On the Circumference of Lake Superior

iv.

It’s already difficult to picture, standing near its shore, where Lake Superior could possibly end, but when the sky’s a dripping, drizzling gray it becomes practically impossible. The horizon seems to extend above the tree line, as though the lake is curling up over itself and dumping the excess back into its basin. I can’t help but wonder at the first people to encounter it, whether they thought they could find something on the other side or if they believed it to be the edge of the world. Was there an intrepid skeptic who dared put it to the test, walking north only to return from the south several months later?

These were the questions on my mind as I sat at the bar at Castle Danger, sipping a George Hunter Stout – “an American version of the style with aromas of molasses, licorice, maple, coffee and cream that are also echoed in the flavor.” I also wondered if there were more beers on tap than daydrinkers sporting identical trucker-hat-and-camo ensembles.  The tap list boasted eight beers. “Did I already charge you?” asked the bartender, a squat middle-aged woman with silver-gold hair and a ready smile, as I tipped back the last dregs. “I can never remember when someone’s paid or if I’ve just given away beer for free. It’s a nightmare.”

“Your nightmare is someone else’s dream,” I replied as I pulled out my wallet.

“Don’t you want another one? The cream ale is really nice after the stout.”

I declined. “It’d be bad manners to show up to a wedding drunk. Besides, I have to drive back to Duluth for it.”

When she asked if I was excited to go, I smiled and said, “Sure, who doesn’t like an open bar?” But in truth I was dreading it. I tried dodging the invitation once it became clear it was coming, but the bride tracked me down like a blood hound. Didn’t she know you’re not supposed to bring prior romantic baggage to your wedding?

It would have been easy enough to simply decline the invitation. The wedding was in Duluth, after all, and that’s a difficult trip without a car. Scheduling it for 5 p.m. on a Friday meant I’d have to take time off work, another reasonable excuse. And even though there’s no lingering attachment, a betting man would think it’d be, at the very least, an uncomfortable experience. But in the end, I couldn’t convince myself that I wasn’t just trying to hurt her in the most passive way possible. Could I say with total, unshakeable confidence that there wasn’t any part of me that wanted her to notice my absence, that wanted that absence to sting and linger, no part of me that wanted that slight to fester and damage? What would it say about me as a person if I hid behind a reasonable excuse in even the most miniscule attempt to inflict pain on someone I have claimed to love?

It was convenient, to say the least, that my ability to feel, to commune with my emotional self, has been so eroded these last couple months. I don’t like to think of it as a numbness; rather, it’s as though that emotional self is unconscious, passed out in a drunken stupor. He’ll come to just long enough to yell something angry – and probably offensive – before slipping again into restless slumber. It hardly matters which emotions have come for a visit when he’s snoring loudly and mumbling about Vietnam. They’ll have to come back later if they want an audience.

This enabled me, at first, to watch the ceremony with a detached fascination. There were fewer groomsmen than bridesmaids. The pastor had brought a football as a prop, despite the fact that neither bride nor groom cared for the sport. (I’m still not totally clear about the point of that. Something to do with Chris Berman’s “He. Could. Go. All. The. Way.” catchphrase?) But when I saw her eyes well up with tears of joy, and I watched his gentle thumb dry her cheek, I became self-conscious of tears in my own eyes. Was I feeling something, or were my mirror neurons just firing blindly like a caricature of an old prospector? Moving my hands towards my face felt too conspicuous. I let the dampness linger.

It’s fair to ask whether some achievements are worth the effort. In her journal, Sylvia Plath wrote, “The danger is that in this move toward new horizons and far directions, that I may lose what I have now, and not find anything except loneliness.” For the fur traders of the North West Company, it was essential to know how far the lake would stretch. For those early few who were driven only by curiosity, one has to think the satisfaction of attaining that knowledge would be tempered by the realization that they’d only ended up back where they started, but with salt water running down their faces.

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Jennifer Lawrence and Gender Bias

After last winter’s Sony e-mail hack, it came to light Jennifer Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars for her performance in the film American Hustle. Today, in Lena Dunham’s newsletter Letters to Lenny, Lawrence shared her perspective about the incident, first blaming herself for failing as a negotiator: “I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need.” Beyond that, Lawrence suggests that wanting to be seen as likable informed her negotiating tactics. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’”

“‘Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?” Lawrence wonders. “Could there still be a lingering habit of trying to express our opinions in a certain way that doesn’t “offend” or “scare” men?”

Myself, I wonder why Lawrence is negotiating her salary instead of having an experienced agent or attorney do so on her behalf. But I am ignorant about the pricing model of such services.

I’m not writing this to defend Hollywood, nor to condemn Lawrence’s perspective on her own experience. Her misgivings seem grounded, though perhaps a little too self-aware. (“I’m over trying to find the ‘adorable’ way to state my opinion and still be likable!” she says, and my irony radar records not a blip.) Rather, this reminds me of some psych research that shows that in negotiations over car sales and repair prices, white men are given lower quotes than women or black shoppers. This trend wasn’t absolutely consistent, however: women were only quoted higher prices when they didn’t mention a price on their own. When the callers suggested their own price – whether fair or high – both genders got the same offer. In fact, women were more likely than men to receive a discount on services when they asked for one.

The pricing, then, depends primarily on the mechanic’s conclusion of how well-informed his clients were. Mechanics apparently assume, consciously or unconsciously, that white men know more about car repairs than women or minorities. When there was more available evidence (a price suggested by the customer), gender bias ceased to be a relevant indicator. (I’d personally be interested to see this study repeated in an area involving things that typify white male ignorance, such as wedding dress prices or such, to see if the situation is reversed in those contexts).

I wonder if something similar is at play at Sony. Perhaps the studio executive sitting across from Jennifer Lawrence used her gender as a heuristic for how knowledgeable she was about the nuances of back-end points. Perhaps the bias showed up just as much due to her age – gender is not the only obvious difference between Lawrence and Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper. That is not to say that this was a less insidious form of bias, just a different one. Perhaps even a more subtle one. Fortunately, the research available to us has an explicit remedy: know a fair offer ahead of time and be prepared to vocalize it.

JLaw

A Valediction

We both knew this. I had my miseries, not hers;
she had hers, not mine. The end of hers would be
the coming-of-age of mine.
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

iii.

I’ve read that when Grant Achatz, the famous modernist chef, came down with cancer of the tongue, his ability to taste salt was the last to go. I am working from memory, but I believe sweetness faded first, followed by the sour, and then bitter flavors. Saltiness lingered a while, rendering each morsel a monotonous chore, but before long it was all just texture, varied gradients of sand brushing up against his tender tongue. I’ve wondered if that sequence would be the same for everyone, or even the same for every chef. Perhaps sugar would linger for the pastry chefs and bakers. Maybe the garde mangers would cling to bitterness.

It’s worth asking if Achatz felt “less” as his ability to taste eroded away. While his mind and experience and unrelenting creative capacity let him continue to develop celebrated dishes and flavor pairings (the year following Achatz’s cancer diagnosis was widely considered Alinea’s zenith to that point), the inability to taste for himself must have induced some fear or uncertainty. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.” But would we elevate Beethoven so high had he never been deaf? The great Swiss mathematician Euler reached the peak of his productivity after he went blind. Frustrated, yes, but not stopped. Taking on water but not yet sunk.

And so I go back to tending my heart’s garden, praying a soft prayer that when this rhubarb ripens I’ll be able to dip a stalk in caster’s sugar and eat it raw, that the magical sweet and sour taste will transport me to some summer morning ages ago when everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
– James Donne, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning