Monday, November 28, 2005

metaphor, originality and finding one's voice

Young writers worry about "finding their voice." For instance, someone (in an online forum) recently asked how to write original metaphors. He quoted Orwell's advice: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. " I'm a huge Orwell fan, and I generally agree with his ideas about writing. Certainly, I admire his push against hackneyed expressions. But I think he was attacking the problem from the wrong angle.

Good writing blooms naturally if you (a) have a story to tell and (b) try to embed the reader into your story. The story must be so compelling to you that you want everyone to share your excitement. But they won't unless you get them to see what you see, smell what you smell, taste what you taste, etc.

Bad writing generally stems from one's attempts To Be Original. I agree with Orwell that one shouldn't imitate what one sees in print, but I'd add that one should also try not to avoid using prose one sees in print. One shouldn't care one way or another what one sees in print, because that has nothing to do with Telling The Story. Being original -- or forming any sort of relationship, imitative or reactionary, between one's own writing and other, published pieces -- has nothing to do with telling a story. And originality attempts generally weaken the story, because it's very hard to complete two goals at once. If you have just ONE goal (your story), and you're clear about what it is, then you'll follow it straight to its target. If a phrase from someone else's story is the best type of bullet to load into your gun, you must load that bullet. Otherwise, you're serving your egoistic need to be original, rather than serving the story.

Instead of "Never use a metaphor ... which you are used to seeing in print," I'd advise avoiding metaphor altogether -- until you NEED one. What's the point of metaphor, anyway, beyond some vague poetic impulse (trying To Be Original)? What is metaphor's purpose? Remember, you're trying to get the reader to smell the shit on the workman's boots, to taste the diner's bitter coffee. There will come a point when you can't convey the sensual details through journalistic, descriptive language (how do you describe a man's love for his wife this way?), so you'll need a metaphor. Metaphors are comparisons. When we can't describe something directly, we compare that thing to something else -- something familiar and evocative to the reader -- so that he can experience the original idea via a proxy. Maybe the readers can't feel what your protagonist feels when he sees his wife kissing another man, but they can understand what it's like to step in a bucket of cold, filthy water?

Without trying, your metaphor WILL be original. It will have to be, or it won't work. Just remember that the point of metaphor is to make the reader FEEL. This is similar to the point song in a musical. Producers tell their composer/lyricist collaborators to make the hero break into song only when speech will no longer convey the emotion. ("I just met a girl named Maria!"

As for finding one's voice, it also happens when you quit trying. Don't make the mistake of trying to look natural when you're posing for a photograph. You can't do it. But you WILL look natural if someone snaps your picture while you're busy measuring a cup of flour for a muffin recipe. You'll look natural because you'll be actively pursuing a goal -- other than Being Natural. So simply by telling a story as vividly as possible, your voice (which you already have, because you're a human being) will emerge.

By the way, I'm NOT advocating laziness. I agree with everyone who says writing is hard work. The hard work involves selecting words that advance your story -- that engage the reader's senses. The hard work involves pruning away all those elements that don't serve your story. This includes ego, trying to Be Original and trying To Find Your Voice. What does finding your voice have to do with the history of France in the Middle Ages? What does being original have to do with fleeing from robots on an enemy planet?

When I write, I purposefully delete phrases that sound "too original." This is really hard to do, because such phrases are rare and I'm generally really proud of them. But I mistrust them, too. I worry that the reader will think, "Wow, what a cool turn of phrase." At which point they've lost the thread of the story. As Hemingway said, you must kill all your darlings. As Orwell said (though I realize he put this in the mouth of an antagonist) the destruction of words is a beautiful thing.

Monday, November 07, 2005


I'm disturbed. A couple of days ago, I had one of those conversations from which you emerge feeling as if the ground has shifted under your feet. Whereas you were formerly standing in an Indiana of simplicity, you're now standing in a Kentucky of complexity. How did you get there?

The conversation took place online (a message board) and the topic was "spoilers." For those of you who are lucky enough to have a Real Life (as opposed to just an Internet Life), I should define "spoilers". "Spoiler" is the Internet term for an utterance that spoils the plot of a movie. Example: in the end, the hero dies. Unless you want to rob first-time viewers of surprise, you should avoid spoilers. On the other hand, it's fun to discuss stories, and you can't discuss them in depth without giving away key details. The solution: warn the readers that you're about to discuss key plot points. Example:

SPOILER: at the end of "Alien and Predator Go to Washington," Predator becomes the ambassador to India.

