Saturday, August 15, 2009

Love Goggles

I like to tell the story of how I proposed to th’wife, partly because, at its most shallow level, it’s exactly what people would have expected of us — I popped the question on a mountaintop, with a stunning panorama surrounding us.

Even better, at a deeper level, it’s even more apt. You see, I proposed to Heather about two or three days behind schedule. And it was nobody’s fault but her own.

Every backpacker has one trip that is the gold standard, against which every other trip is measured. For me, that’s the trough-hike Heather and I made of Isle Royale National Park.

Isle Royale is the largest island in Lake Superior, just off Thunder Bay in Canada but for historical reasons a part of Michigan. It gets sometimes ferocious weather, including winters so severe that they practically originated the terrifying Algonquin Windigo legends, and summers so wet that people have transited the island’s roughly 45-mile length without once seeing the sun (though we had an unprecedented run of 11 days without rain when we were there that June).

Having said that, its unique climate and natural history — it has species you won’t find on any other island in the lake, including a famous population of wolves — and rugged remoteness make it a great place to spend the better part of two weeks alone. Or alone with somebody special.

Which kind of gets us to the “nobody’s fault but her own” part (I can feel my comments section heating up even now, in anticipation of the rebuttal). Heather is better than special — she’s unique. Perhaps one of her best qualities, admired from afar, can be her most irritating up close, though: she has a child’s sense of wonder at the world around her. Getting her moving in the woods can sometimes be a trial; every berry [1], every piece of wolf scat, every lizard is worthy of stopping for intense examination.

Which, given N days planned to walk from one end of the island to the other, and N+1 days of food, was an issue for me.

OK, maybe it was partly my fault — I’ve learned to be a little less goal oriented in the outdoors since then, we were both in our 20s — but the upshot was I hadn’t yet learned how to pace myself for hiking with Heather. When I was in the lead she’d lag behind, and bitch about not getting as long to rest as me when I’d stop for her to catch up; when I was behind her, I’d be nearly bumping up behind her, pissing her off and making the progress even more agonizing for me. (I’m one of those folks who gets through the painful stretches of trail by putting my head down and barreling through; Heather, not so much.)

Upshot being, by the time we bagged our first summit — just a hill, really, but in Isle Royale’s harsh climate, above the treeline nevertheless — I was too pissed off at the girl to propose to her. And the second. And maybe the third.

We settled into a rhythm, finally, and the urge to give just the gentlest little push as she started down a steep bit waned and even turned into something like the warm glow I’d had before. But by then, the weight of our packs and the rockiness and steepness of the trail had worn us to a nub.

Mount Desor, Isle Royale, was the setting — the high point of the island, according to the sources I find today, though I could swear our trail guides at the time said the tops was Sugar Mountain, a forested round-top to the southeast offering little by way of a view. We’d plodded a good three quarters of the island, northeast to southwest, and emerged from the rim of slim, white-barked beech trees that marked the treeline into the open, rocky, grassy summit, to collapse on a nice, cool boulder. I finally figured it was time. But neither of us had much energy to commit to the business. Our conversation, amidst decidedly unromantic panting, went something like:

“So you wanna get married?”


And thus, in a most romantic location but with rather unromantic style, began a pairing that, while maybe not the stuff of legend, then at least, I hope, was the cause for more than one person to say, after we’ve left the room, “Who was that awful couple?”

Romance is quite literally in the air with our current entry: a study of how romantic, passionate love affects a woman’s ability to smell human body odors.

Now, a finding that women prefer the smell of their mate to that of others would not be much of a eureka moment: that’s fairly well established. But Johan Lundström and Marilyn Jones-Gotman of the ubiquitous (in smell research) Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have done something cleverer than that: they’ve asked whether love is, olfactorily, blind. And it turns out that it kind of is.

The City of That Other Kind of Love (No, Not That One) team employed a tool called the Passionate Love Scale — a 30-statement psychological test that gauges just how much a girl’s current partner glows her plug by asking her to one-to-10 rate statements like “In the presence of my boyfriend, I yearn to touch and be touched.” Chick shit like that. They then measured each volunteer’s ability to identify the body odor of their Main Squeeze, a female friend, and a male friend of no stated romantic interest.

The result may not be exactly what you’d expect: romance seemed not to have much effect on the women’s (reasonably accurate) identification of either their boy toys’ or their gal pals’ scents. But accuracy of identification plunged for their “just friends” guys’ scent as the romantic involvement increased: fully 40 percent of these women’s ability to identify a Platonic male friend’s scent tracked negatively with how much they stood by their men. Which by psychology standards is, like, huge [2].

The four most besotted gals, with Luv Scores crossing the 240-out-of-300 Rubicon, were bumping up against zero percent accuracy with their guy pals. Even more interesting, two of these four, whose accuracy with male friends was truly pathetic, were among the best at identifying Mr. Right or She-Homey [3].

So there you have your Love Goggles: love doesn’t give a girl an unerring ability to sniff out the object of her affection; but it makes her a lot less observant, at somewhere between the “Smells like team spirit” and scent-receptor levels, of the smell of other men.

Love is, surprisingly, scent-blind; just not in the sense of the aphroism.

There is a bit of a sequel to my proposal story, by the way: a few minutes after the exchange above, when some iodiney water and PBJs had brought us both back into the land of the living, Heather shattered my plans for a leisurely betrothal by saying, “We need to set a date for the wedding; maybe in a year. If we don’t, nobody will take it seriously.” Seeing that the game was up, I agreed, albeit with a bit of a gulp.

Obviously, she was talking about our relatives and friends.

[1] She’ll call me on this if I don’t admit that I was eating the berries. Red-green insensitivity, folks!
[2] How can I put this without offending? We have to employ slightly different standards with our quantitatively challenged friends in the behavioral sciences. Boy, is that one likely to come back to haunt me, or what?
[3] Different two for each, but still …