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This morning my husband left me.  Thank God.  We are in the Malvern hills.  He expected a holiday but I must write.  (Coincidentally, about couples screwing up leisure.)  The sun is in, mist yields myopic views, and two loved-up newlyweds are building a house ten yards away.  Deafened by the cement mixer, they shout – right now, about a boil on the man’s arse.  Meanwhile my husband is hiking in Wales.  His parting shot: ‘Work hard.’  Mine: ‘Shove off.’  


Our break isn’t going to plan, but may yet be salvaged.  Romance is a matter of taste, and while the newlyweds happily bray their sweet nothings, that isn’t how we do love.  Forget Dirty Dancing: give us Cary Grant cussing Katie Hepburn!   Our defining romantic story was a disastrous honeymoon, with the punchline that he forgot my birthday.  (‘What do you mean, present?  I just gave you a helleymoon!’)  Still, this holiday may beat it.  Provided he comes back.


Romance is always a story.  The word reeks of Mills and Boon, but the original romances were epics of knights, monsters, and unattainable married princesses (then, marriage was about anything but love).  Nowadays there is a set romantic script by which to tell love.  Or so vendors of satin hearts and teddy bears hope we believe.  Such tokens are the bastard spawn of ritual gifts traditionally exchanged between courting couples (their value conveyed the gravity of intentions).  But conventionality may undermine romance.

Rituals are far from empty gestures.  They have the power to imbue experience with not only greater significance but also pleasure.  Psychologists find that if you make tea in a certain way, then drink from your favourite cup, it truly tastes better.  Only to you, of course, but then you are the one who matters.  It tastes better because our brains form neural circuits, and anticipation increases the release of dopamine, the joy chemical.  


It is a mistake to accept the pro-forma romance script and expect your relationship to fill in the gaps.  Instead, form personal rituals.  Have a song that is yours; routinely set aside fifteen minutes a day to chat and do nothing; make the effort to tell each other tales about your off-beat bliss.  Do this and your love should resonate deeper and last longer.  You may become smug bastards, braying sweet nothings.  But happy smug bastards.  


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For shame

Initially, Botox foxed me.  Setting aside botulism’s unknowable long-term beauty impact (a side order of tumour with your otherwise smooth brow, madam?), I was unconvinced that facial paralysis is attractive.  Didn’t self-expression connect us with people?  Then I grew older and wrinklier.  Then I heard that Botox stops blushing.  Should I, could I…


Red is great.  It’s the colour of romance and squashed cars driven by short men with hilarious, forget-me-not hair.  Roses and Ferraris are red because it embodies sex, life and danger in efficient pigment code.  That’s why most women wear blusher.  But as a serial face-melt offender, I used to hate involuntary blushing. What bothered me was the message that it sends.  Namely, that something has got under my skin, and a shameful part of me is screaming to get out.  


But embarrassment is a valuable social emotion.  Only humans blush, a puzzle that primatologist Frans de Waal reckons to be one of the few mysteries that Darwin’s theory of natural selection cannot solve.  I disagree.  Since embarrassment transpires when social rules are broken, you could consider blushing a weakness, because it announces our feelings.  However, such weakness, such honesty, is attractive.  Men have long got hot over flushed maidens, which indicates that our species evolved to favour flushers.  Why? 


Humanity’s survival stems from our ability to follow social rules, co-operate, and be more than the sum of our parts.  And embarrassment is social sensitivity in action.  For every Alpha leader who can smile through his plausible lies, we need at least ten people who respect boundaries, and wince when they tread on toes.  Not only do we know where we are with Beta blushers, but their embarrassment, like a flashing stop sign, helps keep us in line.


Kingsley Amis observed that history is the tale of man, an animal, trying to convince himself that he isn’t an animal.  Emotions remind us of the truth. Yes, when you put your foot in it, you may long for the earth to open and welcome you back, like the worm you were before life grew so complicated.  But sensitivity is appealing, and all emotions convey information.  So if somebody embarrasses you, listen to the feeling.  



As seen in ES magazine

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