What’s Wrong With Men? (The Latest in a Continuing Series)

We were at a birthday dinner, sitting at a round table and passing around peppery Chinese dishes. After a story about a recently retired friend who had worked at Yellowstone for the summer, one of the men leaned forward in his chair and asked a couple of questions:

Wouldn’t it be nice for all of us if we could have two or three different lifetimes so we could do everything we wanted — write more books, work at Yellowstone, climb a mountain, learn Esperanto? Wasn’t it a shame we were all limited to a short 70 or 80 years and could do so little?

Well. I know we were all supposed to chime in supportively about how that was such a great idea and how we’d really love to be a ballerina or an astrophysicist or a jockey at the Kentucky Derby, but this whole single lifespan business just got in our way. Instead, all I could say was:

Only a man could say something like that — getting hoggish about needing another lifetime. I’ve never known a woman yet who wanted more than an ordinary lifespan.

We went around the table and, sure enough, none of the women wanted to re-enlist for another 80 years. I know that didn’t exactly settle the point, but it looked like a trend to me.

Later, I talked to my husband about it. He’s one of those big-time immortality proponents, so I asked him what was wrong with men (I like to begin with neutral questions).

He seemed to think it was all about wanting to secure power and mastery and to leave a legacy behind — so what was wrong with that? Maybe men and women just defined legacies differently. Since men were less connected emotionally, maybe they were more driven to leave behind monuments and buildings and other bodies of work.

“Or maybe it just takes men longer,” I told him. “That’s why they want more lifetimes.”

Then I checked with my friend Brenda, who’s very authoritative about matters like sex differences. Also, she just retired recently, so she has plenty of time to opine about everything.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

Brenda is kind of an authority on sex differences. Anyway, she has lots of opinions.

“Men don’t give birth — that’s their problem,” Brenda said. “They’re not as involved in the life cycle, with birth and death, as we are. Maybe women are too involved — and that’s why they don’t need do-overs.”

Or maybe we’re just more tired, I sometimes think. Maybe, being more intimately involved with others than men are, women lead lives that are richer emotionally — but they deplete us. It’s what my daughter and I once tried to explain to my husband/her father and son/brother: As women, we have harder lives — but we wouldn’t trade places with them for anything.

I’m pretty sure one normal lifespan is enough for me. I’ve had a great life with people and work I love, and I’m in no hurry to leave it. But you couldn’t pay me to re-live it or start all over. In fact, I find it oddly comforting that life has its seasons. Sometimes I just don’t think men get that.

Anyway, in the midst of all this discussion, we got an email, then a phone call, from our daughter. She and her husband, they just found out, are having a baby girl. After we hung up, I looked at my husband, who had tears in his eyes.

You know, he might talk a good game about immortality and multiple lifetimes and monuments, but when it comes down to it, he and I really aren’t that different: This is the closest either of us will ever come to immortality. This is what we care about more than anything else.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about Women and Men: From Tragedy to Farce

13 comments… add one
  • Deborah Lee

    Exactly right – especially about the being tired part. I used to think I wanted to come back so I could do all the things I didn’t get a chance to do in this life. Now I’m not even interested. Enough is enough!

  • I think you’re closer to the mark when you say that it’s about a sense of seasonality – like that old song ‘Turn turn turn’ that we all used to listen to in the 60s. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted.
    My husband and I read this post together, and smiled at the end. We DO care the most about the same things. We enjoyed the way you set us up for a story about difference, and rounded us back to this.

  • Love this.

  • bonehead

    I like what Brenda said.

  • So glad to hear you are having a granddaughter. I am in love with mine. Also, wanted to add, giving birth and becoming the mother of a child adds a different dimension to the understanding of life that men, even when they are good fathers, cannot hope to comprehend.

  • Marsha Canright

    Such wonderful news. Exhilarating!

