So you tried the bars and got a couple of whiskey-fueled makeout sessions. You tried being set up by mutual friends and got some new Facebook friends. You tried dating at work and are now updating your résumé. Time to try the internet. But first, consider this:
Pro: Dating’s fun! Or at least, it should be.
Con: Only it’s not. It’s fraught with uncertainty, crossed lines, sexual mishaps, unrealistic expectations, and broken dreams. Sowwy.
Pro: Online dating has been around long enough now that you can match your site up with what you’re shopping for. Marriage? Try eHarmony. Slightly serious hook-up? Try Match. Good times with a sprinkling of WTF? OK Cupid's your poison. Looking to shut your mom up? I think JDate is that way. Black and wanna meet black people? You’re gonna want Black Planet. White and wanna meet black people? Afroromance is for you. Gold diggers, I haven’t forgotten about you — check out Wealthy Men. You’re welcome.
Con: You have to make a profile. Hope you’re naturally gifted at summing up your entire life in a few adjectives separated by commas, because that’s what we’re looking at here. Don’t make it too long or everyone will know you have nothing better to do than talk about your likes and dislikes on a Saturday night. Don’t make it too short or they won’t get to see the real you. You want to make it witty, because everyone loves a sense of humor, but not like you’re trying to be witty, because no one likes wink-nudge girl. And you want to be specific, because we’re looking for someone who really GETS you, you know? But not too specific because most people don’t love 18th-century colonial architecture AND Maya Angelou. I mean, people say they do, but not really.
Pro: You know what’s more relaxing than spending an entire Sunday hungover, in sweats, on the couch, eating Mexican/Chinese/Italian, talking to your girlfriends about what happened last night and watching reality TV marathons? Spending an entire Sunday hungover, in sweats, on the couch, eating Mexican/Chinese/Italian, talking to your girlfriends about what happened last night and scrolling through dating profiles.
Con: The goddamn profile picture. No matter how good your profile is, your picture is eleventy thousand more times important. Don’t believe me? This is what they’re saying inside when they look at your picture:
- If taken in the bathroom mirror: This is the line for on-line dating. The MySpace line is over there.
- ECU of a single feature: You’re hiding something.
- An errant hand around your shoulder or a side of a face: What kind of person crops their best buddy out of a picture? The kind of person that crops love out of their life after the third date, that’s who.
- An avatar, album cover, or picture of something that’s not at all you: Don’t get all “don’t judge me for my looks” on me. You’re on a dating site. Judging is what we do here. Next!
- Posing in a bikini: Oh good, you’re DTF. Wonderful.
Pro: You know that one picture that someone you love took of you when you’d just found out some awesome news or did some kick-ass thing at work, or maybe you were traveling and you’re all glowing and the lighting’s perfect and you’re not wearing that much makeup because you forgot all about it that morning and yeah girl, you look TONED at that angle, you been doing pilates? Here’s a great home for it.
Con: I don’t know the percentage of people who post profile pictures of themselves from five years, two inches of hairline, and 20 pounds ago, but that number is HIGH. Watch yourself.
Pro: Unlike at the bar, where staring at anyone for more than six seconds can get you beat up or roofied, here you can stare all you want. Stare until his image is burned into your brain, and feel free to imagine if he’ll go well with that sundress you just bought, and in your passenger seat, and with your faces squished together in a photo booth.
Con: So we’re at the point now where everybody does it, right? Damn near 2012. Our entire lives are spent with our nose in a screen, and 90% of us at least have a dormant Friendster profile. So why are we still making up “how we met” stories and laughing awkwardly/adding the “actually” modifier to “they met online”? Because there’s still a stigma, that’s why.
Pro: Just when you’re scraping the bottom of a Ben & Jerry’s pint and complaining to your cat about how you’re sooo bored and you’ve met everyone worth knowing in this dumb city a million times over, and you’re gonna start looking for a place in [city college BFF lives in] tomorrow… ping! Well, lookee there. You met someone new!
Con: Coming across anyone you work with. You’ll end up sitting across from Pam from accounting in a strategy meeting and only seeing “MBA ISO BBM 4 sum PDA, NSA” plastered across her forehead.
Pro: Great alternative for those who don’t have time to go out every night in the hopes of “meeting someone” (blech).
Con: Do you have time to deal with that one guy that you went out with that one time, and is now phone/email/Twitter/Facebook stalking you? Because he exists, in every single city, on every single site. And he’s more initially attractive than you’d think.
Good luck in out there in the sexy jungle, folks. You’re either predator or prey.
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.
I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.
Do I need to point out that — absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it — our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway.
Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word “sexy” is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets — like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger — would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.
Let me toss out the idea that, as our markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.
Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
Margaret Howell has become one of Britain’s most successful fashion brands, growing from a quiet start in the 1970s at Howell’s kitchen table to an international business with a turnover of £60m and shops throughout Europe and Japan. Yet Howell started her menswear line, in part, because she wanted to make androgynous clothes for herself; quality items that she could throw on and simply forget. “I’m not ultra-feminine and in the 1970s, it was blouses for women; wearing men’s shirts wasn’t common other than amongst us art students, and I never went for that floral, floaty, hippy business.”
Howell’s pared-down style and simple but extraordinarily well-made clothes struck a chord. “I came in at a time when men’s clothes were very designed – a bit over-designed – and it was hard for men who wanted those classic shapes made modern. I loosened up traditional Jermyn Street shirts and Harris tweed jackets, did the deconstructed bit, and freshened it up. It’s the same thing that brands such as Burberry have done recently – making traditional items more exciting for a younger market.”
Howell has been doing that ever since: using beautiful fabrics and an imaginative way with details to refresh the classic styles of traditional British menswear for every season.
She added a womenswear line in 1980 and opened a flagship shop in London’s Marylebone in 2002 which also sells modernist furniture and kitchenwear, perfectly complementing the clean aesthetic of her clothes. She loves modernist values.
"It’s the perfection of making something," she says, "paring it down to the essential which, if the design is at one with the material, will just last and last. That sort of design speaks for itself whether it’s an oak table or a cashmere sweater."
Drawing on her 40 years’ experience, Howell believes men have always cared about what they wear.
"Men are interested in what they put on themselves," she says. "It’s just become more acceptable for them to say that. They’re also conscious of trends but in menswear it’s about a subtler movement of feeling or fashion; details such as cut, proportion and styling."
One of Howell’s key markets is Japan – Asia accounts for 80% of the company’s turnover – making her something of an expert in exporting the idea of Britishness.
"Our heritage is a stimulating place to start, isn’t it? I think it is British heritage that people like. When you think of the French or the Italians, their looks are much smoother and more chic. Maybe we have a certain honesty or authenticity, a naturalness. Some of our manufacturing was very closely linked to the land, with the natural colours, the wool. There’s something quite deep about that that attracts people. It certainly does me. I love the landscape and I love people who are close to that."
Despite all her achievements, Howell says one thing she’s particularly proud of is “employing lots of people – they’re all very nice and seem to stay with the company for a long time, which is lovely”. Her staff stands at over 500 and one current employee at the Marylebone shop is Sean Hart, whom Howell has asked to model for The Observer today. “He looks right,” nods Howell, before fretting over the precise fall of Hart’s trousers with an endearing perfectionism.
Currently, Howell’s main project is organising the Margaret Howell archive, getting it into working order so that she can reissue vintage pieces from old collections. “Surprisingly, those things do work out quite well.” She looks faintly surprised. “People still like the clothes.”
