Science & theater: The beginning of a manifesto

September 1st, 2014

Proposition 1: “Science theater” is a thing.
Proposition 2: Boston is the best possible place for science theater to come to know itself as a thing and develop into its fullest potential. In 10 years Boston will be known for science theater like LA is known for the film industry and Chicago is known for improv.
Proposition 3: I am the person to write about science theater in Boston.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about this summer. How about you?

I gave this blog a soft reboot in early June, with the idea of writing more about the intersection of pop culture, the performing arts, and the social sciences–my usual gig, in other words. And then this happened.


Part ape, part human, part robot, without ever falling into the uncanny valley.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” didn’t make the splash it should have this summer. “Guardians of the Galaxy” turned out to be the megablockbuster action-movie-with-heart, while “Snowpiercer” hoovered up any excess intellectual credibility left lying around, and lo there was no love remaining for DPA.

Except in my heart, especially after I read this interview with Andy Serkis, the actor who played Caesar. Serkis was all over the place, in the best possible way, as he explained the technology and philosophy of motion-capture performance, the nature of ape-ness, and the political and moral dilemmas faced by Caesar and the apes he leads.

The interview crystallized something for me, something that I’m still only able to express in the phrase “Science theater is a thing.”

Andy Serkis is the best known, but far from the only actor working in motion-capture–many actors make a living doing mo-cap performances for video games. But the technology is only part of it. To play Caesar, Serkis needed to understand primate behavior and language as well as basic social psychology. It was a performance rooted in the sciences and brought to life by technology.

This, increasingly, is the change I am seeing in pop culture: Science fiction is no longer a metaphor. Think back to “Star Trek,” or even the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica”–this is what science fiction used to be. The science lives in the background, facilitating stories about prejudice or the proper role of the military or how religion can both unite and divide people. It’s not science fiction, it’s history-that-hasn’t-happened-yet.

Something has changed.

Think about the role of science in “Battlestar Galactica” or “Star Trek.” Then think about the role of science in “Breaking Bad.”

Do you see what I’m getting at? Teleporters and Cylons and holodecks aren’t science, they’re plot devices. Methamphetamine, though–that actually exists. And Walter White is a chemist to his very essence, someone who sees all of life in terms of interaction and change. The only thing that kept the show from unrelieved darkness was the blossoming of Jesse Pinkman into a competent, even gifted, chemist and engineer. (Hank’s transformation from a blowhard action figure to a thoughtful collector of minerals and clues mirrored Jesse’s evolution. In the world of “Breaking Bad,” the scientific mindset can be a man’s downfall or his salvation.)

“I am the science.”

This is the rallying cry of biologist Cosima Neihaus on “Orphan Black.” She is both the subject of another person’s experiment as well as a scientist in her own right, trying to unravel the mystery of her creation and fix the design problems that may doom her. “Orphan Black,” about a series of female clones, could be a cheeky metaphor for modern women’s multifaceted lifestyles. It’s not (although it does feature the most basic of the clones hilariously singing along to that anthem of complex womanhood, “Bitch”). The science isn’t a metaphor for anything. It is the story. What are the limits of nature and nurture and how do they interact? What does “informed consent” mean and what should be done when such consent is impossible to obtain? What rights should a person have over their intellectual property? What rights should they have over their own body?

We are the science.

Science is changing the kinds of stories we tell, and how we tell them. All summer, I’ve been thinking big curly thoughts about this, and about all the ways theater and science are similar and different. Tonight, I’m going to see “The Congress,” which addresses all these themes. But this is only the beginning of a manifesto. Let’s turn to the local scene. If science and storytelling are intersecting in bold new ways, what is Boston doing about it?

A lot.

I have to start with Central Square Theater, because they actually have a mission to do science-themed plays, in partnership with MIT. Three of their plays this season have scientific themes: “Emilie: La Marquise du Chatelet Defends her Life Tonight,” “A Disappearing Number,” and “mr g.

But CST aren’t the only ones. Bridge Rep opens “The Forgetting Curve” on Thursday, a play about H.M., a man who had brain surgery to cure his epilepsy only to be left unable to form new memories. The Huntington is producing “The Ether Dome“:

A new treatment promising to end pain pits a doctor and his student in an epic battle between altruism and ambition. Based on the true story of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic in 1846 and set in Boston’s own Massachusetts General Hospital, this fascinating new play explores the ecstasy of pain, the sweetness of relief, and the hysteria that erupts when healthcare becomes big business.

And New Rep tackles information-age technology in “Muckrackers“:

A young activist hosts a famous political journalist/hacker in her apartment. What follows is an evening full of rich debate over who has the right to information, how much the public needs to know, and the consequences of power. Dynamics shift when secrets are revealed and each discovers that there is always a price to pay for privacy. In the wake of controversy surrounding WikiLeaks and NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, The Boston Globe calls MUCKRAKERS “an absorbing play that’s ripped from the headlines.”

For all of these plays, there will be pre- and post-show talkbacks, symposia, and discussions led by or featuring local scientists and doctors. I was on the board at Central Square Theater when we did a play about H.M., “Yesterday Happened,” and we had auxiliary programming before or after every single show. I led a few of them, and met a woman who was going to be teaching a high-school course in psychology for the first time–she only saw the show once, but attended multiple pre- and post-show events as a way to educate herself about the science of memory. There’s no other city where a person could do that.

