And Open

THE FIRST PROBLEM FOR ALL OF US,

MEN AND WOMEN, IS NOT TO LEARN, BUT TO UNLEARN.

— GLORIA S T EIN EM , commencement speech, Vnssar (College

I withdrew five hundred dollars from the bank, stuffed it into a white envelope, and wrote Mystery on the front. It was not the proudest moment of my life.

But I had dedicated the last four days to getting ready for it anyway-buying two hundred dollars worth of clothing at Fred Segal, spending an afternoon shopping for the perfect cologne, and dropping seventy-five bucks on a Hollywood haircut. I wanted to look my best; this would be my first time hanging out with a real pickup artist.

His name, or at least the name he used online, was Mystery. He was the most worshipped pickup artist in the community, a powerhouse who spit out long, detailed posts that read like algorithms of how to manipulate social situations to meet and attract women. His nights out seducing models and strippers in his hometown of Toronto were chronicled in intimate detail online, the writing filled with jargon of his own invention: sniper negs, shotgun negs, group theory, indicators of interest, pawning— all of which had become an integral part of the pickup artist lexicon. For four years, he had been offering free advice in seduction newsgroups. Then, in October, he decided to put a price on himself and posted the fob lowing:

Mystery is now producing Basic Training workshops in several cities around the world, due to numerous requests. The first workshop will be in LosAnge-lesfrom Wednesday evening, October 10, through Saturday night. The fee is $500 (U.S.). This includes club entry, limo for four evenings (sweet huh?), an hour lecture in the limo each evening with a thirty-minute debriefing at the end of the night, and finally three-and-a-half hours per night in the field (broken up into two clubs per night) with Mystery. By the end of Basic Training, you will have approached close to fifty women.

It is no easy feat to sign up for a workshop dedicated to picking up women. To do so is to acknowledge defeat, inferiority, and inadequacy. It is to finally admit to yourself that after all these years of being sexually active (or at least sexually cognizant), you have not grown up and figured it out. Those who ask for help are often those who have failed to do something for themselves. So if drug addicts go to rehab and the violent go to anger management class, then social retards go to pickup school.

Clicking send on my e-mail to Mystery was one of the hardest things I'd ever done. If anyone—friends, family, colleagues, and especially my lone ex-girlfriend in Los Angeles—found out I was paying for live in-field lessons on picking up women, the mockery and recrimination would be instant and merciless. So I kept my intentions secret, dodging social plans by telling people that I was going to be showing an old friend around town all weekend.

I would have to keep these two worlds separate.

In my e-mail to Mystery, I didn't tell him my last name or my occupation. If pressed, I planned to just say I was a writer and leave it at that. I wanted to move through this subculture anonymously, without either an advantage or extra pressure because of my credentials.

However, I still had my own conscience to deal with. This was, far and away, the most pathetic thing I'd ever done in my life. And unfortunately— as opposed to, say, masturbating in the shower—it wasn't something I could do alone. Mystery and the other students would be there to bear witness to my shame, my secret, my inadequacy.

A man has two primary drives in early adulthood: one toward power, success, and accomplishment; the other toward love, companionship, and sex. Half of life then was out of order. To go before them was to stand up as a man and admit that I was only half a man.

Chafiiah

A week after sending the e-mail, I walked into the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I wore a blue wool sweater that was so soft and thin it looked like cotton, black pants with laces running up the sides, and shoes that gave me a couple extra inches in height. My pockets bulged with the supplies Mystery had instructed every student to bring: a pen, a notepad, a pack of gum, and condoms.

I spotted Mystery instantly. He was seated regally in a Victorian armchair, with a smug, I-just-bench-pressed-the-world smile on his face. He wore a casual, loose-fitting blue-black suit; a small, pointed labret piercing wagged from his chin; and his nails were painted jet black. He wasn't necessarily attractive, but he was charismatic—tall and thin, with long chestnut hair, high cheekbones, and a bloodless pallor. He looked like a computer geek who'd been bitten by a vampire and was midway through his transformation.

Next to him was a shorter, intense-looking character who introduced himself as Mystery's wing, Sin. He wore a form-fitting black crew neck shirt, and his hair was pitch black and gelled straight back. He had the complexion, however, of a man whose natural hair color is red.

I was the first student to arrive.

"What's your top score?" Sin leaned in and asked as I sat down. They were already assessing me, trying to figure out if I was in possession of a thing called game.

"My top score?"

