My dear Hobson,
Given your exasperated response to my advice on making big bucks in the Land of O (“Surviving the Budget Crisis,” Correspondence, March), I conclude that your university taught you to appreciate the literary tools of sarcasm, sardonic humor, hyperbole, and irony. Points to you, nephew: You have acquired a carpenter’s box with which to approach American politics, both now and in the future.
In your latest e-mail you have migrated from the barnyard of politics to the kingdom of the heart. You write that your girlfriend recently judged you deficient in communication skills. You took offense, severed your ties, and left her in tears. Hindsight has left you wondering whether you’ve made a mistake. You write that you may love Magnolia after all—or “Mags,” as you affectionately call her.
Magnolia? God’s breath, boy, what sort of name is that? Have you selected some ghastly pseudonym to disguise the young woman’s identify? Please reassure your distraught uncle that “Mags” is not a mask for that pleasingly plump—another literary term, a euphemism—Chi Omega from Charleston whom you brought to the Thanksgiving table two years ago. That young lady (euphemism number two), who put a great dent in my supply of Maker’s Mark, who sneered at the Hemingway volumes on my bookshelves, who threatened to emasculate the poor turkey with the carving knife—she still appears from time to time in my nightmares. Though your inebriated companion was ignorant of the anatomy of an oven-baked turkey, I still remember the glint in her eye as she passed that blade of steel above the crystal. If indeed you have fallen for that South Carolina virago, then I can only advise you to undertake some less arduous venture. According to a recent article in Vanity Fair, the French Foreign Legion is still enlisting recruits.
Your solicitation of advice both flatters and astonishes me. If you are thinking I might be of service from having dated a few women in the years since your aunt died, you would be wrong. Women in their 50’s differ greatly from women in their 20’s. Nearly all of the women I have dated are divorcées. Most of them have grown children. This passage of time has shaped these older women in unique ways, yet they do possess one commonality not found among your own set. Nearly all of them have traveled a via dolorosa as yet unimagined by your female contemporaries. The trials and disappointments of their arduous journey have transformed most of these women, at least by my lights, into an omnium gatherum best described, in the words of one writer, as “crazy ladies.”
Let me explain. Unlike men—who, as you know, are promised nothing at age 21 but a life of “blood, sweat, toil, and tears”—these older women came of age during the feminist and sexual revolutions. Parents, mentors, teachers, and the media drummed into these then-young girls the idea that they could have it all: a prestigious job, a wonderful and loving husband, children who adored them, a beautiful home. When they find themselves living alone at age 50—their husband gone off with some bimbo, their children flown from the nest, the nest itself often lost to a bad mortgage—many of these women become bitter or wary of love. They exacerbate their misery by watching romantic movies; they join online dating sites; they look for a “soul mate.” But so poisoned are they by the strange brew of feminism, early illusions, sentimental romance, and the tragedies of their own lives that their chances of finding love and happiness are almost nil.
Despite my limitations, however, I may still help you in some small way, for I have a young friend, Abigail, with whom I exchange war stories on dating and relationships. Abigail is 21, two years your junior, a bright, lovely girl as confused by the behavior of young men as you are by the behavior of young women. Like you, she has become disillusioned by dating and by the opposite sex. Indeed, the most frequently used words in her lexicon for her male contemporaries are “crude, immature, arrogant, and brutish.” Many of the ideas expressed below come from my conversations with Abigail.
How did we come to such an impasse of misapprehension between the sexes? First up in the docket for crimes against romance and real human feeling is our culture. Forty years of erotomania have wrecked relations between men and women. Oh, the old dreams remain: Many young men still desire a woman they can love, protect, and idealize, and, believe it or not, many young women, whatever they may say in public, still dream of a knight on a white horse who will adore them. Yet the reality is that many 20-something women either become promiscuous or, more commonly, believe themselves superior to men in all ways, while young men have grown cruder, more boorish, and less interested in matrimony. Both sexes of the Millennial generation were raised in a swamp of venery, a bog miasmatic with obscene TV programs and films, Facebook revelations, and internet pornography. Just this evening, for example, while on the machine at the Y, undergoing my usual 45 minutes of pain and perspiration, I was flipping through the aforesaid Vanity Fair, which I’d plucked from the magazine rack, when I came across photos of a naked woman, Kate Moss, who is apparently some hotshot—that is word play, my boy—in the fashion world. There she was, naked as the day she was born, though considerably enlarged, and there I was, trapped into staring at her like some dirty old man. Other impressions from that magazine included dozens of advertisements featuring voluptuous women and articles in which everyone from Elmore Leonard to Ian McKellen happily discussed their sex lives. Does anyone else but me find such revelation ridiculous? Has discretion become as dead as honor?
