I’m Nice Men



You may have been wondering where I’ve been for the last three months, and whether The 1585 still existed.  It does.  As for where I’ve been, I was just out of it for a while, and exactly why will be the subject of this essay.  Anyway, I’m back now.  I hope you weren’t worried.  Actually, roughly half the people reading this are probably Facebook friends with me and have been seeing my updates for the past three months about closing out the season at Coney Island and the time I saw Courtney Love in that lingerie store in SoHo, so I guess you couldn’t have been too worried.  I must admit, part of me was holding out for President Obama to suddenly break off mid-sentence at a press conference and scream “WHERE ARE YOU, SEXO GRAMMATICUS?” like in Superman II, but I guess he’s got other things on his mind, so I’m just coming back without fanfare. 

The best way of putting it is that for the past few months I’ve been working on myself.  My last serious relationship ended in August, principally because of my insecurity.  (This is not a break-up essay and is actually going to be about something really interesting, but the break-up stuff is necessary background information, so just hang on.)  When I say this, I don’t mean that my insecurity made me do anything.  She simply left me because I am insecure.

And I’m not complaining about this.  It sucks for me, but she was completely within her rights, and it would have been selfish of me to expect otherwise.  After all, male confidence is for women what female physical attractiveness is for men, so for her this must have been like dating a fat girl.  This made no sense to me — just as, I guess, men caring about appearance to the exclusion of attitude makes no sense to women — but that’s what women are like, and I’m attracted to women, so I figured  I could either sit around and complain about it or stand up and try to change, so I did.

Meaning that I sat around and complained about it.  For the first few weeks anyway.  But that didn’t help, so then I thought I’d try the second thing.

I went to Barnes & Noble and browsed through the extensive self-help section.  I was optimistic at first, because the self-help section was huge, and the majority of the books in said huge section were about how to raise your self-esteem.  Then I noticed that about 90% of those books were bright pink and had titles written in such exaggerated cursive that I could barely decipher them, indicating that they were aimed specifically at women. 

This struck me as odd, since women are the ones who care about confidence and men don’t.  The way I see it, all the books about confidence should have been aimed at men, and the ones for women should have had titles like Dress Your Inner Child in Ripped Fishnets and Chicken Soup for the Making Your Tits Bigger.  But maybe this is just one of the many reasons why I am not a self-help author.

I flipped through the ragtag smattering of self-esteem books that were not aimed specifically at women.  Note that I do not say “the ones aimed at men,” because there were none aimed at men — just women's ones, and non-gender-specific ones.  I quickly realized that this is because self-esteem books aimed at men are just Pick-Up books.  At first I was offended by the insinuation that men wouldn’t want to raise their self-esteem for any reason other than to pick up women.  But then I realized that neither did I.

Anyway, I flipped through the ragtag smattering of etc.  A good number of the books I rejected because they had some central conceit that was prohibitively stupid.  I’m sorry, but even if it contains a bunch of otherwise decent advice, I just can’t get into any book that bases all the reasons I should feel better on the idea that “the universe loves me,” because no it doesn’t.  Admittedly, it’s a vast and controversial subject, but I think I’m treading on fairly safe theological ground when I say that if the universe really loved me, I would have a lightsabre.  A purple one.

mace windu
Have you heard the good news?

And even the straightforward self-esteem books that weren’t built on some new-age metaphor wasted a bunch of chapters on “body acceptance.”  Look, I realize that most people are fat, but I’m not.  XCIX labores habeo, sed corpus meum non I est.  And besides, maybe people who are fat should be reading books about how to lose weight instead of books about how to not care that they’re fat.  And when I say “maybe,” I’m just being nice. 

Eventually, I went downstairs to the information desk and asked “Do you have any books about self-esteem for people who have low self-esteem for a reason besides being fat?  Because I have low self-esteem but a totally sick body.”  Then I lifted my shirt up and did a little twirl.  They said no.  Then I asked whether thin people could get self-esteem books at some kind of thin-person discount, seeing as how half the book is always specific to fat people and we don’t need those chapters.  They said no again, in a manner even more puzzled and annoyed than the first time.  So I left.  But you can’t say I didn’t try to improve myself.  Those were both fair questions, and this is totally on them.  No wonder publishing is a dying industry. 

Clearly, books weren’t going to help.  I guess that’s fitting, since books kind of got me into this mess to begin with.  If I hadn’t devoted the last half of my life to becoming a sensitive writer type, maybe I wouldn’t even be insecure.  The girl who left me even explicitly mentioned the fact that I was a writer as part of the problem.  "Being a writer" wasn’t the principal charge brought against me, but it was certainly framed as damning evidence — like Joan of Arc’s short hair.

