The short story for December
Sandy Reuben is having a good soak before going out that evening for dinner at her parents’, when Jeffrey, her husband, knocks, enters, and sits on the edge of the tub. Sandy looks up from her copy of Vogue.
“No need to wear a necktie tonight,” she says. “They’ll be just the four of us for dinner.”
“I wasn’t planning to,” Jeffrey replies. “In fact, I’m not planning to go at all.”
Sandy drops the magazine outside the tub.
“We accepted this invitation two weeks ago.”
“I’ve been unhappy in this marriage for a long time,” Jeffrey says. “I’m out of here.”
Sandy sits up in the tub, her breasts above the bubble bath.
“Out of here?”
Now Sandy is standing, in her full nakedness, water dripping off her, looking as if she had just discovered an eel.
“Are you fucking crazy?” she says, yells actually. “And why are you telling me this here, now, in the bathroom?”
Stepping out, she nearly slips on the bubbly wet mess on the floor, and yanks a thick white towel off the nearby towel rack with which she covers herself. “Are you nuts, or what?” she says. She thinks about slapping him, but is afraid if she does so she will lose her hold on the towel.
Jeffrey gets up from the edge of the tub and leaves the bathroom, slamming the door on his way out. Sandy reaches for her baby-blue terry-cloth robe. Slipping it on, she glimpses herself in the mirror. She has a small potbelly on which there is a caesarean scar from the birth of her third child, blue veins on her legs above her knees, breasts that have begun to sag. She leans in closer, over the double sinks, to the wall-wide mirror to inspect the wrinkles gathered around her eyes.
Sandra Reuben is fifty-two. She has three children. Jonathan and Jacob are both at New Trier High School; her daughter, Ardis, is thirteen, recently diagnosed as having ADHD and put on Ritalin, and just beginning what looks to be a difficult adolescence. A little diva of temperament, she is already showing lots of moodiness, tears, and tantrums. Raising these kids has pretty much been left to Sandy, even though for the past seven years she has been working full-time as a lawyer, specializing in domestic law, for the firm of Ganser & Maher in the Loop.
Jeffrey has never been a fully engaged father. He went to soccer and little-league games when the boys were younger, but Sandy always felt he was just going through the motions. Jeffrey is a dentist, a periodontist, a successful one. Six or seven years ago, though, he began complaining that his work gave him no satisfaction. He started seeing a therapist, a woman named Lindsay Leibowitz, who has an office in the Old Orchard Professional Building in Skokie, two floors above Jeffrey’s. At brunch at Benny and Max’s one Sunday, they ran into her. Jeffrey introduced them. Dr. Leibowitz looked to be in her late thirties, slender, dark hair, well dressed. They seemed pleased to see each other. Do you suppose, Sandy thought at the time, he’s banging her? Not possible, she concluded, not my schmuckleheimer husband. Now, with Jeffrey’s announcement that he wanted out of their marriage, she had to rethink this earlier judgment.
“Banging her,” “schmuckleheimer”—Sandy learned such talk from her father, who always spoke around her as if she were the son he never had. She also used such language at Ganser & Maher, where she is the only woman partner. Her father, Max Lansky, is a cardiac surgeon, on the staff at Rush-Presbyterian. No one has fewer pretensions than her father; no one was more critical or more openly, almost proudly cynical. “I assume the worst about people,” he told Sandy when she was in her teens, “and I’m not often disappointed.”
Sandy once asked her father why he was so judgmental.
“Judgmental?” Max said. “Judgmental? Wherever did my beautiful daughter find such a stupid goddamn word? If by judgmental you mean that I make lots of judgments, you’re right. At work I judge whether and where to cut a vein or clean out and reconnect an artery. I’m always making judgments. And why restrict my doing so to veins and arteries? Isn’t it as important to make careful judgments about people, about their weaknesses, strengths, overall quality? Always be judgmental, sweetheart, there’s no other way to live.”
Max—he always insisted Sandy, his only child, call him by his first name—did not have a high opinion of Jeffrey Reuben.
“Why anyone would want to be a dentist beats me,” he said when Sandy first mentioned she was going out with Jeffrey. “To stand there all day with your hands in other people’s mouths, I don’t get it.” That Max had his own hands, with their short thick fingers, in other people’s chests, Sandy chose not to point out.
