‘If you don’t go swimming, you won’t drown’

Some notes on flirting

GRAFTON — Carol and I have been friends since we were barely past voting age, when we shared a country bungalow and would drive up the road six mornings a week to our jobs exercising racehorses on a neighboring farm.

Now we live miles apart. When we connect on the phone, it's a free-range conversation. We talk about politics, religion, horses, books, our work, our fears, and our dreams.

Recently we were talking about flirting, and Carol said, “If you don't go swimming, you won't drown.”

She borrowed this line from a groom she'd known on the racetrack.

The groom's grandfather had been a marathon swimmer in his youth. In his 70s, he still swam a mile a day. Every summer morning, he left the house and dived into the cold waves off the Maine coast.

One morning he didn't come back.

After his death, the groom's grandmother forbade her grandchildren to swim.

“If you don't go swimming, you won't drown.”

* * *

Carol and I have often revisited this story, but she'd never used it as an injunction against flirting.

Carol had been the queen of artful repartee. She was an inspiration to me, the shy girl. I'd longed to be as clever and sophisticated as she was, turning away unwanted attention with scintillating wit and responding in kind when the interest was mutual.

I rarely noticed when a man was flirting with me. When I did, my tongue got tangled in my throat. An unruly blush, bright as a stoplight, spread over my face.

Now Carol sounded like a buttoned-up old auntie, counseling “restraint of pen and tongue” in all matters, including the realm of harmless flirtation.

“Since when did you become so puritanical?” I asked.

“Just sayin.'”

After Carol and I said goodbye, I got curious about what social scientists are saying about flirting.

Answer: A reader could drown while perusing the sea of information on the Internet regarding the “art of flirting.”

I used to think that flirting was like galloping a horse. You either have a feel for it or you don't, and it's not something that can be taught.

Apparently, I was mistaken.

On one website, there is a handy list of pick-up lines for the flirting-impaired. (“Are you lost, ma'am? Because heaven is a long way from here.”)

This is a joke, right? Wouldn't such an utterance cause any self-respecting woman to bolt from the room? It's like being handed a can of Pringles “chips” when what you really craved was a homemade curry that would burn your lips off.

* * *

Research gathered by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in the United Kingdom indicates that flirting is a basic instinct and biological imperative. (So much for staying out of the water.)

Some evolutionary psychologists postulate that “flirting may even be the foundation of civilization as we know it.” If they're correct, that means that flirting is not merely a moment of sparky banter between two people, but also a responsibility to the whole human race.

Heavy weight to carry. Fortunately, no one is counting on me to maintain the foundation.

The SIRC also reports that “research shows that men find it particularly difficult to interpret the more subtle clues in women's body language and tend to mistake friendliness for sexual interest.”

Is there a woman alive who needs scientific confirmation? I think we all can trust our “anecdotal” evidence.

When Carol and I lived in that bungalow, our neighbor's son always came to visit us when he was home from college. Erik was an erudite intellectual, and Carol and I welcomed his news from academia, but when he talked about communication between the sexes, his brains flew out of his head, proving that intelligence is never an unbroken circle in anyone.

One summer afternoon, the three of us were sitting under the shade of the old maple when Erik launched into a dissertation about flirting.

“When a woman lifts her chin and brushes her hair back, I know she's coming on to me,” he declared.

“Maybe she needs a haircut,” I said. “Maybe her hair is in her eyes and it's bugging her.”

“You are hopelessly naïve,” Erik said.

“She's practical,” Carol replied.

“Yes,” I said, “And you're making a good case for every woman to wear a burqa and a veil, no matter what her religious persuasion.”

Erik rolled his eyes. I refrained from rolling mine, fearful that he might confuse disdain for desire.

He went on to graduate with honors. I'm certain he has made good use of a higher education.

* * *

The SIRC's “Guide to Flirting” contains comprehensive instructions on flirting etiquette, elucidating where, when, and with whom flirting is acceptable and where it is not.

Flirting in the workplace is dicey. A married person, especially a stranger, should be approached with caution, if at all. (I translate these particular rules to mean “don't dare get within a mile of that murky water.”)

Flirting is most acceptable at parties and celebrations but not so much at spectator sports, with the exception of horse racing, “where the half-hour interval between races is dedicated to sociability and friendly interaction between strangers ... The social micro-climate [of the race course] makes it one of the best flirting environments in Britain.” Presumably, that holds true for this country, too.

As I read, I saw my entire life as a series of missed opportunities.

I considered the countless hours I've spent at racetracks watching the horses being led into the paddock and saddled, eavesdropping on the trainers' instructions to the jockeys, and carefully observing how each horse walked out to the track. I could've been scouting for prospects instead.

The SIRC's guide explains how close to stand next to your “target,” the appropriate duration of eye contact for a first meeting, and what embarrassment might ensue if you fail to heed the complicated guidelines. To ensure accuracy and success, an amateur flirt would need to tote a yardstick and a stopwatch to the party.

I was disturbed by the constant references to a person of interest as the “target.” Unlike Sarah Palin, I don't regard other humans as “targets.” Although I'm not opposed to hunting for food, a moose doesn't look like a target, either.

Oddly, the guide makes no mention of variance in human nature. One woman's ceiling is another woman's floor. What I perceive as a serving of cardboard pseudo-chips might be vital nourishment for someone else, perhaps even a prelude to a long, happy marriage.

When I finally turned off the computer, I was no better informed - or confident - than I was in yesteryear.

So when I'm standing in the paddock at Saratoga next July, I'll still be watching the horses and studying the Daily Racing Form. I figure I'll have a better chance of cashing a ticket on a 20-1 shot than I would at locating a “target.”

A practical woman knows not to get in over her head.

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