The Wife

How shall we see this picture?  This is a letter from a fan, on the one hand.  Bette and I saw The Wife partly because Glen Close’s performance was getting very high praise–fully justified, I can now say.  But what is it about?

There are so many interwoven plots that it becomes unusually clear that when you wife 1say”what is it about?,” you are choosing one strand as the principal one and relegating the others to a supporting role. Not all movies are so complex or so morally salient that they force this choice on a reviewer, but I think this one is.

Imagine that it is Oscar night and the several ways of understanding the essential meaning of this film are the candidates and that some Hollywood beauty and I—they don’t require the men to be beautiful, I am glad to say—are about to reveal the winner. She says, “And the winner is….” and turns to me and I fumble with the envelope and finally pull it out and say, “A Deal with the Devil Gone Bad.”  That is the way of understanding the plot that just won.  It won my vote, at least.

The Deal

The seductive power of the deal with the Devil is that you get all the stuff you want right now and the Devil doesn’t get what he wants until the end. So it has the “buy now, pay later” rhythm that Americans seem to like so much.

The deal is made when the Joe and Joan Castleman were young. The adult Joe and Joan, who are the real subjects of the story, are played by Jonathan Pryce and Glen Close. The young Joe and Joan are played by Harry Loyd and Annie Starke (shown here). So it is the young Joe and Joan who make the deal and the old Joe and Joan who pay the price. Or, another way to say it is that Joan has been paying the price for a long time now and that is Joe who pays the price at the end.

wife 6The time when the deal is made is quite clear in the film. [1] It comes when young Joan says to young Joe, “Do you want me to fix it?” Joe is a college professor and a writer. He is very good at conceiving a story and laying out the crucial events. But he has no gift at all for developing characters or for effective dialogue. Those are the gifts that she has. The manuscript in question is on the way to the printer so the question, “Do you want me to fix it?” has some urgency to it.

He says Yes. She fixes it. The publisher loves it. Now what?

The film is not as clear after this point, which occurs, you recall, as a flashback. It isn’t inadvertence, I am sure; it is a choice of narratives. That rubs me a little, not because I disagree with their choice, but because the meaning of the narrative they chose depends, for me, on the alternative narrative.  What are they saying this story is not?

This “alternative narrative” is not the product of my imagination. It is a narrative they made plausible by the way they introduced the story and did not rule out in the way they developed it. If they didn’t rule it out, does that mean than they are denying it or that they lost interest in it or just that they hoped the audiences wouldn’t notice. I’m really not sure.

The Narratives

In any case, here they are. As you will see, they describe two entirely plausible narratives, both of which find support in the film as distributed.

Narrative #1

That moment—the “do you want me to fix it” moment—continues through their life together. He does what he does. He get these absolutely terrific plot ideas, which he doesn’t know how to develop. She “fixes it” by giving real force to the characters and by creating lively [2] dialogue. The plot idea plus the fixes make a series of really great novels. They have commercial success and they also, as the presenter at the Nobel ceremony says, “challenge the form of the modern novel.” [3]

Not only does Joe do this part, his part, he also is the public face of the partnership. She is private; he is public. She is shy; he is gregarious. She withdraws; he schoozes.

The result of this intricately collegial partnership is years of best-selling novels and academic acclaim. And a well-funded life. And a dysfunctional family. [4]

Narrative #2

The “fix it” moment is the tripwire that dooms the rest of their life. There is no evidence in the rest of the story that Joe continues to make the contribution he first made on the plot ideas. “Fix it” becomes “I will write the books for which you will become famous.” In this story, she is the writer—she does all the parts that lead to these great novels—and he is the public face of her work.

That might be what they want. There is a brief scene that suggests the “women writers”wife 2 are not taken seriously. That would mean that she could not—really would not be permitted to—play all the parts the successful author would have to play. She is denied all the public parts by a prejudice against women authors. That gives a social criticism dimension to what would otherwise just be a deal between a husband and a wife.

And with that additional irritant, her resentment as a woman—not just as Joan Castleman—could be much sharper. She might imagine that she had the same control of her resentment as she would have as Joan Castleman, the wife, but in fact, she would not. The categorical resentment would mingle with the personal resentment to make a much more potent emotional stew.

In any case, their life requires that she retreats to the study and writes his books for eight hours a day, while he takes care of the kids and the house and pays the bills and so on. It is the kind of arrangement that would cause no one to blink if the roles were reversed, but if the roles were reversed it would be the writer who is receiving all the recognition, not the “nanno.” [5]

So this deal, which has become a life, is a lie and keeping the lie gets harder and harder© Meta Film London ltd to do. The son wants to be “a writer like my dad,” except that his dad really isn’t a writer. Maybe not much of a dad either, at least not for David. And with the Nobel, comes the kind of scrutiny a biographer brings to the job. Obviously, a good biographer will trip over all these carefully maintained fictions.

And the deal is also harder because although Joan Castleman knows she made this deal and knows her livelihood is based on it, can’t quite square her oblivion with his fame. And with his fame comes his affairs, some more discreet than others, of course. She can’t help knowing that it is her skill—in this version of the story—that produces the fame that he trades in for affairs with pretty young women. And she can’t help resenting it, although she tries.

