Permanence

We visited our local amusement park many times when I was a child, and I assumed (in the manner of children everywhere) that it would always be there.

It isn’t.

Being around my young grandchildren every day has brought this home to me: they don’t get the concept of things breaking, or breaking down. If a toy gets broken, my granddaughter will say (she’s two) — “we need to buy some more”. To her, things are unquestionably permanent. She may not be able to find something, but she never doubts it is still there, somehow.

She (and her brother) will both learn, as we all must. Neither things, nor people are permanent in this life. But it is a sad lesson to watch children learn.

My own parents believed in the “cycle of life” approach to such things. The birth-growth-maturity-decline-death cycle is one they embraced, as a part of what life is. They were very accepting of the limitations that come with aging, and took practical steps to minimize the inconvenience from it. Because they believed that such things were inevitable, even if we cannot know exactly when and to what degree they will occur.

When it comes to wisdom, both moral and otherwise, my own belief is that humans never really get any better, on the whole. We may get better in some particular regard, but we simultaneously get worse in other regards. As an example, many people eat better these days than they did when I was a kid, but do a much worse job saving money for retirement. So they run the risk of sticking around long enough to realize they can’t afford to.

In other words, I believe in another sort of permanence: the permanence of human failings. This view allows me to simultaneously believe that people are getting better (in some regards) and that they used to be better (in other respects). I see it in myself: I may have gotten wiser in certain aspects of my life, but I’ve lost other sorts of energy and insight and sympathy with age.

We strive to improve, and we can; but other virtues and strengths slip away from us while we do. It’s part of what life is.


This old water slide was, at one time, a very busy place. It closed down long before the current health-related disruption to business, however. I remember being up there as a young man, looking down from that height, exhilarated. At age eighteen, even though I’d seen setbacks, it felt like I owned the world, or maybe better, that I *could* own the world, that it was there for the taking.

Perhaps we are born feeling the world is permanent because if we believed that it wasn’t, while trying to deal with our own bewildering changes, that would be, biologically, too much uncertainty to be useful. Or maybe, as C.S. Lewis famously believed, we are born with a desire for permanence because there really is permanence out there, just, not in this world.

This world of abandoned water slides.

Not So Ok Boomer

I was born in 1962. For those of you of a demographic bent, that means I was born within the last couple years of the so-called “Baby Boom” in the US (which ended in 1964).

I tend to think of all of the generational names as nonsense, part of our endless desire to simplify things with names so we can then make fun of them without having to think too much about it. Much like the way the term “millennials” is used in some circles. It’s all pointless, if you ask me, but people do love their generalizations. Or “isms”, as they are called in other contexts.

Nonetheless, if I try to follow the generalization as far as is allowable for vagueness, I never thought of my generation as being particularly great. My tendency is to think of human beings as being essentially the same in terms of inherent value, although sometimes individuals or groups of people do something unusually salutatory or heinous. So it would be rare that I would think of any “generation” as particularly good or bad. And mine is no exception.

I would say my generation was a little unusual compared to those immediately before and after it, in terms of overestimating its own importance. When you are young, it is natural and even important to be idealistic and visionary — this is how important changes get made, as well as unimportant ones. But we viewed our idealism as in some way unique, despite there being no evidence of the claim other than our frequent repetition of it.

This tendency to an inflated sense of generational self-importance resulted in a tendency on the part of some of my contemporaries — myself included — to make mistakes we might have avoided had we had less hubris. But we didn’t have less hubris, so we did make avoidable mistakes.

I have a lot of sympathy for people of all times and places who want to build, only to see what they’ve tried to build torn down. But that is what life is for most people, most places, in most times. “Happy endings”, in this life, are often only reached by stopping the story at some arbitrary point.

Having said that, I tend to react rather sharply to people who criticize prior generations, as though whatever is known or thought now should have been known or thought then. The appropriate conclusion to draw when viewing human fallibility is that we are all subject to it, and to be more empathetic. That conclusion isn’t drawn as often as would be ideal.

I’m also rather testy and defensive about younger generations, as people are people, and subject to the same range of failings and strengths no matter where you find them.

We should be suspicious of our own thinking any time we feel superior to others — or inferior, for that matter. That is not to say we can’t be passionate about what we think is right and wrong. We should just realize that people are often more than just the issue at hand.

