The M.A.A.T.

John Riha

Good morning. The Moral Ambiguity Aptitude Test is designed to measure deviation from the national norm established by the landmark research of Dr. Richard Hancock and Dr. Yi Taguchi in 2006. The test will take approximately one hour, although some of you may finish in as little as five minutes. Be sure to read each question or statement thoroughly and complete the test in the allotted time. If possible, check your answers. There are no right or wrong answers, but some answers may be more significant than others. Good luck!

Situation 1

You are working in your cubicle when your stomach begins to feel queasy. No doubt last night’s shredded pork/tofu burritos are acting up. You need to get to the restroom immediately. You grab the latest issue of Lucky/GQ/Out from your briefcase and hurry down the hallway. Your gut feels like a firehose with a kink in it. The pressure is unbearable. Suddenly, a co-worker appears in front of you. This particular colleague has been a reliable workplace friend and confidante, but was let go only three days ago in a brutal restructuring. She has finished cleaning out her cube and carries a pathetic cardboard box that holds an equally pitiful assortment of personal desktop paraphernalia. She is a single mom with few prospects. Her face is tight and unbelievably wretched, as if someone has stuck a spigot in her soul and drained every drop of vitality. She turns to you expectantly. She desperately needs words of comfort and sympathy.

Do you:

  1. Rush past with a cursory nod and artificially sympathetic smile in order to take care of your basic, most urgent needs?
  2. Risk the unmentionable and engage her in a conversation from which there is no easy exit?
  3. Dismiss her by saying, “Excuse me, but I have a job to do.”

Situation 2

You are driving home from work on the freeway. A frantic rush hour is complicated by road construction that constricts what normally are three lanes to two. In an effort to arrive home as calm as a chilled gherkin, you have adopted a Zen-like strategy. You will stick to the right-hand lane, no matter how slow the going. There, immune to the bloodthirsty cut and parry of traffic, you will divorce yourself of competitive urges. You will rise above. However, you soon find yourself behind a Very Cautious Driver who is droning along at an excruciatingly slow pace. Perhaps the driver of the maroon Corolla is a bodhisattva whose ultimate intent is to ensure your path of serenity. Nevertheless, vehicles are streaming past in the left lane at an enviable rate that puts them so much closer to their after-work martini/Vicodin/News Hour with Lou Dobbs than you. You hunker down in your seat as a precaution against being rear-ended, eyes stitched to the back of this VCD, breathing through your nose with large, full inhales and exhales. Orange stanchions and warning cones along the edge of the pavement indicate an impossibly narrow margin of error. Your heart rate is accelerating. You begin to lose focus. You consider an extremely perilous maneuver that will vault you precipitously into the left lane when an exit ramp appears. Impetuously, you decide to take this early exit and work your way along the back roads toward home, thereby keeping your promise to maintain a moderate pace and avoiding any adrenalin-soaked, high-speed interfacing. You are about to congratulate yourself on this spontaneous act of civility when you realize you are being funneled into a fresh labyrinth of road construction, forcing you on a detour route that doubles back to retrace a good portion of your progress so far.

Doesn’t this disprove the notion that God may not hold constant regard for your emotional and spiritual welfare?

  1. Yes
  2. No

Situation 3

Despite heavy traffic, you arrive home from work early to discover your wife/husband/lover in bed with another man/woman/mastiff.

Do you:

  1. Shoot everyone?
  2. Shoot only the interloper?
  3. Shoot only your significant other?
  4. Shoot yourself?

Situation 4

You are taking an early morning stroll along on a country road when you come across a turtle. The turtle is in the exact middle of the road. At the moment, the turtle is facing along the length of the road, not obviously headed toward one side or the other. From experience, you know this road will soon be busy with mountain bikers, joggers with dogs, and mean-spirited children with large sticks. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume this is not a snapping turtle, although it may have some icky stuff on its underside.)

Do you:

  1. Move the turtle to a side of the road, risking that this is not the turtle’s true destination and the animal will, as a result of your action, be forced to traverse the entire width of the road once again, making it even more likely to be injured or killed?
  2. Do nothing besides wonder why a species so stonecold dumb could have survived for millions of years virtually unchanged?
  3. Search for a large stick?

Situation 5

Your mother wants a cigarette. She has emphysema and whacked-out blood pressure and she is pathetic in her blue sweater buttoned to the neck and her anti-edema hose turning her lower legs into shapeless brown posts. She sits in a small parlor chair on a needlepoint seat cushion that was made by her own mother—one of the few familiar, meaningful items in her assisted-living studio apartment. You have put some family pictures on the walls and on her bedside table but she doesn’t really know who is who. She sits because normal-pressure hydrocephalus has made her unsteady and loopy. Her eyes are baleful and watery: her life is closing and no one will give her a damn cigarette. Not one stupid cigarette? At her age? What’s it going to do, kill her?


  1. Struggle to get her into a wheelchair and push her outside to a place by the dumpsters that is mostly hidden from view and give her a fucking cigarette.

Situation 6

Your mother is dying. She lies in a hospice bed beside a large plate glass window. Outside, an early spring has given the surrounding woods a pale green blush. Squirrel tails flicker through the underbrush. A single cardinal, bold as a drop of blood, arrives at a feeder placed near the window. You want to tap on the glass but the impulse is fleeting. Your mother is dying, after all. Small cell carcinoma of the lung complicated by congestive heart failure, renal failure, and a chronic bad attitude but at the moment it is the morphine that is killing her. A substantial dose, administered by the well-meaning if perhaps too-eager staff, has brought her to a macabre precipice. Her eyes skitter back and forth as hallucinations cascade across a mental screen bleached of context. She tries to track the torrent of images—swimming in a cold lake with the raspy ends of seaweed reaching up to caress her knees and curled toes; a rude girl with braids in third grade sticking out her tongue; an unfaithful college sweetheart looking past the steam of his coffee toward a damp recollection; a foreign city street in snow—but the images, made hard and brittle by chemicals, induce panic, not wonder. Her breathing is shallow, like sheets of paper rubbing against each other. Her heart rate approaches 150 although no one is actually monitoring her heart because, after all, she is in a hospice where diagnostic tools and preventative measures are not necessary. The fingers of your right hand are intertwined with hers and with the back of your left hand you stroke the hollow of her cheek. Her skin is as dry and translucent as a locust’s shell. Her fingers are more bone than flesh; the softness is melting away. Behind you, down a hallway, someone drops a metal tray. The cardinal flies away. (For the purposes of this Situation, assume that you love your mother.)

Do you:

  1. Pray for your mother to die mercifully?
  2. Pray for a miracle?
  3. Ask for forgiveness?
  4. Call for more morphine?

Thank you for your time. Your participation in the MAAT has been invaluable. Please place your completed test face down on your desk and exit the door on your right. Some of you may wish to use the exit on your left. We will review your responses and score them accordingly. We encourage you to consider possibly having a great day.


“My previously published work has appeared in The Somerset Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Toasted Cheese among others. My non-fiction has appeared in Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Journal. I am currently the Editorial Director of Special Interest Media at Meredith Corp.” E-mail: jriha25[at]

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