One of my oldest friends told me, “You giving advice on romance is like me giving advice on how to be a lady.” I took her meaning right away, for while I love her a lot, she is to ladies what Chewbacca is to bunnies. I felt surprised though. My wife loves me, and I don’t remember blackmailing her or making her lick a hallucinogenic frog for her to marry me. I must have been a little romantic. I recall buying flowers a couple of times, and I replaced the kitchen faucet with a shiny one she liked. I think that’s pretty good for an eight year courtship.

But my friend got me wondering about romance and my understanding of it. I’m confident it has something to do with love, and greeting cards, and jewelry I can’t afford. And there seems to be a gargantuan commercial industry built around romance—maybe bigger than Halloween, which I find a bit chilling. It makes me feel that if I’m insufficiently romantic then I may be hurting the economy and destroying jobs.

I was my most romantic when I was still dating. Maybe I should call it courting. Courting sounds romantic, while dating sounds like a couple of tough t-bones and a Julia Roberts movie. Regardless, I tried to be romantic when I wanted a woman to like me a lot, or at least like me enough to consider having sex with me someday. Romance is about convincing a person that you cherish them and want them more than you want air. Which of course is a ridiculous lie, but underneath it sits a corresponding truth—you want them more than you want anyone else currently in the room with you.

Romance traditionally includes a lot of trappings and strategies, and maybe my friend meant that I’m not good with those. I don’t plan romantic dinners well, with fat guys playing violins by the table. I’m hopeless with jewelry. I didn’t even buy my wife a diamond for our engagement, although to be honest she didn’t want one—which just proves that I won the marriage derby. My love poetry is rather pedestrian, although it wouldn’t make a jackal barf. I do remember anniversaries and birthdays, so that’s in my favor, although my gifts lack panache. I don’t recommend giving your sweetheart a new garbage disposal for your 15th wedding anniversary.

I’m not a complete disaster. I show up with flowers now and then. I really shine when we pass a store window and my wife stops to look at something. I point to a random spot in the display and grunt, “Wow!” That encourages her to tell me what she really likes, which I could never have guessed even with a chainsaw poised over my privates. My best moment comes when my wife refuses to let me buy whatever she’s fallen in love with, and then I buy it anyway when she’s not looking. There are no mysteries there, and I can follow the logic. I just hope she remembers that when my mid-life crisis hits high gear and I tell her not to buy me that Ferrari.

However, I can tell the romance story from the man’s side. Somewhere on a holy wall in the Orient is written, “Guys don’t care about romance. They just care about sex.” I guarantee that this is a half-truth. Of course guys care about sex. But they do care about romance, just not about the romantic trappings like dinners and poetry. For guys, romance consists of certain things not happening. For example, when a woman dates a man just so he’ll pay her house payment, that sucks out the romance for him. When she only accompanies him to the prom in order to hit on his best friend, that’s a romance killer. When a woman marries a man only to break him of his bad habits and fix his obsession with fantasy football, the man can find no romance there. And so what if guys care about sex? Sex can be romantic if you take your shoes off. So for guys, romance may blow to a different point on the compass, but it still blows.

Although my friend says that I’m romance-defective, I have noticed one odd thing about love and romance. I can’t know what my wife wants unless she tells me. I have poor mind-reading skills, as I’ve demonstrated hundreds of times. On the other hand, I’m tasked with paying attention to what she wants and likes and so forth, so I can make a pretty good guess about what she wants in some future situation. This is the same skill that lets me stick my hand into a fire one time and then know that sticking my hand into other fires would not be good—except that it’s harder to do because I don’t have a burned up hand to motivate me. I have to think about it to do it. I have to be thoughtful, which means I have to be full of thought. I admit that throughout my romance career I may have been full of shit more often than I’ve been full of thought, but at least I recognize that I should be doing something here.

In the end, I agree that I’m not ready for any fancy romance maneuvers. So, I’ll stick to the basics. If I want to be romantic, I have to do some things to show you that I want her. Just saying it or thinking it really loud won’t cut it. These have to be things that she’ll like, and I have to do them in a way that she’ll enjoy. That means I must have some idea of what she likes, so I’d better pay attention and occasionally think about something besides my fantasy football draft. I hope all this will convince her to want me so much she’ll forget every dumb thing I’ve ever done. That’s up to her in the end I guess, unless I break out the hallucinogenic frogs.

