The game of love is afoot: time to don your “dear-stalker” hat

in Nonfiction by

Thank goodness we’ve managed to put another Valentine’s Day behind us. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be the holiday of love and flowers and chocolates and all things satin and lacy. But once you manage to shove your way through all the cherubim fluttering around your head in a perfumed haze, you start to realize that this holiday is really all about disappointment. And not just because those irresistible three-pound boxes of discount truffles hammer the final sticky-sweet nail into the coffin of your New Year’s resolutions or because you can’t find a greeting card with message that doesn’t make your molars ache.

Roses 200No, I mean deep romantic disappointment. Let’s face it, whether you’re single, dating, married, divorced, or widowed, Valentine’s Day means nothing but heartache. If you’re single, you wish you had somebody. If you’re dating, you’re either too attached to the wrong person or not attached enough to the right person. If you’re married, you’re doomed to disappoint your spouse with your lack of spontaneity, attentiveness, amorousness, or _____________ (fill in the blank). If you’re divorced, you know that love is just heartbreak waiting to happen. And if you’re widowed, then you know that even the perfect relationship won’t last forever.

I hate to be a pessimist here, but even if you nail Valentine’s, that smile on your sweetheart’s face is just a fleeting reminder of how much you let that person down the other 364 days of the year.

Yet, the witty 18th-century poet Alexander Pope was right when he penned that frequently quoted line: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Even against our better judgment, we love love. The single keep looking. The dating keep dating. And people of all shapes, sizes, hues, beliefs, and genders keep getting married.

Why? Well, that’s one of the big mysteries, isn’t it? But for most of us, there’s a pair of less existential and more pressing mysteries to be solved. Lacking love, how do we find it? Having love, how do we nurture it? Indeed, it seems like you have to be a genius of love to solve either of these puzzles, but fortunately there’s help at the ready from the world’s most famous of consulting detectives, Sherlock Holmes.

Of course as a confirmed bachelor and thorough cynic about romantic entanglements, Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant sleuth might seem an odd source for wisdom concerning matters of the heart. After all, for Holmes famously only expressed interest in one woman, Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” though Holmes seems to have been more impressed with her intellect and her resourcefulness than the bounce in her step or the sparkle of her eyes. The role of Adler is played with considerable pluck by Rachel McAdams in the recent Guy Ritchie adaptations of Holmes. McAdams’s knockout looks are tough to ignore, but maybe the master detective’s preternaturally focused attention on matters of more significance might offer hope for us mere mortals. Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC Holmes is equally non-plussed by the equally attractive Adler, played Lara Pulver, most intrigued by her conniving ways than her obvious sex appeal that might distract the rest of us.

Mastermind 200To this end, Maria Konnikova’s engaging new book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, uses the fictional sleuth as a model to explain how we can all learn to be more mindful and effective in our everyday lives. Rather than cruising through life with in Watson mode, we can practice thinking more like Holmes by staying motivated and actively engaged. Using Holmes’s metaphor of the “brain attic” from A Study in Scarlet, Konnikova’s smartly entertaining overview of contemporary neuroscience describes how we all tend to develop sloppy thinking and lazy mental habits.

Throughout the book, Konnikova continues to draw on examples from the Holmes canon to explain complex mental functions. She elaborates that our misguided attempts at cognitive efficiency explain why we can drive straight home on autopilot without doing the errands we’ve been trying to remember to do all day. Extrapolating into the romantic realm, I’d say these same “efficiencies” can cause us to ignore potential partners, overlook kind gestures and sweet offerings, fail to notice those marvelous traits that attracted us to our lovers in the first place, and make us forget to stoke the home fires when the embers might be fading.

But there’s still hope. Konnikova suggests that over time we can retrain our brains to adopt better habits. She provides interesting self-tests and gives exercises for self-improvement. Overall she says the four keys, as frequently demonstrated by Holmes, are to be selective about where we place our attention; to be objective in what we observe; to be inclusive rather than passing over details we assume to be insignificant; and to remain actively engaged with life on a minute by minute basis. Yes, it takes work, but modern neuroscience shows that we can continue to develop our minds far into advanced age.

Author photo 200Even once you’ve retrained your brain, remember to stay vigilant and avoid becoming complacent and overconfident. As Konnikova so aptly puts it, “It happens to the best of us. In fact it happens more to the best of us…[o]verconfidence replaces dynamic, active investigation with passive assumptions about our ability or the seeming familiarity of our situation.” The solution is to never stop learning, never stop questioning. But if we can do this, if we can learn to unlock the capabilities of our own attentive mind, then every day becomes an exciting, romantic adventure.

And how sexy is that? Everybody wants an attentive lover.

Image Credits:

Robert Downey Jr. and Rachel McAdams: http://scribblesscriptsandsuch.blogspot.com/2011/12/review-sherlock-holmes-2009.html and www.fanpop.com

Benedict Cumberbatch and Lara Pulver: http://keithroysdon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/my-favorite-tv-shows-of-2012/sherlock-and-irene-adler/

Wilted Roses: http://therealplantdeal.com/2011/02/14/valentines-day-wilted-roses-a-great-symbol-for-love/

teaches literature and writing at Marylhurst University and Clark College. Apart from clever blog postings and academic essays, he writes a range of genre fiction and has been widely published in print and online. Recently his stories have been mentioned on NPR's "All Things Considered" and selected for inclusion in an Otto Penzler anthology called Kwik Krimes. He and his wife Petra, a naturopathic physician, have two lovely hirsute daughters of the four-legged variety. Visit his website at chuckcaruso.com or follow him on Twitter: @jcdarkly

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