Saturday, December 26, 2009

Conversations at a cafe - the one about stars, the Super Bowl and relationships

Sheetal hated Mark. She hated him because he seemed to always espouse ideals she seldom agreed with. She suspected he did this on purpose, just to spite her. She hated him because he seldom seemed to be driven by rationality and often argued “the implications of being human”, whatever that meant. And, she hated him for always being 10 minutes late. She never understood why, despite knowing him, she still waited and expected him to be on time. Above all, she hated him for that. Today Mark was nearly an hour late. Sheetal was already on her third paper and second cup of Pumpkin Spiced Latte.

“Sheetal, why are you so strung up all the time?”

Startled, Sheetal looked up to see Mark smiling back at her, holding his cup of Mocha.

“What!? When did you get here?”

In a swift, practiced stroke, Mark turns the empty chair around with his left hand while placing his coffee on the table with his right. He removes his shoulder bag and nudges the chair so that its back now touches the two person table Sheetal is seated at, and sits down straddling the chair with his chin resting on his hands on the chair back.

“You were frowning at the paper you were reading. I walked in five minutes ago, but you were totally trying to stare a hole through that paper. You didn’t even notice me, so I thought I’d just get my order before I walk over.”

“No that’s not really true...,” Sheetal begins to protest. She leans forward and looks Mark evenly in the eyes.

“All right Mark. When are you meeting her?”

“What? Who?” Mark questions with a surprised chuckle.

“The girl behind the counter. She’s new here and you found her cute. So you decided to speak to her first instead of letting me know you were here.”

“Come on, Sheeps. Do you really think of me like that?”

“Yes I do. I know you. So, when are you meeting that girl?”

“Kimberly. Her name is Kimberly and you’ll get a chance to talk to her at Megan’s party tonight.”

“How do you always manage to do that? You ask and no girl ever says no.”

“Ya, I’m James Bond.”

“No seriously. What do you say to these girls that they just go ‘ya okay. I’ll, like, have, like, dinner with you. And, like, then some.’”

“Wow you make them sound so duh. It doesn’t work that way at all.”

“So how does it work?”

“I don’t know why some girls agree to go on a date with me and some don’t. I so wish there was a magic word or line I could say and they’d always agree, but there isn’t. If that were true, I would just call up Scarlet Johanssen and say it over and over again. Okay maybe I’d call Maggie Gyllenhall as well. Oh and Michelle Wong”

“What no Megan Fox?”

“Naah. She’s over-hyped.”

“And if you like Michelle that much, why don’t you just ask her?”

“I did”


“And what? It’s not happening.”

“And you’re still harboring feelings for her while you ask other girls out?”

“No not really. Sheeps why am I in the hot seat?”

“Because I want to know. And you were late.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Ya I know. But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“Well, I asked Michelle out last week.”


“And she’s not interested.”

“What did she say?”

“That she’s not interested.”

“Ouch. That’s cold. I always felt she was a little, you know, blunt.”

“No, not really. I think it’s very mature of her, actually. I appreciate her honesty and forthrightness. It’s what I liked about her to begin with. I sometimes wish others would follow her example and say what they think and mean more often. She’s not stupid, you know. I think she just happens to choose being honest and direct more often than others.”

“Listen to you defending her.”

“Not wanting to date me doesn’t make her a bad person, right? And that’s how life is.”

“Like how?”

“You know, the ones you like are not interested in you and the one’s who are interested in you, you don’t like.”

Sheetal cracks up. “Really Mark!”

She puts the paper she was reading in the folder on her lap, closes it, puts it on the table and leans forward. With elbows on the folder and her face cradled between closed palms, she asks “In that case how do you explain people being together at all?”

“Some of it is genuine attraction and compatibility, you know, when you find someone who you instantly gel with. You just seem to get each other even when you disagree. Strongly. “

“And the rest?”

“Biology and economics.”

“Huh? Are you implying that every relationship is some form of prostitution?” Sheetal frowns and nestles a wisp of hair behind her ear.

“No, not at all. I’m referring to the, you know, the prime directive.”

“The What? Is this an obscure Matrix reference? You do know that I never get most of your movie references, right?”

Mark chuckles. “‘God is happiest when His children are at play.’ Or in other words, breed and be happy. At some point both the guy and the gal say ‘you’ll do’.”

Sheetal leans back and crosses her hands. “You mean people just give up and settle for something they think is ‘good enough’.”

“Yep. That’s why it’s called ‘settling down’”. Mark takes a sip of his coffee.

“Not very romantic at all.”

“Not much is.” Mark gulps another sip.

“I think that’s why arranged marriages work in some cultures.”


“Your cultural heritage for one still has arranged marriages, right? I think they work because both the guy and the girl come in with the idea of ‘it’s a compromise’ and decide to rough it out.”

Sheetal frowns. “Next you’re going to say that matching Horoscopes is the way to go.”

“Well, at its very basis, the idea is that marriages are successful if the couple has compatible personalities. If you think about it, modern internet dating websites do a similar thing. Aren’t you on one of these sites?”

Sheetal cocks an eyebrow. “Well, Misha made us all sign up just to see who’d bite.”

“And Jim doesn’t mind?” Mark cocks a smile.