But other than to books, I didn’t know where else to turn.  But I needed to turn somewhere.  I felt like I had to either stop being insecure or lie down and die.  And then it hit me.  An elegant equation too simple and too beautiful to have been seen first, and all the more clearly true for having appeared at the close of a draining epic quest that took almost a whole hour. 

The five most beautiful words in the language:  Fuck this, I’ll just lie. 

After all, regardless of what Oprah says, women are not in fact psychic.  The only way they’ll know I’m insecure is if I tell them.  In the relationship that ended three months ago, I had made the mistake of taking women at their word when they say they want you to be honest about your feelings.  Well, I guess women aren’t exactly lying when they say this; it’s more that they just don’t mean it the way you assume.  Women do in fact want you to be honest about your feelings, but it’s not so they can love you better — it’s so they know whether to dump your pathetic ass.  Women want you to be honest about your feelings the way the IRS wants you to be honest about your finances.  What I realized too late was that it was totally within my power to keep that relationship going.  All I would have had to do was lie about how I really feel, what I'm really thinking, and what I actually want every moment for the rest of my life. 

I know that may sound callow, defeatist, immature, and totally unfair to every sense I should have of myself as a fully-realized adult with rights, needs, and a full range of normal human emotions.  But you should have seen this girl.

The only difference between her and this
drawing is that she didn't wear glasses.

So that was the project before me: never say anything insecure, ever.  At least not in front of a girl, although I figured it would be good practice to avoid saying insecure stuff in front of guys too.  This didn’t seem like it would be too hard.  After all, we’re not talking about something subjective here, like comedy, where what one person finds hilarious another person might find offputting and vice versa.  Everyone basically knows the difference between insecure and un-insecure, even me. 

And with that kind of setup, you’re probably expecting an essay about how it turned out to be harder than it looks.  But it didn’t.  It turned out to be every bit as easy as I thought it would.  Seriously, all I had to do was not say insecure things, duh.  How easy or hard it was isn’t the problem. 

Now you’re probably thinking that it didn’t work.  You’re expecting me to say that I refrained from saying insecure stuff, but girls didn’t like me any better — either because they could still magically tell I was insecure somehow, or because it turns out that girls look deeper than that and aren’t really as shallow as I was making them out to be.  But that’s not it either.  Girls — and, to be fair, people in general — really are as shallow as I was making them out to be, and the simple practice of never saying insecure things worked amazingly well.  To be perfectly honest, I had sex with more women this past September and October than during any year-long stretch of my life before, or all four years of college.  And I didn’t even go out that much.  So without becoming boorish here, let it be established that never saying insecure things really does work and is incredibly easy.  Those things are not the problem. 

The problem is that, as far as I can tell, I no longer have a personality. 

Until I adopted this project, I never realized just how much of my sense of myself and my role in any given social setting is based on saying insecure things.  Apparently, virtually all of it was, except for the part that was devoted to pop-music trivia (which is probably itself a form of insecurity anyway).  My initial instinctive response to almost anything that someone else says involves betraying insecurity on one level or another. 

This isn’t an insurmountable problem if I am just chatting up some girl in a bar.  I can deal with beating back my instinctive responses for a couple hours, especially if doing so might result in sex.  It’s just another version of yourself, like how you resist the impulses to curse or talk about drugs during Thanksgiving dinner with your family. 

But you can always find things to talk about with your family besides drugs.  The problem with cutting insecurity from your conversational diet is that the things you replace it with aren’t very flavorful.  Simply put, insecure things are more interesting than confident things. 

The other week I was at a party and someone asked me whether being a teacher was stressful.  What I wanted to say — what immediately popped into my head to say — was this: 

Holy fuck, it is the worst shit ever.  No other job in the world compels you to be so defenseless against so much disrespect.  I mean, cops get disrespected, but at least a cop can fuck with you back if you disrespect him.  As a teacher, you just have to take it.  A kid can just start ripping on you in the middle of class, but it’s not like you can call the kid fat or ugly or a little retard or something.  You just have to ask him nicely to stop.  And those are just the kids you hear.  But at any given time in some corner of the room there are two little assholes whispering and laughing, and you fucking know it’s about you, but there’s nothing you can do.  You deal exclusively, day-in day-out, with roomfuls of people who openly think you’re the biggest loser they’ve ever met and want you to die, and that is the whole fucking job.  I have been teaching for ten years and every single day I still feel like I am going to throw up right before I walk into the room and then cry once I get home.” 

You have to admit, that is a pretty interesting response.  But that’s not what I said.  What I said instead was “Nah, ’s alright,” and then I leaned back in my chair with a smirk on my face, making sure not to look down or away and to take up as much space with my body as possible.  I wasn’t lying.  I was just declining to volunteer information that in the past I would have volunteered. 

