How could I resist when one of my favorite writers agreed to muse on my current preoccupation? Bruce Dolin, of Privilege of Parenting, is offering his take on “What makes men tick… and the women who, however painfully, love them.”
If you haven’t been reading Bruce, you’ve been missing something special. He is a creative thinker, a sumptuous writer, and dare I say it – a bit of a dreamer. Oh, but I would love to inhabit the world he encourages us to imagine!
I will add that he is also a practicing clinical psychologist who, among other things, spices his sentiments with movie mastery, peppers his prose with literary limberness, and serves up a spiritual twist for all the flavors of partner, parent, and child in each of us.
So sit, savor, and bon appétit!
What Makes Men Tick… and the Women who, however painfully, Love Them
When one is invited to a virtual literary lunch by a Wolf, and the topic is “what makes men tick?” (with the implication being an exploration of pain in the house of love, with an eye toward a balm in Gilead), one is well-advised to bring a hunter and serve him splayed open beside his gun… then my inner Little Red Riding Hood as well as my inner-babushka-wearing-Buby can all play scrabble with the Wolf, enjoy some wine and cheese and chat with passers-by about the mysteries, joys and anguish forever hunting, and being hunted, in the deep dark wood of romantic love.
Whether they know it or not, all men are really at least six or seven characters in search, not of an author, but of a loving audience. By the time you come across any given man they often have been stumbling around in a dark theater, traumatized by a show that closed on opening night, and now they distrust any audience and regale anyone who enters their haunted theater with veiled vitriol. They are also are ill-suited to sitting patiently and watching your play— irritating with their seeming ADHD-like restlessness, their vanity, their grandiosity and their dog-like pandering to the crowd, all wrapped around a core of dread that is tragic and thus as hard to watch as it is compelling in all its raw honesty.
But let’s deconstruct the theater troupe that is a man. Start by imagining your fantasy man; perhaps George Clooney, perhaps Johnny Depp, perhaps the rugged outdoorsman, the power guy or the bookish sensitive. No matter, if it’s your fantasy he suits your fancy, and best of all he’s completely in love with you and has eyes for no other.
So, here comes Mr. Right onto center stage (or even Mr. could be a little right for this afternoon), but zoom out and notice the other characters around him, half in shadow—he has a veritable entourage. Man or woman, straight or gay, if we love we are always involved with a theater troupe (and despite all protestations to the contrary, there will be drama).
Picture some cracked version of West Side Story, but instead of Sharks and Jets we have Men and Women—and in this opening number we meet “Men” who are symbolized by one man and his posse—instead of a bunch of street toughs we have the protagonist/hero/lead actor strutting his stuff on the avenue while accompanied by his girl who is impossibly sexy and madly in love with her man, even if he doesn’t know she exists (anima or soul-Self of the man), also we have the hero’s bad-news/bodyguard/dangerous friend who may also occasionally shape-shift into a scary and/or horny dog (Shadow), a playful exuberant boy who is eager for adventure but loathe to ever grow up (Puer), two Mothers (one good and one bad/the Witch), two fathers (one Great Santini shaming, the other Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird—wise, brave and human) and a couple of others too deep in shadow to make out. The man is also pushing a stroller in which there is a terrified and screaming infant not more than a few months old, but the man doesn’t seem to realize that he is pushing this stroller much less that a baby is crying inside.
Are you up for this play? Are you interested to date this cast of characters?
Perhaps the best way to love a man is to truly understand him, and so we look more closely at the lead in his first solo number: Here comes the Persona masked with everything he thinks you would want in a man — a dandy doing his Sunday best to attract you like a brightly plumed bird or antler-endowed stag. He turns you on with his bright bigness and the promise of abundant offspring (displaying whatever he has in the way of a jet, a fortune, a guitar or a big package). You fall for his tricks but you later feel that it was bait-and-switch as he farts and scratches his balls and doesn’t even seem interested to make love to you, or even to just have sex with you… once you gave up the goods, (and it wasn’t all that good for you anyway, as he is all about him, and needing you to want him, be into him, mother, affirm and heal him). This guy has the star’s dressing room, but he is a lot of work — and he probably needs therapy (or at least to realize that it’s not a one man show).
But now the lights come up on some of the supporting players… and they are more interesting than the lead, great character actors with longevity that transcends millennia.
