The Tai Chi Master and the Old Man

I’m there almost every day when the weather is good, practicing the 24 form in the Yang style along the Charles River.  If that’s more than you want to know, let’s just say I was doing my regular half hour of tai chi practice.  I know that some people think I’m showing off out here but I like the fresh air and the space and the view of the river, and I don’t really care what other people think.

Because I practice on the lawn outside a Harvard House, you’d think I’m a student there but I’m not.  I just live and work nearby.  This is a convenient place for me and it doesn’t hurt that young ladies walk by thinking that I’m a Harvard Man.  At the very least, it’s a good conversation starter after they stop to watch.  Some of them are really turned on when I get into the Carrying the Cosmos moves or Wild Horse Separates Mane and White Crane Spreads Wings.  Can I help it?

Well, enough about me.  The reason I’m writing down this little story is because of the old man I met the other day.  He was walking along the river when, all of a sudden, he just fell down.  I couldn’t tell if he tripped or completely collapsed because he sure didn’t get up right away.  Maybe he had a heart attack or a stroke.  I don’t really know what happens to older people.  Don’t they break their hips all the time?  But I saw him fall.  It wouldn’t say much about the mindfulness I was trying to build through Tai Chi if I didn’t notice and didn’t go to see what had happened.

By the time I got there, the old man seemed to be—I don’t know—wriggling around on the ground or trying to get up.  I couldn’t tell.  He seemed to be breathing well enough, though I really don’t know what ’well enough’ is in old people.  But it made me think that it couldn’t be a heart attack or a stroke.  Or some other crazy thing that old people have.

“Are you alright,” I asked, as matter-of-factly as I could.  I didn’t want to make a big deal of it if it wasn’t justified.  I was pretty sure worrying him wouldn’t help.

He just looked at me like in a bewildered way.

“Did you hurt yourself?”

“No, no.  I’m fine.  Just a fall.  Thanks for asking.”

I felt a little silly for making a big deal of his fall but I was glad that he seemed okay.

He was looking at me strangely, though.  OK, people in this country do.  My family is from Pakistan and my skin is pretty dark.  But I don’t have an accent and I was just trying to help.  So his look bothered me and I was getting ready for something unpleasant.

“I’m fine.  Really.  You’re a kind young man.”

I didn’t know whether to believe the Old Man—about being hurt or about thinking I was a kind young man.  It’s hard not to be suspicious these days and I was a little angry at him.  Maybe he was being condescending.  Nice little immigrant boy and all that.

“Maybe I could just help you up?”

“I’m fine,” he said again, a little exasperation coming into his voice.  “You can go back to your Tai Chi.  You do it beautifully.”

I was surprised that he noticed.  Maybe a little proud, too.  Maybe a little patronized.  Here he was on the ground and he was saying nice things about me.  Who does that?

To be honest, I was still worried for the old man and didn’t know what to do.  When a middle aged White woman walked by, I asked her to help.  She took a look at the scene and walked away—pretty quickly, too.  I noticed that the old man smiled.

“Why are you smiling,” I asked.

“Because she looked frightened.  Here we are, an old man and a gentle young man and she’s frightened.  It’s a terrible commentary on our society, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I agreed but I still wasn’t ready to join with the old man.  And he was still down on the ground.  “Why won’t you let me help you up?”

“That’s a good question young man—by the way, what’s your name?  I know I’m being silly but I’m an independent cuss.  I’m embarrassed that I fell, and I can’t believe that I’m having trouble with something as simple as standing up.”

In spite of myself, I was beginning to like the old guy.  With some effort, I asked him what I could do.  Maybe I was acting a little less condescending by this time.

“Okay,” I began. “You’re the boss.  Name it.  Is there something I can do or would you like me to leave you alone?”

“Now you’re talking,” he responded, with some brio.  “Give me a hand.  Then let’s go over to where you were working out, and you can show me some of your moves—the simpler kind.”

Now that surprised me.  I didn’t think he could perform any part of the Form but I loved his asking.  We worked at some moves for at least a half hour before he thanked me and continued his walk along the river.

