Science Says: Our Aging Brains are Active, Agile, and Resourceful

  • Primary references are at the end

 

Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think.  I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever.  Right?

It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself.  Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline.  The clues are obvious.  My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal.  Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system.  I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.

Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses.  Absentmindedness often heads the list.  You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there.  Then, as you leave, you generally remember.  It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three.  Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial.  And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.

Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline.   They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together.  But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline.  The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli.  I am declining.  I am declining.  Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.

Our adult children notice the lapses, too.  Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be.  But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness.  Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life.  I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature.  Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.

Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture.  You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia.  If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner.  Here are the signs.  Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.

But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time.  What does that tell me?  For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker.  My developmental course is my own.  The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.

Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age.  For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.

Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.”  By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning.  New connections and synapses keep on developing.  In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult.  In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.

OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real?  Are there ways to compensate?  Yes.  Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.

Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.”  As a matter of fact,  “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such     perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”

One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain.  Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes.  By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.”  We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.

In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities.  This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture.  Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”

The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much.  America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly.  But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves.  They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come.  So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?

When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are.  All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains.  We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google.  When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.

And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.

 

 

I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain

 

Advertisements

Reining in a Father’s Pride

Pride is strange.  The good side is obvious. With our children, for instance, our heart swells with love, admiration, belonging.  The bad side concerns ownership and a lack of humility. Who are we proud of?  Sometimes it’s ourselves, even when we say it’s about others.

A few months ago, my daughter, Jessie, invited me to join her on a trip to Florence and Rome, where she’d be giving some talks at international conferences on infant mental health, her specialty.  I have been a fan of my daughter for as long as she’s been alive and was being granted a place of honor during her march towards professional prominence.  Who wouldn’t be proud? …proud of her; proud that she trusts and enjoys me enough to share this part of her life.

What I liked best, though, was the opportunity to see her in her element.  Like other parents, I know Jessie, one to one.  I know her as a family member,—as a daughter, of course, and, through observation, as a mother and wife.  I would even say I know her as a friend.  I haven’t really known her as a professional, except at a distance, through reports and stories.  Yet she does spend 50 hours a week (I’m exaggerating downwardly here) at her work and it occupies a huge share of her mind, as well as her sense of self and fulfillment.  So there has been a missing piece.

There were 1,700 participants at the Ergife Palace Hotel in Rome, just about every one of them eagerly networking with colleagues and potential colleagues, catching up with old friends, whirling around in a wild and perpetual motion.  At the same time, I was invisible.  Of the hundred or so people to whom Jessie introduced me—“This is my Dad”—not a single person asked: “What do you do?”  Or, granting them the excuse that I looked old: “What did you do?”

But the invisibility provided me with an advantage: I could observe as an outsider; I could learn about my daughter without interjecting my own interests and, ordinarily strong—some might say, intrusive—personality.  As a result, I got a pretty good look at how Jessie spoke to audiences, how she worked a room, how she collaborated with colleagues, how she listened and learned.  Everyone seemed to like and respect her.

An easy admission: Before the trip, I was already a very proud father.  Jess had clearly grown into a highly competent, confident pro, working hard in the service of traumatized children, standing for values we shared.  So even if I struggled towards some kind of scientific objectivity in viewing Jess, I was bound to at least a little proud of her after sitting in on her world.

Sitting in the observer’s seat also gave me time to observe myself and to wonder:  What does it mean that I’m proud of my daughter?  Returning to where this essay began, there’s the good side of pride: Your heart swells.  The feeling is partly physical.  You feel enlarged.  Whatever you are observing has enhanced you, too.  And, of course, there’s something generous in being enhanced by the achievements of another.

But pride has connotations that cut the other way.  There is something narcissistic about it.  Sometimes we are proud of another because they make us feel good about ourselves.  Their achievements are partly our own.  We think that we have made our children into the people they are today.  In other words, we are, at least in part, proud of ourselves.  Not a terrible thing but maybe a little less generous than we might like.

