1. In high school, a friend of mine found a single rose waiting for her on each of her desks for six classes in a row; she was later offered yet another six roses and asked to the prom via guitar-serenade. The routine was sweet but seemed a little familiar, as if from a movie. Later, a second boy promposed with a slightly less timeworn tack: a bouquet of…alstroemerias. She went back to Guy #1 and said, I’ve changed my mind.

Aside from the impressive drama here, what stands out to me is Guy #1’s flawlessly executed megaflop. Judith Hertog outlines a similar confusion in her recent piece “Against Romance: An Un-Valentine” for the NY Times. She writes that, on their first Valentine’s together, her husband “came home with a bouquet of overpriced supermarket roses that would be on sale the next day. I wasn’t as much bothered by the price…as I was offended by his unoriginality. I threatened him with divorce if he ever again brought me overpriced roses or chocolates in mid-February.”

When it comes to sorting through the many laws of romance, good luck. On the one hand, there’s what Hertog decries “the tyranny of perfect romance” with its heart-shaped chocolates and chalky sweathearts; on the other is the expectation of “originality,” which to me seems just as paralyzing. In any case, what Hertog illuminates here are the vague traces of, well, a religion: a structure of rules which promises some vague fulfillment if you follow it precisely.

There are times — especially after I have watched certain romantic movies — when I panic and think my life is all wrong because our last candlelight dinner consisted of cold leftovers during an electrical blackout, and nowadays, when Gil and I are awake in bed, it’s most likely that we are reading. When I look at ourselves through a romantic lens, I see a pathetically passionless couple, held together by habit and inertia, and I start fantasizing about eloping with a more ardent lover.

On the effect of the rom-com in particular, I’m reminded of what Esme Weijun Wang wrote in 2015: how acutely movies and TV influence the “trust [we] have in how reality operates offscreen in the world around [us].” Admittedly Wang has schizoaffective disorder — but I for one will admit to experiencing a similar distortion. Perhaps it’s only natural, when absorbing media, to compare one’s life to whatever is playing out onscreen; perhaps it’s only natural that we take what is meant to be enjoyed and make a measuring stick out of it.

Of course, after more than 25 years in a relationship, the fire of passion has dimmed to a glow of familiarity, and now that we have children our interactions are often limited to the coordination of schedules and squabbles about the fair distribution of responsibilities. We can fight in shorthand because we’re so well acquainted with each other’s grievances that we don’t need to go through the whole argument anymore.

But when, during my moments of marital doubt, I look at other men as potential lovers, I realize there aren’t many with whom, after 25 years, I’d still get along as well as with Gil. Maybe it’s just because we’ve grown intertwined, like two trees that need each other for support.

2. On a related note, I <3’ed this list from McSweeney’s: “Romantic Tips to Help Spice Things Up for Couples with Four Children and Two Full-Time Jobs.” Favorite tips include:

Send them sexy pics and texts during the day: “Here is a picture of the dishwasher loaded The Right Way per your written instructions.”

Go back to where you had your first date: “I mean, I guess it makes sense to tear it down after the murder, but it was a really good Denny’s.”

3. A couple more [un]romantic links… This next one may be coming at us from the depths of marital tumult, but with a title like The Absolute Worst Things Marriage Therapists Have Heard in Therapy, I have to say, I was expecting the listed items to be…weirder? If the honest-to-God worst thing a spouse can say in marriage counseling is “you’re crazy,” I might have to heighten my anthropology…! Anyway, here’s a juicy one, from couples therapist Tammy Nelson:

“One couple came in for what they said was a ‘disclosure’ issue. I assumed one partner had been having an affair. They sat down and the husband said right away, ‘I have to confess that I’ve been having a conversation with a married woman on Ashley Madison, and I think I want to meet her in person. We need to talk about this.’

I looked at the wife and asked her if she was angry or upset that her husband had gone on the site looking for an affair. She said, ‘Well, I don’t know if it counts as an affair, considering the person he is talking to on Ashley Madison is me.’

I looked at them both, totally confused. The husband was confused, too.

She looked at him and shook her head. ‘I am your girlfriend on Ashley Madison. You and I are meeting for coffee next week. Apparently, you aren’t in love with your wife and you want an affair with a younger woman.’

He said, ‘Wait, you’re the woman who is no longer attracted to her husband and thinks he’s boring in bed?’

I looked at them both and suggested we have another session before they went on their date with their Ashley Madison-profile-personalities.”

What. A. Twist! I wonder how it turned out.

4. And now for a different kind of love affair: one man’s unrequited affection for the music of a certain Canadian country-pop princess. From Talkhouse, musician Robbie Fulks writes passionately about “The Spectacle and Sensation of Shania Twain”:

I am a grandfather, and I love Shania Twain’s music. I love it despite its massive popularity, its lack of overt seriousness, its verbal infelicities, its critical disreputableness, and its moment having passed—not that I think that any of those metrics matter in the least in judging the success of an artwork. Positive contemporaneous reviews of Shania offered adjectives like “catchy,” “hooky,” and “polished.” Fair enough—but not enough. What about radically innovative, risk-taking, and industry-redefining? What about so immaculately and distinctively recorded as to boggle the ear?

