State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Love is in the air. What’s worse, civil authorities have warned that, thanks to prevailing winds, this free-floating toxic event is headed our way. Instructions on the sealing of windows and doors have been issued on a short-wave emergency frequency and the population is being advised to stay inside. Ha ha, lol and rotflmao (I think). Just kidding. Love isn’t really in the air. It’s in our jeans; or at least it parks its sports car there. Or is Love more than sex, more than the procreative impulse, more than blind animal instinct, more than careful coupon-clipping for discounted twelve-packs of Kirkland Bacon-Flavored He and She Body Grease at Lustco? COSTCO I mean! (sorry).
People; IS there such a thing as love, or is Love just another frightened and distancing ritual devised by the wildly misguided species that believes Olympic Luge is a sport? From our exalted position at the top of the food chain we humans are a haughty bunch, believing ourselves miles above the “lower animals”, the helplessly copulating grab-asses in the rest of the animal kingdom who hook up in the wild without so much as a how-do-you-do. We snicker like naughty school kids when we see dragonflies engaged in sexual congress while flying through the air, secretly marveling at how amazing that must be, except for the tiresome arm-flapping.
Are we really so different from the African Elephants whose lumbering sex rituals we watch for hour upon mesmerizing hour on You Tube while nursing a series of too-strong rums-and-coke behind drawn curtains? No, I say. You want to see a lower animal in the throes of the procreative instinct? Go stand in the greeting card aisle at CVS the night before Valentine’s Day and observe the defeated males—rumpled househusbands and strutting hair-product hipsters alike—as they stare forlornly at 60 feet of pink folded card stock. It is positively heartbreaking. Watch with your hand over your mouth as the hapless Y-chromosome victim selects for his beloved an $8 electronic “novelty song” card that screeches colorfully when opened. She’ll love it! Shake your head in goggle-eyed wonder as the doomed nitwit then augments that ruinous purchase with a romance-spurring bag of Sour Gummy Hearts plucked off the “impulse buy” rack at checkout. It’s a wonder we are still able to populate the Earth.
But if Love is just an edifice of our own invention, why are we so enamored of it? Why is it so central to the very idea of being human? Since speech and song entered the human culture some two million years ago, Love has been the dominant theme of human expression. Yes, humans’ first heartfelt Ur-language would have sounded like anguished, phlegmatic grunting, and the songs were probably pretty crummy – maybe only a little better than One Direction. But the paleontological record suggests that what we now call Love followed quickly on the heels of language, as did face-slapping, cheap-bouquet-mockery, and the then grotesquely glottal “does this light covering of hominid fur make me look fat?”
Love and language! It was as if some inchoate, utterly human quality had been patiently waiting through the tormenting eons to be freed by language itself. Thus liberated from its silent prison, Love as an object, something to define and articulate, entered our world. Of course all hell broke loose. But there was a guy in an annoyingly floppy burlap robe-thing who once made it his mission to unite young lovers and, in the climate of his time and place, raise a bold middle finger to the Establishment in doing so. Have you heard of him?
St. Valentine – Mischief-Making Matrimonial Martyr
In the late Third Century the Roman Empire was throwing itself a party, and then some. Romans were it. Their footwear laced fashionably up the bare lower leg, their tunics were nicely tailored, they had tactless orgies at will and ate hoisted leg of lamb all day while laughing inexplicably. And who wouldn’t laugh? These guys ruled the known world. They also wore their hair in an ill-advised cut that today would be called “baby bangs”, as in “oh my goodness,that @#$%&! hairdresser gave me @#$%&! baby bangs.” At that high point in Imperial Rome’s La Dolce Vita period, the Empire’s armies were constantly at war, clobbering their enemies with spiky clubs and spears and whatever else they could lay their hands on, the battered Roman soldiery both brutalizing and brutalized in the name of ruthless world domination.
Into this milieu strolls our star-crossed hero, the Patron Saint of Hallmark, Valentinus. He is said to have been a Christian priest who lived under the Emperorship of churlish, war-making, anti-Christian Claudius II. In that period it was known that unmarried men were the preferred Roman soldier, and were more likely to be drafted into the bloody expansionist Roman juggernaut. Bachelors on the front line were known to do fierce battle without reserve; without the implicit hesitation of, say, a husband and/or father, who may reasonably be imagined flying into battle with combat tactics more informed by a desire for personal survivability than unfettered bloodlust.