“I don’t think he knows and this was before I really met him. And I don’t respond to any emails I get.” Sheetal fires a mild stink eye in Mark’s direction.

“So did you fill out their extensive questionnaire?”

“Well not really. Misha just wanted us to put up pretty pictures and write the bare minimum, so I just breezed through the personality section.”

“So if you were serious, you would take the time to answer all those questions. Right?”

“Ya, I guess.”

“So then they could use that data and come up with a Meyer’s Briggs like personality profile for you. And by you, I mean any one who sings up.”

Sheetal shrugs, “Yes, I guess. And your point is?”

“Well,” Mark gesticulates with a partially close fisted left hand:. his index finger and thumb joining as if trying to pierce something with a sharp pointed needle. “… given a personality profile, these websites will try to find personalities which in their ‘experience’ will best match.”

“And by their ‘experience’,” Sheetal accentuates with air quotes, “you mean the research they performed across several long lasting, happy couples.”


“So what’s wrong with that?”

“Well nothing per se. But, it does beg the question of what guarantee they have that personalities really govern, at least to a statistical significance, the success or failure of a relationship.”

“Honestly Mark! How can someone stay married if they can’t even get along with their spouse?”

“Compromise. It could be for a number of reasons, the least of which could be social standing, support for a child, possible future fortune or even asylum or citizenship.”

“I can’t believe that everyone who answered that they were happy had one of these ulterior motives.”

“No not everyone, but it still is very possible, right?”

“Let’s say so for the sake of the argument. I want to see where you’re going with this.”

“The point I’m making is that no one really knows what works and what doesn’t. Personality profiles are merely an attempt to quantify the success of a given relationship. Who’s to say that the profiles most opposed won’t come together and live happily ever after?”

“So you’re going to say horoscopes are also such an attempt? A projection from the domain of relationships into the dimensions of a personality profile and finally on to the real number line as a percentage of goodness of a match?”

“Wow Sheetal. Leave it to you to come up with a mathematical definition of everything. You do know that you sound super scary when you do that, right? Next thing I know you’ll be spouting equations with Greek letters and curly braces on the napkins.”

“Are you calling me a geek?”

“Only as a badge of honor. I swear. But, yes, essentially Hororscopes could be looked upon as such a mapping. And they needn’t also be that different from personality profiles.”

“You’re saying there is a correlation between a person’s date and time of birth and their behavior. And hence, there’s a correlation between the position of the planets and stars and the stability of a relationship.”

“Exactly!” Mark snaps his fingers on both hands. “What if there is a statistically significant correlation between behaviors and astrological charts? More so, what if there is a stronger and more direct correlation between astrological patterns and successful relationships, independently of behaviors?”

“Mark, you do know that line of reasoning is specious at best? Going by your logic, I could pin the success of relationships on how tall grass grows every year. Or how close the Boston Redsox come to winning the World Series each year. Just because we can propose a metric does not mean it really applies.”

“But people have been doing this for ages and it seems to work out! Look at the success rate of Asian Indian marriages versus those out here in the Western world. The US is infamous for having a divorce rate of 50 percent. Nearly half the marriages in the entire country end in divorce. That’s no better than a coin flip. Wouldn’t it make sense to go with something that can better those odds?”

“Sure. I mean everyone wants a ‘lived happily ever after’ tag line. But that doesn’t mean you put your unquestioning faith in a dubious predictor.”

“But if it betters the odds, how can it be more dubious that not using anything?”

“There is a certain stock market predictor that postulates that the Market will go up if an NFC team wins the Super Bowl and will go down if an AFC team wins. The Super Bowl Stock market predictor has upwards of an 80% success rate in the past 40 years. Those are some impressive odds wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah, but you won’t find me betting my money on that.”

“And why’s that, Mark?” Sheetal asks with a smile.

“Because, I don’t see a relation between how a football team performs and what the stock market does.”

“Even though there’s a high proven correlation and past record of performance?” Sheetal giggles.

“Yes, we all know correlation is not causation. Stop making fun.”

“And yet, so many people watch Punxsutawney Phil come out every winter to let them know if the winter is going to last another six weeks by looking at his shadow or not.”

Mark laughs. “Yeah, I always found Ground Hog Day supremely idiotic. Loved Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell in the movie though.”

“And yet every year millions participate in the same ritual.”

“But it’s not like everyone believes in it. Most just do it as a reason to party. It’s a joke and everyone knows it.”

“Sadly that’s not the case with Horoscopes and other modes of divination.”

“Yes my dear, not everyone is as smart and rational as you. It is a fairly human failing to want a apprehensible explanation of why things happen. And more so to protect one’s self from painful future experiences.”

“And to save myself from another painful experience, I have to leave now. I have to stop by the Library and then I’m picking Jim up from the airport. And then we have to be at Megan’s to meet you and Kimberly!”

“Just be gentle when you meet me with her.” Mark catches Kimberly looking at him, and waves at her and cracks a smile.

“Oh look, she’s been checking you out. That’s a good sign.” Sheetal giggles and waves out to Kim, who now looks puzzled.

“Alright, get out of here. I’ll see you at Megan’s. Hopefully, you haven’t scared Kimberly away.”