Midnight Blue

His soft warm lips tasted of martini with olives. The kiss was coming up all evening, and it turned out better than she expected.  The only time she hesitated was when they passed the doorman, and he nodded in greeting. The same doorman saw other women accompanying him upstairs—how many, how often? These thoughts flashed through her buzzed head until the elevator doors closed behind them and she felt his lips at her ear and his hands pressing her body against his. He said something about the “bachelor appearance” of his apartment. She replied something dismissive. They stepped into a dark space where she suspended fear and doubt.

When she came out hours later, sobered, with smudges of make-up exposed in the fluorescence of the hallway, amazingly, she was the same person. She was still getting married in two weeks, to a man she loved, to a man who loved her. As she waited for the cab, shivering—only in part because of the cold night air– scenes from past hours ambushed her mind, making her stoop and lower her head. She went to bed smelling like the man she knew almost nothing about, except for his ability to make her shiver with his soft, warm lips.


He was a poor dresser: pleated pants and puffy sweaters did nothing for his hunched figure. His face could be “cute,” but its features were unattractive. And yet there was a general consensus among women that he deserved attention, and occasional flirtation. Something in his crooked smile made you want to smile back. There was a rumor that he slept with his underling. His jokes always had a sting in them. She was unsure whether to be flattered or insulted by his compliments. But when he looked at her, her heart fell fast and hard, making it difficult to breathe.


Why did she go out with him; why did she let him ask her unforgivable, explicit questions? Why did she answer them, blushing, blushing, blushing?.. What was she hoping to find behind that ironic, detached façade?

She was anxious to meet him again.

“I think it is cute that you are nervous” he said. His whispers melted in her ears, a lightheaded, bubbly feeling settling in instead of the tension she felt a minute ago.


She prepared questions; many questions that would help uncover who he was. But he was not answering.

“I don’t like bothering people with my stuff, because, well: it’s my stuff.”

“But what if other people want to be bothered?”

It was quiet while he looked up at the ceiling lit with the burning fireplace. He suddenly looked very sad.

“You are never going to see me again, are you?”

He should not have asked that—it was not fair.

“Look, this,” she waived her arm over their bodies, “has costs: emotional, and–“ she pictured her life, as she built it, falling apart as a result of this indiscretion coming out—”…and otherwise. I enjoy the sex, but it is only worth it for me if I can feel you—as a person—if I can feel close to you. You know?”

It was a while before he said slowly, “It is layers and layers, and no matter which one I show you, it’s rotten, and bad, and unlikable; so why bother?” He added, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

“I think we all have our issues. The best we can do is to surround ourselves with people who like us for who we are, and then life isn’t so bad. I think I could like your ‘turtles’.”


His e-mails were distant, and she felt guilty and glad at the same time that she could never fall in love with him. Still, all she could think about for the past two weeks was his profile in the darkness lit with a burning fireplace, and the feeling of his kisses.

Her fiancé finally came to town, and, unwittingly, she was snapping at him for little, unimportant things. To her fiancé, she explained this was stress. She was marrying someone who loved her so much, and so openly, with all of her flaws, except for the one she hoped he would never know. How could she jeopardize that? It was not for sex; sex was a side-effect of the queasiness that settled in her stomach when this stranger stared at her and asked, “are you one of those people who have to be faithful?”


“What is wrong with me? What do I want—I have everything I can dream of.”  She wanted him, with his layers, and turtles, and a crooked smile, and soft lips—he was something she needed to solve, like a step in an equation, to move on.


The wedding was small: just the two of them in a chapel decorated with fake flowers, golden cupids and votive candles. “Marriage is a sacred institution, established by God, and therefore is not to be entered into lightly––” She was not entering into it lightly. In front of her was the man she loved. He was all that she could hope for, and he loved her. “Some day, I’ll make sense of this” she thought. “It will be OK, it will all become past, to be remembered on a sunny autumn day, while our children play in a shade of an oak tree. It will all be fine.” But the photographer smelled of the same cologne as did the one person she did not want to think about. “What are the odds?” she thought.

“I do.”