“It takes courage to push yourself to places that you have never been before… to test your limits… to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”—Anais Nin
NIGGAS ASKED ME A COUPLE TIMES IF HITTING A BITCH WAS OK AND UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES ETC. SOME NIGGAS REALLY DIDN’T KNOW AND SOME NIGGAS WAS EXPECTING ME TO BE LIKE “NAH IT’S PERFECTLY NORMAL TO BREAK YA WIFE’S LEG IN HALF IF SHE STEPS IN FRONT OF THE TV PICKIN UP GARBAGE OFF THE FLOOR AND FUCKS UP YA KILLSTREAK” YOU SHOULDN’T JUST BEAT BITCHES UP FOR NO REASON B. THAT’S FOUL B, CUZ IMAGINE YOUR DAUGHTER GETTIN HER EYELASHES BEAT OFF BY SOME NIGGA CUZ SHE TALKED OVER AN ESPN HIGHLIGHT. YOU GOT A DVR NIGGA THAT WAS TOTALLY UNNECESSARY. SO YOU SHOULD NEVER HIT A FEMALE B.
1) SHE PUNCHES YOU OD HARD IN THE FACE IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE: IF YOU ON THE 5 TRAIN AT 149TH PLAYIN PLANTS VS ZOMBIES IGNORING WHATEVER BULLSHIT SHORTY IS TALKIN ABOUT AND SHE GETS TIGHT TO A POINT WHERE SHE’S ACTIN RECKLESS AND YOU JUST BE LIKE “MA, SHUTUP.” THEN SHE PUNCHES YOU OD HARD IN YOUR FACIAL? YOU GOTTA DO SOMETHING, CUZ NIGGAS IS LAUGHIN AT YOU. SO YOU GOTTA OPEN HAND SMACK SHORTY IN HER FACE SO HARD THAT HER EYEBALLS TURN INTO JELLO SHOTS AND FALL OUT. DO NOT PUNCH HER CUZ SOME NIGGA IS GONNA TRY TO COME TO HER RESCUE AND THEN YOU GOTTA THROW HOMIE ON THE TRACKS LIKE MY NIGGA QTIP DID IN PRISON SONG. THEN SUBSEQUENTLY GO TO JAIL AND DO CRAZY JOINTS AND EAT ONION SOUPS ON SOME MAZEL TOV WACK SHIT. WHICH SUCKS CUZ THEN SHORTY GETS THE LAST LAUGH. SO JUST SMACK HER IN THE FACE OD HARD.
2) SHE HITS YOUR MOTHER/SISTER: IF SHORTY VIOLATES LIKE THAT AND HITS YOUR MOMS OR YOUR SISTER THEN YOU GOTTA GO HAMMY DAVIS JR. ON THE BITCH B. YOU CAN’T LET THAT SLIDE AND EVEN IF YOUR SISTER GOT IT YOU GOTTA HIT SHORTY IN THE CHEST WITH THE VANDAMME KICK B FUCK ALL THAT GENTLEMAN SHIT. YOU GOT THE GREEN LIGHT TO PUNCH A BITCH IN THE FACE, BODYSLAM A BITCH ON A FIRE HYDRANT, ALL THAT. JUST DON’T KILL HER OBVIOUSLY. BUT NOW YOU GOTTA BE PREPARED TO FUCK HER BROTHER UP CUZ THAT NIGGA IS PROLLY GONNA TRY TO HOOK OFF. IF YOU LIVE IN THE HOOD THIS IS GONNA END UP WITH ONE OF YALL NIGGAS GETTIN SHOT TO PIECES AND NIGGAS WEARING LITTLE FLYER LOOKIN CARDS WITH “RIP MY NIGGA” ON THEM WITH YA PICTURE. IF YOU LIVE IN THE SUBURBS THIS IS GONNA GO ON FOR INFINITY ETERNITY AND YALL NIGGAS GON FIGHT EVERYTIME YOU SEE EACHOTHER AT CINNABON IN THE MALL.
3) SHE SUCKER PUNCHES YOU: UNLESS YOU WILD SOFT OR YOU DATING ONE OF THESE BITCHES EVEN IF SHORTY TROMBONES YA SHIT ON SOME UNEXPECTED YOU SHOULD STILL BE STANDING. IN WHICH CASE YOU TURN AND FLINCH AT SHORTY. IF SHE FLINCHES ON SOME SHOOK SHIT THEN YOU GRAB HER FACE AND SMUSH IT. DON’T MUSH THE BITCH SMUSH THE BITCH…YOU GOTTA PALM HER FACE LIKE A BASKETBALL AND BE LIKE “FUCK YOU DOIN BITCH? YOU CRAZY?” IF SHE DON’T FLINCH AND COCKS BACK FOR ANOTHER SWING THEN YOU GOTTA HIT SHORTY WITH THE DOWNWARD SMACK. YOU COME FROM UP HIGH AND SMACK DOWN LIKE YOU SLAMMIN DOMINOES ON THE TABLE. THAT SHIT IS WILD DISHEARTENING B. IT MAKES SHORTY REALIZE SHE CAN’T BANG WITH YOU CUZ YOU’LL ROCK HER SHIT.
NO MATTER WHAT YOU GOTTA STAY CALM B. DON’T WILD OUT AND START SCREAMIN & SHIT B. YOU GOTTA WHIP SHORTY ASS AND BE ON SOME COOL IKE TURNER SHIT. THAT WAY SHE FEELS LIKE “YO THIS NIGGA IS CRAZY LEMME NOT TRAVEL DOWN THIS ROAD DOWN AGAIN CUZ I CAN’T SEE OUT MY RIGHT EYEBALL RIGHT NOW AND MY EARS IS RINGIN”… ALSO, THIS SHIT APPLIES TO REGULAR BITCHES. IF YOUR GIRL IS WILD FAT THEN YOU GOTTA BE CAREFUL CUZ FAT BITCHES DON’T GO DOWN EASY AND THEY GO INTO CRAZY RHINO MODE AND WILL FALL ON YOU TO IMMOBILIZE YOU AND PUNCH YOU IN YA NUTS AND ALL THAT…NAH I’M PLAYIN FAT BITCHES GO NO SELF ESTEEM THEY WON’T EVER GET OUTTA POCKET UNLESS YOU GET HIGH AND EAT ALL THE ENTENMANN’S.
(Editor’s note: I immediately thought of this. Also, never ever hit a woman.)
P1.CN, an invitation-only social network for urban affluent Chinese, has attracted 1.2m members. And its success seems to lie in a concept that reflects a class society.
As a message to unfortunate non-members on the site’s homepage makes clear, P1.CN is out to make a virtue of exclusivity:
P1.CN is a private, invitation only social network for exceptional individuals. Therefore we pay special attention to the few people that receive the opportunity to join our network. Finding 5 of your friends on P1 will grant you access to our community.
The service found its first clientele by doing profiling in shopping malls – for that reason, it initially had a large overhang of female members. Members can network but also get special offers for top-end nightclubs and luxury brand shops.
Prospective members must have a monthly income of at least Rmb8,000 – according to luxury market researchers, the threshold for an upper middle class lifestyle. But above ordinary membership, there are silver, gold and platinum memberships. Platinum members are “basically the super-wealthy,” says Wang Yu, the company’s chief executive.
And while, in other countries, the higher levels of exclusivity might come with age, P1.CN indicates it’s the other way round in China. “Gold members tend to be older than Platinum members because the latter often belong to the ‘rich second generation’,” says Wang.
According to him, China’s rich kids are reluctant to engage socially with people outside their own class, and are desperate to find others with similar wealth levels. “The higher up you go, the more active they are [on P1.CN],” he says. “The top members use it on a daily basis because for these people, it is really hard to find others of their kind.”