And the winner is…

…anyone who goes to see this wonderful film.

As a moviegoer, I have to tell you that I saw both of these stories at the same time. Both are incomplete, in the sense that neither uses all the information the plot provides. I think the makers really prefer Narrative #2, but they didn’t deal with the plausibilities they offered for Narrative #1, so I had a hard time letting it go.

It is an absolutely superb movie. Jonathan Pryce and Glen Close are very good and their performances require a subtle touch. We need to see how thin the skin of his bravado is, and we do. We need to see how powerful, beneath the determined efforts to be a team player, her resentments are and we do.

I wish they made more movies like this.

[1] The Devil, as is fitting in a story like this, is not as clear.
[2] As I recall, the word she used for his dialogue was “wooden.”
[3] Not an exact quote, but it is close and the focus is on the right thing.
[4] In this narrative, the worst of the family crises is caused by the unavailability of Joan Castleman to her son, David.
[5] Just playing, really. What if “nanny” were given a masculine suffix?

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Policymaking in a democracy

What will happen to the great coastal cities if the atmosphere continues to warm at the rate it is warming now?

I think that is an interesting question.

Even more interesting would be pictures—these would look like photographs, but would, in fact, be visual constructions based on the predictions of scientists—of Amsterdam, Bremen, Miami, and New York under each of the scenarios pictured below.

Screen Shot 2018-10-10 at 6.40.21 AM.pngI got this from a piece by Umair Irfan.  You can see it (and a hyperlink to the whole report) by going to and searching for [global warming].

This chart does not move anyone to action.  The numbers ought to be alarming, but they are not.  Most people don’t know how to be alarmed by numbers.  I am thinking, though, that the picture of “my home town” flooded up to the fifth floor of the city’s largest department store, just might cause alarm.

It seems to me that we have wasted a lot of time arguing about the scientific basis of climate change.  We—environmentally aware citizens and knowledgeable scientists—have wanted our opponents to recant.  They aren’t going to recant and we aren’t going to be able to make them.  They have their own reasons for saying what they are saying.

We have proposed one policy after another to deal with the things we are doing that cause the atmosphere to heat up and the oceans to rise.  The great defect of these proposals is that they will take a long time to have an effect and the economic reasons for opposing them are urgent and immediate.  So the policies are opposed, successfully, so far.  People who live in “coal states” or “oil states” are not going to accept the radical rise in the costs of those fuels that would come if we priced them by the damage they are doing.

So trying to get consent to policies has been difficult.  

I wonder if it might not be better to try outcomes, rather than policies. climate 1 Here is your city, we would say, in each of the four proposed scenarios.  Here is a sample of New York  We are asking you to choose the picture you like best.  When you have done that, I will tell you what policies—these are worldwide policies, of course, not use U. S policies—belong with each of the pictures.

At that point, assuming that you are still willing to believe in democracy—a belief that doesn’t fare well, frankly, in difficult times—we can tell you who to vote for in order to get these policies.  These policies will require that people who are still making money by polluting the atmosphere be forced to stop, at whatever cost to themselves.

Or, failing that, you could consent to some form of dictatorship—it would be called “temporary” at first—for the purpose of imposing measures on both individual citizens and corporate citizens, some of which the Constitution expressly forbids.  That, of course, is why you would need a dictator if electing people committed to restoring a livable climate turned out to be insufficient.

After all, no one sells toothpaste anymore.  They sell smiles.  Outcomes.  Maybe the closest we can come to an “outcome” is the pictures of your home town under any of these scenarios. 

Here are your choices, we would say.  Pick one.

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Nicodemus lives in the Matrix


In John 3, in part of Jesus’ extended colloquy with Nicodemus, he says that believing in him—believing that Jesus is who he says he is—makes zōen aiōnion available. What does that mean?

Literally, it means “the life of the ages.” There are several ways of understanding that. matrix 6You can think of the reference to “ages” as meaning a long period of time. Or you can think of it as a higher plane of life. “The life of the ages,” in this way of construing it, is true life. It is not the succession of meaningless ephemera that pass for “life” for those who know only what they see. It is the higher plane where what is True in always being enacted and always in danger.  And Jesus represents that “higher plane.”

These two meanings offer us zōen aiōnion as an infinite extension of the life we are living now—a life that lasts forever—or, alternatively, as access to another kind of life entirely. To me, the second meaning–another kind of life entirely–makes a great deal more sense and it solidifies the case, I think, that Nicodemus can find no way to grasp that notion at all.

That’s as far as I can take the conversation by relying on how the words might be understood. I would like to offer a more visual explanation, however. It is the world presupposed in The Matrix, a 1999 movie by the Wachowski brothers. The only world we see for a long time in the film is entirely illusory. As viewers, we don’t know that, but we get a clue when the bad guys ram a truck into a telephone booth where Trinity (!) is making a call and, not finding her body there afterward, they say, “She got out.”

“Out?” Hmm. She got “out” of “here,” presumably by going “there.” Where is “there?”