If Sandy’s father hadn’t much regard for Jeffrey’s profession, he was even more dubious about his future son-in-law’s personality. “What’s he, a depressive?” he asked Sandy the first time she brought Jeffrey home. Max even criticized his posture. Jeffrey was tall, thin, slouched in the way tall young men—he was 6’3”—who were never good athletes sometimes are.
“Is the kid nervous around me,” Max asked, “or is he just missing a personality?”
Jeffrey was daunted by Max Lansky. Who wouldn’t have been? Sandy and Jeffrey were the same age, and he was going into his last year of dental school when he proposed. Max asked Sandy why she wanted to marry him.
“Because he’s solid, he’s steady, and he loves me—he really loves me,” she said. She didn’t tell Max that he could also make her laugh. Quiet and reserved though he seemed, when courting her, Jeffrey would do goofy madcap, whimsical things. Once at Gio’s Restaurant in Evanston, out with their friends the Ehrlichs, when the waiter took their drink orders before dinner, he neglected to ask Sandy what she wanted. When she said that she would like a margarita, the waiter said he was sorry but her friend (nodding here at Jeffrey) had instructed him, when she was in the ladies’ room before they were seated, that she had problems with alcohol and was not on any account to be served a drink. Another time, when they were at a dinner party with people she hadn’t met before, she noticed everyone speaking slowly to her, enunciating carefully. Only when the woman sitting on her left apologized for not being able to sign did she begin to understand, as Jeffrey confessed later, that he had told the other people at the party that she was deaf but an excellent lip reader. But not long after they were married, this kind of thing stopped; Jeffrey, for some reason, had lost his whimsy, his sweet silliness.
Jeffrey’s parents had run a dry cleaners, on Devon, west of California, before they sold out to a Korean syndicate and moved to Delray Beach. Max paid for the wedding, a “pretty goddamn gaudy affair, if I do say so myself,” or so he described it, at the Gold Room at the Drake Hotel. He lent his new son-in-law the money to buy into the practice of a man in his sixties named Jerome Werner. (The money has long since been repaid.) He also helped the kids, as Marsha Lansky still referred to Sandy and Jeffrey, with the down payment on their first house in Morton Grove. With the spread of bypass heart surgery, of which he did a lot, Max Lansky had become a rich man.
Sandy had never seen her father actually operate on anyone, but she had seen him at Rush-Presbyterian, his stomping ground. She met him one day before lunch in the surgical waiting room while she was still in high school.
“Here comes Dr. Lansky now,” the receptionist told her. Sandy looked down the hall and saw her father approach, in his white coat, his name in blue thread sewn in cursive over the left breast pocket, his heels clicking against the marble floors as if he were wearing boots. (They were Bruno Magli loafers.) He might have had a white silk scarf tossed over his shoulder, which he didn’t, like a test or fighter pilot, so authoritatively heroic did he seem. Nurses, patients, families of patients, everyone looked upon Dr. Max Lansky with uncomplicated reverence. Sandy reflected that her father may have held in his hands the hearts of many of the people in this room. At that moment she wished she didn’t have to call him Max but instead could call him Daddy. Max Lansky was 5’4”, 5’5”, tops, stocky, dark, with a thick head of still black hair. He gave off fumes of strength, physical as well as mental. His eyes, like his hair, were black, and his hairline low. He had been a superior athlete as a boy—a gymnast and a swimmer at Senn High School, a champion at both. He must have radiated confidence his entire life, or so his daughter thought.
Max had had more to do with raising Sandy than did her mother. By the time she was seven or eight, Sandy realized that her mother, Marsha, was steady enough but not inspiring in the way Max was. Max was his wife’s protector, he was also the family’s social playmaker, and Marsha felt no need to struggle against his domination. Marsha had been pretty as a girl, small, bosomy, dark, on the model of Elizabeth Taylor, but without much force. “You’ve got your mother’s good looks and my brains, kiddo,” Max once told Sandy, “and those aren’t bad cards to have drawn in life. A man’s mind and a woman’s body can make for an interesting hand. I’ll be eager to see how you play it.”
