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  • Max Stearns

Unmodern Love: Reflections on Five NYT Essays

Before I began teaching at George Mason Law School in the fall of 1992, I attended what was then affectionately known as Henry Manne’s Summer Camp, a two-week program on the Dartmouth College campus. New law school faculty learned various economics tools and how to apply them to law and public policy.

That summer, the brilliant UCLA economist, Armen Alchian, regaled us with the following story:

When he was single, he dated several women. When dating one, he would sometimes meet another who he preferred. He then broke up with the first, and started dating the one he had met. If he met a woman he liked less well, he stayed with the woman he was then dating; if he met a woman he liked more, he would break up, and start dating anew. He repeated this process several times until, finally, he met a young graduate student, named Pauline. He preferred Pauline to the woman he was then dating, and by simple logic, to all of the women he had dated until then (excluding at least some of the women who had rejected him through the same process.) After dating her for a while, Professor Alchian thought: “I’ve dated quite a few women. Do I think I will meet another that I will prefer to Pauline?” His answer: “Probably not.” And so he married her. When the professor died in 2013, at the age of 98, he was survived by his wife, Pauline, to whom he had been married for 73 years, in addition to his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. (See here.)

I saw the first actual dating app just two weeks ago. My wonderful niece had just graduated college, and as her parents helped pack her apartment, I took her two older siblings to the nearby Starbucks. My nephew, the oldest of the three, pulled out his cell phone to check his status on several sites. I asked if he would let me to assist as his “consultant.” He happily, if surprisingly, obliged. I shuffled though the swipe left/swipe right commands, carefully reviewing pictures and descriptions of various interests (all oddly suitable for the most general of audiences). I was delighted that my nephew, and my niece, agreed with my advice respecting the direction of each swipe.

This morning I read the winning essay and four finalists from the New York Times college competition, “Modern Love.” The essays, culled from a pool of 2000, appear here.

They were entertaining, well written, and sad, as such essays often are. Malcolm Conner (Trinity), author of the winning essay, “The Physics of Forbidden Love,” writes so well that he allayed an initial concern that the selection process might have more closely resembled a modern college admissions, or faculty appointments, committee, carefully weighing merit and diversity, rather than simply assessing writing quality. The top essays included: (1) a transgender (female to male) writer seeking a female romantic companion; (2) a gay LDS missionary ironically coming out to his one-time senior mission companion; and (3) a demisexual woman (yes, this was also educational) seeking to come out to a male companion who, otherwise romantically engaged, was emotionally unavailable. The remaining essays are more demographically mundane: (1) a heterosexual women who lamented that her on-line persona precluded a genuine romantic intimacy that might blow her detached cover, revealing her as an actual person with feelings, and (2) another heterosexual woman realizing the pitfalls of no-strings-attached dating apps in a pervasive hook-up culture.

When I was in my young teens, I remember having a conversation with my very hip maternal grandmother (although hipper than my mother, my grandmother truly earned an unscaled “A” for hipness). Something we saw on TV prompted her to tell me: “I don’t know what it is about this generation. They think they invented sex.” I suppose every generation somehow imagines itself as inventing, or reinventing, sex. After all, sex is about discovery, not only of sexual intimacy, but of how we define our innermost selves. For those who are in some sense non-conforming, the “coming out” metaphor seems apt. If there is anything “modern” in these essays, it isn’t about love; rather it is about our growing acceptance of categories to which the metaphor applies.

Generations past might have struggled to comprehend Mr. Conner’s description of Gender Dysphoria, once thought a rarity, and now, if not commonplace, at least generally familiar. That won’t make the transitioning process easier, but hopefully over time will alleviate the educational burdens that those who experience it must endure. Ellis Jester’s essay, “White Shirt, Black Name Tag, Big Secret,“ is not notable because the writer came out as a gay man, and it’s not especially notable because he did so at the end of a two-year LDS mission. There’s nothing “modern” about the juxtaposition of sexual identity and religious traditionalism. This has occurred within every major religion throughout history. What made this essay most notable was instead its predictable “surprise” ending, one that I’m fairly sure I was not alone in anticipating. Emily Demaionewton’s “Not Friends? Then No Benefits,” primarily taught me a new term. I hadn’t known of an “orientation” to be sexually attracted only to those with whom one is emotionally intimate. In a post-sexual revolution culture, one exacerbated by modern technology, this undoubtedly creates a frustrating “chicken and egg” problem: Without initial sexual attraction, is there an opportunity for the requisite emotional intimacy that triggers sexual attraction to grow?

Armen Alchian and my grandmother were of the same generation. By my calculations, Professor Alchian was born in 1915, and my grandmother was born in 1912. There were no cell phones, less discussion of unconventional sexuality or sexual identity, and no dating apps. Even so, as he told the story, my grandfather, close in age to my grandmother, saw her picture at the age of 16. He immediately fell in love, and so her pursued her. I still remember attending the wonderful party celebrating my grandparents' Golden Wedding Anniversary. One imagines that had this occurred in more modern times, and with my nephew’s technology, my grandfather would have swept all the other photos the opposite way, leaving only hers. When he saw my grandmother's photograph, he was done. In his generation, and in my parents’ generation as well, people met in old-fashioned ways: in school, in synagogue (or church or mosque), at parties, or being introduced by friends. And sometimes, by seeing a photograph. In my culture, an earlier generation also relied on matchmakers or “shadchan” (sometimes confused with “yentas” following “Fiddler on the Roof,” see here), typically older women whose function today has, to some extent, been replicated with dating software.

“Modern Love” isn’t modern. The growing acceptance of the intimate categories that define who we are is modern, and is a true sign of progress. It is difficult to imagine a lifetime repressing one’s innermost self. But love has always been a core part of who we are. The emotion is as basic as it is ancient. Armen Alchian was teaching his students what economists call “search theory.” (See here) This doesn’t just explain how the professor (and so many others) found their committed romantic partners. It also explains the college application process, medical school matches, employment searches, and more. These things are far less romantic. We all hope to fall deeply in love, the kind of love that well past the initial sexual attraction (for some, and we now understand not all), provides the basis for something profound and lasting, based upon shared intimacy, life experience, and enduring commitment. These five NYT essays essays reveal that regardless of one’s sexual orientation or identity, love is a universal quest. That’s not modern, but it is human.

As always, I welcome your comments:

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