“I do.”

“You may kiss the bride.”


“I feel that you love me less,” her husband told her on the second day of their marriage. She did not love him any less, though; and even that was wrong. Something was wrong with everything.


She was looking forward to coming back to work, because that’s where he was. But when she saw him, business-like, polite, impersonal, avoiding her eyes except when he asked “so now that you are married, does it mean I can’t see you socially?” she answered, “Of course you can.” He shook her extended hand, surprised by the unexpected formality. “I just wanted to touch you” she said, leaving his office.


It was a recurrent nightmare that she could not escape: walking out of his apartment late at night, heading home and feeling emptied, turned inside-out. The void he left was more and more painful with every step she took away from him. Nobody could know about it, no one, no one, two three, four—she counted steps– five.


She was five and wore a skirt. It was a warm day, and her cousins and Grandma were outside. But she was inside, by the window, and Grandpa, old, fat Grandpa pulled up her skirt. It felt wet and yucky and wrong. It felt so wrong that she forgot how to breathe and heard her heartbeat in her ears. “Shhh…You are a good girl, aren’t you? Be a good girl, don’t tell anyone.” She did not. She was a good girl. She did not wear skirts after that, and she did not go back to see Grandma until he died years later. Such a stubborn child, they said.


Her steps in the empty streets—six, seven, eight—echoed in the dark as though she was not alone.


They were all around, boys slightly older than she, boys that lied to her to get her to come into the bathroom, boys with strong hands keeping her away from the door, untying the strings that held up her tank top. They were laughing loudly, and she was all alone, trying to hold on and not to cry.


She cried in the shower when she got home past midnight. No one can know. No one will understand. That’s why she never tells. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen…


“Well dear, there are men about whose integrity there may be some doubt, but your Math teacher is just the nicest person,” said her mother. Smelling of cheap cigarettes, he recited poetry as he grabbed her and pinned her against the wall. Her friends thought it was cool that he courted her. It was impossible to avoid him completely. He alternated flirtation, threats and public innuendoes trying to get her to sleep with him. When she was 17, he finally gave up, and, as a graduation present, told her, “You are the only one who did not. And let me tell you—there were many.”

Fuck you, asshole. Two years of daily humiliation, is what it has been for me. Two years of trying to explain your jokes, metaphors and phone calls to people who did not want to know the truth. Fuck you. She never told him that, not even years later. Good girls don’t make waves.


She checked her e-mail, hoping to see his name in the inbox, but he rarely wrote. And when he did it was not enough, as though he fed her an emotional diet that kept her barely alive. She ran into him in public, and that was frustrating too. Would it have been better if he acted friendlier? It does not matter. It’s not like it is up to her. It is not like she can do anything about it.


Eighteen. She was asleep in a guest bedroom when he came in. That’s why she did not remember anything before he started to take her clothes off. No, she was saying, no, no, no-o-o. But it was too late, it hurt like hell, and there was nothing she could do about it. She never told. But she never went back and she never saw him again.


Ten years later, she was on the other side of that tunnel. She really thought so, before she stepped into the dark apartment, before she came out of it hours later, before she realized she needed to solve a man like a step in an equation.


“This is not fair to him. He is smart, sweet, charming and funny. Why can’t I just be friends with him?”


“You are very sexy.” He looked at her like she was a prize-winning horse.

“Aside from that, what do you think of me?”

“Just like that: you are asking me what I think of you? I think you are intelligent and socially perceptive: you know what’s going on; I like that. And other than that, I don’t know that much about you.

“Do you want to find out?” she wanted to ask. But she was afraid of his answer.


As a little girl, at night she sat on the windowsill, dreaming. There, up high, on that shiny star—that one—was her home. She was a princess, born to the wisest, kindest rulers. Theirs was a kingdom of all good things—beauty, kindness, talent. An evil magician plotted to kill the princess. That’s why she was sent to Earth, to live where nobody could find her, not even her real parents.


Lonely and lost–that’s how she felt long after she grew out of fairy tales. “I can do this, I can figure it out. If I figure it out, I’ll be saved, I’ll be free.”


