“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Alpha Test: 3rd Excerpt from "The Music Box Routine"

(Read from the beginning)
            The night Will had to drag Stacy out of Louie’s wasn’t the same night we’d met her. According to Will, though I don’t recall, I was the one who first approached her, and he came in just after I’d done the Alpha Test on her and the woman she was out with. It’s hard to imagine now that I could’ve gotten Stacy to play along with that particular routine, but apparently I did. She was this five foot five blond who dressed to be noticed but who closed herself off with her body language, slouching, always facing away from the center of the room, legs crossed, arms folded. She was a bit skinny for my taste but had great legs she wasn’t opposed to showing off with tight jeans or skirts—never too short—and heels.

            Will said what he liked initially was that closed-off posture which he managed with just the right amount of effort to pull her out of time and again. Her slow glances would go from wary, even slightly hostile, like she knew you were about to try to get something over on her, to curious and coquettish, a gradual development which, along with the contours of her features and the shape of her face, reminded us of a wise old cat who had yet to fully outgrow her mischief (which may have been what inspired me to progress from the Alpha Cat Opener to the Alpha Test).

            I saw something else about Stacy those first few times we hung out I never mentioned to Will—or maybe I didn’t see anything and am now simply consoling myself by imagining there were signs. I can only describe it as a type of tension in the muscles of her forehead and around the outside edges of her eyes. It was like a quick expression of pain, a wince that was so subtle you could never be sure you saw it. And it was almost always followed by an easily detectable expression of determination, which could shade into aggression. To me, it was a red flag. It was a purer, rawer form of something I’d experienced with my first girlfriend. She was injured, and she was mad. Why Will was drawn to it or if he was ever aware of it I can’t say. Stacy was usually really fun, but she was also volatile.
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            I came up with The Alpha Test because I so often found myself approaching women who were sitting at the bar in pairs. You don’t want to stand with your back to the room, talking to women who are seated comfortably and turning over their shoulders to listen. That arrangement will make the women feel like, and it will appear to everyone else in the vicinity like, you’re hitting on them. The more they feel that way the more defensive they’ll be. And if you try to approach a set who’s already seen you hitting on someone else you have no chance—you’re just the bold party guy playing a numbers game and no woman wants to be a notch on some dude’s belt.

            So you approach the less attractive woman to position her between you and the more attractive one. “You guys are pretty attractive,” you say with a one-sided squint and a tilt of the head that suggest what you really think is that they’re just so-so. “Can I get your opinion on something? It’ll only take a sec because I have to get back to my friends.” Unless they object—and that’s happened to me a total of one time—you don’t wait for an answer. “You know how dogs are hierarchical?” You go into The Alpha Cat Opener. Once you’ve told them the story and asked them what they think, you listen to their response with a knowing smile.

            “That’s interesting,” you respond, “because I was just talking to my friend about this and he said attractive women would be the most likely to believe cats are hierarchical. He said it’s because they feel an affinity toward cats—plus attractive women are also, like, the most dominant and competitive animals in the wild.”

            You’ll get a number of different responses at this point, the most common being smiles and quiet laughs. The quick-witted will ask, “Are you calling us catty?” Whatever they do, though, you have to progress somewhat quickly to the next step—don’t wait for the applause. “For instance, I know a test that will tell us which of you two is the alpha of your group.” You walk behind them and stand between their bar stools. “Yeah, all you have to do is stand together facing me.” They’ll exchange doubtful looks. “Now, this information is sensitive. Are you sure you can handle knowing who’s really in charge?” It’s important not to give the impression that you’re eager for them to play along. Have the frame in your mind that you’re offering them information and amusement. You’re doing them a favor. If they refuse, you can just say, “Yeah, I don’t want to start a fight between you two,” and then move on to something else or bail on the set. The one time I had to bail, the two sought me out about ten minutes later.

            But they’ll probably stand up as you take a step back from their stools. “Now come over here so there’s more light.” This is where you trade positions with them so you can lean back against the bar and have the two of them standing with their backs to the center of the room. Pick up guys call this locking them in. To everyone around the bar, it will look like these two nervous chicks are chatting you up—like they’re hitting on you. And they’ll feel that way themselves.

