Leonard Nimoy, RIP

As you’ve probably heard, Leonard Nimoy died today at the age of 83. My memorial tribute is in xoJane:

There was nothing I wanted quite so desperately as a child as to be grown up, despite the fact that grownups were opaque and dull. They carried the immense power and privilege of adulthood and seemed not to even realize it, let alone appreciate it, let alone glory in it. Why were they so consumed with trivialities? Why were they not thinking big thoughts and doing big things? Maturity is wasted on the mature, my childhood self believed.

And then, “Star Trek,” serendipitously encountered in reruns, in the pre-cable television landscape of my youth. Now these were grownups. Arguing moral dilemmas, accomplishing difficult tasks. Strong and beautiful and disciplined.

And Spock was the most grown-up of them all. He was always right. He was always calm. When he applied the Vulcan neck pinch he didn’t drop his unconscious victims like a thug, he caught them and lowered them gently down, even if they had hurt him. “Love your enemy,” I heard people say, but they never said what that might look like. Like Spock’s combat style, nine-year-old me decided.

The rest is here.


“Parks & Recreation” ends tonight!

… so I joined Jaclyn Friedman on her “Fucking While Feminist” podcast to talk about romance and friendship on that amazing show. Listen up and get yourself ready for what’s going to be a tearjerking finale.

Today is also Twin Peaks Day. Combine the two and TreatYoSelf to a slice of pie and a damn fine cup of coffee while you listen to our strong, beautiful musk ox of a podcast.


Two things “Better Call Saul” gets right

First off, “Better Call Saul,” the brand-new prequel to “Breaking Bad,” gets way more than two things right. It’s a brilliant show, and I can’t imagine how satisfying it must be for creator Vince Gilligan. You know how at the end of every project, no matter how successful it was, there are things you wish you could have done differently? I’m sure Gilligan felt that way at the end of “Breaking Bad.” He’d learned things doing that show, about himself as a director, about the fictional Albuquerque he created. In “Better Call Saul,” he essentially gets a do-over. He can apply all those lessons learned.


In the second episode, Jimmy (this is Saul’s original name; viewers don’t as yet know how or why Jimmy McGill becomes Saul Goodman) shows up at the wrong house and gets dragged inside with a gun to his face by the terrifying and violent Tuco. Jimmy launches into a long monologue to convince Tuco that he is no threat and please to let him go, and at one point says, “I’m not sure if this is a situation where I should or should not look you in the eye.”

First, it’s mildly hilarious that Jimmy is so aware of his internal processes, especially with a gun in his face. It’s a great reveal into who the character is.

Second, this is a one-sentence summary of a point I made in my 10th-anniversary piece last week: “Etiquette has an evolutionary basis. Like all social animals, humans question how to find mates, raise kids, get their fair share to eat, and resolve conflicts. If you?re a chimpanzee or a wolf, your biology gives you the answers. If you?re a human, you write to an advice columnist.” Jimmy wants to signal cooperation and submission, but most body language in humans isn’t hardwired. We negotiate what a given gesture or posture means. The meaning of eye contact among other animals is mutually understood. Not among human animals.

This made me think of a New Yorker article that came out after the Louise Woodward trial. Ms. Woodward was an English au pair convicted of manslaughter in 1997. Much was made of her furtive, guilty-looking body language on the stand. But Jonathan Raban, an Englishman living in America, saw it differently:

My English eyes saw one thing; my American-resident eyes saw something else altogether. With one pair, I was for acquittal; with the other, I was for conviction. Shoulders hunched submissively forward, eyes lowered, voice a humble whisper, Ms. Woodward made a good impression as an English church mouse. Her whole posture announced that she knew her place? Her deferential body language was nicely spoken, in the old-fashioned accent of the English class system. I thought she was telling the truth. Then I looked again. I have lived long enough in this country to know that when you tell the truth in America you stand up straight, you throw your shoulders back, you meet your interlocutor squarely in the eye and speak out plainly. My second pair of eyes saw Ms. Woodward as sullen, masked, affectless, dissembling. Her evasive body language clearly bespoke the fact that she was keeping something of major importance hidden from the court. I thought she was telling lies.

It is very hard to be human, no?

