Another Week Ends

1. Every public thinker’s new past-time during quarantine has been hypothesizing the demise of certain […]

Bryan J. / 5.15.20

1. Every public thinker’s new past-time during quarantine has been hypothesizing the demise of certain cultural institutions. My newsfeed is full of these articles: “The Coming Commercial Real-Estate Apocalypse,” “The End of University Education As We Know It,” “No More Handshaking,” and the like. Of all the ones I’ve come across, the one that strikes me as most reasonable is Hannah Giorgis’s article for the Atlantic from last week, “Foodie Culture as We Know It Is Over.”

In recent weeks, you may have seen YouTube clips of the Bon Appétit chefs fancifying boxed mac and cheese. Or a viral recipe for an easy shallot-pasta dish. Or Ina Garten getting real on Instagram about what her freezer looks like. Food media during the pandemic have, sometimes surreally, seemed to abandon elitism in favor of a less ostentatious approach to cooking. These cultural products don’t just emphasize accessible ingredients and techniques. They also present an inclusive vision of foodie culture that’s refreshing all on its own, especially at a moment when audiences are craving programming that cares about their daily realities…

Unsurprisingly, pandemic-specific food programming has emerged in recent weeks. Much like [Nadiya] Hussain’s series [Time to Eat, on Netflix], these shows, particularly those led by women of color, revel in the culinary possibilities that can emerge in circumstances that require frugality. Along with the musician and producer Hrishikesh Hirway, the chef and cookbook author Samin Nosrat hosts Home Cooking, a podcast that helps listeners of all skill levels confront their quarantine-cooking anxiety. (Fittingly, the first episode tackled the culinary MVP of the pandemic: beans.) Unlike Nadiya’s Time to Eat, the podcast doesn’t go out of its way to address listeners’ guilt about the quality of the meals they prepare. Having been born of the pandemic era, Home Cooking seems to accept that the pressure to perform a perfect version of domesticity is more unrealistic than ever. Much of the country is grappling with unemployment, unsafe working conditions, disease, and grief about losing our old ways of life. Home Cooking instead assists listeners in making sense of the disparate ingredients already lying around their kitchen—an approach that, in the not-so-distant past, might have seemed less focused or uninspired.

The pivot may not be simply that foodies are struggling to cope because they can’t get the latest and greatest eats to Instagram. It may be that the world of foodies is becoming a little less consumerist and a little more invested. Foodies, in other words, might become better home cooks now that the quest for the most inventive pastry in Brooklyn has been extinguished. A little less performance, and a little more fun and compassion, is good for any culture.

2. We featured Jonathan Malesic back in April, and we’re gonna feature him again this week. His last article was about imagining a better world after the Coronavirus. This week, we’re highlighting his Hedgehog Review essay “Je Regrette Tout: Does moral growth demand regret?”

“No regrets” sounds great on TV and shares well on social media because we equate decisiveness with importance and control. But to live proudly without regret is to ratify your own idiocy, to take unjustified self-satisfaction in your existence. Your past actions made you who you are, sure, but maybe who you are isn’t so great. Without regret, you have no way to reckon with that. Knowing that dating that person blew up several friendships and netted you an STD (its own eternal recurrence), do you relish the thought of repeating the affair over and over, forever?

Malesic is at his most insightful when he turns his attention to a class of rational thinkers who also espouse a YOLO attitude that’s been couched in the language of economic and psychological academia.

Today’s Stoics are economists and psychologists who espouse rational decision-making. We should take an unsentimental view toward sunk costs, they counsel, and make our decisions based on the future we wish to live, not the past we’ve already lived. One prominent cognitive therapist writes, “You can bemoan the loss in your stock portfolio, or stare at the [ugly] tie in your closet, or review all the terrible things in the relationship that is over. Or you can focus on making your life better now. The great thing about making your life better now is that you actually have control over what happens now. You can actually do something. Unless you have a time machine, you can’t go back and change the past.” We might think of ourselves at every moment as a new manager who arrives at the company and has to survey things as they currently are and forge an optimal way forward. Handwringing over our predecessors’ choices won’t help us maximize the next quarter’s profits.

But ethics is about more than rationality. It’s also about relationships with strangers, including the strangers we each are to ourselves. Regret allows us to enter into an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past. The self-as-eternally-new-manager model is right about one thing: Even the person you were a moment ago can seem alien to who you are now, given a sufficiently consequential decision separating the one from the other. What kind of nitwit drives straight into a muddy field, thinking it’s a parking lot? I would never do that. But that guy? What was wrong with him?

