Ideas to Change Rape Culture

I need to say this right off the bat, otherwise I think the rest of what I have to say will be misinterpreted. Telling someone to take responsibility for a problem does not imply that they are to blame for that problem. Look at the revelations about the use of slave labor in Thailand’s shrimping industry. The U.S. state department’s annual human trafficking report chronicled many forms of human rights abuses within that industry, including how “men from Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand are forced to work on Thai fishing boats” are  “forced to work 18 to 20 hours a day.” The non-compliant face beatings. The report suggested that between 17 and 57 percent of fishermen were treated this way. In a $7 billion industry that employs 650,000 people, those numbers are staggering.

It would take some seriously convoluted logic to imply that average shrimp-eating Americans are to blame for slave labor in Southeast Asia. But, aware of these facts, any American that continues to eat shrimp imported from Thailand has become complicit in the slave trade. To say to people, “Stop eating shrimp imported from Thailand until they eradicate slavery!” is not to blame the consumer for the situation. Rather, it is a reminder that they have the power to promote change. It is also the right thing to do. Rather than saying, “It’s not my fault!” we should embrace that responsibility.

Now hold that thought.

We have believed for years that alcohol disinhibits. That is to say, when we have had too much to drink, we are more likely give in to impulses we would easily resist while sober. As Malcolm Gladwell put it, “Alcohol disinhibits, we assume, as reliably as caffeine enlivens. It gradually unlocks the set of psychological constraints that keep our behavior in check, and makes us do things we would not ordinarily do.” We also tend to believe that drinking alcohol causes self-inflation and reduces anxiety. But all of these tend to be inaccurate. While drunk, we may be disinhibited in one context but inhibited in another. We may see some parts of ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, but only if we largely thought that of ourselves to begin with. And as far as reducing anxiety goes, Gladwell says it well: “Put a stressed-out drinker in front of an exciting football game and he’ll forget his troubles. But put him in a quiet bar somewhere, all by himself, and he’ll grow more anxious.”

Some psychologists have begun to think that alcohol is not a disinhibitor. Rather, they argue that its “principle effect is to narrow our emotional and mental field of vision.” Claude Steele and Robert Joseph said that alcohol causes “a state of shortsightedness in which superficially understood, immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.” Gladwell summarizes,

Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more salient and the thing in the background disappear. That’s why drinking makes you think you are attractive when the world thinks otherwise: the alcohol removes the little constraining voice from the outside world that normally keeps our self-assessments in check. Drinking relaxes the man watching football because the game is front and center, and alcohol makes every secondary consideration fade away. But in a quiet bar his problems are front and center—and every potentially comforting or mitigating thought recedes. Drunkenness is not disinhibition. Drunkenness is myopia.

When we start drinking, we get more sensitive to our environment. This is true both in the sense of what is immediately in front of us – music or television, say, or other people – but also in the sense of what our preconceptions of our environment entail. Someone drunk at a football game might be loud, rowdy, and argumentative; that same person at a funeral might be just as calm and quiet as everyone else, but might also be crying a little bit harder.

Now think of some of rape culture’s hotspot environments: bars, clubs, and frat houses. These places are problematic because they draw a lot of people together under competing assumptions and circumstances. Plenty of people who go to these places often just want to have a fun time with friends, food, a few drinks, and maybe some dancing. But countless films, television shows, rap videos, and anecdotes lead people to believe that these places are an easy place to get unrestricted access to sexual partners. On the one hand, people looking for exactly that are drawn to those locations; on the other, people who didn’t necessarily have that in mind start acting that way once there. “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings,” say the anthropologists Craig MacAndrew and Robert Edgerton. “Since societies, like individuals, get the sorts of drunken comportment that they allow, they deserve what they get.” MacAndrew and Edgerton might as well have been talking about rape culture.

Some may see this as an insurmountable obstacle. I see simple opportunities to influence enormous change. If we – all people who are concerned with rape culture and the indifference society shows towards it – stopped going to these places until they made changes, we could have a profound impact on rape culture at large. Women in particular should pick up this baton – not because they are the primary victims (though they are), but rather because they hold an enormous amount of power. If women stopped going to clubs, clubs would go out of business. If women stopped going to frat parties, the appeal of fraternities would greatly diminish. Just like the American shrimp consumer, it’s not as though women are to blame for the state of things. But they do have the power to help change that state.