The difficulty of being human–particularly, a working human–is the second thing that “Better Call Saul” gets right. “Breaking Bad” got this right, too: how bloody inconvenient everything is. How it’s really hard to get people on the phone, or to sync up schedules, or get the resources you need to do your job. How hard it is to feel productive when you spend so much time dealing with interruptions or waiting around for someone or something. Most shows about work do not show this. They show people briskly snapping, “Walk with me!” and discussing work problems en route from a briefing to a press conference. They show cops who have to call every mechanic in town starting with AAA and then cut to the call to Paco’s Chopshop that reveals the location of the stolen vehicle. They don’t show the false starts, the hours on hold, the time spent downloading a new version of whatever it is you do your work on. They don’t acknowledge Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” Granted, this isn’t the mission of procedurals like “Law & Order: SVU” or even the nuanced “The Good Wife,” shows where a major portion of the appeal is that stuff happens, and happens at a fast clip. “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” however, aren’t playing that particular kind of wish-fulfillment game. They portray work as it is for most of us: tedious chores and a lot of waiting around, interspersed with moments of insight and/or panic.

Sunday column: Ti-MING edition

A friend of mine recently reminded me of how our high-school drama teacher used to say, “Ti-MING!” with the accent on the last syllable when people blew a cue. I feel like my tiMING might have been a little off with today’s column. I write the columns a couple of weeks in advance, because that’s how the magazine deadlines work. And there was way less snow on the ground when I wrote this than there is now. The bizarre maneuver described by the LW–her neighbor “moves each of his two cars in front of our driveway and clears the snow from them there”–probably isn’t even possible with the amount of snow we’ve got out there. I hope I didn’t strike the wrong tone.

Sunday column: Extravaganza edition!

I was locked out of Wordpress earlier in the week, so last Sunday’s column is here if you missed it. One of the questions dealt with what to do with a dead parent’s Facebook page. A couple of days after that column, Facebook announced a new initiative to allow people to designate a kind of online executor for themselves. I had no idea Facebook followed Miss Conduct so closely! Hey, Facebook: I would like to see all my friends’ updates, in the order in which they wrote them, and nothing else. Got it? Yay.

So much for last week. THIS week marks my 10-year anniversary as Miss Conduct! I have a giant feature here: How I became Miss Conduct, what I’ve learned, advice I regret, why people write to advice columnists, and what’s changed and what hasn’t over the past 10 years. (A friend of mine who is the parent of a 10-year-old said that she found the piece useful for understanding what the world might look like to her son.)

Finally, today’s column is online here. It’s a terrific question that combines the hot themes of kids in restaurants, disability etiquette, the “pay it forward” trend, and “who’s right?”-style marital conflict.

Happy reading!

Sunday column: Belated behind-the-scenes edition

Yesterday’s column is online here, and it’s buzzy little beast, with questions about what to do with a friend who will never shut up, and if Christians can have a mezuzah.

The second one was a struggle to answer. Personally? I’d be somewhat put off to see a mezuzah on the door of an acquaintance I know is not Jewish. It’s appropriation. But all of Christianity is an appropriation of Judaism, and you can either let that drive you insane, or not.

(Side note: When my Jewish husband and half-Jewish landlord installed our mezuzah, they “left the receipt with the Hebrew on it on the table in case you wanted to keep it.”)

And the letter from the person whose “friend” talks too much? I’d be so terribly curious to hear the other side of that one. The original letter was a good 300 words or so–much, much too long to go in the column unedited, and I always do wonder about people who do that. Then I got two follow-up emails asking for various details to be changed, and if I could please answer the question by a certain date, and also send it to the LW personally because she can’t always find me in the paper.

I’m not sure all the problem is on the other side, is what I’m saying.

Happy Monday! Go Pats, and yeah, Phil, we know. More winter.

Sunday column: Kids and art edition

Today’s column is online here. I’m working on a story for my 10-year anniversary as Miss Conduct–!!!–about what’s changed and what’s stayed the same regarding etiquette and advice. One thing in my “stay the same” category is that issues regarding kids and childraising cause a lot of stress. (My favorite book for explaining why that is is Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.)

I especially liked the second question:

I recently went to see a critically acclaimed movie, which I hated. I didn’t walk out because I didn’t want to be rude or feel I hadn’t given it a full try. There were two children seated in front of me with their parents. The younger boy was maybe 7, the older perhaps 12. I felt horrible that they were watching scenes of attempted rape and listening to massive swearing from mean, dysfunctional people. Should I have said something to the parents, letting them know that I thought rape and misogyny might be inappropriate for their kids?

What do you think the movie was? The LW didn’t say.

