I had a slow week with the book, doing the necessary work of going backward to earlier scenes to ask myself why people were doing what they were doing. Or, more accurately, what kind of a person would do these things. It really is ethnographic, in which we have to watch people do stuff before we try to guess the meanings behind it.
I know some big structural things about the story. I know my protagonist. I know that the book will see him at four different stages of his life: in his middle-school years, in his early 20s, in his late 30s or early 40s, and again in the present day in his mid-50s. I know that the four novelettes will be called Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master.
I know that the streetscapes will be characters themselves. No retail store stands on its own, it lives on an urban block, shoulder to shoulder with taverns and markets and bowling alleys and bookstores and florists and diners.
And within that frame, I have no idea what the painting will look like yet. I have to let them tell me.
The big work of this past week has been to learn more about the second tier of characters, the ones who’d be supporting actors. In the case of middle-school Jimmy, that’s his dad, his mom, his mom’s new boyfriend, his brother and sister, and the other people who work in the store. I’ve learned things about each of them this week that I absolutely didn’t know last weekend.
I have to do some work to imagine the array of businesses that would be on a middle-class Milwaukee shopping street in 1980. No Starbucks yet, too small a neighborhood to warrant a vest-pocket Burger King. The neighborhood grocery is now bigger than a corner store, not yet a supermarket. No one drives to the shopping center to Staples or Bed Bath & Beyond yet, so small family versions of housewares and office supplies and bookstores still exist. But exactly what’s on that block of Oakland Avenue in Shorewood… that’s crucial work still to be done.
And what I don’t know yet… can’t know yet… are the early disruptions of Jimmy’s young path. There’s been one, the revelation of his mother’s affair and his parents’ divorce. But there will be a reckoning with his siblings, and with his mother’s new partner, and those I can’t yet describe. They’ll come into view as I sketch, and then pen, and then color those scenes.
Nora’s been clearing out old papers yesterday, and came across a few things I’d sent her ages ago. One of them was the proposal for a day-long conference session I hosted in 2000 at the Environmental Design Research Association meeting. The session was called “Environment-Behavior Research as a Field of the Humanities,” in which I invited lots of other folks to come deliberate on the idea that maybe EBS (as we called it) was misplaced by being categorized within the social sciences. Maybe instead we’d be productively housed with the other branches of the humanities: literature, philosophy, history. I didn’t use this language at that moment, but my argument was that EBS could be fundamentally hermeneutic rather than analytical, even while retaining a shared interest in the careful, empirical study of real people in real places. Novelists do that, too, without any expectation of coming to some immutable laws of behavior. We watch people, and report back on what it looks like and what we think it might mean.
I can tell you that attitude did me no favors in my academic job search. Architecture departments are variously housed in larger institutional structures alongside the fine arts, or engineering, or “applied sciences,” or in independent units they share with urban planning and interior design and landscape architecture. Every time I was making my case about why architecture mattered, I was making it not merely to my prospective colleagues, but also within an institutional structure and set of values that I almost never considered.
Anyway, Nora found another thing this morning that also did me no favors. It came from work I did as part of a team that was trying to redevelop the first two years of a college design curriculum. That process taught me a lot of things. It taught me that all of the experimentation and suspension of assumptions we teach in studio get left aside almost immediately when designers have logistical problems to solve—Oh, we could NEVER do that, because… Rather than attempting what we believed in, we reverted immediately to managerial expediency, house-trained to follow the channels pre-cut for us. And as Audre Lorde reminded us, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
Anyway, as an early process in our team’s work, I started by asking all the team members to put our foundational values on the table. None of the rest of them did, just me. I still believe all of it, but it never found traction. And now that I’m safely out of the game, I can offer them to you, the sixteen things I believe about education in environmental design.
Environmental design is primarily a civic and political activity rather than an artistic expression. We are fundamentally in the business of creating the stage sets on which people will live out the dramas of their individual and communal lives.
The criteria for successful environments are that they are helpful, dependable, satisfying and fair. Every place is owned by some person or organization with goals, and inhabited by other people with other goals. We have to understand and value the entire range of goals, create for future fluidity, and ensure that our work enhances the lives of all who come into contact.
All problems of citizenship, including environmental design, are wicked problems, impossible to even fully define much less correctly answer. This implies that realistic process management and facilitation are core skills of citizenship in any of its forms.
The photograph has drastically changed both design and design education, to the loss of context, sequence and experience. Buildings are taught in isolation, but can only be experienced as part of a larger landscape. Design students need to be trained in careful, naturalistic observation and study of real places.
