What I’ve Been Reading

  1. Work email.
  2. The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler. Highly recommended. Gabler, a well educated widely published author, explains how he became one of the 47% of Americans who could not cover an unexpected $400 expense. A clear, compelling story, courageously told.
  3. All the Sad, Broke, Literary Men by Helaine Olin. This genre, the take-down of a person others admire, is on the rise. Which is unfortunate. It’s sad Olin can’t muster up any empathy for Gabler. Helaine, if you don’t have anything nice to say, . . .
  4. My wife’s emotions.
  5. The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese. I’m about to share the tagline. Then you’re going to click on this link. In fact, it will probably be the only link you open. Why, because deep down you’re a voyeur too. Tagline, “Gerald Foos bought a hotel in order to watch his guests have sex. He saw a lot more than that.” Told you.
  6. The Secret History of Tiger Woods by Wright Thompson. Thompson deserves a Pulitzer for making me feel some empathy for TWoods.
  7. Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement by John Wasik. Nice insights.
  8. Work email.

Postscript: A reader texted in:

Read your blog post. I read that $400, 47% article earlier this week and thought it was pretty interesting. Buuuut even though one of my top 3 pet peeves is probably people gleefully and lazily taking other people down on the Internet without any effort toward critical empathy, I actually very much agreed with Helaine Olin’s article. She was a little callous up top, but I thought the article itself was pretty balanced – she commended his bravery for talking about something that is difficult to talk about (but it helped made less difficult when people step up to the plate and tell their stories, like he did) and gave him credit when she agreed with some of his other points but I also very much agree that his article was lacking in other ways and it was worthwhile of her to call him out in it. (Seriously, I couldn’t get over the emptying of the retirement fund for the daughter’s wedding.)

Okay, the “reader” was actually my eldest hija. I told her I stopped reading Olin’s article too early. Sorry Helaine for my knee-jerk rejection of your essay. Best part of this? It’s on record that eldest hija doesn’t support fathers’ paying for daughters’ weddings!!! Yes!!!

Do You Mind If I’m Totally Frank?

Last week, that’s what one of my students asked me in the middle of a discussion led by a classmate. The topic was what stoicism teaches about getting along with others. At the beginning of the discussion, I skimmed the student leader’s questions. The last one was about stoicism and sex which was addressed within the related reading.

With about ten minutes left in class, I said to the student leader that he should probably pick one of the remaining two questions. Without hesitating he jumped to the last much to his classmates’ delight. Apart from a little antiseptic sex ed talk, I’m guessing this was the first time they’d ever truly discussed sex in a classroom.

It’s ironic that the more interpersonally consequential the subject—take sex as one example and marriage as another—the less likely we are to talk about them with adolescents and young adults in any detail. I guess we think of such topics as too personal, private, and value-laden. As a result, pastors rarely if ever talk about sex and marriage from the pulpit, parents rarely if ever talk about their relationships with their children, and educators routinely sidestep topics like that. That means adolescents and young adults are left to themselves to resolve all of the challenges posed by human intimacy through trial and error.

The sex question immediately piqued everyone’s interest. One especially animated student turned from the student leader to me and asked, “Do you mind if I’m totally frank?” Me, “Sure, of course.” Her, “There’s a big difference between fucking and making love.” As they repeatedly say on the television series Fargo, “Okay, then.”

Couple that ice breaker with the fact that it’s a small class, the students are friends, and they think I’m way cooler than I am, the conversation was more candid than I had anticipated. It’s kind of a blur. At some point, I pointed out that they hadn’t yet dealt with the stoic’s primary insight on sex, that in middle or old age few people reflect on their younger selves and wish they had been more promiscuous. Stoics point out that the opposite is much more common, that sexually active people often regret the damage done by being so promiscuous. To which one student bravely said, “I’m 19 and I regret being as promiscuous as I was in high school.”

From there the discussion turned to the confusing and controversial stoic suggestion that sex, even inside of marriage, should only be for the purpose of procreating, which strikes me as an overreaction to the dangers of promiscuity.

Rewind the tape to earlier in the week when, with two colleagues, I was involved in a protracted discussion with a student teacher who is struggling in her internship. I was asking questions designed to get her to admit a regret or two in the hope we could turn to what could be done to remedy the situation. “What would you have done differently if anything?” “Okay,” she finally said without asking if she could be perfectly frank, “I fucked up.”

