(About a 9 minute read)
It snowed last night. Not a light, romantic snow either, but a heavy wet snow that piled up to seven inches on some of the tree branches, bowing them, sometimes breaking them. Now and then a mass of snow would fall from one of the trees overhanging my cottage and land on my roof, sounding like some large animal had pounced on it.
Most of us in America have been taught the difference between infatuation and love is a matter of duration. If an attraction endures for a long time, then it’s love, but if it’s fleeting, transient, then it’s infatuation. But even when I was in high school, I knew that was a greasy idea.
Because of Janet.
I met Janet the second semester of my freshman year, and I became infatuated with her the day after I met her. That infatuation lasted five or six years, but I never mistook it for love. I knew almost from the first moment I noticed it that it was infatuation. What I didn’t know was how to shake it off.
Some years ago, I made a genuine, serious count of the most profound insights and creative inventions I’d discovered up until that moment in my life.
I went at it in earnest, left nothing out unless it was too minor, insignificant to include in the count.
There had been about a dozen.
Yet everyone of the ideas had been discovered by someone before me, someone whose work I was ignorant of until after I re-invented the idea myself.
And each of the inventions had, each for its own reasons, come to nothing.
“Thank you for writing up your proposal, Paul. We appreciate the hard work you put into it, but we decided yesterday in an executive meeting not to pursue your idea. Frankly, we don’t see a major market for it. People will never purchase in droves a plastic card allowing them to make long distance calls from any phone”.
Two years later. “Hey, could you tell me what these things are?”
“Oh, those are something new. Seven-Eleven just started carrying them a couple days ago. We call them, ‘Phone Cards’. Buy one! They allow you to make long distance calls from any phone.
“Why are you crying, Sir? Can I get you a towel? Um…maybe a few…?”
“No. no. It’s too late, my shirt is already soaked. It’s just that…that I’m so happy for you!”
“Sir? Sir, I’m going for those towels right now!”
I once thought creativity was a by-product of intelligence, but someone emailed me links to a few articles on the subject a couple years ago in what turned out to be a rather creative attempt to open the way to romancing me.
Seems creativity has been a subject of scientific study for a bit over 30 years now, and that it has little enough to do with intelligence. There’s a kind of minimum threshold of sorts, but it’s not high, and if you’re smarter than that, then you might or might not be a creative person.
One of the scientist’s major findings: Especially creative people have brains hard-wired for it.
The woman who emailed me the links, by the way, ended up after a few back and forths, emailing me one of the most lengthy, vicious, and creative attacks on my character and life-choices that I’ve ever read the first few lines of before deleting. Seems she was a wee little bit peeved to learn I was really, genuinely committed to celibacy.
A month back, my young, 22 year old friend Sophie asked me “Why is sex shameful? Even though I know in my mind there’s nothing to be ashamed of, I still feel shame. Why is that, Paul?”
“Why are you asking me, Sophie?”
“Because you know everything, Paul. You’ve told me so yourself!”
“Oh, that’s right! Yes, I did. But I forgot to mention to you that by ‘know’, I meant ‘I have an opinion about it’. For me, you understand, those are the exact same things.”
“You’re such a real man, Paul. Such a real man.”
“Thank you so much, Sophie! Your lavish praise is so annoying.”
“Just get on with it. What’s your opinion?”
“Well, I do know there used to be an hypothesis in anthropology and evolutionary psychology. Maybe it’s still current. According to it, sexual shame evolved in us as an instinct in order to facilitate male bonding, which allowed us to live in larger, more survivable groups.”
“Figures. It’s always about you men, isn’t it?”
“This time it’s about you women, too. You see, the notion is that our evolving feelings of shame meant couples quit having public sex. And that meant male friendship bonds were not as often broken by the sight of another male getting it on with a delicious, desirable female that every other male jealously wanted. Obviously, the anthropologists had you in mind, Sophie, because you’re so delectable!”
“I am NOT loaning you my money, Paul! Not a dime!”
“Delectable. Kind. Compassionate. Caring…”.
It is so often necessary to see less truth in order to see a deeper truth.
A few days ago, I was on my way to the corner store when a homeless man approached me with a smile on his mostly toothless face, and a whiff of alcohol on his breath. “You look just like Arlo Gutherie!” He said.
Truth, it was he who looked like Arlo. You could see the resemblance despite how his face had been warped over the years by the occupational hazards of long-term homelessness.
We carried on a lively back and forth for twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes. It was a real conversation, too. I made a point of that. When I myself was homeless, the one thing I missed the most was being treated like I actually existed.
It seems to be an American cultural trait to address problems pragmatically, except for human problems. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, fatal, crippling, and maiming automobile accidents were almost as common as women in a coffee shop are today.
The problem was tackled with scientific precision. Hundreds of studies were done. Then change was brought about by dozens upon dozens of innovations. Guard rails installed at key places. Road curves redesigned to make them safer to negotiate at normal speeds. Seat belts made mandatory. Driving tests required before licensing. Air bags. Child safety seats. And so forth.
None of the innovations was, by itself, anywhere near to being a solution to the problem. But each innovation reduced the problem by perhaps as much as 1% or 2%. And like drops of water filling a bucket, they began adding up. Today, tens of thousands of people still die on the roads — there is much that remains to be done — but the carnage is not even close to what it once was.
That’s how Americans, at least until recently, tended to approach most problems. Pragmatically. But the exception has always been “human problems”. Then the Puritan rears up in us. We become, not pragmatists, but moralists. Not rationalists, but irrationalists.
Unwanted teen pregnancies, substance abuse, rape, homelessness, poverty, joblessness, scientific illiteracy, declining middle class incomes — these are all problems that could be solved almost overnight in relative terms. Solved, or at least ameliorated, reduced to their lowest possible frequency, if only we would approach them with sustained, pragmatic efforts to solve or ameliorate them.
And some of us wish to do exactly that.
But apparently, not enough of us to matter all that much. The Puritans, the moralists, for the most part have the upper hand in America. We put men on the moon within a single decade of pragmatic effort, but we can’t even get effective comprehensive sex education taught in most Southern public schools, and all too many public schools in the rest of the country.
It isn’t sex that’s shameful. It’s moralism.