Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Love is the Drug

My friend introduced me to a very useful but little-known word, limerence. It means the pain that we feel when we are obsessively in love with someone, when we can’t stop thinking about them, when our mood directly correlates with whether we’ve seen them and how we’ve been treated by them that day.

This term was coined by a relatively obscure psychologist in the Seventies, and it has no obvious etymological roots. This inscrutability mirrors the nature of the concept itself: like a prime number, the idea can’t be clarified by dividing it into parts. Nor is there any synonym in English that parallels the word’s meaning. The closest would be obsessive crush, or unreasonable pining, or love so bad it hurts.

And yet, in our culture that elevates romantic love over all other kinds, limerence is an everyday byproduct of our need to find our own mates, rather than having them assigned to us by our families or other social limitations like caste, class, or proximity. We can pair ourselves with virtually anyone, and this unending possibility leads to unending disappointment as we project ourselves into the lives of inappropriate and uninterested potential partners, wondering why they can’t see how great we’d be together.

Using the famous Eskimos-have-fifty-two-words-for-snow logic, you would think English would have dozens of words meaning obsessive, unrequited love, love that makes people anguished, insane, irrational, love that distracts us from every meaningful thing in our lives, that makes us irresponsible, unreliable, unproductive, that makes our lives into a long visit to the oncologist’s office, hoping with all our being for good news, crushed but not surprised when the news is bad.

But aside from limerence, we don’t really have a word to describe this state of being, which might explain why the emotion itself is so difficult to remember or relate to until we are experiencing it ourselves. Every time I find myself in this condition, I am shocked by how physical it is, how immune to reason, how distraught I can be over somebody who I have absolutely no claim over.

Nor do we have simple words to describe all the other extreme psychological and physiological consequences of attraction: obsessive elation, a feeling that nothing else matters besides seeing the object of our affection, the diminished importance of everything we usually care about, horrifying loneliness when the person leaves town for two weeks, the certainty that we could never be enough for this person, wanting to kill the person, wanting to kill the person’s attractive friend/coworker/second cousin, wanting to kill ourselves, the lacklusterness of everything else once the person is gone, the forgetting of what the purpose of life was and how we got through our days before we met this person.

What we do have, however, are hundreds of thousands of songs alluding to this sort of love, songs that are as blank and inscrutable as the word limerence itself, except when we are experiencing love-related derangement, at which point the lyrics suddenly light up with flagrantly obvious meaningfulness. For example, crazy and baby are the most commonly rhymed words in pop songs, despite the fact that they don’t rhyme at all.
You drive me crazy, baby.
I go crazy for you baby.
Love is crazy, pretty baby.
Our stubborn insistence on forcing these two words together shows how acutely we feel love as a mental illness. And the consciousness-altering effects of love are evident in all the songs that link the words or concepts love and drug:
Love is the drug for me.
You are the perfect drug.
I want a new drug, one that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you.
These songs all seem to describe the pleasant part of the love-trip, the drug “that makes me feel like I feel when I’m with you” rather than the drug that makes me feel like my life is completely pointless without you. We have to focus on this aspect of love or we would come to our senses and go cold turkey, just as we go out drinking for the high, not for the hangover.

Still, there’s a new love-drug song out right now,“Your Love is My Drug,” that describes the negative side-effects:
I’m looking down every alley.
I’m making those desperate calls.
I’m staying up all night hoping,
Banging my head against the walls.
Songs like these show that we instinctively understand the connection between love and drugs, that love makes us completely out of our minds, that it’s a bunch of chemicals that make us feel this way.

We tend to minimize and dismiss this insanity, but we feel it, and we see its results every day: students dropping out of college over break-ups, people ruining their hard-earned careers by having affairs with their coworkers, politicians sneaking out of the country to be with their lovers when they are supposed to be governing, people walking in front of trains because they can’t imagine a life without the person who has rejected them.

