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Flowers for the Fellas

[Beliefnet, February 14, 2001]

It took me about 200 miles to admit that I was wrong. A few hours back up the road I had been slamming around the house, irritated that I was late leaving on a solo car trip, disorganized, frustrated, and my complaints were gradually enlarging to include anything I could think of regarding my poor husband. I didn’t know why it was all his fault, but if you gave me a minute I’d come up with something.

Of course, the most glaring crime was that he didn’t understand me.

Of course, the most salient reason was that I wasn’t making sense.

But after I’d gone a few hundred miles down the road, I was feeling, not just personal guilt, but a kind of corporate gender-based guilt. It’s not just me; a lot of the women I know have this same genius for being unreasonable. In my opinion, you guys deserve some thanks for putting up with us, and some apologies, too.

It took me a few decades to come to that conclusion. Back in my college days, I fiercely held a double conviction that was ingeniously self-refuting. First, I believed that men and women were exactly the same; and, second, I was convinced that men are jerks and women are perfect. But over the years, as I was married to a guy, then raising sons, I learned a few things that modified that opinion. I learned from raising a daughter, too, and facing things in that genetic mirror that I had comfortably ignored in my own. Here, then, is a long-overdue valentine, some flowers for the fellas.

First, I’m sorry that we get unreasonable like this when we’re upset. Your hunch that you can’t win in these situations is entirely accurate. It’s good of you to stick with us anyway. I don’t think I’d go on making lunch dates with a girl friend who treated me this way.

I appreciate that you think you ought to protect me. That, even if you’re a total stranger, if someone menaced me chances are you would automatically come to my aid. You would do that, even if it risked your life. Let’s be honest: I wouldn’t do that for you. If you think about it, that’s an extraordinary, an incomparable gift for one gender to give another. Just saying “Thanks” really doesn’t seem enough.

Along that line, I appreciate that most of the names on the war memorials are male. I know some people think that’s wrong, and that women should be in combat, but even if the armies of the future are as gender-balanced as Noah’s ark, that will always be a significant, unchangeable fact of history.

For centuries men have presumed it was their job to die to protect women and children. Do you see what this means? They presumed, took it for granted, that it is more important to save women’s lives than their own.

That was something that really struck me about “Saving Private Ryan.” It wasn’t actually to save Private Ryan that so many men dared so many feats of courage. Private Ryan was as expendable as any other private. The person they were trying to save was Private Ryan’s mother; not that her life was at stake, but they wanted to spare her the terrible grief of losing her last remaining son. Think about that; to men of that time it was obvious that no cost, not even loss of life, would be too great to spare a mother’s heart such pain. That is beautifully, touchingly gallant. I thank you, my grandmother thanks you, and my great-great-great grandmother thanks you, going back uncountable generations for similar acts of heroism that are now unknown.

I appreciate all the little courtesies that put ladies first. Twenty-five years ago I said I’d punch any guy who tried to open a door for me. I was wrong. You meant it in kindness, and I was rude not to take it that way.

In fact, I think that those little acts of courtesy build up a circle of protection around women. I think of what life is like in cultures where this doesn’t occur, where women are treated as chattel, denied property rights and freedom, cultures where wife-beating is condoned or even expected. These little chivalries and courtesies train men while they’re young to treat women gently. When women mock this, we are setting fire to an insurance policy that has been written strongly in our interest.

And I’m sorry for all the harsh jokes about men. A contest in my local paper invited war-of-the-sexes witticisms, and when the results were printed the next Sunday I read them over. I realized that there was a pattern. The ones aimed at women were all along the lines of “She sure likes chocolate!” But the ones about men could be summarized, “He’s a big boorish idiot!”

Once notice the difference there, you start noticing it you see it everywhere. In general, anti-male humor has a bitter, hostile edge lacking in even the dumbest of dumb-blonde jokes.

Yet guys repeat this banter as much as anyone else; in general, they can roll with self-deprecation a lot better than women can. I think you’re very good sports.

Along the same lines, do you notice how many TV ads and sitcoms have this plotline: stupid guy gets his comeuppance from a smart woman? Do you ever see any plot that’s the reverse? I don’t. Again, guys are good sports, comfortable laughing at themselves. But I think that there’s a cost to all this hilarity. When all we see are dumb daddies, bad daddies, and absent daddies, there isn’t much for a little boy to aspire to. Movie heroes still copy the James Bond stereotype of carefree, commitment-free womanizing, and brave, steadfast family men are few. Yet despite the lack of appreciation, countless thousands of men get up and go to work, then come home to their families, every day. Women would be wise to celebrate and praise that. This invisible heroism is the backbone of healthy community.

Not long ago I learned something about why angry women become so unreasonable. It seems that our physiology is different from men’s. Anger sets in motion a number of changes in the body, having to do with heart rate, muscular tension, and so forth. When an argument is over, the man’s system quickly returns to normal. But women’s bodies don’t, for some reason. They keep receiving the physiological signals that they are furious, even when there’s no longer something to argue about. This is what can trigger that “walk down memory lane” – she thinks, “I’m still mad about something, but I guess it’s not the thing we just finished talking about—it must be something else.” And she starts to search her memory for the reason she feels furious.

Guys, you can’t win these fights. Don’t try. And, ladies, do your best to just close your mouth and walk away, and give your system time to sort itself out.

Many years ago I was thinking about some of these things while driving my two sons to school. Though they are different from each other in personality, even in boyhood they showed in common some of the classic traits of manliness, like strength, patience, and gentleness. But it was their simple straightforwardness, their clarity, that became increasingly precious to me as their older sister launched into teen years that uncomfortably resembled my own.

So as I drove along I was feeling guilty that some day these sweet, honest boys were bound to fall into the hands of women who would be as unreasonable as we were. How can any guy prepare for that bewildering experience?

“Why is it that guys like girls, anyway?” I asked. “You know, when you grow up you’ll need to buy candy and flowers for girls, but girls don’t do the same for you. When you get engaged, that diamond ring usually goes just one way. “When there’s a noise in the middle of the night, your wife isn’t going to assume it’s her job to go downstairs and investigate. It’s assumed that that a woman has the choice of staying home with the kids or going to work, but not a lot of people think the guy should have the same choice.

“What’s more, girls are just complicated. Sometimes they get upset and say things they don’t even mean, and then get mad at you for not understanding them. Believe me, I know. So why do guys keep liking them?”

The voice of my younger son came piping from the back seat. “Mom!” he exclaimed. “It’s ‘cause they’re babes!”

Really? Is that all guys ask? They give so much, and we can make things so hard for them, but they remain happy simply because we are “babes.” I guess we really are made for each other.

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