 

 

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He’s 80, She’s 70: Notes on Aging as Couples

I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly.  The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined.  As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.

Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation.  We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties.  We are in our sixties and seventies.  It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate.  Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends.  She’s way ahead of me.  I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities.  The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.

What do we see in our older friends?  In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses.  There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating.  There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly.  These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment.  “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends.  “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband.  “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him.  She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.

The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront.  Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment.  Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying.  Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.

For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting.  First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.

With time, passivity can set in.  At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls.  Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please.  They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing.   Death looms just over the horizon.

Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding.  For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives.  For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”

Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers.  But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned.  I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future.  And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands.  To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.

Still, the women need to speak.  They need this gathering of information and commiseration.  They need the companionship now and the promise of later support.  Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =

Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another.  Here I want to be careful.  People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity.  Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin.  In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.

  • Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
  • This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
  • His pride is hurt.  He own fears have been articulated.  He gets defensive.
  • She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
  • He explodes or distances himself or both.

Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline.  In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact.  They may see decline where it isn’t.  They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them.  Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic.  He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.

Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:

  • The more he declines, the more she worries
  • The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide.  When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
  • When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been.  In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty.  “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask.  When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
  • He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged.  That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence.  In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
  • Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
  • His fears are also confirmed…
  • And so it goes.

And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy.  I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions.  Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms?  Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once.  Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?

Maybe we can.  I believe we can.  That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it.  You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.

 

 

A Reluctant Hero

The Old Man was walking the city streets when he came upon a fight between two toughs, flashing knives and sinister smiles.  His instinct was to cross the street and give a wide berth.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  He saw a few teenagers who were witnessing the fight from a safe distance, but there were no cops in sight.

So the Old Man yelled at the combatants.

“Hey, guys, what the hell are you doing?”

No one seemed to hear him, neither the toughs nor the gathering audience of passers by.  So he took a few steps forward—not too many; he wasn’t an idiot—and tried again.

“Guys, stop that shit!  You’re both going to get hurt.”

That got their attention.  And as they turned his way, they each took a step back from each other for safety’s sake.

“Fuck you,” said the one in the denim jacket.

“Maybe you wanna get hurt, yourself, old man” said the one with the navy blue watch cap.

“Wrong,” said the Old Man, now that his nerves were strangely beginning to settle.  “I don’t want anyone to get hurt.  Why don’t you both go your own ways.”

The old man had acted instinctively, without any thought about how effective he might be or what they were fighting about.  In fact, he could care less about the content of the drama.  A moment later, though, he came to his senses and realized that he had done something stupid.  He couldn’t wait to get away from the growing crowd.

But now everyone was looking at him, waiting for his next move.  And some of the teenagers were taking pictures with their iphones.

The toughs were looking around at the gathering gawkers and seemed thoroughly confused.  They turned back to each other, trying to regain their fierceness but it had fled.  They looked like creased and deflated balloons.  The guy in the watch cap turned and ran down a nearby alley.  The other, like a stage actor, pulled himself together, smiled broadly and bowed.  Then he, too, left, but with a slow and defiant dignity.  The crowd, now about 30 people, applauded.  For a moment, he turned back, smiled and bowed again, then walked off.

This left the old man alone on the stage.  The audience remained ready for more action and ferociously snapped pictures to commemorate the event.  He looked around, waiting for someone to tell him what to do. He would have loved to take a bow just like the thug but the gesture was simply beyond him, and he walked off with as little fanfare as he could muster.

And that was the beginning of the Old Man’s 30 seconds of celebrity.  The photos taken by the teenagers quickly found their way to their Facebook pages, the video that one of them had managed went viral on YouTube.  That’s where the Old Man’s 15 year old grandson found it and sent it along to the family.  From the family, snapshots and video began their rounds to friends and relatives.  The “like” notices barreled onto the Old Man’s computer screen.  Comments, too.  Days and days of this drained his capacity for witty, ironic responses.

Just as the event seem to have run its course, an enterprising local TV producer who was having a slow day, or a slow week, decided to feature the video on Channel 21 in Boston.

He called the Old Man that evening.

“Is this Sam Hoffman?”

