I’ve been asked more than once about the podcasts I listen to during my commute. There are a lot of them, and I can barely keep up with new episodes even when I listen to them at 1.5x normal speed (which I do routinely, so that if I ever happen to hear e.g. Ira Glass or Terry Gross at normal speed, it sounds like brain damage).

Now it’s #trypod month, when lots of podcasts are imploring listeners to spread the word about which podcasts to listen to and how to find them, for those who aren’t yet indoctrinated. So here’s an annotated list of my current subscriptions. For the record, I listen to these shows using the BeyondPod Android app on my phone.

The “Do the Math” Puzzler
Short-and-sweet math puzzles by my good friend Wes Carroll, each at just the right difficulty level — I can just manage to do most of them without pencil and paper, if I push myself — and with an elegant solution presented clearly and edifyingly in the following episode.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
History, in-depth and amazingly told. Carlin’s episodes appear only seldom, and when they do they are hours long apiece — and even so, they go by too fast. Of special note is his magisterial six-part series on World War I, “Blueprint For Armageddon” (at this writing, still available for free). It adds up to nearly a full day of listening but not only does it never gets boring, it’s full of drama and suspense and leaves you wanting more.
This American Life
The éminence grise of excellently told miscellaneous radio stories.
Fresh Air
The éminence grise of interviews with celebrities, politicians, and other newsmakers.
Planet Money
Topics in economics made accessible and fun. Not quite as indispensable as it was during the financial crisis.
Superb storytelling on fascinating topics in science.
99% Invisible
Vignettes about design from Roman Mars, the brains behind the Radiotopia podcasting empire.
Two veteran Hollywood screenwriters with a terrific bantering dynamic discuss screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, and also to anyone who loves the nuts and bolts of storytelling and filmmaking. This is the one I look forward to most each week.
the memory palace
Small, true stories of the nearly forgotten past, each related as an impressionistic reverie.
The Moth
Podcast of the live-storytelling-show phenomenon.
Podcast about getting businesses off the ground. The first season concerned the launch of Gimlet Media, the very company producing the StartUp podcast.
Podcasts had been around for quite a while before Serial, but Serial put podcasting on the map. Its format – a season-long deep-dive into a single news story – became a national phenomenon.
Radiolab Presents: More Perfect
Side project from the Radiolab team (see above) telling surprising stories from the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Truth
Each episode is a short radio drama. Some are silly, some are disturbing, many will stick with you.
Slate’s Working
Each episode is an interview with a person in a different profession, examining what working in that profession is like.
My Dad Wrote a Porno

When one guy learned his dad had written a series of truly cringeworthy erotic novels, he did the obvious thing: got together with his two hilarious friends and recorded a podcast. In each episode he reads another chapter to them, and us, from the series, while the friends provide MST3K-like commentary. Very NSFW, but not what you’d call arousing.

This podcast is apparently all the rage in Hollywood, and the more recent episodes have featured guest appearances by celebrities like Daisy Ridley and Elijah Wood.

Welcome to Night Vale
I’ve heard this hilarious podcast described, accurately, as “Stephen King meets A Prairie Home Companion.”
The Allusionist
Helen Zaltzman, of the long-running Answer Me This podcast (see below), hosts this one too on the topic of words and etymologies. Her persona on this show is toned down somewhat from Answer Me This, but still quite funny.
You Must Remember This
Juicy and well-researched stories from “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century.”
Ask Me Another
NPR’s comic trivia-puzzle game show hosted by Ophira Eisenberg and nerd-music god Jonathan Coulton.
Revisionist History
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast miniseries about well-known news stories of the past, and the surprising turns they took after everyone stopped paying attention.
Hidden Brain
NPR’s social science reporter Shankar Vedantam does Radiolab-style deep dives into topics on human behavior.
Getting In
Now-concluded, highly informative podcast about the college admissions process hosted by Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University.
Within the Wires
Serialized scripted mystery/thriller from a creator of “Welcome to Night Vale.”
Answer Me This
Long-running British podcast whose hilarious (and often dirty-minded) hosts answer questions of all sorts posed by listeners.
Serialized scripted thriller featuring big-name acting talent.
The saga of organized crime in Providence, Rhode Island in the 1970’s.
The Gist
Rapid-fire thinker and talker Mike Pesca hosts a daily discussion of topics in the news, plus interviews.
How To Be Amazing
Actor and comedian Michael Ian Black hosts his own interview show featuring fellow actors, artists, writers, musicians, and more.

