Between Naughty and Nice

Which is worse – to be artificially nice or to be genuinely mean? Actually, I prefer to be genuinely nice. Besides, being artificially mean just makes people end up looking like a tiny puppy growling against a ferocious lion: surprising and fiesty at first, and then just stupid.

I have mixed feelings about being nice (Is nice a feeling? Can you have feelings about feelings? Can I be suspicious of my suspicion?).

On the one hand, I find it tremendously important to be kind, communicate with my family and friends with sincere care, model kindness to my son, and put myself in someone’s shoes in order to show care and compassion because that’s what I’d like to be shown. I carry proudly the nickname “Minnesota Nice,” and abide by the Golden Rule whenever it occurs to me that I should do this. Two of the most difficult moments in my adolescence were when I was falsely accused of doing something mean. It cut to the core to have people think I was capable of meanness, lying, and intentional attack. As a grown-up, I have found that being nice to students is more likely to yield good dialogue and enhanced learning than being mean. I come from a long line of people who think hospitality is a great virtue, and the greatest gift you can give someone (and yourself) is to know that people have felt they have been treated with kindness. Kindness is respect. Be nice. Work hard. And sometimes, work hard at being nice.

I have been taught and I believe in an ethos of community building that is grounded in respect. I have found myself physically ill at the behaviors and spoken and written words that have come out of some people’s mouths for the sake of calling attention to problems – not the calling attention itself, but the way the attention is called or the frequency with which it is called. It makes me sad when people hurt, and words can hurt. They have hurt me. They have devastated people I know and love. They are easy to spout, they are often based on incomplete information, and they are hard to take back. My entire set of research and personal ethics standards are based on compassion and doing as little harm as possible, precisely because I’ve seen and felt the damage that unkindness can yield. In no uncertain terms, then, I think it’s important to be nice to people.


This version of my ethics falters when viewed in other parts of my story. Nobody can be nice all the time, except maybe the guy who works at our local UPS store (seriously, I have no idea how I can leave that store happy every time, when all we’ve discussed is how many days I want a package to take to arrive safely at my in-laws’ house). Ever since I can remember, my dad repeated to me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.” This was a man whose most stunning display of angered curse words was a monotone “Oh bunk” after breaking his toe, a tone that probably stemmed from early medical trauma, uneducated immigrant parents, and an unfaltering sense of gratitude just to be able to walk, talk, and hear out of one ear. Starting around age 13, when most of what my dad said to me began being increasingly classified in the “ugh, Dad is so weird” rhetorical category, I responded to his recitation with “I think you’re wrong. I think you can say something that is not nice if it helps the person. In fact, I believe I am doing that now. But telling you you’re wrong is not necessarily being unkind.” I carry with me pride in my ability to be direct when I need to be, and it started during that conversation. It can save time. Just think about all of those Minnesotans who say “no” three times when asked if they want that last piece of tator tot hotdish in order to be nice. If people just said, “sure, I’ll take it” when they wanted it, everyone would just know what’s what. It may not be as (unnaturally?) nice, and it could lead to three months of rural-Midwest quiet hotdish resentment, but it does less damage in the long run because it’s honest and direct. Plus, if I was always nice and never said anything critical and kept quiet to ensure everything was all hunky-dory, I’m certain some of the sexist crap that I’ve experienced in my life would have persisted.

I never asked my dad whether he agreed with me in the end about my claim that being critical can be helpful, and therefore (oddly) a nice thing to do, probably because I didn’t want him to say, “Oh bunk, Michelle, I disagree.” But I think he would have found it to be a pretty reasonable claim. As long as I said thank you after I proposed it, and didn’t support any unsupportable meanness in myself or any other human beings.

Besides occasional misrepresentations of Midwestern holiday recipes in social media outlets, there are troubling news headlines in our midst. Headlines that show fear, inequality, anger, misrepresentation, and breathlessness. Many instances that call for criticism. Not many nice people. Not easy to take a side without some not-niceness to someone you know or love. Lots of silence because it just feels like the nicest thing to do.

