Excerpt – Love Straddle


It is July 2006.

As we climb away from Calgary, the seat belt indicator gongs. I loosen the strap and recline in my business class seat. I have this mental skill of being comfortable and enjoying air flights. I imagine that I am a pupating insect, like a silkworm caterpillar. I have woven a cocoon around me, taking up all the space I am allowed. I am in suspended animation. I have found out all the controls and resources at my disposal and how to use them. Fully reclining seats, footrests, air blowers, lights, video, audio, attendant summonsing: I know them all and make myself comfortable. I am a glass half-full person. Rather than being confined in a space that limits me and denies comfort, my capsule is a perfect size for comfort, with controls that empower me to metamorphose and emerge ready for different conditions.

 The flight to London will take long enough for me to reflect on past events that have caused this journey and the natural laws of behaviour that I have recently discovered. If I had known them before, this journey would not be necessary, or I would have made it many years ago.

Now I will tell you my story – at least, my part in events – including my own and other people’s emotions, that engineers like me normally ignore. But emotions are important, as I have lately discovered.


In which Vicki tricks me into revealing my affections.


Things had started going wrong at Boston, USA in the Summer of ’66. The only way  seemed up for Vicki and me, as I waited to see her during the summer vacation, at the end of our second year at Liverpool uni, forty-one years ago, when I was an engineering student.

I sit on the edge of a chair and pretend to look at a brochure about this Department of Applied Psychology at New England University, Boston, USA. Maybe the girls’ vacation jobs here fell through, although Vicki had written saying they are expecting us at this time.

Tom looks archly down his hooked nose, as he thrusts and retracts his jaw to the reggae rhythm from his portable LP player. The rest of his face is Nordic, with white skin, high cheekbones and a blonde forelock spilling over his forehead. He wears a colourful tropical beach shirt with a cravat at his throat. Below his long body, his legs are short and his jeans are turned up at the bottoms.  He gyrates jerkily around the reception room. When the vinyl record finishes, he sits down.

“Where is your woman, man?” he asks me in his high voice and singsong Jamaican accent.

“Vicki wrote that she would be here, ” I looked at my watch again. “They are six minutes late.”

People expect me to have a Saxon or Teutonic face, rectangular in shape with a square hairline, because of my unemotional nature and  preoccupation with independence and efficiency.  But my face has the heart shape, widow’s peak hairline, high overhanging brow and shaven dark beard of the Celts. These distant ancestors retreated to mountainous areas of  Wales or Cornwall or Scotland, out of reach of successive waves of Roman, Saxon, Viking, Dane and Norman conquerors. Nevertheless,  I look okay and girls don’t usually keep me waiting. By now, even my idol, Dr Spock, would be growing impatient.

Just then the two girls breeze in, wearing white lab coats, smiling broadly.

“Selwyn!” Vicki says. “It’s great to see you.”

“Hello, Vicki,” I say. “It’s terrific to see you. I didn’t know you are selling ice creams.”

We hug. Her clean smell and the firmness of her body are reassuring. Tom hugs petite Angela, only slightly smaller than him. Like Vicki and me, the two are seeing each other, but are not yet an item. We hoist our packs and Vicki leads us along a corridor.

We pass through a reception area with “Pediatric Psychology” on a sign above the desk.

“My feet have a mind of their own,” Tom says, doing a couple of reggae steps.

“Pediatrics is not feet, it is children,” I tell Tom.

“Same thing,” he says. “Children always get under your feet.”

We come to a door labelled “Adolescent and School Psychology”.

“Is the problem with adolescents that they won’t submit to the discrimination that their school has to do?” I ask.

“You are cynical,” says Vicki turning to look at me. “We can’t allow them to be themselves, can we?”

“Definitely not,” I say. “They have to learn to work and pay taxes. Look, Vicki and Angela, I hope we are not interrupting what you are doing?”

“No, not at all,” Vicki says. “Actually, I think you may be able to help us,” she says in her plummy Oxford voice. “We would appreciate your participation in some tests.”

“Okay. Sounds interesting,” I agree automatically. “What kind of tests?”

“Changing behaviour.”

“They  use the cane to change behaviour in schools, “says Tom. “They force people to—”

“No, not any more. That used to be the way. Social scientists used to explain the way people behave as conditioning by the environment. Did you hear on the news about unethical experiments being conducted by ‘behaviourists’?”

“Yeah, I heard about Skinner,” I say. “He starves pigeons down to 60% of their bodyweight. Then he puts each pigeon into a small box, just big enough to turn around in.”

We arrive at a lift. There are seven floors and it is at the top. Vicki calls it and it starts coming slowly.