Porn talk

My older son is closing in on 13 years old, has Internet access, and wears the same size shoes as I do. So I figured it’s time to have the Porn Talk with him.

I sat down to write a bullet list of talking points that I wanted to be sure to cover, but it came out in essay form instead. It’s reproduced below. Note the careful omission of judgmental and heteronormative language. If the values expressed are similar to yours, please feel free to repurpose this for your own parental porn talk.

There are good things about porn, bad things about porn, and in-between things about porn. It’s important to know about all of them before you get too involved with it.

First, the obvious. Porn can be fun. It’s exciting, it’s arousing, it’s a sort of “preview of coming attractions” before your actual sex life begins. It can help you learn about what sexual things you like and what things you don’t at a time when experimenting with other people is not possible (or at least not a good idea). It can answer some of your questions about sex, ones that maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask, or ones you simply didn’t think of. Being interested in porn is normal and OK. I’d be more concerned about a 13-year-old boy who wasn’t.

Now the not so obvious. Most porn is very different from real-life sex. In porn, the men and women have perfect bodies, are easily excited, and are always up for anything. They do not worry about pregnancy or about sexually transmitted diseases. This is a fantasy. You should not expect real sex to be just like porn any more than you’d expect real archaeology to be like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In real life, bodies aren’t perfect, people aren’t always in the mood, and sometimes you or your partner will say “ow” or “stop” or “no, I don’t want to do that.” I don’t mean that real-life sex isn’t amazing – it often is. It’s also sometimes just OK, and sometimes it’s even bad, like everything else in real life.

There is a serious problem that exists among some people who look at porn: they can develop unrealistic expectations about sex and about their partners. When things aren’t just like what they learned in porn, they get disappointed and disinterested. This can really interfere with their intimate relationships and mess up their lives. This doesn’t mean that you should accept a partner who disappoints you. The point of dating is to find someone with whom you’re compatible, who is into the same things (sexually and otherwise) and whom you find exciting. It’s OK to want a little fantasy in your sex life. But if all you know is porn, you risk closing yourself off to the wider, richer world of real-life sex.

Beyond that, there are worse problems. One is the problem of porn addiction, which is a real thing to be feared. You can become addicted to anything that gives you pleasure. It’s a biochemical change in the brain, which is what makes it so difficult to reverse. (You can read more about it here.) This is why we say that things should be enjoyed “in moderation.”

How can you tell the difference between innocent enjoyment on the one hand, and problematic addiction on the other? It’s actually pretty easy. When it starts interfering with other parts of your life, it’s an addiction. You may act towards other people in ways you wouldn’t normally choose to. You may skip activities in which you would normally participate. You might perform poorly on schoolwork or other tasks that you could usually do well. You definitely want to avoid getting addicted, because once you have an addiction, breaking it is very, very hard. To avoid addiction, exercise control over when you look at porn. Don’t let it exercise control over you. To reverse addiction, you first have to be able to acknowledge it exists, which can be hard all by itself. (A good rule of thumb: if you ever find yourself insisting, to yourself or others, that you don’t have a problem, that’s a sign that you probably do.) Seek help from someone, and get yourself involved in one or more different activities to divert your brain’s attention from what it’s craving.