In the spirit of of the improv comedian: “Yes, and.” When we are able to enter an ethical relationship with who we have been in the past, it gives us an opportunity to extend grace to our past selves. Regret becomes the megaphone through which forgiveness of sins might be preached and actually heard. Regret is a way for the Gospel to transcend time and land in the heart of your past self. Let us, then, not lose hope that our past can’t be saved for good use in the future.

3. Speaking of regret, a lot of folks sent us the papyrus article from the Atlantic this week, which reads like an Evangelical Baptist version of the National Treasure film franchise. It’s the most complete reporting I’ve read of craft megastore Hobby Lobby’s founders getting duped and sued over fake Bible transcripts provided by heretofore respected antiquities and papyrus experts. Read that last sentence again if you’d like; it might be one of the funniest I have ever composed. If you’re into New Testament scholarship, detective movies, or Indiana Jones, bring the popcorn.

4. Next up, Newsweek highlighted Judith Warner in promotion of her new book And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School. My own personal theory is that middle school is hell, and if it wasn’t hell for you it’s because you were making someone else’s middle school hell. So, you know, I have opinions. But Warner’s take was more sympathetic, and gives hope for those navigating the challenging task of parenting early teens:

I always keep in mind now an example I heard in my interviews of a mother who sat up with her daughter’s middle school friends when they had sleepovers. She played the role of a nonjudgmental sounding board, trying to lead them, to “help us figure out what was going on with our friends,” her now-adult daughter and a middle school teacher, recalled. “She would explain how self-esteem and the need to be liked were really the things driving most of these weird/bad choices our friends were making… She urged us to have compassion for the girls we were so ready to write off as ‘skanks.'”

Compassion is the salve of the middle school parent’s soul. Teaching it, modeling it and getting your middle schoolers to expand their thinking and feeling beyond the bounds of their own minds are by far the best gifts you can give them. If we can pull all this off, even imperfectly, it will send a message to our kids that they are competent and capable and that their friendship losses or dramas are problems to be solved rather than existential catastrophes. And that is extremely empowering—for them and for us.

Listening and compassion for those who don’t deserve it. Sounds like a winner to me, for parents and middle schoolers alike.

5. In humor this week: Bride Only One Not Relieved About Postponed Wedding Date is the Onion‘s gift, but gosh, I do feel bad for the Hogwarts Professors Really Struggling With Zoom Classes.

“I’m crushing my classes now. When McGonagall has us practice transfigurations, I just let my cat run offscreen, say a few Latin words, play a ‘poof’ sound effect on my iPhone, and then grab a broom I had under my desk,” explained student Geoffrey… “I really blew her mind when I transformed myself into a talking potato using a Snapchat filter.”

And let us not pass over a star-studded tribute to Weird Al this week, a reminder that we’re all in the fight against the Quarantine 10 together.

6. In social science, two articles worth your attention this week, though their conclusions may not surprise you. First, Rebecca Jennings over at Vox explains the obvious: scolding won’t solve the social distancing problem.

Scolding has always been one of people’s favorite ways to communicate, particularly online — last year people were scolded for not owning the proper number of towels; every now and then, people are scolded for either washing or not washing their legs, or for talking about Harry Potter too much. But now that the tiny personal decisions we make with our bodies are quite literally matters of life and death, scolds can no longer be written off as simply annoying. Scolding, it can be argued, is now a public good.

That’s not an argument I’m qualified to make, however. So I asked Pamela Hieronymi, a professor of philosophy at UCLA who studies ethics and moral responsibility (and who served as a consultant on The Good Place), whether the Central Park scolds were providing some form of value by yelling at everyone they deemed to be acting dangerously. “It’s very unlikely,” Hieronymi says.

Beyond the fact that public shaming doesn’t often work as intended, Hieronymi cites an unusual source: Judith Martin, the etiquette expert better known as Miss Manners. “One of her basic maxims is to presume the best of the other person,” she says. “Presume they don’t have the right information, presume that they didn’t mean any harm, and then interact on that basis — even if you don’t necessarily have great evidence to the effect that they don’t have the right information. Following that advice, it would be, ‘Hey, did you know that masks can protect people and not wearing them will put me and others at risk?’ and personalizing it that way.”

Our second social science study of the week: weekly worship significantly decreases deaths of despair, says the Harvard Gazette. And the numbers are pretty stark too. The authors note that, during the COVID outbreak, it may be a real balm of sorts to plug in front-line workers with houses of worship to keep their spirits up. One hopes that weekly attendance at online church would garner the same psychological benefits.