One might ask, “How? What could we demand?” I have a few simple ideas. Some of them might be bad ideas, some might be good. I don’t know. The psychologist Tara MacDonald conducted a study that took three groups of people: sober people, drunk people, and drunk people with the words “AIDS Kills” stamped on their hands, and made them imagine this scenario. You meet an attractive person at a bar, walk him or her home, and you end up in bed. Then you discover neither of you have a condom. Then they were asked how likely they were to still have sex. The sober people were somewhat unlikely to have sex. The drunk people were likely to have sex. The drunk people with the hand stamp were the least likely of the group to risk sex in that situation. So what if, instead of using a Sharpie to mark an X on entrants, clubs used stamps that said “Rape is wrong,” or “It is not okay to grope” or something more pithy than what I can come up with? Could that help reduce sexual violence?

Or how about implementing a system that scans and stores ID information at the door. To gain entry to a bar, you have to swipe your driver’s license. Then there is a record of who was present, which could help make identifying and arresting predators much easier. (Additionally, it takes any guesswork out of identifying fake IDs.) Or what about a demand for well-lit parking lots, or free valets for women, or a free-ride service for those too drunk to drive home?

Again, I don’t know if any of these ideas have any particular merit. Some of them would be simple and cheap to implement. Some would require a bigger investment. (None really seem to apply to frat parties.) But to give these places a free pass – to continue to let them make money off of a passive endorsement of rape culture – is to endorse rape culture ourselves. It’s the social equivalent of continuing to buy shrimp from Thailand. Demanding change is simply the right thing to do.

rave

Finding Meaning in Pain

Yesterday, an acquaintance of mine sent me this e-mail.

“Hi,

I remember talking to you a few times at NWC and I like the way you write. I used to be a Christian and now find myself in a muddled heap of emotional “openness” to some idea of divinity, all the while openly rejecting the common fundamental principles of Christianity. Practically speaking, my beliefs hold no contention that any God or divine nature exists, but I would be lying if I were to deny that at times my general self as a whole, that my emotions and thoughts and such, wonder about the whole idea.

I just wanted to ask you what your answer would be about the “Problem of Evil” commonly discussed as a rejection of the idea of a good God existing.

Thanks!”

This is my reply.

I could never really stomach philosophy. I tried. I thought for a long time that in order to be considered learned and intellectual I needed to know Sartre, Descartes, or Spinoza. But I found that as my eyes dragged limp across the page my mind was waltzing with livelier partners. Football, for instance. Music. Film. It seemed like their effort to be detached and dispassionate sucked the life and emotion out of their writing. On the list of subjects I could not find interesting, philosophy finds itself between physics and accounting.

That’s certainly not to condescend to the discipline. The people who thrive in that headspace have my respect. Rather, that’s to say that I can’t adequately answer the “Problem of Evil” in a philosophical sense or even an apologetic one. I don’t have the background or tools to write argumentatively or convincingly about those questions. I am uninformed and even naïve about that topic. If you want a rigorous discussion of theodicy or such, I don’t have much to offer. All I can offer is my personal perspective from my unique blend of spiritual assumptions and life experience.

I remember stumbling on an idea I liked during my senior year at Northwestern. It dawned on me that the only way God can really communicate His personality and attributes is through metaphor. Metaphor needs framework. In order to say that the Lord is like a shepherd, we first need to know what sheep are. We also need wolves to devour them. Without wolves (or other predators, for those inclined to beg the question), there is no need for a shepherd and the reference loses its meaning. That is my first proposition: In order to know God, we must have a set of experiences to draw from; those experiences by their very nature must include pain. The second proposition follows from the first: Since our experience involves pain and suffering, the value of knowing God must be worth more than it costs.

Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, spoke at a memorial service for the families of those who died in the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He said,

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him.

That is my third proposition: God is with us in our pain. God suffers Himself: He redeems and transforms it. As John Stott wrote, “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sometimes people (unfairly) question the faith of those who struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. There’s a quote from CS Lewis about that I keep coming back to. “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.” Pain, suffering, affliction… none of them are meaningless unless we refuse to give them meaning. The pastor of my church, Steve Treichler, constantly impresses upon us, “God never wastes pain.” (He usually is shouting when he says it.) If feeling rejected gives me a glimpse of understanding into God’s desire to be known, then I count it a lesson well-learned.

