Should We #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend?

When I think over the filmic media I tend to consume, I can’t help but notice an unfortunate trend: friendship, particularly male friendship, is hard to find. If Walter White has a friend in Breaking Bad, it would be Elliot Schwartz – and the last vestiges of the friendly part of their relationship is twenty years in the past and buried underneath the relational rubble of professional and romantic rivalry. In Mad Men, Don Draper’s only friend is Roger Sterling, but it might be more accurate to regard them as drinking buddies or companions of circumstance. In The Walking Dead, Rick’s friendship with Shane turns to attempted murder within four episodes. Movies and shows that portray male friendship tend to be comedies where the relationship is both strange and borderline homoerotic (think JD and Turk in Scrubs, Troy and Abed in Community, or Peter and Sydney in I Love You, Man) or adapted from non-contemporary literature, the most obvious examples being Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or Sam and Frodo.

That is what troubles me about the Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend: it redefines the rare portrayal of a loving male friendship as one of latent homosexual desire. This thought process is summarized well by Jen Yamato: “Give the Marvel superhero a man to love,” she says in The Daily Caller, “because he pretty much already has one.” Many in the Marvel audience, and indeed, audiences at large, seem to have trouble conceptualizing such a relationship between two men as anything other than erotic in nature. But C.S. Lewis obliterated this fallacy in The Four Loves: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”

Having positive examples of loving, healthy friendship is both necessary and beautiful – and increasingly so for the target demographic of superhero movies, namely teenaged and young-adult males. The notion that one can care passionately about another human being without the desire or possibility of sex with that person has gone missing from pop culture narratives. So by all means, give Captain America a boyfriend – the superhero genre has been a powerful genre for themes of gay rights and equality. But it shouldn’t be Bucky. Instead, let’s preserve the idea that friendship and romantic love are different things, both rare and valuable, both with the ability to inspire courage and self-sacrifice.




This Transgender Bathroom Issue Has Made Hypocrites of Us All

When Facebook asked me for my political affiliation, however many years ago, I put “moderate.” Though I hold a lot of conservative values, and the philosophy that undergirds conservative ideology makes intuitive sense to me, a lot of Republican positions run contrary to those values and I’ve had trouble finding politicians that consistently embrace similar views to my own. The landmark essay “A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” was penned by gay conservative Andrew Sullivan in 1989 and went largely ignored until it was dusted off last summer to help Republicans cope with the Obergefell decision. I’d made my own (conservative) case for gay marriage while in college. All that to say, the philosophical foundations were there, but the marriage between conservative philosophy and Republican ideology has long struck me as a loveless one.

It’s not as though I found liberal ideology fit me better. As I learned more about Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, I was better able to put into words the discomfort I had with liberalism. According to Haidt, there are five key moral foundations: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, and Sanctity/degradation. “In this analogy,” he says in his book “The Righteous Mind, “the moral matrix of a culture is something like its cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on grass and tree bark, or even one based primarily on bitter tastes. Cuisines vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. Moral matrices vary, but they all must please righteous minds equipped with the same … social receptors.” (For the record: comparing something to food is one quick way to get me to take an idea seriously.)

Haidt’s key observation was that while conservatives hold each of these moral foundations in roughly equal importance, liberals emphasize care and fairness far above the other three. The Black Lives Matter movement is almost a perfect case study for this theory: those who embrace it use “fairness” language; those who critique the movement almost invariably make an appeal to the importance of authority. This should not, in itself, be read as a critique of Black Lives Matter. Sometimes sweet and sour, combined in precarious balance, form a transcendental flavor. But just as I don’t want to only eat sweet and sour foods the rest of my life, I can’t completely eschew the values of loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

This has all been prelude to the main idea, which is the baffling disagreement about the bathroom ordinances currently in contention, most notably North Carolina’s HB2. Outrage over the signing of the law has been swift and loud, of course, with businesses and governments staging boycotts of the state of North Carolina. And while I agree with Governor Pat McCrory when he says that there has been a “vicious” smear campaign miscategorizing components of the law, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good law. In fact, I can think of no compelling case to restrict transgender men and women from using the bathroom they feel is most appropriate to use.

