An Empty Church

Historic St. Anthony Main always smells like rotting fish. Being near the Mississippi would be bad enough on its own, but all of the canals and rivulets they created in order load Pillsbury flour onto barges only amplifies the problem. If you walk down the trails below Father Hennepin Park, you can sometimes get a glimpse of a gull tearing apart a catfish behind the obscuring mantilla of a man-made estuary, the carcass fermenting and baking in the summer sun. Minnesota’s own katsuobushi.

That’s about the only complaint I could make about St. Anthony Main. The brick boulevard – or are they cobblestone? – gives it an idyllic quality, one that’s only enhanced by the view of the Stone Arch Bridge and the distant lights of downtown Minneapolis, a view that gets sweeter as the evening turns into night. And there’s always something to watch: dedicated joggers with fluorescent shoes and awkward running motions; dog walkers, sticking out for their attempts to be inconspicuous, as they bag up their civic duty; and couples, some stalked by photographers, others trailed by posers, all in search of the perfect façade.

She’d wanted to meet down at Aster Café, so that’s where I waited for her arrival, watching couple after couple gaze wistfully at each other with the Guthrie in blatant view behind them. She was running late. “My phone has been dead all day so I’m gonna let it get a bit of juice and then I’ll be heading out real soon.”

“Okay,” I replied. “You’ll narrowly miss happy hour, but that’s okay.”

“Poop. Did they have apps on happy hour? No, don’t tell me. It will be better if I don’t know.”

I checked my watch: fifteen minutes til last call. So I motioned that waitress over and ordered two cheese plates and a flatbread. I asked her to wait as long as possible before putting in the order. She ignored the last request, and the food came out within minutes.

My phone buzzed again. “Perhaps I’ll get some sweet potato fries….”


“If they have them….”


“Which they probably don’t.”

They did not.


I thought I’d be feeling nervous or excited, but I wasn’t. I felt nothing, just an emptiness where I anticipated a feeling. Confusion found itself sucked into that vacuum. History was screaming at me to feel something, anything at all. Seeing her was never without jitters of some kind: even if it wasn’t always excitement, there would at least be a sense of anticipation. But now, as I waited for (…my friend? It felt like an abuse of the term. My ex? I could never get comfortable with that expression, either…) this woman I hadn’t seen in months, ambivalence was all I could summon to feel.

One Sunday this last January, before all the college kids came back to school, I decided to sleep in on Sunday morning expecting to be able to hit up the evening service at church. It was one of those blistering winter days where the temperature dipped to 20 below before the sun went down. I took the 16 to the Metrodome station and walked the half mile to the Hope East building, but when I got there all the lights were out: I’d forgotten they don’t have a third service over winter break. Expecting the warmth of both the building and people who cared for me, I found instead an empty building, cold and dark. So I trudged back to the Metrodome and waited under heat lamps for the next 16 to take me home.

None of that is to say our dinner was bad. It wasn’t. It was all pleasant, and sometimes exceptional. We laughed together in a way we hadn’t in months, maybe years. But my stomach didn’t rise into my throat when she finally walked up to the table. My hair didn’t stand on end when she brushed up against me on our saunter over the bridge. My heart didn’t flutter when she hugged me goodbye. The only emotion I felt was a vague sadness that this person, once so special, so primary to me, was now just another person.

There’s a scene in the movie Swingers, arguably its climax, where two friends are talking about how to move on from a relationship. Rob, played by Ron Livingston, tries to point Jon Favreau’s Mike to the future. “You gotta get on with your life. You gotta let go of the past. And Mikey, when you do, I’m telling you: the future is beautiful, all right? Look out the window. It’s sunny every day here. It’s like manifest destiny. And everything that is past is prologue to this.”

Mike, though, is preoccupied with the hurdle instead of the finish line. “How did you get over it? I mean, how long did it take?”

“Sometimes it still hurts,” he admits. “You know how it is, man. It’s like, you wake up every day and it hurts a little bit less, and then you wake up one day and it doesn’t hurt at all. And the funny thing is… this is kinda weird, but it’s like, it’s like you almost miss that pain.”

