I asked another tourist to take this picture for me at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History when we visited D.C. earlier this fall. The Human Origins wing has truly beautiful sculptures of early hominims, including this one of a homo heidelbergensis posed on the floor, so that you can be photographed with him. That right there, simple as it is, is fantastic science theater.

Happy Thanksgiving. Be grateful to your ancestors.

And especially, Tyrion

Do you have a Kindle? What do you think of it? (We’re getting to Tyrion, really.)

I only use mine for travel, because I tend to forget, instantly, anything I read on it. Straight into the memory hole it goes. Am I alone in this? Reading on a Kindle doesn’t involve the physical acts of handling a book, feeling the quality of the paper on your fingers, noting the typeface. You don’t put a well-loved Kindle book on a shelf in your home, where it sparks a brief recollection every time you see it. For me, anyway, physical engagement with a paper-and-ink book drives the language and ideas that much deeper into my mind.

It took me a while to figure this out. Now I only download public-domain classics and guilty-pleasure kinds of things, for the most part. I did read the “Game of Thrones” books on my Kindle, because one, I obviously wasn’t going to schlep 20 pounds of Machiavellian saga with me everywhere we went, and two, the HBO series keeps me from forgetting the story exists.

And while reading it, I remembered the existence of another book, one of my recent favorites, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which lives on my Kindle and hence not in my memory.

Far From the Tree is about children who, as “apples,” do indeed fall “far from the tree,” by being fundamentally different from their parents in some crucial way. What is the nature of the difference, and how does it affect family relationships? Solomon writes about transgendered folks, the criminal children of law-abiding parents, prodigies, schizophrenics … and dwarfs.

So of course I had to reread that chapter. “All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” says Tyrion. The first and most obvious tragedy of Tyrion’s life is his horrifying mistreatment at the hands of his family, followed by the sad fact that he is an exceptionally romantic and lustful man, with a face and body that does not inspire reciprocal feelings in the ladies.

This dude would do okay with the ladies. Peter Dinklage is handsome. Tyrion Lannister, per the books, is quite hideous: patchwork hair, mismatched eyes, and his battle wound didn’t sexily highlight his cheekbones, it halved his nose. The show also pulls way back on the extent of Sandor Clegane’s burn scars, but never mind. And don’t even get me started on those lame-ass “direwolves” cough*German shepherds*cough*.

Solomon doesn’t note this explicitly, but one of the fascinating aspects of the dwarf chapter is the extent to which dwarf bodies are associated with entertainment. From court jesters to P.T. Barnum to dwarf-tossing, dwarfs have been associated with show business, with laughter and clowning. I don’t think any other disability or physical difference has that association. Dwarfism is a highly visible difference without an accompanying disability*, which keeps dwarfs constantly on display without any moderating sympathy. Dwarfs live in the spotlight.

Many people like to be in the spotlight, of course, and people who spend a lot of time in it often get very, very good at being there, and it’s fun to do stuff you’re good at. This puts dwarfs who want an entertainment career on their own terms in a difficult position. Tyrion’s noble birth precludes him from becoming a court jester, a career he would have excelled at (trenchant and witty, he’s the Jon Stewart of Westeros). In the books, at least, he had become a good tumbler and floor gymnast, but his father believed such capers were beneath the dignity of a Lannister. (How can we even talk about dwarfs without prejudice when our very language is structured around concepts of big versus small, above versus below?) The loathsome Joffrey brings in dwarf clowns who “joust” while riding pigs and dogs to entertain his wedding guests, which sparks a brutal series of power plays between him and Tyrion.

An NPR story on Peter Dinklage reports: “‘He knows he has no skills with the sword,’ Dinklage says, ‘and this is a world that is really deeply violent. Military rules. He would not be able to survive in that world, given his own strength. So he beats people to the punchline — he’s entertaining.'”

Yet look how convoluted Tyrion’s relationship to his own “entertainingness” is. Tyrion is naturally witty. He becomes even more witty by being constantly in the spotlight. He uses his wit as a way to be accepted, to defuse conflict, to prove his value. At the same time he can’t allow that wit to make him seem even more amusingly inconsequential in the eyes of big people, he can’t allow himself to become merely “that funny little man” and nothing else. In the books, at least, Tyrion’s wit occasionally (more than occasionally) gets him in trouble, and the reader feels that this is to some extent the point. Tyrion’s tongue is his only weapon, and a truly good weapon poses some danger even to its owner.