But still, I didn’t like this.  I’m a writer.  I like using words.  I like saying interesting things and putting them in an interesting way.  The answer I wanted to give accomplished that.  The answer I did give was barely verbal.  It communicated essentially nothing.  But the manner in which I delivered it was evocative of confidence, whereas what I wanted to say was evocative of paranoia, self-loathing, and a profound sense of inferiority to barely-literate children.  The response I gave — which, once again, barely even consisted of words — would clearly make women want to have sex with me more than would the response I wanted to give.  I had to choose between being sexually attractive and interesting.  And like I said, if all we’re talking about is how I had to act at some party for a few hours, this is no big deal. 

But for the last three weeks, I’ve been regularly seeing a girl that I really like.  And — for the first time in any relationship — I have from the very beginning avoided ever saying insecure things in front of her, right down to never asking her advice about what I should wear or what kind of haircut I should get.  I want to ask her all those things.  Hell, I want to ask her every five minutes whether she really likes me and then not believe her when she says yes.  I just don’t do it.  Instead, I slap her on the ass and then lean against something. 

Most of the funny stories I could spin out of my day-to-day life are out the window too.  Like a couple weeks ago, when I was interviewing potential new roommates.  One of the first people I met with was this guy who seemed totally nice and laid-back, but there was just one problem: he was bizarrely, frighteningly good-looking.  I mean, I’m good-looking too, but this guy was like 6’3’’, five years younger than me, a freaking ballet dancer — meaning he was in better shape than guys who play pro sports — and bore an uncanny resemblance to a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale. 

And I know what you’re thinking, but by some miracle he was in fact straight.  All I could think was, “Jesus Christ, if I am within 10 miles of this guy, I will never get laid again.”  So I crossed him off the list.  Now, this is a classic funny story.  Not hilarious, maybe, but amusing and memorable.  Exactly the sort of thing one might share with their significant other at the end of the day.  Did I tell this story to the girl I’m seeing?  Hell no, because it involves me being insecure about something.  Granted, it involves feeling insecure about a guy who would make any reasonable person feel insecure, but still.  My new rule is that I have to appear to think I am the greatest guy in the universe 24 hours a day, so the story was out.  (Women, don’t bother e-mailing me to ask for this guy’s number; I threw it out, and then I set the garbage on fire.) 

Just this morning, I was watching TV with my new girl, and the show mentioned something about San Francisco and I offhandedly said that I loved it there and that I would pick San Francisco if I had to live somewhere besides New York.  She asked why, and I froze.  The real reason is that San Francisco is the only other city where I’m not constantly afraid that people will make fun of me on the street.  But I obviously couldn’t say that, so instead I just mumbled something about how it’s pretty there.  I had to keep up my streak of never saying insecure things.  But day by day, I am just digging myself deeper into a relationship with someone who lacks basic information about what I am really like.     

Of course, she reads this website, so I am essentially telling her now.  Will it make a difference that the insecurity is being communicated textually?  She isn’t seeing me do or say something insecure in person.  Will that cause the insecurity to have a different effect, because it is revealing itself via artistic production instead of day-to-day life?  After all, women do like artists, and there’s not a ton of great art that completely refuses to communicate vulnerability (the oeuvre of Leni Riefenstahl notwithstanding).  The point of confidence is that, as seduction experts would put it, it flips the “leader of men” switch.  But artists are leaders of men — we’re just leading them someplace besides battle. 

The fact is, I didn’t write for three months because I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t insecure in some way.  I had ideas, but they all involved admitting that I am not in fact the most macho guy in the entire world, and so I couldn’t bring myself to write them.  Even the essays that don’t mention anything personal and are just rants about stupid people don’t pass the test, because women perceive ranting as a form of insecurity (since it demonstrates that you let things get to you). 

Sure, cool guys that women like in TV and movies show vulnerability, but you have to examine the level at which that vulnerability emerges.  It is not an everyday level.  A normal guy is simply never going to be in a situation where he is about to be frozen in carbonite, or has to leap from a helicopter to ensure the rescue of the woman he loves, or wakes up in an Italian hospital after being tied to a chair and having his balls bashed in by members of an international criminal syndicate.  If you are showing vulnerability in real life, odds are it is over some stupid shit. 

But I had to make a choice.  I thought eventually I would have an idea for an essay that was funny, insightful, and also made me look supremely confident about absolutely everything.  But I never did.  And it became clear that I was never going to.  I had to stop pretending to be confident, at least enough to become a writer again.  I had to let myself believe that Art does not count as stupid shit. 

So here’s the new essay.  It may not be confident, but it’s brave.

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