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.
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.

 

976C0B87-F1E6-443E-A62D-9BEEA39B08E4

Photo credit: Daniel Mick

Advertisements

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.

Swallowed Whole By Canvas

v.

The earliest memory I have is of my older brother’s third birthday party, when he got a battery-powered police car that would drive itself in a circle while its siren wailed. I wanted that car so badly I burst into tears on the steps from the kitchen to the porch, hurling myself on the faded flower-patterned tile. Someone – my mother, most likely – retrieved a small wooden recorder and thrust it in my hands, a substitute satisfying enough for a toddler. Apparently all I really wanted was to contribute to the piercing cacophony.

The next coherent memory I can recall is of a dream I had when I was maybe four years old. Everyone I knew – which, considering I was four,  consisted of my grandparents, my mom, my brother and my two sisters – had gathered in the sunny living room of my grandparents’ white one-story postwar rambler, seating me in the middle of the pale yellow davenport. The angled ash tree in the front yard loomed large behind my grandfather, though the sunflowers and petunias of my grandma’s front garden had also crept into view. The room felt warm with love.

I don’t remember who spoke, but I remember the message: we are all from a different place, a world inside a painting in fact, and we all have to go home. And you, Steve, cannot come with. Then I watched in horror as everyone I knew in the world walked to the wall and were swallowed whole by canvas, smudging the watercolors as they passed through. And then I was alone in a suddenly darkened room.

I feel lucky to recall waking up, to remember the relief I felt hearing the sound of bacon crackling in a skillet. Maple syrup still smells like comfort to me.

~

At a movie night not long ago, for some reason my friends and I started talking about gifts. This was a group of friends in which I feel comfortable enough to admit the more awkward aspects of my personality, so I told them that I keep lists about them. “Sooner or later, everyone will tell you what they want,” I said. One of them, for example, had mentioned a handful of records he’d hoped to find on vinyl. Another had, once upon a time, expressed a desire for a particular graphic tee. Shortly after the next movie started, one guest, who’d come after the gifts conversation, blurted out in excitement, “I want that jacket!”

“Exhibit A!” I said in triumph, but everybody else had already moved on from that idea so my self-satisfaction was met with confusion.

Gifts are the most tangible form of love, at least if we categorize our affections by the love languages philosophy. If one were so inclined, it would make sense to ask why I keep notes about ways to match giving to a person but don’t, say, try to keep track of the ways those same friends could be served well, or what forms of verbal affirmation make them feel especially honored, or what kinds of touch are especially comforting to them – or if they are comfortable with any touch at all. Perhaps that’s an area where mental notes are best.

One time I told a friend that my love language, or at least the tongue that speaks loudest and most clearly, is quality time. Just enjoying someone’s company, knowing that they are enjoying mine, no matter what we are doing, swells me up like a balloon. (The next time I saw her, she told me she thought we should spend less time together. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more hurt by such a simple sentence.) Is it any surprise? I’ve had dreams of abandonment since I was four years old.

In A Grief Observed, CS Lewis’ panicked, scribbling attempt to navigate himself through the death of his wife, Lewis noticed that his need to feel comforted by God was preventing him from feeling any comfort at all.

You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst…. And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.

My pleading mantra, uttered in rhythm to every heartbeat – even before I could understand the concept – has been, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” What a fool I’ve been. I’ve had a clutching vice grip around nothingness and all the while the Eternal One has been waiting patiently to sweep me into His loving arms.

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.

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

Vampire Weekend and a Lament for a Lost Friendship

Vampire Weekend is a polarizing band. Some people find their orchestration and energy to a refreshing change of scenery from the sheer gray monolith of top 40 pop; others seem to find pretentious both their wordplay and occasional outbursts in French. For what it’s worth, I remember how I excited I felt when I first stumbled onto them. There’s no doubt they have the sound and feel of a summer’s day, or at least to my ears they sound better with the aroma of fresh-cut grass wafting into my nose the same way that shrimp and oysters taste better when you can hear lapping waves and seagulls. It’s appropriate, then, that I first heard them on a July morning, jogging back from the Dairy Queen across from Lake Josephine to the Northwestern dorm building we called Arden Hall, a gutted out Holiday Inn with a creaky elevator and a mold problem. The song, “M79“, was exciting and frenetic (and other adjectives as well) and renewed my energy to glide across the tarry shoulder of Lexington Ave.

Around this time, I’d set up a Gmail account with a friend for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. When we found some hidden gem we wanted the other to see sparkle, we’d email the MP3 to that account. We exchanged more than five hundred songs in this fashion: windows into our childhood, like “Take On Me” by A-Ha (her) or “All My Life” by K-Ci and JoJo (me); boosts to our indie cred, like the rough demos from Mumford & Sons; even Hannah Montana tracks to devour “ironically,” I guess. There’s something uniquely intimate about getting to know someone through their musical autobiography, to try to understand why certain melodies pluck their heartstrings. Vampire Weekend was one of the earliest chapters in that book.

