A Eulogy For Myself, In Anticipation of Dying Young

ed. note: About a week ago, in the wee small hours, I was almost hit by a car. The experience got me thinking about the practical details of dying unexpectedly, whether everyone involved would know my burial preferences or what songs I’d like played at the service (is Iron & Wine’s “Naked As We Came” too obvious?). It also made me think of what I’d want to say to the people who love me enough to come to my funeral. This is what I came up with.

I would hope that by the time these words are read aloud in front of a captive audience – you all look wonderful in your classic black suits and ornate veils, by the way – my life will barely resemble the one I lead now. If all goes according to plan I will have died a peaceful death at home on my dairy farm, my gentle heifers Cownie Chung and Mary Tyler Moo-er grazing in a nearby pasture, the hypermodernist farmhouse I designed and built an enduring metaphor for my simultaneously forward-thinking and self-indulgent nature. I will be survived by my wife Helga, our three sons Sufjan, Maxwell, and Maximillian, and a princely Australian Shepherd named Sir Francis Barkin that I love more than the four of them combined.

Of course, life has a way of laughing at our plans. I can say with some confidence that I would never have met most of the people in this room had I received the future I laid out for myself. What a miracle that turned out to be! No less a modern prophet than Garth Brooks once observed, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” The beautiful faces in this room are living testimony to the truth of that sentiment.

Some people preoccupy themselves with uncertainties about life after death. I have no such questions: I know that I will keep living. I don’t mean that in the strictly spiritual sense (although I certainly believe that to be the case as well). Perhaps you remember that essay I wrote about those aspects of other people’s personalities that have rubbed off on me, that have become integrated into my identity, inseparable from my soul. As you have been grafted into me, I have been grafted into you. I live on through you.

I live on when you garnish your butternut squash soup with toasted pistachios and some shards of Parmesan. I live on when you step around to execute a perfect inside-out counterloop, preferably around the net and for the win. I live on when you go top shelf on some sticky summer day, floating above the defender as though carried by cherubs. I live on when you complain that Tarantino’s character work got particularly shoddy after Jackie Brown. When you cry readily at a film, when you order the plainest thing on a menu to accurately gauge its quality, when you sit quietly and just absorb the unceasing human drama playing out in the lives of those around you, I get to live in you.

You found me malleable and seized that opportunity, molding me like sculptor’s clay. No doubt your fingerprints have been baked into my spirit by some cosmic kiln. (Hopefully I wasn’t murdered, or this metaphor just got very awkward from an evidentiary perspective.) Maybe ee cummings had something like this in mind when he wrote,

losing through you what seemed myself;i find
selves unimaginably mine;beyond
sorrow’s own joys and hoping’s very fears

yours is the light by which my spirit’s born:
yours is the darkness of my soul’s return
–you are my sun,my moon,and all my stars

And even if he didn’t, we get to misappropriate his words and intent to our hearts’ content. That is, after all, one of the beauties of art.

That is also one of the beauties of life. It is up to us to interpret and reinterpret our stories, and we can give value and meaning to their details. Superficial tidbits can be imbued with depths unfathomable in the moment. We own our biographies – as Chef John might have said, you are the John Dory of your life’s story – and it is up to us to decide when fidelity to a greater truth trumps fidelity to objective historical accuracy.

And so it is with how I’d like to be remembered. My closest friends no doubt remember our running gag about how the manager at Famous Daves once gifted us with a $7 trillion-dollar meal platter, a not-so-subtle joke about how easily we’ll exaggerate things in retelling, but also a nod to how prestigious, how august that gesture made us feel. When we were still poor college students, savoring the irony of buying kid’s meals for our weekly man nights, this wonderful woman gave us a meal that made us feel like warrior kings. The absolute cost of it is meaningless minutia compared to the emotional value of that gift.