“Are you avoiding me?”

“What?” His eyes narrowed.

“You have not answered my e-mails for days.”

“I’ve been busy. I have work to do!”

The conversation was rolling down a steep hill, and it was too late to stop the crash.

“I just feel like I am always initiating our encounters.”

“And so you are.”

“Look, I don’t want––“ Her head started to hurt from the effort she made to hold back tears. “I don’t ask for much. I mean. I just need to feel like you are interested, you know?”

Gazing into the distance, he spoke quietly. “Do you know what you want? Because I am not sure you do.”

“I want to be friends.”

“We arefriends. I can’t be a better friend than I am to you.”

“Would you…If I…If we…Suppose that we stopped having sex…Would you still be a friend?”

“I don’t understand you. Sex was your idea.”

It was not her idea. But she said, “Yes. Yes, it was. I know.” Such a good girl.

“I don’t know what you are waiting for me to say.”


“Fine then.”

He shrugged, lips pressed into a thin line, and turned around to leave. She watched him walk away—a sweet, funny, charming guy—twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven.


It felt cold and empty, this space she inhabited. She could do nothing to change that. “One day, I will figure it out and it will be OK,” she told herself. But she was not sure. Something was wrong with her, and she did not know what.

At home, she undressed and stood in front of the mirror. This is what they want. This is what she is. She wished she was taller, and blond, with blue eyes. She wished that she woke up—right now—and it would all have been a dream, and she was happy–– twenty eight, twenty nine… She never remembered in the morning how high she counted before she fell asleep.







Me too, morality and compassion



Fun fact: students of economics are less altruistic than students in any other major. You could suppose it’s something about them–their genes, personalities, upbringing–that made more selfish, more rational-choice people major in economics. BUT. Among economics students,  altruism is inversely related to how long they’ve trained in the discipline. The more years studying economics, the less altruistic they become. So it seems altruism (or lack of it) is not a matter of personal proclivities. Instead, it is a matter of indoctrination into a culture–in this case, the culture of economics.

“Wait,” I hear you say. “There’s a culture of economics?” Of course there is. Step into any department on campus and you’ll see a distinct culture. Business students dress differently than anthropology students; English majors joke about different things than engineer majors; psychologists wouldn’t be caught dead saying “prove.”  Every discipline is a culture; declaring a major, students pledge allegiance to a discipline, and are eager to fit in.

Evolutionary psychology is a culture, too. Its founding principles stem from humans’ evolutionary past, and so may seem crude. They state that men should want (this is how experimental predictions are often phrased) to sleep with as many women as possible, preferring younger, more attractive women. (On the other hand, women should want to pick a single best partner). Also, women, but not men, shouldn’t care about their partners’ infidelity. Steeped in this culture, is it surprising that some (male) evolutionary psychologists adjust their behaviors to adhere to the cultural standards, same as economics’ students adjust theirs? Is it any wonder that men of evolutionary psychology would sleep with multiple women, women who are extremely young? Is it immoral?

What is immoral?

Jon Haidt studied moral disgust at Penn–before evolutionary psychology descended on the department like Uggs on the shoe industry. Disgust, you see, is a useful emotion if you aim to survive. It stops you from eating rotten food and hanging out with people who have the plague. But we’d extended disgust beyond its original uses, to the moral domain. A Nazi’s hat is not going to kill you, but you are using the same part of the brain, the same facial expression, and the same actions around it as you would if it carried the plague.

Haidt asked people what they found morally disgusting, and why. For instance, an adult has sex with a child. Disgusting? I don’t have to wait for students’ answer: their lips curl, nose crinkles, they recoil–it’s disgusting, immoral. Why? Very quickly I get the answer Haidt got: it’s immoral because it’s harming the child. Very well, Haidt would ask next. How about if a person has sex with a corpse. The corpse is not harmed. Is it still immoral? Sooner or later, the students find a way out of this paradox: there’s harm to the survivors of the person, their children, parents, friends. Desecrating the corpse is doing harm to them, and is therefore immoral.