If a bizarre alternate universe existed where Mad Men's Don Draper mated with Don Rickles, the resulting love child would look something like DumbDumb, the new marketing venture by Arrested Development alums Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. “We’re the CEOs of DumbDumb, but that’s a hilarious moniker to give us,” Arnett says. “We’re actually co-chief executive dummies. That’s our official title.” Since launching in 2010, DumbDumb has released a handful of videos online, similar to comedy content on sites like CollegeHumor and Funny or Die, but with one key difference: the videos are sponsored by brands whose products inspire and are featured in the sketches.
"I’ve always wanted to make commercials, but I wasn’t really sure if I had the skill set," Bateman says. "I’m also a big fan of sketches that people are doing online nowadays, and a lot of our peers are doing these sketches. I just wondered if there was a way to do both."
With DumbDumb, Bateman and Arnett discovered a unique way to produce quirky comedy content for the Internet and have Madison Avenue foot the bill. Arnett explains, “There’s a tremendous amount of instances where you’ll be talking to a friend, and you’ll say, ‘Oh, that would be a really funny video if we went and shot that.’ But then you just don’t do it, because you’re like, ‘What am I going to do? Go get a camera? I’m going to fucking write this sketch? And then I have to get some people to come do it with me? Ugh. Why bother?’ And you end up not doing it. So we thought this would be a great opportunity to have the mechanism in place to take advantage of stuff we wanted to do, and then find a brand who would underwrite that. But the original impetus grew out of the desire to just fuck around.”
That impetus paid off when Bateman and Arnett starred in “The Prom Date,” DumbDumb’s first video. Underwritten by Orbit gum, the sketch features Bateman as a doting dad shocked by the revelation that his teenage daughter (Parks & Rec's Aubrey Plaza) is taking her lecherous and mustachioed social studies teacher, played by Arnett, to the senior prom. The messy situation gets straightened out once everyone starts chewing Orbit.
"Somehow, at the end of it, you’re left feeling, ‘Well, that’s not so creepy and bad. Orbit actually ended up making the situation better,’" Arnett says. "That seemed like something a big brand might not want to touch, but they trusted us enough to know that at the end of the day, we weren’t gonna make them look like an unseemly bunch of creeps. The flipside is that we did it in a way that was also palatable to us, and didn’t feel like it was too shilly. That’s always the dance, figuring that out."
Since the advent of DVRs, corporations have been relying on branded entertainment to pitch their products to viewers — whether it’s Randy Jackson sipping on a Coke during American Idol or the Situation dousing himself with Axe Body Spray on Jersey Shore. With branded content already ingrained in mainstream entertainment, why would corporations choose to work with DumbDumb over a traditional ad agency?
"Well, first of all, you don’t have to hang out with those ad guys," Arnett deadpans. "That’s actually not true. I need to make the distinction that we’re not an ad agency, we work in concert with the ad agencies. So we’re not out there thinking that we’re Mad Men. We’re just a couple of jackasses.”
"Ad agencies do an amazing job creating commercials that drive sales, and then we come along and write some sort of dumb booger-eating content," Bateman elaborates. "We’re sort of a compliment to the more traditional marketing efforts."
With the recent release of “Always Open,” a talk show web series set in a Denny’s and hosted by David Koechner (Anchorman), business is brisk for DumbDumb. “We have offices in Los Angeles, New York, London, Tokyo, Madrid, Santiago, Chile. There’s a lot happening in Chile right now. It’s really hot. Actually hot,” Arnett jokes. “No, we just have an office here in L.A. And what you’d see if you walked in is a very nicely dressed Jason Bateman and me in gym shorts and sneakers. I don’t know when I became that guy. When I came to Los Angeles years ago, I’d look at these middle-aged jackasses wearing gym shorts and sneakers in the middle of the day, and I thought, ‘God, I hope I never become one of those tools.’ Anyway, I’m one of those tools.”
Fans of Bateman and Arnett’s TV and movie careers need not worry about DumbDumb becoming more of a priority than, say, the long-overdue Arrested Development movie. “[DumbDumb] is and always will be in second position to our day job,” Bateman says. “When we’re not working, which is often for an actor, we’re in here putting in long days of writing.”
In addition to the “Always Open” videos, DumbDumb has a plethora of projects in the pipeline, including a potential dream collaboration for Canadian-born Arnett with the National Hockey League. With this flurry of activity, expect Bateman and Arnett to continue pushing the boundaries in the marriage between comedy and commerce. “Our daily objective is to try and stay true to the idea that we’re not going to become a neon sign for these brands,” Arnett says. “We’ll just always try to do the funniest thing within the realm of our own capabilities.”
Despite the buzz surrounding their fledgling business, the DumbDumb duo tries not to look too far into the future. “Who knows?” Arnett says. “In a year, we might be in PAPER magazine’s Where Are They Now? issue. Headline: ‘What Happened to These Dumb Dumbs?’ With a big picture of me and a really small picture of Jason. Contractually, he has to be one third the size of me.”
Danny always takes care of me every time I eat at MCF, now he’s sharing some recipes in the New York Times. Big ups!
Recipe: Salt-and-Pepper Shrimp With Curried Pork Fat and Fennel Time: 30 minutes
Salt 1 stalk lemongrass 1 inch fresh ginger 1 head garlic, halved 1 tablespoon fennel seeds 5 pieces star anise 2 tablespoons black peppercorns 1 tablespoon white peppercorns 5 bay leaves 1 cinnamon stick 1 cup lard or rendered pork fat 2 cups canola or other neutral oil 3 pounds head-on shrimp 1 onion, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips 1 leek, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips 2 jalapeños, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips 1 large fennel bulb, cut into 1/2-by-2-inch strips 1 tablespoon ground turmeric, or more to taste 2 teaspoons fried garlic or shallot (available in many Asian supermarkets), for garnish.
1. Smash the lemongrass and ginger with the side of a knife. Put the lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fennel seeds, star anise, both kinds of peppercorns, bay leaves and cinnamon stick in a large, dry skillet over high heat and toast until fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pork fat; when it melts, cover the pan, turn off the heat and leave on the stovetop for 1 hour. Strain and discard the solids. (The curried pork fat can be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator.)
2. Put the canola oil in a large skillet over high heat. When it’s hot (a piece of onion should bubble immediately when added to the oil), add as many of the shrimp as will fit in a single layer (work in batches if necessary). Cook the shrimp until pink, about 30 seconds to 1 minute per side. Remove and drain on paper towels.
3. Heat a dry cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet over high heat for at least for 3 minutes. Add the onion, leek, jalapeños and fennel to the pan and leave for 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup of the curried pork fat and cook until the onion has started to soften but hasn’t yet turned clear. Add the shrimp and season with turmeric, salt and more pork fat to taste. Garnish with the fried garlic and serve.
Scene: Café de la Concha, 1 Mira Concha, San Sebastián, Spain.
It is nighttime, and DAVID CHANG, TONY BOURDAIN, and WYLIE DUFRESNE are gathered around a table. A January storm rages outside and keeps the café nearly empty. The three Americans—in town to speak at a conference—are catching up over hard cider and pintxos, and talking, at CHANG’s behest, about culinary mediocrity back in their homeland.
TONY: So what about all these kids rolling out of culinary school now, with their $80,000 in debt? They’re totally jacked there.
DAVID: We’re all their f–king problem. We’re sort of a catalyst for them.
TONY: We’re inspiring generations of kids to go to culinary school.
DAVID: Could you have achieved your career without having gone to culinary school?
WYLIE: Sure. Of course I could have. I went to college, too.
DAVID: But now, what percentage of kids going to culinary school are actually going to contribute to a real kitchen? Like a two-Michelin-star, one-Michelin-star, whatever, a real f–king kitchen. Zero.
