Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Numbers Game

     [I’m fresh out of ideas for a new piece, so I’ve gone back to the archives for the one below, which first appeared at the old Palace of Reason in 2004. It struck me as appropriate to the season, considering how many New Year’s Resolutions derive from frustration at the quest for love. -- FWP]


    Since I posted the last Sunday Folly, I've received quite a bit of E-mail about my take on inter-gender relations. Some of the notes were complimentary. Many were very unpleasant: sermonettes on my appalling arrogance and sexism. And a few were poignant beyond measure. Herewith, a snippet from one such note, from a fellow whom we shall call (need you ask?) Smith:

    I'd love to do as you suggest, but I've got no one to wear the shoes.

    People keep telling me how many desperate women there are out there, searching in vain for a "good man." Well, damn it all, I'm a good man, and I've been alone for nearly twenty years. I've gone to the clubs, read the lonelyhearts ads, joined the dating services, hung out in art galleries and museums, all the stuff the advice columnists recommend. I get blown off so fast you'd think I'm covered with scabs.

    What does the Curmudgeon Emeritus suggest for me?

    Before I say anything else, I must say this: Smith, if you're reading this, I've been there. I was "between engagements" for a very long time. It's a kind of suffering that the unafflicted can't quite comprehend. Other good men have the same complaint, and there are no pat answers or guaranteed solutions. If there's any balm in knowing that you're not alone, take it from me.

    Second, I'm not going to kick this over to the Curmudgeon. I'm going to try to handle it myself. I'll do my best, but please remember: free advice is usually worth exactly what it costs. This is especially true concerning romance.

    Though what follows will be from a man's perspective, and written as counsel for a man, I believe that it would be equally valid if the genders were reversed. Whether it's valid at all is, of course, a matter of opinion.


    With regard to love, there are about a million fallacies circulating as gospel truths. Our modern era is unusual in many ways, and particularly so as regards our sexual-romantic minefield. Because the risks are large and the difficulties often appear insurmountable, we're unusually prone to believing things that we'd dismiss with a snort if we were in our right minds.

    The worst of these fallacies is that of the One True Love.

    There's nothing in this world quite as unlikely as the prospect of meeting a woman who's "perfect for you": ready for you to love unreservedly and unstintingly, and who'll love you back with equal fervor. It simply doesn't happen. Human beings are much too complex, and too imperfect, for such a fantasy to be made real.

    If you've been looking for "the one," and wondering why you can't find her, you have your answer. Disabuse yourself of the notion that she has to be out there somewhere. You've been putting your energies into a hopeless chase. Until you admit it and reorient yourself, you'll reap naught but misery.

    "The one," or some variation on the theme, is the reason most romances fail. A lot of younger folks carry an idealized picture of romantic bliss in their heads. They insist on comparing their current romance to that picture, and their current beau to the demigoddess of their fantasy. Besides being monstrously unfair to any human lover to do such a thing, it guarantees dissatisfaction from one end of life to the other.

    To insist on "the one" is to insist that some real woman mold herself into a reproduction of your fantasies. It's a demand for a golem, not a wife. Every real lover you'll ever have will be irritable, distractable, ornery, perverse, and independent of mind. How could it be otherwise? Other people never live up to our hopes for them. Not even the best of them, and not even when you've made it crystal-clear what you want and expect.

    But there is one person who has the potential to live up to your hopes for him.

    You know who I'm talking about, don't you?


    I'm no expert on romance. I'm just an engineer who likes to write. But I'm a successful engineer, very highly regarded by my peers, and one of the reasons is that I long ago grasped a handful of fundamental principles about, well, everything:

The Rules:

Reality is independent of your opinions.
It's also indifferent to your desires.
Every situation comes with incentives and constraints. Though you will try to maximize your harvest of the incentives, you must satisfy the constraints.
Effort put toward trying to control the uncontrollable is effort wasted.
The clock is always running; there are no "time outs."

    I can practically hear you muttering, "Yeah, yeah, so what? Only a total bonehead wouldn't know all of that." Well, if that be the case, then to judge by the Romantic State of the Union, there are an awful lot of total boneheads running around loose.


    The reality of American life at the opening of the Twenty-First Century is that the traditional mechanisms by which people found their mates -- church affiliations; involvement in charitable undertakings; introductions through family connections or mutual friends -- have all lost their zap. There are a number of reasons for this, but none of them are controllable, so I'll pass them by without comment. The reader is likely to be more interested in what does work than in what once worked.