I don’t know if this helps you. I suspect it doesn’t. These are just the points that made me comfortable with the notion of evil and suffering on a personal level. Your unique makeup and trials likely mean that these don’t apply perfectly to you. But believing that my pain enables me to know God where I couldn’t before, that I get an excellent rate of return on that investment, that God is with me when I suffer, and that He never wastes pain…. When I thought of it that way, no momentary hardship seemed too hard to swallow.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to write, I kept thinking back to a quote I vaguely remember from Tom Junod. I couldn’t find it online, so I can only paraphrase. Junod argued that much of the animal rights movement is borne from a separation from the realities of living on a farm. He argued from there that, similarly, the rise of pacifism comes from a generation of people who never had to serve as soldiers. It made me think the relative comfort and ease of modern life has left many people too sensitive to the realities of it. Surviving the Holocaust led Victor Frankl to find meaning in all circumstances and base a new psychotherapy on that premise. I can’t turn it into a sweeping claim, but there seems to be an inverse correlation between how much pain we endure and our ability to find meaning in it. (That is not to trivialize any individual’s experience; it is a cultural observation, not a personal one.)

I don’t know if I can offer much more than that. I can, however, recommend a couple excellent books. Tim Keller wrote a book called “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering.” And CS Lewis’ “A Grief Observed” was an absolutely transformative book for me. I read it in a single sitting and then slept twelve hours straight in total comfort. If you haven’t read those, I highly recommend them.

On the Ridiculously Good Looking

“’He is also handsome,’ replied Elizabeth; ‘which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can.’”
– Pride and Prejudice

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last week or so, you’ve probably seen a picture of Jeremy Meeks. Meeks was arrested earlier this month in Stockton, California, on felony weapons charges. Considering that Meeks has served time on two prior occasions – 9 months for auto theft and two years for grand larceny – his bail was set at $1,000,000. The state of California is not taking these charges lightly. The same can’t be said about the internet, though. The Jeremy Meeks fan club on Facebook has almost 200,000 likes, has pictures from his middle school year book, and offers sentiments like, “If your heart was a prison, I would like to be sentenced to life.” Strangers have donated $4500 to his legal defense via GoFundMe.

Attractive people are awarded many advantages in life. They are given easier access to better education early in life and are perceived by teachers as more intelligent than their less attractive counterparts. Aggressive acts by attractive children are perceived as “less naughty” when performed by an attractive child and are punished less. (Interestingly, in this case it’s better to be an unattractive girl than an unattractive boy: the psychologist Jordan Rich found that unattractive girls were treated more leniently than unattractive boys, though both groups were treated far more harshly than their good-looking counterparts.) In general, we perceive attractive people to be more talented, kind, honest, and intelligent. We are also less likely to convict them of crimes.

The consequence of this bias is sometimes horrific. In the 1970s, the serial killer Ted Bundy relied on his good looks and easy charm to lure more than 30 women to their deaths. (Bundy would also wear fake casts and arm slings and visibly struggle to carry his belongings, tricking women into lowering their defenses and putting themselves in vulnerable positions. The scene in “Silence of the Lambs” where Jame Gumb pretends to struggle to put a couch in his van was inspired by Ted Bundy.) The British psychologist Sandie Taylor has suggested Bundy’s looks might have been enough to exonerate him. “If that forensic evidence hadn’t been there, he might well have got off, because he was quite charming and knew how to work people,” she said. If you are dubious, consider what Judge Edward Cowert said to him after his conviction:

It is ordered that you be put to death by a current of electricity, that current be passed through your body until you are dead. Take care of yourself, young man. I say that to you sincerely; take care of yourself, please. It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity as I’ve experienced in this courtroom. You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer, and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that. Once again, take care of yourself.

It bears repeating that this is being said to a man who was just convicted of murdering more than thirty women. “I don’t feel any animosity toward you. I want you to know that.”

Of course, it’s probably not news to anyone that attractive people are held to another standard. One of my favorite aspects of “Pride & Prejudice” is how Jane Austen took pains to set up the villain Wickham as being amiable and good looking. When Wickham first volunteers a slanderous account of Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet says, “There was truth in his looks.” Austen clarifies for us: “It was not in her nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance.” When Jane Bennet comes to learn that Wickham has been lying, her reaction is, “Poor Wickham! There is such an expression of goodness in his countenance!” It was hard to believe that a good-looking man could be such a scoundrel. Not much has changed in two hundred years.

I’ve written before about the halo effect and confirmation bias. If we understand those things, it’s easy to see why we give attractive folk such an easy time of things. We make intuitive judgments about a person within seconds of meeting them and this influences our opinions of their character. That is the halo effect. That impression having been formed, we seek evidence that supports our judgment and disregard evidence that contradicts it. That is confirmation bias. The two work together like seed and fertilizer.

This should not be read as a tome against attractive people. The point isn’t to say “good looking, bad; ugly, good,” but rather to shed some light on how our decision making works and to illustrate how that sometimes leads us down some bad roads. In the case of some women who had the misfortune of meeting Ted Bundy, “attractive = good” was used against them with tragic consequences. For most of us, the result of these biases may not be much more severe than paying premiums on less-tasty apples. But in general, when you find yourself drawing conclusions about someone’s character, it might be worth your time to ask if you’ve actually seen enough evidence to support those conclusions.