TONY: Man, that’s such a dark worldview. I just spoke to a kid today who came up to me and said, “You came up to the Culinary Institute of America five years ago and gave a commencement address.” I have no recollection of meeting this person. She asked me then, “What should I do after school?” And I said, “Do what I didn’t do. Acknowledge the fact that you’re not going to make any money at all, you’re not going to get paid for two years, and go work for the best. I would suggest Spain, some place like Mugaritz.” She’s at Mugaritz now. Come on, man, that’s a f–king awesome start.
DAVID: And if you didn’t talk to her, she’d probably—
TONY: Oh no, don’t do that. My point is that there are actually people who come rolling out of culinary school—maybe it’s a tiny, tiny number, but probably proportionally more than during my time—who don’t see the Hilton as a fantastic gig, or a cruise ship or a country club, and understand that if they wanna be great, if they want to be really good, then they have to start looking at places like Mugaritz or Arzak.
WYLIE: I disagree with that. I think unfortunately there is more of a mediocritizing of the average culinary-school graduate now than there was way back when. I think to a certain extent schools are selling them a bill of goods. “Come to culinary school, go through our program, and in six to eight months you could be the chef of this or that.” Not “Come to our schools and we’ll give you the absolute basics so you can go out into the world and work for pennies.” But that’s the truth. Today it’s, “You could end up on TV.”
TONY: F–k, you’re right. So we’re part of the problem.
My heart sank a little bit. The World/United States of Love line that I created is one of the reasons that I was able to quit my full-time job. They even stole the item name as well as some of my copy.
I’m very disappointed in Urban Outfitters. I know they have stolen designs from plenty of other artists. I understand that they are a business, but it’s not cool to completely rip off an independent designer’s work.
I’ll no longer be shopping at any of their stores [they also own Free People & Anthropologie], and I’m going to do my best from here on out to support independent designers & artists.
Please feel free to pass this link on. I really appreciate all the support & love I’ve received today.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fermi Paradox is what it suggests for the future of our human civilization. Namely, that we have no future beyond earthly confinement and, quite possibly, extinction. Could advanced nanotechnology play a role in preventing that extinction? Or, more darkly, is it destined to be instrumental in carrying out humanity’s unavoidable death sentence?
In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi famously wondered, “Where is everybody?” He was referring to the strange silence in the universe, the apparent lack of any advanced civilizations beyond Earth.
Fermi reasoned that the size and age of the universe would indicate that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis is inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.
So, where is everybody? Nowhere, it seems, or at least nowhere that we can detect.
Many explanations have been offered for this conundrum, with none coming even close to finding consensus. Physicists, astronomers, and philosophers are as far from answering the question today as when Fermi first posed it.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fermi Paradox is what it suggests for the future of our human civilization. Namely, that we have no future beyond earthly confinement and, quite possibly, extinction.
But why should that be? Don’t we have a potentially limitless future, with a solar system and eventually a galaxy waiting to be explored and settled?
It would seem so, and yet, the available evidence may suggest otherwise.
If there are no other advanced civilizations detectable, it must mean one of three things:
We are the first intelligent beings capable of expanding into the cosmos and making our presence known. There have been no others.
There have been others before us, but all of them, without exception, have chosen — or somehow been forced — to expand in such a way that they are presently undetectable by our most sophisticated instruments.
There have been others, but all of them, without exception, have run into a cosmic roadblock that either destroys them or prevents their expansion beyond a small radius.
The first proposition, that we humans are unique and special, appears quite absurd. It contradicts all that we have discovered during the last 500 years about the true nature of the universe and our place in it. We’re not special: the Earth is not at the center of our solar system, the solar system is not at the center of our galaxy, and our galaxy is not at any special position in the universe. Our placement in space and time seems to be random and unremarkable.
Moreover, we humans, along with every other form of life, have evolved to our present state in accordance with natural selection. There’s nothing special about us.
Why, then, would it even be conceivable that earthlings are destined to be the very first species to make a noticeable mark on the universe?
If we reject proposition 1, then we must choose between propositions 2 and 3.
There is a crucial distinction between the second and third propositions. The former relies on choice, while the latter implies restriction by some force or law of the universe.
It seems strange to imagine, as suggested by proposition 2, that all extraterrestrial civilizations would, without exception, choose to expand or exist in such a way that they are completely undetectable to us. If proposition 2 is correct, it requires every one of potentially hundreds, thousands, or even millions of advanced worlds to make the exact same decision. We might expect some to do so, perhaps even most, but all? That defies logic.
So we are left with the third answer. Whatever civilizations have come before us have been unable to surpass the cosmic roadblock. They are either destroyed or limited in such a way that absolutely precludes their expansion into the visible universe. If that is indeed the case — and it would seem to be the most logical explanation for Fermi’s Paradox — then there is some immutable law that we too must expect to encounter at some point. We are, effectively, sentenced to death or, at best, life in the prison of a near-space bubble.
According to the Associated Press Stylebook—Slate's bible for all things punctuation- and grammar-related—there are two main prose uses—the abrupt change and the series within a phrase—for the em dash. The guide does not explicitly say that writers can use the dash in lieu of properly crafting sentences, or instead of a comma or a parenthetical or a colon—and yet in practical usage, we do. A lot—or so I have observed lately. America's finest prose—in blogs, magazines, newspapers, or novels—is littered with so many dashes among the dots it's as if the language is signaling distress in Morse code.
What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?
Nope—or that’s my take, anyway. Now, I’m the first to admit—before you Google and shame me with a thousand examples in the comments—that I’m no saint when it comes to the em dash. I never met a sentence I didn’t want to make just a bit longer—and so the dash is my embarrassing best friend. When the New York Times’ associate managing editor for standards—Philip B. Corbett, for the record—wrote a blog post scolding Times writers for overusing the dash (as many as five dashes snuck their way into a single 3.5-paragraph story on A1, to his horror), an old friend from my college newspaper emailed it to me. “Reminded me of our battles over long dashes,” he wrote—and, to tell the truth, I wasn’t on the anti-dash side back then. But as I’ve read and written more in the ensuing years, my reliance on the dash has come to feel like a pack-a-day cigarette habit—I know it makes me look and sound and feel terrible—and so I’m trying to quit.
The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don’t you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won’t be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that’s not yet complete? Strunk and White—who must always be mentioned in articles such as this one—counsel against overusing the dash as well: “Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.” Who are we, we modern writers, to pass judgment—and with such shocking frequency—on these more simple forms of punctuation—the workmanlike comma, the stalwart colon, the taken-for-granted period? (One colleague—arguing strenuously that certain occasions call for the dash instead of other punctuation, for purposes of tone—told me he thinks of the parenthesis as a whisper, and the dash as a way of calling attention to a phrase. As for what I think of his observation—well, consider how I have chosen to offset it.)
Perhaps, in some way, the recent rise of the dash—and this “trend” is just anecdotal observation; I admit I haven’t found a way to crunch the numbers—is a reaction to our attention-deficit-disordered culture, in which we toggle between tabs and ideas and conversations all day. An explanation is not an excuse, though—as Corbett wrote in another sensible harangue against the dash, “Sometimes a procession of such punctuation is a hint that a sentence is overstuffed or needs rethinking.” Why not try for clarity in our writing—if not our lives?
It’s unclear—even among the printing community—when the em dash came into common usage. Folklore—if you’re willing to trust it—holds that it’s been around since the days of Gutenberg but didn’t catch on until at least the 1700s because the em dash wasn’t used in the Bible, and thus was considered an inferior bit of punctuation. The symbol derives its name from its width—approximately equal to an m—and is easily confused with its close cousin the en dash, used more frequently across the pond, but here meant only to offset sports scores and the like. The em dash isn’t easily formed on computers—it requires some special keystrokes on both PCs and Macs—and so I will admit that at least some of my bile comes from, as a copy editor, endlessly changing other writers’ sloppy em-dash simulacra (the double dash, the single offset dash) to the real thing.