            “Now everyone’s watching, so don’t fuck this up. Quick, before you have a chance to look at each other, point to the one who’s prettier.” Model pointing to someone beside you as you say this. After they point, lean back and laugh. “Well, that was revealing. Okay, now same thing, but this time point to the one who’s the most intelligent.” Again, model pointing to someone beside you. This time after they point, though, just smile knowingly. “And now the last part—who’s the most fun?”

            The Alpha Test, at least this version of it, takes advantage of what Will and I call The Prettier Friend Dynamic. The most attractive of any group of women gets the most attention, and in humans attention is the most salient index of status. The dominant group member is the one who’s heard whenever he speaks. And people, even other women, seem incapable of ignoring attractive women. What a beautiful woman’s friends come to realize is that this attention causes her to overestimate the inherent value of her utterances. She’ll say some pretty bland things, even some outright stupid things, but then she’ll flash her teeth and everyone’s oohing and ahhing. Over time a woman will come to resent her prettier friend because no matter what she says the guys are hanging on every word. The less attractive friend, on the other hand, can be as witty and insightful as John Stewart and still get scarcely a sideways glance in acknowledgement.

            What you’re doing with The Alpha Test is dangling the promise of a man less shallow than all the rest in front of the witty friend, while at the same time threatening the prettier friend with the idea that as beautiful and charming as she is, there are important qualities she lacks. It makes no difference at all which way the fingers point. Either way, you’ve got two women vying for your attention. And just as you’re finishing up with the test your wing enters the set saying, “Were you guys just doing The Alpha Test? So, which one’s the alpha?”

            You smile again, shaking your head. “I don’t think it would be a good idea to tell them.”
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            There’s a scene in the movie “Troy” where Brad Pitt’s Achilles, talking to Briseis in his tent on the Trojan beach, answers her question about what he’s after by saying, “I want what all men want—I just want it more.” That’s Will. I remember hearing about him all the way back in first grade, even before meeting him. We attended a Catholic school and, being conscientious to a fault myself, I marveled at the stories of this guy who simply couldn’t be controlled by the teachers, who picked on everyone, even the kids who were considered the biggest bullies, who treated getting away with misbehavior as a game, who must’ve had no burdens of shyness or guilt like mine. When I heard the stories, I would laugh until I was red-faced and half-suffocated.

            We became friends in second grade because we had the same teacher and shared a passion for action movies. He was never the biggest or the most athletic kid in the school, but even back then he had a kind of relentlessness that set him apart. In third grade my parents went through a rocky divorce and I turned in on myself. I didn’t interact much with anyone until seventh grade, when puberty inspired me to begin an exercise regimen and start trying to talk to girls. Will fared much better in that latter endeavor than I did. But our friendship took hold again. That’s when I first started talking to Christine, who would become my first love, my first taste of the bitterness and danger inherent in romance.

            Either Will liked flouting the rules or the rules just didn’t mean much to him. When we were in high school and I was experiencing my first intellectual awakening, he was busy with more standard high-strung teenage boy pursuits like football, wrestling, and getting laid. The higher achieving students at St. Vincent’s got to take Latin for two years, which counted as one year’s credit at Bishop Dwenger. I hated this and all the other “smart kid classes” because my friends weren’t in them. But for some reason the teacher of my sophomore Latin class had us read large sections of The Iliad and The Odyssey, even though they were written in Greek, not Latin.

            I remember the day when our teacher, a short blond woman, rotund to put it politely, with long, tightly curled hair, tried to explain to the class that despite all the talk of gods and goddesses, what the people we were reading about believed and practiced wasn’t “real religion.” I’d heard that Will just a few days earlier had managed to frustrate this teacher so badly during study hall that she’d fled the room in tears. Now she was telling us that when Odysseus beseeched Athena to help him, what he was doing was not praying. The claim made me suspicious and got me to thinking.

