Genetically Gifted vs… Not

(Originally published October, 2013)

I recently read an excellent blog post (since taken down) about one woman’s struggle with self-image and her fears about her daughter facing the same struggle in her life. This is a common, and often heartbreaking, topic I see female bloggers covering. It got me thinking, why aren’t there similar posts from men?

I’ve thought about it, and I think I have the answer. Women, here is a secret: most men don’t pursue any particular idea of masculine perfection, because we all realize early on that we either have it or we don’t.

The statistics bear this out: more women than men get married (among the heterosexual population) because all the women marry a smaller number of men, although, to be fair, typically one at a time.

In addition, a still smaller group (notably professional athletes, rock stars, and other similar types of “celebrities”) consists of men who father children with a disproportionately large number of women. The women sleeping with these men know that these men are serially promiscuous, but it does not matter, because these men are inherently desirable. Masculine desirability is largely a genetic trait, and the rest of the male population is pretty much left with alcohol and an active fantasy life.

So, ladies, when you battle your self-image, agonizing over how hard women are on themselves about their weight or physical imperfections, consider the alternative: you could be a part of a gender who realizes, at an early age, that there is no amount of lost weight, or clothes, or hair style, or working out, or anything else that will make you attractive to the opposite sex, and you either become resigned to being a genetic failure, or hope you catch a woman so wounded by the man she really wanted that she gets with you out of spite.

Or, if you were one of the lucky men, you could focus on pursuing excellence in some chosen field, be it music, or athletics, or putting out fires, or whatever. The confidence you would carry throughout your life would almost certainly serve you well in whatever career you chose. And you would be confident, because you would realize early on that most women are attracted to you, no matter how you might act – and that will tend to give a person confidence.  (It helps that, by-and-large, men don’t really begrudge other men this good fortune.)

As the father of a son, a stepson, and three stepdaughters, I have seen the way these various struggles work themselves out in my children’s lives (they are all 18 or older). Both of my sons were born the type of boys that girls like. They have other struggles in life, but that part of their self-image has never wavered – at least, not since middle school.  All three of my daughters are model-beautiful, but they have all struggled, to greater or less degree, with concerns about their physiques. Each of my daughters is arguably in better shape than either of my sons: my sons only give their physiques a second thought if they want to engage in some physical exertion and find themselves wanting. They then look at “getting in better shape” as a health exercise, not an appearance exercise.

Looking at everyone I know, probably the strangest thing in all this is that a number of women (not a majority by any means, but a decent number) are startling unaware of their own shallowness. Men hear over and over throughout life how shallow and visual they are, whereas women “care about the person” they are with. I have not found this to be the case as often as women suppose. This is an area where women’s introspection often lets them down: they can have a blind spot as to the real reasons they do things. (I am in no way diminishing men’s shallowness; however, in my experience, men are more willing to admit it.)

Unlike either of my sons, I was in the other category of boys. As a teen, I observed my female friends mostly longing after (or going after) the same few boys; I was not one of those boys. Like a lot of guys, I learned at a slightly later age that alcohol tended to cloud a girl’s judgment and give the rest of us something like a chance in the dating world; one of the reasons, I think, that alcohol is a staple of college life and beyond. It isn’t that I didn’t date, because I did. It was that I was nobody’s first choice. I’ve never slept with a virgin, never been married to anyone who wasn’t married before, and only have one child of my own siring through a woman (my ex-wife) who admitted she felt sorry for me. I consider myself lucky to have that one child.

I realized early that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones when it came to girls; but I had luck in other areas, and those could compensate me in living a great life if I would let them. I don’t look at it as tragic anymore – like I did in my twenties when I actively considered ending my own life – I just learned to look at it as the way my life was destined to be.

Let me say this as directly as I am able: men like me *can* find real love – I have – but it will always be a love we feel we need to earn every day. The genetically gifted man is unlikely to feel this way, because love, like air, is just something they breathe in.