“Yes, who’s this?”

“My name is Sean Keegan.  I work with WQTB—that’s Channel 21—and I’ve got a video of you calling out some punks with knives.  Do I have the right person?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I said: I have a video tape of you talking down some violent men.  Was that you?”

“I guess so, but why are you calling?”

“I’d like to interview you.  We don’t have enough people standing up for others in our city.”

“I wasn’t standing up for others.  As far as I knew I was alone.  I just saw some guys fighting and told them to stop.  And they stopped.”

The Old Man, who had, since the incident, grown a little proud of himself, was nevertheless determined to exhibit the same modesty that he had learned on the basketball court as a kid.  The cheerleaders might cheer—“Sammy, Sammy, he’s our man; if he can’t do it, no one can!” — but his job, no matter how bursting he was with pride, was to scowl, as though no one should notice, and run as fast as he could back to the action and his teammates.

On the other hand, a very different experience had once made a big impression on him.  It was during his sophomore year in college.  A good friend and teammate on the track team invited him to come to a soccer game.  His friend was Nigerian and apparently not governed by American or WASPY rules of decorum.  During the second period, he rocketed the ball by the goal keeper—the miss may have saved his life.  Christian O’Bira was delighted and trotted off the field, chest out, clapping and smiling, smiling and clapping.  There was no arrogance in the gestures.  He didn’t even seem to be showing off.  He was just happy to have scored, happy for himself and happy for the team.  That delight became the standard to which the Old Man aspired during his entire life but with very little success.

Sean, the producer, brought the Old Man out of his reverie:  “Sure, just an ordinary thing to do.  Right Sam.  Just stop a couple of thugs in their tracks.  Just a random act of citizenship in a normal day’s work.  Come on, Sam.  I’d still like to interview you.”

The Old Man was stumped.  He wanted the admiration and he thought it was unseemly.  He was an old man.  Bragging or preening wouldn’t look good on him.  So his first tact was to resist.  He adapted a stance that he must have seen in an old, aw shucks, movie:

“Look, I was no hero and I wouldn’t try to be one.  What happened was an accident. Accidents happen. If I had thought about the situation, I would have avoided those guys.  They were terrifying.  And I’m not trying to be cute here.  I was walking along, lost in thought—no not thought, lost in a kind of reverie about a time when I was young—and don’t be smart.  The reverie had nothing to do with the incident.  I wasn’t remembering a time when I stood up to guys who were bigger than me.  I was just day dreaming.”

“That’s okay with me,” said Sean.  I’m happy to have you say that what you did was ordinary, instinctive and not courageous.”

Still in his resistant mode, the Old Man went on as if Sean hadn’t said anything.

“I’m an old man.  What would my action exemplify?  Stupidity?  Foolhardiness?  A lesson for helpless teachers, armed with guns they hate, when confronting a crazy person with an assault rifle?  Maybe you think I should take on the NRA or the US army?”  But as he went on, the Old Man realized how silly he was sounding, how intoxicated with his own rhetoric, and he stopped abruptly.

Sean saved him again: “For god’s sake, Sam. I won’t blow it out of proportion.  I just want to show the video and ask what was going through your head when you yelled at those guys.”

Now Sam could yield to the other side.  He really did want to be interviewed on television.  He might be old but he still wanted his day in the sun.  So he agreed to the interview;  but—and here he just couldn’t let go of his inhibitions—“Only if you promise not to make too big a deal of it.”

“Deal,” said Sean.

Inside, the Old Man was beginning to rehearse his Christian O’Bira-like stride to the sidelines.

A Bathing Beauty Contest for Men

It’s clear that women will continue to pursue the fight against inequality, harassment, and abuse, but it’s not yet clear that men will do their part in transforming gender relationships.  Many of us are readily convinced by the moral argument for equality.  Many comply with formal and informal rules of engagement that have been built slowly and with constant effort and struggle, over the last half century. Some of us even thrill to the feminist march towards freedom.