After the meeting that utterance was what one of my colleagues wanted to talk about first. He was right, she does have to be smarter about professional contexts, meaning more tactful and diplomatic, but these two incidents point to a huge generation gap when it comes to attitudes towards profanity.

Swearing, using “fuck” more specifically and not just as a verb, but as any part of speech, is so common among adolescents and young adults that some adults’ resistance to it, like my colleagues, hardly makes any sense to them.

Just as it’s unrealistic to expect married people to abstain from sex except when procreating, it’s unrealistic to expect young people to stop swearing altogether. The best hopelessly square people like myself can hope for, is that they learn to use profanity freely around their peers when in informal settings and then “code-switch” and refrain from it when around mixed aged people in other settings.

If you don’t agree, you can go forget yourself.

Looking for Love—Introducing the Romantic Love Score

Maybe you know someone like my 29 year old friend who recently sent me a great email.

“My life is pretty darn good right now,” she wrote, “but I would still like to find a special friend with whom I could start a family.” Thinking who better to offer some inspiration, she told me she had a good job, some decent friends, but no real prospects when it came to romantic love.

And so I tried.

First, I celebrated her refreshing “If it happens great, if not, I’ll still lead a fulfilling life” attitude. People desperate to find someone to “complete them” stand little chance of forming a healthy, balanced, long-term relationship based upon mutual respect.

I also affirmed her desire to marry and start a family because my wife and daughters have definitely enriched my life. Mostly for the better, intimacy amplifies one’s joys and heartbreaks. For me, and most people in healthy committed relationships, that’s a trade-off worth making. Over and over, year after year.

I think about my friend’s prospects for romantic love almost exclusively in sociologically terms. Let me explain by way of what I’m labeling one’s Romantic Love score. Your RL score is similar to a house’s Walk Score. A walk score is a number between 0 and 100 that realtors assign to every house for sale. The higher the score, the easier it is to walk to stores, restaurants, parks, etc. Our current home has an abysmal walk score of “5” meaning you better pack some food if you’re walking to the grocery store.

A Romantic Love score is also a number between 0 and 100. The higher your score, the greater your likelihood of meeting someone special with whom marriage and children are possibilities.

Walk scores are determined by sophisticated computers, Romantic Love scores are determined by my amazingly brilliant analysis of a few things you send me. First and most importantly, a map of your typical week showing me exactly how you spend every hour of every day that you’re awake.

From that map, I determine the potential for casual friendships to evolve into something hotter and heavier. Work is obviously a big chunk of time and that could go either way depending upon how consistently you interact with colleagues around your age, but you’re outside of work time is most important. If you spend evenings reading alone, your RL score will be far less than if you participate in a book club or two. No one is ever going to come wave at you through your window while you’re wrapped in a blanket, after dinner, in your favorite reading spot.

Similarly, it’s one thing to run in the pitch black at 5a.m. alone and another to run after work or on the weekends with a group sponsored by a local running store, maybe even one that meets up afterwards to continue socializing. And it’s one thing to lap swim by one’s self and another to join a masters swim team and workout a few times a week with the same 20-30 people. Ditto with cycling. Better to attend the same spin class with the same 10-15 people than to just cycle alone all the time.

The second stage is doing things with your small group friend(s) outside of the regular activity—going out to dinner, weekend get-aways, etc. Traveling with small groups of friends for a weekend or week increases the potential for sparks of mutual interest and admiration, thus raising your RL score.

Don’t force participation in activities that you don’t naturally enjoy in the first place, just be more intentional about doing them with others. Small groups whom you interact with at least twice a week. And then be intentional about each group. After a few weeks or month, evaluate the potential for meeting someone special, and don’t hesitate to switch one small group activity for another.

My wife was a second year teacher in rural Southern California when she was 24. All she did was work, then exercise at a fitness center, and then watch the NewsHour while eating dinner. There were hardly any single people in her community so she decided to take her RL score into her own hands. She quit her job and moved to Santa Monica and looked for a teaching job there. Right away she started attending the same church I was attending. My roommates and I at the time hosted a bible study in our home.

She showed up one summer night with her roommate who she knew a little bit prior to her move. After the bible study I asked her if she wanted to go get some frozen yogurt (Rico Suave). About 6-8 of us ended up going. After that I was smitten and asked her if she wanted to go out to dinner and by then any resistance to my charm offensive was futile.