"Yeah, how many girls have you been with?"

"Urn, somewhere around seven," I told them.

"Somewhere around seven?" Sin pressed.

"Six," I confessed.

Sin ranked in the sixties, Mystery in the hundreds. I looked at them in wonder: These were the pickup artists whose exploits I'd been following so avidly online for months. They were another class of being: They had the magic pill, the solution to the inertia and frustration that has plagued the great literary protagonists I'd related to all my life—be it Leopold Bloom, Alex Portaoy, or Piglet from Winnie the Pooh.

As we waited for the other students, Mystery threw a manila envelope full of photographs in my lap.

"These are some of the women I've dated," he said.

In the folder was a spectacular array of beautiful women: a headshot of a sultry Japanese actress; an autographed publicity still of a brunette who bore an uncanny resemblance to Liv Tyler; a glossy picture of a. Penthouse Pet of the Year; a snapshot of a tan, curvy stripper in a negligee who Mystery said was his girlfriend, Patricia; and a photo of a brunette with large silicone breasts, which were being suckled by Mystery in the middle of a nightclub. These were his credentials.

"I was able to do that by not paying attention to her breasts all night," he explained when I asked about the last shot. "A pickup artist must be the exception to the rule. You must not do what everyone else does. Ever."

I listened carefully. I wanted to make sure every word etched itself on my cerebral cortex. I was attending a significant event; the only other credible pickup artist teaching courses was Ross Jeffries, who had basically founded the community in the late 1980s. But today marked the first time seduction students would be removed from the safe environs of the seminar room and let loose in clubs to be critiqued as they ran game on unsuspecting women.

A second student arrived, introducing himself as Extramask. He was a tall, gangly, impish twenty-six-year-old with a bowl cut, overly baggy clothing, and a handsomely chiseled face. With the right haircut and outfit, he would easily have been a good-looking guy.

When Sin asked him what his count was, Extramask scratched his head uncomfortably. "I have virtually zero experience with girls," he explained. "I've never kissed a girl before."

"You're kidding," Sin said.

"I've never even held a girl's hand. I grew up pretty sheltered. My parents were really strict Catholics, so I always had a lot of guilt about girls. But I've had three girlfriends."

He looked at the floor and rubbed his knees in nervous circles as he listed his girlfriends, though no one had asked for the particulars. There was Mitzelle, who broke up with him after seven days. There was Claire, who told him after two days that she'd made a mistake when she agreed to go out with him.

"And then there was Carolina, my sweet Carolina," he said, a dreamy smile spreading across his face. "We were a couple for one day. I remember her walking over to my house the next afternoon with her friend. I saw her across the street, and I was excited to see her. When I got closer, she yelled, 'I'm dumping you.'"

All of these relationships apparently took place in sixth grade. Extra-mask shook his head sadly. It was hard to tell whether he was consciously being funny or not.

The next arrival was a tanned, balding man in his forties who'd flown in from Australia just to attend the workshop. He had a ten-thousand-dollar Rolex, a charming accent, and one of the ugliest sweaters I'd ever seen—a thick cable-knit monstrosity with multi-colored zigzags that looked like the aftermath of a finger-painting mishap. He reeked of money and confidence. Yet the moment he opened his mouth to give Sin his score (five), he betrayed himself. His voice trembled; he couldn't look anyone in the eye; and there was something pathetic and childlike about him. His appearance, like his sweater, was just an accident that spoke nothing of his nature.

He was new to the community and reluctant to share even his first name, so Mystery christened him Sweater.

The three of us were the only students in the workshop.

"Okay, we've got a lot to talk about," Mystery said, clapping his hands together. He leaned in close, so the other guests in the hotel couldn't hear.

"My job here is to get you into the game," he continued, making piercing eye contact with each of us. "I need to get what's in my head into yours. Think of tonight as a video game. It is not real. Every time you do an approach, you are playing this game."

My heart began pounding violently. The thought of trying to start a conversation with a woman I didn't know petrified me, especially with these guys watching and judging me. Bungee jumping and parachuting were a Cakewalk compared to this.

"All your emotions are going to try to fuck you up," Mystery continued. "They are there to try to confuse you, so know right now that they cannot be trusted at all. You will feel shy sometimes, and self-conscious, and you must deal with it like you deal with a pebble in your shoe. It's uncomfortable, but you ignore it. It's not part of the equation."

