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“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?.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking the GRE again after 10 Years

            I had it timed: if I went to the bathroom at 8:25, I’d be finishing up the essay portion of the test about ten minutes after my bladder was full again. Caffeine being essential for me to get into the proper state of mind for writing, I’d woken up to three cans of Diet Mountain Dew and two and half rather large cups of coffee. I knew I might not get called in to take the test precisely at 8:30, but I figured I could handle the pressure, as it were. The clock in the office of the test center read 8:45 when I walked in. Paperwork, signatures, getting a picture taken, turning out all my pockets (where I managed to keep my three talismans concealed)—by the time I was sitting down in the carrel—in a room that might serve as a meeting place for prisoners and their lawyers—it was after 9:00. And there were still more preliminaries to go through.

            Test takers are allotted 45 minutes for an essay on the “Issue Topic” prompted by a short quote. The “Analysis of an Argument” essay takes a half hour. The need to piss got urgent with about ten minutes left on the clock for the issue essay. By the end of the second essay, I was squirming and dancing and pretty desperate. Of course, I had to wait for our warden to let me out of the testing room. And then I had to halt midway through the office to come back and sign myself out. Standing at the urinal—and standing and standing—I had plenty of time to consider how poorly designed my strategy had been. I won’t find out my scores for the essay portion for ten or so days.

            I’ve been searching my apartment for the letter with my official scores from the first time I took the GRE about ten years ago. I’d taken it near the end of the summer, at one of those times in life of great intellectual awakening. With bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and psychology, and with only the most inchoate glimmerings of a few possible plans for the future, I lived in my dad’s enormous house with my oldest brother, who had returned after graduating from Notre Dame and was now taking graduate courses at IPFW, my alma mater, and some roommates. I delivered pizzas in the convertible Mustang I bought as a sort of hand-me-down from that same brother. And I spent hours every day reading.

            I’m curious about the specific date of the test because it would allow me place it in the context of what I was reading. It would also help me ascertain the amount of time I spent preparing. If memory serves, I was doing things like pouring over various books by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to decide which one of them knew the real skinny on how evolution works. I think by then I’d read Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, in which he applied complex statistics to data culled from historical samples and concluded that later-born siblings tend to be less conscientious but more open to new ideas and experiences. I was delighted to hear that the former president had read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and thought it tragically unimaginable that the current president would ever read anything like that. At some point, I began circling words I didn’t recognize or couldn’t define so when I was finished with the chapter I could look them up and make a few flashcards.

            I’m not even sure the flashcards were in anticipation of the GRE. Several of my classmates in both the anthropology and psychology departments had spoken to me by then of their dejection upon receiving their scores. I was scared to take it. The trend seemed to be that everyone was getting about a hundred points less on this test than they did on the SAT. I decided I only really cared about the verbal reasoning section, and a 620 on that really wasn’t acceptable. Beyond the flashcards, I got my hands on a Kaplan CD-ROM from a guy at school and started doing all the practice tests on it. The scores it gave me hovered in the mid-600s. It also gave me scads of unfamiliar words (like scad) to put in my stack of flashcards, which grew, ridiculously, to the height of about a foot.

            I don’t remember much about the test itself. It was at a Sylvan Learning Center that closed a while back. One of the reading comprehension excerpts was on chimpanzees, which I saw as a good sign. When I was done, there was a screen giving me a chance to admit I cheated. It struck me as odd. Then came the screen with my scores—800 verbal reasoning. I looked around the room and saw nothing but the backs of silent test-takers. Could this be right? I never ace anything. It sank in when I was sitting down in the Mustang. Driving home on I-69, I sang along to “The Crush” by Dave Matthews, elated.

            I got accepted into MIT’s program in science writing based on that score and a writing sample in which I defended Frank Sulloway’s birth order theory against Judith Rich Harris, the author of The Nurture Assumption, another great book. But Harris’s arguments struck me as petty and somewhat disgraceful. She was engaging in something akin to a political campaign against a competing theory, rather than making a good faith effort to discover the truth. Anyway, the article I wrote got long and unwieldy. Michael Shermer considered it for publication in Skeptic but ultimately declined because I just didn’t have my chops up when it came to writing about science. By then, I was a writer of fiction.

            That’s why upon discovering how expensive a year in Cambridge would be and how little financial aid I’d be getting I declined MIT's invitation to attend their program. If being a science writer was my dream, I’d have gone. But I decided to hold out for an acceptance to an MFA program in creative writing. I’d already applied two years in row before stretching my net to include science writing. But the year I got accepted at MIT ended up being the third year of summary rejection on the fiction front. I had one more year before that perfect GRE score expired.

            Year four went the same way all the other years had gone. I was in my late twenties now and had the feeling whatever opportunities that were once open to me had slipped away. Next came a crazy job at a restaurant—Lucky’s—and a tumultuous relationship with the kitchen manager. After I had to move out of the apartment I shared with her in the wake of our second breakup (there would be a third), I was in a pretty bad place. But I made the smartest decision I’d made in a while and went back to school to get my master’s in English at IPFW.

            The plan was to improve my qualifications for creative writing programs. And now that I’m nearly finished with the program I put re-taking the GRE at the top of my list for things to do this summer. In the middle of May, I registered to take it on June 22nd. I’d been dreading it ever since my original score expired, but now I was really worried. What would it mean if I didn’t get an 800 again? What if I got significantly lower than that? The MFA programs I’ll be applying to are insanely competitive: between five hundred and a thousand applicants for less than a dozen spaces. At the same time, though, there was a sense that a lower score would serve as this perfect symbol for just how far I’d let my life go off-track.