My generation is in the process of transitioning from the working to the retirement years, to the degree that is possible for each individual. The days of seeing everything through the lens of JFK, MLK, Woodstock, Vietnam, Watergate and Reagan are passing away, just as the Great Depression, FDR, WWII view did for the generation before mine. And that is probably a good thing. People who remember only part of the past seem as condemned to see it repeating everywhere as those who famously “don’t remember the past”, for it is the lens they are seeing after a while, and not the world.

An abandoned nuclear power plant, as pictured above, encapsulates my generation in many ways: we talked big, we reached far, we meant well, we pulled back, and we accomplished little — at least, little relative to our big talk.

But the lasting contributions are less often the big public or corporate works, but the little ways we find to make others’ lives better. And there, people my age have much good still to do.

 

A Better Me

I’m 13 years old, and I like girls a lot.

But they don’t like me.

At all.

There was then (as now) two ways of dealing with disappointment: be bitter, or get better. I vacillated between the two. I could observe around me what seemed to “work” with girls; however, most of those things seemed as far from possible as being a superhero.

There is a view out there that comic book superhero stories are escapist:  we imagine ourselves “as them” to forget that we are, in fact, us. But, at the age most people come to comics, we are just then forming our ideas of who we are, and every potential future seems distant, fantastical, and unlikely.

So superheroes, in our imaginations, are no more strange than life is. Life is big, and scary, and exciting, and terrifying, and finding our place in it, while we are simultaneously learning what the weight of social expectations feels like, is a lot — a lot of a lot.

I came to comics in the so-called “Bronze Age”, although I was no more aware of it than were the Mycenaeans. I just knew I wanted to “matter”, to be important, to be more — more than I was as a thirteen year-old kid. In fact, I wanted to be more than I could imagine being, like Superman or Batman.

Much of the criticism of superheroes, as a class, seems to think the “super” part is all that matters. But the “hero” part was what spoke more to me: to do what’s right, to overcome, to persevere, to fight for things that matter. At 5 foot 10 inches and 90 pounds, that was hard for me to think I could ever become.

At heart, you see, many boys and girls are romantics, and want to be worthy of the love they desire. It wasn’t my unpopularity that bothered me, so much as the feeling that I deserved it. And, to this day it’s hard to argue against “being amazing” as a key component to attractiveness.

Note that I am saying the role model aspect of superheroes was the most important part for me. It is not so for all readers, as the medium speaks to different people different ways.

I jumped into comic book reading with a passion, one that embodied the noblest desires I had at that time: to become amazing, to be worthy, to become a better me. Adolescence is often characterized as a time of great confusion, and it was for me, emotionally; it also can be a time of great purity of ideals, and also was for me, even if the constant sexual tinge of my thoughts made little seem “pure” to me at the time. But the desire to be better drove me to try, and I don’t know that I’ve ever tried as hard, since.

When the age came that I realized that there was no “trick”* as to how to interact with girls, I had both gained and lost something. I had gained a more mature and balanced view of myself as a guy: that the key for me in interacting with people was to interact with them as people, individually, and not as generalizations. I had my ups and downs with relationships, but at my best and on the whole, I had gained some wisdom.

What I had lost, though, was more subtle: I had started the process, as most adults do, of accepting my limitations — physical, mental, emotional, and moral. And it was the last of these that was the real loss. I knew in my heart I was no hero, and while I might (and did) find love, I would never know what it was to be worthy of it.

As a better me would have.


* I actually did try a period of pretending to be a totally different kind of guy than I actually am, and got about a year worth of being more popular with girls than I ever was before or since. So when I say there was no “trick”, I mean there was no “trick” that was not disingenuous.

Public Speaker, Private Panic

I had to perform in public as a child, singing with my family.

I hated it. HATED it.

My father could not understand this at all. I could sing, I liked to sing, so what was the problem?

If had been older than the six years old I was, my answer would have been, “because people are looking at me. I don’t like it when people look at me.” The same reason now I rarely post pictures of myself, or, if I post a musical performance, that it is typically an audio only file.

So, naturally, I became a public speaker by the time I was in my twenties.

Wait, what? Why?

I’m glad you asked, Mr. or Ms. Rhetorical Device… I’m glad you asked.


