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The Appropriate Masculinity Handbook

I was shocked, at the age of 36, to discover I am an extrovert. A social situation was much more energizing than reading a book. I had just been doing social situations wrong all my life.

The insight began while my children were young. I thought about my legacy. My religious habits and my family's earnings were sufficiently established. What else would be important to leave behind after I died?

I was never taught about social dynamics. My parents had many virtues, but did not practice or teach great social skills. They were well-spoken and dutiful. My mother was one of those very few women who were naturally very funny. My father was a workaholic who could make any explanation seem logical and reasonable. Those traits were enough for them to do okay socially.

I used what I inherited, while clueless about social dynamics. I tried to get by.

I was funny, never realizing that only being funny was unattractive. Humor, like icing on cake, can make what is already desired better but quickly becomes unappetizing by itself.

I was overly logical and could make any explanation seem reasonable. That helped earn high grades, but did not help me socially.

I was dutiful, and constantly felt like a performing monkey. People only cared about what I produced. I was the person they went to when the photocopier jammed, but never the person they wanted to chat with.

One night I had dream. God told me, "You are kind, but you are not warm. Since you are not warm, no one approaches close enough to see your kindness."

self improvement project

So I began to learn how to be warm as well as kind. I read books. I experimented with the strangers I met when taking my children to a playground. I talked to people who did understand social skills.

I realized I had been raised believing so many lies. Among them...

Just be yourself.

Do what you are good at.

Greet people by shaking hands and introducing yourself.

Always treat other people with respect.

Women understand romance like men do, but clearer.

Love is a feeling, like caring but deeper.

The result of that learning is here: The Appropriate Masculinity Handbook. May it be a part of my legacy that also helps my children and their children.

May it help you too.

Being able to understand and use appropriate masculinity is beneficial to both men and women. May what I write help all readers to understand their masculine side. However, I write this primarily for my sons. I therefore use male pronouns inclusively when refering to someone trying to be masculine.

I hope that what I write is familiar but slightly surprising. My goal is to explain social situations and dynamics in a way that prompts readers to think, "Of course! I have seen that often. It's just never been explained clearly to me."

Perhaps some day I will find an equivalent guide written by a mother for her girls, a modern guide to appropriate femininity.


Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.

    - Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses

My sons, we begin by investigating confidence. Confidence, as I am about to define it, is an attitude that affects almost everything you do.

Confidence is the foundation of an appropraiately masculine personality. All the other admirable and traditionally masculine attributes come from confidence. Examples include courage, risk-taking, fortitude, integrity, stability, objective and clear-headed thinking, leadership during crises, and goal-oriented teamwork.

Testosterone contributes to how confidence is a masculine attribute. Your mental framework can create more and more potential confidence. But "unlocking" greater access to your hidden reserves of potential confidence requires either more experence or more testosterone. Since men have ten to twenty times as much testosterone as women (depending upon which man and woman), testosterone is a kind of shortcut to confidence available to men with the right mental framework.

What is Confidence?

Human spirit is the ability to face the uncertainty of the future...
    - Bernard Beckett

I do not use the word "confidence" according to any of its common dictionary definitions. Allow me to use some compare-and-contrast to be clear about what confidence means in the setting of appropriate masculinity.


First, remember that certainty is knowing what will happen.

For example, I can be certain that I will enjoy eating my favorite kind of ice cream on a hot day.


Next, remember that optimism is not knowing what will happen, but expecting to succeed instead of fail.

For example, a friend offers me a flavor of ice cream I have never tried before. I could sensibly say, "I am optimistic I will enjoy it," because success (enjoying it) or failure (not enjoying it) both seem possible outcomes, yet I expect success.

Notice that optimism requires genuine uncertainty and chance of failure.

If my friend offers me my favorite flavor of ice cream and I said "I am optimistic I will enjoy it," my friend might look at me funny. There is no reason to consider failure (not liking it) a possibility. My friend would sense that I am using the word optimism incorrectly.

Also notice that optimism has no requirement for being proactive. It is possible to be passively optimistic.

As a third example, my friend is at the store shopping for ice cream. The store does not always sell the same selection of flavors, and my friend does not always remember which flavors I enjoy. But I know my friend would like to pick a flavor that makes us both happy. I can be optimistic that he will buy a flavor I will enjoy even though I am waiting at home while someone else is doing the shopping.


How is confidence different from certainty and optimism?

Defining Confidence

Confidence is not knowing what will happen but acting with the expectation that the situation will be worthwhile and great, because life is more complex than success or failure.

Notice that confidence requires being proactive. A person cannot react with confidence.

As a final example about eating ice cream, imagine that I wonder whether I can eat an ice cream cone while hanging upside-down from me knees at the playground. I could attempt the experiment with confidence. Success or failure is not important. Whether I can or cannot do that, it will be fun to try. The experiment will be worthwhile because I am pushing myself for the chance to learn something.

James Bond screenshot

Most social situations benefit from confidence. Nearly any conversation allows you to learn something. You could learn about yourself, about the other people there, and/or about how to relate to people in general.

There will be growth every time you push through your fears to try something tricky or new. You will grow, and perhaps your relationship with someone else will also grow. Focus on how trying is worthwhile, rather than considering "success" or "failure".

There are definitely example of foolish confidence. People who apply confidence inappropriately can be reckless and get hurt. But almost all examples of foolish confidence involve testing your limits physically. In social and educational situations a person must really behave obnoxiously and contemptibly to be inappropriately confident. I am not worried about you crossing that line, my sons.

Confident Action

Action breeds confidence and courage.
    - Dale Carnegie

A person who acts with confidence is not worried about failure. (Failure happens, but is an acceptable part of learning, growth, and playfulness.) So he is relaxed, direct, takes risks, enjoys competition, ignores consensus, accepts pain, and relishes new opportunities to try proving himself capable.

A person who acts with confidence is not expecting any particular outcome. So he finds most situations workable, is secure in his competence, remains quiet if surprised, and can observe and ride his emotions without fearing them or being swept away by them. He is normally smiling and practical. He finds wonder in the details of daily life. He laughs often but seldom shouts or cries.

A person with confidence expects to act. He does not shun physical effort or labor. He is used to being creative and spontaneous. He might postpone an unimportant task to focus on what has more priority, but does not procrastinate. He is busy doing worthwhile things, which makes him appear bold and adventurous. He knows how to relax, but also realizes that peace is the ability to choose his next challenge,​ and ​peacefulness does not end with the start of new activity.

A person with confidence is comfortable making mistakes as long as he tried his best. His self-worth comes from his accomplishments, his maturity, and his desire to keep improving. Mistakes and failures cannot diminish these, so they do not harm his ability to value and trust himself. He understands that the best problems are those that are his fault, because those are the ones he can most easily fix.

A person with confidence pushes through fears in social situations. Most anxiety is a harmless biological signal that means pay attention, this is a growth moment! A confident person learns to appreciate the physical experiences of nervousness and fear. The tightening of muscles or sweating serve as a friendly reminder to make the most of the opportunity.

A person with confidence expects to sometimes be misunderstood. He only explains himself on those rare occasions when it helps calm someone else. (Most often the desire to explain yourself is self-focused and ugly.) He understands the proverb "Unasked for help isn't". He spends more time creating resources for seekers to find than trying to discuss his current or past insights and growth with the people around him.

hover hands meme

Be relaxed. Embrace uncertainty. Be proactive. Enter social situations confident that they will be worthwhile.

When things get unexpected, continue being proactive and confident. No hover hands! Do not mentally retreat or withdraw. Learn what the situation teaches about yourself, about other the other people, and/or about how to relate to people in general

A confident person is both more open and less vulnerable. He is unafraid of other people's judgments, so he is willing to risk when sharing humor, topics of conversation, and opinions. He does not mask his true personality or hide his rough edges. Of course some jokes will not be funny, some topics of conversation will be refused, and some opinions will be rebuffed. That is normal, not distressing. Failing to make someone smile is not an emergency. Disagreements are not crises. Mistakes are noted with a brief apology and then become water under the bridge. Constructive criticism is appreciated.

On another note, a truly confident person displays the traits of confident action unconsciously. In contrast, someone who is acting macho will use fake exaggerations of confident action in an attempt to appear less vulnerable.

My sons, this is why some other parents tell their sons "Do not cry! Boys are tough and do not cry." Those parents have observed that confident men are less vulnerable. But those parents are confused. Fearlessnes and resilience are results of confidence, not sources of confidence. These parents should be teaching their children to have confidence instead of denying the need to cry. That kind of crying shows fear or loss, which are genuine during the years a child is still leaning confidence. But then the confident child, who is eager to keep going and growing, becomes too busy at his or her task to cry.

Independence and Leadership

Confidence begets trust.
    - James Cash Penney


Confidence eventually brings independence.

Real independence only looks upward. Independent people still desire further growth. They appreciate opportunities to gain wisdom and guidance from people with even higher levels of maturity. No one is too independent to pray to God.

Confidence frees the gaze to look upward. A confident person is sure of himself and his decisions. He is free to live in the moment while playing attention to what he is learning and how he is growing. He pursues greatness for its own sake, not comparing himself to others. He feels no need to please anyone. He does not seek validation or value from other people. Neither insults or compliments are meaningful—yet contructive criticism is valued. His true personality and values can shine unhindered. His humor is special because he is funny for his own sake.

Currently society is mixed-up about independence. Socially, independence is falsely defined as being in charge of yourself and able to boss other people around. This is backwards. A truly independent person does not need anyone else to boss around, and is happy to personally test out the wisdom or guidance provided by those above him.


Unfortunately, confidence naturally looks like leadership.

Confident people are more secure, comfortable, upbeat, reliable, candid, brave, and accepting of responsibility. Other people will notice these traits and try to receive a share by becoming a follower of the confident person. This can cause a backlash of disappointment when the confident person does not realize that he has been appointed as a leader and disappoints that expectation. "Why are you all looking at me? I am not in charge." It might even spoil a friendship.

Because of the overlap between confidence and leadership, confidence can help a person lead well. A confident person can lead without being controlling, pushy, or domineering simply by embracing uncertainty. But the true goal of confidence is independence, which can only be experienced without dependents. This is why appropraiately masculine heroes save the town and then depart into the sunset.

Legacy and Boundaries

People who repeatedly attack your confidence and self-esteem are quite aware of your potential, even if you are not.
    - Wayne Gerard Trotman

A confident person works to build a legacy. Ultimately his wisdom, maturity, and growth should endure even after he dies. A great person leaves behind a wake of great ripples.

child standing on father's shoulders

My sons, I cannot predict what your legacies will look like. But they should come second in your life. Prioritize God first, then your legacy, and then your family. That is the only way to have peace and make peace in your families.

You grew up metaphorically (and sometimes literally) standing on the shoulders of others.

Leave behind something for other people to stand on.

You know the ways society teaches people to be useful. Do not feel obligated to give your best without expecting anything in return. Societal will demand that you give sacrificially of your time, work needless hours to earn more than you need to live comfortably, help all co-workers and most strangers, offer reliability and commitment to people who will not reciprocate, serve institutions that do not serve you, give up any enjoyments of which other people disapprove, keep silent about any priorities or values that might cause other people discomfort, treat people with respect whether or not they have not earned it, and change yourself in response to the criticisms of people who refuse to hear your advice.

Building your legacy will involve stages in which you follow some aspects of that societal imperative and ignore other aspects. But that with intentionality, so you can depart into the sunset whenever your personal boundaries are crossed. No town is so special it deserves you. There is always another town that needs you. And most of your growth will happen in between towns.

Be warned, my sons. Society unashamedly makes use of what confident people have achieved to make people who lack confidence feel secure and comfortable. Most institutions of society lash out at displays of confidence, initiative, independence, and originality. Attempts at enforcing personal boundaries are shamed as as "selfish" or "irresponsible" or "shallow". There is a reason why prophets traditionally go into the wilderness to grow, and innovative people cluster at society's edges and frontiers as they create new technologies and understandings.

Own and nurture your sense of wonder. What is inspiring? Fascinating? Intriguing? Impressive? Allow those to be part of what guides you. Mention them in conversations. Ask other people about them, and ask other people what stirs their sense of wonder.

My sons, you will work hard to become mature, heathy, and worthy individuals. That effort means you deserve spending time with other people who are also mature, healthy, and worthy. Your own integrity and high standards is enough to earn their attention and friendship—just as theirs is what drew you to them. Your valuable time is enough to show them that they are special—just like theirs is a suficient gift for you. Do not let people shame you into wasting your time or energy. Do not tolerate disrespect, rudeness, or unscrptural advice. Walk away from those intolerables despite how much you enjoy the people or conversations.

Be relaxed, easy-going, and fun. This lets you value and trust yourself and maintain the healthy boundaries that protect your independence without treating others as devalued or untrustworthy.

Remember that the concept of free time is a lie. Do I have free time? I spend my time building my legacy. I work to be a great disciple, husband, and father. I help other people with my math teaching and volunteer work. I play games, tell stories, and write poetry. I make sure my family is secure in its values, theology, finances, and social skills. It is all great! Even the not-fun parts (grading math tests, cleaning bathrooms, and so on) are interesting and rewarding because they are part of how I oversee people who are growing to become capable on their own. My life has no division between "at work" and "free time" because I enforce my personal boundaries. Free time is just an imaginary reward the societal imperative offers to people without sufficient personal boundaries.

Remember to live in the moment and keep your gaze upward. Be wary of putting the tangential benefits of confidence on a pedestal. People are attracted to confidence, but the goal of confidence is not to be attractive. Careers are helped by confidence, but the goal of confidence is not to aid careers. Confidence is needed to build a robust legacy, but the goal of confidence is not to build a legacy. Be a good disciple. Learn from other people's wisdom. Try new things, test your boundaries, and push yourself. Keep growing and maturing. Protect your independence. Become great simply for the sake of greatness.

Manage Your Testosterone

I have a little bit of extra testosterone, and it's good to put it to work when I can.
    - Elizabeth Rodriguez

One part of appropriate masculinity is managing your testosterone level.

There are choices that increase testosterone. These include strength training, high intensity interval training, eating salmon and healthy oils, taking vitamin D on cloudy days, taking a multivitamin with zinc, having a regular schedule for falling asleep and waking up, and meditation. If you have inherited my body's trouble regulating cortisol then taking a rhodiola root suppliment also helps.

Other choices decrease testosterone. The primary one is consuming more than a minimal amount of refined grains, sugar, or alcohol. Taking care of young children also decreases testosterone.

You can have too much testosterone. If you become socially awkward because you have become too spontaneous, competitive, and overconfident, then cut down on the behaviors that increase testosterone and perhaps also spend more time with young kids.

You can have too little testosterone. This will probably only become a problem when you are much older, because people's baseline testosterone level decreases with age. But if you are troubled by boredom or depression, or if you need more whimsey or confidence, then do more of the behaviors that increase testosterone. This will also help protect your bone density and sex life as you age.

My sons, testosterone is an important part of appropriate masculinity. It is a resource, a tool in your metaphorical toolkit.

Do not believe the old and sloppy research that leads many people to vilify testosterone as causing aggression or violence. More recent and careful research instead shows that increasing testosterone causes (along with an increase in confidence) more awareness of other people's aggression and defiance. People with poor self-control do often react to this increased awareness of other people's aggression and defiance by reciprocating, which often leads to violence. However, as testosterone therapy has become more common studies now also see people with healthy self-control turning their increase in confidence into the benefits of confident action: less worry, fearfulness, and competitive reactivity; more resilience, patience, and empathetic proactivity.

Social Norms


Art is about play and about transcendent meanings, not reducible to politics.
    - Rachel Kushner

faces only one smiles

Psst. I will share a secret with you.

Most social norms are tests, not rules.

Most social norms exist to divide people into two categories.

People who pass the test are "more attractive". People who fail are pushed into the "less attractive" category so that the "more attractive" people can ignore them.

People who are "more attrative" are allowed to approach each other and treat each other with respect, comfort, attraction, or devotion. People who are "less attractive" may only treat the "more attractive" people with respect—when they are allowed to approach them at all.

Most social norms exist so confident people can surpass them.

The Older Brother

Treat younger men as brothers...and younger women as sisters...
    - First Timothy 5:1-2

My sons, consider how a stereotypical older brother treats his younger sister. He is honest about how she makes him feel, both overall and moment to moment. He does not want anything from her. He does not even want her attention.

older brother with younger sister

So he does pay attention to her, but only for a moment before walking away. This communicates, "I am busy with my own life, but I am here if you need me." A lot of these brief displays of attention and affection are sportive teases. He might tousle her hair as he walks by. He might pick her up and toss her over his shoulder, then pretend to look for her while she hollers "I'm right here!" When she is very young this teasing makes her laugh. When she gets older she still adores it, but now she pretends it annoys her.

When she is bored she can go see what he is doing. It might not be something that interests her, but just being with him is relaxing. His presence makes her feel safe and more like herself—around him she does not need to try to be anything. He does not care if she is disheveled and lazy and procrastinating from her homework or chores. Yet he always has a small compliment when she makes herself pretty, or acts feminine, or earns some academic or athletic victory. He knows the value of working hard and being respectable, and he wants those for her.

(For the sake of pronoun clarity this example used a younger sister. But a younger brother would have worked equally well.)

My sons, to pass the tests that masquerade as social rules you must act like that older brother.

You transcend those social norms by showing four criteria.

To illustrate more precisely, let's examine what I think is the most quintessential "big brother" behavior. This egregious act demonstrates breaking six social norms in a way that is not only excused but appears more attractive than following the norms.

The Quintessential Big Brother

Imagine a boy at a coffee shop who wants to tease a girl he does not know who seems nice. He walks behind her, zerberts the back of her neck, and then walks away without looking back. His purposeful walk clearly communicates that he has no intention of interacting with her anytime soon. She sees he is well groomed, and he sits with his friends and joins their interesting and entertaining conversation.

In that example, the boy was genuine. He really thought teasing the girl was a compliment that she deserved.

The boy was wantless. He did not care if she reacted, or how. He was not trying to get anything from her.

The boy was playful. He treated her like a very young sibling. He wanted to say "Thanks for being you" and picked an absurd yet clear way to say it.

The boy was wholesome. He looked respectable and apparently has nice friends who valued interesting ideas.

Wondermark comic #570 The zerbert vampire

Because of these four qualities, the boy was able to ignore the social norms that say "do not invade a stranger's personal space", "do not touch someone without their clear permission", and "do not put your lips on strangers".

The boy would have failed if he was missing any of the four criteria. If, instead of being genuine, he was acting because one of his friends had dared him to do that, the girl would have been able to tell and would have felt used instead of complimented. If, instead of being wantless and walking out of her life, he had looked back and smiled and waved (or, worse, stood there looking at her), the girl would be alarmed because he was some kind of rude and needy stalker. If, instead of being playful, he had tried to introduce himself and then compliment her verbally, the girl would be annoyed because she was interrupted by a boy who does not "get it" about interacting with girls. If, instead of seeming wholesome, he dressed and smelled like a homeless person and sat down by himself, the girl would be creeped out that an unattractive loser had touched her.

So the boy also had to ignore the expected social norms of "smile big to show you are friendly", "say or wave good-bye when departing", and "when meeting a stranger start by introducing yourself".

That boy probably would pick a different playful act to compliment a stranger who was another boy. If he is old enough to be at a coffee shop with friends, then he is old enough that giving a zerbert to another boy would seem wierd (not wholesome) instead of playful. An equivalent quick compliment might be to get a boy's attention with a playful fist bump to the arm before saying "nice shirt" and walking away.

My sons, I should not need to say that the recepient's opinion matters for what counts as playful and wholesome. Some people are so serious that they have trouble enjoying lightheartedness. And many mothers have disagreed with her teenage daughters about whether scruffy, jobless guitarists are indeed acceptably wholesome young men.

Being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome is an art. Like any real art, mastery requires patience and practice. Like any real art, it highlights certain truths to make life more bright and fun. Shine, and teach others to shine.