This is part of the tyranny of prejudice–the way it causes people to second-guess their own nature. The self-consciousness that never goes away.

*Achondroplastic dwarfism, though not a disability per se, does come with a range of skeletal and organ vulnerabilities. That’s is part of the reason I’m on board with this theory–Tyrion must be part magical, or he’d be crippled if not dead from the various physical traumas he’s suffered.

Sunday column: Holidays coming and commas, matter, edition

The subhead to today’s Letters section reads, “Readers respond to a story of a 91-year-old’s return to dating and Miss Conduct.” That … really gives people the wrong impression of my social life these days, I fear.

Today’s actual column is here, and features some gift-giving advice:

… as we move into the gift-giving season, those of us who have gift-able skills–tailors, pastry chefs, massage therapists, copy editors–should always be upfront with friends and family. Our labor and its fruits can be part of the everyday warp and weft of friendship–or it can be done for cash or barter–or given as an official gift, as you intended. But it’s on us to communicate our expectations in advance.

Do you need holiday advice? Write to me today at!

If you need holiday advice tonight, tune in to WBZ NewsRadio at 10:15 p.m. –I’ll be doing a call-in segment with host Dean Johnson.

And if you don’t mind filtering through a whole bunch of buzzy graphics to get your advice, check out this holiday etiquette “quiz” I did for BU Today.

Are you feeling in the spirit yet, people? I know I am. Going on vacation during the first two months of November is odd. We left the day after Halloween, spent most of our time in warm, sunny Arizona, and then came back to a chilly town all decorated for Christmas. It feels like we skipped forward by a couple of months.

Why this ferret matters

30 seconds of a ferret trying to work up its courage to take a giant leap, h/t Gawker.

It’s a little Friday Ferret Funtime for all my readers, but if I can geek out for a minute, the fact that you’re laughing is what I’m all about. This is why I spend my life reading and writing and talking about psychology and theater. Ferrets and humans are different species with very different bodies and brains. And yet, you know exactly what this little guy is experiencing, don’t you? You know. There is something universal about motivation and the body language we–ferret, dog, human, whatever–use to express our complicated relationship with it. You’re not laughing at this ferret because what it’s doing is incomprehensible and weird. You’re laughing at the familiarity. It’s your kid at bat. It’s you before a job interview. It’s me at my first Open Mic Night.

We are all this ferret.

UPDATE: A friend of mine noted “this reminds me of pursuing a career in the arts.”

“Game of Thrones” and looks-ism

I did take the “Game of Thrones” books on my vacation, and enjoyed them greatly. Our vacation was a peripatetic one–Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott, Phoenix, Lake Havasu, Las Vegas–so it was nice to stay in one fictional world the entire time. While dragons and White Walkers had their appeal, what I primarily enjoyed was the books’ intense psychological realism.

“Game of Thrones”* is about playing the cards you get dealt in life. Except for its RenFest trappings, it’s not the slightest bit mythological or fantastic. It’s much more like “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” at heart: people trying to assert their individuality and gain power in a world that may or may not welcome such efforts. (“I’m Daenerys Targaryen, and I want to smoke some marijuana.”)

One of the cards we get dealt in life is our physical appearance. Looks-ism and body discrimination is a major thing with me, as many of you know, and the way characters like the dwarf Tyrion or the sexually ambiguous Brienne of Tarth get treated will make your blood boil like R’hllor never dreamed. But there is so much more going on than simple discrimination against the different or ugly. Martin is wise enough, for example, to know that beauty intersects with power: Beauty can increase the power of a woman who is already privileged, like Cersei, but beauty is a terrible liability to women who have no power, like Sansa. Sansa, and Dany, are constantly being creeped on by men whom they have little choice but to tolerate. The ordinary-looking Arya, by contrast, can disguise herself as anything from a boy to a crippled beggar maid.

