Beautiful Untrue Things

“Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art.”-Oscar Wildewi-3

(There is a new book by Gregory Mackie by this title, but that is not what this post will be about.)

Have you seen this quote on an Etsy cross stitch or t-shirt? “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde.

This thought obviously strikes a chord in our times. Wilde never actually said it, nevertheless it is one of his most famous sayings, along with another thing he never said “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

If you look up posts on Twitter, you will invariably find this quote and attribution, and occasionally Wilde experts will chime in to correct it, but it never makes a dent. The misquotations outnumber the corrections 500 to 1, maybe more.

I once tweeted, in response to one of the corrections, that maybe we should just give up and let that be an actual thing Wilde said.

“Never,” came the reply.

So Wilde didn’t say that.

But my saying so will not do much to stem the tide.

Nor, I am afraid, has my research done anything to put a dent in the popular narrative about Oscar Wilde: Living a peaceful, upstanding life until he met the spoiled and reckless Lord Alfred Douglas, who introduced Wilde to “the streets,” Wilde tried to get away from him, but could not resist him. Douglas led him into a dangerous battle with his father, coerced him into a clearly reckless libel suit, which everyone else urged Wilde not to file, abandoned him when he went to jail, and tried to tarnish his legacy years later.

Anyone who follows stories about Oscar Wilde in the media (social and traditional) will encounter variants on this story. Some parts of this story are just plain wrong: Douglas did not abandon Wilde. Nor was he the only one who encouraged Wilde in his libel suit. Many people, including most newspaper journalists, thought it would be a disaster for Queensberry, not Wilde. Some rest on little evidence: the idea that it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to “rough trade.” Some is complicated: the nature of Wilde and Douglas’s relationship. Some, like Douglas’s mid-life religious conversion and bitterness towards Wilde, deserve more contextualization than they usually get. It is, as I see it, and wonderfully complex story, full of colorful characters with good and bad traits, all story-tellers with a desire to spin events as their own personalities dictate. So much nuance, which is so often lost in the re-telling.

Should I just give up and let the popular version be the history?




I want to take a moment for a mini-rant on my new “most hated expression.”

The fact that we’ve created an acronym for it makes us much more likely to use it and that, to choose an “I Love Lucy” word, is lousy.

This phrase is used mostly on Twitter to convey exasperation and utter contempt for someone else’s statement. But it is not usually directed at the writer of a tweet or blog post himself, rather it’s usually used when speaking about someone to an audience of presumably like-minded people. This way the audience can share outraged mockery of the person and/or their statement.

Oh FFS, is this the kind discourse we want to perpetuate?

Can Women Assemble Furniture?

Pocket EncyclopediaI have a theory that blogs all consist of people responding to their social media feeds.  Mine seems to be.

Today I was browsing my Twitter feed, and I came across an article that said “New research has found that more than 1 in 5 female students have previously been told that they cannot or should not do something because they are a woman.”

The number one thing that the survey respondents reported they’d been discouraged from doing (73% gave this answer) was “build flat-pack furniture.”

As it happens, I wrote a bit about gender differences in assembling furniture in the new edition of The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation.  So I thought I would share it with you:

Some Assembly Required

When you walked through the clean, stylish Swedish furniture store, you imagined yourself living in the perfectly decorated mini-rooms with pleasure and optimism. Then you took home a box of wooden slats, metal bolts and a diagram. Your future began to seem much less rosy very fast. If figuring out how to get part A into slot B has driven you to utter choice four letter words, throw things around the room; even threatened to derail your marriage, you are not alone.

It seems that IKEA related complaints come up frequently in couples therapy. “Couples tend to extrapolate from the small conflicts that arise while shopping for and building furniture that perhaps they aren’t so made for one another after all,” Maisie Chou Chaffin, a London-based clinical psychologist told The Atlantic.

There are real gender differences, and gendered cultural expectations, about the assembly of furniture. A few years ago after Norway’s prime minister accused IKEA of sexism for showing only men in its instruction manuals, the company responded by adding more women and arguing that, in fact, women were better at assembling their products than men were. Petra Hesser, who was then the head of IKEA’s Germany division said “A woman will neatly lay out all the screws while a man will throw them in a pile,” Hesser said. “Something always goes missing.”

So researchers set out to test the hypothesis and found 1. There is something to Hesser’s description of how men and women approach “some assembly required” tasks and 2. Her conclusion that women do a better job was entirely wrong. A Norweigan research team asked 40 men and 40 women in their twenties to assemble a kitchen cart. Some people got the instructions, others only received a a drawing of what the end product should look like. When they had the instructions, men and women took the same amount of time (about 23 minutes) to put the thing together, and both had equally impressive, or unimpressive results.

When they had to figure things out from the drawing, there was a 20 percent difference between men and women in terms of how long it took to complete the task. The women also assembled more faulty carts with missing shelves or railings. In all, men with no instructions did about as well as the men with the instructions, finishing only a minute slower and not making enough mistakes to make the difference statistically meaningful. So Hesser was right, women do take a more systematic approach, because they need to. Men’s habit of throwing the instructions aside can be a source of frustration and argument.

Studies have long identified differences in spatial ability between men and women. The science is still out, however, as to whether this is the result of nature or nurture. In one study, researchers had subjects from two genetically similar but culturally distinct tribes in Northeast India complete a visual puzzle. One of the tribes as patriarchal. There women performed more slowly than the men. In the tribe where women ruled, there were no gender differences in performance. In another study, women were asked to imagine that they were men when doing a mental rotation test. When they did, they performed just as well as the men did. They also did better when they were told ahead of time that women usually outperformed the men. So women’s slower times and reliance on instructions might be the result of conditioning and a lack of confidence.

Of course, individual results vary, and not every man who thinks he can do a great job without the instructions actually can. As writer Jon Tevlin said, “I know from personal experience that using only pictures of men assembling IKEA furniture can lead some to believe… that men actually CAN assemble IKEA furniture.”

The expectation that every man should be able to creates tension. It doesn’t take a lot of tension to drive a wedge between members of a couple. In a 2014 study, researchers at Monmouth University and Ursinus College studied the affect of frustration on romantic feelings. They split 120 subjects into two groups. One was given the simple, stress-free task– writing down numbers chronologically; the other, a set of difficult math problems. When they had finished both groups were asked to make a list of compliments about their partner. The stressed group identified 15% fewer admirable traits in their beloveds.

The main way to avoid furniture assembly frustration, say the experts, is to go easy on yourself and allow plenty of time to get the job done. Walk away and come back if you have to. If that doesn’t work, maybe you need to buy pre-assembled furniture. No one wants to have a half-assembled vanity listed as an asset in a divorce proceeding.

And I Feel… Fine


Although it is for an old New Year, this video from last year’s Colbert show seems to strike the right note at the moment.

I (and a number of family members) were struck with flu over Christmas, mine reaching its feverish peak during a snowy drive back from Minnesota to Michigan. Still dealing with a heavy cough, but today I managed to sit down and work on my next novel for a while.

I wrote for about two hours and was about done with my document when in a fast type I swiped the touchpad and the cursor jumped back and deleted everything. It left  only the word I happened to be completing just then. Tried “undo” but it wouldn’t come back. After that my little second wind blew away.