Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn

The first time through Sharp Objects I though it totally absurd, since the characters in it behave like fantastical morons perpetually rolling on ecstasy or akin to faeries from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The plausibility of the plot is so low that I almost gave up, exasperated.

But I kept reading the first time and was curious enough to reread the second time and realize that Sharp Objects is not about a realistic story of realistic detection; instead, it’s a mythic-Freudian* work about the anxiety that comes from two related phenomena: transitions to adulthood and the muddying of lines between the generations. Camille, the protagonist, is supposed to be an adult (she’s a reporter for paper, she covers murders, she pays the rent) but around her mother she acts like a child and around her 13-year-old sister she acts like a peer.

Sharp_ObjectsOnce this alternate reading became clear, Sharp Objects became pleasant. It’s not supposed to be realistic (or, if it is, it fails so badly at its purpose that it might as well be read my way). It’s a fairy tale with a bit of media critique thrown in, and it says that girls and women have the dark urges that are often absent from fiction and from the news. Camille needs to reconcile her family relationships and her family’s history in order to understand the murders she’s investigating. Conventional reportorial skills and abilities are of little use; at best one might say she employs some aspects of New or Gonzo Journalism, since she does in fact drop ecstasy at one point.

In the novel Camille is dispatched by her editor to her home town to investigate a murder that becomes a series of murders of girls. The novel signals its intentions early. Camille is describing the home town she came from, and she ends the first chapter with this:

When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading themselves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, her breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.

At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.

The blurred mental lines between sexuality, animals, reproduction, and early age remain a theme that runs through the novel.

Attention is also a scarce resource in the novel: Camille constantly seeks it from her mother, even at the risk of being dangerous, and also seeks it from men (at least at first). Her sister is repeating Camille’s experience. Parents are either absent (from page 21: “I wondered where their mother was”) or overwhelming. Family sexuality recurs; here is one early example, from Camille’s narration:

The Victorians, especially southern Victorians, needed a lot of room to stray away from each other, to duck tuberculosis and flu, to avoid rapacious lust, to wall themselves away from sticky emotions. Extra space is always good.

“Stray” is an exact quote. And if extra space is always good, why then does Camille go to her mother’s house? She returns to a point of danger in search of information, like Little Red Riding Hood entering the Wolf’s house. The novel itself keeps pointing to Fairy Tales. Amma, Camille’s sister, says:

now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.

A few pages later, Camille speaks with a boy who says that he saw a “woman” take the second girl, who turns up murdered. She thinks this of him:

What did James Capisi see? The boy left me uneasy. I didn’t think he was lying. But children digest terror differently. The boy saw a horror, and that horror became the wicked witch of fairy tales, the cruel snow queen.

No one believes that the killer is a woman because women don’t behave that way. But wicked and evil women are pronounced in fairy tales.

This details occurs in Camille’s mother’s house:

Walking past Amma’s room, I saw her sitting very properly on the edge of a rocking chair, reading a book called Greek Goddesses. Since I’d been here, she’d played at being Joan of Arc and Bluebeard’s wife and Princess Diana—all martyrs, I realized. She’d find even unhealthier role models among the goddesses. I left her to it.

There are more. These are enough.

Seemingly no one grows up in Sharp Objects. Nearly every woman in Wind Gap still gossips like she’s in high school. Growing up is hard and harder for some of us than others. Perhaps we never fully leave childhood behind. Camille can’t. Her sister Amma is in some ways eager to leave childhood (she behaves like a pro when it comes to the inciting the desires of men) but in other ways wants its protections. In our culture, she can legally at least get both,** and she behaves in both ways. At one moment Amma is behaving like an infant:

Amma lolled sleepy as a newborn in her blanket, smacking her lips occasionally. It was the first time I’d seen my mother since our trip to Woodberry. I hovered in front of her, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off Amma.

In others she doesn’t, as when she says that after her mother takes care of her, “I like to have sex.” Then:

She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”

Camille’s counsel is distinctly odd, coming from someone who did similar things at similar ages and, it would appear, for similar reasons. But she doesn’t at this moment have the power to break the familial cycle, with its hints and implications of incest. That waits until later.

Camille’s decision to enter this cauldron of weirdness reinforces the idea that Sharp Objects is more about family patterns and dynamics than detection. In one of the flimsier rationales in the book, Camille stays with her mother, her stepfather, and her adolescent sister, ostensibly for the sake of saving the paper money, but this decision is insane given her relationship to the family. That she continues to stay as events become more and more macabre and surreal are equally insane and implausible. Camille should leave, and that’s obvious to any sane reader and should be obvious to her. That she stays anyway indicates that the story has motives different than the ones I initially assumed.


* Freud has a much stronger mythic element to his work than is commonly supposed—and so I’m justified in using myth and Freud in this way. Much of his work is unfalsifiable, giving what is nominally a scientific body of work a distinctly literary quality, and the supposed universality of many of his concepts (the death drive, the Oedipus complex, etc.) are not supportable.