Because of all sorts of reasons that classify me in the “decent life chances” category of life (secure job, white, old-ish, sometimes smart, tall, safe, well-networked, able to express whatever I want without fear of losing my job), I am in a privileged position to be able to choose whether to be nice, whether to evaluate others’ niceness, and whether to classify not-niceness as necessary if the circumstances align with my own political beliefs. Sometimes I’m not nice, and I spend some time managing that wake (and my nice-socialization has trained me to have a very low threshold of what constitutes a need to manage a wake). I know my friends would probably classify me as the nice version of direct. No death matches or “Dance Moms” for me or I’d run into a corner and cry. But I have honed a bit of passive aggression, as well as the more direct high pitched holler that I learned from various matriarchs in my family, a holler that usually comes out because I’m stressed or strained and the only thing that there’s room for in my psyche is a loud raspy voice that says “all of you people need to just shut up and pick up your stupid socks that are all over the floor!” And here’s the interesting part: sometimes the people I want to shut up the most are the ones who are saying we need to be not-nice precisely because people do not have equal access to the privilege of choosing niceness. Nice paradox. Head spinning. Nobody wants to have their own privilege revealed.

The point is, even if I don’t want to hear it, if I wanted to be not-nice, I could be, and it wouldn’t really be attached to my life chances (except maybe the fun likelihood for women to be labeled as hysterical or bossy when they’re just giving directions for how to get to the interstate in the most direct manner, dammit). For the most part, I can afford to vacation in the land of naughty, because it never disrupts my nice privilege. I have what Bourdieu would have called “nice capital.” How Santa would classify it I’m not sure, but I know I’d likely end up with a present that may be a little smudged with coal, rather than a lump of coal itself. And it wouldn’t have anything to do with an empirical calculation of my inherent niceness.

After all of this wrestling, will I still teach my son to be nice? Absolutely. You can take the girl out of Minnesota, but, despite my revision of my dad’s mantra, you can’t take the Minnesota completely out of the girl. Will being nice help my son in his life? Perhaps, depending on how much he thinks others’ views of him matters. Will being nice make him happy? Maybe, depending on what he figures out brings him happiness. Is a better question to ask whether I ought to teach him the ability to understand privilege so that he is able to enter any friendship or loving interaction with understanding that niceness is judged differentially based on qualities over which we have little control? Yes.

What I learn from my son the most, which is what I think my dad was always trying to say, is that the best way to love is to try to understand what someone’s circumstances are before you evaluate them as naughty or nice.

Nice going kid.

Between Spouse and House

I have spent some of my free time in the last two months watching two shows regularly: “Married at First Sight” and “Love it or List it.” The first, an FYI-channel program based on a Danish TV show (“Gift ved Første Blik” — yes, “gift” is Danish for “married”), has as its premise three couples who are matched using social scientific compatibility measures, then married, and then asked after a few weeks whether they “want to stay married, or get divorced.” The second, one of the many HGTV shows I like to refer to as residential real estate porn, has as its premise couples (usually) who disagree about whether they should sell their less-than-adequate house even after a designer remodels it but never to their full expectations because of predictable mishaps, code violations, and varmints hiding in the attic that require a $6,000 extermination fee. The alternative is to move to a different house that meets their needs better. Designer v. real estate agent. Spouse v. spouse. Old house v. new house. The couples are asked, with all of the musical tension and awkward staring of a Bachelorette rose ceremony, “Do you want to love it (long pause) or list it (longer and more annoying pause)?”

Full disclosure: I love both of these shows. They’re like crack for people like me who are fascinated with the intersections of spaces, relationships, and expert advice.  Heck, I write about how spaces and relationships intersect, and try to tell anyone who’ll listen how awesome my research is.  [Note to self: get my own cable access show…]

Despite being reality shows, these shows are escapes of fantasy into romance and real estate that I do not occupy, that I do not want to occupy, but that contain moments and deliberations that come just close enough to my own life that I stay hooked.  Also, I’m a sucker for good design and relationship advice (as I give advice on both quite regularly), and I’m a full audience participant when advice in either realm is just plain stupid. For example:

“Why the hell would you put that kind of faucet in a traditional kitchen!?”

“What do you mean, she should write down all of the things that she is doing wrong in their relationship!?”

Or, just to confound Neal so he doesn’t know which show I’m watching, I yell, “That is NOT the way to talk to somebody who has to share your newly decorated bedroom!”

Does the marriage show objectify the spouses, as if they are things to be done away with like houses, or does the HGTV show anthropomorphize the houses, as if they are entities with which we can break up or to which we can stay attached like lovers? Do you want to stick with your old house (spouse) or move to a new house (spouse)?  Do you want to stay married to your old spouse (house) or get divorced in the hopes of finding a new spouse (house)?  Fun with word substitution!