And we’ve got plenty of paratheatrical science shows, too. The Ig Nobel Prizes are coming up soon, featuring 10 awards to real-life scientific (or medical, entrepreneurial, engineering, and so on …) accomplishments, a science opera, the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, and more. I’m one of the judges on this year’s Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHfest), a “celebration of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory,” which will take place at MIT on October 19. Local actors Daniel Berger-Jones and Georgia Lyman, founders of Cambridge Historical Tours, offer a science-themed Innovation Tour. There is the Cambridge Science Festival, of course. Even the beloved “Dance Your Dissertation” contest is, in part, judged by Boston scientists (and dancers).

What do you think? Has my beginning of a manifesto begun to convince you that science theater is a thing? And that Boston can be ground zero for that thing?

I want to spend the coming theatrical season/academic year writing about the intersection of theater, science, technology and medicine, in both practical and philosophical ways. How many local actors and artists have “day jobs” in science or technology? How can advances in brain science and evolutionary psychology inform the craft of acting? How can Boston’s technology and research institutions learn from, and with, the city’s arts and entertainment institutions?

Actors, writers, scientists, administrators–please join me in this conversation. If you’re doing a science-themed show that I didn’t mention above, please link it in comments. If you’re an actor with a day job in science, medicine, or technology, let me know–I’d like to get some kind of online community started for those of us who live in both worlds. If you’ve got big curly thoughts of your own about science and storytelling, or a recommendation for a TV show or movie that I just have to see–yeah, that too.

It’s our manifesto. And it’s just the beginning.

Sunday synthesis (no column): Rewards and the golden rule

August 31st, 2014

Because of the holiday, there’s no column today, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to pull some ideas together from previous weeks. A number of you liked my deconstruction of the golden rule from a few weeks back, in which I pointed out

… the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

You shouldn’t always do unto others as you would have them do unto you, in other words, because they’re not you and their tastes may differ.

The week before that, I’d written about behaviorism and the importance of knowing the person (or animal) you are attempting to “train”:

The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

Operant conditioning (a behaviorist approach) is about reinforcing the behaviors that you want, and not reinforcing the ones you don’t want. In order to do it effectively, you have to find reinforcements–rewards–that really motivate. It’s all too easy to stick with rewards that are easy to administer–like kibble for dogs or money for people. It’s tidy, it’s quantifiable, it’s portable. What Milo truly wanted from life was to chase squirrels, but I couldn’t very well carry squirrels around in my pocket as a reward for good behavior, so he got liver treats, which offered an acceptable balance of convenience and desirability.

Another mistake is to over-apply the golden rule when creating rewards. Without conscious effort, we naturally tend to assume that other people will like, want, or think what we do. Even, disastrously, when we don’t actually know, ourselves, what it is we do like, want, or think.

One of the best tools I’ve found for thinking about these kinds of differences in what motivates people is C. Brooklyn Derr’s “career orientations,” which I wrote about earlier this year for the Harvard Business Review blog. Knowing your own career orientation can help you figure out what kinds of jobs and projects you should pursue. If you’re in charge of creating rewarding experiences for other people–employees, students, clients–Derr’s taxonomy can help you think about what all those people who aren’t you might find exciting and validating.

And of course, there’s a character on “Mad Men” who illustrates each of Derr’s orientations.

One of the most common career orientations is getting ahead: “People who are motivated by upward mobility focus on promotions, raises, making partner, and increasing their authority. They’re competitive and willing to put in long hours and negotiate office politics to win those rewards. This is the default career model in the U.S., which means that it’s easy for those who want to get ahead to explain themselves to bosses, colleagues, and family.” (All of the orientations are described in greater detail here.)

Lots of people start off with getting ahead as their orientation, but some people stay that way even after they’ve achieved a certain professional level, like Pete Campbell. The getting-ahead people are easy to manage because what they want is what the system is set up to deliver: good grades, money, promotions, whatever.

The elevator to success only has room for one of us, Bob.

People with the getting secure orientation have a harder time in today’s economy and corporate culture:

Those who seek regularity and predictability in their work environment are motivated to fit in with others and uphold group norms. They avoid risk and are less concerned with advancement than with career control. If this description has you rolling your eyes, you’re not alone. It’s difficult for people to admit they want this kind of security, because it sounds like the life of a corporate drone, which no one wants to be. That’s especially true today, given the rise of the free agent in all industries. But people motivated by security are loyal and willing to put in extra effort when the situation requires it — not just when it will bring them glory.

Sounds boring? But it can look like this.

Joan Harris is the poster girl for the getting-secure orientation. She values efficiency, decorum, and accuracy and expects everyone to do their part. She also values long-term financial security, which may or may not be tied to her continued employment at Sterling Cooper.

The opposite of the getting secure orientation is getting free: “Derr describes people with this orientation as ‘hard to work with, impossible to work for, slippery as eels to supervise and manage, and infinitely resourceful in getting their own way.’ People who value getting free want autonomy and self-direction.”