            Without much conscious awareness of what I was doing, I started playing out a Rocky narrative, or some story like Mohammed Ali making his comeback after losing his boxing license for refusing to serve in Vietnam. I would prove I wasn’t a has-been, that whatever meager accomplishments I had under my belt weren’t flukes. Last semester I wrote a paper on how to practice to be creative, and one of the books I read for it was K. Anders Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence. So, after signing up for the test I created a regimen of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” based on anticipation and immediate feedback. I got my hands on as many sample items and sample tests I could find. I made little flashcards with the correct answers on them to make the feedback as close as possible to the hazarded answer. I put hours and hours into it. And I came up with a strategy for each section, and for every possible contingency I could think of. I was going to beat the GRE, again, through sheer force of will.

            The order of the sections is variable. Ideally, the verbal section would have come first after the essay section so I wouldn’t have to budget my stores of concentration. But sitting down again after relieving my bladder I saw the quantitative section appear before me on the screen. Oh well, I planned for this too, I thought. I adhered pretty well to my strategy of working for a certain length of time to see if I could get the answer and then guessing if it didn’t look promising. And I achieved my goal for this section by not embarrassing myself. I got a 650.

            The trouble began almost immediately when the verbal questions starting coming. The strategy for doing analogies, the questions I most often missed in practice, was to work out the connection between the top words, “the bridge,” before considering the five word couples below to see which one has the same bridge. But because the screen was so large, and because I was still jittery from the caffeine, I couldn’t read the first word pair without seeing all the others. I abandoned the strategy with the first question.

            Then disaster struck. I’d anticipated only two sets of reading comprehension questions, but then, with the five minute warning already having passed, another impossibly long blurb appeared. I resign myself at that point to having to give up my perfect score. I said to myself, “Just read it quick and give the best answers you can.” I finished the section with about twenty seconds left. At least all the antonyms had been easy. Next came an experimental section I agreed to take since I didn’t need to worry about flagging concentration anymore. For the entire eighteen minutes it took, I sat there feeling completely defeated. I doubt my answers for that section will be of much use.

            Finally, I was asked if I wanted to abandon my scores—a ploy, I’m sure to get skittish people to pay to take the test twice. I said no, and clicked to see and record my scores. There it was at the top of the screen, my 800. I’d visualized the moment several times. I was to raise one arm in victory—but I couldn’t because the warden would just think I was raising my hand to signal I needed something. I also couldn’t because I didn’t feel victorious. I still felt defeated. I was sure all the preparation I’d done had been completely pointless. I hadn’t boxed. I’d clenched my jaw, bunched up my fist, and brawled.

            I listened to “The Crush” on the way home again, but as I detoured around all the construction downtown I wasn’t in a celebratory mood. I wasn’t elated. I was disturbed. The experience hadn’t been at all like a Rocky movie. It was a lot more like Gattaca. I’d come in, had my finger pricked so they could read my DNA, and had the verdict delivered to me. Any score could have come up on the screen. I had no control over it. That it turned out to be the one I was after was just an accident. A fluke.

            The week before I took the test, I’d met a woman at Columbia Street who used to teach seventh graders. After telling her I taught Intro Comp at IPFW, we discussed how teaching is a process of translation from how you understand something into a language that will allow others who lack your experience and knowledge to understand it. Then you have to add some element of entertainment so you don’t lose their attention. The younger the students, the more patience it takes to teach them. Beginning when I was an undergrad working in the Writing Center, but really picking up pace as I got more and more experience as a TA, the delight I used to feel in regard to my own cleverness was being superseded by the nagging doubt that I could ever pass along the method behind it to anyone.

            When you’re young (or conservative), it’s easy to look at people who don’t do as well as you with disdain, as if it’s a moral failing on their part. You hold the conviction deep in your gut that if they merely did what you’ve done they’d have what you have or know what you know. Teaching disabuses you of this conviction (which might be why so many teachers are liberal). How many times did I sit with a sharp kid in the writing center trying to explain some element of college writing to him or her, trying to think back to how I had figured it out, and realizing either that I’d simply understood it without much effort or arrived at an understanding through a process that had already failed this kid? You might expect such a realization would make someone feel really brilliant. But in fact it’s humbling. You wonder how many things there are, fascinating things, important things, that despite your own best effort you’ll never really get. Someone, for instance, probably “just gets” how to relay complex information to freshman writers—just gets teaching.

            And if, despite your efforts, you’re simply accorded a faculty for perceiving this or understanding that, if you ever lose it your prospects for recreating the same magic are dismal. What can be given can be taken away. Finally, there’s the question of desert. That I can score an 800 on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE is not tied to my effort or to my will. I like to read, always have. It’s not work to me. My proficiency is morally arbitrary. And yet everyone will say about my accomplishments and accolades, “You deserve it.”