Another serious problem is that, although there’s plenty of porn out there depicting joyful and even loving sex between consenting partners, there is also unfortunately a lot of the opposite: porn that is humiliating to someone, or degrading, or even violent. Porn with one or more of the people clearly not enjoying themselves. Sometimes it’s just an act, but much more often the people in this kind of porn are trapped in a life that’s little better than slavery, and the people producing this kind of porn are genuinely evil. Stay away from this stuff. Not only does looking at it encourage the scum that makes it; the bad vibes can take you to a dark place, messing up your head and your future sex life.

Some porn is actually illegal – illegal to make, and even illegal to look at, and people go to jail for it all the time. This does not apply to most normal porn featuring consenting adult men and women, but even that exists in a grey area where very many people disapprove of it, sending the police and the courts after them at every opportunity. (A great movie about this, which is also a true story, is The People vs. Larry Flynt.) As a result, the whole porn world is sort of semi-legal, and that invites certain kinds of scam artists. Beware of identifying yourself in any way to any porn site. If you are invited to chat, ignore it. Don’t answer survey questions. If you are offered a free signup to some new site, ignore it. Definitely do not respond to requests for photos or video of yourself or others. Disable “browser cookies” if possible. I can show you how. And do not download files; they are almost guaranteed to turn your computer into part of a criminal botnet under the control of Russian gangsters!

The point of all this is not to scare you or to be a killjoy. It’s only that if you’re not aware of this stuff and you’re not careful, it’s all too easy to land on content you’re better off avoiding, or to mess yourself up in a variety of ways. Forewarned is forearmed.

The most important thing is to remember that you can talk to me about any of this any time you like. If you have questions, if you see anything that bothers or worries you, if you have anything you want to express, I’m here. I promise never to embarrass you and to keep everything just between us. Don’t forget, I was a 13-year-old boy once too, and I was also every age you’re going to be for the next few decades. There’s bound to be some info in my head that you’d find helpful, and even when there isn’t, sometimes all you need is someone who’ll listen.


If I can effect the effective use of affect, effect, affect, and effect, the effect will be to affect my affect.

If I can effect the effective use of affect, effect, affect, and effect, the effect will be to affect my affect.

noun verb
AFFECT  Outward expression of one’s mood.
“Andrew’s affect is always anxious.”
(accent on the first syllable; think Ben Affleck)
Cause a generalized change.
“Angelina’s attitude affects Alice’s acting.”
(accent on the second syllable)
EFFECT  The result of some cause.
“Ernie’s eating everything had an enlarging effect.”
Cause a specific thing to happen.
“Etna’s eruption effected an exodus.”

Fatal attraction flaw

When I was young, I was smart, and I knew it. And when I thought about how I would attract women, it was always going to be with my big brain. Some of my peers sported fashionable clothing. Some could dance. Some were athletic. Some played musical instruments. Some could make small talk. I disdained them all as beneath me. I attended to basic grooming and hygiene, of course, but gave little further thought to my appearance. If a woman couldn’t appreciate me for my wit and my wisdom, it was her loss, not mine.

These were actual conscious thoughts I remember having. (In fact I was rationalizing what was, at root, simple laziness.) At the very same time I was having them, whose pictures did I have on my bedroom wall? Supermodels. Christie Brinkley. Paulina Porizkova. Cindy Crawford. Which classmates did I have crushes on? The prettiest ones, the same ones all the other boys liked.

This hypocritical disparity never struck me, I’m chagrined to admit, until just a few years ago, around the time I started thinking about advising my sons on how to attract women, when the time comes. Happily they’ve got a nice head start compared to where I was at their age. They’re athletic and musical. They’re starting to show some fashion sense. Crucially, they’re smart, smarter than I was: smart enough to understand that smarts aren’t everything.

Have you herd?

[Cross-posted at]

Suppose there’s a disease that has a 50% chance of infecting you if you come into contact with it. Now suppose you come into contact with 10 people in one day. On average, 5 of them will be carrying the disease. Your odds of avoiding the disease are 50%×50%×50%×50%×50%, which is about 3%. In other words, you have a 97% chance of contracting it.