* Let me reproduce the footnote at the link:

As Judith Levine notes in Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex: “One striking pair of contradictory trends: as we raise the age of consent for sex, we lower the age at which a wrongdoing child may be tried and sentenced as an adult criminal. Both, needless to say, are ‘in the best interests’ of the child and society.” And, as Laurie Schaffner points out in a separate essay collection, “[…] in certain jurisdictions, young people may not purchase alcohol until their twenty-first birthday, or may be vulnerable plaintiffs in a statutory rape case at 17 years of age, yet may be sentenced to death for crimes committed at age 15 [….]”

Laws [. . .] reflect race and gender norms: white girls are the primary target of age-of-consent laws, while African American youth are the target of laws around crime and delinquency. The contradictory trends are readily explained by something rather unpleasant in society.

I didn’t elaborate on what the “unpleasant” thing may be and won’t here, either, but you’re welcome to take a shoot at your best interpretation in the comments.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part III

This is the conclusion to a series; the first part is here. The second is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Context and environment

Surroundings matter enormously in many contexts, and dating is a major one. Enough people who are dating form a dating market, and you should see this podcast and its transcript for details about markets. It can be important to change contexts if the current context is bad. Particularly bad contexts for straight guys include the military, engineering schools, rural areas, and Silicon Valley. My high school context was very bad and my college context very good. The ratio of men to women in a given situation has more short-term impact on success or failure than almost any other variable.

Let me tell another story to illustrate this. My fiancée went to Arizona State University for undergrad and she says that at ASU she didn’t like the pretty one, which is baffling to me. Maybe she felt that way presumably because a lot of the culture there revolves around sorority girls, bleached blond hair, and so forth. Nonetheless that she feels she got little attention seems insane to me.

Still, now we’re in New York City, and other guys hit on her all the time; she might be in the right cultural environment for her temperament. There are lots of attractive people in New York, but there’s a much stronger intellectual, change-the-world vibe than there is in Arizona (or L.A.).

The above paragraphs remind me of another point that’s applicable when you, the guy reading this, starts to get successful: If you’re going to be with a high-status, attractive woman, other guys are going to hit on her. If she responds to that in a really positive way you have a problem. But it’s going to happen. If you’re in a relationship you’ll find other women hitting on you too, albeit usually in a less obvious and less overt way. In high school and college, a lot of the smartest guys have exit options ready to go in the event they leave their relationship or their girlfriend leaves them; girls like guys with options and like guys who other girls have approved.

It’s also possible to check on girls in a relationship in a reasonable way. For example, we were part of a group in Arizona, and one guy was my fiancée’s colleague, and he eventually moved away. A couple years later they were chatting on Facebook, and he was like, “Are you still with Jake?” She said yes, and he replied, “Well, that’s too bad. If you break up, call me.” Which is a way you hit on someone without being a giant asshole about it. She told me about it and I was like, “Well, that’s fair.” People do break up for various reasons.

This illustrates another point: if you’re with a woman who wants to leave, she’s going to leave, either cleanly and reasonably or in a foot-dragging, poisonous way. You can’t force a person to stay. Desirable people are always in short supply. Learning to live with loss is part of learning to live with success.

To return to market issues, I don’t think I would’ve thrived at ASU or the University of Arizona as an undergrad: the bro-ish frat types seem to be optimized for those schools, and I wasn’t either one. I didn’t aspire to go to them. If you’re like I was in high school, you shouldn’t either, regardless of whether your friends are a fratty, party-down types. I did reasonably really well with women in college because I was a) athletic by the standards of my school, b) had learned a lot through painful trial and error in high school, and c) my school was about 60% female and 40% male. That meant there were always single girls around who were looking for guys. Friends who went to engineering schools had the opposite experience, since those schools were 60 – 70% male; some would have been better served romantically by majoring in engineering at big public schools.

If you’re in high school you’ll likely find it difficult or impossible to dramatically change your environment in the short term. There aren’t good solutions for you. Sorry. I don’t believe in telling comforting lies, however, and I do believe that some problems don’t have real or good solutions. I wish I’d admitted so earlier.

Miscellaneous

* The way a girl who says no will sometimes say yes if you find another girl. If one girl says no, move on. It is at best extremely difficult and more likely impossible to change someone’s initial response. To the extent it can be done, it can be done through rivalry.

* It is very hard, if not impossible, to fix most broken people. Don’t try. If you get with a girl who has very serious mental health problems, or makes very bad choices, let her be someone else’s problems. You don’t need to fix the world, and broken people can be dangerous. If you’re a straight guy you’re presumably not too worried about dating guys who are fundamentally broken, but women with serious mental issues can be really bad.

If you identify someone like this, let her go. If you’re inexperienced you might be bad at identifying this kind of person, but if you do, keep your distance. Move on. Don’t return their emails, texts, and phone calls.