Just a couple nights ago, I was trying to describe to a friend the feeling of being stranded at home with a broken-down car. I crafted an image of a frontiersman in a lonesome log cabin, deep in the wilderness, coughing up white smoke from the pine log that he’d not properly dried before adding to the fire, longing for human contact from anyone who wasn’t his softly-snoring beardly brother. But he dares not venture outside. “He’d die,” I said. “There are bears in these woods.”

In my mind, then, when you retell my stories, the best way to honor me is to identify the kernel of truth each of those stories was told to convey, and to use your best judgment about how to capture that truth in the retelling. Maybe that means that car we found just outside of Montevideo was shrouded in fog when it was, in fact, probably a clear winter night, and maybe the man we found stiff and rigid at the steering wheel was already turning blue. Maybe that means that balcony I pulled you from was on the fifteenth floor rather than the third. Maybe you lost three thousand dollars instead of seventy-five that time we got sushi and I told you that I loved you.

If it’s the feeling that matters, if it’s the emotional experience that is in some way the real truth, the image we use to craft that feeling or evoke that emotion is as real as what we otherwise call reality. Perhaps reality itself is itself a handcrafted image, its sole purpose to reveal these feelings to us. Perhaps these shadow plays are the only way by which such truths can be revealed: “Now I see in a mirror, dimly.”

“But when the perfect comes, the incomplete will pass away.”

I don’t know how I’ll be remembered. Hopefully my award-winning cheese hybrids (like a cross between Gorgonzola and Gouda called, you guessed it, “Blouda”) will merit mention, as will my bestselling self-help extraordinaire “The Macks Effect: Making Life Your Bitch Through Reverse Psychology.” Others will focus instead on my unlikely scientific breakthrough, the discovery of the heaviest element known to man (your mom). But if I had to choose, I hope the stories you tell are about how together we became more than ourselves. I hope you’d remember first those times it felt like our hearts had left our bodies and were dancing together on a stage only we could see. I hope you take comfort recalling those times we looked at each other with tears in our eyes, unsure if the pains we endured were woven from my wounds or yours, or if the joy we felt was your victory or mine. Were you the harmony to my melody, or was it the other way around? It couldn’t matter less. Together we sang a beautiful song.



Photo credit: Daniel Mick


The Peculiar Quality of Friendship

One question I like to ask people after I’ve known them a while is, “In your opinion, what is the exact moment that we started to become friends?” I’d have to concede that in many cases the trust and intimacy required for friendship came along so slowly that no one could identify an exact moment with any confidence, like pinpointing the precise place a creek becomes a river. On the other hand, many of my friends choose the same memory that I do. One friendship started the time we stayed up half the night talking about how I felt my life was crumbling in front of me. Another began when I happened to be the only person in earshot when the cumulative pressures of college and family had become overbearing. Yet another sprouted from a chance encounter in a piano practice room, where she was on the brink of tears and I managed the rare (for me) feat of saying something meaningful and encouraging.

I once described friendship as having five essential pillars – trust, comfort, affection, quality time, and open communication – but I’ve come to realize this model is at once too complicated yet not sophisticated enough. “Too complicated” because quality time and open communication aren’t so much components of friendship as they are the fuel it runs on. (Is gas really a part of a car? A question for the philosophers.) “Not sophisticated enough” because identifying those core components says nothing about the way they interact. Does open communication lead to comfort, or does comfort produce open communication? I’m self-aware enough to notice that it’s often when I start talking that people become uncomfortable.

Setting aside for a paragraph my instincts as a writer, I think friendship can be helpfully conceptualized as a tree, with roots of trust, a trunk and branches made from intimacy, love as its fruit, and communication and quality time the sunshine and rainwater that keeps it fed and makes it grow. Perhaps this is why those friendships with discrete beginnings – the ones we can trace from seed to sequoia – almost invariably involve some moment of profound vulnerability, a basic bid for support, a plea for understanding or compassion that is unequivocally answered.

