Monday, August 23, 2010

Guidelines for a HimPlus Life No. 3: Learn from Hemingway

When I was 26, I received an invitation to a fancy New England wedding. Sheri wasn’t invited – we’d only started dating – but I allowed as how I planned to attend wearing my best leather jacket and my fancy silver bolo tie. I was a rube – recently arrived from Tucson – who didn’t own a sport coat or regular necktie and who didn’t want to admit the complicated confusions of class I felt in Connecticut. I wasn’t fancy New England, but I was somebody! And if snooty New England didn’t want me and my bolo tie, the heck with it. “That silver tie cost more than two hundred bucks!” I told Sheri. “It’s fancy!”

I was acting like a child.

Poor Sheri. Older and in the midst of new love, she wanted to save me from myself, but …

It was complicated.

You can’t avoid it. Couples should help each other be better people. Isn’t that a great benefit of love? But in our case, Sheri’s effort to help me dress better could have whiplashed me right into back-to-school week at Sears, and I’m in sixth grade wanting that silky polyester disco shirt while she buys me a nice cotton jersey.

So here’s what happened. Sheri demanded I buy a sport coat and tie. It was not a matter of mothering. Her message was clear: I’m a woman, you should be a man. Grow up. Be my partner; dress like you belong with me. Recognize the requirements of occasion.

There was no condescension in her demand. If anything, there was respect. “You’re better than this,” she was saying. “Rise up, young man.” I felt ashamed, sure, that I’d reached 26 and still didn’t know how to dress for a wedding. But I didn’t feel mothered as I would have had Sheri bought me the sport coat and neck tie or even had she picked it out. She stood back as I worked with the sales clerk, offering an opinion when I glanced her way and shrugged a question. It was my show with Sheri as the audience (an audience with high expectations).

In the infinite variety of human couplings, there must be some older women/younger man romances that follow a mother-son dynamic and succeed. But I imagine most to be unsatisfying with more that fail than endure. A day or so ago I came across a “Dear John” letter Ernest Hemingway received from an older woman he hoped to marry. At the time, he was 19 and Agnes Von Kurowsky was seven years his senior. She’d nursed him through war injuries, and clearly that role played into a mixed-up dynamic in which she became both lover and mother.

In the end she wrote, “Ernie, dear boy …”

Dear boy? Addressed to Hemingway? It gets worse.

“Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart. … I am now & always will be too old, & that’s the truth, & I can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy – a kid.”

Then she tells Ernie how she’d tried to make this clear while they traveled together in Padua, but he had made it difficult because he’d “acted like a spoiled child.” But she prays he’ll “start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are. … Your friend, Aggie.”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Guidelines for a HimPlus life: No. 2: Don’t try to eat as much as he does

Now they tell me: Eating less could help you live longer. Some experts say that cutting food consumption by 15 percent — starting at age 25! — could add four and a half years to your life.

I was fairly thin when Michael and I met, and I was way past 25. Then I quit smoking and fell in love in the same week — a sure recipe for weight gain. Eating became pure pleasure again after years of being a single smoker.

Ah, the romance of freshly made pesto! The joys of chocolate! We sampled yummy sauces, fatty cheeses, cannoli, pizza, warm breads. Desserts melted in our mouths. And cheeseburgers — we ate those too. Once, early on, when he offered to bring me one at work, I ordered it with double meat, double cheese. He ate enormous amounts, which I took as permission to eat more. Food became all about celebrating. Meanwhile, my metabolism was slowing; his was not. The result was predictable. Still, I felt so young, being in love and him younger and all.

But feeling young isn’t fooling your body. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I figured out I didn’t need that second helping of pasta and was able to shed the extra pounds. Now, the only time I keep up with my younger man on the food front is when we eat Fricano’s pizza on our frequent trips to Michigan. Or when he offers me a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

So if you’re in love with a younger man and totally gobsmacked at your good fortune, remember that your mind may forget that age difference when you want that triple-layer chocolate cake with whipped cream, but your body will remember it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Guidelines for a HimPlus Life -- No. 1: Let Her Be Her Own Age

This last week we took a road trip, covering hundreds of miles of interstate over two days and one night. Lots of coffee. More than a few rest stops. We’ve done this dozens of times, as we both prefer to see America from blue highways than from blue skyways. Over all the years we’ve driven from Maryland to Montana, from Arizona to Arkansas, I’ve learned – at long last – how to travel with my wife, and anyway, now that I’m in my forties, she and I are in better sync than say, fifteen years ago. These days, when Sheri is at the wheel and she pulls into a rest area, I don’t say a word. I get out of the car and make the walk with her to the lavatories.

But when we started out on our earliest road trips, I used to get exasperated. “We just stopped!” I’d say. “We’ve only been driving two hours!” Callow, I wanted to be on the road, cruising. How would we get anywhere if we stopped so often?

Sheri, as is so often the case, understood better than I did that when there’s an age difference with your spouse or partner, there are accommodations to be made.

I can’t say for certain when it was that she first pointed to another woman across a nightclub table or a dance floor and told me “Go dance with so-and-so.” We like to dance together, and we’d enjoyed more than a few turns ourselves, but now her suggestion confused me. In my brief experience with women, I’d learned to not even look at another woman, let alone ask one to dance. Was this a test? Was I supposed to say, “I’d rather stay here with you”? She wasn’t testing me, of course. Sheri had seen how my knee bounced with the beat, how my head bobbed, and she knew that whatever it was that played loud in that club or dance hall – juke-joint blues or zydeco if we were out to hear a band, yet another “Love Shack” if we were at a wedding – made me, in my late twenties, want to dance. And Sheri, in her mid-forties, needed to catch her breath. In the years since, I’ve danced hundreds of turns with my wife, but also with other women – young and old, married and single – as Sheri rests her feet on a chair, her generous example showing me how youth and age become compatible.

The HimPlus17 List That Proves We’re Authorities

We love lists. We make them all the time. Food for our Pantry. Errands to Run. U.S. Presidents born in Ohio.

But here at HimPlus17, we’ve avoided publishing lists of the sort you find in magazines or blogs, lists such as “Ten things younger men love about older women (!)” or “Seven Things to Remember When Meeting his Mother (!)”

We’ve shunned lists because we think love and age are too complicated to be distilled into phrases, and frankly, we’d rather tell stories. But if we were smarter about building our readership, we’d make more lists. People live for lists (see: The AP College Football Top 25, Billboard’s Hot 100, and David Letterman).

Plus, when you publish lists you seem more like an authority on things (see, for example, Moses and The Ten Commandments).

We want to be authorities on something. We also want readers to be happy. So, starting this week: a HimPlus17 list that tells stories even as it offers beginning HimPlus couples a little bit of guidance. One item, once a week for five weeks. We’ll even throw in a story or two. You could call it “The HimPlus17 List That Proves We’re Authorities,” even though it might not prove anything at all. We’re going to call it “Guidelines for a HimPlus Life.”