And then Haidt goes in for the kill (sorry). How about if a person has sex with a dead chicken?

The smiles turn into confusion on students’ faces, the competing emotions, the fleeting thoughts. Is it immoral? After a little hesitation (they feel it, but cannot explain it–a nightmare for intellectuals), they confess: it is immoral. But why, I ask them. If morality is about harm, why is sex with a dead chicken immoral? It’s not harming the chicken; we’re not worried about its surviving relatives. If it’s not harmful, and yet it is immoral–then what is morality?

And then they light up.  They nod to themselves–they’ve solved the puzzle. Little by little, most of them get the answer. By the time I say it out loud, they know it.

Morality is not about harm. It’s about upholding social norms.

It’s immoral to have sex with children… except in cultures where that’s a norm. The difference between their norms and our norms surely keeps the social boundaries intact. We read about bloggers being whipped in Saudi Arabia, or women disfigured for adultery in Afghanistan, and we are overwhelmed with outrage: it’s immoral. To us. Other people, meanwhile, find a whole lot of immorality in us. What first-world country, some Europeans have asked me, uses the death penalty? To drive SUVs is immoral. To them.

Is it immoral eat dogs? What about cows? Pigs? The answer depends on your culture.

In academic cultures, social boundaries are built of morals, too. An economist is not being immoral as they refuse to contribute to a charitable cause or help a stranger–they are being an exemplary citizen of their culture. An evolutionary psychologist is not breaking morals when he’s following the culture’s norms. Sleeping with young women, he’s being an upstanding member (sorry) of that culture. That’s how the Catholic Church sex abuse was allowed to continue for decades–because the culture protected it’s “good citizens” at the expense of outsiders’ pain. This is how the Nazis justified the Holocaust–because it was the MORAL thing to do, for the survival of the Aryan nation, which was THEIR greater good.

Socrates observed: nobody ever thinks themselves immoral. Because we are all part of some culture, and that culture has norms we follow, even if these norms impinge on outsiders. In the academic culture, people who publish, who do resonant research, are the ones who set the norms. If they happen to be evolutionary psychologists, White Men, then women might be collateral damage.

Perhaps morality is not the right lens through with to look at this.

Students’ eyes widen at this suggestions. No morality? What then? Chaos? Hobbsean anti-utopia?

Paul Bloom has popularized this idea in psychology, though the idea has been around for centuries: compassion is a better perspective than morality. Morality, but not compassion, can radicalize (for the greater good, of course) terrorists, Hitler’s Nazis, Stalin’s and Mao’ Communists, all of whom think themselves moral as they slaughter outsiders who challenges their social norms.

Compassion, on the other hand, crosses social divides instead of reinforcing them. Compassion takes in the suffering, the injustice, the inequality, leaving judgment behind. Compassion, but not morality, can inspire peaceful self-sacrifice of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandella.

Compassion in academic culture would illuminate the pain its norms inflict. Maybe then the norms would shift. Maybe then those who set the norms–people in power, men, evolutionary psychologists–would lose the protection of this culture. As of today, however, the guy has not been fired; the department, and the university, are tight-lipped about what will happen.

Morality says I should go public, and bear the cost. My cultural norms–feminism, justice, equality–call for action. But compassion (for myself, for starters) says, breathe. Think about it some more. If you do it, do it when emotions have cooled. Sit with it.

I don’t have the answer. Yet.






My “me too” moment

I walked into the seminar room to find my students gathered around a screen, talking in hushed voices.

“Should I give you guys some privacy?” I asked.

“We’re just discussing news from the department,” someone said.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary as I prepared for class in my office that morning. “What news?” They turned the screen to me, and I saw the campus newspaper’s headline.

“Who is the professor?” I squeaked, when I could speak again. I knew the name before they said it.

The article was about my personal harvey winestein.

It said he’s been sleeping with an undergraduate, a freshman, a girl in his (required) class. The university policy forbids sexual relationships between professors and students. But the penalty range is broad, from a reprimanding letter to firing. He may very well get off with a slap on the wrist.