Fast forward from age six to age thirteen, where I am beginning eighth grade in an American Junior High School in the aptly named town of Niceville, Florida. I had tried marching band the year before, but didn’t really care for it, so I decided to try chorus in the current year. A couple of my new chorus friends, who were a year older — you see, in ninth grade, you could take two electives — were also in what was called “Speech and Debate”.

I didn’t really fit in that well with the chorus kids, because many of them were also cool kids, which at the time (and maybe still, for all I know) consisted of athletes and cheerleaders. So I was looking for a social sphere which felt more natural, and the “Speech and Debate” kids seemed a better match.

It wasn’t until the next year that I could join them, but I had already made friends who have been among my closest friends ever since.

Debate, itself, was kind of interesting, but I couldn’t say I ever really liked it. I was hyper-competitive, though, so any kind of competition was useful as an outlet. By the end of high school, three or four years later, I had become competition-adverse, so I left speech and debate behind when I went to college. Most of my friends, in the various colleges they went to, continued it in some way.

I had learned some things though. Like how to write a speech. I had also learned how to give one. For me, the trick was to be able to pretend I was having a conversation with just one or two other people. That was a manageable task for me. So I developed a style of public speaking that was conversational, relaxed, and based on convincing myself of a lie — that there weren’t a bunch of people there.

Nevertheless, I had now had enough practice at it, and at an age where I was at my most self-conscious, that I had learned how to do it. My speechwriting was pretty good: I remember a reasonably large competition where I came in second, only being beaten out by someone I had written a speech for.

But it wasn’t a skill I ever planned to use, as I had punched the “math major” button on my college application, preparing for a career as a professional introvert.


The ability lay dormant for years; there was no call for it in college, and when I started working in Civil Service for the Air Force as a cooperative education student, I was looking at a career in practical mathematics… not one that really involves any kind of public spotlight.

Thankfully.

However, after graduation and being offered and accepting a full-time position, my interests began to shift. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I had developed an interest in and love for the study of philosophy while I was in college, and I wanted to pursue that into graduate and postgraduate work.

It had been hard, but I had found something even less popular than being a mathematician.

Because I was studying German (with a tutor) and Latin and Greek (on my own) trying to prepare to apply at schools, people I worked with became aware of my interests outside mathematics and engineering. They already knew I played the piano, as I was still doing so, for money, on the side.

Which meant, by the canons of that time and place, that I was the closest thing we had to an extrovert, so I could start speaking for the team at meetings. So I did. And I fell right back into the casual, conversational speechmaking style I had learned in high school. And it went well… better than anyone expected.

Within a couple of years, I was spending half of my time doing presentations, sometimes for organizations I had almost nothing to do with. And that was fine: even though these sometimes involved very high ranking officials, in and out of Washington, DC, there was never more than twenty-five people in the room. So having pretending I was just having a one-on-one conversation wasn’t that far fetched.


I left civil service to become an actuary in my early 30’s. Working for an insurance company as a mathematician wasn’t going to involve much public speaking, I figured.

I was wrong.

It started out innocently enough: we were looking to recruit students from the local college, so they sent me as part of a team to give a recruiting pitch. One our senior actuaries (she eventually became the chief actuary) went first, then introduced me. I talked to them about how we have to go about solving problems by giving them an example to solve.

Not much to it, really.

When I walked off (we had brought along a recent graduate to bring the presentation home) she said, “you didn’t tell me you could do that.”

“Do what?”

“Speak. In public. That was incredible.”

“Sure I did. It was on my resume.”

“Well, I missed it. You’re going to be doing all of these from now on.”

Oh, goody.


A few years after this, we are in a meeting talking about a new product the company is offering. My job is handling the mathematical concepts involved, but the company CEO likes how I word things. He wants me to present the product to the sales team.

That’s about 5,000 people. In a giant hotel gathering space.

Ok, I figure. There’s no way to really say, “I’d rather not,” (a) he’s the CEO; and (b) because I know I can do it. I just need to be prepared.

So I write a speech, get it approved by all the people who matter, then memorize it. I also add an intro and a finish after having the content reviewed, because I want it to be funny, and without surprise, humor can be difficult.