Sandy has long thought that her father must be disappointed in her. He had sent her east to school, to Wellesley, where she did well, but where she also decided against going to medical school. Max never said anything about this decision, but it couldn’t have been to his liking. Max insisted that Sandy at least enroll in law school, so that she have serious work to do in life. In his rough way, Max was a bit of a feminist. So at her father’s expense she went to the University of Chicago.
When Sandy told her father that Jeffrey Reuben had asked her to marry him, Max said: “You know, kid, Rocky Marciano’s mother is supposed to have been glad that her son gave up his baseball career to become a boxer: ‘I didn’t raise the boy to become a catcher,’ she’s supposed to have said. I didn’t raise my daughter to marry a dentist, kiddo. But I also didn’t raise her to let me stand in her way. I hope it works out.” Not exactly a fatherly blessing, but there it was.
Jonathan was born the third year of Sandy and Jeffrey’s marriage, and Jacob arrived two years later. Max soon took the boys in hand. He had regular-season Bears tickets, on the forty-yard line, and when they reached the ages of nine and seven, the boys went with him to games. He bought them baseball mitts, paid to have a glass backboard erected just off the Reuben’s driveway, spent more time with the boys than most grandfathers would. They adored him.
If Jeffrey felt rivalrous about Max’s relationship with his sons, he never made an issue of it. Max picked up the boys on a Saturday or Sunday, almost as if he were Sandy’s first husband with weekend visitation rights. Jeffrey tended to view it as giving him more time to indulge his own interests: trading stocks on his computer, fiddling with a 1962 vintage Jaguar E-Type that he kept in the garage, jogging. Max never expressed his feelings about his son-in-law in front of him, but he had a way of ignoring him that was perhaps worse than direct insult.
At four o’clock on Friday afternoons, Jeffrey had his regular session with Dr. Leibowitz. When Sandy asked Jeffrey what he talked about during these sessions, he tended to be vague. His relationship with his parents, he would say, or his perhaps too great need to succeed in the world. She wanted to ask him if he discussed their sex life during his sessions with Dr. Leibowitz but held back.
If Sandy were the one in therapy and sex came up, she probably would have said that of course their sex wasn’t what it was when they were much younger. What with three kids to raise, and her husband running a lucrative dental practice—he had four dental technicians, prepping patients, taking X-rays, assisting him in gum surgeries—and her working full-time handling domestic cases in the Loop, sex was much reduced in their priorities. Sandy was OK with that, she could live with it. Whether Jeffrey could was a question she never bothered to ask.
When Sandy told her father that Jeffrey had begun to undergo psychotherapy, Max’s only reaction was to tell her he wasn’t surprised to hear it. “I hope he doesn’t get hooked on it. For lots of people it’s the goddamn highlight of their week, their fifty minutes with their shrink, pay please on your way out. I hope your husband doesn’t turn out to be one of those sad schmucks.”
In fact, Jeffrey was going on his seventh year in therapy without having a very clear set of complaints, at least so far as Sandy was able to discern. When her father asked her why her husband was in therapy, the best she could offer was that Jeffrey was unhappy. “Really,” said Max. “Unhappy? Too bad. But then, I hear, so is Africa.”
Her robe tied, a towel round her still wet hair, Sandy walks into the large dressing room she shares with Jeffrey. A small suitcase is missing, as are a number of his shirts, a suit, and pairs of trousers. In his dresser, she discovers that he had also taken underwear, socks, and handkerchiefs. She calls out his name—the kids are out of the house—and receives no answer. She has no idea where Jeffrey might have gone. Maybe to his new lady friend. “On second thought,” she says to herself, adapting a formula her father once told her were W.C. Fields’s deathbed words, “fuck ’im.” She decides to go to dinner without Jeffrey.
What Sandy hasn’t decided is whether or not she will tell Max and Marsha about Jeffrey’s departure. But when her mother opens the door, with her father standing right behind her, and asks where Jeffrey is, Sandra blurts out, “He’s gone. I guess we’re getting a divorce.”
Her mother looks properly shocked, is speechless, in fact.
“So you’ve finally decided to get rid of him,” Max says.