Jeremy Meeks

Suits, Leggings, and Modesty

One of my favorite metaphors is the scissors. CS Lewis used it to illuminate the relationship between faith and works. In Mere Christianity, he wrote, “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ … it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary.” (One could use that to rephrase James 2: “Faith without works can’t cut.”) I have used it personally to talk about balance in football, the need for both visual and emotional impact in art, and even for something as simple as talking and listening in communication. The image is as versatile as the tool itself.

Yesterday, several of my friends shared a satirical blog post about modesty called “When Suits Become a Stumbling Block.” (As of this writing, the account has been suspended.) By swapping out women in leggings for men in suits, the author highlighted the absurdity of the notion that women are categorically responsible for male lust. “I am issuing a plea to my brothers in Christ for an understanding of where I’m coming from. When you choose to exist in public looking well-groomed and sharp, you are basically extending an invitation for me to lust after you.” After all, Jesus said to tear out your eye if it causes you to lust; He didn’t say, “Go tell the women to change their outfits.”

At first, I nodded in agreement. But the more I thought about the post, the more it bothered me. I realized that both the “traditional” side of the modesty argument and its counterpoint are approaching it the wrong way. Both sides want to put the responsibility onto the other party. Both sides have reasonable arguments to make. Neither side submits to the other in humility and love.

If you look at another person in lust and say to yourself, “They are causing me to sin, they need to change,” you are wrong. The burden is on you to stop sinning. Have you resisted lust to the point of shedding blood? Are you doing everything in your power to keep lustful thoughts out of your mind and heart? Of course you aren’t. On the flip side, are you so cavalier to sin – or attached to a particular mode of dress – that you will stubbornly cling to it even after it becomes contentious? Do you prefer your leggings or low-cut blouse (or, yes, killer suit) to the chastity of your brother or sister in Christ?

The “stumbling block” from the title refers to a passage in Romans 14. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or a hindrance in the way of a brother.” If you read this verse and think it applies to the other side and not to you, you are reading it wrong. Put it on yourself. This applies equally to all of us. The modesty-inclined camp needs to stop passing judgment and decide to never put the stumbling block of “responsibility” onto another. The same goes for the liberty-inclined. Stop judging someone for their weakness; determine yourself to love them if you can. In our constant push back and forth on this issue, we are letting stubbornness and pride take hold where love should reign. Shame on us.

Don’t think I am advocating any mode of dress or that I am saying any of this is easy or straightforward. Your standard shouldn’t be a length or type of fabric. What I am saying, rather, is we need to own the responsibility for both blades of these scissors. Do we ask ourselves both, What do I need to do in order to kill sin in my life? Am I making every effort I can to do that? Am I accepting responsibility for the state of my heart? and What am I doing that might be causing my brother or sister to stumble? How can I change? Am I willing to give up something I enjoy for their sake?

Paul continues, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died…. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”

French Fries, Consent, and the Meaning of Progress

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”
– Leo Tolstoy

I saw a Facebook post over the weekend that said “’Traditional’ is NOT synonymous with ‘Good’ or “Admirable’ or “Desirable.’” I could not agree more. I don’t even need to refer to a thesaurus. If we restrict our view just to cooking, for example, the “traditional” ways of doing things often make it difficult – if not impossible – to achieve the desired result. Traditional food safety standards require, by definition, that you overcook pork. Traditional technique employs flour as a thickener for almost everything: soups, béchamel, and even pastry cream, making these things unnecessarily off-limits for the gluten intolerant. That “things have always been done this way” is not reason enough to keep doing them.

But this sentiment is fundamentally incomplete. Neither “Untraditional” nor “Progressive” are synonymous with “Good” or “Admirable” or “Desirable,” either. We needn’t stray from food to underscore this point. In 1990, with concerns over heightened cholesterol reaching fever pitch, McDonald’s and other fast food chains switched from their traditional fryer oil – beef tallow – to vegetable oil. This only made matters worse. The process by which vegetable fats are made suitable for deep frying, hydrogenation, creates a new substance called trans unsaturated fat. Trans fats are now estimated to cause, in the United States alone, thirty thousand premature deaths per year. While a five-percent increase in saturated fat increases a person’s risk of heart disease by seventeen percent, a two-percent increase in trans fat intake increases that risk by ninety-three percent. Meanwhile, science writer Gary Taubes has argued that animal fats like lard actually have a positive effect on our cholesterol levels and are much safer for consumption than trans fats. Progressivism comes full circle.