Years ago my eldest girl brought home a guy that she, her sisters, and my wife all thought was wonderful. He was in the military, and travelled quite a bit. When asked for my opinion, I said: “He seems charming, but, since all of you took an immediate and very strong liking to him, I would suspect that to be the case wherever he goes. So be careful, as he is very likely to have girls all over the place.” And, indeed, he broke my daughter’s heart later by dumping her for another girl (and stranding her without a car) while she was visiting him where he lived. He, indeed, had “one [or more] in every town,” as they used to say. He was a prototype of the genetically gifted male, and exhibited an advanced case of the amorality that frequently comes with it. [The abiding lesson she learned from this: don’t ask my opinion about guys anymore.]

Feeling that love in a relationship of equal standing is something that continuously has to be earned isn’t really a bad thing, so long as both people feel that way. I suppose there must be genetically gifted men who are so well-adjusted emotionally that they approach relationships in something like that spirit: but, it is very hard not to take for granted what you always get for free.

Alsatian Dreams

Another restless night, up and down, up and down. When sleep finally came, images and stories poured in like floodwater.

There’s a girl with a bicycle in a field in France; it is August – August, 1939.  The war is just about to start, but she can’t know that yet. I know her in my dream, but in real life, she is someone I know now, a young someone who lives far away. But here she is France on the eve of World War 2.

It’s beautiful, but it feels ominous.

When I wake up, I’m trying to make sense of it. I spent almost nine months last year reading every WW2 book and watching every WW2 documentary and movie that I could find. And I had talked to my friend via text on Instagram earlier that day. So she ended up in Alsace on a vintage bicycle, wearing a vintage dress and hat as the clouds of war and genocide gather over Europe.

I am disturbed by all of this along several dimensions: the fear of impending doom, as well as thinking of all the people who were about to die horrible deaths 70 years ago this month. I’m also at least mildly disturbed any time a woman who is not my wife shows up in my dreams.

I look over to my right in the dark and my wife is there, lying on her side, breathing slowly.  Well, just because I’m having a bad night’s sleep doesn’t mean she should: so I get out of bed as gingerly as I can, get my glasses and iPad off the night stand and head to the other side of the house.

I know that dreams, for me, are often my brain trying to work out various issues that I’ve shoved aside. I do worry about some of my friends; the one in my dream, for instance, is someone I worry about a lot. Because life has been hard on her, and there are days I’m not sure she’s going to make it.

She also likes to be kind of stylish and vintage, if her Instagram is any indication, so maybe that’s where that came from.

I try hard not to worry about people whose lives I cannot really impact, but I seem incapable of doing so; when I manage it, consciously, my subconscious takes over and does it for me.

Later, after getting back from the gym, there is a message from my friend. Her health situation is deteriorating. We text back and forth for about 10 minutes. Then she’s off to get some sleep, and I’m off to get ready for work.

In the shower, the shampoo is running over my eyes, so I shut them. With my eyes closed, I see her again, in a French grain field, under sunshine and tall clouds, wearing a red dress and pushing a red bicycle. She doesn’t know what’s coming, but then again, no one did, really.

And none of us do now.


“You either own your mistakes, or your mistakes own you.”

You are almost five years old. We are walking through a shopping mall, one we come to every Wednesday night.

“We can pretend while we are here, if you’d like.”

“Pretend what?”

“We can pretend that this is a spaceship. These ceilings above us just slide back, and we can see the stars.”

“Are we going to Mars?”

“Yes, when you pretend, you can go anywhere you want.”

“…You can keep moving forward. When you do that, you may suddenly find yourself in a better place. But better places hardly ever come to us, we have to move forward to get there.”

There’s a message from you on my phone at lunchtime. I know you’re not working.

I also know you’re almost certainly still using.

Because you found a way, years ago, to take the ceilings off. To go to Mars. At least in your head.

I’m fifty-seven years old; you’re twenty-four now. In the six years since you left high school, you’ve given up almost everything and everyone you really loved to chase Mars.

And I had gotten tired, exhausted, from trying to carry someone who didn’t seem to want to move, forward or otherwise. So you left town to live with friends.

But I hear from you, ever so often, at lunchtime.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Have you been watching G-1 Climax this year?”

“No, I haven’t. How has it been?”

“Amazing. I had forgotten watching WWE how good wrestling can actually be when the performers just do it.”

“I’ll have to check that out.”

“Yeah, well I know you’re at work, but I just wanted to call sometime when I wasn’t asking for anything. Love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too.”