He’s done it to me. Then, like now, he’d made the story public. And came out unscathed.

As I was getting ready to launch my carer, people (men) with the power to write me letters of recommendations or network on my behalf had turned their backs on me, supporting one of their own. I got my degree, and I left academia.

Years later, I picked up a part-time gig teaching at my old department. He’s made it to the top by then–a department chair. Rumors abound, but–hey, who cares, when he does resonant research on a popular topic. Who would throw the first stone, when some (male) members of the faculty are married to their former students?

When people wonder why women didn’t complain about Harvey Weinstein back when the alleged offenses took place, I cringe.

Why didn’t they? Because they could just imagine the looks other men, men in power, policemen, would have given them. “Why didn’t you stop him?” they could just imagine these men saying, “why didn’t you walk out?”

Harvey Weinsteins, you see, emerge from a base of support: other men who have their backs–fellow academics; other producers; fixer attorneys. Harvey Weinsteins select their targets, just like rapists on the street seek out their victims. Harvey Weinsteins look for subtler things than a hunched posture and a slow pace. They pick women with deep-seated self-doubt, women who’ve had to prove themselves over and over, failing, trying again, now with a fissure in their self-confidence.

An aspiring actress is used to hearing she needs to lose 10 lbs, or get breast implants, or dye her hair. She’s already on-board with the idea that she’s not good enough. A Harvey Weinstein needs only to push a little against that crack, and she will break down completely. His personal approval will be the measure of her human worth.

A woman in academia is used to hearing friendly-sounding criticisms that remind her she’s never going to be good enough. Recently, a (male) colleague said to me, “When I first saw you, dolled up like that, I thought you were a bimbo.” A woman in academia knows her choices in this moment. To ask, incredulously, “Excuse me?” would make it worse. She would get a lecture, statistics and all, about how the stereotype is mostly true. She would be made to feel ignorant for not knowing the statistics. She would end up being used as an example that supports the stereotype. There is no good choice. The lesser of all evils is to emphasize the compliment, however backhanded, and walk away. “Well… I’m glad we’re past that first impression.” For sanity’s sake, she might imagine a universe where she says something similar to a male colleague, “When I first saw you dressed like a hobo, I thought your research might be equally shabby.” But this could never happen in real life. A woman in academia puts up with men in power undermining her, because they can make or break her academic career. And isn’t that a measure of her intellectual worth? As an intellectual, isn’t that the measure of her personal worth?

So a guy like that goes out for coffee with you one day to talk about your dissertation. He  critiques it–in that humorous, devastating way where you can’t even argue back, because it would mean you don’t have a sense of humor, and, anyway, he doesn’t care enough to argue. And you think,  I’m a lost cause, a failure, an impostor! Then, when you are very nearly in tears, he suggests to continue this conversation over drinks.

He’s willing to help?

Of course you go out for drinks with him.

Over drinks, he insults your intelligence (in that charming, jovial way). You have one drink too many. Suddenly, his hand is on your knee. And what you feel, actually, is relief. Yes, relief. He’s interested in me. He doesn’t think I’m completely worthless. Maybe he’s gonna help me be a better intellectual, a better academic (a better person).

The Harvey Weinsteins know this game play-by-play.

Later, sobered, what you cling to, as a lifeline, is hope. Yes, hope. He’ll think well of me. He must, right?

Wrong. They don’t think of you. They think only of themselves.

I had a weird reaction to the news. I felt vindicated. But I felt bad for the guy, too. More than once, I wanted to write an email to him, saying, “Sorry you are going through this. I know what it’s like to be publicly humiliated. I know what it’s like to wince at every phone call and email, to dread running into people, to wonder who knows, and what.” Then I reminded myself that my humiliation was orchestrated by him.

On the college newspaper’s Twitter account, there was only one comment under the news article. A female student wrote something like, “What he did was in violation of university policy, but not in violation of morality.”

I hovered over her comment for a while. I wanted to ask if she thinks a 49 year old professor is upholding moral standards when he is sleeping with his 18 year old student. I wanted to ask why she’s defending him, instead the girl who is likely more than a little embarrassed and stressed by his indiscretion. I wanted to tell her there are better men out there, and a better morality.