But mostly men’s sympathies don’t go deep enough.  Beneath the surface, there remains a wish to distance ourselves, a powerful urge to resist and even a rage that we have been put upon.  Take, for instance, the demonization of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi by many of the most liberal men.  Implicitly, the same tendency to demonize is played out in countless households.  When pushed about their hostility to Clinton and Pelosi, men say it’s a generational thing—time for new leadership.   There’s some truth to that claim, but there’s another truth: It is hard for the men to admit or even to have access to how threatened and, subsequently, how furious we are with declining power in our homes, our workplaces, the political arena, and anywhere else that women lay claim to the legitimacy of their positions.

I believe that men need to dig deeper into the psychological foundation of their resistance in order to learn about and acknowledge their more primal fears.  It is only then that we will be able to turn around our own gender politics in the profound and trustworthy way that is necessary for cultural transformation.

There are moments when men do reach that deeper awareness.  Here’s a story about such a time.  As you’ll see, the story hinges on a male bathing beauty contest, which may seem to trivialize such important issues but, because it speaks to the archetypal way that men trivialize women, may bring home the message very clearly.

————————————————————

The year is 1971.  The story begins with an Alternate Lifestyle Workshop that I had helped organize at a retreat center on Cape Cod.  In those days, many people thought to challenge the primacy the nuclear family which, among other things, held women in their traditional place. It also isolated children with just two adults.. More loving adults would make children more secure and free them from having to fulfill the stifling demands of overly concerned parents. These ‘pioneers’ built communes, formed extended families, nurtured networks of like-minded but unrelated people to share money, shelter, and the responsibilities of child rearing.

The first day was planned as a fair of sorts.  Each of the alternative lifestyle groups had a booth and everyone at the workshop could walk around and ask: “What’s it like to live in something like that?” The discussions were animated, the laughter contagious.  People had come to party as much as to learn.

Not everyone was pleased, though.  As evening neared, three women approached me, looking very serious…or was it angry?  I thought I recognized the oldest of the three. –  Betty Friedan!  The second was Gloria Steinem.  I didn’t recognize the third woman.  Individually and collectively the women were way above my status in life; and I felt the whole Second Wave of feminism rolling in on me.

With little prelude, they said that the workshops were not addressing the most basic alternative life style: women gaining equal power, in families and elsewhere.  “No matter how you reconfigure men, women, and children in communes and the like, there remains a fundamental inequality,” said the third woman, who I think turned out to be Letty Pogrebin, one of the founders of MS Magazine.

Who could argue with their declaration?  Before I had time to contemplate their contention, they made a proposal, which sounded, to my 29 year old ears, a little like a demand.

“We would like to take over this evening’s activities.”

As they continued, I grew embarrassed.  We had neglected gender issues in the workshop design.  I didn’t share my embarrassment.  There was a matter of dignity to retain.  I simply tried to keep my cool and said:  “Sure.”  I also made an executive decision, not to even ask my boss if we could change our agenda.  Wasn’t that the manly thing to do?

“I suppose we’ve been more exotic than realistic,” I said, trying to join the spirit of their proposal.  “What do you have in mind?”

“Leave it to us,” said Betty, who seemed to be in charge.

“I’d appreciate knowing some of what you’re doing,” I countered.  I did have responsibilities, after all.

“Fair enough, “ Betty continued. “We’ll be conducting a series of role plays to help everyone understand the power of male dominance in our society.”

I worried that the image of dominance might seem extreme to workshop participants and make them uncomfortable. I was well acquainted with role play and psychodrama.  They were psychotherapy techniques that helped people release and redirect long suppressed feelings.  But this wasn’t a group therapy meeting and I worried that matters could get out of hand.  Since my boss was nowhere to be found, though, I mostly listened, and then complied.

“I’m with you” I said, trying to sound like a co-conspirator in this revolutionary moment.

After everyone gathered that evening, Betty, Gloria, and Letty walked to the center of the room—they had insisted that there was no need for me to introduce them—to describe the evening.  Instantly, the three women had everyone’s ear.  For a bunch of experimental people, it seemed to me that the participants were very passive.