The vast majority of the built landscape is created by people who are not trained designers; thus, design guidelines and strong performance criteria are more influential than objects. We need to help students define and understand desired outcomes.
The education that designers need is more similar to that of other professions than it is different. Our students may not remain in the design professions for their entire lives, but they will always be family members and citizens. We want students prepared to engage the world from whatever position they might find themselves.
The academic curriculum of design programs should be heavily weighted toward general education, with the expectation that those interests have a role in their design work. We need a strong focus on strategic thinking, the “why” that lies behind the “what” and the “how.”
Design education should cover the entire building sequence, from conception of need through habitation, revision, and ultimate demolition. The weight of design education currently falls within conceptual design, with successively less attention in the curriculum as one moves away from that five weeks of initial excitement about a new problem. Students need to understand their role in the hundred-year cycle of the work, not just the moments of blinding creativity.
Every student can be a successful designer, if we think more broadly about success. Students will differ in their capabilities across content areas. What does design look like for the talented graphic artist who writes poorly, or a skilled writer with a math phobia, or a brilliant design historian with poor graphic control? It takes a broad community to make powerful contributions to the built world, and we need to be equally diverse in our thinking about how to help all students be their best selves.
Any educational setting needs strong and clearly stated outcome criteria, combined with great freedom in achieving those criteria. What we hope students will be able to do is more important than the paths they each follow to arrive there.
The most vulnerable people deserve the greatest amount and highest quality of our resources. We need to offer our least experienced students our most experienced and proven instructors, the best physical resources, and the most curricular attention.
Collaboration is a core educational value; students should work together far more often than they work individually. For the rest of our professional, civic, and family lives, we work as team members, and projects are achieved through the quality of our collaboration.
We must devise ways in which students can do fewer hours for greater impact rather than simply asking for more hours. The charette and the all-nighter may be great social experiences (for extroverts), but students deserve to go home, be with their families and friends, get sufficient rest, and still do good work.
Mentorship and advising are everyone’s business. Every student should have one or two allies among the permanent staff who know them, check in with them about their progress and their happiness, act as a sounding board, offer counsel. We are all complex wholes, and need to be considered and mentored with that awareness in mind.
Leadership is everyone’s business. The best definition of leadership I know is “taking responsibility for something that matters to you.” We should be fostering that attitude among students and faculty from their first moments in the program, knowing that it will raise contentious and messy issues. We can teach mediation and negotiation better through working with live issues than with the canned and bland.
We do not have to replicate the ways we were educated.
Yeah, all this would be hard to do. Yeah, we might get it wrong once in a while. But we are not proposing to abandon some perfect present condition; the costs of continuing as we have are also real, and substantial. Alas, though, inertia is powerful, and things in motion continue in motion. As one of my characters put it in considering his own academic life, universities are simultaneously dedicated to advancing the furthest frontiers of human knowledge, and to ensuring that nothing about their own operation must ever change.
I didn’t know any of that, so I was perpetually working against the current. If you choose to pursue any of these, you need to recognize that you also will face significant headwinds. Be prepared.
When I did my dissertation research 28 years ago (!!!), I knew that it would take me a while to be recognized and considered trustworthy within the high school community I was studying. It turned out to be somewhere between a month and three months for most of the kids, some never; between a week and a month for most of the teachers and administrators, some never.
Nora put me in mind of that this evening. I came downstairs after a day of writing, and said, “I just feel like there’s a distance between me and these people.” And she said, wisely, “They don’t trust you yet.”
Part of it is the structure of the story. The story that presented itself was of the later-adult James facing a major life change. But I wanted to see how he’d gotten to that place, which meant writing about the nine-year-old Jimmy, and the high school and young-adult Jim, as well as the older James. Plus Jimmy’s dad, and his mom, and his little brother and sister, and his mom’s lover. None of those people volunteered for this, and I could make them look bad if I wanted to. So I have to earn their trust before they’ll really tell me what they value. And that takes time.
And even with that, I’m a fair ways in, and I think it’s a viable story. I’ll tell you more next week.
When we encounter a spirituality that differs from our own and seems alien, [Islamic scholar Louis] Massignon explained, instead of simply dismissing it, we must ask ourselves how the writer came to have these ideas. We must acquaint ourselves in a scholarly fashion with the social, political, geographical, historical and philosophical context in which he lived and worked. And we must not leave this text, Massignon insisted, until we can honestly say that, in such circumstances, we would feel the same. In this way, he explained, we can broaden our horizons and make a place for the other in our minds and hearts. It is an ekstasis, a disciplined “stepping outside” of the self in a sensitive but informed identification with another — not an exalted trance, but an intellectual process that enables you to open your mind and heart to something that seemed initially alien.