But rain falls on concrete as well as trees. This obvious fact (and the brusque, blunt person who feels the need to pedantically point it out) has created a lot of conflict in my life. If the word “friend” is to be a useful term, it must refer to something stronger than just someone I talk to or spend time with: it must describe the essential nature of a particular kind of relationship. Nobody, except those who just moments prior had an explicit claim to the contrary, would take offense to the statement, “You’re not my employee” or “You’re not my spouse.” But to say, “You’re not my friend” is an egregious faux pas. Why should this be?

Of course, the first obvious answer to this question is that most people mean something altogether different than I do when they use the word, that their category for the term is much more expansive than my own. Perhaps they would likewise describe shrubs and cornstalks as “Basically just trees.” I hope you can at least understand why I find that lack of distinction unsatisfying.

C.S. Lewis noticed this too. “To the Ancients,” he wrote, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chunks of one’s time.”

The second – and infinitely more important – answer is that friendship is by its very nature selective and exclusive. Any conscious act of exclusion necessarily begs questions about value or worth. But we will continue to be selective, even as we are offended when we are not selected. We will continue to be exclusive even as we are excluded. Percipience is an essential quality of friendship, and our unease will not change that.

Even then, the inherent selectivity at play between friends can create jealousies and rivalries among those who have an equal or even greater claim to such a title. Who has not experienced the feeling of being unable to relate to a close friend when they are in deep rapport with someone else, or the feeling that this person you know intimately has transformed into someone unrecognizable while they are in the company of another friend? White chocolate brings out unexpected flavors in both caviar and coffee, yet few would dream of combining the latter two. If coffee could talk, would it express its insecurities that white chocolate sometimes hangs out with a much fancier friend? Would caviar envy coffee’s much wider social circle and wonder why he needed to hog white chocolate’s attention? Has this metaphor gone off the rails yet?

I like to think of friends as fellow-travelers on the same secret road, people with whom I share a (sometimes intuitive and sometimes explicit) sense of understanding, whether about a shared experience or passion or even something entirely ineffable. “I know how you feel. Let’s walk a while together.” Or, as Lewis wrote, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Perhaps this peculiar quality of friendship is one of the many that gives it so much value. Regardless, I want trees to climb, even while I see the value of cornstalks. I want friendship, not something like it.

Wanted: Unpaid Waste Management Interns

Prepare yourself for an overwrought metaphor.

It occurred to me recently that all of us have people in our lives that clean up messes on our behalf. It could just be one person, though perhaps it’s dozens. It could be your closest friend, but it might be someone you’ve never even met. Either way, they often do this work in total anonymity, willingly and without the expectation of thanks. They are our personal Waste Management Interns. It’s an unpaid position. It doesn’t even offer a reference.

Like all great overwrought metaphors, I had this realization when I was in the thick of the job, painstakingly mopping up emotional bile and blood without the benefit of a Hazmat suit. It stains the skin on your fingertips: even after scrubbing with GoJo, you can feel the grit in the grooves. Still sweaty from the work, I realized it would never be acknowledged. Predictably, this led me to brood silently in a darkened room and ponder my mortality.

The temptation, of course, is to dwell on the fact that my own efforts might go unnoticed. That concern is fair, to be sure, but it’s also nearsighted and idiotic. Like I said, we all have Waste Management Interns. Someone who constantly finds themselves immersed in drama, tarred and feathered with social complications – someone like myself – must have dozens if not hundreds of such people in their life. And I don’t recall seeking out and thanking any of them. So maybe the point of the process isn’t recognition or even a reference. Maybe this whole social system relies on us selflessly paying it forward in the blind hope that the next time we spill our own radioactive refuse someone else will be there to keep that upward spiral spinning. But, all the same, to everyone who has done that for me, seriously: thank you.