Perhaps the most famous dash-user in history—though she didn’t use the em dash conventionally—was Emily Dickinson. According to the essay “Emily Dickinson’s Volcanic Punctuation" from a 1993 edition of The Emily Dickinson Journal—a true general-interest read!—”Dickinson’s excessive use of dashes has been interpreted variously as the result of great stress and intense emotion, as the indication of a mental breakdown, and as a mere idiosyncratic, female habit.”Can there really be—at the risk of sounding like a troglodyte—something feminine about the use of a dash, some sort of lighthearted gossamer quality? Compare Dickinson’s stylistic flitting with the brutally short sentences of male writers—Hemingway, for instance—who, arguably, use their clipped style to evoke taciturn masculinity.Henry Fielding apparently rewrote his sister Sarah’s work heavily to edit out some of her idiosyncrasies—chief among them, a devotion to the dash. In Gore Vidal’s Burr, the title character complains—in a charming internal monologue—”Why am I using so many dashes? Like a schoolgirl. The dash is the sign of a poor style. Jefferson used to hurl them like javelins across the page.” So is the rise of the dash related—as everything seems to be these days—to the End of Men? (I kid—calm down.)
More likely, it’s the lack of hard-and-fast usage rules—even the AP’s guidelines are more suggestions than anything—that makes the dash so popular in our post-sentence-diagramming era. According to Lynne Truss—the closest thing we’ve got to a celebrity grammarian, thanks to her best-sellerEats, Shoots and Leaves—people use the em dash because “they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”
So, fine, the em dash is easy to turn to—any port will do in a storm. But if you want to make your point—directly, with clarity, and memorably—I have some advice you’d do well to consider. Leave the damn em dash alone.
Sex sells—if, that is, the endless stream of sexy commercials advertising anything from shampoo to candy, Bumpits, and Doritos is anything to go by. We are surrounded by sex and obsessed with it, both personally and politically. We care who is having sex with whom, what they are calling their relationship, and which guido Snooki “smushed” last week. Among the sex-laden billboards, radio shows, and TV sitcoms, it can be easy to overlook the growing numbers of people who officially identify as asexual, or just not interested.
AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network, defines an asexual as simply “a person who does not experience sexual attraction.” This basic definition, however, does not even begin to cover the range of different experiences described by the umbrella term “asexual.” To navigate the complexities of asexual identity, I met with Alexis Karinin, a Cornell junior who first began to identify as asexual about a year ago. “I’ve always sort of realized that I’ve been on a different page,” she told me, “but I always thought that meant I was weird and inept and defective in some way… It took me a long time, a lot of anxiety and a lot of feeling very excluded and inept before I realized that no, I’m normal, just a different kind of normal, and I can find my own ways of expressing myself.”
For some time, Alexis had known of the online asexual community’s existence, but she just didn’t think the term applied to her. “I thought everyone experienced sexual attraction the same way that I did,” she said, “And then I sort of heard some non-asexual people talk about how they actually experienced it, and I was like wait, wait, that’s never—what, what? I’ve never felt like that!”
The complex spectrum of emotions that members of AVEN’s community experience is hard to classify, but Alexis broke down some of the more common identities for me. “Some asexuals consider themselves a- or non-sex, which means they’re not interested in romantic relationships and don’t really get crushes in the same way. Some are romantic, so they might want a relationship that is actually very emotionally involved, but does not have much of a sexual component. Some people identify as asexual, but are into S&M and bondage and all of that stuff, but for its own sake. A lot of asexuals might actually engage in sex, either as a compromise for their partners or just for reasons of closeness, in the same way that someone who is straight can have sex with someone of their own gender and even enjoy it, but not really be attracted to them.”
However, not all members of the community are so accepting of asexuals who pursue romantic relationships, masturbate, or have sex. Although officially discouraged by AVEN, “asexual elitists” argue that asexuality is defined by sexual behavior, not just sexual attraction. Alexis vehemently opposes this definition, and explained, “There’s this idea of the unassailable asexual. Someone who’s good-looking, so no one can say they just can’t get any; someone who has never been abused as a child, so no one can say it’s trauma; someone who’s been in a relationship, so no one can say they just haven’t found the right person yet. And there’s all these impossible standards. Some people might meet all of them, but then if you hold those people up as the ideal you might belittle those people who have, for example, dealt with sexual abuse. Their asexuality is just as legitimate. There just needs to be acceptance.”
The first official recognition of asexuality dates back to a 1948 study of sexual behavior by Alfred Kinsey: the same study that famously redefined sexuality as being on a “Kinsey scale” rather than a binary of 100% homosexual versus 100% heterosexual. In the study, Kinsey also identified a group of “X” type individuals with “no socio-sexual contacts or relations.” This group, Kinsey found, consisted of 1.5% of the studied adult male population, 14-19% of unmarried females, and 1-3% of married females.
The data that really peaked public interest, however, came from a 1994 study that surveyed 18,876 residents of the United Kingdom about their sexual orientation in order to combat AIDS. In the study, 1.05% of respondents identified themselves as having “never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” That official 1% elicited a frenzy of media response and became the focus of intense speculation. It has also, slowly, begun to inspire more serious scholarship, and acted as one of the catalysts for the 2001 founding of AVEN by David Jay in order to “create public acceptance and discussion of asexuality and facilitate the growth of an asexual community.”
One of the most difficult challenges that any asexual faces is public ignorance. Many asexuals talk about “coming out of the closet,” but Alexis told me that it’s a very different issue for asexuals than for homosexuals because the former are less likely to face extreme reactions, such as violence. In fact, Alexis noted wryly, certain environments might actually praise people for being asexual. “I guess the problem is more that people don’t actually believe that asexuals exist,” she told me. “A lot of people assume that if you say you’re asexual you’re really just repressed, or really uptight, or you just haven’t found the right person yet, that’s another line, or that you haven’t matured yet.”
Another common misconception of asexuality claims that it is a behavioral disorder or a medical problem. Alexis agrees, to a point. “Any big change in libido can be an indication of something bad,” she said. “One of the definitions of disorder is something that causes you discomfort or distress, but if it’s not causing you distress—if you’ve just always felt this way, or it feels natural—then maybe that’s just who you are and maybe there’s nothing wrong with it. It definitely caused me more distress to deny my asexuality. If it’s not causing someone distress, and if they live comfortably accepting that identity, then maybe it is part of them.”
Yet another myth conflates asexuality with anti-sexuality. “I’ve met some people who when I said I was asexual remarked that that meant I was a chastity-belt wearing monk, and I’m, ‘oh my god, no,’” Alexis laughed. “I happen to be a very sex-positive person, but I’m just not interested in it myself… In fact, I think that sex-positivity should encompass asexuality because it should encompass respect for anyone’s decisions about their own body and their own sexuality.” For some reason, she said, “People get offended as though you’re telling them not to have sex.”
Surprisingly, Alexis told me, the asexual community has found little support from other sexual minorities. In fact, asexuals are often excluded from LGBTQ spaces. “I have read arguments saying ‘if you’re asexual you’re not actually queer, you’re just a straight person who doesn’t care about sex.’ That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Unlike many sexual minority organizations, AVEN does not have an explicit political mission. Instead, they are more geared towards outreach and visibility—and to correcting negative portrayals of asexuals in the media. Alexis brought up one particularly egregious example: a recent ad for Plan B in which the actress stated earnestly, “After a little problem with my birth control, I could vow to become an asexual, a-social, a-everything girl—or I can get a real plan.” Alexis, like the rest of the asexual community, did not appreciate the sentiment. “That conflation of asocial, asexual… oh god,” she said.
