Men who have not yet died

I want to write a little about the relationships between men and women at the senior center where I live.  And I will.  I just want to play with a couple of words first.

Words

The first word is “dominate.”  It has become popular, when there are more of one kind of thing than another, to say that the more numerous, “dominates.”  The most popular kind of pizza, probably pepperoni [1] is the “dominant” kind of pizza.  You could say that Caucasians are the “dominant” ethnic group meaning only that there are more of us than there are of any other ethnic group.  Of course, you might mean more than that.

But if “more” is what you really mean, I suggest “predominant” as the adjective form and “predominate” as the verb.

So here where I live, women predominate.  There are twice as many of them as there are of us.  There are lots of reasons why men die earlier than women and I don’t want to explore them here.  It is simply a fact that if a collection of old people—the kind of collection you would expect to find in a Continuing Care Retiarement Center (a CCRC)—there are going to be more women than men.

The rarity of men as a tension

That sets up an interesting tension.  There is a tendency to value—possibly to overvalue—rarity.  There is nothing particularly meritorious about a postage stamp of which only 100 were ever printed, yet stamp collectors lust after such stamps because there are so few of them.  Similarly, there is a tendency for a man—pretty much any man—to be valued inordinately in a setting where women predominate. [2]

There are a few ways the women could take unearned value that is accorded to men.  I have three in mind because I have experienced these three.  I’m sure there are more, but I am not sure I am eager to encounter them.  Similarly, there are a few ways the men can handle being given a level of “attention”—whether it is positive or negative will vary with the woman doing the attending—that they don’t deserve.

The problem for men

The instance of how the men might respond is easier, so I’ll start with them.  As always, the first thing to do is to know what is going on.  If you are accustomed to being treated like a 5 (on the familiar ten point scale) and suddenly are treated like an 8, you need to know that.  The second thing is to acknowledge that you don’t deserve that automatic little three point bump.  There is no reason why you have to say you don’t like it; only that, in all fairness, it is not merited.  The third thing is to decide what you are going to do with it.  It’s a windfall.  It isn’t something you deserve; it is something that happened to you.

owning a man 1There are three common kinds of responses to this kind of undeserved benefit.  One of them is really hard to do, so I will mention it first and then dismiss it.  It is experiencing these undeserved (that’s the three point bump you get for not being the predominant sex in this setting) benefits as an artifact of the system.  It isn’t about you.  It’s nice, but it comes and goes and the only thing that would be really wrong would be to try to hang onto it, rather than allowing it its own rhythm.  I note that as a possible response—difficult and rare—and I now dismiss it.

There are two more common responses.  One is deciding that this extra three points are points that you deserve in some way.  Think about it.  You are receiving a benefit and all you have to do to make it morally acceptable is to think of something about you, or about males as a category, that justifies the preferential treatment.  How hard could that be?  Our brains were built for the specific purpose of coming up with rationales like that at the drop of a hat. [3]

The other one is deciding that since you had no part in earning this bonus, it is not really yours to keep, so you invest it in those parts of the social system which really don’t get the appreciation they deserve.  That has two good outcomes.  One is that it serves as a reminder that being specially recognized is nice—except, as you will see below, when it is not—but it is not a fair assessment.  It really isn’t about you.  The other is that it automatically reinvests the windfall into social capital.

The problem for women

Now let’s look at the women’s side.  They see the same thing I see.  Men are accorded positive evaluations they do not deserve.  All these guys being treated as if they were 8’s when any sober assessment would put them at 5 at the most.  It just isn’t fair.

No.  It isn’t.  They are right.  Now there is the question of how to respond to it and now I get to tell the stories I have been holding back, but which are the real reason I wanted to write this particular essay.

Story #1

Very shortly after I moved here, I had a conversation with a neighbor who lives just down the hall.  One of the reasons Bette and I chose Holladay Park Plaza (HPP) was that  the people who lived there were friendly.  With this in mind, I gave my new neighbor the example that I had attended a group for the second time and was pleased and surprised that everyone remembered my name.

“Of course they did,” she snapped.  “You’re a man.”

I was unprepared for the venom, certainly, but  in addition to that, I didn’t know how toowning a man 2 assess the charge.  I get that now.  I am the recipient of strokes I don’t deserve.  The reason I got these strokes has nothing to do with who I am, I as a person, but can be attributed only to my sexual identity and it isn’t fair.  All that is true and this neighbor resented it.  None of the illustrations here are supposed to represent the people; only the sentiments that came to mind as I told the stories.

Story #2

On the other hand, there are women here who are not attracted to the fairness or unfairness that grows out of the disproportion between the number of women and the number of men.  The just don’t pay any attention to it.

I will use as an example, the remark of a woman I was having dinner with one night.  “I like men,” she said.  “I just don’t want to own one.”  And we both laughed.  She is a woman whose husband died some years ago.  That’s why “owning one” was funny.  She is still attracted to the match of styles and perspectives that men and women bring to a relationship.  She takes for what they are worth, the little frictions and enjoyments that belong to those conversations and that’s the end of it.  

Her perspective isn’t any more fair or unfair that the first woman’s perspective, but it is a lot easier to be with.

Story #3

Another friend of mine just turned 90—even here a notable achievement—and devised a really good way to celebrate.  She invited a bunch of friends to a dinner tour of the Willamette River on the Portland Spirit.  There were 16 of us, it turned out, and I was the only man in the group.

owning a man 4Of course, there are reasons to treat this disproportion as some kind of unfairness or as significant in some way.  This was a party in which women predominated.  But one of the women across the table from Bette and me saw other possibilities in it.   She got my attention and indicated our whole group with a gesture of her head—all 15 women and one man of us.  Then, with her hand, she made a gesture that referred to everyone else on the boat.  She leaned across the table and said, “Do you suppose they think we are Mormons?”

I loved it.  It affirmed our whole party as a single entity, enough, at least the be the butt of the joke.  It recognized the disproportion of men and women, well…man and women, but only for the purpose of making a joke of it that all of us could enjoy together.

So, the fact is that there are more women who live here than men, a disproportionate number of the men having already died, is only the occasion for reflecting on how to respond to it.  

[1}  Just a warning.  In Italian, “pepperoni” is a plural noun meaning “bell peppers.”  If you order a pepperoni pizza in, say, Milan, be prepared for a vegetarian pizza.

[2]  See how handy it is to have the right word.  Women do not “dominate” at my CCRC and they are not “dominant”—well…a few are..  They do “predominate,” however, by about 2:1.

[3]Thanks especially to Jonathan Haidt, whose book, The Righteous Mind, makes this argument and substantiates it beyond cavil.

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About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. My wife, Bette, is the First Reader (FR) of the posts. I have arranged that partly because she helps me write better posts than I would otherwise and partly because I can hold her responsible for the mistakes that I would, otherwise, have to own up to myself.. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsey. I'm a dilettante.
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