We find out where “there” is when Neo (!) is unplugged from the vat of goo where his matrix 2body has spent its entire life so far and is flushed down into the sewer. The people in his apparent life have known him as Mr. Anderson, but he has taken Neo as his nom de guerre. When his body hits the water in the sewer system, a cable with a grappling claw is lowered by a hovercraft canned Nebuchadnezzar IV. It clamps onto this body and reels it up into the plane. That is where “there” is. It is where Trinity went when she escaped the phone booth and she is there waiting for him.

“Out” is where the life of the body and the life of the mind are one thing, rather than two. That is how we learn what the Matrix is. We do know what the Matrix is, in a sense, because Morpheus, the captain of the Nebuchadnezzar IV tells Neo what the Matrix is. It is, according to Morpheus, “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth.” But when you are in the hovercraft, you are out of the Matrix and you are not blind anymore. [1]

Being “out of the Matrix” means, for one thing, that the sensations you have— what you feel and see and smell—are not provided by a brain probe the way they were when your body was “living” in the tub of goo. The sensations you now have are provided by your fingers and your eyes and your nose. So the life of your mind and the life of your body are intricately connected, not merely simulated.  You are living the life you think you are living.

But there is another thing it means. It means that you can be in actual, not just imagined, mortal conflict with the Matrix as a system. It means that your life can mean something. It can be the result of the choices you make. It can be “your life,” not just in the sense that you intend it, but also in the sense that you can live out the life you have chosen. [2]

Of course, the life you have chosen was not available to you before. Someone has to come from “out there” to contact you. It was Trinity in the case of Neo. She did things he knows cannot be done (she took over his computer and used it to talk to him) and then, after arranging a meeting with him (in the the Matrix, of course, the only “place” available to Neo) tells him that there is an answer to the most important question he has ever asked, the question that has dominated his life up to this point: “What is the Matrix?”  And Morpheus symbolized the choice for Neo as blatantly as Jesus did for Nicodemus.  The red pill or the blue pill?  Continued blindness or coming to grips with the truth.  Choose.

matrix 1So Neo, after his body is reeled up into the Nebuchadnezzar IV, begins to experience “the life that means something,” arguably, the zōen aiōnion. It is awkward at first. Lying there on the table, too weak to get up, he asks Neo, “Why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus replies, “Because you have never used them before.” And immediately, we understand how that is true. All the optical stimulus Neo has ever received has not come from his optic nerve, but from the brain probe that simulated “seeing something.” He has never before seen what was actually there because nothing was actually there in the “life” he seemed to be living.

In the “life of the ages,” the zōen aiōnion, something is really there and you can see it with your own eyes. And, just as your vision is now authentic, so now your intentions can be authentic, You can life the life you choose—remembering always that it chose you before you had any possibility of choosing it—and all of your choices presuppose a war against the Matrix. The little band of people who rescued you from the Matrix is a band of soldiers at war with the Matrix and now, you too are at war with the Matrix.

The dominant characteristic of the life of the ages is that you can make real choices. The Matrix is constitutionally hostile to such a life, so you cannot choose peace with the Matrix. You can fight it, as Neo does, or you can surrender to it, as Cypher, one of the little band that rescued Neo, does. Cypher asks to be “re-inserted” into the Matrix, knowing it will be the last authentic choice he ever makes.

The film, The Matrix, and its two lesser sequels, presuppose the disjunction between what we think of as “life” and “real life”—a life that matters. I think that in John’s gospel, the disjunction between the kind of life Jesus offers Nicodemus and the kind he is “living” at the time he goes to talk to Jesus, is a choice as stark as that. The Life of the Ages is clearly not, in The Matrix, continuing to live for a very long time, the kind of life you think you are living. It has to mean living a life on a different plane entirely; [3] it has to mean a life that means something, however long it lasts.

I think that is the reality that The Matrix points to. It is the most visually persuasive representation I have ever seen of the disjunction between what Nicodemus was talking about and what Jesus was talking about.

[1] This is the most vivid representation I know of the distinction Paul makes in Romans 12 when says we are not to be “conformed” to the world, but to be “transformed.” Neo, in his imaginary life, his life within the Matrix, was a hacker and he was very anti-Matrix.” But as long as his body and therefore his mind was actually in the Matrix—imagining the life the brain probe constructed for him—there was no possibility at all of being “transformed.” That happened when he was rescued from the Matrix by the cable and the grappling claw.
[2] Neither of these “lives,” by the way, lasts forever. When your body is “in the Matrix,” you are valued for the voltage your body produces and which the Matrix uses as a power source. When you are outside the Matrix, you might be killed because you are after all, an enemy of the System. But even if you are not killed, your body will still die in the normal way. Living a real life doesn’t give your cells extra telomeres. But when you die outside the Matrix, you die having actually lived.

[3]  No pun intended, but it is hard to avoid it.

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A Midlands family living in Greater Appalachia

I come from a “set apart” sort of family.  I knew that when I was a little boy growing up in what is now a northern suburb of Dayton, Ohio. [1]  I was taught that it was a good thing to be “separate,” and I think it was a good thing for a long time, at least for my parents.  I don’t think my parents ever really came to grips with what it means for their four boys.

I’ve had trouble coming to grips with it myself.  The life that gets into you at that very early level never really gets expressed well in the words that you learn later.  There’s always something a little mysterious about the emotional tones out of which those carefully chosen words emerge.  The words are all the right words, but you keep feeling that there is more there than the words capture.