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

Rethinking Homes

Starting back in high school, I dabbled in designing homes. I would craft layouts and make rough sketches of how such a house would fit into existing and unusual landscapes. I completely ignored important details like plumbing, storage closets, or common sense. All of these homes were designed to include the luxuries I thought I would want as an adult: a full-sized gym, a recording studio, or an elaborate library spanning three stories that would make the Beast bristle at its ostentatiousness. My first completed schematic offered more than 16,000 square feet of living space but only three bathrooms.

As I grew older – and especially after going to college – my design assumptions changed. Floor space seemed less and less important, and so did amenities. I stopped thinking about a house as a place to exist in comfort and luxury. Rather, the purpose of such a building ought to be about nurturing family and building community.

For the bulk of human existence, we have lived in close-knit tribal communities. There were always friends or family nearby. Personal needs were tied to group needs. But now, Modern Western culture has replaced a tribal-centered existence with an independent one. As with everything, unintended consequences followed. There has been an unprecedented level of disconnect among people. In Gregg Easterbrook’s book “The Progress Paradox,” he wonders why all elements of life seem to be getting better, but people are less happy overall. Louis CK has a famous comedic bit aptly called, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” Are we less and less happy as we grow more independent? Could those things be related?

I think they are. There is an abundance of evidence that shows that we are happiest when our lives are deeply interconnected with the lives of others. The economist John Helliwell put it like this. “Humans are more than simply social beings, they are so-called ‘pro-social’ beings. In other words, they get happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others.” Gregg Easterbrook agrees. “The human yearning for love and intimacy,” he says, “is part of our evolution – even that, chemically, the brain evolved a need for closeness as part of the stimuli that make it function correctly.” Pursuing independence flies in the face of what our psyches have been hardwired to need. We are in a state where we exist on the psycho-social equivalent of eating food only twice a week.

The single-family home, then, is not an optimal model. A community-based arrangement would be much better suited to maximizing our happiness and well-being. This is the direction I started to take my architectural doodles. I no longer have any drawings of the concept, but imagine something like an apartment/single-family house hybrid. There would be discreet, private living spaces for family units – bedrooms, bathrooms, storage, and additional space to utilize as they see fit. The rest, though, would be community space. A dining room to comfortably seat every member.  Such a living situation would save money and decrease stress. Think about meals: it’s far cheaper – in terms of price per meal – to cook in bulk. Families with small children would have far greater flexibility. You know that old proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”? Wouldn’t it be nice if we had more “villages”?

One could formulate many objections to such an idea. For some, it might seem weird or uncomfortable. Communal living has a counter-cultural connotation. But atypical hardly means wrong, bad, or unhealthy. As we experiment more and more with hypermodernity, we find ourselves reaching back again and again to our historical roots in an attempt to better our lives. (You need think no further than the Paleo diet.) We have left behind customs and structures for reasons we no longer understand. Community is the basic building block of civilization. This is vintage community with a modern twist.


How to Plan a Date

When men plan dates, they often make a few basic mistakes. They plan dates that are traditional dating activities – dinner and a movie, for instance – but are not conducive to conversation or building rapport. Many men seem to believe that if they simply show up and pay for everything they are doing everything right. They overreach, they overspend, and they overcommit. I knew a guy in college, for example, that invited a girl on a date that included: (1) coffee, (2) ice skating, (3) dinner, (4) a Timberwolves game, followed by (5) dessert. That’s an eight-hour commitment for a first date. That sounds exhausting.

(What might be worse, though, is the sort of guy who doesn’t really plan anything at all. Why ask someone on a date if you can’t be bothered to plan one?)

Back when my buddy Wilmo was dating his future wife Jessica, he and I had a conversation about this. We realized that the men who like to plan and be in control need to resist that urge. We realized that one of the most important components of date planning is eliminating the obstacles that help people connect with one another. A drawn out, epic — albeit thoughtful — date might be adding obstacles of pressure, stress, and apprehension. Rather than trying to plan comprehensively, they should plan for modularity. This is when we stumbled upon a concept that’s both so basic and so useful that I incorporate it into almost every social outing that I plan, romantic or not. We called it a circuit.