On the particular message board I visited, someone posted a spoiler -- without warning -- to "The Crying Game." I suspect he did this by accident (one might forget to write "SPOILER" while in the middle of a discussion). Someone pointed out the gaff, and various people started joking about spoilers. The joke climaxed when one guy posted an orgy of spoilers. This wasn't an accident -- he decided it would be fun to spoil several movies at once.

Which was when I jumped in. I begged people to try to remember to use "SPOILER" before divulging plot information. I also expressed my astonishment that anyone would purposefully spoil a story. Why do that? Naively, I expected most people -- other than the multi-spoiler guy -- would agree with me. They didn't. Here's what I was told:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

I will discuss each of these points, below:

1. Movies are just as good -- if not better -- if you know what's going to happen.
I once had a friend who begged me to tell him endings of movies I had seen but he hadn't. Suspense hurt his stomach, so he would only watch movies if he was sure they'd never surprise him. He's the only person I've ever met like that, but there are plenty of people who don't care one way or another about being surprised. Then there are others (like me) who love surprises. In other words, there's a spectrum. Different people enjoy movies for different reasons.

As I said, I enjoy being surprised. I also enjoy seeing movies a second (third, fourth...) time when I already know what's going to happen. The two experiences are very different and both are worthwhile. It would sadden me to lose either. Some movies are better that first time, when you're surprised; Some are better when you already know the story; but most are equally good both ways -- just different.

But you can only be surprised once. If someone spoils the plot, you can never have the experience of not-knowing-what's-going-to-happen-next. To some people, this isn't a worthwhile experience. To me, it is.

Being a movie buff, I have a shelf full of DVDs -- great movies that I love watching again and again. But often, I don't want to watch any of my old favorites. I want to watch something new. And this isn't just to broaden my horizons. It's to experience the thrill of surprise. My collection, as great as it is, can't give me this thrill.

There are all kinds of surprises, but there's one I'll always remember. I won't mention the movie, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone else. It was a comedy. One of the jokes in it caught me completely off guard. I laughed harder than I have ever laughed in my life. I laughed so hard, I had to stop watching to movie. I rolled around on the floor and hugged my sides for ten minutes. Since this joke was based on surprise, I was only able to have this experience once. Since then, I have watched and enjoyed the movie many times, but I have never laughed like that again. I had one shot at that. I feel so blessed to have had that experience. I never would have had it if someone had spoiled the joke for me.

One thing that really upset me during the message board conversation was though I kept saying, over and over, I like seeing movies both ways, nobody seemed to hear me. People kept explaining to me that movies were just as good (or better) when you knew the plot. Surely anyone can see -- whether they value this or not -- that the two experiences are different. And to those who admit this but don't value the surprise experience, all I can say is that your value needn't be my value.

2. Once a movie has been out for a long time, it's fair to openly discuss the plot without warning. People have had plenty of time to see it.

Except new people are being born all the time. "Citizen Kane" was released in 1941. I was born in 1965, so I didn't have a chance to see the movie until decades after it was released. When I saw it, it was new to me.

As for contemporary movies, hundreds of them are released each year. I can't see them all. I can't even see the all the ones I want to see when they come out. There's not enough time in my day. Thankfully, services like Netflix exist, allowing me to catch up in my own time. Often, I'm busy enough that I miss the hype surrounding a movie. I don't even know the movie exists until a year or two after it is released, when someone recommends it to me. What is so special about the release date, anyway? Movies continue to exist in the same form forever. Why must I hurry to see them?

Many people pointed out that, at a certain point, famous movies become part of the cultural landscape. Their stories have outgrown their sources and it's okay talk about them, because (I guess) refusing to do so means opting out of everyday conversation. Well, I choose to opt out of SOME everyday conversations -- if they are conversations that are going to spoil movies for me. But I don't expect other people to opt out. I DO expect people to respect my feelings and give me fair warning. If I knew you were scared of monsters, I wouldn't call Hollywood and ask them to cancel the production of "Nightmare on Elm Street XVIII." But I WOULD warn you not to see it.

I would certainly agree that if I had some aversion to the word "the", it wouldn't be fair for me to expect people to avoid saying it. "The" is a common word. It's would really inconvenience people to stop using it. But saying "SPOILER" once is not a major inconvenience. It takes two seconds. You say it, and anyone who wants to opt out can run for cover, then you can say what you wanted to say. Everybody wins.

(A bizarre number of people told me that "The Simpons" regularly spoils iconic movies. So? Does "The Simpsons" dictate the way one should act? Where they claiming that if spoilers are not allowed, then "The Simpsons" would have to be cancelled? Hogwash. If "The Simpsons" spoils movies, people who don't like spoilers shouldn't watch it. That's all. Which is one of the reasons I don't watch "The Simpsons.")