…words matter, but music matters more. Music, or sound (I use them almost interchangeably), encompasses timefeel, tempo, percussive intensity, inter-player communication, audio clarity, equalization, balance, and a hundred other ineffable inputs that are sweet to the ear. By its sound does a recording fly or fall. That’s not to say that lyrics can’t contribute a lot—they can. But if your words have excellent meanings and don’t sound very good, you’d do just as well to sing in Esperanto…

Here’s an interesting thing I noticed. Shania’s voice enters a song on average at the four-second mark. It’s not only notably early—three seconds ahead of Garth’s average, according to my small-sample study—it’s before the lyric. Before any story is offered, we are greeted with an off-the-cuff remark, or a cutesy little body-noise: “Let’s go, girls!” (“Man! I Feel Like A Woman”), “Mmm…yeah” (“You’re Still The One”), “Ow!” (“That Don’t Impress Me Much”), “Cool!” (“Don’t Be Stupid”), “Mm-rrlll” (“Ka-Ching!”), or “Oh, na-na-na-na-na-na-na” (“She’s Not Just A Pretty Face”). This is a valuation of feeling over meaning. It’s sexy. It indicates that someone was thinking: Hey, amid the current of sounds that creates the listener’s first impression, why not insert our star?

If all of this has you, like me, spiraling through a vortex of mid-90s nostalgia, or if you have any interest in the process of music mixing, you’ll certainly enjoy Fulks’ full essay in which he investigates the complicated production history of Shania’s classic albums. He goes on to ruminate about the creative rivalry between man and machine. The conclusion, I won’t repost here. But it seems right-on.

5. As Big Tech comes under increasing scrutiny for its complicity in 21st-century chaos — fake news, radicalization, social division — the heart of the issue is coming into fuller relief and is nothing less than the age-old question of human nature: what we are, and what we are [in]capable of. From The New Atlantis, Jon Askonas digs into “How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny.

So far, Big Tech companies have presented issues of incitement, algorithmic radicalization, and “fake news” as merely bumps on the road of progress, glitches and bugs to be patched over. In fact, the problem goes deeper, to fundamental questions of human nature. Tools based on the premise that access to information will only enlighten us and social connectivity will only make us more humane have instead fanned conspiracy theories, information bubbles, and social fracture. A tech movement spurred by visions of libertarian empowerment and progressive uplift has instead fanned a global resurgence of populism and authoritarianism.

Despite the storm of criticism, Silicon Valley has still failed to recognize in these abuses a sharp rebuke of its sunny view of human nature. It remains naïvely blind to how its own aspirations for social engineering are on a spectrum with the tools’ “unintended” uses by authoritarian regimes and nefarious actors. […] What we wish for ourselves is often not what we do; the problem, it seemed to Walker Percy, is that modern man above all wants to know who he is and should be.

Askonas goes on to suggest what essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn so eloquently describes in her interview for the recent issue of The Mockingbird; she says:

It seems as though the more we learn about the universe, the more we’re forced to contend with the fact that the physical world eludes our human understanding. There’s a persistent narrative that technology is eventually going to bring about more enlightenment, but that too has bred more confusion. Neural networks and deep-learning algorithms are essentially black boxes—nobody knows how they work, or how they make decisions.

For me, there was no small irony in this realization because the thing that I’d found so frustrating about the Christian God was that he refused to provide answers or explain himself… Well, now it’s become evident that our limited human brains can also not comprehend the universe, or even the technologies that we ourselves create.

Askonas continues that many of the tech industry’s shortcomings come down to a flawed motivating mythology: “Much of the politics of Silicon Valley is explained by this Promethean exchange: gifts of enlightenment and ease in exchange for some measure of awe, gratitude, and deference to the technocratic elite that manufactures them.” Related to this assertion is the excellent song below, with its excellent video to boot:

6. Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman (who dignified our 2017 NYC conference — see here) recently shared some insightful ideas for disciples of Marie Kondo and Jordan Peterson. In short, these personalities espouse at least one similar injunction, which is, clean your room! As much as I’ve come to love Kondo and her Netflix special, Burkeman’s remarks are helpful reminders:

The appeal is the promise of a sense of control in a world that feels to many as though it’s slipping beyond their grasp. Kondo “puts forward a tempting bargain”, two classicists wrote in the New York Times, noting parallels between her and the Greek philosopher Xenophon: “If you organise your possessions, the rest of your life will magically fall into place.”

7. Last and far from least, be sure to check out this audio (below) from Harrison Scott Key’s visit to John Brown University. Key was a guest writer for our Humor Issue and is the author of The World’s Largest Man. His newest book is Congratulations, Who Are You Again?

Strays:

  • Mockingbird contributor Duo Dickinson wrote a wonderful piece for the Living Church recently, titled, “God and the Architect”: “Beauty is as unjustified and various as grace.”
  • In the wide world of podcasts, this week we highly commend Charlotte Donlon’s “Hope for the Lonely” and Josh Larsen’s “Think Christian.”