The take-away is small groups aren’t magical. At some point you have to be more intentional than might come naturally and take initiative to move from acquaintance to friend to more special friend. In the simplest terms, being more intentional might mean saying, “I like you.” And then assessing whether the feeling is mutual. Obviously, there has to be reciprocity. Romantic love can’t be forced, there has to be some chemistry.

Second, I need a list of all of your close friends who are aware of your desire for a special friend and consciously thinking about mutual friends who might be a decent match. This is the “social capital” subsection of your overall RL score.

Third, I need an honest self-assessment of how flexible you are. Not with regard to values, you should never settle for someone who isn’t kind and doesn’t inspire you to be an even better person, but in terms of age and level of education. The older you are, the more you need to consider someone younger or older than you, and if you’re a female, quite possibly someone with less formal education. Obviously, the more flexible, the higher your RL score.

Fourth, I need an honest assessment of your relative selflessness. Since selfish people typically lack self awareness, you’ll need to solicit the help of close friends and family who know you best. Ask them, on a scale of 0 to 10, zero representing a “no hope narcissist of Donald Trump like proportions” and ten representing “Mother Teresa like selflessness”, where would you rate me and why? Long term committed relationships depend upon mutual curiosity and consideration, active listening, and patience. The more selfless, the higher your RL score.

I am now accepting submissions. Every Pressing Pauser is interested in learning more from your particular situation so don’t be bashful. If I share what you submit I’ll do it so discreetly no one will ever trace any of the deets back to you.

My friend’s RL score? Currently hovering in the high teens, but she’s committed to changing that. Hope I get invited to the wedding.

Related read. [Note: The reader’s top ranked comments are every bit as good as the essay.]

When You Are Adopted. . .

says Aaron Levi, Wilt Chamberlain’s 50 year old son, “rejection is woven into your DNA.”

My family’s version of Manifest Destiny concluded on December 31st, 1973 when we arrived, via a car caravan from Ohio, at a West LA hotel. Immediately after checking in, my demented older brothers decided we had to finish our journey by driving the last few miles to the Pacific Ocean. And then become one with the ocean on probably the coldest day of the year. Running from the Pacific Coast Highway to the water, we looked north towards Pacific Palisades and saw our first SoCal celeb, Wilt the Stilt, playing beach volleyball.

At that exact moment, you could count on one hand the number of people who knew Wilt had a 9 year old son named Aaron, living in Oregon, with his adopted family, the Levi’s. Read or watch the whole moving story here.

The story is interesting on several levels. For instance, Ben Carson, long shot Republican candidate for President, is popular among social conservatives. Carson is certain homosexuality is a choice. Ben, please read paragraph six of Pomerantz’s story and then explain how Aaron Levi decided to be gay before he was 9. Maybe Carson will reason Levi asked for Mary Poppins because he didn’t have a strong father figure. Complete bullshit.

On NPR recently, I listened to a segment on why we doubt scientific findings. One guest explained how some people’s identities and worldviews determine how they interpret scientific findings. For example, individuals who reject evolution and climate change don’t do so based on objective considerations of evidence, they do so because accepting those findings would require too fundamental a change in identity and worldview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when reading how Chamberlain’s remaining sibs have refused to meet Levi. Why the flat-out rejection? Because meeting him would require them to rethink what they believe to be true about their deceased brother. His sanitized image is an integral part of their self image. Put differently, Levi doesn’t fit into their worldview.

Levi deserves a lot better. The Chamberlains should follow the lead of one of my elderly relatives who was shocked recently when he was contacted by his deceased sibling’s secret daughter, now Aaron Levi’s exact age. They met, shared histories, and now she’s a cherished member of the family.

It’s not that hard if you put adoptees’ needs to know their history before your need to maintain a fictitious public image.

Postscript—Time will probably tell, but what’s the over-under on Levi’s half brothers and sisters?