3. At some point after a movie has been released, there are more people who have seen it than people who have not. Why should the majority inconvenience itself for the minority?

Majorities should never inconvenience themselves for minorities? Scary!

Again, I would never expect people to seriously inconvenience themselves. "Spoiler" takes almost no time.

What's the problem?

4. What's the big deal? They're just movies!

Or we could say they are artifacts about which some people feel passionate.

I hate sports. Yet many people revolve their lives around football games. Who am I to judge them? Most of us feel passionately about something which is objectively trivial -- football, gourmet food, beer, chocolate, music, art ... movies.

Movies are stories. Stories touch something deep inside me. I make no apology for my love of stories. Stories are my life.

Friday, November 04, 2005


A is for aardvark. Aardvarks eat ants, and they have long noses. My nose isn't long, but it's fat. It's like a big jack-o-lantern triangle that's been slapped haphazardly onto my face. Which is why no one finds me attractive. Also because of my stooped shoulders and my lazy eye. And because I eat ants.

B is for boy. It's also for girl, because I don't want to be sexist. If I like girls "that way" but not boys, does that make me sexist? Or reverse-sexist? What IS the reverse of sexist, anyway? Sexy? If I like girls "that way," does it mean I'm sexy? Is that why girls are scared of me? Because I'm too sexy? Even with my fat nose? [See "A is for Aardvark."]

C is for cookie. Here's a good recipe for cookies: go to the store and buy some. Don't bother putting them on a fancy plate. Just rip open the package like a man and chow down! You'll be surprised at how many you can eat. You'll finish one and say, "Okay, that's it. I mean, I don't want to get fat or anything," but then you'll think, "One more can't hurt." And then, before you know it, you'll finish the whole pack. And you won't go to the gym, because you'll think, "Hell, I've already ruined today. I'll get back to my diet and exercise routine tomorrow. Meanwhile, I'll have some ice cream." By "you" I mean "me."

D is for dad. My dad never gave me enough attention, so I acted out in the most cliche ways, like stealing hood ornaments and TPing people's houses. Let's face it: I'm not an original thinker. Paradoxically, this is because I keep trying to have original thoughts -- so that I can impress my dad. I guess my personality never really developed. I'm like this adjunct to my dad that he refuses to acknowledge. Of course, now that I'm older, I can see that my dad is an adjunct to HIS dad that HIS dad refuses to acknowledge. And yes, I DO plan to have kids.

E is for energy. Which apparently is equal to mass times the speed of light squared. Do you understand the Theory of Relativity? You should use it as a benchmark for your level of intelligence. No matter what you've accomplished, no matter how high you scored on standardized tests, no matter how much you earn or how many birthday presents you get, if you don't understand the Theory of Relativity, you're basically stupid. Sure, I'm raising an arbitrarily high bar, but I say, "Why not aim high?" I also say, "Why not eat a little humble pie?" [See "C is for cookie."] And if you do understand the Theory of Relativity, don't rest on your laurels. Aim higher. See if you can figure out a way to unify the fields. Somebody has to.

F is for frog. I feel hope whenever I read one of those stories in which a beautiful princess kisses a frog, and then the frog turns into a handsome prince. Which is why I keep kissing frogs. I hope they turn into princes, because a prince can talk and I want to ask him a question. I want to ask him, "Do you ever feel insecure in your marriage to the beautiful princess? I mean, she obviously wouldn't have married you back when you were a frog, and if you ever turn back into a frog again, you're pretty much toast. And aren't you still a frog on the inside? Don't you feel like the princess is attracted to you for superficial reasons? I mean, I know you're a handsome prince and everything, but you can't erase the fact that you were born so much uglier than your wife. Can beautiful women be attracted to ugly men?" Do you think the prince would actually give this some thought and answer me truthfully, or would he just mumble, "good question, good question," and pat me on the head. I couldn't bear being treated like a peasant by a prince who was once a frog! Also, would there be awkwardness because I once kissed him and we're both guys?

G is for Google. I tried searching for myself the other day, and I discovered a link to a really embarrassing remark I once wrote. I wrote it in 1989 and posted it without thinking. Now it's online to haunt me. And anyone who googles me can find it. I don't want to tell you what it says; It's too humiliating. Oh, okay. It says, "Sometimes I steal money from people who invite me over for dinner." Look, that was in the 80s. Who didn't steal back then? I'm mostly over it. Sure, if I see some spare change lying around on the top of someone's microwave or peeking out from under their sofa, I might pocket it. Are you saying you wouldn't? In the early 90s, when most people didn't know how to go online or do a web search, I never noticed my comment having any adverse affects. Now no one ever invites me to dinner parties.