Of course, not all social norms are tests. Chew with your mouth closed. Use "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me". Live morally. Call you parents at least weekly. Follow the social norms that actually ask people to be genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome.

I will next describe some of the worst social norms that I was taught as a child. Since norms change over time, and I tried to raise you with extra awareness of these issues, I expect your own lists of the worst or trickiest social norms will be different from mine.

The Worst Social Norms

If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face, then it is not really an education at all—it is an indoctination designed to reproduce oppression.
    - Jesse Hagopian

The worst social norms hide a threefold demand for unattractiveness. They say, "Do not be genuine—act needy! Do not be wantless—be serious! Do not be playful—put on a polite mask!"

(At least these social norms cannot require someone to be unwholesome. They are norms, after all. They cannot be quite that evil.)

You should normally ignore these social norms. The exception is when you are in a situation that requires everyone to treat each other only with respect, such as a formal business meeting, and award ceremony, or activities at a military base.

Do not stare—be the first person to drop eye contact

Maintaining eye contact is not staring as long as it remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open rather than focusing tightly.

When you drop eye contact you are not genuine. People's faces are interesting to look at.

Dropping eye contact first says that you do not want to cause any emotional reaction. By disengaging, you are proclaiming that you desire being passive and inconsequential. A reprehensible want!

There are no playful facial expressions you can use without eye contact. By dropping eye contact your forfeit the ability to be playful with body language.

Many women smile just after you ignore this social norm. If maintaining eye contact is a new habit for you, then you will imagine the eye contact is getting awkward just a second before her face brightens and she smiles. This is perhaps the easiest social norm for seeing yourself pass the test!

Think before you speak

In casual conversations, someone who has invested the time and effort required to establish habits of being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome can relax and say the thoughts that pop into his or her head.

Sure, it is important to consider your next words carefully when in a job interview or trying to calm an overly emotional person. But most of the time spontaneity works.

Carefully choosing your words is not genuine. Doing so usually means you want something—at least the other person's approval. It is less playful than being spontaneous. And it may even seem less wholesome, because you are filtering or hiding something.

When meeting a stranger start by introducing yourself

The respectful way to greet a stranger is to square off, shake hands, and share your name. However, this is never the natural thing to do. Unless you are in one of those rare situations where only formality is acceptable, you can communicate respect better by interacting in a unique and personalized way with an improvised greeting that is genuine, wantless, and playful.

Trust your instinct. (Even if your instinct is wrong, using it improves it!) If someone looks unusually happy or sad, the genuine thing to do when greeting them is to comment on that. If someone is wearing a distinct focal item, such as a necklace or tee shirt slogan or hairstyle, do what is genuine and comment on that. If someone reminds you of someone else, the genuine thing to do is say so.

Add a phrase to keep your greeting playful. Curiosity works just as well as teasing. Instead of a plain "You look sad" add something like "...and it is not even eleven o'clock yet." Instead of a plain "Nice necklace" ask where it is from, or what it is made from, or who gave it to them. Instead of a directionless, "You look like my friend so-and-so" add something odd about that friend, such as "...do you also eat pancakes for dinner?"

With greetings the simplest way to be wantless is to either share a time limit or keep walking. "You look sad. Need a hug or something else I can do in 20 seconds?" Or as you walk by someone, "That's a happy face. Did you also have someone new make you breakfast? Next time tell me more."

Being bossy or pushy is always rude

It is more relaxing to react, respond, and reply than create the energy and momentum in a situation. Take the more difficult role so the other people can take the easier role. Lead so they can react. Even arranging the situation so others reject your genuine and playful request will be more relaxing and fun for them than if they must create something new.

A wise husband adds his own preference when asking his wife where she wants to go for dinner. It is easier for her to reply to "Where do you want to go for dinner? The Indian buffet?" than the shorter "Where do you want to go for dinner?" Similarly, a wise male admirer suggests to the girl whom he wants to see again that they meet at a certain time and place. It is easier for her to reply to that than an open-ended question.

So do not be afraid to take charge. You can make suggestions, physicaly rearrange how people are standing, and initiate making plans about the future.

Of course, you still need to be genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. There must be some genuine reason that rearranging people helps the conversation. You must make clear with your body language and tone of voice that you have no emotional investment in your suggestions, so others feel free to reject your suggestions. You must offer fun and respectable ideas that keep the flow of conversation going.

People like proactive people who are genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. This is the first way social norms test your lead.

Say or wave hello when approaching

Boring! There is always something more genuine and playful. Improvise. Also, a wave asks them to wave back, which is not wantless. Treating the person as an indivdual you know rather than a generic passerby is also more personal and wholesome.

So save your waving for when you are in too much of a hurry for a real interaction with someone, or when you see an acquaintance you do not know well on the other side of the street.

Say or wave good-bye when departing

This has the same problems as the previous social norm.

Smile big to show you are friendly

two James Bond smirks

A smile that shows teeth looks needy. This is the smile used by salespeople, politicians on the campaign trail, and moonstruck unrequited lovers.

It is not playful. Whether it is faked or honest, it shouts "I want your approval, and probably something else from you." Nothing playful there.

It is not even genuine. Even if you honestly want something, you are not actually that needy. The job interviewer, the coach for the team you want to be on, and the cute girl all know that your life will continue fine without them. There are plenty of other jobs, teams, and girls.

Instead, use the smile called a "playful smirk" or "amused wry smile". If you do not know what this is, try the smile you make when about to tickle someone but keep your lips closed. Your smile will be asymmetrical. One side of your face will have the corner of the mouth raised and the skin beside the eye crinkle.

This is not the most welcoming smile. Try searching for photographs of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to study his habitual small smile: an exemplary smile that communicates "I am happy and you would enjoy starting a conversation with me". But that smile is not offering to lead—to put out the energy and momentum that will start the conversation so that the other person can relax into reacting, responding, and replying. A welcoming smiles says "I am a good friend to other people", but it takes a playful smile to say "I am about to become your good friend."

Let others set the terms of the conversation

The second way social norms test your lead is by telling you to let the other person claim control by setting terms. (Usually these terms make them appear more wantless than you.) Instead, react to their terms by setting your own. Pass the test by being the most genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome.

One example of this behavior was used earlier: announcing that you have a time limit. "Hey, how is it going?" "Sorry, I am on my way to a meeting." "No problem, I only have a minute. I just wanted to compliment your necklace. Is it a souvenir? You must have been to places more interesting than meetings."

Strangers often resist offers of help, and try to set terms to protect their pride. "You look sad. Anything I can do in eighty seconds?" "Who are you? I'm okay." "You're a terrible liar. And I'm really no good at helping strangers. I just thought, well, I might as well try."

Young women often try to take advantage of a sanctioned prejudice that expects young men to always seek physical affection. You can be more wantless, playful and wholesome by accusing her instead. "Hi!" "Do you always talk to girls on the street?" "Huh? I just like how you did your hair. Does a guy saying hi always make you think about sex?"

In other words, both lead and withdraw. Provide the conversation's momentum, but also set its limits. Push by adding energy, and pull by adding requirements. Be more genuine (call out their polite lies), more wantless (prod them to defend their implied assumptions and desires), more playful (brief yet intriguing), and more wholesome (reflect their concerns back upon them).

Do not invade a stranger's personal space

As with greetings, to be wantless you must be quick. A brief and spontaneous touch usually treats people more as a real person than boring formality does. Keep it playful with your facial expression and the words you say.

Pay attention to what happens after you touch a stranger or a friend-of-a-friend. Almost every time they become more talkative and open, whether or not they appreciated your touch. People are grateful when you are brave enough to communicate "You are not too icky to touch".

So touch people briefly if that is the genuine and playful thing to do. Trust your instinct. Give people who need it a pat or a hug. Bump their shoulder or elbow with yours to show solidarity. Use high fives and fist bumps. Flirt when it is the right thing to do.

Do not accept favors

Boring! If someone asks you, "I am going to the store. Need anything?" when you do not actually need their help, then the correct reply is, "Surprise me."

If you do need their help, be practical. Community is when people feel gratitude for having helped each other in the past. That is more important that passing one social norm test. Be helped. Be grateful. Offer help next time. You will have plenty of other opportunities to be wantless.

Do not interrupt

Be brief, on topic, and physical when you interrupt. Touch the shoulder or arm of the person to whom you wish to speak as you say "Excuse me", say something quick, get a response, and then move on. This communicates that you are only interrupting because there is no other option. You are not wanting to interrupt, but are forced to do so. You respect the people you interrupt by being polite, efficient and caring.

"Excuse me," you say as you touch Frank's arm. "Frank, I have a question about next week's plans. Call me today before dinner?" Frank agrees. "Thanks," you say, and then walk away.

Most interruptions do not need quality farewells. You usually interrupt to establish or affirm a connection, not to move socially apart.

Never taunt people

Usually this social norm is sound.

There is one exception. Sometimes you can see it in action at a dojo, gym, or team practice. Someone who has worked hard to become capable and experienced can use playfulness to tease someone beneath him as encouragement. The real message is "You remind me of my past self. I know you can rise to my level. I know there are no shortcuts. So I will give you the respect you earn, but no more. I will not have patience with your procrastinations or demands. Catch up to me." But the words are usually closer to, "Pretty good for a newbie. I remember how happy it made my grandmother when she could finally press that much."

Some people are unable to receive that type of playful taunting as encouragement. Be cautious.

Help unconditionally

My sons, remember when I defined community as people feeling gratitude for having helped each other? Being too considerate will rob people of the chance to ask you for something and feel grateful when you comply. If you are so accommodating that people need not say "excuse me" to squeeze by you, then people will perceive you as a doormat instead of a polite gentleman. A guideline for being acting hospitable but not obsequious is to think twice before doing a favor that you would not do for a close friend of your own gender. Offer your guests tea, but if you are both sitting let them get their own refills.

Respect Social Norms

Often you can pass the test of a social norm merely by calling out how it is a trap. Being able to verbalize that you are aware of how attractiveness works can also make you attractive. People will know you "get it" even if you are not currently in the mood to act genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome.

What is Playful?

The excellence of every art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with beauty and truth.
    - John Keats

Of those four qualities—genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome—one deserves further explanation. What makes a social interaction playful?

Consider two examples.

Two Playful Social Interactions

As I am walking to my car from my office, I pass a co-worker who says, "Look at the beautiful sunset!" The sunset is indeed goregous. I reply, "You did a pretty good job, but maybe next time put a bit more orange in it."

At the library I see a boy who looks bored and tired who is holding a library book while his parent and young sibling look for more books. I whisper to him, "I recognize that book cover! It looks like a normal story. But inside it is really lessons about being a ninja. Very sneaky!"

First, a playful start to a social interaction is about the other person. I pretended my co-worker was responsible for creating the sunset. Had I merely agreed, "Gorgeous sunset!" that would have been friendly but not playful.

Second, a playful social interaction is unexpected. When talking with the boy, had I merely been myself and made small talk it would have been friendly but not playful. Imagining we shared secret knowledge of a ninja manual was unexpected.

rainbow circle

Third, a playful social interaction shares new, positive possibilities. Fictional possibilities are okay. It is playful to imagine that people could make sunsets or that a secret ninja manual hides in the library. Had I quoted a Shakesepeare verse about a sunset, that would have contributed to my co-worker's conversation but not been playful. Had I asked the boy if I could read him his book, and did so using funny voices for the characters, that would have been silly but not truly playful. (I should not need to say that negative possibilities are usually insulting and not playful.)

Fourth, a playful social interaction starts with medium energy and pace. Neither situation would have been playful if I had seemed tired and bored. Nor would either be playful if I was overly intense. Once a social situation is already playful, a speaker can challenge a listener to match his or her level of energy or effort. But that challenge is usually too competitive for framing a new interaction as playful.

Norms and Masculinity

Originality implies being bold enough to go beyond accepted norms.
    - Anthony Storr

Keep Calm and Save the Princess

Why is recognizing that most social norms are tests a part of appropriate masculinity?

Most men were never taught that most social norms are tests, and how to pass these tests. That is a rough truth about growing up male. For example, most young boys are told to greet a stranger by squaring off, shaking hands, and sharing your name. Very few teenage boys are told that continuing to do so as a teenager or adult is unattractive.

Many young girls and beautiful women are welcomed into the world of "attractive people" just because of their appearance. Boys and men are required to prove themselves by passing tests. Masculinity never gets a free pass into the world of "attractive people".

Tangentially, most beautiful women with a free pass crash when they reach their late twenties or early thirties. Their beauty fades. They are then required to take these tests, and they fail. They also never learned about the tests. They never invested the time and effort required to establish habits of being genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome. Such a woman laments, "My old friends are so shallow! Women only wanted to be with me because having a pretty friend made them look good. Men only wanted to be with me because they wanted my body!" But life is not unfair because her beauty has faded. It is more fair. She is merely asked to take the same tests as everyone else. If, in her early years, she had become genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome then her old friends would have wanted to be with her for more than her beauty—and would want to be with her still.


Feminism taught me a lot throughout the 80's and 90's...It taught me everything I needed to be creepy, unattractive and doormat ready. And it was re-enforced by EVERY woman i talked to.
    - M3

My sons, realize that most examples of distinctly feminine vocabulary are designed to avoid embarassment or blame. One example is how women use the word "creepy".

A woman runs several risks if she labels a peron as "unattractive". In part this is because many women, despite what they profess, will behave as if they all shared a common ranking for their mutual acquaintances.

A woman who called someone "unattractive" would be revealing information about her own standards on that common ranking, which might open her up to ridicule, a need to defend herself to others, or a need for personal introspection. She might accidentally insult a friend whose standards are not as high. (The friend would feel bad because she does find that person attractive, which means her standards are lower, which means her status is lower). She might be asked for details about what is unattractive and need to explain herself, which could be embarassing, especially if it was the unattractive person asking—the follow-up question asking for suggestions about how improve attractiveness would reveal that she did not even care enough to want to provide that help.

Using the word "creepy" avoids those risks. It sounds like a feeling, for which explanation or justification is inappropriate.

creepy shadow

Using "creepy" also allows truths to remain unspoken. The unattractive person will remain safely shunned, unaware of how social norms are tests, and how he fails them.

No woman will actually say, "That man is unattractive because his eye contact is neither playful nor genuine". That would reveal that attractive men do not use the deferential and overly respectful eye contact we are taught as a social norm.

The woman might want to keep such things secret. Or she might herself be oblivious to the details because she has never been required to pass that test.

Similarly, calling someone attractive can risk embrassment or blame. Instead, saying that someone "just gets it" is a vague phrase for which explanation or justification is unnecessary. Explaining what the attractive person "gets" (social norms are tests, not rules) can be easily avoided.

Notice, my sons, that actions are never themselves "creepy". A very attractive person can interact boldly and without fear of reprisal using actions that would cause bring a lawsuit upon an unattractive person. Very attractive men might be accurately labelled as rude, pushy, or misogynistic, but their actions will never be called "creepy".

More Older Brother

Gravitas is not about taking oneself seriously, but about taking what one does seriously.
    - Sarah McCloughry

dog that destroyed a recliner

It would be remiss of me to end this essay without saying more about acting like an older brother to people younger than you.

Most younger people will enjoy it when you use humor and wit to plafully tease them as if they were literally your younger siblings.

Communicate an assuring and confident presence. Be unobtrusive while at their disposal. Tease, don't flirt.

You can say things such as:

Not only do people enjoy this kind of teasing, but it allows you to test who is willing to act as your younger sibling. This is important, especially in the workplace.

Anticipate that your younger friends and coworkers who lack your confidence (and therefore feel indecision and fear more often and intensely than you do) will feel betrayed if you do not act as their rock and shelter during crises. They never warned you that they would expect that help. You never agreed to provide it. Moreover, when a crisis arrives, they may demand this help while acting unwilling to follow your lead! Yet still your failing to meet their unreasonable and idealized expectations may prompt them (especially women) to react spitefully.

So protect yourself by only acting as the older sibling to people who are willing to act as the younger sibling. Those who lack your confidence yet become upset when you treat them as a younger sibling should be avoided. They will eventually be socially awkward for you, or dangerous to you in the workplace.

There is no need to hide this social contract. When people ask you to explain why you treat younger people as younger siblings, cite First Timothy 5:1-2 and share some specific examples you have seen about how the people you playfully and appropriately tease cooperate with better teamwork and do better in crises under your wing.

The For Kids Version

If he is easy to talk to then he is easy in life.
    - Anonymous

My sons, currently you are six and three. Sometimes you are genuinely confused if you are acting like a bully towards your brother.

The simplified version of this essay for children uses these lists:

safeworry or hurt
hi and byeclingy
look at youlook at me
no wantwant

You can be friendly if you pat your brother on the head as you walk by. You would be acting like a bully if you pulled his hair (hurt), grabbed it even without pulling (clingy), also told him "My hair is nicer than yours" (look at me), or demanded "My turn with that toy" (want).

You can be friendly if you give you brother a quick hug. You would be acting like a bully if you wobbled and made him think you were falling over (worry), did not let go of the hug (clingy), said "Feel how strong I am" (look at me), or demanded "Come with me" (want).

Notice how asking permission to touch a friend is usually not required. But asking first is often helps by making your touch cause less worry or feel less wanting. Similarly, using please with requests helps because it focuses on the other person (look at you) while implying that you will not fuss if your request is refused (no want).


My sons, one important part of being an attractive and appropriately masculine person is knowing how to connect with other people. This is not difficult. But it may require unlearning some common cultural messages.

The Four Facets of Friendly

This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.
    - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Everyone older than a toddler has four basic needs they try to fulfill through relationships.

These four needs are totally separate from each other. They are like the four sides of a tetrahedron.


Most people do not feel whole and complete. In their life at least one of these four needs is not fully met.

Consider a person for whom one need is notably less filled. They desire a social interaction that "polishes" that side of the tetrahedron. Someone whose body language or words does this seems especially attractive and friendly.

Unfortunately, our current culture teaches boys and men to always treat people (especially girls and women) with respect. Most boys and men follow that advice. But doing that makes you average. You will only seem especially attractive and friendly to people who feel habitually unworthy of respect. Aside from a very few people with highly overlapping interests and temperment, everyone else will consider you to be a polite and helpful person but not an espcially close friend.

You should, of course, respect people who are worthy of respect. But that is very different from always treating them with respect. Do you always interact with attractive people using body language and words that convey your attraction? Of course not. That would quickly become tiresome. Do you always try to spoil the people you consider worth spoiling? Of course not. That would also grow old really fast. It is equally socially awkward and one-sided to always demonstrate respect.

At any moment during a social interaction you can only help fill one need. You can only "polish" one side at a time of someone else's tetrahedron. In fact, doing that probably makes the other three sides slightly more tarnished.

The Tetrahedron Tragedy

People need respect, comfort, devotion, and attraction. We can only provide these one at a time, and it usually diminishes at least one of the others.

If you pay attention to other people's body language you can usually learn which of the four needs they most need filled at that time. Be friendly and relate to them in that way.

Tetrahedral Situations

You are not fully dressed until you wear a smile.
    - Evan Esar

Consider how the Tetrahedron Tragedy applies to several common social situations.


A smile that shows respect is relaxed and symmetrical. It is either closed-mouth or it shows teeth only slightly. Look at one of the other person's eyes. Allow your vision to focus tightly on the other person. It is not a Duchenne smile (it does not include the orbicularis oculi muscles that raise the cheeks and form crow's feet around the eyes).

A smile that provides comfort shows more of the teeth. It is also not a Duchenne smile. (Revealing more of your teeth looks needy. You are wanting or selling something—even if all you want is to provide comfort.) Eye contact may or may not be steady, but either way remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open rather than focusing tightly. (The intensity of a focused gaze reduces comfort.)

A Duchenne smile shows devotion. It may be tense or include opening the jaw slightly. Eye contact often strays from the other person's eyes because of embarassment or a desire to take in more of the other person. The eyes may also open especially wide, either momentarily (to communicate "Look at me, I am here for you") or while staring in infatuation.