Right. Yes, they’re both silvertongued hotties preternaturally good at their jobs, but the similarity ends there. Joan wants the trains to run on time. Don wants to know he can always jump a boxcar and blow town. Their seventh-season conflicts shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Office stoner Stan Rizzo is not going to be the poster boy for getting high, because that’s not what Derr is talking about:

These are people who care deeply about deploying their expertise, solving problems, creating new things, and feeling engaged. They are ambitious and sometimes idiosyncratic. Unlike professionals intent on getting ahead (who might take on boring but important assignments in order to win favor with clients or managers), those motivated mainly by getting high will gravitate toward work that provides greater stimulation, even if it’s low-profile or high-risk.


It’s why we love her. It’s why she seems so modern.

Speaking of modern, Ken Cosgrove is a quiet revolutionary who consistently values getting balanced:

People with this orientation want to enjoy objective career success, personal development, and close relationships, and they’ll strive to achieve all these goals over time. They are unwilling to sacrifice a personal life to career demands, but they’re also unlikely to coast in a job for which they are overqualified to free up their time at home. They want challenge, and fulfillment, both on and off the job.

Ken decides no account is worth being shot in the face. Go-getter Pete happily takes over the account.

Ken has published short stories–and continued to write under a pen name after being told that ad work left no margin for extracurricular activities. He handed over the prestigious Chevy account to Pete when the toll on his health became unacceptable. More than the other men, he talks about his children in the workplace.

***

Derr’s taxonomy isn’t meant to be a consultant’s version of astrology. Most people are at least somewhat motivated by all five of his categories–status, security, freedom, excitement, and balance–and people’s motivations may change over time as their circumstances do. Still, in general, most of us are going to identify more strongly with one or two of the types above. And we’re going to wind up teaching, managing, or working with all the other types sooner or later. It’s useful to get a sense of how they see the world.

Sunday column: Yankee hospitality edition

August 24th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions deal with hospitality in different ways–the first Letter Writer wants to know what courtesies and amenities a host owes (self-invited!) out-of-town guests, and the second LW is concerned about attending a party that someone she’s on the outs with will also be attending.

From my advice to LW 1:

Decide what you can easily do with and for your guests, and communicate it clearly: “We can all cook out in the backyard tonight, but tomorrow I’m working until 10, so you guys are on your own.” The amenities a host may provide depend on that particular host’s resources, but the one thing all hosts without exception must provide is information: what the house rules are, how appliances work, when the host is available for socializing and when not, what nearby stores and restaurants are worth checking out.

(A very Bostonian conception of hospitality.)

Having or being a houseguest is a rather fraught thing, isn’t it? Hosts want to make their guests comfortable and happy–and also to show their home and family off to best advantage, and also to not go broke or crazy in the process. Guests want to be as little trouble as possible, but not feel as though they are walking on eggshells. And it’s all supposed to look effortless.

Money helps. Can we just admit it?

So do shared rules and traditions. Do you give a guest the couch or your own bed? How do you let your host know if you are hungry? Should host and guest consider themselves included in all of each others’ social plans? Beliefs about hospitality go deep into a culture’s DNA. Check out these pieces on Middle Eastern and Japanese hospitality–would you, personally, enjoy that level of catering? I would not. I would infinitely prefer a host show me where the kettle and teabags are than for him to prepare my tea. And I really, really want to help with the dishes after dinner. I could train myself to be a good, passive recipient of traditional hospitality, but fundamentally, the more I can tell you’re trying to make me comfortable, the less comfortable I will actually be. (This is another situation in which the golden rule won’t help you out.)

But you don’t need a huge, cowboy-and-the-geisha culture clash to cause a guest-host disconnect–even within the US, ideas about hospitality vary across regions, social classes, ethnic groups, subcultures. And the image of hospitality that most Americans do, I think, hold in common–a guest room, clean linens, dinners together–is, let’s face it, much easier to manage if you’re middle class, middle-aged, and live in the middle of the country. If you’re 25, in debt, and working a flex schedule, you’re not going to live up to that ideal–but we’re not an “I will share my last bowl of rice with you my friend” culture either, so what do you do?

Sometimes clear situational constraints can simplify a complicated situation like houseguesting. At the beginning of the summer I went to New York to help a friend pack for a move, and what a delightful visit that was! She didn’t have to worry about what her apartment looked like, because of course it looked like a bomb hit it, she was moving. I didn’t feel guilty about letting her buy my meals because of course she was going to do that, I’d just spent several hours packing law books for her.

Our apartment has recently been renovated and I look forward to practicing much more hospitality in the future! There is kind of a very short hall between our kitchen and dining room now, with a cupboard and shelves on one side. I’m planning to use that as our “hospitality corner” and keep our bartending, and tea- and coffee-making ingredients and amenities there, along with anything else guests might want–napkins, board games (plus dictionary for Scrabble!), aspirin and bandaids, books that are available for the taking. What else should I keep our hospitality corner stocked with?

Sunday column: Golden Rule edition

August 17th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The second question allows me to wax briefly philosophical, almost theological:

Two friends of mine are getting married, and my husband and I are at odds about what to give them. Neither of them gave us a wedding gift, though they joked and promised, “The check is in the mail.” I would never hold a grudge about it, but it was always in the back of my mind as strange. They both have good jobs, take elaborate vacations, purchase clothes and accessories from high-end stores. I gave them a very nice shower gift. I feel as if we should give them a wedding gift, treating others as we wish to be treated. My husband doesn’t want to give them anything.