Dan Savage, who writes the popular LGBTQ-friendly syndicated advice column Savage Love and puts out a corresponding podcast, has also come under fire from the asexual community. In a February 2011 column, for example, he answered a writer’s concerns about lack of sex drive by asking, “Why would you even contemplate inflicting yourself on a normally sexual person? Why not go find another minimally sexual person?” The idea that a romantic relationship must also be sexual in order to be healthy rankled with not a few asexual blogs and bloggers, one of whom lamented, “Sadly, Savage seems unable to understand that not all men are rapaciously monosexual.”
Asexuals also get their fair share of positive coverage, mostly through fictional characters in TV, books, and movies—although J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, Isaac Newton, and Morrissey of the rock band The Smiths were reportedly asexual as well. Notable examples include Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory and Charlie Weasley from Harry Potter who, according to J.K. Rowling, isn’t gay, “just more interested in dragons than women.” Sherlock Holmes never had any significant sexual attractions, even to Irene Adler, who seems more of a professional rival.
And, of course, The Doctor from Doctor Who, the great love of asexuals everywhere, who seems to have little or no sexual attraction to anyone, including his varied cast of attractive, young female companions.
One of the most striking things about AVEN is just how tight-knit the community seems. While the AVEN site is also filled with abundant testimonials and resources, Alexis told me that she uses it primarily for the social element driven by the forums. In fact, the list of topics under “community” is much longer than that under “asexuality.” Many asexuals make lasting connections through the site, including dating and marriage. Recently, she’s been using a smaller oﬀ shoot of AVEN that focuses more heavily on gender issues, but says that it draws its membership almost exclusively from AVEN. “It’s an interesting little online community with some awesomely weird folk,” she said. “We’re all pretty much obsessed with cake and gender issues and Doctor Who. I’ve met a lot of them in ‘real’ life, and in fact, my partner and I are going down to meet some of them in New York City this weekend… It’s almost surprising how close you can become to people very quickly. It’s kind of awkward at first, but we have a lot in common.” By “cake,” Alexis meant the tongue-in-cheek symbol of the asexual community, a slice of cake, which originated when one asexual described his experience by saying, “Between cake and sex, I’d choose cake.”
While some asexuals try to date within the community by ing sites such Asexualitic.com, others are more open to dating sexual partners. Alexis emphasized that even though “some asexuals are very sex-repulsed, others are very sex-indiﬀ erent… It’s not a bad experience.” Broaching the subject can be awkward, Alexis acknowledged. “Some of the asexuals I know that do date choose to stay within ace-minded communities for that reason, in that it’s kind of awkward to go on the first date and say, ‘Oh, by the way…’ But some of the people I know are very blunt about it, and it works for them.”
Overall, Alexis said, many asexual relationships don’t diﬀ er all that much from a “normal” sexual relationship. Open relationships do tend to be a greater presence on AVEN than in the general public, though, and many asexuals have more fluid life plans than getting married and having kids at a certain age. “Some people re-adopt that plan later,” Alexis said, “but on their own terms.”
One perk of identifying as asexual, Alexis told me, is that many people find that “discovering their asexuality liberated them from feeling like they had to be held up to certain standards, and it helped them become much closer to a lot of their friends, in that they started treating their relationships more like friendships, and their friendships more like relationships.” She clarified, “In a certain way, they try to remove the ‘just’ in front of ‘just friends,’ because no, a friendship does not have to be in any way a lesser kind of relationship than a romantic one. Society makes you think that your goal in life is to find a specific romantic relationship. And ultimately, we should build emotionally close relationships with everyone around us.”
Throughout our interview, Alexis’ primary focus returned again and again to acceptance: both within the community of all experiences, and outside the community of asexuality. She sees the goal of AVEN as “just getting the word out there as a legitimate orientation and not a disorder or some kind of deviation.” As she pointed out, “There’s not normal people and asexual people, there’s sexual and there’s asexual people, and they’re both equally legitimate ways to approach the world and have relationships.”
Abdullahi “Boyah” Abshir, who claimed to have hijacked more than 25 ships, told me that he and his men did not discriminate, but would go after any ship hapless enough to wander into their sights. And despite their ostensible purpose of protecting Somali national waters, during the heat of the chase they paid no regard to international boundaries, pursuing their target until they caught it or it escaped them. Boyah separated his seafaring prey into the broad dichotomy of commercial and tourist ships. The commercial ships, identifiable by the cranes visible on their decks, were much slower and easier to capture. Boyah had gone after too many of these to remember: “a lot” was his most precise estimate.
The basic strategy was crude in its simplicity. In attack groups spread across several small and speedy skiffs, Boyah and his men approached their target on all sides, swarming like a waterborne wolf pack. They brandished their weapons in an attempt to frighten the ship’s crew into stopping, and even fired into the air. If these scare tactics did not work, and if the target ship was capable of outperforming their outboard motors, the chase ended there. But if they managed to pull even with their target, they tossed hooked rope ladders onto the decks and boarded the ship. Instances of the crew fighting back were rare, and rarely effective, and the whole process, from spotting to capturing, took at most 30 minutes. Boyah guessed that only 20% to 30% of attempted hijackings met with success, for which he blamed speedy prey, technical problems and foreign naval or domestic intervention. The captured ship was then steered to a friendly port – in Boyah’s case, Eyl – where guards and interpreters were brought from the shore to look after the hostages during the ransom negotiation.
Once the ransom was secured – often routed through banks in London and Dubai and parachuted like a special-delivery care package directly onto the deck of the ship – it was split among all the concerned parties. Half the money went to the attackers, the men who actually captured the ship. A third went to the operation’s investors: those who fronted the money for the ships, fuel, tracking equipment and weapons. The remaining sixth went to everyone else: the guards ferried from shore to watch over the hostage crew, the suppliers of food and water, the translators (occasionally high-school students on their summer break), and even the poor and disabled in the local community, who received some as charity. Such largesse, Boyah told me, had made his merry band into Robin Hood figures among the residents of Eyl.
Boyah’s moral compass seemed to be divided between sea and shore; he warned me, half-jokingly, not to run into him in a boat, but, despite my earlier misgivings, assured me that he was quite harmless on land. “We’re not murderers,” he said. “We’ve never killed anyone, we just attack ships.”
Mirtala Garcia laid a hand on Sebastiao Lourenco’s chest, then pressed her ear there for a moment.
“That’s my heart,” she said. “It’s still beating for me.”
Although she had just met Mr. Lourenco, she had known his heart for a long time. It had belonged to her husband, Julio, who died from a brain hemorrhage in March 2010, at the age of 38. Mrs. Garcia donated her husband’s organs, and the family’s loss led to a second chance for Mr. Lourenco, 57.
But he was not the only one. Seven or eight other people who urgently needed transplants also received organs from Mr. Garcia, an unusually large number. (The average from organ donors is about three.) Even more unusual, his family and a group of recipients met on Wednesday in a highly emotional gathering at the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Organ Donor Network, which coordinated the transplants.
The story of the Garcias and the people whose lives were saved by one man’s donated organs provides a close look at the charged world of transplants and organ donation, where people on the transplant list know they may die waiting, and the families of brain-dead patients are asked, at perhaps the most painful time in their lives, to look beyond their own grief and allow a loved one’s organs to be removed to help strangers.
