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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Dartmouth Has a Beautiful Campus

A few weeks ago, after a debate tournament at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, a number of us were driving back to the DC/Baltimore corridor in a purple minivan and talking about all manner of things. I had bought a number of drinks, chocolate milk and so on, and some teriyaki slim jims that I consumed in a most voracious manner. As the inevitable stomach ache set in, I lay down on the seat and drifted off to sleep. An hour and a half later, I awoke to the sounds of a heated conversation emanating from the front of the van. So rare is the occurrence of genuine dialogue between participants of a debate league that it seemed worthwhile to concentrate on what was being said.

The conversation was about love, and what is meant by it.

If I had one wish, it would be that I had more dutifully recorded the thoughts of the other members of the car, and if they are reading this, I would implore them to, for posterity’s sake, comment here or elsewhere on this most important of subjects.

It seems somehow appropriate that such a conversation, in the early hours of the morning, in the dead of winter on a highway between Vermont and Maryland, became the crystalline seed that bloomed into what I am writing about now. So often it’s the seemingly insignificant interactions we have that matter most. I have never had an idea that shifts my frame of reference introduced in a classroom. It has always been under the awning of a painting workshop in the mountains, while waiting with strangers for the rain to slow. It’s been in a drab New York coffee shop while reading Spin magazine. So it’s appropriate that the back seat of a car would provide the next classroom in my personal Academy.

A decade ago, when I was eleven, I had my first crush of any consequence. The girl’s name was Morgan, and she was incontrovertibly the queen bee of my social universe. She was taller than me. She had red hair. She liked Nine Inch Nails, who I found to be grating and unduly noisy. I liked Billy Joel and U2, but for the sake of what I supposed to be love, I pretended to like her music. She was my first kiss, the first person outside of my family to whom I said ‘I love you.’ After about a month of this, we ‘broke up.’ Though in practical terms, this amounted to fewer notes passed between classes through the vents in painted steel lockers; it was still the most emotional breakup of my life.

Since, I’ve had a relatively large number of relationships and semi relationships, and a countless number of flirtations. This isn’t meant as self-congratulatory, and in fact, it makes me profoundly sad that this has been the fate to which I have been relegated. That I have been the one responsible gives my melancholy little respite. It seems to me there is always, at some critical juncture of the development of a coupling, a moment. It’s not usually independently significant, but it’s there and it comes only once. A moment where you are on the edge of a precipice, ocean surging between the jutting ends of a reef below. A moment where you have the choice to close your eyes and lean that extra radian and give in to faith that you’ll survive the plunge. A moment where you can decide if you want to be in love, or if you want a quaint but doomed affair. Each and every time I’ve stepped back, wanting for courage I couldn’t find. And every time it’s ended exactly the same.

At eleven years old, a girl living across town made you star-crossed. A boy attending a different school puts a permanent ellipsis on the end of an inchoate relationship. When we are younger, we haven’t evolved the shells and callousness that we will eventually develop. When I was eleven, I actually believed that I could be happy for the rest of my life with a girl who I had known for barely more than a month – a girl who listened to music I hated and who wrote her letters in teenage hieroglyphics, where “What’s up?” becomes “wut’s ^?” and “See you later” morphs into “c u l8r.”

In our later life, we imagine obstacles to fill in for old barriers as they come crashing down. At sixteen, geography deigns to bow out as an excuse to turn from the ledge, but social status is a convenient substitute. Sex becomes a substitute for genuine affection, and the attachment it breeds becomes a stand-in for commitment. And even these atrophy and fade, while new doors with new locks allow a person to put off any real test of faith for as long as one can create new obligations. Maybe you need to focus on your career. Maybe you need to give the guy from the gym another chance. It’s all a code that allows a person to build up a tolerance. It allows a person to become a professional when it comes to detachment.