  • Funny timing…trying to understand this as well. I’m creating website from the an autobiography of the artist/playwright/producer John Wulp. He’s 87 years old. This is his how it opens…

    FOREWORD
    The wind whirls about the house. Snow comes down in great gusts. I am alone, except for my black lab, Jude. I cannot breathe. Even the most simple task exhausts me. I am desperately afraid that I am going to die and nobody will know my work.
    I lie in my bed, dreaming fantastical schemes. My plays will be done in repertory. There will be a retrospective show of my paintings. I will have a book published that will contain not only the story of my life, but my plays, my photographs, my set designs. I want it to be such a book of wonders that no one has ever seen the likes of it before. At last people will know the full range of my talents.
    I feel as though I have gone mad, and the knowledge of that only compounds the madness. I see very few people for only very brief moments of time. None of them seems to know that I have gone mad.
    I’m an old man picking obsessively through the rags and bones of my life – the few moments of triumph, the more frequent moments of failure. Why should this record be of interest to anyone? Only because I lived. Only because, in spite of my own personal demons, I have created a body of work that I am determined will survive. In spite of loneliness and confusion, I have made plays and paintings. I have built a theatre.
    (Can you believe it? I have lost a page. I am sitting right here. I haven’t moved. And yet I cannot find the missing page.)
    (Did I write it? I know I must have written it. I remember it quite clearly, and yet I don’t think I could reconstruct it. You see how totally mad I am.)
    (I cannot find the missing page! Damn! I am going stark raving out of my mind!)
    (I found it! I had thrown it in the trash can.)
    In all human relationships, I count myself a failure. I did not love my mother and father and brother. Because they wanted me to conform to a set of values that was not my own, I felt they were my enemies. I have had few close friends. I tried to love James Price, but I see clearly now that he, like my family, with all the best intentions in the world, was bent on destroying me. The destruction that my parents, especially my mother, and he left behind has hobbled me through my whole life. And all in the name of love.
    And yet here it is – a ramshackle house that is my life. I have nailed each board in place. I have set the doors in their jambs; I have put the windows in their frames. People passing by might think, “Who could live here in this eccentric mansion?” I live here. Me! I have lived a double life. I am a secretive man. I have revealed very little of what I actually felt – I must have learned this lesson from my mother. But all the while, in spite of myself, I have been building this edifice. Behold! It is mine. The old man who opens the door to receive the unknowing stranger, is bent and broken. He is enough to frighten anyone away. But come and stay a moment. Take my hand. I won’t hurt you. I have a lifetime of accumulations I would like to show you. I am so relieved to have someone to whom I can speak. A friend at last.
    No, I haven’t built a house at all! That knock on the door was the wind whirring. I am standing here watching a howling blizzard surrounded by the boards with which I hoped to build my house – my books, my paintings, my photographs, my plays. They might look like only a pile of lumber to you, but to me each one is precious. They were hand-hewn. Each painting. Each play. Precious. I have spent a life-time of hard toil accumulating them. If not me, perhaps someone else can build a house of them. I bequeath them to you.

  • I also think women take the time to focus on the things that matter like family. A lot of women give this their all and so we feel like we have lived life fully and completely. No need for a redo.

  • Stephanie

    With my luck, if I got a second life I’d come as a sewer rat or something. Sigh.

  • There’s a lot to ponder here…especially once you have a grandchild. I’d say that when that happens to me (please? boys: do you hear me!?) I will want to be here for a VERY long time to see my grandchild grow up! (on that note, so excited for you, Ruth!)

  • Yeah, I think one life should do it for me. What the others said about women being able to embrace life and focus on the important stuff.

    And I’ve already decided I don’t want to live past, say, 85 or so. My mom always used to say “just conk me over the head” at such-and-such an age. She just turned 90 and no one’s conking anyone, but I do understand what she’s saying.

  • merr

    Go, Ruth! {And hey, I’m going to be a grandmere, too!}

  • Emily

    I hope this is not true, but it sounds like he’s a person who has a lot of regrets, that he didn’t go for his dreams and goals. He wants a “do over.”

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