H is for hermit. Sometimes I lock myself in my room. I'm perfectly happy being alone, as-long-as I have access to diet Coke, cheese sandwiches, a television and some lubricant. The only problem is I get these racing thoughts. I start imagining things I should have said to people or things I should say to people or things I want people to say to me. So I'm alone but I'm not alone. All my thoughts are turned outward, to an imagined social life. I wonder if this is because I've never tried being a hermit for long enough. Maybe after a few years, you completely stop thinking about other people. Maybe this is easier without television. But then how would I watch CNN?

I is for igloo. You know, I was in this coffee shop the other day, reading a paperback copy of "Ethan Frome," and I looked across the room from me, and there was this pretty girl also reading a paperback copy of "Ethan Frome." What are the chances? And I thought I could capitalize on this coincidence by striking up a conversation about our shared tastes in literature. Only I couldn't catch her eye. She was engrossed in her book and refused to look up. So I kept making these coughing noises and clearing my throat, hoping this would distract her, but it didn't work. Man! She was really enjoying "Ethan Frome." Finally, this guy by the door accidentally kicked the umbrella stand. It made a racket she looked up. I grasped the opportunity and stared right into her eyes. And she noticed me staring at her. When I saw that she noticed, I pushed my head forward, indicating her book. Then I inclined my head towards my book, trying to get her to see the connection. She just sort of smirked and went back to "Ethan Frome." I figured I blew it with her. I searched the room for other girls I could flirt with, but no one else was reading "Ethan Frome." Typical!

J is for January. I just realized that my last paragraph had nothing to do with igloos. So I'm thinking maybe I should write about igloos now. Or maybe I should just cut my losses and move on to January, or I could combine January and igloos into one paragraph -- they both call to mind images of coldness and winter. But I'm sort of distracted, because I'm still thinking about that girl in the coffee shop. She was wearing a miniskirt and thigh-high stockings and frankly who wouldn't be distracted by her? Do you think I should have asked for her phone number? Would that have come across as desperate? Maybe I should post one of those "missed connections" ads on Craigslist: saw you in the coffee shop reading "Ethan Frome." We exchanged a meaningful glance. Let's exchange more. Yours truly, Not The Umbrella Stand Guy.

K is for king. Just for one day, I'd like to be king. Just to see what it's like. I'd like to order people around without suffering any consequences. (I don't want them to despise me for ordering them around. I want them to just accept it -- as my Divine Right.) Here are some of the things I'd order: no whistling, 'cause it gives me a headache; I get to eat as much cake as I want without gaining weight; somebody else has to finish this alphabet for me. Here are some gifts I would bestow: every day is Casual Friday, except for Friday, which is Cake Wednesday; always free samples in the cheese isle; everyone gets slaves but no one has to be a slave; the alphabet ends at K.

L is for love. I love you. There, I've admitted it! I hope this doesn't lead to embarrassed silences and eyes cast downward at our place-mats. Can't we pretend I never said it and just be friends. And can't I occasionally lay my hand on your thigh, just as a friendly gesture? I mean, does it really hurt you to have a hand on your thigh? Think of it as a gift that you're giving me. It doesn't cost you anything and it affords me such great pleasure. It's almost stupid not to let me play with your boobs -- I mean lay my hand on your thigh. Did you know that in France friends kiss each other on the lips?

M is for money. Do you have a financial advisor? If not, I can be one for you. I'll tell you to buy low and sell hight, or vice versa. I don't know anything about money, but I know what I like. Ah yes, I have expensive tastes. When you see the bench in my foyer, you'll think "money well spent!" And when was the last time you saw me without a carnation in my lapel? For that matter, when was the last time you saw me without a lapel? But I don't speak of money, because one doesn't.

N is for nobody. I am very small. I'm so small I can fit into a little box that you can shove somewhere without thinking -- maybe on some dusty shelf in your closet, way up high and behind the linens. I want to be noticed for my smallness. I want you to be irritated by my unstoppable self-degradation, by my unflappable self-denial. It fills the room and weighs you down, yet if you accuse me of self-aggrandizement I can stare at you wide-eyed and say, "What are you talking about? I'm a worthless sack of shit!" Don't you know the paradox of the small penis? It's also a large penis.