7. As DZ shared on the podcast this week, the stress of the day is manifesting in many as a regression to childhood loves. Perhaps, suggests Chuck Wendig over at Polygon, a regression to childhood is what this occasion calls for, especially when the rules of life are changing faster than the rules of a Calvin Ball game. Our collective love of Calvin and Hobbes is well known here at Mbird, so let’s give Bill Watterson the last word for this week. Perhaps we can navigate this odd season with a faith like a child?

It’s tempting to say, well, that’s just childhood, but look around. We’re all people trapped in their houses and apartments. All of us, with minimal way out. Social distancing ourselves into near-total isolation except from our nearest and dearest and the delivery guy we can see through the glass. (Thanks for the grocery order, Dave! What’s that? No toilet paper again this week? No problem, I screwed up making a couple face masks out of old shirts, I can probably use those.)

Calvin was trapped with his parents, with teachers, with the limitations of childhood. A day he wanted to spend with Hobbes was spent seated in a classroom. Then there’s bathtime. Or swimming lessons. Or buckled up in the car as his mother runs errands. In lockdown, we’re all in the house on a rainy day. Caught in endless Zoom meetings for work or, if we have kids, in school. (We’re all in the classroom now.) We all are in our own heads, and we all just wanna go out and play…

There’s only one rule in Calvinball, and that rule is that you never play it the same way twice. Otherwise, you make it up as you go. You change the rules as you see fit, and arguably, if you care to find a game in the gamelessness of it, it’s a game of one-upmanship where invented rules defeat rules that defeat other rules. It is a chimera. A slippery eel. It is the search for order swiftly dissolving into the delight of anarchy and entropy…

Time has gone melty. Once, a day seemed to have order to it — even as a writer and a work-from-home kinda dude, I still maintained a schedule. Do I now? Not really. I try! I add something to the schedule and another thing eats it. I invent a rule and another rule rushes into defeat it. Meals are both planned meticulously while also being the product of vast, vast amounts of improvisation because who knows what the hell I’ll be able to find at the grocery store. Existence resists imprinting. It’s like I’m wrestling with an angel, and not one of the fluffy angels from Hallmark cards but one of the nightmare entities from the Bible — an ever-shifting UFO wheel with a thousand eyes and a bouquet of goat hooves coming out of its ass. A truly Transmogrified creature, and a truly Transmogrified existence.

I think here in isolation, where we’re alone and lonely, there’s more to find in the Calvin and Hobbes that Watterson gave us. We can find a small child, an anarchist boy, and his outsized imagination. We can find the friends he makes in his own mind, the adventures that exist in his head. We can find someone who already understands the rigors of being trapped by circumstances he did not approve of — no, not a rampant pandemic, but the doom of homework, the torment of bathtime, the particular trials of being trapped in the house with your family. And we see too the solutions to that: limitless, even lawless, imagination.

One day, this will all be over, and hopefully, we’ll be like Calvin and Hobbes, emerging into fresh snowfall on what was their last appearance on the funnies page. They saw a world gone blank, like an empty canvas. Maybe that’s the world we’ll find, too. All that was familiar is gone. And maybe like them, we can still step out of our own heads and step into a changed place with new magic, eager to explore what comes next.


Jason Alexander eulogizes Jerry Stiller.

The real Lord of the Flies didn’t turn out so bad.

The Gospel According to Lord of the Rings, according to Richard Beck, whose Johnny Cash book we profiled not long ago. He’s on week 18 y’all!

• Mbird friend Jason Micheli brings a mighty fine book list together in Christian Century, stringing together reviews on Gerhard Forde, Will Willamon, and Karl Barth, and you can take this Barth quote to the bank: “Indeed the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!”

• The Notorious TIB was in the NY Times this week, cataloging the ways that ancient, liturgical Christian traditions are helping believers navigate their modern faith. I wouldn’t necessarily tag Mbird as a part of the “Weird Christian” tradition she outlines. But we’re definitely down for singing the Exsultet on Easter Eve by candlelight while the sirens of ambulances shuttling COVID patients to the hospital blare across the city. How wonderful and beyond our knowing, O God, is your mercy and loving-kindness to us, that to redeem a slave, you gave a Son.

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One response to “Another Week Ends: Social Scolding, Middle School Compassion, Pivoting Foodies, Coronavirus Calvin Ball, and an Ethical Relationship With Your Past Self”

  1. David Zahl says:

    That Calvinball article!!!! Thank you Bryan – this weekender sparkles.

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