I came across this interview yesterday because of its lovely title, “The Novel That Made Karen Armstrong Quit Her Reading Group.” I knew nothing about Karen Armstrong, but there’s a story imbedded in that title that I wanted to know about. And as with any good browsing, what you find is different than what you came for.
Toward the end of the interview, Armstrong loops back to this opening idea of imaginative entry into the world of another:
Novels can serve a moral function by enabling us to enter the lives of others imaginatively. It is an ekstasis in which we step outside the self, leaving it behind, and embrace a different perspective — realizing, for example, the attractions of evil at the same time as we are made to recoil from it. Novels force us not only to face but to experience the terror of illness, sorrow, poverty and infirmity. They enhance our compassion by compelling us to feel with others, taking us out of the comforts of solipsism.
The questions that a writer is interested in addressing have to be met by a reader intrigued and open to addressing them as well. When we put a book down and don’t finish, the flaw may lie with the writer, who hasn’t done the work of putting a life fully enough on exhibit to capture our imagination or intellect. But the flaw may also lie with the reader, in not setting aside their own assumptions and expectations to fully enter the world of the story.
I had that experience this morning, sitting down to review a short story opener by one of the members of my writing group. When I first opened it, I read the first paragraph too rapidly, it didn’t slow me down enough to really comprehend what I was about to engage. That flaw, I think, was mutual: the tone of the story was a little flat and didn’t invite slowness, but more importantly, I didn’t come to it in the spirit of full engagement. It took me ten minutes or so to slow down enough to really read it, to sit inside the narrator’s experience for the next hour.
I think that maybe we need to go through the equivalent of warm-ups before we sit to read fiction. To fully prepare ourselves to leave the passive TikTok feed and pinging texts of the swirling days, and to embark on the quiet, rigorous investigation of another’s life.
A year ago, I live-blogged my last novel, & Sons, keeping you (and myself) apprised of progress. That was fun, let’s do it again.
Last Tuesday, my new story appeared. Young Jimmy first presents himself in 1978 as a nine-year-old, riding his bike on a Saturday for his flanêur’s afternoon on Lincoln Street in Milwaukee.
The glass storm door sounded its usual welcome, a leather strap with jingle bells hanging from its inner handbar to alert the Johnsons to new arrivals. Jimmy knew every aisle and corner of the store, had spent innumerable hours there as a free agent, loosely overseen, able to let his mind and body wander. Mrs. Johnson, as always behind the register in her little retail island just inside the door, nodded at him in recognition but nothing further. Jimmy walked back into the store, through the aisle of Comet and Reynolds Wrap, brooms and Playtex dishwashing gloves, toward the curved-glass butcher counter behind which Mr. Johnson was stationed. Mr. Johnson would either be talking with a customer and putting cuts of meat or scoops of ground hamburger onto butcher paper on the scale, or cutting huge slabs of red-and-white-streaked meat on his bandsaw, ribs and hip joints cruelly bared from their formerly quiet lives within a cow or a pig. Jimmy imagined that Mr. Johnson had never actually seen him; the man was in constant work, fully intent on customer or display or carcass.
Even though he’s only in fourth grade, Jimmy has always been far more attuned to the everyday adult world than the kids around him, whom he mostly finds bewildering.
One of the things he liked about being with adults was that they didn’t need to be mean just for fun. The only problem with school was the other kids. Grown-ups sent kids to school to learn how to be adults, and then defeated their own purposes by surrounding them with the savage culture of children. Every kid had to decide for themselves which team would have their allegiance, and Jimmy, by virtue of having chosen wrong, earned the complete and total disdain of the other kids.
We’ll see Jimmy, then Jim, then James, at four different phases of his life through the course of the book, I think, as he grows into full expression of his nature. And I increasingly see that the book will serve as a love poem to the very idea of the sidewalk, the most urban of spaces.
In his book Craft in the Real World, writing teacher Matthew Salesses talks about the ways that traditional writing workshops can be places of hostility, even when (almost always) unintentional. The pitfalls come when some kinds of stories and narrative structures and characters seem so taken for granted that stories of other cultures or structures are deemed to be incorrect or out of bounds. There’s no “conflict,” no “arc of change,” and so therefore the story is faulty. Some stories are within the community’s unspoken expectations, and those that aren’t will be met with resistance.