O is for Olivier. The world's greatest actor. Who was better at Shakespeare, Olivier or Gielgud? Gielgud stressed the mechanics, meter and precision of language; Olivier stressed the emotion. When you tell me to stop using things you said in the past against you, I try to be like Gielgud. I try to calmly and logically explain to you that I can't discount the past. If I did, then how could I ever take anything you said seriously? I'd have to discount that time you told me you wanted to sink into the ocean of my eyes. Is that what you want? Sometimes I act like Olivier. I lash out at you. I say, "I see. It's fine when you blame me for that one time I yanked the glasses off your face, flung them to the floor and stomped up and down on them, but the moment I bring up the smallest thing YOU did to ME, I'm the bad guy. Fine. I get it." And I storm out of the room and shack up with the first "ho" I meet at the strip club. Believe me, I know this is childish. You don't have to tell you it's childish. We're in agreement on that point. So are we okay, now? Can we just eat dinner?

P is for penguin. Penguins mate for life. They can't fly. Thanks to the invention of the airplane, people CAN fly. So they don't have to mate for life. Even before the plane, sailors had a girl in every port. On the other hand, I have many ports without girls (so to speak). I also can't afford a plane ticket right now. Anyway, where would I go? Everywhere is the same as here. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush -- even if you're holding a pigeon and the two in the bush are penguins. The penguins are mated for life, so you'll just be a fifth wheel to them. Whereas at least you have a chance with the pigeon.

Q is for quicksand. Lately I've felt that various events have been dragging me down. For instance I'm burnt out in my job. At first I thrilled to the nuance, but -- honestly -- how different can one bottle cap be from another? I look down the assembly line, and all I see is a blur. And I worry that this apathy is bleeding into other areas of my life. For instance, I had this steak at Peter Lugers, and I found myself thinking of that Peggy Lee song, "Is That All There Is?" What I feel I need is some great upheaval. I need to be jostled. I need to be slapped in the face by an unknown hand. I need someone to pull the sidewalk out from under me. But I worry that I'd just hit the dirt under the sidewalk. Or maybe a sewer pipe. What I'd really like to do is go on a quest, like Frodo Baggins. Only without elves.

R is for rust. Want to think about something odd? Imagine licking an old rusty hinge. Feel the metal shards scrape against your tongue. Maybe you'd rather not. Maybe you're pissed that I planted such a nasty picture in your brain. Believe me, brother, it could have been worse. I could have suggested you lick a piece of sponge cake that you'd rubbed in a urinal.

S is for soup. As in "Here we are: in the soup." No one likes to wrestle with disaster, but there is some solace to the recognition that you are, in fact, "in the soup." It's the solace of location. Surely it's better to know that you're in hell than to be lost in a mysterious world filled with pain and fire. Once you know where you are, you can start making plans. "Yup, I'm in hell now. My aunt Emily must be here too. She was a really bad person. I'll go look for her. She used to make really good casseroles."

T is for tiddlywinks. The younger generation is going to read this and accuse me of making up a word. We'll patiently explain to them that back before computers wiped your bottom for you, there was a game called tiddlywinks. Back then, people browsed in actual bookstores and returned their VHS tapes three days late to Blockbuster. Back then, your mother and I loved each other. She was such a pretty girl when I met her, with a waste as thin as your arm. We used to dance to The Jive Five and stay up late to watch meteor showers. You were nothing but a gleam in my eye. Where did it all go? How did everything turn dark and predatory? [See "Q is for quicksand."] Is there any way we can turn back the clock? What I wouldn't give for a second chance. What I'd really like is a way to go back to the 70s and take Netflix with me.

U is for uncle. Are you ready to say "uncle"? Do I have to pin your OTHER arm to the floor? My, my you're a stubborn little hobbit. And you're cute too. It's hard not to take advantage of you there, pinned under me. But I'm a professional. There's pleasure and there's business. Maybe I'll meet you after work for coffee and we'll take if from there. But right now we have to discuss that money you owe my employers. You should have just paid up when you were supposed to. Now look where we are! Why are you making this so difficult? You KNOW you can't win. You think I want your death on my conscience. I may not look like it, but I'm a gentle man on the inside. God fearing, churchgoing. If you promise not to run, I'll let you up so that you can look at this photo of my wife and kids. I always carry it with me. They're not really MY wife and kids. They're the wife and kids of this other guy who refused to pay up. I had to "have a talk" with him. He didn't listen, so now I have his photo. They're the wife and kids I'd like to have if I didn't have to move around so much. Oh God I'm lonely.

V is for vanquish. Vanquish ALL your foes. All of them. Don't make the mistake of sparing the children. Children grow up. They bear grudges. When you're 87, you don't want to bump into a teenager carrying a box-cutter. But that's what's going to happen if you let sentiment cloud your judgement.