    The modern mechanisms -- singles' bars; dating services; singles' personal ads; trolling among coworkers -- are mostly inadequate, too. Now and then, one of them will score a major success for someone, but most of the time, the matches produced by these approaches are fleeting, and end badly. After such a liaison comes to a close, the victims are likely to feel worse than they did beforehand.

    We all think we "ought" to be able to "find someone." Reality thinks otherwise. In fact, reality frowns on the very form of the statement.

    If you're out there "looking for someone" -- worst, if you're "looking for Miss Right" -- you've already taken the wrong trail and are virtually certain to reap disappointment.

    This isn't the way we want it to be, of course. We'd really love to be able to order the Perfect Wife out of a catalog, with a money-back guarantee that she'll meet all the published specifications, and a lifetime no-cost replacement warranty should that ever cease to be the case. Sorry, folks. Sears can only do so much.

    There's a major constraint on your search for a lover that you must respect, ahead of and above any concern for your criteria for her: She'll be a flawed and variable human being, just as you are, and while you're measuring her against your list of desiderata, she'll be doing the same to you.

    Can you control her? No. Dismiss that notion at once. You can't even select her with a high certainty that she possesses the qualities you seek. A human being is an iceberg; only a tiny portion shows at any given time. You might not live long enough to know her in her totality.

    Can you control her evaluation of you? No. She could be insane, you know. I had a girlfriend like that, once. As soon as she sobered up, she left me.

    If she's not insane, you can influence her evaluation of you. The only element in the tableau over which you have any control is yourself: your character and behavior. By building a better you, you can improve your prospects for gaining her good opinion -- and keeping it.

    You don't have a lot of time to work. Most of us form our opinions of most of us within the first couple of minutes after being introduced. There's no way to recover from a major blunder committed in that precious opening interval. There's no way to recover if she adjudges you vapid, colorless, or spineless, either.

    And always remember this: You don't know who she is, what sort of baggage she's carrying, or what she values. You don't even know if she's in the room with you. Any unattached woman you meet might be your future spouse. You have to be all that you can be, the best of you, every minute of every hour of every day. There are no time outs.


    This romance stuff sounds pretty stressful, doesn't it? Well, that's because it is. The old methods were less stressful, but they required a lower level of expectation than the typical unmated American carries today. Everyone expected to marry a virgin who lived nearby, spend his whole life in the same geographic locale, work forty or fifty years for the same employer, rear children, compromise on many matters and bear a host of disappointments in stoic silence. A lot of the decision-making was left in the hands of others. That allowed people to relax a bit, strange as it sounds.

    Would I turn the clock back if I could? What's the superlative of "Hell, no!" -- ? There was a lot of marital misery bravely borne, back when. Just because our ancestors bore it bravely didn't make it any less miserable. People are generally happier today, despite the romantic morass we must navigate.

    But our ancestors did grasp a particular truth that we have largely lost. The revival of that truth, and its acceptance as a guide for our attitudes and our behavior, would go a long way toward easing the romantic frustrations of millions of Americans.

    Love isn't just something you feel. It's also something you do.

    There are millions of women you could love. If you happen upon one who's agreeable to the idea, then why not love her?

    I'm not talking about having copious sex with lots of near-strangers. If you were thinking along those lines, you've missed the point completely.

    You can love anyone whose fundamental values and moral standards are compatible with yours. The inverse is also true: if her values and standards are not compatible with yours, there's no point in trying, no matter how good she looks in Spandex® and stilettos. So let's imagine that Miss Jones is there with you right now, and would find you acceptable on that basis. (It does have to be reciprocal, of course, but it usually is.) What would someone who loves Miss Jones, and was married to her, do? How would he behave?

    The essence of it is that he would try to make her feel happy and secure.

    Now, if we recall the assumption of uncertainty -- you don't know who she is, or whether she's in the same room with you even now -- what would that dictate about your behavior toward every woman?

    No, you don't have to rub all their feet or buy them all minks. But you should conduct yourself the way a good husband would, when out in public with his wife. The "in public" clause restricts certain gestures and frees you from others. Fanny-grabbing would be disallowed, but you'd also be exempted from having to wash their cars or take out their garbage.

    Miss Jones will notice. Take my word for it; today, the degree of gallantry displayed by the average unmated American male is so low that even modest efforts to do better will make you as conspicuous as a pearl on black velvet.

