Love Train

Get on board for a guided tour of matters of the heart --and hormones

Remember the book and the movie Love Story?
I never read the book, never saw the movie, but Love Story was enough a part of the culture in 1970 that there were three things that stuck with me from Erich Segal's melodrama.

One: In the movie, Ali MacGraw dies and Ryan O'Neal cries.
Two: The theme song from the movie is burned into my memory because it's on the cassette tape I have of one of my favorite barbershop quartets, the Gentlemen's Agreement.

And three: The tagline from the movie was inane: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

What the hell were they thinking? Can you imagine living in a house or a relationship where you never say, "I'm sorry"? Whoops. Maybe you do. If you do, fix it.

You see, one of the things about love is that you do say you're sorry when you've screwed up.

It just goes to show that you shouldn't look to melodramatic movies for life wisdom.

Of course, love is more than saying "I'm sorry."
Mr. Mike, having spent nearly 14 years married to the long-suffering Deb, will now be presumptuous enough to offer a guided tour of the affairs of the heart.

Let's take a trip on the love train.

First Station Stop: Lust Central
As a pubescent kid in northwest Missouri who used to take the bus to our deteriorating downtown with my buddy Moose so that we could sneak around in the old Green Cross drugstore and look for pictures of scantily clad women in the magazine aisle, I can claim years of experience in the lust department.

And by lust I'm not talking about wanting to jump in the sack with your best friend's partner. That's covetousness.

No, the kind of lust I'm talking about is a good old-fashioned sexual urge, the kind that men have about a few hundred times per day and that women, fortunately, have often enough that men stay interested in them.

This kind of lust was built right into our systems, and although I won't equate lust with love, they're a pretty good fit.

I mean, if you don't regularly lust after your lover, you're missing out on something.

The social psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists and even many religious traditions tell us that although we human beings may be at the top of the evolutionary and/or created heap, in some ways we're no different than most of the animals -- we've got a major urge to merge.

Anyway, if lust were like playing the board game of Clue, it would be some variation of Miss Scarlet does it to Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the rope. Or maybe Mr. Green does it to Professor Plum. Or you figure out a pairing. Lust is creative.

On the other hand, unbridled lust can also turn into a game like Monopoly, where one person ends up with everything and the other is, well, a loser.

So, although lust has its place, and a starring role it is, it is still subordinate to love, which is willing to lose so that the other can win -- and in so doing wins as well.

Load up on a healthy portion of lust, and get back on board this love train.

Next Stop: Infatuation
Oh, my darling, I love you, I must see you, I must have you every moment, I can't stop thinking of you -- why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?

Enjoy infatuation while it lasts, then identify it for what it is. It is a preserver of the species.

Infatuation is like the womb in which the embryo of your potential love either develops or aborts. If you weren't so infatuated with Jack or Jill, you'd see Jack with all his warts or you'd notice Jill's annoying habits and you wouldn't have had enough time to get to know Jack or Jill's inner beauty, blah blah, blah blah, and you'd run like hell all the way down the hill with the pail of water on your head just to avoid all the inevitable pain.

Infatuation operates on the same principle as babies looking cute. One night Deb was watching the Discovery Channel and alerted me to a program on which the anthropologist was saying babies look cute because they must. If they weren't so cute, we wouldn't be willing to give them all the attention they need in order to survive.

My hunch is that the Neanderthals and other extinct precursors to Homo sapiens sapiens did not have cute babies. Only the cute-baby strains of the species survived.

And, generally, amorous relationships with at least some period of infatuation have a better chance of survival. Otherwise, although you may have inner beauty, for all intents and purposes you're just another ugly Neanderthal baby.

For most of my adolescence, I was an ugly Neanderthal baby. Perversely, I was at the same time cursed with an endless string of infatuations. The occasional astute infatuee graced me with a date, but for the most part those relationships lasted about as long as the self-destructing tape at the beginning of an episode of Mission: Impossible.

Still, as elements of love go, I'd rank infatuation not far behind lust. A lot of the fun is merely in experiencing it. Lust. Infatuation. Lust. Infatuation. Lust. It usually doesn't matter which comes first.

I hear that love train calling.

Riding the Risky Rails of Romance
Do not confuse romance with lust, or even infatuation.
Neither lust nor infatuation requires actual give-and-take with another human being.

It's easy to lust from a distance. I successfully lusted after a variety of lustees, in my own sphere of influence as well as from afar, including all three of the sisters on Petticoat Junction, Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island and Jeannie on I Dream of Jeannie (especially when she wore the negligee top). Lust is like hunger. It just exists.

Infatuation, on the other hand, can die on the vine. It generally lives a longer life if the infatuee can actually be smelled or touched. A sensory stimulation, such as the scent of Jill's perfume or a brush with Jack's strong torso, feeds the unrequited longings of the infatuator.

Lust and infatuation share this, though: Neither requires an actual relationship with someone else. Lust and infatuation can be experienced the way one would play solitaire or a single-control video game. They're nice distractions, but they ain't the real thing.

Inevitably, you'll be tempted to engage in real romance.
Romance requires that you actually take into consideration another person's feelings and fantasies.