The first writer I read that truly challenged those expectations was Kenzaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1994, who once said that his work was about “the dignity of human beings.” Oe’s stories don’t move us along as much as they ask us to sit, quietly, with the facts of a person and her or his circumstances. There is a story, a sequence, but it’s in the background, a simple chronological organization of a series of states of mind. When I teach fiction writing, I say that the basic logic of fiction is that there’s a pre-BOOM, a BOOM, and a post-BOOM; that is, that there’s one or more disruptive events that change the angle of the story. And Oe’s work helps me to see how cultural that expectation is, and how Western of me that I’d never imagined stories created otherwise.
My own work has some of that non-BOOM character, though, based on the fact that I was trained as an ethnographer rather than a fiction writer. I’ve always felt at home watching people in the everyday, trying to understand the unspoken cultural guidelines that shape the visible behaviors. And because of that, I’ve been told occasionally that it’s problematic that my stories don’t hit their point of conflict early enough. In response to reading the first page of one of my stories, one reader said, “So does anything happen to your boy Tim? If so, start there.” That expectation that we’re tossed immediately into tumult is a particularly cultural belief, and could be otherwise. But different stories rely on different readers, who are willing to sit and watch.
The most recent, wonderful example of a BOOM-less book I’ve read is Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata. Originally published in 2016, the book sold a million and a half copies in Japan, likely substantially less in its 2018 English translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori. The story is told through the person of Keiko, a woman in her mid-30s who has found a seemingly destined life through her work in a convenience store (“Smile Mart”). Others around her, her family most centrally, can’t quite understand why she hasn’t fulfilled one of the two culturally acceptable roles of womanhood—wife/mother or career woman. They acknowledge that she’s stable and capable, but not in a way that they deem “successful.” They’ve always tried to repair what they see as her faults.
The success of the book is in its deep ethnography. For readers willing to sit, we’re shown the inner workings of a mind untroubled by being “other.” Keiko has never been able to read the emotions of others, but she’s learned to mimic their expressions well enough to be adjacent to people, even as she’s never fully one of them. She’s learned to read the labels on others’ clothing so that she knows the “right brands” to buy, so that people will see her as acceptable. She’s learned what can and cannot be said—mostly the things that cannot, as when examining her sister’s baby: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others, but so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.”
At eighteen years in the Smile Mart, she’s outlasted eight managers, every coworker, every individual product that’s ever been sold. In one of the most brilliant passages of the book, she talks about the underlying change that feels to casual observers like stability:
As she fished out her purse to pay, she again muttered, “This place really doesn’t ever change, does it?”
Actually, someone was eliminated from here today, I thought. But I merely told her “thank you” and started scanning her purchases.
Her figure overlapped with that of the old lady who had been the very first customer when the store opened eighteen years ago. She too had come daily, walking with a stick, until one day I realized she wasn’t coming anymore. Maybe her health had deteriorated, or maybe she’d moved. We had no way of knowing.
But here I was repeating the same scene of that first day. Since then we had greeted the same morning 6,607 times.
I gently placed the eggs in a plastic bag. The same eggs sold yesterday, only different. The customer put the same chopsticks into the same plastic bag as yesterday, took the same change, and gave the same morning smile.
There is a BOOM in the book, sort of, coming late, but its narrative function is to convince Keiko that she’s been on the right path all along, and wants nothing more than to sustain it. The work of the reader is not to be swept along in the flow of events—it’s to sit quietly with Keiko and experience those events with her and through her.
Western reviewers of the book often turned to a handful of terms to describe the book, or to describe Keiko. Words like “oddball,” “strange,” “weird,” “eccentric,” “quirky.” And that’s an example of the problem that Salesses tries to show us in his book. Even the most positive reviews of the book often described it in words that showed us that it was exotic, that it was outside the norms of the canon. If we came to literature knowing that there are a body of people who are asexual, then Keiko’s revulsion at sexuality wouldn’t be quirky, it’d just be who she is. If we came to literature expecting occasionally to read about people who are neurodivergent, then Keiko’s regular confusion at the norms of the world wouldn’t be oddball, it’d just be the story of someone navigating a culture. Praising a book for its “nutty deadpan prose and even more nuttily likable narrator” means that we’re treating it like a pet, a TikTok-able novelty, rather than a meaningful contribution to literature
Convenience Store Woman is one of the very best things I’ve read in ages, exactly because it makes a way of living and thinking so completely visible.
