In a crowded New York club, I hold onto my $10 highball as the bass reverberates in my skull. The young man facing me leans in and begins. "Have you ever felt, like, completely comfortable with someone, and you just know that you can be totally yourself and never have to worry and... " He stops mid-sentence and smiles wryly. "God, do you realize how cute you are?" Standing on its own legs, this sort of pickup line is wobbly at best. Screamed in my ear at a club, it seems to ring false. But what is truly worrisome is that these are scripted lines, conceived and taught by professionals who coach boys and men on foolproof ways to pick up women.
I know this because two of the four people whose couch I am currently sleeping on in the Big Apple work for a multinational company that offers group lectures and a seduction "boot camp" on the art of hooking up.
Tonight we're out on the town with a student of theirs. The line he's feeding me sounds depressingly rehearsed, even if I hadn't read it verbatim (no joke) in the company's manual earlier that day. It's one of hundreds, each line supposedly geared to the specifics of the environment and the object of desire.
Students learn by instruction and practice how to approach and "hook" women in a variety of settings. Kiss goodbye the idea that social graces and wooing are inate and individual.
Some people staunchly believe that artists are born and cannot be taught. To them, so-called "art institutions" are for hacks and posers. The same could be said of pickup instruction manuals and those who teach and learn from them: they're phonies, imposters or, worse, predators.
But in this age of self-improvement, when the American mantra dictates that the way to solve a problem is just to throw money at it, why not?
As in any structured learning program, there's a certain vocabulary. "Opening a set," which sounds like something to do with tennis, translates into "approaching a woman with the intent of picking up." A "plotline" is a narrative (a blend of truth and fiction) woven over the course of the evening to entice the woman.
Like most women, I was at once amused, disgusted, intrigued and disheartened by my hosts' jobs.
Even in the booze-saturated, carnivalesque setting of a nightclub, we need to hold onto the hope that when someone engages us it has something to do with us personally, and that their words are spontaneous and their own. We foolishly assume that our rapport is based on some genuine dynamic, some sincere attraction.
Discovering that the endearing smile and apparent interest are all part of a formula, a plan hatched long ago by some mastermind or clinical expert, transforms the dance from spontaneous movement into a plot.
My disappointment is, of course, the romantic's reaction. A pragmatist would be undaunted by the realization that many good things are learned through diligent study.
Some might say that at the end of the day, all of this is still about finding love and connection. But not necessarily in the way you'd think.
Most of the bonding and connecting that occurs with the help of these programs is actually between the men. Guys seem to be able to connect more honestly over an activity. How many movie scenes show two male friends discussing their personal pains and relationship troubles over a game of squash or a "business" lunch?
Studying the art of picking up, men learn to be better men, help out a brother, sit in an ego-massage circle, admit their weaknesses and encourage their strengths.
My friend says it takes a lot of courage to sign up for the seminars, because you're admitting that you need help. Bedding a lady or landing a girlfriend may be just a pleasant side effect of the male closeness that transpires. But men can't admit needing that. It's easier to affirm you just want to get laid.
Whether the love is for the brothers or the ladies, making a connection is just a course-book away.