    You needn't trouble yourself about the ones who look for reasons to take offense. These are not Miss Joneses. In fact, they've saved you work with their boorishness, by narrowing the field. As for their denunciations of your "chauvinism" or "sexism," if you know your behavior to be impeccable, why should the maledictions of viragoes concern you? Miss Jones might be in the next room. Smile at their pretensions and pass on.

    Miss Jones will notice that, too.


    It's frequently said among women that "you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince." There's an uncomfortable amount of truth to that, these days. Most men are inadequately courteous, obsessed with their own drives and pleasures, and generally oblivious to the desires and prerogatives of others. But it also underscores the need for patience and perseverance, something women have traditionally understood better than we.

    Let's imagine that you've forsworn all your illusions about hooking up with a ravisher from the cover of a pink-and-purple novel, no longer think romantic intoxication is your due, have ceased to think you can mold the character, behavior, and opinions of others, and are simply resolved to be the best person you can be -- but Miss Jones still hasn't appeared. What then? Hemlock?

    Nope. "What then" is, in the words of the poet, "to keep on keepin' on."

    After all, you're already doing it right. You can prove it; simply refer your critics to "The Rules." So why let impatience dissuade you from the proper course?

    You might need to widen your social circle a bit. You might need to put yourself in the way of a greater number of contacts. But you emphatically would not profit from going back to the bars, the dating services, the lonelyhearts' columns, et cetera ad nauseam infinitam.

    Just be the best that you can be. To love is to value another equally to oneself, such that one sees the other's needs, desires, and overall happiness as an integral part of one's own. If you keep being the very model of a courteous, considerate, responsible gentleman, you've maximized your chances. You've put the most attractive conceivable lure into the waters. A catch is not guaranteed, but no other bait would give you a better shot.

    And if, by some mischance, you should go all the way to the end of your life unmated, you'll nevertheless be able to say, "I was the best possible me." What could be better than that? Aside from a weekend with Angelina Jolie, that is?

    (tee hee)

3 comments:

  1. I have a few suggestions to add to that:

    - Consider your most common places to be - if it's sports bars, games, playing video games - all of these probably have fewer women around. If you go to museums, art galleries, "chick flix" - yes, there are women there, but most of them will be attending with OTHER women (I'm not talking about gayness, just the girl herd). When girls are together, they work VERY hard to keep one of them from talking to men - they are catty, and will ridicule all of the available men. It's their way of making sure that one of them does not find an actual relationship (they're OK with hook-ups, just not anything that will interfere with the girl relationship).

    So what's the solution? Find places you might like to be, that will have UNATTACHED women there (no girl gangs). Gyms - which has the advantage of getting you in better shape. Cooking demonstrations. Charitable events (not the fancy dances - as a single, you'll be the rarity) - fun runs (you don't have to run, but help set up the event and cheer the participants on. Collect for charity - it gives you a reason to talk to a woman. If you're in school, tutor - even if the person isn't a women, they might know some.

    In short - interact. Dress neatly at all times. Show courtesy to servers - some woman may be making a judgement, who might know an available woman.

    On a date, don't be so needy that you agree with everything she says. Challenge her (nicely) - women do like a man with cojones.

    Good luck. Make the seeking process such that, if you don't find someone, you become a person who you would like to spend time with.

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  2. Too much thinking.Linda and Francis, you folks are reaching. No one goes through the thought processes you lay out here, especially young and beautiful women and men aged 30-60. Those folks, women in their prime and men in THEIR prime, don't consider all this because the opposite sex gravitates to them without all the effort you depict. Young women have no problems finding men, slightly older-to old men have even fewer problems finding women than beautiful young women have finding a young men. It all depends on your age and the "market".

    I think men in their twenties need to be patient with women until the women are in their thirties. Conversely, women in their late twenties on up have to be patient because at that age, men hold the reins. It depends on the era of YOUR age and sometimes, you have to be patient.

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  3. In reading all this I do not see the solution to the most pressing problem - not the finding but the keeping. Everyone is going to have some problems, Accept that nobody is perfect and communicate with each other. Divorce should never be an option (except in cases of extreme cruelty). Honor, respect and love each other, always encourage the positive and work through the negatives. There will be many times when you are frustrated, take a break, have a tea, take time to remember how much work it takes to make a masterpiece of a marriage. Be happy with what you have, tell the difference between wants and needs - Society today is full of wants and it will crash under the weight of unrealistic demands. Make what you have stronger than society's wants.

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