Is this just a fun game of metaphors, or is there something sociologically interesting going on here?

My high school speech coach said it’s good to present things in threes.  So, I will now articulate three interesting things these two shows have in common:

1. Both shows rely on experts for authority on family decisions. This blurs the boundaries between private family life and public entities. Of course, the intersection of family decisions with institutions outside of the family is nothing new (neighbors weighing in on how high to build the barn, my grandma hiding her pregnancy as long as possible so she wouldn’t get fired from a school where she taught). And of course families have relied for a long time on help from therapists, clergy members, real estate agents, and designers (I get all my marriage advice from decorators).  But the televised representation of it means now it is an even more commercialized blurred boundary, and a doubly commercialized definition of “expert.”  And, as I alluded to when I first talked about my intrigue with MAFS on this blog, there’s a difference between a trusted and invested neighbor or boss and an expert who only develops a bond with you as you work on your trust issues/bathroom remodel trials and tribulations together.

2. Both shows frame couple decisions as autonomous and agentic, despite being scripted to highlight drama, and despite obvious structural influences and constraints imposed by the experts. I think the expert voices are probably among the most sincere and legitimate voices in both marriage and real estate, and on both shows. But there’s something interesting about the finished product that is careful to show the couples saying things like “You (tile pattern/wife) were meant for me” or “I chose you (husband/stainless steel appliances).”  We love choice and freedom and claiming we are in charge of our own decisions. We love this so much that we will continue to say we have decided something in front of those who have led us toward the decisions in a careful dance of compassion and expertise.

3. Both shows presume the preference of both marriage and home ownership, two goals that are impacted by factors such as social class, family influence, geographic location, and the role of men and women in decision-making processes. What does it mean to be married?  It means to live together and aspire to own a home. What does it mean to decide whether to stay or move to a different house? It means you have agreed to some sort of long term commitment that you’ll share space because you are defined by your relationship with this other person. Despite the fact that family and housing patterns are not monolithic across time or geography, we see strikingly similar versions of both when we flip the channels.

I have actually submitted an application to a reality show that was a competition to be a host and designer. Quite obviously, I did not get that gig. I suppose I’ll need to be satisfied with being an intrigued and smart viewer. As they say, I have a face for research.

Or maybe I will track down that cable access channel…


Between Disciplined and Interdisciplinary

I am part of a proud discipline whose past professional society acronym began, way back in 1905, as ASS.  Thank goodness the American Sociological Association stopped calling itself a Society years ago, and just studies it now instead.

I must admit that I really like sociology. I see it as a distinct area of study, with boundaries and unique approaches, and members with surprising musical abilities — all of which separate it from other fields. I want people who are hired in my own sociology program to proudly call themselves sociologists. And I always perk up a bit when I see a piece of research done by sociologists cited in the New York Times. I’m proud of my field of expertise, its history, its methods, its theories, and its likelihood to attract people who like to jam with their musical instruments after a conference session on the merits of applying cultural capital to blues music.

But I’ve always done sociology with inspiration from lots of other areas of study. I can’t study families without knowing a little about child development. I can’t study schools without knowing a little about education theories. I can’t study love letters without watching lots of really bad romantic reality TV shows.

This summer I have spent some time thinking about what it means to be in one particular academic discipline or another, or to have one word that defines your entire career. For those of you people who have paid jobs that, in my ignorant imagination, are easy to define to small children like “firefighter” or “doctor” or “contortionist,” being a “sociologist” can be tricky to define.

Like when I gave a talk to my son’s 4th grade math class on the uses of math in sociology. I said that sociologists study people and their behaviors and attitudes, so that we could try to understand them and maybe predict things so that problems are less likely to occur in the future.  This definition was immediately followed by a girl’s astute question: “So does that mean you can read people’s minds?”

Now, while I don’t expect ten-year-olds to fully grasp what it is that I do on a daily basis for paid work, and while I sometimes think I can read people’s minds, I worry that I sometimes have a hard time explaining what I do.  Lately I’m having trouble.  I’m having trouble, though, for really cool reasons — all of which relate to the fact that sociology cannot operate on its own.

Nor has it ever done so.

Nor can any discipline of study.

