Saturday, October 31, 2009

Childlessness, Part 2, or: My Chat with Charlie Darwin

Like every kid, I’d heard of Darwin by junior high school: “survival of the fittest” and all that. But he and I didn’t really meet until college, in Evolutionary Biology class, and we bumped heads. I got a D.
The prof and the teaching assistant kept saying, “nature prefers” by way of explaining how evolution works. Nature prefers the orange salamandar … Nature prefers the bird who lays the hardest shells … Nature prefers the cute puppy over the ugly one.

This anthropomorphization of nature threw me. It wasn’t until the end of the semester – just before the final exam – that I realized what these scientists meant. Nature didn’t really prefer anything. “Nature prefers” was a short hand to describe the process by which critters evolve. You’ve got two mulie bucks in Montana. One is born all white, a cool-looking ghost deer; the other is camouflaged. Camo deer outruns hunters for ten seasons, impregnates half a dozen does every fall, and over time the woods fill with his camouflaged kids. Meanwhile, the gorgeous albino gets spotted by every hunter from Choteau to Glendive. He dies in a blaze of gunfire before he gets to pass on his genes. Nature prefers camo-deer. Survival of the fittest.

These days, society tells me it’s okay to have married an older woman. It’s downright hip. My family sees what a wonderful woman I’ve married and tells me that I’ve found the perfect partner. And what they say is true. To paraphrase Wallace Stevens, Sheri is my companion, my fellow, my self, my solace and my delight.

But now and then Darwin whispers in my ear, reminds me that years ago I married a woman too old to bear children, and he tells me that – in evolutionary terms – something in me has failed. I am ashamed to say that I listen to him. “Nature does not prefer you,” he says. Then there is silence between us as I search for that thing that makes me an aberration, that prevents me from passing on my genes. I’m not sure what that thing is, but I’m sure of this: Charles Darwin, I reply, you never understood love.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sweet Sixteen

For my birthday this weekend, Sheri gave me eight Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, of which I gulped five (you can guess who ate the rest). Why not? It’s a shared joy, my birthday, because it means Sheri just got a year younger. Sort of.

Until the end of November, we’re no longer HimPlus17. For the time being, we’re HimPlusSIXTEEN.

The first time we celebrated my birthday, Sheri seemed giddy, as if a seventeen-year difference had been, well, cradle robbing, but a sixteen-year difference was one nobody would even notice. She had a similar reaction when I turned thirty. That meant we could tell people that I was “in my thirties” and Sheri was “in her forties.” Leave it, then, for people to guess the details. After all, the guesses have most often been wrong. My gray beard coupled with Sheri’s vitality usually leads people to think we’re a same-age couple.

Maybe, for Sheri’s birthday in November, I should shave.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The New York Times

is "Rethinking the Older Woman-Younger-Man Relationship." In an article that appears online in today's NYT, journalists wring their hands over "cougar hype" (see previous post) while sociologists are discovering what some of us have already known for a while:
[B]ehind the unleashing of cougars in pop culture is what a growing number of sociologists say is a real demographic shift, driven by new choices that women over 40 are making as they redefine the concept of a suitable mate.
The article cites a 2006 study of couples in an older woman-younger man marriage, which found "surprisingly positive attitudes among the couples."
The study, published in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, reported that the couples thought their age difference mattered more to the outside world than to them.
This news comes just in time for Michael's birthday (tomorrow), in which he turns the same age I was when we married 16 and a half years ago. I'd count us among those with "surprisingly positive attitudes," although it's probably not surprising to anyone who knows us.

Happy Birthday, Michael.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Cougars running wild

Just watched, online,  the season premier of “Cougar Town.” Where to start? Only believable line: After sex with a younger man, the character played by Courteney Cox says, “I feel like I can see colors again.” Otherwise, don’t bother. Publicity blurb says, in classic doubletalk: “A divorced single mother explores the honest truths about dating and aging.” Not exactly.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Lessons from a Younger Woman

On a sailboat, the captain plots a course. Steers. The first mate supports, assists, advises.

Sharon V. is fourteen years younger than her husband, who is sixty-nine. These days, with her agreement, he’s captain, setting the course. The time has come for him to retire and pursue his boyhood dream of circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat. When you’re sixty-nine, the final horizon looks closer, so you do these things. There’s no way to disguise that reality.

But when you’re Sharon, when you’re fifty-five, a clinical psychologist with a desire to keep working at the practice you’ve built through years of passionate dedication, agreeing to be first mate is a younger woman’s act of love.

“We’re out of sync,” she says, “and we’ve talked about it a lot. We talk about everything, we talk it to death.”

Sharon and I talked about it last weekend at a family wedding on the Jersey Shore. Lots of fun. Cupcakes, “Love Shack,” mornings with sea foam around the ankles, recollections of other weddings the family has gathered to celebrate. Sharon is married to my brother-in-law, Joe. She and I sat down and for the first time since we met some fifteen years ago we chatted about what it means to be the much-younger spouse. I learned that our mother-in-law told Sharon flat out that she was too young for her son, and I felt grateful for her pathbreaking; I’d never even noticed a disapproving glance. I learned – with no surprise – that her husband never suffered anxiety at the idea of coupling with a younger spouse as my wife did. We talked about people mistaking us for the children of our spouses (in each case, it’s happened only once), about class reunions, about the cultural generation gaps that come in such marriages. Funny that Sharon and I had never talked about all this before.

She and Joe celebrated their 25th anniversary this year. When she let him slip the ring on her finger that silver age ago, she smiled into the face of a man who was – like her –smart, widely read, and fit. An established psychologist, he first appealed to her because he could teach her things about her profession, but also about theology, and about sails and telltales, luffs and clews. She admits to having had a weakness for professor types. She was twenty-nine, he was forty-three; love and joy suggested they could be twenty-nine and forty-three forever.

“I didn’t know the age difference would become more apparent as we aged,” she says. “Physical health, stamina, cognitive speed, just small things. But they make a big difference.”

Cognitive speed. Remember, she’s a psychologist. She understands how aging changes our capabilities, how we need more time to make decisions or how we change our mind more often. As a psychologist, she can also look at the span of life and recognize how perceptions of age are sometimes a shorthand that describes what we can and can’t do. A high school freshman dates a high school junior and the years are a thrilling chasm because the older of them has a driver’s license and a job. But soon that separation collapses, and three years is no difference at all. Ten isn’t even so bad when you can both make children and the money to feed and shelter them. And while fourteen might be worth a second thought, it’s not so important when you’re both working and healthy and dancing late into the night. And if you are young and ignorant with love, one thing you can’t do is chart the decades to come. You know only that the person beside you is the one you’d choose to be at your side when you face Atlantic gales or Pacific sun. If you’re lucky, that’s the constant.

Because Sharon loves Joe she’ll give up a practice she’s built for a quarter century and say goodbye to patients she still wants to help. Joe and Sharon will sell the house they’ve shared. She’ll fret a bit about what might happen to them as they sail, whether they’re still capable of such an adventure at their ages. And she’ll take her time to think about how she might reinvent herself upon her return when Joe will be in his mid-70s and she’ll be on the verge of Social Security. For now, maybe, they can live as if they’ll always be fifty-five and sixty-nine.