One of the things that differs across jobs is the degree to which the work is perpetual or episodic. When I worked in retail, one day was more or less the same as the others. Individual customers and their choices differed, of course, and I liked some of them (both customers and choices) better than others. I got held up at gunpoint once, that was a different kind of day. But mostly, I arrived at ten ’til ten, turned on the lights and the music, unlocked the door, and then did retail chores until six, when I reversed the opening sequence and walked home.
Lots of jobs are like that. Resource extraction, factory work, driving, restaurant service, dentistry. The goals are small, discrete, and repetitive; in their wholeness, the patterns don’t vary much by day, by week, or by season.
Other jobs are more episodic. They’re made of big chunks that have phases, deadlines, standards for completion. Writing is like that. The day-to-day experience of moving words around might look the same, but the article or the story or the book has components and progress toward an end state, and a moment in which they’re complete.
I haven’t been around much for the last month, because I’ve been completely immersed in a couple of episodic writing projects. Both clients have the same product to create for their reviewers, and both have the same date of submittal, right after Labor Day. Project management being what it is, both clients were playing catch-up a little during July and August, which meant that I was spending a lot of time helping them along. And college life being what it is, a Labor Day deadline means that their projects are due right when they’re dealing with the return of hundreds or thousands of students. So in both cases, the first half of August was the big push, since they need this project behind them as they get back to their real work of organizing students’ and teachers’ lives.
What that means for me is that one project was deeply immersive and lasted ten months; the other was a quick semi-final review that took a week. And both of them ended this afternoon.
I feel kind of like Wile E. Coyote, running along and suddenly realizing that there’s no ground left under him. I’m not sure what to do without this set of projects moving me forward.
Something will come along soon enough, I know. I’ve been itching for a new character to write a story about, and now there’s time for that fertile soil to grow a new crop. But it just feels disorienting to have worked so hard until 3:15 this afternoon and then have it all go to zero all at once.
Hey, speaking of writing, have a look at the “Books for Free” page of the website and send me a note to let me know what book you want. A novel or story collection in the mail, whenever you ask.
On Saturday morning, I worked my monthly volunteer shift at our tiny little library. I turned on the lights, checked the heat pump, turned on both computers and logged into the circulation system, put out the flag and turned the CLOSED sign over to OPEN.
The library’s only open for two hours on Saturday, from 10 to noon, and we had six patrons over the course of two hours. Including me, since I took out two books. I renewed a book, handed out and recorded an interlibrary loan, checked out two DVDs and a book, and handed out six boxes of COVID antigen tests that we got from the state’s Department of Health. But two other things presented themselves as miniature life lessons.
The first was that our librarian stopped by to take the trash and recycling to the transfer station, and to drop off the mail she’d just picked up. And she said, “Do you read graphic novels?”
“Not as something that I seek out, but I’ve read some really wonderful ones. Why?”
She walked over to the new books, and picked up a copy of Gender Queer, the graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe that first came out in 2019 and has just been re-released in a wonderful hardcover edition. She said, “This is a really wonderful book, it helped me understand someone’s experience who’s nonbinary, and asexual.” And then she smiled, and said, “It’s been on the top ten list of challenged books. Whenever the list comes out, I try to make sure that the Library has all of them.”
We don’t talk about this nearly enough, it’s a dangerous thing to say. But one of the foremost functions of education is to take children away from their families. To show them the diversity and wildness of the world, to keep them from being locked into their parents’ molds. Whether you grew up in a brokerage-funded Manhattan penthouse or a fundamentalist ranch house in Amarillo, your parents can only show you one way to live.
There are others.
And the role of school, and the role of a library, is to give kids access to the others. To let us see a broad array of possibilities from which we might choose, any of which might make sense in a given set of circumstances. To let is know that if we feel like a misfit, there are lots of misfits, that we’re not uniquely broken. I learned so many things from libraries, and from bookstores, that my parents would have liked to “protect” me from. Things that I needed to know.
Our homes are little worlds. Our books are big worlds. And the big world is contentious, and won’t reflect all of our values all of the time, and our kids need to know how to navigate that, too. The alternative is a binary: you’re either with us or against us. It’s a closed fortress with the drawbridge up tight, peering out through the keyhole at the enemy hordes.
I’ve now read that book, and I also think it was absolutely terrific. And scary, and illuminating, and uncertain, and honest about being all of those things. Intending to be all of those things.
Thank you to Maia Kobabe. And thank you to our librarian, and all of the librarians who teach us to not be afraid of the world.