Our looks can advantage or disadvantage us in many ways:

Do you look like what you are?
Do you look like the other members of your family?
Do you look like many other people, or are you visually distinct?

The answers to these questions have life-changing power in the world of GoT, and in our world as well.

This is what I mean about looking like who you are:

Two pictures of me, surrounded by many, many awesome role models for me. I wrote about this on Already Pretty:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about appearance privilege. As a moderately attractive, medium-sized, slender brown-haired white ladyperson, I have never been profiled maliciously. I have very rarely even been profiled inaccurately. My physical type is our culture’s default setting for the Smart Nice Girl. From Fern Arable to Laura Ingalls to Mary Richards to Veronica Sawyer to Coco Chanel to Liz Lemon, I have never lacked for positive images of women who looked like me. My appearance has made it easier, not harder, to be taken seriously as an intellectual, as a professional, as a member of my chosen religious community. Women who look like me are the girl next door, the sensible wife, the breaker of glass ceilings, the comedienne, the thinking man’s sex symbol. There is little-to-nothing about my appearance that anyone would take as physically or psychologically threatening.

I could be far more beautiful than I am, but I don’t think it would make life any easier. My husband is quite a nice-looking man, but no Chris Pratt, and for a science comedian? That’s fine. You don’t want Chris Pratt telling youwhat happened when they did an MRI on a dead salmon. You want him deeply misunderstanding the nature of the Grand Canyon.

(I, on the other hand, pretty much am April Ludgate, and she’s right. You just can’t be annoyed at the Grand Canyon, no matter how much you try. And notice that she is also a slender, pretty-not-gorgeous white-skinned brown-haired ladyperson like myself.)

Open Door Theater (Guest Post)

Reader Alison Waters-Short wrote to me after my post on the autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” to tell me about an accessibility-focused theater group that she’s involved with. I asked if she’d be willing to write a guest post on the topic, and she agreed. Here it is. Check out Open Door Theater, everyone, and thank you, Alison!

Bringing Theater to Everyone – Locally

Autism-Friendly Performance. Sensory-Friendly Film. Making entertainment accessible to audiences is the new thing, but how does that translate locally? And what about participating in the entertainment, not just watching it?

Major kudos go out to the recent autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in Boston that Robin wrote about recently. And to others such as Wheelock Family Theatre as well. Today, though, I want to tell you about another theater group you may have never heard of, right in Boston’s backyard.

Open Door Theater of Acton was founded in 1980 by two women who met at the bus stop, waiting for their kids. Between them, they wanted create a community theater organization with “open doors” for anyone, especially those who might not normally get the chance to participate in theater.

The early shows were a bit rag-tag, with cardboard sets painted by a local social group for people with disabilities and volunteers from a local nursing home. The sets could (and did) travel – but then again, they had to, as there was no storage for the group in the performance space! Now Open Door mounts one big musical per year, staged at the Acton-Boxborough junior high. Cast members often number over 100, bringing together families and people of all abilities on stage with boisterous, talented performances.

Throughout its evolution, Open Door has found ways to involve people on stage and off stage with all ranges of physical and cognitive challenges (e.g. actors and stage hands with autism-spectrum, spinal bifida, neurotypical, blindness, brittle bone disease, Down’s syndrome). Our most veteran player is a remarkably differently-abled woman who started on stage, has become an indispensible “Girl Friday” backstage, and now also serves on our board of directors.

These were the people that our founders wanted to “open doors” for. We were – and are! – proud to focus on people’s abilities, not disabilities. We welcome them into our theater family and give them support as a community to put their best foot forward. And like every family, ours has special traditions. Like doing the hokey-pokey together before every performance. When I joined Open Door in 2004, I didn’t know what to make of that. But now – watching the cast play together, across all boundaries that might otherwise separate them outside of the theater, is what I look forward to every year.

We’ve been dedicated to this inclusive mission since our founding. Then, in 2006, our music director asked for an ASL-interpreted performance so that his Deaf brother and sister-in-law could enjoy it. His question triggered the realization that while we had spent a lot of time reaching out to include people in our cast and crew, we hadn’t done anything for our audiences. We found ASL interpreters to partner with, and have had an ASL-interpreted performance every year since.

