Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Closest I May Ever Come to Discussing Sex on this Blog (Unless You Count the Mischievous Inside Joke In That Mawidge Post...) - Still Rated PG

I'm not on vacation, exactly. I'm at an anesthesia conference in Stowe, Vermont, one I've attended the past several years. The second year I attended, I spent all the free time between lectures studying for my written boards. Passed them. The third year I attended, I studied for my oral boards. Passed those too. This year my free time is actually that: FREE!

So what on earth am I, a non-skier in a ski town, doing with myself? Besides waiting for The Hunk and The Cuties, who do ski, to join me?

I am still doing what I was doing before - READING! But this year I get to choose what I read, when I read it, and what to focus my thoughts on. This weekend it's the wanna-jump-in-and-wallow-in-it prose of Barbara Kingsolver's fifth novel, Prodigal Summer, in which the writing is as luxuriant as the Appalachian landscape it describes, almost sexually so. The language itself is verdant and voluptous. Talk about authorship! Who else can come up with sentences like this:

"The weeping limestone was streaked dark with wet-weather springs, which were bursting out everywhere now from a mountain too long beset with an excess of rains."

Or this:

"...she soothed herself with an ancient litany: Actias luna, Hyalophora cecropia, Automeris io, luna, cecropia, Io, the giant saturniid moths, silken creatures that bore the names of gods into Zebulon's deep hollows and mountain slopes. Most people never knew what wings beat at their darkened windows while they slept."

Kingsolver has the kind of mind I love, admire, and envy: that of a brilliant scientist AND a poet/writer with a unique vision and voice.


It just so happens that this novel I'm reading parallels a Psychology Today article that caught my eye recently, in which human attractions and mating rituals are explained as fruits of our olfaction. This is old news, of course. Martha McClintock drew attention to the phenomenon of pheromones in her work on menstrual synchrony among women living in close proximity to one another. Claus Wedekind demonstrated not only that we choose our mates because of smell but also that the probable resultant benefit is the generation of offspring with stronger immunity. This last part was new knowledge for me.

After I read the Psychology Today essay I curled up against The Hunk and mumbled, half-joking, "Isn't it sad that we don't really love each other?"

The Hunk laughed, replied with a typical, "Oh, okay honey," and gave me an affectionate squeeze.

"No, seriously, man, it's all because we detected that our major histocompatibility complexes would result in progeny with better membrane proteins."

"That's right, it's all because I smelled you."

"Yup. Looks that way."

Even our ferocious love of our children isn't all that remarkable in the natural world. I once saw a program on some science channel - National Geographic, or Discovery, or PBS - that showed footage of a shrew or a field mouse valiantly defending her young against a much larger predator. We're hard-wired to protect our own. All the ferocity and ardor of my love for my cuties, this little field mouse can demonstrate too. But the little field mouse, I suspect, doesn't well up with delight just watching her daughter playing M.A.S.H. in her notebook or listening to her son talking about the Ancient Egyptian belief in the weighing of the heart in the afterlife and liking it for being "mathematical." Why do the most ordinary moments we spend together take on such an extraordinary quality, a precious vibrance we cherish and ponder repeatedly? Can delight in our loved ones be so easily explained away as a product of molecular and biochemical interactions?

And for The Hunk and me, what does it mean, this thing we call love - the heady rapture of our earliest days, the emotional and intellectual bonds, the deep comfort and happiness of these trust-filled years - it's all just testosterone, oxytocin, and pheromones, isn't it? A mist of molecules entwining our lives in its vapors.

Or is it? :)

The truth is, I don't think it matters much what the empirical "reality" of our relationship consists of, and what biological mechanisms gave it life, when the truth of it that we have defined for ourselves, and chosen, is the reason we live that life. One case in which our faith - the way we regard our world, our lives, and their meaning - is more important to us than our knowledge.

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