I wonder what the kids took from the movie, especially the seven-year-old. How much did he even comprehend? Recently on Facebook some of my contemporaries and I were recounting our memories of the 1976 made-for-television movie “Sybil.” Our preteen selves were horrified, fascinated … and completely uncomprehending. It’s always hard to tell what kids are taking in from the swirl of stories and images around them.

It bothered me that the LW thought it would be “rude” to walk out on a movie. It’s so illogical, and betrays either the sunk-cost fallacy, or the belief that we somehow owe something to art. We do!–I hasten to add. In fact I’m working on a column in my head about what, exactly, people “owe art.” But nobody owes appreciation or attention to any one particular work of art. There’s too much of it and life is too short.

Are there any particular genres or topics that you’ve decided life is too short for? I don’t do movies (or plays) about the Holocaust. Just nope. I tend in general to avoid movies about historical–or contemporary–atrocities. And the more a movie is talked about as though it’s some kind of moral duty to see it, that if you don’t see this flick you obviously don’t care about the issue itself–boy, that is just guaranteed to keep me away from the theater.

How about you?

Notes on four shows

After a slow holiday season things are picking up again. Four local productions have connections with science theater (or with me).

Tonight only, Poets’ Theatre will be presenting “The Word Exchange,” staged poetry in translation: “Understand the profound potency and music of language in this extraordinary evening of international poetry, including works from Vietnam, Italy, France, Ancient Greece and Rome, evocatively performed both in the original and in translations by world class poets and actors,” from the website.

I can’t go because tonight is rehearsal for the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Family Concert, which I’m narrating. I wish I could, because the question of what it means to act in a language that is not your native one is of great interest. In a second language, emotion words don’t feel as strong, curse words don’t give you that little jolt of release. Swearing or using taboo words (e.g., racial slurs) in your native language registers on the body in ways that the same words in a foreign language don’t.

My good friend Catherine Caldwell-Harris does research on this–sparked when a Turkish graduate student made an off-color joke one day, then blushed and giggled and said, “I can make sex joke in English, I cannot make sex joke in Turkish”–and wrote about the topic in Scientific American:

In the last decade, however, research has shown that answers to questions can depend on the language of the question. For example, when Chinese-English bilinguals were randomly assigned to answer a self-esteem questionnaire in Chinese, they received scores indicating lower self-esteem than those who answered the same questionnaire in English. In this case, cultural differences appear to be the cause. When reading self-esteem questions in English, bicultural respondents are cued to adopt the American self-enhancing bias. When reading questions in Chinese, respondents may draw on the traditional Chinese virtue of modesty.

What, then, is it like to act in a foreign language? I’d love to hear from anyone who’s had experience with it.

“The Word Exchange” plays tonight only, at 7:30 at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre. You can get tickets here.


Last night, Mr. Improbable and I saw “Chalk,” produced by Fresh Ink Theatre at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. “It’s the kind of thing we’d like to see more of!”–this science-theater power media couple declared. It is, too. A science-fiction play with no special effects, set after an alien invasion has wiped out most human life on earth except for one determined, resourceful teacher and the woman who may be her daughter–or may be something very different. It reminded us both of the old “Twilight Zone” or “Outer Limits” screenplays, using a speculative element to tell a very basic human story. (For a dude playwright, Walt McGough fully groks the mother-daughter thing, and I mean fully.)

Caroline Rose Markham as Cora. Photo by Louise Hamill.

“Chalk” is playing through January 24, and tickets are online here.


My talkback at the Huntington’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” went beautifully last week, and I may join some of the cast members on Boston Public Radio next week to discuss the role of family dynamics and manners in the script. The epic confrontation during the show occurs when Spike rudely texts a friend during a reading of Vanya’s play … can’t imagine why they thought to bring Miss Conduct on to analyze the crime scene!

“V&S&M&S,” by Christopher Durang, mashes his own autobiography up with a parody of classic Chekhov plays, mostly “The Seagull” and “Uncle Vanya.” In “The Seagull,” a character has a play performed–the play-within-a-play is meant to be overly intellectual and self-consciously cutting edge. For Chekhov, that’s heavy Symbolist drama–for Durang in the 21st century, it’s a science play starring a molecule contemplating the heat death of the universe.

Science theater, you have been parodied by Christopher Durang: You have arrived.

“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through February 1 and tickets are available here.


There isn’t any science content in “Measure for Measure,” even if it sounds like it could take place in a lab. The current Actors’ Shakespeare Project production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakarian, is one of the best shows they’ve done. Yesterday I interviewed ASP company member Michael Forden Walker about his role as Duke Vincentio, the Rob Ford of (fictional) Rennaissance Vienna. It’s a fantastic show.

