NYTimes 16

Learning to Silence My Inner Editor

I am trained to be a critic. After several years of graduate school, I started to enjoy pointing out flaws in people’s writing, a ruthless activity with all the destructive pleasure of picking at a scab. The voice of my inner editor had become so powerful that it almost kept me from finding the love of my life.

The summer after graduation I had a temporary job teaching, but no idea of what to do next. Meanwhile, I lectured my writing students on the power of words: “Beware the thoughtless adjective. Beware the vague pronoun.”

I drew X’s over entire paragraphs. I pointed at their pages and said: “Imagine you’re the editor who pulled this from the slush pile. Is there a glaring typo in the first paragraph? Bam! Rejected.”

The students, a motley collection of high school juniors, stared back at me blankly. They enjoyed writing and saw no need for histrionics.

“You have to be vigilant,” I said. “Every cliché is a chance for the reader to leave you.”

I rescheduled my classes to attend a friend’s wedding in Hawaii. After a three-hour bus ride up the windward coast to the town of Laie, I had tangled hair but no brush, so I ran my fingers through the worst of the knots and walked up the hill to the ceremony.

James was the groom’s brother, the second oldest of five boys. All I knew was that he was single, attractive and didn’t care that my hair was a mess. We spun around on the grassy lawn, and afterward he took me to a bench overlooking the bay. Facing a sea too blue to be real, James held my hand and said I was beautiful.

I stuttered, unnerved by such a direct compliment. In my previous life of dive bars and urban rooftops, it didn’t matter what you said or whether you meant it, as long as you twisted your words into something clever.

“You are also attractive,” I responded, about as naturally as a robot. I had spent so much time in New York hobnobbing with wordsmiths I had forgotten how to speak without innuendo. Sure, I was fluent in flirtation, but to forgo the game and lay my cards on the table? That felt like a foreign language. I was almost 30 years old — definitely an adult. Was this really my first time telling a man that he was cute?

James and I stayed up all night, talking and kissing but making no promises. In the morning his parents drove us to Honolulu, where James flew to the Big Island, though he would soon be returning home to North Carolina. I caught a flight to New York, and I didn’t expect us to meet again. Just a wedding-night fling, I thought.

Then the postcards began to arrive.

“I can’t stop thinking about you, Aloha!” James wrote, but the handwriting was scrawled and the spelling was terrible. He cares, I thought, but not enough to proofread.

That may sound harsh, but to an aspiring writer, proofreading is the hallmark of caring. I cannot write an email or add a Facebook update without subjecting my words to tedious revision. If I send a story to a magazine with a missing period or uneven spacing, I feel as if I may as well have submitted a dirty pair of underwear.

The day before my 30th birthday I received an email from James, who was still in Hawaii. I opened it to see a photo he had taken of a ginger flower bouquet on a black lava beach. He had written: “Love and beauty, To: Jessy From. James”

The picture was lovely. The text, however, had irregular punctuation. Not to mention he had misspelled my name.

Despite these mistakes, I wrote him back immediately. The man had sent me flowers! I told him it was my birthday tomorrow. He responded: “Yeah! Happy birthday! Hauoli maka hiki hAu.”

Now, I’m no expert on the Hawaiian language, but I’m pretty sure they don’t insert random capitalization into the middle of words. Still, he had sent some selfies from the Big Island, and I was reassured by his handsome, friendly face.

The openness of his next email disarmed me: “Aloha, Jessie I cried on plane, I had to leavy seat. I love Hawaii.”

O.K., so “leavy” isn’t a word, but he had gotten my name right. And best of all, he wanted to see me again, despite the difficulty and distance.

“As you must feel from my letters,” he wrote, “I adore u bc of your smiles while we danced, your songs, voice, body, and beauty. Let’s meet in the middle between southport and Brooklyn, someplace, there must be a sweet place?”

So romantic, right? If only I could get over that syntax.

I brought the case to my writer friends. In the kitchen of a Park Slope apartment, I read a few of the messages and asked them to tell me the truth: Was my new suitor sincere? And even if he was sincere, was he stupid?

After the obligatory teasing, they argued in favor of James — and in favor of hope. Sure, things might not work out. But why not give it a try? My friend Lynne was particularly adamant: “He’s not stupid,” she said. “He’s incredibly nice and appreciates you and wants to show it.”

But I couldn’t silence my inner critic. How could a man I hardly knew be so into me? Me, with all my messes and mistakes. Maybe James was crazy. Clearly, he was capable of falling for a fantasy no flesh-and-blood woman could fulfill. But I couldn’t ignore how his words made me feel.

The men I had met in New York could spout a few good lines to get a girl into bed, but only James could write a messed-up sentence that got my heart pounding: “To nite I can not sleep so I will play songs to u, for Jessie, about Jessie, my inspiration.”

I had to see him.

I flew to North Carolina but delayed getting off the plane because I wanted to primp in the bathroom. I even asked the flight attendant if she had any lip gloss; I was so concerned with my appearance and how I might be judged. But as it turned out, James didn’t care about lip gloss. He didn’t care about my spelling or grammar. All he wanted was me.

I found him in the terminal, sitting on the floor with his hat in his hands. When he saw me, he leapt to his feet.