            Really, though, this unsettled feeling notwithstanding, this is some stupid shit to complain about. I aced the GRE—again. It’s time to celebrate.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Inverted Pyramid: Our Millennia-Long Project of Keeping Alpha Males in their Place

Imagine this familiar hypothetical scenario: you’re a prehistoric hunter, relying on cleverness, athleticism, and well-honed skills to track and kill a gazelle on the savannah. After carting the meat home, your wife is grateful—or your wives rather. As the top hunter in the small tribe with which your family lives and travels, you are accorded great power over all the other men, just as you enjoy great power over your family. You are the leader, the decision-maker, the final arbiter of disputes and the one everyone looks to for direction in times of distress. The payoff for all this responsibility is that you and your family enjoy larger shares of whatever meat is brought in by your subordinates. And you have sexual access to almost any woman you choose. Someday, though, you know your prowess will be on the wane, and you’ll be subjected to more and more challenges from younger men, until eventually you will be divested of all your authority. This is the harsh reality of man the hunter.

It’s easy to read about “chimpanzee politics” (I’ll never forget reading Frans de Waal’s book by that title) or watch nature shows in which the stentorian, accented narrator assigns names and ranks to chimps or gorillas and then, looking around at the rigid hierarchies of the institutions where we learn or where we work, as well as those in the realm of actual human politics, and conclude that there must have been a pretty linear development from the ancestors we share with the apes to the eras of pharaohs and kings to the Don Draperish ‘60’s till today, at least in terms of our natural tendency to form rank and follow leaders.

What to make, then, of these words spoken to anthropologist Richard Lee by a hunter-gatherer teaching him of the ways of the !Kung San?

“Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.” (Quoted in Boehm 45)

Even more puzzling from a selfish gene perspective is that the successful hunter gets no more meat for himself or his family than any of the other hunters. They divide it equally. Lee asked his informants why they criticized the hunters who made big kills.

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this.”

So what determines who gets to be the Alpha, if not hunting prowess? According to Christopher Boehm, the answer is simple. No one gets to be the Alpha. “A distinctly egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (36). These are exactly the types of groups humans have lived in for the vast majority of their existence on Earth. This means that, uniquely among the great apes, humans evolved mechanisms to ensure egalitarianism alongside those for seeking and submitting to power.

Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior is a miniature course in anthropology, as dominance and submission—as well as coalition building and defiance—are examined not merely in the ethnographic record, but in the ethological descriptions of our closest ape relatives. Building on Bruce Knauft’s observations of the difference between apes and hunter-gatherers, Boehm argues that “with respect to political hierarchy human evolution followed a U-shaped trajectory” (65). But human egalitarianism is not based on a simple of absence of hierarchy; rather, Boehm theorizes that the primary political actors (who with a few notable exceptions tend to be men) decide on an individual basis that, while power may be desirable, the chances of any individual achieving it are small, and the time span during which he would be able to sustain it would be limited. Therefore, they all submit to the collective will that no man should have authority over any other, thus all of them maintain their own personal autonomy. Boehm explains

“In despotic social dominance hierarchies the pyramid of power is pointed upward, with one or a few individuals (usually male) at the top exerting authority over a submissive rank and file. In egalitarian hierarchies the pyramid of power is turned upside down, with a politically united rank and file decisively dominating the alpha-male types” (66).

This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals who by dint of their prowess and intelligence enjoy more influence over the band than others, but such individuals are thought of as “primus inter pares” (33), a first among equals. “Foragers,” Boehm writes, “are not intent on true and absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact” (68). It’s as though the life of the nomadic hunter and forager is especially conducive to thinking in terms of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.”

The mechanisms whereby egalitarianism is enforced will be familiar to anyone who’s gone to grade school or who works with a group of adult peers. Arrogant and bullying individuals are the butt of jokes, gossip, and ostracism. For a hunter-gatherer these can be deadly. Reputations are of paramount importance. If all else fails and a despot manages to secure some level authority, instigating a “dominance episode,” his reign will be short-lived. Even the biggest and strongest men are vulnerable to sizable coalitions of upstarts—especially in species who excel at making weapons for felling big game.

Boehm address several further questions, like what conditions bring about the reinstitution of pyramidal hierarchies, and how have consensus decision-making and social pressure against domineering affected human evolution? But what I find most interesting are his thoughts about the role of narrative in the promulgation and maintenance of the egalitarian ethos:

“As practical political philosophers, foragers perceive quite correctly that self-aggrandizement and individual authority are threats to personal autonomy. When upstarts try to make inroads against an egalitarian social order, they will be quickly recognized and, in many cases, quickly curbed on a preemptive basis. One reason for this sensitivity is that the oral tradition of a band (which includes knowledge from adjacent bands) will preserve stories about serious domination episodes. There is little doubt that many of the ethnographic reports of executions in my survey were based on such traditions, as opposed to direct ethnographic observation” (87).

Monday, June 6, 2011

The In Love Test: Openning to Chapter 2 of "The Music Box Routine"

(Start from the beginning) 2:
            I could have moved on. It was just a restaurant job. My time in was accruing at UPS, though, and I figured I should just wait until a full time position opened there. At the time, I wasn’t writing. My mind wasn’t right for writing. I’d fallen in love with the twenty-five-year-old bartender and general manager. She was something of a phenom, a cute chick running the whole restaurant, somehow never brooking challenges. Thinking back, I see that type of intense competence came at a cost, but at the time I was bowled over by her, like everyone else.

            I started working at the restaurant just a year before Anton introduced me to the community, and I was getting sick of the bar scene. Maybe that’s why I had such high hopes for her. We had our differences though. But all that’s for another story. Suffice to say that at first she was after me but I was focusing on certain deal-breaking attributes of hers, but then something shifted and I decided to overlook those attributes. So then I went after her and things almost worked out. But then they didn’t. When it was over, I had gotten the worst of it.