As we see news and social media feeds of racial tension, war zones, fundraisers for debilitating diseases, and Miley Cyrus, we also see people interpreting, scolding, praising, and thinking of good questions that researchers ought to ask if we are to understand our social world.  And the thoughtfulness, if aggregated, seems to emanate from a collection of voices that could never be easily placed into one discipline: some sociologists, sure, but also parents and teachers and kids and clergy and economists and counselors and computer experts and and and…

The voices are not from one place with clear boundaries and methods and theories and musical abilities. They are from everywhere. And from the borders between the places. And sometimes, like with the too-frequent news stories of violence here and there, from the borders where the places struggle to co-exist.

This fall, instead of teaching one of my usual classes, I’m taking a class on one of those strange and wonderful topics that is hard to define: global studies. The idea is to combine a bunch of smart professors in a classroom (plus me), read good readings, talk together, and design events and courses that use the best of all of our academic disciplines and the new cool overlapping or conflicting ideas that emerge from our brains after spending 3 hours a week in one room together. Sometimes it’s worrisome to put that many professors in one room because we are, after all, all of the dorky know-it-alls from junior high gathered in one place. But I’m optimistic. A new class that I’ll get to team-teach with a non-sociologist colleague may emerge. Like Global Childhoods. Or Lego Design.

The neat-o thing about sociology is that we can study why professional organizations exist, how they do what they do, and why they sometimes maintain boundaries for reputation’s sake, but really delve into other fields of study all the time. If there’s one thing I know I will need to continue to hone as a college teacher, it is that solving problems or being creative or landing on other planets will require work from at least a dozen different “disciplines” with a myriad of epistemologies, a hybrid of methods, and a blur of theories.  Keeping tidy boundaries around the name of the discipline that is calligraphied on my diplomas won’t cut it (nor, as my education historian friends know, has it ever).

Maybe my approach is best described as a theme and variations, like in a musical composition. I’ll keep my theme — it’s what I know best. But I’ll make it better by rearranging the notes, adding another instrument in the score, and improvising more.


Between Parent and Child

To be a parent today, more than ever, means being able to sift through countless online and paper “listicles” of advice, scary news, views of children in other places that succumb too much to violence that stems from adult conflict, and clever kids’ room decorating tips on Pinterest. This is overwhelming.

I believe many of us parents have titles like the following in our libraries and social media feeds:

More or Less: How to Raise Overscheduled Kids and Then Feel Guilty About it and Then Schedule Them in Fewer Activities but Then Add to Their Schedule to Keep Up With Other Parents Whose Kids Will Get Into A Good College

The Professional Parent: How to Spend as Much Effort and Organization in Parenting as You Do in Your Professional Career, But Know How Much of Your Parent Self You Can Show at Work To Be Seen as Just Family-Oriented Enough

Social Trust is Overrated: How to Avoid Subtly Showing Your Mistrust of Everyone Except People Who Look Like You To Your Kids

Don’t Let Your Kid Be Independent: How Not To Get Arrested For Letting Kids Do Things By Themselves That You Did When You Were a Kid

Up The Ladder: How to Raise Your Kids According To Your Social Class Without Knowing You’re Perpetuating Social Class Differences for the Next Generation

Americans Are The Best: How to Handle Living in the Best Country in the World That Does Not Support You With Policy if You Are Both a Worker and a Parent

Americans Aren’t Doing It Right: How to Raise Your Kids Like French/Italian/Chinese/Martian Parents Do, and Also How to Eat Like Them With Your Kids in Restaurants and Not Gain Weight

Sometimes I think parents, despite our valiant efforts to be the grown-ups in situations with our children, are more like toddlers with flailing appendages trying to learn what we should and should not fear. Trying to control a world that is uncontrollably filled with tall and demanding people that we’re not sure we should trust. Or so we perceive in our toddler-parent brains.

I recently asked my mom, now in her 70s, whether she thought the difference between the parent and child roles seemed wider between her and me than they are between me and my son. Because she always seemed way more grown-up to me than I am currently acting with my kid. She never laughed when I farted at the dinner table, for example.

In this discussion, Mom and I figured that the answer to that question lies squarely in the proliferation of technology and communication. Kids have long figured they knew more than their parents, but now we don’t even know what counts as good information to know. And we parents rely on preteens to show us how to scroll through Buzzfeed without accidentally clicking on porn.  The kids are teaching us more than ever. And that makes the gap between parents and children narrower now than when I was riding my purple banana-seat bike to the local swimming pool every summer. Even though that beautiful purple bike gave me more freedom and independence than I give my kid.