Now suppose you – and only you – get vaccinated. Let’s say it reduces your odds of infection, when exposed, from 50% down to 10%. Since no one else is vaccinated, when you come into contact with 10 people, it’s still the case that 5 are infected. Your odds of avoiding the disease are now 90%×90%×90%×90%×90%, or 59%. There is a 41% chance you’ll get sick. That’s a big improvement compared to 97%, but we can do a lot better.

Now suppose everyone gets vaccinated. Of the 10 people you come into contact with, on average only 1 will be infected. Your odds of getting sick are now only 10%.

That is the power of herd immunity.

Coffee optimization

Doctoring the coffee after brewing added a good twenty or thirty seconds to the total coffee preparation time, a substantial increase over the time needed by the machine. But the machine’s user waits idly for seventy-four seconds; why not put that time to better use?

When I started at YouTube a few years ago I encountered fancy coffee machines in the break rooms (or in Google parlance, “minikitchens”). At the touch of a button it would dispense a single serving’s worth of coffee beans from a hopper into its internal grinder, grind them up, add water from a supply line, and brew and serve a cup of hot coffee, all in seventy-four seconds. (I timed it.)

Occasionally a line would form of coffee addicts needing their fix. Most had the same routine: when one brew cycle was finished, the next person in line would place his or her cup in the machine and press the button. Seventy-four seconds later they’d withdraw their cup, add sugar, carry it over to the cooler, take out the half-and-half, and add that; then leave.

Doctoring the coffee after brewing added a good twenty or thirty seconds to the total coffee preparation time, a substantial increase over the time needed by the machine per se. But the machine’s user waits idly for seventy-four seconds; why not put that time to better use? After several months it dawned on me to change my routine. As soon as the previous user’s cycle ended, I pressed the start button without putting a cup in the machine. Instead, during the first thirty or so seconds of grind-and-brew time, I put sugar and half-and-half into my empty coffee cup, then placed it in the machine. By the time the machine was finished, I was all ready to go, about 25% faster than everyone else.

In hindsight it was an obvious optimization to make, and in an office full of bright, busy engineers I was surprised that I was the only one I had ever observed making it. I did occasionally get some appreciative glances from others on seeing my technique in action, and finally within the past year I’ve noticed my method catching on. It’s gratifying to be a trendsetter, but frustrating to be unacknowledged. At least I can tell you about it.

If you’re bullish and you know it

How can we get back to a good economy if doing so requires confidence that the bad economy is preventing us from having? You may not be surprised to hear that I have a modest suggestion: lie.

The economy has been so bad for so long that public confidence in a recovery is low — half of what it was in (the economically unremarkable benchmark year) 1985. Without confidence in the economy, households have pared expenditures to the essentials, companies are delaying hiring and putting off investment in new lines of business, and banks are doing the bank equivalent of hiding their money under the mattress — all of which makes the economy bad, which produces low confidence, which makes the economy bad, etc., etc.

It’s one of the trickiest chicken-and-egg problems in the world. A good economy relies on confidence, and confidence relies on a good economy. In a very real way, confidence is the economy. How can we get back to a good economy if doing so requires confidence that the bad economy is preventing us from having?

You may not be surprised to hear that I have a modest suggestion: lie. I wrote once before that pretend confidence can lead to real confidence, and I don’t see why this situation is any different.

Starting immediately, work some offhand comments into your everyday conversation, to the effect that the economy is finally picking up steam. Mention, for instance, that you noticed a couple of long-empty office buildings have been leased, or that some unemployed Facebook friends finally found jobs just recently, or that you read somewhere that now’s the time to get that fancy new TV because sales are finally ramping up again and those big manufacturer discounts will be coming to an end. It won’t take much, because people are starving for good economic news and will devour morsels like these. And don’t worry that they’re not true. If enough of us start implementing this idea, pretty soon they will be.

Update, 8 October 2010: A week after I posted this, Planet Money ran a story about four economists who saved Brazil by — wait for it — getting everyone to lie.

Please please you

Some time ago I was talking with a friend who was having woman trouble. “I can’t figure out how to make her happy,” he said. Immediately he added the disclaimer, “I know, I know, ‘everyone’s responsible for their own happiness.’”