“Not quite accurate,” says Sandy. “Jeffrey is leaving me. For another woman, I suspect.”
“No kidding,” says Max. His right eyebrow shoots up, as Sandy imagined it might do when examining the heart and arteries of a patient beyond saving. “I wouldn’t have thought the kid had it in him.”
At dinner—Marsha has made veal scallopini, asparagus, a salad; Max opens a bottle of Pinot Noir—they discuss what is to be done.
“Any notion who the dentist’s lucky lady might be?” Max asks Sandy.
“I don’t know for sure if there is another lady,” Sandy says. “But if there is, my best guess is his therapist. But then it could be one of his patients, or even one of the girls who work for him.”
“He does know that he’s divorcing a divorce lawyer, does he not?” Max puts in. “May I say that I fully expect you to take him for everything he’s got, including his own fillings?”
“Right now I don’t think that’s the question, Max,” says Sandy.
“What is?” her father asks.
“The question is to find out what’s really going on. Why he’s found life with me no longer tolerable? And also what room in his new life does he plans to allot his children?”
“How about you, baby?” Sandy’s mother asks. “How’re you holding up?”
“This came as a surprise, Marsha, I have to tell you.”
“Get over the shock, kid,” Max says. “View it as strictly an opportunity, a chance to get your life back. You’re still an attractive woman, and with brains.”
Sandy recalls the view of herself in the mirror an hour or so ago. Had Max seen it, he might have revised his estimate. As for her brains, her father always seemed to think more of them than did she.
“He sounds confused,” Marsha says. “I mean the way he told you he was leaving, then running out of the house. That’s not rational. Like he’s undergoing a midlife crisis.”
“Midlife crisis? Surely you don’t believe in such horseshit, do you, dear?” says Max, spearing a long, slender asparagus.
“For all I know,” Sandy added, “that may be Jeffrey’s explanation to himself.”
“I hope you nail his ass to the barn door,” says Max, and asks Sandy to pass the platter with the veal.
Sandy waits three days before calling Jeffrey at his office. When he calls back, she asks him where, precisely, things stand at the moment.
“How are the kids?” he asks, avoiding the question.
“They’re fine,” Sandy says. “I told them that you were in Honolulu at a dental convention. I wanted to give you time in case you decided to change your mind about all this.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Jeffrey says, “at least not as long as things stand the way they do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asks.
“Look,” Jeffrey says, “maybe we would do better to talk about this face-to-face.”
That night, at six o’clock, Sandy and Jeffrey meet at McCormick & Schmick’s, a seafood restaurant in Old Orchard, the shopping mall in whose professional building Jeffrey has his dental practice. They take a booth toward the back, where it is quiet.
Jeffrey, wearing a black polo shirt and chino pants, looks tired. When the waitress asks them what they want to drink, he orders a martini—unusual for him, as he is not much of a drinker. Sandy orders a glass of Reisling.
“I assume that you have been living with Dr. Leibowitz,” she says, deciding not to waste time on small talk.
“Why would you assume that?” Jeffrey asks.
“A suspicion,” she says.
“Lindsay Leibowitz is a lesbian, Sandy. I’ve met her partner, Stacy, on more than one occasion. The fact is that the last two nights I slept on the couch in my reception room. Tomorrow night I’m moving into the Doubletree.”
“Who is it, then, that you’re leaving me for? Someone working in the office? A patient? I’m entitled to know.”
“Another woman has nothing to do with it.”
“Then what’s it all about?”
“Your father,” he says.
“I’ve had enough of his contempt,” Jeffrey says.
“Not this again,” she says.
“He’s treated me as if I were the black sheep of the family from the get-go,” Jeffrey says. “I thought maybe over time it would ease up, but it hasn’t. I’ve told you this time and again.”
“Look, my father may have a touch of snobbery, I’ve always given you that.”
“Why against me? I made more than seven hundred grand last year. I save people’s teeth. I reduce their pain. What’s so terrible about that?”
Once again, as at other times in her marriage, Sandy can’t bring herself to tell him that he is of course right, that her father does look down on him, always did, and probably always would.
“What do you want me to do, Jeff? I can’t control my father.”
