February 14, 2007

Mediocre Fred's 3rd Annual Valentine Message to the Lovelorn

"Boys, I had all the ingredients for a great piece of ass last night -- plenty of time, and a hardon. All I lacked was a broad."
-Seattle Pilots infielder Ray Oyler, as quoted in Jim Bouton's Ball Four

This quote more or less sums up my Valentine's Day. I had all the ingredients for a wonderfully romantic day: a snowbound apartment, a comfortable couch, a cozy down comforter, a pot of hot chocolate, plenty of time. All I lacked -- yet again -- was a woman to share it with.

With nothing but time in my hands, and the Fedroplex socked in by a wicked snow-and-ice storm, I spent my Valentine's morning helping my neighbors get their cars unstuck, no small task given the conditions. Something about snowy weather brings out the Good Samaritan in me. After a dozen freed cars and an appointment with at least a dozen sore muscles later in the afternoon, I settled on the aforementioned couch and pondered the vast wasteland that is mid-day television. Flicking vainly in search of something worth watching, I pondered a conundrum I've noticed of late.

Occasionally, I bemoan my companionless state to friends in relationships. In an awful lot of cases, their reply is along the lines of: "Hey, you're probably better off. This relationship business is more trouble than it's worth." Given the number of complaints I hear about relationships from people in them, you'd think that we'd all be better off in monasteries and convents. Where does all this dissatisfaction come from? Is it just the grass-is-greener syndrome? Or is there something else at work?

As I completed my third fruitless trip arond the channels, a thought struck me: Maybe we suffer from too many choices. Think about it for a second: In the old days, when there were only three TV channels, it wasn't hard to find the best thing on. Maybe it wasn't the greatest show going, but it was better than the other two choices, and it was easy to feel that you were making the best use of your TV-viewing time.

Contrast with today, when there are dozens or even hundreds of channel choices. The odds are good that you can find something better (or at least more suited to your tastes) than you could have on the three-channel system of old. But is it the best thing on at any given time? How sure can you be? If you have hundreds of channels at your disposal, sure, you might really enjoy "World Mud-Wrestling Roundtable" on Channel 371, but there's always the thought that maybe there's something even better on Channel 498, or Channel 760, or Channel 947. So you want to go channel-surfing. But by the time you get through surfing, and finding nothing better, "World Mud-Wrestling Roundtable" will be over. So you stick with it, but in the back of your mind, you can't help wondering what you're missing out on.

So it is with dating and relationships. We have more mate-selection options than ever: online dating services which sift through the pool of eligibles in your area and return a list of tens - or hundreds - of candidates meeting your clearly-outlined specifications, speed-dating events at which you can meet a half-dozen or more potential mates in one frantic evening, and so on. As with TV, the odds of finding a mate more suited to your preferences are higher than ever. But there's always the nagging concern about whether Mr. or Ms. Dreamboat is the best choice. So it's hard to be content, even if your relationship is a happy one.

This is a another wonderful byproduct of free-market capitalism. Our economy is built on convincing people that there is no such thing as "good enough." You're happy with the goods you have? You shouldn't be! There's always something more, something newer, something better. Why try to patch up something that's perfectly suitable when you can toss it and buy something newer and better? Our culture has done a fine job producing a society of perfect consumers. And indeed, an economy organized around the principles of consumer-driven capitalism is quite successful. It's organizing your social and interpersonal systems around the same principles that gets you into trouble.

All this thinking gave me a headache (and I was also fully cognizant that discussing romance in academic terms this way is a sure sign of lonely loserhood), so I decided to tromp off to the grocery store. On the way, I passed a steep hill, perfect for sledding, I thought. Judging by the tracks and child-size footprints dappling the hill, several of the local youth had had the same idea. And lo and behold, one had left a pink plastic sled behind. Naturally, I couldn't resist.

I hadn't availed myself of this particular pleasure in at least a decade, and as I went whizzing down the hill (the ice-covered snow made for a terrific ride), it brought back to mind that old childhood feeling, that mixture of joy, freedom, wonder, and a tiny bit of terror that makes sledding so much fun. It feels a lot, in fact, like the intoxicating thrill of new love, when you first meet someone who lights you up in the special way, and you think to yourself, "Oh boy, I wonder what would happen if maybe, just maybe..." Maybe you'll crash into a tree, or go plunging into the creek at the bottom of the hill, but who can resist giving it a try and finding out?