* I’ve gone through very promiscuous phases and very monogamous phases, and this is probably typical of a lot of college / urban young people who aren’t participating in some religious sub-culture and who are paying attention to sex and dating.

* Most of the world’s major religions discourage sex for reasons that probably made sense in say the year 1,000 but may or may not make sense anymore. Decide for yourself whether a set of rules and principles for running a society in the year 1,000 make sense in a modern, urbanized, industrialized society.

* I’d emphasize this: “a shockingly large amount of human social life, or like intellectual life, or other life boils down to trying to prove that you’re not a moron and trying to test to see if other people are.” The sooner you learn to do this, the better.

* So much of life consists of defaults. Understanding and in some circumstances getting away from those defaults is vital. The Internet can actually help enormously in this regard by making a lot of information much more available—for those willing to seek it.

* Schools like prestige because it makes the schools look good; parents like prestige for similar reasons, and because they want their children to be economically independent. But prestige isn’t necessarily that good or important for average people. Success in school isn’t essential to success with women. Prestige as conceived by schools and parents isn’t necessary or often  even helpful for success with women, and it may be counterproductive. In the long term we’re all dead and there is no absolute definition for prestige.

* What people say and what people do are often vastly different. What they do counts ten times as much as what they say. Take note of people whose behaviors habitually don’t match their words. With women, if she wants to be with you but does anything else except be with you, she doesn’t want to be with you. In this and many life domains, it should be HELL YES or no.

* When someone says no, take it gracefully and move on. “No” is permission and encouragement to do other things.

* You will very rarely if ever truly know another human being, and another human being will rarely if ever truly know you. Accept it and be ready to be surprised.

* People who don’t read usually don’t know much (or they know a lot about a single, narrow area that’s usually related to their work). A good book distills years or decades of experience, insight, and knowledge into a single volume that can be read over a couple of hours. Consider that when you’re allocating your time.

Not the best

In most domains I’m not the best. You don’t have to be the “best” either. I’m not the best athlete, I’m (probably) not the best intellectual (depending on one’s definition), I don’t make the most money, I don’t have the coolest job, I’m not the most outgoing, I’m not the best conversationalist, I don’t have the best sense of humor. But in all of these domains I’m above average and by now I’ve been above average for a long time, and that’s a huge advantage over guys who don’t even try. Success in any domain starts with trying.

But trying can be scary because it comes with it the possibility of failure. It took me a long time to embrace failure as a part of the process that leads to success. The link in the preceding sentence goes to Megan McArdle’s book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing ell is the Key to Success. In it she writes of the “deep, soul-crushing periods of misery following stupid mistakes that kept me awake until the small hours of the morning in a fog of anxiety and regret.” But while that was obviously horrible:

It was only later—much later—that I saw the wreckage of my previous hopes become the foundation for something bigger and better.

Writers in particular are terrible procrastinators because they were good at English in school. They know on some level that no actual piece of writing is as good as it seems in their heads. The trick in becoming a productive writer is to either have tons of deadlines or to realize that an actualized piece of writing is always better than a perfect piece of writing that only exists in the head. And “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure” is a great piece in which seven writers reflect on failure. Success also rarely comes from not failing, since not failing implies not trying; success comes from failing, learning, and then trying again. In the real world there are no no-lose propositions.

In most domains, even the ones I’m now “good” at, I’ve failed in some respect, and I’m still not the best. But that’s okay. For most guys, being the absolute best at a thing is overrated compared to being above average in a range of domains. During my initial interview with Tucker I related the story of Scott Adams, who has said he’s not the best artist and he’s not the funniest guy but he combines both effectively in Dilbert (he also discusses the role of failure in his own life). Combining disparate skills is still underrated. Steven Berlin Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From is good on this subject.

Most guys don’t have to be the best athlete or musician. They should, however, be better than other guys, and the amount of effort it takes to be “better” is often much smaller than anticipated (and also depends on the comparison group). I’m not and never have been the best athlete, but by now I’m probably better than 80% of other guys simply because I care enough to run and lift. This is a huge, key advantage, because women do evaluate men based on physicality, especially in short-term situations; arguably women can afford to be choosier than men in short-term situations because women are warier of those situations.

Anyway, as I said earlier, this essay was supposed to be a couple notes but it turned into more, in part because I suffer from logorrhea and in part because most of the content in this essay is already drifting around in my head.

Links: Markets, sexuality, public transport, and failure

* “A Rare (Earth) Case of Wisdom,” or “markets work.” That the latter is still worth saying in 2014 is distressing.

* “The Boardroom and the Bedroom: How both dating and finance have been screwed by the Internet” is entertaining throughout but consider that both may raise the returns to people with long-term orientations as all the short-term oriented people flee the market. Plus those who tire of volatility will return to fundamentals. Who has written the Random Walk Down Wall Street of dating? I only invest in index funds.

* Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure.