            You show up at work one day and start your opening duties, and the woman you’re still in love with but who’s in another relationship now poses the question to a coworker, “How do you know if you’re in love?” You have the thought that she’s purposely torturing you, or at least assessing your response. Steve, the coworker, gives a lame answer like, “Well, you just know.” And then asks, “Why do you ask?” The woman you’re in love with says, “No reason, I’m just wondering.”

            You’re already set to spend the rest of the day agonizing over the implications when the fourth person in the kitchen, another attractive woman who’s much younger, chimes in with, “Yeah right, you’re in love with Steffen—you want to have his babies.” She turns toward you as she says this, clearly expecting to see you wince.

            Not wanting to indulge her, you turn your back to her just as the woman you love says, “I told him I wanted to have his abortion.”

            On the first date you had with this woman you love you went to her apartment and watched the movie Fight Club. After the scene where Tyler Durden tells the story of his night with Marla, she said, “I guess in the book Marla doesn’t say, ‘I haven’t been fucked like that since I was a school girl.’ She says, ‘I want to have your abortion.’” And she’s used the line with you on more than one occasion, saying, “I want to have your abortion.”

            If she hadn’t reprised that line, you would probably have just taken your licks and gone through the day, the week, the next few months completely miserable. But the line suggests her infliction of pain is personal and deliberate.

            “I know a test that will tell you whether or not you’re really in love.” You say this even though at that moment you really don’t have any such test in mind. But you have to do something to retaliate, and you do have some inchoate glimmerings of an idea. The younger woman hears you say this, even though your back is to her and you’re on your way out of the kitchen. The woman you love is prepared to dismiss it. But you can work with that.

            You go from the kitchen to the bathroom and stand looking in the mirror, taking deep breaths, recovering from the surprise onslaught, trying to recall a night of fun with your best friend, one of those ridiculous drunken misadventures that reliably cracks you up. And just like that your idea takes shape. You really do have a test to see if someone is in love. And you even have a plan for how to use it to get what you’re really after.

            Tina is the younger attractive woman at work. She’s the type of girl who gets hated on by other girls because she’s cute and skinny and has a sunny disposition. Until that comment about the woman you love wanting to have someone else’s babies, you thought Tina was on your side, that you could count on her to help you. But now she was going to help you whether she knew it or not.

            “What’s this test you were talking about?” she asks out in the dining room.

            “Well, I can’t tell you about it or it won’t work. You just have to do it.”

            So the two of you go to the server station, a small room with better lighting tucked in between the bar and the dining room. You position her against the wall where there’s the most light on her face, tell her to close her eyes and count backward from a hundred by sevens. In the middle of the task, you tell her to stop, open her eyes, and imagine Mike, her boyfriend, smiling at her. Now the light ought to make her pupils contract when she opens her eyes, but the thought of the man she’s in love with will be arousing to her and make her pupils dilate.

            Tina opens her eyes, grins fatuously, and you’re standing close enough to see her pupils contract from the light and then dilate. Trying not to be shocked that the test actually worked, you laugh and say, “You looked right at me when you opened your eyes, so now I don’t know if you’re in love with Mike or with me.” She laughs too and playfully pushes you away. You figure now you won’t have to recruit the woman you love for the test. Tina will do it for you. The key is to start with the minions and work your way up.
            Less than ten minutes later you’re facing the woman you love as she stands in the same spot in the server’s station where Tina was before. Only this time, four other people are crammed in behind you because word of your test has spread to everyone in the building. The woman you love makes it clear she finds you distasteful and only reluctantly agreed to the test. She makes threats about what will happen if you touch her. Tina assures her no physical contact is involved.

            She stands there, closes her eyes, and begins the distraction task of counting backward from a hundred by sevens. You wait a few moments and then say, “Now open your eyes and picture Steffen smiling.”

            You see her smile fatuously, just as Tina had, but she’s not directly facing you as Tina was. You don’t even bother looking at her eyes, which are blue and would be easier to see dilation in. You just watch her smile, as much from the sudden realization of how the test works as from the image in her mind, wait a beat, and then turn to the gathered audience with a devilish smile, saying, “Did you see it?” They’re all amazed, even though you doubt there’s any way they could have seen such a subtle change from as far away as they’re all standing.

            You make sure to be the one who’s in the biggest hurry to get back to work and you hear two more women coworkers wondering aloud what their own test results would show. But you won’t be doing any more tests today.
            Some time later, you’re sitting by yourself near the front door of the restaurant, awaiting the first customers of the day, and you see the woman you love emerge from the kitchen, walk the length of the dinning room, and sit down on one of a series of extra chairs lining a wall near the entrance. She looks perplexed. “I don’t think your test is valid,” she says, “because I’m not in love with Steffen.”

            You go through the motions of defending your research protocol—“Well, maybe it doesn’t test love exactly, but it would test attraction”—even though you want to howl in triumph. You know your test did exactly what you designed it to do.
            Will made me tell him the story of how I came up with The In-Love Test again and again. He liked it because he thought I was stubbornly aloof when it came to women and I’d only ever really been interested in two, both of whom had done a pretty good job of working me over before they moved on. For Will, my little scheme to get Laura to tell me she wasn’t in love with Steffen looked like this grand turnaround for my love life. And maybe it was. It was about five months into our first dabblings with pick up, and the idea was clearly influenced by the type of gambits used in the community. But somehow, as happy as I was that day, as triumphant even, I wasn’t really—well, happy. A turnaround for me would’ve been meeting someone I was attracted to and compatible with, someone I didn’t immediately come to loggerheads with over some major philosophical or personal issue.

