It spoke to me. It reached out to me with its little inquisitive blue cat eyes on the cover, poised, hopeful, and said “read me.” It was 2013 and my first time in the the Powell’s bookstore on Hawthorne Blvd – the smaller one in SE Portland, but just as eclectic and cute as the other. I was with my friends (and future Backwords cofounders), Matt and Jenny, exploring the neighborhood, having a wanderlust day that found us in thrift shops and in this particular iconic bookstore. It was a warm fall day in Oregon, and it was still my first year in Portland. We were all relatively new friends, sipping iced teas, bubbly and full of endless sharing about books.
“Have you read?” “What a terrible cover.” “How many times can Nicholas Sparks write the same plot?” “My grandmother reads romance novels.”
And yet there it was, Would You Eat Your Cat? by Jeremy Stangroom (someone I would refer to after looking into him, as a pop-philosopher), a book on “key ethical conundrums and what they tell you about yourself.” We flipped through and laughed a little at the mini-situations aimed to cause discussion. Subject headings included: Ethical Impasses, Rights and Responsibilities, Crime and Punishment, and Society and Politics. I decided on a whim to buy it. I knew it would inspire longer discussions later. But I also remember a face: there was a dreadfully handsome, slightly older gentleman that I kept locking eyes with while continuing to browse the shelves. I wasn’t the type yet to be brave enough to strike up a conversation or to engage in a meet cute type of situation, so I simply left, smiling, over the friends and the hunk.
That same evening, I saw this bookstore fox again – this time out at a club downtown. We recognized each other, talked, danced, and traded numbers. I found out he was a psychologist, and thought the book I had purchased the day we met would be perfect for conversation topics. Who better to talk dilemmas than with a psychologist? We went on several dates in fact, but lost touch over the holidays, never getting to the cat feast (one would assume the cat-based dilemma one would somehow have a twist to make the idea seem possible, right?).
A year later in 2014, the book came off my shelf and into a camping backpack, for a fresh summer tryst with a ravishing bartender I’d become friendly with. I had known him, personally, only a few weeks, but when he had asked me to join him and two of his friends for a weekend camping trip, I was already more smitten than I care to admit and said “yes.” Stangroom made a brief appearance over too many beers and a blazing fire with the group, but the discussion was much dimmer than the flames between us. It was all a non-starter.
In 2015, I started to think of Stangroom’s book again. This time during a Skype date with a boy from Boston – I’ll refer to him as “Boston,” a nickname I often use. Considering the distance between us, I wondered if discussing ethical dilemmas could be a good way to get to know someone and their values (this was before I had heard of The New York Times quiz to help you fall in love). Boston obliged, but we quickly glossed over the book and shifted subjects. I was undeterred and brought the book with me on my first trip to visit to the actual city, Boston, but we didn’t need it to fuel the chemistry we felt meeting for the first time. We did just fine at finding ways to learn more about each other, in other ways.
The ethics of dating are vast and rigid, or flexible and free depending on who you ask. I’ve always been the type to believe in monogamy, this search for a single partner. Someone to be both dearest friend and lover. But after having dated Boston for over a year and a half, a person that lives on the other side of the country, someone I only visited three times – them travelling to me, zero – I’ve questioned this moral position I’ve tried to hold myself to. Is one person enough? Or was it the distance?
There’s more to relationships than monogamy, Alexandra Schwartz for The New Yorker discusses one of the pitfalls of relationships – money (dating the same sex, this quandary of presupposed “the man should pay,” becomes even trickier than tricky, and with apps like Venmo can make a date feel like a burden the morning after). Schwartz writes:
The imperative that men pay for women goes back to the start of the twentieth century, when dating was a new method of courtship practiced by members of the urban working class. In 1900, a woman with a factory job made less than half of what a man in an equivalent position did, and for a simple reason: her income was scaled to supplement that of a theoretical father or husband. Think of it as a tax on single women. To meet men, women had to go out, but they could only go out if men paid for them. That a practice born of sexist wage discrimination has since been glossed over as a rite demanded by chivalry goes to show how suspect the value of chivalry is in the first place.
There’s a solution to all of this, as simple in theory as it is awkward in practice. The Post quotes a financial expert who recommends that “both parties should agree on who’s paying for what before going on a date.” This is sound advice, to the extent that it encourages the sharing of expenses that are, in fact, shared, though implementing it might call for expertise of the psychological kind, too. Money is dating’s biggest taboo. Nothing is harder to discuss, in the context of romance, or more likely to give offense when one does, not even sex—which is unfortunate, considering that only one of those two issues is guaranteed to persist, without fail, over the course of a relationship.
I bring up the ethics of money in a heterosexual relationship, and apply it to particularly a queer one, because it was in large part what undid Boston and me. I could afford more easily to travel – with both my time and my wallet – while he’s a driven PhD student. Even with more than a year of offering to pay his way, he felt guilty accepting it. I felt he was worth the investment, and finally I just couldn’t keep up with the distance. It also wasn’t a monogamy issue, it was a loneliness one.
On my third and final visit to Boston, I brought Stangroom with me again. This time, probably since I was there almost two weeks, we had time to dive into the conundrums. I finally read the title piece. Alas, at the cat’s death, the owner simply wanted the beloved pet to feel “one with her” after passing. She ate him on toast. The ethics in the book largely fell flat, seeming either very one sided or so gray there is no answer. This tool, this book of possible topics when pushed beyond its click-bait style title, this dating potential I had held on to for years, waiting years to discover the stories with someone, turned out to be hollow – caving under the pressures of real questioning.
Nevertheless, even with the shortcomings of Stangroom’s book, I appreciate that I can trace back through the years, with the visual aid of a book meant for ethics, and compare it to dating, to life, to love. I had saved the cat as a potential rubric for compatibility, only bringing it out fully for someone that really mattered to me. Someone whose values I wanted to know and to complement. The book is cute, but for the purpose I adopted onto it, The New York Times quiz on love works much better. Boston and I took that quiz over Skype shortly before my last visit. We only made it through halfway before having to save the rest for another time.