* “Public Transit: All About Density.” Supporting dense development means supporting the environment.

* “Why Schools Can’t Teach Sex Ed in the Internet Age,” and, perhaps relatedly though on another site, “Everybody Sexts.”

* Markets matter in general and mating markets matter in particular.

* Canon G7-X review; I have an RX-100, bought used, and it is excellent.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part II

This is the second part in a series; The first part is here.

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast. You should go listen or read the transcript. This essay grew out of my notes for that podcast.

Empathy

I did some online dating years ago, primarily in Seattle and a little bit in Tucson, and some of the girls I got to know showed me their message streams. Some messages were disgusting or outright idiotic, but most they were boring and poorly thought out: “Hey.” “How are you?” “Your profile is interesting.” Pretty girls get dozens of them every week. Hell, even average girls do. I was thinking, “If I were a girl, I’d get turned off by all this crap too.”

Most of the girls I talked to—even the ones who just wanted to get laid—were in fact tired of all that crap. They got so many low-quality messages, or messages from guys who’d copied and pasted an initially clever come-on but couldn’t follow-up. Those women wanted something a little different. They were bored, which is a point I’ll come back to later. Dating for women is different in important ways than dating for men, and I wish I’d understood that sooner.

Reading those messages also explained why I was doing fairly well, since I was deliberately trying to say something non-obvious and ideally slightly lascivious without being gross. That class of message stood out. Being tall and in shape obviously helped too. My photos were pretty good. I didn’t spend much time playing games, and if women didn’t want to meet quickly I would stop messaging them (which would often lead those who were reluctant to meet for whatever reason to want to meet).

The girls from the Internet taught me something else useful too: some said they liked online dating because it let them meet guys without their bitchy, judgmental, hypocritical friends around (they didn’t use those words, but that’s what they meant). Without the chorus of shame squawking in their ears, real desires emerge. The real upholders of the sexual double standard are actually women, not men.

Somewhere along the way I realized that lots of women are lonely and looking for connection, and that loosened me up as far as approaching women and asking them out. I’ve asked out women on the street, in buses (if you’re a guy on the prowl you should love public transportation), in grocery lines, on running trails. Usually the conversation starts with something observational, then moves to whatever is going on that day or week. If you have nothing going on, get something going on and get talking about it. Energetic people are on average more attractive than sluggards.

I’m still not inured to rejection—is anyone?—but if a girl on the street says no, it doesn’t matter. Move on. She’ll forget, and perhaps I’ll make some other girl’s day, and she’ll go home and tell her friends that a cute stranger was hitting on her.

This isn’t something I experienced directly, but a friend’s recent adventures helped teach me too. She’s posted to a well-known amateur porn site (without her face in the shots). On this site she gets a lot of responses from viewers, and she’s shown them to my fiancée and me. They’re voluminous, amazingly bad, and unintentionally hilarious. Hundreds of guys write to her, almost all of them saying some variation on “You’re so hot” or “I want to fuck you.” And these guys have no idea where she lives.

The messages were pathetic, and when we were reading them my fiancée said something like, “This is what all women have to deal with.” In that moment so much became clear to me. I knew that, intellectually, but seeing the really low-value, unsuccessful messages from guys on the Internet reinforced that point. It’s such a waste of time to send those messages. They’re more a fantasy projection that a real attempt to meet women, but every minute or second they spend sending “Ur so hot show me ur butthole” is a minute or second they’re not doing something useful. If I were a woman I couldn’t imagine looking for quality men on amateur porn sites. Yet these are doing so, and the way they’re doing it is all wrong, and yet they persist in doing it the wrong way.

And our friend is not the primary motivator for them. She’s reasonably attractive but not incredibly spectacular—most guys and girls who have a taste for other girls would be happy to date her. But you won’t see her on a Victoria’s Secret runway. she’s getting this kind of response, which is a distillation and intensification of what many women experience otherwise. In real life most guys won’t go up to women and say “show me ur butthole” for good reason; online, with the cloak of pseudonymity, they’re willing to. In real life, guys would probably like to say that, but they can’t or don’t.

On a separate subject, reading Norah Vincent’s book Self-Made Man taught me about the lack of empathy women have for men. So did stories told by women about gross and very insistent guys, or nasty comments from parents and other girls. Reading “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis,” since it showed how fear and loathing around sexual behaviors get inculcated in women from an early age.

Looks count

Looks and style matter, and like many nerds (and especially nerds growing up in nerd-infested places like Seattle) I wanted to believe they didn’t. But people make snap judgments for reasons that I now realize are quite good: we communicate a huge amount of information based on what we wear, how we hold ourselves, and so forth. For both men and women wearing clothes that fit matters. Women learn this almost immediately; it took me until I was 25 to figure it out.