Speaking of second languages, it’s worth the price of admission just to hear Sarah Newhouse do Shakespeare in a heavy Masshole accent.

Gentleman Client (Jared Michael Brown), Mistress Overdone (Sarah Newhouse), Lucio (Johnnie McQuarley).
Photo courtesy Stratton McCrady Photography

“Measure for Measure” runs through February 1 and tickets are available here.

Sunday column: Party guests edition

Today’s column is here, and features two of those kinds of questions that cause me to push back when “Miss Conduct” is described as an etiquette column: How to shake an annoying hanger-on, and privacy practices in a shared home. Those do have to do with social behaviors, of course, but the “etiquette” is a word that implies a certain clear-cut-ness to me. Questions like today’s bring home the simple, existential fact that we are either a remarkably irritating or perhaps remarkably irritable species. Peaceful coexistence–I mean “peaceful” in the full Jewish sense of “shalom,” not mere absence of war but the presence of that which promotes wellbeing–is a real challenge for us. Thinking you can meet that challenge with only the rules of etiquette is like thinking Tom Brady prepares for a game by studying the rules of football.

If ordinary social interaction is football, weddings are the Super Bowl. This week’s Globe Magazine is a special weddings issues, and I’ve got an additional feature on good manners, self-defense, and enjoyment-maximization techniques for the wedding guest. A sample:

The wedding invitation says “bohemian formal” (or something like that). What does that mean?

It means there’s a high likelihood of whimsical desserts and a low chance of the Electric Slide. It means that the couple want you to dress up but also to enjoy it, and that they believe this is possible for everyone and that they believe obfuscation promotes creativity. It means nobody else will know what to wear either. It means you should wear something simple and dark with flat shoes and one boffo accessory, just like you do for every other wedding.

I don’t know anyone here. What should I do?

The instinct is to pounce on a fellow singleton, but don’t. Maybe you won’t have anything in common and then you’ll be feeling lonely and awkward with another person, which is far worse. What you want to do is find a couple who aren’t talking==a married couple with nothing to say to each other at the moment, two other singletons who tried that “find another lonely person” thing and are realizing it doesn’t always work–and start a conversation with them.

A couple, romantic or not, that is hamstrung for conversation at a wedding can be revitalized by the addition of a third party, and they’ll be desperate and grateful enough that they won’t let the ball drop. Start with “How do you know the newlyweds?” “What do you do?” and then hit them with “Do you hate when people ask ‘What do you do?’ as small talk?” You’ll charm all four of their socks off.

If you’ve suffered through your share of dull weddings, or parties spoiled by an annoying, cloying friend, you might enjoy “Women Having A Terrible Time at Parties in Western Art History” by Mallory Ortberg, who really needs to have an entire school of art criticism named after her.


We’ve all been at that party.

Sunday column: Special events edition

Vanya.PDP1Today’s column is online here, about a topic I find perpetually fascinating: Etiquette and disability. As I wrote:

And etiquette is a set of social rules written for “normal” bodies and minds. When people are obviously incapable of following its demands, we understand. No one expects a man in a wheelchair to stand up when respected guests enter the room?—?but we can see a wheelchair. People with invisible disabilities are in the unenviable position of having to explain themselves constantly or risk being thought rude. The problem isn’t that etiquette is oppressive but that we spend so very much time, in the 21st century, in the company of strangers. This makes life a social minefield for those of us who cannot easily shake hands, eat or drink some common offerings, stand up at parties or on the subway, recognize faces, or the like.

What etiquette demands do you have a hard time with, physically or mentally? I have no manual dexterity and poor hand-eye coordination, so I only do handwritten notes when absolutely necessary, and my table manners are, honestly, nothing to brag about. Etiquette is easier when you’re good with your hands. I’m good with my heart and mind and voice, though! And if you’d like to hear me use them, you could come to Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Mike” this Wednesday, January 21, at the Huntington, when I’ll be doing a talkback after the performance on the role of bad manners in comedy. (This is a Globe insiders event, so tickets to that night’s performance are $45 for Boston Globe subscribers who use the discount code.)




Also, I’ll be narrating the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra’s Family Concert, “The Thrill of the Orchestra,” on Sunday, January 25. The concert is at the Armory in Somerville at 4 p.m. The concert is designed for children of all ages.