These are serious drugs that have consequences as bad or worse than cocaine or heroin. But we can’t outlaw them or wage a war on them, because these drugs are in our own bodies, and we can’t get them out until we’re dead.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Verbal Jiu-Jitsu

“Are you challenging me to a fight?”

The statement above is an official sample of verbal jiu-jitsu, as sanctioned and promoted by the Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu empire. In their Bullyproof instructional video, Ryron and Rener Gracie explain how kids can use the principles of Brazilian jiu-jitsu to stand up to bullies. Their program emphasizes respect, self-discipline and restraint, and the avoidance of physical force. Verbal jiu-jitsu is one tool a child can use to assert dominance over the bully without getting into a fight.

This question was not what I had expected from the “verbal jiu-jitsu” section of the curriculum. I had anticipated a statement that would allow the child to stand up for himself—something like, “I am not going to do what you tell me to”— not an invitation for the bully to take a swing at him.

The Gracies explain that this is a strategic question that might produce several outcomes. The bully might answer in the negative, in which case he or she has effectively backed down and can’t continue harassing the child (according to the Gracies, although I envisioned alternate scenarios, like, “No, I’m just going to carry on making your life a living hell, if that’s okay with you”). Or the bully might answer in the positive, in which case he or she will have to make the first move in the fight, at which point the child is justified in defending him or herself. That’s when the physical jiu-jitsu comes into play.

In this way the question truly does mimic Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which anticipates a range of outcomes and responses in reaction to any single move. A jiu-jitsu lesson often sounds something like: You will pull on your opponent’s right arm with your left arm. If he steps his left foot forward, you will put your right foot behind his knee. If he kicks his leg back for balance, you will put your foot behind his opposite ankle. If he falls to the side, follow him and take his back.

So I suppose the question about whether the bully is actually looking for a fight is a good example of verbal jiu-jitsu. Rather than waiting passively and without a strategy, the child asks a question that could provoke several predictable reactions, and then prepares for each possibility.

Whenever I hear the term verbal jiu-jitsu, I wonder to what degree it is possible, or advisable, to view a verbal interaction as a martial art. On the one hand, we often face situations where we are trying to use language to achieve some end, to gain power over a situation or get something we want, and strategic use of language could help us do that. On the other hand, all dialogue can be seen as trying to get our own interests met; so how do we know when to call off the battle and just talk?

Most of the time that I hear the term—and I hear it a lot, mostly on NPR—it seems to refer to a use of language that is misleading or tricky, either in a positive way. A common statement like, He is a master of verbal jiu-jitsu, might be a compliment or an insult.

When I hear the use of the term to mean trickery, I often wonder what the speaker thinks jiu-jitsu is. The word jiu-jitsu means “the way of yielding,” which refers to using an opponent’s force against him, usually to trap him into a technique that causes pain and damage without much force, such as a joint lock or choke.

I imagine that the concept of verbal jiu-jitsu came from someone who actually knew what jiu-jitsu entailed, someone who observed similar uses of deflection and submission in language. But now, the concept of jiu-jitsu is as blurry as the line we are toeing—or is it towing?—in that other dying metaphor. It reminds me of a recent complaint, sent in by an NPR listener, about the use of the word kabuki to refer to something that is a sham, a performance that is just for show. These Japanese terms may lend an air of worldliness to our critiques of our own culture, but not if we don’t know what the words actually mean.

Occasionally, though, I see verbal jiu-jitsu used to mean something related to the actual principles of jiu-jitsu. One good example is from a website critiquing an exchange between President Barack Obama and Senator John McCain:
MCCAIN: I would just make one comment. Why in the world, then, would we carve out 800,000 people in Florida that would not be—have their Medicare Advantage cut? Now, I proposed an amendment on the floor to say everybody would be treated the same. Mr. President, why should we carve out 800,000 people because they live in Florida to keep the Medicare Advantage program, and then want to do away with it?

OBAMA: I think you make a legitimate point.

MCCAIN: Well, maybe….