That project died a slow death. It’s been three years since she shared anything with me, and maybe two since she even checked the account (the Citizens arrangement of “Amazing Grace” she requested of me has been unopened since I sent it in 2013). And it’s been about a year since our friendship ended. But here’s a secret: I still send her songs. Every once in a while, when a new tune quickens my pulse or brings tears to my eyes, I sign into that old Gmail account and I share it. I don’t know why I do that.

To be sure, I know what some of my friends would say. There are those that would think I haven’t let go, that I keep watering soil in the hopes that some long-dead seeds will miraculously sprout. Some might suggest it’s a continuation of that aching need to be known, to write the next chapter of that autobiography, even if it will never  be read. That it’s an answer to the question Sufjan Stevens asked rhetorically, “What’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?” My more cynical confidants might say that it’s an extremely passive aggressive attempt to demonstrate my moral superiority (“See? I’ve been giving this whole time.”) But to the extent that I’m allowed to choose my own interpretation for my behavior, I’m deciding to see it as a lament to a lost friendship, laying flowers on its grave. It’s a shoebox to hide away the lingering fragments of that nostalgia, a place to put them so nobody else has to see.

Vampire

Dating, Lies, and Manipulation

Most disagreements in life seem to involve where to draw certain lines. Do human rights begin at conception or at birth or at some arbitrary point in between? How short can a skirt be before it becomes inappropriate for a professional environment? How much T-Pain is too much T-Pain? Conflicts – revolutions, even – hinge on how many people answer questions like these in approximately the same way. When it comes to dating, job interviews, or crafting a first impression in your social life, conventional wisdom dictates that we should avoid the two extremes. We should never craft lies that make us look better than we actually are – you shouldn’t claim to be a fighter pilot, for example, when your piloting experience consists of wearing aviators. Likewise, it is ill advised to offer raw, unfiltered honesty on a first date and make known certain embarrassing facets of your personality. First impressions disproportionately impact how we interpret a person as we are getting to know them, hence why so much of dating advice could be culled from marketing textbooks. Understand and highlight your selling points. Obfuscate your weaknesses. Put your best foot forward.

It becomes important, though, to acknowledge that at a certain point massaging the truth becomes lying. So where do we draw the line?

The other night, I was out with friends at Spoon & Stable, the North Loop restaurant that has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award. As we were sipping on our sangiovese, we noticed a couple at a nearby table and we started playing the status-of-the-relationship game. “How long do you think they’ve been dating?” Body language, phone usage, and wardrobe choices became factors in the evaluation. At some point, someone wondered whether the fact that they were out on a Tuesday meant anything. “I think most people prefer first dates to be on weekends.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I prefer having first dates on weekdays.” When asked why, I explained that I was trying to craft the impression that I am an active and in-demand person, and that an empty Saturday evening is a heuristic for an empty social life. (Of course, there are many other advantages to a weekday date night: an easy out – “I work tomorrow, I should get going” – when you want the date to come to an end, there is more availability for most restaurants, and fewer people out and about makes conversation for soft-spoken types like myself much, much easier.)

I was immediately rebuked. “That’s manipulative.”

One can certainly disagree with the efficacy of such an approach. After all, even the most popular social butterflies find the occasional Friday night with no plans, sometimes plans fall through, and proactive introverts schedule time for themselves on days when they have no work responsibilities. On top of that, as it is a step designed to avoid a negative conclusion rather than create a positive one, it is so subtle that it is likely to be missed entirely. But to object by calling out manipulation ignores efficacy in order to appeal to a moral truth, a line drawn clearly on the spectrum. Now, I know my friend wasn’t calling me a bad person. She just had an instantaneous reaction to the notion that I would consciously and intentionally attempt to craft a woman’s impression of me in this manner. It is manipulative, to be sure. But I don’t think manipulative should always carry a negative connotation, or be seen as a universally bad thing.

Take a moment and think of the things you might do on a date or preparing for the date. Why did you choose Kopplin’s, say, over Starbucks? I can’t speak for anyone else, but among the many reasons for me is that it creates the impression of me as a person “in the know” about the hip places to go (an impression immediately killed by my choice of the word “hip” over “surf party U.S.A.”). Would I have shaved this morning if I wasn’t going out tonight? Are you wearing that sweater because it is slimming and flattering in all the right ways? All of these decisions – and hundreds upon hundreds of others – are manipulative in exactly the same way. Navigating the social spin machine is all part of the game.

It is an unavoidable fact of life that we will venture into areas where someone else’s opinion of us will matter, and we will therefore try to influence that opinion as much as we can. Some people might be uncomfortable with any attempt to do so, and that’s a fine decision. My line dictates that it’s fine to craft your image so long as that image is consistent with reality. (Even there, there’s a gray area. If a friend asks me for date ideas for his upcoming first date, he is, in essence, borrowing my tribal knowledge to benefit himself. I have no problem with that. But it doesn’t completely pass my test.) We have a social contract where we acknowledge that how we present ourselves on a first date, or that important job interview, isn’t the whole story. The important thing to me is to ensure that everything shared will stand up to the future scrutiny of getting to know a person in real life. Where anyone else draws their line is up to them.

t_pain

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.)