Still, when I was 14 or 15 I started lifting and running consistently relatively early, and that was a definitive advantage that continues to be an advantage—not only in dating but in long-term relationships. If you’re old enough to know people who’ve been in long-term relationships, you’ll have seen the pattern in which one or both parties in a long-term relationship let themselves go, which usually coincides taking their partner for granted. That’s probably a mistake at any time or place, but it’s really a mistake in contemporary American society, since in this society and culture the rigors of the dating market never really end. That may be a bad thing but it is a thing. You can’t let yourself go, both for your partner’s sake and because you never know when you’re going to be involuntarily dumped back into the market.

Younger people probably shouldn’t be focused on very long-term relationships because they change so much. I didn’t have a somewhat stable, developed personality until I was 24 or so. People evolve through their lives but that evolution is particularly rapid and pronounced from puberty well into the 20s. If you’re 20, chances are you won’t be dating the same person for five years. Understand that you’re going to be on the market a lot, and it’s difficult or impossible to hide from market tests.

Guys who pay attention to their posture, to what they wear, and to their workouts are in the game. Guys who don’t probably aren’t. That doesn’t mean guys have to become obsessed with these issues—I never have been—but it does mean being aware of them and taking care to do them right.

The last part is here.

Getting good with women and how I’ve done almost everything in my life wrong: Part I

An interview between me and Tucker Max about how I used to suck with women and now I’m okay just went up on his Mating Grounds podcast, and you should go listen or read the transcript. Then again, when I told my fiancée that I used to suck with women and now I’m okay, she said, “Wait, when did that happen?”, so at least one person thinks I’m falsely advertising.

Let’s take this paragraph to wait for you to listen to the podcast and come back.

Okay. I hope you enjoyed. When Tucker first asked if I wanted to be on the podcast, I thought I should say “No” because I think I’ve had a growing up trajectory that hits the broad bounds of normal. But a lot of the guys listening to the podcast are in the 13 – 22 age range—in other words, they’re in the place I was. So I began thinking about what I would tell my earlier self and what I think I’ve learned. The answer turned out to be “quite a bit,” though most of it is likely to be obvious to older guys who have their lives together.

This started as notes, eventually morphed into paragraphs, and then by accident I had an essay. Call it a hazard of the writing life.

Growing up

Recently my Dad said, correctly, that I was a pretty weird kid. When your parents say you’re weird, you know it’s true. I don’t entirely know now why I was weird from ages 10 – 14 or so and I still don’t know why I chose a lot of non-functional behaviors, like obsessively playing video games and Magic Cards. I do have an exacting, precise, nerdish disposition, but that alone doesn’t explain why I was such a pill.

Eventually and with much effort I grew out of that phase, and despite the unpleasantness at the time I did learn some useful, actionable things. Like: choose hobbies that increase your overall attractiveness. Those are very rarely video games. Almost no girl is like, “I want a level 50 wizard.” No girl is saying, “I want a guy who gets home from school and watches five hours of TV.” They want the guy who is making the TV or the music, or who is an athlete, or who has some other status markers that matter to both men and to women.

In high school and college in particular, sports and music are probably the biggest, most prominent, and most important actionable things. If you have the choice between playing the latest video game or playing your guitar, choose guitar. If you have a Friday night in which you can play video games with your friends, like you always do, or go do almost anything else, choose the other thing. Try to make the other thing happen. The number of women who fantasize about a highly ranked StarCraft player is low. My fiancée was listening to the Podcast and heard me describe playing Starcraft on Korean servers, and she said, “How many hours did you spend playing?” The answer is… depressing.

As an aside, choosing things that are “actionable” matters too. To some extent, thoughts and beliefs that do nothing whatsoever to change actions don’t matter. So if you’re reading this and thinking, “I suck” or “I suck with women” or whatever, that may be interesting, but the only really interesting thing is the steps you can take right now to make things better. For me, quitting video games was in and of itself a huge boost.

There are certain domains that simply don’t interest women or interest them very little. Video games is one such domain. Sports as a spectator activity are another: very few want to know about the travails of the Knicks, or how the ’92 NBA Championships or whatever changed the world. There are of course exceptions. But guys who play a ton of video games, as I did, or watch four hours of sports a day are, all else being equal, handicapping themselves. I’m not saying you should never play video games or watch sports—plenty of successful guys do—but they should be done in measured ways. As a teenager I was for whatever reason incapable of playing video games in a measured way. They became a substitute, rather than a complement, to the real world, and that is a problem.

There are other, more valuable domains that still don’t in and of themselves interest women much. I’ve never seen women discuss among themselves Unix systems programming, or for that matter any kind of programming. Few women are hunters, or deeply interested in the minutia of cars. It is possible to attract women as a second-order effect by doing these things—tech millionaires probably do okay if they’re famous, and domain mastery can be sexy in the right circumstances—but they’re not as good as being an athlete, or a musician, or a comedian, or better still an athletic musician who does some comedy too.