There are nowhere near enough donor organs for all the people who need transplants. Nearly 111,000 are on waiting lists in the United States, but last year, only 28,663 transplants were performed, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees the transplant system nationwide. This year, 6,000 to 7,000 people are expected to die waiting.
Last week, Mrs. Garcia and her children, 5, 11 and 18, who all live in Stamford, Conn., met four of the recipients of her husband’s organs for the first time. A fifth recipient also attended, one of two people with renal failure, both members of the Garcias’ church, whom Mrs. Garcia chose to receive kidneys.
Mrs. Garcia addressed a room packed with recipients, families, doctors, nurses, her minister and his family and network employees. She spoke briefly through an interpreter. She said her husband had had a big heart and would be very proud “to give life after death.” No one would ever forget him, she said.
Elaine R. Berg, president of the donor network, said: “These meetings don’t happen that frequently. I’ve been here 11 years, and if it’s once a year that’s a lot. I’ve never met five recipients from one donor. It’s highly unusual.”
In many cases recipients or donor families, or both, choose to remain anonymous, Ms. Berg said. Recipients may send thank-you letters through the network, but they and donors do not often choose to meet.
“It’s pretty intimidating and pretty emotional,” Ms. Berg said. “Some people cannot bear it.”
But she said that meeting the recipients can bring solace to donor families.
Mr. Garcia was so young and strong that his corneas and six organs were healthy enough to transplant: his heart, one lung, his pancreas, both kidneys and his liver, which was divided to save two people, an adult and a child.
In photographs, Julio Garcia was handsome, with a mischievous smile. His wife said he loved to joke and laugh. But he was also deeply religious, and as a pastor at their evangelical church in Stamford he did a lot of preaching and marriage counseling. He earned his living as a carpenter. Both he and his wife, originally from Guatemala, became naturalized citizens.
For many years, he had suffered periodically from severe headaches, but he had been told they were migraines. The headaches were unusually bad during the week or so before March 17, a Wednesday. That day, his head hurting, he told his children he loved them and went to work.
He called his wife that afternoon, saying the pain was terrible and he was going numb all over. She wanted to call an ambulance, but he asked her to pick him up instead. She drove him to a hospital in Stamford. A major hemorrhage and swelling were putting pressure on his brain. Doctors tried to relieve the pressure, and then transferred Mr. Garcia to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital in Manhattan.
By the time he arrived there on Wednesday night, he was in a deep coma, needed a ventilator to breathe and had extremely low blood pressure — all signs of a large hemorrhage affecting the brain stem, according to Dr. Axel Rosengart, the director of neurocritical care. Doctors stabilized him and tried again to reduce the pressure on his brain, but scans showed extensive, irreversible damage, Dr. Rosengart said.
Dr. Rosengart said he was not certain but suspected that the bleeding was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, a blood vessel abnormality that Mr. Garcia may have had from birth.
By Thursday, Dr. Rosengart said, he began to warn the family that Mr. Garcia was heading toward brain death. Later that day, the diagnosis was made twice, by two different physicians, in accord with state law. A patient with brain death is legally dead. At that point, there were two priorities, Dr. Rosengart said: “the family and their emotional survival, and preserving the organs.”
Brain-dead patients can become medically unstable, and intensive treatment is often needed to prevent their organs from failing.
Dr. Rosengart and a social worker from the New York Organ Donor Network asked Mrs. Garcia about organ donation.
At first, Mrs. Garcia recalled, she could not accept the diagnosis of brain death. Still hoping a miracle would save her husband, she asked them to wait.
The next day, Friday, it became clear to her that her husband would not recover. Dr. Rosengart and the social worker, Michelle Aguiar, asked her to think about what Mr. Garcia would have wanted.
“More than half the time, if you offer somebody the chance to save a life when their head is clear, you know they’re going to say yes,” Ms. Aguiar said. “The timing is crucial.”
She said that 70 percent of the families she asked gave consent, which is one of the highest rates in the New York network.
Mrs. Garcia said she thought about how important it had been to her husband to help other people. She recalled a movie they had watched, “Seven Pounds,” about a man who donates organs. Mr. Garcia had said that it would be a great thing to save lives, and that if anyone ever got his heart, he hoped she would meet that person. She recalled another movie in which someone had wound up in a coma, after which Mr. Garcia said he would not want his family to see him linger that way.
She talked to relatives and her minister. Finally, Mrs. Garcia thought of her friend Milvia Palma, who needed a kidney transplant. She heard Ms. Palma’s voice in her mind, saying, “I’m sick.” And in that moment, the decision was made. Mr. Garcia had said that God would provide for Ms. Palma. Who could have known that it would be through his own death?
On Friday night, Mrs. Garcia signed the consent forms. The donor network went into action, locating patients at the top of transplant lists, looking for matches in blood type, body size and other factors.
Patients at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital were eligible for the heart, liver and lung; a 1-year-old at Mount Sinai would also receive part of the liver, and Ms. Palma and Edward Santos, another friend and church member, would get the kidneys. The pancreas would go to a patient in Minnesota, who has chosen to remain anonymous.
The first operations were scheduled for Sunday. Thomas Ginz, 67, from Guilford, Conn., got the call at 6:30 in the morning.
“You get a slip from the hospital that you can give to the police so you can actually speed to get there if you have to, because time is of the essence,” Mr. Ginz said. (He did not have to use it.)
Mr. Ginz, who has a disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which scars the lungs, needed oxygen all the time and was deteriorating so rapidly that even his doctor had begun to worry that a transplant might not come in time.
Now, Mr. Ginz wondered if the operation would really happen. A month earlier, lungs had become available and he was called in as a backup candidate and fully prepped for surgery. As it turned out, another patient was a better fit. Many transplant candidates go through these nerve-racking dry runs. But this time, his surgeon said, “Tom, you’re up,” and whisked him off to the operating room.
Jo Ann Laskaris, 69, from Manhattan, had also wondered if she would survive long enough to receive a transplant. She had liver cancer, caused by hepatitis C, which she had contracted from a blood transfusion when she was in her 20s. Doctors were struggling to keep the disease from spreading beyond her liver. She received the right lobe, the larger segment of Mr. Garcia’s liver.
The smaller left lobe went to Braylen Benitez, a toddler from the Bronx with a congenital liver disease, whose body had just rejected a transplant.
Mr. Lourenco, 57, who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens, had severe heart failure and was in the hospital when word of the transplant came. For two years he had needed an implanted pump to help his weakened heart, and he, like the others, saw his time running out.
Mr. Santos, 43, had kidney failure caused by diabetes, which had already damaged his sight and led to the amputation of his lower leg. Dialysis treatments left him feeling ill and weak, and as one after another patient at the clinic died, he wondered if he would share their fate.
After the operations, Ms. Laskaris and Mr. Ginz’s wife wrote Mrs. Garcia to thank her, and said they hoped to meet her some day.
Last week, the recipients and their families hugged and thanked her and her children. Several said they felt a powerful bond to her and her family. Mr. Lourenco, an artist, gave her one of his paintings. Ms. Laskaris asked if she and her family might attend Mrs. Garcia’s church.
For most, it had not been an easy year. Several had suffered from infections and frightening episodes of rejection, and all were dealing with complicated regimens of anti-rejection pills and other medicines. But all were grateful to be alive and were keenly aware that their survival had depended on someone else’s death, and the kindness of his family.
Mrs. Garcia and her children have lived with loss and sadness. And without her husband’s earnings, Mrs. Garcia, who cleans houses, struggles to pay her rent and feed the family. But she said she finds comfort, and sometimes even joy, in thinking that her husband lives on through other people, and that he would have wanted it that way.
What have writers got but words? And what have people got but their own bodies to inhabit?