So Valentinus went about his business, and he reportedly stayed very busy. In order that more young men might be spared the rigors and death of war (and just incidentally be brought into the monogamy game at a time that permissiveness and polygamy were fairly common), Valentinus made it his business to marry, in secret Christian ceremonies, as many earnest young Roman couples as he could wrangle, scurrying around on foot in the Age Before Uber.
This was, understandably, a bandwagon many starry-eyed young couples were eager to board, and his scheme met with some success. Though these marriages held no water in the eyes of the Roman court, Valentinus’ efforts threw a wobbler into the momentum of the Roman war-making machine, and before long he was, of course, arrested. Claudius, a baby-bangs jerk straight out of Central Casting, gave Valentinus the usual stark choice of dumping his faith or being beaten with clubs, then stones, then finished with a sword. “Do you choose death over renunciation of your foolish faith?” Since our guy is today known as Saint Valentine, we can guess at the refusenik’s reply.
By several accounts, the evening before his execution Valentinus was approached by one of his jailers, a hope-filled fence-sitter named Asterius, whose beloved little girl was blind. When Valentinus healed Asterius’ daughter of her blindness, the jailer was thunderstruck, and wept tears of gratitude and joy, but was unable to save our mischief-making love martyr. When the young girl awoke the next morning, Valentinus was gone, having been, as promised, thrashed outside the city gates unto death. But she found a note he’d left her. Thanks to her new friend she was able to read it. History has forgotten what the note said, but he’d signed it, “From Your Valentine.”
Love is Approximately All You Need
Today this selfless love bug’s sacrifice has metastasized into a 2 billion dollar annual orgy of caring here in the U.S., centered around the yearly commemoration that bears the poor guy’s name and the ritualistic mob-purchases of Candy, flowers, jewelry, and enough poorly chosen Valentine’s Day cards to fell an old-growth forest. If his desiccated body bits weren’t spread over thousands of miles of church naves and reliquaries, one can imagine St. Valentine roaming our Sour-Gummy-Hearted world with arms outstretched, not zombie-like but in an attitude of imprecation; “Really, you guys?!”
It’s kind of a mess. Where is the Love? Is it All Around? A Many Splendored Thing? Full disclosure: I’m deeply in love and so are you, and love isn’t just the foolhardy invention of a self-enamored, smartass animal species in a benighted little corner of the Milky Way (which incidentally only looks like a tub full of stars swirling down the drain, but is more importantly the birth spot of Brubeck and Mel Torme, to name but a couple of other saintly personages native to the neighborhood). Love is no more an invention than the wheel. Its a discovery, a revealed element, like arithmetic. 2 + 2 = 4, everywhere in the universe, whether or not this plain fact is given voice. In the purely mechanistic view of reality, we may well wonder: what is love for? Not sex, but Love itself. Procreation can happen without Love. Is there anything in the evolving, mechanized omniverse that isn’t, strictly speaking, necessary?
The evolved heart is a muscle with rooms and moves the exhausted blood through the lungs for the life-giving pick-me-up of oxygen which is them handed around to the rest of the living body like candy in a parade. That’s what the heart is for. Likewise, the tongue tastes, the fingers grasp, the crazy wetware of the brain apprehends. What, exactly, is Love for? What does Love DO? We partake of it whether or not we know it, whether or not we want to. We didn’t come up with it ourselves. Goodness knows it often visits us when it is the very LAST thing we want. So Love is an organic thread in the dense fabric of All This, an unsung footnote on the Periodic Table. What is Love doing in the middle of All This? Ours is not to question – but it feels right. To say the least.
Yeah, there are mishaps. In the early eighties Burt Bacharach and his then-wife Carol Bayer-Sager went to a showing of E.T. with their pal Neil Diamond, and we can suppose lobby-witnesses shrank in terror at what they knew these three might concoct when exposed to Spielberg Rays. The songwriters were indeed sufficiently moved by the film and its co-dependent, diaphanous, indefinite-article excluding alien, to write and unleash upon the world the 1982 glycemic seizure “Heartlight”. So things can go terribly wrong (true story).
But by and large Love is a mystery, a marvel, and a deep mine of gold; the sort you can plummet into after dark if your flashlight has failing batteries, say. Oh, and sex? I have to go with Bob Hope on this one: “Three beautiful women were frantically banging on my hotel room door all night. Couldn’t sleep a wink! Eventually I had to get up and let them out.”