“Maybe not. But I don’t think you ought to stand by and let him treat your husband as if he’s just come up out of steerage, which is what over the years you’ve consistently done. In the Bible somewhere it says a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. Shouldn’t the same be true of a wife leaving her mother and father and cleaving to her husband? You’re not so hot at cleaving, Sandy.”
“I love Max,” she says angrily.
“As I understand cleaving, it means that in any conflict between your family and me, you’re supposed to side with me. I’ve never felt that you have—not ever.”
“OK, I love you and I love Max. What am I supposed to do?”
“Lindsay Leibowitz thinks maybe your father loves you too much. A reversal of the Elektra Complex, she calls it.”
“What a perfectly stupid, utterly predictable thing for a shrink to say! What’re you doing in therapy anyhow? You’ve never really told me.”
“Did you ask?” he said. “Your old man drove me to it. I thought I was doing all right in the world until I met him. He’s spent a fair amount of energy over the years letting me know I don’t measure up. The son of a bitch shot my confidence.” Sandy notes Jeffrey’s eyes begin to water. She’s glad her father isn’t here to see it.
“My father has a high standard. I’m not sure that I measure up to it myself.”
“Forgive me, Sandy, but you do measure up. In your father’s book you will always measure up. Just as I never will.”
“I know he’s not an easy man, my father, but I also happen to think he is a pretty extraordinary one, too.”
“What does he really has against me?” he says.
“I suppose he feels you don’t come up to his standard.”
“Who the hell does?”
Sandy could think of only two people who did: Michael DeBakey, the South African heart surgeon, and Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back. She mentions neither of them.
“What do you want me to do?” she says.
“I want you to find a way to get your father off my back. Have him show me at least minimal respect. And, if he’s feeling magnanimous, I wouldn’t mind his tossing in an apology while he’s at it.” Jeffrey pays the check. She goes home. He returns to the couch in his office.
Sandy is back in her tub, soaking. The kids are asleep. Diana Krall is singing, softly, on a CD player on the bathroom counter. She has decided that she does indeed want Jeffrey back. She realizes, too, that she has been wrong in not attempting to curb her father’s treatment of her husband. Jeffrey is right; it is of course contempt, not snobbery, that Max had confronted him with from the very beginning. She feels more than a little guilty about trying to pass it off all these years, even to herself, as Max’s oddity. It’s been a failure of imagination on her part, and she feels terrible about it.
On the CD player she keeps in her bathroom, Diana Krall is singing “The Night We Called It a Day.” What is it about songs, Sandy wonders? The appropriate sappy ones have a way of turning up just when they shouldn’t. She wasn’t raised to be sentimental. Clear thinking is called for. “There was nothing left to say,” Diana Krall moans, “the night we called it a day.” Bullshit, Sandy thinks. There’s a lot left to say. Jeffrey may be no Michael DeBakey or Walter Payton, but then neither is Max Lansky. Jeffrey is in many ways the perfect husband for her. He lets her work long hours at her firm when required. Allows her, so to speak, a controlling interest in raising their children, which was the way she wanted it. Gives her the freedom she needs without the least jealousy or resentment. Truth is, though it was important that Jeffrey loved her, she wasn’t raised to be a woman smothered by a husband’s love.
Max has to be told to knock off the way he talked about, thought about, and acted in front of Jeffrey. He is her husband. He loves her, and she loves him. Cleaving; she has to learn to cleave, damnit. She decides to set up a meeting with Max tomorrow, and get this straightened out, or least she hopes she can get it straightened out. Diana Krall, thank God, had gone on to sing “Dancing in the Dark.”
Sandy is sitting in the cafeteria at Rush-Presbyterian. She has arrived ten minutes early for a morning coffee meeting with her father. Max never arrives anywhere early but always precisely on time. She has a cup of coffee before her and is studying the passing physicians, in their white or gray coats, trying to make out the names over their left upper breast pockets: Dr. Roger Lowenstein, Dr. Jennifer Kirkpatrick, Dr. Paul Krickstein, Dr. Burton Ginsburg, Dr. Carol Blumenthal, Dr. Sandeep Gupta, Dr. Kelly Isner…
“I see you are watching my fellow physicians, the goniffim on parade,” says Max, coming up from behind. “I brought you a blueberry muffin, just to remind you to be glad that when you were a kid I never called you Muffy.”