“You miss the pain?”

“Yeah, for the same reason you that you miss her. Because you lived with it for so long.”

Ellen Goodman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, said, “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over – and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.” That’s in every way beautiful and optimistic. And yet it’s still so confusing to expect to feel and feel nothing, to long for an ache of nostalgia that’s nowhere to be found. Maybe emptiness is another word for the readiness to be filled.


Emma Watson and Gender Feminism

Have you ever been asked to embrace a vague idea only to be told that doing so dictates you must likewise adhere to an entirely different set of immutable principles? Okay, that in itself was a vague idea. Think of the simplistic mindset surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Aren’t you a patriot?” some certainly asked, implying that anyone uncomfortable with war must likewise hate America. The comedian Mike Birbiglia plays on this idea in his stand-up special, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing.” Birbiglia remarked on how frustrating he found the idea that if he “supported the troops” then he had to support the war. “I just think that’s a little manipulative because I love the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops, and I would be the worst troops. I’d be like, ‘You expect me to carry a gun this heavy and run away screaming? That is too many things!’”

I think this is what’s going on with the word “feminism” these days. The psychologist Barry Kuhle asked a wide array of people two different questions. 1) Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not? And 2) A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not? “If you’re like many people,” Kuhle wrote, “your answer to question one bore little resemblance to your answer to question two.” According to Kuhle, 65% of women and 58% of men identified as feminist when the definition was provided. Conversely, only 24% of women and 14% of men called themselves feminist in the absence of a clarifying definition.

In his book, The Blank Slate, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes a useful distinction between different types of feminism.

Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

Kuhle agrees. “Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality” whereas gender feminism “is the dominant voice in academia and online…. (Gender feminists) ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes …are largely or solely socially constructed.”

I’m not writing this as an attempt to rebut or refute gender feminism (Pinker takes a whack at that: read his book and decide for yourself how effective he was, or see what else Kuhle has to say). Rather, I am writing because of a question Emma Watson posed in her largely excellent speech on equality to the UN. “Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, ‘too aggressive,’ isolating and anti-men, unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?” I can’t decide if this is an honest question or a disingenuous one. You can disagree with people who are anti-man, and you can disagree with those who believe that gender differences have nothing at all to do with biology, but please don’t pretend those people don’t exist. And don’t compound the problem by further pretending they don’t often call themselves feminists.

Feminism is an uncomfortable word because people mean it to use different – and at times contradictory – things. The group of people who lay claim to the label are diverse, and many of them have different definitions in mind when they use the word. When a person lays bare the tenets of their philosophy, we can choose to embrace or reject those claims. If a person says patriotism means being willing to be self-sacrificial in order to benefit the nation as a whole, we are able to agree or disagree with that claim on its own merits; when “patriotism” comes to mean blind, unchallenging acceptance of policies that we would otherwise detest, the people who are on board with the former might well be turned off by the latter. The term feminism is no different.

I want to reiterate that I agree with Watson in the spirit of what she said. Gender inequality is a worldwide problem, and no nation has achieved equality. (The question of whether or not that’s actually possible is another story entirely.) Watson also pointed out, “Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either,” a sharp insight that I wish had occurred to me. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a men—or less of a man,” she said. “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.” And as far as we’d like to think we’ve come, “15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.” Inequality is still an issue. Maybe the way forward is to focus less on labels and more about finding ways to create equality.


Perfectionism and Ranch Dressing

In Malcolm Gladwell’s fabulous New Yorker essay “The Bakeoff,” he tells the story of the development of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.

The couple who owned Hidden Valley Ranch, near Santa Barbara, had come up with a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and parsley flakes that was mixed with equal parts mayonnaise and buttermilk to make what was, by all accounts, an extraordinary dressing. Clorox tried to bottle it, but found that the buttermilk could not coexist, over any period of time, with the mayonnaise. The way to fix the problem, and preserve the texture, was to make the combination more acidic. But when you increased the acidity you ruined the flavor. Clorox’s food engineers worked on Hidden Valley Ranch dressing for close to a decade. They tried different kinds of processing and stability control and endless cycles of consumer testing before they gave up and simply came out with a high-acid Hidden Valley Ranch dressing — which promptly became a runaway best-seller.