But I didn’t write to her.

Instead, I am writing this, here, to tell myself now what I couldn’t then:

What he did was immoral.

The victim deserves support.

There are better men.

On losing friends

I’m an introvert. I’ve always had a few deep, intense friendships into which I poured all of myself. I had an idea of these as being interminable. I imagined myself, old and wrinkled, having tea with these friends of mine, similarly weathered, sharing our lives’ conclusion, smiling wistfully at our shared beginnings.

I took pains to pick my friends from crowds and small gatherings, from neighbors, schoolmates, fellow travelers. I ended up with an exquisite collection of people.

When I think of the ones that have disappeared from my life–sometimes their initiative, sometimes mine–nostalgia squeezes my chest and wells in my eyes. I miss them.

I don’t miss them from the time right before we broke up. By then, there had been tension. Misunderstandings, grudges, missed lunches, doubtful excuses, conceited words and smiles hovered above our conversations like the NSA.

I miss our good years. When we were getting to know each other, and discovering–gasp–that we had all these things in common: ideas about life, and men, and politics, and what’s important and what’s bullshit. I miss sleepless nights we spent dreaming about the future, or commiserating about the past. I miss inside jokes, hurdles we overcame together. I miss having them in my head full-time, as though they were right by my side, sharing my surprises, or my cringes, reacting to my reactions.

And that’s, perhaps, where the cracks started.

I got to know them so well, my friends. I etched them on my mind, branded them on my soul. I chiseled their words, their faces, their emotions–at that time–in marble. It was beautiful.

But people change.

Ten years after we met, my best friend said something so insensitive and, frankly, malicious, I didn’t know how to react. I swallowed it. She was my friend. My best friend. Maybe I’d misunderstood. Maybe she didn’t mean it. Maybe it was my fault.

But marble is not flexible. It had cracked, badly. Another time, another slight, another crack. By the time we were broken up, there was nothing but a mount of rubble where the marble statue of her had been.

I pick up this piece and that. I marvel at the beauty of their lines, and cringe at the sharp edges of their brokenness. How could something so beautiful turn into something so ugly?

The truth is, she had been that likeness for a moment. Long since she had changed into someone different. It turned out that I didn’t like that person. She has the same name as my friend, She looks like her. She knows my friend’s stories. But she is not my friend. Not the person I got to know. That person is gone. As is, probably, the person I had been.

Which is to say, I miss that time.

Another friend I have lost (and then found, and then lost again), says, rightly, “attachment is the root of suffering.” Time is elusive. We mark it by events, and by people. We hold on to those as if they will let us hold on to a happy time–youth, college, love. But they can’t. We set ourselves and our friendships up for failure when we expect them to.

There’s a better way to be with time and with people. I am learning it. Trying to appreciate them in the moment, rather than storing them for later.

Writing affairs

I had to fight myself to start editing my popular non-fiction book.

It’s been simmering on the back burner for months. I mean, I wrote a whole fiction book while it was on the back burner. The fiction book was a love affair that swept me off my feet, took my mind off the obligations to the non-fic, and kept me smiling through the shit storm of the last year.

But a deadline is a deadline. I had to go back to the money-making, down-to-earth, hard facts book. I huffed and I puffed, and in one day, 10 to 5, I churned out eight chapters’ worth of edits, and two more chapters that are on their way to being edited.

And you know what?

It felt good.

None of the anxiety of the fiction: “is this the right word,” “should I give more description here,” “should I show more of the character there.” None of the dread: “how will an agent read this?” “Is it too trite?” “Will this stand out in the slush pile?” None of that.

Just a feeling of competence: I can do this; I can do this well; nobody can do this as well as I can.

Yes, boys and girls, I am good at this, if I do say so myself.

God I’ve missed this feeling, this comfort!

The fireworks may not be there. Every so often, a metaphor will be just right. Every so often, a phrase will turn beautifully. It’s more like torchlight. Steady, useful, illuminating.  Just what I needed.