The meeting is in Nashville, and I’m pacing around the gigantic hotel complex at 3:00 in the morning of the day of the speech. I had been on stage the night before: there is a teleprompter, but with my eyesight, it’s worse than useless, because it’s distracting.

It’s the middle of the night, and I’m walking miles through this hotel, doing the speech over and over, because I’m a nervous wreck.

I am mathematician. These are sales people, they do this for a living.

They are going to crucify me.

And… they’ll be looking at me. Yeesh.


I step out on stage. The room is huge, and my face is all over the room on giant screens so that people in the back of the room can see me. I am using a portable wireless mic, because part of being conversational is not being stuck behind a podium. I take a breath, then deliver my opening line.

They laugh.

Part of speaking is establishing why anyone should listen to you in the first place. To a bunch of sales people, I’m making it clear up front that I know nothing about sales, that the product was designed by a team of sales people, whose names I mention. I talk about the process. I talk about the product.

I deliver a few more laugh lines interspersed throughout the presentation. I keep getting laughs, they are staying engaged.

I deliver the final line, get the biggest laugh, applause, leave the stage.

I lived through it. I didn’t embarrass myself.

“Thank God that’s over,” I thought.


It wasn’t over, of course. A week or so later, the surveys came back from attendees of the conference. I was the most popular speaker there, in a three-day slate of speakers, including two Heisman trophy winners and a professional motivational speaker.

Oh, no. I over-toggled, as we say.


I was always a nervous wreck before speeches. The crowds varied — 3,000 was a more typical crowd — and I varied my approach a lot from speech to speech. In kind of a weird predecessor to this blog, I did one speech talking about the illness I had in my twenties, similar to some posts I’ve done out here. I went serious instead of humorous, but the reaction was just as strong. My point wasn’t about me, it was about why people need insurance and the difference we could make in people’s lives.

People loved it. But I hated giving it.

At heart, I am an introvert, and all these years later, I still really don’t like people looking at me. But I was kind of stuck.

There’s nothing stranger than being good at something you don’t like doing. Because typically, we are only good at things we like, and vice-versa.


What eventually saved me was that I changed jobs. This job never involved audiences of more than 40 or so people, typically. I would occasionally get asked to present things or speak at other company functions with bigger audiences, but never again like it was. Thankfully.

The question I have most often gotten over the years is this: “When you know you are good at it, why don’t you enjoy it?”

The implication buried in that question seems to be this: that introverts are only introverted because they are worried about what other people think. Which isn’t true at all. Introverts are introverted for the same reason cats like fish, which is: just because. It’s the way we are made.

Incidentally, I think the question is backwards. Why do extroverts enjoy crowds? That seems like a better question, since I don’t understand that attitude at all. But the answer is probably “just because,” as well.


After every presentation, I would do the same thing: as soon as I could, I would return to total solitude: my car, my hotel room, whatever was available. And I would need about 3 hours to decompress for every half hour of speaking.

I started writing poetry as a way of siphoning off the stress of working, and because the circumstances of my life made music creation more difficult than it once was. Eventually, it took on a life of its own.

However, since I don’t have to face public speaking anymore, there is less stress than they’re used to be.

And these days, we will take all of the “less stress” we can get.

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.

“… the world is new.”

“In memory yet green, in joy still felt,
The scenes of life rise sharply into view.
We triumph; Life’s disasters are undealt,
And while all else is old, the world is new.”

– Isaac Asimov


It’s 6:21 in the morning, and I’m dressed for work. I’ve been up since 3:11 am, which is not that unusual for me. I’ve done 40 minutes at the gym, watched a bunch of football highlights, put out the garbage and recycling, and read a few work emails in the last 3 hours. I normally would already be at work, but something is wrong with my car, so I’m waiting until 7 when the auto repair place opens to bring it by.

I think it would be hard for most people to imagine living my life; but then, I think it’s hard to imagine living anyone else’s life. Most of us could not have imagined that we would live the lives we have lived. This is because life is big and full of randomness, and by “randomness” I mean, things outside of our control.

Most of us authors / introverts are kind of control freaks: in our works, we can make things come out like we want them to. This is rarely true in actual life.

This time last year, I was sitting beside my mother’s hospice bed in Green Valley, Arizona. The almost three weeks I spent there are a part of me now. My mother’s view of life was that we are all just links in the chain: she had seen her parents pass, and they had seen theirs, and so on.