I looked around; Extramask and Sweater seemed just as nervous as I was. "I need to teach you, in four days, the whole equation—the sequence of moves you need to win," Mystery went on. "And you will have to play the game over and over to learn how to win. So get ready to fail."

Mystery paused to order a Sprite with five slices of lemon on the side, then told us his story. He spoke in a loud, clear voice—modeled, he said, on the motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Everything about him seemed to be a conscious, rehearsed invention.

Since the age of eleven, when he beat the secret to a card trick out of a classmate, Mystery's goal in life was to become a celebrity magician, like David Copperfield. He spent years studying and practicing, and managed to parlay his talents into birthday parties, corporate gigs, and even a couple of talk shows. In the process, however, his social life suffered. At the age of twenty-one, when he was still a virgin, he decided to do something about it.

"One of the world's greatest mysteries is the mind of a woman," he told us grandiosely. "So I set out to solve it."

He took a half hour bus ride into Toronto every day, going to bars, clothing stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. He wasn't aware of the online community or any other pickup artists, so he was forced to work alone, relying on the one skill he did know: magic. It took him dozens of trips to the city before he even worked up the guts to talk to a stranger. From there, he tolerated failure, rejection, and embarrassment day and night until, piece by piece, he put together the puzzle that is social dynamics and discovered what he believed to be the patterns underlying all male-female relationships.

"It took me ten years to discover this," he said. "The basic format is FMAC—find, meet, attract, close. Believe it or not, the game is linear. A lot of people don't know that."

For the next half hour, Mystery told us about what he called group theory. "I have done this specific set of events a bazillion times," he said. "You do not walk up to a girl who's all by herself. That is not the perfect seduction. Women of beauty are rarely found alone."

After approaching the group, he continued, the key is to ignore the woman you desire while winning over her friends—especially the men and anyone else likely to cockblock. If the target is attractive and used to men fawning all over her, the pickup artist must intrigue her by pretending to be unaffected by her charm. This is accomplished through the use of what he called a neg.

Neither compliment nor insult, a neg is something in between—an accidental insult or backhanded compliment. The purpose of a neg is to lower a woman's self esteem while actively displaying a lack of interest in her—by telling her she has lipstick on her teeth, for example, or offering her a piece of gum after she speaks.

"I don't alienate ugly girls; I don't alienate guys. I only alienate the girls I want to fuck," Mystery lectured, eyes blazing with the conviction of his aphorisms. "If you don't believe me, you will see it tonight. Tonight is the night of experiments. First, I am going to prove myself. You are going to watch me and then we are going to push you to try a few sets. Tomorrow, if you do what I say, you will be able to make out with a girl within fifteen minutes."

He looked at Extramask. "Name the five characteristics of an alpha male."

"Confidence?"

"Right. What else?"

"Strength?"

"Body odor?"

He turned to Sweater and me. We were also clueless.

"The number one characteristic of an alpha male is the smile," he said, beaming an artificial beam. "Smile when you enter a room. As soon as you walk in a club, the game is on. And by smiling, you look like you're together, you're fun, and you're somebody."

He gestured to Sweater. "When you came in, you didn't smile when you talked to us."

"That's just not me," Sweater said. "I look silly when I smile."

"If you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've always gotten. It's called the Mystery Method because I'm Mystery and it's my method. So what I'm going to ask is that you indulge in some of my suggestions and try new things over the next four days. You are going to see a difference."

Besides confidence and a smile, we learned, the other characteristics of an alpha male were being well-groomed, possessing a sense of humor, connecting with people, and being seen as the social center of a room. No one bothered to tell Mystery that those were actually six characteristics.

As Mystery dissected the alpha male further, I realized something: The reason I was here—the reason Sweater and Extramask were also here—was that our parents and our friends had failed us. They had never given us the tools we needed to become fully effective social beings. Now, decades later, it was time to acquire them.

Mystery went around the table and looked at each of us. "What kind of girls do you want?" he asked Sweater.

Sweater pulled a piece of neatly folded notebook paper out of his pocket. "Last night I wrote down a list of goals for myself," he said, unfolding the page, which was filled with four columns of numbered items. "And one of the things I'm looking for is a wife. She needs to be smart enough to hold up her end of any conversation and have enough style and beauty to turn heads when she walks into a room."

"Well, look at you," Mystery said. "You look average. People think if they look generic, then they can seduce a wide array of women. Not true. You have to specialize. If you look average, you're going to get average girls. Your khaki pants are for the office. They're not for clubs. And your sweater—burn it. You need to be bigger than life. I'm talking over the top. If you want to get the 10s, you need to learn peacock theory."