QOTD

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.

About That Time I Almost Died

1.

I almost died Friday night. Trying to catch an arriving westbound Green Line train – and ignoring all traffic laws, convention, and common sense – I ran along the parallel eastbound tracks. My head was turned to the right, watching for my opportunity to duck behind the last train car and sprint up the ramp. Anyone who’s ever stood near a passing train knows that in those moments it’s difficult to hear anything else, which is a really generous way of saying I didn’t notice the approaching eastbound train until it was mere feet from me, replete with blaring horn and squealing brakes and panicked conductor. I instinctively jumped to my right, the nose of the train brushing the sleeve of my jacket.

In retrospect, this was not the ideal choice, as it put me on icy road between two moving trains. But I held my balance and, moments later, boarded the westbound train.

If you were sitting with me at the back of that rear cabin, it would have been hard to tell that I had almost been hit by a train. When the conductor scolded me on the intercom, I joked about it with my fellow passengers. I quoted “O Brother, Where Art Thou” to myself: “The only good thing you ever did for the gals was get hit by that train!”
“I wasn’t hit by no train!”

I even checked my radial pulse. Not a beat above 70.

2.

Despite what stand-up comics would have you believe, “What women want” isn’t some grand mystery, at least in terms of dating and attraction. Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that men are predominantly attracted to traits that imply high reproductive potential (hair color, hip-to-waist ratio, and breast size are all heuristics for reproductive potential), whereas women respond to traits that showcase a high level of survival potential. According to that theory, women who showed a preference for men with high survival potential were more likely to produce offspring who subsequently survived and passed along those preferences for future generations. Therefore traits like age, strength, social status, and the like were (and are) valued highly.

Behavioral psychologists have narrowed down and categorized these traits into two broad categories: status traits and interpersonal traits. Status traits consist of things like strength, confidence, ambition, and self-worth. Interpersonal traits are things like looks, grooming, authenticity, and the ability to form emotional connections. The former category consists of traits that shows the man can survive a hostile world, whereas the latter consists of things that create interpersonal bonds and thus confer their survival advantage to the woman. Or so the theory goes.

A while back, I asked ten of my closest female friends to tell me what they found attractive about me (not that I thought any of them were particularly attracted to me). I have long believed that many of my more attractive qualities are hidden away, difficult to discern from a glance. Things that have to be teased out, and then only in the right circumstances. So I set out to test that hypothesis. As a result, I got some wonderful feedback. I found that most of the women in my life see me as intelligent, humble, confident, and affectionate. One friend noted that I seek out opportunities to serve the people I care about, rather than waiting for them to come by way of happenstance. Another remarked, and I believe she was quoting Nick Offerman (which can never be a mistake), that I have a “chin thicket that makes women swoon when they countenance my visage.”

Most of them commented on my strength, both physically and morally, and their belief that I can protect them from immediate physical danger and be there for them when they face more subtle and spiritual ones. One said, “It’s impossible to not feel safe around you.” Several remarked on my personal style, one waxing philosophical about “an eye for captured beauty and significance.”

As I compiled the replies, and itemized them by category, I noticed a disturbing trend. Every box had multiple entries except for one: goals and ambition. If I ever look to the future, not a single one of my friends was picking up on it.

3.

As the train left the Fairview station, I started thinking about the people in my life. My parents would be the first to find out, sure. How long would it take for everyone else? (My guess was two days. If I died on Friday, it wouldn’t be until Sunday that most of the people I care about would know about it.) But then I started thinking about my future, and the things I want to accomplish that would never happen. My list was surprisingly short. That realization, more than anything else, left me shaken.

It’s okay to not become a Nobel Prize winner or reach the pinnacle of a profession. It’s okay to strive to be, as Fleet Foxes so eloquently put it, “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” And don’t get me wrong, being content with life’s circumstances, no matter what they are, is a worthy goal. But there is rocky chasm between contentment and ambivalence, and right now I’m on the wrong side of that precipice. A few years ago, I asked a friend what she thought I should do with my life. She told me she always pictured me doing something too difficult for other people to do. That stunning vote of confidence has been left unmet ever since.

When I finally reached my destination, Little Caesar’s pizza in hand, I waited at the locked apartment door with another man. He was wearing a gray winter cap and a somber expression. “Let me call my wife,” he said. “She’s upstairs.” My friend Mel (yes, Mel, that word choice was deliberate: you have arrived) reached the door first and let us both in. I was eager to tell her about my harrowing experience. “Mel! I almost died tonight!”

The other man overheard my remark. “You almost died? Man, you’ve got to get that fixed.” I didn’t know how to reply to that, so he kept talking. “My brother died last week. Right upstairs. He came over and lied down and the next thing we knew he was gone.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured helplessly.

“You’ve got to get that taken care of,” he repeated. “It’s not fair to your family. You can’t let that happen.”

capitol_rice_six_sm

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.

Radioactive