Customers had never tasted the original Hidden Valley Ranch dressing. As such, they were oblivious to the fact that the high-acid version tasted different. The important factor was that Hidden Valley Ranch dressing tasted better than what was already available on supermarket shelves. The fact that it couldn’t match the “ideal” fresh version was irrelevant.

This anecdote came to mind when I read through some of my old writing. There are more than a dozen such offerings that I never posted because they didn’t live up to what I intended, and there are at least as many that I’ve posted that, at the time, seemed substandard or disappointing. Going back and reading again with fresh eyes – and no memory of whatever wordplay I was aiming for – made some of those formerly disappointing entries seem adequate. Some passages I thought were clunky, muddled, or unclear got the point across perfectly. (At the same time, some of the writing that I found exciting at the time was forced or stilted or maybe just didn’t age well. A step back cuts both ways, I suppose. Also, my use of parentheses seems overbearing in retrospect.)

Creating something – whether it’s writing essays, stories, or poems, cooking a new recipe, or crafting something elegant from sandalwood – is a difficult, often heart-rending process, and it’s understandable to want every effort to be perfect. Perhaps the best thing a person can do, rather than endlessly reworking and editing and adjusting, is to say, “Good enough” and then try again with something new. In all likelihood, you’re the only person who’ll be able to tell the difference.


Hidden Valley

Adrian Peterson and Cultural Context

Whenever you have a moment, do a quick inventory of whatever moral and political issues you can think of. Now try to think of how you felt about these issues five years ago. How about ten years ago? Do you see any differences? (If not, is it because you were 9 a decade ago? That’s fair.) The most obvious shift for most people will be with respect to gay marriage. For me, it was almost exactly ten years ago that my opinion started shifting on that issue: it happened during an argument with my grandpa when I realized he was reasoning in circles. “I’m against gay marriage because it’s wrong.”

“Why is it wrong?” I asked.
“Because it’s morally wrong.”
“But why do you think that?”
“Because it’s wrong, you jackass!”

Even progressive politicians have an interesting track record on gay marriage, the most obvious of whom is Barack Obama. Just before the 2012 election cycle got into full swing, Obama announced to the world that he had been “going through an evolution on this issue,” and was ready to announce his unbridled support for gay marriage. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” As recently as 2008, however, he said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”

Now imagine, if you will, that over the next twenty years there is a similar shift in the philosophy of child-rearing and child-care. Imagine, say, that “time outs” – that is, making a child sit to him or herself quietly for a prescribed length of time – come to be seen as both ineffective and abusive. Rather than considering time outs as punitive but necessary, the punishment is regarded as psychologically damaging with lasting repercussions to a child’s social development. It’s maybe described as a “power struggle” that is “confusing for the child” who is “left to make sense of strong emotions” with no greater context. Imagine that this guiding philosophy is now firmly held by somewhere around half the population. In this hypothetical 2034, how much guilt would you feel if you’d used time outs on your children?

This last weekend, the news broke that Adrian Peterson had been indicted for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” In May, as a disciplinary measure, Peterson struck his four-year old son with a switch – a small, stripped down tree branch, basically – leaving welts and abrasions on the boy’s buttocks and thighs. I am not attempting to defend Peterson here: Adrian Peterson is a man whose handshake makes grown men wince, he is a brutishly strong athletic marvel, even compared to his peers – men who are already among the strongest and fastest in the world. He has no business using corporal punishment as a disciplinary device.

The public reaction, however, has gone predictably over the top. Part of it stems from the immediate context of the situation – the recent release of Ray Rice for knocking his wife unconscious in a casino elevator being the most dramatic part of it. Fans are fed up about a culture in which athletes continue to earn financial rewards after committing barbaric, horrific acts against women and children. One aspect that has magnified the outrage towards Peterson has been the fact that he seems completely unaware that people think he did something wrong.