I am a “capturing in words” person, as, I suppose, most bloggers are.  So I find it just a little uncomfortable that my best accounts of that part of my life never quite squares with the mix of feelings that I remember.

That may be, at least in part, why the notion of “narrative” is so attractive to me.  You can lay out—and I am just about to—alternative narratives of an event, each of which is “true” in a sense, but none of which excludes the other narratives.  Each narrative is shaped within a particular frame of reference and tells as much of the truth as I know that is available within that frame.  Even while I am doing that, I know that there are other frames—other starting points, other sets of categories—that enable me to tell other, very different, also true, stories.

I’m going to try three such frames here.  They are: religion-oriented, class-oriented, and culture-oriented and that is the order in which I learned them.

Religion-oriented [3]

“Come out from among them and be ye separate” saith the Lord.

The phrasing is from 2 Corinthians 6:17.  Obviously, and nothing could be more appropriate, it is in the language of the King James Version of the Bible.  Or just “the Bible” where I grew up.  It is one of the easy-to-abuse instructions Paul wrote, but it is all through the Old Testament accounts of Israel in the Promised Land.  It is, in fact, fundamental to the notion of what “holy” meant to the Israelite people.

My family had a different notion of what “holy” was than our neighbors; different alsoset apart 7 than other members of our church.  It is nearly impossible to teach your children “not to be like” the other kids, without at the same time teaching them to see themselves as “better than” the other kids.  And, if not better in fact, then at least better in aspiration.

I remember, for instance, that my mother used to criticize behavior that did not come up to the family standard as “common.”  That made more sense to me when I learned that was what “vulgar” meant.  But Mother only meant, “what everybody else does,” and she didn’t understand either that in sacrificing what was “common,” we were sacrificing what was  “in common” with our classmates and our neighbors.

I had a very caring upbringing by a loving family and it seems, even to me, a little churlish to criticize it, but in fact, I was raised in a little bubble of self-conferred religious superiority and getting over that has been one of the major jobs of my life. [4]


So I grew up and moved away and took a lot of courses in the various social sciences, including sociology.  And it began to dawn on me that however much my family might have thought about “what is right for the Hesses to do” in religious terms, it is also possible to think of it in terms of social class.  In fact, if you take enough sociology, almost everything begins to seem explicable in terms of social class.

I remember how ardently my father wanted at least one of us to play the violin. [5]  I don’t think he liked violin music particularly.  When he had the choice, he listened to choral music.  But violins are so…you know…classy.  Dad had a lot of education and aspired to more than the size of his family allowed for.  My mother was the daughter of a man who was often a mayor and  was also a major business leader.  I don’t think she pushed that, but I don’t see how she could have forgotten it either.

Neither of my parents aspired on their own behalf or on ours to be “upper class.”  But the current discrepancy between the professional/managerial class and the “working class” really does capture where the rift is.  I’m actually just kidding about the castle; it’s a much older notion of class unless these are happy tourists.

set apart 3Last year, I discovered Joan Williams’ ideas on the cultural underpinnings of class in our era and she draws the line between the working class (even at fairly high levels of income) and the professional/managerial class. [6]   Williams helped me get past the social structural notions of class—there wasn’t room in the small town I grew up in for a complicated class structure—and to consider the cultural infrastructure of the class identity we grew up with.

What does “cultural infrastructure” mean?  In part, it means “social capital.”  Here is Williams.

Cultural capital is class specific: the kinds of cultural capital required to survive and thrive in non-elite circles differ from the kinds required in professional-managerial contexts…

For example:

Professional-managerial jobs require people skills, which are essential for building and exploiting networks and for enhancing opportunities to advance as a lawyer, doctor, or “organization man.”

The cultural capital required of workers is quite different. While questioning authority and thinking for yourself might get you a promotion in an upper-middle-class job, in a lower-status job it is more likely to get you fired. 

It is “class” in that sense of the term, both the “social capital” sense and the aspirational sense, that I substituted for religion and I began to understand my upbringing as “different.”


But recently, I came across a way of thinking about the whole matter that is not principally religious and not “classist” either, in the fine-grained sociological sense.  This is more like comparative anthropology and I found this in Colin Woodard’s  American Nations.  Woodard makes a good case that a lot of the enduring regional differences can be traced back to the the various eastern settlements and the changes they took on as they extended themselves westward.   And there may be no clearer example of these cultures than Ohio,  where there are three.

set apart 1

On the map, you can see that Cleveland is part of the western extension of Yankeedom.

Here is Woodard’s characterization of the Yankee culture.

Yankeedom: Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.

But the more interesting distinction for me happens as you move south out of Yankeedom.  The whole middle section of Ohio is called “the Midlands,” and the people the Midlanders.  Culturally, it was formed in eastern Pennsylvania, where my father was raised.  It is, in fact, my family’s home culture.  

But you can see on the map that all of southern Ohio, including the part where Orville and Wilber Wright and I grew up, is a part of Greater Appalachia.  So by this way of looking at it, we were a Midlander family living in a Greater Appalachian culture and that explains a lot to me.  