The second thing I learned was a simple comparison. I was looking at the poetry to see if we had anything by Robert Hayden, the author of one of my very favorite poems ever. We didn’t. But because we’re a small library, the poems (Dewey 811, American Poems in English) are just adjacent to the essay collections (Dewey 814, American Essays in English). And I stumbled across an essay collection I hadn’t known about, Ursula Le Guin’s 2017 No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Le Guin was one of our wise elders, like Jane Jacobs and Barbara Ehrenreich, always able to think broadly abut the world, able to be generous and sharp simultaneously. Writers who afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
And because we’re a small library, about six inches away from the essays of Ursula Le Guin were the essays of David Sedaris. Snarky, petty, utterly self-absorbed, not a second’s generosity available for anyone. I know which writer I aspire to become. And the adjacency was its own lesson.
Then, this afternoon, a related third lesson. A friend was doing her own volunteer shift at a local arts gallery, and knew that there wouldn’t be swarms of visitors on a 90-degree July afternoon. So she took my most recent little collection of short stories to keep her company for her three hours. Partway through the afternoon, she texted me:
The first story, “Loyalty,” is lyrical and stunning with its generosity and wisdom. Pretty amazing. On to “My Cupcake Pal.”
Then a little later:
In a world of partisanship and division, your stories are a refuge. People are kind and caring.
I’ll take it. That’s another thing that stories can do. As Le Guin says, “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is ‘escapism’ an accusation of?” Refuge matters in a storm.
The concept of consent and non-consent is at the heart of almost all criminal and civil law. The exact same action can be a socially agreeable interchange when mutually consented to, and a crime when done without the consent of one or more parties.
If I take money from someone, it’s a gift or a loan if they’ve offered it, and a theft if they haven’t.
If I take something from a store, it’s a purchase or a promotion if they’ve offered it, and shoplifting if they haven’t.
If I enter someone’s house, it’s hospitality and welcome if they’ve offered it, and trespassing if they haven’t.
If I take money from someone’s bank account, it’s an automatic payment or a Venmo if they’ve offered it, and fraud if they haven’t.
If I hit you, it’s within the rules if we’re boxing or playing hockey, and an assault if we aren’t.
And if I introduce an organism inside your body—one that will certainly make you sick and uncomfortable, and could well kill you, as it grows… and that you’ll legally be required to feed and protect for the next two decades—well, that’s pending parenthood if we’ve agreed, and a wildly violative assault if we haven’t. Someone who does that without consent ought to expect to go to prison for a very, very long time.
The writer Gabrielle Blair has argued the case, far better than I ever could, that every single unwanted pregnancy is the result of what she calls “irresponsible ejaculations.” And her argument relies entirely on the idea of consent, and the notion that women are worthy of being full participants in questions of consent.
Let’s talk about consent as it exists within sexual relations. It’s been ignored far more often than honored, but even when we do think about it, it shouldn’t be treated as a single yes/no question; it’s a whole series of ongoing deliberations, each of which is as important as the one before, with decisions that must always be mutual. Let’s take a simple example, a kind of flowchart of consent. In every case, the only acceptable answer (from every participant) that allows things to proceed is “yes,” preferably “yes, please.” Anything shy of that means that you stop, right that instant. If “yes,” and ONLY if “yes,” then you go on to the next question.
Do you want to have sex?
With this person or these people?
This kind of sex?
Under these conditions?
Now that we’re underway, we still good?
How about this next idea?
At any point along the way, what had been consensual can become nonconsensual, and things should come to a temporary or complete halt. It’s a whole continuum of agreements, each of which matters.
Now, what question is missing there? Oh, yeah. Do you want to have a baby?That’s an entirely independent question. You can have sex without having babies, and you can have babies without having sex. So the idea of consent over becoming pregnant is its own completely separate negotiation, one that women have been and will be criminalized for and men can just blow off. “Sowing your wild oats” is a long-honored tradition among men, leaving acres and acres of invasive plants behind them.
The law is filled with deliberations over what consent means, and under what circumstances it can be requested, offered, and relied upon. Children, for instance, cannot be considered to give consent (the age of legal adulthood in sexual relations is actually called “the age of consent,” but kids also can’t join the Navy or take out a car loan because of the same principle, that they can’t fully understand the implications of their choices). Someone who is intoxicated or drugged, who is asleep or incapacitated, cannot be considered to give consent. Acquiescence in the face of threat or violence cannot be considered to be consent. Power relationships (teacher/student, coach/athlete, supervisor/employee) make consent dubious at best, wound up as it is with all sorts of other necessary considerations—do you want to keep your job, get a promotion, be on the team, get a good grade? Any religious community that claims that women are inherently subservient to men has abandoned any interest in questions of consent. So any pregnancy that occurs under any of those conditions cannot meaningfully be thought to have been consensual.