Sunday column: Addiction edition

Today’s column is online here. The first question is about neighbors who smoke outdoors, and I’m sure to get angry letters about this bit of advice:

If you’re lucky, your neighbors will ask if their cigarette smoke bothers you, too, and then you can allow as to how it does. If they don’t bring it up themselves, however, tread lightly. I’ve yet to meet a smoker who is happy about his or her habit and the financial, health, and social costs that it entails. If your neighbors aren’t capable of quitting in order to improve their own quality of life, they’re certainly not going to do so to improve yours.

Tobacco is one of the most addictive substances out there and no neighborly requests, no matter how polite or eloquent, is going to change that. People like to think that their snarky comment or heartfelt plea or terrifying statistic will be the one that will Make The Difference, but it won’t. Think about how very, very many straws have told themselves that they, they would be the one to break the camel’s back. Think how many got chomped by that camel in return.

I try to give advice that will work, that isn’t overly based on “shoulds.” If the shoulds were working then nobody would have had to write to me in the first place.

What “works” with addicts is up for debate. One of the persistent themes of this blog is that stories are crucial to humans, and to our ability to understand an issue, but that stories are always a gloss on reality, not reality itself. And sometimes, a way of telling a story can be so compelling that it prevents us from seeing what is in fact happening.

This may be the case with addiction. The image of the trauma-created, spiritually bereft addict who must hit bottom, have a moral re-awakening, and struggle to achieve sobriety through lifelong abstinence and the creation of a “recovering addict” self-image … may not be the correct one. It’s a powerful, powerful cultural narrative, but the science simply doesn’t back it up, as Pacific Standard magazine reports:

The average cocaine addiction lasts four years, the average marijuana addiction lasts six years, and the average alcohol addiction is resolved within 15 years. Heroin addictions tend to last as long as alcoholism, but prescription opioid problems, on average, last five years. In these large samples, which are drawn from the general population, only a quarter of people who recover have ever sought assistance in doing so (including via 12-step programs). This actually makes addictions the psychiatric disorder with the highest odds of recovery.

Pacific Standard has more on addiction, here and here for starters. Aeon takes on the AA of addiction, which has been untouched by science since the 1930s:

The one-size-fits-all therapy of AA can’t possibly address every facet of the disease: addiction is a habit rooted in brain circuitry, but also frequently a consequence of a traumatic experience or exposure from childhood onwards. Most of us just flirt with addiction, stopping our habit without any formal treatment or intervention from self-help groups such as AA. Others struggle mightily over a lifetime, their addiction a spectre – an ever-present haunting.

Addiction, moreover, often exists in tandem with other neuropsychiatric disease – a find that the Big Book has not been revised to include. Nearly a third of adults who experience mental illness have an addiction. This number skyrockets for jail and prison inmates. Three quarters of those with mental health problems also have a substance use disorder.

AA can obviously be useful for individuals, of course–there’s no point denying those numbers–but it’s folk medicine with no empirical evidence, and that shouldn’t be forgotten, especially when judges are mandating treatment. (The program really does only work if you work it.)

Eve Tushnet of The American Conservative had a brilliant piece about what these competing views of addiction mean, in terms of storytelling and moral structures:

The two narratives have differing views of authority: The 12-Steppy model comes across as authoritarian, and can definitely be used as an excuse for cruelty, but it also has an anarchic respect for the wisdom of ordinary people. It attempts to turn followers into leaders through personal guidance. What I’m (again, super-reductively) calling the harm reduction model is simultaneously much more individualistic, and much more reliant on medical expertise. The expert-layperson hierarchy is in many ways more rigid than the sponsor/sponsee relationship. The harm reduction worldview tries to avoid the problems of class- and education-hierarchies by soliciting as much participation as possible from people on the ground, current drug users. “Nothing about us without us” is a slogan of the harm reduction movement, and one with which I agree… but it’s not a slogan AA ever needed, because AA’s whole genesis and development was by “us,” the alcoholics.

The harm reduction model is typically much more comfortable with the idea that different approaches to recovery are valid for different people. There’s much less pressure to force everybody into one method, goal, spirituality, and language.

Check out her entire piece. It’s an excellent meditation on the complex relationship between storytelling, science, morality, and public policy.

No column today; 2014 review

There’s no column today because of the holidays–although in 2015, I’ve been told, the Globe Magazine will publish every Sunday of the year and not take the traditional Christmas and Independence Day weeks off.