In 2013 our director suggested that adding an autism-friendly performance, as they had done on Broadway, would be a great fit with our mission. So we found a group to help us learn how to put one on, succeeded beyond our expectations, and then last year we did the same for an audio-described performance for the visually impaired. This year we are continuing to expand our ASL/audio inclusion by partnering with Children’s Hospital Audiology Outreach on an exciting new project to make participating in our show more accessible to students with hearing impairments, which in turn will likely bring more interest in our ASL-interpreted performance.

With some extra effort and thought, one step at a time, we have now evolved the Open Door mission to extend accessibility to our audiences as well as our participants.

It’s amazingly easy and hard at the same time to bring people together like this. Sometimes it seems to just happen organically, seeing the range of people who might otherwise not wave hello on a street come together to create a performance. Of course, it’s also a lot of hard work and planning. Providing buddies. Organizing scenes to consider everyone’s abilities. We do it because we believe that theater is for everyone, and the theater family can include us all.

And, speaking as someone who was in the cast of our very first autism-friendly performance, I tell you it was absolutely magical. Was it different? You bet. In a fabulous way. We could tell what we were doing was appreciated and enjoyed, and at the same time, it provided the cast and crew with a personal, meaningful connection to autism awareness that many of us had not previously had.

All that makes us sound like the only thing Open Door does is focus on special needs, and to be honest, as much as that is true, at the same time, it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Open Door is about creating fantastic family-oriented theater productions that happen to be accessible to many cast members, crew members, and audiences. We create beautiful theater that seamlessly blends all this together.

When I look at all the families acting and playing together, when I see all these people backstage enjoying each other and making new friends…that’s why we do this. It’s not really magic. Like the best of entertainment, we work hard to make it look that way, and then we get to participate in the result as well. But it’s completely possible for other groups to do this, too – and I hope there are other local groups who do, or will. After all, everyone has something to contribute, and everyone needs a place to feel special and a part of a family. That’s what Open Door is really all about.

Well, unless the hokey pokey is really what it’s all about. And if so, we’re still set.

Open Door Theater’s next show is “Shrek The Musical.” Auditions are December 1-4, 2014 and performances are March 20-29, 2015. Please consider checking us out.

Improbable readings Wednesday at MIT!

Got plans Wednesday night? Join Mr. Improbable, biomedical researcher Chris Cotsapas, and science journalists Cara Giaimoand Michael Greshko for some dramatic readings of improbable science reports at the MIT Bookstore at 292 Main Street in Cambridge. The event starts at 5:30. We’ve done several of these readings and they’re quite fun. All the studies we’ll be reading from have won Ig Nobel Prizes or been written about in Mr. Improbable’s new book, This Is Improbable, Too.

Sunday column: Day late but with extras!–edition

We got back from our excellent vacation through the Southwest yesterday. It was a slightly epic day of travel and travel hangover–it feels like we’ve been gone two months, not two weeks–but here, albeit delayed, is yesterday’s column. It’s a three-fer! How to deal with endless requests to contribute to friends’ charity drives, Kickstarter campaigns, and the like; putting on lipstick at the table; and how to thank someone without coming off like you’re tipping them. The classics.

Also, I did a special column on workplace etiquette and career planning, here.

The business one was fun because I my other job is at Harvard Business School, researching and writing about career planning, self-presentation, and the like. My boss and I got the cover story in Harvard Business Review in March with a piece on work-life balance. When Mr. Improbable and I were coming home yesterday, we saw a banner ad outside the airport newsstand featuring a picture of that very HBR!

It was the cosmos sending me a message, I know it. “Vacation is over! Back to work!”

Sunday column: Vacation & sarcasm edition

Today’s column is here, and it’s one I’m quite proud of–it’s about prejudice against heavy people.

People who mock fat people are terrified of losing control of their temporarily acceptable lives. They fear dependency and loss of control, of being an object of pity instead of envy. To these human barracuda, being fat is the most visible symbol that you have “failed” at something—health, femininity, upward mobility. And they attack.

There was also an angry letter about my “snarky, sarcastic” responses to one of my earlier columns. But you know, I was wholly sincere in both those answers. People do dress like crap anymore to an astonishing degree, and that second letter writer really does need some counseling. I don’t know how anyone could disagree with either assessment.

