I get it now. If you want to find a crowd in New York City. all you have to do is show up at a presentation about love and/or sex around Valentine’s Day. I know this because my husband and I were part of the teeming mob at two talks last week.
The Museum of Natural History had to bolt the doors Wednesday night to keep out latecomers at evolutionary psychologist David Buss‘s talk about what he calls “mating strategies.” (I should add here that I am not at all an objective bystander about David. I’ve known him for years and think he’s great and his research is fascinating. However, he has been known to infuriate critics with findings that often come across as politically incorrect. Name me a great scientist who doesn’t have big critics and I’ll show you a total bore.)
Anyway, in a darkened room illuminated by the planetarium’s replicas of the full moon and stars, David spoke about everything from the love lives of the Tiwi tribe in Australia (old, horny guys married to multiple women of all ages; think Mormons in the South Pacific) to elephant seals in Northern California (4,000-pound males meet and copulate with 1,000-pound females; hilarity, big waves and rather large babies ensue).
Closer to home, he spoke about the myriad ways men and women deceive one another — with men exaggerating their status and commitment, and women hinting marriage equals non-stop sex. The crowd, mostly young men and women, was transfixed. They waved their hands with questions, they lined up to talk to him, they were so persistent I was pretty sure we were never going to be able to drag him away for dinner.
We waited for him, as David’s wife, Cindy, filled out a few evaluation forms (“Best talk I’ve ever heard!”, “Changed my life!”, “Bring him back!”). When he finally broke free, he was trailed by two young women. “I need to ask you something for my friend, Heather,” one said, indicating the friend she kept pulling forward. Heather’s boyfriend, it seemed, was jealous. But wasn’t that proof of his undying love? Yes (in the mild form), David said, but no (in the crazily psychotic regions). “You see, Heather?” her friend beamed. “He’s just really showing he loves you.”
Similarly, the earlier talk of romance we went to — a reading from Us: Americans Talk About Love — had would-be attendees lined up for a block. I was already feeling distinctly non-loving, since some people had cut in front of us and I was convinced we wouldn’t get a seat. Since I’ve just been reading Mary Karr’s wonderful memoir, Lit, about her rejoinder to an annoying woman to “kiss my Texas ass,” I already knew what I was going to say, if necessary. But we managed to claim the last seats, so I got to keep my mouth shut. (Odds I would have said it, anyway: sub-zero.)
But John Bowe and others read stories about love from the collection. Love that flares, then sputters in a matter of weeks. Love that persists through 18 years of a spouse’s becoming suicidal from horrific pain. Love that endures stubbornly, desperately, then is finally destroyed beyond recognition.
Bowe spoke about the inexplicable passion between two meth addicts, the sense that love is incomprehensible gibberish to the rest of the world — but solace to those in a closeknit relationship.
The next day, I dropped into a shop on Columbus, idly making my way through clothes for sale. A woman about my age was trying on jackets, which she modeled in front of her husband, who waited in a chair. This was not, to be blunt, a woman who looked good in anything. She was short and a good 60 pounds overweight, with a round, plain face.
But her husband sat there patiently, making suggestions, gently uttering his opinions with great sweetness. I finally stopped for a moment to try to see her through his loving eyes. I realized the gold color of the jacket brought out the auburn highlights in her hair and the waist-length jacket made her look taller. Gibberish to the rest of the world, a source of wonder to the two of them. Heather and her boyfriend might have understood.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about how my tough evangelical ancestors won’t leave me alone