In my dreams, I’m still holding your hand, walking through a combination spaceship / shopping mall. I’m still trying, with everything I have, to make you see that you have what it takes to face life, to enjoy it, to thrive.

To show you that you can get rid of the ceilings that block out your real stars.

In dreams.

But, when I wake up, all I really have left is to love you.

Because nothing else has helped at all.

The Victory of Dreams Over Avoidance

There are things in my life I do not like to think about. As a probably predictable result, I dream about them instead. My dreams don’t make a whole lot of sense, tending to combine things in odd ways and tending to have no plot or point.

In other words, they are pretty much like my poetry.

Recently, I have had a number of dreams about my mother, who passed away this last December. I was fortunate enough to get to spend three weeks with her while she was in hospice. I wrote about it while I was there — virtually every day — but after the funeral, grieving kind of got overtaken by life: work, marriage, kids, grandkids.

At home, I’m a husband, a dad, a stepdad, and a grandfather. At work, I’m one of the bosses, plus I’m one of the older employees. At church, I’m the pianist. Everywhere I go, I have a job to do, a role to play, and, frequently, part of that is looking after other people’s feelings.

So, I push aside my own.

I have a number of friends who’ve lost parents in the last year. Grief is simultaneously the most common, and the most individual, experience in the world. We all grieve, but every grief is different. Most people who are grieving use every bit of energy they have just living through it.

Like a lot of men, I tend to substitute simple and practical emotions for complex and impractical ones. “Sad”, “Regretful”, and “Pensive”, for instance, all tend to come out as “Impatient” or “Weary”, which are both eminently practical: impatience pushes other people away; weariness allows you to leave and go to bed.

Where, unfortunately, the dreams are waiting.

They say that no matter what age you are when your parents die, you become an orphan, but that doesn’t seem to describe it completely to me. While my father and mother were alive, I was still their child. When my father died, I was still my mother’s child. But I no longer have that role. Instead, I’m all the things I listed up in the fourth paragraph.

When you aren’t anybody’s child, you can rightly be called an orphan. But it feels more like losing being a child at all. Because no one will ever see me that way again.

So I’m not really expecting anyone to be too concerned with my feelings. It’s more my job to be concerned with theirs.

I worry about my children and grandchildren a lot. I know this, because these worries show up in my dreams.

(Immediately after writing that last sentence, I got the photos below from my wife, who is visiting a dinosaur museum with two of my daughters and their children.

My oldest grandson, having the time of his life.

Yeah. I won’t have nightmares about that.)

I’ve had dreams where both one of my kids and one of my grandkids are in trouble, but they are somehow the same age. In one dream like that, I had lost track of them (my 24 year old son and 2 year old granddaughter, both 2 in my dream) while in a public place (a courthouse). I realized after panicking in the dream that I was in a dream.

That happens to me in dreams a lot — I suddenly realize I’m dreaming. Even so, I could still feel the panic.

Of course, courthouses can do that, even if nothing else bad is going on.

As I originally conceived this blog, writing was supposed to help me work through feelings for which I had no other outlet. Even in my writing, though, I’ve tended to focus on the feelings of others, or have relived incidents from when I was much younger — which is almost like writing about another person.

I can see that a more emotionally honest approach would be to write about my own feelings and the circumstances of my life as it is now. I have done some of that. By casual survey, two of the last twenty pieces I’ve posted have been contemporary, autobiographical, and relevant. Which means that 90% of what I write (if that is a typical sample) isn’t any of those things.

Because I am tired of waking up feeling like I’ve been in a prize fight, I’ve decided to spend the next number of days trying to do work through how I’m feeling out here. It might be poetry, it might be prose, it might be a big mess. But it will be honest.

So we will see how that goes…

The Things You (Also) Learn

When I was a teenage boy, I developed a fascination with a girl in my school whose name was Vicki. She was very beautiful, and I used to fantasize about what it would be like to kiss her.

What I learned: It seemed like it would be a wonderful thing to actually kiss a girl.
What I (also) learned: It really doesn’t matter unless she wants to kiss, you, too. She didn’t.

At that age, I shared certain characteristics that had people typically classifying me as a “nerd”. As such, I did things like read comic books and science fiction stories and talk about them with my friends. In those stories, certain characters can do things like ‘stop time’. I used to fantasize that I could stop time for everyone but Vicki and me and then she’d realize maybe I was exactly the boy she’d always dreamed of.

