Several times now, I’ve promised that I’m committed to telling you the unvarnished truth as far as I can see it. Otherwise, we’re wasting each other’s time. And so…here we go again. Today, I come to the soapbox with a theory, which by the time I’m finished, I’ll either trust it enough to print, or…you’re just never gonna see these words. Together, let’s see if the theory makes sense. We may be forging a small trail into a topic which makes men miserable, and sometimes their wives and loved ones even more miserable. Are you game for the game?
Growing up, like most of you, I witnessed my mom and dad growing, maturing, and finally aging over the years. Maybe by some genetic freak-of-fate, I’ve always, always, always existed as an outside observer, as if I were a visiting shrink, or possibly a long-term freelance reporter assigned to a location. It’s always been that way. It has its pluses and its minuses.
What I noticed early-on about my folks was this: Over the years, as Dad became more famous, more powerful, more successful he changed…a lot. Mom, on the other hand, was, like that syrupy line from Bette Midler’s song, she was “the wind beneath my dad’s wings.” She was the launch pad, home base, the corner of the boxing ring where no one would beat up on him. She was usually focused on supporting the kids…us…and supporting my father, in every scheme he attempted. Does that sound vaguely familiar?
Broadening the scope a bit, I noticed the same sort of thing with my decade-older brother, as well as friends of my folks, and to some extent the mature friends Pam and I made as we grew up. The Arc of Curmudgeon-dom looked, and continues to look like this:
A. Boys run, trip, fall in the mud and make an idiot of themselves…and they laugh, giggle and throw mud back at you. (They also learn little micro-lessons about life each time they fall.)
B. With even small increments of success, however, boys and young men become proud as well as highly aware of their new-found prowess. Where once a beginning skier of 8 years old could tumble and end up looking like a snowman from screwing up, a 16 year-old- teenage skier who’s new to the ski team will take a tumble, stand up and instantly his eyes will dart around to see if anyone caught him…making a mistake. If they didn’t he’ll consider himself lucky and just whisper an expletive to himself from having screwed-up.
C. I won’t walk you through all the cycles, but eventually that skier as the main player in the metaphor goes, becomes a master, possibly a ski instructor. At that point, the very serious goal of that male individual is to make ZERO mistakes himself and give PERFECT advice in every conceivable way to his students (or in life, his children, mate, friends, employees, relatives). With that goal of perfection the ossification process and the curmudgeonry begins in earnest. It’s like cement drying, only it takes years for you to be- come immobile.
As I’ve grown up, grown older, wiser and well…mostly just older, I’ve seen it in my friends as well. I’ve seen it in business associates. I’ve seen it in my relatives (mostly male , though there are exceptions) and most of all I’ve felt that creeping feeling of ossification and curmudgeonry attempting to take hold inside me.
I seriously believe that it’s not just a function of age, though that plays a significant role. I think it comes with a feeling of life accomplishments and a growing feeling that I’ve earned whatever respect I have from my peers. Strangely, it also comes with disappointment. How many men sit back and think, Yeah, this is exactly how far I wanted to go. The male ego is made of industrial-grade butyl rubber, capable of stretching to four million times its original size. Couple that to a big ole Hedonic Treadmill and there’s no end. Have you ever heard of anyone, man or woman, declaring, “Okay, I’ve reached the top. I have enough money and fame and power. I’m just gonna sit on a hilltop and grow tomatoes now.” It never goes that way. But keep in mind, there are those twin arcs working against you, particularly as a man. Perfection is now expected. Degradation of the body, energy, mind and/or spirit is to be countered and shunned at all costs.
And just to get the sketch-out down on paper, and in your mind, with that growing arc of accomplishments, accolades, expanding bank accounts, whatever yardstick you choose, you have a nasty little arc that’s following a similar pattern…only in the opposite direction. With age and accomplishments also come ailments, sometimes serious, arthritis, decrease in motor speed, decrease in flexibility and most of all, decrease in energy. Put those two arcs together and you’ve set upon a course that’s far, far removed from that little kid who giggled when he accidentally turned into a snowman on the ski slope.
Why don’t women experience it as much? Well, the first word that comes to mind is testosterone…or lack thereof. In one short but memorable observation by Camille Paglia, she had, for medical reasons been forced to take sustained doses of the stuff, temporarily becoming something guy-like. When queried about it she essentially said, “You poor sons of bitches. How do you stand it every day?” Beyond testosterone, however, women have been running around with catcher’s mitts and baseball bats clearing the way for their mates. Yes, sometimes for semi-selfish reasons, but when your focus is someone else, making them look good, it requires a whole lot more flexibility.
I see it in myself and lately I see it growing exponentially in old friends and associates…the grim intent: to make no mistakes whatsoever…in anything and never, ever, ever make a fool of oneself. This is tantamount (for most guys) to a fate worse than death. It is the beginning of the end of the viable, exciting, fun-loving (highly imperfect) mate and person everyone knew and loved. If we’re not careful, we become walking statues.
Is there hope? I’m not sure. Candidly, for some guys I know… I think not. I think life just becomes too much and too disappointing and we become just waaaay too self-serious. For others, hopefully myself, in tiny increments, we must learn to accept the realities of our (and everyone else’s) declining bodies. Like the creaky Tin Man who’s been left out in the rain for years, we need some oil. What’s the oil? A big honkin’ can of humor and perspective… more importantly, self-deprecating humor. We men quickly fail to remember that no one really expects us or even wants us to pick up some new toy, game, Frisbee, tennis racket, skateboard…and be good at it. Our loved ones (I think) would be stupefyingly happy if we just try that new toy, game, dance, food, or movie and be able to laugh at ourselves if the whole thing goes south.