Here’s how a circuit works. Unlike the above example, where you explain the entirety of the date in advance, you simply pitch a “focal activity.” A focal activity is the primary selling point of the night. If you want to go to a concert, that’s your focal activity. If you want to go ice skating, that’s your focal activity. It can even be something as simple as getting ice cream. From there, identify at least two supplemental activities that are 1) organically related to the focal activity in some way and 2) within walking distance. For example, let’s say you invite your date to go ice skating. Plan to extend the date to the nearest coffee shop, but don’t announce that intention. If you finish an hour or so of skating and want to continue the date, suggest you warm up with some coffee or hot chocolate. After that, it would make sense to go somewhere casual and get a bite to eat. (It’s best to be, well, smooth about that. It’s a suggestion, not a rigid proclamation of “Now let us do the next thing I want to do.”)


There are many advantages to this approach. If you are not having a good time – or there’s no real rapport or connection – you can finish up with the focal activity and end the date with full diplomacy. If you’ve already planned an additional activity, it’s awkward and impolite to cancel those plans when you are already out on the date. Secondly, a circuit gives the date an element of spontaneity and projects both adaptability and resourcefulness. On top of all of that, it allows you to spend as much (or as little) time together as you both feel like spending. I had one such date last thirteen hours: it started with coffee, moved to a playground, extended to guitar shopping at Willie’s, transitioned to Pad Thai (we ordered the pad thai), and included at least three more activities after that.

The circuit concept is adaptable to virtually any type of date you might plan. It helps eliminate some common dating pitfalls is both naturally spontaneous and allows you to hedge your bets. Think of it like adding salt to a stew: you can always add more, but you cannot take out what you’ve already put in. Or think of it through this lens. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” A date like the one my college friend planned eliminates options, whereas circuits enable them.

My Romantic View of Friendship

“I literally died of embarrassment”
Did you, really? Cos you’re still talking to me
This is linguistic harassment
Abusing English with hyperbole

– Paul Roche, “Not Literally

On the list of things that bring me both mild annoyance and slight amusement, people abusing hyperbole must be pretty close to the top. (Also on the list: rude people on MetroTransit, college freshmen picking up my packs of gum, college freshmen.) Relying on exaggeration to communicate the magnitude of your feeling is not just lazy and ineffective, it dilutes the English language: what could be a robust, full-bodied Dragon’s Milk Stout of an image becomes a limp, watery Mich Golden. Let’s be clear: you have never loved a potato ole, you don’t hate iPad Minis, and exactly zero BuzzFeed articles have ever cost you – nor have they restored – your faith in humanity. Soon we’ll have to double- and triple-down on our adjectives and adverbs just to differentiate the love we have for our spouses from the “love” we have for Boom Chicka Pop.

It is a personal feeling of mine, but one that I hold closely, that we do this not only with feelings and emotions but also with our use of the word “friend.” It wasn’t the Facebook era that taught us to abuse the term (although, surely, that didn’t help matters). A significant percentage of the people we call friends fall short of the full realization of that label. In “The Four Loves,” CS Lewis distinguished friends from companions: companions are people you spend time with, while friends are those with whom you share a special bond. “Friendship,” he wrote, “arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

A shared uniqueness is the start of the matter, but a seed doesn’t become a plant until it sprouts. Real friendship must run deeper than mere commonality. Ralph Waldo Emerson includes intense affection in the formula. In his essay on friendship, he said, “The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.” But even abundant affection doesn’t complete the picture. Marlene Dietrich famously said, “It’s the friends you can call up a 4 a.m. that matter.” Likewise, the ancient Greek poet Euripides said, “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” If you want to know the magnitude of a friendship, answer the question, “How much would I sacrifice for this person’s benefit?” or, conversely, “How much would they sacrifice for mine?”