That’s a bit of pop psychology from the Me generation that has passed into conventional wisdom, but I think it’s wrong. It’s just one step from there to “Greed is good,” and you know how I feel about that one.

So I said, “That’s bullshit. When I married Andrea, I made her happiness my job.” Not that she didn’t bear some of the responsibility herself, of course; nor was I abandoning my happiness for hers. But I’ll be damned if our marriage doesn’t mean that she gets my help being happy when she needs it, and vice versa. My friend’s palpable gratitude at hearing someone explode the old chestnut told me I was onto something.

Not to get too crunchy-granola, but how would the world be different if the conventional wisdom said, instead, “Everyone is responsible for each other’s happiness”?

Greatest hits: The Forum

Prompted by a new article in Mother Jones about the Landmark Forum, my friend Spencer recalled my article on the same subject from my old website circa 1998. Here it is, resurrected for the 21st-century web.

The last line — “This remains the central mystery of my life” — no longer applies. It’s still a mystery, but not the central one of my life. That’s reserved for trying to figure out Sarah Palin supporters.

In December 1997, my close friend Steve, an admirably intelligent and level-headed person, announced that he was going to spend an entire three-day weekend at the Forum, a group awareness training seminar run by an outfit called Landmark Education. Cost: $325, and three solid days of his life.

We (that is, Steve’s friends) knew others who’d gone through the Forum in the past. A wave of Forum marketing swept the Carnegie Mellon campus back in the 1980’s. Those classmates who got caught up in it had been transformed into blissed-out zombies who smiled too much, were too understanding, were in touch with their inner whatevers, and went on and on endlessly about “I accept that” and “I’ve always <insert behavior here> but now I understand why I <insert behavior here>” and “I love you all” and so on. These were people who were adrift, who lacked competence in dealing with situations, who had unsatisfying connections to other people, and who generally were vulnerable to having their psyches manipulated. We knew that Steve was a paragon of competence, someone who always had a solid idea of what he thought about things and about people. What could he expect to get out of the Forum?

The ridicule came fast and furious. “Personally, knowing that I’m beyond the reach of profiteering New Age hucksters gives me all the empowerment, self-actualization, spiritual harmony, and inner quietude that I need,” I wrote. “$325? When you could spend all day masturbating for free?” wrote my friend Christian.

Steve promised he was going only for purposes of intellectual curiosity. His ex-girlfriend Carlyn was a Landmark enthusiast, and to Steve it was worth the money and the time to cut through the preconceptions and find out about it firsthand. When I learned his motivation, I provisionally withdrew my ridicule.

In researching Landmark prior to Steve’s Forum seminar, I learned that it is the current incarnation of est, the 1970’s touchy-feely self-help personality-deconstructing blissed-out zombie training which is related to Scientology. Landmark eschewed some of est’s more controversial practices, apparently in favor of wider marketability. Although Landmark denounces the more overt brainwashing techniques of est — including the confrontation, intimidation, and physiological stress that are also hallmarks of Scientology — I later learned that those methods are in fact still present in the Forum, they’re just toned down for subtlety. Unlike est, the Forum permits you bathroom breaks whenever necessary — but the long days sitting still in uncomfortable chairs under faintly buzzing fluorescent lights still induces physiological stress. The psychologically vicious personal attacks that est employed to make students admit their worldview needed fixing are replaced with a more insidious pressure to conform that comes from the Forum’s large group setting.

In the office on Monday morning, Steve assured us it had been worth every penny. In enthusiastic but frustratingly vague terms, he described what the experience had been like. We tried to nail him down on specifics beyond the simple logistics (lots of people seated together in a large room for many hours over three days), and Steve gamely answered our questions all day long, bringing his considerable powers of articulation to bear on the task of properly conveying what the Forum was all about. But each time we thought we understood him and tried to repeat our understanding back, he’d say, “No, that’s not exactly it.” I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of a pattern that continues to this day: no one who’s been through the Forum can satisfactorily describe it.