What then if you’re a writer and the kind of person who has a body part that could be named by a word that can’t be used? At any rate, the word can’t be used in this magazine, nor can it be represented by a couple of letters with asterisks in between (too risqué, those stars), nor can it be referred to by its initial letter and “-word.” It’s that dangerous, that offensive. So for a writer and a woman, what could be more alluring and commanding than to write and vocalize the private part that dare not speak its name except in Latin and/or euphemism?
An unspeakable word is the word that has to be spoken if language is to be honored. It is a word that belongs colloquially to my anatomy if I choose it, but that has been so appropriated by misogyny and prudery that I am supposed to be horrified and distressed when it is used, as misogyny and prudery would require me to be.
In fact, the word is rather less unspeakable here in the U.K. than in the U.S. It can be used privately in a chummy way between men, between (some) women, between (some) men and women, as well as being aggressively used and deliberately vile. This is true of the best obscenities: they straddle affection, familiarity and offense. It’s all in the tone and the circumstance. That’s what is exciting about language — you can never be quite sure of it. I’ve heard the word used with multiple affect like this in an American context only in the remarkable HBO series “Deadwood.” The writers decided that the uncivil language of a gold-rush shantytown in the 1870s would have been mostly blaspheming and no longer effectively startling. (Who waits in hushed horror these days for God to strike blind the man or woman who has challenged God to do just that?) So among their other dramatic innovations (Shakespearean soliloquies alongside visual dirty realism), the “Deadwood” writers had their actors speak torrents of anachronistic modern obscenities between an equally anachronistic eloquent 18th-century English. In my house, the phrase “you loopy [word I can’t use in this magazine]” has become, as it is in “Deadwood,” a term of profound sweetness and affection, used by either sex to another.
Quite strangely, in the last six months, the word in question has found itself spoken three times on our revered, publicly financed BBC (not known with ambivalent affection as Auntie for nothing) by three different highly respected middle-aged male broadcasters. Twice on the radio, in apparent slips of the tongue when referring to the present government minister responsible for arts-financing cuts, Jeremy Hunt (you see the problem), and once by the unflappable anchor Jeremy Paxman, again misspeaking the word “cuts.” There is talk of a sweepstakes at the BBC: the last one “accidentally” to use the word is a sissy. Surely not. Nevertheless, over here, there is considerably more hilarity than outrage about it.
Perhaps the British tradition of bawdy has something to do with the word’s being more ambiguous in the U.K. Words like “quaint” and “cunny” were used by the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare to get a dirty laugh from their audience. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, many towns had a Grope[the word I can’t use] Lane or Alley, and in Paris a rue Grattecon (which translates as “Scratch[the word I can’t use] Street”). Streets in England were named for the trades that were plied in them: Threadneedle Street, Pudding Lane, Silver Street, Bread Street and Grope[the word I can’t use] Lane. The former street names remain (as does Cock Lane, perhaps because of its proximity to London’s Smithfield meat market), but the latter became Grove Street in London and Grape Lane in York when times and sensibilities got purer, and things and the names of things became in general dangerous and shameful, while the activities and acknowledgment of the body parts continued in a more furtive fashion.
By 1811, that word (written as two letters with asterisks between) was defined in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as “The chonnos of the Greek, and the cunnus of the Latin dictionaries; a nasty name for a nasty thing.” Signifier and signified. And there it was, the whole matter spelled out.
Really nothing much changed after that. Men used it mostly to abuse and demean women, and women still appear mostly to take it that way. In 1928, D. H. Lawrence put in a strong bid in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to redeem the nasty from the name and the thing. Gamekeeper Mellors tutors his lady: “But [the word I can’t use]’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter?” James Joyce, a little earlier in “Ulysses,” refers less ecstatically to the Dead Sea as “the grey sunken [the word I can’t use] of the world.” Later, in 1953, Samuel Beckett, in “Malone Dies,” wrote with a fine degree of metaphorical accuracy: “I am being given, if I may venture the expression, birth to into death, such is my impression. The feet are clear already, of the great [the word I can’t use] of existence.” Or as Nietzsche said, “There are no moral phenomena at all but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.”
In my teens I found myself among an older generation of writers, poets and dramatists who’d had enough of politeness and impatiently tapped their feet in the 1950s and early 1960s waiting for the ’60s properly to begin. It wasn’t that they once knew better words and now only used four-letter words, as Cole Porter once put it. All of them had fine vocabularies, more than adequate for the books and criticism they wrote, but their speech was peppered and spiced with short Anglo-Saxon expletives that pointed to sexual activity and parts, as well as powerfully and paradoxically expressing incoherent rage. These words arrived as small explosions inside rational discussion, an embroidery on the background discourse, a commentary on cant, and were immensely pleasurable to speak and hear. We cringed at Norman Mailer’s testosterone-heavy males tamely “fugging” at the brute world. We did it certainly to shock the wrinkled skin off the Brown Windsor soup of the British 1950s, but it became part of regular speech, the way we spoke to each other, and still do. We used the words also in a sexual context, as markers of intimacy and freedom between lovers. On the one hand the grenade of the four-letter word (including the one that can’t be used here) and on the other the neutralizing of the spuriously obscene by the everyday and affectionate. Again, the gameness of language and how you used it. Like the old answer to the question “Is sex dirty?”: “Only if you’re doing it right.”
During the late 1960s, women’s consciousness-raising groups began to take control of the knowledge of their bodies. It was done with specula and mirrors to get a view of what previously only medics and men had been able to gaze at freely. Women’s groups put up posters of vulvas on the walls and confused men and boys who had been looking at much the same thing in porn magazines. Knowing ourselves, taking back our own bodies, we called it. “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, was constantly reprinted, telling and showing women all the world over what they hadn’t known about themselves before, because it had been technical and masculine knowledge. We looked with some surprise. Is that my cervix right up there beyond my … ? All well and good, but what are we going to call it? Some of us used, or began to use, its short, familiar name, but others took exception to sharing the world and words with men. Even now, for some people, the cultural power of the word is so strong that, although they might agree that it’s an irrational response, it remains so dirty — “you wash your filthy mouth out with soap” — that they can’t bring themselves to form the word in their mouths and release it into the world. There is a visceral resistance, like a gagging reflex.
In the early 1980s I attended an all-women seminar at University College London, titled “Vaginal Iconography.” Thirty or so women sat in a room listening and viewing slides of artworks present and past that were, or were said to be, based on the vagina. There was a good deal of discussion about whether it was, to be precise, vaginal or vulval iconography, and some confusion even among the academics about which name represented which part of the female suite of sex organs. Eventually, I asked why no one had used the word I can’t use here, and the room fell silent, apart from a couple of indrawn breaths of disapproval. Finally, one woman put me out of my misery. “Because the word has been appropriated by men.”
Couldn’t we, then, reappropriate it, take it back, make it ours, what with its being quite a good and descriptive word, and at least not an already appropriated Latinized metaphor: vagina (sheath) or vulva (wrapper) to serve the purpose of the male penis (tail)? Reappropriation worked interestingly when African-Americans took back their unmentionable word and yelled it ironically to one another in the street, while rendering non-African-Americans dumb. So did the gay community when they took up their term of abuse so that now universities offer courses in Queer Studies.
But back in the ’80s in the seminar room, the answer to my question was not even no. There was no answer at all, just silent censure. It seems to me that by merely taking offense and refusing to repossess the word that I still can’t use here — but that you can hear anytime, used casually in a street near you — and therefore make it our own, we remain just as much victims as when we faint gratifyingly or fail to laugh outright in the face of the would-be abuser. I demand it back: my word for my private part, thank you very much.