We need to stop criminalizing women for men’s behavior. The nonconsensual causing of a pregnancy should be a felony.
Now, because I’m an essayist, I know enough that I should address some of the counterarguments that I might be able to predict. So here we go.
Consent can’t be proven. It’s just “he said/she said.” That’s true, and no different than lots and lots of court cases that are framed around disagreeing interpretations (and sometimes outright lies). He said I could borrow his truck. He signed the software licensing agreement. He should have known what he was getting into. He moved in a threatening manner. I was fearful for my safety. That’s what the legal system is set up to investigate and address, in its own flawed and human way.
Why should some young man have his life and his future ruined because of a single mistake? Good question, and I’d always prefer mercy to punishment. But why are we not asking exactly this same question on behalf of women? I mean, if somebody in this equation has committed a crime and is culpable for bearing responsibility, let’s be clear about who it was. And don’t even get me started on “fathers’ rights” when it comes to protesting a girlfriend’s abortion. Someone who has committed a crime has no legal claim to the proceeds.
Who are we, to play God? Great question. Who are we, to decide to have a child at all? Who are we, to invade a country, punish a crime, choose a college, have our kids vaccinated or not, buy a diesel pickup? There is no decision, either made or avoided, that is not a decision, with moral weight and collective impacts. We have to take responsibility for our own complicated and difficult choices, and the ways those choices affect others. And we have to expect that we won’t always agree with others, or even that we’ll always be convinced that we got it right ourselves.
Every life is God’s will. Well, this has three problems. Problem One is that even across Christian denominations, there are Biblically supported disagreements about whether abortion is justified and under what circumstances. Catholic doctrine still holds that contraception is violative of God’s will, too. (Cue Monty Python here.) Our dinky little town has half a dozen Christian clergy members who live here, who have wildly different positions on abortion among them from the same book. And then we move further to include Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and innumerable others, where the diversity is even broader and just as carefully argued, though from different source material.
Problem Two is that the whole notion of “God’s will” becomes completely circular and self-justifying. Was it God’s will that twenty-one people were murdered at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas? No, that was the presence of evil. Oh, okay, so the causing of an unwanted pregnancy is the presence of evil, then? No, that was God’s will. I mean, when God aborts fifteen or twenty percent of all pregnancies Himself, we’re outside any human understanding of what He thinks was a good idea. And again, it lets us off the hook for our own critical thinking and decisionmaking; someone already told us the answer.
And Problem Three is that, as I argued a few days ago, faith and doctrine have no basis to impinge on civil government. Religious liberty means everybody’s religious liberty, regardless of their faith or absence thereof.
It’s easy to think of this argument as a satire, as a Jonathan Swift “modest proposal” that simply points out our boundless hypocrisy. But if I were a member of a state legislature, I’d sponsor a bill tomorrow that would make the unwilling imposition of a pregnancy a serious crime with serious consequences. It would have at least three good outcomes. It would increase women’s autonomy over their bodies, behaviors and lives. It would be morally instructive to men that a hit-and-run pregnancy is not a trivial event. And it would cause the need for abortion to plummet almost instantly.
Scene 1: Nora and I volunteered to help out a few years back at the funeral service for the son of a town acquaintance. We didn’t know them well, had never met the son, but it’s what you do when your neighbors need you.
We were partway through the setup. Nora decided to go up to the sanctuary to hear some of the service while I finished laying out comfort food down in the community room. She told me later about what she’d heard upstairs. About how all of these hard-working people with remarkably difficult lives got to hear again that heaven awaited. That there was a guaranteed destination at which you would be identifiably your own self, but with all of your imperfections washed away, surrounded by all the very best versions of all the people you knew here. She talked about what a comfort that image would provide.
Scene 2: When I was a kid, I was raised within the American Lutheran Church, the sort of mildly-lefty, social responsibility church that emphasized feeding the poor, comforting the lonely, caring for those you don’t especially like. We heard a lot about “seventy times seven,” about the parable of Mary and Martha, about the Beatitudes. One of the most important moral lessons I ever learned was Luther’s assertion that it is equally a sin to give offense and to take offense. My very first realistic career aspiration was that I wanted to be a Lutheran pastor, to bring those comforts and generosity of spirit to others.
Then for junior high school, my parents sent me across town to a Lutheran K-8 school, but different Lutherans, those of the Missouri Synod, what I think of as the Lutheran Church’s Southern Baptist Outreach Wing. Generosity was gone, community was gone, and it was all about one’s own salvation, or lack thereof. It was the most remarkably self-centered theology I could imagine, drawn not only from the same Bible as the ALC churches, but from the same Martin Luther commentary on the Bible. Wildly different destinations from the same origin.