Mystery loved theories. Peacock theory is the idea that in order to attract the most desirable female of the species, it's necessary to stand out in a flashy and colorful way. For humans, he told us, the equivalent of the fanned peacock tail is a shiny shirt, a garish hat, and jewelry that lights up in the dark—basically, everything I'd dismissed my whole life as cheesy.

When it came time for my personal critique, Mystery had a laundry list of fixes: get rid of the glasses, shape the overgrown goatee, shave the expensively trimmed tumbleweeds on my head, dress more outrageously, wear a conversation piece, get some jewelry, get a life.

I wrote down every word of advice. This was a guy who thought about seduction nonstop, like a mad scientist working on a formula to turn peanuts into gasoline. The archive of his Internet messages was 3,000 posts long—more than 2,500 pages—all dedicated to cracking the code that is woman.

"I have an opener for you to use," he said to me. An opener is a prepared script used to start a conversation with a group of strangers; it's the first thing anyone who wants to meet women must be armed with. "Say this when you see a group with a girl you like. 'Hey, it looks like the party's over here.' Then turn to the girl you want and add, 'If I wasn't gay, you'd be so mine.'"

A flash of crimson burned up my face. "Really?" I asked. "How is that going to help?"

"Once she's attracted to you, it won't matter whether you said you were gay or not."

"But isn't that lying?"

"It's not lying," he replied. "It's flirting."

To the group, he offered other examples of openers: innocent but intriguing questions like "Do you think magic spells work?" or "Oh my god, did you see those two girls fighting outside?" Sure, they weren't that spectacular or sophisticated, but all they are meant to do is get two strangers talking.

The point of Mystery Method, he explained, is to come in under the radar. Don't approach a woman with a sexual come-on. Learn about her first and let her earn the right to be hit on.

"An amateur hits on a woman right away," he decreed as he rose to leave the hotel. "A pro waits eight to ten minutes."

Armed with our negs, group theory, and camouflage openers, we were ready to hit the clubs.

ChnpJtsA

We piled into the limo and drove to the Standard Lounge, a velvet-rope-guarded hotel hotspot. It was here that Mystery shattered my model of reality. Limits I had once imposed on human interaction were extended far beyond what I ever thought possible. The man was a machine.

The Standard was dead when we walked in. We were too early. There were just two groups of people in the room: a couple near the entrance and two couples in the corner.

I was ready to leave. But then I saw Mystery approach the people in the corner. They were sitting on opposite couches across a glass table. The men were on one side. One of them was Scott Baio, the actor best known for playing Chachi on Happy Days. Across from him were two women, a brunette and a bleached blonde who looked like she'd stepped out of the pages of Maxim. Her cut-off white T-shirt was suspended so high into the air by fake breasts that the bottom of it just hovered, flapping in the air above a belly tightened by fastidious exercise. This woman was Baio's date. She was also, I gathered, Mystery's target.

His intentions were clear because he wasn't talking to her. Instead, he had his back turned to her and was showing something to Scott Baio and his friend, a well-dressed, well-tanned thirty-something who looked as if he smelled strongly of aftershave. I moved in closer.

"Be careful with that," Baio was saying. "It cost forty-thousand dollars."

Mystery had Baio's watch in his hands. He placed it carefully on the table. "Now watch this," he commanded. "I tense my stomach muscles, increasing the flow of oxygen to my brain, and "

As Mystery waved his hands over the watch, the second hand stopped ticking. He waited fifteen seconds, then waved his hands again, and slowly the watch sputtered back to life—along with Baio's heart. Mystery's audience of four burst into applause.

"Do something else!" the blonde pleaded.

Mystery brushed her off with a neg. "Wow, she's so demanding," he said, turning to Baio. "Is she always like this?"

We were witnessing group theory in action. The more Mystery performed for the guys, the more the blonde clamored for attention. And every time, he pushed her away and continued talking with his two new friends.

"I don't usually go out," Baio was telling Mystery. "I'm over it, and I'm too old."

After a few more minutes, Mystery finally acknowledged the blonde. He held his arms out. She placed her hands in his, and he began giving her a psychic reading. He was employing a technique I'd heard about called cold reading: the art of telling people truisms about themselves without any prior knowledge of their personality or background. In the field, all knowledge—however esoteric—is power.