You invoke the golden rule to argue that you liked getting wedding presents, therefore your friends would also like to get wedding presents. This is generically true, of course, but the particulars of your case differ. Thought experiment: If you had somehow — totally out of character! — neglected to buy a friend a wedding present, would you really want that friend to give you one? Or would it make you feel even guiltier and more ill at ease about how you were supposed to make your original gaffe right? The kindest thing to do might be to treat them, not as you wish to be treated, but as you, in fact, were treated.

There’s more, including a compromise option and the acknowledgment that I could be wholly off base, not knowing any of the parties involved, but I do think I’m onto something. Let’s say LW couple does pop for, oh, a Vita Mix blender (just got one this week, they’re amazing) for Couple X. Then Couple X feels worse and finally gives Couple LW a much-belated wedding present, which of course has to be at least as nice as a Vita Mix, and we all know how much those cost, so Couple X now has to get online and find a present that is in the same price range plus a couple of years’ belated-present “interest” for LW. And then there’s the race to see who will write a thank-you note first. And Christmas is around the corner, which means if either couple feels they’ve slacked in the summer exchange, they can start it all up again.

End it now, I say. Couple X clearly is awful at buying presents, so don’t make present-giving part of your friendship.

I’ll probably get several outraged letters for this.

My favorite part, though, was how the LW inadvertently got at the problem of the Golden Rule. When I converted to Judaism, I learned that the version of my youth–”Do unto others”–was considered the Christian version. The Jews say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” Framing it as a negative command, I think, is more appropriate, because the GR is a wonderful starting place for ethics, but it can’t take you all the way into etiquette and the finer points of social interaction. The more positive phrasing implies that the GR is the be-all and end-all, which … well, look. You can follow “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to the letter and still out your birthday-having colleague to the staff at Applebee’s, as long as you think it would be great fun to have servers singing and clapping at you while diners at other tables gawk openly or stick to their conversations with grim determination.

Any ethical standard allowing–implicitly encouraging!–such behavior needs codicils and further explication, is all I’m saying.

The “That which is hateful to you” version wouldn’t stop a hardcore extrovert from pulling the Applebee’s stunt, technically, but its wording indicates that this is an ethic meant for the most fundamental questions of society-building. Nobody starts planning a party by musing, “Now, what would not be hateful unto me?”

The Golden Rule is about keeping you from committing existential sin. It still allows for many a faux pas.

Sunday column: Rocket, science edition

August 10th, 2014

Today’s column is online here. The doozy-of-a-question is from a woman–no, seriously, a woman–who doesn’t understand why her adult daughter gets offended when the LW asks her if she’s being emotional because she’s having her period. Miss Conduct does her best to clear this one up.

However, the question I had the most fun with was the more mundane one about saleclerks who take business calls or answer an interrupting patron while they are helping you. I point out that responding to interruptions is an ingrained habit, practically an instinct, at least in the 21st-century United States (surely the place and time in which the LW conducts most of her shopping):

Clerks who take phone calls while waiting on customers haven’t been adequately trained, and one annoyed customer isn’t going to make a difference. They need to know that it matters to the bosses. Responding to an interruption is a strongly ingrained habit in most people, and getting someone to overcome such habits requires regular reinforcement. (Behaviorists call this “instinctive drift.” You can teach a raccoon to put a penny in a piggy bank, but without continual coaching, the raccoon will eventually revert to its natural behavior of “washing” the coin in its paws.)

Within psychology, behaviorism has always lacked a certain glamour. Cognitive science and neurobiology whirl across the dance floor, glittering and making promises, and the stately edifices of Jung and Freud warm themselves by the fire, casting shadows and refracting light in the most unexpected places. Meanwhile, at the edges of the room, behaviorism tirelessly, humbly empties ashtrays and refills wine glasses.

Behaviorism works.

In a recent column, I wrote “Advice columnists, psychologists, and the like are fond of pointing out that ‘you can’t change another person’s behavior.’ True, but sometimes you can change that person’s environment so that the objectionable behavior is less rewarding or harder to engage in.” I sometimes describe the column as “ethics, etiquette, and engineering”–this is the engineering bit. My thinking was strongly influenced by Amy Sutherland’s “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage” ran in the NYT’s “Modern Love” segment a year or two before I started writing the MC column. While researching the techniques of exotic-animal trainers, Sutherland began applying their behaviorist principles to her marriage, with excellent results:

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn’t care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers’ motto: “It’s never the animal’s fault.” When my training attempts failed, I didn’t blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can’t stop a badger from digging, and you can’t stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

Sutherland’s deliberately provocative “my husband is an exotic animal and I am training him” schtick is unfortunate, because the behaviorist model of handling marital conflict that she describes is practical and respectful of both parties. Instead of getting annoyed when her husband hovered over her in the kitchen, for example, Sutherland would put bowls of chips and salsa a good distance from her workspace. Problem solved! This is called creating “incompatible behaviors”–husband cannot simultaneously eat chips at one end of the kitchen and hover over wife in another–and I recommend this technique a lot in my column. Instead of trying to extinguish a behavior you don’t like, figure out what else you’d like the person to do, and nudge them in that direction instead.