            Will took the atheism I introduced him to over the coming months and ran with it. For me, the transition was much more difficult, as accepting that the whole religion thing was a bunch of bunk entailed realizing that I’d either been lied to by my parents and teachers or that they’d simply not put much effort into examining the beliefs they foisted on me so vigorously. I felt betrayed, adrift, and lonely. Will must’ve felt liberated—one less trifle holding him back.

            That’s how it has been between us. I’d be mired in regret and anger and confusion over some book I read, some idea I happened upon that upset my whole life, while Will would stand back from the turmoil, wait until I settled it for myself somehow, and then get the gist of the conclusions I’d come to. I’m pretty sure Will never read anything unless he was forced to. It only occurred to me years later that it was a bit odd for someone as bookish as I am to be such good friends with a guy who hates to read. We always seemed to complement each other. And Will did eventually find a topic he liked to read up on; he took in everything I gave him related to pick up as if it were a new type of gospel.

            Though I haven’t read either in many years, I remember that, at least for a teenage boy, the Bible suffers horrendously from any comparison with Homer’s epics. Even the most lurid and violent tales in the Old Testament are mired in a bizarre opacity. The characters have such gargantuan egos, and their god is so wrathful and bitchy, it’s hard for a modern Christian to get anything out of the reading beyond confusion regarding the message he’s supposed to be taking away. The message of all the tales seems simply to be, “Obedience to the invisible Alpha Bitch in the sky is a matter of utmost seriousness.” The Iliad has its outsized egos to be sure, but their battles with each other are easily comprehended, and often comic.

            The Odyssey was what really got me though. From the moment Odysseus tells the Cyclops his name is No One and flees to safety as the monster cries for help, shouting, “No One has stabbed out my eye,” you feel you’re in the presence of a man who can inspire you. The message of the Odyssey is that even if you’re outmatched in numbers or in brute strength, no matter how desperate your circumstances seem, you can prevail, you can deliver yourself through cleverness. Where boldness and sheer force of will fail, creativity can save you. What is an opener, like Alpha Cat, or what is any other gambit or routine, but a Trojan horse to get you past the gates separating the desert of sameness—night after night, looking without hope of approaching, or offering to buy drinks, or going up to a woman you’ve had your eye on only to have her disappear as the friend with lower standards swoops in to buttonhole you, hoping you’re drunk enough not to discern—from the citadel of new possibility, that most important of cultural sanctions for a young man, the approval, the desire of women.
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            When I excused myself from the table at Louie’s to check on Will after he’d all but frogmarched Stacy outside, I expected to find him sitting next to her on the bench beside the entrance, talking about a completely separate topic. The dictum in the community for dealing with troublesome women is “Change her mood, not her mind.” If you try to point out the faulty logic behind a woman’s anger you’ll only manage to double it with each point you make. Whereas men insist on logic because they see it as a way to appeal to a disinterested perspective, a set of leveling principles like the rules of a sport, a way to ensure fair play, women tend to believe they possess some inner emotional compass whose power to lead them to answers supercedes logic. There are even some feminists who argue that logic is oppressive. So when confronted with an angry woman you avoid trying to reason with her at all costs and instead acknowledge that she’s upset, suggest you understand why, make a casual apology, reveal something personal as a token of reconciliation (have personal revelation stories at the ready), and then transition to a more playful topic. I’ve found it’s easier to follow this program when you don’t care about the topic of disagreement.

            What I found outside Louie’s that night was Will, pacing in the parking lot in front of the empty space where Stacy’s car had been parked. Since I’d waited several minutes before coming outside to check, I couldn’t be sure how long ago she’d left. Will had the sleeves of his thermal undershirt pushed past his elbows and the spring had yet to bring with it much warmth. The night was overcast and vaguely wet. But Will’s nervous energy and his gleaming intensity collapsed the atmosphere into a dense singularity that left a shimmering wake as he moved back and forth in the eerie light of the parking lot. “I don’t get it man,” he said over his shoulder before turning again. “I couldn’t let it go. We were having fun and I had to ruin it, even though I knew better.”

            I felt myself grinning. It’s at those moments when you know what’s good game and you just can’t go through with it that you show your true substance. And Will’s substance was the same as mine. We were brothers. You remember times when you make discoveries like this because they’re a tiny taste of what it feels like to be something other than utterly alone.