But – yet again – this does provide a fantastic case study for Haidt’s moral foundations theory. Proponents of such restrictive bathroom laws such as HB2 are reacting to encroachment of their “care” and “sanctity” foundations, while opponents are responding to the “care” and “fairness” modules:

a) The mainline argument in support of HB2-type laws argues that when we rely on the subjective standard of personal gender identity, there will be nothing stopping rapists and other sexual predators from insincerely using personal gender identity to gain access to women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. At that point, it is argued, they will have better access to victims. To phrase it in care language, someone might reasonably say, “I care about the women and children in my life, and without these laws they are at greater risk to sexual predators.”

(I also suspect that many people perceive transgenderism as a threat to the sanctity of the “male” and “female,” at least in a more traditional formulation of gender. But until people are free to discuss those ideas openly and without being labeled bigots, the principle of charity dictates we should restrict ourselves to considering the strongest form of the arguments actually being set forth.)

b) In a similar way, opponents of HB2-type laws are simply saying, “I care about the transgender men and women of the world, and it is unfair that they should have to face the “othering” and discrimination that comes with having to use the wrong bathroom. They face enough challenges as it is.” I find it prohibitively difficult to brush aside that argument.

Tim Keller said in “The Reason for God” that if you can’t formulate your opponent’s argument in a way that he or she would agree with, you can’t actually claim that you disagree with them. Similarly, Daniel Dennett has said, “You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.’” I hope either position would accept my characterization of their position. If not, that’s what the comments section is for.

I suppose it should not be surprising that this controversy has made hypocrites of us all.

Let me start with liberals. Do you not see the baffling contradiction in the fact that you’ve been yammering on and on about rape culture, that you’ve been parroting statistics about the threat that women face daily and in accumulation over the course of their lives, but when it comes to public bathrooms and locker rooms, you’re suggesting that the threat of rape is no longer real? Do public bathrooms have a magical property about them that prevents sexual assault? I’ve heard women complain about being ogled at the gym, or at bars, or in restaurants. Acknowledging that there are men who don’t respect your agency and privacy enough to leave you alone when you’re on the treadmill, what makes you think they won’t likewise ignore the spirit of transgender-inclusive spaces? From a sheer, raw numbers perspective, do you honestly believe there are more rapists in American or more transgender men and women? The fear of increased risk of rape is real.

Or maybe you’re just trying to say you don’t like anti-rape measures when they unfairly hurt innocent people. Please, tell me more.

Conservatives aren’t exactly paragons of self-consistency on this issue, either. In fact, I think they’ve got it worse.

Conservatives, isn’t one of the big arguments in support of gun rights the idea that criminals, by definition, don’t care about breaking gun laws? What makes you think that sexual predators have cared about violating the sanctity of public restrooms? Since we have a plethora of examples of such men doing just that, why would we expect to see a flood of new cases? If you weren’t seeing a statistically significant risk of being assaulted in a public restroom before, there is little reason to expect that to change.

With respect to your children, were you really sending your six-year old to the bathroom by his- or herself? According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), four fifths of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim, and 70% of rapes take place within a mile of the victim’s home, in the victim’s school, or at the residence of a friend or family member. The increased risk of bathroom rape is overblown (1). When RAINN says, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bush,” they might as well be saying, “The perpetrator is not hiding in the bathroom.”

Besides, aren’t you guys the ones typically complaining about the expanse of the “nanny state”? And now you’re saying it’s the government’s job to mitigate the risk of rape of your children via bathroom regulations? That doesn’t really add up, either.

I suspect businesses will be intelligent about how they manage this situation – and it seems to me there is ample room for compromise. Target stores, for example, have gender-neutral family bathrooms. The Gap and Banana Republic stores have gender-neutral changing rooms, typically in a single row. Perhaps larger stores can implement a panic button (or such buttons in each stall) that will alert security of particular threats. I think an innovative solution will eventually win out. That is, if we can find a way to give each other the benefit of the doubt and offer some understanding for the real concerns of both sides.


(1) You may have noticed that I claimed both that the fear of more rapes is both real and overblown. And yes, on the surface, this is a paradoxical statement. But it’s like shark attacks: the odds of being attacked by a shark are incredibly low, and not a significant-enough risk that they should deter would-be swimmers. But attacks do still happen, and they are gruesome to witness. That is, the fear of shark attacks is real, but the risk is overblown. Especially when you’ve just been watching Jaws.

The Walking Dead Needs More Sex

It occurred to me last night that there is not enough sex in The Walking Dead.