Maybe, I thought as I went for my second run, it's more than just capitalist indoctrination that causes us to be unhappy in relationships. Maybe we're just hooked on this sliding-down-the-hill feeling. Once you reach an age where sledding is no longer socially acceptable and other avenues of thrill-seeking, like drugs or skydiving or driving like a hoon, seem too costly, we're left with love and roller coasters to get our kicks. (The Ohio Players would argue they're one and the same.)

There was an article in the Post yesterday suggesting that this rush is a chemical reaction, a sort of intoxication, courtesy of a brain chemical called dopamine, and we're all hard-wired to be addicts, constantly seeking that thrill. To quote the article:

Wise counsel, patience, foresight, prune juice -- who wants that? Is there one among us who, at least once in this life, does not want to throw everything out the door and sprint to the Disco Ball of the Brain, where there are big white piles of dopamine, where a hot and sweaty Barry White is always on stage, thumping out "You're My First! My Last! My Everything!" And there's that new girl in class! Scantily clad! She's on the floor, beckoning you! Yes, Bubba, you! Out you go, and she's saying your name and her hand slips to the small of your back, and this is going to last FOREVER AND EVER!


A neurologist quoted in the story thinks the relationship-blues problem lies in our search for this junkie's high:

Still, she says, passion is destined to end, whether mellowing into long-term love or blowing up on the freeway at 4 a.m. Given this, she wonders if "we do our self a disservice by glorifying passionate love so much."

"The search for eternal passion is very misguided," she says. "It's the search for the perfect high that keeps people discarding relationships right and left. You don't feel the same way you did; people want to break up, instead of seeing it as normal."

She's right, of course. But the heart (or, more accurately, the brain) has its own demands. So here's my modest proposal to cure the relationship blues: Take your Special Someone sledding. There's a certain romance inherent in two people cuddling up in a sled, and the thrill of the hill should satisfy your need for sparks. Who needs Mr. or Ms. New and Improved if you can go zooming down an icy hillside hanging on for dear life to Mr. or Ms. Old and Comfortable? And after you're done, you can walk back to the house hand-in-hand, make up a pot of hot chocolate, help each other out of those wet clothes and into a down comforter, and anyone with a reasonable amount of imagination can take it from there.

As for us singletons? Well, sledding alone has its own thrills at any age, and who knows? Maybe Mr. or Ms. Right will see you reliving your childhood, think that it (and you) looks like fun, and decide to join you. And even if that doesn't happen, isn't it better to be outside reveling in nature than inside sulking and moping? I think so. Which is why I consider this Valentine's Day a success, partner or no.

Happy sledding, everybody.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at February 14, 2007 02:11 PM | TrackBack

I wonder if it has something to do with how much of one's life has been spent in romantic relationships. If you've been dating continuously since 13, the idea of not being in a relationship may seem strange and frightening, so the frustration expressed by those types is more likely to be what you've described: I want to be in a relationship, but I'm not sure this is the best one I could get. For people who have spent most of their post-adolescent life alone, however, relationships can seem like the tough part; such people wonder whether occasional loneliness really is that bad, rather than whether there's someone better to be with.

This might be explained by the inherent personality characteristics of each that lead different dating patterns, as well. People who are continuously in relationships may tend to be constantly on the lookout for a significant other, whereas people who are more often single are less inclined to be scoping out potential partners.

Posted by: PG at February 17, 2007 01:56 PM

What I really want to know is what Uncle Millie has to say about all of this.

Posted by: PapaShaft at February 19, 2007 08:23 AM

PG: Interesting theory, and I think there's something to it. I might suggest, though, that the category of "people who have spent most of their post-adolescent life alone" might be subdivided, depending on how much of their aloneness is voluntary. Those who have spent most of their time alone entirely or mostly by choice are likely, as you suggest, to wonder if occasional loneliness is really so bad, whereas those who have been alone not by choice are more likely to grab the nearest passing ship and hang on for dear life. (The corresponding mindsets being something like "I'm not willing to compromise who I am for the sake of someone else" vs. "Hooray, I finally found someone who can put up with me!")

Papa: Uncle Millie! There's a name I haven't heard in a while. Your suggestion is excellent... if I can find out what alley he's passed out in these days, I'll ask him what he thinks.

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