“I was so worried,” he said. “When you didn’t get off the plane, I thought you decided not to come.”

We walked to the parking lot and found his car, an ancient, pea-green Benz with a broken passenger window. He ran ahead to hold the door open for me. Sure, the scene didn’t look that good from the outside, but (if you’ll pardon the cliché) I felt like a queen stepping into her carriage.

The next three days were the most romantic of my life. We shucked oysters, played the guitar and surfed. When I got a nosebleed, he held me in his arms and raised me above the waves. After a homemade dinner of shrimp, wine and fish, I told him it was time to go “in there,” and gestured toward the only other room in his tiny cottage.

He was nervous. “I feel like I love you,” he said. “I know it’s crazy, but I do.” Then he carried me to his bed.

At some point during our love fest I borrowed his iPhone, and that’s when I realized he had been using it to send me messages. Everyone knows the mistakes that can lead to. James wasn’t the best speller, but technology wasn’t doing him any favors, either.

At that point, of course, it didn’t matter. I had already fallen in love with his candor and affection and unedited heart. At the airport we shared a long goodbye in the parking lot. On my way to the security line I saw him outside and went to him again. We joked about a hurricane. Then I pointed to my heart.

“I carry you there,” I said, a sentence so saccharine I never would have let myself get away with it on the page. But I didn’t care. It just felt true, so I said it.

He touched my chest, resting his hand above my heart. “You read my mind.”

A few months after I visited him in North Carolina, James and I moved to Hawaii. We were married four years later on the Big Island, and now we’re building a home there on an old plot of farmland.

I have a job teaching English at a local school, where I argue for the importance of proofreading and revision. I encourage my students to write precise sentences and help them strengthen their inner editor. But whenever I get a text from James, my heart starts to pound, and it’s hard to remember the rules.





Integrated 1

1) The author explains that Earth’s temperature is rising as a result of human activity, which is known a global warming. The speaker strengthens the point by providing some examples and possible consequences.

The author explains why global warming is a serious problem. Likewise, the speaker explains the impact of global warming in the northeastern United States.

2) The author points out that human activities increased significantly since the Industrial Revolution and this leads to the increase in Greenhouse gases and these gases hold heat on the atmosphere, which was the main cause of a rise in temperature.

3) For instance, during the twentieth century, the average Earth’s temperature rose 1.5 Fahrenheit, and it is predicted the temperature will rise several more degrees. The rise in Earth’s temperature can have several consequences, such as changes in the weather pattern, ice covers and sea level. Changes in weather patterns may lead to economic losses, especially in the agricultural and transportation sectors.


The authors explains that human activity, such as industry and cutting down forests, has resulted in an artificial increase in greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, with serious results. Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, hold heat in the atmosphere and result in rising temperatures on Earth. As average temperatures rise, there are a number of effects. First, scientists predict that weather patterns will change. In addition, snow and ice will melt and sea levels will rise. This can read to flooding, drought, and powerful storms. It can also affect the economy, particularly agriculture and transportation. Economics predict that global warming will lead to a drop in gross national product and consumer consumption in countries around the world.

4) The speaker reinforces the point in the passage by providing some factual data. There’s a report stating that in the northern eastern part of America, the months during December to March, the average temperature increased in 2005, and it snowed 9 days less. The less snowfall affects skiing industry because it means less snow and less business days for the industry to make a profit. Also, if the winter gets warmer, the colored leaves in the fall will be less colorful and it will affect less tourists. There’s a prediction that the days of snow will decrease 25 to 50 percent. (234)


The speaker explains the effects of global warming in the northeastern part of the United States. This is a cold and snowy area. Since 1965, temperatures in this region have risen. There are also fewer days with snow on the ground than there used to be. This has had an effect on the economy for people who depend on the ski industry to make a living. The predicted effects of global warming that the author described are already coming true, at least in the northeastern United States.




NYTimes 14

Romance at Arm’s Length

IN Spike Jonze’s mesmerizing new movie “Her,” a man falls in love with a sultry-voiced computer operating system whose presence in the film is so lifelike you have to keep reminding yourself she doesn’t actually exist. To make it easier for the audience to believe that a computer might be able to mimic human thought, emotion and speech so convincingly, Mr. Jonze sets his story in the not-so-distant future.

I don’t know why he bothers. Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.

As editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade, I have been privy to the love lives of tens of thousands of strangers through the stories and letters they send my way. It’s a vantage point that provides a panoramic view of what people are struggling with in matters of love, especially when it comes to how technology is altering our romantic landscape. And among the more pronounced trends I have noticed in recent years is the rise of online-only relationships, a phenomenon I’ve begun to call Soul Mate in a Box.

A Soul Mate in a Box (Smiab, for short) is a person we rarely if ever meet and in some cases never speak to, but to whom we feel closer than anyone else. Maybe the relationship exists through instant messages, or over email, or via Skype, FaceTime and texting. Perhaps Snapchat allows the couple to exchange racy pictures, adding a glimpse of sexuality, if not sex. One couple liked to view each other on Skype but weren’t comfortable talking that way, so they’d instant message instead, watching each other click away at the keyboard as they swooned.