We’re on vacation and will remain so through next Sunday, so posting will be slim-to-none. We’re driving through the Southwest. Here is the motel we stayed at on Wednesday night–the misnamed “Wigwam Village” in Holbrook, some 20 miles from the Petrified Forest National Park. Many vintage cars also live at the Wigwam.

Sunday column: Vacation edition

Today’s column is online here. What do you do when you’re invited to be a guest at a home that has recently hosted several generations of bedbugs? And how annoying is the “Mr. and Mrs. John Smith” thing?

Mr. Improbable and I are on vacation!–for the next two weeks, so posting may be scant. I’ll try to get some pictures up of the places we go.

A Halloween story from Miss Conduct

I talk a lot about how art and pop culture give us narratives to shape our experience. A fair amount of recent research suggests that fiction can help empathy develop. But there are limits to how much stories can teach us to empathize, as my Halloween tale shows.

When I was in junior high I was an outcast and unpopular. In art class, some of the popular kids asked me to share a work table with them as a joke. I knew it was a joke, but accepted anyway, because no one else wanted to share with me, and because I had already learned the trick of accepting bullies’ “kindnesses” at face value, because you could often trap them into the role of the good guy and they wouldn’t be bright enough to escape it.

Near Halloween, “Carrie” was shown on television.

The next day the popular kids at my art table were talking about how scary it was, and how awfully Carrie had been treated. And how it was funny, because she wasn’t even ugly, they pointed out, Sissy Spacek was actually kind of cute, so it was weird that people would make fun and bully her.

I didn’t say a word.

And I haven’t told this story until now.

Happy Halloween. The monsters are due on Maple Street any minute.

Thinky links

The Globe reviewsA Disappearing Number,” Central Square Theater’s new play about mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan: “This is a tone poem, a nonlinear collage of images, sounds, ideas, motivic conceits, and mere shards of narrative. Under the drum-tight direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, it’s absolutely gorgeous, a compelling procession of rich stage pictures that make marvelous use of three-dimensional space.” I agree with the review overall. I’d rate the WQ (Wikipedia Quotient, or how likely you are to look up the nonfiction stuff when you get home from the show) higher than average, though lower than Huntington’s “Ether Dome,” which has local interest on its side.

Central Square Theater is the only local company I know that regularly does non-linear plays about science–“Ether Dome,” for example, is essentially a staged documentary, and Bridge Rep’s “The Forgetting Curve” used the story of neurological patient and research subject H.M. as the background for a drama about one of the (fictionalized) scientists who studied him. CST does science plays like that–e.g., “Distracted,” a very of-the-moment comedy of manners about coping with a child’s ADHD–but they also offer more experimental fare, where the staging itself refracts, in some way, the episodic awareness of H.M.’s amnesia or the fantastic looping beauty of Ramanujan’s equations.

Photo by A.R. Sinclair Photography

Blog readers can get 15% off adult tickets, or $20 student tickets, to “A Disappearing Number” with the promotion code ROBIN.

The NY Times reports on social-science research taking place at the Tinder offices. Judging people by their looks, it seems, isn’t quite so superficial after all:

“Research shows when people are evaluating photos of others, they are trying to access compatibility on not just a physical level, but a social level,” said Jessica Carbino, Tinder’s in-house dating and relationship expert. “They are trying to understand, ‘Do I have things in common with this person?’ ”

“There is this idea that attraction stems from a very superficial outlook on people, which is false,” Mr. Rad said. “Everyone is able to pick up thousands of signals in these photos. A photo of a guy at a bar with friends around him sends a very different message than a photo of a guy with a dog on the beach.”

Choice of background, facial expression, dress and grooming choices can convey useful information, but the article also reports on what social scientists have begun to call “face-ism”:

In one survey, women were asked to swipe through a series of photos of handsome male models. In almost every instance, the women swiped to the left, dismissing the men with chiseled faces. When asked why, the women said that the men looked too full of themselves or unkind. “Men with softer jaw lines indicate that they have more compassion,” Ms. Carbino said.

