In my meeting with Dr. Jamie Pennebaker at the University of Texas, we spoke about the benefits of writing. According to Jamie, the benefits come from putting mental/internal experience (feelings, thoughts, and emotions) into the structure of language. In simpler words, perhaps this may be rephrased as “talking about it makes you feel better”. In general, however, men don’t talk about it. A guy sitting on the couch watching football with his buddies and having a few cold ones, does not mention during the commercial break that recently he’s been feeling malaise and emotionally exhausted.
Men communicate using rituals of action. It’s a special sign language (often not understood by females, or by anyone at all). We tell the world how we feel by doing stuff (kind of like children, but often not as charming). In his book “Travels with Charley – in search of America”, Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck writes about his view of the changes men experience in midlife: “For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason she should inherit a baby.”
Being a midlife male means facing the choice that Steinbeck talks about. When men go through the challenges of midlife they are often encouraged by their spouse, family, and friends to open up. But opening up does not mean “going soft”. It involves rebuilding the strength that one used to have as a young man – and becoming a mensch again – inside and out. I was thinking about Steinbeck’s lifting, puling and chopping, and I realize that my experience during the past month on the road was a lot like that: strapping, tightening, leaning, checking, and cleaning the bike from a massacre of XXL Texas bugs.
Men are often compared to kids, and are said to “buy themselves a toy” when they reach midlife. As a parent, I bought my kids numerous toys, but I try to get them “educational toys” (i.e. made of wood, endorsed by a PhD and a leading parenting magazine and costs seven times as much). My advice for the ladies among us who’s partner is a “man of a certain age”: encourage him to get a toy that comes with a variety of activities. Polishing, fixing, and running errands is how your man shares his feelings 🙂