How do these relationships start? Typically with two strangers crossing paths via social media: on Facebook, through dating sites or by retweeting and “favoriting” until tweeting turns to flirting. At the start it’s just harmless fun, a distraction. No need to think seriously about it, because what could happen? He or she lives 2,000 miles away!

Ironically, it’s often this presumed lack of possibility that enables the couple to grow so close so fast. Just as Theodore Twombly, the character in “Her,” grins dismissively at the idea of falling in love with the voice of his new operating system (before doing exactly that), those who meet a potential Smiab online tell themselves it can’t go anywhere. Which then frees it up to go somewhere. And soon their once dismissible flirtation has snowballed into the most obsessive relationship in their lives.

We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.

These kinds of self-protective impulses were on full display in the thousands of stories I received during the two Modern Love college essay contests I held, in 2008 and 2011. In the first contest, the most common theme among the undergraduates’ submissions was their struggle with the seemingly ubiquitous practice of hooking up — having casual sexual encounters with no strings attached. Intellectually, the behavior made sense to them. Sex was fun, or could be, but relationships can get messy and demanding. So why not try to neatly separate the simpler and more pleasurable part from the messier and potentially more upsetting part? Slicing their actions from their feelings, however, wasn’t turning out to be such a clean cut.

Three years later, college students were already trying something else. The most commonly written-about topic in 2011 was online-only love affairs. Rather than trying to figure out how to navigate a sexual relationship that excluded emotion, they were trying to figure out how to navigate an emotional relationship that excluded sex.

In love’s newest incarnation, students might spend their evenings Skyping and messaging deep into the night with someone they met online who lives five states away. Eventually they drift off to sleep with their laptops open only to wake up hours later, dazed and bleary-eyed, whereupon they tap their screens back to life and say a warm hello to their e-lover in another time zone.

UNLIKE hookups, these relationships are all about sharing your every thought, idea and emotional burp. But they are also, crucially, about being able to close your laptop and turn off your phone whenever you want to and continue about your life as you wish, unencumbered.

When a couple involved in an online-only relationship finally decides to meet in person, their experience often mirrors what happens in “Her” when Theodore tries to have sex with his OS via a human surrogate, but then backs out when the experience feels too weird. Same with real couples. After all that cyberintimacy, being together physically simply doesn’t feel right. The body doesn’t match the sensibility. It’s too hard to square the person to whom they’ve been baring their heart with the one who’s suddenly sitting next to them. Such encounters crash and burn with surprising frequency. But if the couple felt as if they had gotten to know each other so well online, how could that intimacy suddenly drain away?

One explanation: They didn’t actually get to know each other so well. They only got to know what was served up, a two-dimensional collection of images, text and, for some, audio. When the messy parts of us aren’t on display from the beginning of a relationship — when awkwardness and fumbling and being forced to be present without a mouse-click escape hatch all enter the scene — it’s hard to catch up. As good as it felt to be able to create an ideal version of ourselves, it can feel jarringly worse to have that control suddenly yanked away.

Which leads to a second explanation for the high failure rate: For many, the urge to seek pleasure through a device rather than through a person who’s in the same room can be a hard habit to break. In this wondrous world of the Internet, we often find the object that’s far away to be more enticing than the one that’s nearby.

One woman I heard from had been reveling in a monthslong online relationship with a man who lived hundreds of miles away, and their bond had grown so intense that they finally decided they had to meet and see if their online magic could translate into an actual relationship. So one Friday she rented a car and drove nine hours to spend a long weekend with him. And it went O.K. at first. But soon it became clear that their online chemistry wasn’t happening in real life. Their once urgent conversations had dribbled away to nothing. Now that they were physically together, it was as if they each had become the person to escape from instead of the one to yearn for.

Before long he began sneaking glances at his cellphone when they were at a restaurant and drifting away from her to his open laptop when they were back at his apartment. Until eventually, in a perfect tableau of their relationship’s demise, she was left to sit quietly aside as he searched online for the emotional fix he’d grown accustomed to finding there, scrolling for something, anything, to capture his attention.




NYTimes 13

Good Enough? That’s Great

What’s the best way to recalibrate a marriage as the years pass? I wish I had the answer, because clearly millions of us would like to know.

As the editor of the Modern Love column for nearly a decade, I have sifted through roughly 50,000 stories that have crossed my desk. I have noticed people wrestling with two questions above all others. From the young: “How do I find love?” And from those wallowing through marital malaise: “How do I get it back?”

Though it’s not really love they want back as much as attention, excitement and passion. No one doubts the enduring benefits of long-term relationships. But marriage can also get boring, punctuated with deadening routines, cyclical arguments and repetitive conversations.

In my own 21-year marriage, my wife has a habit of asking me to do something and then saying: “You’re not going to forget, are you? Just tell me now if you’re going to forget so I’ll know to do it myself.”

I’ll say (for the hundredth time): “I can’t know in advance if I’m going to forget. That’s not how forgetting works.”

“Just tell me,” she’ll say.