When that school ended after 8th grade, a new school, Muskegon Catholic Central. Now the Bible had extra books, and five more sacraments, and Purgatory, and saints and bingo and the veneration of Mary, and the priest got all the wine at communion. And after a couple of years of that, I informally converted to anthropology, fascinated by the vast variety of stories people tell themselves to make it through a difficult world.
But when I became an academic and a college teacher, I realized that I had fulfilled that first pastoral career, in a secular form. I got to read difficult, important texts, and think carefully about their meaning. I got to write, and do public speaking. I got to listen to people in emotional or material crisis, to encourage those who had lost courage for themselves.
And after The Adjunct Underclass came out, dozens of people reached out to me with their own stories of academic shame and failure, and I wrote back to them or talked to them. All of them. And one day, after a long call that Nora had heard one side of, faintly, from downstairs, she said “it sounds like you’re doing academic chaplaincy.”
Same job, different title.
Scene 3: Bumper stickers, at their best, are aphorisms with adhesive on the back. About forty years ago, I saw one that I hold close. Radical Agnostic—I Don’t Know, and Neither Do You.
Scene 4: I was working at the Town’s transfer station a couple of months ago, helping people unload their trash and recycling and running the compactors over and over from 6am to noon. Probably saw a couple of hundred people.
One of them was relatively new to town, had moved here to be with his son and grandkids. His son was in the church-incubation business, traveling into heathen regions like Vermont and trying to establish good Bible-based churches. Whatever that means. Snake handling is Bible-based, too, if you want it to be.
Anyway, he wanted to know whether I was part of a church community, and whether I’d be interested in coming to service. And I said, no, I’d grown up in the faith but had left it behind. And he was crestfallen, a little, but pushed further anyway for a few more minutes.
That’s a remarkably uncomfortable place to be. I understand that he’s doing me a favor, that he wants to save me from the flames. I get that, and in fact, I appreciate it. But I have no parallel interest in changing his thinking. If he’s comforted, then he’s comforted; I have no reason to want that to be gone from his life, to challenge his certainty. So we come into the conversation with asymmetric goals. He wants me to be like him: I want him to be like him, too, and to leave me out of it.
Nora and I have often talked about the traits of people that we find most enjoyable to be with, and foremost among them is curiosity. We love to spend time with people who see the world and ask questions, who want to understand someone else’s reasoning, who grow from the interchange and gradually become different people because of their interactions.
One of the great joys of academic life is that we’re paid to not know things. To live right on the very outer edges of what’s understood, and to step off the edge into the unknown. And it strikes me that curiosity and faith may be asymmetric and possibly incommensurate impulses. One is about the joy of not knowing, and the other is about the need for certainty. One is open, the other closed. When someone else’s faith tells me how to live, then we’ve entered into a form of colonialism in which one foreign power has dominion over everyone’s options.
I was reading a couple of days ago about why religious freedom, and religious neutrality, were so important to the attendees of the Constitutional Convention. And one of the core reasons is that they were still defending their own little state turf. They’d gotten to be rich and powerful men by having dominion over one or another of the Royal land grants, New Jersey or New York or New Hampshire, and the whole idea of States in the United States came because they weren’t about to cede that power. But each of the states at the time had pretty different religious communities at their core. Lots of them were Anglican, because duh. Maryland was Anglican, too, but they were more tolerant of the Catholics than the others. Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut were Congregational; Pennsylvania was Quaker. And the writers of the constitution recognized pretty quickly that if they wanted there to be a United in the United States, they had to get past those denominational certainties pretty firmly.
The alternative is Northern Ireland during the Troubles, when every trash bin or parked car might be your death. The alternative is the Sunni and the Shia, the Hutu and the Tutsi. There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian denominations in America, all of which would claim to be “Bible-based,” all of which look askance (or aghast) at the practices of the others.
In every theocracy, it’s not only the heretics who have to watch their backs. It’s the insufficiently or incorrectly devout. If the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod ran the nation’s government, the American Lutheran Church would immediately become an oppressed religious minority.
I hope that we can be brave enough to embrace uncertainty, and the curiosity that accompanies it. To admit that we just don’t know, but that we still try. To stand on principles like generosity and comfort and mercy and welcome, even as we know that we can’t even get those exactly right in every circumstance for all people. The alternative will be unthinkably cruel to all but those handful who have embraced the one true way.