But that doesn’t give us license to ignore the role that cultural context is playing here. Nobody is claiming that Adrian Peterson set out to hurt his son. In fact, the nature of the charges – reckless or negligent injury – tacitly acknowledges that the legal system believes that Peterson “went too far” in the normal course of parenting. The use of a switch has been commonplace in southern parenting for ages. Peterson himself received such treatment growing up, or so he claims. (Considering how open he was with police and the grand jury, it would be odd to doubt his word on that point.)

I am not trying to argue for the merits on using a switch – I think that’s horrific. What I am trying to do is point out the absurd arrogance of demanding that everyone, regardless of culture or background, regardless of context or mitigation, must adhere to the arbitrary set of progressive mores at play in society. This is an impossible standard. We are judging a Southern black man, one who grew up in a poor home with a dad in prison, under the ethical system of a predominantly White, upper-middle class East-coast ethic. This is disingenuous at best. We live in a world where the most liberal, progressive president we’ve ever seen didn’t embrace gay marriage until he’d held that office for three years. It’s easy to want everyone to agree with your core values at all times, but it’s unrealistic to expect anybody to be able to hold that pace.

By the way, that time outs hypothetical? That’s not a hypothetical. Several major child-care providers consider time outs to be unethical, ineffective for discipline, and harmful to the child. (The YMCA is the most notable example.) It is currently a minority opinion, of course, and it is not unreasonable to believe that a time out is a perfectly valid form of discipline. But that might not be true in ten years. And, perhaps more frightening, the same could have been said about using a switch twenty years ago. When we judge someone by our immediate cultural context, when we don’t temper that judgment with reference to how that person is acting in the context of their norms, we are constructing a system of social morality where no one has any legs on which to stand.


Half-Measure Christianity

One of my favorite monologues in television history comes from the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad’s third season, called “Half Measures.” Mike Ehrmantraut, the private investigator/personal body guard to drug kingpin Gus Fring, is trying to convince Walter White to let Fring’s organization kill Walt’s partner Jesse. Mike’s argument recalls his days as a beat cop (according to the show, he was a cop in Philadelphia; according to his speech, he drove out into the desert. I’m not sure there are deserts around Philadelphia), having to handle domestic disturbances. In one case, convinced a battered woman would never leave her abuser, Mike takes him into a secluded area and threatens to kill him unless he stops beating his wife. “Just trying to do the right thing,” Mike lamented. “But two weeks later, he killed her…. The moral of the story is, I chose I half measure when I should have gone all the way.”

Hold that thought.

One of the unique and compelling aspects of Christianity is that it instructs us to focus on God and to examine ourselves. It doesn’t give us license to shame one another. It doesn’t teach us that we deserve to be treated a certain way interpersonally, nor does it imply that we can demand any such behavior. On the contrary, the Gospel teaches us how I, Christian, should respond no matter how I am treated. Rather than demanding not to be cursed, I must bless those that curse me. Instead of returning vitriol for hate, God tells me to do good to those who hate me. Far from protecting me the people who oppose me and my beliefs, I am taught to pray for them. Christianity, in its essence, is about transforming me, you, us into the likeness of the living God.

This is important to note. One of the core teachings of Christianity is that we must forgive each other. Why? Because no matter how badly someone has wronged us, we have wronged God infinitely more. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had mercy on you?” God asks, in the form of a parable, in Matthew 18. In response to that parable, Peter asked Jesus, “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus replies, “Not up to seven times, but seventy times seven.” (A lot of commentary has been made about how Jesus wasn’t giving Peter a math test but just saying, “Just keep doing it. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter how many times he sins against you. Keep forgiving.”) Aaron Weiss takes this to the logical conclusion: “But grace, we all know, can take the place of all we owe. So why not let’s forgive everyone, everywhere, everything?”