A smile that acknowledges attraction is asymmetrical. Think of a playful smirk, or the smile you make when about to tickle someone. (In some romantic relationships one person is much more infatuated than the other and will always use the devoted smile instead of the attracted smile. Expect problems!) Eye contact that remains soft by keeping peripheral vision open feels playful, whereas eye contact with vision focused tightly on the other person may add a sexual tone to the gaze.

Thus the body language involved in smiling limits us to filling only one of the four needs. No combinaton of mouth shape and eye contact communicates more than one of the four facets of friendliness.

Moreover, the types of smiles conflict. People who want to feel respectable will feel disrespected with eye contact that wanders or is too soft, or by an asmmetrial smile. People who want to be spoiled will feel intimidated by the intensity of a focused gaze and troubled by what a person with a playful smirk might be expecting. People who want to feel inspiring will feel objectified or imposed upon when eye contact that is too steady. People who want to be recognized as attractive will consider a symmetrical smile as too needy, bland, or creepy, especially if the eyes are open unusually wide.

Menial Help

Menial help requires no special skill or effort. Around the home it includes washing dishes or bringing someone a cup of tea, but not replacing a broken pipe (a special skill) or mowing a large lawn (a special effort).

Be polite and prompt to show respect when doing menial help. If you are in the middle of something, interrupt that to offer the help, then resume what you were doing. This shows that the other person is a priority but you are not clingy.

Be willing to be attentive to provide comfort when doing menial help. Finish what you are doing, then not only provide the help but stay with the person. This communicates that you wanted to be ready to more truly spoil the person, not merely offer a quick fix.

Be present to demonstrate devotion when doing menial help. Because being in the same room as the other person makes any of your tasks nicer, you are nearby and ready for an opportunity to help but not idle with nothing to do. You probably offer the menial help and then return to being present, quietly busy, and ready to help again. But if the other person enjoys doing a certain menial chore and begins doing that, you might ask to do that work together.

Be invisible to acknowledge attraction when doing menial help. Ask any wife: watching her husband do dishes is comforting, but coming into the kitchen to be surprised that dishes are done is exciting (the wife is more likely use the word "magic" to mean exciting). Doing the menial chores when not watched demonstrates that you are attractive because you are thoughtful and not seeking recognition, and therefore they are attractive because they have charmed such a good catch.

My sons, take note of that last dynamic. Acting as if you are so attractive that you do not need to earn approval makes the attention you give other people cause them to feel attractive. This is huge! Being friendly in a way that fills people's need to feel attractive does not require you to flirt with women or compliment men's muscles. It is enough to be paying attention to them in ways that communicate that you are not needing anything from them but are giving them your time and attention anyway. (This dynamic also happened with the playful, asymmetrical smile in a less obvious way.)

Again the four types of menial help conflict. People who want to feel respectable will feel disrespected by clingy or invisible help. People who want to be spoiled will not receive enough of an offer of active attention from the other types of help. People who want to feel inspiring appreciate being waited upon, but only by people who are being inspired to do something while nearby and ready to help. People who want to be recognized as attractive will consider visible menial help boring: their presence should be provoking other people towards spontaneity and fun, not a decision to get chores done.

Giving a Gift

Follow social etiquette when giving a gift to show respect. This usually means the gift is practical and about the person's future plans, although there are occasions with traditional gifts that do not fit that pattern, such as a watch given to an employee at retirement. Usually the gift is either personalized (to acknowledge a hard-earned milestone or achievement) or returnable (for lifecycle events).

The classic way to provide comfort with a gift is with "comfort food". These recipes are usually easy to prepare, so even people with little cooking experience can use the effort of personal preparation to add to how the recipient feels worth spoiling. Most comfort foods have inexpensive ingredients to hint that the gift can be repeated as often as needed whenever the recipient needs more comfort.

Gifts that demonstrate devotion are usually ephemeral and expensive. (Roses and fancy chocolates are classic examples. Breaking a bottle of perfume over Jesus's head is another well-known example.) They convey the messages "you motivate me greatly" and "you are so inspiring I want to do something extravagant."

A gift that demonstrates attraction will ask the recipient to spend time with the gift giver. Two friends might take each other out for coffee weekly while alternating who pays: that habit communicates that spending time together is a priority for both. A husband might plan a surprise weekend vacation for his wife, or buy a gift certificate for them to go to her favorite restaurant.

My sons, one detail. Never give a woman clothing in an attempt to demonstrate attraction. A flattering dress, swimsuit, or lingerie does not actually communicate the mesage "you are so attractive that I want to spend time with you". Instead, it insults her by implying a need for improvement: "if you wear this then I will want to spend time with you." As a young man you might not understand why a woman who knows your feelings of attraction would still be besieged by an imagined insult. Just trust me that sometime during her first dozen years of life, society has damaged her ability to receive gifts that enhance her appearance.

Gifts can avoid the Tetrahedron Tragedy, when circumstances and careful planning permit. For example, consider a young couple who just got engaged and is planning on moving into a shared apartment next week, but currently own no baking stuff. Either could buy them both a baking pan, silicon mat for the pan, spatula, and ingredients to make brownies. That would in a small way show respect (acknowledging the needs of the new apartment), comfort (brownies are comfort food for most people), and attraction (they will bake and eat the brownies together). If the couple was living on a tight budget then splurging on high-quality baking chocolate would also include devotion.

Tangentially, think twice before giving a gift to people you do not know well. They may not feel like the gift affirms they deserve respect, comfort, devotion, or attraction. After all, how could you really know what they deserve, since you do not know them well? The alternatives are that the gift is an expression of pity or neediness—usually this is offensive.

Asking a Question

The respectful way to ask a question is to leave the question as open-ended as possible. For example, a businessperson scheduling a meeting with a client might ask, "Which of our agenda items should we prioritize?" or "What day and time work for you?" This kind of open-ended question shows that the person asking trusts the other person's knowledge and decisions. Asking an expert for advice related to his or her expertise is common type of open-ended and respectful question.

To provide comfort, attach a preface or preference to a question. Providing a "conversational hook" to which the other person can respond makes it easier to answer the question, especially when the other person understands he or she has no obligation to agree. For example, a husband might ask his wife, "Where should we go for dinner on Friday? I am in the mood for garlic." He might say this even if had actually had no preference for garlic! Simply adding that conversational hook makes it easy for her to reply. She might say "Italian, then?" or "Not garlic, let's do barbecue." Note that a teasing conversational hook often works as well as a serious one. "Where should we go for dinner on Friday. Paris?" or "That burp made me remember to ask whether Friday or Saturday afternoon would work better for a visit to the city's rose garden?"

Devotion is shown by asking someone a question of the form "How can I help you do what is important to you?" This might be a mother asking her infant, "Poor colicky baby, how can I help you?" It might be a Christian praying, "Here I am, Lord, lead me." It might be that rare volunteer who offers to help a charity without specifying any preference about what to do.

Questions do not demonstrate attraction. Questions imply neediness and decision-based action, not independence and sponteneity that show attraction. Demonstrate attraction by acting as if the other person makes you so carried away that you spontaneously do playful things. However, it is wise to use a teasing question as a preface, to test the other person's readiness before you act. If you ask a person, "Guess what I am thinking?" or "What am I going to do with you?" you can use their reaction to determine whether that is the right time to sweep them off their feet.

Questions clearly suffer from the Tetrahedron Tragedy. Trying to combine the four facets of friendliness usually creates a minor catastrophe. "How would you fix my computer? With a browser upgrade? And how can I help you in return? Know what would be fun? Get in the car, I'm taking us to dinner—where is a surprise." Yucky.

Agreeing to a Request

Agreeing to a request unconditionally is respectful. Say "Yes" (maybe also use their name, or in certain situations say, "Yes, sir") and go do what you agreed to do.

The comforting way to agree to a request is to append a conclusion that maintains momentum in the situation. This is another type of converational hook. As before, it works best when the recipient understands that he or she has no obligation to agree. Conclusions should be simple, action oriented, and easy to accept or refuse. "Sure, and then we'll decide what to eat." "Yes, and then let's go for a walk." "Okay, and afterwards I have a secret to tell you."

Devotion is shown by adding that you are willing to do more. "Okay. Anything else?"

Demonstrate attraction by playfully pretending to make the other person earn your acquiescence. As usual, the keys are to communicate that you are playful and they are the one needed to earn approval. The type of attraction shown can be friendly ("Can I get you another cookie? A second might make you smile.") or flirty ("Get you more coffee? Let me see you turn around and shimmy your hips.")

The four types of agreement conflict, with the exception that some circumstances permit showing both respect and devotion.

Greeting a Stranger

When greeting a stranger, use the type of smile that matches the greeting.

A greeting that shows respect is deferent without being subservient. (No one feels respectable because someone subservient defers to them.) Approach the other person at a normal pace. Stand so you are squared off. Shake hands with your palm sightly upward so the other person's hand naturally takes the dominant position. Share your name. Drop eye contact first.

A greeting that instills comfort is non-threatening. Approach slightly slowly. Drop eye contact while still approaching. Instead of squaring off, stand almost side-to-side so your body and that of the other person make a V. Do not touch the other person. Instead of sharing your name, begin making small talk about something you at which you are both looking. A question can be comforting if it is completely impersonal (ask "Is that a good brand of suitcase?" not "Where are you going?")

One detail: when you are introduced to a stranger by a third person, that introduction provides comfort. Then the expected behavior in most American subcultures is to use the respectful greeting.

A greeting shows devotion by its enthusiasm. Approach slightly quickly. Use an approriate two-handed handshake: show child-like devotion by holding both hands, or show adult devotion by adding to a normal handshake by using your other hand to cover their handshake, touch their arm, or pat their shoulder. Talk about the other person.

A greeting that acknowledges attraction emphasizes, as usual, being not needy, playful, and spontaneous. Approach slowly. Touch the other person as appropriate. As men, you might bump fists or jostle elbows wth other men, give a female acquaintance a friendly hug, or give a romantic partner a kiss or nose beep. Maintain eye contact the entire time. Offer a witty challenge that provides the other person an easy opportunity to qualify himself or herself, and do not drop eye contact untill they reply.

The body language involved in greetings is also limited to filling only one of the four needs. No combinaton of speed, stance, smile, eye contact, and touch communicates more than one of the four facets of friendliness. And the differences are again so pronounced that supporting one need makes the other three feel diminished because they receive the opposite of what fits them.

Saying Farewell

When saying farewell, use the type of smile that matches the farewell.

A farewell that shows respect is again deferent without being subservient, and nearly the reverse of how to greet a stranger. Use their name, square off, either shake hands or wave, be the first to drop eye contact, and depart at a normal pace.

A farewell that provides comfort hints that the recipient could expect more comfort from other people. Usually this is done with a small touch or hug followed by a polite request to have a good day or be well. The implications are "you are not too icky to touch" and "more comfort is coming your way". Together these imply that the other person is worth spoiling. You willing to do small things to make them happy, and you expect the other people they will meet will be similarly willing.

A farewell shows devotion with a chaste kiss on the cheek or back of the hand. This happens in all sorts of relationships that involve someone who is inspiring: a mother to her infant, an old-fashioned beau to his sweetheart, a subject to a monarch, and often a member of a religious tradition to a high-ranking official of that religion. When appropriate, add a promise to be with the other person again. This could be an actual scheduled appointment ("Mommy will see you when you wake up" or "I will see you at the tournament, my lord") or a more vague commitment that still expresses your desire to be together ("I will dream about you, my dear" or "We will dance again tonight").

A farewell that acknowledges attraction combines hesitancy to depart with the usual playful spontaneity. A classic way to avoid communicating the neediness of devotion is to say farewell to part of the other person. With a friend this might look steady eye contact during a slightly long silence concluded with a comment such as "I'll miss your sense of humor." With a romantic partner it might be a passionate kiss followed by playfully saying you will miss a part of their body.

The body language involved in farewells is also limited to filling only one of the four needs, and again the differences are again so pronounced that supporting one need makes the other three feel diminished because they receive the opposite of what fits them.

Using Nicknames

The best nicknames are ones you give to people as a remembrance of what about them you first found notable. Depending upon what is being remembered, the nickname can show respect, comfort, admiration or attraction.


Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.
    - Ralph Waldo Emmerson

My sons, realize that most people will be grateful you fill their needs, but will not have the self-awareness to realize that what makes you stand out is your ability to help fill whichever need they currently feel most strongly.

someone feeling strong connection

They will instead say that they feel a sense of connection with you, not realizing how self-focused is their partial understanding.

Also, you obviously will not always have the freedom to fill any of the four needs in any way you wish. Your boss at work might react poorly to a smile that shows attraction; on days when he or she clearly needs to feel more attractive that might be more effectively communicated with a greeting or menial help. The timid girl at a social dance might be overwhelmed by a greeting that shows devotion; your response to her visibly needing to more often seem inspiring might be better received as a farewell that shows devotion after dancing together, followed by a smile that shows devotion as you later ask her to dance again.

I encourage you to enjoy experimenting with this information. No need to risk your job by experimenting at the workplace. The world has plenty of other people. For example, on a day when you feel easily inspired, try spending one day greeting and saying farewell to all strangers with devotion. You can learn a lot from that kind of experiment. Does it help you be inspired by strangers? How do they react? The people you interact with seldom will mind these exeriments if you are genuine.

The Librarian's Dilemna

When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.
    - Lao Tzu

Consider the Librarian's Dilemna.

The Librarian's Dilemna

A librarian's official job description is taking care of the library. He or she is judged on whether the library is neat and clean, books are in their places and in good condition, books and easy to find and use, etc.

But the librarian's actual work is to help people mess up the library! Patrons constantly track in dirt, leave about scraps of paper and other bits of trash, take books off the shelves, cause wear and tear damage to books, and take books home where other patrons cannot use them.

My sons, you will often be in positions of leadership. These may be minor, such as leading a group project at school. Or they may be major, such as owning a small business and feeling responsible for the livelihoods of your employees.

All leaders suffer the Librarian's Dilemna to some extent. Your job description will be to get the project done, produce the desired product, or keep the numbers right. But your actual work will be to connect with people. You will help everyone at the table or workplace feel whole and complete as you motivate, demonstrate, direct, assign, moderate discussions, and celebrate victories.

pawns with the shadow of a king

Do not focus on the work! Focus on connecting with people or you will fail.

Without connection, the people you are responsible for leading will lose morale, stop working hard, and perhaps leave. Then you will find yourself either trying to do all of the work yourself, or constantly hiring and training new people instead of getting the work done.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when leading the best way to comple the work is by focusing on connecting with people instead of focusing on completing the work.

People want leaders, not managers. Management is about analyzing, categorizing, evaluating, and goal-setting. Good leaders manage data. Good leaders connect with and lead people.

The Six Kinds of Flirting

The Flirtiation painted by Eugen de Blaas

What is flirting? The word means different things to different people.

Let us consider six alternatives. They are quite distinct when used individually. But people can and do combine these types of flirting. Feel free to experiment, my sons.

Remember the instruction in Matthew 10:28 to value God's opinion of you instead of people's opinion. You will have a natural and harmless desire to know whether or not your are attractive. As men, it is fun to learn how our "mirror" works. But the goal is only to know you can honestly include "I know how to flirt" and "I am attractive" in your established self-image, for the sake of building social confidence. Then you can stop thinking about flirting, and allow it to be something you do naturally while focusing on what are the truly important parts of life.

Requesting Reciprocity

As a young woman, I just think there's something really confident and empowering about being able to flirt back.
    - Kelsea Ballerini

People who label themselves "flirts" will usually say that their flirting innocently asks the other person to flirt back. To these people flirting is a self-contained pasttime built of innuendo, humor, playfulness, and comraderie.

My sons, I am sorry to disappoint you but I have no advice about this pastime. I am not this kind of flirt. My innuendo is dreadful. My ability to purposefully misinterpret innocent remarks as sexual is minimal. And, unfortunately, your mother is even worse at it, so I do not get any practice.

Requesting More Intimacy

Tricks he hath had in him, which gentleman have.
    - William Shakespeare

Everyone understands that there are levels of increasing physical intimacy below what is sexual. Here is a sample list: hugging, ticking, holding hands, touching her tushy, kissing her cheek, napping together, and kissing her mouth.

The polite way to use flirting to request greater physical intimacy is to mention the new level of physical intimacy as a verbal "ice breaker" before confidently attempting that type of touch. People do this all the time with the lowest levels of physical intimacy. "You look like you need a hug." "I bet you are ticklish!" The same procedure still works for the higher levels of physical intimacy. The only change is that people are usually more vague in order to appear less pushy. Someone might say "Let's go somewhere else" and silently hold out a hand for the other person to hold. Or someone could say to the person they are walking with "When we get to that tree I will kiss you", and let the other person's body language say whether or they will indeed walk to that tree or should detour somewhere else because a kiss would not be welcome.

My sons, remember the Rule of Sixes. In a romantic relationship you should be able to communicate six different things with one level of physical intimacy before moving on to the next. For example, you and your girl should together invent what six different hugs mean, to have a kind of secret languge together. When that is done then you can move on to six kinds of tickling. Using the Rule of Sixes keeps your romances romantic. Otherwise you progress too quickly up the levels of physical intimacy and get so caught up with where you now are that you forget about what wonders the lower levels still offer.

People who dislike "flirts" will usually say that flirting is a request for sexual intimacy. These people usually differentiate "flirting" and "trying to pick up" only in that the flirt agreeably departs if rejected. That reaction is a crude oversimplification. This kind of flirting may request any of many levels of physical intimacy, most far below the components of sexual activity. Often a request for a low level of physical intimacy is most important as a check about a new level of emotional intimacy.

Obviously, my sons, flirting to request sex outside of marriage is incompatible with our family's faith and morals. If you marry it will be fun to flirt with your wife in that way.

Merely Entertaining

I spy entertainment in her.
    - William Shakespeare

In some social situations it is appropriate to lightheartedly pretend to try to pick up a woman. Be sufficiently over-the-top to make clear you are being silly instead of serious. Be clear it is playful humor.

Why might you need to do this? It might simply show you are quirky or Bohemian. It might let a woman know that her appearance or status does not intimidate you. It can challenge a woman to qualify herself to you by her snappy reply. It might be said as if it explained your daydreaming. Or it could just be a silly part of a farewell for no reason at all.

The goal is to use lighthearted satire to make the social situation more entertaining. Communicate that you are playful and confident. Then you will be seen as entertaining instead of creepy. You body language is much more important that which words you say.

With those caveats, I now share what are, in my humble opinion, the five most fun pick-up lines in the world.

Filling in for Common Interests

I had not, I said to myself, come into the future to carry on a miniature flirtation.
    - H.G. Wells

Have you noticed that the only people who ask "Can men and women just be friends?" are women? Men know the answer. Men are not even "just friends" with other men. Similarly to how pre-Homeric Greek did not have a word for friend—only ally meaning someone who works with me to accomplish my goals—men bond over projects and then go their separate ways until another project brings them together again.

In other words, men must use alternative, learned social skills to spend time with people with whom they have no common interests or project. When our natural way of bonding is not available, we need something else.

Towards most women, that "something else" can be interacting with them in ways that highlight that you are masculine and they are feminine. This is another kind of flirting. It is not requesting anything. Nor does it using lighthearted satire to be entertaining. It is simply a way to fill the time and learn about a woman until you find a better common interest, or even better a common project.

The older a woman is the more she will probably appreciate this technique. Once a person accumulates societal roles (employee, boss, spouse, parent, hobbyist, club leader, committee chairperson, etc.) he or she is very rarely treated as simply a man or woman. Most men do not mind: those roles are the man's projects and he most naturally wants to relate to others within those identities. But most women miss "just being themselves" and perhaps even feel sad that they are losing track of "who they really are inside". Treating them as only someone feminine is a desired and refreshing change compared to how everyone else relates to them by their societal roles.