            Will probably liked the jujitsu of The In-Love Test; someone came at me with superior power and I used her own power against her. I was surprised that in the conversations we had in the coming months he was as interested in the cognitive aspects of my creativity under fire as he was in how effective the product was—it not only put me even with Laura but also set me up to go to third base with Tina the following weekend. (I was overly passive with Tina, wanting to have fun, wanting to build some confidence, but not really needing to upset her life thoroughly—she called things to a halt after the progression stalled for a while, for the sake of her boyfriend. Still, I felt guilty.) If I had been on track to be the abandoned lovable loser of our little luncheonette, after the test I was no one to fuck around with. Pretty cool. 

            “So you left the kitchen,” Will said one night sitting across from me at Corner Pocket, one of our bars, “and you went in the bathroom to Zen yourself out. But you already must’ve had the idea in your head because you said you had a test before going out the door.”

            “I hadn’t worked it out all the way through. All I had was confidence that I could come up with something. That I could use pupil dilation came to me, I think, in the two or three steps between the kitchen and the bathroom.”

            “And you knew whatever test you came up with she would disagree with its results?”

            “Honestly, I hadn’t gotten that far. I think I just wanted to take control at that point, you know, steal the show so I could go wherever I wanted with it, get all the attention focused on me.”

            “So when did you know you could get her to admit she didn’t love the guy?”

            “I can’t say. Really, it seemed like I hadn’t known until she came out and said it, but afterward it was like I knew she would. I was kind of just following the general rule of dealing with rivals by appearing to push them together with the target. But on some level I recognized a scientifically framed test would have a particular significance to her, that she wouldn’t be able to resist challenging me.”

            As he continued trying to parse my process of inspiration, it began to seem less and less like I’d really managed to take control and more like I’d been ridiculously lucky. Even as I was feeling less triumphant about it, though, Will was seeing it as more and more impressive. And since he was aggressively dismissive of my feelings toward any one special girl, as if he disapproved of me letting anyone have that much power over me, I didn’t understand why he was so fascinated with the details of the ruse. It wasn’t like I’d figured out a way to turn off my feelings for Laura.

            Looking back, I think that the element of her having so much power over me and me still managing to get one over on her was what impressed him. And Will may be a much better performer than me, but he’s never really been clever or creative in a way that would make him capable of devising a new strategy under fire. Still, he ended up getting a lot more mileage out of the In-Love Test than I ever did, using it with women at the tail end of lackluster relationships with less motivated men. What a bizarre but thrilling experience it was to watch my best friend use the same words I’d spoken under the pressure of passion to woo a woman he’d just met.

            “What happened?” she’d ask eagerly.

            “You looked right at me,” he’d say laughing. “Now I don’t know if you’re in love with your boyfriend or just really attracted to me.”

            But Will would have his moment of passion, when he had to defend himself, and he dealt with it at least as cleverly as I ever could have. That’s why I look back to all those times when we talked about the In-Love Test, and all the pick up gambits he never would have learned if not for me, and I wonder if I’m not at least as responsible for what he did as he is. I didn’t know what the plan was when I mailed that damn music box—but I didn’t know what the plan was, really, when I tricked Laura and Tina. Somehow, though, I knew what I was doing. Will might have kept me in the dark because he knew I’d feel guilty. But apparently neither of us is clever enough to trick my conscience. The biggest surprise of the story, though, is that Will had so much trouble with his own.
            “I got a text that woke me up,” Will said over the phone at three in the morning. “It said ‘wake up. get a knife from the kitchen. go to the bathroom.’ It wasn’t real. I was fucking dreaming. But I woke up in the hall like I was on my way to the bathroom.” It was getting worse. He was in real trouble. “Scott, I have never sleep-walked before in my life. Stacy put some kind of curse on me, I fucking know it. I know it’s just suggestion. I know it’s all bullshit. But I can’t help it man. I’m freaking the fuck out.”

            Will had brought me the package with the music box in it. I’d had it delivered to Stacy. The label stated clearly that it had been sent two days earlier. The gift looked exactly like it was intended as nothing but a gift. It was perfect. And it had exactly the effect it was designed to have. But its effects continued beyond the one who’d received it. I knew I was responsible. So I had a new problem to solve.

Wrap Up to Chapter 1 of "The Music Box Routine"

(Start reading from the beginning)
            “Well, think about it. Say you’re a chick and you’ve just met this guy and you want him to like you. It’s exciting and scary. Things could turn out really great. You could have the Hollywood true love experience. But it could also go bad. The guy could just fuck you and then never call you again. Or you could end up dating him for a long time even though he treats you like shit. He could cheat on you. So what you’re trying to do is find out what kind of guy he is, Prince Charming or Mr. John Q. Asshole. At the same time, you want to let the guy know you’re testing him like this—like you’re challenging him to prove he’s one of the good guys. Because you know the more you make him work for it, the more you get him to invest in you, the more he’ll value the relationship.”