W is for wabbit. Do you think Elmer Fudd is gay? He's got to be, right? I have an excellent gaydar. I got it on ebay, but it was still in shrink-wrap, and it came with a two-year limited warranty. At first, I didn't like it because it would beep loudly and say, "Warning! Gay person in the vicinity. Return immediately to home base" whenever I passed anyone on the street with a light step or a limp wrist. But I forced myself to read the manual. There's this switch on the side that puts the thing in vibrate mode. Now I can avoid the fags without disturbing any fuss. I mean "avoid the homos." I don't want to offend anyone. I have no beef with guys who choose to be gay. Trust me, I would be gay in a New York minute if I thought it would help me get laid. But I just know I'd be that one guy wearing a track suit in the leather bar. People wouldn't laugh, because they're too polite, but they'd snigger behind their napkins.

X is for XML. XML facilitates the sharing of data across different systems. Say you're selling your bookshop. You can give me a list of your inventory, and you don't have to ask what kind of computer I have or whether I'm running Word or Excel. It doesn't matter, because every computer can interpret an XML document. Or at least that's the idea. That's the great promise of XML. But we should all remember the Tower of Babel. Sure, we'll start out with this universal language. But pretty soon people will splinter into isolated groups. And inevitably these groups will develop their own in-jokes and dialects. Soon there will be pidgin xmls and then full-out separate languages. And we'll need a United Nations of former xml speakers, and we'll have bad translations of novels, movies with ridiculous subtitles, wars and ethnic cleansings. You can call me a pessimist, but I say I'm a realist. History repeats itself and all roads lead to Rome. Meanwhile, we're living in a utopian bubble -- a brief period of tolerance when we all speak the same XML. We might as well enjoy it while it's here. My advice to you is this: hug your girl tight and whisper some XML into her ear. Wrap the mantle of love around your shoulders. It's not much to protect yourself with in the black night, when the tigers scratch at your door, but in the end, it's all you have.

Y is for yellow. When you and I both look at something yellow, do we see the same yellow? Or do you see mustard while I see jaundice? What do you see when you look at my wife? You'd better not be looking at her ass! What I want is this: I want you to notice that she's sexy without actually being turned on. And I want you to envy my catch without wondering how a nerd like me could have possibly landed such a hot babe. I want you to be jealous without resenting me. I want you to be open to the possibility of a threesome, but only when I'm ready. I may never be ready. On the other hand, if I invite you over tomorrow, bring some wine, because that's only polite. And remember, anything that goes on between you and my wife is just physical. You'll never forge the link with her that I have. Even if she leaves me for you, you'll never know her like I do. Because I read her diary.

Z is for zipper. It's funny to think that there was a time before zippers. And it's even funnier to think that back then, no one thought "this is the time before zippers." Which leads to the thought that in the future, people will look back at our time and think, "Wow! There was once a time before..." and yet we don't think of ourselves as living in a time before... But if we did, what would it be? What is it that we lack? Sure, sure, sure: a renewable energy source, nano-technology, Liz Taylor, etc. But those are obvious. What is it that we lack but don't know that we lack -- and will one day have? If I had to guess, I'd say a machine that forces people to love us. Those in remote posterity will shake their heads at us and say, "Can you imagine living back in those days when you had to worry about getting a girlfriend? And what about those guys whose wives left them! Do you know how lucky we are to be living in the age of forced-love machines!" Now, I have to admit that there are aspects of these machines that I don't understand, but that's natural since my mind can't comprehend the future. For instance, what happens if Bill and I both point our machines at Sally? Does she love both of us? Do the two machines cancel each other out and she goes for Brad, instead? Does she love Bill more than me, because he bought his machine from The Smarter Image whereas I bought a knock-off at Radio Shack. It seems like the denizens of the year 2087 are just as bad off as we are, filled with doubt and suspicion and cantankerous jealousy. But we know that can't be. Somehow they have worked out the kinks, or why would they look back at us with sad condescension?

the dot

When I was five, a red dot appeared before my left eye. It was about the size of a pin head. Wherever I looked, there was the dot, floating in the air. If I closed my left eye and just looked through my right, I couldn't see it. Being five, I didn't understand it and didn't discuss it with anyone. After a while, I got used to it.

It grew. The growth was so slow it was imperceptible, but by the time I was seven, it was the size of a penny. If I turned my head just the right amount and just the right direction, I could position the dot so that it seemed to rest on the tip of my Dad's nose. Or I could place it in the upper-right corner of the TV screen. After some trial and error, I discovered I could push the dot from my left eye to my right. I taught myself to juggle it from eye-to-eye or even hover it in-between.