This is face-ism: the unconscious and almost universal attribution of personality traits based on facial features. In reality, men with soft jaws are not necessarily more compassionate than others. The Atlantic has a good recent piece on face-ism here. Think about the implications for casting decisions!

Speaking of the Atlantic, they also have a good piece on the affinity of millenials for science and its pop-culture manifestations:

Because of the generation’s global reach, Millennials have a greater need for things that transcend old boundaries and ideologies. Science has become a universal language, a form of information that is available almost instantly and can be shared among people who have nothing else in common. The rise of social media has also blurred the line between high-brow and low-brow, professional pursuits and personal interests. When Millennials get excited about science, they post it on Facebook—and when they see a gorgeous photo of deep space on Twitter, it can open a new avenue of scientific exploration.

Maybe millenials love science because its presentation has gotten completely awesome lately. From Wired, on the increasing importance of discovery in education and entertainment:

Discovery, as intriguing process, has become a powerful theme in contemporary culture and entertainment. In art and design galleries, and many museums, artists and designers, like Olafur Eliasson, Mark Dion, Martin Wattenberg, Neri Oxman and Mathieu Lehanneur, invite the public to explore contemporary complexities, as in artist Mark Dion’s recent collaborative work with the Alaskan SeaLife Center and Anchorage Museum on plastic fragments in the Pacific Ocean. Often they make visitors discovery participants, as in Martin Wattenberg’sApartment, where people enter words that turn into architectural forms, or sorts of memory palaces. In a more popular way, television discovery and reality programs, from Yukon Men to America’s Got Talent, present protagonists who face challenges, encounter failure, and succeed, iteratively and often partially, while online the offer is even more pervasive, with games of discovery and adventure immersing young people in the process of competing against natural and internal constraints.

And this thoughtful blog post asks how museums can “break the unwritten rules of 20th century science communication and informal science education, and collectively they’re reshaping the landscape in which adults encounter science.”

I can’t even excerpt this because the whole long, personal story is too moving. Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu writes about his depression, how games and Felicity Day helped to save him, and how Gamergate is breaking his heart. Can someone please give this man a book deal, like, yesterday?

And some Halloween fun …

Netflix online recently added “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” which I watched last night. It’s a found-footage possession story with some solid acting, but what makes it stand out is that the victim of the possession is an elderly woman succumbing rapidly to dementia. Holy crap does that make it upsetting and scary, people! The difference between what a healthy nine-year-old will say and do and what a demon-possessed one will say and do is quite stark. This is where the horror of “The Exorcist” comes from. The horror of “Deborah Logan” comes from the fact that the difference between what a demented 75-year-old will say and do and what a demon-possessed one will is … not very clear at all.

If you prefer laughs to chills, check out the Onion’s “Your Ignorance of Classic Horror Leaves You Woefully Unqualified to Run This Haunted House.” It’s alarmingly me-like.

Evidence for that assertion: I tried briefly to get this going on Twitter, but it only took off on my personal Facebook page: #changealetterspoilthescare:

The Donkey’s Paw: Terrifying tale of a mutant donkey … with paws.

Brine of Frankenstein–What? He’s a nice pickle vendor down on Delancey Street. And it’s pronounced FRAHNK-un-shteen.

Pellraiser: The harrowing saga of a guidance counselor who opens a portal to the demonic realm to get grant money for your child’s college education.

My friend Molly had even better ones:

Children of the Morn: It’s 6AM, go back to sleep until Mommy has her coffee!

Bram Stoner’s Dracula: Duuude…have you ever looked at your fangs? I mean, like…REALLY looked at your fangs?

… come on parents, tell me this doesn’t chill your bones:

The Whining: Novel about a family trapped for the winter in an abandoned hotel with nothing to doooooo, Mooooooom!

Happy Halloween!

Science theater begins at home

… for me, anyway. If you aren’t married to one of the world’s foremost science comedians, it might be different for you. Here is Mr. Improbable’s TEDMed talk, and it’s a gem:

And then, this happened. Florence Henderson of “The Brady Bunch” was a contestant on NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me,” and to answer questions about the Ig Nobel Prizes. From the show’s transcript:

SAGAL: And we always know Mrs. Brady always had a happy ending, so here we go. A special prize was given in Arctic Science and that was given to an international team of scientists who explored what question? A, if ice cubes taken from the polar ice cap can improve a cocktail; B, if putting up big fans on the poles to blow on the Arctic ice can help reverse global warming; or C, how reindeer behave when they are approached by humans dressed as polar bears.