I still don’t understand why my wife thought this was more romantic than paintball.

In the first three days of our romantic Jamaican holiday, my poor decision making skills nearly killed my wife and me. I blundered into buying a deep tissue massage, and we would certainly have died if I’d had enough money for the two hour session, or if our masseuses had been a bit more muscular.

Yet we survived. In celebration, we summoned the will to drag our body parts to the beach the next morning, which was the first really sunny day of our trip. Back home I’d purchased some great spray-on sun block, so we needn’t smear our entire body surfaces with goop as if we were birthday cakes. The stuff came out of the spray can shockingly cold, but we coated each other with diligence, except for our faces of course. We slathered regular, semi-gelatinous sun block on our faces.

We took it easy on the beach. We relaxed for half an hour, swam in the ocean for half an hour, relaxed another fifteen minutes, and went inside to take stock. We saw the beginnings of a nice tan. On our faces. Everywhere else our skin had achieved the color of the surface of Mars. When we returned to our room, the temperature inside went up ten degrees.

It became clear that if we wanted to get home alive I must not make any more decisions of any kind.

The next day was Valentine’s Day, which called for romantic hi-jinks, since this was a romantic vacation. My wife was empowered to select romantic hi-jinks for us. She chose zip lining. As far as I knew, zip lining was how guys with guns dropped out of black helicopters to shoot other guys who didn’t happen to be looking up. My wife informed me that was a narrow view of the term. You can also dangle from a wire stretched between two trees and let gravity hurl you across the gap, with no opportunities to shoot anyone on the other side. That too is called zip lining. Since this was Valentine’s Day, and this sounded so damned romantic, and I wasn’t allowed to make any decisions anyway, I said, “Sure.”

Our romantic zip lining rendezvous would happen in a lovely canopy jungle, which sounded pretty good. But we were at the beach, where canopy jungles were conspicuously missing. The jungle we needed lay rather closer to the middle of Jamaica. We spent two hours on a cute bus driven by a charming fellow named Chris, and I learned three things on the ride. First, it does not pay to be timid when driving in Jamaica. Second, I would refuse to be a pedestrian in Jamaica. I’d sit in a room and starve before I stepped onto the street. Third, I’ve spent about six hours on Jamaican roads, and I have had the honor of passing through the only stop light on the island, twice, and never slowing down either time.

At Zip Lining Base Camp the guides organized us, distributed equipment, and gave a detailed lecture on technique and safety procedures. We all signed a waiver, which none of us really read. I did catch some phrases like, “able to walk for 30 minutes,” “not responsible for spine injuries,” “coronary event,” and, “nausea and vomiting.” Well, I figured the lawyers probably just made them put that stuff in there. As I walked by a table one of the guides asked whether I wanted to take such a nice camera with me. I said sure, I wanted to take pictures. He warned me it would be wet, but I said I’d be okay. He persisted, saying it might rain, but I just waved and kept going.

Three guides led us ten hapless dopes to the first zip line, and a few things became apparent right away. The guides were funny, funny guys. The guide who’d warned me about my camera had a better camera than mine hanging from his neck. Since I’d brought my massive Canon along anyway, the guides named me “Paparazzi.” And when we hit the first zip line the guides just hooked us up and told us to grab on and go. It was like that lecture on technique and safety had been some sort of dream.

The zip lining itself was a hoot, especially the longer, faster lines. The guides kept us from dying, and more importantly entertained us while they did it. But I’ll tell you a secret about zip lines. The end you start on has to be higher than the end you finish on. That means to get to the next line you have to walk uphill. Actually you have to walk up rough rock steps. Steep ones. And lots of them. After a while, some of us had our heads down, gasping like an ox in Death Valley. The disclaimers about coronary events and vomiting flashed through my mind.

Despite that, we zipped down seven lines in all and had a great time. I took some pictures that didn’t suck. As our bus hurtled back toward our resort, dodging larger vehicles and intimidating anything smaller than itself, I reflected that my wife had made a good decision.