By twelve, it was the size of a cantaloupe. I used it to cover people's heads when I didn't want to look at them. I blocked out the heads of teachers, aunts and uncles, dentists, bullies, priests and Chinese people.

By eighteen it was the size of a tractor tire. I could cover whole people. I got a job and blocked out my boss. I blocked out the cop who wrote me a speeding ticket. I blocked out the judge in the courtroom. I had sex with fat girls without looking at them. Some people tended to move around a lot: athletes and nervous people. I didn't like them, because they forced me to relocate the dot all the time, and that grew tiresome.

I dated a little, but it never lasted long. Inevitably, we'd have that conversation in which she accused me of not paying attention to her, of being "off somewhere" while she was talking to me. I tried staring intently at the dot, thinking this might fool the girls into believing I was showing them with rapt attention. But was hard to judge just what part of them was where, behind the dot. So they would snap at me, saying things like, "Do I have a big zit on my forehead or something?" or "I know my hair is greasy. I didn't have time to wash it today!" or "stop staring at my boobs!"

One day, when I was 28 (and the dot was the size of a large boulder) I was talking to a girl a party. I rarely looked anywhere by then, except with my peripheral vision, because the dot seemed too heavy to shift. But something in her voice, a slight musical lilt perhaps, made me think she was beautiful. So with an inward groan, I rolled the ball to the right so that I could get a look at her.

I was wrong. She wasn't beautiful. She was squat and had almost no lips. This was the usual pattern: the girls who were sexy in my mind turned out to be plain or ugly when I rolled the dot away to see what they really looked like. Even a pretty girl would be less beautiful in reality – with some subtle but irritating flaw, like a crooked nose or a habit of scratching the inside of one ankle with her opposite foot – than she had been in my imagination while she was covered with the dot. In truth, I was losing my ability to get turned on by the sight of women. I only got hard while listening to a woman's voice and staring at the dot.

But something was different about this girl. Without the dot, I could see she wasn't looking at me. She was staring at me, but her eyes seemed far away. I only had a second to register this, because it took too much energy to keep the ball off to one side. When I relaxed my mind, it eased back into the center, covering her again.

But I was disconcerted. She had been looking at me the way I imagined I looked when I looked at girls. Was it possible that she had her own dot?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

pick-up artists, Shakespeare and the danger of romanticism

I just finished "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists" by Neil Strauss, in which the author tells how he transformed himself from a nerd to a stud. He wanted to lose his shyness around women, so he latched on to self-styled pick-up artists and learned their craft. He learned quickly and became a pick-up artist himself. The book is a cautionary tale (well written and fun) about his rise and fall in the pick-up community (and the rise and fall of the community itself).

For those who don't know, there IS a pick-up community. It's composed of former (some would say still) nerds who have spent years studying women and trying out different approaches. They also study psychology, biology and any other field that might help them score. They've turned mating into a science (sometimes a pseudo-science, as with their reliance on Neuro-linguistic Programming).

I remember when this community first penetrated (no pun intended) the public eye. Pick-up gurus went on talk shows and explained that they were trying to empower men. Naturally, women (and some men) were deeply offended.

The pick-up artists ARE offensive. They are offensive because they are deceptive. They "befriend" women that they secretly loath, just so that they can sleep with them. They are deeply misogynisic and opportunistic.

But there's another reason they offend people. They offend people because they treat women (and sometimes men) as if they were machines -- machines which, if you push the right buttons, will have sex with you. Or they treat women like Pavlavian dogs: dangle the right treat in front of them and they will salivate. Women don't want to be machines or dogs; they want to be PEOPLE. In other words, they have romanticized people. They have framed people as being superior to machines and dogs.

Yet biology tells us that people ARE machines. People ARE dogs (animals). We are vastly complex machines (we are super-intelligent dogs), and it's hard to master our complexity. So if you push a button, you might not get what you expect. But that's just because you haven't fully read the manual. You don't completely understand what all the buttons do and how they are wired together inside us. Good pick-up artists HAVE read the manual -- at least as-much-of the manual as has been published. And they're continually experiementing to fill in manual's missing pages.

If people didn't have buttons, then con-artists would always fail. But they don't. They often succeed. We don't want to believe we can be fooled. But we CAN be fooled. And the con-artists will always have an edge over us, because they aren't romantic. They KNOW people are machines and they accept that fact. We don't want to accept it. We want to be mysterious and spiritual and unknowable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW if he is honest and reliable. We think we can look deeply into someone's eyes and KNOW that he loves us and wants to be our friend. Con men (and pick-up artists, who are a kind of con men) realize that we think this, and so they manipulate their eyes -- letting us see what we want to see while they steal our wallets.