            Will and I were driving home from a club called Broadripple. It must’ve been close to 3 in the morning but we were still pretty amped up. This was before either of us had heard about the pick up guys, long before Stacy was in the picture. We’d gone out and stumbled into a conversation with three women who were out celebrating one of their birthdays. Two of them were recent college graduates and one of them was in graduate school for social work. She was the one I got into an argument with. After her friends let it be known that they’d been abused, she pronounced, “Sexual abuse is the main cause of all mental illness.” I had to call her on it. We had a lively debate. It would have been the first time Will heard me talk about the meta-analysis. Afterward, in the car on our way home, he posed the question, “Why do so many chicks feel like they have to tell us they got molested as kids right when we first meet them?”

            It was Will’s turn to drive so he was slightly less drunk than I was. Sober, I was less inclined to talk about this stuff. “You tell a guy you got molested and he blows it off, then you know he doesn’t think it’s a big deal. But if he seems genuinely appalled then you know he’d never do anything like that himself. That’s the idea anyway. Plus, he’ll probably show you a lot of sympathy.”

            “Yeah, but it’s too personal to bring up to someone you just met. It’s like they’re not even worried that we might just take off because we’re afraid they’re too screwed up.” I looked over at Will as he said this. I had been worried he was pissed at me for instigating the argument and ruining our chances with the girls. But it seemed he understood my reaction to a point.

            “I think most guys they talk to probably don’t think that far ahead. They’re too worried about getting rejected to ask whether the women are too screwed up to be good girlfriends or not. And a lot of men really are just trying to hook up and don’t care if they’re screwed up.”

            Will had a look of intense concentration as he looked over the steering wheel. “I bet most guys,” he said, “just cave immediately and start being all like, ‘I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m gonna make it better for you somehow.’ Then they’re extra nice the whole time because they’re worried she’s, like, damaged. They try to be heroes.”

            “Totally, and just think if the first time you barely mention that something might have happened to you and there’s this sudden shift to where the guy’s falling all over himself to make you feel better—well, you’ve just taken control of this scary situation. You feel it. That feeling rewards the behavior, so next time you elaborate on the story a little. You make sure to tell it to the next guy a little earlier in the relationship. Before long you’re telling the story to complete strangers at a bar.”

            “Fucking bitches.” He said this in a tone of both incredulity and exaggerated anger. He was being playful. But he was scowling. The idea was really sinking in for him and he wasn’t happy about it. Another form of social control, like religion, was being exposed to him. And he was probably already planning his resistance.

            I started talking again. I don’t remember what I was saying. I do remember that when Will spoke again I was surprised he’d been stuck thinking about abuse the whole time, even though I’d changed the subject. “I think you’re wrong about them feeling rewarded by some sense of control over a scary situation. What’s really going on is that people compete to see who’s had the worst shit happen to them. It’s like with us, with men, we compete to see who’s the best at sports, at work, whatever. But for some reason women compete over who’s been through the worst shit. And it’s like they’re bragging, just like men do when they’re good at something. It’s like their veterans of a war, and they want everyone to know how deep they were in the shit. The difference is that the people I know who’ve been to war never talk about it. Because they’re all men.”
            I was both surprised and not surprised when Will told me Stacy texted him the day after their blowup at Louie’s. “Im sowry. i shouldnt of gone crazy like that.” What really surprised me was that Will didn’t just blow her off. I thought I was the one who was only attracted to lost causes.

            “Im sorry 2. I hve a big mouth. Need 2 b more sensitive.”

            Will ended up calling her to set up a Day Two. “I’m going on a bike ride with Scott,” he said. “We have an extra bike if you want to tag along.” You do stuff like this so you don’t end up falling into the dinner-and-movie trap, where everything is forced and you both have pressure on you to do and say date-like things. Day Twos allow you to spend time building comfort while at the same time doing things that are exciting, things that get her heart pumping. Will and I had three reliable Day Two locations. The role of the wing was to show up for the scheduled activity, and then take off when it was most opportune for the couple. Sometimes we both had a woman. Sometimes just one of us did. But we cooperated no matter how it worked out.

            I remember that bike ride because I actually felt a tinge of jealousy. Stacy showed up at the trail wearing black tights that made Will and me exchange a look of nearly uncontainable excitement. She even had her own bike attached to a rack sticking out from the trunk of her car. She was funny and charming and had a lot of interesting things to say. There was no trace of that hurt and vengeful undercurrent to her conversation. She made fun of us because we were both shivering from the cold before we warmed up enough on the trails. When I left, saying I was taking my nephew to a movie, they were gearing up for another lap.

            “I think she might be someone I’d like to date seriously,” Will said to me over the phone that night. They’d gone as far as third base in the car before she had to go to meet some of her classmates for a group project. “She’s smart, but she has all these stories about partying with her friends. She says she’s only had two serious boyfriends, and aside from a hookup during spring break that’s it.”

            “She’s probably leaving a few out, but I can definitely see her being more reserved than most.”

            “I guess her mom’s some big shot. She works at a hospital—I forget which one Stacy said. Not a doctor or anything, but like a higher-up.”

            “Administration. Probably HR.”

            “I guess. Anyway, no dad in the picture, but I didn’t get that whole story yet.”

            Yes, you did, I almost said.

            “I just haven’t had that much fun with a girl in a while, you know, not when I wasn’t completely taking the lead and providing the entertainment. The only thing I don’t like is her eyebrows.”

            “Yeah, I saw that. Severely plucked eyebrows are a pretty reliable sign of narcissism in women. As if we needed another one.” He was quiet after I said this. All I could hear was the whoosh of the highway. “I just—”

            “No, you’re right. That scene she made at Louie’s was pretty bad. Still, it shows she’s got spunk. Besides, who are we to judge someone for being narcissistic?”

            “Ha! I aspire to narcissism. But I’m afraid I tend toward the other side of that continuum. ‘I’m not a narcissist, but I play one in the field.’ And I don’t know what you are exactly, but it’s not narcissistic.”

            “I just like that she’s so spunky.” Spunk is one of many words Will and I get a kick out of saying with comically exaggerated stress on the consonants.

            “You’re going to try to train her, huh? I’m sure you’ll have fun with it, but my impression up front is that she’s not the trainable type. I’m guessing you’ll date her for a while, it’ll be insane, and then you’ll just get sick of all the drama and bail.”

            He laughed. “You’re probably right. It’s just—something about her gets me.”

            “Her ass in those tights got me.”

            “Oh my god! Don’t get me started.”
            Will and Stacy were together all the following summer. He told me the transformation from closed off to genial to convivial to crazy that we witnessed when we first met her was mirrored in her progression from flirting to foreplay to crazed lover to climax to afterglow—and it was some of the best sex he ever had. “Well damn, I see why you latched on to her then. You saw something I totally missed. I just thought she was crazy.”

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.
            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.”
            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.
            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.
            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)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Opening of "The Music Box Routine" continued.

(Read from beginnig)
            You enter a club with some friends. It’s dark and the music is loud. You’re comfortable here because you’ve been to this club before, and it’s not much different from the handful of other clubs you’ve been spending so much time in lately, since you became a part of the community, since you decided, as they like to say, to get this part of your life handled. One of your friends is telling an amusing story you’ve already heard in a booming voice. You throw your head back and laugh a good belly laugh. Anyone thin-slicing you and your friends entering the club will believe you are confident, sociable guys, and that you’re having fun. Gone are the days of coming through the doors on a mission, prowling the crowd to identify who among the gathered women appears worth risking the embarrassment of rejection, drinking for courage while keeping an eye on the one or two who’ve caught it, waiting for that crucial moment when she’s separated from her circle of friends, taking a breath, taking the march, and taking the plunge—then, all too often, going back to the bar to drown your shame.

            Moving through the club your focus is on your friends; they’re the most important people in the room; everyone else, even the best-looking woman in the place, is just a stranger. You can have this attitude because you have plenty of friends, know plenty of women, mingle with plenty who are just as beautiful as any you will meet, and, most importantly, it shows. Without scanning the room, you and your friends drift toward an empty table. But before reaching it, you find in your path a group consisting of three guys and one moderately attractive woman. Instead of lowering your eyes, mumbling, “Excuse me,” and sidling around them, you address them, over your shoulder because you’re still focused primarily on your friends, saying, “Hey guys…,” but before going on you say to your friends, “I’ll ask these guys.” Your friends continue on their way to the table, leaving you with the new group.

            “I wanna get your opinion on something,” is how you begin. “This will only take a sec because I gotta get back to my friends. We were just talking about cats and hierarchies. You guys know how dogs are descended from wolves, and in wolf packs there’s an alpha male—like a top guy who’s the leader?” You lift your hands, elbows out, to emphasize your words. “Well, do you think cats are like that too? Are they hierarchical?” By now you’re facing the guys, with your shoulders at an angle to the woman’s. But she’s the one whose face lights up first.

            “I think they are,” she says challengingly, as if she’s a little offended you’d have any doubt in the matter.

            “Whoa!” you say, feigning surprise. “I didn’t mean anything personal? I’m just talking about cats.” You’ve learned from all the previous times you asked the question that women tend to identify with cats (men are, after all, dogs) and that they tend to respond as if you had asked if cats are as good as dogs. But you only turn toward her briefly for this reproach before turning back to the guys. “Check this out. I have this ex girlfriend and we have kind of an ongoing discussion about her two cats. See, one of them is a little bigger and she noticed that this one always eats first when she feeds them. So she’s like, ‘He’s the alpha cat.’ But I’m like, ‘Aren’t domestic cats descended from solitary wild cats in Africa? And if they’re solitary, they don’t have evolved mechanisms for living in groups, like a sense of hierarchy.’” All of the sudden you’re on the savanna, hunting, keeping women in their place but not really—and the guys are eating it up. They start grinning and excitedly telling you about this or that Discovery Channel show, or some remarkable cat they had as a kid.

            You lead the discussion for a few minutes, encouraging the guys, gently teasing the woman when she chimes in, and then you turn saying, “Well, thanks guys. I’m gonna go find my friends,” leaving them ostensibly disappointed. You’ll be able to return to that group later if you want to. There’s still a whole club to check out. That was just a warm-up set.
            That’s how we would begin a typical night back then. Now I know a lot of people would like to read a story about how the cad gets his comeuppance, but that’s not really what this is. If anything I think of our winging as an example of how a culture of cooperation can bring out the best in people. Think of what usually happens when you have a group of guys who are supposed to be good friends and you throw a beautiful woman in the mix. It’s sad. But because with Will and me it was already established that we were there to help each other, and we taught ourselves to see even the most beautiful women as strangers, whereas we were each other’s most reliable allies, we never competed for the same woman. Whenever one of us entered the other’s set, the first man in would say, “This is the good one; this is the bad one.” You never game the bad one. (“I only talk to good girls” is a good follow-up.) That’s why we almost always had a good time—and that’s why the women almost always had a good time.