Acknowledging that a relationship falls short of friendship feels both impolitic and impolite, especially to Midwestern sensibilities. Perhaps it is less a fact of abusing the language with hyperbole and more a matter of our language failing us. What is the name for a person that is more than an acquaintance but less than a friend? Lewis used companion, but that word has more ambiguity than “friend” does.  Comrade feels too communist; buddy, too informal. Maybe “friend” is the best we’ve got. But there is the sort of “friend” we greet with vague awkwardness when we see them in public, and there is the sort that inspires “troops of gentle thoughts” when we think of them. It’d be nice to be able to differentiate between the two without the addition of adverbs.


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.


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

Out of Bondage and into Exile

If I think of the times or places where I feel comfortable in my own skin, where I feel like I belong exactly where I am, what springs readily to mind are games of Ultimate Frisbee. As I think about it, I can almost feel the roughness of the nicks and grooves on the lip of the disc from where it has skidded across asphalt after an errant throw. The chaotic crissing and crossing of my teammates trying to run away from their coverage, the premonition that a throwing lane will be open in a half a second but swallowed up again two tenths of a second later. The billions of blades of grass brushing their muddy pomade into the grooves of my feet. It’s calming but invigorating blend of forethought and intuition, competition and cooperation, somehow both fundamentally lighthearted yet brutally serious.

Virtually everywhere else, though, there’s a discomfort and a disconnect. Perhaps some of that stems from being older than most of my friends but younger than most of my coworkers. Maybe part of it is developing interests that few of my current friends have, and not finding friends among those who currently share those interests. Perhaps it’s the utter scarcity of feeling simultaneously welcome and appreciated. I’m not sure. But when you get told you’re different often enough it stops feeling like a compliment.

I spent much of Memorial Day wandering alone by the Mississippi riverfront. It was a beautiful day for it. I came upon a set of adjacent condos which shared a courtyard. Pink and lavender petals of a purpleleaf sand cherry tree were scattered about, shifting in the wind but not going far. There was an empty row of benches – criminally empty, but rife with potential. The French actress Jeanne Moreau once said, “To go out with the setting sun on an empty beach is to truly embrace your solitude.” I wonder if to sit alone on a picturesque bench is to accept solitude while acknowledging the possibility of something else.

Bus Stories 2

On Easter Sunday, conversation with my family turned to my many bus stories. My aunt suggested that these things probably happen all the time but few people notice them. “I bet often you were the only person aware of what was happening,” she quipped. We discussed why that might be. Do I have an innate skill to perceive simmering conflict about to bubble over? Perhaps – I have studied face reading, nonverbal emotional expression, body language, and psychology in some depth. But maybe that’s only a small part of it. Maybe I notice these things because I feel irrevocably set apart from what’s going on around me. I feel out of place, and that offers a heightened awareness as a small consolation.

Bus Stories

Jawaharlal Nehri was India’s first Prime Minister, occasionally described as the “architect of the modern Indian nation.” He grew up the son of a wealthy attorney and as a result was sent to England to study, first at Trinity College and later at Cambridge. When he returned to India, he met and befriended Mahatma Gandhi, who later became his mentor. But his role in Indian independence and his leadership of that nation did not make him feel part of it.  “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West,” he said, “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” The philosopher Gerald Arbuckle compared Nehru’s feelings to those of migrant children: accused of abandoning their heritage, never feeling accepted by their new society. “I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it,” Nehri lamented. “But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.”

The curse of the exiled is to long to be someplace where you feel loved, only to find that it no longer exists. It is to wish for that place where you are embraced with welcome and appreciation. In an early episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is discussing the idea of utopia with Rachel Menken. She says, “They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia.’ The Greeks had two meanings for it: ‘eu-topos,’ meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos,’ meaning the place that cannot be.” The exile is left to wonder if he can ever find home again, or if home has become that good place that cannot be. Thinking back to Memorial Day, a friend asked I wanted to come celebrate. I turned down the offer: “Sometimes it feels less lonely to be alone.”