The problem at hand isn’t that we doggedly adhere to traditional ideas and ideals. Nor is the problem that we blindly follow a piper of progress no matter where he leads us. The problem is that we collectively lack the wisdom to discern which approach is the correct one at the correct time. Traditions become so largely because they were effective at solving a problem at some point in the past. When we recognize that those traditions are no longer sufficient for the problems confronting us now, it is time to leave them behind. But change for change’s sake is not progress. And change always leads us to unintended consequences. This is never more true than when we divorce ourselves from traditions we didn’t understand.

Look no further than the legislation recently proposed in California. The new bill “would require college students  to secure ‘affirmative consent’ from their partners at every stage of sexual activity,” according to Amanda Hess of Slate. (Why it is restricted to those in college, I’m not entirely sure.) The bill dictates that there must be “a freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in particular sexual activity or behavior, expressed either by words or clear, unambiguous actions.” Clear and unambiguous actions? Nevermind the fact that men grossly overestimate how attracted women are to them; any legislation that hinges on a college male’s perception of “clear and unambiguous” is fundamentally flawed. Soon, rapists may have legal grounds to say, “She said yes with her eyes.”

This legislation is like fixing a crumbling bridge with Elmer’s glue and duct tape. Matt Walsh put it well when he argued that we cannot end rape culture if we don’t likewise end hook up culture. “The only rule, the only standard, that we’re allowed to place on sex these days is ‘consent. But we find that ‘consent’ is not enough…. If (a man) is to have sex with a woman, and have it in a way that respects her humanity and protects her dignity and his own, he needs to look for more than permission.” The standard Walsh suggests is more strict. “We have to introduce some other guidelines: love, commitment, marriage, openness to life.” He continues, “There is no grey area here. If your sex is an act of love and commitment; and if it is taking place within sacrament of marriage; and if both parties are prepared to embrace the life that may very well be created as a result of the act, then you can be sure that no rape is happening. You can be sure that there will be no regret. You can be sure that the sex is healthy and beautiful.”

There are many people who will argue that there are problems with traditional marriage. That is true and undeniable. There are problems with any enterprise relying on one or more human beings. Rape does not happen only between strangers or casual acquaintances but in marriages as well. A wholesale return to a traditional marriage structure will not solve all of our problems, just like a return to beef tallow doesn’t change the fact that French fries are junk food. But we refuse to acknowledge that the tidal shift away from marriage, divorcing sex from “love, commitment, marriage, and an openness to life” has introduced fundamental problems of its own. As CS Lewis once wrote, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

CS Lewis

Revisiting the Friendzone

I have written about the friendzone before. In that post, I stated without evidence that “what men really mean when they say they’ve been friendzoned is that they failed to generate a spark of attraction in the woman they desired. Rather than owning up to this fact, they push blame onto that woman.” I still believe that’s true. We say to ourselves, “She doesn’t like me despite all the nice things I’ve done for her; that’s her fault.” The term itself is a way to hide the fact that blame has been shifted.

But in the fifteen months or so since I posted that, I’ve come to think that there is more merit to the friendzone concept than I had originally considered. The frustration of the friendzoned man (and, I supposed, the “bro-zoned” woman) isn’t just that the object of his affection only sees him as a friend. It’s that she only sees him as a friend and there is nothing he can do to change her feelings. He has encountered a locked door between where he is and where he wants to be and there is no key in sight. But why?

First, we have to acknowledge that once we have formed an opinion of someone, it is extremely difficult to change it. This extends far beyond interpersonal relationships. For instance, what would George W. Bush have to do in order for the average Democrat to think of him as a good man? Or what would Barack Obama have to do in order for the average Republican to find him trustworthy? How many Best Actress awards would it take before you had the thought, “Hey, maybe Kristen Stewart can act”? Or think of a person you have found to be warm and generous. If you learned she stiffed a server the last time she ate out, would you change your opinion? What if it was five times in a row? It takes a lot more to change an opinion than it does to form one. That doesn’t really answer the question, though. It just restates it. So maybe the friendzone is a specific case of a more general truth, that cemented opinions are difficult to change. So what’s causing that?

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we have two ways to get at the truth: the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Leonard Mlodinow summarizes it like this. “Scientiststs gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining these observations, and test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.” Mlodinow argues that that we are both of these simultaneously, that our conscious minds are like scientists while our unconscious minds are like lawyers. “The human mind is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney, both a conscious seeker of objective truth and an unconscious, impassioned advocate for what we want to believe. Together these approaches vie to create our worldview.” I think Mlodinow is mostly correct, in that our unconscious minds craft conclusions that we later attempt to explain rationally, and the only “scientific” thinking we do comes in the controlled, disciplined areas of our conscious brain.

Scientific thinking is something we learn. We are born lawyers.

Beginning with a conclusion you want to convince others of, seeking evidence that supports it – and discrediting evidence that doesn’t – is another way to describe what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman defines confirmation bias as “our tendency, when receiving new information, to process it in a way that it fits our pre-existing narrative about a situation or problem.” Think about that idea in the context of the questions of Bush or Obama. If you learn that Bush is doing extensive charity work in Africa, as well as donating a considerable portion of his personal wealth in doing so, that might be enough to convince you he’s not as bad as you had previously thought. More likely, though, is if you previously thought of him as a rotten politician then this is just another example. “He’s just trying to repair his legacy,” you might say. “This is all for show.” The pre-existing narrative – George Bush is evil – trumps face-value interpretation of the new information.

George Bush

With that in mind, let’s go back to the friendzone scenario. Try to think about it from the woman’s point of view. What is the pre-existing narrative in this case? “This man is my friend.” So when that friend does something in an effort to make her like him more, he is, in all likelihood, succeeding in doing so. But he is simultaneously reinforcing that narrative. Where he might think, “I’ll pay for our dinner. Then she’ll know I’d be a good provider!” she’s left to think, “It was really nice of my friend to pay for my meal.”  He might pick her up from work late one night when she doesn’t have a ride. “I am so lucky to have such a good friend.” He might even save her life. “I’d be dead,” she might think. “He’s going to be my best friend for the rest of my life.” Confirmation bias is working against him every step of the way.

If this is true, it would be understandable for one to be left feeling helpless. But I don’t think that’s the lesson to take. Rather, I think it lends merit to the idea that men should be more up front with their feelings in general. Or at the very least they shouldn’t bury them under a thick veneer of friendship. It may not seem fair, but whatever narrative you construct is the lens through which people will see you. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian famously said, “Write not so you can be understood; write so it is impossible to be misunderstood.” The same advice applies to your image.

Have it Your Way

If you drive forty-five minutes west of London along the Thames, you’ll find yourself in the village of Bray in Berkshire. You would have to pass through Slough to get there: TV nerds like me know Slough as the setting for the original BBC Office starring Ricky Gervais. Bray seems like a quaint British village; when looking at pictures, you’re almost surprised to see cars in them. Of the four British restaurants that have earned the Michelin Guide’s highest honor – three stars – two of them are located in Bray. The first of the two is known as the Waterside Inn, and was founded by the Roux brothers. It is the only restaurant outside of France to have three Michelin stars for twenty-five consecutive years.

The other restaurant is called The Fat Duck. It is located at the center of town and is the so-called flagship of modernist cuisine in the English-speaking world. Chef Heston Blumenthal took a progressive approach to developing his cooking style and his restaurant’s reputation: he reached out to food scientists, psychologists, and even perfumers to test, retest, and challenge every facet of conventional cooking wisdom. Can we make oysters taste better if the diner hears ocean waves lapping while they eat? Is it possible to keep hot liquid and cold liquid separate in the same glass, so when a diner takes a sip half of her mouth is hot and half of her mouth is cold? Does the name of a dish have an impact on how it tastes – will someone be disgusted by crab ice cream but delighted by frozen crab bisque? Can we make an ice cream that we can light on fire but won’t melt?

These days, it’s not uncommon to see bacon in a dessert. Even Burger King had an ice cream parfait sprinkled with crispy bacon bits. Bacon-spiked desserts, though, got their start at The Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal introduced the dish “Bacon & Egg Ice Cream,” a scoop of bacon-and-egg flavored ice cream on top of a slice of caramelized French toast made with brioche. It was served with tomato and red pepper compote, a spoonful of salted caramel, sugared Morels, and a cup full of jellied Earl Grey tea. At the time, Blumenthal called it “without doubt the most controversial dish we have at the restaurant.”

One online review I read of The Fat Duck highlighted that fact. The author of that review said she didn’t like tomatoes, so she asked for the tomatoes to be withheld from the dish. She found the dish to be cloying – too sweet to finish –and marked her experience there down as a result.

