27, Attraction, March 17, 2016

Have you ever thought about the fact that birthdays are a relatively recent human phenomenon? They cannot pre-date the Bronze age when Babylonians first discovered how to locate themselves in the river of time. [More accurately, since they thought of time as a circle, the Babylonians’ accomplishment was more one of finding an island in a sea of time and recognizing when it re-appeared.] In any event, thanks to those Babylonians and their Roman successors, I am conscious of this being my birthday. Number 74. I will not use this occasion philosophize about life, (I am, after all, retired.), except to say that I never expected to enjoy this much life.

I was recently watching a documentary about Simon Perez, (whom I, amazingly enough, had the pleasure of getting to know over the years), in which he mentioned having never expected to live past age 35. Given the time and circumstances in which he grew up — and the fate of his family in Poland during the Holocaust, that is not surprising. For, myself, it was my father’s early death that programed me to expect one of my own. (I spent much of my adolescence with two fingers surreptitiously wrapped around my left wrist.)

I had planned to treat myself to a second, (now birthday) trip to the Tijuana Estuary, this time with proper camera and fresh batteries; to a haircut in Coronado by Joe; and to a lunch at the new Cohn restaurant in Imperial Beach. But I called yesterday and learned that Joe would not be in today. Hence I am postponing that birthday treat until tomorrow. For today I have worked out at the “Y”, warmed up some of my home-made chili for lunch, and am now settling in to write a bit. Something like this….

So, what does a 74 year-old think about? Having just arrived on this temporal island I am not quite sure.

A philosopher’s life is full of “I wonder”(s), some metaphysical, some ethical, some aesthetic…. But these are formally structured questionings, each with a history and its own luminaries. There are also human wonderings that do not fit nicely into these categories, but that are far more “real”. This afternoon I find myself pondering the mysteries of human attraction. What is it? How does it work? Why?

If you start with a simple logical schema you could argue that there are four possibilities:

Both X and Y are repelled

X is attracted but Y repelled

Y is attracted but X is repelled

Both X and Y are attracted.

That would suggest a 25% chance of success. But, of course, that assumes 50/50 odds for each. What are the odds of human attraction in reality? One in a hundred? Five hundred?

The simile I have in mind is that of gravity: of two heavenly bodies, (well, perhaps, no longer “heavenly”), throwing themselves at one another in empty space. If the angle of approach is too steep or the speed too slow they will spiral into one another and explode. If the angle is too shallow, or the speed too great they will bounce off and continue their solitary paths through empty space. BUT if the speed and angle are just right, they will be captured by one another in a mutual orbit balancing speed and attraction — balancing the gravity that would destroy them with the speed that would separate them, each remaining itself, but each now orbiting the other. Marvelous!

In “the old days” the odds of human attraction were lessened by casual interaction. E.g., “There are 20 women in this Modern British Poetry class only two of whom I might be interested in asking out for coffee or ‘accidentally’ falling in beside on the walk from class to class.” Now a computer does that initial sorting for us. I tell it, “Within 50 miles” or “Woman between 60 and 70” and it runs its algorithms. This is a strange new way in which to explore human attractions, but in our increasingly isolated lives….. I am new to this process, and surely “rusty”, but absent the old fashioned opportunities to size up potential co-orbiters, this seems to at least provide a starting place.

And so, indeed, I have found several Maine women with whom I have struck up an on-line conversation. This, after passing by hundreds (and surely having had hundreds pass me by) — not unlike determining in class that I have no desire to pursue an orbit with that one.

I have not yet met any of these women. We have merely exchanged a few emails. There is a still unspoken assumption (at least on my part) that we will meet when I get back to Maine. Perhaps that is why attraction is on my mind.

[Digression: in the old days, pre-cell-phones, we had few distractions in class but to imagine potential orbits. Last week I attended a lecture at SDSU and marveled at how many students were busy with their cell phones, Ipads, or desktops. Does that mean that they no longer plot potential orbits — or are they just doing it now via electrons?]

My own “electron ladies” are bright and engaging, women of interest and experience with whom one might imagine an orbit. But what is it that will make the difference? What is that attraction that will “orbitize” us, if any?

My widowed South African friend, Pieter, tells me that he recognized the attraction immediately when he had lunch with an electron lady and was surprised to have the restaurant owner ask for the table back after what had evidently been three and a half hours.

Is this attraction simply physical? I doubt it — especially at our advanced ages. Is it personality? That seems closer to the mark. The sound of her laugh? her life experiences? her openness to new experiences/adventures? her ability to orbit without crashing in? my ability to orbit without crashing in? her capacity to be cared for and to care? mine? I don’t know. It is a mystery.

I have a sense that I will “know it when I see/feel it”, but it has been a long time.

So, I conclude this birthday essay with a wonderment: will I be in orbit by the time I return to this temporal island next year?

PS. And so, dear reader, adieu, adieu; I am off to the Tijuana Estuary for a belated birthday romp.

I am a retired academic, educated as a philosopher, who now lives at the end of a dirt road in Maine.