Hand in hand with this destruction of romance goes the destruction of manners. When dating, men and women scarcely know how to behave around each other. Recently the mother of two teenaged girls told me that boys don’t know how to treat girls anymore. They weren’t trained at home to respect females, she said. I agreed with her, but I then asked what instructions she had relayed to her daughters regarding the treatment of men. She goggled, then replied that the thought had never occurred to her. For years, you see, mothers have neglected teaching their daughters about men, except in the negative sense of avoiding sex, which is undoubtedly one reason why women from their 20’s onward must resort to self-help books like The Rules to figure out how to date or to enter into relationships.
Both sexes require lessons in basic etiquette. If you want to see the magic of punctilio at work when dealing with the opposite sex, watch the film Kate and Leopold. Leopold, a time traveler from the 19th century to the present, rises when a woman enters the room, strives to protect female virtue from thieves and philanderers, and knows the romantic power of a rooftop dinner party for two. Like other men of his class and time, Leopold understands the language of courtesy, grace, and romance.
You touch on another problem when you write of failed communications, of misunderstandings. You tell me you “don’t understand women.” My dear nephew, welcome to the club. Even Sigmund Freud, the shrink of shrinks, asked with great perplexity, “What do women want?” (He also theorized that women had “penis envy,” a statement which, if delivered in public today, would bring out a bevy of knife-wielding feminists eager to prove his point.)
The emphasis on communication and understanding between the sexes these days is, as your Hibernian ancestors might have put it, a wheelbarrow load of dung. This constant insistence on “understanding” the opposite sex stems from the times in which we live, an age which regards the human person, body and soul, as a box of goods to be pried open and categorized rather than as a mystery to be treasured and slowly explored.
Here’s the thing, dear Hobson: Understanding Magnolia or any other woman is really not that important. Why, most of us can hardly understand ourselves. In his marvelous book Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, Walker Percy demonstrates that we know more about the backside of the moon than we do about our own hearts and minds. This enigma distresses those materialists who want everything catalogued, who regard emotions as complicated watches to be taken apart and put back together. For those of us who love mystery, however, this estrangement between men and women is one of the great delights of life.
Remember what I have said here: Understanding the woman who captures your heart is really not that important. Loving the woman who captures your heart is vital.
Enough. You asked for tips. Here are a few to give you a running start.
One: Watch Kate and Leopold. Read some books on etiquette. “Miss Manners” is always amusing and offers some worthwhile pointers on dating. A practice of basic manners will so startle the young women around you that they will give you a second, and even a third, look. Manners are about respect, and respect usually runs first on the list of “What Women Want From Men.” You might also delve into Pope John Paul II’s book Love and Responsibility. (How droll that in our time the most comprehensive take on love, sex, and the human person was written by an aging celibate.) Here you will find an entire philosophy on how to respect the opposite sex.
Two: Humor ranks second on that female wish list. Take yourself less seriously. Laugh a little more. Avoid cynicism or sexual jokes. Bring a smile to a woman’s lips, bring her laughter, and you will be well on your way to winning her heart.
Three: Put aside the iPod, click off Facebook, and ask out the woman you wish to date, face to face. Your palms will sweat, you’ll stammer, you may even blush, but you will impress the young lady. Abigail informs me that, in the four years since she began dating, only once did a young man steel himself to ask her out face to face. All other possible suitors made their overtures by texting or by Facebook. According to Abigail, any woman would practically faint dead away if a man asked her out in person.
Four: Learn to speak with your eyes. Read Leil Lowndes’ How to Talk to Anyone, in which she tells male readers how to win a woman’s heart simply by focusing their eyes on a woman’s face. Miss Lowndes neglects to mention that a sparkle in those same eyes can cause an explosion of desire in a woman. Proof? Benjamin Franklin, old, balding, and dressed like a rustic, wooed the finest women in Paris by turning his twinkling baby blues into love magnets.
Five: Be bold. Allow yourself to fall in love. Become a romantic. Buy roses. Bring chocolates. Plan some outings rather than just “hanging out.” Quit looking for sex from women, and search for real, abiding affection. You might even try practicing chastity. Believe me, you won’t break out in boils or suffer a nervous breakdown.
Six: If you find someone to love who in turn loves you, consider marriage. Your generation is marrying later than any previous generation in American history. Experts attribute such delays to the economy, to the educational system, to the diminished importance of marriage itself. These factors may be real enough, but I believe the greatest obstacle to marriage for many is fear. Get over it. If you find someone you truly love, ask for her hand in marriage.
Whether you will listen to advice from an old coot such as I—can one be a young coot?—I do not know. Should you decide to reject my advice and delete this e-mail, I shall not be offended. Many of my ideas are, as I am well aware, dated.
With love and best wishes,
P.S. Though I am an unlikely yenta, should you desire to meet Abigail, I shall be happy to make the necessary arrangements.