OBAMA: I think you do.

MCCAIN: Thank you very much.
Despite some typos and spelling errors on the website, the person who called this verbal jiu-jitsu was actually working with an idea of dialogue as a martial art. He writes, “When Obama does not meet rhetorical force with force of his own McCain quite simply does not know what to do next and so he just stops.”

In other words, Obama is using the force of McCain’s attack against him. McCain expects a disagreement, and when he is confronted instead with an agreement, he rotely disagrees with it, which leads him to disagree with his own initial statement: “Well, maybe [I make a legitimate point],” he says. This reflects a classic martial arts principle: if your opponent pushes, you should pull; if he pulls, you should push. McCain pushed Obama, expecting him to push back—when Obama pulled instead, McCain lost his balance and fell on his face.

One other place this metaphor gets fully teased out is in a Wall Street Journal interview with David Mamet. The article’s title, “Mamet’s Jiu-Jitsu Isn’t Just Verbal,” refers to the playwright and filmmaker’s six years studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which was the topic of his movie Redbelt.

In contrast to its title, the article spends quite a bit of time explaining how Mamet’s jiu-jitsu is verbal. Most obviously, as a playwright, he is known for his obsessive focus on the slipperiness and trickiness of language.

In the article, Mamet explains how he applies lessons from jiu-jitsu to conflicts in his regular life. For example, when Mamet was betrayed by a friend, he asked his teachers how he should handle the situation.

"My teacher Renato, of course, came back with 'Don't carry someone else's weight. Let him carry the weight; let it come back to haunt him.' This is one of the central tenets of jiu-jitsu. When you carry the other person's mass you tire yourself and so lose your ability to think clearly. That was the group's way of telling me to let the situation go, to walk away—which I did."

But when Mamet uses so-called verbal jiu-jitsu on the interviewer, he really just gives obnoxious, evasive answers to the interviewer’s questions. When the interviewer asks how Redbelt relates to Mamet’s other work, Mamet responds, “It’s later.” When the interviewer asks if there are differences between the use of language in this film from his earlier ones, Mamet responds, “None.”

The interviewer considers these deflections—which many people would just call rude—to be linguistic martial arts moves: “Mr. Mamet proved as slippery as a well-oiled grappler,” he writes, in preface to this section of the article.

This made me wonder, when we think we are being martial artists with our speech, how often are we just being rude and obnoxious?

Like Mamet, and perhaps like most people who study martial arts, I have tried at times to apply these arts to verbal interactions. I sometimes feel a thrill of power as I sit through a heated debate at a meeting at work and keep myself from engaging in the pointless bashing of conflicting ideas against one another. I sink into a kind of meditation, waiting until all of their respective punches have been thrown. Then, if there is still time, and if I think I have anything productive to add that will help resolve the problem, I will say it. If not, I don’t waste my energy countering force with force.

I know this strategy is working because it’s had the unfortunate side effect of getting me dragged to a lot of meetings—I’ve been told that I am seen as a good mediator. However, I am often also told that I freak people out when I am sitting, blank-faced and disengaged, waiting for the arguers to wear themselves out. Which makes me wonder—am I like Mamet? When I practice the martial art of discussion, am I being strategic, or am I just being an asshole?

Ultimately, the idea of showing off one’s clever wrestling moves in conversation is misguided. With the exception of some boxers and professional fighters, who like to use talk to bolster their confidence, real martial artists don’t talk a lot. They listen, and they speak selectively. That’s the real verbal jiu-jitsu, knowing when you need to assert your views and when you don’t. I’m not always so good at it, but I’m learning.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Every morning, I drive on the 580 freeway thirty miles southeast to my workplace in Livermore. I spend at least an hour every day on this freeway—speeding past all sorts of plants and walls and dead animals and garbage and cityscapes and views of the bay that I could barely begin to describe, if I’ve noticed them at all. The freeways are a bizarre no-man’s land, somewhere we go every day, but not anywhere that we think of as a place. In fact, we do all we can to pretend the giant roads don’t exist, building high walls to shelter our neighborhoods from their noise and dirt.