I think seeing her three children made it easier for her at the end (we were taking turns, several weeks at a time). She said to me, at the end of a day when she’d mostly slept, “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I grew up near the beach in Northwest Florida, the youngest of her three kids. We still have photos of a time my parents took us out to the beach in the fall, just to take pictures.

And yes, it was warm enough to go barefooted. I was, I believe, 6 or 7 years old.

My mother’s journey took her from upstate New York all over the world. My mother-in-law, who lives in town and is ninety-one years old, was born here after her family fled Russia/Poland to escape antisemitism. She’s lived a life impossible to imagine, although I ask her about it every chance I get.

Life is a great chain, I think: we are all connected, both back through our ancestors and to each other. But each link is still different, with unique memories and experiences.

And while we can’t fully imagine each other’s lives, it’s worth trying.

Joy and Discovery

Every weekend that I can, I go out for many-hours-long random drives in the countryside surrounding the city we live in. I do it just to see what I can discover. I love going down roads I’ve never been on, seeing towns or fields I’ve never seen. It’s pure joy for me.

Looking back on my life, I realize that every single joy I’ve ever experienced has, in some way, been intertwined with an act of discovering. We are born with a desire to discover. You see it, easily, in small children. Almost every discovery is an occasion for joy, and they want to do it, constantly.
So I got to thinking – how do we lose it? How do we lose our desire to discover?

Well, first of all, many people don’t. They continue to want to explore – new things, new places, new people, new ideas, even new music. My parents were like that, well into retirement years.

Still, many people do lose the desire to discover. And the question remains – why?

One reason may be that many people look back on the joy of discovery and come to associate it with the thing discovered, not the act of discovering itself. We all know people like this: the best music is from when they first discovered music, the best television shows and movies are from when they first discovered particular shows or movies, and so on.

In order to bolster their viewpoint, they tend to denigrate anything not from their discovery period. All music written since (fill in the blank year) is garbage, all television since (whatever) went off the air is trash, and the like. There is hardly a YouTube comment section concerning older music, movies, or television shows that isn’t filled with these same sentiments, over and over.

Life, to me, is about discovery: people who have stopped doing it have more-or-less stopped living, which is why, I think, so many people who are stuck in the past are so miserable. We are meant to be explorers, and when we cease exploring we have relinquished something vital.

Discovery isn’t about something having to be “new”, by the way. It can be our discovery of something very old, but which is, as they say, “new to us”. As a child, I discovered that my favorite children’s mystery series of books (The Hardy Boys) had started back in the 1920’s and had since been updated, so I went in search of the older originals. It took me years, but each original I found was another discovery that brought tremendous joy.

There can also be discovery in finding new ways of looking at familiar things. As a child, I loved Warner Bros cartoons — Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, and the rest of that crew. With age, a lot of the jokes took on different meanings, as I realized that a lot of the humor was way over my head as a kid. I have talked to young parents who loved the “Toy Story” movies growing up, who see a message in the movies about the relationship of parents and children that they couldn’t detect as children. Great works of art have a tendency to be sources of perpetual discovery. And yes, I consider Toy Story and Bugs Bunny to be great works of art.

Taking this discussion away from things to people, something analogous happens. Some people (a) seek out and enjoy meeting new people; (b) seek out and enjoy meeting old people; and (c) find new discoveries in people they have known awhile. Others do none of the above, and those people tend to be pretty miserable.

I mentioned my parents earlier. While they were living, they each went through stages of physical and mental decline. At each phase, they continued to explore and discover, but had to shift how they did it to accommodate new limitations.

One particularly sad group of people — at least to me — are those who love, and have loved, exploration and discovery, but who consider themselves unable to do it due to limitations imposed by life’s vicissitudes. It is as if they tie the act of discovering to the particular power lost, and without that power, no discovery is possible. Eventually, that no doubt becomes true, but there are those who give up discovery far too soon.

Exercising our creativity, by the way, may be the ultimate act of discovery. To write, to compose, to paint, to draw, to think up new worlds, new people – this is, as all writers know, both a tremendous joy and a tremendous frustration when it isn’t working out right.

So keep looking. Keep listening. Keep learning. Keep searching. Keep creating.

Keep discovering.

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.