            But you have a culture which extols the virtue of every man for himself—and every woman for herself—and things don’t turn out so well. It’s scary how no one seems to realize how corrosive this conservative idea of selfishness as the highest principle is. Take away the cultural heritage that tells us we do best when we cooperate, when we check our selfish impulses for the greater good, and humans are basically apes, savage and cruel. You can’t have a civilization based on selfishness. You can’t even have a relationship based on selfishness. And that’s probably what Will’s problem is: for whatever reason, no matter how brilliantly he cooperates with me and his other guy friends, he doesn’t see women as reliable teammates. He doesn’t trust them. And it’s pretty damn easy to find women who believe you should always take care of yourself first.
            I can’t say the scene where we met Stacy stands out in my mind; it has blurred in with countless others. I don’t really even remember when Will and Stacy first started talking about childhood sexual abuse, even though it must’ve been surreal for me to witness since Will’s knowledge of the topic came solely from his conversations with me. The fact is, I had similar discussions with several women around that time, and I was present several times when Will had them. My interest in the topic was both intellectual and personal: I began my studies of the behavioral sciences in the wake of a confrontation between the old guard Freudians and the upstart cognitive neuroscientists, which culminated in the prior getting thoroughly trounced by the latter, exposing the central idea of repressed trauma as a fictional bogy man; and my first love had an abuse history, one that naturally aroused my sympathy, sympathy she leveraged to take awful advantage of me.

            “It’s the strangest thing,” Will would’ve said, “how women we’ve just met will make it a point to let us know about their abuse. And look around, you know, it’s all over Oprah and Dr. Phil and that other dude on MTV. Starting about twenty years ago, it became a cottage industry, uncovering repressed memories and helping survivors cope.”

            Picture Will: six foot one and square-jawed with salon-spiked hair, wardrobe courtesy of Von Maur, The Gap, and Goodwill—how you’re dressed is really the first thing you say to someone you’re just meeting. The black thermal undershirt and slightly too small red t-shirt said, “It is only natural for me to stand out.” The black leather cuff on his left wrist and the studded bracelet on his right said, “How I put myself together is one of the ways I express myself—and there’s a lot to express.” The boots, the perfectly fitted jeans, the pendant necklace, the rings: “I’m fun and outgoing,” and “You’ll have no difficulty picking me out of a crowd.” People often asked if Will and I were in a band. He would have been lead vocals, with me on bass—and, I suppose, penning the lyrics.

            Everything about Will is screaming “PERFORMER” to these women, and they must have him pegged as a bar guy, albeit an incomparably intriguing and impossibly fun bar guy. Then we get to a bounce location—in this case it was Louie’s, an all-night diner—and he starts waxing intellectual over pancakes.

            “But check this out—all these therapists are talking about repressed memories and all the havoc they can wreak with the human psyche, and meanwhile these research psychologists are trying to find even a shred of evidence that repression is even a real thing. And they keep coming up dry. Now you’re probably thinking, what do these stuffy lab guys know? But they come up with some ingenious ways to test this shit. For one, they realize there are plenty of people everyone knows have survived traumatic experiences they can go talk to. So you go ask people who lived through the Holocaust if they remember the horrible stuff they went through. They’ll tell you the more horrible the experience the better they remember.”

            Even though at this stage, when we’ve been hanging with the women for a few hours, we have some leeway regarding what we talk about—the important thing is simply to have a surfeit of things to talk about—bringing up repression and abuse is bad game. We can go on with it for a while, and it gets women animated, believe me, but then we have to recover by shifting to lighter fare. I only ever brought it up in set when I wanted to test a woman, to see how she responded when I brought her into weedier terrain. It surprised the hell out of me when Will busted it out the first time.

            “And they did something that—it just blows my mind. It’s brilliant. These researchers comb through novels and memoirs and every historical text they can get their hands on, looking for any evidence of repression recorded before Freud—or actually they guys he got it from—came up with the idea. And—wait for it—nada. So they offer a prize to anyone who can find any earlier reference. So far the prize is unclaimed. It’s almost like alien abductions, you know, you never hear a peep about it, and then the idea gradually becomes more prominent in the culture. Next thing you know, people are having real experiences of it and totally freaking out. It’s like once you have the script you can do this thorough job of mind-fucking yourself.”

            Actually discussing the possibility that some people really have been abducted by aliens is a far more customary practice for pick up guys. But Will was up to something I began to understand only after he’d performed this “routine” several times. Anyway, once you challenge the concept of repression, you’re left with the question of why so many people not only accept the idea but why anyone would ever want to believe they themselves had experienced it. Isn’t the whole point that something awful happened?

            “Well,” Will would continue, “just think of how people would respond if you told them you’d been abducted by aliens. Of course, everyone’s first response is, you know, ‘Bullshit.’ But if you can convince them it’s true, well, then you’ve got them hooked. You’ve just brought them into a whole different world, and a much more expansive one. You’re like the most interesting person they’ve ever met. Just think of all the people out there who would kill their own mother to be on Oprah.”

            This is the point where the ramifications begin to set in. If the women are participating in the discussion as if they’re completely unfazed, you know they don’t have a history. This happened to us only once. If they’re sitting in that “cocoon of silence,” only opening their mouths to offer lame rebuttals in near whispers, you know they do. This is most of them. If the woman is glaring at you like she wants to tear your face off one minute, holding her hand over her mouth and crying the next, and then shouting her objections so loud you have to take the discussion outside, well, then she has a history—and her name is Stacy.
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