The Downside of Up

How much I write is an accurate barometer of my mental health. When I’m depressed, I become more introspective, more wrapped up in my own personal headspace. The world seems more hostile, the air thick with antipathic fog. And so I analyze and dissect and organize and wonder. Hemingway had a great quote about writing: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Psychic wounds must bleed easiest.

Another thing: when you’re down – or maybe it’s just when I’m down – it becomes that much harder to deal with mediocrity. It matters more to get a word choice that fits just right, like a carpenter setting a support beam. The slightest mismeasurement can bring the whole house tumbling down. Melancholy hoists up a counterintuitive need for perfection, whereas happiness can shed shortcomings like a bulldog shaking off the rain.

And there’s the rub: I’ve been happy lately. I emerged from a three-month monsoon season and, to my surprise, found it easy to pick up and move to a friendlier climate. Bouts of sadness come and go, sure, but always with an identifiable cause, and in the last eight or nine months, none of them have last for more than a few hours. I used to measure them by days.

All that to say, I’ve been writing less because I’ve been thinking about other people more. I’ve been living outside my head and have enjoyed the gentle breeze. That’s the downside of up: writing has felt less like therapeutic bloodletting and more like dragging a mule up a mountain. Or maybe it’s like that first week of spring at college, when we all start playing Frisbee again but almost everybody is out of shape from a long winter. So you sprint a few times but mostly it’s just walking around, enjoying the sunshine, and hoping that nobody notices how completely out of breath you are.



The Culinary Approach to Dating

If you were to poll a dozen of cooking experts on the question, “What is the best way to roast a chicken?” you would get no fewer than twelve different answers. For example, Thomas Keller, America’s godfather of haute cuisine, insists on trussing the bird (tying it together with kitchen twine into a tight, compact parcel) and cooking with high heat. Gordon Ramsay advises pushing hot stuffing into the cavity to help produce even cooking. The gastrowizard Heston Blumenthal almost seems to take Keller’s approach as a guide for what not to do: Blumenthal teaches cooking with low heat for hours, and spreading out the wings and legs from the bird rather than trussing them into the chicken. And that’s just for starters.

But which technique is best? There’s not a simple answer to that question. It’d be ridiculous – and arrogant – to dismiss any of those approaches as bad. They are the tested-and-perfected techniques of three of the world’s foremost cooking experts. Each of them, executed as intended, will produce an excellent roast chicken. Cooking is about trying to strike a balance between several competing goals – efficiency, cost, nutrition, flavor, and mouthfeel to name a few. Keller’s method sacrifices juiciness in order to save time – his recipe takes less than an hour from start to finish, whereas Blumenthal’s takes approximately four hours. Ramsay’s bird is both quick and juicy, but the moist cooking environment sacrifices the crispy skin the other two produce. The best technique, then, is the one that best accomplishes the goals one has at the outset.

Dating in general – and Christian dating in particular – depends on the same balancing act as cooking. For every goal we set, we craft (consciously or unconsciously) a strategy to accomplish that goal. Every strategy involves a tradeoff. Taking things slow, for instance, might delay attachments or create the sense that long-term commitment isn’t in the near future. Conversely, going too fast can create interpersonal fatigue, killing all mystery and romance.  Hoisting arbitrary rules onto our interactions (“No texting after 9:00 at night!”) might help prevent embarrassing mishaps, but it could also unwittingly prevent delightful exchanges. (On a personal note, my own rule about not texting three times in a row without a reply cost me a date not too long ago.)


Last week, I asked my Facebook friends to define the word “date.” They offered a lot of good ideas, a spectrum of opinions, and multiple iterations of the same weak joke. But the conversation also devolved into a question of at what point a man should introduce the word into his pursuit. Several people insisted that men should be up-front from the very beginning. If he has romantic intentions, he should say so (under the presumption, of course, that he is pursuing them). If he does not, he should be equally clear about that point. Ambiguity in this area, it is assumed, is inherently bad.

But I disagree. Ambiguity can be a helpful tool in the relational tool belt. Experimentation in social psychology has indicated that, all else being equal, women are most attracted to a man when they are uncertain whether or not he is attracted to them. This is called the uncertainty principle. As Scott Kaufmann describes it, “When interest is uncertain, a person can think of little else; they are constantly in search of an explanation…. Every petal peeled off the rose while saying, ‘He loves me, he loves me not…’ is a step closer to attraction.”

Banking on uncertainty, however, is a risky move. There is always the chance that the intended woman never finds herself wondering whether a man has feelings for her. Some women are inclined to take for granted that he does, while others would never dream of making such an assumption. The more subtle your signal, the less likely it is to be received the way you intend it to be. And as far as I know, there’s no effective way to directly say, “I like you ….or do I?!” (I should also be clear: there is a difference between ambiguity and dishonesty. Dishonesty is never an acceptable dating strategy. Ambiguity, though temporarily frustrating, is a fertile soil for love to grow. I refuse to reject it out of hand.)

This is why I resist “One size fits all!” dating advice. There are dozens of ways to cook a whole chicken. Imagine picking one and then applying it to all cuts of meats. You’ll be left with insipid, overcooked food in the vast majority of cases. Only once or twice – and probably only when you’re cooking chicken – will you find it to be an effective technique. In my eyes, the best approach is to know what results you want, and then carefully consider the ways your approach will help or hurt you in pursuit of those goals. Adherence to a specific method is secondary. The first question you should ask in any social endeavor must be, “Is this loving? Is it respectful?” Assuming the answer is yes, you come to the second: “Is it effective in accomplishing my goals?” That’s a more difficult question to answer, but it’s unlikely to always rely on the same technique.