Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Cure for a Crush

Continuing with our musical theme this week, our guest blogger is Peggy Ehrhart. Peggy's a pal and fellow board member of MWA/NY. She's also a former English professor who now writes mysteries and plays blues guitar. Sweet Man Is Gone, featuring sexy blues-singer sleuth Maxx Maxwell, is just out from Five Star/Gale/Cengage.

Visit her at .
She was a trophy wife, in a way. He was a classics professor in his seventies, with stern eyes behind rimless glasses and a heavy German accent. She was a graceful dark-haired woman in her early thirties. They were fixtures on the University of Illinois campus when I was in grad school--and they were the focus of considerable mirth. She had been his student and was now a professor in her own right. “She vass damn smart,” he would say of the days she was in his seminars, and she would glow at the compliment. How did they get together? It started with a crush, I’m sure. A Humbert Humbert figure pursuing the little nymphet who conjugated Greek verbs so appealingly? I doubt it. I’m convinced the crush was on her part, an irresistible attraction to the brilliant man who cut such a dashing, if chunky, figure at the head of the seminar table. Women get crushes on men who are teachers. My first crush on a teacher developed when I was in high school. Mr. Poirion was the only male we saw all day--the other teachers were nuns, so in a sense he had the field to himself. He wasn’t especially good looking, but I remember experiencing the classic symptoms of love sickness as we waited for his arrival: pounding heart, breathlessness, trembling hands. I had crushes on professors all through college and graduate school too. There was more choice here--lots of choice in fact, because this was back before it became common for a woman to teach at the college level. The human heart can only accommodate so much longing and despair, so I couldn’t have crushes on them all.

Generally I selected the more attractive ones, the dark, thin, sensitive ones who taught literature and talked about books as if they had personally experienced every possible literary sorrow. But they didn’t have to be attractive. I remember trembling in the presence of a pot-bellied drama teacher with a gray crewcut who was never without a cigarette in his hand. As his mind darted from one brilliant insight to another, the ash on the cigarette would grow so long that it fell off of its own accord, landing, often, on his lapel. Why do we get these crushes? Here’s my theory. Nature predisposes women to seek out men who seem tender and caring, men who will stick around long after the excitement of romance has given way to child-rearing. I read somewhere that men first check out a woman’s body, particularly the ratio between waist and hips, because it provides a good index of childbearing capability. But women look first at a man’s face, seeking clues to his sensitivity. Lots of men hide their emotions in a one-to-one situation. Maybe they fear the outpouring of affection that they’ll elicit if they let women know they have feelings. And certainly many men believe it’s not manly to be sensitive. But standing in front of a classroom is a different story. It’s a chance to show off, to exercise power, to mesmerize by using every tool at one’s disposal--even one’s ability to empathize. And I fell for it every time. And maybe too I was longing to possess some of that power. Maybe we believe (wrongly) that if we can win the heart of this magical being, we’ll have sensitivity at our beck and call forever after. More likely we’ll be making beds and washing dishes while he woos another batch of impressionable young ladies. I managed to exorcise this demon though, and I did it by becoming a professor myself. As soon as I got my own Ph.D., I stopped getting crushes on professors. I was their colleague now. It was as if the lights had come up in the theater and the magic was gone. I was still getting crushes though. They just weren’t on professors. Now they were on guitar players. I’d rediscovered my love for the blues in mid-life and started making regular pilgrimages to the blues clubs of Manhattan. I’d stare at the guitar players, glamorous beings whose arched backs and furrowed foreheads revealed their ability to feel deeply, to empathize and care. It was bad enough when they merely played their guitars. But when they sang the blues too. . .oh my God. As I said, the human heart can only accommodate so much longing and despair.

There was only one thing to do. . . This picture tells it all.