For one thing, it gives the “Come out from among them…” passage a contemporary cultural setting.  It translates the fine-grained sociological analysis into a much broader regional interpretation. 

Look, for instance, at the way Woodard distinguishes the culture of my family background from the culture where I was raised.  The midlands serve as “the old country” for the Hesses.

The Midlands: Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.

But our family was trying to do all this in Greater Appalachia.  Greater Appalachia is a good part of what Mother meant when she said “common.”

Greater Appalachia: Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”

It is clear to me that the discrepancies I experienced as a young boy growing up can be understood in a variety of ways.  I have surveyed three here.  As is to be expected, I find the third to be most persuasive because I just came across it and am still infatuated by it.

Every explanatory device has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course.  It is true that I was raised in “the holiness tradition,” where “holy” mean separate.  I did that. 

I was also raised with class mobility in mind and the habits of mind and go with professional and managerial jobs [7].  I did that too, although my path wasn’t quite as straightforward as my brothers’ paths. 

And I grew up, we all did, with the presuppositions Woodard describes as typically Midlander—including the part about ideological purity.  Woodard is talking about political ideology. We got all the purity we needed from religious doctrine, either from embracing it or from rejecting it.

So I did that, too.

[1]  That’s just a little north of Middletown, the site of Hillbilly Elegy, where J. D. Vance grew up.  Middletown is different in a lot of ways from Englewood, but we come from the same part of Ohio.

[3]  I know that’s awkward, but there is no hope for the title that deals with social class, so I am casting them all in the same form, just to keep the parallelism.  I’m open to other solutions.

[4]  There is, in fact, one sense in which I don’t want to get over it.  I need a way to detect and to critique my own lapses.  I know when I could have done better and just didn’t bother.

[5]  We all wound up playing brass instruments.  Sigh.

[6]  See especially Chapter 5 of her marvelous Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter

[7]  I was a professor for most of my “working life.”  Of my three brothers, one was also a professor, and two were physicians.  We all got where were supposed to go, by one path or another.

Posted in Living My Life | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Men who have not yet died

I want to write a little about the relationships between men and women at the senior center where I live.  And I will.  I just want to play with a couple of words first.


The first word is “dominate.”  It has become popular, when there are more of one kind of thing than another, to say that the more numerous, “dominates.”  The most popular kind of pizza, probably pepperoni [1] is the “dominant” kind of pizza.  You could say that Caucasians are the “dominant” ethnic group meaning only that there are more of us than there are of any other ethnic group.  Of course, you might mean more than that.

But if “more” is what you really mean, I suggest “predominant” as the adjective form and “predominate” as the verb.

So here where I live, women predominate.  There are twice as many of them as there are of us.  There are lots of reasons why men die earlier than women and I don’t want to explore them here.  It is simply a fact that if a collection of old people—the kind of collection you would expect to find in a Continuing Care Retiarement Center (a CCRC)—there are going to be more women than men.

The rarity of men as a tension

That sets up an interesting tension.  There is a tendency to value—possibly to overvalue—rarity.  There is nothing particularly meritorious about a postage stamp of which only 100 were ever printed, yet stamp collectors lust after such stamps because there are so few of them.  Similarly, there is a tendency for a man—pretty much any man—to be valued inordinately in a setting where women predominate. [2]

There are a few ways the women could take unearned value that is accorded to men.  I have three in mind because I have experienced these three.  I’m sure there are more, but I am not sure I am eager to encounter them.  Similarly, there are a few ways the men can handle being given a level of “attention”—whether it is positive or negative will vary with the woman doing the attending—that they don’t deserve.

The problem for men

The instance of how the men might respond is easier, so I’ll start with them.  As always, the first thing to do is to know what is going on.  If you are accustomed to being treated like a 5 (on the familiar ten point scale) and suddenly are treated like an 8, you need to know that.  The second thing is to acknowledge that you don’t deserve that automatic little three point bump.  There is no reason why you have to say you don’t like it; only that, in all fairness, it is not merited.  The third thing is to decide what you are going to do with it.  It’s a windfall.  It isn’t something you deserve; it is something that happened to you.

owning a man 1There are three common kinds of responses to this kind of undeserved benefit.  One of them is really hard to do, so I will mention it first and then dismiss it.  It is experiencing these undeserved (that’s the three point bump you get for not being the predominant sex in this setting) benefits as an artifact of the system.  It isn’t about you.  It’s nice, but it comes and goes and the only thing that would be really wrong would be to try to hang onto it, rather than allowing it its own rhythm.  I note that as a possible response—difficult and rare—and I now dismiss it.

There are two more common responses.  One is deciding that this extra three points are points that you deserve in some way.  Think about it.  You are receiving a benefit and all you have to do to make it morally acceptable is to think of something about you, or about males as a category, that justifies the preferential treatment.  How hard could that be?  Our brains were built for the specific purpose of coming up with rationales like that at the drop of a hat. [3]

The other one is deciding that since you had no part in earning this bonus, it is not really yours to keep, so you invest it in those parts of the social system which really don’t get the appreciation they deserve.  That has two good outcomes.  One is that it serves as a reminder that being specially recognized is nice—except, as you will see below, when it is not—but it is not a fair assessment.  It really isn’t about you.  The other is that it automatically reinvests the windfall into social capital.