But some of us, without even thinking about it, take this idea past its end point. Instead of stopping there, and directing this teaching inward to say, “I must forgive my neighbor,” we twist it to point outward: “My neighbor must forgive me.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. That’s true, but only to a point. We are not allowed to use the teachings of Christ to manipulate the behavior of fellow Christians – or anyone else for that matter. If you harm your friend or neighbor, it’s not on you to demand forgiveness from him or her. Your job is to repent, ask forgiveness, and be willing to offer atonement for the harm you caused. When Zacchaeus, the tax collector, came to Jesus and said, “Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold,” Jesus didn’t say, “Nah, it’s cool. It’s their job to forgive you for that.” Instead, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Tim Keller teaches that forgiveness, typically speaking, is hard. “(Forgiveness) is a form of suffering. You not only suffer the original loss of happiness, reputation, and opportunity, but now you forgo the consolation of inflicting the same on them. You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly. Many people would say that it feels like a kind of death.” (Keller goes on to dispel the idea that forgiveness is just “letting go” of a gripe, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Forgiveness is refusing to let the other person pay the cost of a debt; the cost still must be paid, though, and the greater the debt the greater the burden of paying it. “Everyone who forgives someone bears the other’s sins.”)

You could argue that I am overstepping. After all, this is at best an inference rather than an explicit teaching of the Gospel. But I think the foundation is there. In Romans 13, Paul teaches us, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Love is, by nature, proactive. Waiting for someone to forgive on their own accord is passive. It is half-measure Christianity. In Matthew 5, Jesus says that if you are at the alter offering a sacrifice and remember that a brother or sister has a gripe with you, you are to leave your offering until you’ve reconciled with that person. Only then can you come back and present your offering.

I think Kierkegaard hit the point right on the nose: “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” If we direct the word of God at anyone without first – and thoroughly – directing it at ourselves, we have missed the mark. You are responsible for your pursuit of righteousness. No more half measures, Christian.


Let’s End the NFL Blackout Rule

Football season hasn’t even begun yet, and already the anticipation – and outrage – is in full swing. With the troubling length of player misconduct suspensions (far too short in the case of Ray Rice, far too long in the case of Josh Gordon), and the fate of beleaguered general manager Jim Irsay still hanging in the balance, there is plenty of controversy holding our attention as we await the games to begin. Under the cover of these spectacles, the NFL and the NFLPA – the union representing the players – and even the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, each quietly sent letters to the FCC asking them to table the elimination of NFL blackout policies.

In case you didn’t know, the NFL has had a policy since 1973 that games cannot be televised locally if the home stadium is not sold out 72 hours prior to its start time. (The radius for such blackouts is typically 75 miles from the site of the stadium.) For example, if the Vikings haven’t sold out their home stadium by noon on the Thursday before the game, local broadcasts cannot air the game within a 75-mile radius of TCF Bank Stadium, a geographical area that covers the entirety of the Twin Cities metro.

Last month, the FCC Commissioner, Ajit Pai, said the “time has come” to repeal the blackout rule. Pai continued, “After carefully reviewing all of the arguments, I don’t believe the government should intervene in the marketplace and help sports leagues enforce their blackout policies. Our job is to serve the public interest, not the private interests of team owners.”

The law involved here is very complicated, but the motivations are not. Blackouts allow teams to artificially increase demand for the NFL tickets. These tickets are prohibitively expensive for most people already: a family of four would have to pay between $140 and $600 for a single game, and that doesn’t include the cost of parking or concessions. There is no direct charge for a fan to watch the game on their television at home.

In the general case, this should be enough to make you angry. In the case of the Vikings, though, that feeling should be amplified by the fact that local taxpayers are providing $498 million dollars to finance the new stadium. Oddly enough, we don’t have a profit-sharing deal on ticket sales. If ticket sales flounder, local fans – who had little choice in the decision to subsidize the new downtown stadium – might be barred from watching games played at a stadium they are paying for.

The FCC is right to oppose the blackout rule. No team that is receiving public subsidies to build a new stadium should be allowed to impose blackouts against the home audience. If you feel strongly about this issue, like I do, take the time to send our senators an e-mail to let them know how you feel about this issue. You could also ask them to show support for Tom Coburn’s attempt to remove the NFL’s tax-exempt status. The NFL should have to play by the same rules as any other business: if you provide a quality product at a reasonable price, people will purchase it. Game tickets are no exception.