Back at the resort and drunk on successful decision making, my wife chose an oriental restaurant for our big Valentine’s Day dinner. While the food was delicious, they served us an entire trough of sushi. My wife’s bowl contained enough noodles so that placed end to end they would reach the height of the Statue of Liberty. We’d been zip lining all day. We were hungry. We ate a lot.

In our room after dinner we lay on the bed and looked at each other. Valentine’s Day would seem like the right time for some romantic hanky panky, especially on vacation. Yet we lay on our backs like chubby otters, unable to do anything but roll a bit from side to side. My wife said, “It’s like a perfect storm. The deep tissue massage, then the sunburn, then zip-lining, and now we’re stuffed full of noodles. I don’t know if we can touch each other without screaming.”

We’re so in love. We’d better be.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I must observe that my parents taught me how to break into cars. They taught me other useful stuff, like how play poker, when to over-tip, and to always buy the coolest presents I can afford. They taught me to frame walls, but for God’s sake to stay away from wallpapering. They taught me to break the rules I think are stupid, and to make it look like I was following those stupid rules all along.

However, my parents failed to teach me an important thing. They did not teach me how to get a girl. I have a great girl now, but I’m mystified about how I got her. It seems like luck. It’s as lucky as if lightning struck me 15 times, and it merely gave me a great tan and fixed my teeth.

Perplexed, I recently asked my parents how they became a couple. How did my dad get my mom? Maybe I did something right by chance, and it would be nice to know what it was. I guess my parents like me, because they told me their story.

My parents both grew up in the same town. That’s the town in which I grew up too, by the way. Their families had known each other for years. My future father was 5 years older than my future mother. His younger sister was my mom’s best friend, and my mom’s older brother was my dad’s best friend. When you’re a kid, someone 5 years older than you might as well be a thousand years older; my parents each were aware that the other existed, but they couldn’t possibly care.

At age 18 my dad joined the Marines and went to Korea. After three interesting years in Korea, he came home when he was 21. My mom was just 16 then, and he still barely noticed her. She didn’t pay much attention to his existence, either. Two more years passed in the way years tend to do. Now my dad was 23, and my mom was 18. My dad now noticed my mom and found he wanted her to be aware of his existence, and also to consider it a good thing. But my dad suffered from incredible shyness, and he couldn’t think of anything to do that would make this happen.

He asked his younger sister if she could help him, and she said, “You bet I can!” His sister asked my mom to go out Saturday night, as they often did, and my mom said sure. On Saturday my dad and his sister arrived at my mom’s house in his car. My mom thought it odd that my dad was there, but she shrugged and got in the car. Then my dad’s sister said, “Oh, I forgot I have something to do!” and she buggered off, leaving my dad and mom alone on what had just become a date.

They went to the local establishment where everyone in town gathered on Saturday nights. My mom knew everybody, and she laughed, and danced, and had a great time with her friends. My dad was slightly less outgoing. He sat in the corner all night drinking beer and saying nothing to anyone—including my mom.

The evening ended, and the time to go home arrived. In the parking lot my parents found that someone had parked their car behind my dad’s car, and he couldn’t get out. He solved this problem by picking up the back end of the offending car and dragging it out of the way so he could leave. My mom thought, “Huh.” That is exactly what she later told me she thought, word for word. During the ride back to my mom’s house, my dad still said nothing. He let her out at the curb and drove away. My mom went into the house and thought that this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to her.

On Sunday evening, with no planning or discussion, my dad pulled up in front of my mom’s house. As my mom looked out the window, she felt perplexed and unsure of what to do. She didn’t see many options, so she went outside and got in my dad’s car, and they drove away on their second date.

Six months later they were married.

I found that story to be charming, but not immediately helpful. I’m pretty sure I did speak to my wife at least once before we became a couple. I didn’t drink much beer, and I never picked up anything that weighed 10 times as much as me. Perhaps things were different in my parents’ time. Perhaps I’m different. Maybe it’s all just luck.