Who we first thought was but a caricature of a woman, the man’s adoring and unseen feminine aspect, turns out to be much deeper than the man himself. She is a shape-shifter, at one moment the virgin, at the next trashy, cheap, the whore with a heart of gold; sometimes she’s reading Kierkegaard through handsome Italian glasses, sometimes she’s Kate Hepburn sporty, sometimes Audrey Hepburn waif, she’s curvaceous on Tuesday and lean and lanky on Thursday… no one can keep up with her and her beloved but obtuse man sees her most clearly when he’s gazing, unaware, into the still waters of the pond, Narcissus growing all around his pretty, clueless (but perhaps well rounded) ass.
Suddenly you are pulled up out of the audience and cast as Julie Andrews, expected to be both Mary Poppins and Maria from The Sound of Music — yet Von Trapped in a Pinter play. Or perhaps Strindberg, as here comes the fresh-faced eternal boy running up to you in shorts and knee socks, wanting to show you the toad he found, the drawing he made, the airplane model he made.
He’s sweet, but you wanted love and not to be the nanny. Alas poor Poppins, I knew her well. But this boy is the gateway to the man, for at least the man knows he has a boy, in fact he thinks he is a boy. If you love this boy and do not try to make him grow up, there will be a plot twist later by which the boy dies (but he dies like Wile E. Coyote in Roadrunner, eternally peeling himself back up and strapping on another Acme Rocket, poor cute fool… wise cunning trickster). The boy must die for the true man to be born, but if you try to speed the plow on the man’s development you are the Black Widow and he will fight you or flight from you.
Still want to date this man? I told you there would be drama.
Oh, and now comes the snaky, snarling, bad-ass Shadow, the Black Hat riding alone, looking for whiskey and a whore; the mean low-down loner who is the hero’s secret best friend—the bad influence and either tormentor, or perhaps body-guard, to the slightly vapid front-man you have fallen for, the hollow man fronting this entire motley troupe of characters.
Truth is, you must have empathy for this devil, for he is the most misunderstood part of the whole company—and if you make it past the testing and the suspicion (for as a woman, you are automatically placed in the file of emasculating and castrating femme fatales, engulfing mothers and/or gold-diggers until proven otherwise, generally after a voyage resembling The African Queen) you are in – BFF. Nevertheless, if you can cozy up to this sometimes unshaven and sometimes rather dapper dark figure you will find that he’s the best lover of the bunch, a man who walks with a limp and knows just where your tender spots are. He is perhaps Crown and while he must see that you’re with Porgy, now and forever, you also get to live with Crown, as individuated love is Big Love (at the romantic end of the play where you fall into bed with your fully understood man, you can learn what beastly sexy gifts Young Frankenstein gave your man in exchange for his old brain J).
Of course you’re also always dealing with the mommies, good and bad—and you must support your man to love his inner mother(s)—to neither devalue nor idealize them, to not overly try to please nor fear them—to see them as a part of himself… and as a part of the big messy family you become when you unpack your baggage in a relationship. When in doubt—smile and clap for his whole cast.
If you can accept the man the universe brings you, you have ten tickets to paradise—ample fare to carry two incarnate souls across the river to the happily-at-least-for-now side of things.
But don’t kid yourself, in the boat just behind you are nine other parts of your own psyche along with the desperate wish that your man will love each and every one. Perhaps if you love them, you get to know them, you let them co-star with you in the show of private bedroom dancing and shower singing, lovingly nurturing your own baby, your own inner masculine, your own sexy Shadow… maybe you will heal your fear and shame, come to lovingly savor your own company and learn truly how to love bravely and generously… and even, perhaps, show your man how it’s done.
As they used to say at my kid’s preschool: You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Thus the road to enlightenment is easy if we are not picky, and our lives are full of love and wonder and sensuality — and we are terribly together in all our confusion, loneliness, fear and feelings of shame, and we are equally together in playful love, joy and exploration — and in a consciousness growing like some Georgia O’Keeffe blossom, better late than never.
Here’s to gentle good-daddy and good-mommy hugs for all of us so that we might get to flex our full muscles and sing our full songs and realize that the same divine poet who wrote every man with all his complexity and contradictory-ness also wrote each of us, man and woman alike—and moreover that mysterious poet wrote the whole damn play we call reality.
So, accept your casting and play the hell out of your role. The audience will root for you and, if it’s your karma in this act of the production, you shall surely find love and even know what to do with it.