I’ve been thinking a lot about freeways lately. Like approximately twenty percent of people I know, I recently read Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road. In case you’re one of the other eighty percent, The Road follows the story of a father and his young son as they navigate the perils of a post-apocalyptic world where almost all living creatures have died in some unnamed disaster. The father and son travel by foot down a state highway, pursuing the bleak hope that conditions will be better further south and closer to a coast.

Lots of stories use roads as symbols. In the hero’s journey, the structure described by Joseph Campbell that underlies legends and adventure stories from around the world, the road of trials is the central part of the story, the series of mystical challenges that the hero must overcome.

George Lakoff’s theory of conceptual metaphors helps explain why roads are found in so many narratives. Lakoff points out that almost any event that follows a progression can be symbolized as a journey. People tend to talk about their lives, their romantic relationships, their education, and their careers as journeys. And the metaphor, or perhaps the metonym, for a journey is often the path that it follows, the road itself. So if I ask you how things are going with your significant other, you might say:

We’re at a crossroads.
It’s been bumpy.

We’re encountering obstacles.
We’ve reached a dead end.

This metaphor of road as progress explains why so many stories center on roads. The road becomes a manifestation of the forward movement of the plot. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road as it leads her to every character and obstacle she is destined to encounter; and when she gets to the end of the road, the story reaches its climax. In fact, we might see the road as a symbol for narrative itself.

Roads are such a fundamental part of so many stories that they tend to become invisible, just like the actual freeways we hide out of sight. But the road in McCarthy’s novel is something different. It isn’t just a pathway for the stories and the characters to follow. It’s a thing. The characters walk along it, but they also sleep on it. They kick ash out of it, and climb over dead tree limbs and abandoned vehicles that litter it.

It reminds me of another novel, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, which also depicts a journey down a road that has been largely abandoned by a fallen civilization. The two novels share a fascination with how one might use roads after the cars that they were built for are gone, along with all that went with those cars: the anonymity, the safe distance from one’s fellow travelers, the orderly rules. It is jarring to see a freeway as a place where people might walk, eat, sleep, fight, all the things that people usually do at their destinations, not on the roads that take us there.

Since the characters are not flying down the road at seventy miles per hour, readers can see it for what it really is: one of the last, most enduring signifiers of what it means to live in a society. Even after society has crumbled, the roads remain, providing an open path for travel and a promise that they will lead to a destination. When everything around has fallen into chaos and there is no promise of the food, shelter, protection that a society affords, the roads still provide a service, a trusted path, so that travelers don’t need to worry about navigating their journey.

Roads signify civilization because they assert mankind’s dominance over the mystery and disorderliness of nature. They take an uncharted territory and impose human ideas of logic and organization onto it. The Roman Empire was famous for its use of roads to signify their imperial, “civilizing” power. The roads reflected the logic of the empire, all of them leading from Rome to a conquered territory.

In America, roads symbolize social welfare and democracy. They are one amenity that Americans across the political spectrum can agree our government should provide. Conservatives want to limit government’s role in providing education or health care, but no one argues that we should privatize the roads. Roads are for everyone, the ultimate public service, shared equitably by rich and poor alike. Of course, roads in rich areas are better maintained than roads in poor areas, and poor people are often harassed when they drive on roads in affluent neighborhoods. That’s why freeways are the ultimate symbol of democracy, the connectors between places, taking us out of our own neighborhoods and cities and states and into any other place we wish to go.

During recent debates about nationalized health care, Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey wrote, “A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This ‘right’ has never existed in America.”

I thought at the time: we don’t have a right to a lot of things. There is no constitutional right to public education, or transportation, or a fire department, or police or military protection, or roads. But I’m really glad we have all of those things, since they connect us to one another and shape us into a community.