What else? I wish I’d learned when I was younger how to relax. Talk to people. Try to have fun. I wish I’d understood that almost everyone is having the same problems and feelings I was, but they weren’t expressing those feelings. That includes all the embarrassing experiences and sensations. I wish I’d realized that funny stories often follow a simple formula: they are embarrassment + time.

It sounds insanely simple but for whatever reason I was really bad at interacting with people, and I terrified of social judgment. But that judgment isn’t actually all that important, and most people will respect effort more than no effort at all.

I was really afraid of girls when I was an early-ish teenager, for reasons not obvious to me anymore. It’s really hard to debug the mind of the 13-year-old you used to be. I don’t think it was totally logical. Maybe it was evolutionary. Maybe it was my own psychology at the time. I had a disproportionate fear of negative consequences. Maybe I was scared of being isolated than I already felt. I hadn’t realized that in many if not most domains, any individual can choose to be in the game or out of the game, and I chose to be out of the game.

Change came slowly. At some point too I began thinking about most of the magazines that women read and the shows they watch, and they’re all about relationships, all the time. The vast majority of women are intensely interested in men and attracting men. Seems obvious in hindsight, but it’s useful to state explicitly. The metrics they use to evaluate men are similar to but subtly different than the ones men use to evaluate women. So many attractive women are insecure about their bodies, and they make themselves more insecure by looking at all these Photoshopped models. It’s crazy. In some ways women have more unreasonable standards for themselves than men do for them!

I also had almost no positive role models for dealing with women. I didn’t have older cousins or brothers or whatever, and I wasn’t easily mentored (this is one reason why I think Mate, the book Tucker and Geoff Miller are writing, is so important). My ideas about women came from Disney movies or pop culture or fantasy novels, none of which are terribly accurate or do a good job of representing what women are like. In advertising everyone is ready to fall into bed all the time, or buying the right jeans makes you sleep with someone.

In fantasy novels of the sort I read women, to put it politely, the psychology of the female characters did not (and does not now) map well onto actual women. To put it less politely, these novels idiotically portrayed women as either highly virtuous prizes to be won by male heroes or villains or as evil sluts. This generalization includes the fantasy novels written by women.

In actuality, of course, the vast majority of women are neither and do not like being treated as highly virtuous prizes or as evil sluts, and by now I don’t even like using the word “slut” for reasons articulated well by Mark Liberman, since “it projects bad associations based on a framework of ideas that I don’t endorse.” By now, too, I’ve also realized that most sexual shaming occurs from women to women, rather than from men to women, and most man to woman sexual shaming occurs because the former can’t get the latter and retreats to social attacks as compensation.

Teachers or other adult figures didn’t help me much either, and being a teenager can be very isolating in American society because one only has equally ignorant peers for information. Teachers have strong incentives not to be level with students, because if they tell students important truths about social relations or male-female relationships, parents will go ballistic. As kids begin discovering essential truths they often feel “the world [is] corrupt from end to end,” but we then propagate the cycle with our own children.

For me getting hobbies helped. I did notice that people who were more successful just did a lot of stuff. Hobbies meant running and working out. They meant getting jobs. They meant writing for the newspaper. They meant reading. Reading is essential, and when I moved on from fantasy I mostly read literary fiction and interesting nonfiction. Both helped me develop more empathy and understand what other people feel, even if most people won’t admit those feelings to anyone but their closest friends.

Recognizing that other people were doing the sorts of things I wanted to be doing helped. What were they doing that made them successful, and what was I doing that made me unsuccessful? I began asking those kinds of questions and fishing for answers, which took a long time to come to fruition. Have you ever been in a situation in which the obvious losers of a group call the obvious winners of a group losers in order to make themselves feel better? Me too. Except that I was among the losers, and I wanted to not be.

Clearly some guys do much better with women than others, and it’s not a bad idea to figure out what those guys are doing. The same is true of women: I’ve met women who are great at flirting, who are great at making guys feel like a million bucks, and who are pragmatic about the guys around them. They do great. I’m thinking of one girl in particular who I was friends with in high school, who consistently had boyfriends and fuckbuddies and so forth because she was fantastic at making guys feel great about themselves. She smiled at guys she liked, laughed a lot, made plans to meet (and didn’t flake), and so forth. She not surprisingly batted way out of her league and had a spectacular sex life for someone her age.

Reading

No single book from that period stands out as definitive, but in college I discovered evolutionary biology, which was tremendous. Evolutionary biology gets unfairly maligned in various forums, and the pop version of it sometimes get fairly maligned in others, but reading it suddenly made a lot of previously inexplicable behaviors explicable. Why do girls say they hate dating assholes yet keep dating assholes? Why are “nice” guys so often unsuccessful (the scare quotes around “nice” are key). Why do so many people say various things and then act contrary to the things they say? Why is Saturday night behavior so often regretted Sunday morning?