Let me step back and talk about conceptualizing a dish on the professional level. The first thing a chef has to consider is that all tastes need to be in balance. As you may know, there are five generally-accepted tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (for the uninitiated, umami is “meatiness.” It is found in meats, tomatoes, and many kinds of cheeses and mushrooms). Sweet and sour, for example, do an excellent job of balancing each other out. Salty and bitter do the same thing, which is why beer snacks tend to be salty. Sour flavors don’t balance well with bitterness, however, nor do they balance well with salt. With that in mind, the second consideration comes up: everything on the plate should have a flavor-oriented purpose. The purpose of the tomato compote in the above dessert was to add sour flavors and umami: sour to tamp down the overall sweetness, umami to complement the bacon flavor, which in turn would make the meatiness more prominent and tamp down the sweetness.

Ultimately, when this reviewer asked to have the tomatoes left off her plate, she threw off the balance of the dish and didn’t like the result. Whether or not she realized that it was her fault, I don’t know. I hope she did. And I hope that if any of you are willing to pay $200 or more for a meal at a top restaurant you will eat the dish as it is intended. But more than that, it got me thinking about the myriad ways we do this same thing in day-to-day life without ever acknowledging it. It could be something simple. Maybe you didn’t enjoy a movie because you were texting and checking Twitter the whole time. Maybe you couldn’t feel comfortable in a new relationship because your heart was still holding onto a previous one. It could also be something more serious. Maybe your marriage is failing because you ignore the fundamental design and balance of marriage as a whole. I guess I can’t speak for you; but for myself, I want to start acknowledging when “having it my way” is what ruins the whole experience.

The Fat Duck

The Single White Male Guide to Rape Jokes

The first time I stopped and tried to understand rape culture from a woman’s point of view came after watching a clip of the comedian Wanda Sykes. As a hulking man of 6’1, oscillating between 225 and 245 pounds, I don’t intimidate easily and I rarely feel unsafe to go somewhere by myself. I have lived in neighborhoods where there have been shootings and murders, and for a period of time I worked a job where I walked kids to school mere blocks from the active zone of the East Side rapist. Despite all that, I went to and fro without a care in the world. Sure, I had a vague idea that not everybody had that luxury – and an even vaguer idea that I might be a tad bit too confident – but it was rare I had to confront that reality.

But then I watched Sykes’ stand up special “Sick & Tired.” In it she talks some about the pressures of being vulnerable. “We’ve been taught from an early age that we have something everybody wants. ‘You’ve got to protect it, you’ve got to cherish it.’” She strikes on a novel idea: a detachable vagina. “Ladies, wouldn’t you like this, wouldn’t it be wonderful if our pussies were detachable? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just leave it at home sometimes? Just think of the freedom you could have! You’d get home from work, it’s getting a little dark outside. ‘Oh, I’d like to go for a jog, but it’s getting too dark… I’ll just leave it at home!’ Some crazy guy jumps out of the bushes you could be like, ‘Ah! I left if at home!’”

Maybe that bit’s funny to you, maybe it’s not. But for me, it encapsulates everything good comedy should be. Comedy should be funny, yes. But it should also make me think of something in a way I’ve never thought of it before. It should teach me about someone else’s point of view and experience. (This is the main reason I never found Dane Cook to be funny: he never taught me anything, except how to crab walk on stage.) The best comedy plays with the tension of making us laugh and teaching us something new while making us feel like we knew it all along. When Jim Gaffigan talks about the shame and hypocrisy of eating at McDonald’s, he’s doing exactly that.  “’Look, McDonald’s is really bad for you. It’s really high in fat and calories and we don’t even know where the meat comes from!’ And we’re all like, ‘That’s disgusting! …I’ll have a Big Mac, a large fry, and a two gallon drum of Coke.’ Cuz there’s a McDonald’s denial, and we all embrace it. No one’s going in there innocent.”

Yesterday, I saw a series of tweets on the topic of rape jokes. They read,

Women do not think all men are rapists. Rapists think all men are rapists. This has been proven over & over in psych profiles & studies. I get it. You’re making a rape joke. You would NEVER rape someone. You’re a good man who doesn’t understand why your ‘free speech’ is curbed. HOWEVER, when you make a rape joke, there are 2 people who are likely to hear it, due to high rape stats: a) survivors, b) rapists. When you make a rape joke, a survivor relives in vivid Technicolor sound what was probably the worst moment of his or her life. But you don’t care about that, they’re being too sensitive, right? Fuck ‘em. But what about the RAPIST who hears you? The rapist hears you make that ‘Oh bro I got raped at work today’ joke and laughs right along with you, secretly validated. The rapist thinks to himself, ‘Oh, a man who thinks of rape as a normal part of life.’ He thinks you’re a rapist too, because you normalize it. Does that bother you? You, a good man who would never rape anyone? Does it bother you that a rapist identifies with you? If that thought doesn’t make you look deep inside and examine your desire to make rape jokes, may God have mercy on your soul.