The problem for women

Now let’s look at the women’s side.  They see the same thing I see.  Men are accorded positive evaluations they do not deserve.  All these guys being treated as if they were 8’s when any sober assessment would put them at 5 at the most.  It just isn’t fair.

No.  It isn’t.  They are right.  Now there is the question of how to respond to it and now I get to tell the stories I have been holding back, but which are the real reason I wanted to write this particular essay.

Story #1

Very shortly after I moved here, I had a conversation with a neighbor who lives just down the hall.  One of the reasons Bette and I chose Holladay Park Plaza (HPP) was that  the people who lived there were friendly.  With this in mind, I gave my new neighbor the example that I had attended a group for the second time and was pleased and surprised that everyone remembered my name.

“Of course they did,” she snapped.  “You’re a man.”

I was unprepared for the venom, certainly, but  in addition to that, I didn’t know how toowning a man 2 assess the charge.  I get that now.  I am the recipient of strokes I don’t deserve.  The reason I got these strokes has nothing to do with who I am, I as a person, but can be attributed only to my sexual identity and it isn’t fair.  All that is true and this neighbor resented it.  None of the illustrations here are supposed to represent the people; only the sentiments that came to mind as I told the stories.

Story #2

On the other hand, there are women here who are not attracted to the fairness or unfairness that grows out of the disproportion between the number of women and the number of men.  The just don’t pay any attention to it.

I will use as an example, the remark of a woman I was having dinner with one night.  “I like men,” she said.  “I just don’t want to own one.”  And we both laughed.  She is a woman whose husband died some years ago.  That’s why “owning one” was funny.  She is still attracted to the match of styles and perspectives that men and women bring to a relationship.  She takes for what they are worth, the little frictions and enjoyments that belong to those conversations and that’s the end of it.  

Her perspective isn’t any more fair or unfair that the first woman’s perspective, but it is a lot easier to be with.

Story #3

Another friend of mine just turned 90—even here a notable achievement—and devised a really good way to celebrate.  She invited a bunch of friends to a dinner tour of the Willamette River on the Portland Spirit.  There were 16 of us, it turned out, and I was the only man in the group.

owning a man 4Of course, there are reasons to treat this disproportion as some kind of unfairness or as significant in some way.  This was a party in which women predominated.  But one of the women across the table from Bette and me saw other possibilities in it.   She got my attention and indicated our whole group with a gesture of her head—all 15 women and one man of us.  Then, with her hand, she made a gesture that referred to everyone else on the boat.  She leaned across the table and said, “Do you suppose they think we are Mormons?”

I loved it.  It affirmed our whole party as a single entity, enough, at least the be the butt of the joke.  It recognized the disproportion of men and women, well…man and women, but only for the purpose of making a joke of it that all of us could enjoy together.

So, the fact is that there are more women who live here than men, a disproportionate number of the men having already died, is only the occasion for reflecting on how to respond to it.  

[1}  Just a warning.  In Italian, “pepperoni” is a plural noun meaning “bell peppers.”  If you order a pepperoni pizza in, say, Milan, be prepared for a vegetarian pizza.

[2]  See how handy it is to have the right word.  Women do not “dominate” at my CCRC and they are not “dominant”—well…a few are..  They do “predominate,” however, by about 2:1.

[3]Thanks especially to Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind, makes this argument and substantiates it beyond cavil.

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Colin Kaepernick’s Triumph

On Sunday, I tuned in to my favorite football show, Sunday Night Football [1] and I watched Colin Kaepernick’s triumph.  I was dumbfounded.  Then I was exultant.  They introduced the teams and then the teams lined up and there was a kickoff and the game started.  We didn’t have any “national anthem protests” because the TV didn’t show the national anthem at all.  Whatever it was that happened at the stadium, it wasn’t broadcast on TV. 

I liked that.  I am not an especially big fan of the singing—“mangling,” most often—of the Star Spangled Banner at football games.  It seems an intrusion.  I am sure it is supposed to give people a chance to express their patriotism, but what does it have to do with football?

Nike’s campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, on the other hand, seems Just Say It.pngcompletely appropriate to me.  Note that the ad shown here pushes the relationship between what you believe and your willingness to sacrifice for it.  It celebrates, in other words, Kaepernick’s daring.  That’s what it does explicitly.  Implicitly, it celebrates his protest against police brutality.  It says nothing at all about Kaepernick’s effect on the national anthem and it may be that they don’t really care. Nike is commercial if it is anything and “daring all” is a commercially successful fragment of the Nike brand.

I confess that it bothers me just a little that this same slogan could be used at a Nazi rally or a Klan rally.  If the only question is whether you are willing to sacrifice for your beliefs, then I think that September 11 might not have been the best day to run the ad.

It could be argued, I suppose, that by showing Kaepernick’s face, they are, in effect, specifying the “something.”  The something, in this case, is police violence against blacks.  That transposes the Nike commercial into something like “Believe that Black Lives Matter and act out your commitment to that belief, even if it costs you your livelihood in football.”

Is it patriotic?