I wouldn’t argue that evolutionary biology has all the answers about every facet of human behavior, and I would argue that people diverge widely along many axes, but I will argue that evolutionary biology describes the way average human male and female reproductive incentives differ and how that gives rise to most of the observable conflict one sees on average between the sexes. I’d also argue that understanding evolutionary biology is one way of consciously overcoming whatever ingrained behavior might be primarily genetic; if you want to act contrary to what you think the default path might be, it helps to understand the default path and how it came to be. Where did I start? I don’t remember. Miller’s book The Mating Mind found its way to me early. So did The Evolution of Desire. Both are excellent places to start.

There are also a reasonable number of people—though they’ve got to be a small percentage, for obvious reasons—for whom understanding sex and dating simply isn’t a priority, and if you’re one of those people, I don’t know why you’re reading this essay. Those people presumably go find other productive things to do.

Most of what I began to do in high school is in the podcast. I mentioned getting a job (briefly at an Old Navy, then at a YMCA, and later in college as a lifeguard, which I should’ve started in high school). I started doing simple stuff like… talking to people, and saying yes to events, and so on. For someone who was pathologically unhappy from ages 10 – 14, that was a big step.

There wasn’t a definitive, epiphanic moment for me. Progress was slow, and had I somehow known what I know now it would’ve been much faster. But I did notice that when I was a teenager—and really for my entire life—I’ve heard people confidently state stuff that is totally wrong. In high school heard all these guys bragging about all this stuff that at the time I couldn’t judge, really, but that I now know to be at best wrong and at worst incomplete.

Let’s take one example: I’ve heard, and you probably have too, guys confidently make pronouncements like, “Women just want money” (Tucker and Miller did a whole podcast on the subject.) But I know plenty of guys who do really well with lots of great women yet don’t have a lot of money. Musicians are a classic example. It is true that having “enough” money helps, but the amount a guy has to have to really hit the gold digger set is astonishingly high—so high that it’s probably not worth pursuing if your goal in a modern Western country is to maximize your success, defined however you’d define it, with women.

One can see this all over, but to take one literary example, think of Matt from Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me. The novel is about a cheer team ruled by a top mean girl, only to be roiled when a young coach shows up (this sounds like a teen novel, but it’s not: the rivalry leads to murder, affairs, and to the real-world issues rather than “young-adult”-literature-world issues). But Matt, the coach’s sad sack husband, works all the time.

His wife cheats on for many reasons, but boredom is a prominent one. This is how Matt appears to the novel’s protagonist and to his wife: “He’s working. He never, ever stops.” Or: “He is always on his cell phone and he always looks tired.” Or: “He works very hard, and he’s not interesting at all.” Among many contemporary women boredom is the greatest enemy. Most have “enough” money, and even those who don’t are often bored by their low-skill service-sector jobs or by their schooling and would rather choose fun, exciting, louche guys over stable boring guys. That may be a fault of the women themselves—now more than ever a propensity to boredom is really a character fault in those lacking curiosity—but it’s still pervasive enough to merit mentioning.

A guy can’t cure every woman’s boredom and nor should he try. I’ve tried in my own life, without much success. It took me shockingly long to figure out that I’m the wrong guy for a lot of girls—if you don’t like books, or talking about ideas, or whatever, or if you want to go out four nights a week—but I am really, really the right guy for some girls—and those same girls find a lot of guys annoying, shallow, or boring. For example I’ve met girls at book readings, where the baseline crowd is 40+. A girl in her 20s stands out, like I did as a guy at the same age.

Anyway, I won’t say Dare Me is a great novel but it is told via an unusual voice and it is more honest than most novels that might loosely define its genre. It does have a less varnished understanding of how many women feel than most novels. One problem with much narrative art is that it is designed to flatter its readers’ and watchers’ existing prejudices and self-conceptions. It takes a little more effort to find art that doesn’t. Dare Me has interesting things going on for those who care to look closely at it. Matt has an important lesson for guys: he misallocates resources because he assumes that coach just wants more money.

She doesn’t: she wants attention, she wants sex, she wants to feel desired—she wants the things most women want. Money is great, but in most situations most guys don’t need that much money. They need to be able to buy drinks and event tickets and pay some amount of rent. They need enough cash to have clothes that fit, and that amount is arguably lower than it ever has been thanks to “fast fashion” and related developments. But they don’t need enough money for luxury cars or exotic vacations or flying first class or the many other things that guys imagine will get them laid. That’s one of many important points Miller makes in Spent, too.

The amount of money needed to play that game is absurd. It means making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, or having a million dollars or more. For most guys, the kinds of jobs and businesses that yield that kind of cash consume way too much time and energy. For most guys, unless you love the work for its own sake—if you get your jollies from building website backends or financial accounting, do it—playing the money game is a waste of time. Tucker and Miller discuss this more at the links in the paragraph above.

I’m not entirely sure where the association with money and romantic success comes from; perhaps it’s from art, or from the fact that guys who are ridiculously, absurdly wealthy can use their money to attract women, but even then they’re a) probably not having the highest quality relationships and b) again, that domain is blocked for most guys most of the time. By definition we can’t all be in the top 5%. The key is understanding when being in the top 5% or top 1% matters and when being average or above average is sufficient.