Creating incompatible behaviors effectively–using operant conditioning in general–requires empathy. The mistake that some people make about behaviorism (including some early behaviorists) is thinking of it as mechanistic, emotionless, impersonal. This isn’t true at all. If you want to redirect someone’s behavior, for example, you need to find an alternative task that will be equally engaging. This requires understanding the other person’s skills, and what they find rewarding and enjoyable. Behaviorism has to take the nature of the individual into account.

And thus we come back to instinctual drift, or the idea that if you want someone to break a deeply ingrained, perhaps innate, behavior–like washing small objects for a raccoon, or responding to interruptions for an American millennial–you can’t just explain it to them once and assume you’ve done your bit.

And finally, on the topic of raccoons:

Rocket is everything.

Rocket kills me. Here’s the thing: He’s Milo. Our beloved dog died of cancer this past spring, and I swear Rocket is like seeing him on the big screen. Same muzzle, same eyes. And the same charisma, sense of humor, and fear aggression. Look at that face! That’s exactly the soft eyes and half-smile you’d see on Milo’s face if he got his paws on a machine gun, too. Apparently Rocket’s friend Groot was heavily inspired by the director’s dog, so you’re not crazy if you were thinking, “Funny, my dog reminded me more of the tree …” Fascinating that two of this summer’s most vivid and emotionally complex movie characters aren’t human, isn’t it?

Sunday column: Bonus edition

August 3rd, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s another three-fer: tipping at gas stations, belated sympathy notes, and unwanted extra guests. Go check it out!

And here’s a special feature just for you. I got a question last week and wrote up an answer, but before it got published, Meredith Goldstein (Love Letters) answered it, because the Letter Writer had also written her. Meredith has a blog and I’ve got a print column, so she scooped me. Now I can’t use this in my column anymore, but here’s the question and my answer, for your entertainment. You can contrast my advice with Meredith’s!

On my birthday, I got a Facebook gift of a cup of coffee from an old high school classmate. I’ve been happily married for 30+ years and this classmate has been divorced for many years. I don’t want to make something out of nothing if it’s just a nice gesture with no expectations. However, our class reunion is next month and I don’t want to encourage more contact outside of a friendly conversation at the reunion and I haven’t told my spouse or anyone else about it — at least yet. What should I do?

I have a hard time imagining why you’d write to me if Mr. Coffee hadn’t somehow triggered your Spidey Sense in the past, because—really? A cup of coffee? And you haven’t told your husband? And you’re wondering about an appropriate containment policy? It all seems a bit much. Whether the coffee is an innocent gesture or not, it doesn’t obligate you to anything more than a “thank you,” so your worries are misplaced. Your classmate has done nothing wrong, and if he—or anyone else—should try anything untoward at the reunion, shut him down.

Dropping a five-spot on a Dunkin gift certificate doesn’t strike me as a move out of the Vicomte de Valmont’s playbook, but I don’t know this guy. What are Mr. Coffee’s Facebook posts like? Does he rant about the evils of his ex-wife and, by extension, all us daughters of Eve? Does he comment inappropriately on other people’s posts? Is he rageful or insinuating? Or is he an ordinary guy posting the ordinary repertoire of wisecracks, sports musings, and the occasional photo of his dog?

For now, post “Thanks for the birthday present! See you at the reunion!” on your friend’s wall. If the gift was innocent, you’ve thanked him appropriately. If he was grooming you for attempted seduction, you’ve now dragged him out into the sunlight and let him know that you’re not in the business of keeping other people’s secrets.

Sunday column: Poached columns, skunked phrases edition

July 27th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and both questions are a little more dramatic than usual — a daughter who wants permission to cut herself out of her mother’s life, at least temporarily, and a young man whose girlfriend doesn’t want him to stay the night while her ex is in town because it would be “flaunting their relationship.”

Two things:

1. There’s only one advice columnist whose name is synonymous with dramatic letters, and that’s Slate’s Dear Prudie. But has the tabloid Globe (not my Globe, obviously!) been stealing her questions for their own advice column, written by Debbie Reynolds? According to Emily Yoffe, questions similar in theme to ones that she has answered, but with certain details changed (a person’s gender, a housepet’s species), have regularly been running in Dear Debbie’s column a few weeks after they’ve appeared in her own.

People often send letters to more than one columnist–I once answered a question that also got sent to Ask Amy. As I wrote at the time,

Lots of people send in letters to multiple advice columns at the same time. There’s a strict rule in academia about multiple submissions to scholarly journals, but there’s not much we advice columnists can do about it–it’s not as though we have some sort of central clearinghouse of questions, nor does every single advice columnist read every other advice columnist every day to ensure that there are no repeats. (Given different publication schedules and lead times, even if we did, that wouldn’t prevent the occasional duplication.) As a result, it’s not uncommon for two advice columnists to run the same question within days of each other–or on the very same day, such as this “Dear Cary” question that also appeared in “Dear Prudence” (second one down). A quick Google search on “advice column” and “same question” also revealed this gem from Gawker: it appears that the same question ran in both “Dear Prudence” and “Ask Amy,” within months of each other–but the male half of the disagreeing couple wrote to Prudie, and the woman to Amy!