Among my 50,000 strangers, I’ve also heard from just a handful of couples who claimed to have maintained sexually charged marriages throughout the decades. The one story I published from this happier-than-thou crowd, by the writer Ayelet Waldman about her still-sexy marriage (with four children) to the Pulitzer-winning writer Michael Chabon, was met with jeers and hostility when she went on “Oprah” to talk about it, mostly because she dared to confess that she puts her marriage ahead of motherhood.

That alignment of priorities, she said, is part of what has allowed her to keep her marriage passionate. And she argued that doing so is also a healthier model for children, most of whom would be better off with a little less time in their parents’ spotlight. As she spoke, the studio audience seemed to regard her as if she were from another planet.

She might as well have been, given how rare that kind of marriage is these days.

So what to do about it? Sneak around, trying to get our needs met elsewhere? Resign ourselves to the limitations of marriage? Confront the issue head on and work together to try to reanimate our relationship? And ultimately, what does each approach entail?

THOSE WHO SNEAK. Sneakers neither sulk nor celebrate; they redirect their attention to distractions that entertain and titillate. As a matter of convenience, much of their sneaking will be conducted online. Sneakers are never without their electronic devices. When sitting, they will almost always be staring into an open laptop or e-tablet. While walking or doing chores, they’ll be staring into a smartphone.

For these gadget-obsessed types, the hardest work of marriage is listening. To their spouses they’ll mutter “What?” constantly, but they won’t listen when the statement is repeated and they are too embarrassed to ask a second or third time.

Sneakers typically log a lot of hours on social media stalking old flames from high school and college. Have you ever received a friend request from a long-ago love who very early in your messaging session either asks leading questions about the state of your marriage or confesses to loneliness in his or her own? If so, you’ve been targeted by a sneaker.

After an opening exchange of how-you-dos, the sneaker will start in: “yeah im married 2 but we do our own thing these days. what about u?”

Target: “lol i know how that is”

Sneaker: “do u really?”

Target: “omg who doesnt”

Sneaker: “u and me used to have so much fun partying right?”

Target: “like 100 yrs ago lol”

Sneaker: “we should get together 4 lunch sometime”

Target: “that would be so crazy to c u again”

Sneaker: “how far away r u? 3 hrs?”

Target: “yeah long drive for lunch lol!”

Sneaker: “so do u really do ur own thing in ur marriage 2?”

Target: “omg you havent changed at all!!!!!”

Will they get together for lunch? And if they do and have a great time, will they: a) rekindle their romance, b) decide to divorce their spouses, and c) marry each other and live happily ever after?

Maybe, but probably not. The complexity and emotional toll involved in getting from points A to C in this fantasy are staggering. Yet this kind of Facebook-inspired daydreaming (“If only I could be with _____, I’d be so much happier”) is among the most common dilemmas I hear.

THOSE WHO QUASH. There are many who choose to quash their unfulfilled desires, to accept their marriage for what it is and figure out how to feel O.K. about it.

Oh, well, they tell themselves, I still have a lot to be thankful for. I love my spouse and my family. I love my house and my garden. So we aren’t having wild sex every day or every week or even once a month (or ever). You can’t have everything, they argue. Be grateful for what you do have.

There’s a temptation to dismiss quashers as being in total denial, but they aren’t. They just don’t see the point of wallowing in self-pity when they have accomplished what they hoped to in terms of marriage, family and career. As with most personality types, there’s a spectrum, running the gamut from the bitterly resigned to the appreciatively so.

The bitterly resigned will not go to couples counseling, because what are they supposed to say? “My life isn’t as fun as it used to be?” They hardly need to pay someone for that.

What a difference a spectrum can make, though, because those at the other end of the quashing range — the appreciatively resigned — seem to be among the healthiest and happiest of the marrieds.

Not much sexual passion left in the marriage? That’s offset by what’s left. Like Dr. Seuss’s Whos down in Whoville who hold hands and sing after being robbed on Christmas Eve of all their food and possessions, the appreciatively resigned rise each morning not dwelling on their marital shortfalls but counting their mutual blessings, whatever they may be: a shared sense of humor, an exchange of kind gestures, the enthusiastic pursuit of a mutual interest. Somehow they have managed to grow together rather than apart.

THE RESTORER. When a restorer couple’s marriage starts to feel subpar, they sit down and have a sensible discussion about where their marriage is and where they would like it to be. Then they set goals and seek the means to achieve those goals. Typically affluent, educated and highly motivated, restorer couples almost single-handedly support the vast and profitable marriage-improvement industry.

It won’t take long for them to find out that, surprisingly, the most recommended strategy for reigniting passion in marriage — passion that has waned in part because of the deadening weight of its routines — involves loading up the relationship with even more routines: date nights, couples counseling, dance classes, scheduled sex, 10 for 10s (committing to 10 hugs of 10-seconds in duration every single day), fresh flower Fridays (a boon to the local florist, if not your marriage), required kisses upon parting, lunchtime exchanges of erotic texts, and possibly some creative midday play at the local Holiday Inn involving silk scarves and an eye patch.

Such restorative activities fall into two groups: drudgery and spice. The drudgery, like research and couples counseling, is supposed to be hard work, whereas the spice, such as “creative” bedroom play and kisses upon parting, is supposed to be fun. Depending on a couple’s proclivities, however, the drudgery may turn out to be fun (like reading to each other in bed from marriage improvement books) and the attempts at spice may start to feel like work (having to get out of the car and go back inside because you yet again forgot your required parting kiss).