This kind of flirting is easy to do. There are two steps. Suppress your inclinations to make small talk about her roles. Do not ask about her hobbies, career, or family. Instead, simply say whatever thoughts about her femininity pop into your head.

My sons, at first this may be difficult, because society teaches boys the lie that those statements are rude when said to a stranger. But a little practice will convince you otherwise. Most women you meet will respond much better to observations such as "You smell like a friend I used to know" or questions such as "How long did it take you to braid your hair that way?" instead of role-specific questions such as "So, how old are your kids?" (Obviously, be polite and do not say anything insulting. The strange woman's femininity is probably part of what prompted you to talk with her, so there will be something positive to say.)

Remember, my sons, that a key aspect of becoming charming is internalizing that most social norms are tests disguised as rules. They are only there to test your playful confidence. You pass the test by ignoring the norm. You really are allowed to—you are even supposed to—use playful confidence to "break the rule". Maintain eye contact, wear a playful smirk more than a smile, say the thoughts that pop into your head, touch people, flirt with strangers, prompt people to qualify themselves to you, say no when you are too busy to do someone a favor, do not care what people think about you, walk away from disrespectful behavior, and so forth.

Acknowledging Attractiveness

Truth is a great flirt.
    - Franz Liszt

A fifth kind of flirting simply lets a person know they are attractive.

Men and women want to be attractive in different ways, so they do this kind of flirting differently.

This type of flirting works best with people you have just met. It is a form of public service. Making strangers feel attractive increases the local happiness level. And never seeing the person again protects you from possible misunderstandings that you are more hooked or smitten by them than you intended to express.

A Man Acknowledging a Woman's Attractiveness

Most women feel attractive when two conditions are met. The writers of romance novels, who know their heroines must be exemplary in what makes women feel attractive, are quite aware of these conditions. That genre uses the nicknames twu wuv and the magic hoo hoo. The first describes how a woman can "hook" the man she wants because her personality is unique and special. The man, no matter how many women he has been drawn towards before, is overwhelmed by what she alone offers him with her wonderful and distinctive company, and is so enchanted he becomes permanently hers and desires no other woman's companionship. The second describes how her sexuality is unique and special. The man she wants, no matter how many women he has been sexual with before, is overwhelmed by the singular physical and emotional chemistry he has with her body, and is so enchanted he becomes permanently hers and desires no other woman's sexuality.

Note that most romance novel heroines are "unawakend women" who are unaware of the charms of their personality and sexuality: it is important that the twu wuv and the magic hoo hoo hook her chosen man in the story without her planning or effort. (Women want to be desired for who they are, not what they do. If she has to do something then she feels unattractive.)

Therefore, an attractive man can help a woman's self-image by giving her a genuine, unsolicited, unexpected, and innocent compliment that shares a specific detail of how her unique personality or sexuality is captivating. Be sure to emphasize that no other woman offers that virtue. "I have never met a woman with whom I can so easily to talk about hiking" may not sound like anything special to the male brain, but it will probably be the highlight of her day. Or perhaps "Sorry, can you repeat that? When you smiled your dimples were distracting." To you, my sons, as men, that probably sounds disgustingly needy and lecherous. But I assure you that for many women that compliment would warm their heart.

A Woman Acknowledging a Man's Attractiveness

Men, unsurprisingly, want the opposite of what women want. Most women want the ability to uniquely and permanently enchant a single chosen man. Most men want to be able to enchant every woman they meet in a common and temporary way.

This also has two parts. The first I will nickname enjoying his zone. The man wants any woman he meets to immediately and instinctively recognize that his playful confidence makes a zone around him of safety, comfort, and relaxing fun. When he approaches near enough so that she enters his zone it makes her smile. If he takes a step back, she steps forward.

Note that men realize, without envy, that all attractive men generate this kind of zone. Men do not need to feel attractive in a unique or special way. They instead want to be attractive in a normal way to as many women as possible. They realize that some women will be unresponsive to any man: they are having a bad day or have a sour disposition. This results in a numbers game. No man will have every woman respond visibly to his zone, but what percentage does he get? The higher the number the more attractive he feels.

The second part I will nickname morphing into his projects. Men recognize that when women who are around a very attractive man will change, like harmonious chameleons, to adopt his hobbies and enjoyments. This change is without guile. Part of what makes a man's personalty attractive is how he pursues his projects with initiative and skill. A woman who opens herself to receive that man's masculinity will genuinely find those projects entertaining. Thus a men feels attractive when a woman is open to joining in his hobbies and diversions, even if only momentarily. Once again, men realize that this dynamic does not make them unique or special—instead they notice what percentage of women they affect.

This second male dynamic is somewhat equivalent to a woman's twu wuv. His company allows his masculine energy and her feminine style to blend so they enjoy life better together. His personality is so strong that its proximity causes hers to merge. But wise men know a woman's morphing is temporary. If the woman spends time away from the man her new interest and enjoyment in those activities will vanish. If the couple continues to spend time together but he ceases to pursue his projects with his earlier intensity and skill then she also changes back. ("We've grown apart," complains the discontent wife who successfully tamed her husband's project zealotry.)

To help a man's self-image, a woman thus merely need to smile when he approaches, maintain a comfortable but constant distance apart while talking, and once ask him to demonstrate an aspect of his projects. To a woman's mind saying "You swing dance? Show me" seems awkwardly needy and forced. But her saying "show me" about something will will probably be the highlight of his day.

Another way women's and men's ways to feel attractive are opposite is that men do not mind putting forth a bit of effort to be desirable. This is why men sometimes tell a woman to feel safe or relaxed, or offer to show her some aspect of a personal project. He is using the woman's visible response, or lack thereof, to check whether he is attractive. Doing this is the male equivalent of women looking in mirror before leaving the house. (My sons, our male "mirror" is more honest!)

Finally, note that the best way for both men and women to increase their attractiveness is to develop more playful confidence, for it makes people more unique as well as strengthening their presence.

Testing Attraction

You can never take for granted that he loves you. It's always good to flirt with him.
    - Salma Hayek

The last kind of flirting simply tests if a person feels you are attractive. This is obviously different for men and women because of how men and women want to be attractive in different ways.

For women, this is easy. Simply ask a man for a unique and special way he enjoys your company. If he has a quick and genuine answer, then your hooks are working.

For men, any test will work if it checks whether she finds your zone refreshing and if she allows her style to merge with your energy. But the best pair of tests are, unsurprisingly, old-fashioned classics. Now they are quaint, but still work well.

To check whether she will allowing her style to merge with your energy, simply offer her your elbow as if you wanted to walk away arm in arm. If she accepts, she is willing to follow your lead. (As before, if she is not then find someone else to spend time with instead of trying to "make it work". It won't work.) You do not need to actually go anywhere. You can always look at her, give her a big smile to thank her for being agreeable, release your arms, and say something like "That was adorable" or "You pass the test".

To check whether she feels and appreciates your zone, kiss the back of her hand while you watch her eyes. Do not move too quickly or slowly. You are not trying to surprise her or be sappy. Bring her hand up as high as is comfortable for her, so you do not bend forward any more than necessary. Maintain eye contact. As soon as she breaks eye contact, stop the kiss and gently return her hand down a bit before letting go. Her eye contact will tell you how well your zone is working. (Eyes do this often, but is exaggerated and easiest to see while kissing her hand.) If she looks down or acts shy or girly then your zone is working. She feels safe and comfortable, and is relaxed enough that even the kiss did not make her tense up. If she breaks eye contact by looking up or rolling her eyes then not only is your zone not working but she thinks you are creepy. (She will probably never change that judgment. Excuse yourself politely. Find someone else with whom to be social. Women who do appreciate your zone are all around. Never waste your time trying to "make it work".)

If she looks sideways or says something as if trying to diffuse tension then she is not sure if your zone is working. This is the difficult response for you because it is not about you. The part of her brain that judges attractiveness is still developing, and she needs time to calibrate it. Do not say anything. Give her a playful smirk and leave. Wait until the next time you see her talk to her again. Perhaps ask, "So, did you decide whether I was very attractive or only somewhat attractive?" As a young man her need for hours or days to do the calibration makes no sense: you naturally know in a moment whether you find any women attractive. As an analogy, consider if you were tasting a very strange flavor of ice cream. Do you like it? It is difficult to decide. You need to consider for a moment. Yet certainly the most alarming and repulsive thing that could happen is if the ice cream suddenly asked you, "So, do you like me?" That would ruin everything.


The Muse of Romance

I am a creature of the Fey
Prepare to give your soul away
My spell is passion and it is art
My song can bind a human heart

    - Heather Alexander

Mousa with Cithara, from Louvre catalog number K570

My sons, please sit somewhere quiet and listen carefully. This is tricky.

I have never talked to a young man who did not at times become moonstruck by Romance itself. Allow me to explain.

As a young man, you will be enamored with the feminine, with its essence or abstraction. You will feel a desire to somehow have relationship with this philosophical ideal. Your soul will burn. You will need to somehow express youself.

Your feminine ideal will not exactly match that of your brother or your friends. It cannot, for it is not something static you can picture or fully descibe. You will hear the song of a Muse of Romance, but she is most certainly not simply some particular idealized woman. She is a whirlwind of vague glimpses and never-seen beauty.

Your grandfather had a saying: "We are all born knowing the taste of perfect pizza, and spend the rest of our lives looking for it. That is why we can eat the best pizza slice of our life and afterward say, 'It is almost perfect, but...'" The Muse of Romance is similar. You may hear echoes and see shadows of her presence in a girl or woman. Glimpses leak into the real world through a feminine voice in song or laughter, a smiling face radiating feminine energy, the alternation of demure quietness and athletic activity, the bounce of long hair or the swish of a skirt, or a certain curve of breast or hip.

These glimpses are never enough. But they are all you have. You will understand that you are unworthy of this Muse of Romance. You will be driven to pay homage.

Then the cruel deception happens! Your hormones will latch your mind onto a particular young woman, perhaps one you have only seen for the first time. She will seem to be an appropriate way to finally express yourself. That burning longing finally has a chance to get out. You might write poetry and read it to her, or present her with flowers or something you made with your hands, or serenade her with a meaningful song or poem.

She will not understand. She cannot. Women do not have this relationship with romance itself. She will be confused. She never asked to be an altar at which you can finally present your offering. She wants to be treated as herself, not as a doorway to a sublime muse.

So, my sons, take my advice. (You will not, at first. Your hormones will deceive you too well. But with time you will see and understand.) Do make your offering. But tell the young woman, "This is because you remind me of someone," and walk away.

There is a small sting of rejection when a young woman with whom you are twitterpated is not interested in you. What hurts more is how the young woman does not understand romance as you do. None of them do. (Well, almost none. Probably none you will ever meet.)

What Women Have Instead

So when you see a baby smile, you don't smile? I thought it was natural to smile when a baby smiles at you!
    - Contessa Louisa

When I talk to women about the Muse of Romance, they are confused. They have crushes or fantasies about particular males. But they do not swoon because of an abstract concept of masculinity.

However, most women do experiene an equivalent phenomenon.

Watch most woman when they are introduced to a baby. They yearn to connect with the baby. They want to touch it, to hold it, and most of all to have it smile at them. When a baby smiles at them it makes their day. They feel a deep, visceral joy. They feel accepted: in a small way by that particular baby, but mostly by the entire concept of babyness it represents.

This is much like the Muse of Romance. Men want to greet a feminine woman and have her smile at them. It makes their day. They want to feel accepted by the concept of femininity.

Most women feel this intense desire to connect with any baby and be accepted by it. They want to interact with any baby that stirs their Muse of Babyness, even if it is a stranger they do not know.

Men do not. Men enjoy their own kids, and sometimes the children of family members or friends. But men do not have a Muse of Babyness that calls to them.

Society spoils women. It usually socially acceptable for a woman to ask to see and even hold a stranger's baby. The baby's parent may not agree. But no one condemns the woman for making that request. No one says she has wandering eyes, or is disloyal to her family. Babies are not taught to hide their smiles to avoid appearing "easy".

Homage vs. Provision vs. Barter

Cavewomen probably had to think, "How much of his pile of charred mammoth meat can I eat without being expected to kiss him?"
    - Anonymous

cartoon from Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer, February 2015

Hundreds of times—thousands of times— your hormones will deceive you with their cruel trick. They will fixate on a particular young woman so she seems an appropriate altar at which your offering might finally be accepted.

Often it is even worse, and your yearning for pure romance will be intertwined with a sexual lust. This will confuse you even more. Society has taught you that the way to ask to enter a long-term romance (sexual or not) is to demonstrate that you can be a faithful and reliable provider. So you will want to give this woman gifts for two reasons—to give something through her to the muse, and to give something to her demonstrate provision.

You cannot explain. It is too awkward if you try. "The food is to show you I can provide for you. The poem is really for the muse. Want to be my girlfriend?" No, honesty would not work, even if you could see within yourself clearly at that moment.

Moreover, society also has taught men and women that demonstrations of provision are the most appropriate way to request a short-term sexual dalliance. The dynamic of bartering (offering a gift in exchange for for her attention, time, and intimacy) allows men to enter the women's world of indirect communication. Because the request is indirect she may refuse him in ways that would be rude in the world of direct communication, such as accepting his gift while ignoring the bartering, or paying him with a quick verbal compliment instead of what he is asking for. These gifts never work (they speak to comfort, not attraction) but men are duped by the social norm.

So that poor woman is wondering which of three motivations are behind your gifts.

My sons, the only way to win this game is to not play. Your ability to provide is indisputable. Your time and attention are valuable and all you need to offer women. Ask for what you want directly and with confidence. When women refuse you, politely ask for constructive criticism to help you grow.

Do not despair. You will eventually outgrow the intense need to give gifts to the Muse of Romance.

But you will not outgrow it quickly. How many wives wonder why their husbands keep giving them flowers when they have told their husband that they see flowers from the store as a waste of money? He is not giving the flowers to you, dear.

The Disillusionment

Women are incapable of loving men in a way that a man idealizes is possible, in a way he thinks she should be capable of.
    - Rollo Tomassi

When you first met your Muse of Romance she promised to be a source of joy and a help to actual romantic relationships. But she lied. For years you will search for the romance she promised. But women simply do not write the same kind of romantic poetry that men do, or feel that deep longing which can only be expressed with a serenade. They do not reach out to the masculine as you burn to reach out to the feminine.

The eventual disillusionment hurts more than all those year's rejections from women. You will never find a woman who relates to romance through you in the way you want to relate to romance through her.

Here is how the disillusionment might happen.

First She is Lovable

My sons, when you were a toddler you were told that you were lovable. You were entitled to affection that satisfied your needs for attention, entertainment, physical comfort, protection, provision, and occasional extravagance.

As you grew through childhood, your mother and I sheltered you from the harsh realities of adult life. (This inevitably meant we spoiled you—hopefully not too much.) As you slowly became more independent, we appropriately withdrew the entitlement. First we put up boundaries that said we would not pay attention to you at any time you demanded it. Then we taught you how to find something fun to do and not rely on us to entertain you. And so forth.

self-improvement image

But the entitlement felt while being lovable at those formative years is slow to shed off. You still expect love will "just happen". This leads to all sorts of bad advice. (A man cannot "be himself" and expect someone nice to come along. He will never "find himself". He must be genuinely improving himself, for his own sake. Some of that improvement will also allow acquiring a better romantic partner.)

The mindset of being lovable leads to an destructive and insatiable corollary. You will view a young woman who interests you romantically as "lovable" and thus feel compelled to satisfy her needs. And you will try to measure an increase in your relationship's love and your attractiveness by how much more you make her satisfied.

Beware that trap. She is not "lovable". She is not a toddler! People older than that are not entitled to being satisfied by the actions of others. Your caring is not deeper because you provide more. Your blatant neediness about making her satisfied makes you less attractive, not more.

(Tangentially, beware women who never mature past seeing themselves as lovable. Does she think about a "soul mate" to express her entitlement to an idealized provider? Does she leave a book or film thinking, "My guy should love me this way!" When she asks to talk about feelings, does she really mean, "Please let me test how reliably you will satisfy me?")

Fortunately, it is easy to mature past this relationship dynamic. Your youngest courtships will involve you giving and her taking. She will accept all kinds of gifts while you will revel in her smile, her laugh, and the feel of her hand. Then you will notice that you enjoy her young femininity, but she has no reciprocal interest in what early seeds of masculinity you possess. If she gives gifts, they are to symbolize and confirm your commitment to her. She knows it is not her job to fill your needs, and she has no Muse of Masculinity to present an offering to.

Second She has Feelings

My sons, I share bad news. The next stage is even more dysfunctional.

After you experience how satisfying a young woman's needs does not help romance, the muse will provide a revelation. You should have tried to satisfy her feelings! After all, she (and her family) is responsible for her needs, which tend to be mundane and boring. Romance is different—it is about the excitement of special feelings!

This revelation is a utter hogwash. But you will believe it anyway.

Doomed is the young man who tries to manufacture romantic feelings. Society has taught him that many traditional romantic gestures should make a young woman feel romantic feelings. He tries candle-light dinners, poetry, gifts of flowers, and maybe even a romantic weekend vacation. His daydreams are filled with hypothetical plans of how to create imaginative moments.

Now, women do appreciate romantic gestures. But only from men to whom they are already attracted. For women, romantic gestures and imaginative moments are validations of existing romantic feelings. Women value spontaneous affirmations of a moment's existing romance infinitely more than experiencing a planned romantic event. That is why, my sons, you will take a young woman to a symphony performance and fondly remember the the feel of holding her hand and how the musical themes wove together (the moment's created romance), but she will become attached to the ticket you folded into a bow tie and handed it to her on a whim instead of throwing it away (an affirmation of existing romance).

So the doomed young man tries to use romantic gestures and imaginative moments to create romantic feelings, and the young woman does not understand. He is as awkward, confused, and in appropriate as someone trying to ice a cake before baking it.

The young man tries to earn love. He believes a lie, that a relationship deepens as people act more romantically. A befuddled idealist, he feels stagnant when he is not doing more and more to earn something. That cruel lie makes the young idealist more and more wanting, until he becomes creepy.

Planned romance is a failure of a social norm test. Trying to make people happy is never appreciated as much as spontaneously and effortlessly celebrating how you have already made people happy.

(Tangentially, beware women who have learned to suck dry these idealistic young men. Does she think about a "soul mate" to express her entitlement to an unending stream of romantic moments? Does she leave a book or film thinking, "My guy should feel I am the most important thing in his life!" When she asks to talk about feelings, does she really mean, "Please listen to how I feel about you. I hope you will say you feel the same things about me.")

My sons, you will mature past this stage when you gain enough tragic relationship experience to finally, truly learn that you cannot create romantic feelings or earn love. Your muse of romance lied again.

Third She Can Be a Friend

The third stage also does not work.

It begins by rejecting courtship. All of society's traditions and expectations for dating involve a man trying to satisfy a woman's needs or feelings. Since those do not work, a sensible conclusion is that courtship and dating are a waste of time and the wrong way for a young man to relate to a young woman.

My sons, this is a tragic realization. You long for a romantic connection with the feminine. The muse had called herself the Muse of Romance. But what if she is merely the Muse of Femininity? Perhaps the pain and confusion came from your hormones craving a connection with the feminine through a romantic girlfriend, when what actually would work is just having feminine female friends? Perhaps romance is a hindrance, not a help, to your connecting with the feminine?

If true, that is tragic. But life is tragic, so you try anyway. You search for women with whom you could be a close friend without involving sexual desire. Maybe sharing conversation and hugs will provide the connection with the feminine you yearn for. After all, it seems a more pure sense of closeness, trust, and warmth when you are enjoying her personality and femininity without hoping to make out on the couch.

After all, women often talk about wanting to be appreciated for their minds and personalities. Maybe this is finally the right female want for you to satisfy?

This stage quickly proves dysfunctional, if you are attentive enough to notice it. You will notice that your female friends who like hugs turn off their femininity around you—and do so to a greater degree the longer you attempt a platonic relationship.

