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If You Go Chasing Rabbits . . .

. . . You know you're going to fall. Here's what happens when a middle-aged man tries to find the girl he loved. In second grade.

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2001; Page F01

THIS LOVE STORY, WHICH IS ABOUT SCIENCE and not emotion, begins on Nov. 17, 1947, in an electronics lab in suburban New Jersey, when a man dunks a silicon wafer into a beaker of water and invents the modern semiconductor. Thus would become possible not only the storage of vast quantities of data, but its nearly instantaneous retrieval from remote-access sites such as the personal computer at which I sat one day in January 2001 and idly fed the name "Shari Basner" into an Internet search engine. (Nonspecific curiosity is a Darwinian adaptation of the human species.) Approximately 1.4 seconds later, the computer informed me that Shari lived a mere 25 miles away, precipitating an involuntary secretion of norepinephrine from my adrenal glands, which are located above the kidneys. Norepinephrine stimulates the heart.

I knew Shari Basner in 1958 and 1959, in Miss Endler's second-grade classroom in PS 26 in the Bronx. I was a very small and very bashful little boy, and Shari was the loveliest girl on Earth. She had silken chestnut hair and eyes like a fawn and a guileless smile of Crayola Red. Her physical presence awakened in me urges and longings as overpowering as they were indecipherable. I knew certain things, however: that I wished to spend eternity with this person, that we would have children through some mysterious and frightening process, and -- I remember this specifically -- that she would call me "darling."

The author's second grade class, he's the dork in a bowtie. The object of his affection is in the row behind his, third from the left; Clayton Landey is in the third row, next to Miss Endler. (Family Photo - The Washington Post)

I was only 7, but not without savvy. And so I promptly developed a two-tiered strategy to deal with these feelings: flight, and paralysis. I never spoke to her unless it was unavoidable, and on those occasions I exhibited the conversational skills of a Pleistocene hominid.

I was relieved of this hideous burden after second grade, as I recalled, when Shari and her family moved away. I never saw her again.

And here she was, on my computer screen. A single hit, but a solid one -- nailed by an account of a conference she'd chaired in 1998. Shari appeared to be an expert in business communications: diversity awareness, team-building, consensus forming, that sort of crap. She is married with kids -- as I am. She lives in Columbia. And this gave me an idea.

I would call her up and invite her to dinner. A date.

Once we were together, I would 'fess up to my crush, 42 years late. We'd laugh and laugh.

And I'd write about it, for Valentine's Day. It would be a dispassionate examination of the origins of romance and the phenomenon of juvenile infatuation.

You know, for science.

I dialed Shari's phone number, but before the first ring, I hung up.

No, that's not why. I am a grown-up now, for cripes' sake.

I simply decided I had not done enough research. I wasn't . . . ready.

The emotional relationships between human males and females can be a complex and imperfect thing, a fact I discovered when I telephoned Prof. Robert Billingham at his home. His wife answered. When I told her that I wished to interview her husband as an expert on the subject of romantic love, she burst out laughing.

At Indiana University, Billingham teaches adolescent and preadolescent human behavior. My crush on Shari, he said, was completely normal and ordinary, even at age 7. This sort of behavior is a matter of evolution and adaptation.

As recently as the 1400s, Billingham said, the median life expectancy was 24 years. "As soon as sexual maturity was in place, it was time to reproduce, or humans would cease to exist. The problem is that human biology hasn't changed one iota since then." We are still genetically programmed to have intense sexual curiosity at 12 or 13. Ages 7 through 11, he said, are a "practice period. The biology is being primed."

But why is it so awkward?

"Have you ever primed a pump? The water doesn't come out in a rush. There are false starts -- gurgles and burps and hiccups."

Yep, that's me, at 7.

Some kids will take my shy route. Others dip pigtails in the inkwell. Either way, it's inept.

"That's also explainable in Darwinian terms," Billingham said. Nature, he said, wants us to practice, but fail. You don't want 7-year-olds communicating their desires competently, because then they might act them out. Not good.

So bumbling, inarticulate, doofus-like childhood crushes are a dirty trick by God?

"Precisely."

Rummaging through old photographs, I found the one that appears on the front page. It is from a PS 26 Easter play. I am the petrified-looking rabbit standing immediately to the left of the seated rabbit. That's Shari beside me. The exquisite one.

I recall this theatrical production not at all. My only thought, upon seeing the photo, was astonishment that I had actually once been that physically proximate to Shari Basner and not fainted dead away.

I did remember the name of one other person in the picture. The constipated rabbit at the table, spectacles askew, is Clayton Landey. He and I were friends.

Again, the Internet came through. I found Clayton at his home in L.A.

It's funny about memory. Clayton remembered me only vaguely. He remembered Shari not at all. But when I described the photograph, he was there.

"I played Papa Bunny! It was my first stage appearance!"

Clayton Landey, it turns out, is a successful Hollywood actor. He had small roles in the movies "Norma Rae" and "A Civil Action." He's had big roles off-off-Broadway. He appeared on "Knots Landing" for three seasons, as Donna Mills's attorney. He was on an episode of "The Practice," playing a rich guy charged with the hit-and-run of a homeless person. His is one of those faces you recognize, kinda.

("Let me get this straight," he said. "I'm finally going to get my picture on the front of The Washington Post Style section, and it's in the [expletive] bunny suit?")

I asked: How could you possibly not remember Shari?


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