(It’s possible on that one, of course, that the letter-writer was the same in both cases, and was playing a gag. There isn’t much we can do about that, either. Advice columnists don’t make up the questions, but the people who send the questions in might. My editor will confirm before a question is published that the writer is indeed M.S. from Mansfield and the author of the question, but she isn’t going to send a team of fact-checkers to M.S.’s house to verify that her mother-in-law is, in fact, as annoying as M.S. says she is.)

People send letters to multiple columnists, and people may exaggerate for effect or even send letters about problems they don’t have, out of curiosity. What I’m quite sure readers of advice columns do not do is send a letter to one columnist, wait a few weeks, change “daughter” to “son” and send it in to another columnist. Ms. Yoffe took action:

Since Reynolds did not appear to be involved in the sourcing of the letters, I hoped the Globe would be able to provide an answer. I spoke to the Globe’s editor on the phone and sent over documentation of some of the concurrences. On Wednesday I got an email back from a lawyer for American Media, Lo-Mae Lai. She stated that “similarities between readers’ letters is just one of the many challenges that all authors of advice columns must face”—even me, she made sure to point out. But Lai went on to say that having reviewed the letters I brought to their attention, they “agree that there are some editorial similarities in the subject matter contained in these letters.” And in fact, Lai wrote, the person who managed the Dear Debbie column left the company on June 20, 2014. The new overseer “has assured us that all content in the Dear Debbie letters is original.”

That’s what Miss Conduct would have advised her to do.

2. Flaunting their relationship? As I said in the column, “Whether you’re arguing about exes or gay rights, the first person to refer to the normal functioning of a romantic relationship as ‘flaunting’ loses.” It’s such a skunked phrase! It carries with it a whole miasma of shame and propriety and the kind of excessive concern for the (perceived) sensibilities of others that makes you unable to stick to principle.

Are there other phrases–keeping away from the blatantly political–that cue you that a person is somehow not arguing in good faith, or that they’re arguing from a completely different set of standards? One that always tips me off is referring to any group as “the Xes” rather than simply “Xes.” “The Jews” rather than “Jews” or “Jewish people.” “The feminists” rather than “feminists.” Calling a group “the Xes” implies that you think of them as monolithic, subsumed to some group identity. (And once one X figures out that’s how you see them, they’re all gonna know soon. So watch it.)

“Her Aching Heart” and the science of romance (novels)

July 21st, 2014

Last night I dreamed I went to Central Square Theater again …

… because “Her Aching Heart” was so darn funny the first time (Globe review here). Aimee Rose Ranger and Lynn Guerra play modern-day urbanistas cautiously falling in love with each other while reading a gothic romance about a tempestuous English lady and the innocent peasant girl who sparks her affections. Only the occasional phone call or song hint at the present moment–most of the show is dedicated to the two actresses playing all the parts in the lesbian bodice-ripper. (Aimee’s bluff, rapey Lord Rothermere and Lynn’s palsied Granny, full of incomprehensible forest wisdom and whole-body tics, were my favorites.) Yes, I know it sounds stupidly complicated, but it’s not, really. If you liked the movie parodies Carol Burnett used to do, you’ll like this.


(Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger in “Her Aching Heart,” A.R. Sinclair photography)

The romance parody in “Her Aching Heart” inspired me to dig up my dissertation, which was on the psychology of literary genre. I was curious to know if people had expectations about stories that went beyond surface characteristics (e.g., if it’s in the future, it’s science fiction, if there’s a murder, it’s a mystery). I asked participants to rate 10 different genres, including romance, classics, science fiction, and fantasy, across 16 different dimensions.

Here’s a graph showing how “romance” (in red, natch) differs in people’s imagination from ordinary fiction (in black):

People perceive romance as dumber, basically–I said that in a fancier way in the actual dissertation, of course, but I think my advisers knew what I meant. Romance is seen as more predictable, simpler, upbeat, emotional, and fantasy-based than regular fiction: It’s written for money and read for fun. No wonder it’s so delightfully easy to parody! We don’t even feel bad about making fun of romance novelists, because we assume as long as they’re making bank they don’t care about critical opinion.

I did my dissertation in 2002, and I wonder how “romance” would be defined in today’s imagination. That’s the tricky bit about trying to scientifically study a cultural phenomenon like literary genre–it keeps changing on you. In 2002, I would occasionally encounter people who didn’t know what “genre” meant, because it was still a lit-crit term, and wasn’t how iTunes and Amazon and Netflix preferred to organize your content and sell you more. Romance-wise, 2002 was before “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Would these dark offerings lead college students today to rate romance as a more pessimistic, complicated (if not intellectual) genre?

Sunday column: Bad apples edition

July 20th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and it’s about the options you have when a book club gets taken over by a nonstop talker. As synchronicity would have it, my unread copy of The Jane Austen Book Club popped up Friday (it’s delightful to reacquaint myself with all the books that were in storage during our renovation!) and I’m a couple of chapters into it and enjoying it greatly.

The author, Karen Joy Fowler, also wrote We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. At the time, I was avoiding spoilers–but oh, what the hell, it’s about a girl who was raised with a chimp. Now you know. There were experiments around the 1970s in which scientists tried to raise chimpanzee babies as humans to see how much humanlike intelligence and language could be evoked in them, and Ms. Fowler’s novel is about a human woman who, as a girl, had a chimp “twin.” It’s absolutely wonderful.