With each accurate sentence Mystery spoke, the blonde's jaw dropped further open, until she started asking him about his job and his psychic abilities. Every response Mystery gave was intended to accentuate his youth and enthusiasm for the good life Baio said he had outgrown.

"I feel so old," Mystery said, baiting her.

"How old are you?" she asked.

"Twenty-seven."

"That's not old. That's perfect."

He was in.

Mystery called me over and whispered in my ear. He wanted me to talk to Baio and his friend, to keep them occupied while he hit on the girl. This was my first experience as a wing—a term Mystery had taken from Top Gun, along with words like target and obstacle.

I struggled to make small talk with them. But Baio, looking nervously at Mystery and his date, cut me off. "Tell me this is all an illusion," he said, "and he's not actually stealing my girlfriend."

Ten long minutes later, Mystery stood up, put his arm around me, and we left the club. Outside, he pulled a cocktail napkin from his jacket pocket. It contained her phone number. "Did you get a good look at her?" Mystery asked. " That is what I'm in the game for. Everything I've learned I used tonight. It's all led up to this moment. And it worked." He beamed with self-satisfaction. "How's that for a demonstration?"

That was all it took. Stealing a girl right from under a celebrity's nose-has-been or not—was a feat even Dustin couldn't have accomplished. Mystery was the real deal.

As we took the limo to the Key Club, Mystery told us the first command ment of pickup: the three-second rule. A man has three seconds after spotting a woman to speak to her, he said. If he takes any longer, then not only is the girl likely to think he's a creep who's been staring at her for too long, but he will start overthinking the approach, get nervous, and probably blow it.

The moment we walked into the Key Club, Mystery put the three-second rule into action. Striding up to a group of women, he held out his hands and asked, "What's your first impression of these? Not the big hands, the black nails."

As the girls gathered around him, Sin pulled me aside and suggested wandering the club and attempting my first approach. A group of women walked by and I tried to say something. But the word "hi" just barely squeaked out of my throat, not even loud enough for them to hear. As they continued past, I followed and grabbed one of the girls on the shoulder from behind. She turned around, startled, and gave me the withering what-a-creep look that was the whole reason I was too scared to talk to women in the first place.

"Never," Sin admonished me in his adenoidal voice, "approach a woman from behind. Always come in from the front, but at a slight angle so it's not too direct and confrontational. You should speak to her over your shoulder, so it looks like you might walk away at any minute. Ever see Robert Redford in The Horse Whisperer? It's kind of like that."

A few minutes later, I spotted a young, tipsy-looking woman with long, tangled blonde curls and a puffy pink vest standing alone. I decided that approaching her would be an easy way to redeem myself I circled around until I was in the ten o'clock position in front of her and walked in, imagining myself approaching a horse I didn't want to frighten.

"Oh my God," I said to her. "Did you see those two girls fighting outside?"

"No," she said. "What happened?"

She was interested. She was talking to me. It was working.

"Um, two girls were fighting over this little guy who was half their size. It was pretty brutal. He was just standing there laughing as the police came and arrested the girls."

She giggled. We started talking about the club and the band playing there. She was very friendly and actually seemed grateful for the conversation. I had no idea that approaching a woman could be this easy.

Sin sidled up to me and whispered in my ear, "Go kino."

"Kino?" the girl replied.

Sin reached behind me, picked up my arm, and placed it on her shoulder. "Kino is when you touch a girl," he whispered. I felt the heat of her body and was reminded of how much I love human contact. Pets like to be petted. It isn't sexual when a dog or a cat begs for physical affection. People are the same way: We need touch. But we're so sexually screwed up and obsessed that we get nervous and uncomfortable whenever another person touches us. And, unfortunately, I am no exception. As I spoke to her, my hand felt wrong on her shoulder. It was just resting there like some disembodied limb, and I imagined her wondering what exactly it was doing there and how she could gracefully extricate herself from under it. So I did her the favor of removing it myself

"Isolate her," Sin said.

I suggested sitting down, and we walked to a bench. Sin followed and sat behind us. As I'd been taught, I asked her to tell me the qualities she finds attractive in guys. She said humor and ass.

Fortunately, I have one of those qualities.

Suddenly, I felt Sin's breath on my ear. "Sniff her hair," he was instructing.

I smelled her hair, although I wasn't exactly sure what the point was. I figured Sin wanted me to neg her. So I said, "It smells like smoke."