I don’t know how valid this argument is. She might hit the nail on the head, she might be off the mark. But the conclusion is worth thinking about. When we joke about rape, are we normalizing it? Do the things we laugh at make evildoers feel justified?

Rape Tweets

With that in mind, think about this next bit by the comedian Louis C.K. He is talking about how difficult it is for a man to ask a woman on a date, but how that pales in comparison to how difficult it must be, conceptually, for a woman to say yes. “The courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine. A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane. And ill advised. And the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it! How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat! Globally and historically we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true! You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.”

It’s my opinion that there is nothing too serious to laugh at. War, murder, death, genocide, and, yes, even rape. The burden is on the comedian, though, to make that topic insightful, to help us foster understanding and perspective. Wanda Sykes was making a rape joke; she turned my thinking around. Louis C.K. added yet another vantage point. Can a rapist identify with their material and be able to justify their actions? That seems doubtful. There is an ocean of distance between saying “Bro I got raped at work today” and “How do women still go out with guys when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to woman than men?” It’s not jokes about rape that should be off-limits, but rather the jokes that validate it, make it seem normal rather than horrific. Ultimately, what are we laughing about? The pain and trauma of others should never amuse us. But there are few better times to laugh than when a light shines on a hole in our understanding and we are able to say, “I never thought of it that way.”

Wanda

Which Part of Me is You?

“A toothache is not necessarily diminished by our knowledge of its causes.”
– T.S. Eliot

Last week, I was flipping through a copy of Psychology Today. One article caught my attention. The author was describing signs of healthy relationships. For example, in healthy relationships, partners support each other’s opportunities for growth, or they frequently touch each other in non-sexual ways. They share their emotions. These all seem like valuable facets of any romantic relationship, but the one that stood out was the first one: “People in thriving relationships take on each other’s habits, interests, and mannerisms.” They become more like one another. And while the author was talking about this in the context of romantic relationships, I thought of the myriad ways I’ve seen this happen to me with friends and family also.

I thought of how I was never much more than a Caribou Coffee drinker until my friend Alli told me about a new shop with a lot of buzz called Kopplin’s. It was that time of Spring where it’s still cold enough that you wear a coat but warm enough that you insist on having it unzipped. I ventured down Hamline with three friends – Kirby, Cassie, and Amy – and though we were in the right place, we couldn’t find it. We looped the block several times, but it was hidden between a burger joint and a bowling alley. (We ended up driving over to the Spyhouse instead.) Eventually I made it down there and it’s been my favorite ever since.

I thought of how I wouldn’t be a  whiskey drinker if it wasn’t for Taylor sizing me up and saying, “I’m guessing you’re a whiskey guy.”

“I guess so,” I think I said.

I would never have been a runner if Carica hadn’t asked me to train for a 5k with her so she could get back into shape after her pregnancy. I took up table tennis because Ashley beat me in a game during her orientation weekend at Northwestern, and in my (sexist) embarrassment I trained with Jared as often as I could until I got good at the game. By then I enjoyed it too much to stop.

One afternoon during my freshman year at Northwestern, a girl named Lauren challenged me to a race. We walked to the back parking lot the students called Purgatory since it had a clear straightaway. It was early October but the weather was warm: leaves had only slowly started accumulating along the curbs. Afterwards, we walked towards the dining hall to find a group of people playing Ultimate Frisbee so we joined in and played terribly. Frisbee has been a part of my life ever since.

I could go on. I never took cooking very seriously until Beka bragged about her family meals to me and started sharing recipes. That passion took another step forward when I discovered how the process of cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be connecting, encouraging, and in some ways healing. I learned that from Leigh. Psychology meant little to me until Keuning’s enthusiasm spilled over during Social Psychology. That probably would have dried up like a raisin if not for Joel and our endless conversations about the mind and motivations. I’m still not sure we’ve ever agreed on any of it.

We too often think of giving of ourselves as a physical metaphor, a zero-sum game. If I give to you, I no longer have it for myself. And in some ways that’s true. But clearly giving in this case is more like tipping a flame into an unlit candle. (I suddenly realize I am borrowing that image from William Penn, who puts it far better than I: “Such a disposition is like lighting another man’s candle by one’s own, which loses none of its brilliancy by what the other gains.”) Or maybe it’s like a needle and thread, passing through different pieces of fabric and binding them together. Who knows how far that thread stretches beyond me. It may be a little bit sentimental, but it’s certainly fun to think about.