I continue, “Skinner had these letters, ‘F.O.O.D.’, written on buttons inside the box. When the bird pecked the buttons in the correct order, a food pellet was released. Skinner went home for the weekend leaving the pellet machine to reward progress. When he came in on Monday, some pigeons had learned to peck the sequence, FOOD.”

“The other were probably feet up,” Tom says. “That is cruel, man.”

“It is cruel, I agree,” Vicki says. “Um, do we want a world ruled by behaviourism?”

As always, Vicki’s serious talk is jerky, punctuated with ums and ohs. Her hesitancy is neither lack of ideas nor lack of vocabulary. It signals something like “Pay attention. My message may not be what you expect.”

“Behaviourism is what most of us do now, ” I reply. “We change people by Skinner-ing them, or by making others do it for us.”

“Alas, I agree. We do, Selwyn.”

“Is there a problem with that, Vicki?”

“It treats individuals like blocks of wood. An, um, authority controls groups of people and pushes them into any position it wants. It does not allow for individual differences or allow them any say.”

The lift arrives. We all get in, with several others, and the lift starts upwards.

“Is a behaviourist a fascist, then?” Tom asks.

Everyone looks at him. He is an extrovert.

“They could be,” Vicki says. “Fascism conditions the masses to want nationalism.”

“Rule Britannia, marmalade and jam—” Tom sings, gyrating his shoulders with a reggae rhythm and clicking his fingers in time.

We stop at the first floor, where there is a sign, “Industrial and Organisational Psychology”. Two people in white lab coats get out. They have been silent in the corners of the lift. Then we continue upwards.

“Were they observing us?” I ask, putting on a furtive face. The girls laugh.

“Possibly,” says Vicki. “A study at Chicago has found that when workers are observed by anonymous strangers, they work harder.”

“Are you working harder Angela?” asked Tom kindly.

“Absolutely. My brain is flat out.”

“Doing what?”

“Trying to figure out whether those creepy guys were observing us.”

“Observation is a different way of controlling people and is individualised. So it isn’t fascist.”

“What if there is no control?” asks Tom.

“Voluntary behaviour can be self-controlled,” I say. “for example when people change their minds it —”

“— is called cognition.”

“That’s what I was going to say, cognition.”

“Like starting a car when it is in gear,” says Tom. “You get a jerk.”

We all grin broadly and look at him, but no one says anything.

“Hmm, a little,” says Vicki, encouraging him. “When you have a sudden insight.”

Tom is pleased with himself. “How do you know when someone has an insight,” he says. “You can’t look inside their head.”

“We infer it from their behaviour,” Vicki replies.

“When they start in neutral,” says Tom.

“When people change their behaviour by cognition, we say they have learnt,” I add, recalling Vicki’s textbook. “This may be by imitation, insight, problem-solving, intelligence or conscious thought. When these occur, it is inferred that there has been a change in the mind. They can—”

“Yes, Selwyn,” Vicki says. “You are correct again. There are any many learning methods we use to change minds – for example, an aim of justice is to correct criminals’ minds and behaviour.”

We get off at “Forensic and Legal Psychology”. We walk along a corridor and pass doors inscribed “Witness Memory Research” and another labelled “Trial Consulting”.

I pause in front of the doors.

“I guess witnesses forgetting to turn up at trials is a big problem.”

I keep a straight face, as usual.

“Yes, but here we are looking into what meanings people, um, take from certain words. When humans see the letters, F.O.O.D., for example, some may think of hunger and others of dieting, depending on their cognition. People make up their own minds.The problem is how to ask witnesses to recall their experience without bias. We are looking into cognitive persuasion that recognises that.”

“Perjury sends them to prison.”

“Persuasion is more humane and accurate than conditioning people with fear.”

“Out with behaviourism and in with cognition?”


Vicky walked on, with us following.

“Before questioning a witness we need a method for finding out their true background attitudes and preferences.”

We come to a door labelled “Interrogation and Confessions Research Unit”.

“Let’s ask here, ” says Tom. “Though we might have to slap them around a bit.”

“This is us,” says Vicki.

We go in, take off our packs and sit in a small reception area. We can see a passage leading away with rooms on both sides. Tom rubs his back against his chair. He has acne from his waist to his neck and it causes itching.

“I hope the methods you use are not questionable,” I say. I don’t often make jokes, so I give a small laugh, so the others will know it is a joke.

The three burst out laughing. It isn’t that funny and they seem to be laughing at me. I like to be the centre of attention.

“Coffee? Tea?” Angela asks.

“Or me?” Tom prompts.

“Me not available. Sorry, Tom.”