In "King Lear," Shakespeare pits the romantic view of human nature against the con man's more cynical view. Lear (and Cordelia) are the romantics; Edmund is the con man. In "Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human," Harold Bloom brilliantly points out that "It is part of Shakespeare's genius not to have Edmund and Lear address even a single word to each other in the entire play, because they are apocalyptic antithesis: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect." Edmund is also a superb pick-up artist. Before bedding both Goneril and Regan, he confidently asks himself, "Which of them shall I take / Both? one? or neither?"

After becoming a master pick-up artist, Neil Strauss meets his Edmund -- an aspiring pick-up artist named Tyler Durden. Strauss discovers that Durden and his friends are mocking him in front of girls (a violation of, believe it or not, the pick-up artist's code of ethics). He confronts Durden about it, and Durden freely admits it.
I stated at him in disbelief .... It was diabolical.

"You can get me," Tyler said. "You can say I look like the Pillsbury Doughboy."

... "But I don't want to get you, man," I replied, keeping my own council and giving him a big smile like I thought it was all very funny. "Here's the difference between you and me: I like to surround myself with people who are better than me because I enjoy being pushed and challenged. You, on the other hand, like to become the best person in the room by eliminating anyone who's better than you."

"Yeah, maybe you're right," he said.

Later, I would realize that I was only half right. Tyler Durden did like to eliminate competition. But not before he'd squeezed every piece of useful information out of them.

For the rest of the weekend, whenever I talked to a person, male or female, Tyler Durden was hovering behind me, listening to every word. I could see him thinking, trying to figure out the rules and patterns behind everything I said that kept me dominant in a group .... He was studying my personality. Soon, he would no doubt know more about me than I did."
Which is exactly the con man's job: to know more about the machine than the machine itself. And the machine is crippled, because it doesn't want to admit that it's a machine. That's a horrible mistake. While we resist being called a machine, someone could flip our off switch.

People have always resisted losing their mystery (one of the most successful pick-up artists nicknamed himself "Mystery.") The biggest battles science has fought have been about (and still are about) robbing Man of his mystery: the Earth is NOT at the center of the universe; people were NOT created by God -- they evolved from animals and ARE animals; the brain is a machine that can be modeled (and one day recreated or even surpassed) by a computer. Con men and pick-up artists bypass this resistance and embrace the cynical truth, which is how they gain control over the rest of us.

On the talk shows I watched, women swore that the pick-up techniques wouldn't work on them. Maybe not, but many women are attracted to confident, funny, somewhat cocky men. And so the pick-up artists learn how to appear confident; they study stand-up comedians; they memorize cocky patter and rehearse until they can deliver it naturally. Still, the women claim that they can tell the difference between a REAL confident man and a man who is just trying to act confident.

This is the crux of the matter. We MUST believe that we can tell the difference between honest behavior and playacting. Because if we can't, then who can we trust? Everyone we cherish may be lying to us -- trying to con us. And that thought is unbearable. So we don't think it. We simply believe and trust. Which makes us vulnerable. The con men know this. They are waiting for this. They see this vulnerability and they attack. With no romanticism, they look the world squarely in the eye and see it as a place where playacting does work -- where the fake passes as the real, as-long-as it's well rehearsed.

This is the secret behind theatre. It's a paradox. Theatre is a romantic art. It makes us feel deeply. It makes us laugh and cry and recognize ourselves. Yet under the hood, it's a great con. That actor isn't Hamlet -- he's Laurence Olivier. And even within the mind of the actor (and the con man), the paradox continues. What does Olivier think? Does he think he's Hamlet or Olivier. Both, or he wouldn't be able to convince us.

And herein lies the undoing of the con man and the pick-up artist. To fool us, he must fool himself. To fool himself, he must be vulnerable. And once he's vulnerable, the Tyler Durdens will swoop down and con the conner. Human mystery is a lie, but it's a lie that -- being human -- we all believe. And the con man is, though he resists it, as human as the rest of us. He is hoist in his own petard.

In "The Game," the pick-up artists believe that male friendships should come before male/female relationships -- "bros before hos." But after Mystery is betrayed by his "friends," he (being a vulnerable human) falls in love and announces, "Unlike the last girl, I will not make her public. This time I will start from scratch and not undermine my relationship by sharing it with you guys. I will be more loyal to her than to you because the bros before hos ethic only applies if you think the girl is a ho."

Edmund is killed by his more romantic brother, Edgar.