HENDERSON: Oh, jeez. What was A again?

SAGAL: A was if ice cubes taken from the ancient polar ice cap will actually make your cocktail taste better.

HENDERSON: I think I have to go with that.

People often say, “It was a dream come true” when what they really mean is that something they hoped very much would happen happened. But having Florence Henderson answer questions about your husband’s business on a game show? Now that really is like a dream–a post-pizza-and-Netflix-binge dream–come true.

Sunday column: Everyone chimes in edition

Today’s column is online here, and I’ve got yet another “Is he/Am I being greedy/cheap?” recessionista questions. (For those keeping track at home, we’ve recently had the lady who tried to cheap out her babysitter, the Cape Cod homeowners who ask guests to bring their own toilet paper, and the lesbian couple that wants to be considered as one person when making donations. And more to come!)

I’m no Dear Prudence when it comes to getting weird questions, so when I do get an off-the-wall-one, I’ll sometimes put it on Facebook to amuse my readers and do a little research on reader responses at the same time. A while ago, I posted this:

Here’s a question I’m working on right now. Can you even–?!

“Recently, my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of a new acquaintance. After dinner, a relative of the host (also a guest) approached me and told me how much had been spent on the purchase of the steaks that were the main course. He, then, rather pointedly suggested that I make a monetary contribution. As I had never encountered such a request, I complied. Is such a request appropriate? How should I have responded?”

… and here, for your amusement, is the conversation that followed:

Karen Wow. Never heard of that. Is there a cultural difference that is not conveyed by the letter? If not, a simple ‘we are planning to reciprocate in the future’ should be sufficient.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams That was my question, too. I can easily imagine some Old Country parent pulling a stunt like that.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams But damn, if you can’t afford to feed your guests steak, feed ‘em spaghetti! Just don’t CHARGE them for it!

Karen OTOH, maybe the host’s ne’er do well relative was looking for cab fare and thought this was a good way to get it. Was the relative really acting on behalf of the hosts or for his own benefit?

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Karen, I like that hypothesis! Very old-school farce.

I think the real question–and it’s not one I have the answer to, unfortunately–isn’t what the LW should have done, but if he should tell his host about what happened. If one of my relatives were shaking down my houseguests I’d want to know. But they’re just “acquaintances,” not friends, so …

Ben Pay the man, and then never come back.

Gary Of all the dozens of questions this immediately raises, the one I’m pondering is whether the host had any idea whatever that the relative was asking for contributions, or whether the relative is some kind of weird family loose cannon.

I suppose one possible response — especially if there were several other guests present — would be the entirely artless approach, calling out, “Say there, Winston, did you know that your brother-in-law Nick is actually going around asking for money to repay for the dinner?” That might solve the “do we want to be better acquainted with these people?” question right then and there.

Kellie Could the LW ask the host indirectly? Something like: Your relative let me know how crazy-expensive those steaks were. I was happy to chip in, but next time, let’s keep it simple, ok?

Kelly I would have responded to the relative in question “Thanks for letting me know, I will certainly give some money to [host]” and wait to see their response. If they backtrack or try to get me to give the money to them instead, then I’d know they were acting alone. If the relative seems OK with the plan, I would follow through and say nicely to the host “[relative] suggested that we should contribute something to the cost of dinner. Here’s some money.” How the host reacts would determine my likelihood of returning.

Marty I would offer to make a donation, and then inquire as to whether a donation might secure the hostess for the rest of the evening.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams “Money? Oh, I already left some on the dresser!”