The middle-aged deliver sermons in measured and patient tones extolling the mature relationship, a thing often characterized by treating affection like water in a desert. Dolling it out only when necessary, but keeping dreams of storybook romance on the bookshelves. Find someone who is in your tax bracket. Find someone who doesn’t mind that you spill popcorn on your sweater at the movies. Find someone that wants to have kids at approximately the same rate as you, and who is, above all else, convenient. If it ends, remain amicable. Nod to one another at the supermarket, and maybe even keep in touch. At holidays, have a ménage a trios with Hallmark.

The arrogance and the condescension it takes to socially induce a behavioral disorder, and then turn “childish” as an adjective applied to relationships into a derisive term. Teen angst, when feigned, can be the most insulting of all counterfeit emotions if only because, when genuine, it is normally the final smoldering embers of the person’s capacity or willingness to really give in to emotions in a way that the graded scale of rationed love doesn’t allow one to.

Language is a funny thing. It evolves and shapes itself to the needs of those who speak it. Eskimos have fifty thousand words for ‘snow,’ the Gen-Xer has twice as many to describe levels of commitment. ‘Dating’, ‘together’, ‘in a relationship’, ‘seeing one another’ and ‘fucking’ are all steps up and down the relationship ladder. Each carries with it the implication that the termination of said connection would have consequences ranging from a quart of Ben and Jerry’s to trying to remember the former significant other’s name. Each and every one also brings the attendant understanding that there is a level of caring, both about the relationship as a construct as well as the individual, commensurate with the commitment at issue.

Love can’t be just about that. The structures and superstructures of our flirtations are mazes we make the other person run to size them up before we’re willing to let them in. And then there are antechambers to empty rooms until a marathon has been run and the interloper arrives at some understanding of the basic layout of you. The keys are never handed out, and each step must be taken only after permission is explicated.

What do we mean by love? To me, love is not about the person. Sixty miles of thought, staring into the darkness of the sky over New England, and it became painfully clear. The person is secondary. What we love is an ideal. There is the ethereal vision of a person who we wish we were, a person who we aspire to be. Not a role model, but someone who so embodies the pillars of what we think a person ought to be that, for their being in the world, we are all better off. A person that may possess the qualities you never will, and who may see the world in a way you never can. Love is the singular devotion to the person who can act as an avatar or instantiation of that thing. The person is secondary. The person corrupts the ideal. But that’s unimportant. Just as the existence of a physical wafer doesn’t undermine the sanctity of the Eucharist, the corporeal person doesn’t change the basic nature of the thing.

Love is the basic act of giving one’s own insecurity and one’s own misgivings over to the faith in something greater than the individual. By conflating one’s own happiness with devotion to that transcendent ideal, a person can propel themselves beyond the mere flesh. This is true of any ideology, any belief. This is from where all symbolism derives its basic power; where the Hajj becomes more than a nature hike. A person is like a flower, opening itself to the radiant sun and from this developing the aching need to grow taller, petals outstretched towards the source of its breath of life and moving towards it despite the effective knowledge that it will never make it. Not even close.

This is the real reason monogamy is necessary for any loving relationship to proceed. A person can entertain two different ideals; intellectually balance them on scales of curiosity. But a person can no more penitently submit to them both at the same time than one could be a devout Christian and a devout Muslim. The basics might both be there, but God is in the details. The nuance is what makes it important.

People decry ‘love at first sight’ as childish. And in the truest sense of the word, it may be. ‘First sight’ is hyperbole, but if love doesn’t blossom once you get to know a person, then cold comfort is the ultimate fate. The ground may be fertile, but absent that seed, nothing will grow but moss and mold. I have entered many relationships knowing they are doomed. I have actually sort of done it because they are doomed. Because I know that they will not last forever, and their passing will be lamentable but not heartbreaking.

I napped for the last hour of the drive. I eventually arrived home, and fell to sleep at four in the morning, in my own bed. My house was freezing cold, and the sheets felt like ice to the touch. As I passed out of consciousness I resolved to regain my fearlessness. I decided to reclaim a childhood lost. Briefly, I began to think about the creek bed where I had my first kiss, but before I really made my mental journey back, I fell asleep.

(inspiration via)

cranked out at 1:42 AM | |

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