Recently I was visiting my parents-in-law with my children in the Midwest, and I discovered something about myself that I don't like to admit. The occasion for this revelation was the decision to go water skiing with my father-in-law, Don, and twelve-year-old son, Jesse. I have not gone water skiing in years, but I used to love it and be pretty good at it.
(clue #1 to what's wrong with men).
I decided to slalom (start with one ski) since that was what I used to do. After crashing and burning (or rather crashing and drowning) several times without getting up and having the handle wrenched out of my hand, I decided to humble myself and try two skis. At last I was able to get up and started to really enjoy zipping back and forth across the wake. My son was cheering and I was enjoying his pride in me.
Well, I enjoyed it for about five minutes until my forearm muscles that I hadn't used in years for much more than keyboarding started screaming for me to let go of the tow rope, and the wave of ache migrated up my arms, back and throughout the rest of my body. But, I was not willing to let go and suffer the shame of my own physical limitations and middle age body in front
of my father-in-law and especially my son.
I tried to subtly nod my head toward the dock where I thought I could gracefully stop this physical torture. My son was trying to interpret my feeble signals, but I was not willing to give the finger-across-the-neck (i.e. kill the engine) signal that would have signaled my defeat. Finally,
my son got the idea and they towed me back to the dock as I clung to the handle desperately. Finally, at the dock I let go in explosion of relief. Over the next week my hands clenched like the arthritic hands of a ninety year old, and I became a walking cripple as my chest and arms muscles went into spasm at the slightest exertion.
As I have told this story to other men--usually with a lot of humor about how much my breasts were sore--I heard numerous stories of men who finished sports games with broken bones or other tales of foolhardy heroism all to avoid the "shame of being lame." What is it about men that causes us to suffer any pain to avoid being seen as weak. I once edited a book with a
primatologist named Frans De Waal, one of the world's leading experts on apes. He told a story about an alpha male chimpanzee who was dying and was trying to hide his wounds in the jungle away from the rest of the group.
Periodically, he would come out from behind a tree, beat his chest, and show that he was still powerful, and then crawl back behind the tree to nurse his lethal wounds. I am sorry to admit that I understand this primate's motivation completely. Are his actions that different from the aging CEO who when I asked how he was feeling would always say, "Never better, never stronger," or the forty year old man who worries about his hair falling out (I finally decided against using propecia) or buys a sports car (I ultimately got a silver Passat with leather seat--given its safety rating, it was the car for the family man in midlife crisis).
After my last hoorah, my son tried to water ski. Despite several failed attempts, Jesse was unwilling to give up and finally on attempt number six, got up. We were cheering for him, and I could see the baton or tow-rope passing to another generation. I wondered whether he too inevitably would feel compelled to push himself beyond his limits to avoid the dreaded male
"shame of being lame." What if we could show our lameness to other men without shame? Certainly, I have tried to show my son where I struggle and to avoid shaming him when he struggles. I realized I was teaching him much more than water skiing. I was teaching him about how men respond to pain.Fortunately for him, when you are twelve, one's foolhardy heroism does not prevent one from brushing one's teeth or raising a glass for a week.