Max seats himself across from Sandy. He puts three Splendas in his coffee, no cream.
“Now what’s the reason for this meeting, kid? I’ve got twenty minutes.” Sandy notices that Max’s Bruno Magli loafers are covered with plastic booties. For all she knows, he may be in the middle of a heart surgery and took a break to deal with his daughter.
“I met with Jeffrey last night and he told me, in effect, that he is not so much divorcing me as divorcing you.”
“Meaning he’s been suffering under your lack of respect for him and can’t take it any longer.”
“A joke, right?” Max asks.
“’Fraid not, Max,” she says. “He means it.”
“Sorry.” Max says, “I call ’em as I see ’em.”
“You’ve got to learn to call ’em different—for my sake, and for the sake of your grandchildren. Turns out, whatever your view of Jeffrey, I love him. He’s my husband. And with three kids I’m not so re-marriageable as you might think.”
Max doesn’t answer directly. Strangely for him, he looks slightly perplexed.
“What exactly am I supposed to do?” he says.
“You might call Jeffrey and tell him that you regret you have not respected him the way you should, and that you will be careful not to let it happen in future.”
“In other words,” says Max, “an apology. How about something less equivocal, like, ‘I’m sorry if I seem to have underrated you, now go fuck yourself’?”
“Max, I need you to save my marriage.”
“I have to think about this,” Max says.
“Don’t think too long, Daddy, please.” Sandy realizes that she has called him Daddy. The word slipped out. If Max notices—and he doesn’t miss much—he pretends not to have.
Max looks at his watch. He reminds Sandy that the Bears are playing the Packers at home, it’s a Monday night game, and so he probably won’t have the boys home until past midnight. Sandy asks how Marsha is.
“Look, kid, I better return to work. I’ll get back to you in a day or two about this Jeffrey business.” He gets up, comes around the table, kisses her on the top of the head, grips her hand in his, squeezes it gently, and walks off.
That night, 11:23 p.m. on the digital clock in the bathroom, Sandy is in her tub, her nightly soak. Brooding over her meeting earlier in the day with Max at the hospital, she has decided that there is no chance he is going to apologize. She must have been nuts even to ask him. Still, she had to try. A big decision awaits: whether to give up her husband or her father—a lose-lose deal.
A knock at the door. Adris should be asleep by now. She is no mood for one of her daughter’s weepy sessions.
“Who’s there?” she asks, a touch of petulance in her voice.
No answer, but the door opens and it is Jeffrey. He is wearing a dark gray suit and red-and-blue rep tie.
“I’ve some news for you,” he says. “I had a call late this afternoon.”
“From my father?”
“The great Max Lansky himself.”
“Wanting to know if I care to go to the Packers game with him and the boys Monday night. He has an extra ticket.”
“Really,” says Sandy, sitting up in the tub.
“There’s more,” Jeffrey says. “He tells me that he has been suffering some sensitivity in his gums on the upper right portion of his mouth, and he’d like to make an appointment to have me look at it.”
“Did he make one?”
“He did, for two weeks from today. But your father, being your father, couldn’t hang up without saying, ‘I assume you know what you’re doing.’”
“What did you say?”
“I said what I do may not be rocket science, but then neither is cardiac surgery.”
“And he answered?”
“He answered, ‘Touché. Pick you and the kids up at 5:30 Monday.’ And hung up.”
“Well,” says Sandy, “it’s not exactly an apology, but it isn’t too bad for a start.”
Then Jeffrey kicks off his shoes, removes his jacket, and gets in the tub with Sandy, all slouchy 6’3” of him, socks, shirt, trousers, necktie, wristwatch, and who knows what he has in his pockets.
“What’re you doing, you moron?” she says, leaning over to touch his cheek.
“I’m back,” he says, “back for good,” loosening his tie, the old goofy smile on his face.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Sandy in Her Tub
Must-Reads from Magazine
Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is a tyrant. It makes our lives easier and more enjoyable, but everything comes with a price tag. We may not recognize that which we are sacrificing in the pursuit of convenience, but we are sacrificing nonetheless.
The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields for both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk that technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?