President Trump involved himself in this cultural skirmish by arguing that the actions Kaepernick—and eventually other players as well—was taking were violations of the patriotic overlay provided by the flags and the jets and the national anthem.  I think he has a point.  If attending to the flag and the anthem are acts of serious citizenship, then casual conversations during the opening ceremonies do show a lack of investment.  So would wearing a hat, if you are a man, and so would putting on lipstick during the singing, if you were a woman.

Is it relevant?

Folding the flag reverently and presenting it to the widow of a serviceman is relevant.  Burning the flag in protest of our country’s military adventurism is relevant.  Either one may be wrong, but neither is irrelevant.

What Kaepernick did is to attach a cause that matters a great deal to him to an event that is about something else.  It is, in that sense, parasitic.  Attaching the singing of the national anthem to major sports events is parasitic in exactly the same way.  These critiques touch my  “All I want to do….” button.  All I want to do is watch a football game.  And then there is all this flag stuff and all the singing.  And then Kaepernick takes this distraction and piles another distraction on top of it.  It’s not about patriotism, it’s about racial violence.

Next, we come to the complicity phase of this farce.  If you are not singing the national anthem—as you should be if you are really patriotic—or if you are not kneeling in protest (as you should be, etc.) then you are complicit.  You are part of some THEM; the anti-patriotic fringe or the racist fringe and these are charges thrown at people who are there because they like football.

Denver Broncos versus the Buffalo BillsI will say that I like this picture of Denver Bronco’s offensive tackle Garrett Boles, who is celebrating his country with one hand and his teammate with the other.  If it has to be on television, that is a good thing to see on television.

And that hits my “All I want to do…” button.  That’s why I was so happy when NBC just skipped over all that and went straight to the kickoff.  The NFL owners had already decided that they would not require the teams to be on the field when the patriotic overtures are being played.  I thought that was a great idea.  By being on the field, the players become exemplars and there is no real clarity about what they ought to be exemplifying.  So…I’ve got an idea: let’s not make them be on the field.

President Trump, of course, says it isn’t about football or about racial justice, it’s about patriotism.  That makes the kneeling players anti-American, rather than pro-justice.  And when you can control “what it’s really about” that is the kind of thing you get to do.  So far, he as not been able to establish that kind of control.

And some people say it is really about freedom of speech, as if the players who show up to perform and who are wearing the uniform of their team have the right, under the Constitution, to give their own personal opinions in that setting.  When you are engaged in being a team member, you have the right to do anything that will make your team better.  The players all know that when, after the game, someone sticks a microphone in the face and asks for an assessment of your quarterback’s performance.  To my mind, it is the same in the pre-game liturgies.  You can all kneel, you can all stand, you can all stay in the locker room.

Do we hafta?

But this whole controversy is based on how to pervert the patriotic exercises with which we begin the game.  It is taken for granted that there will be such exercises and the only question is how to use them to advance some other agenda.  But, of course, we don’t have to have them.  Or, at least, we don’t have to televise them.  So now, on Sunday Night Football at least, the game starts with one team kicking off to the other team.

And that is Colin Kaepernick’s triumph.  Thank you, Colin.

[1]  I am a big fan of Cris Collinsworth, the Sunday Night Football color commentator.


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In praise of verbally defined limits and rationales

It has become a popular middle class notion [1] that saying No to a child is a bad thing. Like most of the mistakes we make as we ride the pendulum from unreasoning strictness to unthinking permissiveness, there is a little truth at the base of this mistake.

Criticism is a good thing in the way that pain is a good thing. As a rule, it contains information we need to have. Sometimes not. [2] But constant criticism, like constant pain, is a really bad thing and the goal should be to use it when it is the best tool.

Tools and alternatives

The “tool” metaphor may seem innocuous, but it is not. When you look at the other causes of criticism which it sets aside, you start to get a better picture of how fundamental it is.

  • Criticizing because you are angry or tired or sleepy or are “at the end of your rope” is set aside. It isn’t that those criticisms won’t happen; it is that they won’t be justified by the tool metaphor.
  • Criticizing because the person—the spouse, the friend, the child, the pastor, the Executive Director—deserved it, is also set aside. What they “deserve” is a complex moral judgment and it is hard to be confident in making it.

“What will work,” by contrast, is a much more readily available judgment and it is the standard to which the tool metaphor directly leads.

jlawyer 1And I think that is why we swing back and forth from criticizing too much and criticizing too little. In this essay, I am going to come out boldly in favor of criticizing just the right amount. I don’t think anyone is going to have trouble with that idea. Goldilocks didn’t. And then I am going to try to justify that standard using an argument I had never heard before today and even today, I didn’t hear it until I heard myself making it.

Here’s the idea. By “criticism” I mean something simple like “Don’t do that” or “Stop doing that” or even, “Don’t even think about it.” The reason why he—I mean to use the male pronoun here, not the generic “he” [3]—shouldn’t do it or keep doing it or begin considering doing it needs to be clear to him.

Further, it needs to be acceptable to him. [4] And if those two criteria seem too much, consider his situation without them. He is criticized for reasons that are not clear to him and/or for reasons that he has considered and found to be inadequate.

jlawyer 4The alternatives, as I have seen them and read about them, are distraction and reinforcement of positive behaviors, both of which are good tools. They make the need for explicit criticism less urgent. They make the difference, to return to the pain metaphor, between episodic criticism, which contains valuable information, and endemic criticism, which is just the pain background of your life.