Recall the paired female desires that writers of romance novels nickname twu wuv and the magic hoo hoo. Most women—sometimes consciously and always unconsciously—will feel most feminine when an attractive man is (at least a little bit) intoxicated and overwhelmed by both their personality and sexuality.

This third stage is dysfunctional because it actually longs for half a connection with the feminine. Nearly all women—sometimes consciously and always unconsciously—absolutely hate when a man is hooked by twu wuv and not by the magic hoo hoo. It feels incomplete. Having her sexuality ignored makes her feel unattractive and incomplete. Whether or not a woman wants anything sexual, she certainly values the opportunity to reject the sexual. Even if she does desire something sexual, she will want the chance to make a token rejection to test the strength of her magic hoo hoo hook.

Women do appreciate interest in their minds and personalities. But that is friendship, which produces reciprocal friendship. Friendship does not make a woman feel feminine, so it cannot inspire or awaken her femininity or romance.

Some researchers claim that because women so often sit and talk with each other, they unconsciously associate sitting and talking with the feminine and have trouble seeing men who sit and talk as masculine. After all, groups of boys and men almost always talk while doing something active: playing, hiking, disc golf, etc. Do not stop being active while talking just because you are with a girl or woman. They prefer to be invited into your masculine world, not have you visit their feminine world.

(Tangentially, women also absolutely hate when a man is hooked by the magic hoo hoo and not by twu wuv. Avoid that too. As a man this can be difficult to comprehend. Imagine a woman saying to you, "Your body is intoxicating but your personality is nothing special." That would seem a compliment—since she rates your body highly and your personality as mediocre then overall you are way above average in her mind. But most women, especially unconsciously, do not care about an overall appraisal from an attractive man. Being told that her magic hoo hoo hooked him successfully but twu wuv did not only means that she did not get both hooks in and is a failure.)

The Journey's End

Do you know what a man is?...the spice and salt that season a man?
    - William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Scene 2

My sons, I have good news and bad news.

The good news is that there is an answer. Actual romance exists and works great. It might seem like a lot of work at first, but eventually becomes a lot of fun.

The bad news is that the lie was huge.

Not a Muse

The core falsehood you believed about Romance was that she is a muse. She is not.

Oh, how Romance pretended to be a muse! She acted the role so convincingly. She motivated and inspired you! She gave you poetic dreams and wistful longings!

But no beautiful and artistic relationships were produced. Reliable and stable connections with the elusive and abstract feminine never happened.

She also promised she would lead: she would provide the energy, momentum, and direction, so that you could relax into reacting, responding, and replying. But she did not lead well. You could never relax into following. She mislead you, causing stress and heartbreak.

Instead, you experienced a crucible through which you learned about yourself and about what women want.

What You Learned

You learned is that a woman only shares with you the femininity and romance that you awaken or inspire—and you must do that by shamelessly pretending to be hooked by her twu wuv and magic hoo hoo.

At first, this sounds truly dreadful.

First, as a man you really do feel a visceral need to try to satisfy a woman's needs and feelings. It hurts to finally comprehend that providing comfort has nothing to do with romance or attraction.

Second, it feels dishonest. Shouldn't romance and femininity flourish when you are sincere, profound, and passionate? That is even the definition of the word heartfelt!

Third, as a man you wanted a dance in which Romance led and you followed. Providing the energy, momentum, and direction is a lot of work!

But those three objections are yet more lies.

And I lied to you too.

Remember when I compared a man's desire to connect with the feminine with a woman's desire to connect with a baby? That was an honest comparison. But it also involved some slight of hand. You did not notice I left out romance.

Defining Real Romance

My sons, do not expect women to see or understand Romance. They never will as you do.

Most women do desire what they call romance. They have a visceral and instinctual need to feel and act feminine because an attractive man treats them as uniquely special, different, attractive, intoxicating, and even slightly overwhelming in both personality and sexuality. What women want and call romantic is a type of receiving, not a type of giving.

(This phrasing is similar to how most women who say they "have a good sense of humor" are not themselves funny. Women also use that phrase in a receptive manner. It only means they enjoy it when other people make them laugh.)

Protesting what biology puts into women is futile. (After all, it is much more straightforward and honest than what your muse told you.)

A woman wants a game of imagination. Pretending is not dishonest if it is cooperative, innovative, experimental, and inspiring. The only safe place to explore becoming more feminine and special is the theatre of being treated like someone who is more feminine and special than she already is.

Phantom of the Opera

She wants you to spontaneously create a theatre in which she can try out a new role and challenge herself.

That is why a man is attractive when he is confident as well as genuine, wantless, playful and wholesome. She wants her effort to be encouraged, taken seriously, evaluated gently, fun to attempt, and if unsuccessful never shared with other people or used against her.

So there is a need to satisfy.

There is honesty—in a playful, experimental, and forward-looking way.

You will need to lead (provide the energy, momentum, and direction) so she can follow (infuse that energy, momentum, and direction with her style). Initially that is indeed a lot of work. But it becomes easy after you have practiced enough to develop the appropriate social skills and habits.

What does this look like in practice? Start with two kinds of flirting: treating a woman as feminine and acknowledging her attractiveness. Let this rouse expressions of femininity. Reward these with immediate positive attention, and enjoy them when they continue.

An Example of Romance

Her: Thanks for agreeing to come to my office party. How do I look?

Him: Are you really going to wear that skirt?

Her: These are slacks.

Him: [Gives the shrug that means she can ignore him, but is always happier when she gives in.]

Her: I always wear slacks to work.

Him: I don't want trouble. I just want to be focused on how delightful you are instead of how a co-worker wants to talk about some supposedly awesome PowerPoint slides.

Her: [Gives the glare and frown that asks if this is actually important.]

Him: [Repeats his shrug.]

Her: [She changes into a skirt.] Happy now?

Him: Now I want to go dancing instead. [Twirls her once. Hugs her.]

Her: I should wear this skirt more often.

Him: You should twirl more often.

Her: Hurmph. [She does start wearing a skirt more often.]

Him: No one else moves like you. It is not my fault that I like how you move. [He enjoys dancing with her at home more.]

Consider salt. The flavor of plain salt is unpleasant. But a small amount of salt will bring out the flavor of other ingredients. Salt, used in small amounts appropriately, makes other food taste more like itself. Salt satisfies the need of enhancing other flavors. Salt is brazenly honest by bringing out the potential of other flavors. Remembering to add salt is something experienced cooks do effortlessly through habit.

So male romance turns out to not involve connecting with an elusive, abstract femininity. That was the muse's lie. Male romance uses leading and flirting to create, establish, and affirm new concrete femininity.

Romance is an escapade in which a man satisfies a woman's need to playfully become more feminine.


The Road goes ever on and on...Let others follow it who can!
    - J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book VI, Chapter 6

My sons, the end is sweet.

Your connection with Romance herself will remain. The glimpses of delightful femininity will continue to leak into the real world. But now you know what to do.

When you are captivated by the feminine—perhaps even those same instances of a voice in song or laughter, a smiling face radiating feminine energy, the alternation of demure quietness and athletic activity, the bounce of long hair or the swish of a skirt, or a certain curve of breast or hip—you will understand what is really happening. Romance herself is showing you the elements of her lexicon. That is all. That is enough.

It is unimportant whose voice or hair or hip you see. It is unimportant when the glimpses come. Simply remember what pleases you, and at another time help another woman add that to her femininity.

You will eventually forgive Romance for claiming to be a muse. She never provided virtuosity. She does not lead in a way that you can follow to create art. But she remains a wonderful help for brainstorming.

If it were not for Romance, enduring romance and monogamy would be absurd. Left to your own creativity, you would run out of ways to inspire and help any specific woman become increasingly feminine. It is the neverending procession of glimpses that Romance provides that allows romance to thrive for a lifetime.

In that way Romance does allow romance to exist. Not with fanfare and heartfelt revelations, but small smiles and a nudge on the arm to say, "Remember this. Keep watchful for who would enjoy incorporating this into herself."

Understanding romance clarifies many otherwise befuddling or frustrating social dynamics.

Overcoming Cads-Versus-Dads

I say in the book, date the bad boys, date the crazy boys, but do not marry them. Marry the boys who are going to change half of the diapers.
    - Sheryl Sandberg

Those who study biology and literature talk about the Cads-Versus-Dads dynamic (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Most women have a natural preference for enjoying sexuality with dicey and adventurous "bad boys" before settling for a lower-sexuality marriage with a reliable provider husband. Most stable religions and cultures oppose this dynamic, and impliment rules and norms to minimize it. Currently certain American media outlets are openly supportive of this strategy (1, 2, 3), sometimes under the more socially acceptable disguise of a "starter marriage" (1, 2, 3, 4), even though it is not working well (1, 2).

T-shirt saying You're a naughty boy, go to my room

This dichotomy appears to put moral and mature men at a disadvantage. How could a man possibly be daring while reliable, adventurous but a stable provider, and brazen yet comforting?

Fortunately, it is a false dichotomy.

Consider the man in the above example of romance. He is not a "nice guy" socialized to always give women deference, comfort, and admiration. Instead, he confidently expresses his preferences, boldly challenges the woman, and asks her to qualify herself to him. But he is not a jerk, cad, or "bad boy" acting pushy, disrepectful, or misogynistic.

My sons, modern society has lost the once well-established role of "romantic gentleman". But once you understand romance you will see it provides a way to be as enticing to feminine women as the cads without sacrificing your morality or maturity. Both the romantic gentleman and the woman he is with will be—within the imaginative theatre of romance—daring, adventurous, and brazen as they experiment with increasing her femininity. Outside of that theatre, whether to enjoy her established femininity or do their mundane daily tasks, they will be reliable, stable, and comforting.

In generations past, older women taught younger woman advice and proverbs such as "Wed a lieutenant to marry a general." Today's young women too often lack this advice, and if even they do receive it are probably not taught how to identify which lieutenants show the most potential as men and husbands. So they chase the men that make them tingle, realizing that is foolish but not knowing any other plan. As a romantic gentleman you can provide enough tingles while also sharing through your morality and maturity what potential looks like.

(As a bonus, you will not provide quite enough tingles to satisfy the few genuinely broken women who seek out the pushy, disrepectful, and misogynistic jerks. Those drama-prone and high-maintenance women are not who you want to date, so it is convenient that they get filtered out.)

Also, a tip for any young women reading this who desire a "romantic gentleman" but cannot find one: it is much easier, safer, and more reliable to start with a "nice guy" than a "bad boy".

Her Suggestions

A boy carries out suggestions more wholeheartedly when he understands their aim.
    - Robert Baden-Powell

image from Go Dogs Go asking do you like my hat

In the example and discussion above, the man led in two ways. He established a welcoming and safe theatre of imagination and experimentation. And he suggested a way for the woman to be increasingly feminine.

Sometimes the woman will make the suggestion. Wonderful!

Perhaps she will ask for feedback about a certain aspect of her appearance. Perhaps she will try wiggling her hips in a new way and check for your reaction. Perhaps she will share for the first time a topic of dicussion or personal worry that is feminine in nature.

My sons, remember that any romance is about confirming that she is uniquely special, different, attractive, intoxicating, and even slightly overwhelming in both personality and sexuality. Remember that she is experimenting because you have established that ability to create that safe theatre of imagination and experimentation.

This can be tricky. On some occasions she is not interested in romance. She merely wants your opinion about whether someting is nice. Or she merely wants to talk about something.

But sometimes romance is her goal. Then she will not want straighforward feedack. If you say "That dress looks nice" you have neglected assessment about what is unique, feminine, or intoxicating. It might be better to say "That dress makes me want to hold you" or "I am again astounded how you can make dresses both sensible yet sexy. Who else can do that?" or "Well, that is a nice dress, but sort of an everyday pretty instead of something unique or special."

Similarly, sometimes when she mentions a social issue she wants romance, not a listening ear or a helpful suggestion. Men would never tell each other "Your poor friend! I am glad she has someone as thoughtful and empathic as you as a friend." To focus on the speaker, instead of the friend in need, seems wrong. It neither communicates an understanding of the issue nor offers any advice. But that might be exactly what a woman wants to hear.

Not sure when a woman wants a straightforward opinion and when she wants romance? Check in with Romance, who can be surprisingly helpful in these situations.

(Tangentially, women will use their established feminine behaviors to qualify themselves to attractive men, even if those men are strangers. This is a completely different dynamic from romantically experimenting with new and untested feminine behaviors with a playful man they know and trust.)

Too Darn Hot

Everyone wants a spouse who would never cheat on them, but could any day.
    - saying of the worthwhile marriage counselors

My sons, most women are instinctively attracted to men who other women treat as attractive. Sociologists call this "preselection". Any of your long-term relationships, including marriage, are improved when the woman you are with knows that other women find you attractive.

The obvious problem is how to do this while staying above reproach, without any hint of unfaithfulness that would justifiably reduce the comfort you provide to the woman you are with.

The exact details will depend upon you and her. But Romance will suggest many appropriate ways to invite other women to pay attention to you and treat you as attractive.

As one personal example, your mother knows that I sometimes ask other women to braid my hair. Sometimes I even ask this of strangers. The fact that other women—even some strangers—are not hesitant to touch me, and enjoy it, and feel feminine when grooming me, pleases your mother because it affirms that she has "caught" an attractive husband. (But I have met a few women who put special value on hair or on grooming, and this particular behavior would inspire the wrong reaction if their man tried it.)

As another personal example, because your mother and I enjoy swing dancing I get to spend several hours each month dancing with college-aged women who smile at me, laugh when I tease them, and enjoy that my leading on the dance floor helps improve their dancing while making them feel feminine. At swing dances your mother is jealous over me (she is reminded of why she likes me, and appreciates that after the dance she is the one who gets to take me home), not jealous of my temporarily paying attention to other women.

Using romance to maintain preselection also helps you practice using romance apart from affection, intimacy, and sexuality. That will help during certain stages of a long-term relationship. For example, if you marry and have a child then the first month that you and your wife have a newborn baby in the home you two will have a lot of intimacy from teamwork and the sharing of efforts and dreams, but probably very little sexuality. The non-sexual ways you had previously used romance to maintain preselection might then be exactly what your wife needs and appreciates.

Tangentially, preselections explains why women so likely to say "All the good men are taken." They are unaware of their inclination to consider taken men the most good.

Assisting Artistry

Art and love are the same thing: It is the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.
    - Chuck Klosterman

Being feminine is an art that demands much beyond merely being a woman. As an art, it deserves respect and praise for the effort and practice it requires.

Femininity can contribute so much to society. Feminine women can motivate men to behave properly. Feminine women can confer status on men by recognizing virtuous and attractive masculinity. Feminine women can be society's deepest source of love. Feminine women constitute society's main providers of comfort, child care, and hospice. Feminine women create uniquely feminine art, crafts, and accomplishments.

Women who use femininity to create beauty and joy, and contribute those good things to society, deserve the respect and admiration due to any skilled artist.

Of course, different types of artists also receive particular benefits as appropriate to the particular perspectives, efforts and habits they develop. Some of the particular benefits of being feminine include being treated as beautiful, receiving posititive attention from men, having influence over men, receiving help from men for physically demanding or dangerous tasks, receiving protection from men when physically or emotionally threatened, being considered a good candidate for marriage and motherhood, and having faults in appearance or behavior more easily overlooked.

Artists who produce other types of art might also enjoy some of those particular benefits. (For example, any celebrity artist has faults more easily overlooked, and even non-feminine women who artistically accentuate their sexuality can receive positive attention from men.) But only the art of femininity receives the whole set of benefits.

One current, subtle social movement demands the benefits of femininity should apply to even the most unfeminine women. This is, of course, nothing more than selfish entitlement. People who have not produced artwork have not earned the rewards of an artist. (Men face the same issue. Developing appropriate masculinity is an art that not only helps a man mature but also brings him social benefits.)

My sons, you can use romance to help women increase in femininity. This can strengthen society and fill the world with more art and beauty.

Tangentially, be wary of people that attack femininity because they refuse to acknowledge its artistry. As one example, it is easy to see that emotionally healthy men and women enjoy taking care of family members, being pleasing to the people around them, and being attractive to their spouse. Women who are feminine enjoy how the art of femininity gives them an advantage regarding these three joys by providing more ways to do them. But some people mistakenly consider these three things innately oppressive, avoid them, and then while less happy react by complaining they lack the "privileges" that feminine women see as accomplishments.

Assisting Social Change

I'm feminine, but I wouldn't say that I'm girly in any way at all.
    - Victoria Beckham

Yeah, yeah...artistry is great, but there is a huge problem with society only granting feminine women the particular benefits listed above.

My sons, stand firm in recognizing that most of what Romance inspires in your is natural, instinctive, and genetic. It is not a social construct that you will consider as feminine the personality traits of being cheerful, musical, graceful, nurturing, empathic, resourceful, resolute, and not becoming flustered when doing many things. It is not a social construct that you will find certain aspects of a woman's appearance sexually attractive and others sexually unattractive.

(Tangentially, the general virtues listed in the previous paragraph are being happy, light-hearted, sunny in appearance, helpful, sympathetic, providing, courageous, and attentive. There are also masculine variants: a man who is charming, witty, handsome, contributing to camaraderie, loyal, dutiful, enduring, and focused.)

But parts of what Romance tells you are indeed social constructed. Society could be better— more filled with art and beauty—by removing some socially constructed limitations to what men receive from Romance.

For example, stories such as Little House on the Prairie and Little Women extolled the feminine "strong woman" of their day. But life in America is thankfully easier now, and the normal challenges and struggles faced by women are different. Thinking of what a "strong woman" means only according to the older archetypes is too limiting. What a feminine "strong woman" looks like today is an appropriately evolving social construct.

So Romance (an aid to brainstorming, establishing, and affirming feminine options and behaviors) can be a great aid to the social changes of expanding which options and behaviors are socially treated as feminine.

However, my sons, I cannot stop there. I wish I could. But some attempts to remove limitiations on femininity insist that women should be somehow able to pick what men receive from Romance. This is silly! Our male connection with Romance is much too innate and visceral. We cannot ourselves pick what we receive from Romance. How could anyone else possibly expect to have that control?

Women have their innate, biological standards. Nearly all women desire a husband that is taller, stronger, more energetic, earns more, and is more emotionally solid. Men simply have to live with the fact that women have those preferences. Simililarly, men have the right to innate male biological standards. Do not feel bad, my sons, when Romance refuses to cooperate with attempts to change culture. There are many utopian visions. Let's work towards one that is realistic about art, beauty, and romance.

As one example, a social construct may allow women to be considered beautiful with very short hair. But it will never be able to change the biological and instinctual reality that most men only consider long-ish hair preferable on any particular woman, except for a very few older women with certain facial shapes. (Yes, very short hair can look great. But almost always that same woman with long or long-ish hair would look even greater.) Most men receive more from Romance regarding long hair than very short hair.

Many women do not like this. They know they can make a very short haircut lady-like, elegant, and beautiful. It can be "feminine" in the sense of being appropriate for a woman. They also want the control to make it romantic, and by extension more completely feminine. But Romance is wild. They do not get to tame Romance. Neither do men.

(I must include one final tangent. So far I have only spoken of removing cultural limitations on femininity. Is it also possible for social constructs to also add to what men receive from Romance? I do not know. History abounds with strange behaviors that different societies have invented and considered feminine: consider hoop skirts, corsets, foot binding, and neck-stretching. But these behaviors were not romantic. They were "feminine" or "lady-like" or "proper", but their only job was to accentuate something else that was romantic. No man ever wrote a sonnet to immortalize the curves of a hoop skirt, or serenaded a lovely corset.)


Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.
    - Reynold's Law

I am not happy writing this portion. I do not like that the society in which I live excuses immaturity in women. But since it does, maturity becomes a part of appropriate masculinity.

forest path

Maturity is important for everyone. If you are mature the people around you extend more trust, respect, and desire to spend time with you.