I could read all of those books. Or, Neal and I could do what we did when we had Aaron as a baby: read excerpts from the fluffy baby whisperer one, read excerpts from the technical medical one, throw both out the window and wing it, and then return to them three months later to realize we had done it pretty much the way the fluffy and medical experts had told us to do it.

Now that my son is a preteen, rather than actually reading the myriad parenting columns, books, and diatribes, I have a better idea. My plan is to have my ten-year-old son digitally catalog all of the parenting advice websites in order from “Most Useful For How to Raise Me” to “Meh, You Can Delete This From Your Cache.”

Surely his technological prowess will prepare him well for deciphering what is and is not useful information.


Between Tacky and Trying

Call this Mellem: The Body Issue. Just like ESPN, but with less nudity.

Besides having high cheek bones and narrow faces, Weird Al Yankovic and Colbie Caillat have an important thing in common: they both made me really happy this week.  About my body, my weirdness, my taste, my sometimes clumsy social graces, and my own narrow face. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, watch Caillat’s video for “Try” and Yankovic’s video for “Tacky.” It’s a good week for people who don’t think so highly of themselves, because these videos both challenge norms and ask us to laugh at the absurdity that is our Selves. And while Weird Al is not really talking about bodies (and astutely pokes fun at all things tacky in our social world, including people who think other people are tacky), and Caillat is not really talking about making fun of ourselves, they hit a common target of literal and figurative “lightening up” when it comes to self-disgust and presentation of self.

I begin with a childhood story, as usual. It was the talk of southwestern Minnesota back in 1975: the annual preschool nursery rhyme theater performances, tucked between snacktime and insect repellent applications.  My most vivid memory of preschool is this event.  But more specifically, my most vivid memory is having stage fright when I had to act out the part of Jack Sprat’s wife.  You know, “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean. And so betwixt the two of them they licked the platter clean…Jack ate all the lean, Joan ate all the fat. The bone they picked it clean, then gave it to the cat…”

What I don’t know is whether I was afraid of people seeing me perform, or afraid of people seeing me as gluttonous.  Given that I come from a long line of shameless entertainers, I suspect, sadly, it was the latter.  At age 3.

Jump ahead five years to age 8. The magical developmental age where you learn long division and are finally able to touch your right ear with your left fingers by wrapping your left arm around the top of your head. I have a vivid memory of looking at my thighs and lamenting that they touched. It didn’t help that I had crooked legs, a bad haircut, a bizarre tooth growing horizontally across the roof of my mouth, and bifocals. And it didn’t matter that I had (and still have) legs that go on for miles and miles, because the only place I focused was on the part where they touched. Before I reached double-digits in age, my skinny body was less a temple to me, and more a place of daily scrutiny. At age 8.

Jump ahead ten years to age 18. The Dexatrim year. Other than graduation and winning some awards and getting into college and lettering in cheerleading because I was the school mascot, I vividly remember popping two diet pills every third period during that last year of high school, and constantly worrying that I was wearing the wrong clothes, the wrong makeup, or used the wrong amount of hair spray to affix my awesome gravity-defying 1989 bangs. How sad that I was miserable about being fat and weird, when I was not fat at all, and everyone knows that being weird gets you lots of places.

I now embrace weird as the best part of me. At age 42.

And the fat part?  Well, I’m a little bigger than I was at ages 8 and 18, but that is to be expected. What is the statute of limitations on using “baby weight” as a reason for maintaining my size?  I’m going on a decade with that one and I’m sticking to it. I fluctuate in my belly from showcasing what I affectionately refer to as my “bagel belly” or, after several weeks of snacking on Wheat Thins and white wine, my “bundt cake belly.”  Try it — squish all the skin and stuff under the skin into a circle around your belly button and decide what food item it resembles.  Good times.  Given the number of abdominal procedures I have had done, from a C-section to several reproductive and infertility pokes and procedures, I’d like to look at this as a badge of honor.  It mostly looks like a sac of flour.

With the exception of husbands and an entire set of skinny in-laws, I am really drawn toward fatty things. And when one of the few parts of my life that gives me pretty consistent bummers (weight issues) is met with unconditional support and always saying the right thing, I’ll stick with the caring husband I have for sure. He sticks with me through thick and thin and I will do the same.  He is my Colbie Caillat.  Even if he is an endurance athlete and has negative 3% body fat and more accurately will have issues between thin and thin, which makes me hate him just a little bit. He will never quite know the feelings that I have, but who ever really does? At least sometimes he wears clothes that don’t quite match. That makes him my Weird Al, too.