These attempts at relighting the flame may work for some, but for others they seem to be less about feeling sexy or “rediscovering” each other than they are about demonstrating a nose-to-the-grindstone determination to try anything to stay together and remain vital, which can have a bonding appeal of its own.

After all, you have a lot going for you if you’re willing to commit to learning the fox trot when you hate dancing, or giving up your cherished Saturday-morning run for a regular bedroom session of holding hands naked while staring into each other’s eyes (and seeing where that leads).

Like at-risk teens who are kept off the streets and helped in a positive direction through after-school sports or Big Brother and Big Sister programs, restorer couples who embrace these new routines are also kept out of other people’s beds and focused on healthier alternatives.

What’s more, restorers will want to be able to say they have tried everything to bring the passion back to their marriage, so essentially it’s just a matter of going down the list and checking everything off.

Ultimately every member of a dedicated restorer couple will become a marital-boredom scholar, reading everything that explains why living and having sex with the same person for 30 or 40 years can get boring and what to do about it when it happens to you. In their pursuit of such knowledge, these couples convert their night stands from leisure-reading podiums scattered with travel magazines and suspense novels into social-science libraries stacked with ominous-sounding book titles such as: “I Don’t,” “Marriage Shock,” “Against Love” and “Mating in Captivity.”

From their research they will learn how their boredom may ebb and flow before finally leveling off into the pleasant hum of old age. They’ll become experts in the ways men and women have driven each other crazy for all of eternity. They will have hugged and kissed and danced and date-nighted until they can hug and kiss and dance and date-night no more. And although they will have had some good times that made them remember why they fell in love in the first place, chances are they won’t exactly have turned back the clock in terms of reclaiming that ever-elusive passion.

Inevitably, as the intellectually curious people they are, restorers will return to their original and most perplexing question: How much do we have a right to expect from marriage? Is this simply as good as it gets? We do care about each other. We love our children. Health is generally good. Can’t we just be happy with what we have? And isn’t there a risk that in pressing for more we’ll turn something pretty good into something really bad?

There is, of course. And it’s a risk some will want to take. Others, though, will decide to pull back on the marriage improvement program and instead join the ranks of the appreciatively resigned. They will realize that passion does not equal love, and that the loss of one doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of the other.

With Feb. 14 soon upon us, that’s a realization worth celebrating.




NYTimes 12

Confessions of a Tiger Couple

One gray afternoon in November, on the eve of the Harvard-Yale football game, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld were preparing for their postgame party. Furniture had been moved, vulnerable rugs had been rolled into corners. Their older daughter, Sophia, a junior at Harvard, had just called, and Chua returned to the living room bearing some news for her husband.

“One thing — so Sophia’s bringing, like, 45 people.”

“Oh, no.” Rubenfeld reached for a glass on the coffee table and took a sip.

“Oh, you’re not going to like that. It’s flat.”

“You’re right,” he said, grimacing.

“It’s flat diet ginger ale,” she told me. “Jed doesn’t drink diet sodas, and he doesn’t drink flat.”

He also doesn’t like big parties, but she does. And those 45 people were going to be sleeping over. Even nonreaders of Chua’s 2011 book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” may remember the media chatter about how sleepovers were forbidden in the Chua-Rubenfeld household. All of it — the football game, the party, the sleepover — sounded like the stuff of tiger-mother nightmares.

“You have to understand,” Rubenfeld said, when I pointed this out. “Her whole thing was: That didn’t apply once they were older.” Rubenfeld, 54, speaks quietly and deliberately. He has a narrow, chiseled face, and when asked something he doesn’t want to answer, he’ll get very still and maintain an uncomfortable silence.

“It was supposed to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek book,” Chua interjected. At 51, she has a petite frame and a tendency to gesticulate. “The stuff I had to address was so . . . degrading. It was like, ‘Did you burn the stuffed animals?’ ” She seemed incredulous at the memory of it. “That was irony. That was irony!”

A pseudo-memoir of her adventures in authoritarian parenting, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” tapped into two potent sources of contemporary American anxiety: bad mothers and declining national fortunes, or what the cultural critic Oliver Wang calls “Fear the Chinese/Be the Chinese.” The book itself is an amalgam of true story, exaggeration and outright parody — “I trust them to make the right choices for themselves,” Chua writes, of her dogs. But it was her efforts to raise her two daughters “the Chinese way,” which included a willingness to call Sophia “garbage” and the rote drilling of multiplication tables to the point of exhaustion, that swiftly became an object of fascination and disgust. The hardcover edition spent 11 weeks on The New York Times’s best-seller list while generating the kind of enmity usually reserved for serial killers or politicians. Chua was called everything from “insane” to “abusive.”

“Battle Hymn” was Chua’s first real foray into pop-cultural polemics. She had written two books, both on ethnicity and international politics, which were more in line with her scholarship as a Yale law professor: “World on Fire,” about the dangers of exporting free-market democracy to countries where economic power is concentrated in the hands of a resented ethnic minority, and “Day of Empire,” about how “hyperpowers” thrive on multiculturalism and tolerance. Unlike “Battle Hymn,” which was assailed from all sides, “World on Fire” appealed to both ends of the political spectrum, garnering glowing notices in Mother Jones and The American Conservative. She had a personal connection to her subject: Her aunt, a member of the wealthy Chinese minority in the Philippines, had her throat slit by her chauffeur.

