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Chapter 4
Gene opened the door with a glass of red wine in his hand. Iparked my bicycle in their hallway, took off my backpack andretrieved the Wife Project folder, pulling out Gene’s copy of thedraft. I had pruned it to sixteen double-sided pages.
‘Relax, Don, plenty of time,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have acivilised dinner, and then we’ll do the questionnaire. If you’regoing to be dating, you need dinner practice.’
He was, of course, right. Claudia is an excellent cook and Genehas a vast collection of wines, organised by region, vintage andproducer.
We went to his ‘cellar’, which is not actually below ground,where he showed me his recent purchases and we selected asecond bottle. We ate with Carl and Eugenie, and I was ableto avoid small talk by playing a memory game with Eugenie.
She noticed my folder marked ‘Wife Project’, which I put onthe table as soon as I finished dessert.
‘Are you getting married, Don?’ she asked.
‘Correct.’
‘Who to?’
32/290I was about to explain, but Claudia sent Eugenie and Carl totheir rooms – a good decision, as they did not have theexpertise to contribute.
I handed questionnaires to Claudia and Gene. Gene pouredport for all of us. I explained that I had followed best practicein questionnaire design, including multiple-choice questions, Likertscales, cross-validation, dummy questions and surrogates.
Claudia asked for an example of the last of these.
‘Question 35: Do you eat kidneys? Correct answer is (c)occasionally. Testing for food problems. If you ask directlyabout food preferences, they say “I eat anything” and then youdiscover they’re vegetarian.’
I am aware that there are many arguments in favour ofvegetarianism. However, as I eat meat I considered it would bemore convenient if my partner did so also. At this early stage,it seemed logical to specify the ideal solution and review thequestionnaire later if necessary.
Claudia and Gene were reading.
Claudia said, ‘For an appointment, I’m guessing (b) a littleearly.’
This was patently incorrect, demonstrating that even Claudia,who was a good friend, would be unsuitable as a partner.
‘The correct answer is (c) on time,’ I said. ‘Habitual earlinessis cu-mulatively a major waste of time.’
‘I’d allow a little early,’ said Claudia. ‘She might be tryinghard.
That’s not a bad thing.’
An interesting point. I made a note to consider it, but pointedout that (d) a little late and (e) very late were definitelyunacceptable.
‘I think if a woman describes herself as a brilliant cook she’s abit up herself,’ said Claudia. ‘Just ask her if she enjoys cooking.
Mention that you do too.’
This was exactly the sort of input I was looking for – subtlenuances of language that I am not conscious of. It struck methat if the33/290respondent was someone like me she would not notice thedifference, but it was unreasonable to require that my potentialpartner share my lack of subtlety.
‘No jewellery, no make-up?’ said Claudia, correctly predictingthe answers to two questions that had been prompted by myrecent interaction with the Dean.
‘Jewellery isn’t always about appearance,’ she said. ‘If you haveto have a question, drop the jewellery one and keep themake-up. But just ask if she wears it daily.’
‘Height, weight and body mass index.’ Gene was skimmingahead.
‘Can’t you do the calculation yourself?’
‘That’s the purpose of the question,’ I said. ‘Checking they cando basic arithmetic. I don’t want a partner who’smathematically illiterate.’
‘I thought you might have wanted to get an idea of what theylook like,’ said Gene.
‘There’s a question on fitness,’ I said.
‘I was thinking about sex,’ said Gene.
‘Just for a change,’ said Claudia, an odd statement as Genetalks constantly about sex. But he had made a good point.
‘I’ll add a question on HIV and herpes.’
‘Stop,’ said Claudia. ‘You’re being way too picky.’
I began to explain that an incurable sexually transmitted diseasewas a severe negative but Claudia interrupted.
‘About everything.’
It was an understandable response. But my strategy was tominimise the chance of making a type-one error – wasting timeon an unsuitable choice. Inevitably, that increased the risk of atype-two error – rejecting a suitable person. But this was anacceptable risk as I was dealing with a very large population.
34/290Gene’s turn: ‘Non-smoking, fair enough. But what’s the rightanswer on drinking?’
‘Zero.’
‘Hang on. You drink.’ He pointed to my port glass, which hehad topped up a few moments earlier. ‘You drink quite a bit.’
I explained that I was expecting some improvement for myselffrom the project.
We continued in this manner and I received some excellentfeedback. I did feel that the questionnaire was now lessdiscriminating, but was still confident it would eliminate most ifnot all of the women who had given me problems in the past.
Apricot Ice-cream Woman would have failed at least fivequestions.
My plan was to advertise on traditional dating sites, but toprovide a link to the questionnaire in addition to posting theusual insufficiently discriminating information about height,profession and whether I enjoyed long walks on the beach.
Gene and Claudia suggested that I also undertake someface-to-face dating to practise my social skills. I could see thevalue of validating the questionnaires in the field, so, while Iwaited for online responses to arrive, I printed somequestionnaires and returned to the dating process that Ithought I had abandoned forever.
I began by registering with Table for Eight, run by acommercial matchmaking organisation. After an undoubtedlyunsound preliminary matching process, based on manifestlyinadequate data, four men and four women, including me, wereprovided with details of a city restaurant at which a bookinghad been made. I packed four questionnaires and arrivedprecisely at 8.00 p.m. Only one woman was there!