They began by describing a broad feminist agenda – fair enough, and nothing that these progressive individuals hadn’t heard before,  It was also mercifully brief.  Then they announced that they would be facilitating a series of activities that, in small ways, promoted that agenda, and launched into their program.  The first activity was an old fashioned Sadie Hawkins dance.  That was fun and made no one very nervous. Indeed, many women, and men too, seemed delighted by what some later said reminded them of elementary school.

The second exercise intensified matters.  The crowd was divided into groups of five for discussion of several key topics.  In each group, a woman was put in charge of leading the conversation, following prompts on note cards that had been distributed to her. The men were instructed simply to fall in with their group leaders’ “program” — no questions asked. The themes under discussion were framed as a series of questions, each of which proposed solutions to the longstanding dominance of men in all aspects of life: What if only women were now allowed to managed household finances?  What if women were responsible for initiating sex? What if, for the next 25 years, only women were allowed to run for political office? The discussion that followed produced some, but no unbearable, friction and some timid objections from the men.  I could sense the tension rising in the room, but we were still operating on a rational level and the feelings were manageable.

The next exercise had women lead the men through a series of callisthenic exercises.  “Do this!”  “Do that!”  “Jump!”  “Fall down!”  This activity went on for a while.  The idea was for men to experience grinding, repetitive powerlessness.  Discussion followed as the atmosphere heated up.

The final exercise was a male bathing beauty contest. The women in charge began by building a platform on which they would stand.  They wanted to be high above the male contestants.  Then they ordered the men to strip down to their underwear.  “Yes, everything but that one item off!”  At this point, all but a few of the men hesitated.  Some initially refused and stepped to the side, saying they hadn’t agreed to this when they had signed up for the retreat.  It seemed exploitative.  They didn’t like being pushed around.  Others slinked off; these guys were quiet and slightly embarrassed, disappearing into themselves. But in the end, all the men complied, many expressing to me later that it would have been even more cowardly to refuse.

I too considered staying out; I told myself that as one of the retreat organizers, I should. You never knew when my services—and a level head—might be required.  I didn’t announce this, I just stood to the side.  “Uh Uh,” said Gloria Steinem.  “Everyone participates.  You’re not exempt from social conditioning and you’re not exempt from learning.”  I couldn’t argue the point and joined in, despite my misgivings.

Each man was required to take the long walk from the beginning of the line towards and past the podium, where the women stood in judgment.  Some of their judgment was kind:  “Nice legs… good shoulders” and so forth.  Most of the comments were less kind.  “Ugh, what a hairy body… skinny ass… sunken chest… You need to get some exercise in… Is that the best you’ve got?”  Over time, the commentary grew cruder, louder, and more boisterous.  The women were having fun.  Each of us walked that long runway by ourselves.  We were lonely and frightened and angry—without a legitimate target for our anger.

The judges didn’t just hoot and holler.  They also rated each of us, from 10, which is the best, to 1, which is dismal.  As you might imagine, none of the men rated anything above about a 3, maybe a 4.  There were no passing grades.

That was hard.  But it was at least as hard when Betty Friedan announced that the men would have to talk openly about their feelings.  “What did it feel like to walk by us and be evaluated?  What did you think of your grades?  Do you know that this is how you treat us, more or less, every day?”  As we men spoke, the tone became more like confessing to crimes than confiding our insecurities.

——————————————————

The workshop cracked the shell of civility.  That evening the men didn’t seem to need long lectures about inequality and its impact.  They felt it and, for a moment, they couldn’t run away. What they did with those lessons, I don’t know.  Time would tell and I’m sorry that I didn’t, with the perspective of time, have the opportunity to ask.

But now, more than 45 years later, I can distill a few lessons.  I think we could be alert to moments like this—they do arise—and take advantage of them. At such times, we can talk at a depth not always attainable in regular conversation.

In addition, we men can tell stories about times when the shell was broken and our feelings made available.  Maybe we can talk among small gatherings of just men, maybe we can dare to talk among men and women.  At such times, we can ask one another:  “How did you, how could you, how might you respond to these and other challenges to your manhood?” We can ask ourselves to skip our declarations of agreement and alliance with the feminist agenda.  What’s underneath the agreement?  How hard has it been to fall in with it, and how far do you still have to go to come to terms with it?  We need to speed our way.