Valentine’s and other mating rituals
“If I see another heart, I think I’ll puke”, my 17-year-old exclaims. She’s a self-professed guerilla-worrier fighting all things cheesy.
In the most sociologically detached way possible I tell her “you know, mating rituals are necessary in all societies, it’s a way of reproducing and maintaining the social structure”.
She looks at me with pity:
– “C’mon, mom, I know you couldn’t have participated in this charade of pretending Valentine’s is the night that seals your love, or in the ridiculous idea that a date on the 14th of February is of vital importance”.
– “Of course I didn’t, I hadn’t even heard of Valentine’s day when I was your age”.
– “You see, you were free from all this”.
– “I don’t know how free I really was”
– “Yeah, sure”
– “Anyway, a Valentine’s date sure beats arranged marriages and mail order brides as a way of forming couples, I’d say”.
In hindsight, I can see that many things were lacking in my youth. Light entertainment and dating for instance, were both banned, either by social convention or because no one around had looked up from what they were doing long enough to invent them. In that rural, Arctic world, with one television channel and an underlying conviction that TV should be used to educate people, having fun was an action and it usually involved sweating. “You only have as much fun as you make yourself”, my father used to repeat like a mantra, as we struggled with our skis uphill to the nearest mountain. “No pain, no gain” was another one, mainly used on the way downhill when your muscles gave in and you crashed into a tree or a rock. There was certainly entertainment in this, but there was nothing light about that particular kind of entertainment.
Dating didn’t even have a proper word in Norwegian, and even the English term was foggy to me until the late 80’s.
Our mating rituals were different. We’d move together as shoals; girls on one side, guys on the other, and in mystic ways, sometimes with the help of moonshine produced in someone’s cellar, we’d move closer and things would start to happen, most of it hidden to the human eye by the distracting movements of the rest of the shoal. Being part of the shoal has great advantages: you don’t stand out; you have constant support from your group, but it only works as long as they recognize you as the part of it. Just as impossible as it is for a sardine to be integrated among herring, was it for me to move in synchronicity with the others when I became a teen. Giving up my individual quirks to become one with the others seemed impossible. Instead of finding my place, I felt out-of-place.
The path to this self-discovery could have been rock hard, but in the meantime, the culture around me had changed. American sit-coms had finally made their way into our national television, and with it a whole new set of concepts were available. Discovering that mating could be an individual, instead of a group activity, a chance to shine on my own and be myself, released waves of relief. It also triggered my urge leave my fjord and go to places where I could learn, and be part of, this new ritual; this better way.
Several years of feeling awkward and in the wrong place passed before I could experience this first hand. In the meantime I increased my vicarious knowledge about dating weekly, through an ever-increasing stream of American content on TV. And I practiced it all in front of my bathroom mirror.
I think back on that first date, and know my lonely hero had overcome all kinds of hardships to ask me out: my obstinate leftism despite being in Reagan-land; my disdain for local sports and flag waving, the sweaty hands and the baby-blue polyester blazer bearing testimony of his struggles. And I realize nothing could have prepared me for the sudden aloneness I felt as we ventured out to the movies, the two of us, with a new distance between us that wasn’t there before, when we had lunch together in the school cafeteria.
I shudder as I remember all this, and wonder if I’d have the strength to go through it all again; the anticipation; the regret; being your own experimental guinea pig. And I make a mental note of avoiding conspicuous hearts for the next week.