Now, don’t be too concerned.  I need no reassurances that I look fine.  I do look fine.  I know that all of this is relative, and there are folks who are much more troubled than I am, especially about how they feel about themselves. I feel pretty good. I embrace both body and weird vibe with pride. I have an ego that probably outweighs most large pieces of metal. And I even enjoy looking at a picture of myself now and then. But I do think about my body many times a day.  In fact, when I did lose a bunch of weight one year, I attributed the success to “100 decisions a week.” Eat less of those. Drink one instead of two. Walk one more block. Don’t look in that mirror.  Go ahead, look in a mirror, you look fine. Use olive oil instead of butter. Go ahead, use butter, but only a little bit. But it’s exhausting to add 100 decisions to an already decision-filled week. So the weight creeps back in. But I get other stuff done now, like focusing on wearing clothes that are just weird enough.

As a result of my desire to lessen the weekly weight decision-making exhaustion, I’m finding that I am increasingly likely to dress like Bea Arthur to cover stuff up. Long tunics and stretch pants. Flowy long jackets and silk scarves over billowy sweaters.  Muumuus.  Sometimes I wear Eileen Fisher clothes, which I see as Garanimals for Grown Women — mix and match all things flowy and elasticated, and look decent enough walking down the street or taking a nap. But they’re expensive Garanimals, and can indeed take up residency on the border between stylishness for forty-somethings and Bea Arthur-land.

I have never prayed much except to ask for healing for others in my life who are suffering. But as a teenager I prayed that I would be less weird and have less weight.  More recently, one of the only times in recent memory that I prayed was to give thanks for my weirdness, but to also ask for my own healing and support to lose weight. This was ironically followed by a week of people, out of the blue, telling me I looked thin, and asking me how I stay so fit.  This was even though I had not lost any weight, and, in fact, had gained some.  This either means that the message from above was for me to be happy with how I am, or there was divine intervention in others’ eyes.  Or maybe my Garanimals for Grown Women are the right choice to embrace the weird and flatter the flattering parts.

Either way, views of bodies defy logic, similar to the concept of divine intervention. And for a sociologist, the trick with this whole issue is to figure out what to do with the intellectual understanding of the social construction of ideal body size coupled with a daily mirror check that is filled with a little bit of disgust.

Perception matters more than reality. In the case of body stuff, changing both is really hard.

For now, I will continue to appreciate the long legs and penchant for slightly tacky outfits I have been given, and try not to be too hard on myself if I tend more toward the bundt cake belly instead of the bagel belly in the “Between Belly Food Metaphors” spectrum.  And I will channel my inner Bea Arthur just enough until I reach my golden girl age.

But I don’t have to try so hard. Because I’m tacky…




Between Love and Science

Watching the new show on FYI Channel called “Married at First Sight,” Neal turned to me and said, “I’m confident that if we were on this show, we would be matched together.”

Now, before you assume this was a romantic thing to say, you need to know that after only one month of dating, Neal and I were asked by my PhD adviser to pretest a marriage compatibility survey that asked somewhere near a million questions on topics that included money, sex, children, in-laws, communication, division of labor, religion, politics, and values.  You know, the survey that is not meant to show couples whether they’re compatible, but meant to show the couple and perhaps a marriage counselor or clergy person areas where more conversation may be a good idea before they take the plunge.

We agreed to pretest the survey designed for people intending to marry.  Just four weeks after our first kiss.

We settled ourselves into a cozy spot in our graduate student housing and started to take the survey on a Saturday in November.

NINE HOURS LATER, we were done talking.

Three months after that, we decided we wanted to get married.

A year after that, we did.

Seventeen years after that, I’m writing this blog post.

Social science sped up our relationship. And by the time we married, we had already talked about every possible topic that could constitute any compatibility test for marriage you could imagine.

The show we’ve just started watching — “Married at First Sight” — has as its premise the pairing of people into a marriage, arranged not by families or neighboring tribes or royal cousins or patriarchs or matriarchs, but by social science and religious experts who administer lengthy surveys, conduct in-depth interviews, and collaborate with each other to find good pairs of people who will meet each other only when they are in front of everyone promising to be faithful to each other forever and ever amen.  The tagline is, “Can science create a perfect match?”