The best we could get out of him was this: for three days, the charismatic Forum leader energetically delivers a series of connected lectures on limiting factors in human nature — such things as making decisions based on the past rather than on the future one imagines, and failing to really listen when another person is speaking because one feels one already knows what will be said. A great deal of interaction with the audience is involved; the Forum leader challenges one person after another in Socratic fashion to relate short anecdotes about how the topic of the moment relates to his or her life. The multitude of viewpoints is thus delivered at such a pace as to trigger a kind of synergy in the minds of the audience, allowing them to have “breakthroughs” about what has been holding them back in their lives.

Steve admitted that the content per se is nothing more than one could get from a good background in philosophy, or even a good novel. But the unique aspect that made it so effective for him was the participation of so many different people offering so many different outlooks, which audience members mentally “try on” for size at a frenetic pace. He claimed to have had a number of useful breakthroughs. One of the exercises assigned during the few breaks in the Forum is to call someone with whom you have some unresolved issue, and resolve it in the forthright way taught in the class. Steve said this exercise helped him overcome a hurdle in one of his interpersonal relationships.

Another of the exercises is a transparent marketing ploy. Upon returning to real life on the Monday morning after a Forum seminar, the Forum “graduate” is supposed to recruit a number of friends and relatives — a number that the graduate commits to on Sunday night while in the full flush of having completed the Forum — to return with him or her to a Tuesday night wrap-up session. Since most grads’ heads are in too much of a whirl right after the Forum, part of the Tuesday night session’s purpose is to educate their loved ones about what they just underwent with a minimum of excited babbling. Another (openly acknowledged) purpose is to try to sign up new students, and to persuade the old students to sign up for advanced courses. Still another purpose is to top off the weekend’s indoctrination after the grad has had a chance to internalize some of the ideas.

Steve asked me to attend. I didn’t want to; my skepticism about the Forum was not assuaged by Steve’s incoherent enthusiasm. But he persisted, and my enormous respect for Steve made me conclude that there had to be something to it that I was failing to see. For his sake, I broke an earlier Tuesday night engagement and went with Steve.

When we arrived, a little early, we milled about talking to people Steve had met during the course. One fetchingly attired woman declared to Steve, after he complimented her appearance, that before the course, she would never have gone out so daringly dressed. But the course had allowed her to overcome some self-esteem problems she had, and she was able to say “what the hell.”

Good for her, I thought, but self-esteem has never been one of my problems. I felt my preconceptions about the Forum strengthening, not the least reason for which was the blinding sea of beaming Stepford smiles on the faces of the many Forum volunteers ushering people around and handing out literature. Their ultra-friendly demeanors were clearly meant to put people like me at ease, but had exactly the opposite effect. Nevertheless, I reminded myself that responsible skepticism implies being open-minded, and I renewed my resolve to be so.

We took our seats in an auditorium filled with Forum grads and their many “guests,” some three hundred people in all. For a few minutes Steve left me alone while he went to find Leslie, his other guest for the evening.

Distinguishing me by my non-Forum-grad name tag, a fresh grad named Kerry sat down next to me and immediately struck up a conversation. He told me how wonderful he found the Forum to be, and I confessed my skepticism. My problem, I said, is that the things the Forum supposedly encourages one to do — examine one’s behaviors, understand one’s motivations, “inquire” into what it “means to be human” — are all things that I taught myself to do long ago, with perfectly satisfying results. No doubt others who are less introspective than I could derive many benefits from learning such mental disciplines, but as for me, it felt redundant. Kerry assured me that he’d felt just the way I did before the Forum began.

Steve showed up with Leslie around the same time that the session began. The Forum leader, Jack Schrop, a extremely magnetic middle-aged man who was a Navy SEAL commander in Vietnam (and with whom Steve was unabashedly impressed), took the stage and welcomed us. He said a few words about Landmark and the Forum, made a bit of a sales pitch, then invited some of the new grads to take the microphone to describe any breakthroughs they’d had since finishing the course on Sunday night.