            Will and Stacy had tossed the ball back and forth a few more times before she refused to play anymore. I got the details in the car after we left Louie’s, on our own. He’d caught up to her in the glass foyer between the two sets of doors. “Wait, I didn’t mean anything personal by it—I didn’t know you had a history.”

            She whipped her face back toward him. “I have never in my life had the least desire to go on fucking Oprah.” She turned away again and pushed through the outside door. Will followed her as far as her car. After unlocking and opening her door, she turned and said, “You are a sick sadistic asshole. Who the hell are you to try and tell me I went through the most horrible experience anyone can go through because I thought it might get me on Oprah?”

            “Forget Oprah. My point was just that a lot of people prefer painful and scary to dull and boring. Listen, I don’t know anything about your—”

            “That’s right. You don’t fucking know anything about me.”

            She threw herself into her car, started it, and was backing out of the space before she’d even managed to pull the door closed, before Will could get out of the way. He said he almost had to dive over the hood of the car parked next to her.
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            The Recovered Memory Movement fit well with the template left over in my mind from Catholicism. In place of the original sin of eating from the tree of knowledge, the new sin was being born with testicles. The task for any man interacting with the fairer sex was to redeem himself, to prove he wasn’t one to succumb to his nature. Learning that the process of uncovering repressed memories is in reality a ritualistic dance with a therapist or hypnotist—or even simply the author of the book telling you to delve deeper into your subconscious—that produces rather than uncovers impressions in the mind, that wasn’t what ultimately disabused me of the premises underlying this cultural program.

            One of the legacies of the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements is that Americans are obsessed with differences between groups in how awfully they are treated by those in power. This is especially the case among liberals and academics. But by the time I got to college my understanding of minorities and disadvantaged groups had already gone through three stages: there were no black kids at my grade school but I learned they were no different; then I went to a public high school for a year before transferring to Dwenger and I came away knowing that black kids were different but you just weren’t supposed to talk about it; and then I gradually started to become aware of some of the reasons behind that difference. The plight of women, on the other hand, was an unchanging narrative.

            If any two knowledgeable people discuss violent crime in America, they have to deal with the fact that an overwhelming majority of it involves African Americans. The implication can either be that there’s something about this group of people that makes them prone to criminality or that there’s something about the circumstances the average member of this group finds himself in that makes violence seem more acceptable. Most people are sensitive to the inflammatory nature of that first conclusion—it’s racist. Even if you’ve had an experience with violent crime, you don’t tell the story in a way that treats the criminal’s race as a race of monsters. Things are different, though, when people are talking about the crimes of one sex toward the other.

            If a young black boy grows up hearing white people tell stories about all the awful things his grownup counterparts routinely do, he can rightly be said to be experiencing an ugly form of racism. If a young boy of whatever race grows up hearing women tell stories about all the horrible things men do to women, what is he experiencing? There’s so much talk about getting beyond stigmas and bringing abuse to light. Nowhere is there even the paltriest acknowledgement that advertising the prevalence of abuse against women has implications about the nature of men. And if you try to defend the sex by suggesting the stories are exaggerated you can count on being accused of advocating abuse—and you can count on being treated as though you were an abuser yourself.

            Now I am, in fact, quite liberal: I believe blacks are convicted of more crimes because of income inequality and institutional racism, and I believe women should have the same opportunities as men. But once I came to understand religion as a type of participatory narrative, a fiction that people had real experiences of, it was only a matter of time before I applied that concept to gender politics. The first impetus for this second great disillusionment in my life was reading about all the families rent asunder, all the innocent men imprisoned, as a result of the Recovered Memory Movement. But what ultimately crystallized my skepticism was reading a report about a meta-analysis on the effects of childhood sexual abuse. There are women out there who to this day will bristle at the mention of this study, or even at the word meta-analysis, because they’ve talked to me about it. The study, I would learn some time later, was even brought up and roundly condemned on the floor of the United States Senate. How can you condemn research findings?
(continue reading)

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