Rubenfeld, also a law professor at Yale, has had his own brush with popular success, writing two Freudian thrillers — including “The Interpretation of Murder,” a best seller in England — in addition to two treatises on constitutional law, his area of expertise. “I think six copies were sold, if memory serves,” Rubenfeld says of his most recent academic book, “and that includes the four that Amy bought.”

Considering how appalled they say they were by the Tiger Mother “firestorm,” their first collaborative project, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” might seem either cynical or oblivious, or some uncanny combination of the two. Due out Feb. 4, the book is a work of Gladwellian sociology that enters the same cultural minefield as “Battle Hymn.” Looking at minorities like Mormons, Nigerian immigrants, Asian-Americans and Jews, among others, Chua and Rubenfeld contend that successful groups share three traits: a superiority complex, feelings of insecurity and impulse control. America, they conclude, used to be a “triple-package culture” before it succumbed to “instant-gratification disorder.”

The subtitle alone is enough to set some readers on high alert. Writing about success in terms of cultural values and traits has always been a contentious proposition in the United States, where it’s typically associated with conservatives like Charles Murray (“The Bell Curve” and “Losing Ground”), who argue that poor people are poor because of bad habits rather than bad situations. The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, who is cited in “The Triple Package,” hadn’t yet read the book, but said he hoped that Chua and Rubenfeld were aware that they’re flirting with a Typhoid Mary. “I’m all for culture,” Patterson said, but “culture is a tricky concept. It has tripped up a lot of anthropologists and sociologists.”

It may now trip up a couple of legal scholars too. When The New York Post got wind of the book in early January, it ran an article about how Chua was “doubling down” with “a series of shock-arguments wrapped in self-help tropes” that could be distilled into one incendiary message: “Some groups are just superior to others, and everyone else is contributing to the downfall of America.” Never mind that the book doesn’t actually say this — the suggestion was out there. On Twitter, Chua was deemed a “racist” and a “troll” (sights were trained on the Tiger Mother; Rubenfeld was mostly spared). Within a week, the authors had been accused of everything from scaring readers to boring them, with New York magazine yawning that the book was “dull” and “conventional.”

“I guess we are fearing the worst,” Chua told me in November. Nonetheless, she was holding out hope that this time would be different. She pointed out all the ways in which they qualified their thesis. They ran numbers and collected data sets. They hired research assistants from “every possible conceivable background.” They acknowledged structural impediments to success, like racism. A chapter was devoted to “the underside of the triple package” and how pathological striving can lead to chauvinism and depression. The text itself is 225 pages, but to that they added nearly 80 pages in endnotes.

“The Triple Package” is full of qualifications, earnest settings-of-the-terms, explicit attempts to head off misinterpretations at the pass. “This point is so important we’re going to repeat it,” they write in a section about Appalachian poverty, which they argue was caused by geography and industrial decline, rather than by any lack of triple-package values. This last month of criticism showed that such lawyerly efforts to walk the line between blandness and notoriety are unlikely to satisfy their most vociferous critics. Yet Chua remained optimistic.

“I feel like it should be a book that if you approach it with an open mind, it actually shouldn’t be controversial. It should be thought-provoking.”

Rubenfeld, who was listening intently to his wife, smiled. “We’re just going to get raked over the coals — that’s what’s going to happen.”

Well before “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” Chua and Rubenfeld wanted to collaborate on a project. “For a while we were going to write a book about Jewish people and Chinese people,” she said, “and it was going to be how different the cultures were.” But then they noticed some historical similarities. “If you take Jews in the 1900s, 1910s, it’s like, ‘You have to listen to your father,’ too!”

Chua and Rubenfeld met in the mid-’80s, when she was in her second year at Harvard Law School and he was in his third. She had just made The Law Review, where he was already an editor, and a mishap at what she calls “the nerdiest volleyball game of all history” almost landed them in the emergency room.

“We were on opposite sides, and we both went up for the ball,” she recalled. She got a bloody lip; he got a black eye. “In fact, we were on the same team,” Rubenfeld said by way of correction. “We weren’t on opposite sides.”

He invited her for coffee, and she accepted. Rubenfeld was trying to democratize The Law Review by doing away with the grueling competitive process in favor of a lottery, which made Chua — a child of immigrants and an ardent believer in the meritocracy — suspicious. “I found the conversation irritating,” she said. “All these people went to private schools; I went to a public school, and I clawed my way into this thing.” She laughed. “I was just there to try to do well, and Jed was leading revolutions.”

When Chua described her first impressions of Rubenfeld, the word “cool” came up several times, and she enunciated it in a way that made it clear she was using it as a term of derision. Asked how she went from mistrusting the cool kid to marrying him, she recalled how, over time, she realized that his intelligence revealed some effort. He wasn’t just coasting by on his good looks and his privilege — coasting being the unforgivable sin in the Chua cosmos. She talks about hard work as both a practical and a moral imperative. Forgoing hard work is a mark of arrogance, which leads to complacency, which leads to intergenerational decline. In “Battle Hymn,” she casts the forced march of music lessons as an attempt to counteract the smug satisfactions of privilege, writing of her determination “not to raise a soft, entitled child.”