"Nooooo!" Sin hissed in my ear. I guess I wasn't supposed to neg.

She seemed offended. So, to recover, I took another whiff " But underneath that, there's a very intoxicating smell."

She cocked her head to one side, furrowed her brow ever so slightly, scanned me up and down, and said, "You're weird." I was blowing it.

Fortunately, Mystery soon arrived.

"This place is dead," he said. "We're going somewhere more target-rich." To Mystery and Sin, these clubs didn't seem to be reality. They had no problem whispering in students' ears while they were talking to women, dropping pickup terminology in front of strangers, and even interrupting a student during a set and explaining, in front of his group, what he was doing wrong. They were so confident and their talk was so full of incomprehensible jargon that the women rarely even raised an eyebrow, let alone suspected they were being used to train wanna-be ladies' men.

I bid my new friend good-bye as Sin had taught me, pointing to my cheek and saying, "Kiss good-bye." She actually pecked me. I felt very alpha.

On the way out, as I stopped to use the bathroom, I found Extramask standing there, twirling an unwashed lock of hair in his fingers. "Are you waiting for the toilet?" I asked.

"Sort o£" he replied nervously. "Go ahead."

I gave him a quizzical look. "Can I tell you something?" he asked.

"Sure."

"I have a lot of trouble peeing beside guys in urinals. When there's another guy standing there, I can't fucking pee. Even if I'm peeing already and a guy walks up, I stop. And then I just stand there all nervous and shit."

"No one's judging you."

"Yeah," he said. "I remember about a year ago, a guy and I were trying to piss in these urinals that were right next to each other, but we both just ended up standing there. We stood there for around two minutes, recognizing each other's pee-shyness, until I zipped up and went to another bathroom."

He paused. "The guy never thanked me for changing bathrooms that day."

I nodded, walked to the urinal, and discharged my duties with a distinct lack of self-consciousness. Compared to Extramask, I was going to be an easy student.

As I left the bathroom, he was still standing there. "I always liked urinal dividers," he said. "But you only seem to find them at the classy places."

Chapish

I was in high spirits in the limo to the next bar. "Do you think I could have kissed her?" I asked Mystery.

"If you think you could have, then you could have," he said. "As soon as you ask yourself whether you should or shouldn't, that means you should. And what you do is, you phase-shift. Imagine a giant gear thudding down in your head, and then go for it. Start hitting on her. Tell her you just noticed she has beautiful skin, and start massaging her shoulders."

"But how do you know it's okay?"

"What I do is, I look for IOIs. An IOI is an indicator of interest. If she asks you what your name is, that's an IOI. If she asks you if you're single, that's an IOI. If you take her hands and squeeze them, and she squeezes back, that's an IOI. And as soon as I get three IOIs, I phase-shift. I don't even think about it. It's like a computer program."

"But how do you kiss her?" Sweater asked.

"I just say, 'Would you like to kiss me?'"

"And then what happens?"

"One of three things," Mystery said. "If she says, 'Yes,' which is very rare, you kiss her. If she says, 'Maybe,' or hesitates, then you say, 'Let's find out,' and kiss her. And if she says, 'No,' you say, 'I didn't say you could. It just looked like you had something on your mind.'"

"You see," he grinned triumphantly. "You have nothing to lose. Every contingency is planned for. It's foolproof. That is the Mystery kiss-close."

I furiously scribbled every word of the kiss-close in my notebook. No one had ever told me how to kiss a girl before. It was just one of those things men were supposed to know on their own, like shaving and car repair.

Sitting in the limo with a notebook on my lap, listening to Mystery talk, I asked myself why I was really there. Taking a course in picking up women wasn't the kind of thing normal people did. Even more disturbing, I wondered why it was so important to me, why I'd become so quickly obsessed with the online community and its leading pseudonyms.

Perhaps it was because attracting the opposite sex was the only area of my life in which I felt like a complete failure. Every time I walked down the street or into a bar, I saw my own failure staring me back in the face with red lipstick and black mascara. The combination of desire and paralysis was deadly.

After the workshop that night, I opened my file cabinet and dug through my papers. There was something I wanted to find, something I hadn't looked at in years. After a half hour, I found it: a folder labeled "High School Writing." I pulled out a piece of lined notebook paper covered from top to bottom with my chicken scratching. It was the only poem I've ever attempted in my life. It was written in eleventh grade, and I never showed it to anyone. However, it was the answer to my question.

Continue reading here: By Neil Strauss

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