Despite this, women are not required to mature. Immature women are socially acceptable. They may even be considered attractive. They are often portrayed as ready for marriage.

Not only does society excuse immaturty in women, but it also gives women a lower standard than men for being called mature. Women are completely excused from some types of maturity. For many other types, women are given a token expectation of maturity but are allowed to act immature if they apologize afterwards. (A man who tried to apologize would not be pardoned.)

My sons, realize you have the choice to live and work surrounded by mature men and women. May these words about immaturity give you the awareness to recognize what is unhealthy in immature society, so you can walk away from it instead of being caught up in it.

Gravitas was one of the Roman virtues, along with pietas, dignitas and virtus. It relates to maturity, seriousness, dignity, and depth of personality. May you and the people you spend time with have gravitas, my sons.

Examples of the Double Standard

Social Responsiblity

I have never found one woman who altered her life by one iota for me or my opinions.
    - Florence Nightengale

I'm a princess, I don't wanna be the queen

A man is unattractive when he is passive, reactive, or even lacking a firm opinion. A woman or child is allowed to wait for guidance.

Example: "You need to pick which leftovers we are eating for dinner tonight. I have no preference. That is your job. Be a helpful husband!"

A man is unattractive when he expects help, including his good deeds being reciprocated. A woman or child is allowed to expect help even before it is requested.

Example: "I was struggling with putting my luggage in the overhead bin and no one offered to help me! Men are so rude these days."

A man is unattractive when he does not offer help to a woman he does not know. A woman or child is not expected to help strangers, and may even "help" friends by volunteering someone else to do the work.

Example: "At the park today I saw a man sitting by himself on a bench, crying. It was frightening. I stayed far away. Oh, my co-worker is moving to a new apartment next weekend. I told her you have a truck."

A man is unattractive when he does not treat pity as an obligation. A woman or child is allowed to choose to whom they act with pity.

Example: "Couldn't you see that your co-worker was in an awkward conversation at the company picnic? Why didn't you help him? I noticed when I was talking to his wife."

A man is unattractive when he does not give of his excess impersonally. A woman or child is allowed to prioritize giving to friends and family.

Example: "You do not wear that coat any more. You should give it to Goodwill. I have a purse I do not use any more. I have two friends who would love it, but I cannot decide which to give it to."

A man is unattractive when he relies on other people. A woman or child is allowed to be so reliant on others that she may expect people to offer the right help before she tells them what she wants.

Example: "I hate telling my boyfriend how to make me happy. He should just know!"

A man is unattractive when he needs to be shielded from the consequences of his choices. A woman or child is excused from such responsibility. This is especially true if the irresonsible choice in any way is unpleasant to any child.

Example: "Why did I sleep with him? He was only in town for a weekend. Now I am pregnant. He was so charming! Thank goodness for social services."

A man is unattractive when he makes a decision without a logical reason. A woman or child is allowed to act irrationally when their emotions are intense.

Example: "Sorry I stormed out of the house during our argument. You made me so angry!"

A man is unattractive when he ignores valid criticism by redirecting the conversation with a criticism of someone else. A woman or child is excused from responding to criticism with counter-criticism.

Example: "How dare you criticise people who skateboard while drunk! Sober skateboarers also get hurt. Skateboards should be safer."

A man is unattractive when he pushes boundaries just to test the boundaries. A woman or child is excused for "testing relationships".

Example: "I don't want to marry a pushover. I want to make sure he is strong, confident, and able to protect me. That's why I play hard-to-get, nag him, and push him to buy me expensive things."

A man is unattractive when he is not entertaining the women around him. A woman or child is allowed to be boring.

Example: "I hate when my husband just relaxes on the couch. I want to poke him or say something. When he is quiet I want him to do something!"

A man is unattractive when he admires a woman but does not approach her and politely inteact. A woman or child is not required to risk discomfort and rejection by interacting with everyone whose appearance she appreciates from a distance.

Example: "That man just smiled at me from across the room. He is just standing there. It's creepy. I feel so objectified."

A man is unattractive when he does not politely listen to a woman talk about her obscure interests. A woman or child is allowed treat boring conversation topics as boring.

Example: "The date was going well. But then he did not want to talk about my fan fiction. He rolled his eyes! Can you imagine?"

A man is unattractive when he has many sexual partners during his college years: even official college policy assumes he is taking advantage of his willing sexual partners. A woman is excused for identical behavior. Only women are made less responsible for their actions by alcohol.

Example: "Don't judge me. I need to find myself and discover what pleases me. Men who are players are the problem with campus relationships."


If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable.
    - Thomas More

A man is unattractive when he has done wrong and does not offer a sincere and unqualified apology that admits his guilt (also, this apology does not reduce the consequences). A woman or child may offer insincere apologies, and may expect explaining instead of apologizing to minimize consequences.

Example: "Now, do not get mad. I did not mean to do that. It was an accident. Why are you being so mean?"

A man is unattractive when he uses shame to influence someone. A woman or child is allowed to shame other people, especially if she can maintain plausable deniability.

Example: "Why are you upset that I told my friends you should not have volunteered to do that? Oh, I did not mean it that way."

A man is unattractive when he avoids judgment by pretending he is not responsible for his actions. A woman or child may claim to be unaccountable because she was caught up in the moment.

Example: "I'm not that kind of girl. It just happened."

A man is unattractive when he lies, unless the untruth is a tiny "white lie" with no practical effect that protects someone else's feelings. A woman or child may lie any time it protects her own feelings (including avoiding criticism), even if the lie leads someone else down the wrong path.

Example: "It is nothing about you. I just do not feel like dating anyone right now."

A man (or boy) is worse than unattractive when he uses a lie to avoid responsibility, or when he asks someone else to be responsible for his actions. A woman (or girl) may falsely claim to not want to do something while using body language to tell a more dominant woman or man that she wants them to push through her token resistance and by doing so accept all the responsibility (and potential blame) for whatever happens.

Example: "I would never tell my boss I am sick just to spend some time with you. (Puppy dog eyes.)"

A man (or boy) is unattractive when he does not play by the rules, and winning a game by disobeying the rules invalidates the win. A woman (or girl) is encouraged to break the rules until she has at least an even chance of winning.

Example: "We played boys versus girls dogeball at recess today. The boys won again so next time the girls get to start with even more points."


I inherited my ability from both my parents; my mother's ability for spending money, and my father's ability for not making it.
    - Anonymous

A man is unattractive when he refers to his wife's possessions as joint property. A woman or child is excused for believing almost everything owned by the family is "ours", except for those personal items that are "mine".

Example: "He earns more than me. So my salary is for stuff I want to buy. House payments, car payments, and utilities all come from his salary since that's our family money."

A young man is unattractive when he has no career plans. A woman or child is allowed to have no career plans.

Example: "I am not sure what I want to do for a living. In college I'll explore options and find my passion. I can always marry someone who is wealthy."

A man is unattractive when he has not saved enough money to deal with unforeseen emergencies. A woman or child is excused for not having significant savings.

Example: "I do not understand how a guy could say he would not marry a girl with college debt."

A man is unattractive when he is not wealthy enough to spend money on other people. A woman or child is allowed to receive instead of spend.

Example: "Even though I am a very modern woman I still appreciate when the guy pays when we're on a date."

A married man is unattractive when he purchases something just because he wants it. A woman or child is excused for her impulse buys when shopping.

Example: "Isn't this cute? And it was on sale!"

A married man is unattractive when he purchases something but very seldom uses it. A woman or child is excused for owning seldom-used purchases. For the woman this is especially true if the item is clothing or jewelry.

Example: "I should be able to get this necklace. You know I protested when you bought new skis that you will only use a few times each year."

A man is unattractive and irresponsible when he works to support a family but refuses to purchase life insurance. A woman or child is not required to have life insurance.

Example: "Only 70% of single moms have life insurance? Well, no duh. It is hard enough to make ends meet without that expense."


To change the mind is a lady's privilege.
    - Stanley Weyman

A man is unattractive when he becomes grumpy because he is hungry or tired. A woman or child may use hunger or weariness as an excuse for grumpy behavior.

Example: "Sorry I did not reply when I said I would. I was too worn out at the end of a hard day."

A man is unattractive when his desires fluctuate. A woman or child may change her desires as often as it feels appropriate.

Example: "When I said that Thai food 'does not interest me', you were supposed to know that I was only talking about that night."

A man is unattractive whe he expects a woman to be his strength and shelter during hardships. (She may indeed be that strength and shelter, but it is always her choice to act strong and selfless.) A woman or child may expect such support from the men they are closest to.

Example: "I had a really hard day. After dinner I will need you to be with the kids because some time to myself to unwind and destress."

A man is unattractive when he agrees to do too many things and fails at some. A woman or child is excused from this failure to be resonsibile.

Example: "Sorry I did not get that done. I had too much on my plate. I only offered because I was trying to be helpful."

A man is unattractive when he becomes emotional because of a brief inconvenience. A woman or child is excused from this short-sighted self-centeredness, and usually does not notice how ugly it is when she vents frustration about a problem that lasts only a few minutes.

Example: "Arg! I hate when the phone rings and it is a solicitor. What a bother!"

A man is unattractive when he displays an emotionally intense response to what a woman says. A woman or child may react emotionally to what men say.

Example: "How dare you raise your voice at me! I am just trying to explain something. You are frightening me."

A man is unattractive when he makes a decision or changes his mind without sharing a logical reason. A woman or child is allowed to be impulsive, intuitive, and even flaky.

Example: "Sorry to cancel our plans. I have decided to stay home tonight instead. I just felt like it."

Personal Awareness and Growth

The great question that has never been answered...is "What does a woman want?"
    - Sigmund Freud

A man is unattractive when he claims he wants something to make him happy or make his life easier, but after acquiring it does not see benefit. A woman or child is excused from this lack of self-awareness.

Example: "I might wear that dress again. I won't return it. I still think it is cute. But it does not make me feel as pretty as I hoped it would."

A man is unattractive when his hobbies, interests and opinions do not continue to develop and deepen. A woman or child may keep the same hobbies, interests, and opinions for as long as she likes.

Example: "What non-fiction books am I in the middle of? Well, I read the news online, and some fashion blogs."

A man is unattractive when he complains that his choices close the doors to other options. A woman or child is excused from ignorantly believing all doors will always remain open for her.

Example: "Of course I want a career and kids some day. What am I doing while at college to become a better mother or wife? What a silly quesion! I'll worry about that later."

A man is unattractive when he becomes moody or frustrated because he is forced to alter or abandon one of his plans. A woman or child is excused from this inflexibility.

Example: "But I was going to make macaroni and cheese tonght. I cannot believe you forgot to buy more at the store. Dinner is ruined!"

A man is unattractive when he does not stay in shape and no longer has the energy to properly lead his family. A woman is allowed to be proud her body whether or not her choices decease her fitness and energy, and she should not be shamed for gaining significant weight even if her weight gain has no medical excuse.

Example: "I need you to take more initiative around the house after dinner. I am too tired at the end of the day. No, I am not up for going for a walk. Take one of the kids."

A man is unattractive when he treats a woman as a child. A woman is expected to treat men (even her husband) like children: viewing them as irresponsible and unable to look out for themselves, and appropriate targets for behavior management with positive and negative reinforcement.

Example: "How dare he make me take the bus home, just because I was an hour late to meet him! It is not a husband's place to discipline the wife. Tonight he sleeps on the couch without even a good night kiss!"

A man is unattractive when he hold grudges or shows resentment. A woman or child may hold a grudge when she feels her resentment helps a man become a better man.

Example: "A week ago I caught you looking twice at another woman while at the store, and now you are doing it again!"

A man is unattractive when he focuses on success or failure in social situatins instead of displaying confidence. A woman or child is expected to cautiously avoid disappointments and failures.

Example: "I can't just go up to him and say hi! What if does not want to talk to me?"

Logical Thinking

It wasn't communication in any meaningful sense of the term as I understand it. It was a kind of "emotional badminton." I acted happy, sympathetic, interested and cheerful and then it was her turn to act happy, sympathetic, interested and cheerful and then it was my turn, etc.
    - Dave Sim


A man is unattractive when he uses conversation merely to validate his personal choices or values. A woman or child is allowed that affirmation.

Example: "Look at these cute baby socks! They were on sale, so of course I bought them. I did spend a lot on the baby's car seat, but of course that purchase is worth the money. Can you believe the president said something so ridiculous yesterday?"

A man is unattractive when he uses feelings to determine ethics. He should be able to defend his philosophical or religious principles with logical reasoning. A woman or child is allowed to base ethics on feelings.

Example: "What do you mean, 'How much of a pension should state employees earn?' Their pensions are too big. It is bankrupting the state."

A man is unattractive when he uses bases his beliefs on anecdotes. His anecdotes should be infrequent, and nearly always a personal testimony to defenend his investment in the issue as a brief intermission from his logical reasoning. A woman or child is allowed to base beliefs on anecdotes, and even use anecdotes about other people in the place of logical reasoning.

Example: "What do you mean, 'It is always wrong to hurt people's feelings?' Of course it is. No one likes to have their feelings hurt...Oh, sure, there are tiny exceptions such as parental tough love, but those are not worth discussing."

A man is unattractive when he responds to a critique of his logic by withdrawing or shutting down. He must always be mentally prepared to defend his views with reason. A woman or child is allowed to withdraw or shut down when critiqued.

Example: "I can't believe you don't understand. This conversation is over."

A man is unattractive when he responds to someone else's mild negative emotions (impatience, wearines, etc.) with his own larger negative emotions (anger, defensiveness, etc.). A woman or child is allowed to emotionally escalate.

Example: "I said I am not in the mood to talk about it. No, this conversation is not urgent. You really hate me, don't you? You are a monster!"

Maturity in Our Family

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But when I became a man I put away childish things.
    - First Corinthians 13:11

Sheet mustic for Children Will Listen from Into the Woods

My sons, you have many advantages compared to your peers. Most of these are because of the choices and priorities made by your mother and I.

(Tangentially, be wary of people who insist that all advantages are "privilege". Privileges exists. But so do accomplishments and consequences, paid for with years of effort and sacrifices.)

We value education and arrange our home and routines to stimulate your intellectual growth, so you are knowledgeable and clever. You do not flounder when evaluating options or making decisions.

We value culture and spending time with healthy and levelheaded people, so you are sensible and discriminating. You are not shallow or attracted to unhealthy people.

We value saving money and wisely investing it and using it to help others, so you have your own savings and know how to manage that money. You are not confined to those careers that earn the most, but may dedicate your time to your God-given vocations.

We provide you with trust and security while letting you explore and test your own boundaries, so you have developed faith, fortitude, and independence. You do not measure your worth by what other people think of you, or by how much attention or commitment they give you.

We celebrate family accomplishments, so you are overflowing with deep reasons for self-worth. You do not suffer from the self-esteem issues of a life in which challenges were watered down or successes were taken for granted.

We have done our best to help you become whole and self-sufficient. You do not cause problems because you feel needy, incomplete, or obliged to test people.

I raise you with a parenting style that was calm and consistent, so you are unusually patient and self-controlled. You are not impulsive.

I raise you while demonstrating a life that is playful, imaginatve, and constructive, so you are happy and know the contment of building. You are not slaves to trends or fashions, nor stuck living as unsatisfied consumers.

I deal with your needs and requests positively and rationally, so you are sensible and optimistic. You are not moody or petulant, reacting to needs or wants too emotionally.

I handle crises calmly and with integrity, so you also trust difficulties as opportuities for growth and self-analysis. You are not insecure, and do not become a different peson when under stress.

I have taken care of my body to keep it strong and handsome as I age, so you can expect to be able to make choices that let you age gracefully. You are not afraid of or depressed by aging.

I try to be make your days brighter with silliness and wit, so you are fun and have a sense of humor. And you know how to be masculine by farting to release stress, instead of crying to release stress.

My sons, you are more mature than average because of these dozen reasons, as well as those many ways described above that growing up male demands above average maturity.

Neither your mother nor I use our family name in our parenting style. Some parents teach "We do this-and-that because we are Smiths!" or admonish "A Jones should not do that!" Although that is not our style, we do hope that you share our priorities and appreciate our choices, and thus gain your own respect for our family name. We are above average, a fact we need not be ashamed to recognize because it comes from the ways our family has valued responsibility and virtue for generations.

Problematic Charisma

What is the best English word for something you did not agree to but it happened anyway? The right answer is "consequence". Some people will use "accident" instead. It is not that far afield. But it completely ignores how part of being mature and responsible is learning how to avoid accidents.
    - Dad

There are situations in which a person's maturity and responsible decision-making can be suppressed by a sufficiently charismatic male.

These days admitting this truth is unfashionable. But it used to be advice shared by each generation to its children and grandchildren.

For Young Men

darwin award logo

Boys and young men will act immature and irresponsible when a sufficiently charismatic male encourages to do something physical and daring. Usually this happens outdoors.

The affected boy or young man will not actually say "yes" to the irresponsible behavior. But he will be unable to say "no".

How much charisma is required to suppress maturity and responsible decision-making? It varies by person. Some boys and young men are quite succeptible to this dynamic. Others have such a high threshold that they might never experience it in their entire lives. Alcohol will lower a person's threshold.

Parents know about this dynamic. They dread the conversations that happen afterwards.

Charisma Suppressing Maturity—For Men

Parent: "Why did you smear honey on yourself and run naked around the beehive?"

Boy or young man: "I don't know. At the time it did not seem so stupid."

Parent: "How could you do something so reckless? That is not like you!"

Boy or young man: "I'm not like this. It just happened."

Parent: "Why didn't you just leave?"

Boy or young man: "Adam seemed so cool and calm. At the time his ideas seemed thrilling and fun. A part of me knew I should leave. But I got caught up in the moment. I just couldn't leave."

My sons, your mother will never understand these episodes. She, during her days as a girl or young woman, never became lost in the charm of a charismatic leader and led to do stupid and dangerous outdoor physical things that were not like her normal, mature self. But I can relate. There are stories I could share about climbing a tree to high, scrambling down a dangerous river, or riding a bicycle off too high a wall.

Most young men have this kind of story. Hopefully we do not get too hurt.

Be aware of this dynamic. Avoid males that are so charismatic that they suppress your maturity, except for the rare few for whom you are really sure that they always handle their influence responsibly.

For Young Women

undressing in public

Girls and young women will act immature and irresponsible when a sufficiently charismatic male encourages to do something physical and sexual.

The affected girl or young woman will not actually say "yes" to the irresponsible behavior. But she will be unable to say "no", and might even obey the requests of the charismatic male. (In one conversation I had, the women with whom I was discussed this dyanmic called it "being paralyzed with pleasure".)

How much charisma is required to suppress maturity and responsible decision-making? It varies by person. Some girls and young women are quite succeptible to this dynamic. Others have such a high threshold that they might never experience it in their entire lives. Alcohol will lower a person's threshold.

Parents know about this dynamic. They dread the conversations that happen afterwards.

Charisma Suppressing Maturity—For Women

Parent: "Why did you go home with him after the party?"

Girl or young woman: "I don't know. At the time it did not seem so stupid."

Parent: "How could you do something so reckless? That is not like you!"

Girl or young woman: "I'm not like this. It just happened."

Parent: "Why didn't you just leave?"

Girl or young woman: "Adam seemed so cool and calm. At the time his ideas seemed thrilling and fun. A part of me knew I should leave. But I got caught up in the moment. I just couldn't leave."

Most young women have this kind of story. Hopefully they did not get too hurt.

My sons, you may grow up to be one of those very charismatic males. If not, in social gatherings with alcohol you will often be more charismatic than the threshold for some of the young men and women attending. Be aware of your potential to fascinate and enthrall.

Do not lead people to do immature, risky, stupid things that they will later regret.


Each reaction we have is there to inspect us and reveal our own nature to ourselves and for ourselves; it is never about others.
    - Bryant McGill

Everyone is reactive sometimes. It is easy to become reactive when required to do a task that appears a waste of time or too difficult.

So assume we are currently reactive.

We still get to pick what to react to. We still get to pick how we react.