Most women also aren’t gold diggers and don’t like being treated as such. The number of actual gold diggers is small, but, as with sociopaths or bipolar people, they can be quite costly if they’re not recognized rapid.

You’re better off focusing on knowledge and activities that don’t require tons of money. In addition, the more you as a guy reading this interact with women, the better off you’ll be. You’ll start to empathize with women, and that will help. I’ve had a couple experiences that really helped me in that regard.

Part II is here.

Why don’t more men go into teaching? Fear of The Accusation

In the NYT Motoko Rich asks “Why Don’t More Men Go Into Teaching?“, and he gives a variety of answers but not an important one: any male teacher is only one accusation away from having his entire career derailed and a potentially lengthy, onerous police investigation. I thought about going into teaching, but stories from existing male teachers were persuasively dissuading.

At the K-12 level, you’ve got all the problems that all teachers face—obnoxious “do something” administrators, angry parents, medium- to low-status, etc.—plus the need to teach defensively and to think about how any words or actions can be interpreted in the worst light possible. Being one-on-one with a student is dangerous. It’s often normal to touch someone for emphasis, or hug someone in a non-sexual manner, but that can’t happen. In short, many of the little things that are part of normal human interactions are forbidden or dangerous.

William Deresiewicz just wrote Excellent Sheep a polemic about education and what students need; one excerpt, “Students crave emotional mentorship from their teachers that their parents can’t give them. There’s nothing wrong with that,” describes how students want and need mentorship. Male teachers can’t really provide that at the K – 12 level. School policies and culture are ironically curtailing what is arguably the best part of education. It’s been said that guys in foxholes no longer fight for their country or their ideals, but for the guys next to them. I suspect that many students—and I’ve experienced this—don’t try to excel in a given class for the specific skills or the subject or the future job. They excel because they’re compelled to by the person in front of them. Yet that person can’t forma genuine connection without being able to spend at least some one-on-one time with some students.

The dangers are real and the cultural feelings are pervasive, though they rarely rise up to the level of official discourse. Still, check out the stories in “Teachers of reddit, have you ever had a student try to seduce you? What happened? [serious] nsfw,” or numerous similar threads. They reveal a level of well-founded paranoia on the part of male teachers.

Teachers deal with hundreds of students every year. It only takes one grandstanding neurotic, to use Camille Paglia’s phrase, to create a huge amount of work and a level of gossip and innuendo that could take years to dissipate—if it ever does.* The paranoid attitude is also not limited to K – 12. When I was a first-year student at the University of Arizona, I was driving to L.A. to see my family for Thanksgiving and told some students, many of whom were from Southern California, that if they wanted a ride they could hitch one. That ride could be worth hundreds of dollars, relative to a flight. I also went to school three thousand miles from home, where I got a lot of help with matters like this—mostly from my cross country coach, but to a lesser extent from professors and others. I can appreciate what it’s like to show up somewhere and have no resources.

Nonetheless, I told some other grad students that I’d told students they could get a ride to California, and the other grad students were shocked. That’s so dangerous! Are you crazy? What if something… happens?

They’d internalized the defensive mindset. Their reaction helps explain why so much teaching is so poor. And I was dealing with legal adults most of whom lived autonomously! Nonetheless, the other grad students were expressing a real fear. The fear that male K – 12 teachers live with is legitimate and governs their behavior. .

So why put up with the usual problems teachers face if a teacher can’t even do the job really well? Answer: Don’t.


* Paglia writes that she favors campus efforts to deal with genuine sexual harassment and rape, but that “I was concerned about the possibility of false charges by grandstanding neurotics, with whom I’d had quite enough contact at Bennington. Every sexual harassment code should incorporate stiff penalties for false accusation, presently rarely mentioned.”

Links: The will to power, Peter Watts, chairs, prostitution, empathy, Beowulf, and more

* “Many men still buy into a false definition of power: feeling obligated to earn money that someone else spends while we die sooner—5.2 years sooner. That’s not power. That’s being a prisoner of the need for love and approval.”

* An interview with Peter Watts.

* “Are you sitting comfortably?” Which reminds me, I need to post a review of the Herman Miller Embody.

* “Dead Media Ain’t Dead: NYT Strikes,” which is on marketing and many other subjects that normally don’t interest me but damn this is compelling.

* An examination of three books criticizing the Ivy Leagues; I am pre-disposed to like them, but see Derek Huang’s comment here.

* The Economist favors legalizing prostitution.

* “What is it like to be a hot girl?

* Beowulf and the tension between Paganism and Christianity, which is a major topic in Sexual Personae and still an unreconciled (and perhaps unreconcilable) force in contemporary life.

* The suburbs made us fat.

* Calling all sad clowns: David Weigel on fame and depression.

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