The other three were late. It was a stunning validation of theadvantages of field work. These women may well haveanswered (b) a little early or (c) on time, but their actualbehaviour demonstrated35/290otherwise. I decided to temporarily allow (d) a little late, onthe basis that a single occasion might not be representative oftheir overall performance. I could hear Claudia saying, ‘Don,everyone’s late occasionally.’
There were also two men seated at the table. We shook hands.
It struck me that this was equivalent to bowing prior to amartial-arts bout.
I assessed my competition. The man who had introducedhimself as Craig was about my own age, but overweight, in awhite business shirt that was too tight for him. He had amoustache, and his teeth were poorly maintained. The second,Danny, was probably a few years younger than me, andappeared to be in good health. He wore a white t-shirt. Hehad tattoos on his arms and his black hair contained someform of cosmetic additive.
The on-time woman’s name was Olivia, and she initially (andlogically) divided her attention among the three men. She toldus she was an anthropologist. Danny confused it with anarchaeologist and then Craig made a racist joke about pygmies.
It was obvious, even to me, that Olivia was unimpressed bythese responses, and I enjoyed a rare moment of not feelinglike the least socially competent person in the room. Oliviaturned to me, and I had just responded to her question aboutmy job when we were interrupted by the arrival of the fourthman, who introduced himself as Gerry, a lawyer, and twowomen, Sharon and Maria, who were, respectively, anaccountant and a nurse.
It was a hot night, and Maria had chosen a dress with thetwin advantages of coolness and overt sexual display. Sharonwas wearing the conventional corporate uniform of trousers andjacket. I guessed that they were both about my age.
Olivia resumed talking to me while the others engaged in smalltalk– an extraordinary waste of time when a major life decisionwas at stake. On Claudia’s advice, I had memorised thequestionnaire. She36/290thought that asking questions directly from the forms couldcreate the wrong ‘dynamic’ and that I should attempt toincorporate them subtly into conversation. Subtlety, I hadreminded her, is not my strength.
She suggested that I not ask about sexually transmitted diseasesand that I make my own estimates of weight, height and bodymass index.
I estimated Olivia’s BMI at nineteen: slim, but no signs ofanorexia. I estimated Sharon the Accountant’s at twenty-three,and Maria the Nurse’s at twenty-eight. The recommendedhealthy maximum is twenty-five.
Rather than ask about IQ, I decided to make an estimatebased on Olivia’s responses to questions about the historicalimpact of variations in susceptibility to syphilis across nativeSouth American populations. We had a fascinating conversation,and I felt that the topic might even allow me to slip in thesexually-transmitted-diseases question. Her IQ was definitelyabove the required minimum. Gerry the Lawyer offered a fewcomments that I think were meant to be jokes, but eventuallyleft us to continue uninterrupted.
At this point, the missing woman arrived, twenty-eight minuteslate. While Olivia was distracted, I took the opportunity torecord the data I had acquired so far on three of the fourquestionnaires in my lap. I did not waste paper on the mostrecent arrival, as she announced that she was ‘always late’.
This did not seem to concern Gerry the Lawyer, whopresumably billed by the six-minute interval, and shouldconsequently have considered time to be of great value. Heobviously valued sex more highly as his conversation began toresemble that of Gene.
With the arrival of Late Woman, the waiter appeared withmenus.
Olivia scanned hers then asked, ‘The pumpkin soup, is it madewith vegetable stock?’
I did not hear the answer. The question provided the criticalinformation. Vegetarian.
37/290She may have noted my expression of disappointment. ‘I’mHindu.’
I had previously deduced that Olivia was probably Indian fromher sari and physical attributes. I was not sure whether theterm ‘Hindu’
was being used as a genuine statement of religious belief or asan indicator of cultural heritage. I had been reprimanded forfailing to make this distinction in the past.
‘Do you eat ice-cream?’ I asked. The question seemedappropriate after the vegetarian statement. Very neat.
‘Oh yes, I am not vegan. As long as it is not made with eggs.’
This was not getting any better.
‘Do you have a favourite flavour?’
‘Pistachio. Very definitely pistachio.’ She smiled.
Maria and Danny had stepped outside for a cigarette. Withthree women eliminated, including Late Woman, my task wasalmost complete.
My lambs’ brains arrived, and I cut one in half, exposing theinternal structure. I tapped Sharon, who was engaged inconversation with Craig the Racist, and pointed it out to her.
‘Do you like brains?’
Four down, job complete. I continued my conversation withOlivia, who was excellent company, and even ordered anadditional drink after the others had departed in the pairs thatthey had formed. We stayed, talking, until we were the lastpeople in the restaurant. As I put the questionnaires in mybackpack, Olivia gave me her contact information, which Iwrote down in order not to be rude. Then we went ourseparate ways.
Cycling home, I reflected on the dinner. It had been a grosslyinefficient method of selection, but the questionnaire had beenof significant value. Without the questions it prompted, I wouldundoubtedly have attempted a second date with Olivia, whowas an interesting and nice person. Perhaps we would havegone on a third and fourth and fifth date, then one day, whenall of the desserts at the restaurant38/290contained egg, we would have crossed the road to theice-cream parlour, and discovered they had no egg-freepistachio. It was better to find out before we made aninvestment in the relationship.
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