Ed This is why I always bring my needlepoints to dinners like this. Makes a great gift in lieu of cash

Antonia ‘And perhaps you’d like a 30% tip?’ But seriously, it is difficult to field with the hosts. The problem if you bring up with Acquaintance Host is that if Relative was acting alone Acquaintance Host will probably be mortified and it can have an impact on a buddy friendship. If you’re interested in seeing these people again, perhaps let is slide this time and see what happens next time. If it happens again, then you don’t want to know them. If it doesn’t, and it seems to be Relative acting on his own, you’ll know the Acquaintance Host better and had have more of a feel of how to address it with them.

Michele They next time they invite them over, the response should be “sorry, I can’t afford it.”

David That’s so completely unexpected that I would probably have chipped in if it had happened to me. Mortifying or not, I think any host would want to know that this happened on the side of their dinner party – the question is HOW to tell them, and that depends on how well you got on, how soon will you see them, how casually you feel you can talk to them, etc.

Karen “Betty Sue– your {brother} mentioned to me your tradition of paying for our own meal when we are a guest in your home. Do you prefer paypal or is a check ok?”

Gary I just noticed that the question you actually asked was, “Can you even–?!” And my answer to that would be, “No, I can’t even.”

Margaret Mortified silence is probably not the right answer, although it is my first instinct.

Dakota What Ben said (pay and don’t come back) and then if another invitation comes along, mention that last time you were a little caught off guard by so-and-so’s request – should you expect to bring cash this time? Phrased ever so graciously, of course.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams Margaret, if people knew how often “mortified silence” was my IRL answer, I’d lose my job!

Gary I’m imagining a thing where the Globe lets you invite all your LWs to a big reception, and you get to wander about, chatting with them each, trying to figure out which one wrote which letter.

Robin “Miss Conduct” Abrahams … and hitting each other up for cash …


We’ll never know, but I still think Karen’s hypothesis is the best one–that the relative was scamming for his own purposes, and the host never knew nor saw a dollar of the poor LW’s contribution.

“Ether Dome” and boundaries

“L’esprit d’escalier” is French for “wit of the staircase,” or the perfect comeback that only occurs to you when you are already at home, climbing the stairs to bed. There should be a similar term for plays and movies that send audiences straight to Wikipedia thereafter, to verify their facts.

The Huntington’s “Ether Dome” has such an effect, and as far as I could tell, it hews closely to the facts of the discovery of ether as anesthetic, and good Lord what lurid and fascinating facts they are, really tabloid stuff.

It’s not good material for the stage, though. The climax of the play is in the second act, when surgery is performed with ether for the first time in 1846, at Mass General’s surgical dome (later renamed the Ether Dome).

The Ether Dome painting by Warren and Lucia Prosperi

It’s a gorgeous moment in a painting, but on stage it falls short. You can’t fake surgery, and to whatever extent you can, the audience is admiring the stagecraft rather than being in the moment. Also, the shocking, stunning, world-changing thing about this demonstration is what did not happen: It’s The Curious Case of the Patient Who Did Not Scream During Surgery. It’s hard to convey to a modern audience how miraculous that silence must have felt at the time. We may know it felt like a miracle, but it doesn’t feel like one to us, and it should.

It might have felt more miraculous if the Huntington had doubled down, in production, about the gory reality of surgery before anesthetic–graphic slides, recorded screams. Presenting that reality as far as it could tastefully go doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to make that patient’s silence the miracle it was. But you can hardly subject your audience to PTSD-inducing sounds and images to make your point.

The story of anesthetic is a lumpy one that somehow manages to hit on virtually every hot-button issue we are still talking about today: the ethics of research on human subjects, the second-class status of dental medicine, the role of profit in health care, the marginalization of women’s health concerns. Three hours–which go by at an impressive clip–isn’t enough to do justice to it all. I titled this post “‘Ether Dome’ and boundaries” because a persistent theme of the play was the defining and crossing of boundaries. Liquids become gasses. Dentists become doctors. Pregnant women become patients. Doctors become businessmen. Screams become silence.

The boundaries of theater–three hours of attention maximum, with the audience in the same room as the players–are more amenable to some stories than to others. I would truly love to see a high-gloss cable television version of “Ether Dome” that could take the its time to explore the characters–the brilliant conman, the sensitive and unbalanced altruist, the various Brahmins–and issues that “Ether Dome” presents, and that could portray the horrors of 19th-century medicine more vividly than can be done on stage.