And it all comes full circle with “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which like today’s column is about the fact that when you’ve got a bad ‘un in your group, you’re going to have to do something unpleasant about it. It’s part of being a social species–deciding who’s in and who’s out. It’s what we have in common with apes and wolves. It’s what we like to write novels about.

Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”

July 17th, 2014

Earlier this week I did a video broadcast with PeaceBang and NYT religion reporter Michael Paulson about religion themes in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” which Mr. Improbable and I saw this weekend. Boy, the reading glasses were a mistake! But I had never done a Google hangout before, and wanted to keep an eye on the proceedings. We do give away most of the plot–elements that aren’t implicitly contained in the title, that is–so watch with caution.

More discussion after the jump

Click to continue reading "Hangout of the “Planet of the Apes”"

Sunday column: Unfortunate acronyms

July 13th, 2014

Today’s column is a three-fer, which is something I occasionally enjoy doing. I don’t know if readers notice this or not, but I do try to change up the column a bit from week to week, in content and tone–I’ll try not to run two “heavy” columns in a row, or two in which I come down against the LW. I also like to balance out the columns where I give people quick-and-dirty “here’s what you do, hon” advice with longer exegeses. Next week’s column is one question, about how to handle That One Person who takes over a book group.

Here’s Q&A #3 from this week:

My second cousin is getting married to one of my sister-in-law’s best friends. I received the save-the-date but have not received an actual wedding invitation. I don’t know what’s worse?—?doing nothing and them thinking that I’m blowing them off or asking them about it and making them feel awkward.

Ask. You are in an unclear situation, and you are seeking clarification?—?this isn’t like hinting around to be given a “plus one.” Don’t worry about causing your friends grief. Your invitation was surely lost in the mail. However, if it turns out that they sent you a save-the-date and then decided not to invite you after all, then they deserve any discomfort the conversation might bring.

I mean, if someone’s given you an STD, they really have to invite you to the wedding.

The unfortunate acronymization of “Save The Date” isn’t the only time that particular TLA* has tripped me up. I used to work in human resources at Harvard, and was appalled one day to hear one of the benefits directors callously state that she considered pregnancy an STD. How offensive!

She meant Short-Term Disability.

Have you ever been tripped up by someone’s use of an acronym that means something very different in your world?

*Three-Letter Acronym

Sunday: Kitchen, no magazine

July 6th, 2014

No Globe Magazine today because of the holiday, hence no column. It’s been an exciting week here as our apartment renovation was finally completed! We still need to paint and do the floors on the rooms that we’ve been living in, which will take another couple of weeks, but in the meantime we have space to move around in again, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and an outdoor deck. Last night we entertained our first guests, so exciting!

The Bostonian personality

July 1st, 2014

Commented to a friend from Kansas this morning that she really ought to consider moving out here, as her personality would fit much better in New England, which led me to muse on one of my favorite muse-snacks, the Boston personality. Here’s what I see, almost 20 years after I made the move from the Midwest myself:

Bostonians value honestly over tact and would rather discuss their opinions than their emotions. We expect people to have some kind of clear identity, whether it’s ethnic, professional, religious, or whatever. We have an innate understanding of multiple intelligences. This moderates the intellectual snobbery people expect from the city, although it also means, in practice, that most of us are easily intimidated by each other: I’ve seen physicists scared of actresses, lawyers intimidated by chefs. We have no ability to move through space in a coordinated and efficient fashion, whether on foot or by car or bike, in striking contrast to New Yorkers, who navigate their city like schools of fish. Despite our terrible street signage, Bostonians place a high value on information and think that giving people the full and accurate intel to make a decision is an important etiquette practice. (The homeless people have more informative signs in Boston than in any large city I’ve been to.) We are somewhat antisocial, although to us it feel more like respecting other people’s privacy, and avoiding the awkwardness that we secretly believe is inherent in every social interaction. (It’s no coincidence that half the cast of “The Office” came from Newton.) Bostonians will ghost at a party because we don’t want to put the host through an awkward goodbye when he’s deep in a conversation about string theory or the Sox with another guest.

What do you think? Am I right? What would you add?

Sunday’s column: Fill in the blank

June 29th, 2014

Today’s column is online here, and the first question–well, see for yourself:

My sibling requested that my spouse no longer attend family get-togethers. My sibling stated that my spouse creates tension and causes others to be on edge and uncomfortable. The fact is my sibling is correct. My spouse does not like to visit or host family but says we should be together on such occasions. Should I share this request with my spouse?

Readers, can you spot what’s missing? Yes! The reason that Spouse and Family don’t get along has been utterly omitted by the LW! This puts Miss Conduct, perhaps intentionally, behind a veil of ignorance, required to craft an answer that would work whether the Spouse is the innocent victim of bigots, a miserable and misanthropic lout, or a complicated person who simply can’t mesh gears with another group of complicated people and it’s no one’s fault, exactly.

I posted the question on my personal Facebook (Miss Conduct is here: befriend me!) to brainstorm on possible causes of the Spouse-Family disconnect, and one of my friends replied with an extraordinary insight:

I am the tense one when my husband’s family gathers. It’s not because I am a shitty person … it’s because I am FUCKING TERRIFIED because my family dynamic is so very different from theirs and I have an ingrained distrust of family. I like them very much and I feel like I should be able to get over this – but it isn’t exactly easy even when you don’t have a mixed race or same sex relationship. There are tons of issues faced by abuse survivors and dealing with functional families can be one of them.