Distraction is good because it stops the behavior. The child, being distracted by something else, stops doing the undesirable thing and, having been distracted enough times, learns not to do it at all. On the other hand he never learns, by being distracted, why he shouldn’t do it. Similarly, praising good behavior—unless the praise is endemic and therefore meaningless—makes the behavior more likely to recur and it becomes part of “what I do,” and eventually of “who I am.” But, again, the knowledge of why the bad alternative is bad, is never set in language that he will need to be able to produce.

The words that define the boundaries

The goal of the approach I am pushing today is to equip the child with the language he will need to establish and justify the boundaries of good behavior. [5] There is no need at all to get into an argument about whether practicing good behavior that has been modeled, but not formulated verbally, is better than “good behavior” that has been formulated verbally (preached) but not modeled (practiced). A formulation like that, which is a commonplace in these discussions, imagines that the one approach is the enemy of the other. It is not.

Ask this rather. Is a pattern of behavior that is BOTH modeled and justified verbally, better for the child than behavior that has been EITHER modeled OR justified, but not both. It is obvious that the question as I have reformulated it, is very kind to the perspective it relies on. That is equally true, of course, of the previous argument (that performance and justification of behavior are naturally antagonistic), but it is not obvious. I am not sure why it is not as obvious, but if you want to assure yourself that it is true, try engaging a young middle class parent in this discussion.

I double dare you. I double dog dare you.

I am making the argument that the careful justification of boundaries by using words is crucially important. [6] I am not entirely sure just what the mechanisms are by which this effect is achieved, but I am going to take the rest of my space and the rest of your time in this essay probing some possibilities.

Let’s start with the “jailhouse lawyer phenomenon.” Many young boys I have seen,jlawyer 3 including myself as a young boy, resisted the rules by picking them apart. A fully verbalized and internalized norm would be applied reasonably to the situation. So “Don’t forget to wash your hands” would reasonably apply to anything else that was dirty, especially dirt that would be visible to other family members. The “jailhouse lawyer” kind of kid would happily come to the table with a big smear of dirt on his face and argue, when confronted with his misdeed, that he was asked only to wash his hands.

And that’s not even one of the inventive ones. Now it is true, I will admit at the outset, that kids who get a good share of their entertainment from verbal sparring with their parents, will wring the juice from every ambiguity just for the pleasure of watching it drip. And up a certain point—I have passed that point as a child and have watched it being passed as a parent—it is a game that can be well and honorably played by everyone. But there is no denying that the incessant challenging of every rule on the basis of some technicality or other, can get wearisome and is sometimes done with hostile intentions.

The ones I am thinking about are those that are done to establish just what the rule is. I want to argue that the current dominance of indirect modes of “instruction”—the distraction and the positive reinforcement models—leads to real uncertainty about what the rule is and how it can best be applied. Little boys, I am arguing, should be equipped with clear and consistent verbal formulations of the rules and a good clear picture of what the boundaries look like. I want them to get the verbal tools as well as all the others. I think a carefully worded statement of what the rule is, what the intended outcome of the rule is, and what several kinds of violations looks like, would be a great help to these boys.

Some will argue…

That’s the argument. Now, before shutting the presses down for the day, let’s look at some of the boundaries. Some idiot, reading this argument and finding it offensive, will argue that children—boys as well as girls—should be “shown, not told” what behaviors are right and appropriate. I call these people idiots because they are insisting that these two invaluable tools of childrearing—showing and telling—are opposed to each other in some way; that the one precludes the other. My argument is that both together is better than either one alone.

Some will argue that the reliance on verbal accounts of the rules and the reasons for the rules will only multiply the jailhouse lawyer syndrome, which I spent some time deploring. I grant that their concern is reasonable—or at least not unreasonable—but I argue instead that a lot of the verbal sparring is an attempt to establish just what the rule is, just why there should be such a rule (the outcome measures), and whether the alternatives are really as bad as they are said to be. Those are things a little boy needs to know if he is verbal himself and if he is expected to internalize these rules and make them his own.

In a case like this one the “jailhouse lawyer” response is not an alternative; it is just a phase one goes through on the way to owning the rule for himself. And, as wearisome as it might get sometimes, as a phase in developing a clear and generous autonomy, it is surely worth it.

[1] The class basis of vigilant criticism is based on the idea that working class kids can’t afford to make mistakes because the resources needed to recover from those are not available. That is one of the sources of the anger directed at the kids from professional families. The best account of this discrepancy I have seen is in Joan C. Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate.
[2] There was recently an article in the New York Times about pain that is neurological in origin and it contained this line from Dania Palanker. “I know that it’s just that my nerves are broken.”
[3] For which there is not, as yet, an adequate replacement.
[4] Eventually. The necessity of this standard needs to be absorbed into his sense of who he is and it needs to be the kind of standard he can reproduce in his own language when he needs it.
[5] The choice of the word “boundaries” does not imply that they are static.
[6 I believe it is especially important for boys, but I am not going to have a chance to get into that in this essay.

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