There is something controlling about pride too.  The implication is that, at least partially, we own the success, the beauty, or the sweet personality of the people who make us proud.  If then, something in them changes, we might find ourselves embarrassed and even rejecting.  “That’s not us,” we might think.  “What made them stray?” In order to retain our pride, the other person might have to keep acting in a way that we approve.

And as many cultural and religious traditions tells us, pride touches on arrogance.  A proud person might well have an exaggerated sense of her own capabilities or act as though she were better than others.  In which case, the very act of pride is dangerous.  Thus the saying:  “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Why?  Because it reflects a self-centered attitude.

This said, I think that pride, in the best sense, is a good thing.  This kind of pride is beautifully portrayed in an article Michael Chabon wrote for GQ in 2016.  He had watched his son, Abe, grow into a teenager consumed by fashion, which confused and, in part, put his father off.  As a bar-mitzvah present, Chabon brought Abe to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris.  Instantly, Abe was in his element, gravitating to designers he idolized and attracting mature designers by his own stylish dress.  Chabon, the father, was soon bored with the shows but held on for his son.

As he prepared to leave, Abe resisted.  At first, Chabon, who would like to get home, was taken aback.  It’s not the fashions, themselves, that have provided such joy, Abe told him.  It’s the sense of being with people who ‘get’ him.  He loved being with the designers, who made him feel at home, totally engaged, affirmed.  The environment helped Abe to see himself clearly,  and, by the end of the week, Chabon saw his son clearly as well..simply and deeply. At a certain level, he’d just met Abe; and he was very proud of his son.

Chabon’s article helped me see Jessie more distinctly.  For a whole week, I watch her closely.  Sometimes I had the normal array of feelings: that I love her; that my early and regular endorsement—and occasional push—had supported her confidence and drive.

But the stronger feeling I had was how different she is from me.  How distinct, how separate.  To state the obvious, she is a researcher, who loves data and policy and changing the ways that programs interact with and support children and families.  She sometimes even deals in…RCT’s…randomized controlled trials, for those in the know.  During conference sessions, Jess was rapt when people discussed statistical measures and techniques, while my eyes glazed over, from lack of interest and total ignorance.  She thrives in building an international network of like-minded colleagues.  I’m more of a local guy.  I generally feel lost in conferences and reach my fill of people in small and large doses pretty quickly.  She’s at home with social media.  I’m a dinosaur who wished Facebook and Snapchat had never come to be.  Her laugh is hearty, mine restrained.  She’s funny; no one has ever accused me of being a comedian.  I like broad, sweeping ideas, common to philosophers and historians in the 19th century.  Jessie is more practical and deeply knowledgeable about her field, which is plenty broad itself..

One particular exchange was telling.  I mentioned that I had participated in a similar professional revolution, shifting clinical emphasis from children to whole families.  “I respect, even admire, what you and your colleagues did, Dad,” said Jessie, “but there might have been more flash than science.  No one in your day proved that their approach was effective.”  What can I say?  The truth is that I would have been impatient with the need for proof through what I would have considered boring research activities.

She wasn’t being harsh or confrontational.  Just stating her case and, for some reason, I didn’t take offense.  As the days passed and our differences were highlighted, my love and respect for this very distinct person began to supersede my feelings of pride.

As pride slipped away, a maturing sense of intimacy moved in.  I know this is a curious statement, so let me try to explain.  When you step aside, take yourself out of the equation, you begin to see that even this very close person is neither you nor not you—but her own self.  The conference experience was like being admitted to secret society, speaking an unfamiliar language. I observed her through her own eyes and through the many, varied eyes of colleagues.  I could see the 47-year old, mature, working woman. I could see the full mix of confidence and uncertainty, assertiveness and reticence.  The quirks, the intelligence, and the pure energy she gives off shone brightly.

Even as I write that sentence, I’m tempted to say (proudly) “And she’s my daughter.”  And I’d be incapable of distancing myself completely from that feeling.  But she’s not just my daughter, which is what permits me to know her and love her as she is.

Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

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.

 

 

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.