Chua grew up feeling anything but entitled. She was born in Champaign, Ill., to Chinese parents from the Philippines. Her father was a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering; her mother was a chemist who eventually gave up her career to care for four daughters, the youngest of whom has Down syndrome. Amy was the oldest. When their father came home from work, she would take off his shoes and socks before bringing him his slippers. Expectations were high, and they were clear. An A-minus was not merely unacceptable but “unthinkable.” Amy spoke only the family’s Hokkien dialect until she was 4, when she was thrown into a nursery school where everyone spoke English. But an English slip of the tongue at home would be met with a “whack of the chopsticks.”

Rubenfeld’s upbringing wasn’t nearly so severe. His parents rebelled against their Orthodox Jewish backgrounds to become, as he puts it, “very liberal, very permissive.” His father was a successful psychotherapist; his mother was an art critic. They didn’t push their three children to get good grades. When Rubenfeld was 12, his parents told him he could take violin lessons or tennis lessons. He chose tennis. “The message in my family was: Kids should go out and find out what they want to do. And that was great for us all, individually. But as a family, things didn’t work out that well. My parents were separated when I was in college. They got divorced. And they practically weren’t speaking to each other for the rest of their lives.”

Rubenfeld is only an intermittent presence in “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” and he generally serves as a foil to Chua’s more extreme disciplinary style. “I was already at a disadvantage,” she writes. “I had an American husband who believed that childhood should be fun.” Which isn’t to say he disagreed with her approach. “I would be seeing these parents, and the kids weren’t happier for having parents who would answer yes for everything,” he told me. “And then my wife is this Chinese woman who has all these ideas about parenting. I’m like, Maybe that is better.”

In “Battle Hymn” as well as in “The Triple Package,” permissive parenting is presented as hazardous to children, whose future success requires discipline and self-control. Yet despite his parents’ leniency, Rubenfeld will admit that he isn’t exactly a cautionary tale. He graduated from Princeton with a degree in philosophy, having written a thesis on Freud and Foucault. Princeton was followed by drama at Juilliard before he was, in his words, “kicked out” after two years (Juilliard was known for cutting its drama classes by as much as half). After Harvard Law School, Rubenfeld clerked for a judge in the prestigious Ninth Circuit, worked for Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz and then for the U.S. Attorney’s office. In his spare time, he wrote a paper about a woman’s right to abortion, arguing that “mandatory childbearing is a totalitarian intervention into a woman’s life.” Within a year of publication, Yale Law School offered him a tenure-track job.

When Rubenfeld began teaching at Yale in 1990, he and Chua had been married for a couple of years. (They celebrated their 25th anniversary this fall.) After the birth of their first daughter in 1992, Chua left the firm of Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton and eventually found a teaching job at Duke. The couple endured tedious commutes between North Carolina and Connecticut until finally, in 2001, a series of visiting-professor gigs brought Chua to Yale.

Spending time with Chua and Rubenfeld, I was periodically reminded of something Stanley Cavell once wrote — that the defining moment in a screwball comedy comes when the oddly matched pair find themselves in a “mythical place” called Connecticut. Chua and Rubenfeld have been living together in New Haven for more than a decade, but to hear her tell it, they come not so much from different backgrounds as from different planets — though they’re not the henpecked husband and the dragon-lady wife of the public imagination. “He’s a bad boy,” she says. “He doesn’t mind people being angry with him.” Chua prefers to ingratiate herself, often deferring to others. “I love authority figures, I love experts.” They’ll go to a museum, and he’ll wander around, taking in the art, while she waits in line for the plastic audio guide. At a restaurant, he’ll ask to be seated near a window, whereas she’s willing to sit wherever she’s told, even if that’s next to the bathroom.

On the Monday after Thanksgiving, I arrived at Yale Law School to watch them teach. They’re both popular professors — Chua earned a teaching award in 2011 — but their styles are completely different. Chua was like a coach, nudging her students toward the answers and giving them smiles of encouragement. “Yes! Keep going!” and “You were all right!”

Rubenfeld, by contrast, laid out his points about constitutional law methodically. The students laughed at his jokes, but his delivery might be described as charismatic deadpan. He told a student “O.K., excellent” only once. At the break, he left the room so swiftly, it was as if he had been instructed to exit stage right.

Shortly before 7, Chua and I met Rubenfeld outside the law school, where he was waiting for us. I could hear strains of music coming from their Jeep. “Will you recognize me? Call my name or walk on by. . . .” It was the song from the last scene of “The Breakfast Club,” when Judd Nelson thrusts a defiant fist into the air.

Chua climbed into the back, leaning forward between the front seats to start pressing buttons on the stereo. “I have to turn this off.”

Rubenfeld looked neither surprised nor displeased as he took the car out of park. “Did you see how fast she turned off my music?”