Hands shot up all over the room. Jack picked out five or six speakers at a time, three or four times overall. The speakers took turns addressing the auditorium for a few minutes apiece. Most of them credited the Forum for their newfound ability to address such a large group, which before the course they wouldn’t have had the self-confidence to do. (I have no problems speaking in front of large groups, I thought to myself, further convincing myself that the Forum was probably not for me.)

Some of the breakthroughs reported by the new grads were more interesting. One man said the Forum helped him finally sever his ties with some old drug-dealing buddies. A woman described breaking through a twenty-year impasse in her relationship with her mother. One shy, introverted systems analyst found himself gabbing to everyone in sight when he went to work Monday morning. A man who’d been avoiding a difficult issue with a close friend finally aired it, ending the friendship but giving him closure. And on and on.

Jack interjected various comments throughout the unrehearsed testimonials. He explained how he got involved with the Forum, acknowledged the concerns of those (like me) who found the shining happy people of the Forum to be a little creepy and disconcerting, and sprinkled some Forum philosophy here and there. “We promise breakthroughs,” he said. “We offer the design principles of humanity,” he also said. “We don’t solve your individual problems; you do that.”

At one point, he offered a sample pithy Forum insight “for free”: “If you’re afraid that people think a certain thing about you — if they stop talking when you walk by an open office door — don’t worry: they do. They think the same things about you that you think about them. So what? That’s all.”

At one point, Jack Schrop asked all the guests to turn to their respective hosts and ask two questions: “Do you want me to enroll in the Forum?” and “Why?” Leslie and I did as instructed, asking Steve the two questions, and Steve replied “Yes” and “Because I think you’ll derive benefits from it,” which he briefly described in terms we’d already been discussing.

I told him that I was increasingly eager to be persuaded, but so far, no go. I repeated to him the business about how I’m already introspective, how I already solve my own problems in ways that sound like what the Forum people are talking about, and so on. I also assured him that, as skeptical as I was about the Forum, I was at least as skeptical about my own claims of being so well-adjusted. In other words, I was open to the possibility that I don’t cope with my problems as well as I think I do. Open to the possibility, but not convinced of it.

Apart from that, I said, there was the matter of not having a spare $325 to throw around.

Eventually, Jack Schrop announced that the guests would be divided into four smaller groups and led into separate rooms (to hear the Forum marketing pitch), while the new grads attended a special session of their own. But first, interested guests were invited to sign up for future Forum sessions, with the $325 tuition payable on the spot (of which all but $50 was refundable). A large handful of guests did sign up; then we broke up into the smaller group sessions.

The leader of my group was a distressingly enthusiastic fellow named Curt. He began by reiterating much of what Jack had said, particularly that the Forum promises “breakthroughs,” especially in the areas of “power” and “freedom.” Then he painted some scenarios that most people can probably identify with (not me, though). For example, he asked how many people felt their boss at work limits their self-expression? Dozens of hands went up. Who felt that they let life happen to them instead of making it happen? Again, dozens. Who ever made a New Year’s resolution they didn’t keep? Etc.

Curt explained that most of us allow our futures to be determined by our pasts; we get stuck in behavioral ruts that, after a while, we don’t question or revise. What Forum helps you to do, he said, is to take your past out of your future and put it into the past where it belongs. That leaves nothing in your future, which is as it should be; the future is what you make it.

This message all sounded fine to me, even if the setting and the messenger were a little off-putting, but again, it was nothing that I hadn’t already discovered from years of learning, living, and reflecting. As he kept talking about more and more of the same kinds of things, I began to feel pretty impressed with myself; was I the only one who had discovered these “secrets” for himself?