2014 has been one heck of a year. Our apartment was renovated and we lived in it during the renovation, which was a test of our organizational and couplehood skills. I got cast in the role of a lifetime at the JP Footlights Club–the six psychiatrists in “Reckless,” all with different accents! and cardigans!–and had to resign when my mother broke her hip, way out in the Ozarks, the night before we went into tech. Our beloved Milo dog died of lymphoma in early April.

Instead of making my Boston theatrical debut onstage, I made it offstage when I got pressed into assistant-directing the Ig Nobel Opera this year. My husband gave a TEDMed talk. I co-authored a cover story for Harvard Business Review. The Globe and Boston.com split up, so I lost my old blog, but I started blogging again here on the intersection of science and the performing arts. We took an amazing vacation to the southwest.

Mixed bag, is what I’m saying. Lots of upheaval, yet at the end of the day, we are muchly where we started. Living at the same address, albeit in a different and vastly improved arrangement of rooms. Continuing to manage our parents’ circumscribed yet complex lives, and learning more than we ever wanted to know about Medicaid eligibility. Temporarily dogless. Mr. Improbable are both still thinking and writing and saying (hopefully) funny and insightful things about science and art and everyday life, (hopefully) for money.

One of the useful concepts I’ve learned at my HBS job is explore versus exploit. No organization, and certainly no individual, can dedicate time and energy to every possible worthwhile endeavor. What you want to do is balance exploration and exploitation. Exploitation isn’t meant to have a nasty connotation–it simply means doing the stuff you, or your multinational corporation, are already doing, but doing it better, faster, cheaper, more effectively. Exploiting the resources already at your command so that they have greater impact. Fine-tuning. Exploration, by contrast, is going into the unknown, investing time and effort and resources with no clear ROI.

My New Year’s resolutions, such as they are, can all be categorized as explore versus exploit. Trying to do better at my current jobs–make more connections, increase my readership, get more publicity, throw more dinner parties–that’s exploitation. Most of my writing and thinking about science/theater–this blog, an upcoming conference on science and theater, ideas for actors to interview and stories to pitch–that’s all on the “explore” side. I don’t know what I want this science/theater business to turn into yet–an arts-reporting gig? A grant-funded blog? A part-time administrative position somewhere? And I don’t have to, yet. That’s the beauty of assigning something entirely to the “explore” side.

Get better at what you do, and then try something else. Simple, really.

What are your 2015 resolutions?

Sunday column: Giving edition

Today’s column is online here. It’s about gift-giving, surprise! I still think this Perspectives piece is one of the better things I’ve written on the topic:

Giving gifts serves symbolic functions—cementing relationships, celebrating life transitions—as well as the practical one of providing people with stuff they need. And this is at the crux of today’s etiquette dilemmas: For the first time ever, most of us have too much stuff and not enough money.

How are you handling gift-giving this season? My husband and I rarely buy each other gifts. The things we like–old paperback mysteries for him, art and clothes for me–are so idiosyncratic that we have to shop for ourselves. We buy each other little food treats quite often, but not actual presents.

We’re visiting my mother in Missouri this weekend, and I’d brought her a big bag of halvah because you can’t get halvah in the Ozarks. (My mother knows this for a fact because she called the only synagogue in Springfield and asked the rabbi if he knew where she could score any, a conversation that must have been truly epic.) But my mother’s taste buds have changed, apparently, because old age is a curse, and now she doesn’t like halvah.

I am getting ready to head over to her nursing home now and I suspect we might be having a difficult conversation about Christmas. My mother is almost completely incapacitated, and on Medicaid. For Christmas this year I will buy her the new shoes she wants, and a month of physical therapy, which she enjoys but which Medicaid won’t pay for anymore, because she is not improving.

No gift I can give her will make up for the fact that she cannot give to anyone, or do for anyone, any more. No gift can make up for the pain of being always a recipient, never a giver.

Miss Conduct interlude: What about the holidays works/doesn’t work for you?

What about the holiday season works, or doesn’t work, for you?

What parts do you love and what do you hate? What do you enjoy and what do you dread? And what do you do to try to maximize the good parts and minimize the chores?

I’m doing a talk on Sunday, December 21 for the Boston Sunday Assembly, a humanist/atheist congregation. The assembly meets from 4-6pm at the Democracy Center at 45 Mt. Auburn Street. I’ll be talking about Christmas, its joys and discontents, and alternative celebrations. Come join! But in the meantime, share with me your personal joys and discontents of the season.