The oft-told definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But there is also a different school of thought. There was once an experiment with rats in cages. Every time a rat hit a bar with its paw, it received a food pellet. The rat happily did so ad infinitum, until the bar was juiced with an electric shock. Ouch! But still the rat kept trying, only to be zapped again and again. Eventually it stopped touching the bar. Apparently, rats are not insane. So the scientists in the lab coats removed the electric shock from the bar and sat back and waited for the rat to try again. Maybe a little time would change the rodent's mind. Maybe it would be sitting there, gnawing on its woodblock, and the thought would strike it to hit that bar again, for old time's sake. Who knows? Maybe the rat would get a treat instead of a shock this time. So the scientists waited. And waited. And waited. And never again did that rat go near the bar, even though it would have received a tasty treat if it had.
My shrink pointed this out to me as an example of how failure can hardwire us to never try anything again. It is true that if you study the lives of successful people, they were littered with failure. They simply didn't let it set them back permanently.
I wasn't sure how I felt about this rat metaphor, but I was willing to look at it closely in an attempt to not feel like shit anymore. I had done something I had never done in my life — ask a guy out — and it seemed to be going well, until he told me on the third date that he didn't realize that we were on dates, he thought we were doing friendy things, and that no thanks, he's not interested. I got zapped by the bar, one last zap in a lifetime of electroshock. Never again, I told myself, would I approach the bar. Never again, I told myself, would I put myself out there.
I needed a drink. I went to the Chieftain, the only bar worth a hoot near Market and Fifth streets. This place is good because there is always something happening inside, or some conversation you can lose yourself in. Occasionally musicians will set up and play a set, which sort of sucks. The Chieftain also serves french fries with melted cheese on top, which is great rejection food.
The Chieftain is of course an Irish pub, and therefore the last place on earth you want to be on St. Patrick's Day. I remember walking past it that night and seeing all the kelly-green idiocy in full effect. But it's pretty okay the rest of the time. One guy sitting at the bar was chatting with the bartender about tourists, who seem to like Fifth Street like the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games: Japanese, Spaniards, Brits, and tons of Germans. He was wearing an Izod shirt, something I hadn't actually seen on a person since seventh grade. He kept looking at me and smiling. The week prior I would have thought, He thinks I'm pretty. In my postrejection world, however, I have learned that I cannot trust my own instincts. The guy I asked out had been staring at me for three months. He asked me lots of questions about myself. He wrote funny little things on my Facebook account. These were all signs, I thought, to proceed. Wrong again. Zap. No pellet, but plenty of pain.
Here's the basic shittiness of such situations: It's embarrassing. Now this guy knows I had feelings for him. That I had wondered whether my family would like him. That I had worn makeup and tried to look nice — for him. Fuck, that is embarrassing.
A big group of guys went outside to smoke, and without thinking I put a napkin on my glass and went to join them. We bullshitted about one guy's pants, which were hanging down like a gangsta's, even though he was lily-white and wearing tighty-whities. "I just lost a lot of weight," he confessed sheepishly, tugging them up. I encouraged him to keep drinking beer, because it had worked for me when my pants had become too loose. We all laughed and talked, and a rather cute guy told me he liked my earrings. Again, the old me would have taken this as a sign, but the new me was inured to such things and simply said thank you.
We went back in and the earring admirer sat next to me. He said that he wanted to talk about Illinois some more, because I had let it slip that I was from the Midwest. You see, we were standing across from the Burlington Coat Factory, and I said that in the Land of Lincoln, that place is like Saks Fifth Avenue.
I liked this guy. He had a nice way of holding himself, and he had also read Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods six times (we had covered a lot of ground in five minutes). So I found myself at a crossroads: Should I never again whack that bar for a pellet, for fear of feeling like shit, or should I once again try for a treat, in the hopes that maybe this time it would work? This is a situation all of us have found ourselves in, usually after some big breakup. Your world is shattered, your self-esteem has collapsed, and all you can think about is not feeling this way ever again. But slowly you start to feel better. Then comes the day when you realize that you are not in pain anymore. Just feeling okay is a marvel. You are happily at home, gnawing on your woodblock and watching Judge Judy, when you think: Should I put myself out there again? Should I go for it?
The cute guy started talking about what kind of food I liked, which seemed like it might be leading into an invitation to dinner. So I did what any other white rat would do. I put on my coat and thanked him for the great conversation, then I skedaddled. I'm just not ready. Or I am hardwired to never again feel pain.
At least I am not insane.
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