I was so grateful she shared that.

Anyway, no matter how I turned it over in my mind, the reason for the disconnect does matter, and I wound up offering the LW a range of choices.

The Peculiar Incident of the Missing Problem reminded me of a similar column from a year ago, in which a Letter Writer asked, briefly and tantalizingly, “How soon does one tell a prospective love interest that you are a conspiracy theorist? I did a little too soon, with dire consequences“–without mentioning exactly which conspiracy theory she held to.* I finally decided that the real question wasn’t about the substance of her beliefs, but about the tricky dance of revealing any controversial opinion to a potentially significant other:

The fact that you’re open to dating outside the fold?–not to mention the whole “willing to write to the mainstream media for advice” thing–suggests that your conspiracy beliefs exist in a kind of psychological silo. They might matter in your relationship to the world at large, but not necessarily in your relationship to other individuals.

Learn to tune in to that vibe in others, especially those with whom you’d like to conspire in that special candlelit way. Some people see politics (or religion or economics or science) as impersonal and vain, irrelevant between friends, lovers, family. Other people find these abstract ideas to be fundamental to their self and values and could never choose a life partner with whom they disagreed on the basic nature of reality. Some folks couldn’t imagine dating a creationist?—?or not dating one. Others couldn’t imagine … well, how to end this example without making a terribly tasteless joke about the big bang.

The column was behind a paywall when this was originally published, so if you didn’t catch it before, you can read it now here.

*There are theories so noxious I would be hesitant to facilitate the romantic lives of their adherents, but said adherents probably wouldn’t be seeking advice from the likes of me.

Friday roundup

June 27th, 2014

There are so very, very many advice columnists and etiquette writers out there. I should know who they all are, but I don’t. I’d never heard of Amy Alkon, for example, a California etiquette & advice lady who takes a vigilante approach to manners policing. From the New York Times:

A peep does not exactly describe what Ms. Alkon did a few years ago after deciding Range Rovers, Chevy Tahoes and Cadillac Escalades had become a nuisance in her gentrifying neighborhood. She printed cards and tucked them under windshield wipers. They read in part: “Road-hogging, gas-guzzling, air-fouling vulgarian! Clearly you have an extremely small penis, or you wouldn’t drive such a monstrosity. For the adequately endowed, there are hybrids or electrics.”

The cards listed a phone number (since disconnected) on which she continued the rant with a recorded message. “Piggy, piggy, piggy,” it started

Read the entire article, she sounds like a dreadful person. But she’s got a syndicated column and I don’t, and she wrote two books and I’ve written one. Coincidence? At any rate, the article would be a good jumping-off point for a discussion about being nice versus being good. Ms. Alkon believes she is doing good, even if it means not being nice about it. We all know situations exist where you have to be the complainer, the buzzkill, the un-goer-along, in order to do the right thing. Agreement on what, exactly, those situations might be, is a different matter.

Another NYT article that’s been haunting me is this one about the parents of troubled sons:

Shootings in places like Isla Vista, Calif., and Newtown, Conn., have turned a spotlight on the mental health system, and particularly how it handles young, troubled males with an aggressive streak. About one in 100 teenagers fits this category, according to E. Jane Costello, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Duke University School of Medicine, and they often have multiple diagnoses and are resistant to treatment.

Most of these young men will never commit a violent crime, much less an atrocity. But the questions of how best to help them and how to pay for it are among the most intractable problems hanging over the system.

Thousands of families know this experience too well: No single diagnosis fits, no drug brings real relief, and if the teenager rejects the very idea of psychotherapy, there is little chance of lasting improvement.

Shorter version: Nothing works, and the families can’t afford it anyway. They simply live with a ticking time bomb. There are over 800 comments on the article. Some are from families that have troubled members like this. Some are from people whose lack of empathy is almost as terrifying as the disturbed young men portrayed in the article.

Slate looks at another aspect of developmental psychology: The fact that so many of the studies are done on the babies and children of privileged, mostly white Westerners:

While other children play “House” or “Doctor,” these Berkeley kids have been known to play a game called “Research.” One child holds a clipboard and asks other children to “play a game” while the child observes them and pretends to jot down notes. Some of these children have told me about their international travels, and several of the 3-year-olds have told me they can read.

Meanwhile, Emily Bazelton argues that these kids, and many others like them, are getting the clear message from their parents that achieving is more important than caring for other people:

While most parents and teachers have told other researchers in the past that they rank children’s capacity for caring above achievement, kids don’t believe them.I don Four out of five of the teens Making Caring Common surveyed said their parents cared more about achievement or happiness than caring. They saw teachers this way, too.

I don’t think parents are deliberately setting out to turn their kids into miniature Gordon Gekkos, but this rings true to me. Middle-class parents are nervous about their kids’ futures, reasonably so. There’s a lot of pressure to do well academically, to develop the toughness and work ethic that our competitive labor market demands. Also, it’s straight-up easier to praise and call attention to achievements. Trophies and prizes and scores are objective and easily interpreted and occur regularly. Empathy is harder to quantify and more difficult to interpret (was your kid being nice or a pushover, really?) and doesn’t occur on a neat schedule of standardized tests or away-v.-home games.