Then my mom mentioned that my dad did in fact speak during those six months. In fact, he and my mom both spoke quite a bit while driving around all night on a whole lot of occasions. So that was it! My dad demonstrated the ability to talk for six months without saying something fatally stupid. Now it all makes sense—I must have been lucky enough to do the same thing with my wife.

I find this all to be an enormous relief. I know how I got my girl, and I can put those doubts away. I didn’t blow it when the critical moment came. Because to be honest, I’ve never been able to drag a car out of my way, and part of me suspected that my parents taught me to break into cars so I’d be prepared when the moment arrived.

Last week a friend mocked me for washing a bowl before I put it in my dishwasher. She did it in a gentle way, and as I scrubbed out the dried tomato soup I admitted that I didn’t trust the dishwasher. Trust can be fragile in my world, and I can’t place full trust in a machine built by a guy who’s yearning for his break while daydreaming about his girlfriend in black stockings. Maybe I’m weird. Yet this was my friend who was asking me, so I didn’t mind sharing my mistrust with her.

A few minutes later, alone as I scoured a pot, I reflected on the romance of the mundane. Washing dishes seems about as mundane as you can get. At least it seems that way to me. But I was washing each dish as people brought them in from the den, so that my wife could visit with her friends and not have to face a Vesuvius of plates and flatware when everybody went home. It sure wasn’t dinner and dancing. It lacked passion, and nobody was getting groped in a promising way. Yet this mundane thing we shared had its own kind of romance.

Yin Yang by Nicolas Thompkins (From Chair Blog -

I guess this is kind of Taoist. Maybe Zen or something. I wondered if anyone else had thought about this, and I found this neat article. It even used the same words had I thought of—Romance of the Mundane. It’s all about the simple, daily tasks and events that make a shared life, and how that constitutes real romance.

I admit that I’d make a crummy Taoist. I looked into it when I was young, and while it was cool I realized it was not for me. I could give some meaningful-sounding reasons, but basically I like stuff too much, and I enjoy it too much when things get exciting. Plus, if you’ve ever heard a Taoist joke then you’d know that Taoism require a consciousness expanded beyond my capability to achieve.

A Taoist joke, courtesy of the Hog-Tao:

Accept misfortune as the human condition.
What do you mean, “accept misfortune as the human condition?”
Misfortune comes from having a body.
No body, no misfortune.
Which reminds us of a song.
Sometimes we amuse ourself at the Hog Tao.
But nobody knows.
Except Louis.
Sing it Satchmo.

Therefore, while I’m not a Taoist, I’m also not alone in my suspicion that romance of the mundane does exist, and that it’s about sharing a life. Although it’s still nice to get laid once in a while, nothing says romance like shopping for decent produce and mint chocolate chunk ice cream. Nothing says devotion like putting your lover’s clean underwear away in the proper spot in the correct drawer. Nothing says love like working together to change the sheets because the cat barfed on them.

Most of the common wisdom about love is garbage. I know that’s a bold statement, especially since I admit that I don’t really know how love works. Well, I may not know how it works, but I can identify dumb statements about love. That’s just the same as me not knowing how an electron microscope works, but still being able to tell that someone is stupid when they say it’s powered by cotton candy and middle class guilt.

I present a few famous nuggets of “love wisdom.”

Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Unless love turns you into a saint who doesn’t care whether your spouse rolls over onto your hair in bed, this is just flat wrong.

All you need is love. Try getting five gallons of premium out of a gas pump by reading your impassioned love poetry to it.

It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. What if your first love was a strung-out street hustler who burned down your house before smuggling dope in your suitcase, stealing your credit cards, and leaving you stranded in Las Cruces, New Mexico? Wouldn’t it have been better never to have loved that son of a bitch at all?

Love is when you see a person’s flaws as perfection. I don’t care how much you love someone, you will never see toenail-picking and eating the last chocolate chip cookie as anything other than flaws.

If he loved me, he’d know what I want. Stop. Just stop already. Do I even have to explain why this is the stupidest thing anyone in love has ever said?

However, I admit that one piece of love folklore may be true. “Opposites attract” could be a true statement. In fact, if opposites do attract, my wife and I should be fused at the molecular level.