The session with Curt was highly interactive, with guests asking questions or responding to prompting by Curt. He worked the group well; after not much time had passed, several of the guests began spouting the kind of psychobabble that they believed was expected in response to his prompts. For example, while discussing one guest’s predisposition toward failure in many aspects of his life, Curt uncovered some detail of that guest’s self-destructive habits. When he asked why the guest didn’t simply discard that detail from his life, the guest obliged with, “It helps me maintain my self-image as a failure.” Whenever someone played into Curt’s hand in this way, he responded with a smarmy, “Yes! Thank you! Fabulous!”

We took a break and milled about for a bit. Interested guests again were invited to register for future Forum sessions, and at least half the room signed up on the spot. Meanwhile, Curt singled me out and struck up a conversation, no doubt sensing that I was a holdout. I explained my skepticism to him in much the same way I explained it to Kerry and to Steve. Curt deflected my objections by pointing out that only by taking the course could I discover whether I could derive any benefit from it.

I had other concerns, though. “Lots of people seem to act pretty cultish about the Forum, frankly,” I said. “When I have revelatory insights into myself, I don’t give the credit to the latest book I’ve read or to any other one thing; the credit belongs to me, the sum of all of my experiences. But Forum grads can’t stop talking about how it’s the Forum, not themselves, that changed their lives.”

Curt said that some participants’ cultishness about the Forum was a problem, because it was off-putting to others, but he said that I seemed to have the right attitude about it and he hoped I’d consider signing up.

The small group session continued in the same vein for a little while longer, then the evening was over.

I did not sign up to take the course.

A few days later, Steve announced, to the astonishment of everyone, that he would be attending the “advanced course,” the next step in Landmark’s curriculum (and twice as expensive as the Forum). The astonishment came from the fact that Steve had earlier said he would not take any other Landmark courses, now that he’d had the firsthand Forum experience he was after.

“It’s brainwashing!” we declared. “Can’t you see? You’d resolved not to give them any more of your money. Now you’re going to do it in spite of yourself.” Steve insisted he’d made the decision on his own because he expected to get more out of it than he put into it.

He returned from that course with a detailed personal agenda based on what he’d learned about “commitment.” He was through with caffeine and tobacco, he said. And he vowed to put an end to his absent-mindedness with the help of a pocket calendar, in which he thenceforth religiously inscribed even the tiniest appointments and duties.

(Steve’s absent-mindedness about sometimes very important things is well-known among his friends. On more than one occasion, for instance, he’s left people stranded, waiting for a lift from him that he’d promised and then completely forgotten about. A regrettable character flaw, but that didn’t detract from his charm. Paradoxically, it added to it.)

In his capacity as president of Zanshin, Steve’s Landmark training appeared to have some beneficial effects. Repeatedly he kept us moving forward by asserting total disinterest in the past — in why or how we had made some error or failed to meet some deadline. All that interested him was what we had in mind for the future. This was a liberating way to think.

On the other hand, Steve started to become more involved with Landmark. He began volunteering for administrative tasks surrounding the Forum and other Landmark activities. He took more courses. He trained to produce seminars of his own.

This started to become distasteful to some of the rest of us. “Doesn’t it bother you that a lucrative for-profit company is exploiting your uncompensated volunteer labor (and that of thousands of others)?” No, said Steve. He continued to believe he was getting more out of it than he was putting in, learning useful skills and making valuable new contacts.

Well, it bothered us, and discussion with Steve about Landmark-related matters tapered off. He continued to give time and money to Landmark, while the rest of us would sometimes discuss our frustration and worry — and confusion about what Steve thought he could be getting out of it. After all, once the blush of the first few months had worn off, Steve was back on cigarettes and coffee, and was occasionally committing appalling acts of absent-mindedness.

Steve continued trying to recruit others in our circle, and one of our friends, Pat, actually attended a Forum seminar — returning completely unimpressed. In an agony of puzzlement about the thrall in which Landmark held Steve — as undeceivable a fellow as any I know — I attended another Tuesday night session with him and with fellow skeptic Greg, this one with a slightly different agenda from the first Tuesday night session I went to. Greg and I felt we got a good understanding of the Forum, but were unmoved.

This remains the central mystery of my life.