After watching the first couple episodes and reflecting on how crucial that survey was in our early couple days, I have to admit that it may just work. However, I’m friends with one of the experts on the show, and I have connected with folks involved in the original Danish version, and I know that some people’s response about this has come in the form of something like, “Why the hell would anyone ever do this?!” The show did a great job of stating how brave these people were to even consider doing this.  I had four weeks to look longingly into Neal’s eyes before we figured out we should get married. These couples have four seconds before they say “I do.”

In light of this TV show that has some odd connection to past and present versions of matchmaking and arranged marriage, here’s the thing I’m wondering. What this social experiment has less of, relative to other kinds of arranged marriages, is the support of a community of long-term caretakers and stakeholders who arranged the marriage and who have the potential to help preserve a relationship. In other words, in places where arranged marriage is more common, groups of people get in each others’ business.  In addition to matches being made based on lots of criteria that have been shown to matter in relationship longevity, this accountability piece helps us understand why arranged marriages have way lower divorce rates than marriages that are crafted out of the personal choice of the spouses. In still other words, when the community gets involved, it’s harder to hide problems (acknowledging that the critiques of arranged marriages as preserving problematic inequalities or as lessening the importance of romantic love are valid — nobody should ever be forced to stay in a marriage that is damaging). The show’s experts care about the people they’re helping, but probably don’t have the same deep vested interest in the couples they’re matching that a mother or father or sister or brother would. Or the Queen. Despite the experts’ good words about the importance of family and friend support networks for the couples, these couples are still on their own like any couple that marries without any arrangement. But they’ve been arranged nonetheless.  So intriguing!

Sometimes I ask my students (who wish to marry and can legally do so) if they believe they can marry anyone they want.  After defining terms like “pool of eligibles,” “homogamy,” and “filter theory of mate selection,” they frown and acknowledge that they’ll probably end up with someone their parents would have picked out for them anyway. As for me, I’m glad my marriage wasn’t arranged, but I will happily admit that my husband is precisely who my parents would have picked for me if they had the chance. I haven’t asked my in-laws the parallel question, but I heard a rumor once that my father-in-law whispered under his breath that Neal and I were made for each other.

The thing about romantic love is that the way we envision it to be today is a pretty new vision. We think falling in love is all about the individual lovers. And chemistry. And love letters. And giggling about the fact that you have four of the same songs on the mix tape you made ten years ago. And mounting background music at the end of a movie where a couple finally figures out that they are in love after much brouhaha.

But, of course, agreeing to stay with one person forever and ever amen requires acknowledging that lifetime partnership has to be about more than just romance, and more than just the couple (though giggles and mix tapes help).  Folks who are the beneficiaries of arranged marriage certainly know this. So does anyone who has been married more than a few years and stuck with it. So do lots of social scientists, actually. Plus we’re all living longer than the days of plagues and no antibiotics, so biology now has us trying to use modern mediated ideals of marriage that do not have an automatic or natural shelf life of 50+ years.

So the question still hovering in my mind is whether the stuff that is more than just romance can be assessed by science enough to craft successful partnerships. Not science in the form of romantic chemistry, or the biology of long lives, but the SOCIAL science of matchmaking. Given the prevalence of online dating that uses scientific measures to assess compatibility, I wonder whether our trust in science is the new matchmaker. That the experts on the show have the same question, and are approaching it with compassion and curiosity, makes me want to keep watching.

There are no guarantees that a marriage will last. This is not news. But maybe our new marriage compatibility comes from a questionnaire, not the Queen Mum.  Maybe our couple chemistry stems from mean similarities on risk-taking likelihood measures, not the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof.

And maybe our new marriage accountability community is data, not Dad.

Between Tooth and Truth

In both casual and formal conversation, I have repeatedly uttered that I am a dental nightmare. Bizarre horizontal tooth growing across the roof of my mouth during childhood. Braces, twice. A million cavities. Upper and lower jaw surgery.  Screws and pins holding my cyborg face together. Wisdom tooth only halfway erupted. Multiple crowns. Two root canals. Discoloration on my front teeth. Permanent and six-month-long numbness in parts of my tongue from a nerve getting hit by a novocaine needle.  Permanent numbness in parts of my lower lip from the jaw surgery. Strong salivary glands that require double suction duty for any attending hygienist.