Young Adults Aren’t Having as Much Sex as Everyone Thinks

Sentence to ponder:

“More and more technophilic and commitment-phobic millennials are shying away from physical encounters and supplanting them with the emotional gratification of virtual quasi relationships, flirting via their phones and computers with no intention of ever meeting their romantic quarry: less casual sex than casual text.”   —Teddy Wayne in the New York Times

I recommend reading the article in its entirety. It’s required reading if you don’t know what “IRL” stands for. Wayne’s descriptions and analyses challenge my thinking. Normally, I find the negative reactions of older people to changes in youth culture predictable and mindless. Older people thoughtlessly flatter themselves to think things were always better “back in the day”. By reminding myself that the changes aren’t better or worse than in the past, just different, I consciously practice a form of cultural relativism.

But when many millennials give up, as Wayne reports, on “the more challenging terrain of three-dimensional partners”, it’s hard for me to think screen-based relationships are just different than IRL ones. By punting on in-person vulnerability and physical touch, millennials are foregoing intimacy. And by living less intimately with others, they’re compromising the quality of their lives.

Committed friendships—especially romantic ones—are risky because they’re a by-product of vulnerability. You can’t know how caring and accepting a friend will be until you reveal some of your unflattering attributes, insecurities, fears, and related neuroses. Many millennials appear to be like grade-obsessed, risk-adverse students who consciously avoid challenging courses and instructors.

Wayne focuses too narrowly on sex at the expense of physical touch more generally. Sometimes in fact, the more subtle the touch, the more profound. My clarion call in the Writing Seminar last week was “Depth of description and analysis trumps breadth.” To illustrate this, I had them read a Joe Morgenstern essay titled “How One Scene Can Say Everything: Deconstructing The Five Best Minutes of Little Miss Sunshine“. After reading Morgenstern we watched the scene in which a major family crisis is avoided when a ten year old girl puts her arm around her devastated older brother sitting on the ground below her. Then she gently rests her head on his shoulder. She doesn’t say a word. Within seconds his anger subsides and the family reconciles.

It would be easy to offer up apocalyptic conclusions about the millennials choosing watered down, on-line acquaintances, over wonderfully and painfully flawed “real life” ones. And to the cumulative effect of less physical touch. But I’m going to resist that because their intense aversion to risk didn’t arise in a vacuum.

I suspect something was amiss in the way my peers and I raised our millennial children. Maybe we gave into our fears about their safety and were too overprotective. Maybe we didn’t model as well as we could have what we know. That life is sweeter as a result of intimate friendships even when they provide tremendous joy one day and heartbreak the next.

Paragraph to Ponder

From Roman Krznaric in The Wonderbox:

The idea of passionate, romantic love that has emerged in the West over the past millennium is one of our most destructive cultural inheritances. This is because the main aspiration—the discovery of a soulmate—is virtually impossible to achieve in reality. We can spend years searching for that elusive person who will satisfy all our emotional needs and sexual desires, who will provide us with friendship and self-confidence, comfort and laughter, stimulate our minds and share our dreams. We imagine somebody out there in the amorous ether who is our missing other half, and who will make us feel complete if only we can fuse our being with theirs in the sublime union of romantic love. Our hopes are fed by an industry of Hollywood screen romances and an overload of pulp fiction peddling this mythology. The message is replicated by the worldwide army of consultants who advertise their ability to help you ‘find your perfect match’. In a survey of single Americans in their twenties, 94 percent agreed that ‘when you marry you want your spouse to be your soulmate, first and foremost.’ The unfortunate truth is that the myth of romantic love has gradually captured the varieties of love that existed in the past, absorbing them into a monolithic vision.

Physical Intimacy

Three hundred plus posts in I’m sufficiently warmed up to take on the taboo. Well, in a half-ass, “what if my daughters stumble upon this” kinda way.

Heard a report on Seattle’s NPR station recently that said the average adult in the U.S. has sex 85x/year. Previously, I had heard or read it was 2x/week, so I guess people are less intimate than previously. Washington Staters are lagging at 72x/year, mostly because of the guys I run with, but we lead the nation in outdoors sex. I can’t think of any other factoid that has done more for my self esteem. Makes sense, moderate summer temps, no bugs, and we love our mother earth.

I got very excited recently when I saw a rubber cord tied to the headboard. Turns out it was for physical therapy purposes only.

You’ll recall a while ago that I learned any self respecting blogger is supposed to be helpful to readers, mostly via sporadic, specific advice. So here goes.

Maintain the spark by maintaining an edge. Por exemplar, when the galpal saw this picture of me giving it to the man by breaking the speed limit, she took me by the hand and suggested we go outside.

Blurry because of the extraordinary speed