My wife and I aren’t opposite in any important ways, other than the entirety of how we interact with the universe. For example, my wife is more organized than me. I could write that sentence another thousand times and still not adequately emphasize how true it is. She’s the most organized person I know. Actually, she’s the most organized person I’ve ever heard of. She molds her world into an orderly existence. On the other hand, my existence resembles the inside of a clown car.

To illustrate how my wife approaches organization, we know that occasionally flipping a mattress is good for it. I know that. I owned a mattress for years before I met my wife, and I’m pretty certain I flipped it at least once. In my wife’s world, you flip the mattress when you change the sheets. You might skip it once if you have malaria or something, but otherwise it’s non-negotiable. Yet for my lovely wife, flipping a mattress is not enough. It has to be flipped end to end one time and side to side the next. And that’s still not enough. To insure that the mattress is flipped the right way each time, she ties ribbons to the mattress handles upon each flipping as a guide for which way the mattress must be flipped next time. No molecule of my being would have ever conceived that such a system was needful, nor even possible.

I’m not complaining. Our mattress is now ancient, yet it sags just moderately. Were it left to me, sleeping on our mattress would now be like sleeping in two foxholes. My wife has served us magnificently, but it shows how emphatically opposite we are.

In my wife’s world, secrets do not exist unless they are stamped “SECRET” in red block letters, and possibly given a code word like “Flapping Mudslide.” It’s okay if everybody knows everything, and all knowledge is shared indiscriminately. Things are far easier that way. I agree that secrets complicate matters, but sometimes I don’t want every single person we meet to know every fact, opinion, theory, and squiggly little detail about our lives. All right, I admit that I want hardly anyone in the world to know any of that stuff. It’s all right with me if three of our friends and a couple of family members know a few things, but even that makes me light-headed. Again, opposites attract.

Similarly, I tend to consider what I say to people before I say it. I don’t ponder my words, but I do pause to consider whether I’m about to say the most insulting thing ever spoken since Agamemnon called Achilles a “pancreas with pubic hair.” My wife dismisses such ridiculous delays in the flow of ideas, and her statements sometimes come across as blunt, rather like the Matterhorn falling on your foot. While this disconcerts some people, her friends value this quality. They’ve been known to ask each other something like “How do I look in this dress?” then be told, “You look great,” and then ask, “No, what would you say if you were Kathy?” That’s a level of frankness that few can claim. I know I can’t. Once again, opposites.

Over the years we’ve found that our opposite qualities often complement one another and sometimes drive us insane. I think the most fundamental way in which we’re opposite is our general approach to life. My wife strives to live a modest and wise life. She chooses things that will make her happy, and she works towards them by slow and relentless steps. I choose things that I think I’ll want, and that often have nothing to do with making me happy, and then I blast my way towards them. My wife embraces modest ambition and always succeeds. I expect I can accomplish anything. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I crash directly onto my face, leaving a trail of skin and teeth behind me in the gravel. I have never seen my wife fail when she committed herself to achieving something. She is incapable of quitting. I am eminently capable of quitting.

I’m not sure why opposites attract, and I’m not sure why that bit of love lore applies to us. But I’m glad it does. If it didn’t apply to us, then we’d both be developing intricate mattress-flipping schemes, rather than one of us standing by with his mouth open in astounded appreciation.

Yesterday a lady told me, “I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.”

Well crap. I’m confused enough about this gentleman thing without having to figure out when it’s time to stop being one. It’s like saying, “I like freezers that make ice. Until it’s time for them to stop making ice. And I’m not going to tell the freezer when to stop making ice, or what it should start making instead. Maybe the freezer should start making bran muffins. Yeah, let it try that, and then I’ll tell the freezer whether more bran muffins are really what we need around here.”

My parents never told me what it means to be a gentleman. I think they were too busy paying bills and fixing whatever I broke, insulted, or destroyed. So I just watched my dad and figured I was seeing the gentleman thing in action. I carried those nuggets of gentlemanly behavior with me out of childhood, and when I set off on my young man’s life I forgot every one of them. Who needs to be a gentleman when you can drink 160 proof punch, mumble at girls in a language that doesn’t exist, and puke indiscriminately?