“Me want Vicki,” I say with a goofy laugh.

“Me not stupid. Me know what Selwyn want Vicki for,” Vicki says.

“That’s not fair,” I say. “I imagine you are alluding to coitus. I had verbal intercourse in mind.”

“That’s what I was worried about,” Vicki says quickly and we all laugh.

They are used to my bluntness now. With me, they always know where they stand and this time they like it. Sometimes I upset them without meaning to.

When I first met Vicki, I had thought the hesitations in her speech marked indecision, giving her time to think. I realize now that Vicki’s ideas are carefully tended and self-confident, so that her response to any incident is razor sharp. Her hesitations seek attention to  profundities. She is as neat, stylish and understated on the inside as she is on the outside. When I am with her I am self-conscious and clumsy. My understanding seems shallow, my opinions facile and my humour juvenile.

We order our drinks and Angela goes to get them.

“So you are investigating interrogation,” I say.

“Yes. We are trying to find out how people respond when questioned,” says Vicki.

“Questioned about what?” Tom asks.

“Criminal activities,” Vicki says.

“How do you know that they have been doing criminal activities?” I ask.

“We infer it from their behaviour.”

“Hmm. I’m going to be on my best behaviour,” Tom says.

“We measure involuntary behaviour,” says Vicki. “For example, if you were involved in a crime, when asked about it, your feelings may cause you to sweat.”

“Why?”  asked.

“Anxiety may stimulate your metabolism, generating heat that you try to lose by perspiring.”

“What if it was a murder in cold blood.”

“Even if your circulation is unaffected, you could be anxious, causing sweating and your skin’s electrical conductivity may increase.”

“Are you going to use electricity on me?” asks Tom, showing anxiety.

“Only to measure your behaviour, not to cause it. We use a low voltage across electrodes on your skin. Suppose we asked you What is your favourite food?”

“My favourite food is ackee with saltfish,” says Tom.”Just thinking of it makes me feel hungry, man.”

“A remarkable result,” I say.

I look around to see if they like my sarcasm, as I have been practising.

“Yes, Selwyn, his feelings are remarkable,” says Vicki. “If his mother in Jamaica makes his ackee with saltfish, he might feel anxious and sweat, because he misses her.”

“Isn’t that the same as saying that he is anxious because he misses his mother’s ackee with saltfish?” I ask.

“No. They are two different feelings. He might miss his mother and feel anxious, while not being hungry at all.”

“Tom is always hungry,” I say.

“Tom, do you miss your mother?” asks Vicki.

“No. Only when I’m hungry,” he answers. He gives me a tiny wink. “Then I feel anxious. But I only sweat if it is a hot day.”

“There,” says Vicki in exasperation. “You see, he is only capable of one feeling: hunger. It is the foundation for all his behaviour, just as Pavlov’s dogs salivated when a bell was rung, whether they were hungry or not.”

“The way to an engineer’s heart—”

“That’d be right!” Vicki says. “Pavlov could have used engineering students instead of dogs!”

“Hmm. He would have rung a bell when he fed them and observed how they drooled even if there was no food.”

“They would also salivate if the observer was a girl,” Tom adds.

Angela brings our hot drinks. We sip them.

“Thanks, Angela,” I say. “I was fresh out of saliva.”

“Engineers have one-track minds,” laughs Vicki.

“Not our fault,” I say. “It is endemic to our profession. Engineering has traditionally been a masculine pursuit, having iconic technologies that mimic sexual intercourse, such as trains and tunnels and reciprocating motion. Some technologies have been granted female status, such as ships, which are always referred to affectionately by the feminine pronouns, “she” and “her”. Consequently, sex is never far from engineer’s minds, as indicated by the frequency of sexual innuendo in engineering communication. For example, uncertain situations are—” .

“Thank you, Selwyn. You do not need to remind us how sexist engineers are,” Vicki interrupts.

I do not feel good about being labelled as sexist. All engineering students at LUT are males, whereas Vicki and Angela are in Biological Science, which has a handful of females.

“Anyway, “Vicki continues, “if Tom has strong feelings and anxiety triggered by thinking about his favourite food, he may perspire more and we can see the change in electricity flow between two points on his skin. Let’s go and test some other associations,” she says, getting up.

She leads the way to a laboratory, where she introduces us to her supervisor, a large man, Tony, with a shock of unruly hair. He shows us into a soundproof room with a chair like a dentist’s. To one side there is a control room.

“Welcome to the Lie Detection Laboratory,” Tony says. “Today Vicki and Angela have asked me to demonstrate a simple test.”

“Did you say ‘lie detection’?” I ask, puzzled.

(Continued in book)

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