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Has America Lost That Loving Feeling?

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A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook. We exchanged a few emails, then arranged to meet for a drink the next time she was in New York on business, which was just a few weeks later. And it was there in a neighborhood pub, over white wine, that I confessed to her a secret I'd been harboring for four decades: that I'd been in love with her. In seventh grade.

This was not just a boyhood crush, I told her. It was that dizzying kind of love -- a heart-racing infatuation that had me tossing at night, frantically scribbling in my journal, and reduced to a sweaty-palmed mess every time she passed me in the hallway. I'd planned to reveal my feelings to her one morning in Sunday school, but when the moment came, I froze. And I never let her know.

When I told this to "Amy" (which is what we'll call her, because, well, that's her real name), she smiled wistfully and her eyes welled up. When I asked her why, she expressed a certain bittersweetness in learning about this all these years later. I knew exactly what she meant.

We parted after about an hour and promised to keep in touch. And we have.

I should point out here that my wife and kids needn't worry -- I'm not going anywhere. And Amy won't need to secure a restraining order, either. But the incident did make me look at the world a little differently. Is passion always around us -- alive and pulsing -- and we're just too distracted to see it? Or has it actually begun to fade from view?

In other words -- as the old song goes -- where is love?

An alien landing on our shores would be hard-pressed to answer that question, because, these days, love certainly isn't front and center. We rarely see it on television, where "reality" shows like Jersey Shore and The Bachelor -- which purport to be about the human bond -- are more about heaping abuse on one another or competing for affection.

Love isn't on the internet's roughly 1500 online dating sites, which despite annual revenues now in the billions, have reduced the mate-selection process to something akin to ordering off a Chinese take-out menu.

And, tragically, it's all but disappeared from organized religion, where the sacred tenets of compassion, charity and, yes, love, are often drowned out by the clatter of political posturing, bitter infighting and scandal.

Even those subjects that are supposed to celebrate love -- like parenting -- have become woefully stripped of it. When author Amy Chua ignited a media firestorm last January with her controversial, 2500-word "Tiger Mom" essay in The Wall Street Journal, guess which single word was missing from the text.

Still, I'm the stubborn sort; and since that night at the pub, I've been on the lookout for love, or at least something that passes for a glimmer of it. And you know what I've discovered? Love isn't AWOL -- it's hiding in plain sight. The key is in learning how to spot it.

I've seen it in my daughters' online-messaging with their friends, where among the OMGs and harping about their teachers and gushing about Glee, they never fail to write "I love you" to each other (or some odd configuration of symbols that basically says the same thing).

I've seen it in the countless, near-invisible gestures from my wife -- like knowing exactly how much sugar I take in my coffee, or how much time to give me in the morning before I can communicate like a human being -- that are as fundamental to marriage as they are taken for granted.

I've seen it in the small but powerful acts of friends and acquaintances, whose depth of character, I've learned, becomes more apparent simply by looking harder for it. Like my neighbor, a Wall Street guy who, despite a jammed schedule, regularly finds the time to stay overnight at his church, where he assists the homeless who board there.

Or the friend who took off from work for a week to stand vigil by his dying dog, so he could give his cherished pet a loving send-off. Or the dozens of comments posted on that friend's Facebook page, sending their support, making sure he was holding up okay, and offering their condolences when the dog had passed.

Or my colleague, who I abandoned last month when I went on vacation in the middle of a work blitz. I'd left her with a full desk, yet she broke from the grind long enough to send me a book she knew I'd enjoy on my flight.

Bulletin to philosophers everywhere: Love is in the small stuff.

Perhaps Shakespeare (no slouch at describing matters of the heart) nailed it when he defined love as "a smoke made with the fume of sighs." You don't need a doctorate in literature to see what the old boy was saying: that love is ephemeral and elusive, and can render us speechless. Maybe that's why we often don't see it. Maybe we need to slow down.

I know, I'm citing the obvious. But I'll probably be talking about this for a while. I don't have another 40 years to waste.

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This essay by Bruce Kluger originally appeared in USA Today on June 14, 2011.