Let me explain.

I’m not saying that I think AMC’s hit show should have more nudity or titillation – though this wouldn’t offend me, I also don’t think it would add any substance to the series. I’m not looking for depictions of sex, per se, but rather an acknowledgement that the characters in the series would be having sex regularly. Through six seasons, we’ve had roughly half a dozen implied sex acts, and these have involved only a handful of the cast: Rick and Lori, Lori and Shane, Glenn and Maggie, Andrea and the Governor, Rosita and Abraham, and Rick and Michonne. (Perhaps there are examples that have escaped my recollection, these are just the examples that spring to mind like a Catholic rab…. never mind. But the fact that the show has only given us a couple more romantic pairings just underscores how chaste those romances have been.)

In season five, Daryl and Beth fled from the attack on the prison together, believing all their friends and family were likely dead. They proceed to survive a number of close encounters with the undead, including a span where they hide together in the trunk of a car, open up to each other emotionally, and eventually get drunk on moonshine near the warmth of a fire. A virginal hug is the extent of their physical intimacy.

Give me a break.

Never mind the fact that a heightened state of fear severely amplifies sexual attraction, this is just one of the show’s many missed opportunities for character building. The characters in The Walking Dead occupy a world where virtually all government and social institutions have broken down, but by and large the deviations from Judeo-Christian values have been relegated to the show’s antagonists. Sure, Rick gets more and more willing to kill people he perceives to be a threat to his community, but that’s the extent of it. That the show never bothers to ask the question of each of its characters, now that the only constraints on their behavior are life and death, “How have you changed?” is one of its most glaring failures.

Let me give a concrete example. In season two, Lori discovers that she’s pregnant. Uncertain whether the father is Rick, her husband, or Shane, the man she slept with when she believed Rick to be dead, she considered inducing an abortion. Maggie confronts her on this dilemma, and the whole scenario plays out in a single episode.

In season six, Maggie becomes pregnant. The show greets this development with a shrug. It raises the stakes some, I suppose, but it’s not interesting. But hat if the writers had Maggie struggle with the realities of rearing and raising a child in such a world? Never mind the fact that there is such limited medical care, the fact that a crying baby would be a dinner bell to any zombie in the area would means that any child poses a major safety hazard to every character in the community. Most Americans agree that risk to the mother’s life is a legitimate reason to at least consider terminating a pregnancy. What if the child is a risk to the life of literally every person you know?

Letting Maggie wrestle with that question – and showing her tempted by an idea she found disgusting under different circumstances – would add depth to her character. We would have a better understanding of the strength of her beliefs. We would know whether or not her repulsion to abortion was an intense personal belief or just a reflection of living in her father’s Southern Christian household. And we would gain empathy for her character as she learned about herself. William Faulkner famously said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” How much more conflict could one ask for? Maggie would be split between belief and practicality, safety and danger, love for an unborn child against the love for your friends. What a fierce battle we never got to witness.

When I say there’s not enough sex in The Walking Dead, I guess what I’m really saying is that this show ignores the storytelling possibilities given by the obliteration of the concept of a normal human life. The total breakdown of civilization would change everything about human interactions. The imminence of death would make all forms of intimacy that much more valuable. And common. The showrunners can afford to pass on such narrative low-hanging fruit about as much as our favorite survivors could pass on literal low-hanging fruit.



Rick Grimes has a killer creepy gaze

On Penguins and Tinder


Picture a flock of hungry penguins gathered at the edge of an ice floe. Despite the urgency of their hunger, each individual penguin is hesitant to dive into the water: where there are small fish, bigger fish are likely nearby. And while the prospect of a meal is tantalizing, the possibility of a killer whale or Great White shark lurking beneath the surface is too much of a risk to ignore. On the other hand, if they all stay out of the water, the rookery will starve. “In such circumstances,” writes Thomas Eisenmann, “individual rationality may lead a group to forfeit attractive opportunities, for example, a predator-free meal.” Eventually, some intrepid penguin makes like Squints Palledorous and hurls himself into the water.

In mathematical game theory, situations such as these are known as first-mover dilemmas. Being the first to act often confers an advantage while also increasing risks. Being first to offer terms in a negotiation, for example, allows you control the set point. Ask for too little, however, and you could leave money on the table, whereas if you ask for too much and you might alienate the other negotiator. Betting first in a hand of poker can convey a strong hand, letting you win an uncontested pot. On the other –ahem – hand, you might be betting into someone with a made hand and losing more money than necessary. The first mover has to balance the high probability of a good result with the low probability risk of a catastrophic one.