When I outgrew all that, I found myself puzzled about gentlemanly behavior. I did some research. No joking. I discovered that a gentleman did things like hold chairs, hold doors, and hold purses for his lady. He would kiss her hand, kiss her forehead, kiss the back of her neck, and kiss her nose. He would be confident, be humble, be polite, and be willing to punch somebody for her. He would dress well, but not better than her. He would never keep her waiting, but he’d be okay if she kept him waiting. He’d never forget anniversaries or birthdays, and of course he’d learn to play the guitar.

There was a lot more like that.

The thing bothered me about these recitations of gentlemanly behaviors was that all of them are directed at the object of the gentleman’s matchless love. It seemed as if being a gentleman, as opposed to being just a man, springs from how a man treats the woman he loves. That seemed unlikely to me. I figured there were about six billion people on the planet. Am I a gentleman because of how I treat one of them, or because of how I treat 5,999,999,999 of them?

I thought about that for a while, and I tried to separate being a man from being a gentleman. A male human can be a man without being a gentleman. I do not cling to any doubts about that. I’ve known a lot of honest, courageous, faithful, and generous men, enough to demolish all the hot wings a large sports bar—but many of them were not gentlemen. (And by the way, when did it become okay to charge seven bucks for a plate of chicken parts that we used to throw away?)

So you can be a man without being a gentleman, but you can’t be a gentleman without being a man. That’s axiomatic. I think maybe Pythagoras even said it, or one of those other ancient smart fellows. And if that’s true, then I can only be a gentleman if I do something extra, something more than the things required to be a man. Something I can do for everyone I meet, and not just for the woman with whom I share saliva.

A list of those things might be pretty long. I could give everyone I meet a puppy, or a popsicle, or a t-shirt that says “Kiss Me If You Have A Strong Immune System.” I could tell them a joke. I could refrain from singing them a song. I could compliment them on one of their entirely unexceptional physical features. I could give them a massage in a way that’s friendly, and not like an unwashed creep with baggy trousers and an under bite. I could do all those things, but what I’m really looking for is a unifying principle for being a gentleman. What is the theme here?

I thought back to my dad and tried to remember if he gave everybody something. It couldn’t have been much, because his Sears credit card was generally charged to the limit. He didn’t tell jokes or give compliments, and he sure as hell didn’t give massages. He gave us a puppy once, which is a point in his favor. It was a toy poodle as dumb as a chunk of excrement and mean as a snake, so I’ll take that point right back.

I only remember one thing that my dad gave everybody. He did whatever he needed to do to make everybody around him feel comfortable. Even safe. No matter who he was with, they didn’t need to worry about being embarrassed, or left out, or the point of someone else’s joke. He didn’t try to make them happy. In fact, it’s impossible to make some people happy. But they could feel respected, even if they weren’t too respectable themselves when you got down to it. They might even feel that nothing horrible could happen to them right then, because my dad had banned horrible from the room. As a boy, I felt safe when I heard him snoring in his bedroom. If I heard him snore today, I’m sure everybody around would feel safe too.

A gentleman does whatever he needs to do to help the people around him feel comfortable. That’s my working definition. So when in the name of Gregory Peck is it time to stop being a gentleman? I suppose that would be when it’s time for people to stop feeling comfortable. I can think of two times that would be true.

You don’t want people to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt somebody, and you don’t want them to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt themselves. If someone is kicking his dog, or screaming at his spouse, then maybe it’s time for the gentleman in you to take a break. And if someone is throwing back his twelfth Wild Turkey shot, or committing professional suicide by doing something rude in his boss’s desk drawer, the gentleman in you should go outside, smoke a cigarette, and play with his iPad.

“I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.” When that lady expressed this astounding observation to me, I asked her how a man was supposed to figure out such a thing. She suggested that I might need a flow chart. Well, this isn’t a damned flow chart, but at least now I have something to go by. And now that I think about it, there may be a third situation in which the time arrives to stop being a gentleman. Sometimes the gentleman in you ought to stop outside the bedroom door while the rest of you goes on inside. Everyone’s better off if he hangs out in the living room and plays Wii for a while. I may run that concept past that lady and see what she says.