A marker or two to make the point. Go to an event where there’s dancing as well as truly mature couples. Nine times out of ten, if asked to dance…any dance, a woman will give it a shot. It’s fun, a chance to wiggle a bit one more time…and live. Ask an older man to dance, however, particularly something they aren’t familiar with and you’ll receive a polite turn-down. Push the envelope just a bit and things can get nasty. That desire for perfection and most of all to not make a fool of yourself counters any desire for fun. Take a snapshot of men at a party (90% of the time it looks grim). Turn that camera around and take a shot of a gaggle of women. Half of them are laughing, possibly because they’re away from the problem. In fact, wander through a gaggle of gals, even silver-haired ones and there’s a fifty-fifty chance you’ll get your rear end patted. Or, you’ll hear the punchline of a joke that will make your ears wilt. They want to have a little fun. Screw the perfection.
That’s just great, Henry. What the hell are we supposed to do? Is there no hope? Are men mostly just doomed? Is there any path at all that leads toward redemption….(FUN)? There’s hope, if you really want to change. A couple of superficial things do get you going in the right direction. From there, keep up the pressure. The fun you get even from the small things might be enough to get you hooked on the new path.
1. Get out of the rut: Let your wife buy: your underwear…your socks, your sneakers, your jeans, your t-shirts…everything and anything. I guarantee you she knows volumes more than you do. And when she comes home with a pair of black sneakers with Day-Glo orange soles, slide ’em on and enjoy what’s about to happen.
Socks? Do you have 20 pairs of black socks? You need 10 pairs of insane socks. You’ll get a thumbs-up from your waitress at the new restaurant. And so on and so on. You’re capable of putting on a pair of socks, aren’t you?
2. Every week, buy one or two or three NEW foods. What’s that thing that looks like an octopus in the veggie section? Throw it in the cart and when you get home, Google how to prepare it. Even if it’s horrible, it will be a memorable experience.
3. Dance Lessons: “I already know how to dance, Henry, but thanks for the suggestion.” Well…so do I and I’ll slide a twenty on the table that I dance better than you. That’s not arrogance, that’s confidence. Dancing, even the most rudimentary lessons…that you already know are FUN!!! I don’t care who you are, and your wife will appreciate it more than you know.
4. Has your list of movies or shows you might like shrunken considerably? Push it back. Push it waaay back. Pam and I are guilty of this, but we’re taking our own advice. Though I bite my tongue and grit my teeth at the insanity, we’re gonna get out Sharknado and marvel at great white sharks dropping from the sky and wreaking havoc.
5. When’s the last time you had a no-talking staring contest with your mate? When’s the last time you looked in your mate’s eyes continually for five minutes…no talking, no getting up, no looking away? You’ll learn more in those five minutes than in ten dinners out.
6. Get a dog. Seriously. Get a dog. They have no concept of perfection. They just want to make you laugh, and possibly pee on your sneakers. I’m an unabashed fan of Boston terriers as top of the heap for making people laugh.
7. Volunteer: Nothing puts things in perspective faster or more deeply than volunteering. Help out. It’s a win-win deal and you just may get more out of it than that person you’re helping.
8. Mix generations: Grandmas and Papas already know this. Grand kids are GREAT! Screw ’em up, feed ’em weird foods, and teach them how make water balloons and dig for worms. Then, best of all, send ’em home! Yes, there is a God. Seriously, a major factor in our choosing Asheville for our next challenge is the strange lack of barriers among generations. Older folks sit next to cool teenagers and ask about their tattoos (without a lecture). Little kids play Frisbee with…anyone who can catch. Don’t care why, but it goes far toward mending fences with generations who in other locations have battle lines drawn.
9. Sex: If you’re older and you don’t have a sense of humor about sex, you’re screwed. Actually, it’s just the opposite: You don’t get screwed at all, and that’s a very sad thing. Nope, no one looks like what they used to. Things are larger than they were, smaller than they were…or even in different places than they used to be. Communication, empathy, patience, and most of all, a sense of humor are mandatory. Bring up the honey and the whipped cream and then figure out whether you want to have a piece of apple pie with whipped cream on top or a…..oh God, save me from the end of this sentence. Use your imagination. An old Rodney Dangerfield joke: “I’m in bed with my wife and nothin’s goin’ on. I ask her, What’s the matter you can’t think of anybody either?” To steal a line from an old song, “Brother, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinkin’.” Whatever it takes, and if you get peanut butter and jelly, and whipped cream on the sheets, that’s what washers are for. Mature men and mature women are psycho-sexual challenges that a younger generation would not be able to handle…literally or figuratively. In other words, when you’re 18, sex is easy. When you’re 60 or 70 or 80, you really gotta be good!
10. The Golden Misconception: Men most of all, but women too, forget this basic truth about humanity. Nobody else on the planet really cares a flying foo-foo about what you’re doing, wearing, eating, or how you’re dancing. Don’t let that misconception ruin what may be one of the best parts of your life.
Oh, and one clarification: At what age does this curmudgeonry overwhelm men? Honest answer: It can be never. I’ve known some charming gentlemen who’ve somehow escaped the pitfall. However, I’ve known some very young males (and the occasional female) who seem to have taken up permanent residence in the land of curmudgeonry. It can happen to anyone at any age.
Cogito Ergo Ego… HRH