I almost died Friday night. Trying to catch an arriving westbound Green Line train – and ignoring all traffic laws, convention, and common sense – I ran along the parallel eastbound tracks. My head was turned to the right, watching for my opportunity to duck behind the last train car and sprint up the ramp. Anyone who’s ever stood near a passing train knows that in those moments it’s difficult to hear anything else, which is a really generous way of saying I didn’t notice the approaching eastbound train until it was mere feet from me, replete with blaring horn and squealing brakes and panicked conductor. I instinctively jumped to my right, the nose of the train brushing the sleeve of my jacket.
In retrospect, this was not the ideal choice, as it put me on icy road between two moving trains. But I held my balance and, moments later, boarded the westbound train.
If you were sitting with me at the back of that rear cabin, it would have been hard to tell that I had almost been hit by a train. When the conductor scolded me on the intercom, I joked about it with my fellow passengers. I quoted “O Brother, Where Art Thou” to myself: “The only good thing you ever did for the gals was get hit by that train!”
“I wasn’t hit by no train!”
I even checked my radial pulse. Not a beat above 70.
Despite what stand-up comics would have you believe, “What women want” isn’t some grand mystery, at least in terms of dating and attraction. Evolutionary psychologists have long argued that men are predominantly attracted to traits that imply high reproductive potential (hair color, hip-to-waist ratio, and breast size are all heuristics for reproductive potential), whereas women respond to traits that showcase a high level of survival potential. According to that theory, women who showed a preference for men with high survival potential were more likely to produce offspring who subsequently survived and passed along those preferences for future generations. Therefore traits like age, strength, social status, and the like were (and are) valued highly.
Behavioral psychologists have narrowed down and categorized these traits into two broad categories: status traits and interpersonal traits. Status traits consist of things like strength, confidence, ambition, and self-worth. Interpersonal traits are things like looks, grooming, authenticity, and the ability to form emotional connections. The former category consists of traits that shows the man can survive a hostile world, whereas the latter consists of things that create interpersonal bonds and thus confer their survival advantage to the woman. Or so the theory goes.
A while back, I asked ten of my closest female friends to tell me what they found attractive about me (not that I thought any of them were particularly attracted to me). I have long believed that many of my more attractive qualities are hidden away, difficult to discern from a glance. Things that have to be teased out, and then only in the right circumstances. So I set out to test that hypothesis. As a result, I got some wonderful feedback. I found that most of the women in my life see me as intelligent, humble, confident, and affectionate. One friend noted that I seek out opportunities to serve the people I care about, rather than waiting for them to come by way of happenstance. Another remarked, and I believe she was quoting Nick Offerman (which can never be a mistake), that I have a “chin thicket that makes women swoon when they countenance my visage.”
Most of them commented on my strength, both physically and morally, and their belief that I can protect them from immediate physical danger and be there for them when they face more subtle and spiritual ones. One said, “It’s impossible to not feel safe around you.” Several remarked on my personal style, one waxing philosophical about “an eye for captured beauty and significance.”
As I compiled the replies, and itemized them by category, I noticed a disturbing trend. Every box had multiple entries except for one: goals and ambition. If I ever look to the future, not a single one of my friends was picking up on it.
As the train left the Fairview station, I started thinking about the people in my life. My parents would be the first to find out, sure. How long would it take for everyone else? (My guess was two days. If I died on Friday, it wouldn’t be until Sunday that most of the people I care about would know about it.) But then I started thinking about my future, and the things I want to accomplish that would never happen. My list was surprisingly short. That realization, more than anything else, left me shaken.
It’s okay to not become a Nobel Prize winner or reach the pinnacle of a profession. It’s okay to strive to be, as Fleet Foxes so eloquently put it, “a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.” And don’t get me wrong, being content with life’s circumstances, no matter what they are, is a worthy goal. But there is rocky chasm between contentment and ambivalence, and right now I’m on the wrong side of that precipice. A few years ago, I asked a friend what she thought I should do with my life. She told me she always pictured me doing something too difficult for other people to do. That stunning vote of confidence has been left unmet ever since.
When I finally reached my destination, Little Caesar’s pizza in hand, I waited at the locked apartment door with another man. He was wearing a gray winter cap and a somber expression. “Let me call my wife,” he said. “She’s upstairs.” My friend Mel (yes, Mel, that word choice was deliberate: you have arrived) reached the door first and let us both in. I was eager to tell her about my harrowing experience. “Mel! I almost died tonight!”
The other man overheard my remark. “You almost died? Man, you’ve got to get that fixed.” I didn’t know how to reply to that, so he kept talking. “My brother died last week. Right upstairs. He came over and lied down and the next thing we knew he was gone.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured helplessly.
“You’ve got to get that taken care of,” he repeated. “It’s not fair to your family. You can’t let that happen.”