Just because we are stuck being reactive does not mean we have no choice about how to be reactive. Responsibility is literally response-ability. We are able to pick what we respond to, and how we respond.

This may sound difficult if it is a new or unpracticed insight. But it is a very learnable skill. There are there tricks to doing it well.

I will share five tips, and relate each to a situation that makes many people reactive: taking a math test.

As a heads up, we are taking a break from social dynamics to talk about body dynamics. So this section will sound a bit more like a physician or science article talking about human biology. I will try to define the important terms carefully so you do not need to look them up elsewhere, but if you are interested in exploring these topics deeper they are fascinating.

It's the Way that You Do It

And that's what gets results.
    - Melvin "Sy" Oliver and James "Trummy" Young

T' ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

Half break.

The first tip is to stop reacting to interoception. Consider what your body was actually doing the last time you were frightened. Perhaps you had a tight chest, a quick heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweaty hands, etc. Those biological sensations mean excitement or suspense. They happen even in situations without risk or fear, such as when experienced musicians are about to perform, teachers greet a new class, or teenagers who love roller coasters buckle in. Awareness of those kinds of biological sensations is called interoception. Our body is simply proclaiming "Take care! This situation is important!" However, many people have been conditioned to unthinkingly interpret those biological sensations as being afraid or overwhelmed. They do not realize their body is jumping to conclusions and they are reacting to bodily sensations instead of the actual circumstances. With practice anyone can retrain interoception and treat your biological sensations as a "sixth sense" no more or less meaningful or reliable than your sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste. How polite that our bodies warns us to take care! This might be a significant growth opportunity. How exciting!

Math test example: I am feeling "test anxiety". My breathing is shallow and my heartbeat is racing. But I need not be anxous. I can be excited instead. I am excited to have the chance to prove myself. I am excited to learn what topics I need to study more.

The second tip is to stop reacting to proprioceptive crashes. Our body's proprioceptive system uses receptors in our muscles to provide body awareness. If we lift our arm above our head we can sense this without checking in a mirror. If we slowly cross our hands or our feet we can tell when they are above each other. Anxiety settles into our body by disrupting and confusing proprioception. When our proprioception crashes, we feel disconnected from our bodies and have trouble connecting with our internal cues about the mildness or severity of a situation. Even a small frustration or worry can seem intolerable when our inner senses of safety or danger have become confusingly entwined.

Math test example: Before the test I watch my classmates who normally sit quiety start to touch their faces, pull on their hair, shift in their chairs, circle their feet, drum their fingers on their desk, and in other ways subconsciously try to maintain proprioceptive self-communication. I do not wait for anxiety to dirsupt my own proprioception but focus my own awareness on how my feet feel in my shoes, then how my behind feels on the chair, then how my breath feels on my edges of my nostrils. In my mind I am concerned about doing well on the test, but by preventing a proprioceptive crash I do not let anxiety settle into my body.

The third tip is to get help if you have alexithymia. The first two tips involved how anxiety can disrupt both interoception and proprioception. Bodies that are too often exposed to that disrupted state recognize its unhelpfulness and replace it with a numb fog that is less alarming but not any more helpful. Lacking words for our feelings is called alexithymia. People with alexithymia respond to questions about "How did you feel...?" with answers about what they did instead of what they felt. There is no self-help for alexithymia, but therapy can work wonders. Alexithymia prevents personal growth because accomplishments feel hollow when made while disconnected from your body and agency. A success in which I understand what I did, but not how I felt, means I know I survived but cannot own the victory.

Math test example: During the test my brain almost shuts down. Thinking feels like trying to run through quicksand. I want to leave the room. Something is wrong with me. Again. Should I leave? I cannot even decide that, so I stay. Failing the test does not surprise me. Why do I even try? I am too much of a failure to even get sad about it.

The fourth tip is to stop reacting to ghosts. The critical voices in our heads are actually external. Perhaps you can even identify which parent, friend, or teacher implanted certain phrases of self-doubt or self-depreciation. During times you are reactive those voices are not the lead you want to follow. They resemble a groping stalker more than a welcoming dance lead. Be angry with them. Rebuke them if you cannot ignore them. Refuse to let these voices touch you.

Math test example: One of my elementary school teachers used to tell her students, "You are not great at math but the calculator will help you." I cannot even remember if she said that to me, but it really stuck. When I started Algebra, where the calculator is no help, I was scared. But then a classmate taught me a trick. I should think of that teacher like a mean ghost. Why is she still haunting me? By now she is probaby old and ugly and miserable. And she was someone only great at math with a calculator. I should feel some anger and some pity. "Go away, mean ghost! Wail about your own problems somewhere else! I am not the little kid you once knew. I am older and smarter now. Go away!" Maybe after I pass this class I'll invite her voice back one last time so I can laugh and show her that I've broken her curse. May she rest in peace."

The fifth tip is to react to the big picture. The immediate circumstances might be dreadful and not where you want to be. But the long-term goals are great things, and where you do want to be. They make your fortitude worthwile and your confidence well-placed.

Math test example: I hate this kind of test. Memorize and regurgitate. I wish I had a better math teacher. But I need to pass the class. I will think about my future to help me put up with a bad teacher and stupid tests. The class is teaching me new math, and more about how to study in groups effectively. It is not a total waste of time, just gratingly inefficient. Last week I negected the boring homework and bombed a quiz. For an hour I was really upset. Then I figured out it could only hurt my overall grade by 2%. The quiz score did not really change anything. I already knew I needed to study that topic more, and I still have to do the same bunch of assignments, and my overall letter grade will be the same. Bombing the quiz really only made me want to study 2% harder, which I suppose was a good thing for today's test.

The sixth tip is to choose eudaimonic or hedonic. People who are strongly eudaimonic think most about overall wellbeing. They want normal moments to have as much peace and contentment as possible. They often make choices that arrange their life to have stable happiness. A eudaimonic person might splurge on an expensive sofa or granite kitchen counters, so the daily grind is eased by having the places they spend a lot of time as functional and luxurious as practical. People who are hedonic think about specific comforts and discomforts. They want special moments to be as wonderful and memorable as possible. They often make choices to enjoy immediate pleasures or avoid immediate anxiety. A hedonic person might splurge on an expensive vacation, so the daily grind is eased by special memories of luxury and pleasure. Most people are a bit of both types, but strongly favor one or the other. Both can provide contentment if you are intentional about where you invest your gains. (Marrying someone of the same type avoids arguments about whether to go on vacation or buy a new sofa.)

The Brave Little Tailor

Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
    - Rodin

the Brave Little Tailor

No one would call the Brave Little Tailor proactive. He has no long-term goals. He does nothing to arrange his schedule, habits, or ways of thinking to help himself be successful. He simply goes on an adventure and reacts to whatever circumstances he meets.

Yet he is a "super-conqueror" in the sense of the word hypernikõmen in Romans 8:35-39. A conqueror is concerned about winning. A super-conqueror is not. The super-conqueror trusts the winning will eventually happen. Victory is certain. There is only a comparatively minor concern about what to do next.

The Brave Little Tailor is an archetypical reactive chooser. He teaches us that a person can be reactive yet still be choosing what he reacts to, and how he reacts. He considers what actions to try, instead of passively waiting for others to act. When situations are bad he keeps choosing, instead of bewailing his fate, dwelling on his weaknesses, or blaming a system. He considers what he can do, instead of fixating on the first thing it seems he must do. He will never plan far enough ahead to win a game of chess, but he will always plan one step to do next.

The Internal Dialogue of a Reactive Chooser

"Ouch! I know this is possible. But that attempt was terrible. What did I do wrong? What else can I try? What other resources can I use? Who should I talk to? Maybe this will work..."

In the life of a reactive choser, momentum keeps going because a new plan is attempted promptly. Even if failure repeats, this still feels like learning. Oops! That did not work. I need more practice. Try again!

Uphold the Frame

I was too selfless and kind to others. I organized my life around other people, not the things I wanted to do. But I need not be selfish or cruel to simply focus my creative energies on what is important to me. Virtuous and kind people can still choose whose reality they operate in. I needed to build a frame around my values.
    - Mark Wollacott

My sons, imagine that you are shown a painting of a social situation and asked to describe it in a few words.

You might say things like "two strangers meeting", "friends playing together", "old friends reunited", "people arguing", "people relaxing and talking", or "a bully and a victim".

If that painting had one of those small labels on its bottom center, what would the label say?

When swing dancing the lead and follow must lean and hold onto each other in a certain way, so they move together and feel each other's center of gravities. Without the right physical connection, the lead cannot send energy and momentum to the follow, and the follow cannot use that energy and momentum to create style.

an empty picture frame, with a metal label

I use the word frame to refer to the core of a social situation: the summary of the painting, and the connections used to exchange energy. (This is not how many internet people use the word.)

Problems arise when different people see different frames for the same social situation. Imagine a business meeting in which people have different goals in mind. Is the meeting to catch up on news? Brainstorm ideas? Share feelings? Clarify confusions? Remove hinderances? Provide a leader with information? Reach a consensus decision before the meeting ends? What a disaster if for all of those goals there were some people with that goal!

My sons, other people have great ideas and goals! Enjoy when you can go with the flow and join their frame. Thank them for what they contribute.

Sometimes you need to help uphold a frame. This is a key part of reactive choosing.

Upholding a frame can be as simple as keeping everyone welcome. A few words of mediation can help when someone is hesitant to speak, or is speaking too much. Questions can keep everyone interested and engaged. Point out when some people are using dialectic and others are using rhetoric. Sometimes people need to be challenged with "This can be better" or "How can we fix this?" or "So..." followed by a long pause—important things to say to keep the frame stable.

Remember to express your gratitude when other people act to uphold the frame. It takes work, and people who are causing problems might call the person upholding the frame annoying.

Sometimes genuine frame fights happen. The best story I know to illustrate is about our friend Leslie.

This story happened on a Friday, at the end of the first week of a college course. The class had met three times, each an hour. The students had observed each other enough to see who was active or passive, engaged or quiet. Leslie had been her normal witty and thoughtful self and participated in discussion frequently. So she was not very surprised when, after class, a classmate came up to her and said, "You are really smart!"

The young man speaking had been shy, and now stood with bad posture. He was clearly socially awkward. Leslie wanted to be friendly, and replied, "Thank you."

The classmate asked, "Could we study together some time?" Leslie was busy with work and other classes, but it seemed safe enough to agree. She was really only committing one study time, perhaps an hour during that entire term.

She was surprised by what happened next. He asked, "Can I hug you?"

Leslie did not know the words "frame fight". But she could sense there was a conflict in the air. If she agreed she would appear to be a compliant pushover, and the classmate would nag repeatedly for more study help. If she disagreed she would appear rude. Also, she normally was a huggy person.

Leslie thought for a moment. Then she stepped beside the young man and leaned sideways so their shoulders bumped breifly. She wanted him to know she did not consider him too icky to touch. "Sorry," she said, "I only hug awkward people on Mondays." The young man frowned when she said "awkward" but quickly smiled instead when he saw Leslie's smile. They both knew he was awkward and would deal with it. She had put his awkwardness on the table, rather than letting it skulk in the shadows.

"See you then," she said as she left, "I'll ask about your weekend." On Monday the classmate would get a very big hug. It would happen on her terms, which would make all the difference.

Leslie won her frame fight. She stopped to think, as much as she needed. She was sufficiently aware of what the other person actually wanted to create a win-win situation. She did not avoid making the other person briefly feel awkward or off-balance when her wit and honesty could push through that discomfort. Leslie challenged the other person to qualify himself to her, yet did so in an easy and non-judgmental manner. The other person did not mind losing the frame fight because Leslie stayed genuine, wantless, playful, and wholesome.

Try reading the Gospels while looking out for the frame fights.

To Honor

At the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object.
    - Marilynne Robinson

Each term my students thank me for being patient with them. That used to surprise me. That word patient is wrong. Although on occasion I will wait quietly while they work out a problem on the board, or mentally compose a response to a question, the normal and literal definition of patience is not what the students actually appreciate.

What they really mean is that I honor them. But most Americans are confused about honor as a noun, and clueless about honor as a verb. So they use the verb "be patient" instead to describe how I honor them.

Allow me to explain.

Esteem and Respect

We are not what we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other such, but for what we are capable of doing.
    - Henry David Thoreau

My sons, you have encountered two types of grading in school classes.

Some classes (traditionally English classes with essay assignments) start the term acting as if all students are perfect and should earn an A+. Throughout the term students turn in work that is graded to "mark them down". The more mistakes students make, the lower their overall grades become. The game is to survive the term with as few mistakes as possible.

Other classes (traditionally Math classes with quiz and test assignments) start the term acting as if all students are blank gradebook entries that would earn a zero. Throughout the term students turn in work that is graded to earn points. The more points students earn, the higher their overall grades become. The game is to turn your time into points as efficiently as possible.

Our society is similarly divided.

America wants to be what sociologists call an "esteem culture". All people are esteemed. No one has to earn esteem. We should treat each other well and value each other, simply because all people deserve it. Except, of course, people who make mistakes. Those people we mark down. They might include criminals, violent drunks, habitual hypocrites, and for some people even the entire half the population that voted differently in an election.

Historically, America has been what sociologists call a "respect culture". Only the people we know well have earned our respect. Small towns are important because everyone knows each other, and the traveller who arrives is treated with suspicion. But the "American Dream" means that we are willing to give anyone we meet a chance to earn our respect, and we will fairly respect accomplishments and virtues no matter whose they are. Except, of course, that prejudices make us undervalue or discredit the "respect points" earned by certain people. They might include people much younger or older than us, people poorer or richer than us, and people who don't look or speak or like us.

Society is struggling to blend esteem culture and respect culture: to fix the flaws, to atone for wrongs of historical implementation, and to somehow create something synergistic. But since there is no money in talking about esteem and respect the books and programs have instead focused on secondary issues: diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion, and equity.


There isn't anyone you couldn't love once you've heard their story.
    - Mary Lou Kownacki

The bad news is that society will never blend esteem culture and respect culture successfully.

The good news is that it does not need to.

There is a better goal: learning how honoring someone (as a verb) involves extending a fivefold sense of belonging.

Honoring, as a verb, includes celebrating successes. When a judge presents an award to an athlete, or a parent rewards a good report card with a trip to the ice cream shop, the success and the successful person are being honored. We honor people by inviting them to share their own successes: "You did that so well, would you please present that to everyone else?"

Honoring, as a verb, includes attentiveness to things shared or slipping. When friends establish a repertoire of in-jokes and references it honors their history together. When family members attentively support each other so things don't slip through the cracks it honors the values and people of that family.

Honoring, as a verb, includes using other people's time frame. We can honor people by making time for them, especially in a repeated, almost ritualistic way, as when relatives check in by phone weekly. We talk about "honoring someone's memory" yet it is not the remembering itself that is honoring, but making time to ponder and share the memories. We honor people by taking the time to see who they are and where they are at--and also seeing their potential, the diverse strengths they can leverage to succeed, and the ways they are becoming more.

Honoring, as a verb, includes formative feedback that offers a few suggestions for the future, instead of critical rubrics that focus on measuring the past. We honor people by prompting and guiding them to plan the next steps that will refine their effort and increase its impact, rather than by deflating them and removing momentum by merely pointing out past problems.

Honoring, as a verb, includes trusting other opinions by default. We know that everyone has some incorrect opinions, including ourselves. We initially treat honored opinions as equally worthy to our own.

Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina about respect, but it could equally apply to esteem: "Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. But if you don’t love me, it would be better and more honest to say so."

Honoring, as a verb, transcends esteem culture and respect culture. It begins with unmerited kindness, next evolves into earned accomplishments and shared history together, and soon achieves a genuine sense of belonging. Honoring visits and overcomes both esteem and respect before rising to something nobler.

When we act genuinely to honor people we will grow to cherish and love them.

What Boys Hear Growing Up

Any qualities in a man that a woman finds useful, she calls masculine, all others, of no use to her or to anyone else for that matter, she chooses to call effeminate...How easily man forgets that his own standards of honor, pride, and dignity are all instilled in him by women and that the very masculinity of which he is so proud is but a sign of successful manipulation!
    - Esther Vilar

What boys hear growing up can be oppressive. There is no one person who puts society's psychological burden on boys. The weight does not appear suddenly as individual actions that can be resisted. The burden does not relate to past challenges that were overcome. Instead, it is a host things claimed to be wrong with you for which no one offers any help.

It is worse than most types of discrimination, which are caused by individuals so the victim knows with whom he or she is dealing, do appear as a series of actions so the victim can see what to respond to, does relate to past discrimination so the memories of earlier overcoming encourage and edify, and is talked about by the victim's peers and family.

I do not claim that all of the oppressive mesages are true. Below I repeat what society proclaims to compactly portray the weight of this burden. I hope, my sons, that few of these oppressive mesages are true in your lives.

The Weight

Take a load off Fanny
Take a load for free
Take a load off Fanny
And you put the load right on me.

    - The Band

So, what are some things that boys hear growing up?

You Are Thanklessly Disposable

Men are disposable and women are protected, even when a society no longer faces dangers large enough to possibly require repopulating after a catastrophe. Men are drafted, women are not. Men drown, women get lifeboats. Even young boys are expected to sacrifice themselves to protect a woman.

Men are less likely to graduate high school, go to college, earn a degree, find a desirable and willing spouse, and die of old age. No one is working to fix these things, even though society was willing to radically change when women suffered them.

Very few people in a man's life care what he is going through: men who cry in public are ignored or shunned, whereas women are afforded support that men will never know.

Violence against men is undervalued and not discussed.

You Are Thanklessly Servile

Masculinity is defined by how well men accommodate women. A man is a good husband if his wife is happy; a woman can be a good wife even if her husband is unhappy. In a family where both parents work, the husband is financially successful when he provides well for his family; the wife is financially successful merely by seeming strong and independent. When both spouses work at fixing a troubled marriage, society expects the wife to give the husband a grade of pass or fail.

Men are expected to serve women unconditionally and without expecting reciprocity. Women are excused from serving men they do not respect, and are not even required to express thanks for male service. A husband is expected to demonstrate respect and servility whether or not his wife has earned it ("Yes, dear"); a wife is excused from serving her husband if he has not earned her respect.

Boys are taught to sacrifice any career or lifestyle ambitions that would not lead to supporting a woman. Single men are encouraged to "settle" for a spouse; single women are fed fantasies about finding Mister Right. Single men in their thirties are discouraged (by women their age and older) from marrying women ten years younger despite some obvious advantages for both spouses. Single men over forty are expected to risk much by marrying women their age; single women over forty are allowed to ignore it when they bring nothing to the legal marriage contract and risk nothing.

Men are taught that women inherently deserve respect, compliments, aid, provision, and protection—even women who can provide for themselves, protect themselves and/or have proven themselves unrespectable. Men do not inherent deserve any of these things, and are instead respected for how well they accommodate women.

Girls get priority. They get served food first. They get seated first. They sometimes get to go first in line. When you take turns playing with a toy, your turn is shortened more by a girl's impatience than the impatience of another boy. When you are smart you may not enjoy using your learning competitively or take pride in your knowledge because that threatens girls: your teachers train you to hide your knowledge when it might hurt a girl's self-esteem.

Feminine learning styles such as collaboration, essay questions, and prioritizing interpretation over facts are well-researched and increasingly prevalent at every grade level. Your boyhood natural learning style that included moving, touching things, and sometimes being loud while learning was an inconvenience your female teachers. When it annoyed them it was suppressed. There is almost no research about how to make the classroom more appropriate for you. For many years college has been dominated by women, but society makes no effort to re-balance the student gender ratio.

A "Women's Project" is something fun to do in a room full of people, such as making jam. A "Men's Project" is something done by yourself and never fun, such as changing a tire.

A woman's expectations about a future spouse are more esteemed: a man is less masculine for complaining that has difficulty finding a "Quality Woman", but a woman is justified when she bemoans there are no "Real Men" anymore.