Around Thanksgiving, I took a friend of mine out for drinks at Marvel Bar – as a University of Minnesota student from Sioux Falls, she’d never been to our flagship speakeasy. (Whenever I take someone to Marvel for their first experience, I suggest that they order the Oliveto. “Suggest” is putting it too gently: I order it for them and tell them they can trade for my drink if they don’t like it. I’ve never been asked to surrender my drink.) As we sat in a candlelit booth and sipped our drinks, she told me something that surprised me: in her entire time in college, she’d been asked out in person a single time.

“It was always through texts or Facebook messages,” she said as she rolled her eyes. “When someone finally asked me to my face, I was so surprised I didn’t even know how to respond.” My friend is pre-med, with a sneaky, dry sense of humor and a striking resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence, if Jennifer Lawrence had mahogany brown hair and a likeable personality. If I would expect any of my friends to have no shortage of fawning male attention, it’d be this one.

There’s no doubt that mobile technology, social media, and dating apps have changed the game in a major way. We have immediate access to myriad potential romantic or sexual partners at our fingertips at all times. And since apps like Tinder or Bumble reduce dating to a simple binary (swipe right or swipe left), some people have started to employ the strategy of simply liking (swiping right) every profile they encounter in order to maximize their dating pool.

At the same time, technology helps serve as a barrier to risk. The people who only swipe right take for granted that if they match with enough people, sooner or later they’ll encounter someone who is willing to put in more effort than they will. And while you only get one shot to ask someone out in person – when so very much could go wrong, from shaking hands to cracking voices to wimping out entirely – you can endlessly edit and workshop a text message until it says exactly what you want it to say. And if the answer is no, the rejection can be suffered in private dignity.

(It seems to me, though, that this is the equivalent of penguins throwing rocks in the water in the hopes that a fish will splash onto their ice floe: if you try it a thousand times, it might work once or twice. And while there’s no risk of getting torn apart by a shark, you might have to wait a while for that strategy to work out – that is, if those little splashes haven’t scared all the fish away.)

All of this information points us in the same direction: In spite of the risk, it’s in your best interest to take that risk head on. As more and more people select a risk-averse approach to dating, those willing to dive in head first differentiate themselves even further than they already would and the first-mover advantage becomes all the more significant. In game theory, this is known as the “dominant strategy.” Barry Schwartz, in The Pardox of Choice, says, “When asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.” Besides, getting torn to shreds by an orca seems a far radder way to die than slowly starving to death.



Swallowed Whole By Canvas


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


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.

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.


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


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

Signs and Wonders

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow
– Sufjan Stevens, “The Only Thing

It may seem strange, but it is instructive to think of depression as being like a friend. “Dee,” let’s say, is like an old college buddy who’s a great dude but has rather poor hygiene, so you’re reluctant to admit you’ve been hanging out with him. Dee’s the guy who will say, “Hey, man, let’s focus on you tonight. I’ll bring beer and pizza rolls,” and then just sits quietly and stinks up the place while you watch Netflix. Whenever he comes around, he’s making a timely, almost heroic, entrance: everything’s falling apart around you, but here’s Dee, a friend indeed. He’s blunt and brutally honest – he tells it like it is – but he really, really wants you to understand that even though he likes you as a person, he doesn’t think you have what it takes. So you stare at your feet as you say, “Yeah, you’re probably right. Let me get some of those pizza rolls.”

There’s something poetic to the fact that soil erodes most quickly when there’s nothing planted in it. Common sense then dictates that your heart should be a well-tended garden, with healthy diversity like zucchini and a raspberry patch to go along with a row of lilies and sunflowers and three different types of mint. A lucky few have plots that edge up against some old-growth, with some beech or cedar just barely on the other side of the forest edge. When my grandma died seven years ago, I felt the ground shake as that blessed oak was pulled out, roots and all. Now that my grandpa and his brother Elmer have followed, the whole landscape has changed. My secluded garden is now strip-mall adjacent, a little more of that nitrogen-rich soil flowing down the storm drain with each rainfall.