Early on in my courtship with Deb, I made the mistake of attempting to persist in my confirmed bachelor behaviors. One winter night in a suburb of the Twin Cities (I must have loved this woman to travel to Minnesota in December for romance), we went out to eat, and I took along a copy of Newsweek to the restaurant. I figured I could read a little while we ate, and we could talk about current events. Wake up, Mr. Mike! Just because you like to discuss politics and be oblivious to the food doesn't mean this will also qualify as great fun for your beloved.

Also, as I soon learned, burping was out.
And, unless you've fully emerged from the womb of infatuation, sped past romance, cohabitation, commitment and the changing of several children's diapers, I don't recommend intentional, audible farting.

Basically, a passing grade of "C" or higher in a correspondence course from Miss Manners is a minimum prerequisite for a successful start in romance.

Then there's always the possibility of the big surprise.
You might be disappointed to find out that the guy you're interested in (if you're female) actually digs guys. I've heard this is not an unusual complaint among straight women. Or, if you're that guy, you might be devastated to find out that your potential true love has tested positive. Or, if you're a woman who's got the hots for your new co-worker and would love to start a monogamous relationship with her, you might find out that she's got a child and would barely have time for you. Or maybe you're a guy who just found out that his dream woman hasn't actually broken up with her husband yet.

It's good to find these things out early and decide whether it's worth the trouble. Some of these surprises can be successfully navigated, but personally I'd strongly suggest that if you're straight and the other person isn't, or vice versa, forget about it. These things are usually hardwired into the person and aren't likely to change. And although adultery sounds like a lot of fun, it is dangerous at a variety of levels. Hint: It's hard to dodge a bullet, and besides, don't you have a conscience?

But romance can start off on the right foot.
For instance, my favorite romantic scene from the movies is, fittingly, a train scene. In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, innocent fugitive Cary Grant and mystery woman Eva Marie Saint are in a sleeper car en route from New York to Chicago. The scene unfolds with delicate, delicious, slow, teasing conversation. They are completely clothed, and they are polite. The wordplay is titillating: "How do I know you're not a murderer?" she whispers as the camera closes in on their faces, which seem drawn to each other like magnets. "Shall I murder you?" he murmurs. "Please do," she nearly moans.

Now, that's romance.
Conductor, please don't stop this train!

Rules of Engagement
After an exciting start, with or without infatuation and lust (although if you haven't experienced some lust by this point, you might want to check your pulse), you've decided you want to keep your love train chugging down the tracks.

Things could go anywhere at this point.
First, let's assume you've hooked up with an available person of your preferred orientation.

Your romance could fall into one of several categories:
First, there's what I like to call ritualistic romance. This is where Jack buys Jill a box of candy and flowers, takes her to dinner at a fancy restaurant, then brings her home to a chilled bottle of champagne. It is all planned out and predictable, but it's still exciting because of the element of anticipation. Each thing leads to the next, and the next, and the next, and if all goes well, lust and love intertwine for a satisfying conclusion. Let's hear it for ritual.

Then there's the heated romance. This is where one immediately embraces the other whenever reunited, and this can happen anywhere, anytime, sometimes to the discomfort of others in the immediate vicinity. In the early days, Deb and I were practitioners of this sort of romance, and I stunned my friends who knew me as a laid-back, emotionally reserved sort, for Deb and I would nearly be sitting on top of each other when we would visit friends. This can tend to be sickening to everyone except the participants. Live with it. Heated romance only comes along once in a while. Let the poor kids enjoy it, OK?

There's also honeymoon romance. I'm getting a little ahead of the game here, but this can last well past the wedding and traditional honeymoon, sometimes for several years (assuming pregnancy and children aren't introduced into the mix). This is the sort of romance in which, if, say, one is stuck at one's brother's house in Minnesota for three or four days because of the biggest blizzard in a decade, it doesn't really present a problem, as long as the fridge is full of food, the furnace is working and the bed in the guest room isn't too squeaky. May you all experience honeymoon romance. It's aerobically beneficial.

Then there is the interminable unresolved romance. This is the one where you end up in a relationship that gets somewhere, but then it doesn't look like it's going to go anywhere else. This is also known as the "Are you ever going to make a commitment?" romance.

That leads us to our last station stop.

From Romance to Commitment
I shy away from equating romance with commitment.
For Jill, the relationship may seem like it's wonderfully pulling into the station of marriage and family and children, but for Jack, it might feel like a runaway freight train that's headed straight for a cliff. Or vice versa.

Commitment scares the hell out of one guy I know. He says he usually ends a relationship by packing up and moving out of town. My friend is well-traveled.

But let's assume that you've committed to an exclusive, cohabitating relationship. For all practical purposes, you're married, with or without the paperwork. You both may have said: "No strings attached." But get real. Whether or not you said it aloud, your actions have said: "I take you to be my partner." And if one person eventually leaves, it's going to hurt. This is not to say that Jack and Jill should always stay together, but if they do break up, there will be a sense of loss. And with loss comes pain. And that, pontificates Mr. Mike, is the string that is attached. Be ready to grieve if you break up.

Then there are prenuptial agreements. A prenup might not be a bad idea -- if you don't trust the person you're nupting. Hey, if you need one of these, maybe you shouldn't be nupting in the first place. You might want to work on that trust issue first.

Are you starting to think that my well-traveled friend had it right? Is this committed relationship stuff such a pain that it's just not worth it?

Make up your mind, take a ride on that love train, and you'll find yourself in the middle of a real love story.

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