Thoughts on women’s rights and war, on stay-at-home dads and empty nest syndrome. From someone who’s been there, done that.
I turn sixty-five in January. I’ve been in denial up until yesterday when I completed the on-line application for Medicare Part A. It was a very surreal moment. I recalled one of my mother’s friends who called it “the check-out line.”
Back in the Days of Rage in the late sixties, professional protestor, social activist and Chicago Seven alum, Abbie Hoffman, told us not to trust anyone over thirty. At eighteen and draft eligible, age sixty-five seemed impossibly old, but now here I am. Abbie Hoffman died a long time ago by his own hand. Jerry Rubin, another of the Chicago Seven, became an early investor in Apple Computer and died a multi-millionaire. Where have all the flowers gone?
When young men (and women) rose up in protest of American foreign policy in Vietnam it alienated us from our fathers, the so called “greatest generation,” who branded us as unpatriotic cowards. To our everlasting disgrace, many young people didn’t separate the soldiers from the policy makers and heaped scorn on the brave young men who died there or returned, permanently scarred, and now are mostly forgotten. We owe them better. Sometimes I think we should reinstate the draft. It would be a true litmus test for the hawkish drift that has occurred among young men today.
I was present at the birth of the modern women’s movement; the passage of Title IX. I know things are a long way from equal, but women’s advancement in all realms of American society is unprecedented. One memory stands out above all others. I entered college in 1968 with the noble intention of attending medical school. Naturally, I joined the Pre-medical Society — a group of brown- nosers trying to figure out how to optimize their chances of acceptance. At the first meeting, a brave young girl (we we were still girls and boys then) asked the dean of the medical school about the chances of a woman being accepted. His response? “Very slim.” Wow. I think nearly half the entering class of the medical school at my alma mater is women now. The male bastions of law and business have made similar strides. Women are finally breaking the glass ceiling of the corporate board room.
I was also present for the birth of the modern civil rights movement. I’m sorry to say the conversation about race hasn’t really started yet. We can’t seem to get past fulfilling the worst of each other’s stereotypes.
When people see a white haired old guy like me, they inevitably ask if I’m retired. My response is, “I didn’t have a career I could retire from.” Guys my age are retiring from long, successful careers. I never had one. Lots of tries though. I even went back and earned an MBA right before it became the red hot degree of the late 70’s. The economy was in the toilet then. We were still reeling from the fall out of largest transfer of wealth in the history of the planet, thanks to OPEC. American industry had lost its bearings. We thought we might be speaking Japanese before the end of our lives. We used to have lots of living wage jobs here. They’re gone now, and it doesn’t seem they’ll ever be back. A paradigm shift, we say in dismissive B-school jargon.
I had a loveless ten year marriage to my college girlfriend. Thankfully we didn’t have children. The winds of social change blew so hard in those days, it’s amazing that any marriage survived.
The most incredible thing that has happened in my lifetime was the space program. The sense of national excitement and purpose was so palatable. I remember sitting in the classroom listening to the broadcast of John Glen’s flight on the radio. It filled all of us with a newfound spirit of adventure. Our president called to us to be better men and “ask not what our country could do for us.” I wish we could find that spirit again. As men in the twenty-first century struggling for a sense of identity, I feel we lack a compelling vision.
Life turned markedly better for me briefly in the ’80’s when I had some promise of a career, was single again, and many of us baby boomers were trying to grab the brass ring while hoping between beds. I met a wonderful young woman, whom I eventually married. My six word biography is: “Got the girl, forgot the money.”
In 1991, just before the birth of our second child, I was out of work and decided I should try to be an at-home dad (read: he couldn’t find work.) My wife agreed. We sold our two income yuppie house and moved to a tiny house in the suburbs, where we have been encamped ever since. Six weeks into that commitment I was down at the women’s center trying to surrender. It was the most painful transition of my life. I fell into it by accident, but stayed at it by choice.
The world would be a much better place if more men stayed home with the children full time. They’d be forced to take the blinders off to a host of issues about family, community, education and even race. Just sayn’. I did my best every day, but I have to admit that on many days my best wasn’t very good. I marvel at the resilience of women who have done the job with so much more grace.
According to all the modern parenting doctrines, I was a complete failure. My boys are twenty-three and twenty now, standing at the edge of the nest, flapping their wings. They have turned into fine young men. I don’t know how it happened. I told them all the time I loved them and was proud of them. Two things I never heard from my father.
I’m in the beginning of a renaissance that many women have when the nest begins to empty, shedding old taboos like so much dead skin. I’m finding more “me” time and even indulging in long deferred ambitions, including (gasp) writing erotic romance. Recently, I joined a fitness club and hired a personal trainer hoping to get rid of my baby weight. I am all too conscious of the fact that men my age wake up feeling fine and by 5:00 PM are on a slab at the funeral home or in the nursing home tied to a wheel chair with a drool cup. It helps me appreciate each day.
I saw a recent article that says people get happier with age. I wouldn’t have thought so considering how grumpy old folks seemed to be when I was young. But it seems to be happening to me — the happiness, that is.
I guess that’s my message of hope. Like the song says, “If you don’t give up and you don’t give in, you may just be okay.”
(Lyrics from In the Living Years, Mike and the Mechanics)
Photo: Flickr/Miguel Pires da Rosa