Reflecting on the loss of his mother, Sufjan Stevens was struck by how the trajectory of his grief seemed so unconventional. “It felt really sporadic and convoluted,” he told Pitchfork. “I would have a period of rigorous, emotionless work, and then I would be struck by deep sadness triggered by something really mundane, like a dead pigeon on the subway track. Or my niece would point out polka-dotted tights at the playground, and I would suffer some kind of cosmic anguish in public.”

Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. My phone buzzes. Dee wants to know if I’ve ever tried Fireball.

“You are an individual in full possession of your life,” says Stevens. “You don’t have to be incarcerated by suffering.”

It’s jarring to realize that it’s as likely as not that I will someday consider suicide again. Dee reminds me that my retirement savings are meager anyway.

“The Only Thing” refers to what kept Sufjan alive as he was contemplating suicide: “The only thing that keeps me from driving this car half-light, jackknife into the canyon at night….” Signs and wonders. The Northern constellation of Perseus cradling the head of Medusa. A random pattern of moisture on a bathroom wall, conjuring an image of the biblical Daniel. The sea lion caves of the Oregon coast giving sight to a blind faith. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing else but intense awe.

To Him alone who does great wonders
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who made the great lights
For His steadfast love endures forever
To Him who struck down great Kings
For His steadfast love endures forever
– Psalm 136


A Cluster of Words Simulating the Way Steven Macks Had an Existential Crisis at the Dentist Office (Blog Titles Inspired By Sufjan Stevens Songs)

“That doesn’t look right,” she said behind me as I stared up at the ceiling, the treble in her voice deadened by her dental mask. “It could be an occlusion or maybe even a cavity. But the whole root of your tooth is dark on the x-ray.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, an emergency dental visit did not seem to be in the realm of possibility. But when I got out of bed and brushed my teeth, I felt an unmistakable grit on my brush. I spit into my hand and put it under a gentle tap and let the water pass through my shaking fingers like a prospector panning for gold. Soon enough, I found my treasure: sharp flecks of mother of pearl. I ran my tongue around my teeth and found an unfamiliar texture, like a corn kernel made of shale, on my lower lateral incisor.

Shit. I’m going to lose a front tooth.

A quick Google search revealed three dentists within a mile of my house. Fortunately, the one open Saturdays – Bucca Dental – was also in my insurance network. A follow-up Google search told me that “Bucca” is a storm spirit of British yore, a wraith believed to haunt the abandoned mines of coastal regions. That sounded to me like a sturdy, romantic name for a dental office, so I got dressed and walked over.

It has been my experience that all dental hygienists are gorgeous young women, and Bucca’s was no exception. She had orangish-red hair and the slender body of a middle-distance runner, the sort of combination that made me think of a defiant maple still gleaming despite a waning autumn. I also couldn’t help but wonder whether my dental visits growing up have had an impact on my dating life. Meet a beautiful woman. Fall in love a little. Endure a span of pain, and criticism, and judgment. Try again in six months.

At any rate, by this point she had summoned the dentist, a regal and handsome Hispanic man named Edgar Mantilla. He looked like a Mexican version of the actor Ray Wise. “Let’s have a look,” he said, gesturing for me to open my mouth. The exam last less than ten seconds. “This is nothing. It’s a calculus.”

What does this have to do with derivatives? I wondered to myself. Confusion must have registered on my face.

“It’s calcium buildup. We’ll scrape it off and you can go.”

The voice behind me chimed back in. “There’s still the matter of this occlusion, Doctor.” I glanced back to see green eyes shining like traffic lights against her cerulean facemask. I couldn’t help but wonder if occlusions were dealbreakers.

“Ah yes,” he replied in a cadence close enough to Emperor Palpatine’s to be unsettling. He explained that a spiral cavity had cut off the blood flow to my tooth, and it was likely dead. He proposed an experiment to illustrate his point, and disappeared momentarily to retrieve a shard of dry ice the size of a pebble. Instructing me to tell him when it started hurting, he pressed the dry ice against my poor occluded tooth. I felt nothing, and so I shrugged slightly. Then he moved the it to the adjacent tooth and I felt a burst of intense pain. He did it again to drive the point home. Nothing. Nothing. Intense pain. “See? You’ll need a root canal.”

I thought to ask when I’d be able to eat hard cheeses again, but I didn’t think he’d get the reference.