Friday, November 21, 2008

Snails, Puppy Dog Tails, and Other Nonsense

When I was ten, a new boy showed up at my elementary school. A rumor quickly spread that if tetherball were an Olympic event, David Emerson would be wearing a gold medal. Fascinated, I watched him beat the boys, even older boys, one by one. But.... I played tetherball every evening in my backyard with my fun-loving dad, a six-foot-four longshoreman. I challenged David to a game and beat him soundly, grinning as the rope wound tightly around the pole, like an in-your-face May Day celebration. I waited for the cheering, the high fives, the adulation of boys on the brink of puberty. It did not come. I got some looks of disgust; David got some consoling pats on the back. Following my victory, I managed to be even less popular (no easy feat given my glasses, my chubbiness, and my years of straight A's). I'd had my first experience with the mystery that is masculine behavior.

A dozen years later, lanky and tan and braless in a denim halter dress, I was serving drinks at the officers' club of a military post. No game of darts, no naming the capitols of South American countries...I'd learned my lesson. I was content to scope out the most desirable man in each new group and seduce him (although he was often a born-again Christian or the happily married father of small children). My overriding goal was that one of these chosen few would choose me...that my sense of adventure and my open heart would prove irresistible. He'd bring his fatigues, his weapon, and perhaps his memories of 'Nam to my cozy home, and we'd save each other. But, apparently, a one-night stand is kind of like winning a game of tetherball: It seldom results in unabashed admiration or lifelong devotion.

So, what is it men want? With a nod to a certain degree of male-to-male variation (lest I be accused of stereotyping), men like a clear-cut victory at work or play, an affectionate and unsuspecting mate, roomy and reliable vehicles, comfy clothes, food delivered to the door, an assortment of beverages, long-legged women (or Asian women), and fellatio. They dislike emotional overreactions, lengthy discussions of motives or memories, fussy home decor, and entree salads.

Beyond these casual observations, I have yet to crack the code. When I offer to type a man's dissertation, he prefers a home-cooked meal. When I offer a home-cooked meal, he prefers to share a joint. When I offer to share a joint, he prefers a discussion of current events. When I offer a discussion of current events, he prefers a blow job.

Despite my confusion, I love men, I love almost everything about them. I don't want them to be more like women (I've heard that feminine behavior can be puzzling, even erratic). I admire men's devotion to military units, work groups, athletic teams, prison wards. I admire their devotion to wives. (Men loves wives. Men manage to love wives more after cheating on them.) I admire their devotion to family, although if a man has a teen-aged daughter, it's best not to mention her at all, but saying "she's very sweet" (in your most sincere tone) is probably safe. I even admire men's devotion to Jesus, although I'm baffled when it enters the conversation postcoitally.

What is occasionally lacking--and, God forbid, I don't mean this as a, never that!--is devotion to me. For the most part, I don't feel that I've lost out to other women, but to everything else: graduate school, careers, friends, hobbies, cable TV, cheeseburgers, random thoughts, cloud formations, naps. At this point, any decent life coach would tell me to focus on my own path: adopt a puppy, run a marathon, visit Tuscany. But, really, it's more fun to curl up with a Costco tin of Almond Roca and think about men.

In the progression of a romantic relationship, there's a brief window when a man does not yet feel bored or disappointed. Most rosy memories are of this too-short time. He encourages you to eat French fries off his plate, even if you're not rail thin. He notices what you're wearing and says in a husky voice "How cute are you" while grazing your fingertips with his own. He's in awe that you've memorized a poem or invested in real estate. His eyes say that you're worthy of his affection and that he's ready to find your next words both witty and wise, to be cherished forever.

If you notice a woman talking about an ex-lover, and her face is flushed and her hand is at her throat or tangled in her hair, she's no doubt recalling something from this period, from the first ten minutes of a relationship.

The downhill slide is less pleasant. He might say things like "Have you ever had a gym membership?" or "I told you not to call me at home!" or "I know it's natural, sweetheart, but that doesn't mean it's appealing." You'll realize--perhaps not for the first time--that life bears no resemblance to a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie (yes, yes...daisies are the happiest flowers, and you wish you had a small bouquet to grind to a pulp beneath your stiletto heel). He suddenly seems hostile and easily irritated; he doesn't laugh at your jokes or find your tetherball story charming. He does, however, find the waitress at Olive Garden delightful. "Isn't she delightful?" he might say, and you will have no choice but to roll your eyes and wonder if you still have the receipt for that overpriced christening gown with the hand smocking.

If you notice a woman talking about an ex-lover, and her arms are crossed protectively across her chest, and her tone is both derisive and tearful, and you overhear the word "dick" even though she doesn't look like the type of woman who would use the word "dick," stop and say hi. We'll talk.

But before reminiscing leads to quiet sobs or Google or both, it's time to take a deep breath and consider this cheerful possibility: When a heterosexual woman moves past cheerleader age, and even medical-school age, she doesn't need a stable of men to adore and understand her; she needs but one. One man...single, reasonable, productive, kind. Perhaps a man who doesn't say "all-righty-then." One man who doesn't seek the holy grail of first-time sex while avoiding at all costs the friendliness and coziness of second-time sex. One man who knows when it's okay to cry, when it's okay to quit his job and write that novel, when it's okay to corner you in the bathroom and whisper something menacing, when it's okay to admire your sister's leather miniskirt (and--more importantly--when it's not). And if that proves too much of a challenge, there's no shame in surrendering to the siren song of competitive tetherball.


Peggy said...

Excellent observation! You have hit the nail on the head. Do I get to be the sister in the leather miniskirt? Please please please........though I am pretty sure I have never owned one. I love reading your writing!

sally said...

Great writing. Both were fun to read, but I think I understand men even less now. And I was bad before. You are a bit of you and a bit of another and it is a really good mixture. Keep going. Sally