You Are Thanklessly Accountable

Men are accountable for their own choices and those of women around them; women can often avoid responsibility even for their own choices. If a career man and housewife have spoiled children this reflects on him, but if a career man and housewife are not earning enough money this does not reflect on her.

Uniquely masculine efforts are not appreciated by society and thus cannot be empathically appreciated by women. Men are simply expected to control their tempers, be faithful to a spouse, at work emphasize teamwork and process instead of the goal, etc. with no recognition for how this might be difficult. Men must apologize for their male desires. Yet uniquely feminine efforts are praised by society, and female desires are praised whenever possible ("you go, girl!") or if unpraiseworthy excused ("women are just like that").

Men are inescapably under the motto "produce more than you personally need or perish". Women can escape that burden by having a child, whether or not they properly care for the child.

Your entire life the people you care most about pleasing (women) teach you a lie about what they want (always provide comfort). When you obey this teaching they lose respect for you, shun you, give themselves to people other than you, withhold from you, and divorce you.

You Are Immoral

Feminine virtues (being softly nurturing, empathically compassionate, cleverly resourceful, sweetly considerate, multitasking well, etc.) are extolled. Masculine virtues (stoic independence, aggressive self-confidence, rugged individualism, heroic risk taking, light-hearted relaxiation, focused pursuit of goals, eccentrism leading to innovation insatiable need to create things, attractive physical strength, etc.) are watered down sufficiently for average women to qualify and reframed as gender-neutral virtues. Masculinity is maligned as chauvinism. Suggesting that men may be more naturally capable at some virtues is offensive, even with obviously true examples such as innovation without personal application.

Men are not shown leniency for masculine vices the way women are shown leniency for feminine vices. Pretending to enjoy masculine vices is seen as immoral (playing violent sports and video games, dreaming up immense building projects, mentioning lustful desires while people-watching women). Men are even shamed for having the mere capacity to display masculine vices.

All-male spaces are now allowed; all-women spaces are valued as needed refuges. Old Boy's Clubs are justly seen as sexist because they are so liable to view feminine behavior as "rocking the boat" even though the same is true for the much more numerous Old Girl's Clubs that are celebrated and often supported by tax dollars.

Male leadership is inherently suspect, if not evil.

Women are "the fair sex", "your better half", "more spiritual", and sometimes even "innately good". Men are the opposite.

Male sexuality is dangerous and evil. Young men are never encouraged to explore their sexuality; young women are. While dating even mild physical intimacy with a girl is taking advantage of her. Husbands who enjoy sex more than their wives for purely biological reasons are still doing something wrong.

Male successes are unfairly won, so their property should be redistributed. Male innate immorality hinders a masculine man's betters (women and feminine men) from building a better society.

What You Produce Is Not Yours

Your money is not yours. Alimony was once a sensible solution to repay a divorced woman for giving her most energetic and physically attractive years to her husband and family, but it now applies to women who married older and raised no children.

cartoon of wife cheating

Your marriage is not yours. It is still (quite properly) viewed as legitimate grounds for divorce if a married man has a purely physical encounter with a prostitute he never sees again, even when this has no impact on his children or wife; yet it is becoming socially acceptable for a married woman who finds a more attractive man to have an purely emotional affair, divorce, and after remarrying include physical intimacy.

Your children are not yours. Whether children you conceive will be born is only the mother's choice. Whether you get to see any children you have is only the mother's choice. Yet you must be prepared to financially support all children you conceive even accidentally. If you have children while married and then divorce, your wife will get the children. If she cuckolds you then you will pay for those kids either while married or after divorce. Any enemy can file a false claim of witnessing abuse and have your children removed at least temporarily.

Your creations are not yours. We are falsely taught that society was created by everyone. But how many things in your home were not either invented or built by a man—a few knit items, perhaps some hand-beaded jewelry, maybe a single book?

Your career is not yours. Any woman can use a claim of sexual harassment to destroy your job.

Your years are not yours. Any woman can use a false claim of rape to put you in jail.

The Response

The ancient ideal of human mastery was, "above all, self-mastery," directed toward the right ordering and orientation of the soul so man would be a responsible steward of God's creation. In contrast, the modern perspective sees self-control as a prerequisite for dominating the external world, in order to direct the world toward the fulfillment of human desires.
    - Nathanael Blake

Much of the weight is factual. Men are drafted, women are not. Men's disadvantages in health, academia, and law are indeed often ignored or scorned. Male instincts and all-male spaces are villified. And, as we have seen, women can be excused from the normal standards for maturity and accountability.

Fortunately, there are solutions.

Understand theodicy. People did not create the world, and are not responsibile for its harshness, or the existence of suffering, pain, and death. Acting as responsible stewards of creation does not require eliminating or even fully minimizing these. Those attempts ignore how suffering, pain, and death are not wholly evil. Those attempts introduce new evils when they value comfort and individualism over progress and community.

Cultivate your senses of wonder and play. Your role is not that of a laboratory object, there to be studied for a deeper understanding of the forces that control it. Live that first section of Heschel's God in Search of Man.

Realize that the issue of men meeting higher standards is nothing new. Biologists have looked at DNA and discovered that between 60% and 80% of all history's women have had children, but only 20% to 40% of history's men have reproduced. Every woman alive is the result of generations for whom "just fit in" was a winning strategy. Every man alive the result of generations for whom "stand out from the crowd" was necessary.

Remember that each person is responsible for their own happiness, and that the only reliable way to move beyond contentment to joy is a genuinely interactive relationship with God. My sons, you have a strange benefit from having family members prone to bouts of short-term depression: you can clearly see that people cannot always create their own happiness, so how could we possibly hold them responsible for keeping someone else happy? You have seen more than most people how happiness comes from an internal place, and what it takes to develop and sustain that place.

So society does treat most men as thanklessly disposable. But it is not society's thanks that matter. Appreciate that you have the strength, courage, and conviction to fight for what is good. Be grateful for the family you have and work you do. As the saying goes, "People with nothing to die for also have nothing to live for." Selflessness, like any virtue, is healthy in moderation but can be exaggerated into a vice.

My sons, you do not need to be thanklessly servile or to "settle" with work or women. You will have enough money to do work that is meaningful and virtuous, instead of scrambling to pay the bills. You both will have the social skills and patience to find a worthy spouse and cultivate a happy marriage.

You will never be thanklessly accountable because you will understand people—and yourself—well enough to be grateful for the valid accountability provided by your faith, family, and closest friends. You will see society's imperatives for what they truly are: a crazy mix of traditions and propaganda lacking leverage on appropriate masculinity.

Of course you are immoral—and also holy. Your faith explores how and why you will never live up to the highest standards of your own conscience. Your life will see constant moral growth. It is a path you walk down side-by-side with God, bumping shoulders and making jokes. Sometimes you will instead dwell on how society views masculinity as immmoral, and you will learn to recognize that mental state as one of the many distractions of worldliness.

Finally, my sons, your faith teaches you to see yourself as the steward of a small portion of God's world. You will have authority over people, places, and things. But you know they are not truly yours. That which you give away is claimed by the recipient, and that which you control will no longer be yours after you die. The only thing that is truly yours is the love with which you are giving in this moment. May God guide you always.

Grieving, Love, and Mourning


Suffering a Wound

Tears are the silent language of grief.
    - Voltaire

cartoon coyote leaves a hole in a wall

Grieving is about loss and pain. A person is gone and there is a hole in the world. There is also a hole in our psyche. These can feel similar to how the cartoon Coyote leaves a hole shaped like his outline when he goes through a wall.

Our habits and desires prompt us to continue to relate to the missing person, but we cannot connect. Again and again we would have talked with them, shared with them, seen them in a certain place, and felt their voice or touch—but instead of them we only see an empty space.

It usually feels like the person was ripped from our lives suddenly and violently, even if his or her health was poor and death unsurprising. There is pain from the wounding, as well as the wound.

Animals can grieve. When two dogs are best friends for many years, when one dies the other grieves. My friend is gone! The place next to me, where they should be, is empty!

Funerals help us recognize that many people share in the loss. So many lives have been disrupted. So many other people are grieving. An community can grieve with shared loss and pain.

Exploring the Wound

Then he told Thomas, "Reach out your finger here, and look at my hands. Take your hand, and thrust it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
    - John 20:27

Grieving is also about healing as best we can, during and despite the continued loss and pain.

Part of healing is metaphorically exploring the boundary of the hole in our psyche. This work is more difficult and painful than when doubting Thomas reached out his finger. The hole is inside us. The hole is not physical. Often God seems unusually distant instead of especially close.

That is another place I would have seen them and smiled at them, but now cannot.

That is another time I would have talked with them, or called them on the phone, but now cannot.

That is another activity I would have done with them, but now do it by myself.

That is another situation in which I would have relied on them and drawn strength from them, but now cannot.

That is another decision I would have made with them, or trip I would have taken with them, but now I plan and travel alone.

Because this work is difficult and painful, everyone who grieves will sometimes avoid it. We instead distract ourselves with work or recreation or drink. Many cultures have traditions and rituals designed to minimize this avoidance, especially when grieving for an immediate family member. Usually this period of focused and intense grieving lasts a few days, perhaps a week.

We stay home. We do not work. Friends and extended family visit once or twice a day to bring us food and clean up the kitchen. Friends and extended family take care of young children. We are allowed time to feel, time to imagine how shattered pieces could be put together, even if imperfectly. We talk when we feel the need, but are not even expected to speak with the visitors helping with meals. It is appropriate to dwell on sentimental things such as family photos and journals and cookbooks—but if we turn these into a project to distract and numb our thoughts then our visitors will notice and guide us back to the work of grieving. If we dive too deeply into a book or a game then again our visitors will notice and guide us back to the work of grieving.

Filling the Wound

Fear is the path to the dark side…fear leads to anger…
    - Yoda

The initial period of focused and intense grieving fades and in some ways life resumes. The person who grieves returns to work, socializing, and the business of living. It once again is appropriate to acknowledge visitors, and to express thanks and gratitude when people help.

Our psyche does not like having a hole. It wants something to fill and patch the hole. It is completely natural and expected for the hole to initially fill with anger.

Anger is a natural reaction to fear. Fear is a natural reaction to loss and hurt. So after suffering a loss and hurt it is normal to feel anger. (The fear is often a middle step rushed through too quickly to initially be noticed.)

A person who grieves is often angry at life, angry at God, angry at the missing person for leaving them, and angry at themselves for not doing something. Because much of the anger is an unconscious attempt to patch the hole, it may be noticeably irrational and therefore confusing. I should feel sad about the person's departure, not angry! I did everything that I could for them while they lived, so why am I blaming myself for not having done more?

The anger is not a long-term solution. Transitioning out of the initial period of focused and intense grieving involves shifting the work of grieving from exploring the extent of the hole to find better ways to fill the hole.

I have established places where I see people and smile at them in a way that reminds me of how my loved one did smile.

I have built new habits and rituals with family and friends about times to call each other and things to talk about.

I have learned new ways to put depth and meaning into the activities we used to do together but now I do by myself.

I have found ways to be inspired by the memory of my loved one, some of which allow me to provide strength to people who need it; I have found other sources of strength for situations when I need that.

I have learned to make decisions that honor my loved one, and learned ways to bring his or her memory into the present as I travel.

The feeling of grief might never end. The loss is permanent. We will always miss the people who are gone. We can replace the ways we connected with the person, but we do not replace the missing person. We can find new ways to infuse life with peace and joy, while retaining sentimental fondness for the old ways that death has taken away.

But the process of grieving should end. The hole gets patched in healthy ways. The person who grieves resumes participation in life's normal waves of joy and sadness.

Many cultures have recommended time limits for this second stage of the work of grieving: perhaps several months, often one year. During this time the transition from anger and confusion into health and peace is expected and accepted. A person who is grieving is exempted from attending weddings and other community celebrations. They might be excused from saying prayers that praise God, or encouraged to say those prayers even though they cannot say them wholeheartedly. They might be excused from communal meditation or brainstorming sessions.


Love Problems

Where there is love, there is pain.
    - Spanish proverb

Time for a family story, from the perspective of my older son. The annual childhood December travels to visit family were really, really depressing in 2017.

First was not being able to celebrate Chanukah with his great-grandmother. She had passed away two years before. He still remembered when she and her house were parts of our annual holiday family times.

Second was how this would be Grandma's last Christmas. She was dying from congestive heart failure, and would probably live a few more months but certainly not an entire year. So everyone tried hard to include all of her favorite cookies, other foods, songs, and everything else to make this Christmas the way she loved. The days with her were festive, but also bitter-sweet.

Third was a brief visit with a great-aunt whose ranch house had recently burned down in the Ventura county Thomas Fire. That house had been the solid place for generations, as everyone else on that side of the family had moved multiple times over the decades, but could always gather at the ranch house for weddings, Christmas, and other family reunions. The great-aunt had shared how she had loaded her vehicle with her most treasured and sentimental possessions but neglected to take any clothes; after fleeing the fire and finding a place to stay, she really wanted to shower and sleep but could not rest because she first had to purchase some clothes that were not so dirty and sweaty!

Finally, at a New Years' Eve party his first pet, a beloved Siberian dwarf hamster named Daisy, who had done great traveling with us, was stepped on by a friend-of-a-friend's three-year-old and crushed. A young boy should not spend New Years' Eve holding a dying pet, crying as he kept it clean and warm and tried to offer it water. Daisy was visibly comforted by being held. After midnight Daisy finally fell asleep, and so he did too. But Daisy did not wake up, and the long drive home that we started the next day was quiet and sad.

Where was love in all those situations? How do you love a great-grandmother who is gone, or a grandmother who you might not see again? How do you comfort a family member who is is starting over without her home or possessions? What good is love if it cannot save Grandma or Daisy? Since we do not really expect miraculous healings then why do we feel so betrayed when they do not happen?

What is Love?

We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God".
    - C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Some English words are broken. C. S. Lewis noted that the word "my" can mean "that thing thing completely belongs to me" or its opposite "I completely belong to that thing", as well as many intermediate types of belonging.

Is the word "love" also broken? People use it to mean four things.

Love can be an emotion like strong fondness or enjoyment. "I love chocolate ice cream!" "I love spending time with you!"

Love can be a desire. "I would love to do that!" "I hug my wife to show her how much I love her." When two lovers speak Spanish they do not say "Te Amo!" (I love you) but instead "Te quiero!" (I want you).

Love can be a state. "I am in love!" Robert Heinlein famously wrote that "Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own."

Love can be an action. "I love her even when she is acting unloveable." The Greek word agape is used for sacrificial actions. John wrote, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

The word "love" means four things, yet we somehow know that the word is not broken. We recognize love when we encounter it, and love itself is a unity.

vintage spice canister

The secret to defining love is to recognize that love is not a thing but instead a modifier.

Love is a kind of spice, seasoning, or style we put on things to add depth and meaning to life.

I enjoy chocolate ice cream. But there is more. The way I make eye contact with my friends, and the facial expressions I make while eating it, add a playfulness that reveals my love for the chocolate ice cream.

I use hugs to say hello or goodbye to many people. But when I hug my wife there is more. My desire for my wife is communicated subtly even in our hello and goodbye hugs. The details change from hug to hug, and an outside observer might not notice them. But these hugs have a different seasoning or spice than when I hug other people.

When I offer comfort to someone who is sad there is a difference if the person is someone I love. I might say the same things, put my hand on their shoulder in the same way, or sit beside them with apparently identical silent support. But my desire for sad people to have comfort is deeper and more magnified for people I love, and my actions are flavored by subtle details of style that convey more intensity and priority.

I like cooking food to share with people. I share treats with acquaintances: my math students and co-workers, the teachers and office staff at the kids’ elementary school, and the people at the library or the stores at which I shop. But even if the food I share is the same, there is something different when I share with the family and friends I love. An old saying claims, "Love is a spice that flavors our food."

Love can help all stages of grieving. Love can soften the impact of the loss and wounding. Love can refill our depleted fortitude during the difficult work of exploring the extent of the hole in our psyche. Love is a component of the new perspectives, habits, inspirations, and decisions we develop to fill the hole.

Grieving is different when person who is gone was loved, and not merely an acquaintance. But the process of grieving, although affected by love, is really about loss and pain, not love.


Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn't there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.
    - Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia photo

Mourning, as I use the word, is different from grieving because mourning is entirely about love. Perhaps in popular English mourning and grieving can be synonymous. Yet the loss of a loved one causes a very distinct second effect, so let us use the two distinct word for these two distinct effects.

Mourning is a life-long process of increasing in wisdom about love—especially how to show love despite distance. It is too philosophical for animals. Its pace is accelerated during times of grieving, but it is always present to some degree in the background of mature and thoughtful living.

How do you love a great-grandmother who is gone? How do you love a grandmother who you might not see again? How do you comfort a family member who is is starting over without her home or possessions? Those are profound questions! We might think about them more while grieving. But we continue ponder them throughout our lives, and our answers will develop in breadth and depth we mature.

What good is love if it cannot save Grandma or Daisy? Since we do not really expect miraculous healings then why do we feel so betrayed when they do not happen? We just explored how love is a kind of spice, seasoning, or style we put on things to add depth and meaning to life. In other words, we use love to change normal things for the better. The purpose of love is to change life and improve it. That is why we feel betrayed when love cannot change and improve life. Love's role has failed, even when we do not realistically expect a miracle in a certain situation.

Most cultures have ceremonies for both grieving and mourning (separately or combined). There is both a burial that focuses on loss and grief, and a memorial or wake for sharing the examples of love between the community and the person who is gone.

The most meaningful stories at a memorial are ways people share their wisdom about mourning. Humor and eccentricities can be important parts of the spices and seasonings of love, so often the silliest vignettes reveal the deepest insights about mourning, even as they lighten the burden of grieving.

The cloud of grieving has a silver lining. The work of grieving highlights how the person who is gone connected with family, friends, and community. It identifies the "loose threads" hanging off the edges of the tapestry of the departed person's life. As we recall that person's personality, virtues, stories, habits, priorities, values, projects, prayers, and inspirations we notice new answers to the questions of mourning.

Thus grieving and mourning support each other as we ponder how to incorporate parts of the loved one's life into our lives. While grieving we see more breadth and depth in the issues mourning. While mourning we discover other, deeper answers about how love works, to use while healing the loss and pain of grief and filing the hole in our psyche.

Sometimes we decide to change ourselves so we can better carry the "vision and strength" of those we have admired. At times we might try on various changes, metaphorically similar to trying on clothes in a store's dressing room, when with friends and away from any judgmental or public eye.

Mourning Those Who are Present

Take a deep breath.

Mourning is growing wiser about how to love despite distance. So mourning also happens when there are types of distance other than the death of a loved one.

Some distance is created by a breaking our sense of self. Even a toddler will gain a bit more wisdom about love as it develops a self-identity apart from its mother. A teenage crush can be a wake-up call about our egocentricity, when growing emotionally closer to somone reveals our youthful lack of experience at seeing things from others' points of view. A religious epiphany can peel away layers of lies we unknowingly believed about ourselves. We can mourn the loss of an old, simpler, easier self-identity.

Some distance is physical. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. Long-distance relationships can teach us a lot about love. We can mourn the lost proximity of our loved ones. We mourn when our close friends disperse after we graduate from a school.

Jim Henson and Kathryn Mullen filming The Dark Crystal

Some distance is inherent to the human condition. Gelflings can merge minds to share a memory with what it means to them, but people are doomed to some mental and emotional separation and misunderstanding. We remain more apart than melded, no matter how much we want to work as a team or unite as a couple. We can mourn while experiencing the loneliness of our inability to share perfectly. Much wisdom about love is how to be together fully, despite only coming together incompletely.

In contrast, closeness is great! Being close can teach us about fondness, enjoyment, desire, happiness, and self-sacrfice. Being close gives us the best opportunities to act with love. Yet the deepest wisdom about love comes from mourning. We are more distant than we like to think about, and we must learn ways to overcome that distance to truly love ourselves and others.