And now, a recently discovered imperviousness to normal doses of nitrous oxide.

This summer I had so much anxiety about an upcoming root canal procedure, mostly because I feared the novocaine injection would make my tongue numb for six months again, that I requested nitrous oxide. Now, this was procedure number 4 and appointment number 5 with dental professional number 2 on the same issue on the same tooth. Failed attempts at dental work seem more frustrating to me than, say, a failed attempt at making a fluffy crusted chicken pot pie, because cooking failures rarely result in feeling as if tiny elves have had a massive fist fight in my mouth, with sharp weapons. And the emotions run high when I have to re-explain to new people the complexity that is my mouth, and to do so in such a way that they don’t just pathologize me and blame anything bad that happens on my “weird anatomy and past procedures.”

Being a dentist, like any medical professional, requires an ability to be delicate and confident with your words simultaneously.  To tell just enough truth to not give away the secrets they use to keep us anxious patients calm while we are sitting next to pointy metal spinning tools that will soon be in our mouths. This is hard to do. Especially with a patient who knows what a LeFort I and Sagittal Split Osteotomy is. So bless all of the dentists out there, especially the ones who have to try to figure out how to talk to me.

As you can imagine, I was scoring high in the anxiety department upon arrival into the cushy upside-down chair at the root canal specialty place. So, they happily put the mask on my face and turned the nitrous to the middle level where they start everyone.  (If this were a Spinal Tap reference, the dial would be at about 6).  I conversed with the dentist.  I listened to what sounded like a contradictory explanation to dentist 1’s opinion. I debated how much to question any of this. I cried. I finally said, “Just do what you have to do. Now I feel like I should break up with my dentist. Also, shouldn’t I be feeling the nitrous?”

So they turned it up.  Nothing.  Way up.  Still nothing.  The pregnant hygeniest had to leave because it was not safe for her to be around that much nitrous.  And then they stopped asking me questions that made me breathe out more than I breathed in, and turned it to the highest it could go.  (Look, it goes to 11!).  And put noise-canceling headphones that played indie rock on my ears. This helped the noise that was occurring in my mouth sound more like a neighbor down the street weed wacking than a set of sadistic metal tools pulsing and drilling into my tooth roots just centimeters from my ears. They also told me that I should tell them if I feel dizzy.  Wheeeeee!  I did feel dizzy, but only when my eyes were closed. And I entered into indie rock distant weed wacking neighbor land. That was fun.  That’s why they call it laughing gas, I guess.

But then things turned dark. I started thinking about my uppity tone with the dentist who was currently drilling big holes in my tooth. I started worrying that requiring high doses of nitrous may mean I have been drinking too much in my daily life and have developed a too-high tolerance for anything chemical. Or that I weighed so much that they needed to turn the dial up just to reach my brain through complex channels of fat and Wheat Thins residue.  Or that the anaesthetic would stay in half my tongue again for half a year, making my taste buds totally confused (that pot pie tastes half good!). Totally stupid stuff to think about that made tear upon tear roll down my face and into the foam of the cushy noise-canceling headphones.

When they replaced the nitrous with oxygen after the procedure and gave me my normal brain back, the dentist came in and said what I will label as the Smartest Thing a Dentist Has Ever Said to Michelle. Remember, this is after I shed tears during our conversation and during the procedure itself.

He said, “Your dentist is a good guy.  You should stay with him after this special procedure today.  Here’s an analogy.  You’re a teacher.  Imagine that teaching a class successfully can look different from teacher to teacher, even if the outcome of the class as successful is the same. That’s how dentistry is. We use procedures that match with our particular strengths.  This is subjective, but it creates greater successes.  Most of what I did today I do with everyone, so that makes you normal. We dentists all have our different cocktails for anaesthetics and I’m glad we figured out the best way to help you get numb with no chance of having that numbness last six months again. You will be fine.”

As he was talking, I glanced at the new X-ray of my molar on the computer screen.  It looked oddly like a dancing body with two wispy root-legs, no head, no arms, and a giant pair of white underpants.  I thought, if my tooth were a person, she would feel like she had been treated well, even though her guts were all technically dead inside.

Good news: my tongue is not numb. My tooth is fine. And I have renewed faith in a medical specialty because one of its finest personified a great combination of confidence, compassion, professionalism, and willingness to admit subjectivity to this tortured and pathologized dental specimen. My guts are a little bit renewed.