What I learned: Fantasies help us see our way out of seemingly unsolvable problems.
What I (also) learned: I have no ability, whatsoever, to stop time. I could, however, spend time, which I did watching Vicki walking around school hand-in-hand with the captain of the football team.

I talked to one of Vicki’s best friends, a girl named Joan. Joan could tell I had a bit of a crush on Vicki. She explained to me that Vicki “liked me” but just not “that way”.

What I learned: The concept of “liking someone” just not “that way” is of intense importance to girls.
What I (also) learned: Like the Backstreet Boys, I wanted it “that way”. Alas.

About a year or so later, I started to notice how beautiful Vicki’s friend Joan was. I wasn’t quite sure why I’d never noticed it before. We had several classes together. We always talked. Maybe, I had been missing out all of this time. So one day, right after class as we were walking next to each other in the locker hall, I asked her, “Would you like to go out with me?”

What I learned: Sometimes, you just have say what you are thinking.
What I (also) learned: It’s better not to ask questions you don’t already know the answer to. I got just-not-that-wayed. Again.

By this point (it was my Junior year in High School) my tally was as follows:

  • Number of girls I’d been out with : 0
  • Number of girls who seemed even mildly interested : 0
  • Number of reasons to continue living I could actually think of : not many
  • Number of girls who liked-me-but-just-not-that-way: seemingly all of them

What I learned: Every food chain has a bottom.
What I (also) learned: There are options. The French Foreign Legion was (and is) still hiring.

I did eventually start dating, after having remade myself over completely. By that, I mean I changed: (1) the way I looked (I tried to look like everyone else); (2) acted – I became far less nice; and (3) spoke – I talked a lot less, and became kind of a 17-year-old version of world-weary.

What I learned: There’s nothing wrong with looking for new ways to connect with people.
What I (also) learned: Pretending to be someone I wasn’t seemed to make me wildly popular with girls, more-or-less overnight. I eventually stopped being phony – I think. However, there is a reason so many guys become posers in the dating world, namely: it seems to work.

However, like good things, all bad things, too, must come to an end. I dated someone long enough that they actually got to know what I was really like, and she actually seemed to like that guy better than the one I was pretending to be.

What I learned: Lies are like manners – when you’re tired or your guard is down, you tend to forget all about them.
What I (also) learned: It’s better to be liked for who you are. If you haven’t found someone who appreciates you, it means just that: you haven’t found them yet. It doesn’t mean you never will.

By the way, I saw Vicki maybe twenty years after we graduated. She was still very beautiful, and very funny. We got to reminiscing about old times, and I couldn’t help but finally admit to her that I had a crush on her for years.

She said, “Wow…. I never really liked you that way… but that’s sweet.”

Some of us never lose our knack for being just-not-that-wayed. It’s kind of a gift.

And I would have never made it in the French Foreign Legion, anyway.

Things I Only Think About Saying

Son: For my birthday, I wouldn’t mind having one of those kits.
Me: Given the relationship your mom and I had, there’s a fair chance you and I aren’t even related.

Cashier: I like your yellow car. Can I have it?
Me: I normally require a divorce decree first.

Co-worker: Any plans for this weekend?
Me: Yes, I’m taking a course in self-absorption. It’s self-taught.

Boss: What do you want to be doing in five years?
Me: Answering a different question.

Interviewee: What do you do most often in a workday?
Me: Despair

Friend: Do you still do that poetry blogging thing, or whatever it is?
Me: “Whatever it is” is actually a pretty good description.

Online friend: How is your workday day going?
Me: Like a porcupine working in a balloon factory.

Co-worker: What do you think my résumé needs to ensure I get that job?
Me: Cash. And maybe extra cash.

Reader: Where do your ideas come from?
Me: Thule, Greenland.

Mount Pleasant

Tethered to a liquid mooring,
Bodies moving, night brings
Men striding head up beside
Gold hoops and little black dresses.
All the children are back home
With YouTube Blippi and LEGO blocks,
So the good wine flows by the
Succulent harbor, torches come
To life along April avenues and
Blue and white banners flutter in
A wind too strong for tall heels on
Wooden docks.