“I don’t like that ’80s stuff.” Chua says that her taste in music is atrocious. She loves country — crooners like Kenny Chesney, not Wilco. Her cultural self-deprecation is so matter-of-fact that it can sound almost confident. Her husband is “the aesthetic person,” she told me when I first met them in their home. “I have zero taste.”

In the car, Chua and Rubenfeld started talking about the criminal-law class he’s teaching next year. He’d just published a paper questioning the standard definition of rape as “unconsented-to sex,” suggesting the better analogy was slavery or torture. Chua talked about her husband’s willingness to broach a subject like rape in his class with a mixture of admiration and mock-horror.

“I don’t want to be controversial,” she said. “I just want to be liked.”

For someone who doesn’t want to be controversial, Chua has shown a persistent willingness to enter the fray. One sunny afternoon in December, she showed me some emails in response to “Battle Hymn” that she stored on her computer, located on a cluttered desk in their bedroom. It was the week before Christmas, and their 17-year-old daughter, Lulu, was sitting on the floor nearby, wrapping presents.

The emails started arriving on Jan. 8, 2011, the morning The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from the book under the headline, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” To describe those first emails as nasty would be an understatement. Chua was accused of torturing her daughters and putting them at risk for suicide. Her first impulse was to write back to set the record straight. The excerpt and the headline were misleading. People needed to know that the book wasn’t a manifesto, and it wasn’t a parenting manual, either. Couldn’t they see her narrator was unreliable? Couldn’t they see how the book was meant to be funny?

“They got nicer and nicer,” Chua said, opening a recent note from a teacher who liked “Battle Hymn” so much that he had his class enact a “duo interpretation of a specific scene from the book.” One man started out peevish, accusing her of “low moral and ethical caliber” as well as “spousal abuse” before he sent her another email with the subject line: “Mitigation.” “Your article touched a nerve,” he explained. “I struggle daily with the iron will of my Hong Kongenese [sic] spouse.” He had attached a picture of himself with his young daughter, both sticking out their tongues for the camera.

The positive feedback felt like a vindication. “Battle Hymn” was written at a time when Chua’s sister was ill and Lulu, then 13, was going “public with her insurgency” against her mother’s oppressive methods. After a showdown in a Russian restaurant (yelling, smashed glass), Chua admits that she pushed her younger daughter too hard. But that doesn’t mean she thinks she shouldn’t have been pushing at all. For all of her claims about the book’s satire and hyperbole, she expresses a deep conviction about how she raised her daughters: “There is nothing I’m prouder of.”

As Chua and I got ready to leave the house, she walked over to where Lulu was sitting. “Is there some homework you should be doing?”

“I’ve already done my physics test,” Lulu said, curling some ribbon with scissors.

“But you should send an email to your teachers to explain why you’re not there.”

“They know I’m sick.” Lulu was at home with the flu. “You called in my absence this morning. They put it on the attendance sheet.”

Chua insisted Lulu should send an email anyway, especially because just two days before, she was accepted at Yale. “They’re going to think you’re arrogant: You got into college and you’re not going to class.”

Chua stared at her daughter expectantly. Lulu then did what any self-respecting high-school senior would do. She rolled her eyes and continued to wrap her present.

“New Haven is two worlds,” Chua said as we got into her Jeep. Somewhere between their mock-Tudor house and Yale’s campus, well-preserved homes give way to block after block of peeling clapboard and wire fences.

Yale Law School prides itself on being a kind of oasis for the country’s brightest students, the ones who scored highest on the LSAT and got the best grades and have done something ambitious already — volunteered in an African refugee camp, say, or worked as a C.E.O. It’s among the most selective law schools, and unlike the bigger ones, it doesn’t grade on a curve. Incoming students are told they’re “off the treadmill.” They can take some time to figure out what it is that they really want to do.

In “The Triple Package,” Rubenfeld and Chua write that this is the point of striving: to get to a place where you can break out of the straitjacket of conventional success and pursue the life you really want to live. Their daughter Sophia is studying Sanskrit and philosophy but also signed up for R.O.T.C. “Jed and I are wild fans of breaking away, kicking away the ladder,” Chua told me that first rainy day in their house. Their own excursions outside the academy might be seen in this light. But as “breaking away” goes, theirs is a fairly safe bet. They were law professors before. They will be law professors after.

Chua has been attuned to the plight of the outsider in each of her books, aware of how smug and insular success can seem. But there’s a kind of ingenuousness that can settle in after years spent in a safe space, one that stands at a considerable remove from the marketplace where most people make do. “The Triple Package” conveys a message familiar from self-help books: Adopt these values and you too can take control of your life. But you have only to step outside of Yale’s campus to see that the world doesn’t operate according to the same principles of effort and reward. For most Americans, especially now, striving and insecurity are likely to be rewarded with more striving and insecurity; you can do everything right and still have little to show for it. Kicking away that ladder will sound like a fantasy when you’re clinging to it for dear life.

The sky was getting darker as Chua drove us toward downtown New Haven. She had her forearms pressed against the wheel to get a better view of the road, which made her look hesitant. At one point we were stopped at an intersection when someone banged loudly on the back of the car. “Did I — ” she began. What happened made no sense. She’d stopped because the light was red. Had she really done something wrong?



English learner


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