Monday, May 5, 2008


John brought this hot young thing home from a date. It was a tough time for John having just gone through an acrimonious divorce from a fifteen year marriage that had turned sour and even more than that, it had turned mean. John, 41, was smugly convinced he was still the man he used to be. Until—it hit.

Despite a persistent (and even valiant) attempt, he couldn't perform no matter how hard he tried. The hottie just looked at him as if he were an archeological fossil. For the first time in his life, his youth, his virility, his very ability was suddenly in question. Never mind that a few drinks might have been playing a role. He rolled over, humiliated. What was next--balding, incontinence, memory loss, or worse, a life without sex? Regardless of how well adjusted a guy might think he is, the day will come when he abruptly awakens to what he once was and will likely never be again. This midlife thing isn't a threshold you cross; it's a dark hall down which you take a walk. And along the way are doors behind which (you think) wild parties roar. There's the bash for guys with trophy wives, the blast for men with new hair, and the tailgate for those who just bought Porsches. The urge to turn a knob and enter is irrepressible.

Some friends will advise that he grow up, but to no avail--he feels driven to act in ways that can be totally disruptive of life. The reasons why are both simple and complex. Instead of growing up, he gives in to temptation, and does all the radical, seemingly stupid things men typically do in an effort to find answers and youth. From driving a sports car to quitting his job to dating someone half his age.

From an evolutionary perspective, men have two basic needs: One is to survive; the other is to reproduce. And of the two, reproduction screams louder. Believe it or not, if there's a chance he can have sex, even if it means putting his life at risk, most guys will go for the sex. His genes care more about vaulting into the next generation than they do about whether he lives another week. So it makes sense to look as good as possible. And if the hair is going gray and/or thinning, the guy who never stepped foot in a beauty salon is going there for hair color, or doing comb overs. He may even go for hair transplants.

Now, he wants toys to attract the hotties. So he buys a sports car, or a Jet Ski, or some other bit of flash. He justifies the expense as a harmless reward for years of sacrifice and service, but on a deeper level it marks the start of a search.
The new 450-horsepower Porsche 911 Turbo gets a real thumbs up. Women notice a guy driving a $150,000 automobile. But there's a blind spot. From his position in the driver's seat, he doesn’t see that they're noticing the car first, and then what it represents: power, wealth, and significance. He doesn’t care. When he’s tooling around, he’s on a high and doesn’t realize that it’s not about him.

If the guy is still married, the urge to cheat is heightened. As men age, the hormone levels shift, which means they have a higher estrogen-to-testosterone ratio. Subsequently, they grow softer and more sensitive--essentially more feminine. At the same time, women of that age have a higher testosterone-to-estrogen ratio. They grow tougher and more empowered, and even sexier, but the midlife crisis prevents hubby from noticing. So husbands and wives at this point in their lives are often moving in different directions. As a result, the time is ripe for infidelity and breakup. At precisely the period when men are desiring more attention and respect, their rejected partners are typically giving them less, so they often find another woman.

John made the break. He divorced the fat wife who, on a good day, treated him like a piece of furniture. Here’s some of John’s story: “Jennifer is a 24-year-old, blue-eyed blonde who nannies for a friend and his wife. She's aware of my age. The night before our "date," I trimmed my ear hair and watched 2 hours of MTV. Jennifer smiled when she met me. I felt my heart flutter (or it could have been arrhythmia). Over champagne and hors d'oeuvres at the Blue Ridge Grill, she let it slip that her father is 45. During the main course, there were extended moments of awkward silence during which I felt like a bumbling adolescent. And after dessert, she took my arm and rested her head on my shoulder. She felt so soft and new, like a fresh bloom. I resisted looking into her eyes for fear of what I might find, not in her but in me. This is dangerous. Unless you are so fed up with your life that you're willing to risk losing it, don't go here. I took Jennifer home, not totally without relief. There was no parting hug, no kiss, no mention of the future--on purpose. She said she'd had fun, but I didn't even want to hear that. Such a woman can either make you forget your age entirely or create a true crisis.

Introspection was next on the agenda. That I’d lived all these years and somehow missed the point. Deep down, I knew sports cars and young hotties weren’t the answer.

I sought out two Tibetan lamas and asked them three questions:
(1) If change is good, why do I resist it?
(2) Why can't I ever seem to be satisfied?
(3) Why am I here?

According to them, all my questions have the same answer. My fear, my restlessness, my quest for something deeper is a result of not knowing who I am. To meet this man, they recommend I check in with myself for 5 minutes every day (just as I do with voice and e-mail) and ask myself two questions:

(1) What have I done today that was meaningful?
(2) What meaningful change do I intend to make in my life tomorrow?

If I practice this daily, these wise men contend, I'll no longer find life so troublesome."

Men nowadays live by an ethic of constant improvement. But at middle age, many men see themselves stagnating. The baby-boom generation has been socialized to keep working really hard and to keep starting over. If they’re not starting something new, they often feel they’re not achieving. Compounding this is the fact that by midlife many men have already achieved what took their fathers an entire lifetime. When what you want is already in hand, why continue to pretend?

Half of the mid life man says suck it up, quit complaining, and put in another 20 years of a dead marriage or a dead job or both. But the other half insists on getting out before numbness sets in and all energy is sapped. So there is this conflict to keep things in perspective, be grateful for what life has given thus far and be satisfied. The other half says there is so much more but that means taking risk. The logical side says play it safe. The adventurous side says go for it. The world is out there and it holds so much promise.

Two weeks later, John had a date with Angie, age 48, a paralegal who had one college age son. They went to dinner and spent two hours talking and laughing and never ran out of things to say to each other. She liked the same music John liked, read similar books, lived through the same times. All that made for a comfort level John didn’t have with the sweet young thing. He knew he could meet Angie's expectations. There was never a moment of boredom or indifference. Amazingly, Angie was energizing, youth-restoring, and made John feel happy to be alive. His next goal was to deal with the two questions the Tibetan monks offered to him in his quest for the meaning of it all. And he was ready to do it.

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